Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Six Matches, Six Qualifiers for 2010 Finals

This is all fairly dramatic.

6x90 = 6

Six matches left in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Wednesday, and when they're over the final six slots to South Africa will be filled.

Five of the matches are the second half of home-and-home playoffs. In none of them is a team leading, after one match, by more than one goal.

The sixth match is the special one-game, neutral-site playoff between Egypt and Algeria, who finished tied atop their African qualifying group after the ultra-intense 2-0 Egyptian victory on Saturday.

We have a sense at least one of these will go down to penalty kicks. And how nervous would that be?

A look at how the final six shape up, in order of appeal:

--Greece at Ukraine. Yes, a Euro matchup, and we ought to be all excited about it, blah blah blah. But Greece is dull and the Ukraine is not a first-tier power, either, so it's hard to get fired up about this one. Especially after they went 90 minutes without scoring a goal in Athens in Game 1. This one is in Donetsk, and if the planet's soccer fans are lucky Andrei Shevchenko or someone will score for Ukraine and keep the play-not-to-lose Greeks out of 2010.

--Costa Rica at Uruguay. Again, those of us from the Western Hemisphere find this interesting: "How much better is South America than North America?" is of lasting fascination in the New World. Uruguay got a key goal in the first leg, at San Jose, but it isn't as if Costa Rica couldn't score a couple in Montevideo. Ticos coach Rene Simoes told his fans that they are playing a 180-minute game, and only half of it is over, and also brought up some history of upsets -- specifically Uruguay over Brazil in the 1950 World Cup. The Ticos have been in a three-month funk; they need Bryan Ruiz or Walter Centeno to score. Otherwise, the Uruguayans will just drain the match away and give Conmebol its fifth World Cup team.

--Russia at Slovenia. The Slovenes managed a late goal away, at Moscow on Saturday, in a 2-1 Russia victory, so that gives Slovenia a shot to make its first World Cup finals. A 1-0 victory puts them through on the strength of that away goal. Russia is a much more solid club, boasting international stars such as Arsenal striker Andrei Arshavin, Everton midfielder Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Chelsea winger Yuri Zhirkov. Russia also is coached by Dutch master Guus Hiddink. Slovenia's team doesn't have the same sort of credentials. Veteran striker Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne) is probably their best scoring threat, followed closely by captain (and West Bromwich Albion midfielder) Robert Koren. The match is at Maribor, and no one outside the borders of tiny Slovenia thinks Russia might lose, but it would be a major upset if it did.

--Portugal at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tactically, competitively, this might be the most interesting match of the day. A couple of fast, flashy teams known for coming forward boldly. But BH isn't really on the global radar yet and has never been in the World Cup, so it's not quite as sexy as the matches listed next. But it's certainly significant. Portugal is a world power and has the best player in the world in Cristian Ronaldo (out with an ankle injury), and some other guys who can play, as well, led by Simao, Deco and Liedson. Bosnia is considered a team on the rise, which is another way of saying not everyone knows who they are quite yet. We'll just go with their good young forwards, Edin Dzeko (who plays at Wolfsburg) and Vedad Ibisevic (Hoffenheim). Portugal won the first half 1-0, but Bosnia certainly is capable of flipping that score at Zenica and knocking the Portuguese out of the World Cup.

--Ireland at France. In some ways, this pairing seems tired. Haven't we been talking about it for a month? And haven't we all been waiting for France (and Raymond Domenech) to fail for half a year? Well, yes and yes. But it's France, 1998 champion, 2006 runner-up, and Ireland, a side that gets the formidable machinery of British journalism revved up. So here we are talking about it again. France got a lucky goal in Dublin on Saturday, a shot by Nicolas Anelka that bounced off an Irish defender, and all they have to do in the Stade de France tomorrow is keep the Irish from scoring, which isn't as exactly the toughest task in world football. Hard to imagine Ireland going forward, but don't tell them that. This one probably will be seen by more people than any match of the day.

--Algeria vs. Egypt at Omdurman, Sudan. The Unexpected Game ... the reprise of the Saturday match that was supposed to clear up who got to go to South Africa. But Egypt scored in the final seconds of play to win 2-0 and force a dead heat atop their group and this one-match-for-all playoff in the suburbs if Khartoum. Given the extreme partisanship of this pairing, Sudanese officials must be wondering whom they offended to have to host this thing. Half the 40,000 tickets are reserved for fans from Egypt and Algeria, and Algeria's national airline apparently is ferrying in 60 planeloads of fans for a cut-rate price of $200. Algeria's team seemed frightened and intimidated in the Satuday match in Cairo, and for good reason, considering their bus was almost destroyed on the way to the hotel. Egypt is surging and may be hard for the Algerians to hold off in what has turned into Africa's hottest rivalry.

Bring 'em on. After this, the next match isn't until June 11.

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