World Cup Qualifying Preview: Ukraine v. France

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France travel to Kiev on Friday for the first-leg of their World Cup Qualifying play-off match against Ukraine.

Failing to overcome Spain for top spot in their qualification group Didier Deschamps‘ men now face a difficult Ukraine squad in a hostile location, the Olympic Stadium. France, however, enter the match on a strong run of form, winning their last three matches (against Belarus, Australia and Finland) in convincing style.

Les Blues will be led by Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, who was recently named Best Player in Europe for the 2012-2013 season by UEFA. In an interview on Wednesday Ribery described himself as “fit and healthy” ahead of the match and insisted that France are not taking Ukraine lightly. “For me it’s very important that we qualify. Ukraine are a good team but France have to be in Brazil.”

Another key player for France, striker Karim Benzema, echoed the urgency and seriousness of the play-off. “We will give everything in these two games,” the Real Madrid striker said. “We will qualify, I am sure. There is no choice. At the end, there is the ticket to the World Cup in Brazil – the most beautiful. A World Cup in the land of football.”

A lingering issue for the French, of course, is the poor showing the side gave both on and off the pitch in South Africa 2010. For Ribery, the matches against Ukraine provides a chance for the team to make it up to the fans. “It was difficult for us in 2010 and now we have a chance to make amends.”

From all indications, those amends could be made in front of as many as 2,000 Frenchman scheduled to accompany Les Bleus to Kiev. “There is a relationship that is developing between us and our fans,” said midfielder Rio Mavuba. “They’re behind their team now, and that’s great because we’ll really need them for these two matches.”

Ukraine have also enjoyed good form by taking 13 of a possible 15 points from their last five World Cup Qualifiers. In large part that success has been due to Ukraine’s primary attacking threats, wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, with the former having scored four times in the group stages.

Yet still, most players on the Synyo-Zhovti recognize they are the underdogs in this play-off. “Their players are all based in the leading championships,” said forward Marko Devic. “We’re not heading into the unknown; we know exactly what we’ll be up against: one of the best teams in the world.”

Both sides have past heart-aches that will serve to motivate.

Deschamps was part of the France team that lost 2-1 to Bulgaria at the Parc des Princes in November 1993, ending French hopes of securing their berth at the 1994 World Cup. The 45-year-old admits he is still haunted by the failure 20 years ago but is nevertheless focused on ensuring qualification for Brazil. “It may have been 20 years ago but it still sticks in my mind,” he said. “I don’t want to experience that again.”

Ukraine’s bad memories are a bit more recent as they have suffered play-off defeats in three of the last five World Cups: 1998, 2002 and 2010.

Prediction

Expect a cagey first leg in Kiev with Ukraine looking to defend well and feed off the energy from the home crowd. They’ll do their best to avoid conceding and I think Ukraine will manage to do that for the majority of the game but the French will break them late and enjoy a one goal edge heading back to Paris.

Yaya Toure talks future, wants to play with Paul Pogba

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There is very little debate: Yaya Toure is his own special case.

The longtime Manchester City midfielder does what he wants, flies his own flag, has the worst agent in the game, and is pleased or dismayed in unusual ways.

[ UCL: What would Real 3-peat mean? ]

Toure, 35, has been linked with a move to NYCFC now that he’s leaving Man City, but the Ivorian still wants to play two more seasons for a Champions League or Europa League club.

And he wants to get together with Paul Pogba. You can see where this is going… (from The Manchester Evening News):

“Pogba is the same size, power – but different in the way he wants to go. Technically as well, the ability to score goals as well. It is a player I want to play with, to be honest, just to teach him some things.”

That must mean both are going to Paris Saint-Germain because… Yaya at Manchester United? No way, right? Right? Even with last year’s reports from his — again — terrible agent that it was an option, that still seems too villainous.

“I don’t rule big teams out. The big teams are very important for me. What they want to achieve, the way they want to go, for me is very important. … I want to go somewhere I can win and achieve. It’s going to be hard one day to play against City, but I have to do that. It is part of my job.”

Toure later said he was “no good in an office,” which had us thinking, well, what if they properly celebrated your birthday, Yaya?

WATCH: Miami United midfield unleashes Open Cup laser

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Tomas Granitto, have yourself an extra plate at the postgame buffet.

The Miami United midfielder scored a gorgeous goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over fellow NPSL side Jacksonville Armada in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s third round.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

Complete with aesthetically-pleasing post-ping, the former El Salvador U-20 player laid into a 25-yard shot to open the scoring in Florida.

Granitto, 24, has played for Timbers 2, Swope Park Rangers, FC Edmonton, since leaving NCAA side Florida Gulf Coast.

Rondon wanted by Atleti, Inter Milan, and West Ham

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The big boys are looking to Salomon Rondon as a bargain striker.

Yes, $22 million is a bargain in the striker market these days.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

West Brom’s Venezuelan international, 28, stands 6’2″ and has a relegation release clause that is reportedly interesting Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid, and West Ham United.

Atleti and Inter are in the Champions League next season, but Rondon played for new West Ham boss Manuel Pellegrini at Malaga, posting 25 league goals in two seasons.

He’s scored 24 goals in three Premier League seasons at West Brom, almost a quarter of the 104 produced by the Baggies.

He also picked up three assists this season as the target man for Tony Pulis, Alan Pardew, and Darren Moore (and was fouled more often than any other Baggie (Baggy?)).

Rondon and Marko Arnautovic next to each other would be a real handful for PL defenses. Then again, maybe he’ll stay loyal to West Brom and set the Championship scoring record next season.

Three German organizers of 2006 World Cup indicted for tax evasion

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FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) Three German organizers of the 2006 World Cup have been charged with tax evasion linked to a payment to FIFA.

German news agency dpa reported that Theo Zwanziger, Wolfgang Niersbach and Horst R. Schmidt confirmed Wednesday they are indicted by Frankfurt prosecutors in a long-running investigation.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

They are accused of falsifying tax returns on behalf of the Germany soccer federation (DFB) in 2006. The DFB has already paid 19.2 million euros ($22.4 million) in back taxes. All three deny the charges, which were first reported by German daily Bild

The allegations are also being investigated by Swiss federal prosecutors and FIFA’s ethics committee. They have targeted German soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, who led the 2006 tournament organizing committee.

Beckenbauer, Zwanziger and Niersbach were members of FIFA’s executive committee in turn from 2007 through 2016.

In 2016, the DFB published an inquiry report into a complex payments trail including 6.7 million euros ($7.8 million) to FIFA in April 2005. Zwanziger and the DFB claimed the money was for a World Cup opening gala and therefore tax-deductible.

However, the payment went through FIFA and ended in a Swiss account belonging to former Adidas chief Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who died in 2009.

The inquiry report did not rule out, but could not prove, that votes were bought when Germany beat a Nelson Mandela-supported South Africa bid for the hosting rights in a 12-11 vote of FIFA executive committee members in 2000.

Swiss prosecutors said in 2016 they had opened a criminal proceeding against the four German officials the previous year, on suspicion of fraud, money laundering, criminal mismanagement and misappropriation. That case spun off from a wider Swiss investigation of suspected corruption linked to FIFA and World Cup hosting votes that is ongoing.

Niersbach lost his seat on FIFA’s ruling committee when he was banned for one year for failing to disclose possible unethical conduct.

The various investigations have tarnished the reputation of the 2006 World Cup that was a popular success in the host nation, which called it the “Summer Fairytale.”