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Nov 132013

Fifa World Cup 2014 Brazil 3 213x300 World Cup Qualifying Preview: A Survivor Series




We are at the grand finale of what has been a truly captivating World Cup Qualifying Campaign. Qualification began on June 16th 2011 in a CONCACAF match between Montserrat and Belize. Over 816 matches have been played to create a 32 team field for Brazil. Although those 32 teams will have the opportunity to go for glory, to me the World Cup is made by teams like Montserrat and Belize with players who hold 9-5 jobs and whose only desire is to one day make the World Cup. I still remember listening to the story of the American Samoa team that claimed their first ever victory in a World Cup Qualifying in a 2-1 defeat of Tonga. It is these small stories that make the World Cup tournament such a truly remarkable event.

That being said, there are still 11 spots to be decided over the next seven days in Africa, Europe, and intercontinental matches between Uruguay and Jordan, and Mexico and New Zealand. Here is the latest list of teams to qualify for Brazil 2014:

Federation Country
CONMEBOL Argentina
AFC Australia
UEFA Belgium
UEFA Bosnia and Herzegovinian
CONMEBOL Brazil-Host
UEFA England
AFC Iran
UEFA Italy
AFC Japan
UEFA Netherlands
UEFA Russia
AFC South Korea
UEFA Spain
UEFA Switzerland



With the table set, let’s take a look at who still is looking to join them in Brazil.

(Author’s Note: There will be a follow-up preview and review for Tuesday and Wednesday’s matches next week.)

Matches You Will Most Likely Be Watching

Mexico v New Zealand (11/12 ESPN2 and Univision)

I sincerely hope someone is printing out T-Shirts that is calling this the $600 million dollar match because that is how Mexico stands to lose should they be unable to defeat the Kiwis of New Zealand.

Now over the duration of these World Cup previews, I have routinely criticized the Mexican Football Association for their sheer ineptitude at hiring and firing coaches, upsetting their best players, and for giving half-hearted performances in winnable games. But I am going to have to give some credit here, I like the hiring of former Club America coach Miguel Herrera for this two game playoff. During last night’s epic Global Football Today podcast (available for your listening pleasure on the GFT website) my partner in crime Brian Sanders made a couple of good points in regards to the selection of Herrera and of a squad of all domestic players. First, he mentioned the discrepancy between the European players and the domestic players. The domestic players, should Mexico lose this match, will hear it from their fans in every club match for the rest of their professional lives. The European-based players? They get to fly back to their club squads and stay away from the anger and resentment of Mexico City. So it makes sense to bring players who have more to lose with a Mexico defeat.

Second, the team is made up by a healthy number of players from Club America so there should be very little issues in regards to chemistry. I am very interested to see what happens when Raul Jimenez is given the keys to the Mexico attack. The 22 year old has shown immense progress this summer, scoring two goals in the Gold Cup and providing Mexico the spark in their 2-1 victory over Panama in Mexico City.

It would be easy to say that New Zealand is at a tremendous disadvantage in this two legged playoff. Having qualified for this playoff match back in March and not playing in the FIFA Confederations Cup due to their loss to Tahiti back in 2012, New Zealand has only played in three international friendlies leading up to this match. It is a squad mostly composed of players from the Australian A-League. They were also dealt a further blow when Captain Winston Reid, who starts for West Ham United, was ruled out of this two-legged playoff due to a hamstring injury. Without Reid, the club will rely heavily on Forward Shane Smeltz and Midfielder Marco Rojas, who just signed a major contract with German side Stuttgart. New Zealand has always shown themselves to be a very good defensive side, as evidenced by their run in the 2010 World Cup where they held the defending champions Italy scoreless. But New Zealand will have to score some goals to make this competitive. Smeltz (23 goals for New Zealand,) and Leicester City Forward Chris Wood (10 goals in 32 appearances) are their best options up front.

What this really comes down to is how New Zealand will react in the first match in Mexico City. If they can be able to get a result, or at least hold them to a 1-0 loss, then that gives them a tremendous chance at getting a victory in Wellington next week. Mexico has not looked good throughout this entire tournament and I am not expecting them to light the world on fire so late into the tournament. But they have been playing better in their past few matches and they should have the advantage against New Zealand.

Sweden v Portugal (11/15 2:40pm, ESPN Deportes)

Without question the crown jewel of all of the European Playoff matches this is the match that all soccer fans are looking forward to. Anytime a match features two of the best players in the world like Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo it should deliver at least one or two incredible goals. If you are looking to show a friend a soccer match that will have a few Sportscenter highlights, this is the match.

