France, Portugal face night of World Cup nerves

Paris: France and Portugal, two of Europe's footballing heavyweights, face a fraught test of nerves tomorrow with their places at the 2014 World Cup finals at stake.

France, the 1998 world champions, are 2-0 down to Ukraine after the first leg of their play-off ahead of the return in Paris while Portugal, semi-finalists in 2006, take a slender 1-0 advantage to Sweden. Elsewhere, Greece look well set to make the finals in Brazil next year as they enjoy a 3-1 lead over Romania while Iceland, bidding to become the smallest country to reach the World Cup, are 0-0 with Croatia ahead of their trip to Zagreb.

France are clearly most at risk of failing to qualify for a major championships for the first time since they missed the boat for the 1994 World Cup. And although Ukraine have lost their previous three play-offs -- against Croatia (1998), Germany (2002) and Greece (2010) -- they arrive in Paris with a two-goal cushion from the first leg, a psychological advantage and facing a home team smarting from a pasting in the press.

The manner of their defeat in Kiev on Friday prompted the sports daily L'Equipe to write off their chances. "In terms of what we saw on Friday night ... the French would do well just to draw the second leg," offered the newspaper.

And if they are to overcome the Ukrainians, they will have to do so without Laurent Kolchensky at the heart of their defence after the Arsenal defender was sent off late on following a clash with Oleksandr Kucher as tension spilled over.

France coach Didier Deschamps, who admitted his side were undone by Ukraine's sheer physicality in the first leg, said: "We've got to put them under pressure, to go at them. On Tuesday, we've got to be in the battle. We have the ability to turn it round and that's what we have to do."

In Solna, near Stockholm, things are more finely poised, with Sweden taking on Portugal in the second leg a goal down from Lisbon, predictably scored late in the game by Cristiano Ronaldo. Swedish hopes rest even more squarely than ever on the broad shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, especially with his phenomenal goalscoring record at the Friends Arena, where he has found the net 10 times since the stadium was inaugurated a year ago.

Elsewhere, Greece should complete the formality of qualifying in Bucharest, having racked up a surprising 3-1 advantage from the first leg in Piraeus. But little Iceland travel to Zagreb with their improbable World Cup dream still just about alive after a desperate draw in the goalless first leg in Reykjavik.

That match saw them fight a constant rearguard action against relentless waves of Croatian attacks after being reduced to 10 men for the last 40 minutes after defender Olafur Skulason was sent off. Yet they still have everything left to play for and should they achieve the unthinkable and win in Zagreb they would become the fist nation with a population of under a million ever to reach the final stages of the competition.

Egypt seeks World Cup miracle

Egypt seeks World Cup miracle

Abuja: Egypt will attempt to engineer a World Cup miracle by overturning a 6-1 deficit against Ghana tomorrow and snatch a spot in the finals in Brazil next year.

With Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon already assured of their places, there are only two remaining African slots up for grabs with Burkina Faso taking a slim 3-2 lead to Algeria in the second leg of their play-off. Egypt have been lifted by Al Ahly's eighth CAF Champions League win at the expense of South Africa's Orlando Pirates this month with Mohamed Aboutrika providing the inspiration.

Aboutrika scored in both legs and he will again be looked upon to spark off a miraculous comeback against the Black Stars of Ghana. Ghana skipper Asamoah Gyan, who scored twice in Kumasi in the 6-1 first leg mauling, will not dismiss Egypt's chances of a great comeback. "It's football and so anything can happen," he said.

"We're in a comfortable position right now, but we need to totally focus on our job and make sure we do what we have to do to reach Brazil."

Egypt beat Zambia 2-0 in a warm-up last week and the Pharaohs coach Bob Bradley has promised to ring changes to the team from the disastrous outing in Kumasi. Ghana's concerns over their safety in Cairo have headlined the build-up to Tuesday's fixture and it needed the intervention of world football governing FIFA to assure them they will be safe in the Egyptian capital.

The Black Stars have been strengthened with the return of fit-again Kevin-Prince Boateng and Harrison Afful, who was suspended for the first game. A major injury doubt for Ghana is defender David Addy, who is nursing an ankle problem.

The battle for the final World Cup ticket from Africa will be decided later on Tuesday between hosts Algeria and Burkina Faso at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida, where Algeria have not lost in 19 matches since 2002.

In June, at the same venue, Algeria beat Burkina Faso 2-0 in a friendly. However, this time Burkina Faso take a 3-2 win from the first encounter in Ouagadougou last month and are desperate for a place in a first final.

Algeria are favoured to win, but ex-skipper Anthar Yahia has warned that this match can only be won or lost on the pitch and not on the pages of newspapers. "Algeria will be the favourites to win going by their record against Burkina Faso. This is what the media have suggested, but the most important thing is really what happens on the pitch," said Esperance of Tunisia defender Yahia.

"Burkina Faso reached the final of the Africa Cup of Nations and they have proved to be a very good team. They only need a draw to qualify and so it could be difficult for Algeria, who also need to be cautious when going forward."

Bosnian coach Vahid Halihodzic has said Algeria were undone by biased officiating in Burkina Faso, but he is confident he has an attack capable of overturning the loss in Ouagadougou. The Stallions of Burkina have been boosted with the return from injury of their talisman Alain Traore, who missed last month's first leg.

The class of the 24-year-old striker is not in doubt as he proved at the last Nations Cup in South Africa, but his promising career has often been dogged by injuries.

( Source : AFP )
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