Monday, October 12, 2009

USA Qualify; Argentina Survive (For Now)

ARF gave his thoughts on the USA game, and I don't have much to add. But it's difficult to understate how important it was for this side to get a road win against a quality opponent. And for all the hand-wringing the American side has put themselves (and its fans) through, the US would actually top CONCACAF with a home win against Costa Rica on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see how Bradley approaches that game, which means little to the Americans but everything to Los Ticos who would qualify for their third straight World Cup with a win.

Costa Rica took care of business against Trinidad and Tobago, and now sit third in the table and two points ahead of Honduras. A Honduras loss or draw in El Salvador would send Costa Rica to South Africa and Honduras to the playoff with COMNEBOL. A Honduras victory would force Costa Rica to win in Washington D.C., because Honduras would go through on goal difference if Los Ticos only managed a draw. Honduras must quickly recover their composure after their home defeat; three points is a must on Wednesday to apply pressure. Elsewhere, Mexico won and qualified for the World Cup as well, though the first had to clear the pitch of bees.

The weekend's fixtures clarified the picture in South America considerably. Chile won in Colombia to punch their ticket and eliminate the Colombians. Venezuela fell to Paraguay and were also eliminated in every way except mathematically. Uruguay overturned a 1-0 deficit in the second half and stunned the Ecuadorian crowd in Quito with a 2-1 victory when Diego Forlán converted a penalty in extra time. Uruguay now sit in fifth in the playoff spot, with Ecuador one point behind. Both are still within striking distance of the fourth place side, Argentina.

The Argentines remain the big story as they slop through their qualifying rounds and risk staying home entirely. Maradona remains the manager despite his obvious ineptitude, though perhaps he would not remain so after the qualifying stage. Playing at home against last place Peru is the closest one can get to an automatic three points in CONMEBOL, but a stunning turn of events nearly saw Argentina give the game away in the final moments. Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín scored at the beginning of the second half in his Argentine debut, but also missed two other good chances that would have put the game away. Peru were the inferior side but were not lifeless, at one point hitting the crossbar from distance. At some point in the second half the rain starting coming so hard it was virtually unplayable, and Peru took advantage of the sloppy conditions and found a stunning equalizer in the 90th minute. But the agony turned to ecstasy for Argentina when substitute Martin Palermo, who hadn't played for the national team in ten years, tapped in for a dramatic victory. Because the goalkeeper was well off the line, it looked as though Palermo was actually offside, with only one defender between himself and the goal. Regardless, it was a massive relief for Maradona, who belly flopped and slid on the soaking turf as though he'd scored the goal himself. Maradona has since called the goal a miracle, and it's hard to disagree, from an Argentine perspective. Along with the inevitable speculation about Maradona getting fired, the other unanswered question for the struggling Argentines: where's Messi?

Argentina are hardly out of trouble going to the last matchday, as they must travel to Uruguay with the World Cup on the line. Argentina only need a draw to be bound for South Africa, but that's asking a lot against a Uruguay side that would qualify with a win. An Argentina loss would send them at best into the playoff. An Argentina loss coupled with an Ecuador win in Chile would send Ecuador into the playoff and stunningly keep Argentina and Messi home during the next World Cup.

In Africa, the Ivory Coast was the second African side to qualify by drawing against Malawi 1-1, with Drogba scoring the equalizer. Cameroon defeated Togo, and would qualify with a win in Morocco. If they fail to win Gabon could capitalize and qualify. Nigeria found a late goal against Mozambique to keep their hopes alive, but still need another victory and a slip-up from group leaders Tunisia in the last matchday. And Algeria and Egypt both won, setting up their dramatic matchup in the qualifying finale. Egypt must win by two goals to advance. The last round of African qualifying is on November 14.

Bahrain and New Zealand played the first leg of their playoff, which concluded 0-0. I'm sure it was scintillating.

Good news for those who want to see Cristiano Ronaldo in the World Cup, as Portugal's victory over Hungary along with Denmark's victory over Sweden (which sent the Danes to South Africa) moved the Portugese into second place. A victory over woeful Malta would send Portugal into the playoff round. Bad news for CR himself, as he re-injured himself in the match and will miss three to four weeks. In other European action, Greece found a vital victory against Latvia, and would qualify for the playoffs with a win over Luxembourg. They could even still win the group if Israel were to defeat Switzerland. Slovenia's road victory over Slovakia puts them in a similar position as Greece; Slovenia need only defeat San Marino to at least qualify for the playoffs. Thus far San Marino have zero points, have scored one goal and allowed fourty-four. I'm guessing Slovenia gets it done. Slovakia must win in Poland or Slovenia will qualify and the Slovaks will be relegated to the playoffs. And Ukraine's victory over England has moved them above Croatia into second place. Ukraine only need to defeat Andorra to finish second, and they will. Croatia will not be going to South Africa.

Several groups have locked in both first and second place after this weekend. Germany's victory over Russia locked up the group for the Germans and second place for the Russians. Likewise, the 2-2 draw between Italy and Ireland sent the Italians through and the Irish into the playoff round. Serbia and France both won in order to finish 1-2 in that order. And Bosnia and Herzegovina won to finish second, and will attempt to qualify for their first World Cup via the playoffs. Of the European matches on Wednesday, only the Switzerland and Slovakia matches hold much interest for qualification, unless a truly shocking upset were to happen.

Speaking of the European playoffs, FIFA announced the rules for determining the matchups last week, deciding on two pools of teams based on FIFA World Rankings. Is FIFA playing favorites? This piece examines.

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