World Cup Qualifying Preview: Ukraine v. France

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France travel to Kiev on Friday for the first-leg of their World Cup Qualifying play-off match against Ukraine.

Failing to overcome Spain for top spot in their qualification group Didier Deschamps‘ men now face a difficult Ukraine squad in a hostile location, the Olympic Stadium. France, however, enter the match on a strong run of form, winning their last three matches (against Belarus, Australia and Finland) in convincing style.

Les Blues will be led by Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, who was recently named Best Player in Europe for the 2012-2013 season by UEFA. In an interview on Wednesday Ribery described himself as “fit and healthy” ahead of the match and insisted that France are not taking Ukraine lightly. “For me it’s very important that we qualify. Ukraine are a good team but France have to be in Brazil.”

Another key player for France, striker Karim Benzema, echoed the urgency and seriousness of the play-off. “We will give everything in these two games,” the Real Madrid striker said. “We will qualify, I am sure. There is no choice. At the end, there is the ticket to the World Cup in Brazil – the most beautiful. A World Cup in the land of football.”

A lingering issue for the French, of course, is the poor showing the side gave both on and off the pitch in South Africa 2010. For Ribery, the matches against Ukraine provides a chance for the team to make it up to the fans. “It was difficult for us in 2010 and now we have a chance to make amends.”

From all indications, those amends could be made in front of as many as 2,000 Frenchman scheduled to accompany Les Bleus to Kiev. “There is a relationship that is developing between us and our fans,” said midfielder Rio Mavuba. “They’re behind their team now, and that’s great because we’ll really need them for these two matches.”

Ukraine have also enjoyed good form by taking 13 of a possible 15 points from their last five World Cup Qualifiers. In large part that success has been due to Ukraine’s primary attacking threats, wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, with the former having scored four times in the group stages.

Yet still, most players on the Synyo-Zhovti recognize they are the underdogs in this play-off. “Their players are all based in the leading championships,” said forward Marko Devic. “We’re not heading into the unknown; we know exactly what we’ll be up against: one of the best teams in the world.”

Both sides have past heart-aches that will serve to motivate.

Deschamps was part of the France team that lost 2-1 to Bulgaria at the Parc des Princes in November 1993, ending French hopes of securing their berth at the 1994 World Cup. The 45-year-old admits he is still haunted by the failure 20 years ago but is nevertheless focused on ensuring qualification for Brazil. “It may have been 20 years ago but it still sticks in my mind,” he said. “I don’t want to experience that again.”

Ukraine’s bad memories are a bit more recent as they have suffered play-off defeats in three of the last five World Cups: 1998, 2002 and 2010.

Prediction

Expect a cagey first leg in Kiev with Ukraine looking to defend well and feed off the energy from the home crowd. They’ll do their best to avoid conceding and I think Ukraine will manage to do that for the majority of the game but the French will break them late and enjoy a one goal edge heading back to Paris.

Premier League vet Kenwyne Jones retires at age 33

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It wasn’t the season that Kenwyne Jones had expected in his first Major League Soccer season, but the veteran Trinidad & Tobago striker had himself quite the career.

[ MORE: Miguel Almiron wins MLS Newcomer of the Year ]

Jones, 33, announced his retirement on Monday after boasting an extensive career in England prior to finishing up his playing with Atlanta United.

Atlanta opted not to renew Jones’ contract with the club after scoring twice in 17 appearances this season for the expansion side.

The Trinidadian posted the following message to supporters on Twitter this afternoon.

Jones spent nine seasons in the Premier League, including stints with Southampton, Stoke City and Sunderland.

Additionally, the forward played for Al Jazira from UAE in 2016 before moving on loan to Central in his native Trinidad prior to his arrival in Atlanta’s debut MLS season.

Eibar routs Betis 5-0 to snap 8-game winless streak in Spain

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MADRID (AP) Eibar routed 10-man Real Betis 5-0 in the Spanish league on Monday, ending an eight-match winless streak in all competitions.

Eibar hadn’t won since Sept. 15. It had lost six of its eight matches since then.

[ MORE: Brighton, Stoke finish level after Izquierdo’s second-half finish ]

The hosts got on the board with an own goal by Betis defender Jordi Amat just six minutes in, and midfielder Gonzalo Escalante scored with a header near halftime.

Striker Charles Dias scored twice in the second half, and Sergi Enrich closed the scoring in front of less than 5,000 fans at Ipurua Stadium.

“We deserved a victory like this to help us regain our confidence,” Enrich said.

Betis played with 10 men from the 55th as Aissa Mandi was red-carded for the foul that prompted a penalty kick converted by Dias.

“It was difficult to recover after we went a man down and they scored the third goal,” Betis midfielder Joaquin Sanchez said.

Eibar remained 17th in the 20-team standings, just outside the relegation zone.

Betis, winless in three matches, dropped to ninth place.

Barcelona leads by four points over second-place Valencia.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

Pogba believes Man United can win Premier League if squad stays fit

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There’s no doubt that on paper Manchester United has all the workings of a Premier League contender, and Paul Pogba certainly agrees.

[ MORE: Brighton, Stoke settle for draw in back-and-forth affair ]

The influential midfielder made his return to the Red Devils lineup this weekend in United’s 4-1 beatdown of Newcastle, along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.

With Jose Mourinho’s squad finally getting healthy, Pogba believes that the sky is the limit for his side as they look to chase down league leaders and cross-town rivals Manchester City.

“To win the league we need all our players,” Pogba told MUTV. “When you have one injured here, one injured there, it doesn’t help. It’s always better to have a full team.

“Zlatan’s back and Marcos after a long injury. It was hard for them but they kept believing and worked hard to come back. We need them to win the league and we’re really glad they’re here.”

Pogba’s presence was certainly missed in his absence, and he wasted no time in making an impact upon his return, scoring a goal and adding an assist against the Magpies.

The French international also spoke about his struggles last season with several minor injuries, but he’s hoping to remain in his United side for the rest of the 2017/18 campaign.

“Most of last season I had injuries but small ones. You just have to recover well because the Premier League is different to Italy — it’s more intense and you just have to think about recovery, then you have more games. Otherwise, I just feel good, just to come back.

“I’ve trained very hard to come back fit. The season is really long so we have to be fit — not only me but all the players. To come back, to play again, to see Old Trafford, to see the fans again, to score at Old Trafford on my comeback, I feel blessed. But we had to win — that was the most important thing.”

Red Bulls freestyler shows off dribbling skills… on a treadmill (Video)

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Players from around the world display their skills on social media on a regular basis, but they’re usually on a soccer field or blacktop when they do so.

[ MORE: Almiron wins MLS Newcomer of the Year, beats out Nikolic, Martinez ]

This New York Red Bulls freestyler had a different interpretation of how he’d show off his ball control on Monday.

DJ Diveny (@djdiveny on Twitter) posted this video — below — across his social media platforms today dribbling a soccer ball on a treadmill, while his colleagues appear to introduce cones at random points as obstacles.

In addition to his talents as a freestyler, Diveny is also a youth coach with Student Athlete Coaching & Consulting, based out of New Jersey.

Again… he’s on a treadmill while doing this. Pretty cool stuff.

Watch below.