After a weekend of thrilling matches and league-changing transfers, the good people at FIFA have decided to plug in two World Cup Qualifying matches and international friendlies. Although I do not want to get on a tangent, doesn’t this feel like a weird time to have World Cup Qualifiers? The club season is starting for the European clubs and the Central and South American clubs, Major League Soccer is entering its playoff stretch, and even the prominent Asian league teams are just starting. Although I know time is fleeting during the summer to complete these matches, perhaps if FIFA is looking into changing the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter when they schedule these matches should also be looked into. Just a thought.
That being said, there are plenty of intriguing matches to watch on Friday. So far only 5 teams have qualified for next year’s World Cup (Australia, Brazil, Iran, Japan, and South Korea) and very few clubs have been eliminated… One of the great things about the explosion soccer on television is that many of these matches are readily available to watch on the television dial or on your computer. So here are the matches to watch out for (Please note: The matches listed are only a few of the games that will be played this weekend. Also, I did not include England versus Moldova because England should crush them and that does not seem terribly interesting. If you are interested in any other matches, check out the Washington Post weekend soccer guide
Matches You Will Most Likely Be Watching
U.S.A. v Costa Rica (10pm beIN Sport)
I almost put this match in the “Matches You Will Want to Scour the Internet For” since it is being played on beIN SPORT, an upstart sports channel that is funded by the al Jazeera television network. I have very limited experience with beIN SPORT, but from the few times that I have watched over “legal” feeds it reminds me a lot of Fox Soccer Channel when it first started. Pretty low-tech coverage, but their announcers were very good for the Jamaica match in June. And yes for those are wondering Former U.S. Men’s National Team player and current beIN SPORT commentator Cobi Jones still has dreadlocks.
The United States comes into this match with no pressure at all. Having won their past twelve matches in all competitions, including 3 of their past 4 CONCACAF Qualifying, they do not need to necessarily win this match. The U.S. has not won in its past 7 matches in Costa Rica and will face a team that is still angry at the snowmageddon match in February, where the United States beat Costa Rica in Colorado. With 13 points already and an easy win coming up next month at home to Jamaica, all the United States needs to do is get 1-3 points in the next two matches to qualify for Brazil.
For Costa Rica, three points would put them in the same position that the United States currently sits in: they would not qualify, but they would essentially be a lock. The Tica’s do not have another easy match in qualifying with two road matches with Jamaica and Honduras, and a match at home with Mexico so a point with the U.S. is essential. The player to watch out for in this match is Alvaro Saborio. The Real Salt Lake midfielder has been in top form in MLS recently and should pick apart the shaky U.S. backline.
Mexico v Honduras (8pm ESPNNews)
There are very few matches during this international date that will matter more than Mexico-Honduras. Both teams are fighting for the third and fourth spots in CONCACAF. With Mexico leading Honduras by two points, it would appear that they are the odds-on favorite to advance (4th place goes into a two-game playoff with New Zealand, who won the Oceania Football Confederation tournament.) This Honduras team is also loaded with European club players like Defender Maynor Figueroa (Hull City,) Midfielders Andy Najar (Anderlecht Roger Espinoza (Wigan,) and Wilson Palacios (Stoke City.) Throughout this competition, the smaller countries in CONCACAF have shown how much they have improved both tactically and their skill level. Honduras has taken their experiences both at the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics and developed a solid defense who can deliver decisive blows on the counter-attack. This is a very dangerous team.
The other reason why this match is important is that it may be the last match for Mexico head coach Jose de la Torre. Mexico has not been playing well in the past few games, going winless at the Estadio Azteca (the home of the Mexican National Team) in this round of qualifying, not advancing through the Group Stage of the Confederations Cup, and bottoming out of the Gold Cup in the semi-finals to Panama. While Javier Hernandez has looked very good, the rest of their team has been disorganized with sloppy possession on the attack and poor challenges on defense. In particular, Midfielder Giovanni dos Santos has been a disappointment. While they did just pull off a 4-1 victory over the Ivory Coast last month in a friendly, it does not erase the flaws of this team. We may see another upset on Friday night
Uruguay v Peru (10:30 PM, beIN Sport Spanish)
Simply put, this is it for Uruguay. A team who came within a whisker of the 2010 World Cup Final has looked generally pretty poor this time, getting beaten by Bolivia 5-1 in La Paz Bolivia and drawing to Paraguay at home. With three matches coming up against Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador, they need to demolish Peru in this match if they have any hope of either Qualifying for the final spot in the CONMEBOL Confederation (the Confederation that represents South America,) or to making it into a two-game playoff with the winner of the Asian playoff.
