Thursday, September 1, 2005
All around the world
While most of us might put international friendlies up there with having a tooth filled, they do help us appreciate the real thing when it comes along. The fact is, there's nothing like a country versus country confrontation that actually means something.
Shevchenko: Chelsea move getting closer (AlexanderHassenstein/GettyImages)
The first weekend and midweek in September have become synonymous with World Cup qualifying. With the current campaign nearing its end, matches to be played over the next few days, from La Paz to Lusaka will have a significant bearing on who secures their accreditation for Germany 2006.
The European groups have served up their usual helping of intrigue, drama and even a few surprises. Group 4 remains the most evenly balanced. Take your pick from the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Israel and France. Astonishingly, at such a late juncture in the proceedings, all four remain undefeated.
The French, much criticised from within and without, due to several sluggish performances have literally re-invented themselves. Unable to find a true successor to Zinedine Zidane, they've done the next best thing. Manager Raymond Domenech welcomed the great man's decision to end his international retirement, and Zidane proved to be the vital spark in a 3-0 friendly win against Ivory Coast in Montpellier recently.
Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele have also come back into the fold, after previously having said goodbye to the national team. Their presence will further strengthen an already stable defence: France have conceded only one goal in their six matches to date.
By the time les Bleus face the Irish in Dublin on Wednesday the chances are good that both countries will be level on 13 points (it should be a case of how many for France against the Faroe Islands on Saturday.)
Whatever happens at Lansdowne Road next week, I have a hard time envisaging this group not coming down to the last few nail biting moments on 12 October.
In truth, it's the only European section with four possible winners. Group 1 is still a straight fight between Holland and the Czech Republic, who play host to the Dutch in the likely group decider on 8 October. Still, it's a good bet that this will be one of the two sections to provide a pair of finalists.
The Ukrainians, practically assured of their place in the finals have been the surprise package in Group 2, but only because Shevchenko and co. have under-achieved in the past. Turkey, Greece and Denmark will tough it out, in all probability until mid-October, for the second spot.
In Group 4, Portugal, with three of their last four games on home soil, are as good as in. The play-off place has become effectively a two-horse race between Slovakia and Russia. Conveniently, those two countries meet in Bratislava in the final game.
Italy are clearly too strong to be troubled in Group 5, but it would take a brave man to predict who will finish directly beneath them. This weekend's Slovenia v Norway tussle will tell us a lot, although it's worth considering that there still might be an outside chance for Belarus and Scotland, if draws between the other protagonists abound.
England are, in my view, by far the strongest side in Group 6, with Poland a clear second. Spain, for all their stumbles, ought to end up top of Group 7, and I believe they will finally get it right against their chief rivals Serbia & Montenegro in Madrid on Wednesday.
That leaves us with Group 8, which will doubtless be decided by the October showdown of Croatia and Sweden, the two most talented teams in the section.
As enjoyable as this World Cup campaign has been in Europe, it can't light a candle to Africa when it comes to sheer unpredictability. Of the five countries who represented the dark continent in the Far East three years ago, four are currently on a very shaky nail.
Tunisia, the defending African champions, appear to be in the best position of the 2002 qualifiers. Victories over Kenya, in a match to be played behind closed doors in Nairobi on Saturday, and their chief rivals Morocco on 7 October, will see the Tunisians through. This weekend, they may well find the going difficult, given the absences of attackers Francileudo dos Santos and Ziad Jaziri.
Nigeria and South Africa, it must be said, have made a complete dog's breakfast of what looked like a favourable path to Germany not all that long ago. Angola and Ghana stand to gain at the expense of the pair of them. The problem for the Nigerians and South Africans is that they could win their last two matches, yet still miss out.
There's little doubt about the big game in Africa on Sunday, however. That honour goes to the Ivory Coast v Cameroon encounter in Abidjan. The Ivorians hold a two point advantage, and a win over the Indomitable Lions will book a place for Didier Drogba and his comrades with one match to spare. Cameroon have started to improve under the aegis of Portuguese coach Artur Jorge, but one wonders if progress has come too late to effect a change in the hierarchy of Group 3.
Senegal, who entertained us in 2002, are locked in a three-way scrap for victory in Group 1, along with Zambia and group leaders Togo, who must be regarded as slight favourites. The Togolese, who lead the Zambians by a single point, are scheduled to face bottom of the table Liberia on Sunday, before finishing up away to Congo in October.
No surprises have manifested themselves in South America: at least as regards the top of the all-encompassing qualifying section. Argentina are already assured of a place in Germany, while Brazil will join them on Sunday if they beat Chile.
The real battle will be for the two remaining automatic places, and the play-off spot against the Oceania champions. Ecuador appear to have the inside track, but two of their last three games are to be played away from the high altitude of Quito, a considerable disadvantage since the Ecuadorians have accumulated just one point from seven games on their travels in this campaign.
Still, it's matches like their game in La Paz against Bolivia, and Uruguay's home game against Colombia in Montevideo that will have to be watched especially closely this weekend.
In Concacaf, the USA and Mexico are simply too good, too professional for the other sides in the final 'hexagonal.' The two big guns lock horns in Columbus this week, but given their massive advantage at the top, it's essentially meaningless in the qualifying scheme of things. Far more important are Panama v Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago v Guatemala.
That's because one of the teams mentioned will represent Concacaf in a two-legged play-off against either Uzbekistan or Bahrain, who meet on Saturday in Tashkent and again on Wednesday in Manama. The Uzbeks incidentally are coached by Englishman Bobby Houghton, the man who guided unfashionable Malmo to the European Cup final in 1979.
Just to be clear, Uzbekistan and Bahrain have not had much to shout about in the final stages of Asian qualify, playing a distinct third fiddle in their respective groups to the likes of Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and Iran, all of whom will appear at the World Cup finals next year.
Finally, if suspense is what you're after, don't watch Australia against the Solomon Islands this weekend. Only last year, the Aussies thumped them 11-1 on aggregate to win the Oceania championship. This time, a play-off with the fifth placed South American team is up for grabs.
I realize these are sobering times for Australian cricket, but trust me on this. The poor old Solomon Islands, and not Australia, will be the team facing football's equivalent of the follow-on.