Things are at boiling point around Europe, as Greece arrive to their second leg in the World Cup playoffs against Romania feeling more confident than any of the other visitors, but both the Ukraine in France and Portugal in Sweden have more than one reason to be optimistic. Iceland and Croatia is a slightly different story, in which the home side must figure out how to open up the unbreakable (so far) Icelandic defense.
All four matches will take place on Tuesday, November 19, and will go to extra time if the aggregate scores are draws, without away goals coming into effect.
Romania vs Greece
The red card that Costin Lazar got won’t change anything in Romania’s preparations. Their problems are with their weak attack and defense, while Greece, with a very effective, disciplined and patient defense has no problem blocking the rather predictable offense that mostly seeks out Ciprian Marica and Bogdan Stancu. Few teams play a defensive 4-3-3 like the Greeks do, but even if they’ll have less touches on the ball and won’t up their formation in Romania, it’s hard to see them conceding twice or more without scoring at least once and making the most of Romania attacking more than usual.
Croatia vs Iceland
Iceland play the same way at home, where they had only 4 shots at goal compared to Croatia’s 14, and away from it. It’s simply going to be the same narrow and compact defense with long balls towards Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Gylfi Siggurdson, hoping for something to come out of it. Croatia need to find a better way than just crossing to Mario Mandzukic, which means not starting with Eduardo or Perisic, and giving early minutes to Ivica Olic who can play a bit more effectively and wider. My gut feeling tells me an away draw with goals, meaning Iceland are in the World Cup.
Sweden vs Portugal
Cristiano Ronaldo can feel on top of the world for a few days, but the truth is Portugal only got two chances in this match, both coming in the final 10 minutes. They crossed balls without thinking or getting in good positions to generate more accuracy, which meant easy defending for the Swedes most of the match. Ronaldo and Portugal got lucky, nothing more. However, playing a more counter attacking style suits them much better. Sweden will probably be a bit more daring at home but not by much, and will possibly try to position Zlatan Ibrahimovic a bit differently than in the first match. In any case, it’ll end in a draw, giving Portugal the World Cup ticket.
France vs Ukraine
A terrible performance from France won’t happen again. However, it won’t be surprising to see France falter at the finish line with a group of players filled with talent but devoid of cohesion and some of them missing the qualities necessary from someone expected to preform under pressure, just like their previous performance at the Euros. France might win, but Ukraine will make the World Cup, and we’ll see a couple of red cards or more once again in a very heated encounter.