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.

See?

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.

I mean you, Sepp Bladder, you awful manbearpig

Before getting to the World Cup draws themselves, I want to make clear that I will not christen a group of death.  FIFA has made groups of death obsolete.  Nothing like 1986 can happen again; stage management from continental leagues on up is such that no win will be terribly surprising, no loss so unexpected. It takes something away from the spirit of the game, but there you go. It’s not as if there’s no hope. Even 2006 managed a Group E.

Group A

One is tempted to be uncharitable and say that once again a biased and corrupt seeding system has worked to the benefit of Les Snooze. One is tempted to be right. Coach/offense to football Raymond Domenech bitched and moaned about his team being excluded from the top flight because of do-you-know-who-I-am? as if it could be thought fair for a qualifying group runner-up to be ranked in preference to the winner, Serbia. He can stuff it.

That said, even if they stumbled upon a path France remains to escape the woods. I learnt my lesson in the qualifiers when picking them, despite truly horrendous play, to come atop a Serbian team that not long ago would have been comically easy. A lot of better teams failed to get to Jo’burg and it slightly maddens me that the consensus is already to award the group to France.

I respectfully dissent. My money is on a good Mexico side, who don’t have to stretch have to beat France. They can tie or lose and still put away Uruguay and probably the unfortunate South Africans, who have Pienaar and some guys he met at a bus stop Friday afternoon.

France‘s native skill is enough to see them bumble through, so I’ll nod them for the second spot, despite more hot-headed predictions. No mistake I’d like to see them punished, but they’re lucky. For now.

The Greek national team

An interesting collection. Nothing really bad here, though Greece doesn’t inspire and Argentina’s ailing with a deficit of talent on the field matching that in coach Diego Maradona, who scraped them through the qualifiers with an anemic 8-4-6 record. We were speaking of losing teams being seeded higher – Argentina was South America’s lowest automatic qualifier and only then thanks to a late goal by Mario Bolatti. (Who?)

South Korea (which is a Republic, in case you didn’t know) weren’t able to replicate their success in 2002, crashing out narrowly in the group stage, but rallied to win the Asian Cup the year after and pipped Japan to win the East Asian cup. Doubtful competition, to be sure, but talent like Park Chu-Young makes them a threat. Nigeria overcame traditional African powerhouse Tunisia to get here but haven’t thrilled.

In Nigeria’s case I would ask whether Obafemi Martins or Victor Obinna can be their side’s Drogba or Eto’o. I’m doubtful.

Argentina to top the group only narrowly. South Korea to go to the sixteen with them.

Group C

I spoke of mistakes. I’ve made a few. One was predicting Slovenia to lose their second-place draw. I have seen the error of my ways and I’m attempting to atone.

As such, though you’ll think I’m crazy and you’ll be right, either England or the injury-plagued United States are going home with Algeria.  Slovenia have something, you see. Call it fortune. Call it God. Call it the fussballgeist. Whatever. Like Turkey in 2008 they should not by any means be winning, and have no right to be, but are. In Slumdog Millionaire they would say it’s because “it is written.” Whatever it is, it is.

Who are their players? How’s the back-four? What about possession? Don’t know, don’t care. Many very silly people are dumping on them – while tweeting during the Guardian’s minute-by-minute someone remarked that they weren’t better than anybody – and these people are right. Slovenia weren’t better than the Czechs; or the Poles; or the Northern Irish; or the Russians. And yet all are long gone.

Of the big two even if the US had the talent and depth to make a go of it the injuries sustained towards the irrelevant end of qualifying will probably mean we see a substandard side. And the US wasn’t that good to start with. A strong but not superlative England will qualify at the top and Slovenia will take the second position. America, thanks for playing.

Group D

Germany, to a lesser degree, also cannot catch a break. No one ever thinks they’re very good and I can never tell why. Their qualification record was flawless; they placed third in 2006 and second in 2008; and have talent like  Podolski, Ballack and Schweinsteiger at the front and little Philipp Lahm at back. They’ve had some internal issues, and some tragedies, under coach Joachim Low – my reply is “Yeah and?” Every team does. If they’ve suffered I just don’t see it. Go on all you want, but look at the matches. Their performance is, indeed, German: maybe not inspiring, but solid and stalwart and always where it needs to be.

