Ah, the smell of knockout football. After Monday’s playoff draw for World Cup-qualifying in UEFA, I just can’t sit still in anticipation of these games.
It’s kind of like March Madness in College Basketball in America—there are favourites for each match up, yet there’s no way anyone is counting out the underdogs. Let’s preview each matchup.
Why not start big with Portugal and Sweden? Almost everyone was hoping against a France and Portugal draw as it would see the guaranteed elimination of one of the two most talented teams in Europe, but a close second was seeing Sweden matched up with either of these European giants. It wouldn’t be a World Cup without the drama, flair, style and sheer star power of Cristiano Ronaldo, but it seems all of this could be said for his Swedish counterpart Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
In qualifying, Sweden were always going to finish second behind Germany, but who can forget the 8-goal thriller, in which Sweden came back from 4-nil, to tie the game in the third minute of added time. If nothing else is certain, it’s that Sweden will fight to the bitter end, which could see them through against a Portuguese side notorious for not closing out games.
Portugal slipped up a few times in qualifying, drawing UEFA minnows Israel twice, and drawing with Northern Ireland—thus disappointingly finishing second behind an average Russian side and in a mediocre group.
Cristiano will be looking to prove his worth like he always seems to do, but I’m taking Sweden to advance to Brazil.
The second match up pits the Ukraine against France. Although many questions have been asked of France since the World Cup in South Africa, I’m referring of course to the players’ giant temper tantrum, but it seems that France have settled and figured it all out just in time for this important home and away series.
Ukraine were unlucky not to go top of their table, finishing a mere point behind England, and their streak of bad luck continued as they drew France, the highest rated of the eight teams in the draw.
Ukraine have several very talented individuals like Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka, but I don’t see them having any success against this super French team composed of the likes of Ribery, Benzema, Giroud, Nasri, etc.
Perhaps not the most high profile match, but no less intriguing and tough to call is Greece and Romania. Historically, Greece has been known to fight their way into tournaments and grind out results, regardless of which team they are playing. Another team unlucky just to miss out on automatic qualification, losing out on goal difference to Bosnia in their qualifying group, is Greece.
It seems Greece will be ready to earn their spot into the World Cup again, but Romania has proven they can prevail in pressure situations. The final match day in Group D had three teams fighting for a single playoff spot. Not many would have picked Romania to finish second in a group with Turkey and Hungary but some great results, like a three-nil thrashing of Hungary, and a two-goal shut out in Turkey saw them earn their spot on the final day.
It seems to me, however, that Greece will find themselves in Brazil in a month’s time, simply on experience in these situations and lack of star power in the Romanian camp.
Finally, the match that has me tingling with a feeling of an upset—Iceland and Croatia. It’s easy to pick Croatia to stroll through this match up with the quality of Modric, Mandzukic, Eduardo, Krancjar, and Olic but there are still questions to be asked about their defence.
UEFA unknowns, Iceland, have seen a fantastic effort earn them an opportunity to qualify for their first-ever World Cup, on the back of the Premier League experience of Gylfi Siggurdson and the big game experience of ex-Barcelona striker Eidur Gudjohnsen.
Although a massive upset seems unlikely, I’ll be cheering on the Icelandic side from the warmth of my couch, hoping for a real Cinderella story.
Hey, you never know, it’s the World Cup, anything can happen…
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