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.


FULL TIME! – Three desperately needed points but Cameroon out of the World Cup. The Dutch have an exhibition against Cameroon, Paul Le Guen will join Raymond Domenech’s new book club and Denmark have a decisive match against Japan to determine who faces the winner of Italy’s group.  (Wild guesses…)  That was hair-raising, nail-biting stuff. Denmark will still need a win from Japan – a draw will see them go through on goal difference thanks to Japan’s one-goal loss to the Dutch. This group has the tournament’s first casualty but plenty of action left.

Thanks to Sean, Mike, Peter and Lars Eriksen from the Guardian. I’m out to write their fan reporty thing.

90+2min. – Cameroon are really pressing and there’s flashes of real beauty in their desperation.The Danes are not pressing much and are showing real vulnerability, but the defending is stout and manful. Morten Olsen looks positively manic.

90min. – “Kjaer doesn’t care where he puts it!” shouts the announcer. I LOL nervously, like a police suspect hearing a detective joke about juvie during interrogation. Denmark freekick interrupts the Cameroon volley against the Danish goal. Passing practice now for Demark.

88min. – Kjaer out for Japan game! He looked to have wasted a cross into the Cameroon half and then brought down the counter-attacker. What a blow.

86min. – Tomasson off for yet another Poulsen, Jakob. Sorensen booked for timewasting. Commentators joking about a profusion of Poulsens. Denmark have retreated to their half – they need to score!

83min. – Poulsen down after a collision with the attacking I-don’t-even-know-who after Bendtner passes a beautiful ball to the Cameroon keeper. A Cameroon player blocks Aboubakar’s shot and the corner ping-pongs before Sorensen saves.

82min. – People are going on about Cameroon like they’re some beautiful underdog story rather than the top-tip to take 2nd place in this group. It’s you and me, Denmark. Let’s see this one home.

80min. – Useless Webo comes off for Abouakar after that brilliant save. Now a Cameroonian corner. They’re at the gates – but Idrissou sends another one over the net. Denmark need to get another, and not just for me – they can’t be safe with this scoreline, not as hard as Cameroon presses.

78min. – Cameroon are almost through but it’s saved!!! There’s nobody there!

75min. – Mbia in the book for bring down Kahlenberg roughly. It leads to, uh, something, and then Idrissou’s back down the Danish right. I thought they’d play much more centered.

73min. – Cameroon are taking off the booked Bassong for Idrissou, right after Bendtner overplays a pass. I can’t look. I must look.

70min. – Tomasson had a great through-ball, passed off from Rommedahl, but he sends it right off the keeper. That was his chance to make an honest man of me.

69min. – Why are they letting Eto’o receive all these passes? If they don’t get somebody in there he’s going to throw one of those passes straight in the net… but not yet.

66min. – Makoun misses a half-sitter, but he was marked and under pressure. The Danish defense have really come together but Cameroon are going to give this everything. Gronkjaer off for Kahlenberg – Olsen is going to push this all the way home.

64min. Cameroon still very dangerous, and Webo is doing little to help at the front. The attack must continue for Denmark – when they sit back, they’re dead.

62min. Dennis Rommedahl wanders through an aimless defense and bangs it right past the keeper. Wonderful. I would have his babies if he asked me.


59min. – Gronkjaer gets away with the ball but is too bloody clever by half and gets dispossessed. It heads back to the Danish side but the defending has been much better – though too needful.

56min. – The FIFA website is useless as it also thought Njitap/Geremi went off for Makoun. It was in fact Eyong. My apologies. Cheers to Sean for the catch.

55min. – Kjaer takes a knock on the head. He’s being walked off. Oh God.

53min. – Magnificent run by Simon Poulsen, but it’s knocked back for a corner, which comes to naught. This ball is getting worked harder than… you fill that one in.

50min. – The free kick goes into the wall but a follow-up by Kjaer is palmed lightly over. Officials miss the corner and award a goal kick. Bassong the booked Cameroonian.

