It's been a while since I wrote about football, and in the meantime there've been several more qualifying rounds for the World Cup in South Africa 2010. In fact, the current round is the final one for many groups, so most qualifying places will be decided.
The biggest story in the last few rounds has probably been the downfall of Argentina. A while ago I commented that Diego Maradona was making himself an example of the truism that a great player does not necessarily make a competent coach. That's been borne out, as Maradona's naiive tactics and haphazard selection have been factors in the position that Argentina find themselves in now, at some risk of not qualifying.
In this part of the world, there's been sudden interest in the fact that New Zealand is, improbably, still in the hunt for a World Cup place, after a most fortunate 0-0 draw away in Bahrain, but that's a topic for another post.
Also of note, the last round of games look to have ended the possibility of no fewer than four countries from the former Yugoslavia qualifying for South Africa, but even with Croatia having slipped, three of them (Bosnia Herzegovinia, Serbia, and Slovenia) are still in the hunt.
A few rounds ago, Argentina were near the top of the qualifying group, but things have gone from bad to worse since Diego took over. When I was in Peru, we listened on a static-ridden radio at the bottom of the Colca Canyon as Ecuador comfortably beat them 2-0 in Quito. In the next double header, Brazil exposed the defensive naiivety of Maradona's team, winning 3-1 away, which was followed by Paraguay cruising to a 1-0 result in Asunción and confirming their own qualification.
Meanwhile, abject Peru did all its Andean neighbours a favour by losing successively to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, while sandwiching in an improbable home win over Uruguay. In the most recent round, they gave the Argentinians a scare by equalising late in the game, before 36 year-old Martin Palermo snuck a 90th-minute winner (apparently offisde), to take the game 2-1 and leave his team on 25 points, clinging to 4th spot. Meanwhile, Chile confirmed its spot with a 4-2 away in Bogota that shuts Colombia out of qualifying.
Wednesday's round of games will be nail-biting: Argentina play Uruguay in Montevideo, and just need a draw to secure a spot. They can only be overtaken if Ecuador manage to win away against Chile by more than four goals. If Argentina loses, they will be out if Ecuador win. Venezuela can still sneak into the playoff if they beat Brazil and Ecuador lose.
In the North American zone, Mexico and the United States have predictably qualified, while Costa Rica and Honduras will contest the final spot, with the loser in a playoff against one of Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador or Venezuela.
Africa and Asia
In two of the final African qualifying groups, Ghana and Cote D'Ivoire, both of whom I fancy to do well in South Africa, have confirmed their places. In the other groups, it's going to go down to the wire between Egypt and Algeria, Nigeria and Tunisia, and Cameroon and Gabon.
Qualifying in Asia ended a while back, with Australia, South Korea, and Japan predictably confirming their places. North Korea also makes a first finals appearance since their remarkable run in 1966. The remaining place is of course up for dispute between Bahrain and New Zealand, to be decided on 14 November.
The Netherlands, Spain and England confirmed their places in the last round, and this round Germany, Italy, Denmark and Serbia have joined them. Bosnia-Herzegovinia, Ireland, Russia and France will feature in the playoffs, and Ukraine will almost certainly join them, after Ukraine's 1-0 win at home against England meant that they only have to win in Andorra to shut out Croatia. Groups which still have something riding on Wednesday's final games include:
Group 1: Portugal, the team I follow, have manged to drag themselves back from the brink in the last few rounds with a last-gasp winner against Albania, followed by home and away wins over Hungary, while Denmark did them a huge favour by beating Sweden 1-0. Portugal now just has to beat Malta at home to secure a playoff spot.
Group 2: Switzerland is top, three points ahead of Greece, but Greece's last game is a probable win against Luxembourg, meaning that Switzerland needs at least a draw at home against Israel to qualify. Israel looks out, as they would have to beat Switzerland and have Luxembourg hold Greece to a draw.
Group 3: perhaps the most interesting. Slovakia are top, and guaranteed at least a playoff place, but second-placed Slovenia are only two points behind, with equivalent goal difference, and in their last game should comfortably beat San Marino, meaning that Slovakia really have to win away in Poland, otherwise Slovenia will leapfrog them to an automatic qualifying spot. Realistically, Northern Ireland and the Czech Republic now have no chance of qualifying.