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. Fire-ravaged dog home claims Mario Balotelli made sizable donation

    Sep 17, 2014, 11:30 PM EDT

    Balo

    A dog home ravaged by fire last week believes Mario Balotelli has made a sizable donation.

  2. PST Extra: Sneak preview of Manchester City v. Chelsea

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:55 PM EDT

    MC CH

    Joe Prince-Wright and myself sat down with Jenna Corrado to discuss what City and Chelsea each need to accomplish to secure victory.

  3. ‘We Will Speak English': Louis van Gaal’s instruction to Manchester United players

    Sep 17, 2014, 10:28 PM EDT

    VanGaal Getty Images

    Looking for complete transparency, however, Van Gaal has laid down the law: English only.

  4. David Beckham’s Miami franchise could make big announcement on Thursday

    Sep 17, 2014, 9:20 PM EDT

    Former England soccer captain David Beckham attends the world premier of the film "The Class of 92" in London Reuters

    Marcelo Claure has hinted that news regarding a potential MLS franchise in Miami could soon be on it’s way.

  5. Jose Mourinho on Chelsea’s draw with Schalke: “That’s football”

    Sep 17, 2014, 8:42 PM EDT

    Mourinho AP

    “Remy could have scored, Terry could have scored, Hazard could have scored, but that’s football,” Mourinho said.

  6. Report: Man stabbed, another injured, following Roma’s 5-1 win over CSKA Moscow

    Sep 17, 2014, 7:54 PM EDT

    Alberto Pizzoli AFP Alberto Pizzoli AFP

    Gazzetta dello Sport claims that one CSKA fan who had been stabbed in the stomach.

  7. PHOTO: Ajax fans tell PSG what they think of Paris (and Ms. Hilton)

    Sep 17, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT

    ajax

    Gotta love Ajax fans, they’re always loud, positive and pretty darn clever.

  8. Julian Draxler’s stunning performance puts Chelsea, Premier League on high alert

    Sep 17, 2014, 6:45 PM EDT

    Chelsea FC v FC Schalke 04 - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    Living off the counter-attack, Schalke looked for Draxler every time out the gates.

  9. Yaya Toure’s lackluster display stands out as Manchester City struggle

    Sep 17, 2014, 6:03 PM EDT

    Germany Soccer Champions League AP

    Toure’s inept displays bring up question marks over his commitment to Man City.

  10. UEFA Champions League roundup: Roma, Porto win big; Chelsea, PSG slip up

    Sep 17, 2014, 5:12 PM EDT

    Italy Soccer Champions League AP

    What happened across Europe in the Champions League? Here’s a recap of all eight games.

  11. Chelsea 1-1 Schalke 04: Huntelaar secures point for the underdogs

    Sep 17, 2014, 4:59 PM EDT

    Chelsea FC v FC Schalke 04 - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    A solid outing by Chelsea but Jose Mourinho’s side will rue their lack of finishing in the final third.

  12. AS Roma 5-1 CSKA Moscow: Juan Iturbe and Gervinho tear up the Russians

    Sep 17, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT

    AS Roma v PFC CSKA Moskva - UEFA Champions League Getty Images

    An impressive display from Roma who will fancy their chances of an upset against Manchester City and Bayern Munich in Group E.

  13. Bayern Munich 1-0 Manchester City: Last-gasp win for Bayern in Bavaria

    Sep 17, 2014, 4:41 PM EDT

    Toure is beaten to the ball once again by Xabi Alonso. AP

    Boateng’s late volley hands Bayern win against stubborn City.

  14. Mario Mandzukic breaks nose, set for surgery

    Sep 17, 2014, 4:07 PM EDT

    mario_mandzukic Getty Images

    Nothing like breaking your nose in the third minute and playing the full 90. Beast.

  15. LIVE – Champions League half time update: Roma storm ahead, Bayern pressing

    Sep 17, 2014, 3:33 PM EDT

    Italy Soccer Champions League AP

    Find out what’s going on around Europe as the group stage openers continue.

  16. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer likely out at Cardiff City

    Sep 17, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT

    Newcastle United v Cardiff City - Premier League Getty Images

    The former Manchester United legend has had difficulty finding results for the troubled Welsh side.

  17. FOLLOW LIVE – Bayern Munich, Manchester City clash in Champions League

    Sep 17, 2014, 2:25 PM EDT

    Bayern and Man City collide for the second-straight season in the UCL. Reuters

    For live updates from the Allianz Arena, look no further.

  18. Paul Lambert gets extension at Aston Villa

    Sep 17, 2014, 2:09 PM EDT

    Aston Villa v Parma - Pre-Season Friendly Getty Images

    After a hot start to their Premier League campaign, Aston Villa has extended Paul Lambert’s contract until June of 2018.

  19. Happy Anniversary Messi

    Sep 17, 2014, 1:20 PM EDT

    FC Barcelona v Club Leon - Joan Gamper Trophy Getty Images

    On this day 14 years ago, Barcelona signed Lionel Messi. The rest is history.

  20. UEFA Champions League Preview: Manchester City vs. Bayern Munich

    Sep 17, 2014, 12:35 PM EDT

    Manchester City v Liverpool - Premier League Getty Images

    European giants clash as Manchester City travels to Germany to take on the mighty Bayern squad.

Featured video

Week 4: Top five Premier League goals