49min. – A horrifying chance by Makoun is averted as he’s brought down by Jensen. It looked very borderline to me, but the ref gave nothing and no one appealed. On the clearance Bendtner was through but was taken down, earning a Cameroonian the first booking of the match. Ref has been quite anonymous, and pleasantly so.

47min. Jensen has come on for the relatively-anonymous Jorgensen. Njitap for Makoun. For once FIFA does me a solid. Geremi remains. A header is palmed over by Sorensen.

46min. Apparently Bendtner has not left the field but stayed running up and down the touchline throughout the interval. For Cameroon, Geremi is said to have come off, for N’Guemo? Not confirmed.

HALF-TIME. The general World Cup press pool know what really matters – the endless whining about the disallowed goal against Slovenia. Having apparently heard nothing about what happened to Ireland, the entire World Cup-watching sports commentariat are screeching for a replay, a reversal, a tarring and feathering, anything! Only Alexi Lallas remains, horrifyingly, a voice of reason.

The stars for Denmark are all attackers – Rommedahl has been a one-man guerrilla army and Bendtner has been on-point all game. Some contributions from Christian Poulsen but Tomasson still doesn’t look fit and the back four look like they were fed LSD shortly before the match. Fortunately Cameroon are with a few exceptions completely lost.

Sean writes, “This is fun. As much as we all admire good defending, there’s little better than World Cup match littered with schoolboy errors.” Fun for you – I need a damn Ambien after that.

45+1min. – Olsen will probably spend the entirety of the half watching the replay just to see how many chances they each really have. Cameroonian defense are looking a little better but still badly vulnerable.

44min. – “Who thought up these defensive strategies? Evel Kineval?” says the commentator. For once I agree completely. These were huge chances both teams just had, and I barely had time to process what the Hell happened before somebody else was through on net. Absolutely agonizing stuff.

42min. – Rommedahl is terrorizing the Cameroonian right, rushes forward and beats the universe on a long ball. Rommedahl turns in, gets a shot, saved, another from Tomasson, saved, and finally a long ball from Bendtner is turned off. Then Cameroon are there, and they’re through, and a save and then it goes off the post! And back! And forth! Four unbeatable opportunities in two minutes!

40min. – Suddenly Denmark have new life, though Cameroon have not dropped off the face of the Earth. They still know what’s at stake. Geremi tries to play in Webo but Sorensen grabs it without undue trouble.

38min. – If you came by twitter, I apologize for my momentary bad Danish spelling. I went phonetically and didn’t correct it quickly enough. But, we persevere. I think we usually say “real end-to-end stuff” at this point, so there we are…

33min.HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES??!!! – Kjaer plays a long ball to Rommedahl, past a clustering band of Cameroonians. Rommedahl sends it laterally to Bendtner, who is right there. Fantastic.

32min. – “What the fuck was that?” says IRL Dane Peter. I literally cannot tell what he means, Denmark are so poor.

30min. – Jacobsen confuses an Exocet missile with an ICBM and using the latter lifts the ball into near-Earth orbit. It’s just shocking, but at least Denmark have the ball.

27min. – “Apparently a friend-of-a-friend’s Mum looks like Danish striker Jon-Dahl Tomasson,” says Sean Carroll. And this is a man who yesterday was in the presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Who actually looks a bit like a bald, bespectacled Morten Olsen… but I suppose at their age almost everyone does.

26min. – All crossing in this World Cup is terrible, say the commentators. Crosses feature a ball. Therefore the ball is terrible. A philosophy degree from a B school gives me little logical purchase, but I think I sense a few holes here.

24min. Mike writes, “This is a very different Danish side that what I saw on Monday. Lacking discipline and confidence on the ball.” But – little-by-little – building up in the Cameroonian half. That goal was good fortune but little more and Cameroon look a bit unconvincing otherwise. But then, so do the Danes…

Webo plays with the ball on the touchline and is so adroit he’s flagged out of bounds.

20min. – Emana tries to get away with it a second time, but no dice say the defenders, who converge on him. Rommedahl leads an attack and it’s played to Tomasson, who beats the offside but can’t quite get to it.

