Just in time for some-but-not-all of the first qualifiers to be determined, here’s part two. The oopsie I made in your slippers on Tuesday here.

Group E

Netherlands (World Cup: Final), Sweden (UEFA qualifiers Group 1: 3/6), Finland (Qualifiers Group 4: 3/6), Hungary (Qualifiers Group 1: 4/6), Moldova (Qualifiers Group 2: 6/6), San Marino (Literally the worst team ever)

Sheila, circa 1978. Yes, my mother did used to be Martin Lawrence.

This year, and quite unexpectedly, the Dutch reached the World Cup Final for the first time since my mother danced to the Bee Gees. (I can only assume.) They did this with an unfancied team, after the most faltering of starts, etc etc… It’s big, is what I’m trying to say. Only a year ago the Netherlands’ stars, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, were being unceremoniously dumped onto the transfer market by Real Madrid, a little taste of humble pie that culminated in a facefull of it for Madrid as the ex-galacticos showed what they could do for their new teams, both Champions League finalists, at Real’s home stadium. I guess there’s a reason the whole Spain squad comes from Barcelona.

Now that the World Cup is through they’re going to lose some people, most especially Van Bronckhorst. (Incidentally, does anyone know the convention for Dutch last names?  I know in French you drop the ‘de’ if the name is longer than a syllable – so ‘de Gaulle’ by ‘Lafayette’ – while in German ‘von’ indicates nobility so you’re always supposed to use it.) Hatchet man Mark van Bommel has been named their new captain, though, and everybody else is still on form. They have enough talent to overcome almost any degree of shakiness and the real danger is that, weighed down by scorn over their performance in Johannesburg, they pull back on their physicality too much. Like it or lump it, that’s how they got to the Final in the first place, and as the team reshapes around Robben and Sneijder it’s a useful stopgap.

Unlike some groups they’ll have stout competition. Sweden are under new management and they secured the instant coup of the return of petulant journeyman striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not only is he a top class player, he’s a top class douchebag: Asked if he was getting his fiancee an engagement present he replied, “She gets Zlatan.” If I was called Zlatan and stood 6’20” I suppose I’d be slightly cocky, too, and Sweden have enough talent to justify him by building a squad around his striking prowess. Young midfielders like Martin Olsson are available in some abundance to fill out the now obligatory 4-2-3-1. (Or they might play two up front with new man Marcus Berg partnering with Ibra, though there’s not much evidence of how they’d work together.) Two goals from Olsson impressively put away Bosnia/Herzegovina in a friendly match in May, and on Ibra’s return Scotland – admittedly understrength, but when aren’t they? – were devastated.

Their partners from Group 1, Hungary, don’t look like challengers. Somewhat sad in a way, considering that Hungary are one of the two or three nations most conspicuous for their lack of international success. But they’re a smallish nation with no well-funded major league to promote their talent and Africa, not Eastern Europe, is now the growth area. They’re impressive enough, but the weak Sweden of 2009 was already too much for them. Sweden will be stronger this year – to say nothing of the Dutch.

One can’t be so sure about Finland. They don’t have much going for them but, not for nothing, they were the only team in qualification that Germany couldn’t beat. They finished a surprisingly strong third a mere four points behind Russia. Then again they drew to Lichtenstein and have never qualified for anything ever, and you’re hard-pressed to find a Finnish “name”. That could be a good thing – a bunch of players with some talent and small egos working together as a team, which is something of a Nordic trademark – but to face the other three in this group you need quality. I’m not sure they have enough.

The Dutch to win. Sweden second. Finland and Hungary have outside chances, but no better than maybe 3:1 or 5:1, respectively.

Key matches: All of them. Even the matches against the crappy teams: this group might come down to goal difference, which means scoring 12 against San Marino matters.

Group F

Croatia (UEFA qualifiers Group 6: 3/6), Greece (World Cup group stage: 3/4), Israel (Qualifiers Group 2: 4/6), Latvia (Qualifiers Group 2: 3/6), Georgia (Qualifiers Group 8: 6/6), Malta (Qualifiers Group 1: 6/6)

A big 2010 reunion here: Greece, Latvia and Israel were respectively 2, 3 and 4 behind Switzerland in Group 2 of the World Cup qualifiers.

Croatia are by some reckonings one of the World’s top ten teams despite missing out on a World Cup playoff spot. They benefit from the consistency of Slavan Bilic, coach since 2006, despite the fact that he’s perpetually thought to be on the verge of resignation (as late as November he was talking up a Premier League move). His record is why: despite the disappointment of 2010 he has a .710 average with only four defeats in thirty-eight matches. Croatia have an embarrassment of riches for such a small nation, with a first team that boasts starters from the best leagues in Europe, including a trio at Tottenham Hotspur. They’ll need a serious inquest into their tactics after a string of middling results but they’ll have the opportunity to experiment a little with Latvia before their home meeting with Greece. (A box of wine and some Kenny G is probably a good place to start.)

The two meetings with Greece will decide which one will qualify automatically – though Croatia and not Greece will be a lock for one or the other of the top two spots. Brand new coach Fernando Santos has domestic experience but will be thrown into the deep end 7 September. In his predecessor’s nine year term, encompassing a 2004 European Championship victory, relatively few players saw action as an established, trusted side was played over and over. That was then: now they’re stale and were found out at the World Cup, where only two players were under 25 (versus eight 30+ and six who had fewer than 10 caps, including two who had never featured for the national team before). The country featured regularly in the advanced stages of European club competition, but the league has suffered lately and is now a lesser Scotland, with Olympiacos besting Panathinakos about once every six years. Constant European play lets the two big clubs buy players from outside Greece, which dilutes the talent pool for the national team. Lately, it’s showed.

