Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Qualifier Preview: The 10 Biggest Matches

Another huge day of qualifying for South Africa 2010 on Wednesday, 35 matches involving every continental grouping aside from Oceania.

We won't try to take on 35 previews, but we can skim off what we consider the top 10 matches and outline why they rate.

Here we go, counting down from No. 10:

10. Netherlands at Scotland, at Glasgow. The Dutch clinched Group 9 back in June, and normally rate as heavy favorites against the athletically limited Scots. But Scotland is home and has far more to play for, on the last day of play in Group 9, hoping for at least a point to ensure a second-place finish and a shot at being one of the eight-best European second-place teams -- advancing to a home-and-home playoffs to determine Europe's final four berths to South Africa. (Though a victory likely would be necessary to accrue enough points to put the Scotland in the playoffs.) Scotland is coming off a 2-0 victory over Macedonia. Birmingham City striker James McFadden scored in that one, and appears to be Scotland's top threat. The question here is how much the Dutch care about this match; if they are up for it, they should win, even in Glasgow. A Dutch victory, combined with a Norway home victory over Macdeonia, puts the Norwegians into second place on the basis of goal differential.

9. Colombia at Uruguay, at Montevideo. Resurgent Colombia could jump into fourth place -- and South America has four guaranteed slots to the 2010 finals -- with a road victory combined with an Argentina defeat at Paraguay. But the Colombians have yet to win a road match (though they have four ties in seven outings, including one vs. Brazil), and have struggled to score (only nine goals) throughout qualifying. Young strikers Jackson Martinez and Teofilo Gutierrez found the net in a 2-0 victory over Ecuador on Saturday. This is a last stand for Uruguay, a nation with a proud World Cup pedigree (championships in 1930 and 1950) that has struggled of late; a 1-0 defeat at lowly Peru on Saturday was crushing. Victory is imperative if the Uruguayans hope to finish even fifth in the South America standings and play the Concacaf No. 4 finisher for a berth in South Africa.

8. Croatia at England, at London. It's England, Masters of the Game, with round-the-clock media coverage, and a chance to clinch a 2010 berth, so Everything Seems Bigger around this national side. So we will include this one in our 10, even though the English, unbeaten after seven Group 6 matches, probably finish first even with a defeat, given that they still will be up a point, with a match in hand, and impossible to catch if they can scrounge three points from games at Ukraine and home against Belarus. Recollections of Croatia keeping England from Euro 2008 are still keen in England. Croatia will play at Wembley Stadium without midfield star Luka Modric.

7. Portugal at Hungary, at Budapest. A bell is about to toll for somebody here -- either the underachieving Portuguese or the (till a moment ago) overachieving Hungarians. A defeat would be disastrous to either side, currently fourth and second in Europe Group 1. It remains hard to imagine that Cristian Ronaldo and Portugal could miss the World Cup, but they will if they lose to Hungary, which is coming off a crushing, last-minute 2-1 loss (at home) to Sweden.

Argentina at Paraguay, at Asuncion. The Argentines haven't won a qualifier on the road in nearly two years, but this would be a good time to start, against the No. 3 team in the South America standings. Paraguay has much as stake, as well: A victory clinches a berth in South Africa with two matches in hand. Diego Maradona, Argentina coach, needs offense from Lionel Messi or Carlos Tevez or someone. Paraguay, anything but a glamour squad, is getting fine play from attackers Salvador Cabanas (Club America) and Nelson Valdez (Borussia Dortmund), midfielder Cristian Riveros (Cruz Azul) and keeper (and captain) Justo Villar, who plays at Valladolid in Spain.

5. Bahrain at Saudi Arabia, at Riyadh. This is the last match in Asia qualifying and will determine who finishes fifth -- and moves on as the favorite to defeat Oceania champion New Zealand in a home-and-home for a South Africa berth. The winner will be the representative of the Arab world in the World Cup, so the stakes are huge. They played a scoreless match in Manama on Saturday in the first half of a home-and-home playoffs. Which means Saudi goes through with a 1-0 victory, but Bahrain advances (on the strength of away goals) if it can manage a 1-1 or 2-2 tie. Saudi Arabia has the more interesting international pedigree (four finals appearances to Bahrain's none), but there is little to choose from between these teams, currently ranked Nos. 64 and 65 in FIFA's international rankings.

4. France at Serbia, at Belgrade. Serbia can clinch Group 7 with a home victory, and is favored to do so, playing at home. France won the match at Stade de France, 2-1, last October, but the talented but erratic French are coming off a frustrating home draw vs. Romania. Coach Raymond Domenech may not survive a defeat, and he will need production from Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka for France to win and turn this into a race to the finish.

3. Slovakia at Northern Ireland, at Belfast. Two surprise teams playing for the lead in Group 3. The Ulstermen, after taking a point out of Poland on Saturday, can jump Slovakia in the standings with a victory at Windsor Park (although Slovakia has a game in hand). Kyle Lafferty, the goal-scorer in Poland, may sit this out with a knee injury, meaning David Healy will be looked to for offense. Slovakia just suffered a home draw with the Czechs, twice losing leads and slowing the charge for ts first World Cup berth as an independent nation. But a victory here would put the Slovaks in excellent shape to finish first, and they could even clinch Wednesday if things break right elsewhere.

2. Switzerland at Latvia, at Riga. Latvia never has played in a World Cup finals, but the unfancied Balts could turn Europe Group 2 into madness of they defeat the visiting Swiss, creating a three-way tie atop the standings at 16 points if Greece wins at bottom-feeder Moldova. Latvia's players play for some utterly unremarkable European sides, many of them in the domestic league. Kaspars Gorkss, a defender for Queen's Park Rangers, a second-tier English club, scored the goal at Israel on Saturday that vaulted the Letts into contention to win the group. Switzerland normally is led by the veteran attacking duo of Alexander Frei and Blaise Kufo, but it was midfielder Marco Padalino and defender Stephane Grichting who scored in the key, 2-0 home victory over Greece on Saturday. It isn't a stretch to suggest this is the biggest soccer match in Latvia's history.

1. Honduras at Mexico, at Mexico City. Los Tricolores (almost) never lose at Estadio Azteca, but Honduras is big, athletic and on a roll, having won its last two matches by an aggregate 8-1 score. If Carlos Costly, Carlos Pavon, David Suazo & Co. can get a goal or two in Mexico City's smog and altitude, it could lead directly to South Africa 2010. (Little noticed: Honduras has conceded only seven goals in seven matches, fewest in the Concacaf Hexagonal.) Mexico is back on track after trashing Costa Rica 3-0 at San Jose, with prodigy Giovani dos Santos leading the way. Both these teams are involved in the four-team clot atop the regional standings and seem supremely confident. It could be a great match.

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