17min. – Cameroon are swarming the ball as it goes from Dane to Dane. This is leaving a great deal of space open for long passes if Denmark can exploit. Gronkjaer has a shot, which is deflected to a pointless corner.

15min. – The commentators are now practically crowing about how wonderful it will be for an African team to make it out of the first round. I think it’d be wonderful if they weren’t so horrible – that goal was thanks to the Danish defense. Make no mistake.

Somehow that feels no better, though.

11min. – Also, lost in a cacophony of my dry heaving at 10”, Lars Eriksen notes that he is still – but still literally – writing the book on the ’86 Danish team. We’ll call that my glitch for the day. Emana blasts one at the goal. It’s wide, just.

10min.HELL. Samuel Eto’o benefits from a Christian Poulsen defending horror – how many of those are worth his quality? – and bangs it in from no range. This could be a horror.

7min. – “There’s a lot of Poulsens around in the Danish squad, you’ll have gathered.” Only as many as Songs in Cameroon. Rommedahl launches a powerful, probing shot from distance. Over. Not by so much.

3min. – Jorgensen already looks 138… or 12.

1min. – Cameroon already on the attack, but Kjaer is on hand for the deflection. Not wasting any time, then.

2:29pm Der er et yndigt land” is sweet and melodic. I do so like it. Though it’s a bit sleepy.

2:26pm – Duh-duh-duh-DUH CAM-ER-OON! I love an anthem with cymbals. Though it sounds a little bit like something played by an inept high school band who just got the music ten minutes ago.

2:22pm – Oh, by the way, the big people minute-by-minute’s here. I say keep them open side by side.

2:19pm – Alexi Lallas: “This is gonna be a game!” Top commentating. He makes me feel like Jonathan Wilson.

2:17pm – Though to be fair there have been worse ideas. Like Fabio Capello.

2:16pm – Network television (ABC) is showing this match in the United States, to the delight of the country’s vast Camero-Danish community.

IRL Dane Peter Stockmann sends this link to Ekstra Bladet which suggests treatment for Bendtner was attempted via a witch doctor. You heard me. Witchcraft.

Sorry it’s in Danish.

2:11pm – Fresh from a shower for the first time since mumble mumble. In that time we’ve got the team sheets, but before posting those Lars Eriksen, who literally wrote the book on the 80s Danish Dynamite, posted to alert me that there is a slightly shorter version to which I haphazardly referred. As it happens it jogged my memory as being excellent, and I’ll probably devote the next thirty minutes to a swift reread. He also links to his effort of this morning which shows the current lot in more skeptical relief. Cheers.

The teams:

DEN – Sorensen; Poulsen S., Agger, Kjaer, Jacobsen; Rommedahl, Poulsen C., Jorgensen, Gronkjaer; Tomasson, Bendtner. Coach M. Olsen (DEN).

CMR – Hamidou; Assou-Ekotto, N’Koulou, Bassong, Mbia; Emana, Song A., Enoh, Geremi; Eto’o, Webo. Coach P. Le Guin (FRA).

Key takeaways:

All the doubtful Danish starters are in. Tomasson especially will provide much needed firepower up front and Kjaer’s presence removes a big worry, as he is not only stout but useful pushing forward. No telling if all three will make it.

Big push forward for Cameroon. Alex Song is back in central midfield, with Webo and Eto’o moved up to forward positions. This should be much more dangerous.

Afternoon, gents and potentially ladies. Halfway through the second round two dozen teams are staring into the abyss. Included among them are England, laboring under two dire draws and trailing Slovenia; Spain, shocked by Switzerland; Germany, stunned by Serbia (with help from a soft red and Lukas Podolski, Serbia’s top defender); France, whose coach is even now putting Nicholas Anelka on a plane home; and most of the African contingent, including the hosts. There was loud concern that this World Cup would be boring, defensive and predictable. Not anymore.