Israel and Latvia both finished relatively solidly in an even group for the 2010 World Cup qualifying, mostly because it was also really awful. Latvia did especially well considering they have a squad that boasts nothing in the way of European competitors, while Israel often sends a team to the group stage of the Champions League (this year Hapoel Tel Aviv) but finds itself too Jewish for Asian competition and too poor for European.  Either of these teams have an outside chance – but only an outside chance – of stealing a march on Greece. Georgia and Malta do not (indeed I suspect football fans in the latter may wish they’d accepted the chance to fuse with England even after the World Cup).

Croatia should win. I’d like see Latvia or Israel sneak into the playoffs as rank outsiders but it’ll probably be Greece.

Key matches: Croatia against Greece for first; Latvia and Israel against Greece for second.

Group G

England (World Cup: Round of 16), Switzerland (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Bulgaria (UEFA qualifiers Group 8: 3/6), Wales (Qualifiers Group 4: 4/6), Montenegro (Qualifiers Group 8: 5/6)

Speaking of being on crack, I feel confident enough after England’s friendly win and the following tabloid reports in predicting the Three Lions as runaway winners in 2012 and Brazil 2014.

Why? For the lulz.

A well-researched dramatization of Fabio Capello giving the bad news to a hapless young Englishman.

Fortunately for dear old England, they’ll have the benefit of a slimmed down (and relatively anemic) fixture list. England aren’t so hard to upset, but of the other teams here only Switzerland’s a real contender to take points from them. The Special One allegedly-kind-of-but-not-actually thinks England is doomed under Fabio Capello. He can backpedal all he wants – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that a nation who cannot find the native coaching talent to have a national manage their team has no place in the first rank. Could you imagine Italy having a foreign coach? The Dutch? The Spanish? No, but you can imagine them winning something, too.

Qualification was supposed to feature the departure of the old guard and the arrival of new faces like Jack Wilshere, Adam Johnson and – one can only hope – Tom Cleverley. In the event of the promising youngsters only Johnson and Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs actually made it into the squad, with Wilshere sent back to the under-21s. Other overlooked players, including Darren Bent and Everton’s Phil Jagielka, did break the final squad, where they’re joined by Joe Hart. Though it’s too early to tell, Hart looks to be the first time England is in safe hands in almost a decade. Assuming he’s as good as his recent form you can expect him to be firmly in goal there for a decade or more.

Below that the group is perhaps the most finely balanced in the competition. At the very bottom I’d lay aside Montenegro due to youth (of the team, not the players); their first competition since independence was the World Cup campaign. There’s no reason they can’t emulate a nation like Slovenia, especially when the Euros expand in 2016, but I don’t see it yet. Switzerland were the only team in the World Cup to take points from Spain but it was an absolute smash-and-grab – and a classic on the level of any of these. Switzerland can’t often be accused of involvement in classics, since their last two World Cups have featured mostly long, dull, grinding games, including their draw against minnows Honduras when a win would have sent them to the round of 16. I don’t know how to say choke in French, Italian or German, but I bet a few people have been practicing.

Bulgaria and Wales are odd things. Both have teams with skill anchored by quality players. Bulgaria feature several talented Petrovs. Wales can call on Robert Earnshaw and Craig Bellamy up-front – the latter, now back in Wales and out of the Premiership entirely, might be moved to focus more on international performance – as well as Gareth Bale, who has been something of a sensation lately. That’s never translated internationally, perhaps as he’s been played at fullback rather than on the wings in midfield. As the Welsh squad thins out space there may be space for Bale to grow into the team, which would be a godsend for them. Aaron Ramsey, sickeningly injured against Stoke in February, should be back at some point in the qualifying campaign. If they can be made to work, these four could carry Wales far indeed.

England to qualify outright, though with nothing near a perfect record. I’ll gives Wales the narrow nod to reach their first European championship ever, though Bulgaria with good odds as well. The Swiss are the favorites if you’re laying money on it but they’re like Midas, only with shit, and I don’t like them. So they don’t qualify. Simple, no?

Key matches: England away to Switzerland; any Wales against Switzerland.

Group H

Portugal (World Cup: Round of 16), Denmark (World Cup: Group E, 3/4), Norway (UEFA qualifiers Group 9: 2/5), Cyprus (Qualifiers Group 8: 4/6), Iceland (Qualifiers Group 9: 5/5)

Another evenly balanced collection. You know, I rather like these five-team groups. Five is a pleasant number, found often in nature, while six is bloated and grotesque. The more you know.

Carlos Queiroz letting us know exactly where we can put our drug tests.

A reunion for Denmark and Portugal, the World Cup qualifiers from UEFA Group 1. Despite finishing behind unfancied Denmark (in a group including Sweden and Hungary), Portugal clawed their way out of the World Cup group stage with draws to Ivory Coast and Brazil before their obligatory 1-0 rout to Spain. Carlos Queiroz remains for now as Portugal coach, which is a lucky break for their opponents, as are the retirements of Deco and Simao. (Watch this space, however: persistent accusations of interference with drug testers have led to a six month ban for Queiroz, which may prove too much for the Portuguese FA to take.) Cristiano Ronaldo remains on good club and solid international form, but the team was unsettled to the very end in South Africa and Ronaldo has never been well-integrated into the national side. He’ll be out injured initially, and their initial squad combines a core of experienced players with several younger, less tested options across the field. Portugal, until now somewhat old, need the experience.

