Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Argentina, Honduras among Four Going to SA2010

Argentina will be in the World Cup finals, as per usual.

Honduras will, as well. But there is nothing "usual" about that.

In the last huge (32 matches) day of South Africa 2010 qualifying, Argentina did what it was supposed to do, thanks to (or in spite of) the leadership of coach Diego Maradona.

Not that it wasn't a touch-and-go thing, for Diego Maradona & Co. They needed a goal in the 84th minute to defeat Uruguay, 1-0, in the showdown for the fourth and final guaranteed South America berth for South Africa 2010.

And they needed perhaps the most anonymous player on a team of international stars -- reserve midfielder Mario Bolatti -- to score it.

But, after months of sturm und drang, Diego and the Argentines are headed for their 10th consecutive World Cup finals.

Honduras had, by far, the most dramatic route to South Africa of the other three qualifiers today.

Honduras began the day sitting fourth in the Concacaf standings, and fourth is good only for a nerve-racking home-and-home playoff with the Conmebol No.5 team. Getting up to third is critical, because Concacaf has three guaranteed berths.

Honduras played at arch-rival El Salvador, and needed a victory -- combined with something less than a victory by Costa Rica, which was playing the United States at Washington D.C.

It looked very grim for the Catrachos, as Honduras's team is known, when Costa Rica striker Bryan Ruiz put in goals in the 21st and 24th minute. Actually, we were working on this blog post, and already had Honduras playing the home-and-home with Uruguay, No. 5 in the final Conmebol standings. Then it began to turn.

Carlos Pavon scored for Honduras in the 64th minute. Michael Bradley scored for the U.S. in the 72nd.

Costa Rica, fighting off repeated U.S. attacks, appeared as if it would hold on, especially when U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu went down with an injury in the 84th minute, leaving the Americans playing with 10 -- because they had used their three substitutes.

Then the match got weird. Referee Benito Archundia of Mexico sent off Costa Rica coach Rene Simoes for stalling during a substitution, and his assistant soon followed him to the locker room.

Five minutes of extra time were added on, and with about 30 seconds left the U.S. got a corner kick from Landon Donovan who lofted a nice ball to defender Jonathan Bornstein -- who headed it in basically as the match ended.

Suddenly, Honduras had three points today, Costa Rica had only one (for the 2-2 tie), and they were level on points, at 16, but Honduras won the goal-differential tiebreaker -- and is headed for South Africa. It is only the second time Honduras has qualified for the World Cup final and, rest assured, the country is one huge party all night tonight.

Other teams who punched their tickets to South Africa:

The Swiss made it more nerve-racking than it needed to be, but holding Israel to a 0-0 tie was enough to give them the championship of Europe Group 2, one point ahead of Greece.

--Slovakia. The Slovaks are still looking for their scoring punch, but an own goal by Poland's Seweryn Gancarczyk -- in the third minute -- led to a 1-0 victory by Slovakia and clinched its first appearance in the World Cup finals as an indepedent nation. Slovakia lost 2-0 at home in its previous game to put itself at risk, but its suspension-weakened squad managed to keep Poland from scoring, and now it is headed to South Africa.

The other big development today was the finalizing of the eight-team lineup for Europe's home-and-home playoffs for the continent's final four berths in South Africa.

The octet: France, Portugal, Russia, Greece, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ireland, Ukraine. And look for the first four to be seeded against the second four when the draw for the playoffs is made on Monday.

So, we now have 23 teams with reservations for South Africa. With four still to come from Europe, three from Africa and one each from the Costa Rica-Uruguay and Bahrain-New Zealand playoffs.
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