Ireland – France
When you look at the French national team it is hard to understand how they manage to underachieve so much. Since Zinedine Zidane’s retirement Les Blues have done nothing remarkable, at times struggling with little teams, and generally have not developed a rhythm or an identity. Ribery, Trezeguet, Benzema, Evra, Anelka, Gallas, Gourcouff, Sagna, Diarra, Toulalan, Malouda, Flamini, Mexes, and many others, the French team is stacked and should be among the top five teams in the world. Thierry Henry can still play. Could be the system, the culture of coach Raymond Domenech’s reign. If the French do not play their best game, Ireland will take advantage with the cunning Trapattoni at the helm and Robbie Keane ready to pounce on any half a chance. Ireland finished second its group without losing in ten matches. The French will have a hard time breaking that pattern in Dublin, everything to be decided next Wednesday in Paris. German referees.
Greece – Ukraine
Ukraine finished the qualification campaign on a big up momentum, beating England and demolishing little Andorra, to come ahead of Croatia and secure a play-off spot. Greece must get an excellent result in Athens, as it will be very difficult for the Greeks to get comfortable in Kiev’s frosty conditions against a confident Ukrainian side. Tough to predict this one, it will be decided by performance. With the second leg at home, Ukrainians seem to have the edge.
Portugal – Bosnia
CR9 is not available, still nursing his $100 million ankle. Will the rest of his team-mates step up their collective efforts? Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal is a deeply talented team with a core of veteran players intact. Portugal needs to take an insurmountable lead into Sarajevo to be calm next week. The Bosnians, bolstered by the absence of Ronaldo and by their unprecedented success, will play with confidence and attempt to make further history. They have a tightly united squad and a fantastic #9 in Edin Dzeko. A World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo? Unlikely, but this is far from a formality.
Costa Rica – Uruguay
The Costa Ricans must still be heart-broken after they had a foot in the World Cup, yet automatic qualification slipped away dramatically. Against a talented Uruguayan team, South Africa now appears somewhere between a monumental task and a fleeting dream. Uruguay is too strong and should not have any problems getting to South Africa where Forlan, Suarez and Caceres will shine.
Russia – Slovenia
An interesting match-up with Russia starting out as clear favorites, but with Slovenia entirely able to surprise. The Slovenes play with excellent team spirit and carry great momentum into this match. What they lack in raw talent they make up with an edge mentally and with teamwork. Russia lost the automatic qualification with a home defeat to Germany and performed otherwise ok in a modest group. Russia’s greatest asset is the magical Guus Hiddink, who once again has the task of preparing mentally a talented Russian squad. Guus will succeed.
The final three World Cup African spots will be decided on Saturday. Nigeria is in a must win situation in Kenya to have any chance to get to South Africa. Still, a win does not guarantee anything. Leader Tunisia can clinch with a win in its last match, away at Mozambique. But anything less than three points, coupled with a Nigeria win in Nairobi, leaves the Tunisians out.
Cameroon is in control of its fate, but has a tough away match in Morocco. Second place Gabon is only one point behind Cameroon and highly motivated to win its last match, at Emmanuel Adegbayor’s Togo. With everything to play for, this group will be decided at the finish line by the best team on the day.
Finally the African match of the week-end takes place in Cairo. Lots of elements involved here beyond the game itself. Egypt will host group leaders Algeria, a resurgent team that failed to even qualify for the last two African Cups of Nations. Algeria can afford to lose the game by a goal and still win the group. If Egypt wins by three goals, Egypt is in the World Cup. But if Egypt wins by two goals, the teams will be tied in points and GF-GA, requiring a one match play-off to be played in Sudan on November 18.