Riddled with injuries and themselves looking even older than they actually were, their qualifiying group betters Denmark simply weren’t. Wholly deserving their demolition against Japan, they’ll look to engage in the same kind of comprehensive reconstruction as England, France and Italy. They’ll keep well-respected coach Morten Olsen through the 2012 campaign,by which time he’ll have the longest tenure of any national team manager in the country’s history. He’ll have his work cut out for him: the venerable but aged Jon Dahl Tomasson has retired and Dennis Rommedahl, at 32, can’t be far behind. With Bendtner out against Iceland there are no other stand outs in front, and both Rommedahl and Poulsen have more individual caps than the rest of the forwards and midfielders combined.

Fortunately, both teams’ meetings are interspersed with six competitive friendlies. Norway is the only other side capable of mounting any challenge and managed second place in the World Cup qualifying group only after a spastic display against Macedonia and Scotland. This group has real teams. The defining characteristic of the other three is not their ability to qualify – they won’t – but whether they take points off the two leaders. That will make the difference.

Olsen will have his work cut out for him, but is trusted and has some young talent coming through. He’s also relatively adaptable, which is good, as a thin bench will continue to force it upon him. Queiroz did barely enough not to get fired with a team that I could get to the World Cup Finals. (Half of which he missed, having been banned from the first two by his own country.) This is a case where the manager not merely matters but where switching them would almost guarantee a reversed result. Denmark qualifies automatically. Portugal second and a contender for best runner-up.

Key matches: Denmark and Portugal and not much else.

Group I

Spain (You damn well know), Czech Republic (UEFA qualifying Group 3: 3/6), Scotland (Qualifying Group 9: 4/5), Lithuania (Qualifying Group 7: 4/6), Liechtenstein (Qualifying Group 4: 6/6)

If Spain don’t win every match I’ll work in a poultry factory in Cambodia for a year. If their form slouches they might concede a goal on the way. The others might as well refuse to play them in the hope they get rusty without practice.

In Group 9 for the World Cup, which featured a Dutch side that didn’t lose and four other teams, Norway lost out on a playoff spot with the worst second place record, 10 points from 8 games. With 14 final places up for grabs the best goes straight up rather than the worst straight down, so about that number will do for one of the three contenders. (The Purple Parrots of Liechtenstein will miss out on the trip to Space Camp but receive a gift certificate to FAO Schwartz.) Both Scotland and the Czechs were disastrous in the World Cup qualifiers, Scotland’s 1-0 result in a March friendly equivalent to being Best Underperformer.

Now, I like Scotland. I was impressed despite their loss to the Dutch in the final group game. And then I watched them get walloped by Sweden. Mass rejections of a Scotland call-up left coach Craig Levein with little of a first team and they were run down as Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his return. Neither Scotland nor the Czechs have an Ibrahimovic, though Chelsea keeper Petr Cech is almost as good and the various journeyman keepers Scotland can call on (the latest Blackpool’s Matt Gilks via his father’s mother’s sister’s cousin’s aromatherapist’s girlfriend in Inverness) are not. Which might have had something to do with the 3-0. In a race for who sucks less, it’s the Czechs by a country mile.

I’m sorry – what’s that? Lithuania? Oh. Well. No.

Key matches: Any Scotland and Czech Republic.

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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.

Whas happeni-oh wrong show

Wha's happeni-oh wrong show

The last day of qualifiers on three continents came and passed today.  In an effort to be more international – I guess – I’m going to try to hit all of them, especially since more of the story in Europe was already done.  (For the perhaps 1 of you who will read this in the absence of a gratuitous reference to a 80s-90s television celebrity, such as Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot.)

UEFA

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

The last two teams to secure automatic qualification clinched it today, both on the strength of just-barely-enough performances.  In weather conditons that can only be described as horrendous – or hysterical – Slovakia edged out Poland on the strength of an early own goal.  This was as expected, though the late challenge by second place Slovenia in the Slovakian capital last weekend transformed this match from a lame duck showing.

In sunnier climes, if one would like to refer to Basel that way, group winner Switzerland and Israel played to a scoreless and rather unexciting draw. (Though tell that to the Swiss fans in attendance.)  For the Swiss this was actually a rather close-run thing; had they lost by a single goal today, second-place Greece‘s 2-1 victory over Luxembourg would have been sufficient to propel them into pole position.  Both Switzerland and Greece seemed to be playing surprisingly conservatively, or at least without a great deal of verve; but with a Greek attempt to storm into first place out of their hands all parties may have just thought it best to be slow and steady.

Portugal and Ukraine were the last teams to nab playoff berths without being in contention for their respective top spots.  Portugal gained a decisive (and inevitable) victory over Malta, while Ukraine did the same over Andorra.  On a personal note I continue to be infuriated with the lackluster play England exhibited in allowing Ukraine both to ruin their perfect record and edge out Croatia for the playoff.  I will undoubtedly continue to air this opinion at every opportunity.

As predicted, Norway was excluded from the second-place playoffs on the basis of weak group performance. Perhaps ironically, had Scotland not experienced their calamitous defeat to the Norwegians, or had they overcome the Dutch in their last meeting, it would instead have been the Irish Republic excluded. I mourn for the benighted Scots and their benevolent, long-suffering fans. But soccer, like politics and alcoholism, is an enterprise which worships always towards the dawn.

Second-place playoffs

You kiddin me?!

You kiddin' me?!

