Another three days of match fixtures gone, and nine more spots in the 2014 World Cup have been filled. Over the weekend, we had the final legs of the African and European qualifying playoffs.
In Africa, the five matches featured two first time hopefuls, but they unfortunately fell short of reaching the final tournament. Ethiopia, who shocked the continent to reach the playoff in the first place, were coming in to the second leg from behind after losing 1-2 to Nigeria in Addis Ababa. Nigeria continued to play the better side and cruised to a 2-0 victory. Their first goal came in the 20th minutes when Ethiopia conceded a penalty. Victor Moses took the penalty kick and gave Nigeria their first goal of the night. With ten minutes left, Victor Obinna scored Nigeria’s second goal to put their qualification past any doubt. In Bilda, Algeria took to the home leg against Burkina Faso as Burkina Faso sought to hold their advantage from a 3-2 in the first leg to reach their first tournament. The match started well for Burkina Faso, as the half ended goalless. However, Algeria pushed forward hard early in the second half and Madjid Bougherra put Algeria ahead in the 49th minute. Burkina Faso fought hard for a goal to regain their aggregate lead. Their best chance was a shot in stoppage time, but it hit the wrong side of the post and the match ended with Algeria up 1-0. That put the aggregate tied at 3 goals apiece, but Algeria went through on away goals, having scored twice in the first leg in Ouagadougou.
The other three matches in Africa featured six world class sides, all with histories in the World Cup. Egypt was already as good as gone as they hosted the second leg after a stunning 6-1 loss to Ghana in the first leg. However, they went home with a consolation of defeating the Black Stars 2-1 with goals from Amr Zaki and Gedo. The match between Senegal and Ivory Coast, meanwhile, had to be moved from Senegal to Casablanca due to a FIFA ban on Senegal hosting home internationals. Senegal played much better than their 3-1 defeat in the first leg, but still were light on scoring. Moussa Sow gave Senegal their only goal of the match off a penalty kick in the 72nd minute. However, the Senegalese were unable to keep a clean sheet. Salomon Kalou scored in the 4th minute of stoppage time, ensuring Ivory Coast remained unbeaten in their qualification run. Lastly in Africa, Cameroon hosted Tunisia in the deciding leg of their matchup after a goalless draw in Tunisia. Cameroon hit Tunisia hard right off the mark, with a goal from Pierre Webo in the 3rd minute. Benjamin Moukandjo netted Cameroon their second of the night with a low shot from the left at the half hour mark. For a scoreless first leg, the aggregate had no show of that. Tunisia came back to score in the 50th minute, with Ahmed Akaichi the scorer. However, Cameroon’s Jean Makoun responded with two goals of his own in the second half. Cameroon’s 4-1 win in Yaounde put them decidedly through to round out the five African spots in the final tournament.
In Europe, the four spots were more in doubt as upsets in the first leg had two more potential first time qualifiers halfway there. Iceland went into Croatia with a renewed spirit. After holding Croatia to a goalless draw in Reykjavik, there was a serious chance that they would become the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup. However, those hopes started to dampen as Mario Mandzukic put the Croatians up in the 27th minute. Iceland had a few chances in the first half, and their hopes were strengthened late in the half as Mandzukic received a straight red card for a very poor tackle. Iceland had only needed a 1-1 draw to advance on away goals. That chance started to dwindle early in the second half though, as Croatian captain Darijo Srna doubled their lead over Iceland. Iceland pressed hard for the rest of the match, but Croatia remained firmly in control to win 2-0 and qualify. In the other possible upset, France was facing a worrisome exit going into the second leg down by two goals. But France played with a renewed determination not seen from the side in a long time. Les Bleus kept Ukraine pinned for the entire match, and the first of their slate of three goals came from Mamadou Sakho in the 22nd minute. Naturally, there was controversy in the French qualification. Karim Benzema put the ball in the net in the 33rd minute but was ruled offside. Not a minute later, Benzema scored from an offside position yet again, but this time the flag stayed down and the goal was not disallowed. Ukrainian midfielder Oleg Gusev gave France their third goal on an unfortunate own goal, as a rebound by Ribery bounced of Gusev into the net. With three goals to Ukraine’s two over the course of the two games, France eked into yet another World Cup.
In Bucharest, Romania was unable to overcome the lead Greece had earned in the first leg of the match. Konstantinos Mitroglou gave Greece their first goal of the match and their fourth of the two legs in the 23rd minute. Romania pressed hard in the second half, but their only goal of the match was an own goal by Vasileios torosidis in the 55th minute. Romania was unable to turn the Greek victory around, and so Greece secured a return ticket to the World Cup. While Greece had a simple time in the second leg, Portugal and Sweden played the second round of the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Sweden. As in the first leg, Ronaldo scored first, putting Portugal ahead. However, Ibrahimovic capitalized on an aggressive spell from Sweden to score a quick duo of goals in the 68th and 72nd minute. With the 2-2 aggregate, Portugal would still go on from away goals, Ronaldo’s earlier goal being decisive. However, Ronaldo and Portugal intended to make their qualification certain. Ronaldo scored two more goals in the 77th and 79th minute, earning the star striker a hat trick and putting him tied with Pauleta for most goals for Portugal. Now only two spots in the tournament remain, to be decided tomorrow.