Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

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

Group A

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

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

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

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

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

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

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.)

The 1969 Anglo-Irish War

4 September 2009

This week a recently-released documentary on RTE, the Irish national television station, made a rather stunning claim: that at the height of the Troubles an Irish plan to invade and seize the North was seriously meted by the government of then-premier Jack Lynch.  The documentary, If Lynch Had Invaded…, suggests that the incursion would have had dramatic consequences, including Irish ostracism at the UN and the likely decimation of the invaders by responding British forces.

The Irish Times saw a copy of the military report, vaguely entitled “Interim Report of Planning Board on Northern Ireland Operations.”  (I could only find the introduction, which the Times ran four years ago, here.)  It assumed an Irish attack without warning or declaration and that even a total commitment by the understrength Irish Army would be violently checked by the British.  (At the time the entirety of the Irish Army was only a bit more than double the size of the British forces in Northern Ireland at the time, themselves a small fraction of the British forces available for home service.)

Though the veracity of the claim that Irish ministers actually pushed for war has been challenged, the fact that the ministers concerned were forced out or resigned shortly thereafter for covertly selling arms to the IRA doesn’t lend me much room for doubt.   Either way it’s an interesting description of how far the benighted “Irish Question” has come, considering that a threatened British withdrawal from the North five years later was met by furious opposition from the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister.

[UPDATE: Someone has posted the documentary in full on YouTube.  First part is here.]

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4, Group 5, Groups 6 & 7

Group 8: A Papist Potpourri

Participants: Italy, Bulgaria, Irish Republic, Cyprus, Georgia, Montenegro

grp8

A pretty weak group overall has Italy in the lead with the Irish visible in their rearview mirror.  Second-seeded Bulgaria has clearly been sold above its market value despite holding Italy to a 0-0 draw.  (10 of the 19 matches in this group so far have been draws.  Bits of them are sprinkled fragrantly all over the group.  They are sickly-sweet.)

Despite the frustrating number of draws and the obtuse grid of victories and losses, it’s pretty clear that the field is the Irish, the Italians and everybody else.  Everybody else has no chance of breaking out – none of the teams are that bad, but none are good enough to make a mark.  This creatres a mouth-watering opening for the Irish team, who have only been to the World Cup three times in 80 years of competition – all three since 1990.  They seem, haltingly, to be seizing this advantage.

The closeness of the top two is belied by the fact that the Irish have played an additional game (a draw), and the Italians have only taken a draw each to the Irish and Bulgarians.  The Irish have those plus additional draws to Montenegro and Bulgaria again.  Italy can expect to walk away with (relatively) easy wins from Georgia and Cyprus while I can make no such assurances about the Irish team; even draws against Bulgaria and Ireland a second time would give the Italians 22 points, which would get them over the top with a little room to spare.  The Irish would meanwhile require three straight wins to hit 22, and even then the Italians would come out ahead if they won their other games.  I don’t think it particularly likely that anyone will win any number of games straight, and I would definitely predict that whoever clears this group will qualify with fewest points in UEFA.

But neither of the leaders are likely to lose either.  This is bad for Ireland, as they need a major Italian stumble given the math they’re facing to hope to edge them out for the top spot.  I don’t think they’re going to get it, and it’s actually much more likely that the Irish trip and fall.  They’ll need their vaunted luck if they want to change the dynamics of the group this late in the qualifiers.

Prediction: Italy to qualify at the top.  Ireland to come in a fairly weak second.  The last thing the coach for Bulgaria will draw is probably a pistol.

Group 9: Can anyone untie the Gordian knot?

Participants: The Netherlands, Scotland, Norway, Macedonia, Iceland

grp9

This group was going to be fairly straightforward until today.  For some reason when I first compiled all this I checked back, saw Scotland’s game against Norway, and said to myself, “Wait awhile.”  Perhaps it was bad luck, but the wait rewarded me with the sight of the Tartan Army being violently thrown back at the gates of second place by an out-of-nowhere Norway.  The gory details are here, and to them there’s little to add.

It’s all about second place now.  It is not possible for the Netherlands to come in below first place, and even if it were they’ve stormed to victory in the entire group.  That would have made Scotland’s 7 points look pretty good, even compared with Macedonia.  In a group where each team plays only eight games, and is guaranteed to lose two of them to the leader, a relatively low score is necessary to break through.  Anything above 12 points – four wins – runs away with it.

Before this afternoon Scotland was in second place, separated by Macedonia based on the goal differential.  Going down to Norway 4-0 has blown the group open.  The Scots now trail Macedonia, who move up into second place; Norway has moved up into fourth, one point behind both, relegating Iceland and their four points to the bottom.  (Iceland has only one game left to play and is now out of contention, though they still have claws.)  Despite the positions, of the three teams remaining in the battle for second Scotland is now in the most grave danger.

Scotland faces the firewall: they’ve only one game left to play.  Their match against the Netherlands is really a foregone conclusion, especially if their play has even a shadow of what took place this evening in Oslo.  (A win there would not only erase the stain of their loss to Norway but would probably be the most dramatic upset of the qualifiers.)  The Scots have got lucky in that their match against the Dutch side comes the very last, so they aren’t certain to suffer the morale shock of two defeats in a row leading into it.

The match against Macedonia is now must-win for the Scots in any scenario.  I don’t see any way out of they falter here.  Not only do they need a win, they need a blow out, to make up for the four unanswered goals Norway took out of them today.  A Norwegian win against them might help, since it doesn’t matter where the goals allowed come from; but if Norway wins against the Macedons then Scotland needs Norway to lose to no-hope Iceland.  A draw will tie them at 10 points and the Norwegians would get the better of it.

Put another way, Scotland’s course is fucking hard.  It’s also reliant on a confluence of events which taken together are not likely.  (Though an Icelandic victory is not as unlikely as it might seem based on the last meeting with their Viking ancestors, a 2-2 draw, and the Icelanders aren’t as bad as their place would suggest.)

The Macedonians need merely take a page from the book of their famed ancestor: cut through the bullshit and win.  (The gods would approve.)  A win and a draw in their last two against Scotland and Norway will clinch it (in either order).  A win and a loss puts them into a solid position, though if they have to choose they’re prefer to beat Norway: They’ll probably get the better of any tie in the final rankings with the Scots, while a Norwegian win again both Iceland and Macedonia would see them sail through.  (A win and a tie would see them go through on goal differential.)

Therein lies the beauty of what Norway bought themselves today.  It’s not just points: it’s outs.  Before today they needed to beat Scotland and nothing else would do.  Now they’ve got options, though a loss at any point will continue to doom them.  (As opposed to the Macedonians who can maybe kinda afford one.)

Prediction: Obviously the Netherlands qualifies. Until today I’d have favored the Scots to beat Norway and go forward.  But this is why I waited.  The Scots are not out but they’re being handed their hats.  My second place pick is a weak Macedonia by the slightest of edges. This one’s 52-48.