Opportunity knocks in World Cup playoffs

Posted by Miguel Delaney

Sweden vs. Portugal

The most difficult game to call, if also the one with the easiest narrative: Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Cristiano Ronaldo. That, however, is not to say it is not the most appropriate narrative. Ultimately, Sweden are a thoroughly average side that have been lifted by the brilliance of Ibrahimovic -- as was particularly the case in the decisive qualifiers against Ireland and Austria. Portugal are an underperforming side who are at least blessed with a player that generally produces when it's really required.

Although Ronaldo did not score in the 1-1 home draw with Israel that ultimately cost the country a direct qualification spot, he did score the key goal that set them on their way in the Euro 2012 play-off with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Portugal's familiarity with these deciders is one of the recent curiosities of international football, given that this is the third successive tournament in which access through the front door has been denied. They are a side that have tended to swirl around their true level: sometimes fantastic -- as in that 6-2 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina -- sometimes so underwhelming.

At the same time, the make-up of the squad remains a level above that of Sweden, who are still fielding the 37-year-old Anders Svensson, a midfielder who has played in the domestic league for the last eight years. Given all that, they're going to need Ibrahimovic to essentially outperform Ronaldo. With the form the Paris Saint-Germain forward is in, however, it's just as well Ronaldo got booked in that game against Israel to free himself up for these playoffs. It may prove the difference in booking a place for the World Cup.

Prediction: Portugal

Ukraine vs. France

On first glance, the suspicion is that France will do enough here, especially when you consider that they easily beat Ukraine 2-0 during Euro 2012. The problem, however, is that virtually nothing is ever as simple as it appears with this generation of French players. That is illustrated by the controversy Patrice Evra got himself embroiled in just this weekend, criticising so many of the pundits that have questioned Didier Deschamps' side.

If that was acrimonious, the emotions in the French dressing room itself are also always threatening to bubble to those levels. Ukraine, meanwhile, have evolved and become sturdier since that defeat in Donetsk. They were also somewhat unfortunate to finish behind England in the end. The key could be whether they can keep out a resurgent French attack. The 1998 world champions are at least on something of a wave at the moment, with Franck Ribery on Ballon d'Or form after his treble-winning season at Bayern Munich, and Olivier Giroud surely set to replace Karim Benzema up front. If Euro 2012 came at the wrong time for Ukraine, this playoff may have come at just the right point for France.

Prediction: France

Greece vs. Romania

This is one of those fixtures in which, to a certain degree, both teams will consider themselves somewhat fortunate to face each other. The Romanians could have drawn a more star-studded seed; the Greeks an opponent on better form. Victor Piturca's team needed a big favour of Netherlands in beating Turkey away from home to even reach this point, and weren't exactly convincing in an open group behind the Dutch. They themselves had eight goals put past them by Louis van Gaal's side, and the fact that both Romania and Turkey beat each other away from home points to the unreliable quality. Greece, at least, were more assured and only missed out on the direct spot to Bosnia and Herzegovina on goal difference.

Prediction: Greece

Iceland vs. Croatia

If not the fixture with the most exciting names, that in itself makes it the most exhilarating story. Should Iceland qualify, they will become the smallest nation in history to qualify for the World Cup. Here, they have at least been fortunate to have drawn probably the weakest of the seeds. Croatia have not won in five qualifiers, lost to Scotland twice in that period and have just sacked their manager. In contrast to their chaos, Iceland are a young side in a clearly upward curve. They stormed into second in an admittedly weak group with some brave performances, led by the likes of Tottenham Hotspur's Gylfi Sigurdsson. While many of these playoffs could be gripped by tension, this has the feel of one that could be fired by a sense of opportunity.

History awaits, unless Croatia can prevent a recurrence of the recent histrionics.

Prediction: Iceland

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