Rants and musings from the magazine team
With qualifying groups for South Africa 2010 finishing on Wednesday in Europe and the Americas, Dan Ross looks at 10 world-class players who may not grace the World Cup
Leo Messi Watch him here Argentina are just one of several top nations who have surprisingly struggled in the qualifiers. Under Maradona the team has failed to find any kind of consistency.
Six losses in 17 qualifiers (including the infamous 6-1 humiliation in Bolivia) have left the Albiceleste among four teams scrapping for a place at the World Cup via the last automatic qualification spot or the play-off berth.
Should Argentina lose again to old rivals Uruguay on Wednesday, Maradona’s men must be content with a play-off place... unless Ecuador beat already-qualified Chile, which would mean Messi & Co. spending next summer at home.
While many English fans would love to see Argentina suffer, ther would be widespread disappointment that Messi wouldn't be seen on the biggest stage of them all.
At the tender age of 22 Messi has won almost every title there is to win at Barça and is bang in form – for club, at least. Last season he scored 23 times as Barça won La Liga, the Champions League and Copa del Rey - a Treble unprecedented in Spain.
Already UEFA's Club Footballer Of The Year, Messi is one of the planet's finest footballers and would be sorely missed if Argentina don't reach South Africa. Of course, he could do something about that against Uruguay...
Cristiano Ronaldo Watch him herePortugal have struggled to earn a play-off place from Europe's Group One. Denmark top the group after some consistently impressive performances, while Portugal trail them in second, having floundered against the likes of Albania – the sides drew once and only an injury-time goal won the return.
Luckily for CR7, CR9 or whatever model they're up to, Denmark’s win over Sweden and Portugal’s emphatic win against Hungary means Carlos Queiroz's side hold their own destiny.
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They just need a home win on Wednesday over Malta, who haven't even scored in the previous nine group games. It's not the toughest of assignments but Portugal will have to manage without their captain, who's now injured (much to the disgust of the Madrid press).
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And whether or not you like the current World Player of the Year and most expensive player of all time, if he didn't get to South Africa, it would be seen as a pity by most people who aren't called Rooney.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic Watch him hereJust as there's only so many strikers you can get in a team – no matter how hard you try, Mr Ardiles – there's no way that all 10 of today's list can qualify for South Africa.
If Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal make it to the World Cup, it will be at the expense of the Sweden and one of the great enigmas of world football; Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Enigmatic he may be, expensive he certainly is: Barcelona rate him £40m higher than Samuel Eto’o. True, for that amount of money you get two for the price of one: elegant but imposing; powerful yet technically sublime; gloom-inducing or just plain glum.
Which player it is that will perform on any given day is often unknown, but when ‘Ibracadabra’ turns it on, the results are spectacular. Top scorer in Serie A last season, the Sweden captain is both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals.
Unfortunately, his international goal tally isn’t as impressive as his club total and the talented forward has only struck twice this qualifying campaign. Not uncoincidentally, the side has found goals hard to come by. In nine games, they've scored nine goals. (England, for comparison, have scored 31.)
It would be a great pity if Ibra didn't manage at least one good World Cup. Disappointing at Germany 2006, he will be 32 by 2014. All the more reason for Ibra to destroy Albania on Wednesday – and hope for a Maltese miracle against Portugal.
Franck Ribery Watch him hereThe unrequited summer love of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City, Franck Ribery eventually stayed for another season with Bayern Munich.
Bayern's then-record signing at E25m, Ribery has flourished from promising to outstanding since leaving Ligue Un. In his first year he was named both French and German Player of the Year and was selected in UEFA’s Team of the Year, and averaging a goal every two games is no mean feat for a winger.
With Ribery playing in every match, France reached the 2006 World Cup Final. However, this time round they may not make it to the party. After a series of unconvincing performances in qualifying, Raymond Domenech’s side are mathematically sure to finish second behind Serbia, thus facing the play-offs.
