The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Ronaldo's Portugal to face Zlatan's Sweden in World Cup playoff; France gets Ukraine
ZURICH - It will be Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a place at the World Cup.
Portugal and Sweden were the first two teams drawn by FIFA on Monday for the European playoffs, though the pairing was talked about as a clash of superstar forwards in a two-leg series scheduled for Nov. 15 and 19.
"World-class players like Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, they do something extra to change the game," Sweden coach Erik Hamren said. "I am pleased we have one, too. But we need our team to be really good."
Also, France will play Ukraine, with the return game in Paris; Greece was paired with Romania; and Iceland, the lowest ranked of the eight teams at No. 46 in the world, will host the first leg against Croatia, which fired its coach last week.
The four winners will complete Europe's 13 entries in the 32-team World Cup draw on Dec. 6 in Salvador, Brazil.
Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic were consigned to the playoffs after their teams finished second in their qualifying groups behind Russia and Germany, respectively.
"They will be evenly balanced and very competitive games," Portugal coach Paulo Bento said. "Ibrahimovic is an imposing figure, but the Swedes are more than that, they are good collectively."
Portugal also had to advance to the 2010 World Cup through a playoff, after twice drawing 0-0 with Sweden in the group.
France, the 2006 World Cup runner-up, also makes its second straight trip to the playoffs after defending champion Spain won its group. Four years ago, a notorious handball by Thierry Henry helped France beat Ireland in extra time.
"(Ukraine) don't concede many goals and it will be a long away trip for us," France coach Didier Deschamps said. "But to have the return leg at home is a good thing."
France and Ukraine last met in a 2012 European Championship match which was delayed several minutes after kick off by a torrential rain storm in Donetsk. France eventually won 2-0.
Iceland, which has a population of about 315,000, is looking to become the smallest country ever to play at the World Cup. That record is held by 2006 qualifier Trinidad and Tobago, which had about 1.2 million.
Though Iceland lacks the recent pedigree of Croatia, the 1998 semifinalist, the pairing pits a veteran coach against a novice.
Iceland coach Lars Lagerback will be trying to reach his fourth straight World Cup with a third different team. He coached his native Sweden at the 2002 and 2006 tournaments, and Nigeria in 2010.
Croatia's playoff matches mark the coaching debut of 42-year-old Niko Kovac, who stepped up from the under-21 team to replace Igor Stimac, who was fired after poor results.
"I met Niko a little when he took his (coaching) license," Lagerback said. "He looks like a clever guy."
Kovac said he "did not expect this situation" and will work alongside his brother, Robert, another former World Cup stalwart for Croatia.
"With him I am never afraid," said Kovac, who will be focusing on teamwork. "There was no team on the pitch. We have some good players but everyone working for himself."
Greece coach Fernando Santos said he would have preferred to play the first match in Romania.
"My message to the fans is that they should believe in the national team, go to the stadium, fill it, and put pressure on our opponents," Santos said.
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