I would like to say that the Swedes have the advantage, given their recent run of form. The Blue-Yellows have only lost three matches all year, two of which were against Germany and Argentina, and have a particularly good record against Portugal all time going 6-6-3 (W-D-L) in head to head matchups. Having watched a lot of their Group this year during World Cup Qualifying, what I have been most impressed with is how well they move the ball, with or without Ibrahimovic. Midfielder Sebastian Larsson (Sunderland) has provided excellent pace for their offense giving Ibrahimovic and strike partner Johan Elmander (Norwich City) space to work their magic.  Sweden loves the “jail break” goal, where the midfield either crosses or passes a ball into deep open space for one of their forwards.

In what seems like a tradition every four years, Portugal once again does just enough to make the playoffs. To say that their form has been a bit lacking during qualifying is a bit of an understatement. While their record in qualifying may look good (6-3-1), if you look a bit deeper into the results you see a team that often had to rely on late minute heroics to get a result. Their two draws at home against Israel and Northern Ireland look particularly bad. They also received a very favorable call on the road in Israel when Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid) should have been called for offsides on his game-winning goal. Don’t get me wrong: Portugal deserves to be here. They got the results they needed to make it to the next round. I guess what I am interested to see is how they will shape against a much better opponent in Sweden.

Portugal’s difficulties in qualifying seem to be part of much larger problem: Where is this team going? Gone are the days of the “Golden Generation” of Figo, Deco, and Rui Costa. While Cristiano Ronaldo is obviously one of the best players in the world and Pepe and Coentrao are two of the best defenders in the world, they have never truly been able to make that leap in international competition. I still think last year’s failure at the European Championship hangs over this team.

It seems simplistic to say, but this series will come down to which one of the two best players in soccer has the better game: Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic. Ronaldo has scored 6 goals in qualifying including 3 in the 4-2 comeback victory over Northern Ireland in September. Meanwhile, Ibrahimovic has scored 6 goals in qualifying. Both players have shown that they are able to lift their team and get a goal when they need it. But neither has really seen success on the international level. This playoff match may provide an indicator as to who is the best in the world.

Games Worth Watching This Weekend

Cameroon v Tunisia (11/17 9:30am, beINSPORT):0-0

The only African qualifier during this week’s slate of games where there is no clear leader, Cameroon and Tunisia should both come into this match fully expecting to earn a spot in Brazil. Historically two of the best national teams in all of African football, Cameroon were able to survive an onslaught of shots by Tunisia and secure a 0-0 draw in the first leg. Cameroon starting goalkeeper Charles Itandje (Konyaspor-Turkey) made several key stops to be able to keep the teams level.

Going into the second leg, Cameroon is going to have to find some spark on offense. His holiness, Samuel Eto’o, decided that he once again that he wants to play for Cameroon but did very little in ninety minutes against Tunisia. Although he is without question one of the best footballers that Cameroon, and Africa as a whole, has ever produced Eto’o no longer has the pace to play a full match. In the Tunisia match he often missed passes and was not able to break away from defenders like he once could. His talents would best be served as a 65th minute sub, somebody who can come off of the bench and give them a last minute goal. It would be wise that the Indomitable Lions look towards Forward Eric Maxim Cuopo-Moting for the scoring touch. He already has 4 goals for Mainz 05 in the Bundesliga this season and has scored two other goals for Cameroon in qualifying this year.

While Cameroon should be expected to defeat Tunisia at home, I would not be surprised if the Eagles of Carthage pull this one out. The partnership up front of Saber Khalefa (Marseille) and Amine Chermiti (Zurich) looked very promising during long stretches of the Cameroon match setting a couple of decent opportunities. The key will be whether or not they can hold back what can be a dangerous Cameroon attack. Without Captain Karim Haggui (Stuttgart,) who is out due to injury, Tunisia will have to rely on Aleddine Yahia (Lens) to lead a relatively inexperienced defense against the likes of Alexandre Song (F.C. Barcelona,) and Stephane Mbia (Sevilla).

The good news for Tunisia is that this Cameroon side has not looked particularly strong recently, only winning one of their last five matches. So they have a chance to pull off an upset, but they are going to have to finish their opportunities, something that they were not able to do in the first leg.

Other Games of Note:

Nigeria v Ethiopia (11/16 10am, beINSPORT): Nigeria leads 2-1

Senegal v Ivory Coast (11/16 2pm, beINSPORT): Ivory Coast leads 3-1

Games Worth Scouring the Internet For

Iceland v Croatia (11/15, 2pm ESPN3)

There aren’t many “David vs. Goliath” matches in this round of World Cup Qualifying but this match between Iceland and Croatia is pretty darn close. Never has the term minnow been more appropriate than in describing Iceland, a country that not only loves its fish but also only has a population of 298,000. But despite their, Iceland fields a team of players who are not quality professionals but play in some of the top leagues in Europe. Of course, the first name that pops into any football fan’s head is Gylfi Sigurdsson, the Midfielder who plays for Tottenham Hotspur. A specialist on set pieces and someone who has a devastating right foot, Sigurdsson will act as the conduit for the Icelandic attack.

