Ukraine and Greece secured solid home victories in the first legs of the European play-offs for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, seeing off France (2-0) and Romania (3-1) respectively. Both will now fancy their chances of defending their two-goal leads during the second legs on Tuesday 19 November.
Elsewhere, Portugal claimed a tight 1-0 win over Sweden, a result which leaves the round's most high-profile tie finely poised. Minnows Iceland, meanwhile, fought hard to register a 0-0 draw at home to Croatia.
The big match
Portugal 1-0 Sweden
Goal: Cristiano Ronaldo 82
For the first time in their history, Portugal managed to get the better of Sweden at home, having failed to do so on seven previous occasions. The final result was a fair reflection of a tense match between a well-organised Swedish side and a home team that failed to properly take advantage of their territorial dominance and 70 per cent possession.
In the first half, Portuguese goalkeeper Rui Patricio had to be alert to Sweden’s incisive counter-attacks, but as the match wore on, A Seleção das Quinas began to apply more consistent pressure, with Bruno Alves’ 50th minute cross causing panic in the Scandinavian defence.
Cristiano Ronaldo received a yellow card for a trip on Sweden custodian Andreas Isaksson, but he would have the last laugh, shrugging off the attentions of Mikael Antonsson to power Miguel Veloso’s perfect cross into the net with an impressive diving header.
The Lusitanians then came close to doubling their lead four minutes later, as Ronaldo headed against the bar, but there would be no further scoring. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co. will attempt to turn the tie around on Tuesday.
The other games
Ukraine 2-0 France
No team has ever qualified for the World Cup via the play-offs having lost a first leg 2-0. Once again, the French, who matched their opponents for long periods of the encounter before succumbing towards the end, seemed incapable of creating clear-cut scoring chances. The first half was a tense affair, peppered with repetitive fouls. After the break the Ukrainians started to stretch the game, making good use of their fast and skilful wingers in order to cause Les Bleus serious problems at the back.
Paradoxically, the home team’s opener came from a passing move through the middle, adeptly finished off by Roman Zozulia. Subsequently, in the 82nd minute, France, throwing men forward in search of an equaliser, were caught out on the break, and Laurent Koscielny’s clumsy challenge in the box saw the referee award Ukraine a penalty that Andriy Yarmolenko duly dispatched.
In the dying seconds, the Arsenal defender and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Kucher were both handed their marching orders, giving Didier Deschamps an extra headache ahead of Tuesday’s daunting-looking return leg in Paris.
Iceland 0-0 Croatia
Given tremendous backing by the 10,000 noisy fans packed into the Laugardalsvollur Stadium in Reykjavik, Iceland showed that they were not in the play-offs to simply make up the numbers. Possibly taken by surprise by the cold temperatures (two degrees at kick-off) the Croatians came off second best during the first quarter of an hour, but gradually imposed their own game, without truly threatening the Icelandic rearguard.
An injury to the influential Gylfi Sigurdsson just before the break proved a considerable blow for the home team, although it did provide 35-year-old Eidur Gudjohnsen with an opportunity to further cement his legendary status. The hosts were left with an uphill battle in the 50th minute, when Olafur Skulason was shown a red card. The final third of the match saw Croatia pile on the pressure and Iceland defend heroically, with ’keeper Hannes Halldorsson pulling off a series of superb stops, the highlight of which was a fingertip save down to his left from a powerful Mario Mandzukic shot.
Niko Kovac’s men, dominant but ineffectual in front of goal, will need to demonstrate a more clinical level of finishing in the second leg if they are to overcome a courageous Iceland XI with nothing to lose.
Greece 3-1 Romania
The Greeks put themselves in the driving seat of this tie, but Bogdan Stancu’s away goal leaves a glimmer of hope for Romania. The majority of the action took place in the first 20 minutes. The opening goal came out of nowhere, Sokratis Papastathopoulos chipping the ball over the visitors’ defence to Konstantinos Mitroglou, who beat the offside trap and directed a cushioned volley past Bogdan Lobont.
Five minutes later, Greece, doubtless still celebrating, were guilty of a lack of concentration in defence, letting Gabriel Torje’s free kick loop to the back post where Bogdan Stancu steered the ball into the net with his head for an unexpected equaliser. It was then the Romanians’ turn to lose focus soon after scoring. Barely a minute had passed when Dimitrios Salpingidis threw himself at Vasileios Torosidis’ first-time cross to restore the Galanolefki’s lead.
In the second half, they extended that advantage to two goals, as Mitroglu volleyed home a Georgios Samaras free kick that had been flicked on by Konstantinos Katsouranis.
Greece’s Dimitrios Salpingidis is used to standing up to be counted during high-pressure contests. While the majority of his team-mates were still reeling from Romania’s leveller, the lively striker slid in to stab home Vasileios Torosidis’ accurate centre. Salpingidis was the hero of Greece’s last World Cup play-off, scoring the only goal of their tie with Ukraine in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena in November 2009 to send his country to South Africa 2010.
Now 32, Salpingidis (61 caps, 11 goals) evidently still has an eye for goal. The pacey forward has spent the entirety of his club career in Greece, making 167 appearances (and scoring 63 goals) for Panathinaikos and 126 (31 goals) appearances for PAOK, his current employers.
Ukraine 1-0 France (Roman Zozulia 61)
Attacking through the middle, Ukraine succeeded in pulling off a triangular passing move that caused disarray in the French back line. Taras Stepanenko found Edmar just inside the box, from where the naturalised Brazilian guided a first-time pass to Roman Zozulia, who slammed the ball triumphantly past Hugo Lloris.
63 – The number of goals recorded by Cristiano Ronaldo since the beginning of 2013, a total that equals his own record. His header versus Sweden was also his 44th goal for Portugal, which now leaves the Real Madrid star just three short of Pauleta’s national benchmark.
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