Saturday, July 25, 2009

Upcoming Qualifiers: Marking Your Calendar

We're not far off from another batch of World Cup qualifying matches.

Some dates to circle on your calendar:

Aug. 12, eight matches: Including three in Concacaf, the biggest of which is the United States at Mexico. The U.S. could come very close to clinching a berth in the 2010 World Cup with a victory, but it has never won at Estadio Azteca. Mexico, meanwhile, badly needs a victory over its arch-rival to get moving back into the top three in the Concacaf standings. Also this day, Honduras is home to group leader Costa Rica; the Hondurans pretty much need a victory to nourish hopes of a top-three finish in the group (and a guaranteed spot in South Africa). Also, this day, Germany vs. Azerbaijan in Baku. Germany needs three points against a puny Azeri squad to keep clear of second-place of Russia in Group 4 standings, but winning on the road is always a chore; finishing second in the group means a home-and-home playoff for the World Cup.

Sept. 5, 35 matches: A huge day. Some countries can clinch, many can get close and others will be buried before this day is out. All of South America is playing, as is all of Concacaf's final six, and most of Europe and Africa. Brazil at Argentina is bigger than usual, with Argentina at risk of not qualifying; upstart Gabon is home against Cameroon and can put some distance between itself and its Group A rivals; Mexico at Costa Rica could possibly clinch a World Cup spot for the Ticos; and in Europe, Portugal at Denmark is crucial for both teams, and Greece and Switzerland, as well as Latvia at Israel hold extra meaning. This is the date, too, of the first half of the Saudi Arabia-Bahrain home-and-home for the No. 5 spot in Asia and a playoff with New Zealand for a guaranteed berth. Again, a huge day.

Sept. 6, five matches: The African contenders that didn't play on Sept. 5 are in action. Ghana should pretty much wrap up a berth in a match at home against Sudan; and Nigeria faces a win-or-else match at home against Group D leader Tunisia, which has seven points to Nigeria's 5 with two matches left after this one.

Sept. 8, five matches: South America's 10 contenders go at it again. Argentina at Paraguay is important, as is Chile at Brazil. At the end of the day, only two qualifiers remain for the South American crews.

Sept. 9, 30 matches: More finalists should be determined in another huge day. I'm thinking the U.S. clinches at Trinidad & Tobago, for example. Other big matches: Honduras at Mexico, in a game that may decide the 3-4 spots in Concacaf, 3 being a guaranteed berth, 4 being a playoffs with the No. 5 team out of South America; England home vs. Croatia with a chance to clinch Europe Group 6; Russia at Wales, France at Serbia, with the lead in Group 7 possibly at stake; and Bahrain at Saudi Arabia in the second half of the Asia fifth-place playoffs.

Then we have a month to digest all that before qualifying picks up on Oct. 10.

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