The draws for the second-place playoffs will be next Monday. (I think…)  Because Sepp Bladder is a man I might only describe in a terms both inventive and exceptionally lewd, Europe will be having a seeding system for its playoffs.  The initial plan (though it was never shared with anyone, so how could we know?) was to have the eight second-place qualifiers randomly paired off, each to play one game at home and one away, with the overall winner of each to gain the final four places. However there is now to be seeding based on next week’s FIFA World Rankings, which orders teams by a variety of factors based on international performance. The top four teams will be placed in one pot; the bottom four teams in another. Teams will be paired only with those from the other pot, which assures that the “best” teams will face weaker opposition. These latter are furious, with Irish coach Trapattoni being especially vocal about it, but I don’t see Bladder backing down.

Almost assuredly, the high pot will consist of Russia, France, Portugal and Greece and the dregs with Ukraine, Ireland (I think we can dispense with this Republic business, yes?), Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t know who will be paired with whom, of course, so speculation is early, but some conclusions are possible. Russia will qualify, knocking out whoever is set against them with indecent ease. (I dreamed they would do so to Portugal… alas.) Besides Russia the ironic truth is that none of the top teams are that good. France took second in a weak group; had any of the virtuous thirds like Sweden, Finland or Croatia been placed with them I doubt they’d have come this far. Portugal and Greece are notionally strong and rallied towards the end. Greece didn’t face a really tough group, so they have to be rated as faltering, but Portugal really were in a bad neighborhood with Denmark and Sweden and should be credited with a late rally. They’re not as sure a thing as Russia but they’re odds of their failure are 3:1 against.

What about the “dregs”? Again, without pairings this is speculation, but none of the four were deeply-impressive runners up. Ukraine is notionally the strongest, but they were pretty eh. B/H did just well enough to beat failing Turkey and a Belgian team in almost as bad a shape as their country. They could maybe beat Greece but they’re not giant killers. Slovenia fought their way through a very tough group, and did so as unexpectedly as forcefully, but the fact that they overcame an evenly-matched group doesn’t mean they beat a good group. Ireland, however, have been turning in powerful performances and went undefeated in their group, nearly holing the Italians in the process. (And even at half-speed Italy are no slouch.) I like their chances best, and am in fervent negotiations with the Almighty to ensure they’re not paired against Russia. In the atmosphere Slovenia and Ukraine are balanced for second-best-second, Slovenia on hustle and Ukraine on talent, with B/H trailing behind.

CONCACAF

The North American section closed with a bang – indeed a veritable Soccer War – tonight as an excruciatingly-late stoppage time equalizer prevented the Costa Ricans from clinching automatic qualification in Washington, DC. A game at which I was not present. I didn’t know soon enough, I tell myself. I can’t afford it, I tell myself. And still wish I’d gone.

This was morally important for the US, as it left us at the top of the fourth round group (an all-important point above Mexico) in a week in which the US team was plagued with disastrous injuries. The last, a rather severe tendon issue with Oguchi Onweyu late in the second half, follows a day after Charlie Davies’ car accident outside the District and left the side Estadosunidense at ten men going into stoppage. Compounding the bizarre pageantry of the whole affair, Costa Rica’s coach Renê Simões was ordered off the field (along with an assistant) following some substitution clusterfuck – perhaps in view of the paucity of time left, the referee refused it and he got lippy. Retaliating, the referee left a full five minutes on the clock, allowing the Hail Mary goal that saw Honduras qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Well THATS rather uncalled for

Well THAT'S rather uncalled for

I didn’t see much of the Honduras game, but it was apparently tight and pretty brutal.  El Salvador could easily have tied it up and left Honduras (as I’d predicted) to slug it out with the CONMEBOL fifth-place. But now it is Costa Rica that will go in their stead. In soccer as in life, someone else always pays for your success.

CONMEBOL

By comparison South America’s final night was somewhat humdrum if you weren’t secreted away in a Buenos Aires suburb with a spicy Argentinian lover and a deactivated Blackberry/wife and kids. Argentina frustratingly managed a desultory goal in the 84th minute of play that turned out to be completely extraneous, given that Chile sent Ecuador quietly into the good night. A sad end to the city that hosted the first World Cup, but Uruguay’s night was tinged with hope, as Ecuador’s loss also guaranteed them the playoff spot against the fourth-placed North American side. Their dog will have its day in two matches against Costa Rica.

Playoff

I would generally rate Costa Rica the favorite. But Uruguay has done arguably better in an inarguably tougher milieu, and the endless series of qualifiers they’ve played starting two years ago has got to whet the appetite. Costa Rica will have something to prove, but the crushing nature of the draw to the US tonight has something to do with a sense of entitlement on their side.

But then again Uruguay’s wins haven’t been all that impressive. You get the sense Argentina rather deserved to go on if that was going to be their opposition. If Costa Rica faces similar they’ll seize the lifeboat of one of the last 2010 spots.

AFC-OFC playoff

Bahrain to win. Even if they weren’t a better team – it’s not clear – they’ll be away when they face New Zealand again, which means that a non-scoreless draw will see them through. I actually don’t know what happens if they draw scorelessly. Penalty shootouts, I imagine. New Zealand might have a shot there, as playing a tournament against Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia must be very like practicing penalty shots.

CAF

Oh for fuck’s sake.

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

Rather a dull day, actually.  What looked set to happen did with few diversions.

In other qualifier news, Bahrain tied New Zealand at home.  Any draw at the second match will favor the Bahrainis as long as it isn’t scoreless.  New Zealand should be worried about this.  (Though I suppose New Zealand should be more worried about not being good.)

