Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Road to 2010: Eastern Hemisphere

All the matches in Europe and Africa today are now complete and I saw one of them myself, France vs. Romania at Stade de France. Which had a surprise result of its own.

An overview of what we have found out, so far today, from among the 26 matches in the Eastern Hemisphere:

Most impressive victory: Spain 5, Belgium 0. Forget that defeat against the United States in the Confederations Cup. Those Spaniards are back, and they went all medieval on Belgium today in La Coruna. David Villa and David Silva each scored twice in the rout. Spain hasn't quite clinched Group 5 (even at 7-0-0), but it could as soon as Wednesday.

Most deflating defeat: Cameroon 2, Gabon 0. Gabon never has been in a World Cup finals. Most of its players compete in second-tier leagues, or worse. But Gabon won its first two matches while Cameroon settled for a defeat and a draw, and things looked great for the Gabonese, who had a chance to bury Cameroon, their most dangerous opponent in Group A, and all but clinch the group ... but the Indomitable Lions dominated the match in Libreville. Talk about a buzz kill ...

Most rewarding draw: Little Northern Ireland, finals outsiders since 1986, went to the boonies of Chorzow to play Poland and got out with a 1-1 draw -- and almost a victory. Keeping Poland from the three points from a home victory reinforces Northern Ireland's chances of finishing second in Group 3 -- and maybe even catching Slovakia to win it.

Most exciting draw: Slovakia 2, Czech Republic 2: They once shared a country; now they are great rivals. Stanislav Sestak gave Slovakia a 1-0 lead in the 60th minute, Daniel Pudil answered in the 68th minute. Marek Hamsik scored a penalty in the 73rd minute ... and Milan Baros tied it again in the 84th minute. Slovakia could have put some distance between itself and Northern Ireland in Group 3, but now the Ulstermen could move ahead when they get Slovakia in Belfast on Wednesday.

Most frustrating draw: France 1, Romania 1. This was the match I saw, and French fans were muttering darkly as they streamed out of the stadium. France dominated the first half but couldn't score. All three forwards in their 4-3-3 formation had great chances -- and couldn't put them away. France finally broke through in the 48th minute on a Henry goal ... but then conceded an own goal eight minutes later when Julien Escude redirected a ball into his own net. The French threw everyone forward for the final half-hour, including Franck Ribery, who didn't start ... but they became unhinged and Romania actually had a chance or two to take the lead. Now, France is all but resigned to finishing second in Group 7, needing to win the home-and-home playoff against another second-place team to reach South Africa. Hard times for les bleus and coach Raymond Domenech, who could be fired if the French don't look much better in their match with group leader Serbia in Belgrade on Wednesday.

Most disappointing draw: Denmark 1, Portugal 1. The disappointment cuts both ways, but it hurts more for Portugal, which really needed a road victory to spark a late rally in Group 1. Portugal did well to avoid defeat, thanks to a Liedson goal in the 86th minute, but Cristiano Ronaldo's team is down to fourth place in Group 1 and almost needs to sweep Hungary in its next two matches to hope to finish second, never mind first. The Danes, with 17 points, are too far over the horizon for the Portuguese (10 points) to catch.

Most interesting scoreless draw:
Saudi Arabia 0, Bahrain 0. The Saudis and Bahrain are playing a home-and-home series to determine who finishes fifth in Asia -- and gets to play New Zealand in another home-and-home for a 2010 World Cup berth. Bahrain now has to play at Riyadh, which won't be easy, but it can advance with a tie of 1-1 or 2-2 (etc.) -- on the strength of the "away goals" tiebreaker.

Team that got itself back in contention: Sweden 2, Hungary 1. The Swedes would have been all but dead with a defeat, but they went into Budapest and got goals from Olof Mellberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in extra time, to snatch a victory, jump to third and become well-situated to finish at least second -- because two of its final three matches are at Malta and home against Albania. That is, six nearly automatic points.

Team that took itself out of contention: Latvia 1, Israel 0. The Israelis weren't the smart way to bet, for a South Africa berth, but they had a shot -- till this disastrous home defeat to the Latvians. Israel is finished, but Latvia now is tied for second with Greece in Group 2.

Team that took charge: Switzerland 2, Greece 0: These two were tied atop Group 2 in Europe, but the Swiss got late goals from Stephane Grichting (84th minute) and Marco Padalino (88th), and now the Group 2 road to South Africa goes through the Alps.

And now we wait for the Western Hemisphere to check in with the rest of the big day in South Africa qualifying.

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