I skipped the president’s health care speech last night because it conflicted with another weighty occasion for Americans: The U.S. soccer team’s 1-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain that gets our guys one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup next year. It wasn’t pretty, but we got the win. (Actually, you can apply that sentence to just about every World Cup qualifying win we’ve had this cycle.) Team USA won on Ricardo Clark’s goal in the 63rd minute. Before that, they gave up way too many scoring chances to the Trinbagonians (yes, that’s what they’re called), and they looked out of ideas in the second half before that goal went in. After that, they settled. Like many other countries, we’ve got two more games to play to determine the WC slots, and the pretenders have pretty much separated from the contenders. Since I’ve been following this and you’re all just killing time until the NFL season starts anyway, I thought I’d go continent by continent and let you know who’s going in South Africa next summer, who’s not, and who’s on the bubble. The deciding matches all take place next month.
The top three finishers among the remaining six teams go into the tournament automatically, while the fourth-place team has to win a playoff against South America’s fifth-place team. Trinidad is out, while El Salvador remains mathematically alive after their stunning win over Costa Rica. It’ll still take a monumental collapse for the Costa Ricans to fall out of that fourth spot. There’s very little to separate the top four, and everyone’s playing to avoid that playoff. Of the four, Mexico has the easiest schedule (home to El Salvador, away to Trinidad), while USA has it toughest, with a road game against the Hondurans and a home game against Costa Rica. There was a time when having Honduras on the schedule meant an easy win for us, or for Mexico. Not any more; the Hondurans are skilled and defensively organized, and they tagged Mexico with a loss in Tegucigalpa. If our guys can’t pick up at least a draw over there, USA’s fate may come down to that last game against Costa Rica, who are ferocious at home but don’t do so well on the road. The Costa Ricans were leading the group before this week’s games, and now they’ve fallen to that dreaded fourth spot. There’s no guarantee that the same thing won’t happen to USA after the last two games play out. No one has any margin for error.
What the hell happened to Argentina? The top four finishers in this continent automatically go to the World Cup, while the fifth-place team has to win a playoff, as I mentioned earlier. With two games to go, Argentina is in that fifth spot, and three teams are right behind them in the standings eyeing that place. The Argies are dripping with offensive talent, so if they do pull out that fifth-place finish, they’ll be heavy favorites against any North American team. Still, the way they’re playing, would they like their chances against USA or Mexico? They have a gimme home game against the eliminated Peruvians, but then they have to travel to Uruguay. At the top of the standings, Brazil and Paraguay both clinched automatic spots with their victories over Argentina this week. Chile is on the doorstep in third place; they just need one more win or two draws from their remaining games. Beyond that, it’s a dogfight between Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay for those last two spots. An atypically talented Venezuelan team is in the mix too, but with their final game on the road against Brazil, they’re not looking good. No use making predictions now; anything could happen.
Australia, Japan, South Korea, and unexpected qualifiers North Korea have all made the tournament. This week, Bahrain pulled an upset over Saudi Arabia in the playoff for the last Asian slot. Now all the Bahrainis have to do is win one more series over the Oceanian champion (New Zealand), and they’re in. Those Bahrain vs. New Zealand games promise to be brutal on the eyes, but with a World Cup place at stake, the atmosphere should at least be electric.
Ghana and the Ivory Coast (oh, Côte d’Ivoire, pardonnez-moi) have established themselves as the new elites on this continent. Ghana got in when Mali could only tie Benin. The Ivorians haven’t officially clinched yet, but it’d take a miracle for Burkina Faso to overtake them. As far as the old elites go, Cameroon retook control of its group with home-and-away wins over Gabon this week. On the other hand, Nigeria is behind the eight ball after only managing a draw at home to group leaders Tunisia. Now they have to win their last two games and hope that the Tunisians slip up against either Kenya or Mozambique. In the remaining group, Algeria and Egypt are fighting each other for a slot. Either would be worthy participants at the big party.
Whoa, this is complicated. I’ll have to break it down further. First-place finishers in each group get automatic slots. The eight best second-place finishers are then drawn against each other randomly for playoff series. The four winners of those series get to the big dance.