A convert to Islam, Ribery will turn 27 in spring. Even if he turns into a French Ryan Giggs and plays on till his mid-thirties, by 2014 he's unlikely to still be at his searing best.
English fans who hate the French but love good football are on the horns of a dilemma.
Petr Cech Watch him hereThe Czech Republic side is in transition. They miss the goals of Jan Koller and guile of Pavel Nedved; while Tomas Rosicky is back from injury to help with the latter problem, Milan Baros is struggling to fill Big Jan's size 14s.
The ex-Liverpool man has scored five in qualifying, but four were in one game against San Marino.
Still, the Czechs don't concede many – indeed no team outside any group's top two has conceded fewer than their six – because they have a truly world-class goalkeeper: since Tomas Ujfalusi’s retirement, Chelsea's Petr Cech has captained his country.
Now, pundits may be creating easy headlines by saying Cech wasn't at his best last season. But the fact that last season's domestic concessions-per-game average of 0.74 was his worst since joining Chelsea five years ago shows his own high standards.
Commanding, agile and intelligent, he's still only 27 and for a goalkeeper has time on his side.
He may need it side. Having failed to reach the finals in 1998 or 2002 and flopped badly in the 2006 group stage, the Czechs are third in Group 3.
Former comrades Slovakia top the group with Slovenia in second, two points clear of the Czechs, who must beat Northern Ireland and hope for help from... oh. Slovenia travel to San Marino.
The Czechs impressed at Euro 2008 until a late Cech mistake against Turkey cost the team dearly. The goalkeeper almost retired from international football after the incident, but was convinced to stay. It looks like he'll be waiting a while longer for atonement.
Arda Turan Watch him here Turkish starlet Arda Turan is one of the most exceptional talents in European football. Still only 22, Turan has played more than 130 times for Galatasaray and was made captain at the start of this campaign.
Six straight wins have placed Gala atop the Turkish Super League.
Comfortable on either wing, he has speed, skill and a good cross in his locker. And he can score: his 30 goals represent roughly one in four games for Gala, and of the five he has bagged for Turkey, two were vital strikes at Euro 2008 – a tournament that enhanced the reputation of both Turan and his nation.
Which only makes it sadder that you won't see him in South Africa. With Spain taking Group 5 at a canter, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Turkey battled for the play-off place.
But for all Turan's promise out wide, the Turks are starved of a true goalscoring striker to replace Hakan Sukur.
The stats tell the story: while B&H have racked up 23 goals in their nine qualifiers, Turkey have hobbled to a mere 11. They took four points from the former Yugoslavians and gamely kept chase until Saturday, when they were condemned to a tournament-free summer by a loss in Belgium. Fittingly, they didn't score.
Edin Dzeko Watch him hereOn the other side of the coin, goalscoring has been far from a problem for Bosnia & Herzegovina, who possess three of last season’s finest attacking talents.
While Vedad Ibisevic and Zvjezdan Misimovic starred for Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg, it was Edin Dzeko who set the German Bundesliga alight as his 26 goals helped Wolfsburg to the first championship in the club’s 64-year history.
Manchester United fans recently discovered how hard ‘The Diamond’ can be to mark, but many English viewers enjoyed this rare sighting of the much-vaunted youngster. (Some may even have cheered, but that's by the by.)
The 23-year-old isn't shy for his national side, either. Since his debut 15 months ago, Dzeko has hit 14 in 20 games, seven in qualifiers. Although Spain's 100% record has tied up the top spot, Bosnia & Herzegovina have now cemented the play-off spot.
True, they may face a difficult tie to reach South Africa: France and Russia are among the potential obstacles. But Dzeko & Co. know they could be heroes, and not just to their compatriots.
After all, every World Cup watcher needs to choose an underdog from a country they probably couldn't pick out on a map.
