UEFA 2010 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs 1st Leg Recap – Saturday, November 14, 2009
The days of the great broad expressway to South Africa 2010 are decisively past: the struggle now has moved onto a narrow mountain pass. Every victory won today was as thin as it may be decisive. And it wasn’t merely Europe – many held their breath across the world today. Few have cause to exhale yet.So here we go, following the sun as the day’s matches raced across the globe.
OFC-AFC playoff, second leg
New Zealand, having conceded a draw against Bahrain in the tiny gulf state, faced them at home in the second leg. Despite the disadvantage of having failed to win a goal away, New Zealand by all accounts held their ground well as an early goal put New Zealand on a 1-0 lead that they held to the end, despite a nerve-wracking missed penalty by Bahrain shortly in the second half. I was going to make fun of the AFP report from their first meeting, which referred to Bahrain as “distinctly unlucky” – tell that to Saudi Arabia – but it turned out there was some truth to it. Like most of today’s matchups it’s hard to believe there were so few goals, but after twenty-eight years of World Cup exile New Zealand needed only one.
UEFA playoffs, first leg
Slovenia at Russia
Four match-ups today. The first was supposed to be Russia’s inconsequential meeting with Slovenia in Moscow which I missed due to a late night and a mild hangover.
Waking up to the 2-1 Russian victory, however, proved to be a small surprise. Both of Russia’s goals came from a relatively obscure leftback Dinyar Bilyaletdinov, who plays in the midfield for Everton. Bilyaletdinov had not yet seen action beyond a pair of fixtures against Azerbaijan and Lichtenstein during the group stage, and had not even been brought as a substitute for an opponent more serious than Wales. However Bilyaletdinov’s play more than justified the change. (But one wonders where Arshavin and Pavyluchenko were?)
Slovenia’s equalizer shortly before time (and a breathtaking miss in stoppage) gives superficial reason for pause, especially given the enhanced importance of away goals in these playoffs; but the attack, which was well-conducted, was Slovenia’s first shot on goal in the entire match. While it’s nice that a 1-0 victory at home would clinch their spot, only that would; 2-1 would mean extra time, 3-2 would see Russia clear as would, of course, any Russian win or draw. And Slovenia wasn’t that good today.
Ukraine at Greece
An excruciatingly predictable draw. If there’s anything worth writing about here I didn’t see it. On balance I would be secretly pleased were I a Greek fan; if you have to accept a draw you want it at home, and Greece’s more consistent play affords them the advantage in the second leg, which nevertheless promises to be equally-mediocre. Greece now has to be favored.
France at Ireland
Tragedy at Croke Park. France’s 1-0 victory puts Ireland seriously on the back foot. It’s a bit astounding France didn’t win 3-2 or 4-2 given how thoroughly they dominated the second half. Indeed no sooner had the announcer (Andy Gray?) remarked that it was only a matter of time that the French cut through the Irish defense that the inevitable goal by Anelka found its way off the unfortunate Sean St Ledger and into the net. (There was some talk that it would be awarded as an own goal against St Ledger, which would be distinctly unfair to both.)
Whoever you are, this was a match to watch through gritted teeth. The ubiquity of Gignac and Anelka (who was on fine form) threatening the Irish goal were counterbalanced throughout much of the match by the sheer frenetic weight of the Irish attack that repeatedly left the French defense reeling. Play was generally sporting by both sides, though there was an instance or two of questionable falls on the French side. The French played by far the more adaptable game: when it was clear the Irish defense was firmly rooted to their half and would not brook incursions, the French stood off and sniped from farther out. They settled for a larger number of lower probability attacks, and they did so successfully.
As soon as the Irish gave away the goal, it was fairly clear they would not equalize. You could sense the air letting out of a balloon and their late efforts were more frantic than dangerous, despite Glenn Whelan’s last minute attack. However there’s hope yet; the French only put themselves together long enough for their game-winner, which could easily have been matched or superceded had the Irish kept their heads. Les Bleus are more like Les Bons – always looking for a draw that’s as good as a win, a performance that’s just good enough. This mentality is exceedingly dangerous, never more than when the French are winning. My guess is that the French will go out Wednesday prepared to accept a draw. The Irish will be heartened by the absence of Eric Abidal (whose potential replacements are uninspiring) and will play better with their backs to the wall. I think Sun Tzu would rather take their side than France’s. He’d be right.
Bosnia and Herzegovina at Portugal
This was perhaps the best game of football on Sunday, though not the most dramatic. Portugal’s 1-0 victory (itself not unexpected) belies the many cracking opportunities both sides had, including an incredible late strike by Dzeko that twice found the Portuguese crossbar. The Bosnians (and Herzegovinans too) may come to feel acutely the many missed opportunities which plagued them throughout what was a highly-enjoyable match. The Portuguese performed decidedly better than most of their efforts throughout the qualifiers, but the Bosnians played hard, and it still felt like the Portuguese left something on the table. Certainly a single home goal advantage will be an uncomfortable lead.
I think I underestimated the Bosnians (who I thought would lose out in the playoffs to the Turks). If there was any doubt they deserved to be here their play dispelled it and certain teams – the French or Greeks come to mind – will be thankful they haven’t had to face them. Some decisions Saturday – like that not to start Muslimovic, who was a good scorer for them in the group stages – are open to question, and for what it’s worth they get to play the second tie at home. But this compounds the danger to their goal and the Portuguese won’t be as complacent as the French. They’ve done better than I would have rated. But probably not better enough.
Africa’s qualification finished Saturday. In Group A Cameroon finished at the top of the group to no great surprise on the strength of a 2-0 victory against Morocco. Gabon was still in contention in this group, with the match against Togo to decide, but Cameroon were a crucial point ahead having not lost since their first Third Round fixture (against, ironically, Togo). The Togolese managed a face-saving but irrelevant victory, 1-0.
Group B saw an unlikely upset as leaders Tunisia went down to a late Mozambique goal, allowing Nigeria to translate their narrow 3-2 victory over last-place Kenya (helped along by two goals from match hero Obafemi Martins, including an 83rd minute miracle) and win the group and its place in South Africa by a single point. The runners up will leave with the consolation prize of an entry into the African Cup of Nations, also next year.
But the marquee match of the day was definitely in Group C, where longtime foes Algeria and Egypt met in Cairo before 80,000. The match was bookended by Egyptian goals in the second minute of regulation and the fifth of a long stoppage time, which result, evocative of the USA’s late salvage against Costa Rica, far exceeded it in impact. The second goal meant that not only did the Egyptians tie Algeria on points but also leveled the score on five subsequent tiebreakers, necessitating an extraordinary one-game playoff to determine the winner. The playoff was scheduled to coincide with the other international matches this Wednesday and promises to rival France-Ireland in excitement.
CONCACAF-CONMEBOL playoff, first leg
Uruguay took a critical and early goal in Costa Rica to put themselves in a commanding position in their second round match at home Wednesday evening. With a Costa Rican defender temporarily sidelined with a collision injury, Uruguay’s Diego Lugano won a goal off a rebounded header. Perhaps the defender ought to have called State Farm. Costa Rican efforts to equalize, while valiant, came to nothing, especially after they lost a man permanently to a second yellow card. Their qualification dreams, so sound barely a month ago, are now in serious peril, and it’s difficult to think that hubris has nothing to do with it.
Uruguay was my pick to clear the playoffs, and this is precisely why. I think they’re well-placed to sweep both legs.
Only a few spots left in the World Cup. Who’ll take them? Your comments are welcome!