After fourteen months the World Cup qualification process is about to come to an end in Europe as four more teams will join the nine European teams that have already qualified for the World Cup next summer. It is here I shall preview the remaining four two-legged fixtures.
PORTUGAL vs SWEDEN
Ronaldo vs Ibrahimovic. Need I say more? Indeed this is the main event of the four play-off fixtures where two of the brightest stars in world football shall collide. And indeed people have their preferences with which superstar they want to see in next year’s World Cup. Ronaldo has scored 28 goals from 20 games for club and country this season whilst Ibrahmiovic has scored only a measly (lame attempt at sarcasm) 21 goals in the same amount of games.
However, if the situation of where both Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic were removed from their respective international squads, then one could say that there is nothing much to get excited about. At least Sweden could be excused for only making the play-offs with World Cup favourites Germany topping Group C. Portugal, on the other hand, missed out on automatic qualification to Russia.
Portugal has definitely been uninspiring in this qualifying campaign which is surprising considering the amount of talent that they have available. A brutal example of how underwhelming they have been and how much they have over-relied on Ronaldo is their 4-2 away victory over a nine-man Northern Ireland.
Sweden are pretty much in a similar position as Portugal except they don’t have the same depth of talent. Moreover, the Swedes seem defensively weaker than their opposition, as they have shipped fourteen goals in this qualifying campaign so far.
WHO WINS? PORTUGAL should just get the better of Sweden. I would not expect many goals from Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic. It is interesting to note that the last two occasions these sides met ended up being goalless. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
UKRAINE vs FRANCE
Both teams were edged out of their respective qualification groups. Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine just missed out to an uninspiring England squad whilst France had fallen to World and European Champions Spain.
Ukraine can boast an impressive defensive record as they have only conceded four goals in the group stage (although they did have San Marino in their group). However Ukraine lack that killer instinct that is necessary to overcome this French side as only 11 of the 28 goals they scored during their campaign came from games that were not against San Marino. It’s time for the likes of Yarmolenko, Devic and co to step up to the plate.
France has an impressive array of attacking talent at their disposal with the likes of Franck Ribery, Olivier Giroud and Samir Nasri providing a huge threat to a tough Ukranian defence. France also have a decent defence too as they have only conceded six goals in this qualifying campaign.
On the flip side they are prone to some poor performances especially if they are away from home; a goalless draw against Georgia illustrates their inconsistency. Moreover, their ability to score tends to over-rely on Ribery too much and goals need to come from elsewhere not just in these play-offs but for future campaigns too.
WHO WINS? FRANCE has the depth of talent available to overcome the Ukrainians. With that being said, Ukraine’s tough defence as well as the ability to performance at home means that these two games will be very tight. Don’t expect many goals.
GREECE vs ROMANIA
Greece does not concede goals. Okay, that’s a bit of a lie; however they have only conceded four goals in qualifying and have maintained eight clean sheets. They just missed out on goal difference to the surprise package of the campaign Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite amassing an impressive 25 points, the Greeks have only scored twelve goals in the campaign. This experienced squad will need to rely on a defence without Schalke centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
Romania finished nine points behind the Netherlands in their group amassing three losses in total and conceding three times as many goals as Greece. They will be without their captain, Tottenham centre-back Vlad Chiriches and first choice goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu (Stauea Bucharest). Head Coach, Victor Piturca, has also omitted their joint record-goalscorer Adrian Mutu from the squad too. Things don’t look good for the Romanians.
WHO WINS? GREECE should win this fixture easily in my opinion as they have an experienced squad with a resilient defence. Romania could be on the plane to Brazil if they pick up a decent victory at home. I also expect Greece to win their home fixture as they have won their last six at home without conceding a single goal.
ICELAND vs CROATIA
Both teams have scraped through to make this stage. Iceland was the second best team of a bad bunch in a group which saw Switzerland qualify automatically. They do have some decent attacking talent in Tottenham’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ajax’s Kolbeinn Sigporsson but that’s really about it. They conceded fifteen goals in this campaign and I genuinely don’t seem them qualifying past this stage.
Croatia, have always had some impressive attacking talents at their disposal, and this time it’s no different. The attack is headed up by Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandzukic and Shakthar Donetsk’s Ivica Olic and has impressive midfield talent too in Real Madrid’s Luka Modric as well as the likes of Rakitic, Kranjcar and Perisic. Therefore it is quite confusing to see them score a pathetic twelve goals in qualifying and somehow manage to lose three of their last four competitive fixtures, including losing to Scotland twice.
WHO WINS? CROATIA will win. They have got a lucky draw here, because if they drew France, Sweden or Romania, they might as well have started to plan their summer holiday’s elsewhere. It’s almost tragic that one of these cannon fodder sides will be going through instead of either Portugal or Sweden… but hey who wants to see Ibrahimovic when you can see Sigurdsson…
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