WON

Denmark 1-0 Sweden (Group 1)

Portugal 3-0 Hungary (1)

Switzerland 3-0 Luxembourg (2)

Israel 3-1 Moldova (2)

Greece 5-2 Latvia (2)

Czech Republic 2-0 Poland (3)

Slovenia 2-0 Slovakia (3)

Finland 2-1 Wales (4)

Germany 1-0 Russia (4)

Azerbaijan 4-1 Liechtenstein (4)

Spain 2-1 Armenia (5)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Estonia (5)

Belgium 2-0 Turkey (5)

Belarus 4-0 Kazakhstan (6)

Ukraine 1-0 England (6)

Austria 1-0 Lithuania (7)

Serbia 5-0 Romania (7)

France 5-0 Faroe Islands (7)

Cyprus 4-1 Bulgaria (8 – and the ouch of the day)

Montenegro 2-1 Georgia (8)

DREW

Irish Republic 2-2 Italy

QUALIFIED

Denmark

Germany

Serbia

Italy

GUARANTEED PLAYOFF BERTHS

Russia

Bosnia and Herzegovina

France

Republic of Ireland

WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN

Portugal 3rd to 2nd; Sweden falls (1)

Israel 4th to 3rd; Latvia falls (2)

Czech Republic 4th to 3rd; Northern Ireland falls (3)

Azerbaijan 6th to 5th; Liechtenstein falls (4)

Ukraine 3rd to 2nd; Croatia falls (6)

Sean St Ledger, the bipolar anima of the Irish team

Of course the sole draw was also one of the most decisive matches.  Ireland were on fine form and Italy, though not up to their 2006 standard, were exciting nonetheless.  But Italy was also standoffish, so in that sense the match was a showcase for the best and worst of the Irish team: the Italians seemed to be merely “dropping by”.  The best was the late header by Sean St Ledger – his first for Ireland – off a free kick by Stephen Hunt; the worst was when, in the ninetieth minute, an Italian push failed to be picked up by a surely-shellshocked St Ledger and effortlessly sent a Gilardino strike past the hapless Shay Given to tie it.  (Credit where due: itself a beautiful goal.) Perhaps the problem is that Ireland doesn’t yet know how to win? It has been awhile.

The game was probably irrelevant – both Ireland and Italy will win their final match which would have left Italy ahead anyway and Ireland got clear of 3rd place Bulgaria regardless – but I must admit it struck some slice of Celtic pride buried deep inside me to see the win slip away.  Hopefully Ireland, as well as they may have done, will be a bit more put together for the playoff rounds.

WHAT THE FUCK?! MOMENT

I could subtitle this section “OPPROBRIUM.” It goes out to the entire English team – working together.  They decided to be asleep at the wheel against Ukraine, which handed that side a desperately needed win whichwill see them through to the playoffs at the expense of Croatia.  No disrespect to Ukraine, but they should not have won if England played at full speed (just as they didn’t before and neither did Croatia).  They didn’t.

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Perhaps this was further revenge for the Croats’ sending off of England in 2008; and if it is, it’s shameful.  But I don’t think so.  I think England did what they always do – got just enough to do the job and decided to coast the rest of the way through.  The Spanish haven’t done this.  The Dutch didn’t.  Neither did the Germans.  But that’s the difference, isn’t it?  They play every single game while the little princesses on the England squad don’t want to take the risks required to win lest they get hurt. Because of their diffidence a weaker team will get through.  The Greeks killed Socrates for less.

Perhaps a coach from another football can sum it up better.

WINNERS

Dont cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Don't cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Portugal – Only towards the end, faced with the abyss, did they find it.  Their 3-0 trouncing of Hungary was exactly what they needed to get ahead.  Now only a sure thing against Malta stands between them and a certain playoff berth – though Denmark must be given the honorable mention for beating Sweden, which benefits Portugal at least as much as it does them.

Slovenia – They beat the Slovaks. They beat them handily. This was quite unexpected. When the Slovenes first made my giney tingle shortly before the 12 August mini-qualifiers they were fifth place in the group and were checkered at best, and it was mostly dumb instinct and mathematics that suggested I favor them.  But the thought that they could crawl up 5 places to the very top was unheard of. It is now a possibility; see below.

Ukraine – They beat England. I wrote in August that this would be a “shock of epic proportions.”  And how. It was mostly ignored in the press, partly because the England-Ukraine game was streamed online only via a shoddy connection in a first for useless technology and partly because England already made it. But that shouldn’t take away from Ukraine’s accomplishment despite my above tirade. They played well and bought themselves a playoff birth.

Cyprus – I know it doesn’t matter, but they badly battered Bulgaria (alliterative win), which is nominally a far superior team. I’m a little sorry they weren’t paired in a group with Turkey, considering what they appear to be capable of. But that’s probably my sick way of seeking vengeance for Turkey’s own bust-out.

LOSERS

Sweden – Don’t confuse yourselves, my erstwhile Scandinavian countrymen: you’re done. (And it didn’t stop me from quietly flailing for Denmark – personal loyalty before genetic, I suppose, though thank God my grandfather is dead.)  Even if Sweden won Denmark would have got the better of a tie, which would have shut the door to Portugal for good. Perhaps I should have pulled for the Swedes after all. But this seems unsporting.

Either way Sweden’s play was not worthy of them. The Danes flagged at the end and Sweden’s attempt at exploitation were two goals marred by offsides. Even then they could have meekly held the line for the last ten minutes and taken their chances with Albania and a tie with Portugal on points. They did not. Their World Cup ends here for it. The stain at Parken is lifted.

