LONDON (Reuters) - France produced one of soccer’s most famous comebacks on Tuesday to scrape into next year’s World Cup finals via the playoffs while Portugal blazed through after Cristiano Ronaldo conjured up a sensational hat-trick.
The two European heavyweights will be joined in next June’s finals by Croatia, Greece, Ghana and Algeria after they prevailed in their second leg playoffs.
France had to overturn a 2-0 deficit at home to Ukraine and did so with aplomb, Mamadou Sakho, an offside Karim Benzema and an Oleg Gusev own goal after 72 minutes sending the Stade de France wild as the fans celebrated a 3-2 aggregate triumph.
The 1998 winners had not missed a major tournament since 1994 when coach Didier Deschamps was on the field and he was determined not to let it happen again as France became the first side to fight back from 2-0 down in European World Cup playoffs.
He brought Benzema back into the team and although the striker’s goal looked well offside, he had an earlier effort wrongly ruled out by a linesman’s flag.
Defender Sakho, another player who did not start Friday’s limp showing in the first leg in Kiev, grabbed the opener with his first international goal.
“It was a great, great game. It was important for French football to be in Brazil next year - when we’ve got all the ingredients, we can do great things,” Deschamps told TF1 TV.
Ronaldo’s stunning treble took Portugal to the finals after three breakaway goals in a 3-2 win in Sweden completed a 4-2 aggregate success as rival Zlatan Ibrahimovic came to life with his own second-half double for the hosts.
Both forwards have been accused of not stepping up when it really matters on the biggest stage but Ronaldo shot down any doubters with a virtuoso display, using his rampant pace to net three goals that rival Lionel Messi would have been proud of.
“I know Portugal needed me in these matches and I showed I am here,” Ronaldo told Portuguese TV.
Croatia won 2-0 on aggregate and on the night despite playing most of their home leg against tiny Iceland with 10 men after Mario Mandzukic opened the scoring midway through the first half only to be sent off for a studs up tackle soon after.
Kostas Mitroglou again shone to help Greece, European champions in 2004, reach soccer’s greatest showpiece after his composed early finish in a 1-1 draw in Romania set up a 4-2 aggregate victory following his two goals in the first leg.
Ghana, who had a five-goal lead going into their second leg, secured a third straight World Cup finals appearance despite a 2-1 defeat by Egypt in an African playoff in strife-torn Cairo.
The Ghanaians went through 7-3 on aggregate after strikes by Egypt forwards Amr Zaki and Gedo were followed up by a late reply from Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Egypt have now failed to reach the World Cup since their last appearance in 1990 despite winning an unmatched four African Nations Cup titles during that time.
Algeria beat Burkina Faso on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate draw and 1-0 home win in the second leg, Madjid Bougherra scoring with a fluke goal when the ball deflected in off his head following Bakary Kone’s attempted clearance.
Ghana and Algeria join fellow Africans Nigeria, Cameroon and Ivory Coast in the finals after they qualified at the weekend.
The two remaining spots in Brazil will be decided on Wednesday when Mexico visit New Zealand with a 5-1 advantage from the first leg of their intercontinental playoff and Uruguay host Jordan 5-0 up from the Amman encounter.
Qualifiers Spain and the United States suffered blows in friendlies, the world champions beaten 1-0 by eliminated South Africa on the Soccer City pitch where they clinched their 2010 crown and the Americans losing 1-0 away to lowly Austria.
“I think we can even say the defeat was well deserved,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque told Cuatro TV.
“We started well but little by little they started to open us up and we allowed them time to counter attack.”
In friendlies among 2014 finalists, Per Mertesacker’s header sealed Germany’s 1-0 win as England lost for the second time in five days at Wembley, the Netherlands drew 0-0 with Colombia and much-hyped Belgium went down 3-2 at home to Japan.
Ange Postecoglou enjoyed a winning start as Australia coach with a 1-0 triumph over Costa Rica and Russia saw off South Korea 2-1 in another friendly in Dubai.
Striker Sergio Aguero scored twice to give Argentina a 2-0 win over Bosnia at the Busch baseball stadium in St Louis, Missouri on Monday, when Italy drew 2-2 with Nigeria in another neutral venue - London.
In a landmark friendly, Gibraltar drew 0-0 with Slovakia in Portugal on Tuesday in their first match since being admitted to UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body.
Editing by Ken Ferris