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


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.

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.

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

Follow AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf on Twitter:

VIDEO: Southampton’s Boufal scores stunner on home debut

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 23:  Sofiane Boufal of Southampton in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at Etihad Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sofiane Boufal, take a bow.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw

Southampton’s club-record signing has had to hang around at St Mary’s for two long months while he recovered from injury.

But, on his home debut, the Moroccan international wasted no time in opening his account for Saints in stunning fashion.

Boufal arrived in August for $19.5 million from French side Lille but was nursing a knee injury from the end of last season. He had appeared off the bench against Inter Milan and Manchester City over the past week but on Wednesday he made his first start for the club and his first appearance at St Mary’s.

He didn’t disappoint.

In the 66th minute of a largely unforgettable game, Boufal scored the game-winner as Southampton beat Sunderland 1-0 to move onto the EFL Cup quarterfinals where they’ll face Arsenal.

The 23-year-old took a mesmerizing first touch out of the air, then jinxed inside and sent an unstoppable shot into the far top corner.

I was at St Mary’s last night and was right behind this strike. It has to be one of the best goals I’ve ever seen live.

See it for yourself, below.

First the touch…

Then the finish…

And why not have another look from another angle…

Jose Mourinho charged over referee comments

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United reacts during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Stoke City at Old Trafford on October 2, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho is never far away from controversy.

[ MORE: Crowd trouble in EFL Cup ]

On Thursday the English FA announced the manager of Manchester United had been charged for comments about referee Anthony Taylor before their game against Liverpool last Monday.

Ahead of the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho had questioned the appointment of Taylor as referee given the fact that Taylor resides close to Manchester and some may influence some of his decisions.

This is what the FA had to say, as there is a clear rule in place which bans managers from talking about refereeing appointments before the game.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has been charged with misconduct, in respect of comments he made relating to the appointed match referee prior to the Liverpool FC v Manchester United FC fixture on Monday 17 October 2016.

It is alleged his comments were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute contrary to FA Rule E3(1).

Mr Mourinho has until 6pm on Monday 31 October 2016 to respond to the charge.

So, what did Mourinho actually say about Taylor’s appointment as the referee?

“Somebody with intention is putting such a pressure on him. I feel that it will be difficult for him to have a very good performance.”

Mourinho went on to say he thought Taylor was a very good referee but still, those comments have landed him in hot water with a potential touchline ban and/or fine heading his wau.

No contentious decisions were made by Taylor during the derby game and after the match Mourinho asked his press officer what he could say to the media about the referee for fear of further action.

Mourinho is no stranger to being charged by the FA when it comes to comments against referees.

In October 2015 he was fined for his post-game comments in Chelsea’s loss to Southampton where he said referees were “afraid” to give decisions for his team. Then in November he was fined and handed a one-game touchline ban after going into the referees dressing room at half time of a defeat at West Ham to contest their decisions.

FA to investigate crowd trouble between West Ham, Chelsea

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  A Chelsea fan (C) gets past the police line and walks over to West Ham United fans during the EFL Cup fourth round match between West Ham United and Chelsea at The London Stadium on October 26, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Ugly scenes marred the end of West Ham United’s 2-1 EFL Cup win against London rivals Chelsea on Wednesday night.

Fans at the London Stadium clashed in a walkway separating the two sets of fans.

[ MORE: EFL Cup, last 8 draw ]

So far seven individuals have been arrested and now the English FA has opened an investigation into what occurred.

Here is the statement they released on Thursday morning.

“The FA is investigating crowd disturbances at last night’s EFL Cup match between West Ham United and Chelsea. We are in dialogue with all relevant authorities.”

Before the London derby, the first to played at the London Stadium, both teams issued statements asking for fans to behave but as we have seen on numerous occasions this season at West Ham’s new home, trouble flared up.

Although it was a small minority of fans who ripped up seats, hurled coins, threw punches at each other and had to split up by riot police, the scenes highlight the severe issues West Ham are having with segregation.

After moving into the stadium this summer, there have been incidents of in-fighting between West Ham’s own fans, clashes with supporters of Middlesbrough and Watford and now this latest unrest suggests there are serious problems to fix after the venue was transformed from an athletic stadium into a soccer stadium.

London’s Metropolitan Police were on site for this game and extra stewards were present but they still couldn’t stop fans clashing. Expect a larger police presence for the upcoming games and especially for derby games against London rivals.

It is truly sad to see the video footage below.