Final chance arrives for Europe's South African wannabes
The groups have largely taken shape but there's plenty still to be decided in Europe
Wednesday 14 October 2009
Surely Ukraine will capitalise on their victory over England?
It would be criminal and pretty distressing for Ukraine, quarter-finalists at the last World Cup, should they fail to book their place in the play-offs now that they have grabbed second place from Croatia with their 1-0 victory over England on Saturday – especially as they only need to beat bottom side Andorra to make it happen.
Croatia are left to pray for the unimaginable, while ensuring they win in Kazakhstan, second from the foot of Group Six. "Andorra are not the weakest opponents," coach Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko said, with a straight face, after Saturday's win. "The Croats had problems playing in Andorra and England only managed to crack their defence in the second half. It will not be easier than the game against England," he added clearly remembering that Rio Ferdinand won't be in the Andorra back four.
After a lacklustre goalless draw against Belarus last month, Ukraine's chances of qualifying seemed on the wane. However, the victory over England has got the headline writers in upbeat mode once more. "Believe In Wonders" and "Long Live Ukraine" were offerings in the media on Sunday.
Ukraine are without striker Andrei Voronin, although some Liverpool fans may not see that as a negative, and the suspended midfielder Anatoly Tymoschuk tonight. Mykhaylychenko said Voronin was less than 100 per cent fit, while local media have reported a row between the pair.
Can Portugal make the play-offs without Cristiano Ronaldo?
Portugal can calm the frayed nerves of their long-suffering fans by beating lowly Malta tonight in Group One to book a place in the play-offs and ensure we can all still cling to the dream of seeing Ronaldo at the World Cup.
The world's most expensive player won't be in action tonight – he's nursing a sore ankle – but many regular Portugal-watchers believe they are a better team without him. What? Ronaldo, not a team player? Never. But the stats may just back it up as the Madrid man has failed to score in qualifying and has contributed to the frustration surrounding the national side who were favourites to win their group. The pressure has slowly grown on coach Carlos Queiroz, who was booed when his name was announced before the Hungary match on Saturday.
"We are not there yet," Queiroz said. But if they don't get there the former Manchester United man will be heading for the job queue.
Anyway, victory at home over Malta can surely be achieved with or without Ronaldo, especially as some doubt his worth. Although surely they will want to reassess that when they see who takes his place – Nani is expected to step up.
Should Portugal slip up the Swedes will need to beat Albania, while Hungary could still sneak in if both were to somehow fail.
Can France rediscover their World Cup-winning touch?
Former World Cup-winning manager Aime Jacquet is confident France will qualify for the finals in South Africa next year, although he must be the sole Frenchman with such certainty.
France are assured of a play-off place after their 5-0 demolition of the Faroe Islands on Saturday lifted them four points clear of Austria with one game to play. Les Bleus host Austria tonight and they will be hoping to maintain their improved form in Group Seven as they wait for next month's draw for the play-offs.
Coach Raymond Domenech – dogged by reports of a bust-up with his players during the double header against Romania and Serbia – is somehow struggling on in the job but Jacquet has no doubts: "What is interesting about football is that everyone has his own way of doing things. That is better – it is not in a mould. The thing is not to be destabilised. If your players follow you it does not matter what else happens." Problem is the players don't seem to be.
Except perhaps for David Trezeguet, who scored 34 goals in 71 games for France, and has has sniffed one more World Cup and revealed his desire to return to the national team after being out in the cold for 18 months. The 31-year-old said: "I will always be available in this difficult period. To qualify the coach should put all the weapons in his side. If Domenech thinks I can be useful, I am ready to play in the play-offs."
Who will shade Group Two?
This has been one of the tightest groups in the qualifying campaign, and the automatic spot will be a toss-up between Switzerland and Greece. Switzerland are in the box seats only needing one point to qualify. Greece can still gain automatic qualification on goal difference by beating Luxembourg if the Swiss lose. Latvia and Israel retain slim hopes of a play-off place. Frankly, it's hard to care.
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