They are two of the best players in the world, but only one of them will be at the World Cup in Brazil. Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic highlights the first round of UEFA's playoff matches.
Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic are the kinds of players that make watching a World Cup so memorable. Two great showmen with unrivaled skill, it's a shame only one of them will head to Brazil. The first leg of the playoffs for Europe's final World Cup qualification spots kick off on Friday and all eyes will be on Lisbon.
The two superstars, who captain their respective national sides, are enjoying a fantastic start to the club season.
Ronaldo's lead's Spain's La Liga with 16 goals in 13 games, to go along with his eight goals in four Champions League matches. In just over four seasons with Real Madrid, the 28-year-old striker has scored 225 goals in all competitions.
Ibrahimiovic, 32, has eight goals in 12 matches so far in Ligue 1 and is enjoying the best run of form in his career after leading Paris St. Germain to a league championship last season. Against Bastia in October he scored one of the more skillful goals of the year – a back-heel, scorpion-style flick – and in a friendly against England this time last year, he scored one of the greatest goals in football history – a bicycle volley from outside the box.
The tall Swede has insisted the playoff series isn't about Ibrahimovic verses Ronaldo, but that it's about two countries trying to qualify for the World Cup. To the outside observer preparing to watch two of the game's greatest players go head-to-head with everything on the line, however, there's hardly anything else to talk about.
With all the hype surrounding Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, it may be the other players on the pitch that actually decide the match. The Portuguese also enjoy the talents of mercurial Manchester United attacker Nani, who on a good day can produce hints of the magic that makes Ronaldo so revered. Supporting the attack is the veteran midfield trio of Raul Meireles, Jao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, who helped Portugal reach the semifinal of Euro 2012.
Sweden, who missed out on the 2010 World Cup, boast an experienced lineup that features three players with more than 100 caps, none of whom are named Zlatan. Nine different players scored during qualification, a testament to the fact that there is a strong team there even without their talented captain.
Minnows' surprising success
Behind the backdrop of Friday's marquee match, however, are six other teams fighting for a ticket to Brazil. Iceland, a nation of just over 300,000 people, have defied the odds to reach the playoffs. They now have a shot at becoming the smallest ever nation to qualify for football's biggest tournament when they host Croatia.
The Nordic minnows owe a large part of their unexpected success to the guidance of veteran coach Lars Lagerback. The 65-year-old Swede, who led his country to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and Nigeria to the 2010 tournament, has provided a stabilizing presence to the side since joining two years ago.
Lagerback is also helped by what is undoubtedly the greatest young generation of players Iceland has ever produced, including Heerenveen striker Alfred Finnbogason and Tottenham midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Lagerback has described the draw against the heavily favored Croatians as a "win win" situation after the unprecedented success Iceland have already achieved. Indeed it's Croatia, third-place finishers in the 1998 World Cup, who are under pressure to redeem themselves after failing to qualify in 2010.
France favorites against Ukraine
France are hoping to avoid missing out on their first finals since 1994 when they take on Ukraine. Just four years ago it was Thierry Henry's infamous handball against Ireland that helped send them to South Africa.
Despite qualifying, the 2010 World Cup is a bitter memory for French fans. The team famously imploded in spectacular fashion. Then-coach Raymond Domenech lost control of the dressing room and the players lost control on the field. The team exited in the group stage after three forgettable performances.
Brazil is thus a chance at redemption for France, but to do so they will have to get by a Ukraine side that, while underdogs, are no easy matchup. Recent tournament results haven't been kind to the Ukrainians, who failed to reach the 2010 World Cup and did not get out of their group when they hosted Euro 2012. But their quarterfinal achievement at Germany 2006 isn't that far behind them, and they nearly caught England to win their qualifying group this time around (a 1-0 loss at home to Montenegro being their ultimate undoing).
Europe's final playoff spot sees Greece take on Romania. The Romanians haven't made the World Cup since 1998, while Greece have the chance to reach the tournament for the third time in 20 years. They have managed to replace most of the aging generation that won them Euro 2004 with new young talent but finding the back of the net, as ever, remains a problem. Greece scored just 12 goals in 10 matches during qualification.
The first legs of the playoffs all take place Friday evening, with the return fixtures to be held Tuesday, November 19. The draw for the World Cup will be held December 6.