2014 World Cup team preview: France

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Getting to know… France 

For a generation of viewers that came into their fandom around France’s 1998 World Cup triumph, Les Bleus will always be a world power. The recent reality, however, is less flattering. Since Zinedine Zidane’s retirement after Germany 2006, France has qualified for three major tournament but failed to make an impact at any. At Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010, France failed to advance out of its groups, while Euro 2012 saw Laurent Blanc’s team make a meek exit at the quarterfinals.

From an inability to replace icons (Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Thierry Henry) to off the field issues, there are a number of reasons why France has failed to live up to its global reputation. With an easy group draw in Brazil, however, head coach Didier Deschamps has a chance to send Les Bleus in a new direction.

Record in qualifying

France’s hopes of unseating Spain in Europe’s Group I were given a boost when Olivier Giroud’s 94th minute goal snared a point in Madrid with Les Bleus’ third (of eight) qualifiers. When France gave that point back with a 1-0 home loss to the world champions five months later, Deschamps’ team was destined to return to the playoffs.

Once there, a 2-0, first leg loss at Ukraine on Nov. 15 had France on the verge of missing the finals, but a switch in formation and personnel allowed Deschamps to turn the tide in Saint-Denis. First half goals from Mamadou Sahko and Karim Benzema had France even by the 34th minute, with a second half winner from Sahko putting the team through to its fifth consecutive World Cup.

What group are they in? 

Switzerland was the seeded team others wanted to draw. When Ecuador and Honduras joined Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side in Group E, it became one of the tournament’s easiest groups.

While France’s name value makes the nation the favorite in the eyes of some, that may not necessarily be the case. Regardless, this group will prove kinder than most France could have been drawn into.

Game schedule:

15 June, 15:00, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

20 June, 16:00, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France

25 June, 16:00, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

Star player: Franck Ribéry

The reigning French Player of the Year, Ribéry’s one-on-one ability could prove lethal wide left of Les Bleus’s dangerous midfield. With Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi, and Paul Pogba in the middle, Deschamps has a threesome that could force opponents to dedicate numbers to the problem. The more room that creates for a winger who averages just under 14 goals per season with Bayern Munich, the longer France is likely to last in Brazil.

Manager: Didier Deschamps

Hired in the wake of Euro 2012, the former Juventus midfielder has slowly instilled some of his reputed steel into his national team. Part of that can be seen in the more robust 4-3-3 the coach has used after experimenting with 4-2-3-1 and various versions of a 4-4-2. Another symptom of that edge: Excluding one of the team’s most talented players, Samir Nasri, after the Manchester City midfielder’s displays is dissent. A former World Cup and European champion as a player, Deschamps is trying to lift France to the same heights as a coach.

Secret weapon: Blaise Matuidi

The extent to which any of France’s prospective starters is a secret is debatable, but still operating in the relative anonymity of Ligue 1, Matuidi’s virtues tend to be underappreciated. A strong, two-way, connecting force for Paris Saint-Germain, the 27-year-old could serve a similar role for Les Bleus, though his influence at either end of the pitch could prove just as important. With 15 goals over the last two years at PSG, the former Troyes and Saint-Etienne man continues to show his value going forward, while his ability to be a stalwart in front of the defense provides liberties to the talented Cabaye and Pogba.

Prediction: If Ecuador proves strong in a South American World Cup, there will be a three-way fight to get out of Group E. Else, whether France finishes ahead of Switzerland will depend on Les Bleus playing to their potential. Regardless, Deschamps’ team is expected to get to the knockout round.

Wigan player races off for son’s birth after scoring 2 goals

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WIGAN, England (AP) It was better than a hat trick.

A player for English soccer team Wigan had a night to remember when he scored his second goal before dashing off the field and to the local hospital, where his girlfriend was in labor.

[ MORE: Chelsea advances to UCL Round of 16 after win over Qarabag ]

A picture of Ryan Colclough holding his new-born baby, Harley, while still in his soccer uniform was shared on social media by Wigan chairman David Sharpe.

Colclough said his father, sitting in the stands on Tuesday for Wigan’s 3-0 win over Doncaster in the second division, “gave me the action that the waters had broken,” but he didn’t want to come off until the ball was out of play.

“My head was a little bit battered, but I went and scored, looked at the manager and he said we’ll bring you off now,” Colclough said Wednesday of his 58th-minute goal, which he celebrated by pretending to rock a baby. “I came off and was straight down the tunnel, grabbed my keys and my phone, and went to hospital.”

Colclough had visited the midwife that day, and was told the baby was unlikely to arrive for “another couple of days.”

Lille suspends coach Marcelo Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) French club Lille has provisionally suspended coach Marcelo Bielsa following a string of poor results in the top tier.

[ MORE: Basel stuns Man United late to keep UCL hopes alive ]

The northern side said in a statement that Bielsa has been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club.” Lille did not elaborate.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but has failed to make the club competitive again, with the team second to last after 13 matches.

The 2 Robbies podcast: PL sides in the UCL, Pulis sacking and more

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In today’s Euro Pod Edition, the Robbies breakdown the latest Champions League action. Man United lose at Basel, Chelsea cruise at Qarabag, Spurs impress against Dortmund, Man City continue to win, Liverpool surrender a 3-goal lead against Sevilla. Plus, the guys weigh in on the Oumar Niasse ban for diving and the Tony Pulis sacking.

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.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Europa League preview: Arsenal looks to wrap up Group H and more

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While several teams have already booked their place in the knockout phase, the Europa League reaches its penultimate round on Thursday with many big matches in hand.

[ MORE: Yannick Bolasie finally returns to Everton training ]

Of the two Premier League sides in the competition, only one will advance to the Round of 32, as Arsenal have all but assured themselves of the top spot in Group H. The Gunners can do so tomorrow with a win over Koln or a Red Star Belgrade defeat.

The other end of the spectrum features Everton, who has already been eliminated from reaching the next round after acquiring just one point in its first four matches.

European giants AC Milan can lock up a spot in the knockout phase on Thursday despite the club’s ongoing struggles in Serie A, while fellow Italian side Atalanta can move a step closer to the Round of 32 in Group E along with Lyon.

Here’s the full rundown of Thursday’s UEL matches.

Astana vs. Villareal — 11 a.m. ET
Konyaspor vs. Marseille — 1 p.m. ET
Rosenborg vs. Real Sociedad — 1 p.m. ET
Lazio vs. Vitesse — 1 p.m. ET
Viktoria Plzen vs. Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m. ET
Lokomotiv vs. Copenhagen — 1 p.m. ET
Zenit vs. Vardar — 1 p.m. ET
Red Bull Salzburg vs. Vitoria — 1 p.m. ET
Athletic Bilbao vs. Hertha Berlin — 1 p.m. ET
BATE vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m. ET
Ostersund vs. Zorya — 1 p.m. ET
Koln vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET
Nice vs. Zulte Waregem — 1 p.m. ET
Lugano vs. Beer-Sheva — 1 p.m. ET
Ludogorets vs. Istanbul — 3:05 p.m. ET
Braga vs. Hoffenheim — 3:05 p.m. ET
AEK vs. Rijeka — 3:05 p.m. ET
AC Milan vs. Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m. ET
Lyon vs. Apollon — 3:05 p.m. ET
Maccabi Tel Aviv vs. Slavia Praha — 3:05 p.m. ET
Sheriff vs. Zlin — 3:05 p.m. ET
Partizan vs. Young Boys — 3:05 p.m. ET
Skenderbeu vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:05 p.m. ET
Everton vs. Atalanta — 3:05 p.m. ET