Race to Africa: Best of the rest


Europe: Portugal must progress without Ronaldo

Portugal v Bosnia

Carlos Queiroz, the Portugal coach, insists the absence through injury of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's most expensive player and his star winger, will not hamper his side as they try to beat Bosnia. Ronaldo's club, Real Madrid, and his national football association have spent a fortnight arguing over the fitness of the 24-year-old, who has missed nine domestic matches with an ankle problem but who was required to join up with Portugal for assessment.

He will not play, but Queiroz said: "The most important thing in life is the 'we' and the least is the 'I'. We are confident that all of us, as a team, can overcome this opponent who we respect... We have great players, individual and collective options. We have to focus our talents on what lies ahead and get a good result."

Bosnia-Herzegovina have never reached a major finals but were the highest scoring runners-up in qualifying. Their captain, Emir Spahic, said: "We are on the rise and we are ready to continue. Before us is a chance in a decade. We are one million per cent ready."

Russia v Slovenia

Guus Hiddink will instruct his Russia players to attack from the start against Slovenia in the Luzhniki Stadium today as they look to justify why they are the hottest favourites among the eight play-off nations (at odds of 5-1 on) to make it to the World Cup finals.

"We will go for an attacking style of play," said the Dutchman, whose team are ranked No 12 in the world, 37 places higher than Slovenia. "But we don't expect an easy outing. If you take a look at Slovenia's results in its group qualifiers and in friendly matches, you will see that it's a very serious, well-organised and tactically skilled team."

Both sides will be close to or at full strength. Hiddink has Yuri Zhirkov, Vladimir Bystrov, Vasili Berezutsky, Alan Dzagoev and Sergei Semak all available after illness or injury, while Arsenal's Andrei Arshavin is expected to be a key figure at the heart of his team.

Matjaz Kek, in charge of Slovenia since January 2007, acknowledges their underdog status. "Russia are a side of great class," he said.

Greece v Ukraine

All the talk in the Ukrainian media in the build-up to this tie has been about Alexei Mikhailichenko's decision to drop Andrei Voronin, not because of his status as a Liverpool player but because the 30-year-old has been marginalised since criticising his national coach.

That means the only Liverpool player who might be involved this weekend is the Greek centre-half Sotirios Kyrgiakos, one of two British-based players in Otto Rehhagel's squad. The other is Celtic's Georgios Samaras.

Rehhagel, the coach who led Greece to victory at Euro 2004, has told his injury-hit team they must perform "beyond their limits" in Athens today if they want to make it to South Africa. "We have to be disciplined and be fully concentrated," said the 71-year-old German. "But I have confidence."

It was Ukraine who were chiefly responsible for Greece's failure to reach the last World Cup after they won in Athens to qualify ahead of the Greeks. The Ukrainians will feature another Premier League flop, the rejuvenated Andrei Shevchenko.

Oceania/Asia: New Zealand v Bahrain

Bahrain must do battle with an unusual opponent as they seek to become the smallest country to reach the finals in World Cup history: the weather. Blackburn's Ryan Nelsen, who captains New Zealand, is looking forward to "a good, dirty southerly, some beautiful Wellington wind and a nice bit of sleet" to freeze the Bahrainis, who were held to a goalless draw in the first leg in Manama last month.

Bahrain's Czech coach Milan Macala is unconcerned about his side failing to adapt to conditions at the "Cake-Tin", as the sold-out Westpac Stadium in Wellington is known. "The players do not feel intimidated at all," Macala said. "In fact, it is easier for footballers to play in the cold. They soon warm up."

New Zealand hope to clinch a place in the finals for the second time with Ricki Herbert, a veteran of their appearance at Spain 82, at the helm.

Concacaf/South America: Costa Rica v Uruguay

Both sides go into the Concacaf/South America play-off on something of a downer. Costa Rica were only denied a place in South Africa from the group stage by a United States equaliser deep in injury time, while Uruguay were beaten 1-0 in Montevideo by Diego Maradona's Argentina when a win would have taken them through.

Los Ticos are hoping to reach their third consecutive finals, but a Uruguay side containing the strike partnership of Atletico Madrid's Diego Forlan (above) and Luis Suarez of Ajax should be too strong. The first leg is in San Jose today, the return is in Montevideo on Wednesday.

Africa: Desert Foxes out to bury Pharaohs

Egypt v Algeria

The already low chances of the deciding game in African Group C passing off peacefully receded even further on Thursday when the Algerians claimed their team bus was attacked on the way from the airport in Cairo. According to Algerian government minister Azzedine Mihoubi, one player had to be taken to hospital and another three were injured, though the Egyptian authorities categorically denied this and said police had successfully restrained fans who were attempting to confront the Algerians.

With Algeria needing to avoid a two-goal defeat to qualify, the row has further inflamed an already tense situation. The two countries have a long-standing antipathy which stems partly from ill-feeling created by the notoriously violent qualifier in Cairo 20 years ago – which Egypt won 1-0 to reach their last finals. The Pharaohs, probably the strongest side in Africa who in January will be seeking to win their third African Nations Cup, would be devastated not to be at the first World Cup finals to be held on the continent. Yet that has been the nightmare scenario facing them since they lost 3-1 in Algeria in June.

The hopes of Algeria coach Rabah Saadane, in charge the last time the Desert Foxes reached the finals in 1986, have been lifted by the injury doubt over Egypt's goalscoring midfielder Hosni Abd Rabou (left), voted player of the tournament at last year's African Nations Cup. However, Saadane's players will be facing a side determined to end their reputation as great underachievers on the global stage. A three-goal win will send Egypt through, a two-goal one will lead to a play-off in Sudan on Wednesday. "It's the most important game of our careers," said Ahmed Hassan, the Pharaohs' captain. "Our generation has dominated African football for the last few years, but only qualifying for the World Cup would put the proper seal on that."

Morocco v Cameroon

A victory for Cameroon in Fes today would cap a remarkable recovery for the Indomitable Lions, who after the first two games in Group A were bottom with a solitary point. Exit coach Otto Pfister and enter Paul Le Guen, much-maligned in Glasgow after his spell at Rangers, but the catalyst for a transformation in the side's fortunes. Le Guen dropped captain Rigobert Song, handed the armband to Samuel Eto'o and three consecutive victories took Cameroon top. A win over injury-hit Morocco, who are bottom of the group and also missing star striker Marouane Chamakh through suspension, will take them to their first finals since 2002 at the expense of Gabon.

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