After Saturday tossed up a schedule of almost exclusively bad international matchups across the world, Wednesday’s World Cup qualifiers actually feature more than a few matches folks might actually want to see. Let’s start in of all places, Asia.
North Korea v . South Korea in Shanghai – Now this is a politically charged matchup. This match was moved from Pyongyang following North Korea’s refusal to fly the flag and play the anthem of its southern neighbor. From a purely soccer perspective, this shouldn’t even be that close as South Korea is full of pros including five likely starters who play in the “Big 5” European leagues. That said, North Korean teams have been known to attempt to kick opponents into submission but I suspect South Korea will still get the win. I’ve got to do the unthinkable here and give full credit to Fox Soccer Channel for picking up the rights to this match and showing it live today. Prediction – 2-0, South Korea.
Now let’s move on to Europe, where there are more than a few interesting matches today.
Moldova v. Israel – Israel has always been my favorite underdog team in UEFA, always managing to pull off credible results against good teams and then blowing winnable matches against minnows. After a very respectable 2-2 draw with the Swiss at home, this is precisely the kind of match the Israelis usually lose. If the Israelis want to qualify for their first major tournament since 1970, they’ll need to get three points today in Chisnau. Will they? Doubtful. Prediction – 0-0.
Turkey v. Belgium – A potentially competitive match if the Belgians can deal with the unbelievably hostile atmosphere in Istanbul. In a group that also includes Spain, every match between the big three of this group should be an absolute war as one of these three decent teams won’t even make the playoffs. Turkey’s coach Fatih Terim (ex of Inter) is too good of manager to let his side overlook the Belgians, even though this version of Belgium is vastly inferior to the one that qualified for six-straight World Cups between 1982 and 2002. Prediction – 3-1, Turkey.
Croatia v. England – The hype has been intolerable for this potential revenge match for the English against the team knocked them out of Euro 2008 qualifying. Will England finally play like a team made up of 11 world-beating lions as the media would have you believe they are? Or will England play like a team of eight or nine decent players plus one or two stars that always tend to blow it on the big occasion. The answer to that is simple. They’ll blow it. I think Fabio Capello is a brilliant manager and his results prove that out. But there simply isn’t enough talent out there, especially with Wayne Rooney tiptoeing around like a man who doesn’t want to get hurt and miss any United matches. Capello now says that his players play better on the road, away from England’s jeering fans. I am not inclined to believe that. That said, if England can get three points in Zagreb, it really does make their path to the tournament easier. As long as they don’t do anything stupid, a win today would go a long ways towards making their final match in Kiev likely a meaningless one. But I am profoundly underwhelmed by England’s choices at forward with Gabby Agbonlahor left on the U21s. What more does have to do to get in the squad ahead of decrepit has-beens like Owen? Croatia are pretty much unchanged from the side that impressed so many in Euro 2008. Luca Modric has struggled settling in at Spurs, but with his national team on home soil, I expect him to make life very difficult for his likely marker Gareth Barry and the rest of England. I suspect it’ll be crisis time again for England. Prediction – 2-0 Croatia.
In South America, we’ll know a lot more about how the teams stand after today’s matches when Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Columbia gain back their match in hand over leaders Paraguay. That said, no matter what happens tonight, Paraguay will end the day atop the standings by two points. Brazil and Argentina should win comfortably at home to Bolivia and at Peru, respectively. From purely a competition point of view, Ecuador’s visit to Uruguay may go a long way towards sorting out the final automatic spot and the fifth place berth in playoff with Concacaf. Prediction – wins for Brazil and Argentina and draws in the other two matches.
Finally we move down to Concacaf, where in Group 1, it’s hard to see any surprises between the US and Trinidad and Guatemala and Cuba. I expect the USA and Guatemala, both at home tonight, to win as comfortably as Concacaf conditions and Bob Bradley’s soporific tactics allow. The same goes for Group 2 where both Mexico and Honduras should win at home and solidify their hold on the two qualifying spots. Things could be more unpredictable in Group 3, where the leaders Costa Rica and El Salvador have to go on the road to Haiti and Surinam respectively. An upset by either underdog could throw this group wide open. That said, I suspect the best the neutral observer can hope for is a tie by Suriname.
But back to the USA for a moment. If the US chucks out the same slop we’ve seen in the first two matches, it’s legitimately time to get concerned over the final round of qualifying. We’ve seen in the past in “the hex,” how just a few bad results (especially at home) can turn what should be comfortable stroll to South Africa into a mind-bogglingly stressful endeavor. At the minimum, the USA should win by two goals. I, for one, will not accept anything less than that. It’s time for the USA finally to impose itself on an opponent. If you can’t do it at home against T&T, then there are serious problems that need to be addressed. That said, I am going to give Bob the benefit of the doubt here. Prediction – 3-0, USA.