The four play-offs in the European Zone will conclude on Tuesday with a quartet of sides needing to pull off a genuine feat if they are to reach the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. France and Romania face the biggest challenges of all after their hopes were hit by damaging first-leg defeats, and both will be looking to become the first teams to overcome a two-goal deficit in a World Cup play-off.
As for Iceland, they travel to Croatia still dreaming of becoming the first side from an island of just 320,000 inhabitants to book a place in the finals. Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo seem to conjure feats on an almost weekly basis, but only one of the gifted pair will be travelling to Brazil.
If any of the ties finish with the aggregate scores level after 90 minutes, away goals will prove decisive. Should the teams still be level, two 15-minute periods of extra time will be played, followed by a penalty shoot-out if required.
Match of the day
France-Ukraine (0-2 first leg), Paris, Stade de France, 19 November, 21.00 (local time)
Two decades after the 2-1 home loss to Bulgaria that denied them a spot at USA 1994, France find themselves on the verge of another painful World Cup absence. "We have to believe, really believe, if we're going to turn things around," coach Didier Deschamps has insisted. "Everyone has to be united." The burning question for the country set to host UEFA EURO 2016 is whether they must alter the personnel on the pitch, change the team's tactics or simply alter the mentality of the players.
*Les Bleus *were noticeably outperformed by a combative and committed Ukraine side in Kiev, where the visitors' 4-2-3-1 formation suddenly appeared outmoded. In particular, Franck Ribery was neutralised with startling effect and Paul Pogba was unable to find space in attacking areas, where he usually excels for Juventus. Overall, Ukraine put in a superb defensive display, showing just why they shipped a mere four goals during the group phase, but coach Mikhail Fomenko will have to change at least half his rearguard due to suspensions for full-back Artem Fedetskiy and stopper Oleksandr Kucher. France will need to beware committing too many men forward, though, given the threat posed by wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko on the break.
*The other matches *
Although Portugal dominated the opening leg in terms of chances and possession, they were guilty of a certain wastefulness in attack, allowing too many opportunities to go begging. Ronaldo was left with more regrets than most after the game, despite hitting the winner, and coach Paulo Bento quickly echoed the forward's sentiments. "There's no doubt about it," he said. "We lacked efficiency in the situations we were able to create." As for Sweden, they left the impression of being a well-oiled side allying defensive rigour with counter-attacking potential before finally succumbing to Ronaldo's late decider. They will need to be more adventurous at home, of course, and will look to serve up at least a few openings for Ibrahimovic, who will be hungry to add to the ten goals he has already registered at the Friends Arena since it opened a year ago. Belief is nonetheless high among the Scandinavian outfit's supporters, who see a one-goal deficit as nothing for the team that recovered from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 in the space of a half against Germany in Berlin last October.
*The hosts will be up against it after coming out second best in Greece, not least due to the performance of their defence in the absence of Tottenham Hotspur centre-back Vlad Chiriches. Romania coach Victor Piturca will be urging his players to take more risks on home soil, but he will be keenly aware too that they dare not leave themselves vulnerable at the back. That said, his team can take a measure of comfort from their away goal, and Piturca has been reminding the squad of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 3-1 win against Greece during the group phase. The Greeks are absolute masters when it comes to defending a result, however, and they also have experience on their side, leaving them confident of progressing to their third World Cup finals.
*Despite an array of individual talents, Croatia have struggled to impress in front of goal since the qualifying campaign kicked off. They managed just 12 strikes in the group stage and were again left with nothing to show for their efforts against a courageous Iceland side on Friday, failing to find a way through after the hosts were reduced to ten men. Overseeing his first match as Croatia coach, Niko Kovac watched his charges adopt too cautious an approach in the opening period before proving incapable of making their numerical superiority count. For all of Luka Modric's prompting, the likes of Mario Mandzukic, Danijel Pranjic and Eduardo never found their feet, in contrast to their opponents, whose incredible team spirit could yet carry them to a first ever major international tournament. "The defensive performance in the second half was absolutely fabulous," said coach Lars Lagerback, his troops having finished second between Switzerland in Group E. "A draw without conceding a goal is like a victory given the circumstances."
Player to watchIceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson gave a real display of his talent in the first leg as he kept Croatia at bay with a string of vital saves, and he will be keen to frustrate Kovac's men a second time in Zagreb. First capped on 6 September 2011, the same year he was voted Iceland's player of the year by his peers, the 29-year-old KR custodian has spent his entire career in his homeland, save for a one-match excursion in Norway. At ease claiming high crosses given his 1.93m frame and a solid ball-handler in general, he conceded just 15 goals during Iceland's ten group stage qualifiers – and much of his country's fate will rest in his hands on Tuesday.
60 – The percentage of games in which Ukraine have kept a clean sheet in their last 20 outings. Moreover, the last time Ukraine lost by at least three goals was on 6 September 2011, when they went down 4-0 to the Czech Republic in a friendly.
What they said
"When we got the ball back, we didn't have the quality we needed. If we're going to use Zlatan more, we need to lay down a passing game. There were too many long balls," Erik Hamren, Sweden coach. * *
Have your say
Can France and Romania claw their way back despite two-goal deficits?