Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wednesday: Looking at the Big Matches

Thirty-two South Africa 2010 qualifying matches on Wednesday. The last hugely busy day on the World Cup qualifying schedule.

Three sorts of matches on tap.

1. The plurality that have no realistic bearing on South Africa 2010. Matches in which kids will get their first cap and not even the most rabid of fans will have much emotion invested.

2. The chunk that involve one team with finals aspirations ... and one team without any. The fascinating matches that leave everyone wondering if the teams with nothing to play for ... play as if they do have something to play for.

3. The minority of matches that matter to both teams.

Let's look at those from categories 2 and 3, in ascending order of intrigue.

--Ukraine at Andorra. The Ukrainians sneak into second place in Europe Group 6 with a victory over puny Andorra. Ukraine got a scheduling break; England clinched at home against Croatia, then lost 1-0 at Ukraine in a match that didn't really matter to the English. Flip those matches on the schedule and it would be Croatia playing to clinch second, at Kazakhstan. Now, Croatia needs a victory and an Andorran miracle. Good luck with that.

--Slovenia at San Marino. Slovenia finishes no worse than second in Europe Group 3 if it can defeat the feeblest team in UEFA. San Marino has been outscored 44-1 in nine matches. Slovenia will be looking for a big score to make sure it wins a goal-differential battle with Slovakia if the latter loses at Poland -- a result that would make Slovenia champions of the group, avoiding the second-place playoffs.

--Portugal at Malta. The Portuguese can complete their charge into second place in Europe Group 1 with a victory over the Maltese -- who have been outscored 22-0 in qualifying. Even without the injured Cristian Ronaldo, Portugal should have this wrapped up in a matter of minutes, and then gets ready for the home-and-home with some other second-place Euro squad for a South Africa berth. Note: Portugal had six points from its first five qualifying matches but is in position to claim 13 points from its second five.

--Luxembourg at Greece. Another match that shouldn't be close, but ... Greece does no worse than second in Europe Group 2 with a victory, and could finish first via goal differential if Switzerland loses to Israel. Greece won 3-0 at Luxembourg 13 months ago. But if the Greeks somehow to contrive to tie the Grand Duchy guys, Israel could jump them for second by beating the Swiss.

--Honduras at El Salvador. Honduras needs a victory -- and a Costa Rica defeat at the United States -- to secure the third and final automatic Concacaf berth in South Africa. Los Catrachos may have a harder time than the hexagonal standings would indicate because 1) they are coming off a devastating home loss to the Yankees and 2) El Salvador is their historic rival. (See: The Soccer War of 1969.)

--Costa Rica at United States. A more meaningful match than the one above because the Ticos control their fate; they return to the finals if they can win a qualifier in the States for the first time in 24 years. Luckily, for Costa Rica, the U.S. already has clinched and may be distracted by the automobile accident today that badly injured forward Charlie Davies. However, U.S. coach Bob Bradley insists his team will play hard, with its best XI, because it wants to finish atop the Concacaf standings, which it currently leads.

--Ecuador at Chile. Ecuador sits sixth in the South America table, and sixth brings you nothing, but the Ecuadorans can jump up to No. 5 -- and the home-and-home playoff with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf -- if it can win against the already-qualified Chileans (and the Argentina-Uruguay match has a loser). How much does Chile care? And can Ecuador recover from its critical home defeat vs. Uruguay last Saturday?

--Slovakia at Poland. The Slovaks are looking for their first World Cup finals as an independent nation, having just missed a chance to clinch Europe Group 3 when they lost 2-0 at home to Slovenia. Poland has disappointed, and is out of contention, but if the Poles care enough, and the Slovaks are too tight (and miss their four suspended players too much) ... Slovakia could find itself in the second-place playoffs.

--Israel at Switzerland. One of the two matches in which both sides have something to play for. Switzerland clinches Europe Group 2 with a victory or tie. Israel can slip into second -- and a spot in the second-place playoffs -- with a victory combined with a Greece tie or loss at home to Luxembourg. Greece not beating Luxembourg is unlikely, but weirder things have happened.

--Argentina at Uruguay. The Match of the Day. The winner finishes fourth in the Conmebol standings and gets the region's final automatic berth at South Africa 2010. Argentina finishes fourth with a tie -- unless Ecuador wins by five goals at Chile. Uruguay has been the steadier side, especially since Diego Maradona took over Argentina, a year ago. But if we compare sheer talent, the Argentines must rate as favorites, even on the road ... and even though Maradona is winless in three road qualifying matches as coach. If Argentina loses and Ecuador wins, Ecuador finishes fifth and gains the home-and-home playoffs with the No. 4 side out of Concacaf for a berth. And Argentina is done. Lots of tension here.

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