One of football’s superstars will miss out on the World Cup next year after Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal side were drawn against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in the European play-offs for next year’s finals.
Portugal versus Sweden is the pick of the four play-offs, which will be played over two legs, while unseeded France will face a tough battle against Ukraine, whom England failed to beat in two qualifying matches.
The presence of stars such as Real Madrid’s Ronaldo and Manchester United’s Nani means Portugal will go into the play-off as favourites but they struggled in what had looked a straightforward qualifying group, finishing runners-up to Russia. Portugal coach Paulo Bento warned that in Paris St Germain forward Ibrahimovic, Sweden have a potential matchwinner.
He said after yesterday’s draw: “We have two tough games against a side that, as well as having one of the best strikers in the world, plays well as a team.
“Sweden finished second in a group that contained Germany, one of the contenders to win the whole tournament. The key is to be prepared, and to be confident that we have a real chance of reaching the finals.”
Sweden gave a warning of their talents with a 4-4 draw against group winners Germany in qualifying. Their coach, Erik Hamren, said he hoped his team would catch 1966 and 2006 semi-finalists Portugal on an off day. “Portugal, when they are at their highest level, are a world class team, you saw that in Euro 2012, but sometimes they are a little like this and we hope they will be like this,” Hamren told reporters as he lowered his hand.
“[Ibrahimovic] has been really good for us for a long time now, he is the match winner for us, a world class player, and they have one too. That’s interesting because you can have tactics and scouting but a world class player like Ronaldo or Ibra can change a game and do something extra.”
The two countries have met 15 times, with Sweden winning on six occasions and Portugal three but the Scandinavians have not beaten their play-off rivals in seven matches since 1984. The sides met twice in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup and drew both matches 0-0.
As for France, they will have to go one better than England and beat Ukraine – Roy Hodgson’s men drew 0-0 away from home and only managed a 1-1 draw at Wembley.
France heach coach Didier Deschamps is relieved Les Bleus will be at home for the second leg, and said: “It will not be easy against a Ukrainian team which has now played seven games without defeat. Ukraine may not have superstars like Portugal or Croatia but they were seeded and it is important that we respect their quality. Ukraine are a team who do not concede a lot of goals but it’s good we are playing the second leg at home.”
The last meeting between France and Ukraine ended in a 2-0 win for Les Bleus after thunder and lightning caused their Euro 2012 match in Donetsk to be briefly suspended.
Iceland have a great chance of making it to their first ever World Cup after being drawn against Croatia. Perhaps the least dangerous of the seeded sides, Croatia finished second in Scotland’s section but twice lost to Gordon Strachan’s men – most recently in last week’s final group match when goals from Robert Snodgrass and Steven Naismith gave the Scots a 2-0 victory at Hampden.
Iceland, who have a population of about 320,000 and have never qualified for a major tournament, have already exceeded expectations by finishing ahead of Slovenia and Norway in their group. The lowest-ranked team in the draw at No 46, Iceland’s only previous meetings with their play-off opponents came in 2005 when Croatia won at home and away in the qualifying stages for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“I think Croatia is okay,” said Iceland manager Lars Lagerback. “The advantage is I know the new coach [Niko Kovac] a little bit and I also had experience against Croatia when I was coaching the Swedish team so I know what we can expect.
“We have a pretty good team so, even if we’re not the favourites, look out for Iceland.”
Kovac said: “We are very happy with the draw especially because we will be at home in the return leg in Zagreb. But it would be audacious to take anything for granted because Iceland are a young and ambitious team whose coach has World Cup experience with Sweden and Nigeria. He once lectured me at a coaching academy, now we will come face to face as rivals.”
In the final tie, unseeded Romania will face Greece. The Greeks, who finished second to Bosnia on goal difference in Group G, first met Romania in 1930 and will be wary of a team that beat them 3-1 in a friendly the last time they clashed in 2011. “I can tell you I am not satisfied, I wanted another team,” said Romania coach Victor Piturca. “Greece are strong opponents, they’re a well-organised team.”
The two-legged play-offs are to be played on 15 and 19 November to decide the four remaining European teams to go to the World Cup in Brazil next summer. The full list of countries who have already qualified is Brazil (hosts), Japan, Australia, Iran, South Korea, Italy, Netherlands, Argentina, Costa Rica, USA, Colombia, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England and Spain.
Draw for the World Cup play-offs (European zone):
Portugal v Sweden
Ukraine v France
Greece v Romania
Iceland v Croatia
The first legs will be played on 15 November with the returns on 19 November.