Iceland also features two tremendous strikers up front in Eiour Smari Guojohnsen (Club Brugge- Belgium) and Kolbenin Sigborsson (Ajax). Sigurdsson, Guojohnsen, and Sigborsson combined for 11 of Iceland’s 17 goals during qualifying. Sigborsson is also tied for third in the Eredivisie with 6 goals and will be looking to make a move to major European club team in the next transfer window. Although Iceland may be a minnow in size they have teeth and should be an interesting matchup against a Croatia defense that has looked shaky against teams with more than quality striker.

While everything has been going smoothly for Iceland leading up to this two-legged playoff, for Croatia it has been quite the opposite. After a promising start in their qualifying group, Croatia stumbled losing three of their last four matches and falling out of contention for the automatic qualification spot. After such a disastrous end to the group stage, the Croatian Football Association fired Manager Igor Stimac and replaced him their Under-21 Coach Igor Kovac. Kovac, who spent most of his career in the Bundesliga, has very little coaching experience outside of being an assistant to the Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg. But Kovac did have 83 caps with Croatia during his playing career so he is very familiar with the Croatian style of play. I am not sure if this is the best time to bleed a new coach (I wonder Croatian FA President Davor Sukur made any overtures to Guus Hiddink, who would have been my choice,) but Croatia has enough veterans on their squad that they should be able to make up for any  lapses in experience.

Part of the reason why Croatia has had such difficulties recently is that they are missing their scoring touch. You would think with a team that can call on the likes of Midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid,) and Forwards Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich) and Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk) to fill out their lineup sheet that there would be no problem scoring. But in their last three qualifying matches, Croatia was only able to score one goal (a garbage time goal by Niko Kranjcar against Belgium). They should have plenty of opportunities to score against Iceland, who gave up 15 goals during qualification, including 6 to Switzerland.

Ukraine v France (11/15 2:40pm ESPN3)

Greece v Romania (11/15 2:40pm ESPN3)

Wait! This Game is Actually Happening?

Uruguay v Jordan (11/12 10:30 am One World Sport)

I don’t really have too much to say about this match because I think it is pretty easy to say that Jordan has no shot in defeating Uruguay. Although I would not be surprised if Jordan gets at least a satisfactory result at home (they did defeat Japan at home earlier this year in qualifying,) Uruguay is far too experienced to be caught napping against Jordan.

There are two things though to look forward to in this match. First, I hope that Uruguay takes this opportunity to give some of their younger, more untested players an opportunity to play. One of Uruguay’s biggest problems is that they have relied too heavily on some of their more established players and we haven’t seen some of their players come up from the U-21 system. I would really like to see Jose Maria Gimenez, 18, of Olimpia get playing time over Andres Scotti, 37, of Nacional. There is nothing for Scotti to gain from this match. However, Gimenez would have the opportunity to play in an important match in a very, very hostile environment.  While I do understand that Uruguay has to start setting its lineup for the World Cup, they also need to start focusing on the future.

Second, no matter what the score ends up being over two legs, this is a very important series for Jordan and football in the Middle East as a whole. To say that football in the Middle East has been on the decline recently is being generous. With Japan and South Korea now firmly entrenched as qualifying favorites, and the addition of Australia to the AFC, qualifying for the World Cup has now become more difficult in Asia. Now obviously with turmoil going on in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Yemen, and Jordan as well football is not the top priority in the region.

But with the World Cup being held in Qatar in 2022, it is important that the region starts to awaken from its slumber and begin to make strides to being a competitive region. Having Iran make the World Cup this year is a great start. If Jordan can pull off at least a respectable showing in the next week against Uruguay, it could only improve football not only Jordan but in the region as well.


Oct 152013

Fifa World Cup 2014 Brazil 3 213x300 Tuesday World Cup Preview


Tuesday World Cup Preview


After a weekend of nailbiters and near eliminations, World Cup Qualifying for most parts of the world will end on Tuesday night with the five remaining automatic qualification spots awarded among the confederations of CONCACAF (North America/Central America,) CONMEBOL (South America,) and UEFA (Europe.) There are qualification spots still to be awarded in playoffs involving teams from CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA and the countries of Jordan and New Zealand, but for many countries their 2014 World Cup Qualifying seasons will end on Tuesday and hard questions will have to be asked about the future of football in their countries. So with an emotional day on tap, let’s take a look at the list of countries who have qualified for the World Cup (with those that qualified on Friday boldened,) and a preview of the best matches of the day.


