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?
Jul 22, 2014, 8:42 PM EDT
Shaw speaks to PST: “Manchester United are the biggest club in the world. I didn’t think twice when they wanted to sign me.”
Jul 22, 2014, 8:39 PM EDT
When a guy many consider a footballing genius gives the United States coach praise, that’s a pretty cool feather in Klinsmann’s cap.
Jul 22, 2014, 7:40 PM EDT
Premier Leaguers in the U.S. on Tuesday = A day of open training sessions, autographs, football helmets and golf clubs.
Jul 22, 2014, 6:43 PM EDT
The 19-year-old is a promising prospect, but is dealing with negative headlines after being subject to abuse on Tuesday in Croatia.
Jul 22, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
Fraser Forster will be sticking at Celtic, for now, after Southampton reportedly lowballed the Scottish powers.
Jul 22, 2014, 5:30 PM EDT
Hand on shoulder, hair-coiffed, warm smile… next! Becks makes the rounds on the United’s U.S. tour.
Jul 22, 2014, 5:00 PM EDT
There have been reports of where the 32-year-old American left sider will not be going, but little as to where he will.
Jul 22, 2014, 3:56 PM EDT
For every “stars… they’re just like us” moment a player gives you, there are moments like this, which will not happen to 99.9999% of us at work in our lives
Jul 22, 2014, 2:22 PM EDT
Xavi set to remain at Barcelona until January, at least.
Jul 22, 2014, 2:04 PM EDT
Yeah. This is actually happened… as Stoke pull off a major coup.
Jul 22, 2014, 1:34 PM EDT
Guardiola: “He trains well, he’s a good guy and my first idea is that he’s going to stay for the rest of the season.”
Jul 22, 2014, 12:56 PM EDT
Will Lovren become the third Saints player to join Liverpool this summer? If the price is right, it sure looks that way.
Jul 22, 2014, 11:51 AM EDT
Where will Rodriguez line up next season for Real? Here’s an in-depth look at the options.
Jul 22, 2014, 10:56 AM EDT
Second time around, Dunga will lead Brazil’s new era.
Jul 22, 2014, 10:05 AM EDT
What do you get for $107 million in today’s world? A red-hot 23-year-old Colombian striker, that’s what.
Jul 22, 2014, 9:25 AM EDT
Klopp says Hummels is not for sale… not at the price reported anyway.
Jul 22, 2014, 8:51 AM EDT
James is officially a Real Madrid player.
Jul 22, 2014, 8:42 AM EDT
Douglas Costa: “We all run a deadly risk if we are in the region.”
Jul 22, 2014, 7:49 AM EDT
Will the Colombian winger be heading to Old Trafford this summer?
Jul 22, 2014, 12:10 AM EDT
23-year-old will complete his $107 million move and be introduced at the Santiago Bernabéu.
- EXCLUSIVE: Luke Shaw speaks out about Manchester United move 0
- Pep Guardiola praises Jurgen Klinsmann’s team concept, USMNT movement 0
- Premier League teams on US Soil: Tuesday’s roundup and look ahead 2
- Racial incident against Man City’s Fofana ends U-21 match in Croatia 0
- Sorting through the most recent DaMarcus Beasley-to-MLS reports 2
- Report: Xavi’s move to New York City FC collapses, will remain at Barcelona 3