The qualification equation will be resolved once and for all in groups A and B on Tuesday when, to ensure fairness between the teams in contention, the two games in each section will kick off at the same time.
Uruguay and Mexico currently lead the way in Group A with four points apiece and a draw between them in Rustenburg would send both through to the last 16. Neither will enjoy the thought of facing Argentina in the next round, however, and that ought to motivate both to pursue a victory that would allow either South Africa or France to take advantage, despite the latter duo having collected a solitary point each so far. Whatever happens, the tournament is about to lose at least one major participant, with the host nation having never fallen at this stage in past editions and crisis-stricken France runners-up just four years ago.
In Group B, Argentina stand on the verge of the knockout phase, even if they could still conceivably be eliminated on goal difference if they lose to Greece and three teams finish on six points. Realistically, Diego Maradona’s men possess a healthy grip on top spot, while Korea Republic appear favourites to grab second place behind them. A draw in their meeting with Nigeria would see the Asian side through, depending on the outcome of Greece’s match against the leaders.
Group A (both matches at 16.00 local time)
France-South Africa, Mangaung/Bloemfontein
Group B (both matches at 20.30 local time)
Nigeria-Korea Republic, Durban
The big games
Semi-finalists at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, Korea Republic control their own destiny despite having suffered a heavy 4-1 loss to Argentina last time out. They have since pored over their failings in that game and have singled out their defensive frailty, general clumsiness and the goal they conceded early on, all of which made it difficult for them to claw their way back. Almost constantly on the back foot, they nonetheless showed glimpses of the quality that brought them a 2-0 win over Greece, and against Nigeria they will be keen to prove that lessons have been learnt. As for their opponents, the Super Eagles have been beaten twice but can still reach the Round of 16. Lars Lagerback has opted not to criticise his young, inexperienced team to avoid demoralising them even further, and with so much youthful talent in their ranks anything is possible – even if they have gone seven games without victory on the global stage and suffered six defeats during that run.
*Greece have lifted a veil of doubt after finally recording their first ever victory at a FIFA World Cup final tournament, a 2-1 comeback triumph against Nigeria that avenged their 2-0 loss to the Super Eagles at USA 1994. They must now complete the more taxing task of reversing the outcome of their defeat by Argentina on 21 June that same year in Boston, when Gabriel Batistuta helped himself to a hat-trick and a certain Maradona, then captain of *La Albiceleste, added the other goal in a 4-0 romp. At least the European hopefuls will not have to contain El Pibe de Oro this time around – he will be pacing the technical area instead.
What they said
"There are better teams out there than us, but we’re convinced we can beat anyone,” Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay coach.
Did you know?
Highs and lows: France supporters have long been used to watching their team lurch between heady highs and gloomy lows, a trend dating back to their failure to qualify for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Their absence from the tournament in the USA marked a genuine nadir, but Les Bleus bounced back in stunning fashion to clinch the global title on home soil four years later. Of course, that then made it all the more surprising when they failed to survive the group stage at Korea/Japan 2002, but once again they made up for the disappointment by reaching the Final at Germany 2006, when it took a penalty shoot-out for Italy to finally see them off. Four years on and Raymond Domenech's side have made a catastrophic start to South Africa 2010, leaving their loyal fans already looking forward to Brazil 2014.
Card counting: Since the 2010 FIFA World Cup kicked off on 11 June, there has not been a single match free of a caution or dismissal. Every game at Germany 2006 featured at least one card being brandished too, meaning the last fixture to unfold without even a single booking was the goalless draw between Nigeria and England in Osaka on 12 June 2002. The man in the middle that day was Brian Hall of USA.
Descending eagle: Cuauhtemoc Blanco has understandably been savouring his decision to return to the international fold two years after announcing his retirement. Not only did his goal against France make him the first Mexican international to have scored at three separate FIFA World Cups, he is also the third oldest player to have found the net in a final tournament. Aged 37 years and 151 days at the time, he comes in behind Cameroon’s Roger Milla (42 years and 39 days) and Sweden’s Gunnar Green (37 years and 236 days). The veteran’s first name was inspired by the last Aztec emperor and means ‘Descending eagle’, but while the original Cuauhtemoc had his feet burned by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in an attempt to discover the location of hidden Aztec treasure, Blanco intends to use his own feet to help lead his team to the treasure they value highest – the Trophy awaiting the competition winners on 11 July.