Country Confederation
Argentina CONMEBOL
Australia AFC
Belgium UEFA
Brazil CONMEBOL- Host
Iran AFC
Italy UEFA
Japan AFC
Netherlands UEFA
South Korea AFC
Switzerland UEFA
United States CONCACAF



Matches You Will Most Likely Be Watching

Ghana v Egypt (12pm, beINSPORT)

If you are looking for a reason to sneak out of the office for a few minutes and catch a quality match, this is the match to watch. On a day when most World Cup spots are pre-determined this match between the Black Stars of Ghana and the Pharaohs of Egypt should provide plenty of excitement. This is the first two of matches between the two sides, who are without question two of the most accomplished national teams in all of Africa. This has the potential to be a real cracker, and may give FIFA pause in how they allocate World Cup spots going forward.

It almost seems unfortunate that two of Africa’s best sides have to meet in Accra and Cairo rather than in Rio de Janeiro. Both sides have demolished their competition through the last round of qualifying. Ghana demolished teams in Group D, losing only once to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations Champion Zambia and outscoring their opponents 18-3. This is a very young Ghanain team, with Goalkeeper Richard Kingson (Doxa Katokopia-Cyrpus) and Midfielder Michael Essien (Chelsea) being the only players over 30. There is no one main goal scorer on the squad (over nine players scored a goal in the previous round of qualifying,) but they do have plenty of players like Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus) and Midfielder Sulley Muntari (AC Milan.)

Ghana is a little light on defense. Although they only allowed 3 goals in the last round of qualifying, the teams that they played against (Lesotho, Sudan, and Zambia) are not exactly Forward factories. Egypt’s best chance against will be exposing their weakness on defense. Ghana’s three losses this year come against teams that had at least one scoring option up front (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Japan.) This is a team built to score, not defend.

The Pharaoh’s feature a potent offense led by Midfielder Mohamed Aboutrika (Al-Ahly-Egypt,) and Mohamed Salah (F.C. Basel-Switzerland). Aboutrika and Salah each had six goals for Egypt in the previous round of qualifying. Salah would also be known by Chelsea fans for having scored the tying goal for Basel in their recent UEFA Champions League tie.  The Egyptian manager, Bob Bradley, has done an exception job at managing a situation where players are constantly at risk but an entire country is unraveling.

Much like Ghana, Egypt has some questions on defense. Only Ahmed Elmohammady (Hull City-England) plays outside of Egypt. While I have no doubt that Egypt produces quality players, the Egyptian Premier League has not been in operation since 2012 because of the civil war. Obviously the country has far more important things to take care of, but from a footballing standpoint match fitness is critical. Ghana has players who play top flight football all throughout Europe. As much as I would like to see Egypt go to the World Cup and give their people some joy, it is going to be very difficult for them to overcome such a difference in skill.


England v Poland (3pm Fox Sports 1)

Raise your hand if you had the English winning 4-1 against Montenegro on Friday? How about everybody who had Andros Townsend scoring a goal in the match? Although many suspected the English would defeat the Montenegrins, it was not expected to be such a thorough, defeat. The English controlled all aspects of the game. They outshot Montenegro 27 to 10 and bested them on shots on goal by a margin of 12 -2. What is even more astounding is that Montenegro had 0 corner kicks on the game while England had 14! England completely dominated Montenegro and finally showed some tenacity and being able to finish off teams.

Against Poland, the Three Lions are going to a much more potent offense. The good news for England is that Poland has already been eliminated from Group H and is unlikely to play their best best offensive players, the Borussia Dortmund pair of striker Robert Lewandowski and midfielder Jakub Blazsycyzskowski. But Poland has a very, young exciting group of players coming up who are likely to see the full ninety minutes. It will be interesting to see if players like Piotr Zellinski, the 19-year old midfielder who plays for Udinese, and Pawel Wszolek, the midfielder who plays for Sampordia receive a look in preparation for qualifying for the European Championships next year.

With England leading Ukraine by 9 goals for the top spot in Group H, look for them to very aggressive against a Polish team that has only one win on the road during qualifying (a 5-1 defeat of San Marino.) If the English can continue their run of form from Friday night they will be heading to Brazil.

Mexico v Costa Rica (9:30pm Telemundo)

It is popular to contend that CONCACAF has far too many qualification spots, and supposedly the quality of play is very poor, I wonder how many people who claim that CONCACAF is that bad actually watched the Panama-Mexico match on Friday night? An incredibly gripping match with both teams taking chances on offense and playing stout defense, the game was only decided in the 88th minute when Mexican midfielder Raul Jimenez scored off of a scorpion kick to give El Tri the victory.