They’re in a tough group, too; far worse than immediate collective Group of Death G. Australia and Ghana are arguably the best in their leagues (for Oz their move to Asia means that’s no longer a sneery boast) and feature marquee players at their head. Serbia is a reviving powerhouse who bested a group including France, Austria and nominally-superior Romania, and unlike other small countries they did so without resorting to a single star hopelessly trailed by the rest of the team. Not for nothing, too: this is the only group where all four teams appeared in 2006. All but Serbia cleared the groups, making it the most collectively successful, too.

I can’t see Germany failing to qualify, though it’s conceivable they might not top the group. Any of the other three could go forward with them. This year I’ll give Australia the edge over both thanks to a tougher qualification run than the others got.

There’s no group of death. But if there were… the fireworks would be here.

Group E

As a Danish fan I was not displeased: this was a better draw than one might expect. The Dutch cruised effortlessly through qualification even if they let a disappointing friendly draw with Paraguay reward their loss of Van Persie to injury. (A blessing in disguise? He’ll be well-rested in plenty of time to train for South Africa, and being out means he’ll be less exhausted from constant league and European matches until then.) Denmark had little more difficulty, losing only to Hungary in their last match in a group that included Portugal and Sweden.

As for Japan, though they apparently have a strong midfield they were badly drubbed in 2006, lost the Asian Cup the year after and lost every game in last year’s Olympics, which is not known for exhibitions of great footballing skill. They also have only one player on their squad who currently plays outside the J-League, which points to a deficit of international experience. Though cultural homogeneity can perhaps be a strength, their recent friendly records are decidedly mixed, with wins over Ghana and Scotland  balanced by a 3-0 failure against the Dutch.

Cameroon, meanwhile, crept through on the strength of Samuel Eto’o and his many watches. They offer a good record and have an unusually deep bench with lots of players in the top flight, and though they’ve little World Cup experience they took second at the 2008 African Cup of Nations and perenially feature well there. Too Africa is not the football backwater many once thought. These were real challenges they faced.

Won’t do them, though. The Dutch will clear, maybe with three straight wins, and on low points the resurgent Danes will follow. Japan will fall bottom. Cameroon will miss out narrowly, but have a young team and bright future.

Group F

My Slovenia rule somehow doesn’t extend to neighboring Slovakia. As a fourth-seed their qualification would have been the talk of UEFA if not for Slovenia’s success; but unlike their close neighbors they didn’t clear anybody really tough to get here and impressed less despite a superficially better line-up. The moral value of a scalp like Russia’s makes a big difference.

Same with New Zealand. It’s exciting for them just to be here. Presumably they’ll be allowed to stay and watch all the way to the end.

It is hard to imagine the Azzurri coming below Paraguay, who nevertheless offered a strong performance in tough marathon qualifying. And Italy had an easy-ish group. And really didn’t do that well. So maybe not impossible. And oddly satisfying.

In the interests of contrariness, then: Paraguay come top. A weakish Italy at their backs.

Group G

BIG SCARY GROUP OOOOOH.

Snore.

Oh my Ronaldito, there there...

To make up for all the ink yet to be spilled on this collection: Brazil qualifies. North Korea does not. Real race falls between Portugal and Ivory Coast for second. (I know it’s Cote d’Ivoire,  and I’m switching back and forth… but only so much can be expected of Americans.) Portugal had a badly flawed qualifying run in a difficult group while Cote d’Ivoire had a faultless one against pedestrian opposition.

Cote d’Ivoire, then, as Cristiano Ronaldo pre-emptively bursts into tears on which Simao subsequently slips and misses a penalty. Plus their flag is pretty.

Group H

Interesting one, this. Perpetually overrated Spain (it’s their year – really!) face Chile, Switzerland and North American dregs Honduras. The latter’s schizophrenic performance in the qualifiers and the old age of their recent call-ups suggest to me little threat. Probably ageist, especially given that a good many pros are already younger than me… but then none of these people play for Honduras. So then there were three.

Snide at Spain though I may they qualified perfectly, and indeed beautifully, refusing to give up any pointless games simply to protect themselves from injury like some European teams I can think of England. It would be almost an injustice were they not to go far in the World Cup. They’ll at least beat the group.

