LONDON – So either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic will not be at the World Cup , a fact that seemed to dominate the initial reaction to the UEFA World Cup playoff draw. To focus just on the two iconic stars, though, is to ignore the rather more intriguing narrative of why Portugal so often underachieves. Here's a quick look at the matchups we'll see this November.
PORTUGAL vs. SWEDEN
Portugal has an abundance of talent: not just Ronaldo, but Real Madrid defenders Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, the immense Bruno Alves of Fenerbahce and the neat and industrious Joao Moutinho of Monaco. Perhaps the squad lacks an obvious center-forward - a perennial problem for Portuguese sides - but this is still a team that should go into major tournaments with at least an outside chance of success. Yet it's needed the playoffs to reach both the last World Cup and Euro 2012 and never really got going at either tournament before being eliminated by Spain. In South Africa, it won only one game, against North Korea, and in Poland and Ukraine, although it was impressive in beating the Netherlands, it only scraped by a mediocre Czech Republic in the quarterfinal. Ronaldo, of course, has the capacity to turn any game, as he did in the qualifiers away to Israel and Northern Ireland, but Portugal seem to rely on him far too much.
Sweden will be awkward opponents. It twice pushed Germany close in qualifying, coming from 4-0 down to tie in Berlin before squandering a two-goal lead to lose 5-3 in Stockholm, and is far more than the stereotype of Zlatan plus ten.
UKRAINE vs. FRANCE
Both sides started the qualifiers slowly, and both finished with a flourish. With Franck Ribery and Olivier Giroud finding their form, France put four past Belarus in Minsk and three past Finland in Paris, then hammered Australia 6-0 in a friendly for good measure. The scratchy form of earlier in the year has vanished to be replaced by something fluid and thrilling - although memories of the team's strike action in South Africa means that the French public still seems to regard the team with a level of suspicion.
Ukraine, meanwhile, took just two points from its first three qualifiers, but finished with six wins and a tie from its final seven games, the two wingers, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko causing problems to everybody but England, who successfully stifled Ukraine in Kyiv.
France complained - ludicrously - about the system for seeding the draw, arguing that because it was in the only five-team group it was disadvantaged in terms of collecting world ranking points. This was an erroneous conclusion given the absence of a minnow and the practice of averaging points over a year meant it was actually advantaged by not having to play a team against which it could collect only minimal points. Ukraine actually was disadvantaged by hosting the Euros and so not playing any competitive matches (which score higher) between autumn 2010 and summer 2012, but still ended up with one more ranking point than France. It should be close.
GREECE vs. ROMANIA
Romania, having lost 2-0 to Turkey, crept into the playoffs as Hungary self-destructed against the Netherlands and Turkey lost at home to the Dutch, while Greece finished with more points than any other second-placed team. It actually took the same number of points as Bosnia, which topped its group, but managed a goal-difference of just +8, as opposed to the +24 the Bosnians managed, which says much for the cautious approach of its coach Fernando Santos. He has changed recently from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, with Giorgios Samaras dropping back to play behind Kostas Mitroglu, but the goals haven't exactly flowed. Although Greece finished qualifying with five straight clean sheets, it scored just six goals in those games, despite two of them being against Liechtenstein.
Romania has brought back Victor Piturca - 'Satan' as he is nicknamed - for a third stint as national coach. On both previous occasions - in 2000 and 2008 - he led the side to qualification for major tournaments, and at least in the way he has got the forward Cipran Marica, one of the great wasted talents of the past decade, playing again, there are signs he might be working his old magic again.
ICELAND vs. CROATIA
The reaction in Croatia was one of relief, with just about everybody - with varying degrees of diplomacy - admitting they were delighted to have drawn Iceland rather than Sweden or France. Iceland, though, probably wasn't too disappointed itself. Croatia, after all, has been in by far the worst recent form of any of the four seeded sides. Croatia took just one point from its final four games in qualifying, a run that included two defeats to Scotland, and playing so badly that Igor Stimac resigned as coach.
His reign had been characterized by inconsistency of selection and tactics, as well as verbal spats with all and sundry, and it has been with some relief that Niko Kovac, who had been working as Under-21 coach, was named as his replacement. Kovac, still only 42, was a player of immense tactical intelligence, his positional sense so good that in the early days of Slaven Bilic's reign, Croatia could effectively play with five attacking players, confidence that Kovac alone offered enough protection to the back four. Whether he can transit that innate understanding to other players remains to be seen, and while Luka Modric and Darijo Srna remain at the top of their games, there is a sense that this Croatia is between generations.
Iceland, meanwhile, gifted as the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson are, is still in a state of delirium at what it was achieved under the veteran Swedish coach Lars Lagerback. Should it prevail, it will be, by a factor of almost four, the smallest country (by population) ever to compete at a World Cup.