South Africa Beckons: The Road To 2010 World Cup Starts Here

Nick JohnstonCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2008

Whilst it seems as though we've only just finished Euro 2008, the road to South Africa begins in earnest this weekend for European nations.

With 53 competing nations and 13 places up for grabs, qualifying runs from August 20th to October 14th next year. So let's have a look at the big matches coming up over the next week.

There are nine groups in total, with all group winners qualifying for 2010 and the eight best runners-up going into a playoff for the last four spots.

Numbers in brackets represent world ranking as of September 3rd.


Group 1 

Portugal (9), Sweden (31), Denmark (36), Hungary (50), Albania (102) and Malta (133).

The two favourites, Portugal and Sweden, start off with what should be relatively easy fixtures, away to Malta and Albania respectively. But for the Danes, a trip to Hungary will not prove easy, but it is the kind of match they have to win if they are to qualify.

On Wednesday, Portugal face their first test under Carlos Queiroz, playing at home against Denmark, without star player Cristiano Ronaldo.

I predict two wins for Sweden and Portugal, with Denmark picking up just one point in Budapest, but this looks like a groups that could go all the way into next October.


Group 2

Greece (18), Israel (19), Switzerland (43), Moldova (48), Latvia (63), Luxembourg (152)

An interesting group, as none of these sides rank inside the top 13 from Europe (Greece are 15th), yet at least one will qualify for the World Cup finals.

Israel host Switzerland and will be looking to deprive the Euro 2008 hosts any points from this opening encounter. Greece, however, will look for nothing less than six points from games away to Luxembourg and Latvia.


Group 3

Czech Republic (8), Poland (30), Northern Ireland (32), Slovakia (67), Slovenia (79), San Marino (200)

Surely, this is just a battle for second place between Poland and Northern Ireland, with the Czechs likely to be too strong for the rest of the field.

Northern Ireland start with a tough away game in Slovakia, followed by the visit of the Czech Republic, who don't play this weekend. Poland host Slovenia and travel to San Marino, which should see them sitting pretty with two wins from two by next week.

Northern Ireland will be pleased to avoid defeat in their first two games, and if David Healy can rediscover his from from Euro 2008 qualifying, just about anything is possible.


Group 4

Germany (3), Russia (12), Finland (42), Wales (53), Liechtenstein (130), Azerbaijan (138)

For me, this group is already decided. Germany will top it, followed by Russia, who will make it through the playoffs, barring a horrible draw.

Germany start away to Liechtenstein and then Finland, whilst Russia play host to the Welsh next week. Both Germany and Russia will expect to win these contests, especially with their upcoming clash next month.


Group 5

Spain (1), Turkey (10), Belgium (55), Bosnia-Herzegovina (75), Armenia (98), Estonia (128)

As with Group 4, this group should be sewn up already, with Spain to top and Turkey second. Spain start by hosting Bosnia and then Armenia. Turkey travel to Armenia, before a home clash with Belgium.

Both of these teams should take six points from six, regardless of any injuries (Torres, Kahveci, Hamit Altıntop) and are unlikely to be troubled in the long run by the other four nations.


Group 6

Croatia (5), England (15), Ukraine (26), Belarus (57), Kazakhstan (120), Andorra (186)

One of the most exciting groups, with three teams fighting for top spot. England under Fabio Capello are an unknown quantity, which could work either way for them.

Whilst England start away to Andorra and Croatia host Kazakhstan, both expecting no less than a comfortable win, things should be slightly tougher for Ukraine, who host Belarus.

But, the key clash in the next week comes on Wednesday, with England travelling to Croatia. Having lost home and away against them in Euro 2008 qualifying, a draw should please the English.


Group 7

France (11), Romania (13), Serbia (33), Lithuania (54), Austria (101), Faroe Islands (198)

As above, there are three teams with a chance of winning, but unlike Group 6, there is a clear favourite in the shape of France. Whilst they lost home and away to Scotland in Euro 2008 qualifying, and struggled in Euro 2008, they are still are very strong side and should expect to win the group.

They start by travelling to Austria, before hosting Serbia on Wednesday. Six points are a must, with Romania likely to match that, hosting Lithuania before a trip to the Faroe Islands.


Group 8

Italy (2), Bulgaria (16), Republic of Ireland (38), Cyprus (65), Georgia (77), Montenegro (136)

Italy are clearly favourites for this group, but both Bulgaria and Ireland will see this group as a real chance to get into the World Cup.

Italy travel to Cyprus before hosting Georgia, whilst the Irish play Georgia in Germany, before visiting Montenegro. Both sides will look for six points under new managers, Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni respectively.

Bulgaria have just one fixture, away to Montenegro, and should look to win it. But, it's unlikely that all three will get through the first week unscathed.


Group 9

Netherlands (4), Scotland (16), Norway (34), FYR Macedonia (56), Iceland (107)

Whilst the Netherlands should be a lock for this group, Scotland must see this as their best chance to qualify for their first international tournament in 12 years. Having pushed Italy and France all the way in Euro 2008 qualifying, a similar performance is expected.

The opening spell of fixtures sees Macedonia host Scotland and then Netherlands, which should prove to be tough tests for both sides. Scotland then travel to Iceland for Wednesday's game, which should mean three points for the Scots.

Hopefully, Scotland's South African dream will still be alive on September 9th next year, when they host the Dutch.


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