Zlatan-Cristiano, Croatia's risk and more international storylines
Friday's European World Cup qualifying playoffs promise to be closer affairs than Uruguay's 5-0 first-leg drubbing of Jordan and Mexico's 5-1 rout of New Zealand, and the added possibilities in the accompanying international friendlies have made for some intriguing matchups and storylines. This is what we will be keeping our eyes on over the next couple of days:
Zlatan or Cristiano - someone has to miss out
They are two of the best players in the world, both almost certain to make the new five-man short-list in the FIFA Ballon D'Or awards announced next month (don't get me started on that) but one of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss out on the World Cup next summer.
In their last seven games, the pair has scored a combined 25 goals -- Ibra has 13, Ronaldo 12 -- and unsurprisingly, both their teams are hugely reliant on their main talents. The difference is that, while Ronaldo has come closer to achieving success with Portugal reaching the final of Euro 2004 and the Euro 2012 semifinal, Sweden coach Erik Hamren is getting the best out of Ibrahimovic, playing him as the No. 10 in a 4-4-1-1 system (though he also sometimes takes over as the number nine as well).
Ronaldo has one advantage, though: his age. He is 28 and knows that he can play in the 2018 World Cup, if Portugal qualifies. Ibra is four years older, 32, and he will be 33 when the World Cup kicks off. In 2018, it's debatable whether he will have a shot at playing in Russia (although a 37-year-old Ibra at walking pace may still be better than his teammates).
This is his last chance, but this is Ibra's season: he is playing the best football of his life and enjoying his time in Paris. This season alone he's had a burger and a word, to 'Zlatan', named after him, a puppet cast in his likeness on French satirical show Les Guignols, and a stamp to be released in his honor in Sweden. Oh, and an annual salary of 15 million euros.
Of the 23 players named in the long-list for the FIFA Ballon D'Or award, only Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale are certain to miss out on the World Cup. One of Ronaldo or Ibra will join them -- even if the competition deserves to see them both.
Croatia is a huge favorite, but will its risk pay off?
The pressure in a World Cup qualifying playoff is huge, bigger, according to former France defender William Gallas, than playing in a World Cup final (and he should know, he has played in both). That makes Croatia's decision to dispense with unpopular coach Igor Stimac before its playoff against Iceland even more risky: his replacement, former Under-21 coach Niko Kovac, captain of the team as recently as Euro 2008, will make his first appearance in the dugout as head coach of a senior team, and has two games to make an impression.
He won all five games as Under-21 coach and has already trumped Stimac in the man-management stakes: Stimac preferred to watch his foreign-based stars on TV but Kovac has traveled across Europe to meet the likes of Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic in person. Iceland may be the romantics' pick to win -- after all, it would be the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup -- but given its squad, Croatia would be the more competitive outfit in Brazil.
Which players will be able to book their tickets to Brazil next week?
Most national team coaches would know probably nine or 10 of the starting XIs they want to pick for the first game next summer already, fitness and form permitting. But there is always the opportunity for a player making a late run of form to force his way into the reckoning.
Call it the Andros Townsend effect: because of injuries to Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott, the young winger played for England in its final two qualifiers, was Man of the Match against Montenegro, and excellent against Poland. In 180 minutes, he has as good as forced his way into the squad. But who else could make a late impact across Europe with a couple of outstanding performances this week?
Will it be Adam Lallana (England), Fernando Llorente (Spain, who has edged ahead of Fernando Torres and Roberto Soldado and been called up after Diego Costa's injury), or New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi, deservedly back in Italy contention after his injury nightmare?
What about Roman Weidenfeller, the Dortmund goalkeeper who received his first call-up aged 33 this week, or the latest young stars in Holland, Davy Propper (22), Joel Veltman (21) and Memphis Depay (19)?
Battle of the dark horses
At what point does a team become so fancied that it is no longer an outside bet? Belgium and Colombia face each other on Thursday in a game that can no longer be billed as the Clash of the Outsiders: both teams are ranked in the top five in the world now. For years, this generation of Belgian players has been threatening to live up to the hype and now under coach Marc Wilmots, look capable of doing just that.
Colombia, meanwhile, has more than just Radamel Falcao at its disposal, and the young talent in its squad -- Luis Muriel and James Rodriguez are only 22, and Juan Cuadrado 25 -- suggests its emergence might not be fleeting. Will they cancel each other out in Brussels? And will either of them make it to the semifinals next summer, as their FIFA rankings suggest? It would be great to see a new name in the final shake-up, but these two can no longer be considered outsiders now.
Can Argentina cope without Messi?
The moment that Barcelona has been dreading -- Lionel Messi suffering an injury and ruled out for 6 to 8 weeks -- has finally happened and the news has not gone down well in Argentina too. 'National Risk' ran newspaper Ole's headline while Clarin went for: 'Messi Alarm.'
Like the Spanish press, La Nacion blamed Messi's injuries on a punishing travel schedule, an extra 60,000 kilometers on trips for promotional events beyond the demands from his club.
"Of course I'm worried about him," said coach Alejandro Sabella, who has brought out the best of Messi for Argentina since appointing him captain.
Sabella is set to partner the in-form Sergio Aguero with Gonzalo Higuain in a 4-4-2 system against Ecuador on Saturday; one thing is sure, there is still no place for Carlos Tevez in this squad. He has yet to receive a call-up from Sabella, and Brazil 2014 looks impossible for him.