PARIS: The battle for the final four European places for the 2014 World Cup finals get underway today with France and Portugal battling to join the likes of fellow continental heavyweights holders Spain and Germany in Brazil.
Portugal, led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, have the toughest play-off as they face Sweden, who have their own icon in Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading their line.
Former champions France travel to Kiev to play Ukraine and will be hoping if they qualify it will not be in the controversial manner they did for the 2010 finals where the decisive goal against Ireland in their play-off was set up by Thierry Henry’s infamous handball.
The other two play-offs pit goal-shy Greece against Romania while the fairytale could be provided by Iceland, bidding to become the smallest country to ever qualify for the finals, as they host 1998 semi-finalists Croatia.
Ukraine will host a France side in danger of missing out on its first World Cup finals since 1994.
France coach Didier Deschamps – who in 1998 became the first French captain to lift the World Cup trophy as they beat Brazil in Paris – said his players were in the right frame of mind to overcome Ukraine.
“It’s played on the pitch but it’s the head that manages the legs,” said the former Juventus and Monaco coach.
“We’re in a state of mind of challenge, of combat. There’s no room for doubt, for uncertainty, for questioning.”
Uruguay step closer to finals berth
Uruguay are almost assured of their place in next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil after battering Jordan 5-0 in their intercontinental first-leg play-off.
The South American giants sealed an emphatic victory against the 70th ranked Jordanians who failed to live up to the hype and expectation generated in their own country.
“I expected that the team would face difficulties, and win, but not with that number of goals,” said Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez.
Meanwhile, Mexico thumped New Zealand 5-1 in the first leg of their qualifying play-off to take a massive step towards a place in next year’s World Cup finals.