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European powers on edge before critical tests
by Paul Kennedy, March 27th, 2009 7AM



[WORLD CUP 2010 QUALIFYING] Portugal and France, two of Europe's strongest teams for the last decade, could see their chances of qualifying for South Africa 2010 compromised if they don't get favorable results against Sweden and Lithuania, respectively, on Saturday. European champion Spain, on the other hand, could move closer to booking a ticket with a win over Turkey.

Saturday's TV Schedule

PORTUGAL-SWEDEN. With only five points in four games, Portugal has been disappointing and needs a win badly Saturday in Oporto.

"It's not a tranquil team," says star Cristiano Ronaldo, "as the results haven't been those we want."

Recent friendly results included a 6-2 loss at Brazil and 1-0 win over Finland.

Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz says his team can win playing creative soccer, though chances of that aren't great if injured playmaker Deco isn't ready to go.

One break for the Portuguese: red-hot Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovich is suspended.

Prediction: 1-1.

SPAIN-TURKEY. Four years ago, Spain needed a playoff to earn its ticket to the World Cup. This time, it should coast to the finals in South Africa if it beats Turkey for the second time on Saturday.

"We have to win the two games against Turkey and see how the other results go," striker David Villa said. "In other campaigns we have suffered a lot but we are in a good position this time and are close to qualifying."

A win in Madrid would give the Spaniards five wins in five qualifiers and extend their unbeaten streak to 30 games. It would also take some of the pressure off in the early summer when they have to compete in the Confederations Cup.

Spain moves into Saturday's game with some injury worries in midfield. Andres Iniesta is out, and Xavi didn't train with the team earlier in the week.

Prediction: Spain 2-0.

NETHERLANDS-SCOTLAND. The Dutch have a plethora of options up front -- Robin van Persie, Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babbel are all playing well for their clubs teams -- while the Scots are riddled with injuries.

The latest blow was the news that defender Stephen McManus, the Celtic captain, suffered an ankle injury in training with Celtic and won't be available on Saturday. Tottenham defender Alan Hutton will also not play against the Dutch but could face Iceland on Wednesday.

In a gamble, regular goalkeeper Craig Gordon has been benched, and Allan McGregor of Rangers will start in his place at the Amsterdam ArenA.

Prediction: Netherlands 3-0.

LITHUANIA-FRANCE. The mood in France is not good. A poll out this week shows that 35 percent of Frenchmen don't think the Bleus will qualify for the World Cup.

They are third in their group, five points behind Serbia and Lithuania but with a game in hand, and their recent form -- no goals against Uruguay and Argentina --  is a big reason for the pessimism.

Another is the lack of options up front. Leading English Premier League scorer Nicolas Anelka is out with a toe, leaving Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema as the only experienced strikers. Coach Raymond Domenech was forced to call up untested Andre-Pierre Gignac of Toulouse and Guillaume Hoarau of Paris St. Germain.

"It's going to be a real battle, a real combat," Domenech said. "We're going to have to be mentally and physically very solid."

To take some of the pressure off, he took his players to the Paris Disneyland on Monday evening.

One factor to watch for: the field in Kaunas is in terrible shape.

Prediction: Tie 0-0.

ISRAEL-GREECE. Israel can take over first place from leader Greece with a victory on Saturday, and star Yossi Benayoun is anxious to play despite a hamstring injury that has kept him out of action for the last two weeks at Liverpool.

Liverpool doesn't want him to play, but Benayoun says missing the game would be the biggest disappointment of his career.

Prediction: 1-1.


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