UEFA World Cup Qualifying 2014: Predicting Outcomes for November's Playoffs
The draw for the World Cup qualifying playoffs revealed interesting matchups all the way around. Of course, they vary in terms of quality, but they all present interesting angles and should provide for competitive fixtures.
The stakes are certainly high enough. All four winners punch their ticket to Brazil.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic going head-to-head as Portugal takes on Sweden is sure to grab the majority of the headlines. However, the other three matchups can't be overlooked.
The first leg of all four matches will be on Nov. 15, with the second leg coming Nov. 19. Check out the matchups and then I'll get into my predictions.
|Fixture||1st Leg||2nd Leg||Predicted Winner|
|Portugal vs. Sweden||15 November||19 November||Portugal|
|Ukraine vs. France||15 November||19 November||France|
|Greece vs. Romania||15 November||19 November||Romania|
|Iceland vs. Croatia||15 November||19 November||Croatia|
Ukraine vs. France
France won the World Cup in 1998 and was second in 2006. This year it has to advance through a playoff, and this will be a battle. Ukraine has played sound in its qualifying, as it came in second to England in group play.
Making this matchup even more compelling is that both sides finished group play strong.
Franck Ribery and Olivier Giroud kicked their play into high gear to make France dangerous. The French won their last two qualifiers by a combined score of 7-2. That goalscoring flourish was a great sign for a team that had been struggling to score.
Meanwhile, with Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko on the wing, Ukraine hit an impressive hot streak. It finished off its last seven qualifiers without a loss and six wins.
This is going to be a tight battle, but I'm siding with France. The French will play the second leg at home, and they will use that to earn a narrow victory after drawing in the first leg.
Portugal vs. Sweden
All eyes will be on this match, and it certainly feels more fit for the World Cup than simply a playoff to get into the playoff. However, this has become the norm for the talented Portugal side.
It needed a playoff to advance to both the last World Cup and Euro 2012.
Sweden looked strong in qualifying and twice played Germany tough. It will provide a stiff test for Portugal. As you can see, there is little separating these two:
Portugal vs Sweden: Head-to-head record (last 4 meetings) pic.twitter.com/aeipwrCjyo— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) October 21, 2013
While both of these sides rely heavily on their stars, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, they are not without talent around them.
Still, this matchup will boil down to the performance of those stars, and I've grown to trusting Ronaldo in these kinds of high-profile situations. Portugal will advance.
Greece vs. Romania
Our next two matchups will not be as high-profile as the first two, but they will be fun all the same.
Greece enters this one boasting of an impressive defense that posted five straight shutouts to close group play. However, this is also the result of a tentative and unproductive attack. Greece mustered just six goals in that stretch.
Greece will face a Romania side that also enters on an impressive streak. Romania won each of its last four qualifiers and did so by a combined score of 11-0.
While goals will be tough to come by in this matchup, the more potent attack of Romania will carry this team to Brazil.
Iceland vs. Croatia
While this is the overlooked matchup of the four, it worked out well from a competitive point of view. Both sides had to be happy with the draw.
Croatia couldn't have got a more lightly regarded opponent out of this draw, and as far as the seeded teams, Iceland drew the most vulnerable.
Croatia limps into this playoff having just one draw and three losses in its last four qualifying matches. It was outscored 6-2 in that span.
That stretch resulted in coach Igor Stimac recently resigning from his post.
While I would love to see Iceland give us a nice Cinderella story for the World Cup—it would be the smallest nation by population ever to compete in the World Cup—I expect a rejuvenated Croatia side under new coach Niko Kovac. This will be enough to help it advance to Brazil.
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