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

Advertisements

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4, Group 5

Group 6: England prevails

Participants: Croatia, England, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Andorra

grp6

In retrospect it seems rather comical that Croatia was seeded above England, but this just goes to show you the crisis that the English team has suffered the past several years – and the extent to which they are putting it behind them.  Their Italian coach, Capello, appears to be doing something right in a big way.  (Though there’s perhaps some pain in admitting it.)  In any event England has decided that winning might not feel so bad, and win they have.  They’re wiping the floor with everybody and have shown no sign of slowing.

Second place is a real dogfight between Croatia and Ukraine.  Everybody else is in the dust – indeed thus far the bottom three places have defeated only those teams beneath them.  So any game by the top three against the bottom three can be safely judged a pass.  This makes second place all the more difficult, as Croatia and Ukraine have already played each other twice – tying both times.  This means that both teams have four games remaining, one of which is a near-certain loss and the other three certain wins.

If this remains the case, 2nd place will go to whichever team can run up the scores against weak sides like Andorra and minimize goals allowed.  Obviously should either beat England it would be a shock of epic proportions which would guarantee 2nd place – but still leave them far behind the Queen’s merry men.  Croatia has to be given the edge on the strength of their more accomplished and broadly-capable team: all but one of Ukraine’s 9 goals have come from just two players.  That’s not a team and it’s vulnerable to injury or penalties.  If it’s about running up the goal differentials, Croatia provided a convincing shutout to Kazakhstan.  Ukraine has not.

Prediction: England is certain to qualify at the top of the group.  Croatia will take the second spot but it will be a win based on goal differentials, as both they and Ukraine will take three of their last four games.  A loss by either against a team besides England would make their position irretrievable.

Group 7: La France – Aucune

Participants: France, Romania, Serbia, Lithuania, Austria, Faroe Islands

grp7

Something strange and awful is happening in this group.  I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

Group leaders Serbia has thus far beat everybody except France.  You would think this would put France in a dominant position, save the fact that their first game was an embarassing 3-1 loss to Austria (who couldn’t even nail down the little Faroese).  They’ve not done much better subsequently; they tied Romania and in their last game beat the Faroese by a paltry 1-0.  The Serbians, besides their respectable loss to France, have been free of mistakes, which is why they have a fairly substantial lead. The remaining teams have had spotty records against everybody else – there’s no clear hierarchy.

Now perhaps it’s clear why I say there’s something wrong with this group.

Serbia is clearly now in a dominant position; but this is the weirdo group, where Austria draws the Faroe Islands but beats France but loses to Lithuania.  Can I honestly say, as I did of England and Spain, that Serbia will win every game they have left, including or excluding France?  Not here.

Make no mistake that France is clinging to second place; their victory over the Faroes was supposed to be a home run.  Instead they turned in another weak, low-scoring victory.  This should have been a blowout.  Perhaps the Faroese are a surprisingly robust small team – I had to remove a fairly long diatribe against them because of their stubborn refusal to totally suck. But the French must also be found wanting.

Then again you’d have a harder case still to make that Austria, Lithuania or Romania are going to be any real threat down the line.  France’s stumbles don’t spell doom for a team as seasoned and powerful as they, even if they have fallen far from their 2006 performance and the retirement of Zidane; and Serbia have played tight and forceful and smart. It is more a two-horse race than it first looks.

If the Serbians lose only to France in their last three games – because in a group like this why wouldn’t they? – the Frenchmen will need a clean sweep to snatch first place.  A single draw will relegate them to second.  A Serbian loss to somebody else can hardly be ruled out, and that would make France’s path correspondingly easier.  The rest of the field is not in serious contention and will probably only suffice as meat puppets for the current top two.

But then this is a group utterly defiant of probability.

Prediction: France will effect a comeback to take the group.  (If anything it’s the most random plausible outcome.)  Four victories in a row is doable if they can find it in themselves with their backs to the wall, and they can and should take all of their remaining opponents.  Serbia are luckier than they are good – their wins are rather stitched together with duct tape – and as a result should land in second.  Most likely, they’ll both lose or draw some, but France will find enough to come out on top.

