/ Soccer

World Cup play-off previews

Updated: Wednesday, 20 Nov 2013 00:18 | Comments

Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game for Portugal against Sweden in the first leg
Ronaldo scored the only goal of the game for Portugal against Sweden in the first leg

Sweden v Portugal

Sebastian Larsson claims Sweden will be able to give Cristiano Ronaldo a rough ride in their World Cup play-off in Stockholm because English referee Howard Webb will not fall for his "tricks".

Portugal go into the match leading 1-0 from the first leg - Ronaldo scored the only goal with a diving header - but Larsson believes the appointment of an English referee could be crucial to Sweden's hopes of making the finals in Brazil next summer.

Ronaldo won a number of free-kicks during the first leg but Sunderland midfielder Larsson told media in Sweden: "We have an English referee now so we can probably go in a bit harder.

"I do not think he is going to fall for the same tricks so easily.

"Howard Webb is used to refereeing where the game is a little more physical. He's a great referee, too, which is important for such a big game."

Sweden have been preoccupied with how little of the ball Zlatan Ibrahimovic saw during the first leg, and there have been calls for 37-year-old midfielder Anders Svensson - once of Southampton - to start the second leg in order to provide better service for the Paris St Germain forward.

Larsson think that Sweden should keep it tight but play higher up the pitch.

He said: "We cannot go out all guns blazing but we must have a more attacking game with more ball higher up the pitch, then we will get Zlatan more in the game."

Ronaldo has himself previously expressed a liking for playing in matches under Webb, who will have the same assistants in Mike Mullarkey and Darren Cann as officiated with him at the 2010 World Cup final.

Another Premier League referee, Andre Marriner, will act as fourth official.

There is nervousness about the match in Portugal with media pointing to the fact that the temperature will be around freezing point, and that the pitch is not in a very good condition.

Former Manchester United winger Ronaldo is expecting "another battle".

He said: "Portugal have a small advantage, and we are expecting a very difficult game, but we are ready.

"We will have to be fully focused. More than anything else, these players want to be in Brazil, so we will give our best to get there."

The Portugal squad received an unexpected wake-up call this morning at 7.15am from Swedish-Finnish musician Markoolio when he decided to deliver an impromptu performance outside their team hotel.   

Croatia v Iceland

Niko Kovac is confident his Croatia side will prove too strong for Iceland in the winner-takes-all World Cup qualifying showdown in Zagreb.

Nordic minnows Iceland, who with a population of just over 300,000 would be the smallest nation ever to reach the finals should they win through, held Croatia to a goalless draw in Reykjavik on Friday night.

The visitors did dominate against an Iceland side who played most of second half without the dismissed Olafur Ingi Skulason, but Croatia would still leave the island frustrated and needing to win back on home soil.

Nevertheless, coach Kovac says he saw enough in Iceland to convince him his players are still the stronger bet to snatch a place in Brazil.

He told a press conference: "We knew that Iceland had a strong mentality and they proved as much.

"Their goalkeeper also made two or three good saves. Sometimes it's more difficult to play against 10 players than against 11.

"We said before the game that we were looking to score. We didn't score, but neither did they.

"The impression remains that we are the better team and have a better overall repertoire. They play very simple football with a lot of vertical switching and that's always risky.

"I am confident that we will repeat our dominant display in Zagreb and will ultimately get to Brazil."

Unfortunately for their hosts, Group E runners-up Iceland are similarly confident they can get a result in the Croatian capital - in the process making history by reaching their first major tournament.

And while home boss Kovac continues to present a brave face, visiting captain Aron Gunnarsson thinks the opposition could crack under the weight of expectation if pressure is applied in the right places.

The Cardiff midfielder told mbl.is: "There's no doubt in my mind that we're all switched on for this game. We know there's a lot of pressure on Croatia.

"We've noticed in the media over here that the people are not happy with the team and that they were not satisfied with the result in the first leg.

"We have to put more pressure on them.

"We are not afraid of anything and we intend to make our dreams come true by getting to the World Cup."

Iceland might, however, do well to avoid poring over history books before running out at the Stadion Maksimir.

Their last visit to Zagreb saw them beaten 4-0 in a World Cup qualifier in March 2005 - a certain Niko Kovac scoring twice.

In his new role as coach, the former Croatia midfielder is expected to make two changes for the return leg, replacing winger Ivo Ilicevic and striker Eduardo with Mateo Kovacic and Ivica Olic.

