Following the final round of World Cup 2014 qualifiers in the European section this week, supporters of the international game can now look forward to the drama of the two-legged playoffs to determine the final few places in Brazil.
In this campaign, the quality of the teams forced into the playoffs has been unprecedented, with some of Europe’s greatest talents at risk of missing out.
In pot one of the draw, Portugal, Croatia, Greece and Sweden await their fate anxiously, whilst their potential opponents include Ukraine, France, Romania and Iceland, all of whom make up pot two.
With such historic footballing nations involved in the last chance battle, we take a look at the sides involved to create a theoretical team that could be experiencing the carnival atmosphere of next year’s competition from the sofa, rather than the touchline.
Of all the options to select in goal for this team, Tottenham and France international Hugo Lloris was by far the outstanding candidate. A leader on the pitch, Lloris is the current French captain and his ability to command the defence has made him a fixture for both club and country; any man that makes himself favourite in one-on-one encounters with oncoming forwards has to make this side.
Implemented here at left-back, the Real Madrid and Portuguese international is a player with genuine pedigree at major championships. Portugal’s route to the semi-finals at Euro 2012 were aided by a string of impressive performances from Coentrão.
With pace, lethal crossing ability and constant speculated interest from Europe’s elite clubs, the man from the Bernabéu keeps out some great players here to earn his inclusion.
Perhaps somewhat of a surprise choice within this team, Croatian centre-half Dejan Lovren is a player who’s stock is most certainly on the rise. After an impressive spell at French side Lyon, a move in the summer to Southampton has seen him go from strength to strength.
Although early days in the season, Mauricio Pochettino’s men lie 4th in the Premier League, with Lovren making a real impression; his maiden Saints goal in a 0-1 away win at Anfield has been the notable highlight so far.
The sole Greek player to make the cut for this final XI, Sokratis is a player with considerable experience of playing in the UEFA Champions League and also featured in the 2010 World Cup. After beginning his career at AEK Athens, the centre-half spent time at some of big European clubs, such as Werder Bremen and Italian giants A.C. Milan, before a summer move to last season’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund.
The no nonsense style and versatility to cover at right-back give great balance to the side and make Papastathopoulos a worthy addition.
The first of two Croatian’s to make this side, Darijo Srna enjoys god-like status for his club side Shakhtar Donetsk, where he has made 250 appearances. Usually employed as a right-back, Srna is a player that loves to get forward and supplement the more attacking players for both club and country.
Also, the 107 international caps racked up for Croatia mean that the experienced player almost picks himself here; the recent Champions League exploits of Shakhtar Donetsk only further enhance Srna’s credibility.
Moving swiftly onto the second Croatian within this side, it is certainly no surprise to see Real Madrid ace Luka Modrić selected in the midfield. A player that has formerly graced the Premier league with Spurs, Modrić is a forward thinking, dynamic player with an eye for a pass and a reputation for netting spectacular goals; his versatility to also influence the play in a deeper role when required makes his case for inclusion even stronger.
Blessed with an incredible range of passing, Portuguese playmaker João Moutinho is another player that would prove a notable absentee from the World Cup, should his national side fail to qualify through the play-offs. As part of a mouth-watering AS Monaco side that seem to be steam-rolling their way to the Ligue 1 title in France, Moutinho has lived up to his reputation garnered at FC Porto that earned his summer move; his relationship on the pitch with the likes of Columbian goal machine Radamel Falcao has been a major thorn in the side of their opposition
To complete a three-man midfield, the talented French international Samir Nasri is a player that divides opinion with his somewhat inconsistent form. However, when confidence is high and the Frenchman is operating in full flow, he has proved to be a fantastic asset to both Arsenal and more recently, Manchester City in the Premier League.
For his international side, recent years have usually seen him selected as part of a French squad that has had its fair share of controversy, despite the unquestionable talent within it. As a true confidence player, Nasri has the potential to change games and could make a genuine impact at the World Cup next summer, should France qualify.
The first of a three-man forward line, the enigmatic Franck Ribéry is truly a world class talent and would be sorely missed should France fail to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. An attacking winger with an abundance of pace, technical ability and a great scoring record, Ribéry has been recognised as the ‘best player in Europe’, a fact that means the Bayern player simply had to be part of this team.
If Franck Ribéry can be described as ‘enigmatic’, an assessment I believe to be fair, then unfortunately there are few words left that quite describe the Swedish sensation that is Zlatan Ibrahimović. A true character of the game, the Paris Saint Germain forward is undoubtedly an incredible talent, with his impressive CV making that quite clear; Ajax, Inter, AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus and PSG have all looked for Zlatan for goals at some stage.
Not a stranger to drama, it is obvious that the World Cup will be a poorer place next summer without this Swedish international.
Of course, this team could not be complete without the inclusion of the player argued by some to be the greatest of all time, Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Formerly the world’s most expensive player, the Portuguese captain is one of the finest athletes ever to kick a ball, possessing absolutely every attribute a player could desire.
After years of watching Ronaldo square up against Barcelona’s own candidate for best player of all time, Lionel Messi, in countless El Classico matches, the world is waiting for the two to come head-to-head in a high stakes international game, with the 2014 World Cup in Rio De Janeiro looking the dream backdrop, should Portugal qualify.
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