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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.

Andy King: If Leicester can win PL, Wales can win EURO 2016

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 07:  Andy King of Leicester City celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Everton at The King Power Stadium on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Andy King is still riding high from Leicester City’s Premier League title, and that confidence is carrying over into EURO 2016.

The Foxes midfielder and Welsh international sees no reason why Wales can’t win the tournament, despite having 80-1 odds to do so.

[ MORE: England’s EURO squad ]

Of course, Leicester began the Premier League season as 5,000-1 underdogs to lift the trophy.

We’ve got to win six or seven games compared to 38.

80-1 against 5000-1. You know which one you would rather back. We are a talented group and I believe we have the best player in the tournament.

Gareth [Bale] is probably the best player in the tournament in many people’s opinion, so why can’t we go there and do something? We are confident we can do that.

If Wales were to win the EURO this summer, the story truly would rival that of Leicester. The Dragons have never played in a European Championship before, and the nation’s only other appearance at a major tournament came back at the 1958 World Cup.

[ MORE: Payet, Milner make top-five of UEFA’s “player barometer” ]

You may not agree that Gareth Bale is the best player in the tournament, but he is surely near the top of the list. Bale’s play will likely determine how far Wales can go, drawn into Group B alongside England, Slovakia, and Russia.

Report: West Ham offer $22 million for AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 20:  Carlos Bacca of AC Milan celebrates his goal during the Serie A match between AC Milan and SS Lazio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on March 20, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
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West Ham’s search for an elite striker continues, with their newest target AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca.

According to Sky Sports, the Hammers have bid $22 million for the striker, who led Milan with 18 goals in Serie A play last season.

However, after paying $34 million to sign the striker last summer, it is believed Milan would be unwilling to sell their top scorer for less than $30 million.

MORE: All 2015-16 PL season reviews ]

At 29-years-old, Bacca has been one of Europe’s most consistent forwards over the past few seasons. After bagging 49 goals in 108 appearances for Sevilla, he earned a move to Milan last July, finishing third in Serie A scoring in his first year with the club.

West Ham’s chairman David Gold has been open about his desire to sign a world-class striker, with Lyon confirming that they rejected a $45 million bid from the Hammers for Alexandre Lacazette.

VIDEO: Neymar takes batting practice before New York Mets game

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 31:  Brazilian soccer player  Neymar Jr stands in the New York Mets dugout before the game against the Chicago White Sox at Citi Field on May 31, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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We all know Neymar’s skills with a soccer ball, but what about with a baseball bat?

Spoiler alert: He’s better with his feet.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Copa coverage ]

The Barcelona and Brazil superstar was in New York on Tuesday night and hit up the batting cages at Citi Field before the Mets game against the Chicago White Sox.

Taking swings lefty, Neymar made some contact but didn’t necessarily have the smoothest stroke…

He then hit the field and got back to his roots, showing off some footskills while juggling a baseball.

I’m not too sure if Neymar is a baseball fan, but this may make him the Mets’ newest, most famous supporter (sorry Jerry Seinfeld).

Neymar is in the United States as he has some time off after the long Barcelona season. He is not playing in the Copa America with Brazil, but will instead play in the Olympics in August.

Messi’s tax fraud case begins with player avoiding court

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 17:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on  during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Valencia CF at Camp Nou on April 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Lionel Messi’s tax trial began Tuesday with the player deciding not to appear in court for early proceedings.

Messi is facing a prison sentence of nearly two years on charges he failed to properly pay taxes for part of his earnings from Barcelona from 2007-09.

[ FOLLOW: All of PSTS’s Copa coverage ]

The Argentina playmaker is not obligated to appear in the Barcelona court until Thursday, when he is scheduled to testify before a judge. Sentencing is not expected until next week.

Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, have been charged with three counts of tax fraud for allegedly defrauding Spain’s tax office of 4.1 million euros ($4.5 million).

Because of the trial, Messi is missing Argentina’s preparation for the Copa America Centenario, which begins Saturday in the United States. He is expected to fly straight to the U.S. to join his teammates after the trial ends. Argentina debuts in the tournament on Monday against defending champion Chile.

Even if found guilty, it is highly unlikely that Messi or his father will face any jail time. They have denied wrongdoing.

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

“Everything is good. Everybody is calm,” said Messi’s lawyer, Enrique Bacigalupo, as he arrived at the Barcelona court on Tuesday.

The trial is centered on alleged unlawful activities of Messi’s father, but authorities said the player knew enough to also be named in the case. Officials said that although Messi was mostly unfamiliar with tax issues, there was sufficient evidence to believe he could have known and consented to the creation of a fictitious corporate structure to avoid paying taxes on income from his image rights.

In addition to each facing a prison sentence of 22 months and 15 days, Messi and his father could also be fined in the amount defrauded and ordered to pay all legal proceedings and the loss of any possible tax benefits for a year and a half.

Messi is just the latest high-profile player to have to deal with Spain’s tough tax system. Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Adriano and Xabi Alonso also were targeted by authorities recently.

[ MORE: Marcelo giving away UCL winners’ medal…on Facebook ]

Mascherano, Messi’s teammate with Argentina and Barcelona, earlier this year was handed a suspended one-year prison sentence for not paying nearly 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) in taxes for 2011 and 2012. Brazil striker Neymar recently had to testify before a judge because of alleged irregularities involving his transfer to Barcelona. He and the club were accused of withholding the real amount of the transfer fee, in part to avoid paying the full amount of taxes.

Messi was also being investigated by Spanish tax authorities after his name was among those released in the probe of international offshore accounts, known as the Panama Papers, although he was not charged for those allegations.