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The Independent Football

Lack of goals erode faith in Löw selection

Russia v Germany (KO: 4pm)


To English eyes, this fixture bears a striking similarity to a game two years ago this week. Then, England travelled to Moscow with a narrow lead over their hosts in Euro 2008 qualifying. They faced a team coached by Guus Hiddink on a plastic pitch. England lost.

At least for Joachim Löw, Germany's coach, there is the knowledge that a play-off place awaits the losers. For Steve McClaren only ignominy beckoned (admittedly after throwing away the second chance offered by Russia losing their next qualifier in Israel).

Germany, who have never failed to qualify for a World Cup finals and have already reserved accommodation in South Africa, would settle for a draw, as their final match is at home to Finland.

The Germans won the earlier meeting in qualifying and have never lost to either Russia or the Soviet Union. Yet, curiously, the momentum seems to be with Russia. There is concern within the German camp at Low's faith in Mario Gomez, and back-up forwards Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, especially after two goalless warm-ups against Mainz reserves. The Russians, meanwhile, had to sift through 400,000 ticket applications and believe Hiddink is poised to coach a third team at successive finals, after South Korea in 2002 and Australia in 2006.

It is Russia's first match at the Luzhniki since England's visit. "We must adapt," said Klose. Not a problem for Tottenham's Roman Pavlyuchenko. He played regularly at the Luzhniki for Spartak, and scored twice on the surface against England. Which means if he overcomes a hamstring strain he should start.


Parken ride may be bumpy for Ronaldo

Denmark v Sweden (KO: 7pm)


Rarely has a Scandinavian derby attracted so much attention beyond the environs of the Öresund Bridge. Not even Sweden's last visit to the Parken, when the match was abandoned after a fan attacked the referee after he awarded Sweden a penalty with the score at 3-3. That was two years ago, in Euro 2008 qualifying. Now they meet with the rest of the world watching, especially Fifa's merchandisers, because Cristiano Ronaldo's prospects of appearing in South Africa rest in part on events in Copenhagen.

If the Danes win they qualify, but at least Portugal, should they defeat Hungary tonight, would edge into a play-off place with Wednesday's home match against Malta to come. If Sweden win, the automatic place would still be up for grabs, but Portugal would need to win both their remaining games and hope either or both Denmark and Sweden failed to defeat Hungary and Albania respectively, on Wednesday. Hungary, incidentally, also remain in contention.

Denmark are looking to Nicklas Bendtner to score for the third successive qualifier while Sweden hope Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured), a player who could fill any void left by Ronaldo, takes his Barcelona form into the tie. "We've got a big chance and now we are going to get them," Ibrahimovic said of Denmark.

Meanwhile, in Lisbon, the beleagured Carlos Queiroz was relieved to announce that both Ronaldo and Jose Bosingwa are fit to start after injury.


Irish look to play memory game

Rep Ireland v Italy (KO: 7.45pm)

TV: Sky Sports 2/HD1

History will be made in the Irish capital this evening and upwards of 70,000 people are expected at the magnificent Croke Park to see it. For the first time, the reigning world champions are in Dublin for a competitive game and – even better – both sides have much to play for. Italy require a single point to ensure they are in South Africa next summer to defend their trophy; their countryman Giovanni Trapattoni and his unbeaten Irish team, however, are four points behind, so a home win would keep the holders under pressure going into their final game against Cyprus on Wednesday, when Ireland host Montenegro.

Only once in 10 previous meetings have Italy succumbed to them, but that day in 1994 in a sweltering Giants Stadium in New Jersey was one of the landmarks of the modern era of Irish football, which began with the appointment of a blunt Englishman as manager. Jack Charlton took his adopted land on undreamt of journeys, the second of his World Cups bringing the winning goal by Ray Houghton 15 years ago. When a radio talk show here asked listeners to ring in yesterday morning with their memories of that day, it seemed the whole nation had one.

The only other occasion on which Ireland have avoided defeat by the Azzurri, however, was much more recent. On April Fool's Day this year, Robbie Keane scored an equalising goal in Bari against Italy's 10 men, and four points from subsequent away games in Bulgaria and Cyprus have meant that his team can confirm a play-off place today.

If anyone is to provide a Houghtonesque moment – the midfielder also scored the only goal against England at Euro 88 – it is Keane. He now has 40 international goals, eight of them in the past 12 games. Yesterday he exhorted the Croke Park crowd and the whole country to play their part in pushing for a place at a major tournament for the first time since Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane fell out so shockingly at the 2002 World Cup. "We need to pull together as a nation," he said. "It's going to be a massive occasion and the support we get from the crowd can intimidate Italy. This is the best opportunity we've had since 2002 and it has the same feeling as it did then. We're capable of beating anybody and we've got players desperate to play in the World Cup."