QPR loanee Niko Kranjcar is an alternative option in attack and would win his 82nd cap.

Midfielder Skulason is suspended for Iceland after Friday's dismissal while veteran striker Eidur Gudjohnsen - part of the set-up since 1996 - could enter the fray for the injured Kolbein Sigthorsson.

Former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback may even be tempted to give Birkir Mar Saevarsson a run-out at right-back in the crunch encounter.

lars lagerback

Romania v Greece

Greece will be favourites to secure a World Cup place as they head to Romania for the second leg of their qualification play-off with a comfortable lead.

The Greeks overcame their rivals 3-1 when they met in Athens last week and will be expected to hold on to complete the job in the return fixture in Bucharest.

The performance maintained Greece's strong form from their regular qualifying programme, in which they won eight out of 10 Group G matches only to finish second to Bosnia on goal difference.

Yet despite their advantage and strong defensive reputation, the side's Portuguese coach Fernando Santos will be taking nothing for granted.

Santos told reporters after the first leg: "Although we are ahead in the tie we still need to go to Romania with a focused mindset as everything will be decided then. Nothing is over yet.

"We are at half-time in the tie so there is still plenty of work to do and we'll have to show the same appetite and concentration in the second leg, so we don't throw away what we have built on in Athens.

"Our focus will be to keep a clean sheet because if we concede an early goal it will create problems for us."

Romania will hope Tottenham's Vlad Chiriches can return to bolster their defence after missing the match in Greece due to a fractured nose.

The 24-year-old could play wearing a protective mask.

In his absence, the Romanian defence conceded twice to Olympiacos forward Konstantinos Mitroglu and once to Dimitrios Salpingidis to leave themselves facing an uphill struggle.

Romania's goal, from lone striker Bogdan Stancu of Genclerbirligi, was the first Greece had conceded since March.

Ciprian Marica could join Stancu up front in a more attacking formation in the second leg.

Regular first choice Ciprian Tatarusanu could also return in goal in place of Bogdan Lobont but midfielders Alexandru Bourceanu and Costin Lazar are suspended.

Greece also have a notable absentee through suspension after captain Kostas Katsouranis was booked in the first leg.

Greece, the Euro 2004 champions, are bidding to reach their second successive World Cup while Romania are hoping to qualify for the first time since 1998.

Romania coach Victor Piturca said: "If we manage to qualify, it will be extraordinary for Romanian football, and for myself.

"If we fail, you can forget about me for three months - I will hide in a monastery."

France v Ukraine

Blaise Matuidi has called on France to play "with heart, with guts and with the head" as they bid for an improbable place in next summer's World Cup.

Les Bleus trail Ukraine 2-0 from Friday's first leg in Kiev after second-half goals from Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko and must produce a remarkable turnaround back at the Stade de France.

Paris St Germain midfielder Matuidi told the French Football Federation's official website: "For most of us, it is the most important game in our careers.

"We all want to show something different to what we did on Friday. We have to be stronger in the battles and improve our technical quality.

"We have to play with heart, with guts, but with the head as well. We have to score but we cannot afford to let in a goal.

"We know we have the talent to do it but we have to show pride and passion."

In a poll in the country's biggest sports daily, L'Equipe, ahead of the return game, more than 60 per cent of respondents believed France would not qualify.

To do so, they will have to end Ukraine's run of eight successive clean sheets, a national record for which goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov was quick to share the credit with his defenders.

Pyatov told the Football Federation of Ukraine's website: "The guys have been great. This sequence was possible due to their efforts.

"When the goalkeeper is not beaten, the team has a better chance of winning. For me the main thing is the result of the team.

"It is more important to go to Brazil than to set records."

That defensive unit will be missing Olexander Kucher - who, like France's Laurent Koscielny, is suspended after his dismissal late in the first leg.

"Yes, we will miss him," said Pyatov. "But we have someone to replace him. We have (Yaroslav) Rakytskiy.

"I think the team understand their responsibilities and will cope with the problem."

The Shakhtar Donetsk keeper believes his side must improve even on their impressive first-leg showing to ensure qualification.

"We watched the first match with France, analysed our performance and the coach (Mykhailo Fomenko) showed us a large number of mistakes," he said. "Nothing is never perfect, we learn from our mistakes.

"It will be a difficult match but that's football. There is tension, emotion, but we are very focused on the game and believe in ourselves."

User contributions and/or comments do not, unless specifically stated, represent the views of RTÉ.ie or RTÉ.
Click here for Terms of use