Historic comeback sees France into World Cup 2014, Ukraine denied place in Brazil

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If reaction to last week’s loss in Kiev seemed over-the-top to you, know that no team had ever come back from a 2-0, first leg loss in a UEFA playoff. So while the reaction to France’s two-goal loss last Friday may have carried a tinge apoplexy, it was justified. History told us France, one of handful of most talented teams in world soccer, was virtually done, set to be to 2012 what the Netherlands were to World Cup 2002.

Virtually, however, is the key word. France was not dead, a point Didier Deschamps hammered home post-match last Friday. Although the French public were dubious, figures like Zinedine Zidane picked up the flag, trying to rally the spirits of what was anticipated to be a circumspect Paris crowd. And after today’s performance at the Stade de France, they were vindicated for doing so.

With first half goals from Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema, Les Bleus had climbed out of their hole, and when the Liverpool defender completing his unlikely double in Tuesday’s second half, France’ re-wrote European qualifying history. Becoming the first team to overturn a two-goal, first leg deficit, France is into their fifth consecutive World Cup, sending Ukraine home after today’s 3-0 result in Paris.

Deschamps’ team, who held 68 percent possession and outshot Ukraine 24-9, joins Portugal, Croatia, and Greece as fellow playoff qualifiers from Europe. With Africa seeing Ghana and Algeria qualify earlier today, Brazil 2014 is up to 30 confirmed teams, with Mexico (up 5-1 over New Zealand) and Uruguay (up 5-0 on Jordan) likely to complete the field.

[MORE: Ronaldo topples Zlatan: Real Madrid star’s hat trick sends Portugal past Sweden, into the 2014 World Cup]

[MORE: Europe World Cup playoff roundup: Greece, Croatia complete UEFA’s field for Brazil 2014]

Coming off their first leg disappointment, France made five changes to their starting XI. Sahko and Raphael Varane came in for Eric Abidal and the suspended Laurent Koscielny in defense. Oliver Giroud and Samir Nasri gave way to Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena in attack, while Yohan Cabaye’s inclusion at Newcastle teammate Loic Remy’s expense completed Deschamp’s makeover, changing his formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.

The new team was dominant from the opening moments, not unexpected considering the margin Ukraine had earned in Kiev. But with an early chance from Franck Ribéry and the constant, niggling tests of Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, Les Bleus quickly showed their control would be about more than possession. Had the Shakhtar backstop not made some good early reads, Saint-Denis would have exploded early.

Instead it took 22 minutes for France to scratch the surface, Sahko’s first goal of the night capitalizing on a hard shot from Ribéry. Culminating play that began from a deep restart, Pyatov could do little but lay Ribéry’s shot out for Sahko, whose conversion brought France within one.

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Didier Deschamps (right) won a World Cup as a player in 1998. Now he’s set to return as manager of France, having guided his national team through its playoff with Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters.)

Eight minutes later, France had their equalizer. Moments after being erroneously ruled offside, Benzema benefitted from the linesman’s flag mistakenly staying down, his harnessing of some penalty box chaos from an offside position making it 2-2 (aggregate).

One minute into the second half, fortune found France again, this time through the boots of defender Yevhen Khacheridi. The Ukraine center back slid threw Ribéry just after the half’s opening whistle, earning his second yellow card of the night. Though the visitors nearly took a surprise lead moments later, the loss of a man doomed their World Cup hopes.

In 73rd minute, France finally punched their ticket. Sakho, again cleaning up close to goal, converted from five yards out, the former Paris Saint-German man’s second goal sending France back to the World Cup.

The match’s final chapter was one-way traffic, France constantly pushing Ukraine’s backs against their own goal. With the talent to hold the ball and the intent to put the playoff out of reach, Les Bleus were intent on grabbing a fourth. Though the insurance goal never came, France were still able to kill off the match’s final 20 minutes, allowing them to survive a second straight World Cup qualifying playoff.

Along the way, Les Bleus made history, becoming the first team to overcome that 0-2 opening leg deficit. They also grabbed something that’s been absent over the past four years: Some real positive momentum.

Though a run of good results under Laurent Blanc had allowed them to move on from their disaster at South Africa 2010, France still proved relatively meek at Euro 2012. Now, having faced this worst-case scenario and prevailed, a young, talented generation of club-level stars may be set to transfer their potential onto the international stage.

At a minimum, they have something positive, unifying to build on. It’s not every playoff that ends with this type of accomplishment.

PL Sunday preview: Chelsea, Spurs clash in early London derby

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Manchester United continued its strong early-season impression on the Premier League on Saturday, but Sunday’s slate of matches features two of last year’s elite meeting at Wembley Stadium.

[ MORE: Man United runs rampant on Swansea in victory ]

Tottenham and Chelsea will clash in their first London derby of 2017/18 at the historic ground, while a meeting between two promotion sides precedes the encounter.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]


Huddersfield Town vs. Newcastle United — 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN

In the first clash this season between newcomers, Huddersfield will go for its second consecutive win as David Wagner‘s side plays host to Newcastle.

