UEFA World Cup Playoff Predictions

Michael LeClair

The 32-team field for South Africa 2010 is almost set, with World Cup Qualifying set to wrap up on November 18. Nine spots are left to be filled, and four of those will be secured through the UEFA Playoff Round, where eight teams will play in home-and-away aggregate goal series to determine the qualifiers. Here, I will analyze and predict the four matches.

Republic of Ireland – France

France comes into this game absolutely reeling. The 2006 World Cup runners-up finished second in Group 7 behind Serbia, a hugely disappointing finish for Les Bleus, who have still never found a playmaker to replace Zinedine Zidane. Their manager, Raymond Domenech, has come under fire from all angles for his perceived mismanagement of his team. Domenech was booed at the Paris Masters tennis tournament earlier this week, and Ireland defender Richard Dunne, adding bulletin board material to this matchup, described Domenech as just the latest in a string of French managers who are “intent on messing them up.”

Ireland, on the other hand, are looking to conclude a remarkable qualifying campaign on a positive note. Under Italian manager Giovanni Trapattoni, the Irish went undefeated in Group 8, but their six draws put them in second in the group behind defending World Cup winners Italy. Led by Tottenham striker Robbie Keane and Manchester City goalkeeper Shay Given, the Irish have a strong enough attack and fabulous defending, scoring 12 goals in their 10 group matches, while allowing just 8.

Prediction: Robbie Keane nets two at Croke Park on Saturday, giving Ireland a 2-0 win. Thierry Henry gets one for the French at the Stade-de-France on Wednesday, but they can’t grab a second. Ireland wins, 2-1.

Portugal – Bosnia and Herzegovina

Portugal, like France, endured a terrible start to qualifying, and had to win their final three matches just to make the playoff. Under former MetroStars manager Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese have looked disjointed, a mere shadow of the team that made the semifinals in Germany three years ago. Their star and captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, will miss out on the playoff due to injury, a huge blow to the Portugal attack. In order for Portugal to make it to South Africa, they will need Simão, Nani, and Hugo Almeida to step up in a big way over the next two matches.

Bosnia is a big unknown on the international stage, never having qualified for a major tournament, and with players on the squad who play their club football in Cyprus, Croatia, and Iran, not the home of the greatest clubs in the world. In order for Bosnia to make their presence known, they will have to rely heavily on Edin D??eko, who finished second in the German Bundesliga last year with 26 goals, as well as Zlatan Muslimovi?c, who has 13 goals in 19 appearances for his country.

Prediction: Portugal simply has too much quality for the Bosnians to handle. Portugal will win 3-0 in Lisbon, before coasting to a draw in Bosnia. Portugal wins, 4-1.

Greece – Ukraine

Greece should already be qualified for the World Cup, but a 1-1 draw in Moldova in September cost the Greeks two valuable points, as they finished group play one point behind winners Switzerland. Despite how close they already came to qualification, they are far from a guarantee to win this series. The team boasts no real international stars, with their best player, Celtic striker Georgios Samaras, the not-so-proud owner of just five goals in 29 appearances for the Greeks. Greece usually boasts a strong defense, but allowing home goals to Luxembourg and Latvia shows that their once-strong armor is cracking.

On the other side, we have Ukraine, who made their playoff qualification possible with a dramatic 1-0 win over previously unbeaten England in October. The Ukrainian squad boasts seven players who play at Shakhtar Donestk, last year’s UEFA Cup winners. They are led by striker and captain Andriy Shevchenko, who, though much maligned for his club play over the past two years, has not seen his international game slip in the slightest. Shevchenko finished second in Group 6 in goals with six, behind only England’s Wayne Rooney.

Prediction: The two teams fight to a 0-0 draw in Athens on Saturday, before Shevchenko explodes in Donestk on Wednesday, netting a hat-trick before Greece makes it interesting with two goals, but it will not be enough. Ukraine wins, 3-2.

Russia – Slovenia

Russia boasts significant star power, from the manager on down. Led by Guus Hiddink, the Russians have a large skill advantage over Slovenia, ranked 49th in the world. From CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, widely regarded as one of the best young keepers in the world, to Arsenal striker Andrei Arshavin up top, the Russians possess world-class players throughout their roster. They missed out on qualification from the group stages only because they had the misfortune of being drawn in the same group as Germany, a side many predict will be hoisting the World Cup Trophy next July.

Slovenia is the Cinderella story of these playoffs, and many hope to see them qualify for their first World Cup since 2002. Their group stage performance was the product of a weak group, with winners Slovakia not among the world’s best, and third-place finishers, the Czech Republic, have lost some of their luster in recent years. That said, Slovenia has an incredibly stingy defense, and that will have to hold up against the potency of attackers like Arshavin over the two legs.

Prediction: Slovenia’s defense simply won’t hold up. Arshavin has been playing like a man possessed since his move to Arsenal, and that will only continue in this crucial playoff. Russia will win both legs outright without too much effort. Russia wins, 5-1.

Contact Michael LeClair at [email protected]