Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

Let’s face it. Your 20s aren’t what you expected. You’re lowly-paid, overworked (or underworked – or both), and you’re dreading the day that that itch gets so bad you can avoid the doctor no longer. And you pine – pine – for the simple summer days when your team was humiliated by Spain or Germany (or even the Dutch!). Well, if you’re European your wait is over, since those 47 long months until Brazil 2014 will be broken up by Euro 2012 somewhere out East, where natural gas and Russian denial-of-service attacks come from. The rest of us Americans will have Shark Week expanded to a month and the invasion of the Maldives to enjoy, but until we start awarding three points for a win in international police actions, I’ll settle for trying to decide if Moldova or Albania are more formidable with a little leather ball.

Group A

Germany (World Cup: 3rd place), Turkey (UEFA qualifiers Group 5: 3/6), Austria (Qualifiers Group 7: 3/6), Belgium (Qualifiers Group 5: 4/6), Kazakhstan (Qualifiers Group 6: 5/6), Azerbaijan (Qualifiers Group 4: 5/6)

You may remember Germany having a particularly good World Cup with an extremely young team and no Michael Ballack. They may be a bunch of gays, but undeniable a stylish one on the pitch and as much fun to watch when they cracked against Spain as when they crushed England and Argentina. O(e)zil, Muller and the other non-standard-character-promoting players have been crafted into a powerful system by Joachim Low, who will surely stay as Germany coach through the next World Cup. The best of them might have a decade of national team play ahead. Not only will they top the group, and not only will they do it without losing a game, they will be at worst second-favorites to win it all.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are perpetual also-rans who might pick up points here or there – mostly from each other. (Despite the rankings, Azerbaijan are better.) As in all things Belgium are a poor imitation of the Dutch and are in the midst of an unending breakdown. Their only real accomplishment in World Cup qualification was scoring a goal against Spain, and 1998 coach Georges Leekens can’t help a lack of top-shelf talent, a shortage cruelly exposed in their 11 August friendly defeat to underrated Finland. A result for them would be lasting longer than their country does.

In fairness bets on their groupmates Turkey and Austria aren’t much more inspiring: Turkey underperformed in World Cup qualification while Austria managed only four home wins in a group won by Serbia and a French team busy packing for their journey into the wilderness. Austria have also had a deal of upheaval in their coaches – 3 since Euro 2008 – while Turkey will still be working with a youngish team. (Only two current call-ups will be out of their 20s when eligible for their first game, which falls on midfielder Emre’s thirtieth birthday.)

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

I favor Turkey. They’ve had time to reflect on missing the World Cup and have a huge pool of native talent with experience in European competition. They’ll also have the distinct advantage of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who guided South Korea to the 2002 semifinals, Australia to the 2006 Round of 16 and Russia to the 2008 European semifinals (before watching them fuck up on the verge of the World Cup). What’s the chance lightning strikes twice?

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

Russia (UEFA qualifiers Group 4: 2/6), Slovakia (World Cup: Round of 16), Irish Republic (Qualifiers Group 8: 2/6), Macedonia (Qualifiers Group 9: 4/5), Armenia (Qualifiers Group 5: 6/6), Andorra (Qualifiers Group 6: 6/6)

If not for all the crappy teams you’d call this a Group of Death. Macedonia competed for the second-placed spot in Group 9 up to the final day, while Russia were unlucky to be drawn with Germany, shut out of outright qualification and then stunned by little Slovenia in the playoff. As for Ireland, they attract myths. Like their luck.

Let’s dive right in. Macedonia aren’t that good and never win away – impressing against Scotland does not equal impressing. (But more on that shortly.) So there’s them apples.

After their 2010 failure Russia have a new coach, Dick Advocaat, who left Belgium for Russia after Hiddink left for Turkey. (Whose previous coach was made Consul of Rome.) It will be familiar ground for Advocaat: a team with an occasionally-bright past and a few big-name stars which is nevertheless short on raw talent. Besides a few players in the Premier League (Arshavin most notably) they almost all play for Zenit St. Petersburg and the Moscow teams; however there’s no solid core of the sort Barcelona supplies Spain or Juventus used to for Italy.

