It was a dramatic night of international football on Tuesday that sent four more European teams to Brazil and others wondering if they want to go at all. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick eclipsed a stunning brace by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Portugal met Sweden in Stockholm for the second leg of the play offs. With Portugal leading 1-0 from the first leg, the home fans were determined to help their team as much as possible, including disturbing the sleep of the Portuguese players the night before. Despite the underhanded tactics, Ronaldo would not be deterred from his goal of reaching another World Cup. The Real Madrid star put his team into an early lead before a Swedish comeback inspired by their talisman Ibrahimovic who has been in the best form of his life over the past two years. A quick fire brace including a wonderfully taken second goal pulled Sweden back level on aggregate and back into the match. But Ronaldo would have the last laugh as he stepped up a gear by grabbing a brace himself to complete his hat trick and put Portugal on the plane to Brazil. It wouldn’t be the World Cup without the Real Madrid star but others will be disappointed that Ibrahimovic will not be there as his creativity and flair have light up many a back page with yet another wonder goal.
Elsewhere a convincing 2-0 victory for Croatia helped sealed their place at the expense of Iceland. The tiny Scandinavian country had reached the play offs against all odds so defeat over the two legs to Croatia will be painful to take. After all this was a Croatian side ripe for the picking having come off the back of a double defeat to Scotland in the group stages. Iceland’s approach and effort in qualifying should have been enough to secure their passage so falling at the last hurdle will be a harsh lesson for their young squad in staying focused and not being distracted by the main prize. Croatia will be joined on the plane by Greece who dispatched Romania over the two legs despite a spirited performance from Victor Piturca’s players.
The surprise of the night was the comeback of Les Blues as Didier Deschamp’s French team clawed back a 2-0 first leg deficit against a powerful Ukraine side to win 3-0 in the second leg and book their place. A brace from Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and a solo strike from Karim Benzema was enough to turn around the tie that many feared was already over. Ukraine were blown away by a determined French side, inspired by Franck Ribery and Yohan Cabaye who were helped in their cause by the dismissal of Ukrainian defender Yevhen Khacheridi just before half time. A passionate crowd sang songs of allez les blues as France romped to victory.
Meanwhile friendly defeats for England, Spain, USA and Belgium have heaped concerns about their chances in Brazil next summer. England’s failure to trouble a heavily rotated Germany will surely concern manager Roy Hodgson and definitely the over exuberant British press. Spain’s surprising defeat in South Africa also came as a shock especially as Del Bosque had sent out an almost full strength team. Whilst they had chances, the reigning World and European champions looked vulnerable at the back, with some suggesting the exclusion of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas being the main catalyst. Dark horses for next year’s tournament, Belgium also suffered defeat for the second time in five days, this time to Japan. The Japanese who have also qualified took their chances well against the young and enthusiastic Belgium side eventually winning the match by three goals to two. In Austria, Jürgen Klinsmann led team USA preparations took a knock with a surprise 1-0 defeat to Austria. Having drawn on Friday with Scotland, Klinsmann was hoping to put Austria to the sword but they had other ideas. A single goal by Marc Janko thirty three minutes into the match sealed a famous victory and gave the German coach much to ponder.