The battle for the final four European places for the 2014 World Cup finals get underway on Friday 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.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento, who guided the side to last year’s Euro semi-finals, knows expectations are high.
“I can understand why there might be greater expectations because it’s (the World Cup) in Brazil, although our objective would be exactly the same if it was being held somewhere else too,” the 44-year-old said.
“Our level of ambition wouldn’t change. But a fact’s a fact. Outside the camp, expectations are really high about us getting there, because it’s being played in Brazil and because they’re Portuguese speakers.
“When we set out our long-term objectives, the main one was getting to Brazil, and it’s still in our hands.
“Against Sweden we’ll be tackling the game in a way that befits the situation: with belief, respect for our opponents and, more than anything, tremendous conviction that we can make it to Brazil 2014.”
Many neutrals are disappointed that one of Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic will miss out on Brazil, but the PSG striker says his team deserve their place in the hat when the World Cup finals draw takes place on December 6 at Mata de Sao Joao.
“We have had tough matches during qualification but this has only stimulated us,” said Ibrahimoivic.
“Portugal are probably favourites given their team and their individuals, but we came second in a group featuring Germany and we deserve to go to Brazil more.” added the Sweden skipper. Ukraine will host a France side in danger of missing out on its first World Cup finals since 1994 and keen also to erase memories of their catastrophic appearance at the 2010 edition both on and off the pitch where the players ended up refusing to train.
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,” he added.
Ukraine coach Mikhail Fomenko has guided the team on a six game unbeaten run since taking over in December 2012 and says his team are extremely motivated for the challenge at hand.
“France are very experienced and dangerous opponents but we’re not afraid of the upcoming matches,” Fomenko told AFP.
“I think all of my players perfectly understand what we shall accomplish in the play-off encounters with France.”
Romania are bidding to qualify for the first time since 1998 as they travel to Greece, who scored just 12 goals in 10 group games, in what could well be a finely balanced duel.
Iceland’s surprising run to the play-offs has been due in large part to the calming and knowledgeable influence of experienced Swedish coach Lars Lagerback, who coached the Swedes at two World Cup finals.
Lagerback, who also coached Sweden at three European championship finals, said his side had nothing to lose.
“Of course it would be a huge disappointment if we didn’t get to Brazil now that we are so close but, as far as I am concerned, we are in a win-win situation,” he said.
“There weren’t many outside Iceland and, to be fair, in Iceland who expected us to get this far, even though the expectations have grown the further we have got in qualifying.”