After Spain there’s a real dogfight for second-place. But Chile, who qualified second on tiebreaks with Paraguay, are a formidable team with a deep bench who handily took recent friendlies against Paraguay, Denmark and Slovakia while the Swiss are le sigh with the added stain of the hypocrisy of a deeply xenophobic country relying on a Turkish Muslim halfback and a Congolese striker for a high proportion of their offensive oomph.

So in the spirit of football my second place is Paraguay. Think of it as my contribution to ending racism. I’ll accept my Commentators’ Fair Bray award now, Sepp. You bastard.

Thoughts? Comment’s free.

Whas happeni-oh wrong show

Wha's happeni-oh wrong show

The last day of qualifiers on three continents came and passed today.  In an effort to be more international – I guess – I’m going to try to hit all of them, especially since more of the story in Europe was already done.  (For the perhaps 1 of you who will read this in the absence of a gratuitous reference to a 80s-90s television celebrity, such as Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot.)

UEFA

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

The last two teams to secure automatic qualification clinched it today, both on the strength of just-barely-enough performances.  In weather conditons that can only be described as horrendous – or hysterical – Slovakia edged out Poland on the strength of an early own goal.  This was as expected, though the late challenge by second place Slovenia in the Slovakian capital last weekend transformed this match from a lame duck showing.

In sunnier climes, if one would like to refer to Basel that way, group winner Switzerland and Israel played to a scoreless and rather unexciting draw. (Though tell that to the Swiss fans in attendance.)  For the Swiss this was actually a rather close-run thing; had they lost by a single goal today, second-place Greece‘s 2-1 victory over Luxembourg would have been sufficient to propel them into pole position.  Both Switzerland and Greece seemed to be playing surprisingly conservatively, or at least without a great deal of verve; but with a Greek attempt to storm into first place out of their hands all parties may have just thought it best to be slow and steady.

Portugal and Ukraine were the last teams to nab playoff berths without being in contention for their respective top spots.  Portugal gained a decisive (and inevitable) victory over Malta, while Ukraine did the same over Andorra.  On a personal note I continue to be infuriated with the lackluster play England exhibited in allowing Ukraine both to ruin their perfect record and edge out Croatia for the playoff.  I will undoubtedly continue to air this opinion at every opportunity.

As predicted, Norway was excluded from the second-place playoffs on the basis of weak group performance. Perhaps ironically, had Scotland not experienced their calamitous defeat to the Norwegians, or had they overcome the Dutch in their last meeting, it would instead have been the Irish Republic excluded. I mourn for the benighted Scots and their benevolent, long-suffering fans. But soccer, like politics and alcoholism, is an enterprise which worships always towards the dawn.

Second-place playoffs

You kiddin me?!

You kiddin' me?!

The draws for the second-place playoffs will be next Monday. (I think…)  Because Sepp Bladder is a man I might only describe in a terms both inventive and exceptionally lewd, Europe will be having a seeding system for its playoffs.  The initial plan (though it was never shared with anyone, so how could we know?) was to have the eight second-place qualifiers randomly paired off, each to play one game at home and one away, with the overall winner of each to gain the final four places. However there is now to be seeding based on next week’s FIFA World Rankings, which orders teams by a variety of factors based on international performance. The top four teams will be placed in one pot; the bottom four teams in another. Teams will be paired only with those from the other pot, which assures that the “best” teams will face weaker opposition. These latter are furious, with Irish coach Trapattoni being especially vocal about it, but I don’t see Bladder backing down.

Almost assuredly, the high pot will consist of Russia, France, Portugal and Greece and the dregs with Ukraine, Ireland (I think we can dispense with this Republic business, yes?), Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t know who will be paired with whom, of course, so speculation is early, but some conclusions are possible. Russia will qualify, knocking out whoever is set against them with indecent ease. (I dreamed they would do so to Portugal… alas.) Besides Russia the ironic truth is that none of the top teams are that good. France took second in a weak group; had any of the virtuous thirds like Sweden, Finland or Croatia been placed with them I doubt they’d have come this far. Portugal and Greece are notionally strong and rallied towards the end. Greece didn’t face a really tough group, so they have to be rated as faltering, but Portugal really were in a bad neighborhood with Denmark and Sweden and should be credited with a late rally. They’re not as sure a thing as Russia but they’re odds of their failure are 3:1 against.

