World Cup Qualifying Playoffs: With Few Goals in Europe, Second Legs Will Prove Decisive

The second day of the final week of World Cup qualifying had the first round of the contestants for the final four European spots in Brazil. The matchups features two underdogs teams facing big competition at home, and two relatively even matches. Possibly the biggest battle for any of the teams left in the playoffs came early in the day, as Iceland faced down Croatia in Reykjavik. With the home leg advantage, Iceland was hoping to get a leg up before heading to Croatia on their quest to become the smallest country to have ever qualified for the World Cup. At 300,000 people, Iceland is dwarfed by Trinidad and Tobago who currently hold that position. However, Croatia was in control for much of the match and Iceland’s few chances never struck home. Iceland’s position became even more precarious early in the second half when midfielder Ólafur Skúlason received a red card and Iceland was reduced to ten men. But despite the setback, Iceland weathered the Croatian attack and even created a few chances of their own in the second half. The match ended in a goalless draw, keeping both teams level going into the second leg. If Iceland can win in Zagreb or score and keep Croatia to a draw, they will qualify.

Next was the showdown between Portugal and Sweden and the contest of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The first half of the match was back and forth frequently as both teams earned good chances on goal. Portugal and Sweden’s best chances both came early on in the match. In the 5th minute Raul Meireles sent a pass past the Swedish defence to Joao Moutinho. In a clear one on one with Swedish keeper Andreas Isaksson, the keeper ran out and forced Moutinho to go wide. Moutinho’s shot was off target and went just wide of the left post. Sweden struck back quickly after Moutinoh’s effort. Mikael Lustig sprinted with the ball down the right side and let loose a precision cross to John Elmander in the Portuguese penalty area. But Elmander was slightly off position and only clipped the ball sending it wide. The match remained scoreless for much of the ninety minutes, but a last minute header by Ronaldo that broke the tie. That goal made the difference and Portugal won the first leg 1-0, putting them up going into the deciding match in Sweden.

Next came another match that was supposed to be about evenly matched. Greece ended up the victor over Romania with three goals to one in what ended up being the highest scoring game of the day. In the 14th minute, Dimitrios Salpingidis lobbed the ball clear over the Romania defence into space. Konstantinos Mitroglou dashed into the area and received the ball, placing a shot into the net on the first touch. Five minutes later, the Romanians tied it up on a set piece. Bogdan Stanicu found the ball near the right post and headed it down past the Greek keeper into the net. The equalizer was only a brief respite for the Romanians, however, as not a minute later Greece scored again to take back their lead. A clear by Giorgios Samaras fed into a low driven cross from Vasilis Torosidis. Salpindigis met the cross and neatly deflected it in for the goal. After the excitement in those ten minutes, the pace of the match died down. Greece scored their third goal of the match to assure their lead going into the second leg in the 66th minute. Samaras took another free kick which found its way to Mitroglou via Kostas Katsouranis, and Mitroglou’s tap was all it took to give him his second goal of the match and put Greece further ahead.

Last but certainly not least is without a doubt the major upset of today’s matches. A tough Ukrainian side met a France side that had been underachieving as of late in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The French had reason to be confident, with the last time the two teams met netted France a 2-0 victory over Ukraine in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk during the group stages of Euro 2012. However, Ukraine proved to be the tougher of the two teams, bolstered by the home crowd. The Ukrainian defence formidably stopped the French attacking play throughout the match, and built on their own attack to net two goals. The first came in the 61st minute with a charge from Roman Zozulia into the French six yard box. Laurent Kolscielny’s tackle of Zozulia in the penalty area gave Ukraine a second opportunity with ten minutes to go, and the shot by Andriy Yarmolenko secured the win for the home side. Ukraine emerged with a clean sheet, which could prove decisive in the second leg in Saint-Denis. With no away goals and a two goal deficit, France faces a real possibility of not qualifying for a World Cup since 1994.

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