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WCQ playoffs fail to deliver promise

France are in danger of not qualifying for next year's World Cup.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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AT CLOSE RANGE

With the World Cup one year away, Brazil's final sprint starts now.

The trouble with high-stakes soccer games these days lies in that very designation. When the competing interests of those involved grow so large that jobs could be lost and entire careers derailed, caution tends to gain the upper hand.

When the outcomes turn binary -- you either qualify or you don’t -- Friday’s teams grow pragmatic. They eliminate risk, in the first leg especially, and the game suffers from the attrition in ambition. The mutual negativity ultimately cancels itself out, but unlike in math, two negatives multiplied don’t make for a positive.

This was certainly true in the first legs of the World Cup playoffs played in Europe on Friday, between eight teams who had ended as runners-up in their respective qualifying groups and consequently had to play a fellow second-place team over two legs for a place in Brazil next summer.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that these much-anticipated first legs were pretty much a bust, with static games delivering little by way of entertainment and chances -- but, curiously, served up four red cards.

ROAD LESS TAKEN

Check out all the best action shots from FIFA's World Cup qualifying.

In Iceland’s attempt to become the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup -- by a factor of four, no less -- it labored heavily to keep the technically superior Croatians at bay. Iceland may have come into a fine generation of attackers of late -- even considering that it lost Aron Johannsson to the United States -- but Croatia, even in a time of poor form and a coaching change, was the better team on paper.

The Icelanders survived a frantic start to the game, however, clearing ball off their own goal line in the first minute. But from then on, they managed to ice the game, as it were, keeping their opponents’ chances to a minimum in spite of going down to 10 men when Ari Freyr Skulason got himself sent off in the 50th minute. And 0-0 it ended, to the delight of the home team.

Forty-five minutes later, the other three games got started. The most eagerly anticipated match, Portugal-Sweden, which would keep either of superstars Cristiano Ronaldo or Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of the World Cup, was perhaps the biggest disappointment.

A clever fifth-minute Raul Meireles through ball led Joao Moutinho around goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, but he couldn’t get his left foot around the ball far enough to finish from an acute angle. And that fairly well concluded the big chances for the bulk of the game. Sweden garnered a few looks from free kicks just outside the box, a Johan Elmander slide into a cross that he shinned just wide, and a long Sebastian Larsson shot that was saved, but the deadlock was never really threatened.

It wasn’t until the 82nd minute that Ronaldo squirmed away from his man, Martin Olsson, and managed to get on the end of a sharp Miguel Veloso cross on a diving header. Three minutes later, he would smack another header onto the cross bar. But it ended 1-0. Zlatan, who had declared that the World Cup needed him more than it did Ronaldo, was a non-factor.

Over in Ukraine, a passive game, wherein both teams prioritized defense and organization, saw the French cede most of the initiative to the home team. A slow game failed to muster more than a handful of half-chances in the first half. The status quo was finally broken in the 61st minute, when Roman Zozulya took a nice Edmar setup and barely pushed his shot past the recently concussed Hugo Lloris, watching it trickle just over the line.

That opened up the game, but only slightly. And it took until the 82nd minute, when Zozulya was brought down in the box for a second time, finally earning a penalty, for Andriy Yarmolenko to smash the 2-0 in off the bottom of the crossbar from the penalty spot. A late red card for Laurent Koscielny, who suspended his cool as well as himself for the return game, made France’s plight more dire still. Oleksandr Kucher also was ejected, but then his team could probably afford such luxury.

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The real fireworks, then, came from the unlikeliest game to provide them. Greece taking on Romania was surely the least-anticipated matchup, featuring the least sexy teams. But that didn’t stop it from delivering an open and exciting game, wherein Kostas Mitroglou put the Greeks ahead with a soft volley in the 14th minute. Bogdan Stancu managed to head in off a free kick at the far post just five minutes later to equalize. And a mere two minutes after that, Dimitris Salpingidis put the home side ahead again, after he was poorly marked and allowed to run onto a low cross. Mitroglou made it 3-1 in the 67th minute, just about knocking out the Romanians. A late Greek goal was disallowed while Romania’s Costin Lazar was sent off.

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