What about the “dregs”? Again, without pairings this is speculation, but none of the four were deeply-impressive runners up. Ukraine is notionally the strongest, but they were pretty eh. B/H did just well enough to beat failing Turkey and a Belgian team in almost as bad a shape as their country. They could maybe beat Greece but they’re not giant killers. Slovenia fought their way through a very tough group, and did so as unexpectedly as forcefully, but the fact that they overcame an evenly-matched group doesn’t mean they beat a good group. Ireland, however, have been turning in powerful performances and went undefeated in their group, nearly holing the Italians in the process. (And even at half-speed Italy are no slouch.) I like their chances best, and am in fervent negotiations with the Almighty to ensure they’re not paired against Russia. In the atmosphere Slovenia and Ukraine are balanced for second-best-second, Slovenia on hustle and Ukraine on talent, with B/H trailing behind.

CONCACAF

The North American section closed with a bang – indeed a veritable Soccer War – tonight as an excruciatingly-late stoppage time equalizer prevented the Costa Ricans from clinching automatic qualification in Washington, DC. A game at which I was not present. I didn’t know soon enough, I tell myself. I can’t afford it, I tell myself. And still wish I’d gone.

This was morally important for the US, as it left us at the top of the fourth round group (an all-important point above Mexico) in a week in which the US team was plagued with disastrous injuries. The last, a rather severe tendon issue with Oguchi Onweyu late in the second half, follows a day after Charlie Davies’ car accident outside the District and left the side Estadosunidense at ten men going into stoppage. Compounding the bizarre pageantry of the whole affair, Costa Rica’s coach Renê Simões was ordered off the field (along with an assistant) following some substitution clusterfuck – perhaps in view of the paucity of time left, the referee refused it and he got lippy. Retaliating, the referee left a full five minutes on the clock, allowing the Hail Mary goal that saw Honduras qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Well THATS rather uncalled for

Well THAT'S rather uncalled for

I didn’t see much of the Honduras game, but it was apparently tight and pretty brutal.  El Salvador could easily have tied it up and left Honduras (as I’d predicted) to slug it out with the CONMEBOL fifth-place. But now it is Costa Rica that will go in their stead. In soccer as in life, someone else always pays for your success.

CONMEBOL

By comparison South America’s final night was somewhat humdrum if you weren’t secreted away in a Buenos Aires suburb with a spicy Argentinian lover and a deactivated Blackberry/wife and kids. Argentina frustratingly managed a desultory goal in the 84th minute of play that turned out to be completely extraneous, given that Chile sent Ecuador quietly into the good night. A sad end to the city that hosted the first World Cup, but Uruguay’s night was tinged with hope, as Ecuador’s loss also guaranteed them the playoff spot against the fourth-placed North American side. Their dog will have its day in two matches against Costa Rica.

Playoff

I would generally rate Costa Rica the favorite. But Uruguay has done arguably better in an inarguably tougher milieu, and the endless series of qualifiers they’ve played starting two years ago has got to whet the appetite. Costa Rica will have something to prove, but the crushing nature of the draw to the US tonight has something to do with a sense of entitlement on their side.

But then again Uruguay’s wins haven’t been all that impressive. You get the sense Argentina rather deserved to go on if that was going to be their opposition. If Costa Rica faces similar they’ll seize the lifeboat of one of the last 2010 spots.

AFC-OFC playoff

Bahrain to win. Even if they weren’t a better team – it’s not clear – they’ll be away when they face New Zealand again, which means that a non-scoreless draw will see them through. I actually don’t know what happens if they draw scorelessly. Penalty shootouts, I imagine. New Zealand might have a shot there, as playing a tournament against Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia must be very like practicing penalty shots.

CAF

Oh for fuck’s sake.

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

Rather a dull day, actually.  What looked set to happen did with few diversions.

In other qualifier news, Bahrain tied New Zealand at home.  Any draw at the second match will favor the Bahrainis as long as it isn’t scoreless.  New Zealand should be worried about this.  (Though I suppose New Zealand should be more worried about not being good.)