A quick note on the Peruvian team: if you are a Major League Soccer, or in particular a fan of F.C. Dallas, make sure to check out Peruvian Goalkeeper Raul Fernandez. Having watched him all season for F.C. Dallas I can tell that he is certainly on form and will make it difficult for Uruguay. Peru, while technically still in the running for fourth and fifth place, is looking to build off of this performance and further enhance their fledgling program. The Incas finished third in the 2011 Copa America, and have had some pretty impressive victories during this round of World Cup Qualification, beating Chile twice and Ecuador at home. However, they still have two matches on the road against Argentina and Venezuela which are no easy tasks. If they can get points off of this match and at home against Bolivia on the 15th of October, they might just make the playoff spot.
Games Worth Taking a Long Lunchbreak/Happy Hour For On Friday
Italy v Bulgaria (5PM, Univision Deportes)
Italy could secure themselves a spot in Brazil if they can defeat the Lions of Bulgaria. This should be a high scoring match; the two clubs have combined for 23 goals in Group B during qualifying. In their first match, a 2-2 draw in September of last year, the Bulgarians proved to be a very difficult opponent for Italy, breaking down a normally stout Italian defense for two quality goals from Stanoslav Manolev (PSV Eindhoven,) and Georgi Milanov (CSKA Moscow.) Although Bulgaria plays a very tough defensive style, they have always been known for developing skillful midfielders and attackers. The player to watch out for in this match is Ivelin Popov the captain who plays club football for Kuban Krasnodor in the Russian Premier League. He is a highly skilled attacking midfielder who can cut through defenses with precise, accurate passes and can make his own shot off of crosses.
Nonetheless, the Italians should be able to match any Bulgarian attack with their own set of quality strikers. With a club that features the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, and Mario Balotelli you should expect a team that can score goals with relative ease. Balotelli seems to finally have found his rhythm with the Azzuri, scoring three goals in World Cup Qualifying and 5 goals in all competitions this year. And of course, they have the legendary Gigi Buffon in goal, which put on one of the best performances I have ever seen in the FIFA Confederations Cup this past summer. This is one of the most talented teams in international soccer right now and they should qualify for Brazil within the next two matches.
Croatia v Serbia (2:45 ESPN3)
This match is not for the faint of heart. While many World Cup Qualifying matches feature teams that have very little history with one another, this match is nothing but history. For those of you that do not remember your World History: both Serbia and Croatia were originally a part of the country formerly known as Yugoslavia. In the early 1990’s Yugoslavia broke up and violent conflicts between the different ethnic groups (Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and eventually Kosovars) started up. Although tensions in the Balkans have lessened, these ethnic groups still do not get along on the soccer pitch. Matches are routinely abandoned and riots are very common. The first leg of this match, a 2-0 victory for Croatia in Zagreb, was actually quite peaceful. But with this match being played in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia things may be different.
Instead of worrying about their history, Serbia should be focused on the plight of their current squad. To say that their current form has been disappointing is an understatement. Having lost to Macedonia and been drubbed 5-0 at home to Belgium, Serbia cannot qualify directly for the World Cup and must run the table with their last three matches to have any hope of making it to Brazil. The Serbs are currently 9 points behind Croatia for the second spot in Group A, with matches coming against Macedonia and Wales. Croatia still has to play Belgium at home and Scotland on the road which is why Serbia still has a chance to make it to the playoffs. But first they will have to beat Croatia.
The club will be playing a mostly young squad with only two players over the age of 30 on the squad (Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic and Defender Milan Bisevac.) The Serbian defense should provide quite the challenge for. Defenders Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandr Kolarov, Matija Nastasic, and Neven Subotic all feature regularly for Chelsea, Manchester City, and Borussia Dortmund. Croatia will need their attacking duo of Eduardo da Silva and Mario Mandzukic, who 2 goals each during Qualifying, to step up and help bury their rivals.
