Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Mon 16 November 2009

World Cup Round-up: Play-offs and more

Europe

With four places left to be filled, the eight best runners-up from the group stage took to the field on Saturday to kick-off the first leg of the European play-offs.

In Dublin, Ireland battled tenaciously against the visiting French team but somewhat frustrating played true to form, i.e. they didn't score many (not any, as it turned out) and couldn't grab the win either. The final result was a 1-0 win to France, the goal coming from Nicolas Anelka whose 72nd minute goal took a big deflection off Sean St. Ledger and then Shay Given's left post.

The Irish will have a mountain to climb in Paris this Wednesday as draws seem to be their speciality these days, but a draw won't be good enough to swing this tie in their favour. Hard-working Giovanni Trapattoni's men might be, but they'll need to improve on their goalscoring capabilities if they're to reach South Africa next year.

In Lisbon, Portugal earned a 1-0 lead of their own to take into the second leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina this Wednesday. With Cristiano Ronaldo watching the match from the stands due to injury, Portugal had to rely on stand-in Nani along with other experienced players like Deco for support and it proved enough in the end – albeit only just.

Portugal had much of the possession throughout the match but could have won by a far higher margin had they been more efficient in the final third of the pitch. Eventually it was down to Porto defender Bruno Alves to get the winning goal in the 31st minute and though the Portuguese will be pleased to have stopped Bosnia-Herzegovina getting an away goal, they'll find it hard to retain that advantage in two days' time.

Everton's Dinyar Bilyaletdinov put Russia in the driving seat having scored either side of the interval in their game against Slovenia on Saturday. Guus Hiddink's side looked solid and professional for the greater part but crucially took their foot off the gas going into the closing minutes, allowing Nejc Pecnik to grab a vital away goal for the Slovenians.

Were it not for that lapse in concentration, Russia could have been home and dried heading into the second leg, but some fervent support and a gifted set of players in Slovenia could make their charge towards South Africa that bit more arduous.

Finally in Europe, Greece played Ukraine at the Olympic Stadium, Athens and the final score there was 0-0. It was, so we're told, quite a dull game with neither side showing many of the qualities needed to do well when the Finals roll around. We're optimistic that the second leg will be different, however, as Greece go on the attack in Kiev to get that valuable away goal advantage.

Asia / Oceania Play-Off (2nd Leg)

The Cake Tin was full, the scene was set and with it New Zealand and Bahrain played out Part 2 of their decider to see who'd take their place at the 2010 World Cup Finals.

Last month, the first leg of this tie finished 0-0 in what's generally being regarded as one of the dullest games seen by anyone in recent memory. Truth be known, this rematch could have ended up the same way but fortunately for the neutral onlooker, New Zealand came out looking like they wanted a holiday in South Africa next year more than their opponents.

In front of a 35,194 capacity crowd at the Westpac Stadium (or 'Cake Tin' as the locals call it), the All Whites came out on Saturday knowing that a goal for Bahrain would immediately give them the away goal advantage, therefore a goal of there own was vitally important. In the end (and after some good, positive football), Ricki Herbert's men took the lead just before half-time thanks to a header by Rory Fallon.

Herbert, who played for New Zealand the last time they qualified for the World Cup in 1982, had obviously organised his team to go in search of goals and to their credit they created several chances to improve on Fallon's opener. Only the crossbar and some good goalkeeping by Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Jaffer prevented New Zealand extending their lead, but they were nearly made to rue their missed chances.

Five minutes into the second half, Tony Lochhead brought down Abdulla Ismaeel in the penalty area and Bahrain had their chance to equalise, but Sayed Mohamed Adnan's weak spot kick was easily saved by the excellent Mark Paston in the NZ goal.

From that point on, Bahrain looked like a team with little to offer in the way of decent attacking football and New Zealand were largely untroubled on their way to the final whistle. When it came, the stadium erupted as the All Whites celebrated qualification to only their second World Cup ever, and certainly on the basis of this match it was very well deserved.

South America / North & Central America Play-Off

Not much to say here, other than the fact that Uruguay travelled to Costa Rica and beat their opponents 1-0 in San Jose. Fenerbahce defender and Uruguayan captain Diego Lugano scored the only goal of the game in the 21st minute for the South Americans. Costa Rica, meanwhile, had to play much of the game with only ten men after Randall Azofeifa was sent off for a second bookable offence, but by that stage they were already a goal down and playing well below par.

The second leg is therefore all set to be an exhibition of Uruguayan defending and occasional counter-attacking when the chance arises as they aim to book their place among the final 32. Nothing short of a major upset is required if Costa Rica want to change all that.

Africa

Finally to the Dark Continent where we thought we'd establish the last three qualifying countries by the time Saturday's games were over. How wrong we were. We now know two of them while the third will remain a mystery until this Wednesday.

In Group A, Cameroon did what everyone expected and finished top of their group after a 2-0 win away to Morocco. It's strange to think that the Moroccans threw their hat into the ring when it came to the bidding rights for the 2010 World Cup, yet like the eventual winners South Africa, we now find them at something of a low ebb in their fortunes. Achille Webo and Samuel Eto'o were on hand with the goals to ensure Cameroon reach their sixth consecutive World Cup – a record for an African country.

Group B offered something extra in the way of suspense. Going into the final pair of games, Tunisia led the group but had to win their last game away to Mozambique in order to qualify. Nigeria, second in the group behind Tunisia, had to win in Kenya and hope for the best.

With eight minutes remaining in both games, Tunisia were holding out for a 0-0 while Nigeria had equalised for a second time in Nairobi to make it 2-2. Tunisia looked to be going through, but a minute later, it was all change. In Maputo, Dario had put the home side 1-0 up against the Tunisians while in Kenya, Obafemi Martins was scoring his second of the day and Nigeria's third to go 3-2 up. And that was the way it stayed until the final whistle went – Tunisia were out and Nigeria were through. An amazing turnaround in fortunes and one which sees Nigeria reach their fourth World Cup while the Tunisians are left with much soul-searching to do in the days to come.

And finally to Group C where Algeria and Egypt had a straight fight to the death to see who'd make the trip to the other end of the continent next summer. Before the game, Algeria led the group knowing that a three-goal defeat to the Egyptians would see their dreams end in tatters. Scoring even a single goal would be the first priority for Algeria while a 2-0 win to Egypt would see both teams end the campaign exactly level on points, goal difference, goals scored and on their head-to-head record.

Just three minutes after kick off, Wigan's Amr Zaki opened the scoring for Egypt in front of a boisterous home crowd. Algeria regained their composure and created several chances of their own but it was to little effect. The score remained 1-0 as the game wore on and it seemed Egypt's chances of bagging a vital second were slipping away. That was until the fifth minute of injury time at the end of the game when Emad Meteab popped up with almost the last kick of the game to end the match 2-0 to Egypt.

And so it was that both teams finished exactly level in the group, thereby forcing a replay in Sudan to be put in place for this Wednesday. Pretty remarkable stuff, and probably not the last of the amazing football we'll see between these two sides as the prospect of extra time and penalties looms large in two days' time.

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