We’re now less than a year from South Africa, and the final line-up of teams is beginning to take shape.  For the crucial leagues (a grotesquely-expanded Europe and South America) qualifiers continue for the rest of the year.  But most teams have finished just over half their games, so it’s simultaneously far enough away that some prediction is possible while being close enough for me to avoid embarassing myself (too badly).

So here goes for Europe.  I’ll post a group or two a day as in the course of a long lazy Sunday I managed to pour 4000 words before getting to Group 9, which is too much even for me.  Also the delay will allow the mini-round of qualifiers to take place this Wednesday 12 August, which will at least update the figures even if none of the games are very dramatic.  (Scotland v Norway is the best of a dull bunch.)

The UEFA qualifiers are organized into eight groups of six teams each and a further group of five.  They’re derived from taking one team each from six preset pots.  These pots were organized based on FIFA rankings of all the national teams – so Pot A was the best, Pot B the next, etc.  This was to ensure that there wasn’t a “Group of Death” which pitted strong national teams against each other while weaker teams qualified in less-competitive groups.  You’d think that this functioned to distribute spots freely to the best teams while crippling the chances of weaker ones.  You’d think wrong.

There are 13 spots to be distributed amongst the UEFA teams.  The eight group winners will qualify automatically after ten games per group (eight for group nine – two per team).  Of the nine group runners-up the top eight will go into a single pot and play four games to determine the final four qualifiers.

Teams are assigned points based on performance.  3 points for a win, 1 for a draw (to each) and nothing for a loss.  So 13 points out of six games (which is what most teams have played) means 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss.

Group 1: Great Danes and Little Iberians

Participants: Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Albania, Malta

grp1

If I did have to nominate a “group of death” this year, so far it would be this one.  Denmark and Hungary have soared at the expense of Portugal and Sweden, which have both suffered under the weight of draw after draw.  (Portugal failed even to secure a win in their first meet against Albania.) Meanwhile Denmark, probably channeling their 2007 disgrace, came through a shock last-minute win against Portugal and a solid performance against Sweden to sit atop the pool.

The top four teams have four games left to play.  My instinct is that Denmark’s numbers vis-a-vis Portugal are slightly inflated, as Denmark already played both their games against Malta while the Portuguese have one to go.  Fourth-place Sweden are the only other team with another game against Malta.  We can assume both will win: a draw or loss to Malta by either would surely spell doom.  However even if Portugal beats Denmark at their next meeting and assuming a win against Malta, they’ll still fall one-point behind the Danes.

Hungary’s position in second-place is deceptively weak.  They’ve only played Sweden once – their sole loss – while they’ll face Portugal in two of their final four.  Hungary’s four wins have come solely from Albania and Malta, the weakest sides.  Saving the hardest games for last may be a morale boost, but Sweden and Portugal’s victories over Malta will put them only one point behind.  Even with a draw, either can squeeze ahead by beating another team, and Sweden still has a match against relatively-easy Albania.  Even a draw there would tie Sweden up with Hungary.  There are just too many outs left for the others.  Hungary will slip.

I doubt the Danes will, however.  Their injury-time win against Portugal (where they were behind from the half until the 82nd minute, and then again from the 84th until injury time) is evocative of Turkey last year, which was constantly outplayed but never outspirited.  While the Danes will be at home next time, the Portuguese will have returned to them Cristiano Ronaldo, absent at their last meeting a year ago.  This should help, but then he didn’t do much against Albania in June.  I think it’s likely that the Danes’ last win was something unusual and Portugal goes into the next meeting with better than even odds.  I also don’t think it will matter.  The resurgent Danish side is more than capable of taking any two of Albania, Hungary or Sweden, and two are all they’ll need.  Against both Swedes and Portuguese they’ve proven themselves more than capable of performing with élan.

Predicting number two is not easier.  Portugal should have the edge but they drew Sweden in both of their meetings, and given the numbers at work a draw is tantamount to a Swedish victory and evidence of a shaky Portuguese side.  Sweden’s loss against Denmark at home doesn’t speak better of them though.  It needs to run up the numbers against Malta in order to get the better of any tie and take down Denmark at Parken if they can.  In no case can they accept another draw against Albania.

Prediction: Denmark to clear to South Africa.  Portugal will rally, possibly on the strength of a victory against the Danes, to make second.  Sweden has more than an outside chance, but the decision whether they go forward isn’t theirs.

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