These two matches – France vs Ukraine and Sweden vs Portugal were billed in a completely different light. The former was supposed to be a done-deal, a mere formality for Ukraine after the 2-0 victory in Kiev last week, while the latter was dismissed as a dull affaire, fuelled by the Swedish Coach Erik Hamren publically stating that he would rely on the frosty conditions to get stem the threat of the Portuguese attack. And the Footballing Gods took one look at each fixture and said, “Let there be goals.”
France vs Ukraine
France was staring at a 2-goal deficit from the first leg, and even the public had held a very pessimistic view of the whole affair. In a survey by a French newspaper, only 13% of the French population believed that they would qualify for the World Cup. Indeed, despite the Stade de France being completely sold out for the event, commentators and pundits were already slamming the Les Bleus for not reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
But France did what seemed to be the impossible. First Mamdou Sakho, brought into the side in place of the suspended Laurent Koscielny, bundled the ball into the goal and then Kerim Benzema thumped in the second. However, controversy seems to shadow every one of France’s qualifiers – Benzema was at least a yard offside when he scored.
Then Ukraine pretty much drew the noose for themselves as defender Yevhen Khacheridi was dismissed for second yellow ion the 47th minute and then lost the game through farcical circumstances, with Oleg Gusev deflecting the ball into his own net for France to do what was billed as impossible – win 3-0, and thus qualify for Brazil.
Sweden vs Portugal
The worst part about this match was that it meant that any one of two of the world’s best strikers would not be playing in the World Cup. It was a case of either-or – either Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And Ronaldo did just a little more to show why his inclusion is justified in Brazil.
After a stalemate in the first half, Ronaldo made a darting run and finished exquisitely to make it 1-0. But then came the wood in the spokes of the Portuguese machinery – Ibrahimovic scored 2 goals in 4 minutes to make it 2-1 for the home side and 2-2 on aggregate. And that is when the Madeira-born magician took over.
It must be admitted that Joao Moutinho, playing as the midfield anchor for the Portuguese did his part, but it was the sheer beauty with which he scored twice more to register his hattrick that leaves one stunned. He seemed to take a personal vendetta against the Swedish crowd, which had throughout the match cat-called him by chanting “Messi… Messi” everytime he touched the ball. By the end, though, the Swedish crowd was silent, hearts were broken. The only sounds were those of the jubilant men in maroon. And of Ronaldo thumping his chest as he scored his third.