By MARC SERBER
Unlike the countries that lost in Thursday’s World Cup qualifying playoffs, every team in Europe still has a chance heading into the second leg.
A day after Mexico topped New Zealand 5-1 and Uruguay cruised to a 5-0 victory over Jordan, none of the four European matches played Friday were lopsided blowouts.
It will be toughest for Romania after falling 3-1 to Greece on the road, but the Romanians do have the away goal and will be playing the second leg at home. France fell apart in the second half against the Ukraine in a 2-0 defeat, but even though they lost starting defender Laurent Koscielny, one goal in Paris next week can change the outcome.
Who else but Cristiano Ronaldo would step up late in the game and score the winner for Portugal, a diving header inside the six yard box to give his nation a leg up in the series. But heading back to the Friends Arena in Solna, Sweden, could be just what Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs to break out and score in bunches.
Here’s a closer look at the first-leg matches of the UEFA World Cup qualifying playoffs:
UKRAINE SHOCKS FRANCE IN KIEV
France capitulated in the second half at the Olympic stadium in Kiev. After an even first half, Roman Zozulya fired home from close range and Andriy Yarmolenko converted an 82nd minute penalty to give Ukraine a 2-0 win.
France started the game the better of the two sides. Looking like the home team, Les Bleus controlled possession but were unable to find any invention around a compact penalty area. Ukraine meanwhile, looked like the away side, more eager to hit on the break.
That is until Edmar began to get forward. As the Brazilian-born national woke up, so did the rest of the Ukrainian team, which sent more bodies up the field with each attack. Yet neither side could find the opener in the first 45 minutes
Paul Pogba had a good game in the center of the park, and 10 minutes into the second half he slid the ball through for Loic Remy, but the Newcastle man couldn’t put his shot on target.
The miss would come back to haunt the French. Just after the hour mark, good combination down the left opened space for Edmar in the center. The Metalist Kharkiv midfielder played a delightful ball in for Zozulya, who swept it past Hugo Lloris from close range.
The French looked for an equalizer through Franck Ribery, who continued to poke and prod down the wing but never established a real connection with his forwards.
The Ukranians screamed for a penalty in the 75th minute after Abidal took down Zozulya in the box, but their protests fell on deaf ears.
The referee had no choice but to point to the spot seven minutes later after Laurent Koscielny took down Zozulya in the box with an atrocious challenge. Yarmolenko confidently dispatched his penalty behind Lloris to ensure the victory. The Ukrainians are now undefeated in 11 matches.
The night didn’t end without drama, though, as Koscielny was shown a red card for another moment of petulance in stoppage time. Ukraine also saw Olexandr Kucher given his marching orders for a second yellow in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
GREECE RUN RIOT OVER ROMANIA
Ever since Euro 2004, Greece has been known as an uber-defensive team that would rather put all 11 men behind the ball and hit on the break than play any sort of attacking soccer.
Yet after the first leg the Greeks have the most goals of the eight teams in the European playoffs.
Kostas Mitroglou opened the scoring in the 14th minute with a deft one-touch finish to the far corner following a beautiful ball over the top.
Bogdan Stancu headed Romania back just five minutes later.
The home side came storming back, however. Dimitris Salpingidis finished off a ferocious seven minutes, putting Greece back into the lead by sliding in at the back post to finish off a pinpoint cross from Vasillis Torosidis.
Mitroglou completed his brace in the 66th minute with a tremendous half volley following a flick on in the box from a set piece.
The Olympiakos forward left the match 10 minutes from time to a rousing ovation.
RONALDO HEADS PORTUGAL IN FRONT OF SWEDEN AFTER ONE LEG
It was the match billed as Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but in the end, it was Ronaldo who could not be contained.
The Real Madrid star’s 82nd minute diving header from a Miguel Veloso cross gives Portugal the slimmest of advantages as the playoff switches from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia.
In the first half Portugal started off the better side, but Sweden grew into the game with both teams creating half chances. The best opportunity of the half came from a set piece when Kim Kallstrom curled his effort just wide of the far post.
Portugal had the majority of the possession, but both Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovich were well marshaled by the defense.
The home side had the better of the second half as Raul Meireles fired over the crossbar from distance and Helder Postiga just missed flicking on a corner at the near post, but the Estadio Da Luz had to wait till the 82nd minute for the breakthrough.
Sweden failed to react to a quickly taken throw-in and Veloso’s cross was spot on for Ronaldo to dive inside his defender and place his header past hapless goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
Ronaldo almost doubled the lead three minutes later, but his header came ringing off the crossbar.
HONORS EVEN AS ICELAND AND CROATIA FINISH SCORELESS
On a drama-filled night in Reykjavik, Iceland fought with 10 men for more than 40 minutes to take a 0-0 scoreline to Croatia.
In a balanced first half of few chances, Iceland looked most dangerous when direct while Croatia was strong in possession.
Neither side could create a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity: Ivan Persic’s long range effort right at Hannes Halldorsson five minutes before halftime was as close as anyone came.
Olafur Ingi Skulason was sent off just five minutes after the restart, but a resolute Icelandic defense held firm against a Croatian side that seems to be losing confidence with each match.
The smallest nation left in World Cup Qualifying still has a very big chance to make history. Iceland didn’t manage to score, but at least Croatia won’t head home with the away-goal tiebreaker.
What did you make of the first-leg matches in UEFA World Cup playoff round qualifying? Do you see Portugal advancing? Do you believe France can rebound in the second leg? Does Romania have a chance thanks to the away goal?
Share your thoughts below.