World Cup play-offs and internationals: 10 things we learned

Cristiano Ronaldo comes to the fore, France's 16% make quite a noise and England will travel to Brazil with no more than hope
The best XI not going to Brazil

1) Individualists ready to break out in Brazil?

Is there something in the air? Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both lived up to the hype in Stockholm, spectacularly so, and there's something that doesn't happen in overcooked modern football all that often. Their determination to wring every last desperate drop from their talent, in the hope of dragging their team single-handedly to the World Cup finals, was a joy to behold. More of this, please! Could it be that a few of this generation's great individualists have decided the time is right to break ranks, shake off the tactical shackles, and stamp their name all over the 2014 finals? It's statistically viable, if nothing else. The last two tournaments have been all about great teamplay, while a harsh observer – sorry Zizou, apologies Original Ronaldo – might argue that there hasn't been a truly great one-month one-man residency at a finals since Roberto Baggio nearly took Italy all the way in 1994. Poor Zlatan – thanks for the memories, big man – won't get the chance to do his thing in Brazil, but plenty of others of his ilk might: Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Balotelli and Suárez are just a few capable of making a saucy grab for a place in the pantheon alongside Maradona, Pele, Cruyff and Garrincha, if they can just hit a purple patch at the right time. Is this asking too much? Are these boots too big to fill? If so, we'll not be greedy. If one man can't sustain it for the entire month, we'll settle for 50 or so matches like the one served up by Sweden and Portugal instead. That'll do! SM

Read the match report: Sweden 2-3 Portugal (2-4 agg)
Ibrahimovic: World Cup without me not worth watching

2) 16% can make a lot of noise

The pre-match polls weren't exactly optimistic – 61% didn't think France could do it; of those asked "Do you continue to support Les Bleus in spite of everything?" 84% said 'Non'. But those predictions – all entirely scientific of course – of supporter apathy were confounded from the first minute at the Stade de France. From the off the noise was thunderous and the home side rode those roars of support all the way to Brazil, overcoming Ukraine in impressive fashion. Mathieu Valbuena's set-pieces were crucial and led, after a fashion, to both of Mamadou Sakho's goals. The defender will most likely be on the bench for the Merseyside derby at the weekend – a nice way to bring him back down to earth. If Didier Deschamps can get his team playing way the way they did on Tuesday night in Brazil, then they'll be a threat to anyone. That's a rather large "if", though. JA

Read the report: France 3-0 Ukraine (3-2 agg)

3) England will travel to Brazil in hope alone

England have long since mastered the art of following encouragement with backwards steps but the two taken in the home losses to Chile and now Germany have painted a stark picture for the World Cup finals. There was little of attacking note against Chile last Friday and absolutely nothing on target against the Germans. [Memo to Roy: shots that hit the post are off target.] There were age-old failings in the predictability of the football while defensive sloppiness handed Germany the initiative. They did not look back after Per Mertesacker's flashing header. After the triumphs against Montenegro and Poland (neither of whom is ranked in Fifa's top 50), it was difficult to escape the notion that when Hodgson's England encounter the better teams, handwringing comes as standard. DH

Read the match report: England 0-1 Germany
Hodgson: quality was not what I expected from team
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Owen Gibson: are England really better than in 2010?

4) Mitroglou gives Greece a cutting edge

Greece's triumph at Euro 2004 came as a complete shock to most and in subsequent years has been held up as a model for any team looking to bore their way to success on the big stage. Goals, it is fair to say, are not the Greeks' strong point and it came as no major surprise when they finished as the joint-lowest scorers of all the teams that came second in the European qualification groups for next summer's World Cup. Yet, in the play-offs, Fernando Santos's men showed they have the potential to play with a ruthless swagger, putting four past Romania across two legs, with Konstantinos Mitroglou getting three. The striker is in great form at club-level, too, having scored four hat-tricks for Olympiakos already this season – including one against Anderlecht in the Champions League – and the 25-year-old, who has supposedly attracted interest from Internazionale, Arsenal and Liverpool, could provide Greece with a rare and thrilling cutting edge in Brazil next year. SN

Read the match report: Romania 1-1 Greece (2-4 aggregate)

