Taking a Look at Europe's World Cup Qualifying Playoffs
So, following a spiffingly-basic draw in Zurich—by UEFA and FIFA standards anyway—embarrassing only for the difficulty with which it made the simple task of deciding four ties, we have our draw for Europe's World Cup playoff round.
Of the four seeds, perhaps Ukraine will be the one's cursing their luck most, having plucked a France side who have seemingly found their scoring touch of late—even Karim Benzema has netted in their last two matches.
Portugal will be pleased to have avoided Les Bleus no doubt, but Sweden will prove tough opponents. Already it's been built-up as Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and while it's a clash of two footballing behemoths with egos the size of mountains, it promises to be an excellent 180 minutes. Maybe the biggest shame is that both can't take their place in Brazil next summer.
Iceland, the great romantic tale of Europe's qualification process will be happy to play a Croatia side in the midst of something of a crisis, while Greece vs. Romania—well they'll meet one another in Athens and Bucharest.
Anyway, here's a look at all four ties:
Portugal vs. Sweden
Paulo Bento's side have flattered to deceive throughout qualifying, but they're no strangers to taking the playoff route, having beaten Bosnia at this stage to qualify both for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
And though the former Sporting coach led them to a respectable semi-final showing at Euro 2012—where only a penalty shootout defeat to Spain denied them a place in the final—they remain a side that still lack a certain amount of cohesion.
Bento's 4-3-3 formation is tailored around keeping Ronaldo high up the pitch and utilising his club relationship with left-back Fabio Coentrao.
However, the lack of a top level striker—despite Helder Postiga's six qualifying goals—and an easily recognisable No. 10 continues to hold them back and is a hindrance when they look to break teams down.
Additionally, they remain over-reliant on Ronaldo creating magic and bludgeoning teams all on his own, rather than creating opportunities for him to bludgeon teams. If there are two matches where they need the very best of Joao Moutinho and his ability to pierce holes in opposing defences, it will be these.
In a bygone era, you could have been forgiven for thinking this is a game that Sweden would look to stifle in their quest for a result, but it continues to become more apparent that for Erik Hamren's side, the best form of defence is simply to attack.
Portugal v Sweden then. Either Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo won't be going to World Cup. Shame #brazil2014— Jack Woodward Villa (@JackWoodwardAV) October 21, 2013
They conceded nine goals in two games against Germany in qualifying, but only five in their other eight matches.
When they keep possession on an even keel to their opponents they compact the game well and keep a solidity about themselves which isn't easy to get through.
And when they do dominate, they work intelligent angles to play the diagonal balls which have long been a staple part of the Swedish game, and using a pretty standard 4-4-1-1 formation, they get into positions to accentuate the best of their captain, Ibrahimovic: his intelligent passes, physicality and sheer genius in the final third.
In the end, it does feel as though this is a game which will come down to either the brilliance of Ronaldo or the outlandishness of Ibrahimovic.
Certainly Hamren thinks so: "you can have tactics and scouting but a player like Ronaldo or Ibra can change a game and do something extra" as reported by the Guardian.
Ukraine vs. France
The pair met under different regimes 16 months ago at Euro 2012 in a thunderous Donetsk, and while the heavens may have opened and the rain may have been pouring, Ukraine's performance was nothing more than a damp squib as Les Bleus won 2-0.
Certainly it's the inability to breach England in Kyiv which has led to them having to navigate a playoff, but with a 4-2-3-1 formation looking to make the most of the excellent Dnipro winger, Yevhen Konoplyanka, and the mercurial Andriy Yarmolenko.
Both have a bit of magic in their boots and contain the ability to produce something wonderful, but they also work hard for the team as well.
The defence remains pretty solid having conceded just four times throughout qualification, but still there are questions over the striker position.
23-year-old Roman Zozulya is hard-working but has only two goals in 12 internationals, while the 6'1" forward Yevhen Seleznyov, having hit double figures in each of the last six years at club level, remains unconvincing; the talented yet frustrating Artem Milevskiy is very much on the outside looking in, having only played 17 minutes of qualifying.
