France has the bleus, Cristiano steps up, more UEFA playoff thoughts
An exciting day of UEFA World Cup qualifiers provided its fair share of surprises, the biggest of which was France's meltdown in a 2-0 loss to Ukraine in Kiev.
Elsewhere, the much-anticipated Cristiano Ronaldo-Zlatan Ibrahimovic matchup was largely a disappointment, save for Ronaldo's winner; Iceland kept its unlikely World Cup story alive (barely), and Greece and Romania gave us more excitement than we bargained for.
Here are some quick thoughts on all four of the UEFA playoff first legs:
Les Bleus have the blues - Forget Ronaldo vs. Ibra for a second. What if all the talent available on the French national team missed out on the 2014 World Cup? That is looking like a distinct possibility now, after Les Bleus dropped the first leg of their playoff against Ukraine 2-0 in Kiev.
Though France had more than enough chances to get itself into the game (France had 14 shots, six of which were on target), it was still Ukraine that seemed to have the run of things in its home stadium. Time and time again, the unsung Ukrainians were able to snuff out the attacking threats of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Olivier Giroud with tough tackling and a commitment to breaking forward that kept the French defense on edge.
In a way, each half was exactly the same. France would start out controlling tempo and creating most of the chances, only for Ukraine to grab a foothold in the match as France got flustered. The difference was, in the first half Ukraine couldn't take advantage of its momentum. In the second half, the hosts had no such problems.
Roman Zozulya was the hero in the 60th minute, as the burly striker worked a nice one-two combination with Edmar at the top of the box, easily shoved off the attentions of Mathieu Debuchy, and placed his slow-rolling finish through a crowd of feet and over the line for the game's first goal.
France was under pressure, and it clearly got to the favored visitors. Nasri put his shot from the center of the box right into the hands of the Ukraine goalkeeper. Ribéry and Blaise Matuidi won free kicks, but they came to nothing. Then, the killer: A complete meltdown by defender Laurent Koscielny.
It was bad enough that the defender allowed Zozulya to get past him so easily in the penalty area in the 82nd minute. His follow-up challnege was even worse -- connecting with all of the Ukranian's knees and none of the ball, setting up a penalty kick that Andiy Yarmolenko powered past Hugo Lloris, despite the French goalkeeper making contact with his palm on the way through.
Amazingly enough it would get worse: Koscielny was shown a straight red card for picking a needless fight away from the ball - an ejection that will rule him out for the second leg and put France's already-thin backline to the ultimate test in Paris.
Ukraine will be down a defender as well. Veteran Aleksandr Kucher received a red of his own in the game's closing moments for a bad foul on Ribéry. But at least Ukraine will have a lead to defend, while France will need to go all-out in hopes of making up the two-goal advantage.
If there's a plus side for Les Bleus, it is their immense talent up front. In Nasri, Ribéry, and Loïc Remy, the French have capable midfielders who can break down a bunkered side, and strikers Giroud and Karim Benzema are more than capable of dealing with Ukraine's physicality and finishing off chances when they are on their game.
So, the French test will be mostly mental. Can Les Bleus, with all their recent history of internal squabbles and on-field meltdowns, avoid yet another international disappointment in the second leg? Or will the 2014 World Cup go on without not just one of the most talented individuals in the world in Ribery, but also one of the most talented teams?
Clutch Cristiano, Invisible Ibra -- In a Portugal-Sweden match that was hyped up as a clash between two of the most inventive attacking players in the game, the match itself seemed to revolve around everyone except those two players.
Until the last 10 minutes, that is.
After 80 minutes of back-and-forth soccer in which neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Zlatan Ibrahimovic could do much to lift his respective, otherwise mediocre side, it was Ronaldo that found an extra gear in Portugal's 1-0 victory over Sweden in Lisbon. The Real Madrid man was peripheral to almost every effective attack Portugal was able to mount, and as the second half drew to a close he looked clearly frustrated at his side's inability to break through.
Then, like many great players, he popped up when it mattered. Miguel Veloso's cross from the left seemed close enough to goal for Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson to come out and claim for himself, but instead he let it go and Ronaldo swooped low to head in the game's only goal in the 82nd minute.