Norway – The vanquishers of Scotland will almost certainly have nothing to show for it. Barring some extreme fluke they will be the weakest of the 2nd place finishers and so excluded from the second round.  Unfair perhaps, but they were in a group with one very strong team and three relatively weak ones.  I’ve heard (though I can find no evidence) some griping about how this went down in the first round; I think should this occur again (which the addition of a Kosovar team might prevent) they ought to exclude from the final group one of the Pot A “best” teams and instead include two “E” teams. None of the second place runners had a chance against a Dutch side like that. They just sucked all the air out of the room and lacked the politeness to throw one at the last minute. Eh, England? Eh?

There's always 201...mumble

Everybody else – For fully half the teams the qualifiers are done, though almost all still play on Wednesday.  When you consider teams that aren’t technically “out” but have no real shot that number shoots up to include almost everybody besides those whose berths are already secure.  End of the line. Have your tickets ready.

WHAT WILL MATTER WEDNESDAY

Despite the large number of games to be played on the 14th, almost none will be of any significance. Here are the few which will:

Group 2: It is not impossible that Greece tie or even lose to Luxembourg.  They’ve won only a single game – against group leader Switzerland, and drawn two to last-place Moldova. It is also not impossible that Israel defeat leaders Switzerland. If they did they’d sneak past the Greeks by either a point or on the tiebreaker. I am most certainly not holding my breath, but keep your eye peeled on them – especially Greece-Luxembourg. If Greece struggles, get your slide rule.

Group 3: Fascinating to the last. Slovakia is holding Slovenia by a mere two points with one game left in a group where everyone has fucked someone else over at least once. The Czechs are a close third but are ultimately irrelevant – they needed Slovakia to win today.

Slovenia are certain to win their final match against San Marino; the crucial game (indeed the only game) will be Slovakia’s.  Despite the numbers their loss today has put Slovakia on the back foot; assuming Slovenia’s already won (and they have) Slovakia will have to beat Poland. A draw will drop them to second; right now they’re even on goal difference but the Slovenes will pound San Marino to run up the numbers.  Though Slovakia’s final match is away, the location in Poland is relatively close to Slovakia, lending a less hostile atmosphere than they could otherwise expect, and their away record is 3-1. But Poland are still a threat.

Whichever team comes in second will nevertheless be a distinct underdog going into the playoffs, especially with this newfound extensively ridiculous seeding system – out of spite I’ll call it the French system – so first place is quite the plum. I stand by my original rankings; Slovakia have one last victory in them. Either way we will see either a fourth- or fifth-seeded team gain an automatic qualification. That’s something special.

ALMOST EVERYPLACE ELSE

As an added bonus! (Except Africa. Probably racist but I haven’t even begun to pay attention to it. I blame my parents. Actually, fuck it. On no basis at all, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa will be joined by… uh… Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon.  Special attention to Algeria-Egypt (14 November) and Nigeria-Mozambique.

In South America you want to watch Argentina-Uruguay and, perhaps far below that, refresh the page with Chile-Ecuador. This(ese) will be the decisive game(s) there. (I like Uruguay for a narrow win and the final automatic spot; Argentina will settle for the playoff.)

In North America Costa Rica will play the US and a win there will get them the third spot. If they don’t get it Honduras can clinch with a win over El Salvador; I think there’s even odds on a tie between the two favoring Costa Rica, with Honduras playing off (and falling to) Argentina in November. That’s six months for Argentina to sack Maradona and get a real coach. It really is too bad. Hand of God; head of Dog.

After Wednesday’s (very truncated) recap I’ll mention the playoffs, though we won’t know much about those until the seeding (yes, they’re seeding, the bastards) on the 19th.

Same system as before.  Honorable non-European mention goes to the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia playoff in Riyadh, where two goals in stoppage time – including a remarkable Bahraini equalizer at 90+4! – saw the former go through on the away goals rule to face New Zealand in a two-game playoff.

Not many rank changes today, but lots of new math.

WON

Sweden 1-0 Malta (Grp 1)

Portugal 1-0 Hungary (1)

Israel 7-0 Luxembourg (2 – and the ouch of the day)

Czech Republic 7-0 San Marino (3)

Slovakia 2-0 Northern Ireland (3)

Slovenia 3-0 Poland (3)

Germany 4-0 Azerbaijan (4)

Russia 3-1 Wales (4)

Armenia 2-1 Belgium (5)

Spain 3-0 Estonia (5)

Kazakhstan 3-1 Andorra (6)

England 5-1 Croatia (6)

Faroe Islands 2-1 Lithuania (7)

Italy 2-0 Bulgaria (8)

Netherlands 1-0 Scotland (9)

Norway 2-1 Macedonia (9)

DREW

Denmark 1-1 Albania (1)

Latvia 2-2 Switzerland (2)

Moldova 1-1 Greece (2)

Liechtenstein 1-1 Finland (4)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-1 Turkey (5)

Belarus 0-0 Ukraine (6)

Romania 1-1 Austria (7)

France 1-1 Serbia (7)

Montenegro 1-1 Cyprus (9)

QUALIFIED (in addition to Netherlands, which was already placed

England

Spain

WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN

Hungary 2nd to 4th; Sweden and Portugal up (Grp 1)

Slovenia 4th to 2nd and; Northern Ireland falls (2)

Poland 3rd to 5th; Czech Republic up (2)

Norway 3rd to 2nd; Scotland falls – final (9)

OH SHIT!