Slovakia, of course, ran away with perhaps the easiest qualifying group and then stunned Italy on the final match day of the World Cup’s first round. Their team is precisely the opposite of Russia’s, an international melange marked strangely by a core of players in the Turkish Superlig, including the really impressive Robert Vittek. (His exploits detailed better here.) It’s hard not to be impressed, but Slovakia were gifted with weak groups – twice – and an extraordinary Italian team who realized you win by scoring goals just fifteen minutes before the end of their Cup journey. Ten games against opposition of considerably greater quality, the best I can say for them is that they might – maybe – sneak into 2nd. 3rd is far more likely.

The headquarters of the Irish national team. Also the Army, police force and cereal production authority

Which brings us to Ireland. If your heart wasn’t broken and your face contorted into rage over Thierry Henry’s handball, then you’re an asshole. Still, they’re managed by Giovanni Trappatoni – the kind of Italian manager you actually want, unlike a few I’m aware of – and most of the team plays in England or Scotland, lending some mutual experience and a coherent style far beyond what the country’s own anemic league could provide. There’s a diversity in the selection of players available and anchors in forward Robbie Keane and goaltender Shay Given. Both are heading towards the close of their international careers and both will be looking to wrap it up in style – especially Given, as he’s replaced (likely permanently) by England international Joe Hart between Manchester City’s posts.

Perhaps ridiculously, Ireland will top the group. Russia will come second.

Key matches: Any pair of Russia, Slovakia and Ireland. Watch especially when Ireland travels; I think they’re better away.

Group C

Italy (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Serbia (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Northern Ireland (UEFA qualifiers Group 3: 4/6), Slovenia (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Estonia (Qualifiers Group 5: 5/6), Faroe Islands (Qualifiers Group 7: 6/6)

Or maybe this is the Group of Death, with three World Cup qualifiers in one delicious package. Somebody’s going to go home a sad panda, are they not? And it’s already begun; two stoppage time goals were all that prevented the Faroe Islands upsetting Estonia and – surely for the first time ever – taking the lead in a qualifying group. You’ll forgive me for underrating these two juggernauts, but this will be their last appearance in a paragraph I really ought to have ended thirty words ago.

I do need to take a moment to disregard Northern Ireland specifically rather than just lumping them with the others. They weren’t bad as recently as 2006, when they beat Spain 3-2 at home; the scorer of all three, Sunderland/Ipswich Town’s David Healy, is still available for the campaign. But even in the Euro 2008 qualifiers they came third, behind Spain and Sweden, and they’ve never qualified for the European Championships. Worse, nothing jumps out at me to say that this year they will.

I’m sure they’re all nice guys, though.

Italy will be very early in their reconstruction after the horror show of this year. In Prandelli they’ve got a new manager and some of the oldest players will retire themselves, with a couple of young standouts like Quagliarella and New Jersey’s own Giuseppe “The Situation” Rossi available to take their place. It’s not clear how far and how fast this reconstruction will go; attacking options Pirlo, Gilardino and Pazzini were recalled while the entire back line has been retooled. Even into qualification several players are receiving first call-ups, suggesting (rightly) that there isn’t much satisfaction to be had from the lost to Ivory Coast; of the returners, from perhaps the widest spectrum of Italian clubs  ever, a number are relatively unknown. They’ll have to get known pretty fast if Italy is going to avoid the dragon-slaying potential of the second-place playoffs. (I will give some points. Mario “Stupid Mario” Balotelli returns to ignominy for the first two games. Well done.)

Serbia were unlucky not to go to the World Cup round of 16 – they fell to weak Ghana thanks to a red card, a penalty and international sympathy for OMG AFIRCAN TEAM!!!11, gained a shock victory over Germany and then collapsed when Australia found their own shit too late, a trend that’s plagued Serbia longer than just this June. Even if they wanted to retool it’s not clear they have enough options, as their team is not hugely aged or experienced to begin with and already draws in the best of the Serbian soccer diaspora. Matters are made worse as Coach Radomir Antic landed himself a four-match ban for slagging off the referee in the Australia game and the Serbian authorities, complaining of the lack of better options, demanded he take a pay cut or get the boot. (And took the chance to piss all over him as they did.) They should have thrown him into the Guus Hiddink merry-go-round. They could have sent him to Iceland and got San Marino’s coach.

