All eyes on European World Cup qualifiers
The finish line is in sight.
Twenty-three nations, including nine from Europe, have stamped their passports for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Nine World Cup berths remain up for grabs, and four of those spots will be claimed by European countries.
Eight European nations have been paired off and will play a two-game, home-and-away playoff, with the winner of each series advancing to next year's World Cup.
A first-leg showdown between Greece and Ukraine in Athens on Saturday (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 12:55 p.m. ET) is just one of four intriguing matches that will take place across Europe. Portugal will have its hands full with Bosnia, France travels to Ireland and Russia welcomes Slovenia.
So, who will prevail in the first leg of the European playoffs and move one step closer towards World Cup qualification?
Want the inside scoop on the crucial World Cup qualifying playoff game between Greece and Ukraine this Saturday? Be sure to check out CBCSports.ca's live game blog starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.
Have your say and let your voice be heard during our live chat, as Jason and John provide you with all the latest news and updates as the action unfolds.
Viewers can watch the game live on Bold, CBC's digital channel, and on CBCSports.ca starting at 12:55 p.m. ET.
Viewers can also watch a special World Cup show, with an update on all of the European qualifiers, Saturday on the main CBC network and on CBCSports.ca at 4:55 p.m. ET.
UKRAINE vs. GREECE
Nigel Reed: Of the four seeded nations in the playoffs, perhaps Greece is the most vulnerable. True, the Greeks boast Europe's top scorer in the qualifying process, but Bayer Leverkusen forward Theofanis Gekas will need to add to his 10-goal haul in Athens to give his country a realistic chance to overcome the Ukraine.
The Greeks favour a three-pronged attack and it will need to be at its sharpest to break down the visitors, who lost only one game in finishing runners-up to England in the group stage and, in the process, knocked out the fancied Croatians. In addition, Ukraine posted four straight clean sheets to close out qualifying.
Greek striker Georgios Samaras accepts there are no clear favourites in this tie. He reckons "it's 50-50" but home advantage should count for something. The Greek fans are some of the most vociferous in Europe and if regular service is provided to the trio up front, they could have cause to keep singing long into the night.
Prediction: 1-1 tie
Jason de Vos: This is the tie in which we could see an upset. None of the seeded teams wanted to travel to Ukraine in the middle of November for a game of football, let alone one that could decide their World Cup fate.
Unfortunately for Greece, they drew the short straw. Even worse for them, the second leg is away from home. Things couldn't get much more difficult for them.
However, they do have Theofanis Gekas up front, and he has a wonderful habit of putting the ball in the back of the net. I think he and his teammates will need to do that more than once, and keep a clean sheet in this first leg, if they are to have a legitimate chance of winning this tie.
The Ukrainians need to get at least a goal in the first leg, as they are more than capable of winning the second leg at home. This is a tie where home-field advantage could be the deciding factor, and both teams will be aware of that going into the opener in Athens.
Prediction: 2-1 win for Greece
John F. Molinaro: Of the four playoff series, I think this one is the toughest to call.
Both Greece and Ukraine are evenly matched, especially in the centre of the park where they have top-quality midfield workhorses (Giorgos Karagounis for the Greeks; Anatoliy Tymoschuk for the Ukrainians).
While Ukraine is still relying on an aging Andrei Shevchenko (and it has to be said, he's past his prime), the Greeks boast a dangerous 1-2 scoring punch in Theofanis Gekas and Georgios Samaras. They're going to have their work cut out for them, though, as Ukraine has a rock-solid defence, anchored by the unheralded Andriy Rusol.
That being said, Athens can be a very intimidating place to visit for opposing players, and home-field advantage should be enough to tip the scales in Greece's favour for the first leg.
Prediction: 2-0 win for Greece
IRELAND vs. FRANCE
Reed: For a European country that doesn't even boast a top flight domestic league, the atmosphere for an international game in Dublin is hard to beat. The renovated Croke Park is one of the largest stadiums in Europe and the decibel reading will be off the scale. France should consider itself warned.
The French are the only seeded team to have home advantage in the second leg, but to really benefit they must ensure there's still something to play for when they get back to Paris. Man for man, there's no debate about which is the stronger roster, but the Irish, on home soil, are a match for anyone.
The Irish don't score many goals but have a habit of raising their game for the big occasion. They came within seconds of beating Italy in their final qualifier and will target a similar performance against France. The visitors have been less than convincing on the road throughout qualifying and would happily leave the Emerald Isle in possession of the point with which they start.
Prediction: 1-1 tie
De Vos: Dublin is a wonderful city to visit, but not such an easy place to get a result. I speak from experience, as Canada lost 3-0 at Lansdowne Road against the Irish back in 2003.
Playing that day were the likes of Richard Dunne, John O'Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane, who are all important components of Giovanni Trapattoni's squad that will play against France.
Keane is the key for me — he is the only player up front for Ireland that has the quality to really trouble France. If he is on form and riding the wave of emotion that is sure to come from the Irish support, Les Blues could be in for a rough ride.
I think the French will still have enough quality to get a result away from home, though. Karim Benzema, Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry have enough about them to terrify the Irish defenders, and I'm a big fan of Yoann Gourcuff and Lassana Diarra in midfield.
On paper, Ireland shouldn't really trouble France, but we all know the game is never played on paper.
Prediction: 1-1 tie
Molinaro: Sorry, but I'm not buying Ireland as a legitimate contender to qualify for the World Cup.
