World Cup play-offs: Romania seek to spark national revival in Brazil

 

The clash of giant egos is in Lisbon, the romance in Reykjavik, and the only previous winner under threat plays in Kiev, but perhaps the most intriguing European World Cup play-off begins on Friday night in Athens.

When Romania defeated England in Toulouse during the 1998 World Cup few could have imagined that would be their last appearance in the finals for at least 16 years. For a nation long a producer of high-class technical players such as Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus, a young side that also included Dan Petrescu looked set to make an impact.

However, the steady decline of their domestic league has not been counter-balanced, as in some eastern European countries, by progess on the international stage. Thus they start as outsiders against a Greece team that continues to be more than the sum of its parts, albeit not as much as in 2004 when they won the Euros.

While the focus on the game between Portugal and Sweden in Lisbon has been on the match-up of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for the Portuguese with their many historic links to Brazil qualifying is of the utmost importance.

France have not failed to reach a World Cup since 1994, when David Ginola was the scapegoat following the shock home defeat to Bulgaria that cost them their place. Four years later they won the tournament but have in recent years found qualifying a struggle. They infamously edged the Republic of Ireland out of the 2010 finals through Thierry Henry's sleight of hand and many would find it poetic justice should Didier Deschamps' side not get past Ukraine.

To judge from the fate of Jordan and New Zealand, who conceded five goals apiece to Uruguay and Mexico respectively this week, the World Cup play-offs are going to form and history, which is probably not good news for Iceland as they welcome Croatia to Reykjavik. But Croatia know from their own previous feats the bite of the underdog.

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