Manchester United’s players are off on international duty this week, with many facing crucial World Cup 2010 qualifying matches. Indeed, while the English contingent has already qualified, Patrice Evra, Nani, John O’Shea and Antonio Valencia face make-or-break fixtures over the next few days.
Group 1 has become one of the Europe’s tightest races for a play-off spot. Nani’s Portugal has brought itself back into the mix with a 3-0 win over rivals Hungary. The victory, where the United winger featured as a first half substitute for the injured Cristiano Ronaldo, leaves Portugal second with a single point advantage over Sweden. With runaway leaders Denmark already qualified, Portugal will secure a spot in the play-offs with a victory over Malta in Lisbon on Wednesday.
Johnny Evans’ Northern Ireland travel to Prague for their last Group 3 match against the Czech Republic on Wednesday. Evans’ team still harbours a faint chance of making the finals via a playoff spot but will have to beat the home side, hope that Slovenia lose in San Marino and turn around a seven goal difference. With San Marino yet to score a point in this qualification campaign, Evans is likely to enjoy a long summer break.
In Group 6 Ukraine beat leaders England 1-0 by in Dnepropetrovsk. England, already qualified for the finals in South Africa next year, included United’s Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney in a starting eleven that slipped to its first defeat of the qualifying campaign. Fabio Capello’s side completes its group programme at home to Belarus this week. It’s a match for which under-fire Ben Foster returned to the squad having recovered from bruised ribs.
There was a better result for Nemanja Vidic’s Serbia in Group 7. Vidic’s team locked up qualification with a thumping 5-0 win over Romania in Belgrade. The win consigns Patrice Evra’s France to the play-offs, although almost inconceivably United’s outstanding left-back continues to be left out of Raymond Domenech’s stuttering side. The French beat the Faroe Islands by a similar score in Guingamp.
John O’Shea played at right-back for Giovanni Trapatoni’s Republic of Ireland in Dublin. The home side twice took the lead against World Champions Italy in Group 8, but were pegged back to 2-2 in the last minute of the match. The result means that Ireland will have to qualify for the finals in South Africa via the play-offs. Dimitar Berbatov’s Bulgaria, beaten heavily in Cyprus, has no chance of qualification. The United forward scored on the stroke of half-time.
Outside of Europe, Antonio Valencia scored in Ecuador’s 2-1 home loss to Uruguay in Quito. The defeat in the penultimate South American match-day puts Ecuador’s place in serious jeopardy. Valencia’s side travel to Santiago for the last game against qualifiers Chile needing a win. Valencia must also hope that other results goes his way to make the finals , probably via the South American play-off.