WON

Denmark 1-0 Sweden (Group 1)

Portugal 3-0 Hungary (1)

Switzerland 3-0 Luxembourg (2)

Israel 3-1 Moldova (2)

Greece 5-2 Latvia (2)

Czech Republic 2-0 Poland (3)

Slovenia 2-0 Slovakia (3)

Finland 2-1 Wales (4)

Germany 1-0 Russia (4)

Azerbaijan 4-1 Liechtenstein (4)

Spain 2-1 Armenia (5)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Estonia (5)

Belgium 2-0 Turkey (5)

Belarus 4-0 Kazakhstan (6)

Ukraine 1-0 England (6)

Austria 1-0 Lithuania (7)

Serbia 5-0 Romania (7)

France 5-0 Faroe Islands (7)

Cyprus 4-1 Bulgaria (8 – and the ouch of the day)

Montenegro 2-1 Georgia (8)

DREW

Irish Republic 2-2 Italy

QUALIFIED

Denmark

Germany

Serbia

Italy

GUARANTEED PLAYOFF BERTHS

Russia

Bosnia and Herzegovina

France

Republic of Ireland

WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN

Portugal 3rd to 2nd; Sweden falls (1)

Israel 4th to 3rd; Latvia falls (2)

Czech Republic 4th to 3rd; Northern Ireland falls (3)

Azerbaijan 6th to 5th; Liechtenstein falls (4)

Ukraine 3rd to 2nd; Croatia falls (6)

Sean St Ledger, the bipolar anima of the Irish team

Of course the sole draw was also one of the most decisive matches.  Ireland were on fine form and Italy, though not up to their 2006 standard, were exciting nonetheless.  But Italy was also standoffish, so in that sense the match was a showcase for the best and worst of the Irish team: the Italians seemed to be merely “dropping by”.  The best was the late header by Sean St Ledger – his first for Ireland – off a free kick by Stephen Hunt; the worst was when, in the ninetieth minute, an Italian push failed to be picked up by a surely-shellshocked St Ledger and effortlessly sent a Gilardino strike past the hapless Shay Given to tie it.  (Credit where due: itself a beautiful goal.) Perhaps the problem is that Ireland doesn’t yet know how to win? It has been awhile.

The game was probably irrelevant – both Ireland and Italy will win their final match which would have left Italy ahead anyway and Ireland got clear of 3rd place Bulgaria regardless – but I must admit it struck some slice of Celtic pride buried deep inside me to see the win slip away.  Hopefully Ireland, as well as they may have done, will be a bit more put together for the playoff rounds.

WHAT THE FUCK?! MOMENT

I could subtitle this section “OPPROBRIUM.” It goes out to the entire English team – working together.  They decided to be asleep at the wheel against Ukraine, which handed that side a desperately needed win whichwill see them through to the playoffs at the expense of Croatia.  No disrespect to Ukraine, but they should not have won if England played at full speed (just as they didn’t before and neither did Croatia).  They didn’t.

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Cheering for England - fresco in oils

Perhaps this was further revenge for the Croats’ sending off of England in 2008; and if it is, it’s shameful.  But I don’t think so.  I think England did what they always do – got just enough to do the job and decided to coast the rest of the way through.  The Spanish haven’t done this.  The Dutch didn’t.  Neither did the Germans.  But that’s the difference, isn’t it?  They play every single game while the little princesses on the England squad don’t want to take the risks required to win lest they get hurt. Because of their diffidence a weaker team will get through.  The Greeks killed Socrates for less.

Perhaps a coach from another football can sum it up better.

WINNERS

Dont cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Don't cry, poppet, you can still lose to Russia

Portugal – Only towards the end, faced with the abyss, did they find it.  Their 3-0 trouncing of Hungary was exactly what they needed to get ahead.  Now only a sure thing against Malta stands between them and a certain playoff berth – though Denmark must be given the honorable mention for beating Sweden, which benefits Portugal at least as much as it does them.

Slovenia – They beat the Slovaks. They beat them handily. This was quite unexpected. When the Slovenes first made my giney tingle shortly before the 12 August mini-qualifiers they were fifth place in the group and were checkered at best, and it was mostly dumb instinct and mathematics that suggested I favor them.  But the thought that they could crawl up 5 places to the very top was unheard of. It is now a possibility; see below.

Ukraine – They beat England. I wrote in August that this would be a “shock of epic proportions.”  And how. It was mostly ignored in the press, partly because the England-Ukraine game was streamed online only via a shoddy connection in a first for useless technology and partly because England already made it. But that shouldn’t take away from Ukraine’s accomplishment despite my above tirade. They played well and bought themselves a playoff birth.

