Portugal and Poland Outclass Rivals to Reach 2022 World Cup
The stakes at the final of the European 2022 World Cup playoffs were high. Portugal and Sweden were dramatically knocked out of the main UEFA 2022 qualifiers by single late goals in the dying minutes of their matches against Serbia and Spain. Heading to the playoffs to fight for another chance at qualifying would have been painful for both. Both nations have a relatively successful history of reaching the World Cup tournament - Portugal on seven occasions and Sweden on twelve - and both, who are in the world's top 20 teams, were fighting to maintain their records of success. Portugal reached fourth place in 2006, and Sweden made the quarter-finals in 2018, so they would be favourites to do well in 2022.
Poland and North Macedonia made the playoffs after battling their original qualifier group rivals for the position - England and Germany had already secured the group's top automatic 2022 qualification spots. Poland, who has made the World Cup tournament on eight occasions, were battling to make their ninth appearance and hopefully progress further than the group stages on this occasion. Relative minnow of Europe, North Macedonia, were labouring to reach the knockout tournament for the first time in their history after their shock win over Italy on March 24th put them in the finals of the playoffs.
On the night (March 29th), Portugal and Poland triumphed in the end.
Portugal v North Macedonia
Portugal's Bruno Fernandes gave his team the win over North Macedonia to the home crowd's delight. Qualifying for their sixth World Cup in a row, Portugal delivered the win with two deserved goals. Unfortunately for North Macedonia, who maintained a fairly robust defence throughout and stopped Portugal's tally from reaching much higher, they never really got the chance to threaten the Portuguese goal.
After a relatively slow start for Portugal, the match's opening goal came on the back of a mistake from North Macedonia's Stefan Ristovski. A poorly played pass from Ristovski in the 35th was neatly intercepted by Fernandes and subsequently passed to Christiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo flicked the ball back to a well-positioned Fernandes, who calmly smashed the ball home to take the lead. Ignited by the goal, the Seleção began to take more control of the game. The team's efforts paid off when Pepe won a tackle, which Fernandes then passed to teammate Diogo Jota. Jota then curled the ball back to Fernandes on the penalty spot, who met the ball with a powerful volley straight into the back of the net.
Poland v Sweden
Poland's 2-0 victory over Sweden was a hard-won battle. Both teams fought to find the back of the net and kept each other's keepers on their toes throughout. However, in the end, Poland capitalised on their rivals' mistakes and took a deserved win - they're first win over the Swedes since 1991.
The opening goal was scored by Portugal's star player Robert Lewandowski, who hammered home a spot-kick in the 49th after Sweden's Jesper Karlstrom fouled Grzegorz Krychowak. The Swedes rallied and threatened to equalise, but Poland's keeper, and man of the match, Wojciech Szczesny, kept Emil Forsberg's efforts out. While the Swedish team were hard to contain, the Poles managed to double their lead in the 72nd minute of the game. Piotr Zielinski spotted an opportunity when a mix-up between Sweden's Kristoffer Olsson and Marcus Danielson led to some poor ball control. Zielinski snatched his chance to steal the ball for Poland and thumped it home, giving Poland the win.
The battle for the last three qualification spots via the playoffs isn't quite over yet. Wales are still to defend their chance of qualifying in a final match against either Scotland or Ukraine.
However, the semi-final playoff game on March 24th between Scotland and Ukraine was postponed due to Russia's illegal war on Ukraine, which began on February 24th. FIFA has agreed to reschedule the game during the June break. The winner of the semi-final bout would then face Wales, also in June, to secure the last ticket to Qatar.
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