The Mexico team that showed up on Friday night looked nothing like the team that was sleep walking through qualification. They were tenacious on offense, had much more chemistry in the midfield, and their defense was not caught off guard on counter-attacks. I would hate to give Rafa Marquez any credit, given his history of being a flopper and cheap shot artist, but he did a splendid job of giving this team an identity in the midfield. Oddly enough, it was Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez that looked most out of form. Even the best strikers miss penalty shots, but in a match where Panama had multiple chances to take the lead, Mexico was lucky to make it out of the match with three points.

For Mexico, their mission is clear: they must win this match and hope for the best. They still technically have a chance for the third automatic qualification spot, but will have to rely on Jamaica defeating Honduras and scoring more than 2 goals against Costa Rica. Considering how poor Jamaica has been in Qualifying (0-4-5 with only three goals scored through 7 matches,) and that Costa Rica has only allowed one goal at home, this does not seem like a fairly strong scenario. I will get back to the playoff scenario with the Panama-U.S.A. match.

Costa Rica will not lay down for Mexico on Tuesday night. Costa Rica and Mexico have a long, storied history in CONCACAF. In 2001, the Tica’s became the first team at Mexico City against El Tri in over 25 years. Mexico has dominated the CONCACAF region for decades and only recently have teams like Costa Rica really been able to match the Mexicans on a consistent basis.

Expect Costa Rica to play a near full squad in their effort to defeat Mexico. The club subbed out their top three players in the Honduras match on Friday: Midfielder Christian Bolanos (Copenhagen,)  Forward Bryan Ruiz (Fulham,)  and Forward Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake). Look out for Forward Joel Campbell. The Arsenal phenom has mostly been in the news for his atrocious dive against Matt Besler in their match against the United States in September. Despite his occasional act of petulance, he also shown that he has excellent speed and can take on multiple defenders at once. Although Mexico showed improvement in their last match, they have had difficulty against teams who are quick on the counter-attack all throughout the tournament.

Panama was a warm up for the real test for the new Mexico Manager Luis Vucetich. Playing against an in-form Costa Rica team at Estadio Nacional in La Sabana that has not lost a match home during World Cup Qualifying, el Tri is going to have their work cut out for them to not lose this match, let alone get points. This is not a gimme match for Mexico- they are going to have to earn it.


Games Worth Getting on The Big Screen During a Lunch Meeting or at Happy Hour

USA v Panama (9:30 pm beINSPORT)

Unlike Friday night’s match for the United States, which was more of a thank you to the fans for their support throughout the long Qualifying campaign, Tuesday’s match against Panama actually has real implications for the CONCACAF playing spot. Panama has to defeat the United States to get on level points with Mexico for the playoff spot and the right to play New Zealand. They are also going to need to make up the goal differential of +2 between themselves and Mexico. The good news is that Mexico will have a difficult time with their road match against Costa Rica.

But the bad news is that the squad that the United States will be bringing over is not a group of pushovers. Yes, Starting Goalkeeper Tim Howard and Starting Midfielder Jermaine Jones have been sent back. As has Landon Donovan, who had a fairly uneven game against Jamaica on Friday (to be fair, he has been nursing an ankle injury for about three weeks now.) But their replacements are not waterboys. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League for Aston Villa for about two years now and would be starting on most national teams. Midfielders Mix Diskerud and Sacha Kljestian both had pretty good games against Jamaica once U.S. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann moved to a more traditional 4-4-2 in the second half. Kljestian, in particular, will be looking to make a big statement in this game as he has been getting prominent minutes for Belgian side Standard Liege in the UEFA Champions League but has found National Team call-ups to be few and far between.

But this match is really about Panama showing that they are a team who deserves to be playing in the World Cup. They have been maddeningly inconsistent throughout this World Cup Qualifying campaign. They have had a few good results on the road, such as drawing on the road against Honduras in September. But they have also had a few poor results at home, like drawing with Jamaica and blowing a 2-0 lead to Costa Rica in February.

Panama has shown in the past that they are able to keep up with the United States. In their historic 2-1 victory over the United States in the 2011 Gold Cup, Panama gave the United States fits by knocking the U.S. around on defense and by making the most of their few opportunities on offense. They also have two forwards in Gabriel Torres and Blas Perez that are Designated Players and should not be afraid to mix it up on the attacking third. This same style nearly got them the 2013 Gold Cup as well.

