The last four tickets to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ from the European Zone are set to be stamped once and for all on Wednesday evening. Everything remains possible across the board, with none of the teams involved leading by more than a single goal after Saturday’s first-leg encounters.
France were the only side to claim an away win as they triumphed 1-0 in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, while Slovenia’s late effort during their 2-1 loss in Russia could yet prove crucial. Portugal clinched the slenderest of victories as they saw off an ambitious Bosnia-Herzegovina team 1-0, and in the final tie there is still nothing to separate Greece and Ukraine following their 0-0 draw in Athens.
The big game
Bosnia-Herzegovina-Portugal, Zenica, Bilino Polje stadium, 20:45
In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal proved in their opener that they have taken on board the lessons learnt during their disastrous start to the qualifying process. They dominated their visitors comfortably and generally looked to be a notch above, however they were only able to convert one of their numerous chances and did not always appear secure at the back. Despite only making a few isolated forays forward, Bosnia-Herzegovina still managed to hit the woodwork on three occasions. The hosts' coach Miroslav Blazevic will be missing suspended trio Emir Spahic, Elvir Rahimic and Samir Muratovic for the decider, but the veteran trainer believes his charges “would be hard pressed to have more bad luck” than in the away leg. The former Croatia boss has announced he has “a new plan to surprise the Portuguese team” and predicts that their reunion will be “completely different”. During the group phase, his troops scored 16 goals at home, winning three times, drawing with Turkey and conceding five goals in a loss to Spain.
France gave themselves an excellent chance of prevailing in their tie with a 1-0 success in Dublin, and the statistics suggest they ought to complete the job on their own turf, having not lost a home qualifier since Russia prevailed 3-2 ten years ago. In addition, Ireland have never come out on top in France, but experienced coach Giovanni Trapattoni is not about to give up yet. “We’ll have to put pressure on them and score in Paris by taking advantage of their weaknesses in defence,” said the Italian, noting the withdrawal of centre-back Eric Abidal due to injury. Les Bleus captain Thierry Henry is confident he and his team-mates can cope, however, despite around 25,000 Irish supporters expected to be cheering on their heroes at the Stade de France. “The team already showed in Serbia that pressure isn’t a problem,” he explained.
Far superior for the first 80 minutes of their home meeting with Slovenia, Guus Hiddink’s side were demonstrating the same sublime technique with which they lit up UEFA EURO 2008 until their visitors were suddenly able to exploit a moment of awkwardness at the back. Nejc Pecnik’s strike changed the balance of the tie, particularly as the Slovenians boast a proud record at home so far in qualifying, having not conceded once as they posted four wins and a draw with the Czech Republic in their group campaign. Defending a narrow one-goal advantage will no doubt prove testing for a Russia side that will look to the talent of in-form Andrei Arshavin to grab an away effort of their own.
For their part, Ukraine lacked ambition in Greece, where they were more than happy to sit back and settle for a goalless stalemate. As pragmatic Greece coach Otto Rehhagel put it afterwards: “When you’re not capable of winning, the best solution is not to concede a goal.” His team will look to Theofanis Gekas to make the difference in Donetsk, the Leverkusen striker having led the way in Europe with ten goals in ten qualifiers before the first leg, but a Ukraine side led by Andriy Shevchenko will be equally capable of creating danger should the tie finally open up.
Player to watch
A pupil of famous former goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev, 23-year-old Igor Akinfeev has been first-choice No1 for CSKA Moscow since 2003 and has been voted Russia’s best goalkeeper on four occasions. Demonstrating impressive maturity between the posts for his age, he is considered by many to be one of the finest custodians in Europe and is likely to have plenty of chances to show why in Slovenia.
Since the introduction of the play-offs in 1998, every team victorious in the first leg has gone on to qualify. That was true of Croatia and Yugoslavia in 1998, Turkey and Slovenia in 2002 and the Czech Republic, Spain and Switzerland in 2006. Sides that managed to draw away from home in the opener have also gone on to progress, as was the case with Italy and Belgium in 1998 and Germany in 2002.
What they said
"It’s not finished yet. We're capable of scoring in France as well. I’ve spent my life in football and I’ve seen a lot of situations get turned around.” Giovanni Trapattoni, Republic of Ireland coach