Only four World Cup spots remain for the most dominant continent on the planet.
Nine teams from Europe have already booked their tickets for Brazil in 2014, but eight others still have some work to do. The draw for November's home-and-away playoff matches was made on Monday, and needless to say, there are some compelling battles.
Let's take a look.
|UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Playoff Schedule|
|Matchup||Leg 1||Leg 2|
|Sweden vs. Portugal||Nov. 15||Nov. 19|
|Ukraine vs. France||Nov. 15||Nov. 19|
|Greece vs. Romania||Nov. 15||Nov. 19|
|Iceland vs. Croatia||Nov. 15||Nov. 19|
Sweden vs. Portugal
The downside? No matter what happens, we are going to have a World Cup without one of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the most imposing talents in the world.
The upside? We get to watch Zlatan Ibrahimovic vs. Cristiano Ronaldo for a spot in the World Cup.
Ibra vs. C-Ron is going to dominate the narratives and, considering the transcendent things each player is able to do during any given match, rightfully so. But there are going to be 20 other players on the pitch.
Ibrahimovic, in his current form, is capable of putting Sweden on his back, and Portugal has shown a tendency to be inconsistent and play down to teams, but A Seleccao are more talented, have better depth and always seems to play well in these playoff rounds.
For the third tournament in a row, Portugal will advance with its back against the wall.
Ukraine vs. France
Much like with Ibrahimovic or Ronaldo, the World Cup simply wouldn't feel right without France's Franck Ribery, who is currently playing some of the best football of his career.
In terms of elite form, the same can also be said of Olivier Giroud, whose play has been a major part in taking Arsenal to the top of the EPL table. With him up front instead of Karim Benzema, France's attack will be difficult to slow down.
Of course, this generation of French teams can be impossible to predict, but Les Bleus beat this Ukraine side quite easily at Euro 2012 and look even better this time around.
Greece vs. Romania
It's not the most enthralling matchup. Greece, which missed out on a direct spot in Brazil on goal differential to Bosnia and Herzegovina, isn't oozing with sublime talent. Romania, meanwhile, isn't in top form at all, looking shaky in Group D and needing some help from Netherlands just to advance this far.
In the end, though, Greece is the far better team throughout—the Greeks impressively made it to the quarters at Euro 2012—and should advance with relative ease against a Romania squad that hasn't qualified for the World Cup since 1998.
Iceland vs. Croatia
A couple of months ago, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone outside the small island of Iceland who believed the tiny nation even stood a chance against powerful Croatia.
But that's the unpredictable nature of football.
Iceland, coming out of Pot 6 in qualification, has amazingly advanced to the playoff round behind a gritty, determined team effort and now has dreams of becoming the smallest nation (in terms of population) to qualify for the World Cup.
While Iceland is arguably the story of qualification so far, Croatia is moving in the opposite direction.
It struggled to make it out of Group A, hasn't won in five qualifying matches, has lost to Scotland (which won just three matches during qualification) twice during that span and just fired manager Igor Stimac.
Perhaps Niko Kovac can get the Croatians playing at a level they are capable of, but Iceland has all of the momentum and is playing inspired under Lars Lagerback, who has been to three straight World Cups with Sweden and Nigeria.
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