Fearless France looking to erase bad memories

That was the last time France failed to qualify for a major tournament and Didier Deschamp’s men will hope Friday’s first leg in Ukraine gives them the opportunity to go into the return at the Stade de France in a calm state of mind.

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Four years ago they had to rely on Thierry Henry’s infamous handball to see off Ireland in a World Cup playoff and they will be determined not to cut it that close this time.

“We need a good away result so we can deal with the return leg,” said Franck Ribery, who has scored six and set up nine of France’s last 24 goals.

“These (playoff) games are special. They are surrounded by a difficult context. We need to play without pressure. We should not be afraid,” he added.

The Bulgaria defeat in a group game on November 17, 1993, when Emil Kostadinov’s last-minute goal earned a 2-1 win at the Parc des Princes, will never be forgotten by the French.

Deschamps played in that match and probably had that evening in mind when he locked down France’s Clairefontaine training centre from Tuesday onwards.

“We must avoid the febrility and anxiety that can harm our performance,” he said.

The younger players, however, are less bothered by the ghosts of that match.

“France v Bulgaria? No, it doesn’t remind me of anything,” said Paul Pogba, who was eight months old when David Ginola’s poor free kick led to Kostadinov’s goal.

“I don’t think about it for a minute,” added midfielder Blaise Matuidi.

FORGET PAST

Ukraine will also be looking to forget the past as they participate in a fourth World Cup playoff tie having failed in their three previous attempts.

“We are trying to keep our players away from the past. To know the reasons for those failures, you had to be there,” said Ukraine coach Mykhaylo Fomenko.

Ukraine failed to qualify for the World Cup finals via the playoffs in 1998, 2002 and 2010, being knocked out by Croatia, Germany and Greece respectively.

An elimination against Slovenia in a Euro 2000 playoff makes the streak even more miserable.

Eight Ukraine players go into the home game with the threat of missing the return leg in Paris if booked.

“Football gets more and more aggressive, resulting in a good deal of yellow cards in games like this,” said Fomenko.

“I discuss this issue with players. But sometimes it is hard to resist your emotions”, added Fomenko who says he knows how to defeat France, a team they have never beaten in seven games.

“Of course I have the recipe,” he said.

France, like Ukraine, should be at full strength with Karim Benzema having rediscovered his scoring touch with two goals in the last two games – a 6-0 friendly win over Australia and a 3-0 victory against Finland in their final World Cup qualifier.

The only concern could be in central defence, with Eric Abidal having looked a bit off the pace lately in Ligue 1, especially as Ukraine like to counter attack.

(Additional reporting by Igor Nitzak; Editing by Alison Wildey)

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Iceland’s old master takes on Croatian novice

Iceland’s Swedish coach Lars Lagerback brings a wealth of major tournament experience to the home side while, in contrast, Croatia coach Niko Kovac has been thrown in at the deep end after the sacking of Igor Stimac last month.

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Lagerback, 65, took Sweden to the finals of five major championships during an 11-year stint, first as assistant and then as head coach.

He also led Nigeria at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the Icelandic football faithful will hope he can deliver them to the promised land of a major finals for the first time.

Kovac’s coaching history is modest by comparison.

He was only appointed as Croatia’s under-21 coach in January before stepping up when Stimac was fired after taking just one point from their final four qualifiers and ending up in the playoffs.

Lagerback has been blessed while leading Iceland because a golden generation of under-21 players has made it into the senior team.

Many of them took part in the European under-21 championship in Denmark in 2011, and the squad is now peppered with players playing for big-name European clubs.

“We’ll play our game and, like I’ve done with Sweden and Nigeria, we’ll look at their strengths and possible weaknesses and then prioritise certain things in our game,” Lagerback told Reuters in an interview.

SPECIAL MATCH

“Now with the playoffs it’s a little special as you have a home and away match and away goals count double. If we can keep a clean sheet then they have to score twice as many goals as us in the away game.

“I believe in well-organised play in both defence and attack,” he added, indicating his Iceland side will be no different from any other team he has managed – organised defensively and very hard-working.

However, so far his team has looked suspect in defence, leaking 15 goals in qualifying to equal bottom side Cyprus with the worst defensive record in Group E.

Luckily, they also tied with top side Switzerland on 17 goals for the best offensive record, and Lagerback will be confident his side can score against Croatia.

Leading the line will be Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Ajax Amsterdam, who has netted 13 goals in 19 internationals and is a constant threat up front.

On the bench, veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen, currently with Club Bruges, will be hoping for a victorious end to what will be the last major qualifying campaign for the 35-year-old former Barcelona, Chelsea and Monaco striker.