Denmark and Cameroon are both among that number, though the Danes have reason to feel better about their position. An expected loss to a Dutch team favored to take nine points out of the group nevertheless displayed a relatively strong defensive performance and some attacking threat out of the dedicated forward players. More than most the Danes are susceptible to injury and more than most they’ve suffered from it; Bendtner, Tomasson and Kjaer are still iffy and now substitute Beckmann are added to their number. Still, having your backs to the wall and the worst behind you can be encouraging and liberating and I’m hopeful for all three to play.

Cameroon are meanwhile laboring under a fractious regime with unending reports of upset with coach Paul Le Guen, who is about as popular as a French manager should be, and the growing little black clouds hanging above Samuel Eto’o. Team selection has been particularly contentious thus far. However Eto’o will be satisfied with Le Guen’s decision to play him in the center after positioning him on the wing effectively removed him from the match against Japan, and others (Alex Song?) are likely to return to the pitch today. The whole team are well aware that a loss ends their contention for a place in the final sixteen. They will be a deadlier team than Japan found.

(Incidentally, earlier today someone asked me if it bothered me to cheer against an African team at Africa’s World Cup. Considering how bad they all are, not a whit – though I still hold out secret, unspeakable hope for the hosts.)

Tactics are likely to be similar and built around a key playmaker. Denmark will defend vigorously and where possible get the ball to Bendtner, ideally up the wings. Cameroon will try to get it forward to Eto’o through a string of central midfielders. Bendtner’s a rather better conductor if less individually talented than Eto’o, and Cameroon’s defense is less stalwart. Denmark are under real pressure to get goals early lest Bendtner give out. I think they’re up for it. I’ll say Denmark 3-1. (Jinx/knock on wood/fingers crossed?)

As last time Sean Carroll and Mike de Vries will have their tweets shamelessly stolen to provide inter-group reaction, as well as my friend Peter for the thoughts of an actual Dane. You can also have yourself reflected in this little dog and pony show via my slice of the Twatcracy as well as over e-mail at wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail.

Especially if you’re a Cameroon fan. I don’t have one of you yet and could use the counterpoint as I’m not exactly neutral.

A note from the world of the unseen: According to yesterday’s World Cup Daily, Rob Smyth of the Guardian has apparently written about how this Danish team is the finest since their 1986 side – and possibly better. I’ve been unable to find anything but a bunch of smaller write-ups on the ’86 squad but if and when it surfaces I’ll put it up (and let me know if find it). So far, I’m not sure – they seem to be uncomfortably perched in a transitional phase between old and young players and a strong defense balanced by a really menaching strikeforce. One jittery first game – amongst both teams – isn’t enough for me to judge.

Teams: To come.

He is the ref: J. Larrionda. The last Match he referred(? Why not) was Portugal-Ivory Coast in Group G, which had no score but three yellow cards. He’s been a ref at the top level for a long time but is controversial – at least in the USA. He’s certainly not shy about tossing around yellows and reds, so he may not tolerate a physical game. Denmark are a very physical team but their discipline is better than Cameroon’s, so we’ll see.

2-0. That’s the result of Morten Olsen’s big push for a draw against the Dutch. Between Elia’s legs, Dirk Kuyt’s right foot and Daniel Agger’s back, Denmark was thoroughly dominated by a Dutch team that showed flashes – just – of brilliant play.

Zonal Marking has a great summary of what went down, and it reports what you might expect: for a 2-0 win there wasn’t much in it as the Dutch struggled to bring down tightly-managed Danish resistance. The Dutch were favored and they got their win, and you might – as they do – take good note of the fact that the Danes avoided the mauling that was suffered by a poor Australia or a far better South Korea against similarly talented teams. But you can’t help thinking that they were capable of more – that if the Swiss can manage a very shaky team to a shock victory over the tournament’s favorites, Denmark could have taken one over an uncertain and only vaguely-favored Great Team.

Morten Olsen’s little fake-out routine with Bendtner was probably a mistake – at least it was a waste of time. I suppose there’s a chance that when he gave all those interviews he really didn’t think Bendtner would play. There’s also a chance that tomorrow I’ll become CEO of Merrill Lynch or the Sun will crash into Mercury. The fact is he played a little mind game with the Dutch that ultimately caused them no great consternation and got out of it was sixty-five minutes of mature but ultimately ineffective play from his star striker.

