FOX Soccer Exclusive
Portugal, France deliver in crunch time
It looked, for a time, as if two of the world’s best teams would not be making it to the 2014 World Cup. But Portugal and France qualified anyway in Tuesday’s second legs of the European playoffs for the last places in Brazil.
Cristiano Ronaldo really wanted to go to the World Cup. And the French, for all their dysfunction, for the total suspension of belief in them from their own countrymen and women, also really wanted to go to the World Cup.
The most appetizing of the playoff fixtures to emerge from the draw was Portugal-Sweden, which was billed as a battle between soccer luminaries Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of whom, unthinkably, would not be making it to Brazil. And if that seemed simplistic and perhaps dismissive of what is otherwise a very talented Portuguese side, it nevertheless proved accurate.
Ronaldo had given Portugal the win in the first leg at home, inching in front of an opponent to score on a diving header. Now, in the return leg, he drove home the message. In a second tough, scrappy game largely unfolding in incredibly small spaces, the more proactive Portuguese had a torrid time of pushing through the big Swedish throngs. Ronaldo was granted three good looks in the first half and converted none.
Then, in the second, Ronaldo finally made it 2-0 on aggregate, when Joao Moutinho played him through and he coolly ran away from his man and whipped his shot past Andreas Isaksson. That meant Sweden needed three goals to qualify. And this is when Zlatan -- who had proclaimed himself “God” in his signature down-to-earth patter before the game -- finally arose from his long slumber. He nodded in a goal off a corner and then rammed a free kick through the wall to make it 2-2 on aggregate. Sweden needed just one more.
Suddenly looking shaky, Portugal had to be saved by Ronaldo once again, who twice galloped up the open field on through balls and coolly finished. Had he been slightly more sparing with his chances, he could have scored a half dozen or so on the day. Either way, it ended: Ronaldo 4, Zlatan 2.
The result means that Ibrahimovic is likely to end his career without ever scoring a goal in the world’s biggest tournament. Ibrahimovic, at 32, is unlikely to make the 2018 edition in Russia.
In Paris, France had a mountain to climb after losing their first leg with Ukraine 2-0 on the road. The seeming hopelessness of their plight was underscored by a poll among the French public, only 16 percent of which thought Les Blues stood a chance. Yet they were aggressive from the start and Ukraine never managed to shake its torpor.
In the 22nd minute, a low shot by Franck Ribery -- another man whose absence next summer would have been lamentable -- was pushed into the feet of Mamadou Sakho by Andriy Pyatov and the defender struck home from an acute angle. France’s tying goal will give many observers pause. Karim Benzema was plainly offside when Yohan Cabaye seemingly chested the ball to him, freeing him up after a mad scramble in the box, allowing him to equalize at 2-2 on aggregate. If the call was blown, it was somewhat fair nonetheless, as an earlier chested Benzema goal had wrongly been flagged as offside.
The home side needed more help still. Early in the second half, the runaway Ribery was chopped down and Yevhen Khacheridi was somewhat harshly sent off. A flurry of French chances never produced a goal. At length, Oleh Gusev deflected a Ribery shot into his own net to send France into raptures.
Conspiracy theorists will point out that is the second consecutive World Cup for which France has qualified under dubious circumstances -- an offside goal and a harsh red card this time around; an uncalled Thierry Henry handball that helped France overcome Ireland in the playoffs ahead of South Africa 2010.
Croatia, meanwhile, qualified much more convincingly. After being held to a 0-0 draw in Reykjavik by the qualifiers’ Cinderella story Iceland -- which was attempting to reach the World Cup as the smallest country ever by a factor of four -- they outclassed their visitors, giving away nary a chance. An Ivan Rakitic cross was deflected and skipped to the wide-open Mario Mandzukic at the far post, who smacked the only goal the Croatians would need into the open goal.
Even after Mandzukic got himself sent off before the half for sticking his studs straight into an opponent’s upper thigh, Iceland failed to muster any danger. They settled in somewhat in the second half, but not two minutes after the break, the magnificent 19-year-old Mateo Kovacic tore open the Icelandic defense and laid off for Dario Srna, who slipped his finish past the accountable but otherwise solid Hannes Halldorsson. That sucked the hope out of Iceland and the air out of the game, which, along with the series, ended 2-0.
In the day's other World Cup qualifying match in Europe, Greece was quite content to sit behind the ball and bunker in, having traveled to Romania with a 3-1 lead as they had. They were reverting to their singular brand of negativity, seemingly premised on boring their opponents into making a mistake. And in spite of making a hopeful start, the Romanians soon began making those errors.
After gifting Jose Holebas and Giorgios Samaras good looks, Kostas Mitroglou was played through and coolly slid his finish under Ciprian Tatarusanu. That put Romania’s prospective World Cup well out of reach, as they now needed four goals to qualify.
They would only manage one, a gift from their Greek guests, when Vasilis Torosidis weirdly sliced through a ball just as his teammate also was reaching for it and sent it soaring into the top corner of his own goal. It mattered little in the end. As the aggregate score ended 4-2.