Les Bleus ache for the recognition their international stature warrants, and for the second day in a row they get it.  After earning a tie against Romania via an own goal (perhaps against is the wrong word?), France topped it yet again with the exceedingly rare feat of having their starting goaltender, Hugo Lloris, sent off for bringing down Serbia’s Nenad Milijaš in the box.  The latter converted the resulting penalty shot into Serbia’s lone goal.  I think maybe France was jealous of Denmark’s “What the fuck?!” moment last week.  This week France earns both.

Credit where it’s due, at least: French substitute Steve Mandanda coped admirably.

PULP FICTION MOMENT

And to think the Serbs will qualify outright

“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” Ezekiel 25:17/Samuel L.

The British press apparently decided that this match was to be the answer to Croatia’s defeat of England in 2008 that saw them out of the European Cup qualifiers.  England apparently saw it that way too, despite a 4-1 victory at their last meeting.  England proceeded to thrash the Croatian side – no slouches they – 5 to 1.  Even Croatia’s sole reply was promptly answered by Wayne Rooney.  That hadda hurt.

WINNERS

Slovakia and Slovenia – My two group 3 picks played exactly as I’d expected, if not hoped.  (I’m obligated, and not unhappily, towards the faltering Northern Irish side.)  Slovakia took the Orangemen 2-0, and Slovenia put in an impressive 3-0 against Poland.

Slovenia is now the only team that can overtake Slovakia, who are guaranteed at least a playoff spot.  This would require two Slovenian wins – including against the Slovaks – and for the Slovaks to lose against Poland.  I don’t think it likely; but Slovenia should make it into the second round and if they stay on form I think they’ll be surprise contenders.

Serbia – France’s foibles aside, Serbia performed admirably today.  That performance guarantees that they’ll not merely qualify but, barring a disaster, will finish at the top of the group.  This has to be attributed to their own skill before anything else.

Faroe Islands – I have to give the plucky Faroese props for throwing down the Lithuanians.  Their inability to win seems not to have dimmed their enthusiasm.  They get a tip of the hat.

Honorable mention to Scotland.  They played their best game of the tournament tonight.  Alas that they had not done against Norway, which turned out to be the group’s decisive game.  Ironically Norway is as likely as not to be cut from the top 8 to go forward, so their effort will be for naught.

LOSERS

This is NOT the entire French side

This is NOT the entire French side

France – Look.  Thierry Henry is not a team.  He can’t score all your goals and he can’t do all your running.  Not even with little Franck Ribéry running around helping him.

Bottom line, France got lucky in having a weak group.  That is the only reason their dreams won’t end in October.

Sweden What was their performance against the Maltese?  It should not have taken them 80 minutes for a single goal against this side.  It doesn’t bode well if they hope to hold their weak second place, much less catch up to the Danes.

GreeceA tie against Moldova?  Give me strength.  Latvia’s draw against Switzerland was relatively more important and now they’re nipping at Pheidippides‘ heels.  Indeed I think I was too quick to disregard them, or at least too ready to give Greece credit.  They’re now even money for second place.

Ukraine – Croatia’s drubbing should have been solid gold for them, since it would vault Ukraine ahead in any tie-breaking situation.  But they drew.  To Belarus.  The cultural and historical impact alone makes me wince.

Turkey – They didn’t need a tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina.  They needed the win.  They didn’t get it.  Now only an improbable Bosnia loss to Estonia will see them in with a chance.  When your survival is completely contingent upon another team’s performance, something’s gone badly awry.  End of the line.

Dishonorable mention to Denmark, who tied Albania, which can only be rated a failure.  They can afford it, and everybody else in the group appears to have done the same, but now is not the time to let up.  Sweden, Hungary and Portugal are all still contenders.

It’s quiet until October.  We’ll see what we see.

I should recap the other leagues too, especially the increasingly-fucked-up CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, but I haven’t put enough attention and research into it. Plus the games are still going today, whereas Europe has finished up until Wednesday next.

(Though Colombia’s crucial win over Ecuador looks to have been a barnburner.)

WON

Sweden 2-1 Hungary (Grp 1)

Latvia 1-0 Israel (2)

Switzerland 2-0 Greece (2)

Finland 2-1 Azerbaijan (4)

Russia 3-0 Liechtenstein (4)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Armenia (5)

Turkey 4-2 Estonia (5)

Spain 5-0 Belgium (5)

Ukraine 5-0 Andorra (6)

Croatia 1-0 Belarus (6)

Austria 3-1 Faroe Islands (7)

Bulgaria 4-1 Montenegro (8)

Italy 2-0 Georgia (8)

Irish Republic 2-1 Cyprus (8)

Scotland 2-0 Macedonia (9)

DREW

Denmark 1-1 Portugal (1)

Moldova 0-0 Luxembourg (2)

Poland 1-1 Northern Ireland (3)

Slovakia 2-2 Czech Republic (3)

France 1-1 Romania (7)

Norway 1-1 Iceland (9)

RANK CHANGES

Sweden 4th to 3rd; Portugal falls (1)

Switzerland 2nd to 1st; Greece falls (2)

Poland 4th to 3rd; Slovenia falls (3)

Austria 4th to 3rd; Lithuania falls (7)

Macedonia 2nd to 4th; Scotland and Norway move to 2nd and 3rd (9)

OH SHIT! MOMENT

Honorable mention goes to Georgia, who were on such good terms with their asleep-at-the-wheel Italian opponents that they gave them not one but two own goals to ensure their run at the Finals would not be disturbed.

But in the end there’s not much contest.  Julian Escudé, a hapless French center back, attempted a move (a slide tackle?) that went badly, badly awry.  In the process he blew the game for France and perhaps any chance at automatic qualification for his side.