Diego Forlan Watch him here Who's the third-best team in South America? According to FIFA rankings, it's Uruguay. Twice World Cup winners back in the day, they've excelled in recent Copa Americas, finishing second, third, and fourth (twice).
Weird, then, that the Celeste have only qualified for one of the last four World Cups – 2002, when they were unable to make it past the first round.
This time round in the sole CONMEBOL qualifying group, Saturday's win in Ecuador helped, leapfrogging them into fifth – the place that wins a play-off against a CONCACAF team (this year, either Costa Rica or Honduras).
They're now a point clear of Ecuador and a point behind Argentina. And guess which Maradona-managed mammoths they play on Wednesday?
Usually, Uruguay’s absence would be met with a shrug of the shoulders, brought about by an ignorance of the names in their squad.
This year it's different. With Diego Lugano of Fenerbahce and Martin Caceres of Juventus in defence, Porto’s Cristian Rodriguez and Ajax’s Luis Suarez wide, and in-form Palermo striker Edinson Cavani up front, Uruguay have their best squad for years, and need to take their chance.
But their main man is arguably the best striker in Europe. Diego Forlan bagged an impressive 32 league goals last term, securing Champions League football for Atletico Madrid with some scintillating performances alongside tomorrow night’s opponent Sergio Aguero.
They can't both qualify tomorrow. So who will be fearing the dressing-room banter the most?
Andrei Arshavin Watch him here The diminutive forward joined Arsenal in January and rapidly set about establishing himself as a firm fan favourite at Emirates. The four goals he bagged at Liverpool (the first player to do so in over 60 years) probably had something to do with it.
But more than goals, Arshavin started to control the Arsenal attack – breaking with speed and skill, and impeccably (often near-impossibly) picking out a teammate to score.
In the 12 games he played last term, the Russian scored six goals, but assisted in seven. Here was the playmaker that Arsenal fans had been missing since the retirement of Highbury hero Dennis Bergkamp.
It's not just Arsenal fans that will be anticipating Arshavin's antics in South Africa. Following his heroics at Euro 2008 for Russia, who reached the semis with dynamic, flowing counters and a willingness to take the game to their opponents.
Should Guus Hiddink’s men reach the finals, they will be many people's dark horses.
However, two question marks remain. Firstly, how good can Arshavin get? It may not be fair to expect repetition of his Arsenal form with a different team.
And secondly, will Russia make it? Saturday's home loss to Germany consigned them to the play-offs, from which qualification is by no means certain.
Russia made it through the play-offs to Euro 2004 – as Wales-watchers will remember with a wince – but lost to Italy in the World Cup ’98 play-offs and failed to qualify for the last World Cup in Germany.
Luka Modric Watch him hereUnfortunately a broken leg ruled Luka Modric out of Croatia’s qualifying clash with England. What turned into a 5-1 demolition could have been completely different if the playmaker had been on the pitch; Modric was in inspirational form before his injury.
When the talented Croatian arrived at Tottenham, many doubted his ability to succeed in the Premier League, citing his slight frame and lack of aggression as reasons why he would not be tough enough to overpower rugged defenders.
Too agile and intelligent to have to muscle up to one of the league’s big boys, Modric prefers a tango to a tussle, dancing round the opposition into superb positions from which he can orchestrate play and provide the ultimate assist.
The 24-year-old playmaker's magnificent performances and near-telepathic understanding with Eduardo destroyed England in qualifying for Euro 2008; at the finals, ‘the Croatian Cruyff’ helped Croatia beat eventual finalists Germany.
This time Croatia lost home and away to group winners England and drew both games with Ukraine, who sit in second after Saturday's win over Fabio Capello's side. Slaven Bilic’s side need to beat Kazakhstan (likely) and hope that Ukraine drop points in Andorra (very unlikely). If they make it to South Africa, expect big things from a fit Eduardo and, more importantly, a healthy Modric.
Disagree with our choices? Go take it to the forums.
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