Euro World Cup playoffs come down to the wire
The World Cup picture is still a little blurry, but it is about to come into focus.
Twenty-six nations have already booked their trip to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and four more countries will be added to the list on Wednesday with the conclusion of the European playoffs.
A second-leg showdown between Greece and Ukraine in Donetsk (CBC Bold, CBCSports.ca, 12:55 p.m. ET) is just one of four make-or-break matches that will take place across Europe. Portugal travels to Zenica to face Bosnia, France hosts Ireland in Saint-Denis, and Russia visits Slovenia in Maribor.
So, who will prevail and stamp their passports for South Africa?
UKRAINE vs. GREECE
Want the inside scoop on the crucial World Cup qualifying playoff game between Ukraine and Greece this Wednesday? Be sure to check out CBCSports.ca's live game blog starting at 12:30 p.m. ET.
CBC Sports commentator Jason de Vos and CBCSports.ca soccer expert John F. Molinaro will be blogging live and answering your questions leading up to kickoff and during the game.
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.
Nigel Reed: Ukraine broke Greek hearts four years ago to reach the World Cup Finals in Germany, and it looks like lightning is about to strike twice following a 0-0 draw in Athens this past weekend. I'll be astonished if Ukraine can't finish the job it started and, if so, the Greeks will only have themselves to blame for coming up short.
Europe's top scorer in World Cup qualifying, Theofanis Gekas, rarely threatened to add to his tally in the opening leg and the Greeks all but threw away home advantage with a performance lacking urgency and creative flair in front of their own fans.
But all is not lost for Greece. They now know a tie game that produces goals in Donetsk would be enough to deny the home team a trip to South Africa, though the crowd and the weather will not be factors in the visitors' favour.
Ukraine has gone unbeaten at home in the qualifiers thus far, and though Greece will battle all the way, they'll be watching the World Cup on TV.
Prediction: Ukraine wins 2-1, Ukraine advances to the World Cup
Jason de Vos: The first leg was a dire affair bereft of quality from both sides, and we can only hope that their collective display was down to nerves rather than a lack of quality.
The Greeks have been widely criticized for being the dullest team in Europe, and after Saturday's display, it is hard to argue with that.
However, they do have the leading goal scorer in European qualification right now in Gekas, and he was the only Greek who looked capable of breaking the deadlock in the opening leg. He will need to be in top form if the Greeks are to hold out much hope in Donetsk.
The advantage is clearly with the Ukrainians. The climate, conditions and crowd will all add up to the equivalent of a 12th man on the pitch, and I expect them to clinch a place in South Africa with a victory against Greece.
Prediction: Ukraine wins 2-0 to advance to the World Cup
John F. Molinaro: Dour and dull doesn't even begin to describe the first leg of this series.
Both teams lacked urgency and creativity, leading to one of the worst games I've seen in a long time, but the Greeks were especially culpable for their gutless and unadventurous approach.
That they didn't make use of home-field advantage and stuck to their ultra-defensive tactics was nothing short of sinful. Now I understand why the Athens' Olympic Stadium was half empty — who on earth would actually pay good money to watch the Greek national team, the ultimate purveyors of anti-football?
Not that Ukraine wrapped itself in glory, but at least Andrei Shevchenko and company ventured forward from time to time and actually tried to win the game.
Gekas was barely a factor for Greece in the first leg, and I don't think that's going to change in Donetsk. Look for the Ukrainians to unlock the Greek defence and send the euro 2004 champions packing.
Prediction: Ukraine wins 2-0 to advance to the World Cup
BOSNIA vs. PORTUGAL
Reed: Bosnia is a goal down but now has home advantage. Is your glass half full or half empty and from which side of the fence are you peering? What you don't see from the first leg result, a 1-0 win for Portugal, is the number of times the Bosnians rattled the posts and crossbar in search of an equalizer.
There's no doubt Bosnia can score in the decider — the question in my mind is whether the home team can manage the game and keep the Portuguese at bay? The lead is too slender for the visitors to sit back and soak up the pressure so they must make an effort to get forward and try to score a crucial away goal.
Both teams have enough quality up front and, in a volatile atmosphere, I believe this could be a classic game of ebb and flow. Bosnia needs an early goal to grab the psychological advantage but I'm taking Portugal to edge it in a thriller.
Prediction: 2-2 draw, Portugal advances to the World Cup
De Vos: I don't think Portugal did enough to see off Bosnia, and I fear for them.
A 1-0 lead from the first leg is tenuous at best, and if Bosnia can grab a first-half goal, the Portuguese will be pressing the panic button.
There is every reason for the Bosnians to be in confident mood, as they are more than capable of scoring at home. Edin Dzeko is the key, and the youngster will be desperate to be the hero who grabs the goals needed to ensure Bosnia's progress.
Portugal has a great deal of individual talent, but they often fail to put that together into a collective performance. However, while they struggled at home in qualifying early in the campaign, most of their results came on the road — something from which they will take confidence.
This could be the playoff series that sees one of the clear favourites missing out. Portugal will need to score to put the pressure on Bosnia to score three, but I'm going to put my money on the Bosnians to come up trumps and secure a famous upset.
Prediction: Bosnia wins 2-0 to advance to the World Cup
Molinaro: I think the Bosnians have to be feeling pretty good about themselves right about now.
Although they lost in Lisbon, they limited the damage by only conceding a single goal, and they had the Portuguese on the rack several times, only to hit the post and crossbar a few times. That should give them plenty of self-confidence headed home.
