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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Football :World Cup battle heats up

Just nine months before the World Cup makes its first appearance in Africa all but six of the 32 team spots are yet to be decided.
So far, Japan, Australia, North and South Korea and the Netherlands havecaptured places alongside hosts South Africa in the December 4 draw at Cape Town, although several more teams are inching closer to qualification.
While five-time World Cup winners Brazil, European champions Spain and 1966winners England look set to join them soon, other powerhouse teams have plenty of work to do.
Fighting for spots
Inspirational as one of the game's greatest ever players, Diego Maradona is struggling to lift Argentina as coach.
Argentina are looking at the fourth and last of South America's qualifying spots behind Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, and find themselves in danger of missing out, especially if they lose at home to the Brazilians on Saturday.
That would leave Maradona's stars stranded on 22 points and allow fifth place Ecuador to leapfrog them with a win at Colombia.
Although three-time champions Germany are top of their group, second place Russia appear almost certain to cut their standings lead to one point by beating Liechtenstein at home on Saturday.
With only the group winners sure of World Cup places from European qualifying, there is still a strong chance that Guus Hiddink's Russians can catch the Germans, who host South Africa in a friendly on Saturday.
World Cup holders Italy also top their group and are out to capture three points in Georgia on Saturday.
But Marcello Lippi's team has only a one-point lead over Ireland – who are guided by another Italian coaching great Giovanni Trapattoni - who visit Cyprus.
The Ireland-Italy game in Dublin October 10 could be crucial.
Lippi is unconcerned by criticism that players from his former club Juventus make up a third of his squad.
"Juventus has put an emphasis on Italian players,'' he said.
"So it's only natural that they hold my attention.''
Group 7
Runners up to the Italians in Berlin three years ago, France have five points to make up on leaders Serbia in Group 7 although Raymond Domenech's team, who host Romania on Saturday, have a game in hand on the leaders and soon go to Belgrade.
"It will be hard, but the message I'm getting across to the players is that it will be just as hard (for Romania and Serbia),'' Domenech said.
"We have a talented and a strong team, and we'll show it.''
Slovakia are the surprise leaders of Group 3 as they chase their first World Cupappearance, and have a great chance to push neighbours the Czech Republic further out of contention by beating them at home on Saturday.
The Slovaks go into the game with a two-point lead over second place Northern Ireland, with the Czechs next to last and seven points behind.
Portugal badly need a victory over Group 1 leaders Denmark in Copenhagen or Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates will probably have to start thinking about the runners up playoffs.
With four rounds of games to go, group favourites Portugal and Sweden arelingering well behind the Danes and Hungary.
Denmark have 16 points and Hungary 13 with Portugal and Sweden on nine.
With the Hungarians hosting Sweden on Saturday, two home wins will push the Portuguese and the Swedes further out of contention for places in the finals.
England manager Fabio Capello talks to his team ahead of their friendly [GALLO/GETTY]Group 6
England, who host Slovenia in a friendly on Saturday, will capture a place at the finals if they beat Croatia at Wembley Stadium in London on Wednesday to make it eight wins out of eight in Group 6.
That means the race is effectively for second place and a playoff spot, which Croatia is favoured to capture, especially by beating fourth place Belarus on Saturday.
Three points behind the Croats, third place Ukraine have a game in hand, however, and should also beat Andorra at home to stay in contention.
With six wins from six games, Spain should move closer to the finals by beating Belgium at home, while second place Bosnia-Herzegovina are hopeful of staying in contention by winning in Armenia.
Qualifying for the three automatic spots from Central and North America iseffectively down to four teams as Mexico aims to stay in touch with Costa Rica (12 points), Honduras (10) and United States (10) with four rounds of games to go.
With Honduras expected to beat Trinidad & Tobago at home and the Americanshosting El Salvador, the crucial game on Saturday appears to be Mexico's visit to leaders Costa Rica.
The Mexicans have nine points and a victory would turn things upside down.
The four automatic spots from Asia are already decided and now Bahrain and Saudi Arabia go into a two-game playoff to decide which team goes on to face Oceania champions New Zealand for a spot at the World Cup.
Among Saturday's other friendlies, the Netherlands host Japan in a meeting of teams already qualified for the World Cup.

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