If Iceland succeed, he will almost certainly be part of the squad in Brazil before calling time on his international career.

LONE STRIKER

Defender Birkir Mar Saeversson is suspended for the first leg after picking up a booking in the final qualifier against Norway, but he will be available for the away leg on Tuesday.

Croatia will also miss left back Ivan Strinic in both legs through an abdominal injury and Danijel Pranjic, who has been recalled after a 16-month absence, is likely to deputise unless Kovac decides to reshuffle the back four.

If the coach deploys Pranjic in a five-man midfield, Vedran Corluka or Josip Simunic would fill the left back slot while the towering Mario Mandzukic will probably start as a lone striker with Ivica Olic battling to recover from a calf strain.

“Olic has still not trained but he is getting better and Pranjic will definitely be an asset because he can play in several positions,” Kovac told a news conference on Tuesday.

“We are certain about 90 percent of the starting lineup but things might change and no player can take his slot for granted,” he said.

Kovac impressed with the under-21s in their Euro 2015 qualifiers, winning the opening four games before he was named the senior team coach, and he acknowledged Iceland would pose a serious threat.

“They are a good team who have several tall players and are hence always likely to create chances from set pieces, even throw-ins,” he said.

“They are well organised and experts at winning the second ball so we have to avoid giving away free kicks in dangerous positions. Our primary objective is to score an away goal that would take off the pressure in the return leg,” he added.

(Writing by Philip O’Connor in Stockholm, additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic, Editing by Tony Goodson)

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Greece trust in old guard for victory over Romania

Coach Fernando Santos has emphasised the importance of his older players ahead of Friday’s first leg in Athens, and a sign of his faith in his experienced players is epitomised by his decision to recall striker Gekas, 33.

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Gekas, who plays for Konyaspor in Turkey, has scored 24 goals in his 68 appearances for Greece while Karagounis, 36, has played 129 times and Katsouranis, 34, has 107 caps.

“I won’t comment about any individual player, but we do have a lot of players who are under the threat of suspension, so we need give ourselves some options,” Santos told reporters.

He added: “We have a lot of experienced players who will know how to win the first match without conceding a goal.

“The Romanians are an excellent team, but I believe we will be the ones to make it through.”

Santos’ team are in the playoffs after finishing behind Group G winners Bosnia on goal difference, while Romania were a distant second in their group behind the Netherlands and have not qualified for the World Cup since 1998.

With a playing style which makes them hard to beat but unspectacular up front, Greece chalked up an impressive record of eight wins in their 10 group matches, five of them by 1-0 scorelines.

That lack of goals cost them top spot but the omens seem to be on Santos’ side ahead of the tie as the stern-faced Portuguese has a full-strength squad to choose from.

Celtic’s George Samaras trained separately on Monday and Tuesday as a precaution to rest a troublesome knee but he is expected to be fit.

Gekas believes Greece’s experience in seeing off Ukraine in the 2010 playoffs will stand them in good stead against Victor Piturca’s Romania.

“It’s a tough match for both teams but the good thing is that we have the experience of such games and I think if we are serious and disciplined we can get the result we want on Friday so we can go into the second leg full of confidence,” he said.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Romania head into what forward Razvan Cocis characterised as the “biggest challenge of our careers”, without injured captain Vlad Chiriches and with doubts hanging over goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, who is struggling with a back problem, but could be fit for the second leg in Bucharest.

Chiriches broke his nose during Tottenham Hotspur’s defeat to Newcastle United in the Premier League on Sunday, with Dinamo Bucharest defender Dragos Grigore replacing him.

Manchester City goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon has also been drafted back into the squad after displacing England’s Joe Hart from the Manchester City team, and Piturca will decide late who plays depending on Tatarusanu’s progress.

Romania are aiming to end a 16-year absence from the finals.

“This is without doubt the most important and challenging tie of our careers,” said Cocis.

“We really want to go to the World Cup and will fight with all our strength for it. We know Greece’s style of play, they are a team that plays defensively and tries to wait for their opponents to make a mistake and capitalise.

“Our goal is to score in the first game, but even if we draw 0-0 it is a good result for us to take back home.”

In a surprise move, Piturca has left out Ajaccio’s Adrian Mutu, Romania’s all-time joint leading scorer with 35 goals in 77 internationals.

“We don’t have players of high quality, but they are very driven, skilful and, most of all, they have come together to form a strong group,” Piturca said.

“It is a group I hope will grow exponentially to make its mark on both European and world football.

“It’s extremely important that we qualify – for me as well as for the team, because I have managed to take the team through to three Euro finals but never to the World Cup.

