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Road to South Africa: Ron-ning empty?

Martin Rogers
Yahoo Sports

SOUTH AFRICA SWEET 16

If the 2010 World Cup was to start today, these 16 teams would be the favorites to win the tournament. Be sure to share your thoughts as we look ahead to the greatest show in soccer.

So, 432 days to go until the World Cup kicks off in South Africa, but for several storied nations the countdown clock may be switched off long before then.

With spots in soccer's ultimate showcase up for grabs, qualifying this time around has led to a series of stunning upsets and some unfamiliar faces being thrust into the spotlight. One of the biggest talking points? That one of the beautiful game's most famous faces may be denied a trip to South Africa next summer.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal squad is in huge trouble in Europe's Group One. The Portuguese are stuck in third place and seven points adrift of even a playoff berth. It'll take something special from the reigning World Footballer of the Year to save his national team from a deeply embarrassing exit.

Head coach Carlos Queiroz has failed to ignite any spark in the side, which has suddenly lost its ability to score. Ronaldo has often looked lost in a disjointed lineup, and urgent improvement is needed before it is too late.

From the moment Portugal lost to Germany in the Euro 2008 quarterfinal under Luiz Felipe Scolari, it has been in a downward spiral. And things could get worse before they get better.

CONCACAF

The United States looks set to dominate the region, despite its slipup in El Salvador. Mexico wishes it could say the same, but it is reeling after another road defeat in Honduras which left El Tri in fourth place.

Costa Rica likes its chances of progress after a positive start, while El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago are already falling off the pace.

Predicted qualifiers: United States, Costa Rica, Mexico

South America

A crazy double round of qualifiers has shaken things up in the grueling South American campaign. Clear leader Paraguay managed just one point from a possible six last week, while Brazil dropped points with an away draw against Ecuador.

Most surprising of all was Argentina, which looked brilliant at home versus Venezuela before being demolished at altitude in Bolivia. The big teams should still go through, but underdog Chile's brave bid gains momentum.

Predicted qualifiers: Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay (via playoff with Honduras)

Asia

Group One leader Australia already has one foot in South Africa, and Japan will soon follow.

South Korea's game in hand should enable it to comfortably top Group Two, while the second automatic spot could be decided by the clash between North Korea and Saudi Arabia in June. Iran needs a miracle after a dire run of form that led to the sacking of head coach Ali Daei.

Predicted qualifiers: Australia, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, North Korea (via playoff with New Zealand)

Africa

These are still the early days in African qualifying action, but traditional powers Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt and Morocco all made disappointing starts. Qualifying recommences with two vital rounds in June.

Predicted qualifiers: Togo, Tunisia, Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast

Europe

Portugal, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Turkey are all in danger of missing out. Any of those sides would happily accept a place in the playoffs just now.

Big hitters Spain, Germany, England, Holland and Italy keep motoring on, while France got itself back on track with two wins last week.

Predicted qualifiers: Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, France, Italy, Holland

Qualified via playoffs: Serbia, Croatia, Russia, Sweden

Oceania

New Zealand has already won the weakest of all regions, but it will be a heavy underdog when it takes on the fifth-placed Asian team for a place in the finals.