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World Cup play-offs

Blow for Ribéry, Mandzukic well-placed

Franck Ribéry’s hopes of appearing at next summer’s World Cup took a severe dent in Friday’s first leg of the European play-offs, where the UEFA Best Player in Europe and his France team-mates fell 2-0 away to Ukraine and now have a mountain to climb if they are to book a ticket to Brazil. By contrast, Mario Mandzukic and Croatia secured a goalless draw away to minnows Iceland and are well placed to progress.

As Ribéry and Co feared, Didier Deschamps’ side found the going tough on their travels to Ukraine, where the home side increasingly threw off their caution and posed a threat. Clear-cut chances were few and far between in a dour first half as both teams sought to avoid decisive errors.

Deschamps’ men upped the tempo after half-time. Olivier Giroud (47), Samir Nasri (48) and a 52nd-minute Ribéry free-kick were the first fruits of the away side going on the offensive. However, the home team took the lead just after the hour when Roman Zozulya forced home the opener from close range.

Ribéry and Co urgently pressed forward in search of a crucial away goal, but Nasri (65, 72) and Ribéry (78) were denied in quick succession by in-form Ukraine keeper Andriy Pyatov. Matters only got worse for the 1998 world champions when Andriy Yarmolenko converted a penalty eight minutes from time to seal a fine victory for the East Europeans. The French face a monumental task in Paris next Tuesday, as they must avoid conceding a goal while looking for a minimum of two of their own. Rubbing salt into the wound, Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny will miss the match after seeing a stoppage-time red card.

Partial success for Mandzukic

The players in Reykjavik were spared an outbreak of fierce winter weather, much to the delight of Mandzukic, who started for Croatia and was substituted three minutes from time. However, the star-studded visitors, coached by newly appointed ex-Bayern man Niko Kovac, were unable to score an away goal as underdogs Iceland defended skilfully and with huge passion.

After a 50th-minute red card for the home side’s Olafur Skulason the visitors invested more in the match, but the game remained goalless to the end. Mandzukic and Co must now win the return on home soil next Tuesday if they are to seal a place in Brazil.