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

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.

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.