The 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ lies tantalisingly in sight for the eight teams who finished as best runners-up during the group stage of European qualifying. One final obstacle now remains, with the hopefuls set to contest play-offs to decide who will claim the last four places from the continent's overall allotment of 13.
Headlining the two-legged ties is the much-anticipated meeting between Portugal and Sweden, two teams driven forward by the sparkling talent and forthright personalities of their captains. As for France, winners in 1998 and runners-up in 2006, they find themselves back at this stage along with tricky opponents and play-off veterans Ukraine. Surprise package Iceland have nothing to lose, on the other hand, as they lock horns with Croatia, who claimed third place in 1998.
To label this tie as a showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be slightly simplistic, but there can be no question that whichever player loses out will be sorely missed in Brazil. "Sometimes an individual player can change a game," said Portugal boss Paulo Bento. "But the job of a coach is to put individual talent at the service of the whole team." The man in charge of A Selecçao das Quinas is also determined to address his side's tendency to underperform against "opponents we are superior to", still regretting the points dropped against Israel during the group phase.
Portugal conceded an equaliser to the Israelis with five minutes to go in their penultimate match, and the 1-1 draw took their destiny out of their own hands, meaning they face the play-offs for the second time in their history after defeating Bosnia-Herzegovina 1-0 home and away on the road to South Africa 2010. Ronaldo's return from suspension will give the Lusitanian contenders a major boost, but they must nonetheless cope without prolific attacking midfielder Danny and goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, who are both injured.
In the Swedish camp, coach Erik Hamren can count upon the same group of players who came second in their second to Germany, finishing a distant eight points back despite slotting seven goals past their rivals in two games. Sweden have never lost to Portugal and have been playing an attacking brand of football, yet with 14 goals conceded in qualifying so far there are obvious concerns about the solidity of their defence. "We need to cut down on the mistakes we're making," said Ibrahimovic. "The play-offs are like two finals, though. They're completely different to group matches, and they'll be two fantastic games."
The other matches
Reinvigorated towards the end of their group campaign, Ukraine finished a solitary point behind England, while France ended up second best to Spain, losing 1-0 at home to the holders after an excellent 1-1 draw away. The advantage in terms of play-off experience belongs to Ukraine, who find themselves contesting this stage for the fourth time – though they lost out on each occasion ahead of the 1998, 2002 and 2010 tournaments. Impressively compact, the eastern European side will be anxious to end that sequence and boast a line-up filled with talents based at Ukraine's leading clubs, with the exception of Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Anatoly Tymoshchuk, a player who loves to surge forward when he can. The fireworks will be provided by Andriy Yarmolenko on the right and Yevhen Konoplyanka on the left, both of whom played a full part as Ukraine racked up an average of 2.8 goals per game in the group stage.
As for France, they progressed through the play-offs at the Republic of Ireland's expense to reach South Africa 2010 and remain unbeaten against Ukraine. In seven previous meetings, Les Bleus have recorded four wins and three draws, most notably seeing off the Synyo-Zhovti (Blue and Yellows) 2-0 at UEFA EURO 2012. Coach Didier Deschamps looks to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 approach, but his team are still waiting for a performance that sets confidence coursing through the ranks. They also lack the kind of leader on the pitch they have always possessed during their most glorious periods, missing a modern equivalent to Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane.
Runners-up to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group G on goal difference alone, Greece face an evenly balanced tie against Romania, a side on the rise despite finishing a long way behind the fearsome Netherlands in Group D. Greece coach Fernando Santos has recalled forward Theofanis Gekas and Kaiserslautern midfielder Kostas Fortounis to strengthen a squad which features six players from Olympiakos – current champions and league leaders – and five from second-placed PAOK. Romania must cope without influential centre-back Vlad Chiriches, on the other hand, but the history books speak in their favour. Greece may have won their last six internationals, yet in the 30 games between the two nations, Romania have won 17 compared to five victories for their opponents and eight draws.
Croatia triumphed 4-0 in Zagreb and 3-1 in Reykjavik when these sides crossed paths on the road to Germany 2006, but things have undoubtedly moved on since then. Iceland remain an unfamiliar quantity to most, yet their dream of reaching a first ever World Cup will hinge on a number of gifted young players, including 24-year-old captain and Cardiff City midfielder Aron Gunnarsson, 23-year-old Ajax forward Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Tottenham Hotspur schemer Gylfi Sigurdsson, also 23. Overseeing their efforts, meanwhile, is Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who, in the space of two years, has completely transformed a team that hails from an island with just 320,000 inhabitants. "He's given us confidence by making us realise the huge potential we have, despite the small size of our country," said Gunnarsson.
Lagerback's opposite number has faced a race against time to motivate his troops, in contrast, having taken over the reins after Igor Stimac resigned at the end of the group stage. Croatia finished runners-up to Belgium, but former international midfielder Kovac – who scored 14 goals in 83 outings for his country – believes he knows what is required to get the Vatreni firing on all cylinders again. "We don't lack talented individuals, but often they are guilty of being too individualistic," he explained. "They haven't forgotten how to play football in such a short space of time. We just need to instil a certain discipline on the pitch."
Player to watch
Much of Ukraine's threat is likely to come from Andriy Yarmolenko on the right flank, with the 24-year-old labelled by some as the 'new Andrei Shevchenko'. A supremely athletic player at 6'2 as well as quick and blessed with the talent to dribble past defenders, the Dynamo Kiev winger is at his most dangerous when he cuts inside and shoots with his left foot. France will need to be wary of a player who boasts 12 goals from his 11 appearances in all competitions.
513 – The number of league and UEFA Champions League goals scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo since the 2004/05 season, with the Portugal forward notching 304 of them and his Swedish counterpart accounting for the other 209. On the international stage, Ibrahimovic has rattled in 46 strikes for Sweden at a rate of 0.49 per match, giving him a slight edge over Ronaldo and his 43 efforts at 0.40 per game.
What they said
"The squad are confident and have belief. The players aren't just giving 100 per cent but 200 per cent, and that will allow us to make the difference," Fernando Santos, Greece coach.
Have your say
Which teams will secure wins away from home in the first legs?