Big guns prepare for finals battle

HOLLAND, England and Spain may have secured qualification for the 2010 World Cup, but there are a number of high-profile teams – not least Portugal, France and Argentina – who must still overcome significant hurdles if they are to make it to South Africa.

Poland coach Leo Beenhakker has already paid the price for failure to reach South Africa after the side crashed 3-0 away to Slovenia on Wednesday. The Slovenia game, which came after a sloppy 1-1 draw at home on Saturday to Northern Ireland, left Poland second-from-bottom of Group Three and mathematically unable to catch up in their two remaining games against leaders Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

“That was Leo Beenhakker’s last game as Poland manager,” said a Polish FA spokesperson. “We have several candidates. It’s too early to talk about names. But it will certainly be a Pole.”

Argentina coach Diego Maradona could go the same way as Beenhakker after he was accused of “fatal errors” in selection and tactics as Argentina awoke yesterday to the prospect of missing out on the World Cup.

Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat by Paraguay sent the former double champions slipping out of the four automatic qualifying places for the 2010 finals in South Africa with just two games in the South American zone left to play. It was the fourth defeat in six qualifiers since Maradona took the reins.

The La Nacion newspaper said: “These are hard times for the coach who had multiple errors.”

“Edge of the abyss,” headlined Clarin, the country’s biggest-seller which added that Maradona can’t afford any more slip-ups against Peru, who are already eliminated, and then Uruguay, who trail the former champions by just one point. However Maradona remains in defiant mood.

“Since I was 15 years old, I have feared nobody. I am 48 now and I will continue to fight against them,” said Maradona, in reference to the country’s demanding media.

But in his 23 matches in charge, his teams drew 12 matches, lost eight and won just three.

Meanwhile, Belgium’s Football Association has asked Dick Advocaat to take charge of their national side ahead of schedule. Belgium are currently without a manager after interim coach Frank Vercauteren stepped down from his post. He decided to call it quits following Belgium’s 2-1 humbling at the hands of Armenia on Wednesday. That result ended any hope the country had of reaching South Africa, leaving them languishing fourth in Group Five.

However, there are still a number of European heavyweights who look like heading into the four play-off games with their eyes on South Africa. Barring an unlikely sequence of results, the Republic of Ireland look assured of a place in the play-offs in November. The weakest runner-up of the nine groups does not make it to the play-offs, and that now looks likely to be Norway.

They finished second in Group 9 on ten points, 14 adrift of runaway winners Holland who continued their 100 per cent record with a win over hapless Scotland at Hampden Park on Wednesday.

As the Norwegians cannot add to their tally, and the two sides below them in the current second-placed rankings – Ireland and Sweden – each have two games remaining, Norway look likely to be the one second-placed side to miss out on a play-off.

A point from each of their two remaining home games against Italy and Montenegro would secure Ireland’s place, at the expense of Bulgaria.

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