Nov 15, 2013, 12:42 PM EDT
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. Croatia, 2 p.m. ET
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
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
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
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?
Apr 25, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
With Watford officially promoted, who’s next? (Hint: It won’t be Boro.)
Apr 25, 2015, 3:20 PM EDT
Recaps, reaction, videos and more from all eight PL games on Saturday.
Apr 25, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT
Rodgers: “It’s an area we’ll look at in the summer.”
Apr 25, 2015, 2:35 PM EDT
Citizens survive second half Villa comeback to move up to second, cement spot in top four.
Apr 25, 2015, 2:32 PM EDT
Three of four “bottom five” clubs who played on Saturday picked up a point, including one side scooping up a massive three points to leap off the bottom of the table.
Apr 25, 2015, 2:01 PM EDT
Messi now has at least 50 goals in four seasons during his career.
Apr 25, 2015, 1:48 PM EDT
Mexico national teamer Miguel Layun posted this video on Twitter, as the club learns its been promoted and the bus goes absolutely bonkers.
Apr 25, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT
Aguero? He doesn’t miss from there, and the USMNT keeper was left with his head in his hands. It’s 1-0 City at half.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:49 PM EDT
Swans found goals from Nelson Olivera, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jack Cork to build a 3-1 lead before Siem de Jong netted late.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:46 PM EDT
The Hornets are back in the PL for just the third time in their history.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:26 PM EDT
Liverpool fall further behind Man City in the race for fourth place.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT
Can the Citizens cement their top four spot? Watch live, here.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:14 PM EDT
USMNT defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron left the game in the 87th minute with an injury.
Apr 25, 2015, 12:10 PM EDT
QPR are four points from safety with four games to go…
Apr 25, 2015, 12:04 PM EDT
Tigers give themselves breathing space from the bottom three with much-needed win.
Apr 25, 2015, 11:58 AM EDT
Nigel Pearson was fired last month, or so we were led to believe. Now his Foxes have escaped the drop zone with a dramatic win at Turf Moor.
Apr 25, 2015, 11:10 AM EDT
“I was focused on my job but was a very tough and emotional game for me,” said Tottenham’s boss.
Apr 25, 2015, 11:06 AM EDT
Tense times for plenty of teams in the PL.
Apr 25, 2015, 9:58 AM EDT
Can the Tigers maul the Eagles? Watch live online.
Apr 25, 2015, 9:47 AM EDT
Turf Moor is the place, and Danny Ings will lead the Clarets attack in a quest for safety.
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