And though Ukraine have improved since hosting the European Championships, the worry is that France now find themselves doing likewise, with a mixture of highly talented and experienced campaigners—Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Patrice Evra, Hugo Lloris—late developers—Olivier Giroud, Mathieu Valbuena, Laurent Koscielny—and uber-talented youngsters—Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba.
Deschamps has seen fit to partner he and Marseille midfielder Valbuena in Les Bleus' midfield to add a certain amount of je ne sais quoi to their attack.
Additionally, Benzema's goal drought is at an end, while Giroud is taking his club form onto the international stage and Pogba has been given his head.
It's taken Deschamps a while to get his France to find some semblance of form, but both in attack—13 goals in their last three games—and in defence—clean sheets in four of their last five matches—things are starting to come together.
Undoubtedly, the 1998 World Cup winners were the unseeded team that the select quartet wanted to avoid. Ukraine and Fomenko now have a massive obstacle in their way.
7 - France are unbeaten in their seven games against Ukraine (W4 D3). Solid.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) October 21, 2013
Iceland vs Croatia
With a wonderful freedom and daring, Lars Lagerback's Iceland have been one of the major success stories of these qualifiers.
Now they stand on the brink of being the smallest ever nation to claim a place at a World Cup finals.
Standing in their way are Croatia, who are currently in the midst of what must feel like a nightmare. Without a win in their last four qualifiers, they dropped spectacularly off the pace set by group winners Belgium, to the extent that after defeat to Scotland in their final qualifier head coach Igor Stimac was discarded.
Stimac did some good things during his time—giving the precocious Mateo Kovacic his head against Serbia the prime example—but in the end, you sensed he didn't really have a grand plan with continual personnel or tactical changes.
The recent games against Belgium and Scotland saw a disheveled defence all too easily beaten and an attack that for all its technical talent, seemingly ran out of ideas all too quickly.Kovac is the man tasked with leading them through these qualifiers, and if he can bring the best out of a playing staff including Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic and Darijo Srna, they should be too strong for Lagerback's side.
If they aren't though, the underdog could well have its day.
Playing full of exuberance, athleticism and plenty of technique, they set out to win games rather than merely not lose them.
Its a pro-activeness that makes them a romanic's dream and in Eidur Gudjohnsen, they have a masterful technician in the twilight of his career.
The 4-4 draw against Switzerland, where they recovered from 4-1 down, perfectly encapsulated this side: never-say-die attitude, attack swiftly, look to exploit opposing defences with quick movement and intelligent passing, but with something of a defensive naivety.
If they can take a lead into the second leg in Zagreb, the atmosphere will be fascinating: how long will Croatia's support give them to get back into things?
If they can't, then you'd have to back Croatia to get the job done.
Greece vs. Romania
And in qualifying at least, it continues to get results.
25 points from a possible 30—a total that would have seen them top four of the seven other six-team groups - shows their effectiveness, while no away side has found the back of the net in Athens in over 18 months.
This obviously doesn't bode well for Victor Piturca's Romania.
But I make no bones for saying that Greece are rather dull. In 10 matches, six of which came against Latvia, Lithuania and Liechtenstein, they scored a meagre 12 goals, and their lack of an out-and-out goalscorer hinders them in that respect.
However, Fernando Santos' side are on a run of six games without conceding, winning all six. The least you can do is respect that achievement and his Romanian counterpart knows that they'll be difficult opponents.
"Greece are strong opponents, they're a well-organised team," said Piturca immediately after the draw, as reported by the Guardian.
As such, Piturca must hope to disjoint their solid defence with his own sides attacking qualities.
Romania aren't particularly pretty to watch themselves, nor do they have a technical creator to rely upon, such as Adrian Mutu, the 34-year-old who hasn't been used since March.
If Greece represent the immovable object then it would be extremely kind—maybe I'm having hallucinations—to call Romania the irresistible force.
But while the seeded side are undoubted favourites, it could be an extremely tight and tense affair.
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