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4

Group 5: At the walls of Sarajevo

Participants: Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Armenia, Estonia

grp5

This group is almost more straightforward than the last.  Spain’s victories haven’t been shutouts but they have had them without fail.  Their last four matches include contests against Belgium and B/H (which is my new trendy abbreviation whose use of the slash mark seems offhand and clerical but actually incisively critiques the ethnic cleavage with which the country remains riven – pass it on), which may prove to be of interest.  But probably not.  Spain’s been on a roll since the Euro 2008, despite having a relatively overrated side, and their fluke loss to the US last month probably won’t break their back.  Indeed my only real complaint is that David Villa is doing too much of their work.  It’s a sign of potential weakness down the road.

Second place is closer, but at this point there’s really nobody close enough to challenge B/H.  Turkey isn’t displaying much of that unbelievable never-say-die attitude that made the Euro Cup so entertaining (a loss for the whole sport, that), Belgium are between coaches and Estonia is certainly out of range – though like their Latvian brethrean I suspect this will be the last time in some while they’re seeded so low.

Then again Turkey would have to sweep their remaining matches to slide into second place (assuming Spain does as well; a Spanish loss at any point would scramble the numbers).  This is not out of the ballpark – they’ve already beat B/H and they have no further matches against Spain.  Belgium is a threat but not an overpowering one.  Then again Turkey walked away with a draw against Estonia so consistent play is clearly not a factor of their qualifying experience.  This is the problem they face, and this is the deficit between raw, aw-shucks enthusiasm and cool professionalism.

Prediction: Spain is certain to automatically qualify.  Now that I’ve gone through the whole thing, though, I’ve talked myself into Turkey for second place.  They have an amazing capacity for surprise and Bosnia and Herzegovina have limped through on relatively easy games.  They are also certain to lose at least one of their remaining four, which Turkey is not.  Also I’m nostalgic for my time in Denmark in 2008 when I watched them once again strike terror through Europe at Vienna.  This whole affair isn’t particularly based on reason anyway.

Also, I know the allusion I attempted to make in the title for this group is inaccurate.  Alas.

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3

Group 4: The pun I can’t quite make

Participants: Germany, Russia, Finland, Wales, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein

grp4

I was thinking of calling it “Operation Barbarossa.”  But I’m a culturally sensitive guy.

At least we finally have a group behaving as it’s supposed to.  Russia is nipping at the heels of leader Germany, which is hampered only by a draw to Finland.  Azerbaijan and Lichtenstein games constitute freebies for the other countries, having drawn only against each other.  Wales is also not in practical contention, having won only their freebies and lost against all others.

What’s really at issue here is which of Germany or Russia gets the automatic slot and which to second-round draw.  While I feel bad about disregarding the Finns so callously (and there’s no doubting that they’re a plucky people, lest I omit a World War II reference), there’s not much of a way for them to break through.  This is a team that hasn’t qualified for a World Cup or Euro Cup in 50 years – a team that in the last Euro qualifiers was doomed by a loss to the same Azeri side that we’re comping for everyone in this group.  (It was the sole victory the Azeris took, while Finland missed a trip to Austria by three points and the goal differential with struggling Portugal.)

That wouldn’t itself be so bad if not for the first, disastrous game they played against Russia, where they gave two – two! – own goals!  The help gave the Russians a 3-0 victory, which they repeated in the second meeting.  Anyway the numbers just aren’t there – even a shock victory over Germany would put Finland at 22 points.  Even if the Germans also lost to the Russians they would almost certainly beat Finland on goal differential.  Either Russia or Germany would have to suffer a cascade of major setbacks to give Finland the juice necessary.  It’s just not happening.

Russia and Germany are simple.  Both will win three of their four remaining games.  (Indeed just today Germany took the first against Azerbaijan in a stadium whose name they utter with a grimace.)  On 10 October they’ll play each other.  The winner of that comes first.  The loser goes to the playoff.

Prediction: There’s no reason to believe Germany won’t take the automatic spot and qualify.  Their game against Russia is the only real question mark left on the board, and I don’t think Putin’s Punishers pull it off.  (Though I will be watching it closer than the waiter at a dinner date with Alexander Litvinenko.)  The good news for the Bear is that they are certain to qualify in the second round.  Only victories by the deep underdog Welsh (or the other, deeper underdogs) could jeopardize this fundamental situation.