After two one-sided matches to open the playoff week that fills up the final berths heading into the World Cup, the UEFA zone encounters should provide a bit more parity, as Iceland take on Croatia, Greece host Romania, Portugal play Sweden and the Ukraine encounter France, while most of the attention goes to the duel between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Favorites? Croatia are huge favorites against Iceland, France quite big favorites against the Ukraine, despite the trickiness of the encounter. Portugal are probably a more talented side than Sweden, giving them a slight edge, and Greece, based on their big-occasion repertoire, seem slightly stronger than Romania heading into the two legs.
Iceland vs Croatia
Iceland might be on the verge of becoming the smallest nation to ever make the world cup, but it’s going to take quite a bit of work against a heavily favored Croatia side that has changed the man at the coaching position, hoping that former international Niko Kovac will do what Igor Stimac struggled to with a talented bunch during the qualifiers. There’s no surprise about how Iceland are going to play – tight, aggressive and wait for counter attack opportunities, or set pieces. They’re attack is based on the abilities of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson , who combined to score 8 goals in the qualifying group.
Croatia were plagued with some terrible decision making from their former coach, preferring players from Dinamo Zagreb, who only send one Josep Simunic to these two legs. The talent Croatia have in the midfield with players like Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic should be enough in both legs combined, but there’s a good chance we’ll see them playing very cautiously on their away match, and come up with a draw.
Greece vs Romania
Nothing new under the sun – Greece play ugly football and still make the big tournaments, relying on fantastic defending and an even better rate of making the most of the few opportunities they manage to create, usually waiting for Dimitris Salpingidis to go unnoticed after Giorgos Samaras and Sotiris Ninis lay down the groundwork. Romania are heading into the match missing some key players like Vlad Chiriches and Mihai Pintilii, and might even need new Manchester City starter Costel Pantilimon to start instead of Ciprian Tatarusanu, unable to shake off an injury.
In a draw that will show us a lot of defensive football due to the style Greece force on a match, Romania do have Ciprian Marica and Cristian Tănase to rely on, but it won’t be enough to avoid a loss in the first leg.
Portugal vs Sweden
The highlight of the qualifying playoff with two nations that work entirely for their two big stars. Portugal have the more talented supporting cast with Nani and Joao Moutinho, but something about the tactics of Paulo Bento makes it easier for teams to mark Cristiano Ronaldo, while the creativity doesn’t usually burst out from players you expect to see more of. Usually starting with Helder Postiga, the ability of the veteran striker to create some room for Ronaldo might be the deciding factor in whether we see another dull performance from Portugal or a more exciting one like they usually put on in big tournaments.
Sweden have even less big names around Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but it was enough in a qualifying campaign that was always about finishing behind Germany. Johan Elmander can sometimes feed off the scraps Ibrahimovic leaves him, and Anders Svensson, at 37, still has plenty to add, especially in set pieces. Rasmus Elm is their most important player in the midfield, but it’ll be about how well Zlatan Ibrahimovic does against Pepe and Bruno Alves, especially on the away leg, which will end in a draw.
Ukraine vs France
France are very big favorites in their double clash with the Ukraine, but won’t be too disappointed of leaving Kiev after a draw. In the post-Shevchenko era for the Ukraine it’s mostly about their two wingers – Yevhen Konoplyanka from Dnipro and Andriy Yarmolenko from Dynamo Kyiv. They set the pace for the team that doesn’t have much striking power to rely on, but did well in the qualifying matches to draw twice with England.
There’s no doubt France are the more talented side, but it’ll be interesting to see which strikers Deschamps chooses to use. Karim Benzema hasn’t been doing well for the national team, while both Loic Remy and Olivier Giroud have been quite on fire in their local campaigns. However, the most important player on the pitch will be Franck Ribery. France will come out of Kiev with a victory.