European World Cup playoff roundup: France on the brink of first failed qualifying campaign since 1994

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France is on the brink of missing their first World Cup in 20 years, with today’s disappointment in Kiev the headline result after the opening legs of Europe’s four World Cup 2014 playoffs.

Thanks to goals by Roman Zozulyn and Andriy Yarmolenko, Les Bleus will need to turn around a two-goal deficit next week in France. Compounding their problems. France will need to do so without one of their best defenders, with Laurent Koscielny’s stoppage time antics earning the center half a straight red card.

Elsewhere, Greece gave themselves a buffer ahead of their trip to Bucharest, Croatia missed an opportunity to put away their tie in Iceland, and Cristiano Ronaldo came up big against Sweden.

Here’s what happened around Europe on Friday:

UKRAINE 2-0 FRANCE
61′ Roman Zozulyna, 82′ Andriy Yarmolenko (p.k.)

After an hour of even play where the visitors may have been the slightly better side, Ukraine broke through. Carrying a ball in from their left flank, the hosts found veteran Edmar just inside the France penalty area, the naturalized Brazilian then one-touching a ball to the other side of the box for Roman Zozulya. Shrugging off right back Mathieu Debuchy, the Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk attacker beat Hugo Lloris for the match’s opening goal.

Had the score stayed 1-0, France could have consoled themselves with the slight reprimand. Instead, an 82nd minute penalty conceded by Koscielny allowed Yarmolenko to double Ukraine’s edge, the attacker banging his conversion off the woodwork and good in front of his home crowd.

In the 91st minute, things got worse for Koscielny, who was shown straight red after shoving Olexandr Kucher to the ground while taking exception with a studs-up challenge on Debuchy. After seeing yellow for the play, Kucher would earn a second booking five minutes later. Both players will miss the second leg in Paris.

PORTUGAL 1-0 SWEDEN
82′ Cristiano Ronaldo

From our previous post:

It was the beginning of a one-sided half, the early close call potentially convincing Sweden to hold out earlier than they may have liked. For the next half hour, Erik Hamrén’s team stay deep and compact, forcing Portugal to do something special to beat them.

That moment came in the 82nd minute, with Miguel Veloso’s run out of central midfield and beating Larsson to put in a far post cross. That’s where Ronaldo out-muscled left back Martin Olsson, giving Portugal the lead they needed ahead of Tuesday’s leg in Sweden.

[MORE: Portugal 1, Sweden 0: Cristiano Ronaldo wins battle of titans (that wasn’t)]

ICELAND 0-0 CROATIA

Croats may be disappointed with today’s result, particularly considering a straight red card to Iceland right back Olafur Skulason left the home side playing the last 40 minutes with 10 men. Croatia’s best chance in the time came from Ivan Perisic, who’s first-timer of a Mario Mandukic knockdown left Hannes Thór Halldórsson flat footed as the ball flew just wide of his left post.

Yet despite a 14-4 edge in shots and a 6-0 advantage in shots on target, the favorits never broke through, even if the 0-0 result leaves them in good shape ahead of Tuesday’s decider in Zagreb.

GREECE 3-1 ROMANIA
14′, 66′ – Konstantinos Mitroglu, 19′ Bogdan Stancu, 21′ Dimitrios Salpingidis

The Greeks used some free kick trickery to get on the board in the 14th minute, a feigned run onto onto a restart seeing the defensive line retreat ahead of a actual cross, one that was played short of the line. After that ball was sent out of the box for Dimitrios Salpingidis, the Greek attacker was able to chip the advancing defense, Konstantinos Mitroglou eventually redirecting the lob into the right side of goal.

Five minutes later, Romania returned the favor, a more traditionally executed free kick seeing an in-swinger from Gabriel Torje heading home by Bogdan Stancu just before the cross curved out of play. When, two minutes later, Salpingidis redirected a Vasilis Torosidis shot into the Romanian net, the match had all the makings of a shootout.

For nearly an hour, however, the match stayed 2-1, a result the Romanians would have been content to take into next week’s reverse in Bucharest. But in the 68th minute, more set meet magic gave Greece their final goal, with a restart flicked on by Konstantinos Katsouranis put home by Mitroglou at the far post, the striker’s ninth international goal giving Fernando Santos’s team a two-goal lead after 90 minutes.

Serie A: Juve keep winning to remain 1 point back of Napoli

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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus closed the gap on Serie A leader Napoli back to just one point as the six-time defending champion eased past Genoa 1-0 on Monday.

Douglas Costa scored in the 16th minute, the first conceded by Genoa in five league matches. It was a less than convincing performance from Juventus but it was never really troubled, as goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny – standing in for the still-injured Gianluigi Buffon – was little more than a spectator.

