By MARC SERBER
In order to make amends for its disastrous and laughable campaign in 2010, France must make history by becoming the first ever UEFA national side to overturn a 2-0 deficit in its home leg versus Ukraine.
After being stunned by goals from Roman Zozulya and Andriy Yarmolenko in Kiev, the Stade de France in Paris will be on a knife’s edge.
France head coach Didier Deschamps has called on his team “to play with flair and fantasy to turn the situation around.” That’s something that the French side has historically had trouble conjuring up in front of a very demanding set of supporters.
The truth is that much depends on the changes the former World Cup winner makes to his squad ahead of the second leg.
Laurent Koscielny is suspended following a red card. Young center back Raphael Varane in line to replace Koscielny, but the 20-year-old Varane is still carrying a bit of a knee problem himself. Mamadou Sakho and Eric Abidal might be options, while Bacary Sagna could also shift inside from his normal right back position.
Plenty of changes could also be made to the midfield. Some French fans felt Mathieu Valbuena could better handle Ukraine’s physical nature and he may very well get the start over Samir Nasri. Fellow midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who can also play a bit deeper, might get the nod if Deschamps decides to switch his formation from the 4-2-1-3 used in Kiev to a 4-3-3.
The good news for Les Bleus fans is that Artem Fedetskiy, Franck Ribery’s marker in the first-leg, is suspended. The Bayern Munich star might have a bit more room to operate, but it will still be a tall task in front of a French crowd that can be quick to turn.
Cristiano Ronaldo had the better in the battle with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Portugal. Ronaldo’s diving header in the 82nd minute was the only moment that separates the two sides heading into the return leg in Sweden.
Despite his anonymity in the first leg, Ibrahimovic has claimed that his side deserves to go through. In order for this to happen, the Paris Saint-Germain striker must win the battle against Pepe, who kept him well shackled in the first leg. The Real Madrid defender allowed the supremely confident Ibrahimovic just one shot-on-goal while limiting him to 30 passes.
Over in Zagreb, Croatian forward Ivica Olic has vowed that his side will pepper the Iceland goal from the very first minute and promised it will be a very difficult night for Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
Despite having the better of the play in the first half in Reykjavik, Iceland held on for dear life and were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw after Olafur Skulason was shown a straight red just five minutes into the second half.
Croatia could not take advantage, meaning that any goal Iceland scores on the road will count as the tiebreaker, with the away-goals rule in effect. The good news for the Balkan nation is that they have no injury concerns. Iceland will be without Ajax striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who departed after the first half in Reykjavik with a sprained ankle.
Despite Sigthorsson’s absence, Iceland still has plenty of attacking firepower at its disposal. Alfred Finnbogason, who leads the Eredivisie in goal scoring, will likely get the nod after spending most of the campaign as an option off the bench for coach Lars Lagerback.
Former Chelsea and Barcelona man Eidur Gudjohnsen, Sampdoria marksmen Birkir Bjarnason, and AZ Alkmaar’s Johann Gudmundsson are also alternatives up top. The mood in the Iceland camp appears to be one of quiet confidence.
History for the island nation of just over 320,000 is just 90 to 120 minutes away. The Islanders are on the verge of completing what assistant coach Heimir Hallgrimsson called, “a distant dream.” For Croatia meanwhile, missing a second straight World Cup would be a national disaster.
All the pressure is placed squarely on the shoulders of the home side.
Greece heads to Romania with a healthy 3-1 lead, but Bogdan Stancu’s 19th minute header in the first leg means Victor Piturca’s men still have a glimmer of hope.
Overturning a two goal deficit isn’t the Romanians only challange. The squad is without holding midfielders Alexandru Bourcenanu and Costin Lazar. Both are suspended after picking up different color cards in Athans. Their usual replacement, Mihai Pintilii, is also out through injury.
All three goaltenders are still in the mix to get the start, while Tottenham’s Vlad Chiriches, who missed the first leg with a broken nose, will play with a mask. Despite the fervent support of what should be 50,000 fans at the National Arena in Bucharest, Romania must find a way to keep Greece off the board.
First-leg hero Kostas Mitroglou now has 22 goals in his last 20 games in all competitions and just one quick-fire strike from the Greeks could end any hopes of a Romanian revival.