It has come down to just eight teams in Europe vying for four places available in the rainbow nation of South Africa. Eight tricky ties over two legs will determine who boards the plane to the South Africa and the battle commences on November 14 with the Republic of Ireland taking on France, Portugal hosting a brave Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece entertaining the Ukraine and Slovenia visiting a freezing Russia with the return legs scheduled for November 18.
One of the ties of the play-off round, former world champions France know that the Irish should not be taken lightly, particularly after what Giovanni Trapattoni’s side achieved against the current world champions Italy over the two ties in their group encounters. The Irish held the mighty Italians both in Italy and Ireland with the unbeaten men in green nearly pulling off a shock in Dublin before Alberto Gilardino’s late strike secured the Azzurri’s passage to the World Cup.
France, on the other hand, have been far from impressive, finishing second to Serbia in their group, losing to Austria along the way plus numerous other hiccups before assuring themselves a play-off spot. Coach Raymond Domenech is confident that the experience of his side would see the Les Blues through to South Africa but admits the two clashes against the Irish will be monumental and Dublin’s Croke Park holds the key to an exciting finale at Paris’ Stade De France over the two legs. The two sides last met in 2006, in the World Cup qualifying stages with the Irish holding the French to a goalless draw in Paris while a classy Thierry Henry finish being the difference between the two sides at Lansdown Road.
The Irish will rely heavily on the passionate home support, the enthusiasm of players such as Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and John O’Shea and of course the heroics of goalkeeper Shay Given, whose form will be crucial over the two legs if Ireland are to go through at the expense of the French. Les Blues, as always, will rely on the strike partnership of Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka and with the squad boasting some of the finest young talents in French football it would be of no surprise if the French go through easily. However, with so much on the line, and with the pressure on the French as overwhelming favourites, the Irish will fancy their chances of upsetting the applecart and stunning world football in eliminating one of the most fancied sides in Europe.
Portugal vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina
Portugal were so close to missing out on qualification for South Africa but ultimately made it into the play-offs at the expense of Sweden, but find themselves pitted against one of the most exciting young teams in Europe in the form of the ‘Golden Lillies’ of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the break up of Yugoslavia, tiny Bosnia have failed to match the progress of former Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, until now, as the country has unearthed some of the finest young talents that ply their trade in Germany.
The first leg is in Lisbon with the return match being staged in Zenica where the Bosnians have a great international record. Miroslav Blazevic’s side play an attacking brand of football that could really take the Portuguese by surprise and in Edin Dzeko, the Golden Lillies have a striker considered one of the best in Europe at the moment. Portugal coach Carlos Quieroz has plenty to think about before the November 14 clash in Lisbon and his attention will be on the fitness of Cristiano Ronaldo. The former Manchester United winger has spent a recent spell on the sidelines with Real Madrid due to an ankle problem and although Portugal were hoping to include their star man in the side, he failed to prove his fitness this week and subsequently misses out.
Greece vs, Ukraine
Greece narrowly missed out on automatic qualification after finishing second behind Switzerland in Group 2 but get another chance to qualify for South Africa when they entertain the Ukraine over a two-legged affair with the first leg being hosted by the Greeks on November 14. Ukraine came behind England in the qualifiers but managed to keep Croatia at bay to book a play-off spot against Otto Rehhagel’s Greece. Ukrainian boss Olexiy Mikhailichenko is satisfied with the draw and has indicated that his side would play an attacking brand of football in Athens as the second leg is in Ukraine and the home side would be in an advantageous position when the tie takes place in freezing conditions. This tie is probably the closest of all the four ties and both sides know that it’s going to be won by the finest of margins, so expect two tight affairs.
Russia vs. Slovenia
Dutch coach Guus Hiddink will be aiming to guide his fourth nation to a World Cup when his talented Russia take on surprise package Slovenia over the two legs, with the first match being staged by a freezing Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Having finished second to continental powerhouse Germany in Group 4, the Russians will be eager to see off an unfinished job by taming a dangerous Slovenian side that edged out the Czech Republic and Poland before finishing second to tournament debutants Slovakia in the qualifiers. Although the Slovenians are a tough proposition themselves, coach Matjaz Kek spoke of his concern with the draw citing that the Balkan side would have to be at their very best to undermine a very strong Russian side that would be ruthless at home under freezing conditions at the Luzhniki. “I can’t say I’m happy with the draw. Slovenia will have to be at their very best because Russia are a really strong team,” the Slovenian coach was quoted by FIFA.com. “I would have liked to have played the first game in Maribor, in Slovenia, but you can’t have everything. We need to put two excellent performances together and have a little bit of luck too.”
Guus Hiddink on the other hand believes that his big guns will put in two big performances in Moscow and Maribor before embarking on a tougher safari at the rainbow nation come next summer.