Chaos. Second-place Hungary choked away home games against Sweden and Portugal, while top-ranked Denmark did some choking of their own, failing to win in Albania. The Danes can still clinch the top spot with one more win, and they’d love to do it at home against their Swedish neighbors. Meanwhile, the Magyars have two tough road games remaining (against Portugal and Denmark), while Sweden winds up at home against Albania and Portugal ends with a giant cupcake of a match against Malta. Will that be too late to make a difference? Can the Hungarians hang on?
For a close group, this is depressing. Boring, boring Switzerland only need a draw in one of their remaining games to snag the top spot, and since their next game is against Luxembourg, it’s probably in the bag. Meanwhile, Latvia and Israel are pushing the drearily defensive Greeks for second. They all have easy games remaining: Greece hosts those Luxies as well, while Latvia and Israel both have home games against equally pathetic Moldova. Who gets second will probably depend on the results when Greece plays Latvia and Israel plays Switzerland. The Swiss may very well have nothing to play for by that time. I figured Israel might be a dark horse to qualify for their first World Cup, but they and everybody else in this group have been playing like they’re not interested. Does anybody want a World Cup spot?
Everybody except San Marino (track record in nine games: one goal scored, 44 given up) is still alive. The surprising Slovaks lead the group and only need a draw in one of their remaining games to reach the World Cup for the first time as an independent country. Of the remaining teams, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Northern Ireland all seem pretty evenly matched. The Slovenes have the inside track, though, because they’re the only ones with a game left against the Sammarinese. (That’s what people from San Marino are called. Yes, I had to look it up.) The proud Poles are the furthest back, while the Northern Irish have only one game left while the others have two. “Norn Iron” have to defeat the aging Czechs in Prague and hope that Slovakia can beat Slovenia. The rest of us will try to figure out how to tell the difference between those two countries. We should root for Northern Ireland, because if they finish second, an Ireland vs. Northern Ireland playoff becomes possible. What would that be like?
This is pretty simple. Germany and Russia have run away from everyone else. Who finishes first will probably be decided when those two teams play each other in Moscow. That game will be interesting for all sorts of reasons.
After losing to USA in July, Spain have gone back to crushing everybody in their path. They have the top spot nailed down, and Bosnia-Herzegovina (looking to qualify for their first World Cup as an independent nation) is leading Turkey for second. The Turks will probably take care of business in their remaining games against Belgium and Armenia (how did the Belgians get so horrible?), so the Bosnians will look to wrap things up with a win in Estonia. They don’t want to be needing a draw when they head into their last game against the Spaniards.
England have been magnificent, earning their way to the big tourney by winning every single game. They still have a role to play, though, in the battle for second place. Croatia has a slim lead, but Ukraine has a game in hand. Both teams have matchups against minnows (Croatia visits Kazakhstan, while Ukraine travels to Andorra), so it all comes down to the Ukraine vs. England match in Kiev, with the Ukrainians needing a win. How motivated will the English be for that game? Neutrals should root for the Croats, who play a far more entertaining brand of soccer than their fellow Slavs to the east.
Serbia is on track to finish first, while France will probably lock down second when they face the Faroe Islands next month. Really, though, the only reason the French are in this position is because neither Austria nor Romania have been good enough to take it from them. Les Bleus are Team Dysfunctional right now, and someone in the playoffs (Croatia? Ireland? Russia?) would do us all a huge favor by putting them out of their misery.
Not much suspense here, with Italy and Ireland distancing themselves from the pack. (Bulgaria still has a shot at second, but that should end when Ireland hosts Montenegro.) If the Irish want to overtake Italy for first place, they’ll have to beat the Italians in Dublin (doable) and then hope I Azzurri fail to win their final game against Cyprus. (Don’t bet on it.)
This group is done. Netherlands bagged the top spot months ago, and Scotland fell out of second with their last-day defeat to the Dutch. Norway now has second place, so all they can do is bite their nails and hope that one of the other second-place finishers winds up with a worse record than them. Not much reason for optimism on that score.
All in all, there’s no shortage of appealing matchups to look forward to. I’ll keep you updated periodically as we get closer to deciding who’s in South Africa 2010.