The race for South Africa 2010 heats up this weekend with the first full set of FIFA World Cup qualifiers in 2009. Matches will be played this Saturday and next Wednesday, including several double-headers between teams at the top of their groups. The nine group winners, together with the victors of four two-legged play-offs involving the eight best runners-up, will proceed to the World Cup finals next summer.
Two points separate five of the six sides, with Sweden lying second from bottom despite being unbeaten. Denmark have seven points from three matches and lead on goal difference from Hungary, who have played four games. Albania are a point adrift after missing the chance to go top when they were held 0-0 in Malta in one of three European qualifiers held in February, their fifth fixture overall. Portugal and Sweden are a point further back, with four and three matches played respectively. On Saturday, Portugal take on Sweden, Denmark visit Malta and Hungary go to Albania, who themselves travel to Denmark on 1 April when Hungary face Malta.
Greece’s perfect start ended with a 2-1 home defeat by Switzerland in October but the 2004 European champions are a point ahead of Israel, whom they tackle on Saturday in Tel-Aviv and also next Wednesday in Heraklion. Switzerland are one point further behind, and play bottom team Moldova in their away and home double-header. Latvia and Luxembourg, who also meet twice, are another three points back, but the same distance clear of Moldova.
Slovakia are ahead in a tight group, with Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia all two points off the pace. Northern Ireland have played a game more – a 3-0 win in San Marino in February. On Saturday, Slovenia host the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland entertain Poland. Four days later Slovakia make the short trip to Prague, while Northern Ireland welcome Slovenia and Poland are home to San Marino.
Germany’s clinical record in qualifying continued in October with narrow successes against Russia and Wales putting them on ten points from four outings. Russia are four points adrift – with a match in hand – and level with Wales, while Finland’s tally of four from three games is also useful. Russia, with Guus Hiddink back at the helm in a break from his Chelsea FC duties, engage Azerbaijan on Saturday, when Germany face Liechtenstein and Wales tackle Finland. Following that, Germany go to Wales and Russia take on Liechtenstein.
Spain have not let up since winning EURO 2008 as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, Estonia and Belgium have all tasted defeat by Vicente Del Bosque’s men. EURO semi-finalists Turkey, four points short of the leaders but unbeaten in second, come up against Spain in Madrid on Saturday and in Istanbul four days later. Belgium are a point behind Turkey, with Bosnia-Herzegovina a further point adrift, and that pair also meet twice in Genk and Zenica. Armenia and Estonia play each other home and away with each searching for a first win.
England have equalled Spain’s tally of 12 points from four games and are the top scorers in qualifying with 14 goals, including a 4-1 triumph in Croatia and most recently a 3-1 success in Belarus. Croatia and Ukraine are five points behind but four clear of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Undefeated Ukraine do have a match in hand and will attempt to seize the initiative on 1 April when they visit England; the same day Croatia are in Andorra and Kazakhstan have an appointment with Belarus. There are no games in this group on Saturday.
Serbia and Lithuania are five points ahead of UEFA EURO 2008™ finalists France, Austria and Romania in a group that has produced some fascinating results. In September, Lithuania beat Romania and Austria, who had previously defeated France, themselves then victors against Serbia. Then, in October, the Faroe Islands held Austria and Romania took a two-goal lead against France only to draw 2-2; Serbia were also in inspired form in overcoming Lithuania 3-0 and Austria 3-1. The excitement should continue on Saturday when Lithuania play France, who have a game in hand like Romania, up against Serbia. Austria’s next assignment is four days later against Romania when France have their return fixture with Lithuania.
In February, the Republic of Ireland edged past Georgia by 2-1 to move level on ten points with frontrunners Italy, who are now only one goal ahead. Bulgaria are seven points back in third after three draws – one point better off than Montenegro and Georgia, and two superior to Cyprus. On Saturday, Ireland meet Bulgaria while Italy go to Montenegro, before the top two come together in Bari on 1 April. That day Bulgaria face Cyprus, and Montenegro visit Georgia.
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Holland have won all their three matches in the sole five-team group and have a five-point advantage. Scotland and Iceland, who have played a game more, are the nearest challengers, with Macedonia on three points and Norway having picked up two draws and a defeat at home to the Netherlands on 15 October. Bert van Marwijk’s men host Scotland on Saturday and Macedonia the following Wednesday, when Iceland journey to Glasgow. Norway return to action on 6 June in Macedonia.