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WCQ Recap: Ronaldo Stars, France Fight Back
Even with several second legs coming as mere formalities, the final day of UEFA and CAF World Cup qualifiers delivered plenty of drama. A brilliant showing from Cristiano Ronaldo and a French comeback for the ages were just several of the critical moments from today’s fixtures–starting with a delicately-poised second leg in Stockholm, here’s a recap of all the action.
Ronaldo 3-2 Zlatan
We knew the matchup of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was going to define the second leg of their qualifying tie, but we never could have expected this. In a stunning performance at Friends Arena, Ronaldo netted a sublime hat-trick to lead his country to a 4-2 aggregate win over Sweden and a well-deserved spot in next summer’s tournament.
Portugal’s progression came at the expense of Ibrahimovic, who scored a brace to drag his countrymen back into the match after the Real Madrid man had opened the scoring. But with his side trailing, Ronaldo finished off a counter-attack to draw the visitors level and, minutes later, darted behind the back line for another breakaway goal–a strike that cemented one of the greatest-ever displays in World Cup qualifying history. Credit also must be given to Joao Moutinho, who supplied two assists on the night, and Hugo Almeida, who created Ronaldo’s second with a brilliant feed.
Les Bleus Battle Back
Needing three goals to avoid an embarrassing omission from Brazil 2014, France delivered exactly what they needed in a 3-0 win over Ukraine at Stade de France. Mamadou Sakho proved the unlikely hero, scoring twice–including the game-winning strike in the 72nd–while Karim Benzema netted the hosts’ second. It all added up to a 3-2 aggregate victory over a Ukraine side that struggled to show a similar poise from the first leg.
Les Bleu‘s triumph is also the first time a country has come back to qualify in a UEFA playoff after losing the first leg 2-0. Amid their initial struggles and off-the-field issues, France thoroughly dominated the visitors in the second leg, controlling two-thirds of the possession and nearly tripling Ukraine’s total shots on the night.
Greeks Roll into Brazil
Holding a 3-1 advantage from the first leg of their tie against Romania, Greece eased into the World Cup with a 1-1 draw in Bucharest and a 4-2 aggregate victory. Kostas Mitroglou opened the scoring for the visitors in the 23rd before a comedic own goal by Vasilis Torosidis evened the game in the second half. But it won’t matter for Ethniki, who now find themselves in their second consecutive tournament after missing out from 1998-2006.
Croatia Back on World’s Stage
Following a scoreless first leg, Croatia’s dominance at home was too much for Iceland as the hosts recorded a 2-0 victory at Maksimir Stadium. Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna provided the home side’s offense on the night while the defense took care of the rest–despite Mandzukic’s subsequent dismissal, Croatia never looked like losing to the visitors, who were hoping to become the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. Croatia’s win also marks their return to the tournament following a surprising absence in 2010.
With Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cameroon already qualified heading into today’s action, two spots remained between four sides.
Black Stars In, Pharaohs Out
In all honesty, there wasn’t much Bob Bradley’s Egypt side could have done after a 6-1 first-leg loss. While the Pharaohs managed to earn a 2-1 second-leg victory over Ghana on home soil, last week’s demolition was simply too much to overcome as the Black Stars coasted to a 7-3 aggregate win and their third consecutive World Cup.
A late goal from Kevin Prince-Boateng wasn’t enough to cancel out earlier strikes from Amr Zaki and Mohamed Gedo, but the scoreline was of little importance to a Ghanaian squad that had done the hard work in the first leg. Now, the bigger question for American fans may surround Bradley’s next move–the Egyptian head coach was relieved of his duties following the first leg but finished out his tenure with today’s result.
Algerians Clinch Return Trip
Four years after their stunning qualification over Egypt, Algeria found themselves on the positive end of another dramatic tie. This time, the North African side knocked off Burkina Faso 1-0 to claim a 3-3 aggregate victory by virtue of away goals.
An early second-half strike from Madjid Bougherra and a strong defensive display at home were enough to take the Algerians through to their second-straight World Cup. Burkina came closest when a scrambled clearance in the Algerian box crashed against the cross bar, but the night–and resulting qualification–ultimately belonged to the hosts.
Feature photo credit: Evan Fanning
About Daniel Stelly
Daniel Stelly is a journalism graduate of the George Washington University and currently works for Upper 90 Soccer in NYC. Having called New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and York, PA home, he's an obsessive soccer fan who's been known to hit a sweet half-volley or two and wake up his neighbors during 8 AM Premier League kick-offs.