Friday, November 13, 2009

The Eve of the Last Big Qualifying Day

Fifteen matches are scheduled for Saturday. Only six will be left on the qualifying schedule, after tomorrow's action is wrapped up.

Yes, five of those last six will be the second leg of home-and-home playoffs for South Africa 2010 berths. But in terms of numbers of matches, Saturday is the last big hurrah of the long, long qualifying process.

Here is a survey of the Matches That Mean Something, from Saturday's schedule, in order of what we believe to be increasing global interest:

--Uruguay at Costa Rica. This game is of significant interest in the Western Hemisphere ... but not so much around the rest of the world, where it seems to be assumed the Uruguayans, the No. 5 team out of South America, should have little trouble with the No. 4 team out of Concacaf, the one that struggled down the stretch and couldn't hold a 2-0 lead over the U.S. in its final regional qualifier -- thus condemning it to this home-and-home with Uruguay. However, Costa Rica is formidable in San Jose, on the artificial turf of Estadio Saprissa, and a victory by the Ticos (a goal or two by Bryan Ruiz, perhaps) would not surprise anyone who has been to Saprissa. The return match is in Montevideo on Wednesday.

--Cameroon at Morocco. The Indomitable Lions of Cameroon win Africa Group A with a victory over the Moroccans, at Fez. Cameroon is the favorite, given that Morocco hasn't managed a victory yet in Group A play, but a tie wouldn't be out of the question, and that would leave a crack open for Gabon to win the group -- with a victory at Togo. Gabon would be a great story, a World Cup first-timer with a small population and a profoundly anonymous roster. But Cameroon won the two head-to-head matches with Gabon and probably deserves to go. It would be Cameroon's sixth World Cup finals -- an African record.

--Tunisia at Mozambique. Tunisia is two points clear of Nigeria atop Africa Group B and clinches a berth in South Africa with a victory on the road. Mozambique has been formidable in its two previous home matches, in Maputo, holding Nigeria to a 0-0 draw (which is why Nigeria is trailing Tunisia) and defeating Kenya. So Tunisia shouldn't show up with fat heads, because if the Tunisians stumble and Nigeria wins at enfeebled Kenya, the Super Lions would jump to the top of the group -- either by goal differential (Tunisia tie) or by raw points (Tunisia defeat).

--Slovenia at Russia. One of the four home-and-home playoffs involving European group runners-up, and probably the one in which the underdogs seem most under the gun. The match is at Moscow. Slovenia's goal will be keeping it close and hoping to end ahead after the teams play in Maribor on Wednesday.

--Ukraine at Greece. Another of the Europe runners-up playoffs. Greece struggled to finish second in perhaps the weakest group in European qualifying, Group 2, and their negative tactics (keep it scoreless and hope to poach a goal late) that worked so well at Euro 2004 are getting a bit tired. But, then, Ukraine wouldn't be here if it hadn't gotten a home victory over England after the English already had clinched Group 6; Croatia would be in this playoff, instead. Greece probably needs a victory here because assuming it will get a result out of Donetsk on Wednesday would be foolish. Not when Ukraine boasts a reinvigorated Andrei Shevchenko.

--Portugal at Bosnia-Herzegovina. Cristiano Ronaldo is out for the Portuguese in this two-game Euro runners-up playoff, and BH is keen to nail down its first World Cup finals berth ... and it certainly could. Portugal will need production from the likes of Deco, Simao and Leidson, and probably needs a victory at home, in Lisbon. The return match is at Zenica on Wednesday, and a BH victory there isn't hard to imagine. Portugal is one of the two global powers in mortal danger of not getting to South Africa 2010. And the other is ...

--France at Ireland. Speaking of highly regarded teams seemingly prepared to take a fall ... there is Raymond Domenech's bleus who have never found their pace throughout qualifying. They probably can take a lot of starch out of the Irish with a victory at Dublin, but the Irish say they are unafraid, and we believe them. And the Irish probably were not amused when Domenech said Ireland represented something of an "England B side." Robbie Keane bulks large for Ireland, as does keeper Shay Given. France will bring its usual host of elite club-side stars ... and probably again struggle to score. (1-0 over the Faeroe Islands? Really?) The return match is at the Stade de France on Wednesday, and Irish fans are snapping up tickets. France clearly is the more talented side, but Ireland seems more cohesive and more assured, making this the most interesting of the four Euro playoffs.

--Algeria at Egypt. The Algerians are no slouches, but most analysts figured Egypt would win Africa Group C. The Pharaohs gave away points early in qualifying and find themselves three points in arrears, even after a surge in recent months. But the final qualifying match is in Cairo, where the home crowd can be intimidating, and things could get interesting. Algeria advances to South Africa with a victory or a tie -- or a one-goal defeat. If Egypt wins by three goals, it takes the group. However, if Egypt wins by two goals, the Pharaohs finish in a dead tie with les fennecs ... and a one-game playoff would follow in Sudan on Wednesday. Striker Mohamed Zidan is back for Egypt, and just in time. Lots of permutations possible here, and that makes it fun.

--Bahrain at New Zealand. The Showdown of the Little People. Two sides ranked deep in the poll (61st and 83rd, respectively) meet in chilly, probably soggy Wellington with a berth in South Africa at stake. Bahrain never has played in a finals, and would become the smallest country (770,000 population) to reach one. New Zealand has been to the finals only once, back in 1982. The first half of this home-and-home was a 0-0 grind in steamy Manama a month ago. The Kiwis need to win to advance; a 0-0 score means a penalty shootout. Bahrain goes forward with a victory or a tie in which goals are scored. The atmosphere should be electric, and the winner will be the Official Underdog of the 2010 World Cup.
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