Cyprus – I know it doesn’t matter, but they badly battered Bulgaria (alliterative win), which is nominally a far superior team. I’m a little sorry they weren’t paired in a group with Turkey, considering what they appear to be capable of. But that’s probably my sick way of seeking vengeance for Turkey’s own bust-out.

LOSERS

Sweden – Don’t confuse yourselves, my erstwhile Scandinavian countrymen: you’re done. (And it didn’t stop me from quietly flailing for Denmark – personal loyalty before genetic, I suppose, though thank God my grandfather is dead.)  Even if Sweden won Denmark would have got the better of a tie, which would have shut the door to Portugal for good. Perhaps I should have pulled for the Swedes after all. But this seems unsporting.

Either way Sweden’s play was not worthy of them. The Danes flagged at the end and Sweden’s attempt at exploitation were two goals marred by offsides. Even then they could have meekly held the line for the last ten minutes and taken their chances with Albania and a tie with Portugal on points. They did not. Their World Cup ends here for it. The stain at Parken is lifted.

Norway – The vanquishers of Scotland will almost certainly have nothing to show for it. Barring some extreme fluke they will be the weakest of the 2nd place finishers and so excluded from the second round.  Unfair perhaps, but they were in a group with one very strong team and three relatively weak ones.  I’ve heard (though I can find no evidence) some griping about how this went down in the first round; I think should this occur again (which the addition of a Kosovar team might prevent) they ought to exclude from the final group one of the Pot A “best” teams and instead include two “E” teams. None of the second place runners had a chance against a Dutch side like that. They just sucked all the air out of the room and lacked the politeness to throw one at the last minute. Eh, England? Eh?

There's always 201...mumble

Everybody else – For fully half the teams the qualifiers are done, though almost all still play on Wednesday.  When you consider teams that aren’t technically “out” but have no real shot that number shoots up to include almost everybody besides those whose berths are already secure.  End of the line. Have your tickets ready.

WHAT WILL MATTER WEDNESDAY

Despite the large number of games to be played on the 14th, almost none will be of any significance. Here are the few which will:

Group 2: It is not impossible that Greece tie or even lose to Luxembourg.  They’ve won only a single game – against group leader Switzerland, and drawn two to last-place Moldova. It is also not impossible that Israel defeat leaders Switzerland. If they did they’d sneak past the Greeks by either a point or on the tiebreaker. I am most certainly not holding my breath, but keep your eye peeled on them – especially Greece-Luxembourg. If Greece struggles, get your slide rule.

Group 3: Fascinating to the last. Slovakia is holding Slovenia by a mere two points with one game left in a group where everyone has fucked someone else over at least once. The Czechs are a close third but are ultimately irrelevant – they needed Slovakia to win today.

Slovenia are certain to win their final match against San Marino; the crucial game (indeed the only game) will be Slovakia’s.  Despite the numbers their loss today has put Slovakia on the back foot; assuming Slovenia’s already won (and they have) Slovakia will have to beat Poland. A draw will drop them to second; right now they’re even on goal difference but the Slovenes will pound San Marino to run up the numbers.  Though Slovakia’s final match is away, the location in Poland is relatively close to Slovakia, lending a less hostile atmosphere than they could otherwise expect, and their away record is 3-1. But Poland are still a threat.

Whichever team comes in second will nevertheless be a distinct underdog going into the playoffs, especially with this newfound extensively ridiculous seeding system – out of spite I’ll call it the French system – so first place is quite the plum. I stand by my original rankings; Slovakia have one last victory in them. Either way we will see either a fourth- or fifth-seeded team gain an automatic qualification. That’s something special.

ALMOST EVERYPLACE ELSE

As an added bonus! (Except Africa. Probably racist but I haven’t even begun to pay attention to it. I blame my parents. Actually, fuck it. On no basis at all, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa will be joined by… uh… Algeria, Nigeria and Cameroon.  Special attention to Algeria-Egypt (14 November) and Nigeria-Mozambique.

In South America you want to watch Argentina-Uruguay and, perhaps far below that, refresh the page with Chile-Ecuador. This(ese) will be the decisive game(s) there. (I like Uruguay for a narrow win and the final automatic spot; Argentina will settle for the playoff.)