Slovenia, meanwhile, finished the best of the three, narrowly missing clearing the group at the expense of either England or the USA. Like Serbia’s, their squad is pretty settled and proved unusually thrilling despite extremely limited resources. What can you say? They had the fussballgeist. But this is a fickle thing, and surely they won’t keep it. The problem for a team like Slovenia (or indeed Serbia) is that in order to progress in a more difficult group – which this one is – they will need to rely on all of the same players over a long period of time, a big difference compared to gambling on their fitness in three games over 10 days. A bench consisting of all (and only) of the finest players with major league experience in the country makes attrition their biggest foe, especially for those players who have both league and European competition. Any changes forced on them due to form or injury will have more of an impact on systems which have already proven relatively successful with a certain set of players. The temptation will be to shoehorn new players into the old system.

All material, this one. Italy will be shaky but will have enough time to put together a decent team. I don’t smell the magic around Slovenia again, but I’ll back them to continue on in second place. Serbia’s turmoil (and pre-existing injuries to a few key players) will cost them.

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

France (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Romania (UEFA qualifiers Group 7: 5/6), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Qualifiers Group 5: 2/6), Belarus (Qualifiers Group 6: 4/6), Albania (Qualifiers Group 1: 5/6), Luxembourg (Qualifiers Group 2: 5/6)

Does anyone else think that when Henry handled the ball he stole Ireland’s luck?  I think that. The President of Ireland and some Druid prince and his Leprechaun Army will probably have to rip out his beating heart and turn it into an amulet so Milla Jovovich can use it to stop the destruction of the Earth with her sidekick, Norm from There’s Something About Mary, and the Artist Formerly Known As the Second-String Mel Gibson.

Either way, once again France drew the Group of Life. An AIDS Ward XI could go to the finals from here. Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg are all minnows and Romania’s not much more: They have a new coach who’s okay but they draw their core team from the country’s own biggest sides, whose failure in European competition leaves the national league and by extension the team in freefall. (Though, famous last words.)

France and Bosnia/Herzegovina, then. As ever the ball is pretty much in France’s court. B/H are what they are and though certainly no pushover they don’t have the depth to metamorphose into a really superior team. If they win, it is because France aren’t pushing hard enough; if they lose it is because France are on the way to comprehensive reform. Given their dive into the abyss in South Africa, coach Laurent Blanc has the leeway to completely recraft this team. He has the players, too. The real question: Does he have the balls?

His first step was decisive: against Norway he banned all 23 of the players in South Africa and called up a whole new squad, declaring also that only the blameless keeper, Hugo Lloris, is certain for re-inclusion. This offered him the chance to call up an entire raft of the neglected and ignored. The cost was a 2-1 loss, but it may be the best of all France’s late sufferings. Lessons were learned, and the squad now named for the beginning of Euro 2012 qualification is a decent melange of old and new: Saha, Benzema and Mexes return as Loic Remy and the excellent Jeremy Menez join up.

The consensus was that after the collective punishment of the Norway match the entire thing should be put behind France; for that reason, and for the effect on qualification, the further bans handed out to Anelka (the “mild-mannered” man who will never play for country again) et al were a mistake which could only hamper the team. Bilge, I say. In fact wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Laurent Blanc called up eleven new people to play Norway, all were terrible and then he called them up again. Everyone on the team must know they’re optional and that bad attitude is worse than bad form, since it means they’ll be humiliated despite rather than because of their skill on the pitch.  Sending this message is the only thing that can save these miserables. On September 7th in Bosnia, we’ll see if they have done enough.

I want Blanc to succeed. I think he will. France will top the group and maybe even with a little style. B/H to the playoffs.

Key matches: The very first one. If France win in Bosnia they’ll be pretty much home free. Runner-up status to the matches between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Romania.

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To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.

See?

But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.

I mean you, Sepp Bladder, you awful manbearpig

Before getting to the World Cup draws themselves, I want to make clear that I will not christen a group of death.  FIFA has made groups of death obsolete.  Nothing like 1986 can happen again; stage management from continental leagues on up is such that no win will be terribly surprising, no loss so unexpected. It takes something away from the spirit of the game, but there you go. It’s not as if there’s no hope. Even 2006 managed a Group E.