“What was important was to win,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. “At the end there was a bit of nervousness because we were lacking in energy a bit.

“We could have finished off the match in the first half, and again with a couple of occasions after the break. We didn’t manage to so compliments to Genoa.”

The battle for the Serie A title is shaping into a two-horse race. Juventus moved 10 points clear of third-placed Lazio, although the capital side has a match in hand.

“The season is still long and all those who are behind us can still get back into the race,” Allegri said. “It was important to stay in Napoli’s slipstream.”

Juventus needed to win after Napoli beat Atalanta 1-0 on Sunday.

Allegri’s side started brightly and had an early chance to take the lead but Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin did well to keep out a free kick from specialist Miralem Panic.

However, it did not take much longer to strike. Douglas Costa passed out left to Mario Mandzukic, who played a delightful return ball for the Brazil midfielder to slot into the bottom left corner.

League Cup semi: Man City take 2-1 lead into 2nd leg vs. Bristol

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Manchester City can move one step closer on Tuesday to claiming their first of four potential trophies this season, when Pep Guardiola‘s men take on Bristol City in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday ]

After coming back to beat the Robins in the first leg at home, Man City must now go on the road and take care of business to reach the Feb. 25 final at Wembley Stadium. As he has done so many times — and so famously — in the sky blue of City, Sergio Aguero grabbed the late winner (91st minute — WATCH HERE) 14 days ago.

For a few not-so-insignificant periods of the game, Bristol were very much the aggressors and appeared more likely to make the score 2-0 than for City to get back to 1-1. Bobby Reid converted from the penalty spot in the 44th minute after her was brought down under John Stones‘ wild, sliding tackle. Kevin De Bruyne leveled things up 10 minutes into the second half, setting the stage for Aguero’s late heroics.

[ MORE: Alexis-for-Mkhi swap complete | De Bruyne’s new contract ]

Since the first leg on Jan. 9, City have failed in their bid to finish the PL season with an unbeaten record before bouncing back to beat Newcastle United on the weekend, courtesy of a hat trick from Aguero — Guardiola quotes, from Sport24:

“I said many times it was going to happen, we can lose, so (it is) important the reaction we have. Still we have 42 points to play (for). It is 14 games. It is a lot of games to play and difficult games like Saturday and like Liverpool. It is important to show the team is still there but I don’t have the feeling we give up.

“We want to go through to the final in the (League) Cup and the FA Cup, so (we have) a lot of games but I think the people have the desire to keep going, to keep going, to keep going.”

[ MORE: One dream January signing for each top-six side ]

Bristol, meanwhile, have fallen on hard times: it’s been nearly a month (Boxing Day, to be specific — five losses, one draw) since Lee Johnson’s side last won a game in any competition, and they’ve fallen from second to fifth in the Championship table — Johnson quotes, from the Guardian:

“We don’t want to be brave losers, we want to compete to win. It’s up to the players to be focused and tactically aware, and who knows what will happen if we can show the same quality as we have shown in the previous rounds?

“We have to make sure we’re really bold. If you’re going to deliver a corner, do it like you mean it. I’d rather fail bold than fail timid. We know we have to score. I hope Pep picks his absolute best team and we can give them a right go. I’m not sure you could go and play an under-23 side against us at the moment and I think he’ll know that.”

The winner of Arsenal versus Chelsea (0-0 after the first leg) awaits in the final.

The 2 Robbies: Alexis-Mkhitaryan Swap Becomes Reality

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Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe react to the Alexis Sanchez-Henrikh Mkhitaryan swap deal between Arsenal and Manchester United finally becoming reality (0:20), Swansea’s stunning 1-0 victory over Liverpool (9:20), Southampton’s much-needed draw with Spurs (22:30) and Watford’s decision to part ways with Marco Silva (36:20). The gents end the show sharing their memories of the late English striker, Cyrille Regis (39:45).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Inter Milan sign Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan completed the signing of Barcelona midfielder Rafinha on loan until the end of the season, with a view to a permanent move.

Inter can sign the Brazil international permanently for $43 million plus $3.7 million in bonuses, and said on Monday that option “must be taken up before the end of the season.”

Rafinha, who was born in Sao Paulo, had been at Barcelona since 2006, when he joined its youth team. He spent the 2013-14 season on loan at Celta Vigo.

After nine months out after surgery on his right knee, he made his first appearance of the season last week as a late substitute in Barcelona’s Copa del Rey defeat at Espanyol.

“It’s an important stage in my life,” he said, “and I had a lot of desire to approach this new phase in my career.”

Inter has slipped to fourth in Serie A, 11 points behind leader Napoli.

It could slip out of the Champions League places if Roma wins its match in hand on Wednesday.

“I hope to play in as many matches as possible and help the team to reach our objective which is Champions League qualification,” Rafinha said.