Portugal will again be without the services of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo (ankle injury), and his absence was clearly felt in Lisbon. Portugal created a lot, but they squandered chances and lacked creativity in the final third of the field. Had Ronaldo been there, there's no doubt Portugal would have capitalized on those chances and be sitting on a bigger lead right now.
The key for Portugal is to remain tight at the back, while at the same time hitting out on the counter with pace. The longer the game goes without a goal, the more Bosnia will get frustrated and gamble, and that's when they'll get punished by Portugal.
If the Portuguese can go into halftime without giving up a goal, they'll be in great position to slay the Bosnians in the final 45 minutes.
Prediction: Portugal wins 1-0 to advance to the World Cup
FRANCE vs. IRELAND
Reed: Despite a spirited performance at the weekend, the luck of the Irish is surely going to desert them in France. Failing to score at home in a two-legged playoff is a cardinal sin and this series is now France's to lose following a 1-0 win in Dublin, secured on the strength of Nicolas Anelka's late goal.
Hard work and determination only gets you so far in soccer. The Irish have it in spades but, at this level, it's simply no match for quality, which the French possess from back to front. Ireland might even score in the decider but I 'm sure France will fashion a reply too good for goalkeeper Shay Given and company.
French coach Raymond Domenech has been roundly criticized by fans and media alike but, with a World Cup berth at stake, he'll get 90 minutes grace. When it's over, and by my reckoning when France has booked its ticket to South Africa, Domenech, a keen follower of astrology, can rightly claim he had it all planned out.
Prediction: France wins 3-1 to advance to the World Cup
De Vos: The advantage of playing at a boisterous Croke Park in Dublin didn't produce any goals for the Irish, and I think that could be their undoing.
France is a better team in every position bar goalkeeper, and Given was helpless on Anelka's deflected winner in the first leg. Given will need to be superhuman to give the Irish a chance in the return leg.
France's biggest concern will be going into this game thinking the job is already done. The one thing the Irish have going for them is that they are fighters, and I expect them to throw everything they have at the French.
France can counter that by keeping possession of the ball, and the likes of Yoann Gourcuff, Lassana Diarra and Thierry Henry will be vital in that regard.
It won't be comfortable, but I think the French will have just enough to break Irish hearts.
Prediction: France wins 1-0 to advance to the World Cup
Molinaro: Well, my prediction for a 3-0 French win in the first leg didn't happen, but Les Bleus did leave Dublin with a victory and a crucial away goal under their belt.
Was there every really any doubt? To hear people talk, Croke Park was some impenetrable fortress that couldn't be breached. Yes, it is an intimidating stadium for opposing teams to visit, but the problem is that it's home to the Irish national team — not exactly a world soccer power.
Other than Robbie Keane, does Ireland have another striker that strikes fear into the hearts of opposing defenders? Can an Ireland team lacking in depth and quality stand a chance of securing a win in Saint-Denis?
The answer is no on both counts. The French were a bit fortunate to walk out of Dublin with a 1-0 victory, but that's the difference between teams such as France and Ireland — Les Bleus have enough quality and skill to earn results even when they're not at their best.
Ireland had its chance to make this series interesting. They blew it. Now it's over.
Prediction: France wins 2-0 to advance to the World Cup
SLOVENIA vs. RUSSIA
Reed: Is Dutchman Guus Hiddink losing his golden touch? What seemed a formality for the Russian coach and his team at the weekend in Moscow has been spiced up by Slovenia's late goal in a 2-1 win for the Russians. Suddenly the scales are far more even going into the decider than would have been the case had the Russians preserved the clean sheet.
The away goals rule means a 1-0 victory for Slovenia would be enough to clinch only a second World Cup appearance for the lowest ranked European survivors. The Slovenians made their Maribor stadium a fortress in the qualifiers up to this point, conceding only one goal in five home games.
But this is the moment of truth and Russia is clearly a step up in class. The visitors have the firepower lacked by previous opponents plus a goal start for the decider. I can't see much to divide these two but Russia proved at Euro 2008 they can handle the big occasion, and I believe they'll prevail once again.
Prediction: 1-1 draw, Russia advances to the World Cup
De Vos: The crucial away goal scored in the 87th minute by Nejc Pecnik could just give Slovenia the edge in this one. A 1-0 victory will be enough to see the Slovenians through to the World Cup on away goals.
If that happens, the Russians will have no one to blame but themselves. A 2-0 victory at home would have given them the cushion they needed to go into the away leg full of confidence. Now they will be on a knife 's edge knowing that they need to grab an away goal themselves to maximize their chance of going to South Africa.
Andrei Arshavin will once again be the key man for the Russians, as he has the ability to create and score goals. He will need to be more disciplined, though, after his yellow card for lashing out in frustration in the first leg nearly proved costly.
Prediction: 1-1 draw, Russia advances to the World Cup
Molinaro: Russia will be cursing itself after giving up a late goal in Moscow. But for Pecnik's tally for Slovenia, the Russians would already be making their hotel reservations for South Africa.
While that goal does give Slovenia a fighting chance in Maribor, I have to think that Russia will come out and put the host team under pressure right from the opening kickoff.
In a game such as this, experience and quality matters most, and Russia has plenty of both to peg back the Slovenians and get out of Maribor with a victory.
Arshavin will be kicking himself after earning a yellow card in Moscow, and I think an angry Arshavin is a dangerous Arshavin - something the Slovenians will learn first hand.
Prediction: Russia wins 2-0 to advance to the World Cup