Group A

One is tempted to be uncharitable and say that once again a biased and corrupt seeding system has worked to the benefit of Les Snooze. One is tempted to be right. Coach/offense to football Raymond Domenech bitched and moaned about his team being excluded from the top flight because of do-you-know-who-I-am? as if it could be thought fair for a qualifying group runner-up to be ranked in preference to the winner, Serbia. He can stuff it.

That said, even if they stumbled upon a path France remains to escape the woods. I learnt my lesson in the qualifiers when picking them, despite truly horrendous play, to come atop a Serbian team that not long ago would have been comically easy. A lot of better teams failed to get to Jo’burg and it slightly maddens me that the consensus is already to award the group to France.

I respectfully dissent. My money is on a good Mexico side, who don’t have to stretch have to beat France. They can tie or lose and still put away Uruguay and probably the unfortunate South Africans, who have Pienaar and some guys he met at a bus stop Friday afternoon.

France‘s native skill is enough to see them bumble through, so I’ll nod them for the second spot, despite more hot-headed predictions. No mistake I’d like to see them punished, but they’re lucky. For now.

The Greek national team

An interesting collection. Nothing really bad here, though Greece doesn’t inspire and Argentina’s ailing with a deficit of talent on the field matching that in coach Diego Maradona, who scraped them through the qualifiers with an anemic 8-4-6 record. We were speaking of losing teams being seeded higher – Argentina was South America’s lowest automatic qualifier and only then thanks to a late goal by Mario Bolatti. (Who?)

South Korea (which is a Republic, in case you didn’t know) weren’t able to replicate their success in 2002, crashing out narrowly in the group stage, but rallied to win the Asian Cup the year after and pipped Japan to win the East Asian cup. Doubtful competition, to be sure, but talent like Park Chu-Young makes them a threat. Nigeria overcame traditional African powerhouse Tunisia to get here but haven’t thrilled.

In Nigeria’s case I would ask whether Obafemi Martins or Victor Obinna can be their side’s Drogba or Eto’o. I’m doubtful.

Argentina to top the group only narrowly. South Korea to go to the sixteen with them.

Group C

I spoke of mistakes. I’ve made a few. One was predicting Slovenia to lose their second-place draw. I have seen the error of my ways and I’m attempting to atone.

As such, though you’ll think I’m crazy and you’ll be right, either England or the injury-plagued United States are going home with Algeria.  Slovenia have something, you see. Call it fortune. Call it God. Call it the fussballgeist. Whatever. Like Turkey in 2008 they should not by any means be winning, and have no right to be, but are. In Slumdog Millionaire they would say it’s because “it is written.” Whatever it is, it is.

Who are their players? How’s the back-four? What about possession? Don’t know, don’t care. Many very silly people are dumping on them – while tweeting during the Guardian’s minute-by-minute someone remarked that they weren’t better than anybody – and these people are right. Slovenia weren’t better than the Czechs; or the Poles; or the Northern Irish; or the Russians. And yet all are long gone.

Of the big two even if the US had the talent and depth to make a go of it the injuries sustained towards the irrelevant end of qualifying will probably mean we see a substandard side. And the US wasn’t that good to start with. A strong but not superlative England will qualify at the top and Slovenia will take the second position. America, thanks for playing.

Group D

Germany, to a lesser degree, also cannot catch a break. No one ever thinks they’re very good and I can never tell why. Their qualification record was flawless; they placed third in 2006 and second in 2008; and have talent like  Podolski, Ballack and Schweinsteiger at the front and little Philipp Lahm at back. They’ve had some internal issues, and some tragedies, under coach Joachim Low – my reply is “Yeah and?” Every team does. If they’ve suffered I just don’t see it. Go on all you want, but look at the matches. Their performance is, indeed, German: maybe not inspiring, but solid and stalwart and always where it needs to be.

They’re in a tough group, too; far worse than immediate collective Group of Death G. Australia and Ghana are arguably the best in their leagues (for Oz their move to Asia means that’s no longer a sneery boast) and feature marquee players at their head. Serbia is a reviving powerhouse who bested a group including France, Austria and nominally-superior Romania, and unlike other small countries they did so without resorting to a single star hopelessly trailed by the rest of the team. Not for nothing, too: this is the only group where all four teams appeared in 2006. All but Serbia cleared the groups, making it the most collectively successful, too.

