Friday, October 9, 2009

Weekend Primer

It's the international break this weekend, and there are a number of key matches that will define the World Cup race. At this moment, South Africa (host), Japan, Australia, South Korea, North Korea, the Netherlands, England, Spain, Ghana, Brazil and Paraguay are in. Twenty-one spots are yet to be claimed.

Here in CONCACAF, the big match of the weekend is obviously the Honduras-USA match. Mexico hosts El Salvador and Costa Rica hosts Trinidad and Tobago; both home sides will be expected to win. Mexico qualifies with a victory. Costa Rica needs a victory to set up their final match with the US, and could actually be relegated to the playoff with CONMEBOL with a surprise loss. The United States qualify with a win and have a great chance to finish atop the group. A loss would leave it all to be decided on the final matchday, barring a shock result in San Jose. Honduras would qualify with a home win as long as Costa Rica doesn't score at least eleven goals (unlikely). With a Honduras win, the US-Costa Rica match on October 14 would then decide the final qualifying spot, with the US needing only a draw to progress. Whoever does not progress would fall into the playoff.

In CONMEBOL, Argentina face the definition of a must-win match at home against Peru, who sit at the bottom of the table. Argentina currently sit in the playoff position. Maradona says he's not going anywhere. Bad for Argentina, entertaining for the rest of us. Chile look fairly comfortable to qualify, but could finish it off with a win at Colombia. Colombia sits in eighth but only two points back of Argentina, and badly need a win. Ecuador face Uruguay in a matchup of teams "on the bubble", so to speak. Both teams badly need a win, though a draw wouldn't be the disaster for Ecuador that it would be for Uruguay. Finally, Venezuela face already qualified Paraguay in a must win match. Everything still to play for in South America, where the cluster at the middle of the table makes predicting the final qualifying teams nearly impossible.

Action has wrapped up in Asia, with four teams qualified. Now the fifth team, Bahrain, will face Oceania winner New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff for qualification. The first leg is Saturday; the second leg is November 14.

Plenty of important matches in Africa this weekend, which offers little room for error by having four-team groups and only the group winner advancing. Thus far only Ghana have qualified. The group-leading Cameroon side of Samuel Eto'o currently lead Group A and host Togo and Emmanuel Adebayor. Both teams are still alive, along with Gabon, who host Morocco. In Group B, Tunisia lead the group and control their destiny, having twice already played (and drawn) favored Nigeria. Tunisia host Mozambique, while Nigeria look to keep pace against Kenya. In Group C, it's Algeria who have taken control, three points clear over the Egyptian side that impressed at the Confederations Cup (until the USA game anyway). Algeria hosts Rwanda, while Egypt must travel to Zambia. Algeria are the clearcut favorites at this point, especially with having the goal difference advantage as well. In Group E, the Ivory Coast are perfect through four matches, and need only one more point to punch their ticket. They should do so in Malawi. With Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Eboué, Didier Zokora, Yaya Touré, Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou on the roster, among others, anyone want to draw this team in South Africa? Didn't think so.

Finally a look toward Europe, where this week will wrap up all the group qualification matches, with only the playoffs for second place teams to come. All eyes will be on Group 1 with Denmark-Sweden and Portugal-Hungary, determining if Cristiano Ronaldo will be part of the World Cup. Ronaldo is healthy and will play. Apart from desperately needing a win, Portugal will be rooting for Denmark to win, which would vault Portugal into second place and the playoff position. All still to play for in Group 2, with the Swiss topping the group with seventeen points, Greece and Latvia tied with fourteen points, and Israel lurking with twelve points. Greece hosts Latvia in an obviously crucial match, while the Swiss could qualify with a win at Luxembourg, and Israel needs three points at home again Moldova to keep any hope alive. Chaos reigns in Group 3, where Slovakia leads the group but five teams still have a chance to finish second. Slovakia, with nineteen points, hosts Slovenia, who sit on fourteen. A draw qualifies the Slovaks directly. The Czech Republic, on twelve points, host Poland, one point behind the Czechs. Northern Ireland has played an additional match and is idle, but sits on fourteen points. The race for second will be much clearer after the weekend.

The rest of Europe is less complicated. Only one match of interest in Group 4, where Germany travels to Russia. The two sides are well in front of the group, and the Russians sit one point back. A draw would do for Germany, while the Russians must play to win or end up in a playoff. Spain have won Group 5, and Bosnia Herzegovina could finish second with a win in Estonia. Otherwise they could open the door for Turkey, who travel to Belgium. England have likewise clinched Group 6, but still play in a vital match when they travel to Ukraine. Ukraine sit two points behind Croatia for second place with a game in hand. Serbia look comfortable in Group 7, four points above France. A home victory over Romania would place them in South Africa. The French would wrap up second place with a home victory over the mighty Faroe Islands. Italy look to win Group 8, and would clinch with a victory in Ireland, who sit in second. An Irish loss would leave Bulgaria at least momentarily in the hunt, assuming they defeat Cyprus.

That should be enough football tomorrow to keep you satisifed. Enjoy the games!

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