WHAT THE FUCK?! MOMENT

Stephan Andersen, Denmark’s goaltender, put in a performance that can only be described as inspired.  He repeatedly faced down a Portuguese side that was at first uncoordinated but became more aggressive and desperate as the game went on.  When a Portuguese corner was finally knocked in off the tip of a scalp late in the game, however, Andersen promptly fell backwards so theatrically that initially you thought he’d really been injured.  The match official wasn’t duped and booked Andersen, still lying in his own net, for demonstration.

WINNERS

... but theyll never take OUR FREEDOM!

... but they'll never take OUR FREEDOM!

Scotland – Just when it couldn’t get any worse, the gods knelt down and kissed the Scots on the forehead.  Not only did they manage a respectable 2-0 win over Macedonia to regain second place but Norway tied Iceland. It wasn’t the best outcome the Scots could hope for, but it was close. If the faltering Macedons can hold Norway to a tie, or defeat them outright, the Scots may yet have a chance – especially if they can see off the heretofore impenetrable Dutch.

They’re not out of the woods yet, but Scotland’s team bears more than passing resemblance to their Prime Minister: Write them off if you like, but they couldn’t care less.  In the process they may, very pleasantly, make a fool of me.

Switzerland

Their convincing win against Greece vaults them back into first place in their group.  They’ll stay there.

Slovenia

Never that I know of has a team that didn’t even play done so well. (Though I suppose they did play, a respectable 2-1 loss to England in a friendly.)  Every other contender in their group drew their matches today, which makes Slovenia’s path to the top that much easier in that screwy fucked up group.

Ukraine

They ran up a 5-0 win over Andorra which they very desperately needed.  Now they’re only one goal off from Croatia (factoring in that the latter has played more games) and they still have a fixture against the Andorran schills.  Both play England yet; it will be crucial that neither lose badly.

LOSERS

Portugal

One useless man is called a disgrace...

Their course back to relevance was hard enough, even with the return of Ronaldo for what was supposed to be a win over group leaders Denmark (which I and the rest of the world gave them).  But they didn’t have it.  While Sweden’s win is a boon for them since it keeps the battle for 2nd place close, they would ideally like to be in the hunt for the top spot.  They were. Now they’re gasping for breath, and embattled second-place Hungary (who they face in two of their last three) will not just roll over and die.

France

They’ve been asking for this with shoddy play and poor coordination.  But giving up a game that, thanks to their previous missteps, was a must-win – and to an own goal at that – is really baffling.  There was no reason they couldn’t win.  There was no reason they shouldn’t win.  And yet they did not.  If they weren’t the runners-up in 2006 I would say they had absolutely no place being in contention.  Far from first place, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re really secure for second.

Something still tells me Serbia’s luck will run out.  But not yet.

Stay tuned for this Wednesday and Thursday.  Big fixtures include Portugal at Hungary, Turkey at Bosnia, France at Serbia, and anything in Groups 3 or 9. (The latter will be decided that day.)

Group 1 is here.

Group 2: The Who? Who? Group

Participants: Greece, Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia, Luxembourg

grp2

This group is a bit of an odd duck, not least because of the combination of the terminally-disappointing Greeks and the desperately grasping Swiss.  The Swiss are in fact doing better than they should thanks to a languishing Israel.  They are enhanced by a major victory – and hindered by a terminal defeat.

Every game played against Moldova or Luxembourg should be a victory.  And indeed every one has – except the Swiss, who were taken 2-1 by Europe’s Washington, D.C.  This erases the advantage they should enjoy from their victory over the Greeks at the Piraeus, and hinders their ability to get the better of a tie by shrinking their goal differential.  (Ties are broken first by how many more goals were scored than allowed, and then by total number allowed.)  I don’t think it’s likely to be repeated by anybody; but this leaves Greece, Latvia and Israel with 12 free points and Switzerland with only 9, which means they’re that much more vulnerable.  Greece has two gimmes left to collect, while the Swiss only have one.  All else being equal this puts the Greeks at most one win away from the top spot.  They can get this from the Swiss or the Latvians.

Should the Swiss lose to the Greeks they will be denied the top spot and be put at risk for second place, especially as they aren’t guaranteed to come out atop the Latvians or the Israelis (though notionally and practically the latter are a greater threat).  The Latvians, like the Hungarians, are doing well thanks to a scheduling fluke – all but one gimme game was scheduled early – and shouldn’t survive to take first or second place.

Now Israel is a bit of a wild card.  They have been checkered so far despite their nominal strength, but they have the potential to sneak into 2nd place.  As long as they beat or draw Latvia they’ll surpass them by the end of the qualifiers; but barring a major shake-up they will have to overcome the Swiss in the final group game in order to move on.  It’s not an insurmountable task considering how spotty the Swiss have been, but they’re a serious threat.  (Unless an unlikely gift from the gods radically changes Israel’s position.)  A lot will be riding on Israel and Switzerland on 14 October, especially if the Swiss again beat Greece; then it will be likely that only an Israeli victory can save both Greece and Israel, and the latter only if they’re perfect, which they have so far failed to be.

Prediction: This one’s very tough.  Greece definitely has a much easier route to the top, but the Swiss are standing squarely in their path.  If they lose to the Swiss than a win or draw against Israel, assuming both win the rest of their games, will put the Swiss into the Cup.  At the risk of standing in front of the facts I think Switzerland will do it and qualify – Greece has not had a great few years but should have no problem coming in behind them.  Israel’s route is just too treacherous at this point, though there is a non-negligable chance they can sneak into number two.  At whose expense is unclear.