Sweden v Republic of Ireland (2:45PM GolTV)
Germany v Austria (2:40PM Univision, ESPN3)
With all due respect to the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan, Qualification in Group C has always been a four horse race. While one would assume that Germany would be leading the pack by a wide margin, the other three contenders (Austria, The Republic of Ireland, and Sweden) have all proven to be difficult opponents for the Germans. Sweden in particular, gave the Germans fits on defense in the 4-4 draw in Munich. With Germany leading the group with 16 points, and the other three teams tied with 11, the Germans could essentially win the group by beating Austria on Friday. The Germans still have an automatic three points against the Faroe Islands coming up and will have the Republic of Ireland at home in October.
Out of the other three teams vying for the second-place playoff berth, the Irish have the most difficult road ahead. Although they are tied with Sweden and Austria on points they are behind in goal differential by 2 (Sweden) and 8 (Austria) goals respectively. They also do not have any more matches against the Faroe Islands and will need to beat Sweden at home on Friday and get points on the road at either Austria or Germany. The 6-1 clobbering that the Republic of Ireland received at the hands of Germany and their 2-2 draw at home to Austria have nearly killed their World Cup campaign.
I have been really impressed with the work that Austria has put on during their last few matches. A team that seemed like it bottomed out during the 2012 European Championship Qualifiers, they have come back to life during this campaign, defeating Sweden and nearly getting a result from Germany. Their team has been led by Bayern Munich striker David Alaba, who has scored 4 goals in the tournament, including a critical goal that allowed them to get a result in Dublin against Ireland. If Austria can either get a result, or keep the game within reason, against Germany then they can set themselves up to make a run for either first or second place in the group.
Match Worth Scouring the Internet For
Jordan v Uzbekistan (Noon This is on a channel called One World Sports. I have no idea what that is, and chances 99% of Americans do not have it.)
I nearly chose the Ghana vs Zambia World Cup Qualifier but I am not even sure if that is being televised in Africa, let alone a feed from a T.V. Channel in some distant country. Which is a real shame because both Ghana and Zambia are very good teams. Having watched plenty of African football during the African Cup of Nations, I hope that more of their matches will be covered in the future.
The match between Jordan and Uzbekistan is interesting because the winner will play the fifth-place team CONMEBOL, which will in all likelihood be Uruguay or Venezuela. While one would think that the Asian teams would be at a disadvantage that is not always the case. Often with different styles and time and temperature changes you get interesting results like Australia defeating Uruguay to advance to the 2006 World Cup or Costa Rica nearly defeating Uruguay to enter the 2010 World Cup. So this match between Jordan and Uzbekistan is an important match for both sides. Neither side has ever made it this far in World Cup Qualifying so it would be huge for either country to advance on with the tournament.
Both teams have had their moments during qualifying. Jordan had some very impressive victories at home against Australia and Japan. It is off of those two victories, and defeating Oman in the final match, that the club found themselves in this position. Their defense has been very poor all tournament, allowing in 16 goals and only scoring 7. In particular, the 6-0 defeat at the hands of Japan stands out as their worst performance.
Unlike Jordan, Uzbekistan features one of the best defenses in all of Asia. Having only allowed in 6 goals all tournament, they were able to secure this playoff match by defeating Iran 1-0 in Tehran and managing to lose only 1-0 to South Korea in Seoul. For minnows like Uzbekistan it is critical to minimize the damage when they go on the road so that goal differential does not become a factor. Their top player is Captain Server Djerperov, who plays in the South Korean domestic league with Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. Djerperov was instrumental in the victory over Iran, setting up Forward Ulugbek Bakayev for the winning goal.
Wait, This Match Is Actually Happening?
Belarus versus Kyrgyzstan (Internet)
One of the funny things that happen during international match days is that inevitably there are a few teams that will be left out of the World Cup Qualifying fun. It is during this illustrious time period that we, the soccer fans, get Canada versus Mauritania, Japan versus Guatemala, and this gem of a match. In one corner, you have Kyrgyzstan ranked 135th in the world whose World Cup dreams ended in 2011 after having been thrashed 7-0 in two matches against the aforementioned Uzbekistan. There are a couple of players that play in the lower levels of Ukrainian football, but for the most part all of their players play in the Kyrgyzstani league.
While Kyrgyzstan may be out of World Cup Qualifying, Belarus is still in the heat of it. And by the heat of it I mean trying to avoid catastrophe against France and Spain in Group H. While they did secure a victory against the mighty Georgia and a draw against Finland, France and Spain have crushed Belarus to the tune of 7-1 in two matches. With two matches coming up against France and Spain, I am not really sure what insight Belarus will get from playing the likes of Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps a morale boost is needed before they get thrashed by two of the best teams in the world.