Thursday, 19 November 2009

World Cup Round-up: Play-offs Part 2


Arguably the headline match of the day was the special play-off match between Algeria and Egypt to decide the final World Cup qualifier from Africa.

Both teams had finished with identical records in Group 3 of the final qualifying round which led to this hastily-arranged one-off match in Sudan to decide the winner.

Sparks were predicted to fly and within a minute of the start they did when Portsmouth's Nadir Belhadj was booked for fouling Ahmed Al-Muhammadi. Three minutes later, Mourad Meghni's challenge on Egypt's captain Ahmed Hassan prompted a huge free-for-all which, fortunately, was quickly dispersed by the referee but led to a yellow card for Hassan.

Eventually the game simmered down somewhat as both teams tried their luck in front of their opponents' goal but just as Egypt were starting to look the more likely to score, Algeria pipped them to it. With five minutes of the first half remaining, Antar Yahia received the ball from a cross into the area and volleyed it in off the crossbar from a very tight angle.

The second half began with more great goalkeeping at either end to deny some fine efforts on goal but the longer the game went on, the nervier both sides looked. Either team could have scored but the Algerians swapped attacking tendencies for defensive ones and eventually held on to secure their first World Cup qualification since 1986.

Egypt, for all their African Nations Cup wins, must wait another four years to confirm their standing on the world stage. The only scant consolation for them must come in the fact that in the end only a single goal stopped them ending their 19-year wait to reach the Finals. Perhaps the thought of playing in Brazil in 2014 will spur them on that little bit more next time around...


The big news from Europe surrounds France's somewhat dubious qualification for South Africa 2010 following a 2-1 aggregate win over Ireland.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Ireland struck first at the Stade de France last night when Robbie Keane exposed a lapse of concentration in the French defence to slot home after 33 minutes. As in the first leg, both sides looked evenly matched and while France had played the faster, more aesthetically-pleasing football, it was often punctuated by some inaccurate passing. Ireland looked the more industrious but had lacked any real penetration up front until Keane's goal.

During the second half, both sides continued to battle away but the aggregate score remained 1-1 by the final whistle to send the game into extra time. Tired legs were the order of the day and gaps started to appear, one of which saw Nicolas Anelka dribble into the Irish penalty area before apparently being fouled. The referee remained convinced this was not the fact (and the replays showed Anelka had dived) and no penalty was given.

Finally it was William Gallas who broke the deadlock in the 103rd minute but only after Thierry Henry had handled the ball prior to setting up his team mate from close range. The entire Irish defence saw it, we, the television audience saw it, but referee Martin Hansson did not. The goal stood and with it France had avoided a repeat of their Bulgarian nightmare in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup by beating Ireland 2-1 on aggregate. Heartbreak for Trappatoni's men – some soul-searching to be done by Thierry Henry.

Elsewhere, Slovenia made use of their home advantage to overturn a 2-1 first leg defeat in Russia by winning 1-0 in Maribor. Zlatko Dedic, a possible contender for Man of the Match, grabbed the winner just before half time to leave Guus Hiddink's Russian side rueing the goal they conceded two minutes from time in the first leg.

Slovenia enjoyed less possession than their opponents in this second leg, but Russia looked ineffective up front. In the end, frustration and tension crept into their game and they finished the match with only nine men following the dismissal of Alexander Kerzhakov and Yuri Zhirkov.

Slovenia reach only their second World Cup Finals, then – a feat matched by Greece who ended up 1-0 winners over Ukraine last night. Alexei Mikhailichenko's men seemed to lack imagination in their tactics as Greece opted to counter-attack at pace whenever possible, the result of which was a Dimitrios Salpingidis winner in the 31st minute. Greece therefore head off to the Finals next year for only the second time in their history after their only previous encounter in 1994 where Maradona and Co. got in the way of further success.

Finally to Zenica where Bosnia-Herzegovina had it all to do as they attempted to reverse the 1-0 win gained by Portugal in the first leg of their play-off. Like Greece before, Portugal sat back and used the counter-attack as their choice of tactic and it worked well in the face of an ineffective Bosnian side.

The fate of the home side was sealed in the 56th minute when Porto midfielder Raul Meireles received a pass from Nani and calmly shot past Kenan Hasagic in the Bosnian goal to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. The Portuguese continued to defend solidly after that and when Sejad Salihovic was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 77th minute, the home side knew their chance to make history had effectively ended.

The game ended on a sour note as many of the Bosnian fans reacted aggressively to their team's defeat and the match was stopped for a short time as the officials noted objects being thrown onto the pitch. One of them appeared to have struck Roberto Rosetti, one of the referee's assistants, and for that the Bosnian FA can expect a heavy fine from FIFA.

For the Portuguese, however, their objective of qualifying for their third successive Finals was finally achieved, but who'd have put money on that given their very poor run at the start of their campaign? It's inconsequential to say it, perhaps, as Carlos Queiroz and his men now prepare for the honour of playing at the World Cup next June.

South America / North & Central America

The second leg of the tie between Uruguay and Costa Rica looked a formality on paper. Uruguay were returning to the Centenario Stadium with a 1-0 lead gained in Costa Rica and with home support their quest for a second and presumably conclusive goal would be a straight-forward affair.

The first half, however, gave hope to both sides and ended goalless. Junior Diaz saw a spectacular long range shot go just wide for The Ticos while Diego Forlan lost control of the ball with only the keeper to beat just before the interval.

The second half started with Uruguay looking the brighter of the two sides as they enjoyed the best of the early chances, yet it wasn't really until Sebastian Abreu came on as a substitute in the 65th minute that the home side really looked a more dangerous proposition. The 33-year-old striker who plays for Aris Thessaloniki in the Greek Super League almost scored with his first touch of the ball but made certain of it with his second.

'El Loco' (as he's known, like one in every three South American footballers) was in the right place at the right time to head in Andres Scotti's cross in the 70th minute. 'Game Over', so it seemed, but Uruguay's lead was to last only four minutes after Walter Centeno took advantage of some sloppy defending to put the ball in the net.

Sadly for Costa Rica, however, there was nothing left in the tank and Uruguay played out the rest of the match comfortably to qualify for the World Cup as 2-1 aggregate winners. It'll be their 11th appearance in the Finals and their fourth in the last seven attempts.

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