France, 21st in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, became the first team to overcome a two-goal deficit in a FIFA World Cup™ play-off, defeating Ukraine, who had won three and drawn two of their last five away qualifiers, to advance to Brazil 2014 against the odds.
Portugal, meanwhile, propelled by their on-song captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a hat-trick on the night, beat Sweden 3-2 in Solna to book their ticket for Brazil, in a match where Zlatan Ibrahimovic notched a fine brace.
Elsewhere, Croatia had to dig deep to see off unfancied Iceland 2-0, while Greece, who made do with a 1-1 draw in Romania, will also be on their travels next summer.
These four play-off winners will join the nine table-toppers from the European Zone – namely Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England and defending champions Spain – on the plane to South America.
The big match
France 3-0 Ukraine (First leg: 0-2)
*Goals: Mamadou Sakho 22, Karim Benzema 34, Mamadou Sakho 72
*France, the only unseeded team to progress from the play-off round, put in an assured performance to get the better of Ukraine in a fast-paced and intense encounter. Didier Deschamps made several changes from the line-up that lost 2-0 in Kiev, the majority of which proved decisive.
The Ukraine defence found itself pinned back and stretched from the outset, as Mathieu Valbuena and Franck Ribery caused havoc down the flanks and the entire team passed the ball around with precision. Paul Pogba, playing in a more advanced position, dominated the centre of the park, picking up on poor clearances throughout.
Opportunistic strikes from Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema brought Les Bleus level on aggregate, before Sakho sealed an impressive triumph for the French, who qualify for FIFA’s flagship tournament for the 14th time.
The Ukrainians, however, have now failed to reach the promised land four times via the play-offs.
The other games
Sweden 2-3 Portugal (First leg: 0-1)
Football fans around the world will bemoan the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Brazil 2014, but may console themselves with the news that Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored a remarkable hat-trick of breakaway goals to overshadow his Swedish counterpart, will definitely be there to showcase his talents.
The visitors made it clear early on that they were not going to sit on their slender advantage, putting the Scandinavian rearguard under serious pressure. Ibrahimovic, long reduced to a playmaker role, suddenly woke up in the second half, equalising with a header and then putting his side into the lead with a sweetly struck free kick.
But within a two-minute period, Ronaldo slotted home his 65th and 66th goals of the year, securing both a creditable win and a berth at the World Cup in the process.
Croatia 2-0 Iceland (First leg: 0-0)
While the miracle that Icelandic supporters were hoping for never materialised, their heroes can return home with their heads held high, having gone toe-to-toe with the Croatians for long periods, and even creating numerous chances on the break.
But it was a defensive lapse that would prove to be their undoing, as a cross from Ivan Ratikic, deflected by Ivan Perisic, made its way to the back post, where the unmarked Mario Mandzukic made no mistake.
The Bayern Munich attacker then indirectly provided the Icelanders with a glimmer of hope, getting himself sent off and leaving Croatia with ten men. However, despite their numerical advantage, Iceland failed to seize the opportunity, conceding a second goal to Croatian skipper Darijo Srna, whose powerful strike ensured the Balkan nation’s presence at the World Cup for a fourth time.
*Romania 1-1 Greece (First leg: 1-3) *
The Romanians are unlikely to want to see Konstantinos Mitroglou – scorer of a double in the first leg and the 23rd-minute opener in Bucharest – darken their doorstep again. Victor Piturca’s charges pressed hard after the break, but were unable to add to their equaliser, a bizarre own goal by Vasilis Torosidis.
The success guarantees Greece a third World Cup appearance, after USA 1994 and South Africa 2010.
Sweden 0-1 Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo 50)
Beautifully played through by Joao Moutinho, Ronaldo surged towards goal with the ball seemingly glued to his feet. He then drove into the box at a slight angle, prior to firing an unstoppable left-footed shot into the back of the net. The Portuguese forward would go on to score two similar goals later in the match.
Luka Modric inspired Croatia to a crucial win over Iceland, demonstrating the full range of his skills and playmaking abilities. The pint-sized midfielder, who appears to be back to his best since Carlo Ancelotti took over at Real Madrid, was at the origin of practically all of his side’s meaningful attacks.
The stat 16 – The number of victories enjoyed by Portugal since 20 September 2010, the date on which Paulo Bento took up the reins. A Seleção das Quinas have drawn four matches and lost just three during the same period.
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