South Africa 2010: The final countdown
With the final games of the 2010 World Cup qualifying upon us on Wednesday, we take a look at the remaining matches that matter.
CONMEBOL: Argentina v Uruguay
Undoubtedly, the team with the most to lose is Diego Maradona's Argentina. After picking up a 'miracle' win over Peru thanks to Martin Palermo's last-minute winner in torrential rain, the Argentines have to avoid defeat in Montevideo against Uruguay. If they win, they are guaranteed the fourth automatic spot behind Brazil, Paraguay and Chile; while a draw would also be enough as Ecuador would have to beat Chile by six clear goals to usurp them on goal difference.
However, defeat against a Uruguay side boosted by their last-gasp win over Ecuador could rob the tournament of one its stars, Lionel Messi, and would surely mean the end for the reign of Maradona. Uruguay would qualify automatically, but Argentina's fate would rest on the result of Ecuador v Chile. If Ecuador beat the already-qualified Chileans, then Argentina are out; a draw or a Chile win and Argentina go through to the play-offs where they would face either Costa Rica or Honduras.
UEFA: Portugal v Malta; Sweden v Albania
In Europe, most of the big-boys have made it through, with just Portugal left to secure a place in the play-offs. It shouldn't come as much of a test as they face minnows Malta - who haven't scored a goal in qualifying yet, letting in 22 - but, without the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, anything could happen to a side that have already drawn against Albania at home in this group.
Sweden's only hope of salvation comes from a massive upset in Leiria. If Portugal are somehow held to a draw, then Sweden can jump them into the play-off spot by one point by beating Albania. Although the situation is completely out of their own hands.
Elsewhere, there are a few places to be settled. Croatia are the biggest fish likely to fall on the final day as Ukraine's win over England put them up to second. A trip to Andorra does not prove much of challenge for Andrei Shevchenko and company - given the Catalan-speaking minnows have conceded 33 goals - so Croatia look doomed. Their only hope is that Andorra can somehow hold Ukraine to a draw, while they pick up a win over Kazakhstan. Unlikely.
In Group Two, Switzerland can seal top spot by getting a point away at Israel, but if they lose then a Greek win over Luxembourg would give Greece the automatic place and send the Swiss into the play-offs. A hugely unlikely scenario of Luxembourg beating the Greeks and Israel beating Switzerland would mean Israel sneak into the play-off berth and Greece drop out but, despite a Luxembourg win on the second day of qualifying over the group leaders, it is hard to see. Latvia's only hope is that they win their final game by a big margin, Greece lose heavily and Israel do not beat the Swiss.
Top spot in Group Three could be heading to Slovenia, unless Slovakia can beat Poland away. If the Slovaks draw, then Slovenia (assuming they beat San Marino, who have conceded 44 goals) will claim the automatic spot on goal difference. Slovakia are at least assured of a play-off place, but if the biggest shock in history happens and San Marino beat Slovenia, the winner of the Northern Ireland v Czech Republic clash will advance to a play-off place. However, Ireland would need to win heavily which is extremely unlikely. The Czechs will finish second if they win and Slovenia do not.
CONCACAF: U.S. v Costa Rica, El Salvador v Honduras
With Mexico and the U.S. having sealed their qualification, the focus is on the third automatic spot and the play-off place. Costa Rica have a two-point advantage but face a tricky trip to the U.S., while Honduras should see off the already-eliminated El Salvador. Honduras boast a +5 goal difference over their rivals though, so if Costa Rica should draw and end up tied on 16 points, then the Hondurans would go through. Whoever ends up in the play-off place faces a tough test at one of the South American sides before their place is secure, and it is likely to be one of Argentina, Uruguay or Ecuador.
Of course the African qualifiers don't finish until November 14, but there are still some big games to be played.
CAF: Egypt v Algeria
Notably, the reigning continental champions Egypt could suffer a big shock if they can't beat Algeria in Cairo. That the Algerians are three points clear is already a surprise, but the game takes on an added meaning when you consider its history. Both countries have a mutual dislike of each other, which came to the fore in a similar situation in 1989. With Egypt needing to win, they picked up a 1-0 victory, but the Algerian players harassed the referee and, after the match, Lakhdar Belloumi 'bottled' the Egyptian team doctor, who was blinded in one eye. Years of bad blood has followed, with brawls and fan clashes commonplace; so it is not going be a quiet game.
The stats are not easy either. Essentially, Egypt need to win by over two clear goals. They would draw level on 13 points with their rivals with a win, so it would go to goal difference, then goals scored. Any swing of two goals, i.e. 2-0, 3-1, 4-2, for Egypt would mean it was level on both counts, which means it goes to head-to-head record (according to the FIFA regulations), which would also be level and the tie would eventually be decided by the drawing of lots by the FIFA Organising Committee. It really is that tight.
Elsewhere, Cameroon face an away trip to Morocco - who have yet to win at home in this group - and will fancy their chances of picking up the win they need to secure automatic qualification. If the Indomitable Lions are held to a draw, then Gabon have every chance of grabbing an incredible shock by beating Togo.
Nigeria look out of it though. Despite Pele's summer prediction that the Super Eagles would finish the World Cup as semi-finalists, they might not even make it as Tunisia can secure their place with a win over Mozambique. The Nigerians' best hope is that they can beat Kenya and pray that Tunisia are held to a draw, in which case they would advance on goal difference. It would be a remarkable achievement though.
Finally, on Nov 14 there is the second leg of Bahrain v New Zealand, which ended in a 0-0 draw first time round. The tiny Gulf nation dominated the first leg, only to be denied by some resolute defending and will fancy their chances of becoming the smallest nation to be represented at the World Cup. For both sides, the match promises to be the most important date in their footballing history.
Already qualified teams: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Korea DPR, South Korea, Japan, Australia, England, Spain, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Mexico, U.S., Brazil, Paraguay, Chile, South Africa (hosts).
Teams already in the play-offs: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Bahrain.