Players to Watch in World Cup Quals
Over the next week, 15 teams are likely to join the 11 already booked for the 2010 World Cup. Here are 10 players to watch as qualifying enters the home stretch:<br><br>He's the best player the U.S. has produced, ever. If the Americans are to clinch their sixth straight World Cup appearance, they need to win one of their final two games in an extraordinarily tight CONCACAF race. Now a veteran at 27, Donovan has been here before -- the highest-scoring player in U.S. history must step up and lead by example. And that starts on Saturday night in Honduras.
How much fun will the World Cup be if the world's best player isn't even there? Argentina is in serious danger of missing out for the first time in 40 years. Central to those issues is the fact that Diego Maradona can't figure out how to make Messi play as well for the national team as he does for his club team, Barcelona. Argentina needs results, and fast, in games against Peru and at Uruguay. Sooner or later, Messi is going to have to show why he's the odds-on favorite for FIFA World Player of the Year.
The U.S. has won only one road game in the final round of qualifying, and if Palacios & Co. are their usual selves, it's unlikely the Americans will get a second in San Pedro Sula on Saturday. Honduras has perhaps the best team in its history. One key reason <i>los Catrachos</i> are so tough is the Tottenham central midfielder, a classic box-to-box enforcer just as capable of contributing on offense as he is of busting up the American attack. Without a doubt, he's the biggest concern for Bob Bradley's men.
A World Cup without the world's two best players is a distinct possibility -- but defending FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldo and his countrymen are in more danger of missing out than Messi and Argentina are. Portugal is buried in third place in Europe's Group 1 behind Denmark and Sweden and isn't even in control of its own fate anymore. What it <i>can</i> do is win its remaining two games against Hungary and Malta -- and hope the electrifying Ronaldo breaks his scoreless spell in qualifying.
World Cup champs in '98 and finalists in '06, the French face a serious uphill battle just to get back into the tournament. <i>Les Bleus</i> trail Serbia by four points in Europe's Group 7 and third-place Austria is hot on their heels. That means they must get results in their final two winnable games against the Faroe Islands and the Austrians. Bad news: Their catalyst and co-leading scorer, Franck Ribéry, is out with tendinitis. Coach Raymond Domenech's stubborn loyalty to his ever-aging veterans means more of the burden now falls at the feet of Henry, who is still capable but is not the same player at 32 that he was at 25.
Michael Ballack & Andrei Arshavin
In perhaps the most anticipated clash left in European qualifying, Germany heads to Moscow for a final showdown with Russia on Saturday. When the two heavyweights last met in Dortumund a year ago, Ballack (13) and the hosts came out a 2-1 winner. Now, it's a chance for payback for Arshavin (10), who scored Russia's lone goal that game. That duo now lines up for rival English Premier League clubs, too: Ballack at Chelsea, Arshavin at Arsenal. The winner of this game likely will win Group 4 and an automatic place in South Africa, the loser probably will be relegated to a playoff with another second-place European team. All eyes will be glued to Luzhniki Stadium.
It's very simple. Without Blanco, Mexico was 1-2 in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying under Sven-Göran Eriksson and in danger of missing its first World Cup in 20 years. Since the Swede was replaced by old manager Javier Aguirre -- who immediately lured his old workhorse out of international retirement -- El Tri is 4-1, has regained its swagger of old and is back on track. It was Blanco's guile, in large part, that helped Mexico beat the U.S. 2-1 in Mexico City in August, and he hasn't stopped there. The Chicago Fire icon may be 36 and slower than a burro, but the gamesmanship, skill on the ball and experience he has brought back to the team is a big, big reason why Mexico can clinch a berth in South Africa after many had written it off.
It wasn't all that long ago that Nigeria was synonymous with soccer success in Africa, consistently qualifying for the World Cup and supplying a slew of talent to Europe's big leagues. Now, however, the Super Eagles are in serious danger of missing the World Cup for a second consecutive time. Taiwo & Co. blew a two-goal lead at home to Tunisia last month, and now must win their final two games against Mozambique and Kenya and hope the Tunisians slip up. "We need to be optimistic and not ask ourselves any questions," says left back Taiwo, who is one of Nigeria's biggest scoring threats.
The Tottenham Hotspur icon (far left) was a fresh-faced 21-year-old in '02, the last time his nation reached the World Cup, and remembers none-too-fondly the Irish bowing out to Spain in the Round of 16 in a shootout. Ireland has never been as close as it is now to returning to a major tournament. Keane & Co. have a massive date with Italy -- the leader in European Group 8 and native country of their own head mastermind head coach, Giovanni Trapattoni -- on Saturday that can swing fate back their way. They then close out qualification on Oct. 14 against tiny Montenegro. By then we'll know if Irish eyes are smiling on South Africa.