Monday, August 31, 2009

Qualifier Preview: Denmark at Portugal

This is the first of several expanded previews of key South Africa 2010 qualifying matches among the 40 (!) being contested in the Americas, Africa and Europe this weekend.

Almost all of the matches have some meaning, even this close to the draw. But some are pregnant with significance, and we will look at several this week.

(Note: A general preview of the five South American matches, by my distinguished colleague Armando Varela, appeared on this blog a few days ago.)

We begin with a crucial match pitting struggling Portugal at Group 1 leader Denmark on Saturday.

If we had looked at this group a year ago, we would have pegged Portugal as the favorite. Fourth at the 2006 World Cup, finalists at the 2004 Euro championships, quarterfinalists in Euro 2008 ...

Then they started playing the games, and the Portuguese lost at home to Denmark, 3-2, and were held at home by Sweden, 0-0, and that's why a team loaded with international stars is, basically, desperate for a victory at Copenhagen.

Portugal certainly looks imposing. From forward Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world, to midfield veterans such as Deco, Duda, Maniche and defenders Basingwa and Pepe ... why is this team loitering in third place in the group, ahead of Sweden only on goals scored?

The aforementioned failure to win at home is part of it. So is an oddly erratic offense (eight goals from six matches), given the star power on the pitch.

Ronaldo has yet to score, in four matches played. Nani and Hugo Almeida each have two goals, and that isn't quite where you would expect half your offense to come from. (And Almeida isn't even in the team for this match.)

Carlos Queiroz, the coach, has called in another Brazilian-born player, the forward Liedson, perhaps looking for that bit of finishing the Portguese have been lacking.

The surprising Danes, meanwhile, can take a big step to securing Group 1 with a home victory.

After beginning qualifying with a scoreless draw at Hungary, Denmark has reeled off five consecutive victories, and gets three of its last four matches at home -- the only road game being at unimpressive Albania.

Denmark has dominated the opposition, with a 13-2 goals for/against ratio.

Soren Larsen, a forward for Ligue 1 team Toulouse, has five goals, albeit all of them against Malta or Albania. Christian Poulson, a tough midfielder who plays for Juventus, has scored two goals.

Other stalwarts in the Danish campaign to date include Aresnal forward Niklas Bendtner, veteran defender Lars Jacobsen, who plays with Blackburn; center back Daniel Agger, who plays for Liverpool; Ajax midfielder Dennis Rommedahl and veteran Stoke City keeper Thomas Sorensen, who saved a penalty in the 10th minute of a match at Sweden, a match the Danes went on to win, 1-0.

Denmark will bring a major size advantage to the match. Larsen, Bendtner and Sorensen all are 6-foot-4 or better. Portugal is a little side, and it can't count on scoring on restarts in the attacking end.

Denmark can come close to assuring itself of no worse than a second-place finish with a home victory, and would be exceedingly hard to catch for first, actually, especially if Hungary doesn't win at home against Sweden on Saturday. Portugal, meanwhile, badly needs a point, at the least, to reassure its fans it hasn't fallen into some international slough of despond -- despite suiting up Ronaldo and a cast of stars.

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