I can’t see Germany failing to qualify, though it’s conceivable they might not top the group. Any of the other three could go forward with them. This year I’ll give Australia the edge over both thanks to a tougher qualification run than the others got.

There’s no group of death. But if there were… the fireworks would be here.

Group E

As a Danish fan I was not displeased: this was a better draw than one might expect. The Dutch cruised effortlessly through qualification even if they let a disappointing friendly draw with Paraguay reward their loss of Van Persie to injury. (A blessing in disguise? He’ll be well-rested in plenty of time to train for South Africa, and being out means he’ll be less exhausted from constant league and European matches until then.) Denmark had little more difficulty, losing only to Hungary in their last match in a group that included Portugal and Sweden.

As for Japan, though they apparently have a strong midfield they were badly drubbed in 2006, lost the Asian Cup the year after and lost every game in last year’s Olympics, which is not known for exhibitions of great footballing skill. They also have only one player on their squad who currently plays outside the J-League, which points to a deficit of international experience. Though cultural homogeneity can perhaps be a strength, their recent friendly records are decidedly mixed, with wins over Ghana and Scotland  balanced by a 3-0 failure against the Dutch.

Cameroon, meanwhile, crept through on the strength of Samuel Eto’o and his many watches. They offer a good record and have an unusually deep bench with lots of players in the top flight, and though they’ve little World Cup experience they took second at the 2008 African Cup of Nations and perenially feature well there. Too Africa is not the football backwater many once thought. These were real challenges they faced.

Won’t do them, though. The Dutch will clear, maybe with three straight wins, and on low points the resurgent Danes will follow. Japan will fall bottom. Cameroon will miss out narrowly, but have a young team and bright future.

Group F

My Slovenia rule somehow doesn’t extend to neighboring Slovakia. As a fourth-seed their qualification would have been the talk of UEFA if not for Slovenia’s success; but unlike their close neighbors they didn’t clear anybody really tough to get here and impressed less despite a superficially better line-up. The moral value of a scalp like Russia’s makes a big difference.

Same with New Zealand. It’s exciting for them just to be here. Presumably they’ll be allowed to stay and watch all the way to the end.

It is hard to imagine the Azzurri coming below Paraguay, who nevertheless offered a strong performance in tough marathon qualifying. And Italy had an easy-ish group. And really didn’t do that well. So maybe not impossible. And oddly satisfying.

In the interests of contrariness, then: Paraguay come top. A weakish Italy at their backs.

Group G

BIG SCARY GROUP OOOOOH.

Snore.

Oh my Ronaldito, there there...

To make up for all the ink yet to be spilled on this collection: Brazil qualifies. North Korea does not. Real race falls between Portugal and Ivory Coast for second. (I know it’s Cote d’Ivoire,  and I’m switching back and forth… but only so much can be expected of Americans.) Portugal had a badly flawed qualifying run in a difficult group while Cote d’Ivoire had a faultless one against pedestrian opposition.

Cote d’Ivoire, then, as Cristiano Ronaldo pre-emptively bursts into tears on which Simao subsequently slips and misses a penalty. Plus their flag is pretty.

Group H

Interesting one, this. Perpetually overrated Spain (it’s their year – really!) face Chile, Switzerland and North American dregs Honduras. The latter’s schizophrenic performance in the qualifiers and the old age of their recent call-ups suggest to me little threat. Probably ageist, especially given that a good many pros are already younger than me… but then none of these people play for Honduras. So then there were three.

Snide at Spain though I may they qualified perfectly, and indeed beautifully, refusing to give up any pointless games simply to protect themselves from injury like some European teams I can think of England. It would be almost an injustice were they not to go far in the World Cup. They’ll at least beat the group.

After Spain there’s a real dogfight for second-place. But Chile, who qualified second on tiebreaks with Paraguay, are a formidable team with a deep bench who handily took recent friendlies against Paraguay, Denmark and Slovakia while the Swiss are le sigh with the added stain of the hypocrisy of a deeply xenophobic country relying on a Turkish Muslim halfback and a Congolese striker for a high proportion of their offensive oomph.

So in the spirit of football my second place is Paraguay. Think of it as my contribution to ending racism. I’ll accept my Commentators’ Fair Bray award now, Sepp. You bastard.

Thoughts? Comment’s free.