Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Counting Down to the Final Field of 32

Today is the big final day of qualifying as 12 teams are vying for the final 6 spots in the 32-team field for the 2010 World Cup.

Kicking off first is Algeria v. Egypt. Algeria is best known for producing great French footballers (see Zidane, Zinedine; Nasri, Samir; and Benzema, Karim), while Egypt are the two-time defending Africa Cup of Nations champions. Most of their team is based out of Egypt, with the notable exception being Mohamed Zidan of Borussia Dortmund. Algeria actually has a squad with players from a variety of European clubs, ranging from Lazio and Siena to AEK Athens to Portsmouth and Hull. Still, even after telling you that its not like you or I would recognize any of those names. Egypt has the momentum from beating Algeria just three days ago, and I'd like to see them rewarded for their generosity in providing the US with the boost it needed to showcase itself at the Confederations Cup.

Up next is Ukraine v. Greece. Greece rely on a disgusting brand of defensive tactics, playing very disciplined and hoping for a rare counter-attack goal. Ukraine will feel confident of winning at home after the 0-0 draw in Athens with one-time superstar Andriy Shevchenko leading the forward line, while thankfully his namesake Andriy Voronin can't even make the squad. I don't really care who wins this match, but I think most neutrals would rather not have Greece advance considering their negative approach to the game.

Kicking off at the same time this afternoon are Bosnia v. Portugal and Slovenia v. Russia. I've been touting this Bosnia team with all their hitmen (Džeko and Ibišević), but they have received a massive blow with the apparent loss of playmaker Zvjezdan Misimović, the man who makes the VfL Wolfsburg attack go. Even if the late reports of his injury absence are true, Bosnia can't really complain about the injury luck department because Portugal of course are playing without arguably the best player in the world (even though in terms of relative impact to the team, Misimović's injury hurts Bosnia more). Deco continues to lead the Portuguese, even though he's on the downside of his career. Youngsters like Nani and João Moutinho have yet to really make their mark, although Nani played well in the first leg. Still, Portugal has so many talented names across the pitch that they really should still qualify, but an early strike by Bosnia could set up a wonderfully entertaining and tense match.

I honestly can't really analyze Slovenia, not having seen them play ever and not knowing any of their players. Russia, on the other hand, have a host of quality players all over the pitch, and not just the attackers everyone knows (Arshavin) but also Igor Akinfeev in goal, who proved he is one of the world's top young keepers with his Champions League performance against Manchester United for CSKA Moscow. The X factor still has to be Guus Hiddink. I think few people would bet against the Russians with the Dutch master managing the sidelines. I'm not sure Slovenia will shut out Russia even though Slovenia had one of the best defensive records during qualifying (in a weak group where they finished second to Slovakia and above the Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, and San Marino), and grabbing an away goal would make Slovenia's job that much tougher.

The final UEFA qualifying match pits France at home against Ireland. The Irish were incensed after their first leg 1-0 loss and have sounded confident that they can overturn their deficit. There's no need to rehash how France have all the talent in the world but have yet to put it all together. France also have something of a history of crashing out in big moments like these, and I wouldn't doubt that the Irish squads's heart and work rate will seriously test France's nerve. An Ireland victory overturning a deficit at the Stade de France, site of France's greatest triumph, would be quite famous indeed. Will it happen? I'm not as confident as the Irish seem to be. It could be the type of game where France look dominant in possession at times, but something like tied scoreline late could lead to the Irish dominating the ball while desperately searching for a late goal and France just hanging on and nipping an insurance tally that sends them through. In any case, you surely won't have a hard time finding plenty of analysis to sate your appetite prior to this match since the UK-centric soccer press in the US has largely been focusing on this match above all the others.

Lastly, tonight's final Wold Cup Qualifier pits Uruguay against Costa Rica in Montevideo, Uruguay. Having won the first leg, I really see no way that Uruguay doesn't finish off this playoff and beat the Ticos. The Costa Rica loss (OK, it was a tie, but it felt like a crushing loss to them) against the US really was the end of their World Cup hopes. They knew it. You knew it. Costa Rica is not a good road team, and while I think that the US-Mexico-Honduras trio from CONCACAF are talented and could give a South American team a tough go in a playoff, any other team from CONCACAF would have a lot of problems, and we already saw that in San Jose on Saturday.

With that said, I hope you have a TV or internet feed so you can sit back and enjoy the drama.

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