Friday, March 27, 2009

The Next Week's Most Important World Cup Qualifiers

It's time (finally) for World Cup qualifying to pick up again in earnest. I thought I would take a look at the most important matchups in each confederation for each round of matches. Africa is only playing one round, and everyone else plays two (though many European teams only play once).

AFC (Asia)

3/28 - Iran vs Saudi Arabia
Group 1 is cut and dried with Australia and Japan easily out in front. Even the battle for third place in that group seems boring, because whomever is decent enough to get it will be a big underdog to the group 2 third place team.

So the real action is group 2, where Saudi Arabia is in deep danger of missing the 2010 World Cup. They really can't afford to lose in Iran. If they do, then they won't be eliminated but they'll probably be out of the running for the top two and would likely need to get 7 points in their final 3 games just to get third. It may end up coming down to the final matchday against North Korea for third place. Of course, if Iran loses then they'll drop to fourth.

4/1 - South Korea vs North Korea

The North Koreans normally wouldn't be taken too seriously away from home, but they always seem to play well against their neighbors to the south. They played three straight draws last year in qualifying action, with only two goals in 270 minutes of action. South Korea's schedule finishes with two home games again Iran and Saudi Arabia, against whom they've already taken 4 points on the road. So a draw here wouldn't hurt them much, but it greatly help the North Koreans.

CAF (Africa)

3/28 - Togo vs Cameroon
The African marquee matchup of the weekend comes from the group of death. This is a matchup between two of Africa's best players: Emmanuel Adebayor (if he plays) and Samuel Eto'o. Togo may have participated in the 2006 World Cup, but they are considered huge underdogs against Cameroon and Morocco. Looking at the draw, Togo was easily the toughest team in pot 4, while Morocco was one of the two to avoid in pot 2. So this was about as difficult of a group as could be.

Togo's results were not impressive in the previous round. They lost both away matches to Swaziland and Zambia, but they did win both of the "home" games. If they're going to qualify, they're going to have to take points from Cameroon and Morocco and at home will be the best place to do that. The problem is, they're not actually playing at home. They're currently banned from doing that, so once again they'll play in Ghana.

CONCACAF (North America)

3/28 - Trinidad vs Honduras
Costa Rica's visit to Mexico will grab the headlines, but this matchup should have more of an impact on who actually finishes third and fourth. Trinidad really should've beaten likely 6th place finishers El Salvador on the road. But they let it slip away, and now they'll face the team which is their biggest competition for the 4th spot.

The last time these two teams met in a qualifier was the infamous 1-0 Trinidad win in Honduras which may have cost the Central Americans a place in the 2002 World Cup. That was the only Trinidad win in the entire hex, and it was one of those games where one team dominates but can't score, and then the other team gets one opportunity and scores.

Trinidad needs to win this game, while Honduras can't lose another away game to their competition for 3rd and 4th. They've already lost to Costa Rica. Honduras will miss David Suazo due to injury, while Trinidad is missing a few key players (Yorke, Birchall, Ince).

4/1 - Honduras vs Mexico
Depending on the Costa Rica result, there will either be an enormous amount of pressure on Mexico or only just a lot. 3 points after two games would still not be good for a country with the expectations of Mexico, and losing two out of three probably would not save Sven's job. And remember, Mexico just lost in Honduras this past fall. That made it three straight WCQ matches in Honduras where they Mexicans have lost.

Maybe they can also settle the battle of who's the most expensive player in CONCACAF history: Palacios or Castillo?

CONMEBOL (South America)

3/28 - Uruguay vs Paraguay
When you think of the top team in South American soccer, you don't think Paraguay. But that's exactly where they are 10 games into the 18 game qualifying marathon, ahead by 6 points over Brazil and 7 up on Argentina. With 23 points, they should be considered a lock to qualify. The number needed for 4th place was 28 and 30 in the last two cycles.

Uruguay, meanwhile, always seems to be a middle of the pack team in CONMEBOL. They've barely finished 5th two straight times. Guess where they currently sit in the standings? Paraguay is by no means an unbeatable team, and certainly more ripe for defeat than either of the traditional powers. If the Uruguayans want to take the leap to the automatic places, then they need to win this game. Chile and Colombia are probably going to win in this round so they need to win to keep pace.

Uruguay won this fixture last cycle, but lost in the 2002 and 1998 cycles.

4/1 - Chile vs Uruguay
After the first round this weekend, Chile should still be ahead of Uruguay by 3+ points. This is a great chance to put some space between one of their rivals for the final automatic place. Basically, you have four countries fighting for one automatic place and the playoff position. It's these two, Colombia, and Ecuador. Chile is already 5 points up on Colombia, who have two easy games, while Ecuador should drop some points against tough competition. If all goes right, Chile could be up by 5 points on all three of those teams for fourth place at the week's end.

However, Chile hasn't won this fixture since the 1998 cycle.

UEFA (Europe)

3/28 - Portugal vs Sweden
The Portuguese are the currently the top team worldwide in danger of missing out on South Africa 2010. Sure, France is also not doing so hot. But they've lost points in away games, whereas Portugal have gotten one point from two home games against Denmark and Albania. That's not a recipe for success. Being in a group with two other very good teams (Denmark and Sweden) means that there is little margin for error. Already they've failed to beat both of those teams.

The first match between these two teams finished 0-0 in Sweden. Now the Swedes have already tied Albania as well, so if Portugal could beat them here they would be right back on track. Sweden is missing quite a few players (including Ibrahimovic, see the first link), so this a great chance for Ronaldo and company to win.

This is the biggest matchup in all of qualifying this window. Could the 2006 semifinalists be virtually knocked out already?

4/1 - Greece vs Israel
They'll play each other twice over the next week. This will go a long way in determining who is going to snatch that top spot. Or, they could both leave it wide open for Switzerland. The group has no obvious favorite, and all three have suffered disappointment so far. Switzerland famously lost against Luxembourg, while Israel could only draw in Latvia. Greece lost at home to the Swiss, who've also held Israel to an home draw. So with 4 points from the two toughest games, Switzerland would be in great shape if not for the 3 points they threw away.

Israel went undefeated in 2006 qualifying against the likes of France, Switzerland, and Ireland, yet missed out on even a playoff place. Here's the problem: too many draws. They've already drawn at home against the Swiss as mentioned above, but they did come back from two goals down to do it. But they'll have to win eventually.

Greece were seeded and got an extremely easy group as a result. If they can't qualify from this group, then they might as well give up. I'd say due to Israel's draw with Latvia, if the results from this two games series are split it would help Greece more than Israel. But neither team can expect to qualify ahead of the Swiss unless they get 4 points or more.


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