The European Zone play-offs for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ are about to commence, with eight teams vying to book their places from four ties. France (ninth in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking), Portugal (tenth), Russia (12th) and Greece (16th) set out as slight favourites in their respective contests with Republic of Ireland (34th), Bosnia-Herzegovina (42nd), Slovenia (49th) and Ukraine (22nd).
The first legs will be held this Saturday, with the return games taking place on Wednesday. The four victorious sides will join the nine sides to have already qualified from Europe: world champions Italy, European champions Spain, England, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Slovakia, Serbia and Switzerland.
Ireland finished unbeaten in Group 8, with their four wins and six draws leaving them six points shy of leaders Italy in second and four points clear of Bulgaria. In addition to their traditional combative qualities, Ireland can draw strength from a wide range of players with plenty of English Premier League experience. That said, the feisty Irish occasionally struggle to make their tenacious approach count.
France finished runners-up in Group 7 with a record of six wins, three draws and one defeat. The finalists at Germany 2006 finished their qualifying campaign a single point behind Serbia after making a disastrous start by losing 3-1 in Austria. Les Bleus can call upon a vast number of individual talents, yet the shadow of Zinedine Zidane still looms large over a side in search of its own style.
Ireland’s last victory over France dates back 28 years and the overall record between the two rivals slightly favours Les Bleus, thanks to their five wins, four stalemates and four defeats. They will also hold the psychological advantage having defeated Ireland 1-0 away en route to qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany.
Goalkeeper Shay Given, who boasts 100 caps since 1996, powerful defender Richard Dunne, technically gifted winger Damien Duff and marksman Robbie Keane are the key members of the Ireland line-up. As for their opponents, Thierry Henry has plundered 51 goals in 115 international appearances and much will depend on him as France look to pounce on openings. Talented playmaker Yoann Gourcuff is the player most likely to create them.
Giovanni Trapattoni no longer needs any introduction. Since taking the reins in February 2008, the Italian coach has succeeded in giving the Ireland team spirit and confidence by imposing both discipline and tactical rigour. Despite the richness of the resources at his disposal, his counterpart Raymond Domenech still looks to be uncertain of the right approach, though his side are undoubtedly improving all the time.
Having made a calamitous start, Portugal ended their group-stage campaign in superb form to seize second place in Group 1 from Sweden in the final rounds of games. The Iberian side posted five victories, four draws and one reverse in a campaign that saw them struggle to move on following the retirement of several stalwarts. The semi-finalists at Germany 2006 also proved heavily dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo in attack. Worryingly, the Real Madrid player is set to miss the play-offs through injury.
In contrast, Bosnia-Herzegovina made their way through the qualifiers in euphoric mood, collecting six wins, one draw and three losses. The surprise team in the European Zone, they finished a distant 11 points behind an untouchable Spain side but five ahead of Turkey and will have the advantage of contesting the return encounter on home soil.
The two teams have never met before.
Solid defender Ricardo Carvalho, midfield orchestrator Deco and newly naturalised striker Liedson will be central figures for the Portuguese. Standing 1m92 tall and having already struck nine times in the group stage, Edin Dzeko is the undisputed star in the Bosnia-Herzegovina line-up.
Now aged 74, Croatian coach Miroslav Blazevic has managed to instil unity at the heart of the Bosnia-Herzegovina team since taking charge in July last year. In the opposition camp, Carlos Queiroz previously coached Portugal between 1990 and 1993 and returned for a second stint last July. Since then he has had to oversee the transition from the golden generation to a looser collection of talents based at some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
Beaten twice by Switzerland and held in Moldova, Greece had to make do with finishing second in Group 2, a point behind the Swiss. The UEFA EURO 2004 winners managed six wins, two stalemates and two defeats overall and possess an experienced team made up of a majority of players tied to Greek clubs.
For their part, Ukraine inflicted England’s only loss in the group stage, beating the Group 6 winners 1-0 and boasting a final tally of six wins, three draws and one loss to finish a point ahead of Croatia. Compact and technically strong, Ukraine can look forward to hosting the decisive return leg.
History favours Ukraine, who have beaten Greece twice, drawn with them once and suffered a single setback. During the qualifiers for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, Ukraine triumphed 1-0 in Greece and drew 1-1 at home.
Evergreen goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis, 37, midfielder Georgios Karagounis and attacking duo Angelos Charisteas and Theofanis Gekas form the spine of the Greek line-up, with Gekas having hit four goals against Latvia. Andriy Shevchenko and Anatoliy Tymoschuk will look to create danger for the Ukrainians.
German trainer Otto Rehhagel has been masterminding Greece’s progress since 2001, though results since the 71-year-old took the helm have varied dramatically. His opposite number Alexei Mikhailichenko is a pure product of the Dynamo Kiev academy and played for both the former Soviet Union and Ukraine at international level, before serving a four-year coaching apprenticeship with Ukraine’s U-21s ahead of his appointment as senior team coach last year.
Russia lost 1-0 at home in their Group 4 showdown with Germany and had to console themselves with finishing runners-up in the section, their overall tally reading seven successes, one draw and two reverses. The loss to the group winners served as a perfect symbol of a talented team capable of both superb performances and surprising lapses.
As for Slovenia, they overcame Group 3 winners Slovakia home and away but had to settle for second place due to a record of six wins, two draws and two defeats, their goalless draw at home against the Czech Republic proving particularly costly. A well-organised unit without any star names, Slovenia owe much of their success to an ironclad defence.
The two rivals have met three times before, with each claiming a win and the third encounter ending all square. Slovenia can perhaps take greater heart from those previous meetings, having drawn 1-1 in Moscow and won 2-1 in Ljubljana during the qualifying campaign for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan.
Since taking over in July 2006, Guus Hiddink has left his mark on a Russia side now playing attractive, attacking football. As for 48-year-old Slovenian trainer Matjaz Kek, a solid rearguard and a well-oiled collective approach have been the hallmarks of his philosophy since taking the reins in January 2007.
The team having scored most goals over the two games will qualify for the next round. If both teams score the same number of goals over the two matches, the goals scored away will be counted as double. If the same number of goals is scored away or both matches end without any goals being scored, extra time of two periods of 15 minutes each will be played. If the scores are level after extra time, penalty kicks will be taken to determine the winner in accordance with the procedure described in the Laws of the Game.