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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.

Bremen beats Wolfsburg to leave Bundesliga relegation zone

BELO HORIZONTE, BRAZIL - AUGUST 10:  Serge Gnabry of Germany reacts during the Men's First Round Football Group C match between Germany and Fiji at Mineirao Stadium on August 10, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  (Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)
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WOLFSBURG, Germany (AP) — Midfielder Serge Gnabry scored twice as Werder Bremen moved away from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone with a 2-1 win at fellow struggler Wolfsburg on Friday.

Bremen and Wolfsburg are level on points and two above Hamburger SV, which is in 18th place and in the relegation zone.

It was a fifth defeat in six games for Wolfsburg coach Valerien Ismael, who won the league and cup double as a player with Bremen in 2004.

Gnabry fired the visitors ahead with a deflected shot in the 10th minute and made it 2-0 eight minutes later, controlling the ball with his chest before prodding home on the volley.

Striker Borja Mayoral, who is on loan from Real Madrid, scored with his chest following a Wolfsburg corner as Wolfsburg hit back moments later.

Midfielder Daniel Didavi struck the post with a free kick as Wolfsburg kept pushing for an equalizer.

Mancini reportedly not interested in Leicester City, De Boer says no

GENOA, ITALY - APRIL 20:  Head Coach of FC Internazionale Roberto Mancini looks during the Serie A match between Genoa CFC and FC Internazionale Milano at Stadio Luigi Ferraris on April 20, 2016 in Genoa, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Two top candidates to replace Claudio Ranieri at Leicester City have reportedly turned down any interest in the job.

Roberto Mancini, the heavy favorite out of the gates after Ranieri’s dismissal, tweeted his support for Ranieri after the news broke. “I am sorry for my friend Ranieri,” Mancini said. “He will be in the history of LCFC, in the hearts of Leicester fans and all football lovers.”

However, the fellow Italian has rebuffed Leicester’s informal advances towards his services. According to Sky Sports, Leicester sent “intermediaries” to “sound out” Mancini’s feelings towards the position, but came back empty-handed. The report states Mancini was turned off to the club after a short and unsuccessful spell there as a player in 2001.

That leaves a host of other names who have been linked to the job, with no clear favorite. One person mentioned was Dutch legend Frank de Boer, who is unemployed after an unusually short stint in charge of Inter Milan. However, De Boer’s agent went public to say he was not ever in the running.

“There is zero possibility that Frank could go to Leicester,” agent Guido Albers told Italian publication Tuttomercatoweb. “I too heard these rumors, but that’s all they are – rumors. I can affirm without doubt that Frank will not become the Leicester City manager. This will 100 per cent not happen.”

Albers explained that De Boer is only interested in joining a club in the offseason, preferring to enter a project with a blank slate rather than joining midseason with particular goals already clearly laid out. With Leicester, it seems De Boer is turned off by the notion of a relegation battle.

Win over Las Palmas again has La Real on edge of CL spot

GETAFE, SPAIN - DECEMBER 11:  Xavi Prieto of Real Sociedad in action during the La Liga match between Getafe CF and Real Sociedad de Futbol at Coliseum Alfonso Perez stadium on December 11, 2015 in Getafe, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
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All it took was one mistake. Real Sociedad’s Xabi Prieto capitalized, and has La Real once again on the verge of next year’s Champions League.

La Real finished 7th in 2013/14, and 9th in 2015/16, and this year, they’re closer than ever. Preito’s goal on the mistake by Las Palmas goalkeeper Javi Varas gave Real Sociedad the 1-0 road win and has them just a point off a Champions League place.

[ MORE: Antonio Conte pulling from experience to keep Chelsea on top ]

That could be even closer next week, as fourth-placed Atletico Madrid has to welcome Barcelona to the Calderon tomorrow, leaving the door open for La Real to make another move next weekend.

The goal down the stretch is not just to win the games they should, but make the teams above them work. La Real has won seven of their last ten matches, but the three losses came to Real Madrid, Villareal, and Sevilla, all teams fighting at the top of the table. They still have chances down the stretch, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, and Eibar coming up, with the latter on the docket next weekend.

Conte pulling from prior experience as title race pushes on

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea looks on during The Emirates FA Cup Fifth Round match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Chelsea at Molineux on February 18, 2017 in Wolverhampton, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Antonio Conte has recalled some painful memories to push himself and his players forward despite their commanding lead at the top of the Premier League table.

Chelsea sits eight points clear of Manchester City, and has the chance to go even further in front with many of the top teams off this weekend, but that won’t give the Italian any better sleep at night.

In the 1999/2000 season, Conte was nearing the end of his 13-year Juventus tenure. He’d won three league titles already, plus two league cup trophies and a Champions League title with the Serie A giants. With a comfortable nine point lead after 26 matches, the club became complacent. They would lose four of their final eight matches, collapsing on the final day in the pouring rain, allowing Lazio to come roaring back to win the title.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks for Week 26 ]

“I was captain of the team,” Conte said. “I remember after this game I must go to the European Championships with the national team. I didn’t sleep for six days because it was a shock for me to lose the title.”

Clearly, that still haunts him. “I have experienced this,” Conte continued. “When I continue to repeat that there are 13 games, there are 39 points… there is a long time before we can say we won the title. We must be focused, we must go step by step.”

The Blues host Swansea City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday before a trip to West Ham next weekend. If anyone believes the Chelsea players are complacent holding such a significant lead with 13 matches to go, it’s clear that’s not nearly the case. Anything can happen in three months.