Skip to content

UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four matches, four reasons to watch

Nov 15, 2013, 12:42 PM EDT

Zlatan Ibrahimovic Getty Images

Friday brings the first leg of the two-legged playoffs to decide the final four European sides that will spend next summer at the World Cup. Besides the fact that it’s a Friday afternoon and work seems unappealing, what makes these four matches worth watching?

Iceland vs. Croatia2 p.m. ET
Reason: resurgence 
The evening’s European entertainment — at least, its meaningful entertainment — starts off in Reykjavík, with Iceland hoping to become the smallest nation to compete in Brazil. It would be an interesting narrative and it would certainly warm the hearts of the 320,137 Icelanders to see their side head off to its first ever World Cup, but Iceland has a rather ridiculously complicated task ahead. While a result might be possible in Reykjavík, it’s hard to see Croatia losing out over both legs.

The numbers tell a different story: Iceland are unbeaten in their last four matches, while Croatia lost to Scotland twice, fell to Belgium, and let Serbia come back for a draw. In other words, the Croats don’t appear to be giants. But they’ve sent coach Igor Štimac packing, and Niko Kovač is unlikely to make the same mistakes. Kovač, a popular former captain for his country, has promised to right the sinking ship, plugging the holes drilled in by Štimac. Croatia is a side that needs a huge confidence boost and, should Niko follow through on giving it to them, will likely have no problem rediscovering their form and dispensing with Iceland.

Greece vs. Romania, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: doggedness 
What to look for in this match? Relentless pragmatism. Greece might be hyperaware that the only reason they haven’t already booked their ticket to Brazil is because their goal difference was inferior to that of Bosnia, but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to suddenly shift into attack mode. The Greeks have been stodgily defending since 2004 (ok, likely since before then, but that’s when we all really started to pay attention) and will continue to do so in order to reach their second consecutive World Cup.

Romania, on the other hand, haven’t been to the party since 1998. They finished nine points behind group leaders the Netherlands, and just barely edged out Hungary and Turkey. The visitors are missing a couple key players, including Tottenham defender Vlad Chiricheș, while Manchester City goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon may step in for Ciprian Tătărușanu, whose fitness is questionable. This close to getting on that plane to Brazil, the Romanians are highly unlikely to turn up the heat, preferring instead not to put a toe out of place.

Portugal vs. Sweden, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: heroics
We all know what we’re watching here, right? This is a battle between two superstars and their two superegos, and the world will be a less-than-perfect place when one of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic has to stay at home rather than take to the pitch in Brazil. The two superheros have already scored 10 goals in qualifying, including Ronaldo’s hattrick against Northern Ireland. Ibra’s been more consistent, scoring in five of Sweden’s ten matches. But both can score absolute jaw-dropping goals, at seemingly any time. The real question here is, why would you not watch?

Ukraine vs. France, 2:45 p.m. ET
Reason: neediness
France had to have known that, as soon as they were drawn in a group with Spain, a trip to the playoff round was almost inevitable. Still les bleus were impressive in the first stage, losing just once –to Spain, of course — and conceding just six goals. But Ukraine, too, did well to make their mark, finishing just a point behind England. Ukraine also scored 28 goals, but 17 of those came against San Marino, so don’t expect a flurry of action in front of goal.

It’s been nearly 20 years since France missed out on a World Cup, and it’s hard to believe that they won’t make it to Brazil. Their squad is much steadier than it was in South Africa, and the talent on display gives little reason to believe Ukraine will make it through. But the hosts will be fueled by pure, raw bitterness: in 1998, 2002 and 2010, Ukraine were eliminated via the playoffs. Surely it must be their time?

Latest Posts
  1. WATCH: Crystal Palace’s top-10 finish “unbelievable”, says Pardew

    May 24, 2015, 6:20 PM EDT

    Alan Pardew, Crystal Palace FC Alan Pardew, Crystal Palace FC

    Alan Pardew has seen Crystal Palace rise to snag a 10th place Premier League finish.

  2. Manuel Pellegrini on speculation of his firing: “I never had any doubt all season”

    May 24, 2015, 5:25 PM EDT

    Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City FC Getty Images

    Manchester City ended its Premier League season in second place, and manager Manuel Pellegrini is optimistic about his job safety.

  3. Championship playoff final preview: Middlesbrough and Norwich eye Premier League dream

    May 24, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    NorwichMiddlesbrough Getty Images

    With 90 minutes at Wembley to prove they’re worthy of the Premier League, the third and fourth place finishers in the Championship do battle with promotion on the line.

