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World Cup qualifying

Last chance for Ribéry and Mandzukic

It’s crunch time for Franck Ribéry and Mario Mandzukic. Results in the 2014 World Cup qualifying play-off first legs mean the Bayern pair have plenty of work still to do if they are to feature in Brazil next summer. Croatia are the better placed, as a win of any sort at home to Iceland would see them onto the plane following a goalless draw in Reykjavik, but France have their backs to the wall in the aftermath of a 2-0 defeat away to Ukraine.

No team has ever overturned that particular scoreline in a qualifying play-off. Ukraine and their former Bayern man Anatoliy Tymoshchuk have not lost for a year, nor have they conceded a goal in their last eight matches. Furthermore, the East Europeans have triumphed in their last four away fixtures. Nevertheless, the France camp was bristling with fight and intent prior to Tuesday’s return in Paris. “We have the ability to turn it around. We just have to go out and do it,” declared coach Didier Deschamps.

“We’re ready to go out there and lay down our lives if we can make the people who support us proud,” added Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud. As so often, French hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of European player of the year Ribéry, who cut a subdued figure in Kyiv last Friday. “Obviously, Ukraine know how dangerous he is. They were very aggressive towards him, they committed a lot of fouls and denied him space,” Deschamps pointed out.

Should France be eliminated at Stade de France on Tuesday, it would not only snuff out Ribéry’s dream of playing in the finals in Brazil, but could prompt him to end his international career, according to reports in France. That would be a catastrophe, according to a clutch of greats including Ribéry’s former international team-mate and predecessor at Bayern, Bixente Lizarazu. The 1998 World Cup winner sent a tweet spelling out what needs to be done: 1. Physical commitment, 2. Powerful body language, 3. Intelligent tactics.

Kovac: We'll go to Brazil

Mandzukic and the Croatians are in a less precarious position, despite a barrage of criticism from their home media following the first leg stalemate. By contrast, seasoned Croatia coaches spoke out in support of the current team. “Don’t make it a bad atmosphere! The result of the first match was positive,” said Miroslav Blazevic for example.

Former FCB man Niko Kovac agreed. “I’m not satisfied, but I’m convinced we’ll be going to Brazil,” said the Berlin-born former midfielder who stepped up to the national hot seat in October. However, the Croats know they will need to be cautious in Zagreb on Tuesday. The Nordic underdogs have nothing to lose and are convinced they stand a good chance of springing a surprise.

“It was very important not to concede a goal, because if we do score in Croatia they have to score twice,” noted Iceland’s Swedish coach Lars Lagerbäck, who guided his home country to the finals in 2006 and took Nigeria to South Africa four years later. “It starts 0-0. The Croats will come at us looking for goals, but they have to be careful not to throw too much into attack. It’ll be a game of poker and hardly ideal for the Croats. A 1-1 draw would be enough for us,” remarked Iceland’s most-capped player Runar Kristinsson.