Paris, France, November 19 – France and Portugal, two of Europe’s footballing heavyweights, face a fraught test of nerves on Tuesday with their places at the 2014 World Cup finals at stake.
France, the 1998 world champions, are 2-0 down to Ukraine after the first leg of their play-off ahead of the return in Paris while Portugal, semi-finalists in 2006, take a slender 1-0 advantage to Sweden.
Elsewhere, Greece look well set to make the finals in Brazil next year as they enjoy a 3-1 lead over Romania while Iceland, bidding to become the smallest country to reach the World Cup, are 0-0 with Croatia ahead of their trip to Zagreb.
France are clearly most at risk of failing to qualify for a major championships for the first time since they missed the boat for the 1994 World Cup.
And although Ukraine have lost their previous three play-offs — against Croatia (1998), Germany (2002) and Greece (2010) — they arrive in Paris with a two-goal cushion from the first leg, a psychological advantage and facing a home team smarting from a pasting in the press.
The manner of their defeat in Kiev on Friday prompted the sports daily L’Equipe to write off their chances.
“In terms of what we saw on Friday night … the French would do well just to draw the second leg,” offered the newspaper.
And if they are to overcome the Ukrainians, they will have to do so without Laurent Kolchensky at the heart of their defence after the Arsenal defender was sent off late on following a clash with Oleksandr Kucher as tension spilled over.
France coach Didier Deschamps, who admitted his side were undone by Ukraine’s sheer physicality in the first leg, said: “We’ve got to put them under pressure, to go at them. On Tuesday, we’ve got to be in the battle. We have the ability to turn it round and that’s what we have to do.”
In Solna, near Stockholm, things are more finely poised, with Sweden taking on Portugal in the second leg a goal down from Lisbon, predictably scored late in the game by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Swedish hopes rest even more squarely than ever on the broad shoulders of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, especially with his phenomenal goalscoring record at the Friends Arena, where he has found the net 10 times since the stadium was inaugurated a year ago.
Elsewhere, Greece should complete the formality of qualifying in Bucharest, having racked up a surprising 3-1 advantage from the first leg in Piraeus.
But little Iceland travel to Zagreb with their improbable World Cup dream still just about alive after a desperate draw in the goalless first leg in Reykjavik.
That match saw them fight a constant rearguard action against relentless waves of Croatian attacks after being reduced to 10 men for the last 40 minutes after defender Olafur Skulason was sent off.
Yet they still have everything left to play for and should they achieve the unthinkable and win in Zagreb they would become the fist nation with a population of under a million ever to reach the final stages of the competition.