crunch time in race to sa 2010

PARIS - World Cup qualifying enters a crucial phase at the weekend with Brazil, Spain and England closing in on the 2010 finals, while the international game's starry-eyed dreamers are also hopeful of making the South African spectacular.

PARIS - World Cup qualifying enters a crucial phase at the weekend with Brazil, Spain and England closing in on the 2010 finals, while the international game's starry-eyed dreamers are also hopeful of making the South African spectacular.

Five-time champions Brazil clash with bitter rivals Argentina on Saturday where a win could assure Dunga's men a place in the finals, maintaining Brazil's proud record of never having missed out on a World Cup.

Brazil top the South American standings with 27 points from 14 matches while Diego Maradona's Argentina occupy the fourth and last automatic qualifying spot, five points behind their old rivals.

Brazil go into the game in Rosario having captured the Confederations Cup and having won 10 of their last 11 internationals.

Two-time winners Argentina have lost two of their last three qualifiers - 6-1 away to Bolivia and 2-0 in Ecuador.

"It's a South American derby that compares to the final of the Champions League or European Championship," said Maradona.

"That said, neither side does the other any favours. If they say Kaka won't play then we don't believe them, and if we say Messi will miss out, Dunga won't believe us - that's how it works. You get nothing for free."

In Europe, only Holland have guaranteed their place in the finals with a perfect seven wins in seven matches in Group Nine. Only the group winners are assured of qualification with the eight best runners-up going into a playoff.

England top Group Six with seven wins from seven games. Fabio Capello's side will tackle Croatia next Wednesday at Wembley, where a win will see them through.

"We improved a lot in confidence because now we play like a team and we can play against every country and we can beat them. Every team. I'm sure of this," said Capello.

Croatia play Belarus on Saturday needing a win to maintain slim hopes of pipping England for top spot.

European champions Spain also boast a perfect record with six wins in six Group Five matches and a win at home to Belgium will make their place in South Africa a virtual certainty.

After hosting Belgium in La Coruna on Saturday, Spain will entertain Estonia in Merida four days later.

World champions Italy lead Group Eight by one point from Ireland and have a game in hand ahead of their trip to Georgia while the Irish go to Cyprus.

France, the 1998 champions, are five points behind Group Seven leaders Serbia but with a game in hand. They welcome Romania on Saturday before a decisive trip to a hostile Belgrade on Wednesday.

Portugal are in serious danger of missing out.

They are third in Group One, seven points behind Denmark, who they face on Saturday. A defeat for Cristiano Ronaldo and company will end Portugal's hopes of automatic qualification.

In North and Central America, Costa Rica lead the way with 12 points from six games while favourites US sit third, just behind Honduras on goal difference.

Mexico are fourth, a further point behind with just the top three qualifying.

The Mexicans travel to Costa Rica on Saturday while the US host El Salvador.

In Africa, Cameroon are struggling in Group A, five points behind leaders Gabon ahead of the two teams' clash on Saturday.

Only the five group winners will make the finals. - Sapa-AFP

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