By Wednesday, there will be no more ifs ands or buts. The field for the 2014 FIFA World Cup will be set in stone. Twenty-one teams have booked their places in Brazil. In the coming days, the last eleven spots will be filled. Those eleven spots will consist of five teams from Africa, four from Europe, and probably Mexico and Uruguay, who are so close to making qualification a certainty.
Here’s a preview up the last qualifiers on the long road to Brazil, as well as US TV/Internet times. All times are Eastern.
Croatia vs Iceland
1st leg, Friday 2pm, WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 2:15pm, ESPN3.com
Iceland are Europe’s fairytale story in 2013. Trying to become the smallest ever nation to qualify for a World Cup, Iceland has been transformed from a soccer hinterland to a country with huge enthusiasm and dreams for their exciting young national team.
Led by the likes of Tottenham midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, Iceland play a progressive brand of soccer that is often easy on the eye. Aided by a soft qualification group, Iceland took second and then were handed a draw against the weakest of the seeded teams in the European playoff.
Croatia have talent, but they also have a bit of an identity crisis on their hands. Former Croatia captain Niko Kovac has been hired as manager after former boss Igor Stimac almost forced his own removal after a dismal end to the qualification campaign. Although Croatia boast stars like Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic, they only found the net 11 times, tied for the lowest total of the European playoff nations.
Iceland netted 17 times, and are led comfortably by the former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback. Iceland’s defense could be their undoing, as they have been leaky at the back. What we could see is a back and forth tie, especially if the goals start flowing in Iceland’s home leg on Friday.
It’s clear who the neutral’s choice will be. Iceland have one more hurdle to make their dream a reality.
Ukraine vs France
1st leg, Friday 2:45pm, WatchESPN.com; 2nd leg, Tuesday 3pm, Univision Deportes and WatchESPN.com
France disgraced themselves from this stage in the last World Cup campaign, and whatever happens against Ukraine, hopefully it will all be above board. But with France, you just never know. Take, for instance, the former captain Patrice Evra’s recent diatribe against the French media that employed grotesque language and sentiment.