Continental giants Portugal and Sweden were drawn together in the pick of the World Cup qualifying playoffs in Europe made by soccer’s governing body FIFA yesterday.
Former champions France were given a favorable pairing as they travel to Ukraine for the first leg on Nov. 15, while Greece host Romania and Croatia play their first leg in Iceland.
Former semi-finalists Portugal and Sweden were the first two countries pulled out of the hat as Cristiano Ronaldo will look to defy Zlatan Ibrahimovic in what will be a battle of star-studded lineups.
Didier Deschamps’ France, who were narrowly beaten to top spot in their group by defending champions Spain, travel to the Euro 2012 co-hosts, where they defeated Ukraine 2-0 in group play.
“We were not seeded and could have played Portugal or Croatia who have a long history, but Ukraine is not a simple draw either,” Deschamps told Eurosport. “They are on a run of seven matches without defeat and they concede very few goals, as well as a long trip over there It’s good to have the return leg at home, but one team will qualify and the other will be staying home for the World Cup.”
“We have to have a lot of confidence and respect the opposition,” the 1998 World Cup winning captain said.
The return leg is to be played on Nov. 19.
Ukraine’s key player, Artem Fedetsky of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, believes in his side’s chances, despite a tough draw.
“We’ve already been buried after the poor start in the qualifying campaign. However, we managed to come back and reach the playoff stage. After that every single match for us was like the final, like a do-or-die mission,” Fedetsky said. “Now we have serious experience of playing the most important matches. We are a cohesive team now and, I believe, we have fair chance to go through.”
Romania are bidding to return to the finals for the first time since 1998 and will fancy their chances against goal-shy Greece, who were beaten to top spot in their group by Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Finally, Iceland look to qualify for the first time in their history against a Croatia side coming off back-to-back defeats against Scotland and in the midst of a managerial change.
The four winners qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil from June 12 to July 13.
The draw for the eight groups of four that will feature in the first round of the tournament takes place on Dec. 6 in Bahia, Brazil.
Teams already qualified include hosts Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, England, Russia, Bosnia, Japan, Australia, Iran, South Korea, Costa Rica, Honduras and the US.