In North America Costa Rica will play the US and a win there will get them the third spot. If they don’t get it Honduras can clinch with a win over El Salvador; I think there’s even odds on a tie between the two favoring Costa Rica, with Honduras playing off (and falling to) Argentina in November. That’s six months for Argentina to sack Maradona and get a real coach. It really is too bad. Hand of God; head of Dog.

After Wednesday’s (very truncated) recap I’ll mention the playoffs, though we won’t know much about those until the seeding (yes, they’re seeding, the bastards) on the 19th.

Same system as before.  Honorable non-European mention goes to the Bahrain-Saudi Arabia playoff in Riyadh, where two goals in stoppage time – including a remarkable Bahraini equalizer at 90+4! – saw the former go through on the away goals rule to face New Zealand in a two-game playoff.

Not many rank changes today, but lots of new math.

WON

Sweden 1-0 Malta (Grp 1)

Portugal 1-0 Hungary (1)

Israel 7-0 Luxembourg (2 – and the ouch of the day)

Czech Republic 7-0 San Marino (3)

Slovakia 2-0 Northern Ireland (3)

Slovenia 3-0 Poland (3)

Germany 4-0 Azerbaijan (4)

Russia 3-1 Wales (4)

Armenia 2-1 Belgium (5)

Spain 3-0 Estonia (5)

Kazakhstan 3-1 Andorra (6)

England 5-1 Croatia (6)

Faroe Islands 2-1 Lithuania (7)

Italy 2-0 Bulgaria (8)

Netherlands 1-0 Scotland (9)

Norway 2-1 Macedonia (9)

DREW

Denmark 1-1 Albania (1)

Latvia 2-2 Switzerland (2)

Moldova 1-1 Greece (2)

Liechtenstein 1-1 Finland (4)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-1 Turkey (5)

Belarus 0-0 Ukraine (6)

Romania 1-1 Austria (7)

France 1-1 Serbia (7)

Montenegro 1-1 Cyprus (9)

QUALIFIED (in addition to Netherlands, which was already placed

England

Spain

WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN

Hungary 2nd to 4th; Sweden and Portugal up (Grp 1)

Slovenia 4th to 2nd and; Northern Ireland falls (2)

Poland 3rd to 5th; Czech Republic up (2)

Norway 3rd to 2nd; Scotland falls – final (9)

OH SHIT!

Les Bleus ache for the recognition their international stature warrants, and for the second day in a row they get it.  After earning a tie against Romania via an own goal (perhaps against is the wrong word?), France topped it yet again with the exceedingly rare feat of having their starting goaltender, Hugo Lloris, sent off for bringing down Serbia’s Nenad Milijaš in the box.  The latter converted the resulting penalty shot into Serbia’s lone goal.  I think maybe France was jealous of Denmark’s “What the fuck?!” moment last week.  This week France earns both.

Credit where it’s due, at least: French substitute Steve Mandanda coped admirably.

PULP FICTION MOMENT

And to think the Serbs will qualify outright

“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” Ezekiel 25:17/Samuel L.

The British press apparently decided that this match was to be the answer to Croatia’s defeat of England in 2008 that saw them out of the European Cup qualifiers.  England apparently saw it that way too, despite a 4-1 victory at their last meeting.  England proceeded to thrash the Croatian side – no slouches they – 5 to 1.  Even Croatia’s sole reply was promptly answered by Wayne Rooney.  That hadda hurt.

WINNERS

Slovakia and Slovenia – My two group 3 picks played exactly as I’d expected, if not hoped.  (I’m obligated, and not unhappily, towards the faltering Northern Irish side.)  Slovakia took the Orangemen 2-0, and Slovenia put in an impressive 3-0 against Poland.

Slovenia is now the only team that can overtake Slovakia, who are guaranteed at least a playoff spot.  This would require two Slovenian wins – including against the Slovaks – and for the Slovaks to lose against Poland.  I don’t think it likely; but Slovenia should make it into the second round and if they stay on form I think they’ll be surprise contenders.

Serbia – France’s foibles aside, Serbia performed admirably today.  That performance guarantees that they’ll not merely qualify but, barring a disaster, will finish at the top of the group.  This has to be attributed to their own skill before anything else.

Faroe Islands – I have to give the plucky Faroese props for throwing down the Lithuanians.  Their inability to win seems not to have dimmed their enthusiasm.  They get a tip of the hat.

