World Cup 2014 Play-offs: Who will join the European brigade in Brazil?

October 22, 2013 in International by Ben Said Scott

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Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Switzerland, England, Spain, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina - the names of those brave few who will gather on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro next summer to create history. They will arrive in Brazil with a chance of becoming the first European team to win a World Cup in South America. The chances are good. Spain and Germany are arguably the best two teams in international football, while Italy performed admirably in last summer’s Confederations Cup, and Belgium are many people’s outside bets.

Their ranks will be bolstered with four more teams who ran-out second place in their groups. But first those teams will have to be decided in four play-off games, so who will make it through to 2014 World Cup carnival?

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Portugal v Sweden

The biggest of the four ties has already been billed as Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs Cristiano Ronaldo. These are two of the best players on the planet right now, and both international teams have decent World Cup pedigree. However, historically, these countries’ inability to put out a brilliant team as opposed to brilliant individuals has always been their downfall. This has been true of their respective games so far this tournament. Ronaldo single-handedly brought Portugal back from the cusp of defeat to Northern Ireland, while Ibrahimovic is Sweden’s top scorer and has recently taken England apart in an unforgettable game.

Portugal are perhaps slight favourites for this game, with more star talent attracting the pundits’ plaudits, with players like Nani, Joao Moutinho and Pepe. However, individuals don’t make a team, and Sweden are much better in this regard, so this tie will be one to look forward to. With Sweden at home in the second leg, if they can keep it tight in the first leg, they would be my favourites to progress.

France v Ukraine

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The last traditional “big” international team that could make it through is France. My earliest World Cup memory is the France team that stormed to victory in the 1998 tournament at home. However since then, they have been terribly inconsistent. During the last World Cup, in-fighting saw them fail miserably and it was a similar story in the 2012 European tournament. Long gone are the days of Zidane and Henry, but France still have top class quality; Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris and Franck Ribery are all good enough to deserve a place in Brazil.

Ukraine also have good players and were the ones who were seeded for this draw rather than France. They also ran England close in the group stages. However, they don’t have the star quality the France possess, and if they are to get through, they will rely on their ability to defend as a unit.

Didier Deschamps seems to have brushed aside the problems of previous regimes and they were unlucky to have been drawn in a group with Spain - incidentally the only team they lost to - so they are my favourites to go through.

Greece v Romania

Surprise Euro winners in 2004, Greece have been on the decline since that terrific tournament. An ageing team hasn’t been matched by the youngsters coming through, and although they have some talent (Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Sotiris Ninis are two to watch out for), Greece won’t be a team that will trouble anyone in Brazil.

Romania also don’t have great recent pedigree but will be hoping to use this opportunity to get back to a World Cup for the first time since 1998. They should take heart in the fact that they qualified from a tough group, beating out both Hungary and Turkey, who perhaps would have been more fancied before the start of the groups.

Greece have more pedigree in recent tournaments but a second leg away from home could work against them. Don’t be surprised if this tie is decided by penalties or a single goal.

Iceland v Croatia

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It would be great if Iceland, the lowest ranked European team left, were to make it through. Alfred Finnbogason and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson have been tearing up the Dutch league with Ajax and Heerenveen respectively, while they also have Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has started to live up to his billing at Tottenham Hotspur this season. However, Croatia will be immediate favourites for this tie. Players like Mario Mandzukic and Luka Modric are at some of the best clubs in the world and have a fairly good track record at tournaments.

Form, however, doesn’t seem to be in Croatia’s favour. They limped over the line in their group losing three and drawing one of their final games, while Iceland drew two and won two of their final four. Will that form be enough to bridge the gap of quality between the two sides? With the game only a few weeks away, possibly, but probably not.

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