Ruse or no, he had little choice: with only three strikers in a squad that often plays two and veteran Jon Dahl Tomasson down with injury, it was either Bendtner or Soren Larsen, the journeyman striker who’s played little for the national team since his sensational introduction in 2005. You almost get the sense that he was included only because two strikers was too few even for Olsen; and when Bendtner went off he was replaced by Mikkel Beckmann, an attacking midfielder who seemed a poor fit and left little impression.

Eventually all three substitutions went to players up front – before Bendtner, the young Thomas Enevoldsen went off for the venerable Jesper Gronkjaer and Thomas Kahlenberg went off for Christian Eriksen. None had the effect of the Dutch substitution of van der Vaart for Elia, who terrorized the Danish right and turned Jacobsen, Rommedahl and the reinforcing Eriksen inside out. Worse, his runs pinned back Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, both of whose support were an important component in the early threat by the debilitated Danish strikeforce.

The lack of striking options, and the over-reliance on tried-and-true players like Jorgensen, Christian Poulsen and Rommedahl are problems with no solution; the squad is there, like it or lump it. But the good news is that Denmark’s defense did prove a good deal of mettle and for the first thirty minute the attack was as good or better than a Dutch team with far more options. Now Denmark has got its most difficult match out of the way and low expectations mean no psychological shock like that suffered by France, England or Italy. Poulsen/Agger’s own goal was unfortunate but a bizarre lacuna to otherwise excellent play – and perhaps only a little worrying in view of the fact that the only goal surrendered by Italy in the 2006 group stage was their own. The next match is against a Cameroon side which can’t work with Samuel Eto’o and Japan are not likely to get any better result against the Dutch. A final match against Japan suits a Danish team that tends to thrive with their backs to the wall. The dynamite burns slowly, but it burns all the same.

To assume makes an ass of you and me. So let’s get on with it. Part 1 here.

Group C – In-ger-lund!

England, United States, Algeria and Slovenia; last prediction 1st England 2nd Slovenia

Listening to today’s Football Weekly – the super-duper special World Cup preview – I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the English. Is the malaise in football’s motherland so great that America – America! – can be turned into some great vicious enemy waiting to maul hapless, helpless Albion?  What strange days we live in.

Yes, England looks a bit, uh, French lately. Indifferent against Mexico and fortunate to have two of Japan’s three goals go their way, you would rightly sniff a bit at the prospects of this being England’s Year. But only a bit: England were deadly in the qualifiers. You might smell a whiff of diffidence from their surrender to the Ukraine, but then a little charity is perhaps in order, especially since the squad was so much more unsettled this year than last. (A contagion starting with the Russian roulette going on in goal and abating only at the shiny golden pate of Wayne Rooney.)

But then. That Japan match was just – ugh. Ugh! God. I feel the bad kind of dirty just thinking about it. England’s best chance was a penalty. Which Frank Lampard missed.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. We recall that they’re facing the same USA side that took a single point in 2006 and blew the 2007 Copa America. Their qualification run was basically identical this time around and the Confederations Cup, while an inspiring moment for a team of lesser lights, mattered rather less to Spain and Brazil, who seemed as though they simply couldn’t be bothered to lose. 3-1 against Australia is no mean feat – but big losses to the indifferent Czechs and the Dutch (minus Van Persie) are highly unencouraging.


But that’s not how I really know the USA is in trouble. You know how? All this big tough bluster about giving England a rough time and psyching out Wayne Rooney when they can’t even muster the best widow’s peak. Like Jay DeMerit is Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney’s just going to oblige them an hysterical red card  or gift some horrible passing error in a fit of pique. I think they’ve been basing their team strategy on the Nike commercial.

Told you so.

Of  course Algeria are a horror show and will not foul themselves to a single point. (Though I’ll tip them for worst group stage disciplinary record – take that Uruguay!) Slovenia, however, still tug at my soul. Their friendly results are encouraging but sparse – only three since last September, two wins and a loss (to England). However in terms of finding it where it counts Slovenia are up there, tossing out the top three seeded teams in their qualifying group and an excellent Russian side in the playoffs. Like I said before: it’s the fussballgeist.

