It is a night on which the marketing men for Fifa and the South African tourist board will watch the score updates through fearful fingers. Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry are all in danger of spending next summer on a beach, viewing the World Cup finals from afar. Given South Africa is already advertising the tournament on television – and when did a World Cup last need to sell itself? – the loss of such icons would deal a grievous blow.
So, many worried eyes will be on events in Budapest, Belgrade and Asuncion, where Portugal, France and Argentina respectively must try to rescue faltering campaigns.
First to kick off are the Portuguese, World Cup semi-finalists in 2006, boasting Ronaldo, Deco, Nani, Simao, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Jose Bosingwa et al, against a Hungary team who last reached a major tournament in 1986 and whose most notable player is Fulham's Zoltan Gera. Erwin Koeman's Magyars are second in Group One and lead Portugal by three points, but were beaten at home by Zlatan Ibrahimovic's last-minute goal for Sweden on Saturday. Around the same time the hastily naturalised Brazilian Liedson was scoring Portugal's equaliser against the group leaders Denmark. The Danes, under immense pressure, held on and can put themselves beyond Portugal's reach, and maybe even secure qualification, with victory in Albania tonight.
That would leave Portugal, Hungary and Sweden scrabbling for the play-off slot and the latter, who play Malta tonight, have the easiest run-in. "As long as it remains mathematically possible, we will believe," said Carlos Queiroz, the Portugal coach.
France should at least reach the play-offs but the 2006 runners-up will lose any hope of automatic qualification if they are defeated by Raddy Antic's Serbs. Yesterday, Henry insisted morale was still high without appearing to withdraw his criticism of Raymond Domenech. The idiosyncratic coach will, insists the French Football Federation, remain in charge regardless of tonight's result.
Across the Atlantic, Argentina are without the injured Carlos Tevez as they will seek their first competitive away win in seven matches. "There's no cause for alarm," insisted coach Diego Maradona, but there is. If his team lose, and Ecuador and Colombia win in Bolivia and Uruguay respectively, Argentina drop to sixth, outside even a play-off place. Maradona is contemplating making 36-year-old centre-back Rolando Schiavi the Albiceleste's oldest debutant in an attempt to solve his side's defensive crisis
While Maradona suffers, two Argentinian coaches can qualify for South Africa. Paraguay are led by compatriot Gerardo Martino, and Marcelo Bielsa can steer Chile to the finals if they beat a Brazil side missing Kaka, Lucio, Luis Fabiano and Robinho to suspension or injury.
There is some succour for the Fifa marketing men. Samuel Eto'o's Cameroon can take a grip on their qualifying group with a return win over Gabon this afternoon while Spain, like England, can join Brazil and the Netherlands in booking their place. Also qualified are Japan, Australia, North and South Korea, Ivory Coast, Ghana, and the hosts.
The number of countries who are already certain of going to South Africa next year.
State of the nations: The groups and remaining fixtures of those who can qualify
Remaining fixtures fore teams who can still qualify or reach a play-off: Denmark Albania (a), Sweden (h), Hungary (h); Hungary Portugal (h), Portugal (a), Denmark (a); Sweden Malta (a), Denmark (a), Albania (h); Portugal: Hungary (a), Hungary (h), Malta (h).
Switzerland Latvia (a), Luxembourg ((a), Israel (h); Greece Moldova (a), Latvia (h), Luxembourg (h); Latvia Switzerland (h), Greece (a), Moldova (h).
N Ireland 8/4/2/2/13/7/14
Czech Republic 7/2/3/2/8/6/9
San Marino 8/0/0/8/1/37/0
Slovakia N Ireland (a), Slovenia (h), Poland (a); N Ireland Slovakia (h), Czech Republic (a); Poland Slovenia (a), Czech Republic (a), Slovenia (h); Slovenia Poland (h), Slovakia (a), San Marino (a).
Germany Azerbaijan (h), Russia (a), Finland (h) Russia Wales (a) Germany (h), Azerbaijan (a); Finland Liechtenstein (a), Wales (h), Germany (a).
Spain Estonia (h), Armenia (a), Bosnia (a); Bosnia Turkey (h), Estonia (a), Spain (h); Turkey Bosnia (a), Belgium (a), Armenia (h).
Faroe Islands 7/0/1/6/2/11/1
Serbia France (h), Romania (a), Lithuania (a); France Serbia (a), Faroe Islands (h), Austria (h); Austria Romania (a), Faroe Islands (h), France (a).
Rep of Ireland 8/4/4/0/10/6/16
Italy Bulgaria (h), Rep of Ireland (a), Cyprus (h); Rep of Ireland Italy (h), Montenegro (h); Bulgaria Italy (a), Cyprus (a), Georgia (h).
FYR Macedonia 7/2/1/4/4/9/7
Scotland: Netherlands (h); Norway Macedonia (h).
Top four qualify, fifth enters play-off: Argentina Paraguay (a), Peru (h), Uruguay (a); Colombia Uruguay (a), Chile (h), Paraguay (a); Ecuador Bolivia (a), Uruguay (h), Chile (a); Uruguay Colombia (h), Ecuador (a), Argentina (h); Venezuela Peru (h), Paraguay (h), Brazil (a).Reuse content