Sep 4, 2009

The international break's biggest World Cup qualifiers

The international break will be a moment of truth for several national teams, with two matchdays on the calendar over the next week. We have taken a look at the group standings and calendar and provide you the following ranking of most crucial games (in order):

1. Portugal at Denmark, Sept. 5
It may lack the "sexiness" of some of the other match-ups, but Portugal v. Denmark holds the keys to the most competitive group in Europe and one that contains several squads that have been World Cup regulars in years past. Denmark lead the group with 16 points from six games. Portugal are lagging in third place, with just nine points from the same number of matches. The surprising Hungarians sit second with 13 points. They'll host Sweden, who are tied with Portugal on points. So Cristiano Ronaldo and his countrymen (along with a few guys born in Brazil who happen to play for Portugal) need a win. Unlike Denmark, they'll have a full squad at their disposal. The Danes will be without goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen (suspended) and four other starters: Thomas Kahlenberg, Leon Andreasen, Daniel Jensen and Daniel Agger (injuries). It's gonna be big.

2. France at Serbia, Sept. 9
Wednesday's match between the top two teams in Group 7 will likely decide the fate of both. The surprising first-placed Serbs (18 points from seven games) will be fresher after sitting out Saturday's games. France must first get by Romania, a club that gave them fits at last year's Euro but have since fallen apart and are barely a factor in the group (seven points from six games). Assuming they win, Raymond Domenech's men will be two points behind Serbia when they meet Wednesday. With a win in that match, they will in all likelihood take the group (their last two games are at home against the Faroe Islands and Austria). Figure Serbia, playing their first tournament as an independent, non-Yugoslav entity, to be aware of this. So the pressure will be on. Expect fireworks.

3. Slovakia at Czech Republic, Sept. 5
Group 3 is essentially turned on its head, with recent World Cup participants Czech Republic and Poland at the bottom of the table and Slovakia and Northern Ireland at the top. Saturday's "Czechoslovak derby" can begin to turn the tide. The Czechs are absolutely desperate for wins, having just eight points from six games. Slovakia sit first in the group with 15 points. Betweeen them are N'Ire (13 points from seven games), Slovenia (11 from seven) and Poland (10 from six). Oh yeah, the men from Ulster also play at Poland Saturday. But the Czecho-Slovak battle is the big one. With a win, Slovakia move a giant step closer to their first participation in a major tournament. A draw does the Czechs no favors either, but leaves Slovakia vulnerable to moves from Poland and Northern Ireland, whom they face at Belfast Wednesday.

4. Brazil at Argentina, Sept. 5
It undoubtedly pits the two best teams against each other, so why is this only the fourth-best (or most crucial, whatever) match? Simple: CONMEBOL is very top-heavy. While they currently sit fourth (the last automatic qualifier), Argentina still have some margin for error if they don't get a result tomorrow. Then Thursday's game at Paraguay simply becomes all important. So while Diego Maradona's side face pressure, it's not a do-or-die thing. Of course, you'll still want to watch any game between these two sides. It's sure to be a spectacle either way.

5. Macedonia at Scotland, Sept. 5
The Netherlands won Group 9 a long time ago but second place is entirely up for grabs, and Scotland are in the thick of it. They'll need to beat Macedonia tomorrow to have any chance though. If they do, they'll likely still need a result against the Dutch on the final matchday Wednesday (only five teams in this group)--or hope that Norway (currently one point behind Alex McLeish's side) and Macedonia somehow take each other out of it. But Holland will likely be resting starters Wednesday and Norway face a potentially tough game at Iceland tomorrow. So if they win tomorrow, Scotland might just be in the driver's seat.

6. Turkey at Bosnia, Sept. 9
If they win at lowly Armenia Saturday, Bosnia can effectively clinch second place in Group 5 when they host Turkey on Wednesday. With a win in that game, they would then put seven points between themselves and Turkey with two matchdays remaining. Of course, Bosnia have been close to qualifying for tournaments before (well, once, for Euro 2008) and ended up falling apart down the stretch. And second place is no guarantee to advancement either. (In case you're wondering: First place is not really an option seeing as Spain hold the lead in the group with a perfect 18 points from six games). But this would be a massive accomplishment for Bosnian football.

7. Mexico at Costa Rica, Sept. 6
Mexico are resurgent under new coach Javier Aguirre and have back-to-back victories against the hated Gringos to boost their fragile egos going into this crucial qualifier at San Jose. La Sele lead the group with 12 points from six games and are a particularly difficult foe on their home turf (it is actual fieldturf, too). But with just nine points, Mexico sit fourth and need a result. If they get it, they can look to the ensuing home games against Honduras and El Salvador to book their ticket to South Africa. If they lose, they'll face yet more soul searching.

8. Russia at Wales, Sept. 9
The moment of truth for Wales, who face extremely long odds even if they do win this game. Assuming (big leap of faith here) that second-placed Russia win at Liechtenstein Saturday, Wales will be nine points in arrears with three games to play. But these are three games that Russia can clearly lose; besides Wednesday's game at Millenium Stadium, they host Germany Oct. 10 and play at Azerbaijan Oct. 14. John Toschak's squad play at Finland and Liechtenstein. There is still hope for a Welsh appearance at South Africa, but it's a feint one.

9. Cameroon at Gabon, Sept. 5
Speaking of moments of truth, the Lions Indomptables have their backs to the wall with just one point from their first two games. They sit fourth and last in Africa's Group A, albeit with a game in hand over the second- and third-placed teams (Togo and Morocco, respectively). Gabon are first, with a perfect six points from two games. So Cameroon, the first team to really put African soccer on the map back in the 1990 World Cup (though some would argue that Algeria did so first in 1982), need a result. Actually, they need two, perhaps three to qualify directly (they face Gabon again Wednesday). But first thing first for the team now coached by Paul LeGuen, who previously led Paris Saint Germain, Glasgow Rangers and Olympique Lyonnais.

10. Croatia at England, Sept. 9
England have been stellar so far in Group 6: 21 points from seven games. We aren't exactly sure of the math, but it looks as though Fabio Capello's side can clinch a spot in South Africa with a victory Wednesday. That would put to rest the demons of the last time they hosted Croatia. It won't mean England are good, much less a threat to win anything next June, but it will be a nice accomplishment for a team that has had very little to cheer about since, well, 1966.

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