It is hard to believe, but after more than two years of games from around the world, qualification for the 2014 World Cup is nearly finished.
Europe's final four places were filled on Tuesday, as Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to a win against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sweden, France overcame a big first-leg deficit to qualify over Ukraine, Greece relied on its ever-reliable defense to win its playoff series against Romania, and Croatia ended Iceland's improbable World Cup dream.
Here are some quick thoughts on the World Cup's newest participants:
Ronaldo won the duel, with help -- The lead-in to Portugal vs. Sweden predictably focused on the two star players on either side. For Sweden, there was the burly striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose beguiling combination of acrobatics, power, and confidence make him among the most exciting players to watch in the world. For Portugal, it was Cristiano Ronaldo, a constant in the argument over who the best player in the world is, a complete player capable of being the best in the business at any forward-thinking position. Only one could make it to the World Cup. It was the stuff of soccer fans' dreams (unless that particular fan really wanted to see both in Brazil).
The first leg, hyped to the gills in anticipation of this matchup, was largely a disappointment. Neither Ronaldo nor Ibrahimovic showing much of anything for the vast majority of the match, despite Ronaldo scoring the lone goal. The second leg had no such problems -- Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic combined to score all five goals in the match after halftime, with Ronaldo's hat trick giving Portugal a 3-2 victory and its fourth consecutive World Cup berth.
Part of what Sweden did well in the matchup's first leg was keep Ronaldo from getting into his most dangerous positions -- receiving the ball in space, where he can run at defenders, finishing swiftly on the counterattack. But in the second half, that's pretty much all Ronaldo did. The Portuguese star scored the first goal of the match on a swift counter after getting inside of the Swedish fullback following a wondrous through ball from Joao Moutinho and finishing past Sweden goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson.
Then it was Ibra's turn. The Paris St. Germain striker gave the Swedish fans a glimmer of hope with a headed goal off a corner in the 68th minute, then sent them into hysterics with a low strike off a free kick just four minutes later. All of a sudden, Sweden needed just one more goal to book its ticket to Brazil. What's more, Ronaldo looked weakened - the Real Madrid man went down under minimal contact on a run toward goal, was slow to get up, and played with a limp for a couple minutes afterward.
Whatever happened to Ronaldo there (even if it was nothing), it jolted him into another gear. He scored the game's equalizer after breaking free on the left wing and being fed nicely with a lofted ball from Hugo Almeida, and put things beyond Sweden's reach with a third goal that saw him knife behind the Swedish defense and finish powerfully to secure a trip to Brazil for Portugal.
Though Ronaldo will rightfully get most of the headlines off of this game, it's important to note the superb service he got from the Portuguese midfield throughout the game. Passes from players like Miguel Veloso, Moutinho, and Nani consistently put Ronaldo in positions to do damage, and this time Ronaldo delivered with a sensational performance on the end of those passes. If Portugal can coax similarly strong performances throughout their team in Brazil, they could easily be a threat in the knockout round.
France's unlikely hero -- When France lost 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev, the focus quickly turned to the immense loss of attacking talent that would occur without France in next year's tournament. In Franck Ribéry, the World Coup would potentially be missing one of the world's best all-around players, in addition to the unpredictable Samir Nasri, striker Karim Benzema, and up-and-coming midfield power Paul Pogba.
So, of course, it was a defender that had yet to score an international goal and didn't even play in Kiev that made all the difference in France's miracle comeback. Ain't soccer grand?
Liverpool's Mamdou Sakho didn't just score the opening goal that sent them on their way to a dominant 3-0 win over Ukraine, he also did the heavy lifting on the own goal that won the series on aggregate and sent Les Bleus to their fifth consecutive World Cup. As if that wasn't enough, he also prevented Ukraine from scoring a potentially disastrous goal of its own when he stretched to block a Roman Zozulya shot off a corner on the stroke of halftime.
Not a bad performance, considering that the only reason Sakho even found himself in the starting lineup was because of Laurent Koscienly's foolish sending off in the first leg. It didn't take long for him to make an impact, as he pounced on the rebound after Ukrainian goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov deflected a long-range shot into his path.
From there, France put Ukraine under tremendous pressure for the reaminder of the game, generating 24 shots, nine of which were on target. The second goal came from another player that started on the bench in Kiev: Benzema. The Real Madrid man found himself back in the first team at home, and he responded with France's second goal, burying a shot form the center of the box to tie the game and pump the volume at the Stade de France up a few notches.
As bad as the loss in Kiev might have been for France, this result bodes particularly well for a side that has crumbled in high-pressure situations in recent years. Aside from the goals, France also displayed excellent team spirit throughout that match -- encouraging and standing up for their teammates and never appearing to give less than full effort. That's an attitude that will serve them well in Brazil if they can tap into it again.
Greece relies on defense. Again. -- The Greeks dominated Romania with an unexpected offensive flurry in their home leg on Friday, but they needed no such fireworks to get the job done in Romania on Tuesday. Even as Romania kept possession of the ball for nearly 70 percent of the teams' second-leg match in Bucharest, the Greek defense held strong, and secured the country's passage to the 2014 World Cup with a 1-1 draw and 4-2 win on aggregate.
Greece could thank an incisive attack for their 3-1 first-leg win, and that might have been a little surprising to some. Greece has built its recent international reputation on a stout defense that is tough to beat, not scoring bags of goals. Until its first-leg victory in Athens, Greece scored more than one goal just four times in qualifying (against either Lithuania, Latvia, or Lichtenstein).
However, you could say that the second leg against Romania was the fourth of such instances -- Romania's only goal at home came courtesy of a bizarre outside-of-the-box strike into his own net by Vasilis Torosidis. For its part, Romania did manage to muster 11 shots for all their possession, but only three hit the target. Greece found the frame the same number of times, but on just four shots. One of those was its goal, scored by Kostas Mitroglou, who also scored two of Greece's goals in the first leg.
The World Cup appearance will be Greece's third overall and second in a row. The nation was eliminated in the group stage of both the 2010 and 1994 events.
Iceland's defense melted away -- Iceland has been the surprise package of 2014 World Cup qualification, but their miraculous run came to a screeching halt in Zagreb on Tuesday as Croatia won 2-0.
Iceland put together a staunch defensive performance in their home leg on Friday, but that same defense was missing in action on Tuesday. Croatia's first goal came courtesy of Mario Mandžukić, the Bayern Munich striker who was somehow left wide open at the far post to tap in a deflected cross.
Unfortunately, he followed that up with a reckless attempt to control the ball that ended with his studs planted firmly in Icleland's Johann Berg Gudmundsson's knee. The striker was promptly sent off for the challenge, which should have given the Icelandic defense a boost. It didn't. Darijo Srna doubled Croatia's advantage just after halftime with a strike from an acute angle outside the penalty box - a shot that really had no business getting by any of the three Icelandic defenders in its way, and certainly not past the goalkeeper.
At that point, with an away-goal tie out of the question, all Croatia had to do was sit back. There's no questioning that an Icelandic appearance in sunny Brazil next summer would have been one heck of a story. But with Croatia's advancement, and the nearly-assured qualifications of Uruguay and Mexico, this figures to be the strongest World Cup field in some time.