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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.

Gotze’s Bayern future remains uncertain; Sadio Mane still Liverpool’s Plan B?

MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 14: Mario Goetze of Muenchen celebrates after the Bundesliga match between FC Bayern Muenchen and Hannover 96 at Allianz Arena on May 14, 2016 in Munich, Germany. (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN)
Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images For MAN
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Sadio Mane has been an extremely in-demand commodity since last summer, when Manchester United and a handful of other Premier League and foreign clubs failed to pry the Southampton winger away from the South Coast in either one of the summer or January transfer windows.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Great players will always be in demand, though, which means another summer full of transfer rumors linking the ever-dangerous 24-year-old to clubs across England and Europe.

Enter stage left: Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who’s eager to undertake his first summer transfer window since taking the Anfield job last October.

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Mario Gotze is said to remain Klopp’s no. 1 target this summer — the 23-year-old has said he intends to remain at Bayern Munich and fight for his place under new manager Carlo Ancelotti, but the Bayern hierarchy (Ancelotti included) perhaps see it differently — with Mane a not-so-terrible Plan B should Gotze remain at the Allianz Arena or land elsewhere. Gotze has scored just 22 Bundesliga goals in three seasons at Bayern (36 in all competitions) since making a big-money move from Borussia Dortmund three years ago.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores a debut England goal

After a promising debut in England saw Mane score 10 goals in 30 PL games two seasons ago, the Senegalese dynamo followed up with an 11-goal haul in the PL season just completed (15 goals in all competitions), much of which was shrouded in transfer rumors and clear discontent at St. Mary’s Stadium. Mane will cost anyone a great deal more — think 10 to $15 million more — than the $30 million Bayern hope to recoup in their sale of Gotze (they paid roughly $40 million for him in the summer of 2013).

Pre-EURO int’l friendly roundup: Rooney, Rashford score as England win again

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - MAY 27:  Wayne Rooney of England scores his team's second goal of the game during the International Friendly match between England and Australia at Stadium of Light on May 27, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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A roundup of international friendlies as 24 European nations prepare for EURO 2016…

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

England 2-1 Australia

Roy Hodgson seems to have one of those good dilemmas on his hands: with Danny Welbeck already out for EURO 2016, and Daniel Sturridge injured yet again, does he take 18-year-old Marcus Rashford to France next month? The Manchester United striker is certainly making his case after a breakout finish to the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, which he followed up on Friday with a goal all of three minutes into his England debut (WATCH HERE).

Wayne Rooney doubled England’s lead 10 minutes after he entered the game as a halftime substitute (WATCH HERE), extending the England and Man United captain’s record goal haul to 52 in his international career. Eric Dier scored an embarrassing header to pull one back for the Australians in the 75th minute (WATCH HERE).

England will host Portugal at Wembley Stadium next Thursday in either side’s final pre-EURO friendly.

[ MORE: VIDEO — Marcus Rashford scores another debut goal

Ireland 1-1 Netherlands

The Dutch aren’t headed to EURO 2016 themselves, but the Irish certainly are, and Martin O’Neill’s side picked up a bit of positive momentum in the form of a 1-1 draw with the 2014 World Cup semifinalists.

Southampton’s Shane Long put the Irish ahead when he cleaned up a goal-line scramble on the half-hour mark, but former Newcastle United striker Luuk De Jong turned home a free kick to equalize for the visitors with five minutes remaining in regular time.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Elsewhere in international friendlies

Northern Ireland 3-0 Belarus
Croatia 1-0 Moldova
Czech Republic 6-0 Malta
Slovakia 3-1 Georgia

Former NBA exec named CONCACAF’s new secretary general

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MIAMI (AP) CONCACAF has appointed former NBA executive Philippe Moggio as its general secretary.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football said Moggio will take his position June 13.

Moggio previously served as senior vice president and managing director of Latin America and the Caribbean for the NBA.

[ MORE: Preview — USMNT faces Bolivia in final Copa America tune-up ]

As CONCACAF general secretary, Moggio will be in charge of the organization’s daily business and operations. He succeeds Ted Howard, who has served in the role since last May.

CONCACAF has undergone changes in its governing structure since the sport’s global corruption scandal hit.

VIDEO: Man United’s Marcus Rashford scores 3 minutes into his England debut

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 26:  Marcus Rashford of England arrives at the team hotel on the eve of their international friendly against Australia at the Hilton Gateshead on May 26, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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12 months ago Nine months ago Six months ago Three months ago, if anyone asked you, “who is Marcus Rashford?” you, just like me, probably would have responded as such: “I haven’t a clue. Should I know who he is?”

[ MORE: Man United confirm Mourinho as new manager ]

Stars are, of course, born overnight in the sports world, and the 18-year-old Manchester United striker, who spent 12 years with the club’s youth academy, is just the latest example. On Feb. 25, he made his first-team debut and scored twice in the Europa League. Three days later, he made his Premier League debut, again scoring twice.

[ MORE: Mourinho — “I prefer to forget the last three years at United” ]

Fast forward to Friday, and Rashford is a fully-fledged England international. In keeping up with the theme of his other debuts this season, he marked his international debut with a goal against Australia after just three minutes of play at the Stadium of Light.

It remains to be seen whether Rashford completes his hat trick of debut braces this year. We’ll update this post if he does so.