Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović will command the spotlight they crave in next month’s European World Cup qualifying playoffs as Portugal and Sweden face off in the most intriguing of the four two-leg matchups.
UEFA conducted the draw for the final phase of qualifying early Monday in Zurich. The big winner was Croatia, which will be heavily favored to defeat surprising Iceland.
Portugal, the highest-ranked (14th) of the eight participating teams (all runners-up from the group phase), can breathe a sigh of relief that it avoided France. But Sweden is no slouch and gave powerhouse Germany all it could handle during group play. Monday’s draw ensures that at least one quality team, and one big-name player, will miss out on Brazil.
The four nations placing highest in the October FIFA ranking were kept apart. Here’s a look at the four match-ups. The winners will join European qualifiers Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Spain and Switzerland in Brazil next summer.
Sweden vs. Portugal -- Nov. 15 at Portugal, Nov. 19 at Sweden
Sweden had qualified for five straight major tournaments (World Cup and European Championship) before missing out on the 2010 World Cup when it finished behind Portugal by a single point four years ago. Both matches between the teams during the run-up to South Africa ended in scoreless draws.
Sweden had the misfortune of being drawn with Germany in 2014 qualification and finished second in Group C at 6-2-2. Its two epic showdowns with the Germans produced 16 goals and Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain) was tied for second on the group’s golden boot chart with six. Norwich City forward Johan Elmander pitched in with three goals.
Portugal needed a playoff to advance to both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 and it should have been able to avoid a third straight appearance. However, a stunning 85th-minute goal by Israel’s Eden Ben Basat forged a 1-1 tie in Lisbon on Oct. 11 that left the Portuguese (6-1-3) one point behind Russia when Group F concluded.
Hélder Postiga (Valencia) led Portugal with five qualifying goals. Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and central defender Bruno Alves (Fenerbahçe) each had four.
France vs. Ukraine -- Nov. 15 at Ukraine, Nov. 19 at France
France was unlucky to be paired with Spain in the group stage, and now Ukraine must confront a Les Bleus side that’s ranked a deceptive 21st in the world.
France opened 2013 with four defeats in five games, losing a qualifier to Spain and friendlies to Germany, Uruguay (in Montevideo) and Brazil (in Porto Alegre). Since then, coach Didier Deschamps’ squad is unbeaten in five and has scored 13 goals over a three-game win streak. Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich) led all players in Group I play with five goals.
France hasn’t missed a World Cup or Euro since 1994.
Ukraine, ranked 20th, lost out on a spot in the 2010 World Cup in a playoff against Greece, and they’re back in the playoffs after finishing 6-1-3 in Group H, one point behind England. Ukraine, which yielded only four goals combined in 10 qualifiers, is comprised almost entirely of players from clubs in the Ukrainian Premier League. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (Zenit St. Petersburg) was the only foreign-based member of the squad that contested the final two group-stage qualifiers this month.
With Andriy Shevchenko retired, the man to watch is 23-year-old midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kyiv), who scored four goals in qualifying and reportedly has attracted the interest of clubs like AC Milan, Chelsea and Liverpool.
Romania vs. Greece -- Nov. 15 at Greece, Nov. 19 at Romania
Both teams will be happy with the draw. Fifteenth-ranked Greece was rated the best of the group-stage runners-up after UEFA expunged results against each sixth-place finisher. The 2004 European champions finished 8-1-1 in Group G but lost out to Bosnia-Herzegovina on goal difference because they managed to score just 12 times in 10 games. That record won’t intimidate No. 29 Romania, which finished behind the Netherlands (at 6-3-1) in a much more difficult Group D.
Romania, which hasn't been to a World Cup since 1998, was paced in qualifying by Getafe forward Ciprian Marica and his five goals.
Greece, a quarterfinalist at Euro 2012, will be pleased to avoid Sweden and France. The Greeks will be anchored by a defense that features AS Roma’s Vasilis Torosidis and Borussia Dortmund center back Sokratis Papastathopoulos.
Croatia vs. Iceland -- Nov. 15 at Iceland, Nov. 19 at Croatia
Just about everyone outside Croatia will be cheering for Iceland, which has never qualified for a major tournament and could become the least populous nation to advance to a World Cup if it wins next month.
At 5-3-2, it finished second in Group E behind Switzerland, beating out Slovenia and Norway. Iceland features some recognizable names, starting with veteran forward Eidur Gudjohnsen, who’s now at Club Brugge. Tottenham Hotspur’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is a threat in midfield -- he scored four goals in qualifying -- and 23-year-old Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthórsson appears to be Gudjohnsen’s heir up front. He has seven goals already for the Amsterdam club this season.
Croatia missed the World Cup for the first time as an independent nation in 2010 and came close to elimination again after finishing 5-3-2 in Group A, a distant 10 points behind Belgium. The Croats nearly were the unlucky ninth group runner-up (which does not advance to the playoffs); they beat out Denmark by a single point to book a berth.
Goals were hard to come by in the group stage for Croatia, and the Vatreni will look to Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandžukić, who led the way with three qualifying goals, to get them going against Iceland.WILSON: England shake ghosts of 1973, beats Poland to earn World Cup berth