“But it is even more important for the players, for whom playing in a World Cup would be an incredible experience and achievement.”

(Additional reporting by Angel Krasimirov; Editing by Mike Collett)

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F1 star Vettel talks of respect for Webber

Sebastian Vettel says he has “enormous respect” for Mark Webber as the often feuding Red Bull duo attempt to bury the hatchet before the Australian finally quits Formula One.

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Webber, who is to compete in Porsche’s sportscar program from next season, remarked of Vettel that the four-times world champion was “in another category” following his seventh successive win in Abu Dhabi.

With the frost thawing a little between the two, although not enough that they will ever be on each other’s Christmas card list, Vettel has responded in kind.

It is all a far cry from the bad blood that has existed over the previous five years they have been team-mates, resulting in on-track feuds, with the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix and Malaysia this year the low points of their relationship.

With just two grands prix remaining before Webber bids farewell, with the Us this weekend and Brazil next, Vettel said: “We’ve always had respect on the track when we’ve been fighting each other.

“I don’t think we’ve lacked respect. We’ve respected each other inside the car and the other’s abilities.

He says as teammates, they’ve got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and that he has enormous respect for Webber.

“Being honest, if you look back, we’ve not had the best relationship on a personal level,” he said.

“But at the end of the day we’ve been very successful for the team, winning four constructors’ championships in a row, always scoring enough points for the team.”

In terms of Sunday’s race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, a venue that proved an enormous hit on its debut last year, Vettel can set yet another record.

Another victory will be his eighth in succession and surpass Michael Schumacher’s 2004 mark for consecutive wins in a season.

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Dark horses meet while Scolari faces tormentors

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari faces tormentors Honduras, Argentina and Ecuador meet in New Jersey, Italy host Germany in a heavyweight clash in Milan and England play an exciting Chile side at Wembley in matches featuring eight other finalists.

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World and European champions Spain continue their games against former colonies on Saturday in Equatorial Guinea, whose team include several players from the Spanish lower leagues.

Altogether, 17 of the 21 teams who have so far made sure of places at next year’s finals in Brazil will be in action between Thursday and Saturday with only Iran, Costa Rica, Australia and Bosnia sitting out.

Belgium, blessed with an outstanding generation of talented players such as Eden Hazard and Marouane Fellaini, stormed through their qualifying group, winning eight and drawing two of their 10 games.

They have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2002 while Colombia, spearheaded by Radamel Falcao and ably backed by Jackson Martinez and Juan Cuadrado, will end a 16-year absence at the finals.

HIGH STANDARD

Former Colombia coach Francisco Maturana, whose team arrived at the 1994 World Cup among the favourites only to go out in the first round, has warned against over-ptimism.

“We’ve now got a generation that has reached a pretty high standard, with all of the players fighting for trophies in major leagues,” he told FIFA.com.

However, he added: “Right now I’d say there’s a little bit of uncertainty around the team. Putting results to one side, I think there’s been a question mark hanging over Colombia’s true potential.

“The world remembers big things like Colombia in 1994. Going into that World Cup we played something like 24 games and won the lot. But then we went and lost the wrong game at the finals.”

Italy and Germany, who strolled through their qualifying groups, met barely a year ago in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, with Cesare Prandelli’s side winning 2-1.

Mario Balotelli is set to lead Italy’s attack on Friday despite a recent loss of form which has also seen the controversial striker twice suspended in Serie A.

Honduras and hosts Brazil last met in a full international in 2001 at the Copa America, where the Central Americans pulled off a shock 2-0 win which left Scolari fighting to keep his job.

‘Big Phil’ survived and recovered from the humiliation to lead his side to a fifth world title in Japan one year later.

Scolari, who was reappointed a year ago, has recalled Robinho after a two-year absence for the match in Miami.

NO MESSI

Argentina will have a chance to test themselves without the injured Lionel Messi against Ecuador in New Jersey on Friday.

England will attempt to score their first goal against Chile since 1953 when they meet the South Americans at Wembley. Chile won 2-0 on their last visit before the 1998 World Cup and the previous two meetings ended in goalless draws.

Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli has maintained the high-tempo, attacking game favoured by Marcelo Bielsa, who led them at the previous World Cup in South Africa.

Netherlands will be without injured striker Robin van Persie when they host Japan in Genk in neighbouring Belgium on Saturday and Switzerland make a long trip to South Korea for two Europe-Asia clashes featuring qualified teams.

Other finalists in action are the United States, who visit Scotland on Friday when Russia will meet Serbia in Dubai having travelled from chilly Moscow.

(Editing by Mike Collett and Ken Ferris)

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