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What if they held a World Cup and the planet's two best players didn't come?
That's the scary (and still possible) scenario facing Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina's Lionel Messi as their underperforming teams each face two critical World Cup qualifiers in the next week.
We're in the home stretch of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, and with only four games left in continental tournaments it looks as though Portugal and Argentina could be headed to the last-chance saloon of two-game playoffs in November. In fact, Portugal and Ronaldo, the reigning World Player of the Year, may be lucky even to get that far.
Six teams have already secured berths in the 32-team field for South Africa: the Netherlands, Australia, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and host South Africa. Which heavyweights are in trouble? Let's break it down:
• Argentina. The global game of the week is South America's greatest rivalry, Argentina-Brazil, which finds the host Argentines in dire need of a win on Saturday in Rosario (8:30 p.m. ET, PPV). Despite having one of the world's most talented rosters, coach Diego Maradona has endured a rocky tenure running the Albicelestes, highlighted by a historic 6-1 loss to lowly Bolivia at altitude earlier this year. Will the Argentine soccer icon get the sack if his team loses at home to rampaging Brazil, the World Cup favorite? It's certainly possible. An Argentine loss could drop Messi & Co. from fourth to fifth place in South American qualifying, which would be a precarious spot. The fifth-place team will have to meet the fourth-place team from CONCACAF in a two-game playoff in November. Even if the Argentines make it to South Africa -- and I suspect they will -- it's hard to fathom they can win the World Cup as long as the ill-equipped Maradona is the coach.
• Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo is in an even tighter spot: Portugal could be eliminated from the World Cup as soon as next week if it doesn't get results on the road at UEFA Group 1 leader Denmark (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, Setanta) and at second-place Hungary (Sept. 9, 2:45 p.m., Setanta). With 16 points and a favorable schedule, Denmark is in the driver's seat to win the group and its automatic World Cup berth. Third-place Portugal (nine points) has to hope it can catch upstart Hungary (13 points) to grab second place and the November playoff that comes with it. The good news for Portugal: It gets Hungary twice in the next three games. The bad news: Sweden and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are lurking as well -- tied with Portugal on nine points -- and have an easier schedule the rest of the way. I don't think Portugal is going to reach South Africa, which would be a shame for neutral fans (who'd be bummed not to see Ronaldo at the World Cup) and an embarrassment for beleaguered coach Carlos Queiroz.
• Mexico. Despite El Tri's big win over the U.S. last month, coach Javier Aguirre's team still finds itself in fourth place in CONCACAF qualifying with nine points, trailing Costa Rica (12), Honduras (10) and the Americans (10). Even worse, Mexico (which has lost all three of its Hexagonal road games) has to travel to the lion's den of Estadio Saprissa in Costa Rica on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, Telemundo). This region is a four-team race, but nobody wants to finish fourth and face a two-game playoff in November against Argentina, Ecuador or whichever team finishes fifth in South America.
Several other notable teams are on the ropes for World Cup 2010. Cameroon sits in last place in CAF Group A and needs to rally in home-and-home qualifiers on Saturday and on Sept. 9 against group leader Gabon. The Czech Republic is snorkeling in fifth place in UEFA Group 3 with eight points, trailing far behind surprise group leaders Slovakia (15) and Northern Ireland (13). Turkey is in third place in UEFA Group 5 and has a huge game on Sept. 9 at second-place Bosnia-Herzegovina. And African champion Egypt could miss the World Cup yet again if it doesn't get a result this week at Rwanda.
Which of the big-name teams on the ropes do you think will qualify for 2010? Which won't? And how do you see this week's World Cup qualifiers playing out? Post your thoughts below, and check back here in the coming days for coverage of the U.S.' important qualifier against El Salvador (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic) from the Salt Lake City area ...