[WORLD CUP QUALIFYING: Europe] It was a night of heroics across Europe as the four remaining berths in the World Cup went to Portugal, France, Croatia and Greece. Portugal owed its qualification to one of the great performances of Cristiano Ronaldo's career, a hat trick in the 3-2 win to best Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored both goals for Sweden. France became the first European team to overcome a 2-0 World Cup playoff deficit with a 3-0 win to eliminate Ukraine and silence its critics.
SWEDEN-PORTUGAL. Ronaldo's hat trick gave him all four goals in Portugal's 4-2 aggregate win. The key goal was the first in the return
leg that meant that the Swedes would need three goals to advance. Ibrahimovic scored twice but couldn't get a third before Ronaldo added two more goals to send Portugal back to the World Cup for the
fourth straight time.
His four goals gave him 21 in his last nine games for Portugal and Real Madrid and 31 in 21 games since the start of the new season.
About the only
person who wasn't impressed with Ronaldo's feat was Ibrahimovic. Asked if Ronaldo deserved the 2013 Ballon d'Or as the world's best player, Ibra said, "The best players qualify their teams for the
World Cup without going to playoffs."
FRANCE-UKRAINE. Another Ballon d'Or favorite is Franck Ribery, who helped Bayern Munich with the triple in 2013 and even had made room in his trophy case for award, according to his wife, but his chances seemed to have faded after one
of the worst performances of his career Friday night in a 2-0 loss to Ukraine.
But he made up for it Tuesday night, leading France to a 3-0 at the Stade de France. According to one poll,
just 16 percent of Frenchmen said the Bleus would qualify for the World Cup, but they made sure every former champion will be in Brazil with the well-deserved win.
From the opening
whistle, France put Ukraine under intense pressure and was even after only 34 minutes on goals by Mamadou Sakho -- his first ever for France -- and Karim Benzema -- who was offside but had earlier had another goal erroneously disallowed for offside.
Ukraine's night got worse shortly after the break
as Yevhen Khacheridi was sent off for picking up his second yellow card on a foul on Ribery.
It was only a matter of time before France had its third goal, and it came on
own goal as Oleg Gusev put the ball into his own goal with lurking at the far post to put it into the empty net.
"I didn't have doubts," said
French coach Didier Deschamps, who came under extreme criticism after the game, "but we played a huge match and this qualification is very important for French
soccer. It's a bit of a tradition that when French teams have their backs against the wall, they perform and we had a lot of heart and determination today. Now we've qualified. We're capable of some
Deschamps had captained France to the 1998 World Cup, but he was in danger of being the first coach to not take the Bleus to the final since 1994 when as a player he
watched Bulgaria score a stoppage-time goal to eliminate them.
November 17, 1993, had been erased by November 19, 2013.
Croatia couldn't score with a man advantage on Friday, but it got goals from Mario Mandzukic and Darijo Srna
despite being a man down on Tuesday to end Iceland's bid to advance to the World Cup final for the first time with a 2-0 win in the second leg and on aggregate.
Mandzukic was in
danger of going from hero to goat as he put Croatia again and then was sent off before halftime for a foul on Johann Gudmundsson. But Srna's goal shortly after
the break gave Croatia the insurance goal it needed.
Croatia didn't qualify for the 2010 World Cup but has played in every other tournament since breaking off from Yugoslavia. Iceland was
bidding to become the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup.
ROMANIA-GREECE. Greece qualified for only the third in 18 attempts with a
1-1 tie at Romania that sent it through 4-2 on aggregate.
The Greeks had gone 8-1-1 in group play, losing out to Switzerland on goal difference, but goals proved to be no problem against
Konstantinos Mitroglou beat the offside trap to give the Greeks a three-goal cushion in the 23rd minute, and they coasted to victory even
after gifting Romania a goal when defender Jose Holebas' attempted clearance hit teammate Vasilios Torosidis and went
into the goal in the 55th minute.