Key Battles and Storylines in Europe's Crunch World Cup Play-Off Games

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Key Battles and Storylines in Europe's Crunch World Cup Play-Off Games
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As Europe's World Cup Qualifying play-offs draw to a climax on Tuesday, B/R previews the key battles that will decide each and every tie.

Portugal hold a slender lead over Sweden, Greece are in command over Romania, Croatia and Iceland are deadlocked and France are in a bit of a hole against Ukraine.

What will factor into deciding the outcome of these two-legged ties?

 

France vs. Ukraine (0-2 aggregate)

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The hosts have no choice but to dial it up and hit this game head-on from the word go. They're 2-0 down after a disastrous night in Kiev and need to score at least two goals to progress to the World Cup.

Les Bleus breathed a sigh of relief when they missed Portugal in the play-off draw, but Ukraine have looked like one of the stronger sides throughout the qualifying stages and have served up a hellish reminder of their potency thus far.

B/R's Jonathan Johnson has France lining up in a 4-3-3 formation for the home leg—straying from the 4-2-3-1 they utilised in Eastern Europe—with Yohan Cabaye and Mathieu Valbuena restored to the starting XI.

That Ukraine will come under pressure in Paris is obvious, but it's how France handle themselves in defending counterattacks that will decide this game.

Eugene Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko destroyed Dider Deschamps' men in Kiev, with Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra looking like lost souls at full-back.

Ukraine always utilise their wing stars and will look to do so again in the second leg to deadly effect. France must retain a defensive strategy to deal with Mykhaylo Fomenko's speedy outlets while posing a consistent threat themselves.

 

Croatia vs. Iceland (0-0)

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Iceland scored as many goals as Switzerland in Qualifying Group E, with Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Gylfi Sigurdsson chipping in with four strikes apiece.

It makes calls that the Strakarnir okkar are goal-shy, following their 0-0 home draw with Croatia in the first leg, a little redundant. Their 4-4 draw with the Swiss during qualifying certainly debunks that theory.

Croatia are the hot favourites to progress given their away clean sheet, home leg to come and clear superior quality man-for-man. This Iceland side, though, are spoken of as a "golden generation," and the camaraderie within the group will make for an extremely stubborn, tough nut to crack.

This is a battle between two extremely different sides under two extremely different weights of expectation; on one side you have a Champions League-winning striker in Mario Mandzukic; on the other, you have Heerenveen's top scorer in Alfred Finbogasson.

If the Vatreni are to qualify for Brazil next summer, they must overcome immense team spirit, dedication and belief—a dangerous trio that make for the most obvious banana skin in all of the play-offs.

 

Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Cristiano Ronaldo Sweden vs. Portugal  (0-1)

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The key battle here is obvious, and where Ronaldo managed to come out on top in Round 1, Ibrahimovic will likely have plenty to say in Round 2.

Portugal didn't score the goals expected, given the standards set, and Ronaldo disappointed. His goal was his saving grace on a night he truly underwhelmed, but how much of that was down to a nagging injury we can't be sure.

As B/R's Andy Brassell points out, Zlatan has changed since arriving at Paris Saint-Germain and now looks a leader primed to take his country to a play-off victory. This match will be billed as a clash between two egotistical superstars, but expect Sweden's biggest star to put the occasion aside and play the game as we know he can.

With Paulo Bento's side struggling to find form, it's not just Scandinavia that expects a win: it's much of the world, too.

 

Romania vs. Greece (1-3)

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Greece broke a serious trend in scoring three goals against Romania in Athens last week.

Throughout qualification, they secured 1-0 win after 1-0 win, and in the end got stung by free-scoring Bosnia and Herzegovina, settling for second place on goal difference despite accruing 25 points.

Konstantinos Mitroglou is developing into quite the all-round goal machine, and in him the Greeks have hope of riding out the second leg in Bucharest and upsetting the apple cart in Brazil.

Victor Piturca's men, however, still have 90 minutes to spoil the party, and you can fully expect to see the Greeks revert back to their wholly defensive outlook in preparation for this time.

A clean sheet and Fernando Santos' men are through to the World Cup, and much like the France-Ukraine fixture, the onus falls on the home side to come out and attack.

Can Ciprian Marica, Gabriel Torje and Co. do the unthinkable and put more than one goal past this stingy defensive line?

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