The Terriers kicked off their ’17/’18 campaign in style last Saturday with a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace, and the side looked quite dominant for most of the match.

Newcastle saw their fortunes change drastically against Tottenham after Jonjo Shelvey was sent off after halftime. The Magpies struggled to handle the talent of Spurs after the sending off, conceding twice after Shelvey’s dismissal.

Joselu could also make his debut for Newcastle on Sunday after joining the club from Stoke this summer.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea — 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN

Antonio Conte‘s second season in the Premier League began with an anything but ideal result last weekend as Chelsea fell to Burnley, 3-2, at Stamford Bridge.

To make matters worse, red cards for Gary Cahill and Cesc Fabregas rule the two players out for Sunday’s clash against Spurs. With Eden Hazard and Pedro still likely to miss the match due to injury, Chelsea does have some good news as Victor Moses returns from suspension and Tiemoue Bakayoko could make his PL debut — although it will likely come off the bench.

New striker Alvaro Morata looks to build off of his goal and an assist performance from last weekend up front, and the Spaniard could very well start for Chelsea after coming off the bench against Burnley.

Meanwhile, Spurs looks to build off of its victory against Newcastle last weekend, which featured goals from Dele Alli and Ben Davies.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side went out and made their first major signing of the summer this week with the acquisition of Ajax defender Davinson Sanchez, and the Argentine manager says his club isn’t done adding players.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic shines (again); Schalke tops RB Leipzig

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The Bundesliga dipped its toes into a new season on Friday with Bayern Munich’s win over Bayer Leverkusen, then dove right into the waters on Saturday.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]


Hertha Berlin 2-0 Stuttgart

Australian attacker Mathew Leckie had a heck of a debut for Hertha, scoring in each half of a win over newly-promoted Stuttgart. Former USMNT player Julian Green was not in the 18 following reports that Stuttgart could sell the winger.

Schalke 2-0 RB Leipzig

Last season, Schalke finished a shocking season at mid-table while RB Leipzig went from newly-promoted to second in the league.

Order was restored for a weekend on Saturday, as ex-Spurs man Nabil Bentaleb converted a penalty kick before halftime to give Schalke a 1-0 lead. Yehven Konoplyanka added insurance in the second half as Schalke started the season right.

Wolfsburg 0-3 Borussia Dortmund

Christian Pulisic scored Borussia Dortmund’s first goal of the Bundesliga season, the cued up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with a inch-perfect pass through the six to make it 3-0 at Wolfsburg. Marc Bartra also scored for the visitors.

Elsewhere

Bayern Munich 3-1 Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Mainz 0-1 Hannover 96 — Martin Harnik scores
Hamburg 1-0 Augsburg — Bobby Wood plays 87 mins
Hoffenheim 1-0 Werder Bremen — Kramaric scores
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — 9:30 a.m. ET Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday

Wenger: Arsenal lost a game it should have won

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Saying, “You don’t want to lose games that you should win,” Arsene Wenger lamented everything that went against his men in Arsenal’s 1-0 loss at Stoke City on Saturday.

“It’s a difficult defeat to swallow,” Wenger said. “We had chances. We should have won the game comfortably.”

The Gunners had a pair of penalty shouts go unheard and saw an Alexandre Lacazette goal called back for offside.

[ RECAP: Stoke City 1-0 Arsenal ]

If it was offside, it was as thin as the garlic in Paulie Cicero’s “Goodfellas” sauce.

“We scored a goal that is not offside. It’s a very easy decision. When the ball is kicked he is not offside, Lacazette.”

And those thin margins are what cost title contenders their season-ending goals. Here’s Wenger (all quotes from the BBC):

“I believe some teams will get something here, that is why if you want to play at the top you have to consider it three points dropped.”

Arsenal had 77 percent possession, but allowed Jese Rodriguez to score on one of the few times the Potters had the ball. Of that, Wenger said “I was not convinced by our central defense today.”

Report: Atletico closing in on $52 million move for Diego Costa

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The Diego Costa-Chelsea saga has not only intrigued but confused many, however, the London side could be on the brink of finally selling off the Spanish international.

[ MORE: United cruises past Swansea, Arsenal falls at Stoke ]

Atletico Madrid has reportedly struck a $52 million deal with the Blues for the 28-year-old striker, according to Spanish radio station Radio Estadio.

The report also states that an additional $12 million could be tacked on to Costa’s price tag.

Costa has been an absentee for Chelsea since the end of last season’s Premier League title, and ever since that glorious moment for the club, the Brazilian-born forward has been disgruntled with the Blues and manager Antonio Conte.

Atleti, however, won’t go ahead with the deal until Costa returns from Brazil to resolve his issues with Chelsea.

The Spanish side is currently banned from completing transfers until January, meaning an agreement could take place with Chelsea, but Costa cannot suit up for the Rojiblancos until 2018.