It will be Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a place at the World Cup.
Portugal and Sweden were the first two teams drawn by FIFA on Monday for the European playoffs, though the pairing was talked about as a clash of superstar forwards in a two-leg series scheduled for Nov. 15 and 19.
“World-class players like Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, they do something extra to change the game,” Sweden coach Erik Hamren said. “I am pleased we have one, too. But we need our team to be really good.”
Also, France will play Ukraine, with the return game in Paris; Greece was paired with Romania; and Iceland, the lowest ranked of the eight teams at No. 46 in the world, will host the first leg against Croatia, which fired its coach last week.
The four winners will complete Europe’s 13 entries in the 32-team World Cup draw on Dec. 6 in Salvador, Brazil.
Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic were consigned to the playoffs after their teams finished second in their qualifying groups behind Russia and Germany, respectively.
“They will be evenly balanced and very competitive games,” Portugal coach Paulo Bento said. “Ibrahimovic is an imposing figure, but the Swedes are more than that, they are good collectively.”
Portugal also had to advance to the 2010 World Cup through a playoff, after twice drawing 0-0 with Sweden in the group.
France, the 2006 World Cup runner-up, also makes its second trip in a row to the playoffs after defending champion Spain won its group. Four years ago, a notorious handball by Thierry Henry helped France beat Ireland in extra time.
France and Ukraine last met in a 2012 European Championship match that was delayed several minutes after kick off by a torrential rain storm in Donetsk. France eventually won 2-0.
ElsewhereMajor League Soccer: Mark Abbott
Abbott met with commissioners Monday, in advance of their vote Tuesday on whether to approve use of $20 million in tourism taxes to go toward funding the $84 million cost of the stadium.
City officials approved the plan earlier this month to help the USL Pro League’s Orlando City Soccer Club build a soccer-specific stadium. The team would contribute the rest of the funding for construction.
Orlando City has been lobbying to become a MLS expansion team, but currently plays in the outdated Florida Citrus Bowl.
Messi was cleared Friday after recovering from a muscle injury in his right leg but only played the final 22 minutes of the goalless draw at Osasuna the following day.
Next up for Barcelona is Tuesday’s Champions League group match at AC Milan before it hosts Real Madrid next weekend in the first clasico of the season. …
Arsenal midfielder Mathieu Flamini will miss Tuesday’s Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund because of a concussion.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said Flamini is in good shape after the shock received during Saturday’s 4-1 win over Norwich in the Premier League, but doctors have advised him to get some rest.