Even though Klinsmann has indicated that the United States would not take it easy on Panama to make things more difficult for Mexico, I would like to think that the thought of seeing the U.S.’ biggest rival being humiliated would bring him joy. News of results in other games always seem to make their way on the field. If the results of both matches are favorable to Panama, I could see the U.S. players turning the match into more of a scrimmage.


Other Games Worth Watching

Portugal v Luxembourg (1pm ESPN Deportes)

Sweden v Germany (2:45pm GOL TV)

Italy v Armenia (2:45 pm RAI Internazionale- This is a channel available on Verizon Fios and the DISH Network)

Spain v Georgia (3pm ESPN Deportes)

Uruguay v Argentina (7pm beINSPORT)

Chile v Ecuador (7:30pm beINSPORT)

Jamaica v Honduras (9:30 pm beINSPORT Spanish)

Games Worth Scouring the Internet For

Bulgaria v Czech Republic (2:15pm ESPN 3)

Norway v Iceland (2:15 pm ESPN 3)

Romania v Estonia (2pm ESPN3)

Bosnia-Herzegovina v Lithuania (1pm ESPN3)

Greece v Liechtenstein (1pm ESPN 3)




Oct 102013


Fifa World Cup 2014 Brazil 3 213x300 Weekend World Cup Qualifying Preview

Hotter than a summer in Rio, World Cup Qualifying picked up in September with teams from UEFA, CONMEBOL, and CONCACAF qualifying for next’s showcase in Brazil. Here is the list of teams that have already qualified thus far for Brazil 2014.










Costa Rica










South Korea


United States




With that in mind, let’s get to Friday’s games!

(Note: I did not include any of the friendlies that are being played over the weekend. Since this article is about World Cup Qualifying, it did not seem like a strong fit. Plus I am not sure why Brazil is playing Zambia in China.)


Matches You Will Most Likely Be Watching


Mexico v Panama (9:30pm ESPNews, UniMas)

If you had said to me seven months ago that this would be a “must-win” match for El Tri, I would not have believed. Mexico finds themselves in the dubious position of being in fifth place in the CONCACAF Qualification bracket, behind Panama on goals scored (7-4). Although they should have the advantage playing at home against Panama, fans of El Tri should not sleep on “The Canal Men.”  Panama should actually be ahead of Mexico on points but the club drop two points against Jamaica in a 0-0 draw at home September. Having had the chance to watch them grow over these past few years, you can see that this is a team that believes in themselves and wants the chance to go to Brazil. Their captain, Felipe Baloy, has extensive experience playing in Mexico for Santos Laguna and should provide composure on a very young backline. Also look out for their goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Although I was a bit skeptical of him in my piece on the Los Angeles Galaxy, that was more to do with him acclimating himself to a new club. With the Panama national team, he has been superb with making key saves and providing leadership for the other players.

I am very concerned about Mexico in this match. Although history tells us that Mexico at home is one of the most surefire bets in professional soccer, this is not the same Mexico team that has terrorized CONCACAF since its inception. It always felt like when I would watch Mexico play that they liked it when the other team scored, that it meant there was a real competition. Well now there is real competition in CONCACAF and Mexico seems to be failing. Although they played very well in the first half against the United States in their last qualification match, their confidence just evaporated after the first goal was scored.  New head coach Victor Vucetich has been successful  with Monterrey, winning the Apertura 2009 and 2010 and is a 4-time winner of the CONCACAF Champions League (2010-2011, 2011-2012, and 2012-2013) so he has some understanding of how football is played within the region. I also like that he was able to convince Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa to come back and play. Mexico’s goalkeeping has been terrible for months and Ochoa, who plays for Ajaccio in Ligue 1, should be an upgrade. Mexico needs three points in this match, especially with their final match of qualifying being played at Costa Rica on Tuesday.


United States v Jamaica (6:30pm, ESPN)

I hesitate to put this match as a match worth watching because  it is a match where very little is at stake (the United States has already qualified and Jamaica is all but eliminated,) since it is the United States and it will be shown at every bar during happy hour on Friday it is worth taking a look at. With two matches remaining, the United States will probably use this match as a means to test the team’s squad depth and to see what sort of chemistry can be created. Although international breaks are often criticized (and rightfully so) for being useless, the matches that a team has between the end of qualification and the start of World Cup play are important and very few.  So for the United States, these next two matches are great opportunities to play against teams that are still have a shot at qualifying.

It will be interesting to see how certain players step up given some of the injuries on the team. With no Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Brad Evans, and Jermaine Jones, players like Sacha Kljeistan and Mix Diskerud will be given opportunities to show what they can do and show that they deserve to be in the 18 that is named to play in the World Cup. I am also interested to see how U.S. National Team Jurgen Klinsmann chooses to use winger Aron Johansson. The AZ Alkmaar striker has shown in limited appearances so far that he can be a spark plug off of the bench and provide that little bit of creativity in the box from the forward position that the U.S. has not had in 20 years.

