With La Liga taking an early hiatus as players report home for international duty, El Partido Maravilloso will preview a few of the important World Cup qualifying matches taking place over the next week. Two perennial European powerhouses face must win fixtures on the road this Saturday. Portugal and the Czech Republic, the 17th and 18th ranked teams in the world, respectively, are both in danger to miss the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Portugal travels to Denmark to face the group leaders who are on 16 points. With only four games remaining in the group, Portugal, who are on 9 points and sit 4 points from reaching the playoff round of qualifications, find themselves in a situation where a winning outcome has become necessary. The Czechs also find themselves in a tough scenario coming into the weekend. Sitting fifth on only 8 points, the eastern European nation desperately needs a win at group leader Slovakia to stay in contention. While catching Slovakia may be a tall order, the Czechs are 5 points off second place Northern Ireland and have a game in hand. Facing as close to a sure win as there is in sports on Wednesday as hosts to San Marino, this two game stretch becomes incredibly important as Northern Ireland plays away in Poland and then play hosts to Slovakia on Wednesday.
Elsewhere in Europe, France visits group leading Serbia on Wednesday in a fixture that could determine who wins group seven and who will fight via a playoff for a spot in the World Cup. France hosts Romania, who are without star striker Adrian Mutu, on Saturday and a victory would put them within 2 points of Serbia ahead of Wednesday’s match. Both England and Spain can cement their positions in South Africa during this qualification period. England hosts Croatia on Wednesday at Wembley while the Spanish will host the Belgians and Estonians on Saturday and Wednesday, respectively, at the Bernabeu.
The crowded CONCACAF standings will surely clear up after a couple days of key match-ups over the next week. Mexico must visit Costa Rica, a very tough place to play on the road, and will be hosts to Honduras the following Wednesday, while the United States will face the two teams at the bottom of the table: home against El Salvador and away at Trinidad. & Tobago. With four teams (USA, Honduras, Costa Rica, & Mexico) all within 3 points of each other and only three guaranteed World Cup positions, these upcoming matches will be very important for all nations involved.
The Game of the Week, however, comes from the South American qualifying group. Five time World Cup champion Brazil will face-off in Rosario against Argentina, who sit in a dangerous fourth position in the COMEBOL standings with Ecuador only 2 points behind. I believe, with Brazil more comfortably atop the group, Maradona and Los Albicelestes will prove victories at Rosario Central. Finals score: 2-1 Argentina.