February sees FIFA World Cup Qualification start up again for the new year. The North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) section begins its final stage, whilst Asia reaches the halfway point of its final round. Europe also has three early qualifiers taking place before things really click back into gear with full matchdays in March in both Europe and South America, as well as the start of the final group stage in Africa.
All matches take place on Wednesday 11th February in their local time zones. I take a look at what we’ve got to look forward to in each section below.
North, Central American and Caribbean Round Four
Matchday 1 of 10
Costa Rica vs. Honduras, San Jose
El Salvador vs. Trinidad and Tobago, San Salvador
USA vs. Mexico, Columbus
The CONCACAF zone reaches its final stage as six teams will face each other home and away for the right to compete in South Africa next year. After 10 matches the top three teams will progress automatically, while the fourth placed team will face a playoff against the fifth-placed team from the South American qualifying section.
The standout match here is the 55th meeting of USA and Mexico. Currently just four places apart in the FIFA rankings, this promises to be a close affair. However, Sven-Goran Eriksson will have to improve on a run of form which saw his Mexico side take only one point from their last three qualifiers and edge out Jamaica on goal difference in the previous stage.
The US host the match at Crew Stadium in Columbus, boasting an unbeaten record in qualifiers played there including two victories over Mexico. With the MLS currently in close season, you can expect a lot of European-based players to receive the call-up. Mexico have problems of their own with both Gerardo Torrado and Carlos Vela ruled out through suspension, having been sent off last time out in defeat against Honduras.
El Salvador host 2006 qualifiers Trinidad and Tobago as the lowest ranked team (110) left in the section, having not reached the World Cup Finals since 1982. They will rely heavily on the firepower of Rudis Corrales, who currently tops the CONCACAF scoring charts with eight goals in seven games.
The Soca Warriors look set to turn to old heads in the form of experienced due Dwight Yorke and Russel Latapy, with Sunderland’s Kenwyne Jones expected to lead the line.
The remaining match sees Costa Rica match up against Honduras, who have also not graced the Finals since 1982. They can, however, call upon new £14m man Wilson Palacios in midfield, as well as his now former teammate at Wigan, Maynor Figueroa. Costa Rica won six out of six games in the previous qualifying round and will be looking to use home advantage to achieve a good start to the final round.
Asia Round Four
Matchday 5 of 10
Japan vs. Australia, Yokohama, Group 1
Uzbekistan vs. Bahrain, Tashkent, Group 1
Iran vs. Korea Republic, Tehran, Group 2
DPR Korea vs. Saudi Arabia, Pyongyang, Group 2
Australia travel to Yokohama to face Japan in the biggest match of the round, with the teams currently comfortably placed in first and second position in Group 1. With the top two teams qualifying automatically, there is little threat of either missing out, although Japan could start to sweat if they were to lose. Conversely, a victory would see them leapfrog the Socceroos into pole position.
The second match in Group 1 pits the bottom two teams as Uzbekistan host Bahrain. Both only have a solitary point to show for their efforts from the first three games but have contested close games against Japan and Australia, Uzbekistan even picking up a 1-1 draw against Japan in Saitama.
A win for either would see them contest for third place in the group, leading to a contest against the third-placed team in Group 2, with the winners of that facing a playoff against New Zealand to reach South Africa.
Group 2 sees DPR Korea play Saudi Arabia with both teams well poised on four points after three games. Saudi Arabia are looking to qualify for the fifth consecutive time, whereas DPR Korea are seeking qualification for the first time since 1966.
The remaining match in the Asian zone pits Iran against South Korea. The Koreans travel to Tehran currently top of Group 2 and chasing their seventh consecutive qualification. Victory for Iran would see them lead the group at the halfway stage and well on course to reach the finals for the third time in their last four attempts.
Malta vs. Albania, Ta’Qali, Group 1
San Marino vs. Northern Ireland, Serravalle, Group 3
Ireland Republic vs. Georgia, Dublin, Group 8
European qualifying sees just three matches with all other nations contesting friendlies. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are in action, the former travelling to minnows San Marino in Group 3 seeking a repeat of the 4-0 victory they enjoyed at Windsor Park back in October.
Meanwhile, the Trapattoni’s Republic side face the sterner test of Georgia in Group 8, but with home advantage they will be expected to extend their unbeaten start against opponents still searching for their first win of the campaign and ranked over 60 places below them.
The third match is in Group 1 with Malta hosting Albania.
(All FIFA Rankings correct as of 30th January 2009; next update of rankings is on 11th February 2009.)