5) Scotland are definitely prospering under Strachan

It wasn't pretty and it may not have been deserved, but Scotland's 1-0 victory over Norway in Molde capped a more than encouraging calender year for the national side under the charge of Gordan Strachan. His tenure began with a 1-0 victory over Estonia at Pittodrie in February and has subsequently taken in two victories against Croatia, a win in Macedonia and a stirring display in defeat to England at Wembley three months ago. In contrast, the displays against Norway and, last Friday, the United States, were less than inspiring, and some critics would suggest harked back to the dark days of Craig Levein's time in charge of the national team, but the difference now is that Scotland are going into games thinking they can win as opposed to expecting to lose, and the fact they can win when not playing great bodes well ahead of the qualification campaign for Euro 2016. The last major international tournament Scotland featured in was France '98; could their next appearance take place in the same country? SN

Read the match report: Norway 0-1 Scotland

6) Mandzukic joins the card clowns

Mario Mandzukic: you berk. After giving your country a precious lead against Iceland and virtually securing your passage to Brazil, you went and perpetrated an absurdly brutal foul on Johann Gudmundsson, placing his leg and your ticket in severe jeopardy. Gudmundsson was OK and so were Croatia, who even managed to increase their lead but now you, Mario, may not even get to play in the World Cup that you so violently wanted to reach. A three-game suspension looks likely and Croatia getting out of their group does not. Now, whenever we consider the dumbest cards of all time, we must think of yours, Mario, along with Wayne Rooney's infamous red one against Montenegro, Louis Saha's yellow card in the 2006 World Cup semi-final against Portugal, when he was introduced with just five minutes to go and managed to perform a ludicrous scissors-tackle on Maniche to pick up the caution that ruled him out of the final and, not sinister but still very stupid, Claudio Cannigia's bizarre booking in the 1990 semi-final, when he deliberately handled the ball for no apparent reason on the half-way line and, as a result, was suspended for the final. Mario Mandzukic: you berk. PD

Read the match report: Croatia 2-0 Iceland (2-0 agg)

7) Honda has the potential to be big news in Brazil

Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Radamel Falcao, Luis Suárez, Neymar … Keisuke Honda. It is fair to say that in discussions centring on which individuals might light up the World Cup the Japan midfielder does not get much of a mention, yet he is undoubtedly a player in form and in possession of the skills to catch the eye next summer. Honda has excelled as CSKA Moscow's playmaker, so much so that Milan have secured a deal for the 27-year-old's services that will see him move to San Siro in January, and his two goals in Japan's 3-2 victory over Belgium on Tuesday, allied to the one he scored in the 2-2 draw with Holland on Saturday, showed that he can do it against the very best international sides, albeit in friendlies. Honda is unlikely to be the star of Brazil 2014 but he could nevertheless impress a global audience. SN

Look through all of the latest international football results

8) Colombia should not be discounted next summer

Brazil and Argentina are, yet again, the South American nations expected to make the greatest impact at next year's finals but it would be foolish to completely overlook Colombia. José Pékerman's side finished second in the Conmebol qualification group, just two points behind Argentina (the country of Pékerman's birth), sit fourth in Fifa's world rankings and in beating Belgium and drawing with Holland in their last two matches, have displayed the potential to compete with the very best sides from Europe. Then there is the fact that, all being well, Colombia's squad for the World Cup will contain the likes of Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez, Jackson Martínez and Fredy Guarín. Boring, they are not. SN

9) Rock on a roll

The bedrock of Gibraltar's economy is made up of online bookmakers and how those bloodsuckers must have cackled late into the night when the territory's team marked its debut as a Uefa member by holding Slovakia to a 0-0 draw. A proper coupon-buster. The match was played in the 30,000-capacity Estadio Algarve, which will also be used for the team's European Championship qualifiers and was close to 2% full for Tuesday night's historic occasion. The few hundred observers got to marvel at a solid rearguard action led by the 34-year-old international debutant Danny Higginbotham and they would even have been able to cheer a winning goal if a cross by Farsley Athletic's Adam Priestly had been deflected into the net rather than the arms of the Slovakian goalkeeper. The result gives strength to Gibraltar's claims that, though smaller, they are better than some of Europe's other minnows, but does it do anything to change the minds of people who said there was no good point to them being allowed to exist in Uefa? PD

James Riach: Gibraltar keen to make Uefa impact

10) Home sweet home could see Spain return to their best

A strange few days, then, for Spain as they deservedly lost to South Africa in Johannesburg on Tuesday having laboured they way to a narrow victory over Equatorial Guinea in Malabo last Friday. There is no need for the World and European holders to panic, of course, but one has to wonder if sheer fatigue resulting from travelling long distances to compete in friendly matches is playing a part in the subsequent, substandard displays. Their next match is a friendly against Italy in Madrid next March – home surroundings allied to a four-month break could well see La Roja return to their very best. SN

The inside story of La Roja's historic treble – extract

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