  4. Premier League final day roundup: 2014-15 season finishes with a flourish

    May 24, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    In case you missed anything, here’s what happened on the final day of the PL season.

  5. Report: Schalke has fired Roberto Di Matteo after failing to earn Champions League play

    May 24, 2015, 2:36 PM EDT

    DiMatteo Getty Images

    The club won just three of its final 14 matches, nosediving out of a Champions League position and leaving the manager without a job.

  6. Newcastle’s owner gives rare interview: “From this day forward we will be making our own luck.”

    May 24, 2015, 2:07 PM EDT

    Newcastle United's English owner Mike Ashley (L) smiles with managing director Lee Charnley (R) as he waits for the kick off in the English Premier League football match between Newcastle United and West Ham United at St James Park, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, north east England on May 24, 2015. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL

RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO USE WITH UNAUTHORIZED AUDIO, VIDEO, DATA, FIXTURE LISTS, CLUB/LEAGUE LOGOS OR LIVE SERVICES. ONLINE IN-MATCH USE LIMITED TO 45 IMAGES, NO VIDEO EMULATION. NO USE IN BETTING, GAMES OR SINGLE CLUB/LEAGUE/PLAYER PUBLICATIONS.        (Photo credit should read Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    This summer will be key, especially if Middlesbrough brings another set of Northeast Derbies to the Premier League. What’s next for Newcastle?

  7. VIDEO: Arsene Wenger pleased after big season-ending win

    May 24, 2015, 1:45 PM EDT

    Wenger Getty Images

    Arsenal finished the season in third place and put on a good showing in their final match of the season.

  8. Brendan Rodgers takes “full responsibility” for Liverpool’s season-ending disaster

    May 24, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT

    Rodgers Getty Images

    The Liverpool manager knows he could have hurt his position today with a 6-1 thumping at the hands of Stoke City on the season’s final day.

  9. VIDEO: John Terry lifts Premier League title as Chelsea’s celebrations begin

    May 24, 2015, 1:03 PM EDT

    Chelsea v Sunderland - Premier League Getty Images

    The Blues hoist the trophy in front of their own fans in west London.

  10. ‘Exhausted’ Bruce after Hull relegation: “My future is for others to decide”

    May 24, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT

    during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Manchester United at KC Stadium on May 24, 2015 in Hull, England. Getty Images

    Hull spent on Abel Hernandez and others in a relatively splashy summer, but still sink into the second tier.

  11. Newcastle’s Carver: “I want a summer where I can bring in the players I want”

    May 24, 2015, 12:36 PM EDT

    Newcastle United's Argentinian midfielder Jonas Gutierrez (R) celebrates after he scores with Newcastle United's English head coach John Carver (L) during the English Premier League football match between Newcastle United and West Ham United at St James Park, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, north east England on May 24, 2015. Newcastle won the game 2-0 to avoid relegation. AFP PHOTO / IAN MACNICOL

RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE. NO USE WITH UNAUTHORIZED AUDIO, VIDEO, DATA, FIXTURE LISTS, CLUB/LEAGUE LOGOS OR LIVE SERVICES. ONLINE IN-MATCH USE LIMITED TO 45 IMAGES, NO VIDEO EMULATION. NO USE IN BETTING, GAMES OR SINGLE CLUB/LEAGUE/PLAYER PUBLICATIONS.        (Photo credit should read Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    A resilient John Carver, buoyed by Newcastle United avoiding the drop, has reiterated his desire to lead the Premier League club.

  12. Aston Villa 0-1 Burnley: Ings ensures Clarets finish with a win

    May 24, 2015, 12:35 PM EDT

    Aston Villa v Burnley - Premier League Getty Images

    Clarets sign off with a win as Villa go into FA Cup final on the back of two-straight defeats.

  13. West Ham announce Sam Allardyce will not return as manager

    May 24, 2015, 12:27 PM EDT

    Allardyce Getty Images

    West Ham released a statement on Allardyce’s removal seconds after Sunday’s final whistle.

  14. Manchester City 2-0 Southampton: Lampard, Aguero sink Saints

    May 24, 2015, 12:24 PM EDT

    Saints must wait for Europa League spot, as Lampard signs off in style.

  15. Everton 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur: Kane’s early goal enough as Spurs seal fifth

    May 24, 2015, 12:15 PM EDT

    LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - MAY 24:  Harry Kane of Spurs scores his team's first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on May 24, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Kane nodded home an Eric Dier cross to give Spurs a lead, and Tottenham controlled possession for most of the match in holding on for all three points.

Featured video

Chelsea lift the 2014-15 PL trophy