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 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.)

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.