The European playoff draw for the last four European spots in the 2014 World Cup is in. The draw is Portugal against Sweden, Ukraine against France, Greece against Romania, and Croatia against Iceland. Purely based on the October rankings, one would think that the seeded teams; Portugal, Ukraine, Greece, and Croatia, would have the better chance at advancing to the World Cup. But looking at the recent performances of the teams, there is a lot of room for surprises.
The match-up between Portugal and Sweden certainly has Portugal as the favorites to advance, but the teams will likely be fairly close in terms of quality come November. Portugal struggled in their qualifying group despite the real major opponents coming from Russia and Israel. Early on Portugal faced difficulties with a loss to Russia in Moscow and a disappointing 1-1 draw to Northern Ireland at home. Portugal’s further draws to Israel in both meetings between the two teams saw them fall one point behind Russia in the final group tally. Meanwhile, Sweden played very well in a group that featured Germany and tough Irish and Austrian sides. In October 2012 Sweden shocked the German side when they came back from being down 4-0 to draw the match in Berlin 4-4. Based on how well Sweden has been playing this match-up should be pretty even. Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo and Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic are expected to be the main contenders in the playoff, making a high number of goals likely in this match-up. However, Portugal should have a stronger and deeper overall team, and should come out the victor.
The next match-up is a surprise one because France ended up an unseeded team for the playoff. France, while usually considered one of the big players in international football, won the World cup in 1998 but during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa bowed out unexpectedly after finishing last in their group with only 1 point. Ukraine, however, have proven to be a good side and held their own in a qualifying group with England. The Ukrainian side drew England in both their meetings and finished only a point behind the Three Lions to come second. While Ukraine has done well, the pressure on France to qualify will likely make them the better side and make France the liable winners of this playoff.
The Greece-Romania match is probably the most even pairing of the playoff draw. Greece may be the stronger team by a smidgeon but they also had an easier group, with Bosnia as a surprise adversary that kept Greece from qualifying directly. Romania’s group, on the other hand, was dominated by the Netherlands. Romania also had strong Turkish and Hungarian sides vying for the playoff spot, but pulled ahead thanks to those teams falling to the Dutch in the last two match days. While this will be a close playoff and a tough call right now, I’m giving Greece the slight upper hand and think they will eke through by one goal or on away goals.
The final match-up from the draw is Croatia against Iceland. Under normal circumstances, this should be an easy win for Croatia. It’s a big surprise that Iceland even made it this far into the qualifying campaign. However, because of that, there is a slim possibility of a huge upset. Croatia slumped late in the qualifying campaign, falling behind Belgium in a group where they should have been the strongest team. The final four matches saw two losses to Scotland in which Croatia did not score any goals, a loss to Belgium, and a draw with Serbia. Meanwhile, Iceland topped off a superb qualifying run in with a 4-4 draw to Switzerland and finished above 2010 qualifier Slovenia to reach the playoff. Iceland’s chances of reaching the final tournament may be small, but they certainly should not be discounted. I’m going to go with the major upset and predict a win for Iceland, because it would be very disappointing for their run to be cut short now.