5 Things We Learned from World Cup Playoff Matches
The shape of the 2014 World Cup took one step closer with the playoffs this weekend.
Some sides did their hopes of a place in Brazil next summer a world of good, while others have left themselves with an almighty struggle (looking at you, France).
Here's a look at five things we learned from the first legs of the playoffs in Europe and also from the first three second legs in Africa, where three sides booked their places in next month's finals draw.
Flimsy France in Big Trouble
L'Equipe were pulling no punches with their ratings for the French side on Saturday—defensive partnership (well, what should have been) Eric Abidal and Laurent Koscielny coming in for particular attention—and nor should they have been after a lamentable showing left Les Bleus on the verge of finding alternative plans next summer.
France L'Equipe ratings: Lloris 5; Debuchy 4, Koscielny 3, Abidal 3, Evra 4; Pogba 5, Matuidi 5; Remy 4, Nasri 3, Ribery 4; Giroud 5— Matt Spiro (@mattspiro) November 16, 2013
Ukraine, workmanlike on the whole but all- too often uninspiring when they meet Europe's so-called big boys, helped themselves to a 2-0 win, and in truth they didn't have to do too much to find themselves with such a scoreline heading into the second leg.
Roman Zozulya was too strong for a ridiculously weak challenge from Mathieu Debuchy to hand the home side a 1-0 lead on the hour mark, and when he muscled Laurent Koscielny outside the box in the 82nd minute and closed into the penalty area, you could see the stupidity cogs working overtime in the Arsenal defender's head as he lunged into a ridiculously naive and utterly terrible challenge; Andriy Yarmolenko made no mistake from the spot.
This was a France side supposedly designed to control a game and to utilise their wing threat with the pace of Loic Remy and the excellent Franck Ribery.
However, as Ribery toiled against up to three markers and Samir Nasri failed to deliver in a No. 10 position, the reasoning for leaving out Mathieu Valbuena seemed only more ridiculous. Lacking any kind of intelligent attacking play, it seemed if Ribery wasn't going to be able to make something happen, no one else was even going attempt to give it a shot.
Now Didier Deschamps says his side must "keep faith." They'll need far more than that in the Stade de France on Tuesday.
Iceland Retain Slim Chance Against Re-Organised Croatia
A 0-0 draw at home means that minnows Iceland head to the Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb with their hopes of a place at next summer's finals retained.
Certainly, Friday night's first leg against a Croatia side now under the stewardship of former captain Niko Kovac was every bit as difficult as it had promised, especially once Olafur Skulason had been sent off for tugging back Ivan Perisic and denying a goalscoring opportunity.
But despite that and the injury to Ajax No. 9 Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Lars Lagerback's side will head to Croatia with confidence that they can trouble their hosts. The intelligence of Eidur Gudjohnsen was always likely to be used from the start in the second leg as the Icelanders change closer to a 4-5-1 formation, and they'll take hope from their 4-4 draw with group winners Switzerland in Bern that they have goals in their locker.
However, Kovac's side appeared to have a renewed sense of purpose in its post-Stimac state, with key players seemingly happy to take greater responsibility and a defensive line looking far more compact than at any time in the past six months.
Iceland have a chance. But it's going to take something very special.
Portugal Dominant but Only Claim a 1-0 Win
Billed as the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it was the Real Madrid man who left Lisbon the happier of the two after his side had claimed a 1-0 win thanks to his 82nd minute header.
However, having enjoyed such an excellent territorial advantage during the second half and after forcing the matches outstanding chances from open play, how much will Paulo Bento's side rue not finding a second goal?
Certainly, on paper, 1-0 win is better than a 2-1 scoreline with the second leg to come.
But on a night where they marshaled Ibrahimovic so well and stifled the Swedes in an attacking sense and where they created chances with rather surprising regularity—Sweden right-back Mikael Lustig particularly struggled with regularly being exposed as Portugal exploited their left—should they not have perhaps been taking a greater lead to Solna's Friends Arena on Tuesday evening.
Greece Have a Goalscorer in Kostas Mitroglou
As has been the case since their Euro 2004 win, Greece have stifled their way to the precipice of another major tournament and had it not been for a smart Bosnia side, they'd already have their place in next summer's finals.
But what Fernando Santos' side do now have in the shape of Olympiacos striker Kostas Mitroglou is a tremendous centre-forward, whom they can work around and whose movement and ability means that they'll always stand a chance of winning games that they remain in.
Friday night's 3-1 win over Romania wasn't such a match, after all. A roller-coaster start meant it was 2-1 before even a quarter of the game had gone. His first goal was magnificent, showing a man fully confident and at the top of his game, as he watched a hopeful clipped ball over his shoulder before coolly volleying home. Minutes later, he was in for a tap-in, had a cutback been forthcoming from a clever free-kick.
Anywhere in and around the box, Mitroglou was always alive, and his second goal came from being the quickest to react.
The Greek striking sensation, whose club form has been magnificent, should have left no one in any doubt that if they do settle qualification, he'll likely have a big say in Brazil.
Traditional African Powers Still in Tact
Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon all made it a case of job done for the traditional African powers, as they navigated their second legs—Volker Finke's Cameroon extremely impressive with a 4-1 hammering of Tunisia—to ensure their spots at next summer's tournament.
With Ghana already 6-1 up from their first leg against Egypt, that's four of the African big boys already with their tickets to Brazil, where they'll be joined either by Algeria—qualifiers in 2010 also—or the talented upstarts of Burkina Faso.
Either way, talk of the leveling of the playing field among the African nations may have been somewhat premature after Zambia's 2012 Cup of Nations success.
For all their faults in between times, when the moment counts, it is still the powers of African football who take their place at the big dance.