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There's still a lot to play for

With the World Cup qualifiers drawing to a close, there are still those who have something to play for in the week ahead. While England, Netherlands, Spain, Brazil, Paraguay, Ghana, Australia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea have all sealed their place in South Africa, there are still 22 more teams with their fate still to be decided.

In the UEFA region, Portugal are the highest profile name that looks like they could miss out. With the top two clubs in Group One, Denmark and Sweden, facing each other on Saturday (LIVE ON ESPN UK at 1900 BST), Portugal face the very real prospect of failure if Sweden were to overcome their Scandinavian rivals. Carlos Queiroz's men have underperformed throughout the qualifying stages and, with a half-fit Cristiano Ronaldo, face Hungary and Malta in their final two games. Any slip-up (of which there have been many so far) would seal their fate, but they could sneak through if the top two fail to capitalise. They have an inferior goal difference too.

Latvia face the biggest match of their campaign in Greece, as they could put themselves on course for a play-off spot with a win over the former European champions in Group Two. Currently tied on 14 points with the Greeks (three behind Switzerland), the Latvians have only a Euro 2004 appearance to their name but have done immensely well to still be in contention with the likes of Israel in the group. Beaten 2-0 in the tie on home turf, conventional wisdom suggests Greece should come out on top and progress with the Swiss, but you never know.

Northern Ireland's progress to a play-off spot in Group Three looks unlikely given Slovenia's game against San Marino on the final matchday, but Group Four looks more interesting in the battle for top spot. No team in the play-offs would want to face whoever loses in the Luzhniki Stadium as Russia and Germany face off for automatic qualification (LIVE ON ESPN UK at 1600 BST); with the Russians, boosted by the return of Andrei Arshavin, favourites on home soil. Germany haven't conceded a goal in their last three games, however, they run the risk of embarrassment as they have already booked their team hotel in South Africa. An expensive mistake if they fail to progress.

Group Five sees Bosnia-Herzegovina able to claim their spot in the play-offs behind group winners Spain, if they can beat Estonia. The team have never qualified for a major tournament but, in Euro 2004 qualifying, they came within a whisker of making the trip to Portugal after losing by only one goal in their final game against Denmark. An attacking trio of Bundesliga-based Zvjezdan Misimovic, Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic make exciting viewing.

With the focus on England's 100% record in Group Six, Croatia and Ukraine still have a lot to play for in the race for second. England's trip to the Dnipro Arena will be one of the most important games in Ukraine's history, as a win for the Eastern European side puts their fate in their own hands. Croatia have played a game more and with both sides expected to pick up wins over Kazakhstan and Andorra on the final day, Saturday takes on huge significance. The game is set to be screened online in the UK for the first time via pay-per-view. Talisman Andrey Shevchenko, back in his homeland, will lead the line against Fabio Capello's men and the coach is worried about his threat as, in his own words, ''Shevchenko always scores against me. It's incredible".

The focus on France has dominated Group Seven, as French boss Raymond Domenech continues to hang on to his job. With the Faroe Islands and Austria to come, a play-off place at least seems assured, but it will be Serbia's game against Romania that catches the eye on Saturday. A win for the Serbs against Adrian Mutu and company and the French will face the ignominy of finishing as runners-up - although their task will be made easier by the seeding system. Perhaps more worrying for France is the negative media coverage surrounding Domenech and his under-performing side. Despite all the suggestions to the contrary, a breath of fresh air could be just what the French need before the trip to South Africa but, barring a collapse of gargantuan proportions, it won't happen.

Ireland's place in the play-offs seems certain in Group Eight, as they face Montenegro at home in the last game. However, before that they have the chance to seal their place with a good result against Italy at Croke Park on Saturday. A draw would do them well, but Giovanni Trapattoni will be more concerned about putting down a marker for future success and getting experience of a big occasion against a potentially shaky Italian side. Having claimed a point in Italy back in April, the Irish have shown they are capable of reaching South Africa, but it will depend on how lucky they are in the play-off draw.

Of the rest of the confederations, no team has hit the headlines for their struggles more than the Diego Maradona-led Argentina in CONMEBOL. Maradona's men have struggled to gel at all since his appointment and now face a fight with Ecuador for the fourth automatic spot behind already qualified Brazil and Paraguay; and also Chile, who are four points clear in third. Argentina must beat rock-bottom Peru and then Uruguay, but the automatic places are out of their hands as Ecuador are a point clear and can seal their progress with wins over Uruguay and Chile. The real worry is that a slip-up against either side for Argentina and they could find themselves out of the running for the competition completely - for first time since 1970 - with Uruguay, Venezuela and Colombia all capable of snatching the play-off place from them.

In Africa, Ghana have already sealed their place, while the Ivory Coast need just a point from their remaining two games (or for Burkina Faso to drop points) to cement their progress. Elsewhere, there could be a minor surprise as qualification is out of Nigeria's hands. Tunisia just need to match Nigeria's results again Kenya and Mozambique, as the Super Eagles attempt to claw back a one-point deficit with the usual off-field issues surrounding their camp.

Cameroon head their group and should see off Togo and Morocco with relative ease, but Gabon are close behind and ready to pounce on any opportunities. The Cameroon side can boast the likes of Samuel Eto'o and Alex Song, who play at the top level, but Gabon will be spurred on by the prospect of playing at a World Cup for the first time, if not by their stars, which include Hull's Daniel Cousin.

The last place in the African region will be decided on November 14, when Algeria meet Egypt. With Hassan Shehata's back-to-back Nations Cup winners expected to beat Zambia, and top side Algeria with only Rwanda ahead of them, the crucial tie will be saved until last. Egypt will have to improve their goal difference as they look like ending the qualifiers level on points with their rivals. The final game will be in Cairo, but it could go right down to the wire.

In CONCACAF, the qualifiers could made more interesting if Honduras can pick up a win over the U.S, but the reality is that all the top four are safe barring a real shock from El Salvador. One of Honduras or Costa Rica look like they'll be picking up the play-off spot, but it would be a surprise if the table changed much from its current form.

Finally, in the Asian region, the qualifiers are essentially done and dusted. All four teams have qualified automatically, while Bahrain beat Saudi Arabia on away goals to claim a place in the play-offs. If Bahrain beat Oceania's New Zealand over two legs on November 14, they will become the smallest nation to ever have qualified for a World Cup; although New Zealand are not exactly a large footballing nation, or experienced in the competition (1982 being their only appearance), so they'll be keen to be there too.


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