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It's crunch time for World Cup hopefuls
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 14 - 10 - 2009

Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo could endure an agonizing night this Wednesday when he watches from afar as Portugal launches a final bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Ronaldo aggravated a right ankle injury in Portugal's defeat of Hungary Saturday, a result which put Carlos Queiroz's side into second place and on course for the playoffs in Group 1 at the expense of Sweden, which trails the Portuguese by a point.
With Denmark already automatically qualified after its 1-0 defeat of Sweden Saturday, Portugal knows it cannot afford to settle for a draw at home against Malta, especially if Sweden beat Albania in Solna.
An “upset” Ronaldo will not only be missing, Real Madrid has banned him from even traveling to support his colleages from the sidelines.
He confessed that the desire to help his country overruled the fact he took the field against Hungary below par. As a result Real Madrid has lost its top goalscorer for up to a month.
“I wanted to push myself to help my country go to the World Cup,” he said.
Group 2 is one of two from the nine in the Europe zone that, ahead of the final qualifiers, still has no automatically qualified team – the other is Group 3 where Slovakia and Slovenia are both vying for top spot.
Switzerland, which leads Group 2 on 20 points from nine games, has been speculating on the various possible outcomes if it fails to claim at least a draw against Israel and Greece defeat Luxembourg.
Although the memory is 16 years old, some Swiss remember only too well when Israel stunned France 3-2 in a World Cup qualifier at the Parc des Princes in Oct. 1993, a result which contributed to its absence from the 1994 tournament in the United States.
Switzerland hosts Israel in Basel knowing that even if Greece, which has 17 points, beat Luxembourg a draw should be enough to see it through as the group winner.
Slovakia spurned the chance to secure automatic entry to the Finals in South Africa next summer when it suffered a 2-0 shock defeat to Slovenia in Bratislava Saturday.
It means the Slovaks, on 19 points with a two-point cushion on Slovenia, cannot afford to lose on their travels to Poland Wednesday. Slovenia plays away to group whipping boys San Marino.
Sitting in third place on 15 points, the Czechs are virtually out of contention for a runner-up spot that could see them qualify through a two-leg playoff.
Ivan Hasek's men would have to beat Northern Ireland Wednesday and then depend on the unlikely scenario of San Marino beating Slovenia, to move back up to second place.
Elsewhere, Croatia, which sits third in Group 6, seven points behind leader England but only one behind Ukraine, travels to Kazakhstan for its final qualifier.
A win there, coupled with a unlikely victory for Andorra over Ukraine, would see Croatia jump up to second place and into the playoffs.

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