It was far and away as involved as he had been in the whole game. In the preceeding 80 minutes, Ronaldo either occupied his standard wing forward role, where his passes were inaccurate or well-defended by the Swedish fullbacks. On occasion he would drift inside and act as a center forward, but there his teammates starved him of service, and one of the world's best players was reduced to a bystander.
Ibrahimovic had similar problems. The big Swede had little to no impact on the game, primarily due to a lack of service. Of Sweden's six total shots in the game, Ibrahimovic had just one of them, a 24th minute effort from distance that was easily saved by Portugal's Rui Patricio.
However, there is still plenty of reason for Sweden to be confident going into their home leg despite the loss. Ronaldo's goal and his header that hit the crossbar soon after, were perhaps the only clear-cut chances Portugal had all game. If the Swedes can defend similarly well in Stockholm and improve their service to Ibrahimovic even a little bit, they could easily grab an equalizing goal. After that, given the attacking players involved, anything can happen (and probably will).
Greece rides the wave - With all four games running simultaneously, international soccer fans were given a tough choice of which one to follow from 2:45-3:30 p.m. (Eastern time). It's unlikely most neutrals picked Greece-Romania, and it's too bad -- in terms of pure entertainment, the first stanza of that one was far beyond anything the others had to offer with a flurry of goals midway through.
Kostas Mitroglou got started on what would be a man-of-the-match performance for Greece, finishing a lovely goal on the full volley after a lofted ball over the Romanian defense by Dimitrios Salpingidis in the 14th minute. Bogdan Stancu responded for the Romanians, heading a freekick into the back of the net so close to the near post he was lucky he didn't bang his head against the woodwork in the process.
Romania had the away goal and a tie game at its feet, but the visitors' defense let them down just as momentum was starting to build in their favor. The Romanian back four allowed Vasilis Torosidis space on the wing, with his cross finding Salpingidis unmarked in the box. The finish was easy, and once again Greece was on top. After three goals in the space of seven minutes, this tie appeared to be on fire.
The fire died down, though, as both defenses toughened up and mired the match in midfield to close the first half. Greece continued to press for a third after the break, and got one after Mitroglou scored his second well-taken goal of the game. Check out the flicked header from Kostas Katsouranis.
Romania will need to get better offensively in the second leg in Bucharest if its is to maintain any hope of going through, as the side managed only one shot on goal all game.
Iceland is still alive, but missed an opportunity -- The day's first match kicked off at the home of the playoff round's most unlikely participants, as Iceland hosted Croatia at the 10,000 capacity Laugardalsvöllur arena in Reykjavík.
Those 10,000 sounded like easily twice that on the broadcast, though, as Iceland's faithful came out in force to see their team try to secure a World Cup berth for the first time in their history. And though they may not have been rewarded with a victory, there were plenty of positives to take into the second leg.
Perhaps the biggest mismatch on the field was between the Croatian attack, featuring master string-puller Luka Modric in midfield and deadly finisher Mario Mandzukic up top, and the Icelandic defense, a unit that contains nowhere near the same international pedigree.
The gulf in class didn't seem to matter on Thursday, just as it hadn't throughout the whole of World Cup qualifying for the Nordic side. Time and time again, Iceland's deep-lying, compact back four repelled Croatian attacks, while its potent attacking unit featuring Tottenham's Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorson tried to catch Croatia on the counter.
Those plans were dealt a blow just after halftime, when Olafor Skulason was given a straight red card in the 50th minute for a rough challenge on Ivan Perisic. From there, the Icelandic gameplan got even more defensive, with even Sigurdsson chipping in on multiple occasions to clear the lines. The Icelandic fans seemed overjoyed at the 0-0 result, but it's hard to avoid the thought that Iceland missed a big opportunity here. Croatia surely won't be as easy to repress at home, and Iceland will be missing one of its most experienced defenders thanks to the red card. Taking a few more risks and possibly getting a goal in Reykjavík might have solved that. Instead, Iceland will hope for a historic performance in Croatia to continue its fairytale story.