Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Global stars face off in play-off

Real deal: Cristiano Ronaldo will seek to inspire Portugal

All eyes will be on two of the best players on the planet tonight as Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic face eachother in the first leg of a play-off to determine which of them will miss out on the chance to grace next summer's World Cup.

Of the five players generally regarded as the best in the world, only Argentina's Lionel Messi and Brazil's Neymar are assured of featuring at next year's tournament, with Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic joining France's Franck Ribery in the play-off lottery.

The only certainty is that at least one of them will not make it – with Sweden striker Ibrahimovic most at risk on paper ahead of the first leg at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz.

Sweden go into the tie against Ronaldo's Portugal as the underdogs, with midfielder Sebastian Larsson admitting: "Portugal have to be favourites in anybody's eyes."

Portugal have reached the last two major tournaments via the play-offs, but their coach Paulo Bento has rejected talk of a hat-trick being a formality.

"Sweden are a quality team, and they have a knack of reacting to adversity during qualification," Bento said.

Iceland will bid to become the smallest nation to reach the World Cup finals when it hosts the first leg of its play-off against Croatia in Reykjavik.

Under the guidance of Swedish coach Lars Largerback the island nation, with a population just over 300,000, is on the cusp of reaching a major tournament for the first time in its history.

Karim Benzema has confidently declared France "will qualify" for the World Cup as Les Bleus prepare to face Ukraine in Kiev.

Didier Deschamps' men have been forced down the play-off route after failing to get the better of Spain in their qualification group, although the form they showed in finishing second to the reigning world champions was nevertheless impressive.

One final hurdle stands in France's way, and on paper it is a tough one with Mikhail Fomenko's Ukraine coming into the tie on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run.

The other match sees Greece play host to Romania in Athens.

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