Monday, August 10, 2009

Qualifier preview: Croatia at Belarus

Croatia and Belarus? This game matters?

Croatia has appeared in three consecutive World Cups, famously finishing third in France 1998, losing only to France in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, Belarus has never played in any major tournament, and not many people think it will any time soon, either.

Yet the Belarussians have their fate largely in their hands. They are lying fourth in Europe's Group 6 standings, and, yes, have no chance to catch top-of-the-table England. But Belarus has nine points from five matches, and trails Croatia and Ukraine (each of which have played six matches) by two points for second place -- and second place means a home-and-home playoff with another second-place finisher for a berth in South Africa 2010.

The match Wednesday in Minsk is crucial. Belarus almost has to win to energize its campaign, while Croatia could nearly eliminate one of its key competitors for second place if it can win on the road.

Factors to consider include ...

--Belarus gets Croatia in back-to-back matches (Wednesday, and Sept. 5 at Zagreb). A victory and a draw would vault Belarus past Croatia and startle the football world.

--Belarus also has a home match vs. Ukraine, on Sept. 9, and a victory in that one could leave it alone in second.

--Belarus ends its qualifying run against England, in London, on Oct.14, and England has been rampant in qualifying so far. However, England will have clinched first place (and a qualifying berth) a month before, and may not field its First XI.

--Belarus doesn't yet have a signature victory in Group 6 qualifying; its nine points come from a pair of victories over little Andorra and one over hapless Kazakhstan. Its defeats were 1-0 at Ukraine and 3-1 at home vs. England.

--Croatia needs a result in Minsk not just to dishearten the Belarussians, it needs a point (or three) to keep Ukraine at bay; the Ukrainians have two matches with Andorra among its final four, and that is an automatic six points -- as well as opportunities to push its goal differential (the first tiebreakter) farther north.

Belarus hopes center on attacking midfielder Aleksandr Hleb, who is on loan to VfB Stuttgart from Barcelona. Hleb, nicknamed The Sorceror's Apprentice during an earlier stay in Stuttgart, is widely considered the best player in the history of Belarus football. He will need to be on his game for the underdogs to have their day.

Timofei Kalachev, a Belarus-based midfielder, has three goals in qualifying, top on the Belarus side. Other stalwarts include Seria A Bari-based forward Vitaly Kutuzov, defender Dimitry Verkhovtsov and goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, who plays for FC Moscow.

Croatia's side is better known in the West because of that big run in the 1998 World Cup ... and because Croatia knocked England out of Euro 2008 with a pair of victories in qualifying.

Croatia also has more players in top European leagues. The biggest name is midfielder Luka Modric, who plays at Tottenham. Modric scored a late goal that enabled Croatia to salvage a 2-2 tie at home vs. Ukraine.

Other important players include Bayern Munich forward Ivica Olic, Tottenham-based defender Vedran Corluka, Spartak Moscow goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and Australia-born central defender Josip Simunic, who plays for Bundesliga upstart Hoffenheim.

If past form means anything, battle-tested Croatia shows up in Minsk, paddles the never-been-anywhere Belarussians, and then turns its attention to staying ahead of the Ukraine.

But the reality of Belarus controlling its own destiny, and getting its two most important matches at home, could propel the former Soviet republic to heights never before associated with its national team.

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