UEFA Playoff Match-Ups: Europe’s Last Four for the World Cup

uefa_logoThis morning in Zürich, FIFA drew that UEFA’s top eight group runners-up into the four two-legged ties which will determine the final European participants in the 2010 World Cup.

Those match-ups are:

  • Republic of Ireland vs. France
  • Portugal vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Greece vs. Ukraine
  • Russia vs. Slovenia

The draw had the eight teams broken into two tops, with the top four FIFA ranked teams in Pot A. The match-ups were determined by drawing a team from Pot A against a team from Pot B, ensuring that France, Portugal, Russia and Greece (the top four ranked teams) would not play each other.

The matches take place on November 14 and November 18 with the winners getting Europe’s last four spots in South Africa.

Here are some quick thoughts on each match-up:

Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni

Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni

Ireland vs. France

Throughout qualification, France has had trouble translating their immense attacking talent into goals. Ireland, on the other hand, has had no trouble taking their relatively limited talent (compared to other nations in their region) and creating a tactically responsible side that forces you to beat them while being capable of taking advantage of your mistakes.

This is a big problem for France, who have had troubles in central defense for the last two years. Giovanni Trapattoni has to feel very good about drawing a French team that has typically been uninspired, unimaginative, and too reliant on their talent to get results.

I like the Irish to go through on something like a 2-1 aggregate.

Bosnian Edin Dzeko

Bosnian Edin Dzeko

Portugal vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina

The big question here is whether Cristiano Ronaldo will play. Bosnia and Herzegovina lack the talent and organization at the back to stop him, and Portgual has just enough in defense to prevent a talented attack from running through them. However, if Ronaldo does not play, it is unclear Portgual, who has had a terrible time scoring goals throughout qualifying, can post the numbers needed to advance.

There is also the matter of José Bosingwa, the Chelsea right back who was taken from this weekend’s match with an apparent right knee injury. If he can not play, Portugal will have even fewer viable tactics in attack.

With Bosnia and Herzegonvina getting the second leg at home and Portugal showing little stomach for the kill since Carlos Queiroz took over, I’m going to pick B&H to go through; however, since I’m resorting to this flimsy reason to differentiate, I can’t even get behind this pick, as of now. We will have to wait and see how health concerns are addressed.

For now, I like Bosnia and Herzegovina, 4-3.

Ukraine's linch-pin, Anatoli Timoschuk

Ukraine's linch-pin, Anatoli Timoschuk

Greece vs. Ukraine

In Group B play, Greece lost both of their matches to Swtizerland, and while the Swiss and Ukraine are not particularly similar, those matches with Switzerland were the closest the Greeks came in qualifying to facing a nation the quality of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine was showing well against both England and Croatia.

The Greeks are a good team that plays very organized at the back, but Ukraine has the skill to break them down and the ability to keep the ball from them for long periods of time. If they play to their potential, I don’t see Ukraine losing.

Ukraine, 3-1.

Some guy named Andrei Arshavin.  He might be good.

Some guy named Andrei Arshavin. He might be good.

Russia vs. Slovenia

Slovenia posted a very impressive result in Bratislava two weeks ago, but this is still a mismatch. Russia, with the possible exception of France, can put the most talented XI on the pitch, whereas Slovenia might have the least pure-talent amongst these eight teams. Talent is not the long part of a team, but it is important, and where the Russian are well coached and battle-tested (through this qualifying period as well as the 2008 European Championships), you wonder how Slovenia can win.

I’m having a difficult time imagining a scenario where the Slovenians do, which is too bad, because against any of the other teams in Pot A, I would have given them a chance. Against the Russians, however, I can see them getting over-run.

I think Russia wins this one, 4-1.