World Cup: five lessons we have learnt from the play-offs

And so it begins. Well, almost, for there’s another six month-wait to negotiate before the start of the World Cup but at least, after last night, we have a more complete picture of which teams will be travelling to Brazil in June.

Here’s what we’ve learnt from the play-offs.

1) That Portuguese number 7 is rather good

Portugal – Sweden had been billed as a showdown between the individual genius of Cristiano Ronaldo and the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and while the first leg was a slow burner, yesterday’s game didn’t disappoint.

Ronaldo, who’s still incredibly criticised for being a flat track bully, carried the weight of a nation’s expectations on his back and almost single-handedly dragged Portugal to a third successive World Cup.

Ronaldo’s smugness and ego might not know boundaries, but his talent doesn’t either and judging such a phenomenal player simply because of his persona is an extremely petty exercise.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, meanwhile, went out as only he can, producing two excellent goals and fighting until him and his team had nothing left in the tank.

That he’ll probably never get to play in a World Cup, he’s a crying shame.

2) France are their own biggest enemy

Having squeezed their way to South Africa courtesy of a Thierry Henry’s handball, France were on the receiving end of yet another fortunate decision as Karim Benzema was blatantly off-side for his side’s second.

Conspiracy theories aside, Didier Deschamps’ men enjoyed a remarkable turnaround in form from their abysmal performance in Kiev on Friday night and, on paper at least, should be a force to be reckoned with in Brazil.

The use of conditional is mandatory when talking about Les Blues, for as they’ve demonstrated over the last three years, Franck Ribery & Co. are their own worst enemies.

Which side will turn up in Brazil? The focused, ruthless team that dispatched Ukraine last night or the disjointed, petulant, group that consider mutiny a valid alternative to training?

3) Scandinavian football is in crisis

With the exception of Sweden, which surrendered to Cristiano Ronaldo, the other Scandinavian teams should take a long, hard look at themselves.

Denmark can consider themselves unfortunate for being the worst of the second placed teams, but Norway only managed to finish fourth in a group including Switzerland, Iceland, Slovenia and Cyprus.

The likes of Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen will miss the World Cup, where there won’t be a Scandinavian representative for the first time since 1982 and only the second time since 1966.

4) A new Greece, with a very old look

Since their catenaccio-inspired success at Euro 2004, Greece have been the punchline of many jokes, with their style of football failing to, shall we say, win them many friends.

However, while they finished as the joint-lowest scorers of all the teams who reached the play-off in the European pool, Greece have arguably one of the in-form strikers in European football right now.

Having netted four hat-tricks this season, Olympiakos front-man Konstantinos Mitroglou netted three times over two legs against Romania, with his goal last night killing off Romanian hopes of a famous comeback.

Greece will probably struggle to get out of their group in Brazil, but they’re guaranteed to make things hard for their opponents.

5) Consistency is key in Africa

So often heralded as a continent capable to throw up a few surprises, Africa’s qualifying stage produced very few upsets, with all the teams that made it to South Africa – who have also qualified – three years ago securing a spot in Brazil next summer.

Theoretically at least, Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast have the bigger chances of reaching the knockout stages, while Algeria and Nigeria seem a couple of steps behind.

One thing is for sure, it won’t be a boring journey.

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