France’s hopes of reaching the World Cup finals are hanging by a thread after a 2-0 first-leg loss to Ukraine in their playoff on Friday while Cristiano Ronaldo’s late winner gave Portugal the edge against Sweden.
Second-half goals by Ukraine’s Roman Zozulia and Andriy Yarmolenko plus a red card for France defender Laurent Koscielny made it a woeful night for the visitors who have it all to do in Tuesday’s second leg in Paris.
Ronaldo overshadowed Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a match billed as a clash between two of Europe’s hottest strikers, pouncing late on a tense night in Lisbon.
The Real Madrid forward put his head where it hurts after 82 minutes to meet a low cross and give Portugal a 1-0 lead and a slender advantage in the race for a ticket to Brazil next year.
|Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko celebrates a goal that makes qualification very hard for the French [Reuters]|
Ten-man Iceland’s dream of reaching their first major tournament finals lives on after a 0-0 home draw with Croatia in Reykjavic while Greece are well-placed to qualify for 2014 after a 3-1 win over visiting Romania.
In Friday’s early kickoff, Iceland finished with 10 men after Olafur Skulason was shown a straight red card five minutes into the second half but they hung on stubbornly.
Kostas Mitroglou struck twice for Greece in Athens with Dimitris Salpingidis also on target against the Romanians who had levelled through Bogdan Stancu in the 19th minute.
Many of the countries spared the ordeal of a playoff were also in action as the build-up to next year’s tournament begins in earnest.
Former world champions Italy and Germany drew 1-1 in the San Siro where Ignazio Abate grabbed his first international goal for the hosts after Mats Hummels had put the visitors ahead.
An experimental England side were given a jolt at Wembley where Alexis Sanchez scored twice to give Chile a 2-0 victory while Russia were held at home by Serbia.
Ukraine in the driving seat
France could miss out on a major tournament for the first time in 20 years after losing 2-0 away to Ukraine who could secure their second finals appearance at the Stade de France on Tuesday.
France – World Cup winners in 1998 – barely had a chance apart from a Samir Nasri effort and were shaken throughout by a bold Ukraine side, who reached the quarter-finals in 2006. Both sides had a man sent off.
“Opening the scoring gave them more strength and we made a mistake on the penalty,” France coach Didier Deschamps lamented.
“It’s obviously a very bad result. We have to believe, but Ukraine are the team in the best position to qualify,” he added in an on-pitch interview with French TV channel TF1.
“We still have 90 minutes at home.”
In Lisbon neither of the big-name players contributed much to a feisty encounter until Ronaldo stooped to meet Miguel Veloso’s pinpoint cross from the left with an intelligent header in the 82nd minute.
Until then Ronaldo had struggled against a massed Swedish defence, wasted two free kicks by firing into the wall and been booked shortly before his goal for a foul on goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson as his frustration boiled over.
Sweden had several chances in the first half before Portugal took control after the break at the Luz stadium, gaining the upper hand for Tuesday’s second leg in Stockholm.
Cross about a cross
“We would have been very happy with a draw,” Sweden coach Erik Hamren told TV4.
“We played a good game defensively, the goal was unnecessary, we were careless with that cross.”
Portugal could have gone ahead in the opening minutes when Raul Meireles put Joao Moutinho clean through only for the Monaco midfielder to shoot into the side-netting.
The Swedes then enjoyed a brief period of dominance and came close when Johan Elmander just failed to hit the target from a pinpoint cross by right back Mikael Lustig.
“We created a great early chance and Sweden hit back. But in the second half it was one way for us,” Portugal coach Paulo Bento told reporters.
“It was an important step to reach the World Cup but not yet decisive.”
Ibrahimovic was mostly left alone up front, making him easy prey for the Portuguese defence.
His only real flash of inspiration was a dummy that created a clear shooting chance for Sebastian Larsson, whose effort was turned away by Rui Patricio.