For Jamaica, needing three points and A LOT of help in other matches, I hope that they come out of the box swinging. I am not sure what happened between this time last year, when they beat the United States at “The Office,” their home stadium in Kingston, and now. They looked like they were going to be a very difficult team to get points off of when they drew with Mexico in Mexico earlier this year.  The lineup that they will be bringing to Kansas City on Friday night is stacked with players playing in MLS and in England. Players like Defenders Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo) and Adrian Mariappa (Crystal Palace,) and Forwards Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers,) and Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps) are all quality players who will make life difficult for the United States. The one player to really watch out for though is Forward Deshorn Brown. The 23 year old forward for the Colorado Rapids has had a great rookie season with the club, scoring 7 goals and has helped lead the Rapids back into relevancy.


England v Montenegro (3pm Fox Sports 1)

It is fairly easy to knock the English for their lackluster play thus far in World Cup Qualifying. I am sure that any person in London can pick up a magazine on the street corner and read about how terrible the team is. But I would like to give some credit where credit is due: beyond Moldova and San Marino, England is playing one of the more difficult groups in Europe. Poland, Ukraine, and Montenegro, have all proven to be very capable opponents for one of the “top teams in the world.” Although the English do have two home games to finish off qualification, neither Montenegro nor Poland will be an easy three points.

For the English to win they are going two things to happen. First, Joe Hart is going to have play like one of the best goalkeepers in the world. His play has really suffered since being humiliated in the Euro’s last year against Italy. His play for England has been at best spotty, and he has looked lost for Manchester City. Hart has shown in the past that he can be a dominant goalkeeper, that he can make game-changing plays and dictate the flow of a match. They will need him at the top of his game against the likes of Hart’s teammate at Manchester City Forward Stevan Jovetic.

Second, the Three Lions need for Wayne Rooney to be Wayne Rooney. Rooney has been quite effective for England scoring 5 goals during Qualifying. Although his form his time with Manchester United this season has been turbulent (when is it not?) he always seems to use the international breaks as a release for his frustrations with his club. England has scored 25 goals during Qualification and Manager Roy Hodgson seems to have found a role for the likes of Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, and Frank Lampard, with each playing an important part in the English attack. But it is Rooney with his creativity and ability to make plays in small spaces that drives this English attack and will be the deciding factor on Friday’s result.

Montenegro will be a very difficult team to draw three points off of. Bear in mind this is the same Montenegrin team that secured a draw in qualification for the 2012 European Championships.  But they will be without starting forward Mirko Vucinic (Juventus-Italy,) goalkeeper Mladen Bozovic (Tom Tomsk-Russia,) center back Marko Basa (Lille-France,) and midfielder Miodrag Pekovic  (Hansa Rostock-Russia.) The Brave Falcons will have to rely on Defender Stefan Savic (Fiorentina-Italy,) Midfielder Nikola Drincic (Rapid Wien-Austria,) and Forward Dejan Damjanovic (F.C. Seoul) to pick up the slack. Damjanovic has scored 3 goals in Qualification thus far, including the one that secured a draw against England in March.

With injuries piling up, and an automatic three points against Moldova on Tuesday, Montenegro may just try and settle for a point in this match.


Game Worth Getting on the Big Screen At Happy Hour

Ecuador v Uruguay (5pm beINSPORT Spanish)

This is the most important match of this round of World Cup Qualifying.  In Uruguay’s last two Qualifying matches, they turned around what had been a very disappointing campaign. In the teams past two matches, they went on the road against Peru (playing at altitude) and  played  Colombia at home and secured 6 points. Coupled with Ecuador’s 1-0 loss at home to Colombia, both teams are now tied on points with 22.

However it may be too little, too late for Uruguay. They are still behind Ecuador on goal differential (+4,) and would have to secure some kind of result against Argentina on Tuesday. Although Uruguay sports some of CONMEBOLs best strikers in Luis Suarez (10 goals) and Edinson Cavani (4 goals,) Ecuador has only given up 14 goals during Qualification. Of those 14, only 3 were at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa, their home stadium in Quito. Their defense, which is led by Walter Ayoyi (Pachuca,) is excellent at man-marking and rarely loses their shape.

Ecuador does not have the players up front to go goal for goal for Uruguay, so look for them to try and take their opportunities on the counter when they can run a defensive strategy that emphasizes possession. Spain showed in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup that Uruguay can beaten by maintaining possession and limiting their chances in the final 1/3rd of the field. I would imagine that Ecuador’s manager, Reinaldo Rueda, will try and employ a similar strategy.

