Monday, October 5, 2009

Top 10 Qualifiers Coming This Weekend

Is it just me, or is the soccer world so intent on/overwhelmed by the early stages of the Western European club seasons ... that the next critical four days of qualifying are being almost overlooked?

By the night of Oct. 14 -- a week from Wednesday -- we will know the identity of at least nine more World Cup finalists -- and that number could go as high as 13, depending on results in Africa.

That is, known participants in South Africa 2010 could more than double in the next nine days, from 11 to as many as 24.

To jump start the discussion, our list of the 10 most important of the 40 qualifying matches to be played this weekend, Oct. 10-11:

10. Rwanda at Algeria, at Blida. Algeria moves excruciatingly close to its first World Cup finals berth since 1986 with a victory, and it is heavily favored at home over Rwanda. What makes this Africa Group C match interesting is that last-place Rwanda has been stingy giving up goals (five in four matches). An Algeria victory in this Sunday match, paired with an Egypt victory over Rwanda the day before, sets up a massive Algeria-at-Egypt match on Nov. 14. Algeria needs only a tie to advance.

9. New Zealand at Bahrain, at Manama. The first leg of the home-and-home playoffs for a World Cup berth between the Oceania champion and Asia's No. 5 club. Nothing will be determined here (the second leg is Nov. 14, in New Zealand), but a two-goal victory (either way) could put one of these teams well along the road to South Africa. Bahrain is the Arab world's standard bearer; New Zealand is the only vaguely competent side left in Oceania, with Australia having defected to Asia.

8. United States at Honduras, at San Pedro Sula. Honduras arguably has been the most impressive side in Concacaf Hexagonal competition, aggressive in the attack and blessed with big, fast and skilled players, and particularly impressive at home, where it is 4-0-0 with a 12-2 goal differential. "Home," however, is in a bit of turmoil; the elected president was ousted by a coup, is holed up in the Brazilian embassy, and there is a chance of domestic violence (or at least upheaval) at any moment. The U.S. sits atop the Hexagonal, and could clinch a World Cup berth with a tie, but it rates as an underdog in steamy San Pedro Sula.

Togo at Cameroon, at Yaounde. Cameroon can come near to completing its stunning worst-to-first sprint (it was dead last in its group a month ago today) with a victory over the Togo squad that pinned a 1-0 upset defeat on it back in March. If Gabon ties or loses to Morocco, a Cameroon victory here would clinch Africa Group A for the Indomitable Lions, putting Cameroon into the finals for the fifth time since 1990. If both Cameroon and Cabon win, the group goes to Nov. 14, with Cameroon playing at Morocco and Gabon at Togo.

6. Chile at Colombia, at Medellin. Chile clinches one of South America's four guaranteed berths with a victory. Colombia, currently No. 8 in the South America standings, reintroduces itself into the contender equation with a victory -- because its final match, at Paraguay, is against a team already in the World Cup. If the Colombians can get six points, in their final two matches, and jump up to 26 points, they could fourth or fifth. But the Colombians (5-2-1 at home; 2-0-0 at Medellin) have to beat Chile first.

Latvia at Greece, at Athens. The teams are tied for second in Europe Group 2, and a winner, if there is one, will be all but certain of getting the runner-up berth and a place in the home-and-home playoffs among UEFA second-place teams for a South Africa berth. Latvia is one of the surprise clubs in all of European qualifying; nearly its entire roster plays for little-known domestic clubs. Both teams have fairly easy final matches: Greece at Luxembourg, Latvia home to Moldova. A tie is to Greece's benefit, because it holds a slender, one-goal advantage in differential and is more likely to score a rash of goals in its final match than is Latvia.

4. Uruguay at Ecuador, at Quito. Seeking its third consecutive appearance in the finals, Ecuador sits fourth in the South America standings with two matches left, but Uruguay remains very much in contention for a top-four finish, as well. Ecuador almost has to win, at its 9,300-foot-high aerie; it doesn't want to have to go to Chile needing a point or three, especially if Chile is still fighting to qualify. This is a huge opportunity for Uruguay, a country with a proud (championships in 1030 and 1950) World Cup tradition. If the sea-level side can stage an upset, it probably will control its destiny when its Oct. 14 home match with Argentina rolls around.

3. Slovenia at Slovakia, at Bratislava. Slovakia punches its ticket for South Africa (and its first World Cup finals as an independent nation) with a tie. Slovenia keeps alive its slim hopes of finishing first atop Europe Group 3 if it can win, and a tie keeps it in the race for the No. 2 slot and a home-and-home playoff for a berth. Arguably, the biggest match in Slovakian history.

2. Sweden at Denmark, at Copenhagen. The Danes clinch Europe Group 1 with a victory over their Scandinavian rivals. Sweden pulls into a tie with Denmark atop the group with a victory. Sweden also has the easier final match, home against Albania while Denmark is home to more formidable Hungary. The Danes do have a semi-comfortable goal differential advantage over Sweden, 11-6.

1. Germany at Russia, at Moscow. A showdown of the superpowers in Europe Group 4; they have outscored their group opponents by a combined tally of 42-8. Each has stumbled only once in eight qualifying matches to date -- Germany in a 3-3 draw at Finland, Russia in a 2-1 loss to the Germans at Dortmund last November. Germany clinches the group with a victory. Russia, which finishes at feeble Azerbaijan, all but clinches if it can win Saturday. A draw helps the Germans, who then could clinch with a home victory over Finland on Oct. 14. Also, all sorts of historical and geopolitical subplots when these two face off.

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