Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The time is now

    This Saturday is a crucial day in European football, as the race for places in the World Cup and the playoffs for the World Cup reaches its climax. There will be frayed nerves all over the continent as after this weekend you will either be in or out.

    As an England fan, I have great experience in such final day drama. In 1989 Poland hit England's crossbar in the very last seconds, and we were literally inches from being out. Also in 1997 in the Olympic Stadium in Rome Ian Wright hit the post in the last minute, from where the Italians then broke up the field and Christian Vieri headed narrowly wide, when a goal would have consigned England to the lottery of the playoffs.

    As ever with England, it has gone down to the wire again, and there will be nervous glances from Manchester to Gelsenkirchen on Saturday. If England beat Greece they will qualify outright, regardless of whatever the Germans do against Finland. However if it is still 0-0 after an hour, and Germany take the lead against the Finns....

    Whoever wins the group, the other will still have the playoffs as a route to Korea/Japan. In other groups in Europe there is a desperate fight just for second place and the playoffs. In group 3 Denmark need a draw at home to Iceland to make it through outright, but there is all to play for in the Czech Republic versus Bulgaria fixture. They are both locked on the same points, and have an almost identical goal difference. Home advantage should favour the Czechs but they must be wary of Bulgaria, who went to France in exactly the same situation in 1993 and dumped the French out of USA 94 with two goals in the last two minutes.

    Group 5 also hosts another scrap for the play-off place. If the Ukraine can win in Poland, who have already qualified, they will make it into the playoffs to face either England or Germany. All hope will fall on the shoulders of the brilliant Andriy Shevchenko, who seems to be on a one man mission to take his country to their first finals, scoring eight of their twelve qualifying goals. However Belarus are hot on their heels, and should win their away fixture with Wales, so the Ukraine have it all to do. This group has been opened up by the shocking performance of Norway in qualifying, who despite the likes of John Carew and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have made a real hash of it.

    Group 6 also sees the automatic qualifying spot up for grabs. Belgium hold a two point lead over Croatia but must take this into the passionate atmosphere of Zagreb, where I can't really see them holding out against the technically superior Croatians. Group 7 has a similar situation - Austria have a three point advantage over Israel, who have a better goal difference than them. A home win for Israel will secure them a playoff spot against Turkey in November.

    There is everything to play for this weekend. Sweden, Spain and Poland are already at the world cup, and can sit back and relax. Holland, shockingly out of the World Cup already, can merely scratch their heads and wonder how on earth they performed so badly. For the rest of us, we will have to watch and wait.



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