Other Games Available to Watch on Television:

Germany v Austria (2:30pm ESPN2)

Sweden v Austria (2:45pm GolTV)

Honduras v Costa Rica (5pm beINSPORT)

Argentina v Peru (7pm beINSPORT)

Senegal v Ivory Coast (Saturday 1pm, beINSPORT)

Tunisia v Cameroon (Sunday 1pm, be INSPORT)


Games Worth Scouring the Internet For

Burkina Faso v Algeria (12pm beINSPORT play)

Although Burkina Faso and Algeria do not have the pedigree of Senegal and the Ivory Coast, or Egypt and Ghana (by the way, why the hell is that game not available on television?) the Stallions and the Desert Foxes should make for an interesting pairing. The two teams play very similar styles that focus on a solid defense and making their opportunities off of the counter-attack. While Algeria brings back a team mostly composed of veterans from their 2010 World Cup, Burkina Faso made it all the way to the final of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. A solid set of games between these two could further prove the need for FIFA to allocate more World Cup spots to CAF.

Burkina Faso rode this style to the final of the African Cup of Nations, where they were ultimately beaten by Nigeria. Their top defender is Bakary Kone who is a regular for Lyon in the French first division. He is a very tall, strong defender who showed in the Africa Cup of Nations that he can hold down tough, imposing forwards. They are going to have difficulty scoring though. The club only scored seven goals in the previous round of qualification, which in Africa’s final round. Burkina will rely on Forward Moumouni Dagano. The former Sochaux and Genk striker is Burkina Faso’s all-time leading goal scorer but has yet to score a goal during qualifying. Their other main target is Fortuna Dusseldorf Forward Artiside Bance, who has scored 2 goals in qualifying.

Although Algeria still prioritizes defense, they have developed a couple of scoring options. Forward Islam Slimani, who plays for Sporting CP in the Portugese Premier League, has scored 5 goals in qualifying and against Burkina Faso in a friendly in June.  They also have Ishak Befodil, who was signed by Inter Milan this summer. The 21 year old is one many Algerian who grew up in the French academy, but chose to play for Algeria. He has only made two appearances for the senior national team, but tremendous speed and upside. Their defense is anchored by Left Back Djamel Mesbah, who plays for Parma in Serie A, and Centre Back Carl Medjani of Olympiacos in Greece.

With Algeria’s attacking advantage, it will be difficult for Burkina Faso to make it through to the World Cup. But this is a team that showed by beating Mali and Ghana en route to the African Cup of Nations that they can play with teams that have skills advantages by remaining composed on defense and making the most of their limited chances on the attack. Despite their lack of football history, the Stallions can defeat Algeria.

Croatia v Belgium (noon, ESPN3 and ESPN Deportes)

There may be many other games this weekend that have much more at stake, but there are few matches that provide the quality of players like this Croatia and Belgium match. In order to receive the automatic qualification spot in Group A, Croatia would have to win their next two matches and Belgium would need to lose their next two matches.  Despite how unlikely this situation would be, Croatia is bringing all of their starters into this match. If nothing else, it will provide an excellent opportunity for their starters to have one more quality match before the UEFA playoffs begin.

Of course, when one looks at the roster of Croatia names like Mario Mandzukic of Bayern Munich, Luka Modric of Real Madrid, and Nikica Jelavic of Everton automatically pop out. Croatia has always been known for their outstanding offensive players. But it is this team’s defense that has really led the way. The team has only allowed 5 goals in qualifying and was able to secure a draw 1-1 against Belgium in Brussels in June. They are going to have their hands full against the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Christian Benteke, and Eden Hazard tomorrow but they should have adequate resources up front to counter any Belgian attack.

Although the Belgians have been quite impressive in qualifying, losing Vincent Kompany to an injury on Sunday will make things more difficult for this squad. Belgium is immensely talented, but they are also very young and still gaining experience. In Kompany’s absence, they will look to Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen to replace him. That is a pretty good replacement, but they are going to need someone to step up and replace Kompany’s leadership and ability to keep a team composed under duress. The Belgians are lucky in that they only need to get a point in the next two matches to secure the automatic qualification place in Group A. But a loss against Croatia would make things interesting going into Tuesday’s match with Gareth Bale and Wales. If nothing else, this should be an excellent chance for anyone who wants to watch two of the best teams in the world try and prove who is better.


Other Notable Matches Available on Standard Internet Packages (Check out ESPN3 and beINSPORT Play for the Full Slate.)

Netherlands v Hungary (2pm, ESPN3)

Slovenia v Norway (2:40pm ESPN3)

Colombia v Chile (7pm beINSPORT Play)