The field for the 2014 World Cup is a lot clearer Monday following the UEFA playoff draw, which will produce four more teams in the field. The highlight here is Sweden taking on Portugal which pits two superstars – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo – who are still looking to translate their club glory to the international level. At 32, Ibrahimovic likely has one more World Cup/Euro cycle in him, although success for Sweden likely translates to a place in the knockout rounds. Ronaldo, 28, has a little bit bigger window to make his stamp with Portugal, although the best chance for glory might end up being a loss to Spain in penalty kicks at last summers Euro.
Portugal vs. Sweden:
This will be the third straight playoff Portugal needs in order to qualify for a tournament. To reach the 2010 World Cup and 2012 Euro it had to beat Bosnia both times. There’s some recent history between Portugal and Sweden, too, with Portugal edging out the Swedes by a point to reach the 2010 qualifying playoffs.
Something to keep in mind is Sweden scored eight of the 10 goals Germany allowed in qualification. It could bode well against Portugal, which struggled. Two draws against Israel kept Portugal from a direct spot in Brazil.
Note to Sweden: mark the guy wearing No. 7:
France vs. Ukraine:
Time to dust off those Thierry Henry hand-ball stories four years later. Fun.
In any other group, France probably qualifies automatically, but Les Bleus got paired with Spain and thus they’ll have to beat Ukraine to make it to Brazil. France and Ukraine played last summer at the Euro, with France winning 2-0.
Perhaps karma from four years ago catches up with France. It’s probably the one thing that keeps them from winning this two-leg playoff. As much as most people tend to dislike Les Bleus a World Cup is much more interesting with the likes of Franck Ribery, Paul Pogba and Mathieu Valbuena than Ukraine’s mostly anonymous, functional squad. Sorry if that is a weak-sounding rational.
Croatia vs. Iceland:
This is a can’t-lose matchup. If Croatia wins, we’ll get a strong team in the field for the World Cup and get to watch guys like Luka Modric do their thing. If Iceland somehow gets through, we’ll have a rare, genuine, Cinderella. Iceland, with a population of 321,000, would be the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup. Of all the potential draws, this is probably the most-favorable for Icleand.
Romania vs. Greece:
This pairing is a bit of a dud for neutral observers. Romania hasn’t played in a World Cup since 1998 and only allowed four goals outside of the eight it allowed to the high-scoring Netherlands team in qualification.
Greece, meanwhile, are a continual example of FIFA flawed ranking system which still gives the team lots of points for winning Euro 2004 almost a decade ago. The Greeks don’t do much to impress much on paper, but have qualified for the last two Euros and the 2010 World Cup. Figure that experience gets them through to Brazil.
Around the globe we’ll have the highly-interesting, from an American perspective, Mexico/New Zealand playoff. El Tri hosts the All White on either Nov. 13 or 14 at the Azteca, with the return leg in Wellington on the 20th.
Uruguay faces Jordan in a two-leg playoff which will do a lot to determine seeding for the World Cup draw. If Uruguay wins it’s one of the top eight teams.
There are also the return legs of the five African playoffs and then we’ll have our field of 32.