Sunday, September 06, 2009

World Cup Round-Up: Part 1 - Europe

As the World Cup qualifiers creep tantalisingly towards their conclusion, you can sense the growing excitement as teams from around the world step up their campaigns or crack under the pressure.

Yesterday's matches threw up some fascinating results, so let's take a check on the movers and shakers in the race for South Africa 2010.


Spain all but sealed their place in the finals last night with a 5-0 thrashing of Belgium in Group 5. It was one-way traffic throughout in La Coruna and the Spaniards could have had plenty more goals besides if it weren't for some poor finishing, not to mention some good goalkeeping on the part of Jean-François Gillet in the Belgian goal.

In fact it was Gillet who saved a David Villa penalty in the 22nd minute, but that was a rare high point for Belgium who capitulated in no uncertain terms under the weight of a relentless attack by the European champions.

The damage was done in the opening exchanges of the second half when Villa and Gerard Pique added two to David Silva's goal just before the break, but Silva and Villa went on to pick up a second goal each later in the half to complete a comprehensive win for Spain.

If Turkey can grab at least a draw against second-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina on Wednesday, Vicente Del Bosque's side will know that a win at home to Estonia later in the evening will secure their spot in the Finals. You'd have to say that only the most unforeseen of disasters will prevent that happening now that Spain have won their seventh straight win in the qualifying competition.

In Group 3, Northern Ireland picked up a vital point in their 1-1 draw away to Poland last night. Nigel Worthington's men remain in second spot, just two points behind leaders Slovakia but crucially three points ahead of Poland and Slovenia with only a few games left to play. Northern Ireland looked to be taking all three points after Kyle Lafferty's well taken goal went in after 37 minutes, but somewhat under the cosh they conceded an equaliser with ten minutes remaining through Mariusz Lewandowski.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic played out a 2-2 draw yesterday, a result which leaves the Czechs fifth in their group and needing to win all three of their remaining games if they're to qualify. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, play Slovakia on Wednesday knowing that a win will put them top of the table with one game remaining.

In Group 1, Portugal returned to their faltering ways with a frustrating 1-1 draw against Denmark. Brazilian-born Liedson snatched the vital equaliser for Portugal with four minutes remaining after Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner had put the Danes in front just before half time. Were it not for that, the Portuguese would be all but out of the running for a place in the finals. As it is, they now need to pick up at least four points from their next two games - both against Hungary - before ending their campaign with what should be a win at home to Malta in mid-October.

Denmark are now four points clear of the chasing pack, led by Hungary who lost 2-1 at home to third-placed Sweden.

In Group 4, Russia virtually cemented their spot as one of the best runners-up by easily beating Liechtenstein 3-0 - Tottenham's Roman Pavlyuchenko bagging a brace in the process. Russia remain in second place, five points ahead of Finland with three games left to play.

The race for the runners-up spot behind England in Group 6 is hotting up nicely after Croatia could only scrape a 1-0 win at home to Belarus while Ukraine thrashed Andorra 5-0. Andriy Shevchenko was one of three players to score from the penalty spot in Kiev and with a game in hand, that result means Croatia will need a favourable result against England on Wednesday just to stand a chance of finishing second in the group.

The Republic of Ireland remain unbeaten in Group 8 after a nervy 2-1 win in Cyprus. Kevin Doyle's fifth-minute strike was equalised on the half-hour mark, but it wasn't until Robbie Keane grabbed Ireland's second seven minutes from time that could think about picking up all three points.

Italy remain top of the group, one point ahead of the Irish and with a game in hand, following their scrappy 2-0 win in Georgia. Italy play host to third-placed Bulgaria on Wednesday while Ireland play their penultimate game at home to the Italians on October 10th. Though the Irish have a five point lead over Bulgaria, we're inclined to think that Bulgaria could pick up the points they need in their remaining games. That means Ireland's home tie against Montenegro on October 14th will be the one Trappatoni's men will really need to win, unless they can fashion a remarkable win over Italy, that is.

Elsewhere, Scotland picked up a valuable 2-0 win over Macedonia in Group 9 to keep alive their slim hopes of a place in South Africa. Scott Brown and James McFadden were on hand to secure the points for the Scots who were aided by the inability of challengers Norway to beat Iceland in their 1-1 draw in Reykjavik.

Despite their win, Scotland know their chances of qualifying could will be given a huge boost by beating the Netherlands in their last match on Wednesday. The Dutch are one of the small handful of teams to have already qualified - a fact the Scots will hope contributes to their hosts putting in a less than comprehensive performance this week.

Finally, the French suffered a setback last night as they could only muster a 1-1 draw at home to Romania in Group 7. Thierry Henry put France ahead on 48 minutes but a Julien Escude own goal eight minutes later leaves Raymond Domenech's side four points adrift of group leaders Serbia and four ahead of third-placed Austria. France face both sides in their last three games and will need to play better than they did yesterday if they're to qualify.

Full results and standings from the Europe qualifying zone available here.

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