Admittedly their group was easy-ish. But besides Mexico, was the USA’s any more challenge?

Hmm. Perhaps cynicism towards your home nation is an Anglophone thing.

England wins all three. Their first match will result in less a defeat than a rout of the United States. Slovenia comes through, but on only four or five points.

Group D – Sitzkrieg

Germany, Australia, Ghana and Serbia; last prediction 1st Germany 2nd Australia

The months have not been terribly kind to Germany. They’ve lost Michael Ballack to a needless meaningless injury (Arsene Wenger will hopefully feel some sick pleasure that the pendulum swings both ways) and ex-coach Franz Beckenbauer is using it as an excuse to say they won’t contend. Balls. (Balls-ack? Can I get a har har?) Ballack was good, a lynchpin, but Germany are not a team so inspired by a single player. His loss doesn’t rule them out the way Rooney’s would England or Ronaldo’s Portugal. It’s the difference between an A and A- team.

But maybe they don’t sweep the group. All of the teams they face are notionally quite strong; Serbia and Australia actually so. Ghana has a lot to offer in FIFA World Cup but they were bad at the Africa Cup of Nations, atrocious against the Netherlands and will see none of Michael Essien, who was a best a toy flashlight in the midst of a black hole.

Australia impressed in 2006, qualified effortlessly in the more difficult Asian Confederation and their last several friendlies have been positive. (Especially after forcing a 0-0 draw with the Dutch.) Star midfielder Tim Cahill is an injury doubt but you’d argue this still leaves them better off than others. (Germany, Ghana…)  I noticed Serbia got some buzz as a dark horse team; this is right, if for no other reason than that they’re on par with Australia (and the USA) but get nothing like the coverage. Reservations about their shaky form lately weren’t helped by a slightly hysterical 4-3 result against Cameroon.

Though neither were they after Australia’s 3-1 loss to the USA…

Germany will top the group, but may give up a draw. Australia with Cahill is 54-46 to come second; without 52-48. See what I did there? I used numbers to seem sciency.

Group E – Stale Danish and doubled-over Dutch

The Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark, Japan; last prediction 1st Netherlands 2nd Denmark

I have to admit the subtitle’s a bit forced. After I spent a solid 15 minutes on it. Yeah.

The Dutch have continued a strong run of form after a perfect qualifying run, but… I don’t know. I watched them against Ghana and it was probably the most jittery big victory I’ve seen. They seemed tentative and slightly distracted and only very late did they expose the soft underbelly of Ghana’s misery and crap goaltending. For a great team, they weren’t very great – and they’ll be down the truly excellent Arjen Robben in the opener against Denmark. If they’re lucky.

The Danes, however, have fared far worse. Their key men both up front and in back, Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, are on the knife-edge for desperately-needed inclusion against the Dutch. Then just today the coach/namesake of Olsen’s Gang took to his bed with a fever. In South African winter. You can’t make this shit up, can you? Bendtner and Kjaer have at least returned to full training, but with all three fit Denmark dropped three of the last four friendlies. (Taking it easy to avoid injuries?) Bendtner in particular is a blessing, since Olsen brought only three strikers to the tournament, preferring to keep his options open in a variety of supporting roles.

Cameroon are fully fit and somehow even more pathetic. Samuel Eto’o threatened to quit because Roger Milla wouldn’t be his friend (dude, cold) and the rest of the team aren’t much to write home about. Even Japan has rather more depth. Cameroon haven’t won a match since the group stages of the Africa Cup of Nations and I’m not sure their 0-0 draw against Georgia qualifies as a result. Or their 1-1 against Italy, come to that.

As for Japan – I can’t even. Read this instead. Too bad they’ll go as their fan contributor knows his stuff and is far less crap than I.

The absence of Robben probably won’t noticeably hinder the Dutch this early. They’ll come first. The Danes, luckier than good of late, to slide in second. If Cameroon are lucky they’ll make a good third.