Crunch time for World Cup hopefuls

PARIS: Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo could endure an agonising night this Wednesday when he watches from afar as Portugal launch a final bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Ronaldo aggravated a right ankle injury in Portugal's defeat of Hungary on Saturday, a result which has put Carlos Queiroz's side into second place on 16 points in Group 1 at the expense of Sweden, who have 15.

With Denmark already automatically qualified after their 1-0 defeat of Sweden on Saturday Portugal know they cannot afford to settle for a draw at home against Malta, especially if Denmark beat Hungary in Copenhagen.

An "upset" Ronaldo will not only be missing, Real Madrid have banned him from even travelling to support his colleages from the sidelines.

He confessed that the desire to help his country overruled the fact he took the field against Hungary below par. As a result Real Madrid have lost their top goalscorer for up to a month.

"... I wanted to push myself to help my country go to the World Cup," he said.

"I'm upset because I was in a good period of form and so being injured again is something that affects me even more.

"I'm not the country's savour, but after the defeat against Sevilla, I wanted to help my Real Madrid team-mates win the next few games."

Group 2 is one of two from the nine in the Europe zone that, ahead of the final qualifiers, still has no automatically qualified team -- the other is Group 3 where Slovakia and Slovenia are both vying for top spot.

Switzerland, who lead Group 2 on 20 points from nine games, have been speculating on the various possible outcomes if they fail to claim at least a draw against Israel and Greece defeat Luxembourg.

Although the memory is 16 years old, some Swiss remember only too well when Israel stunned France 3-2 in a World Cup qualifier at the Parc des Princes in October 1993, a result which contributed to their absence from the 1994 tournament in the United States.

Switzerland host Israel in Basel knowing that even if Greece, who have 17 points, beat Luxembourg a draw should be enough to see them through as the group winners.

But Swiss federation official Martin Trumpler, who has spent hours studying their rivals, has warned Ottmar Hitzfeld's men to underestimate the Israelis at their cost.

"I've watched the last three games Israel played, against Latvia (0-1), Luxembourg (7-0) and Moldova (3-1). They are really impressive when it comes to moving the ball around low," said Trumpler.

Switzerland's sixth win in the group from nine matches came last Saturday when they beat Luxembourg 3-0.

But Hitzfeld warned: "We're still not qualified. We have a very difficult fixture ahead of us, and we have to remember the Israelis are far stronger than Luxembourg.

"I want my players to be 100 percent focused on the job. The thing we have to exploit is the Israelis' tendency to open their game up, thus creating more space."

Slovakia spurned the chance to secure automatic entry to the finals in South Africa next summer when they suffered a 2-0 shock defeat to Slovenia in Bratislava on Saturday.

It means the Slovaks, on 19 points with a two-point cushion on Slovenia, cannot afford to lose on their travels to Poland on Wednesday. Slovenia play away to group whipping boys San Marino.

Sitting in third place on 15 points, the Czechs are virtually out of contention for a runner-up spot that could see them qualify through a two-leg play-off.

Ivan Hasek's men would have to beat Northern Ireland on Wednesday and then depend on the unlikely scenario of San Marino beating Slovenia, to move back up to second place.

Elsewhere, Croatia, who sit third in Group 6 seven points behind leaders England but only one behind Ukraine, travel to Kazakhstan for their final qualifier.

A win there, coupled with a unlikely victory over Andorra over Ukraine, would see Croatia jump up to second place among the play-off places.