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.

Advertisements

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.)

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.