Trapattoni, Italy's manager at the 2002 tournament, when they were knocked out by South Korea, said of the prospect of beating his countrymen: "Do you have a friend? Do you play cards? Do you want to win or do you want to lose? We know Italy are the world champions and they are still one of the best three or four teams in the world. We dare to believe we can win."

Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro is suspended after two recent bookings, and seems likely to be available for the Cyprus game on Wednesday despite failing a drugs test after Juventus gave him what they said was an emergency cortisone injection for a wasp sting. Fifa have asked for further details of the case but the Italian manager Marcello Lippi said before arriving in Dublin last night: "I haven't heard from Fabio, there was no need. Everything was cleared up in two hours."

Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Manchester City); O'Shea (Manchester United), St Ledger (Middlesbrough), Dunne (Aston Villa), Kilbane (Hull); Lawrence (Stoke), Andrews (Blackburn), Whelan (Stoke), McGeady (Celtic); Keane (Tottenham), Doyle (Wolves).

Italy (probable, 4-1-2-3): Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Milan), Chiellini, Legrottaglie, Grosso (all Juventus); De Rossi (Roma), Palombo (Sampodoria); Camoranesi (Juventus), Pirlo (Milan), Iaquinta (Juventus); Gilardino (Fiorentina).

Referee: T Hauge (Norway)

ST in Dublin

Maradona opts to shuffle side for crunch tie

Argentina v Peru (KO: 11pm)

TV: Sky Sports 1

The unthinkable is becoming feasible. Argentina, the 1978 and 1986 winners, the team of Lionel Messi, really could miss the finals for the first time in 40 years. Diego Maradona sends his team out at Monumental tonight a point adrift of the last automatic qualification place with two ties remaining. Crucially, Argentina's fate is no longer in their own hands, but even if it were there is little scope for optimism after three successive defeats.

They ought to beat Peru, who have lost 10 of 16 ties, but nothing is certain under Maradona, who yesterday retracted suggestions he would resign even if Argentina qualified. For tonight's match, and Wednesday's decisive tie against Uruguay in Montevideo, Maradona has shaken up his squad yet again, dropping half-a-dozen players including the veteran Javier Zanetti.

He has called up Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuain for the first time, and recalled Aimar, now at Benfica, after a two year absence to fill the No 10 role left vacant by the suspension of Juan Sebastian Veron. However, injury and a lack of alternatives mean Jonas Gutierrez, the Newcastle winger, may play at right-back alongside centre-half Rolando Schiavi, who would be making his first start at the age of 36, and the hitherto uncapped Liverpool defender Emiliano Insua.

Such are the stakes, there have been echoes of the bribery rumours which dogged Argentina's 6-0 defeat of Peru in the 1978 finals. Leao Butron, Peru's goalkeeper, dismissed them. "That would be a disgrace for us," he said. "We know we didn't do things right in this qualification, but we represent millions of Peruvians."

He added: "Argentina are clearly above us now, so a defeat would be logical, but we will do our best."


Dunga's victorious sequence earns only grudging respect

Bolivia v Brazil (KO: Sun, 9pm)

TV: Sky Sports red button; Sky Sports 1 (from 9.30pm)

A chance to look at the World Cup favourites, but it did not look as if Brazil would have that status when they hosted Bolivia last September. Dunga's team were booed off the pitch after drawing 0-0 against opponents who had been reduced to 10 men before the hour-mark. Long before the end the crowd were cheering the Bolivians' passes.

Thirteen months on Dunga is admired, if still not loved, after adding a Confederations Cup triumph to the earlier Copa America success, and securing qualification with a memorable 3-1 victory against Argentina in Rosario. Brazil are 19 games unbeaten, winning the last 11. "The press and public were not just after my head, they wanted body and soul as well," Dunga said, looking back.

So why is Dunga not loved? Much like the 1994 World Cup winners, which he captained, Dunga's Brazil do not play the traditional way. They are strong defensively, work hard, play with on the counter-attack, and are powerful at set-pieces. Ronaldinho has been sidelined and if Kaka and Robinho have been assimilated Gilberto Silva is just as important. Not always pretty then, but very effective.


Injuries dent Wales' hopes for Euro 2012

Finland v Wales (KO: 3pm)

TV: BBC2 Wales, BBC red button

John Toshack was down to 13 fit outfielders last night as Wales prepared for a match that could have important ramifications for their Euro 2012 campaign. A win in Helsinki could lead to a third-place group finish and help their seeding for the Continental tournament, but victory against Finland seems unlikely after his squad was further depleted. Six players had withdrawn before the squad left Cardiff. Sheffield United's David Cotterill has since flown home for family reasons while Nottingham Forest's Robert Earnshaw injured a calf in training. Toshack is likely to include two goalkeepers in a diminished substitutes' bench. Craig Bellamy, who will lead the side, said, "We are small. We feel injuries more than the top nations."