Too much has been made of their qualifying campaign. Yes, they finished second behind world champions Italy, but the Irish never really pushed the Azzurri for first place in the group — they ended up finishing six points behind the Italians, who wrapped up the group with a game to spare.
Furthermore, Ireland's second-place finish had less to do with itself and more to do with a disappointing Bulgaria, who played shockingly poorly in the qualifiers and ended up third.
Can the Irish give the French a go at Croke Park? Maybe, but other than Robbie Keane, Ireland doesn't have a striker that's going to pose problems for the French defence.
Look for Karim Benzema and his cohorts to run rampant as Les Bleus stuff the Irish before their fans.
Prediction: France wins 3-0
PORTUGAL vs. BOSNIA
Reed: Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz certainly talks a good game. He's "100 per cent convinced" his team will get to South Africa at the expense of Bosnia. That's a confident prediction from a man who will have to make do without the world's best player.
But who needs Cristiano Ronaldo anyway? Ankle injury or no ankle injury, the facts speak for themselves. The world's most expensive player has failed to score in seven World Cup qualifying games so the Portuguese will have to look elsewhere for inspiration.
By contrast, goal scoring has not been problematic for Bosnia. They smashed 25 goals in 10 qualifying games and will be confident of adding to that tally in Lisbon with the dangerous Edin Dzeko leading the line.
Portugal must make best use of home advantage, as they did against Hungary and Malta, but I fancy the Bosnians to give as good as they get and perhaps have the edge going into the second leg.
Prediction: 2-1 win for Portugal
De Vos: The likelihood that Cristiano Ronaldo will be a minimal participant — or even a spectator — in the opening leg of this tie is high, but I think that might actually work in Portugal's favour.
They are a team who fail to equal the sum of their individual parts, and perhaps that is down to the fact that they expect too much from Ronaldo. His probable absence might allow them to play better collectively and finally live up to their potential.
Bosnia will be confident knowing that they have home field advantage, and if they can grab a goal in the first leg in Lisbon, they have the firepower up front to cause Portugal real concern at home in the second leg.
Edin Dzeko has nine goals to his credit in qualifying and at just 23 years of age, he has a very bright future indeed. Portugal will need to keep him quiet if they are to avoid an upset.
Prediction: 2-1 win for Portugal
Molinaro: Discount Bosnia at your peril, Portugal.
The Bosnians did very well to claim a playoff spot from a competitive and difficult qualifying group that included European champions Spain, Belgium and Turkey.
Key to their success was a high-powered offence that racked up a whopping 25 goals. In forward Edin Dzeko, Bosnia has one of the brightest young stars in the game, but they can also rely on Zvjezdan Misimovic, Vedad Ibisevic and Zlatan Muslimovic to do some damage.
I hope Portugal wins this series because the World Cup should be a showcase for the best players, and if Cristiano Ronaldo isn't there, the festivities in South Africa will suffer. Chances are the Real Madrid star won't be healthy by the time Saturday comes along, and Portugal will miss his creativity and inspiration.
Prediction: 1-1 tie
RUSSIA vs. SLOVENIA
Reed: But for some dubious refereeing decisions against Germany, the Russians could already be booking their hotel rooms in South Africa. The fact Guus Hiddink's team must negotiate a two-legged playoff with Slovenia is merely a delay in their passage.
To be seen as one of the rising forces in world soccer, Russia must exert their authority in the first leg in Moscow, ensuring the deciding match is little more than a formality. Hiddink's expertise on the bench and Andrei Arshavin's influence on the field should be more than the Slovenians can handle.
The visitors may be massive underdogs, but are not without hope. Slovenia are well disciplined — they conceded only four goals in 10 qualifiers and won back to back games on the road to clinch a playoff berth. Indeed, they beat Group winners Slovakia home and away and if they can show that same solidity, the Russians will have to work hard to establish a comfortable cushion to take to Maribor.
Prediction: 2-0 win for Russia
De Vos: If the seeded teams were wary of facing Ukraine, the team the underdogs were wary of facing was Russia.
If not for those stubborn Germans, the Russians would already be preparing for South Africa next summer. Finishing second to the boys from the Bundesliga is no mean feat though, and the Russians are certainly the favourites in this matchup.
The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow will be full to capacity, and I don't expect the Slovenians to be able to upset the odds. Russia coach Guus Hiddink is too clever to let this opportunity slip through his fingers, and in Andrei Arshavin, he has one of Europe 's top players at his disposal.
The Slovenians won't just be there to make up the number though, and if they are in need of motivation, their prime minister, Borut Pahor, has promised to clean their boots if they qualify for the World Cup!
Prediction: 2-0 win for Russia
Molinaro: Russia has to be licking its chops over this one.
The luck of the draw was kind to the seeded Russians, who drew, in my mind, the weakest side of the bottom four.
I can personally attest to the skill and quality of Slovenian goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. As an avid follower of Serie A, I've witnessed Handanovic single-handedly win games for Udinese with his athletic and highlight reel saves.
But he and the Slovenian defence are going to have their hands full with a Russian attack that is bristling with quality attackers, foremost among them being Andre Arshavin.
The Arsenal star is, in my view, one of the most entertaining and exciting players in the world to watch. He makes things happen on the field by taking defenders on one-on-one and boasts a powerful shot from distance.
Arshavin is going to tear apart Slovenia in Moscow, giving the Russians a huge advantage as the series shifts to Maribor for the second leg.
Prediction: 3-0 win for Russia