The final day of 2010 World Cup qualifying, and it did not disappoint.
Maybe the tactics were a little cautious ... OK, more than a little cautious as none of the first five matches produced more than one goal in 90 minutes ... but the results were anything but predictable as underdogs won three of the five South Africa 2010 berths decided so far today. With only Costa Rica-Uruguay left on the docket to settle the 32nd (and final) 2010 berth.
The biggest shock? Slovenia 1, Russia 0, at Maribor. And now Slovenia goes to its first World Cup finals on the strength of an away goal on a 2-2 aggregate.
No. 2 shock? Algeria defeating Egypt 1-0 in the unfortunately named "Match of Hate" in Omdurman, Sudan. Algeria's victory in the one-game playoff comes just four days after Egypt's last-gasp victory in Cairo. Most thought Egypt would carry that momentum to victory at the neutral site.
Greece 1, Ukraine 0 is something of a surprise, too, but it's the sort of surprise Greece has been springng for the past half-decade. Greece won the 2004 Euro Cup with the same tactics it used to dispatch fancied Ukraine -- defend like mad and convert one of your few opportunities. Greece wins the series on aggregate 1-0, which sounds about right for Otto Rehhegel's squad.
France continued its dicing-with-death shtick by giving up a first-half goal to Ireland and going to extra time before William Gallas scored (on a pass from Thierry Henry who is, I believe, 55 years old) to give the French a 2-1 victory on aggregate. Under deeply unpopular coach Raymond Domenech, France has made a habit of just escaping disaster, and did so again. But les bleus are through.
The one clear non-upset was Portugal subduing Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1-0, to win 2-0 on aggregate. Portugal played without Cristiano Ronaldo (bad ankle) but had enough left to handle BH, which had become a sort of out-of-nowhere darling that seemed to melt on its home pitch in Zenica -- with its first World Cup finals at stake. Raul Meireles scored for Portugal, which advances to its third consecutive finals -- but only fifth all-time.
Further observations from a frantic night of action:
Biggest party? Probably a tie between the nations of Algeria and Slovenia.
Algeria goes to the finals for the first time since 1986, and (making it far sweeter) it goes at the expense of its arch-rival Egypt.
Meanwhile, Slovenia -- which back in 1986 was just a piece of Yugoslavia -- is in the finals for the first time in its brief history, and got there by dispatching big, bad Russia. Slovenia is a Balkan nation of only 2 million people, living in a country the size of Massachusetts.
Best sad party? The nation of Ireland, crying in its beer ... probably gallons and gallons of beer (dare we say, a Guinness record?) ... as it pushed France to the verge only to lose in 120 minutes.
Biggest disappointment? Russia, which just didn't show up at Maribor. Slovenia's 87th minute goal at Moscow on Saturday opened a crack for the Slovenes, and when Zlatko Didic scored in the 44th minute, Slovenia was in control, needing only to hold on to that 1-0 lead to advance, on the strength of the after-thought away goal on Saturday. Russia embarrassed itself in the second half, rarely threatening to score, even with big names such as Andrei Arshaven and Yuri Zhirkov on the pitch ... and ended with only nine men on the field after red cards on substitute forward Alexander Kerzhakov and Zhirkov (two yellows). Vladimir Putin can't be happy.
Biggest bore: Greece. Of course. The world's dullest good side, a team so negative and stultifying that it makes Italy look like a bunch of risk-taking wild men, is with us still and (sigh) headed for South Africa. Ukraine can blame only itself, especially after falling prey to the same tactics Greece has been rolling with since Rehhegel took over and they won the 2004 Euro. Dimitrios Salpingdidas got the goal in the 31st minute, and then Greece just killed the game, and nobody kills a game like these guys. Adieu, Andrei Shevchenko.
Sweetest vengeance? Algeria, for sure. When Algeria arrived in Egypt last week its team bus was stoned by Egyptian civilians, and three players suffered significant cuts from flying glass. Then the Algerians went into a stadium that the Algeria federation president suggested was a war zone, not a soccer pitch, and needing only a one-goal loss to advance ... Algeria saw that go poof on an Egypt goal in the fifth minute of extra time to win 2-0, forge a dead-heat atop Group C and force this extra game. Taking down the Egyptians, on a 40th-minute volley by Antar Yahia, had to be the most fun Algerian sport has enjoyed in a long time.
The best match I saw in Abu Dhabi? That would be the only one available on standard cable, and that was Egypt vs. Algeria, seen at a hotel tavern. An Egyptian who was in the bar stormed out when Algeria scored its goal, but there was still nearly an hour to go of Algeria hanging on and packing the box with nine or 10 men ... and winning. No horns honking tonight on the streets of Abu Dhabi (as opposed to Saturday night) which tells me one thing: There are far more Egyptian expats in this town than Algerian expats.
Gutsy losers: The Irish. And haven't we said that a time or two in the history of the Emerald Isle? They gave France, 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up, all they wanted ... but it wasn't enough to get the Irish into the big event. Erin Go Broke.
Greatest soccer country not headed to South Africa? Russia would have to win this one, though they looked far less than great the past four days. Followed by Croatia (actually ranked higher than Russia by Fifa.com, 8 vs. 12) with the Czech Republic (15 in Fifa) coming in third.
And we'll see, tomorrow, how things turned out with Uruguay and Costa Rica.