Honorable mention to Scotland.  They played their best game of the tournament tonight.  Alas that they had not done against Norway, which turned out to be the group’s decisive game.  Ironically Norway is as likely as not to be cut from the top 8 to go forward, so their effort will be for naught.

LOSERS

This is NOT the entire French side

This is NOT the entire French side

France – Look.  Thierry Henry is not a team.  He can’t score all your goals and he can’t do all your running.  Not even with little Franck Ribéry running around helping him.

Bottom line, France got lucky in having a weak group.  That is the only reason their dreams won’t end in October.

Sweden What was their performance against the Maltese?  It should not have taken them 80 minutes for a single goal against this side.  It doesn’t bode well if they hope to hold their weak second place, much less catch up to the Danes.

GreeceA tie against Moldova?  Give me strength.  Latvia’s draw against Switzerland was relatively more important and now they’re nipping at Pheidippides‘ heels.  Indeed I think I was too quick to disregard them, or at least too ready to give Greece credit.  They’re now even money for second place.

Ukraine – Croatia’s drubbing should have been solid gold for them, since it would vault Ukraine ahead in any tie-breaking situation.  But they drew.  To Belarus.  The cultural and historical impact alone makes me wince.

Turkey – They didn’t need a tie against Bosnia-Herzegovina.  They needed the win.  They didn’t get it.  Now only an improbable Bosnia loss to Estonia will see them in with a chance.  When your survival is completely contingent upon another team’s performance, something’s gone badly awry.  End of the line.

Dishonorable mention to Denmark, who tied Albania, which can only be rated a failure.  They can afford it, and everybody else in the group appears to have done the same, but now is not the time to let up.  Sweden, Hungary and Portugal are all still contenders.

It’s quiet until October.  We’ll see what we see.

Groups 1 and 2 here.

East meets North

Participants: Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Slovenia, San Marino

grp3

I wrote before about odd ducks.  As with the last two groups the top four are pretty scrambled here.  Most remarkably the strongest notional team, the Czechs, languishes below Slovenia (before today they were atop the Slovenes in fourth, but by the thinnest of margins).  Incidentally Slovenia also handed the Slovakians their sole loss.

I’m at a bit of a loss myself at how to understand this group.  (Besides with sympathy for poor, suffering San Marino.)  It seems pretty clear that Slovakia’s doing just as well as it looks – besides their lost to Slovenia they’ve played and defeated the other quality teams, though they’ve also used up both their “freebies” against San Marino.  The loss against Slovenia was probably a fluke and even then the Slovenes are much stronger than their 5th place suggest.  I see no reason for Slovakia to start struggling now.

Northern Ireland, however, is not as strong as they appear.  Both freebies are already logged and the only goal they managed against leader Slovakia was by a Slovakian player.  One could make the argument that their three losses and draws were in the first three days of play, so their strength is in fact evidence of a rally: and this is possible.  But they only have 3 games left as they concluded their meets with San Marino early.  Even if they win all three remaining games they’ll have only 21 points (compared to a potential 27 for Slovakia).  Winning all three games is precisely what they’ll need to do to lock this away, and despite their recent victories I’m not sure they have it in them.

The Poles were notionally the second-strongest team until this afternoon, but with two losses and a draw in six games they’ve not soared.  They also have played all their freebies against San Marino and they’ve not yet beaten a team more serious than the fifth-place Czechs.  (Who themselves have only beaten the Slovenians, and then drew them on their next meet.)  Superficially they’re placed to challenge for second place.  I think such a challenge is just that.

Now the Slovenians.  They fascinate me.  They beat the Slovakians and took a win and a loss against the Northern Irish, but also took a loss from the flagging Czechs.  I have no idea what to do with them.  But they had a real advantage in the schedule when I first examined them: they hadn’t yet played San Marino.  Since they’ve trounced them and they’ve got another match against the poor shills coming.  The win this week has catapulted them from 5th to 3rd.  Their two other games are opposite Poland (whom they tied) and Slovakia (whom they beat).  If they can win one of these two – and they can – they’ll have a real shot at contention.  Automatic qualification is probably too far away, but second place is definitely within their reach.

Prediction: Slovakia shows no indication of slowing, and even if they split their last four games it will be enough to put them over the top.  Second place is nearly impossible to predict, but I’m going to take a leap and say Slovenia.  If nothing else the homophony is pleasant.