The draw for the World Cup playoffs—arguably the most important set of matches in football—took place Monday at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
With one very big hurdle left to jump between now and next summer, top seeds Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Ukraine as well as unseeded France, Sweden, Romania and Iceland all took their place in the playoff pot.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were paired off with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in what is the standout tie of the round, but the other three matchups look just as enticing.
|2014 World Cup Playoff Draw 1st Leg|
The manager tasked with the biggest challenge between now and November 15 is Croatia’s Niko Kovac. Kovac, who took over the reins for the national side just last week when Igor Stimac was shown the exit door after a disappointing end to the group stages, will make his managerial debut for the national side away to Iceland in the first of the two matchups between the nations.
While Croatia are looking to make up for the disappointment of missing out on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Iceland will be hoping to qualify for the finals for the first time.
Here's a look at how both sides break down.
Iceland vs. Croatia Preview
Iceland and Croatia scraped through to the playoffs with 17 points from 10 games after an up-and-down qualifying campaign for both nations.
Croatia, who finished second to Belgium in Group A, had an impressive start to their qualifying campaign, with five victories and a draw away to Belgium. But that was when it all unraveled for Stimac.
Home and away defeats against Scotland (in which they failed to score), a draw away to Serbia and a loss to Belgium at home consigned them to second place in their pool and cost Stimac his job.
The Croats' biggest problem in qualifying was scoring goals, which is unusual for a side that boasts both creativity in midfield and firepower up front.
The country possesses stars such as Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic, while also boasting players like Nikica Jelavic, Niko Kranjcar and Eduardo to call upon. But between them, they found the net just 12 times, which tied with Greece for the lowest total among teams that qualified from the group stages, according to FIFA.
Iceland, who finished bottom of their pool in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, have never reached the finals before and, at No. 46 in the world, are the lowest-ranked team in the playoffs.
With a population of less than 400,000, the Nordic island owe their spot in the playoffs to a crucial 4-4 draw with Switzerland—who led 4-1 after 56 minutes—in early September (see the moment their qualification was confirmed below).
Iceland have at their disposal striker Kolbeinn Sigporsson, who has started every game for Ajax this season—per Stefan Bienkowski in the Herald Scotland—and Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, who is well-known to fans of the Premier League.
While they scored 17 times in qualifying, manager Lars Lagerback will be concerned with their defensive record. His team conceded 15 goals in their 10 matches, which was the worst defensive record among teams that finished in the top two of their respective pools, and they will need to tighten up against a Croatian side that possesses talent in abundance.
Despite Croatia’s struggles of late, they have the ability to bring it all together when it matters. The team have qualified for three of the past four World Cups, and after missing out on South Africa in 2010 they will be determined to be on the plane to Brazil.
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