European nations prepare for World Cup playoff battle

European nations prepare for World Cup playoff battle
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Portugal host Sweden in the first leg of their World Cup playoff on Friday in a game that will see arguably Europe’s two deadliest front men face off.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both in stunning form ahead of the battle in Lisbon but only one will feature in Brazil next year.

Portugal defender Pepe believes both nations stand an equal chance of progressing top the finals.

He said: ‘‘I don’t think there are favourites, they (Sweden) try to make us out as the favourites but things aren’t like that. I think 50/50 is more accurate. We have two matches and we must play well in both matches to qualify.’‘

Goals will certainly be expected on the night – Ronaldo tops the La Liga scoring charts while Ibrahimovic has also been prolific for Paris St Germain since arriving last year.

But Sweden will have to shore up their defence on the night as only Iceland conceded more goals out of all runners up in the European qualifying campaign.

The return leg takes place in Stockholm on November 19th.

In another high-profile playoff Ukraine lock horns with 1998 World Cup winners France with the first leg on Friday at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.

Ukraine, who finished second to England in their qualification group, will look to put their agonizing playoff history behind them after also losing out in the 1998, 2002 and 2010 playoffs.

France should be at full strength with European player of the year Franck Ribery expected to play a major role for Didier Deschamps men as they look to reach their fifth straight finals.

The only doubt is defender Raphaël Varane who is suffering from a minor knee problem.

Iceland host Croatia in Reykjavik and will hope to improve their dire defensive record from qualifying where they equaled bottom side Cyprus in leaking 15 goals.

But they are solid in front of goal hitting 17 in the group stage – thanks mainly to Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.

The only absentee for Iceland is defender Birkir Mar Saeversson who is suspended.

Croatia coach Niko Kovac – who was only appointed last month after the sacking of Igor Stimac – will be missing left back Ivan Strinic through injury with Danijel Pranjic is set to deputize.

Mario Mandzukic will likely to start as a lone striker as Ivica Olic continues to recover from a calf strain.

Elsewhere 2004 European champions Greece battle it out with Romania who are hunting only their third finals appearance.

Greece are in the playoffs after finishing second behind Group G winners Bosnia while Romania were runners up behind 2010 finalists the Netherlands.

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