The road to South Africa 2010 begins this weekend for Europe. In this preview we focus on Group 2 where Greece, Switzerland and Israel will all be hoping to finish in top spot whilst Latvia, Moldova and Luxembourg will be out to cause a few shocks.
Moldova - Latvia
Neither Moldova nor Latvia have ever qualified for a World Cup and their journey starts here if they are to make history by booking a trip to South Africa.
The home side will certainly be hoping to improve on their last World Cup qualifying campaign which saw them finish bottom of their group.
An opening home fixture against Latvia may just yield some points for the Moldavians. They warmed up for the game with a narrow 1-0 defeat to Slaven Bilic’s Croatia, but it should still give them a boost of confidence. Furthermore, they have played Latvia once before, running out 1-2 winners away from home.
Latvia have failed to build on the dizzy heights of four years ago when they reached the finals of Euro 2004 and even managed a very impressive scoreless draw with Germany.
However, they failed to qualify for World Cup 2006, despite being an outside tip, and will be looking to improve on that showing which saw them finish fifth in their group, albeit with only minnows Lichtenstein and Luxembourg beneath them.
Latvia warmed up for their trip to Moldova with a 1-0 defeat to Romania and with the two sides looking fairly evenly matched, we should be in for a close game.*
Israel - Switzerland
Along with Greece, Israel and Switzerland must harbour realistic hopes of winning Group 2 and the opening fixture in Tel Aviv may reveal much about both sides’ qualification hopes.
The two countries know each other well, having been drawn in the same group in qualifying for World Cup 2006. However, both games ended in a stalemate, the two sides sharing a 2-2 draw in Israel and a 1-1 draw in Switzerland.
Although they have only ever qualified for one World Cup final (Mexico 1970) Israel have made huge strides in recent years and only narrowly missed out on qualification on Euro 2008. Although on paper the two-sides look evenly matched, home advantage may just favour the Israelis.
Having said that, the visitors do enjoy a better head-to-head record. In five meetings between the two countries the Swiss have only lost once, winning twice and drawing the other two games.
The big news from the Swiss point of view is the arrival of Ottmar Hitzfeld as manager to replace Kobi Kuhn who departed following Euro 2008. The Swiss, of course, co-hosted the tournament with neighbours Austria but failed to progress past the group stages.
Philippe Senderos, who joined AC Milan over the summer from Arsenal on a season long loan, will be missing due to a lack of match fitness while Swiss captain Alexander Frei is also out of the Israel game, although he hopes to return for the following fixture against Luxembourg.
The Israelis slumped to a 2-0 defeat in Finland in their final warm up game before this match whilst the Swiss enjoyed a convincing 4-1 win against Cyprus. Whilst another stalemate looks likely, a victory for either side would give their chances of qualification a huge early boost.
Luxembourg - Greece
A mere four years ago the Greeks were the kings of Europe, surprising the football world by winning Euro 2004 in Portugal. However, fast forward to 2008 and the mood surrounding the Greek camp is vastly different.
Otto Rehhagel’s side failed to make it to the last World Cup and after easily qualifying for Euro 2008, they lost all three group games and went home early after a dismal showing.
A bright start in this competition is therefore essential and they couldn’t really have asked for a more favourable opener. Luxembourg have never appeared in a major finals and can be found in 152nd position in the FIFA world rankings. Put simply, even the goal-shy Greeks should be looking forward to this one.
The Euro 2004 winners have also never lost to Luxembourg. The two countries have met six times in the past with Greece enjoying six wins. Indeed, if they are to have any chance of qualifying they must continue that run and anything other than three points will be a shock for Rehhagel’s men.
However, one word of warning for the Greeks comes in their failure to qualify for World Cup 2006. The opening fixture of that campaign also looked a relatively simple task, away to Albania, however the Greeks suffered a 2-1 defeat and despite an improvement in form they couldn’t quite recover enough to book their ticket to Germany.
Rehhagel’s side will not need reminding that they cannot afford to make such a costly mistake this time around, especially with the likes of Israel and Switzerland also in Group 2. A 2-0 victory against Slovakia in a friendly warm up should see them travel with renewed confidence.
One criticism that has been levelled at the Greek side is the lack of young players in the team. Whilst the squad has stayed largely the same over the last few years, King Otto has taken the opportunity to call up the 20-year-old Genoa defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Panathinaikos teenager Sotiris Ninis while omitting Stelios Giannakopoulos. Another 20-year-old Vassilios Pliatsikas, will replace the injured Ioannis Amanatidis and may make his debut against Luxembourg.
For Luxembourg, who are widely expected to finish bottom of Group 2, any form of result against the Greeks will be considered a huge success. In their last attempt at World Cup qualifying they didn’t manage to accrue a single point, and conceded a whopping 48 goals.
Although they have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, they did stun Belarus with a 2-1 win in qualifying for Euro 2008. This may not sound much, but the win ended a run of 55 defeats on the trot which stretched back over a decade to 1995. Indeed, perhaps their greatest strength is that they have absolutely nothing to lose.
Luxembourg's last outing saw thumped 4-1 at home by Macedonia and against Greece in might just be a case of keeping the score down.
*Goal.com would like to apologise for any confusion over the snippet of information we published over phantom prodigy Masal Bugduv, who is apparently as elusive as a home win at Stamford Bridge recently. We received information from a fake Associated Press report, and we are sorry to pass this on. Still, unlike some publications we did not even begin to imply that we had watched him play - merely that he was in a provisional squad list and was attracting attention, as per the (forged) AP report. But nonetheless: to our loyal fans, our visitors, and especially that brave little tyke Masal Bugduv himself: sorry, folks.