Twenty-seven of the 32 finalists at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ were in action this week in the last major round of international friendlies before the big event begins in less than 100 days. And as the midweek results and performances show, some teams are progressing towards the finals in better shape than others

While Spain turned in another masterful showing to underline their status as tournament favourites, several of their fellow qualifiers still have plenty of work left to do. Argentina’s heartening win in Germany will have bolstered their morale and given Mannschaft coach Joachim Low plenty to ponder, and Marcello Lippi will not have reached too many conclusions after watching his experimental Italy side play out a 0-0 draw with Cameroon.

With Australia and Japan playing qualifying matches for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup finals, and Paraguay overcoming Spanish Liga outfit Athletic Bilbao 3-1 in their warm-up game, the only two finalists not in action were Chile and Korea DPR. Their friendly meeting, scheduled for Wednesday evening in Santiago, was postponed due to the recent earthquake. looks back at the week’s international action and assesses how the candidates for glory at South Africa 2010 are shaping up.

The favourites
“We felt as if we had everything under control from start to finish,” commented Spain coach Vicente del Bosque in typically serene fashion after watching his side ease to victory over France in Paris. Brimming with confidence, the European champions turned in the kind of silky display that we have come to expect from them in recent months. “Football is a delicate business, and what counts is the World Cup,” said Les Bleus midfielder Jeremy Toulalan in defiant tone afterwards. “We do have a little bit of work to do though.”

Lacking the panache their predecessors were known for, a workmanlike Brazil side did just enough to see off a luckless Republic of Ireland in London on Tuesday, a 2-0 triumph taking their winning streak over the men in green to three games. “We’ve got the basics very clear in our mind,” commented Seleção coach Dunga. “I’m not going to turn things on their head now. We’ve been working with some players for three and a half years and everyone has had their chance.”

The other contenders
Diego Maradona finally saw his Argentina side come up with a performance he can use as a benchmark. Following a tortuous qualification campaign, La Albiceleste hit their stride in overcoming Germany 1-0 in Munich, thanks in no small part to the prompting of the 35-year-old Juan Sebastian Veron, who is back to his imperious best. Maradona also had warm words for Lionel Messi, who performed a selfless role for a side that is beginning to take shape. As for the Germans, the narrow defeat comes as something of a surprise after a flawless qualifying tournament. Their biggest problems came up front, where they looked toothless despite the return of the in-form Cacau.

I’m not going to turn things on their head now. We’ve been working with some players for three and a half years and everyone has had their chance.

Brazilian coach Dunga

Italy have never been particularly fond of warm-up matches, and it was no surprise to see a side missing seven first-team regulars struggle to find their rhythm against an enterprising Cameroon. “Little Italy” was the scornful verdict on the front page of Gazzetta dello Sport, not that Marcello Lippi will be overly concerned. The veteran strategist will have been pleased by the performances of defender Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Cossu in midfield, both of whom were making their international debuts.

Trailing at the break to a solid-looking Egypt team, England were indebted to Fabio Capello’s calming influence as they engineered a stirring second-half comeback. Peter Crouch’s introduction from the bench transformed the game, and the towering striker’s well-taken double will have done his chances of making the final squad a power of good.

Making a point
The midweek fixtures allowed a clutch of teams with slightly smaller reputations to show what they are capable of, among them two-time world champions Uruguay. Los Charrúas were in ruthless form in downing Switzerland 3-1 in St. Gallen. Star striker Luis Suarez, the scorer of 38 goals in 36 matches for Ajax this season, was one of the men on target for the South Americans.

Serbia celebrated the return of midfielder Zdravko Kuzmanovic with a commanding 3-0 win over Algeria, continuing the excellent form they showed in the qualifiers. Korea Republic also sounded a warning, serving notice of the threat they pose at set-pieces by edging out a disappointing Côte d’Ivoire 2-0 in London.

Inspired by the electrifying running of Wesley Sneijder, Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands were too good for USA, chalking up a 2-1 win at the Amsterdam Arena. The first side to qualify from the Europe Zone, the Dutch are on a long unbeaten run and are sure to be a force at South Africa 2010.

Must do better     
Worryingly disorganised in defence, Greece slid to a 2-0 defeat against a Senegal side anxious to prove themselves, while Slovakia went down 1-0 at home to Norway and seem to still be taking stock of their surprise run to the world finals. Denmark, 2-1 losers in Austria, are another side whose qualifying form seems to have deserted them, a verdict that could also be levelled at Ghana after their 2-1 reverse in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Though deprived of their Europe-based stars, South Africa also have plenty of food for thought if their unimpressive 1-1 draw with neighbours Namibia is anything to go by.

“It’s all part of a long process,” assured coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. But with the clock ticking down relentlessly to the start of South Africa 2010, both the hosts and the week’s other underachievers have precious little time left to discover their touch.