Wed, Oct 05, 2005 - Page 20 News List

Tension mounts as soccer World Cup nears final stages

AP , LONDON

The Netherlands, Portugal and Italy will be the next European teams to qualify for the World Cup if they avoid defeat on Saturday.

Three-time champion Italy hosts Slovenia, while Portugal faces tiny Liechtenstein at home. The Dutch have a tough trip to second-place Czech Republic, but Marco van Basten's team needs only a point in Prague.

Away from Europe, all five African qualifiers will be decided in Saturday's final round of games. Ghana, powered by new Chelsea signing Michael Essien, is on the verge of reaching the World Cup for the first time.

In South America, Ecuador and Paraguay could join defending champion Brazil and two-time winner Argentina in the 32-team field in Germany. Costa Rica is confident of joining the US and Mexico among the CONCACAF qualifiers.

With just a few more days of group qualifying to go, only nine teams have so far advanced, along with host Germany. They are Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, the US, Mexico and the four Asian Confederation teams -- Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

That means 22 spots are still at stake in the closest qualifying race in World Cup history. Many berths won't be decided until the final round of European group matches next Wednesday.

England and either Sweden or Croatia may also make it on Saturday, but that depends on a result in another group.

If the Dutch win in Prague, that would open the door for the English and either the Swedes or Croats to qualify by winning their games. England hosts Austria at Old Trafford in Manchester, while Croatia and Sweden meet in Zagreb.

In Europe, the best two group runners-up advance automatically along with the eight group winners. The other six runners-up advance to playoffs on Nov. 12 and 16.

If the Czechs lose on Saturday, it would be their third Group 1 loss and leave them no chance of finishing among the top runners-up. An England victory over Austria in Group 6, however, will mean that Sven-Goran Eriksson's team will clinch a berth no matter what happens in the final game at home to standings leader Poland on Wednesday.

The same applies to the Croatia-Sweden Group 8 confrontation on Saturday. With the Swedes one point ahead of the unbeaten Croats, a Czech loss will hand whoever wins in Zagreb a place in the finals.

The down side for England is that anything less than a victory over the Austrians will put the Poles through to the finals and leave Eriksson's team facing the possibility of a playoff. Poland holds a five-point lead.

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