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.

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.

I should recap the other leagues too, especially the increasingly-fucked-up CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, but I haven’t put enough attention and research into it. Plus the games are still going today, whereas Europe has finished up until Wednesday next.

(Though Colombia’s crucial win over Ecuador looks to have been a barnburner.)

WON

Sweden 2-1 Hungary (Grp 1)

Latvia 1-0 Israel (2)

Switzerland 2-0 Greece (2)

Finland 2-1 Azerbaijan (4)

Russia 3-0 Liechtenstein (4)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 Armenia (5)

Turkey 4-2 Estonia (5)

Spain 5-0 Belgium (5)

Ukraine 5-0 Andorra (6)

Croatia 1-0 Belarus (6)

Austria 3-1 Faroe Islands (7)

Bulgaria 4-1 Montenegro (8)

Italy 2-0 Georgia (8)

Irish Republic 2-1 Cyprus (8)

Scotland 2-0 Macedonia (9)

DREW

Denmark 1-1 Portugal (1)

Moldova 0-0 Luxembourg (2)

Poland 1-1 Northern Ireland (3)

Slovakia 2-2 Czech Republic (3)

France 1-1 Romania (7)

Norway 1-1 Iceland (9)

RANK CHANGES

Sweden 4th to 3rd; Portugal falls (1)

Switzerland 2nd to 1st; Greece falls (2)

Poland 4th to 3rd; Slovenia falls (3)

Austria 4th to 3rd; Lithuania falls (7)

Macedonia 2nd to 4th; Scotland and Norway move to 2nd and 3rd (9)

OH SHIT! MOMENT

Honorable mention goes to Georgia, who were on such good terms with their asleep-at-the-wheel Italian opponents that they gave them not one but two own goals to ensure their run at the Finals would not be disturbed.

But in the end there’s not much contest.  Julian Escudé, a hapless French center back, attempted a move (a slide tackle?) that went badly, badly awry.  In the process he blew the game for France and perhaps any chance at automatic qualification for his side.

WHAT THE FUCK?! MOMENT

Stephan Andersen, Denmark’s goaltender, put in a performance that can only be described as inspired.  He repeatedly faced down a Portuguese side that was at first uncoordinated but became more aggressive and desperate as the game went on.  When a Portuguese corner was finally knocked in off the tip of a scalp late in the game, however, Andersen promptly fell backwards so theatrically that initially you thought he’d really been injured.  The match official wasn’t duped and booked Andersen, still lying in his own net, for demonstration.

WINNERS

... but theyll never take OUR FREEDOM!

... but they'll never take OUR FREEDOM!

Scotland – Just when it couldn’t get any worse, the gods knelt down and kissed the Scots on the forehead.  Not only did they manage a respectable 2-0 win over Macedonia to regain second place but Norway tied Iceland. It wasn’t the best outcome the Scots could hope for, but it was close. If the faltering Macedons can hold Norway to a tie, or defeat them outright, the Scots may yet have a chance – especially if they can see off the heretofore impenetrable Dutch.

They’re not out of the woods yet, but Scotland’s team bears more than passing resemblance to their Prime Minister: Write them off if you like, but they couldn’t care less.  In the process they may, very pleasantly, make a fool of me.

Switzerland

Their convincing win against Greece vaults them back into first place in their group.  They’ll stay there.

Slovenia

Never that I know of has a team that didn’t even play done so well. (Though I suppose they did play, a respectable 2-1 loss to England in a friendly.)  Every other contender in their group drew their matches today, which makes Slovenia’s path to the top that much easier in that screwy fucked up group.

Ukraine

They ran up a 5-0 win over Andorra which they very desperately needed.  Now they’re only one goal off from Croatia (factoring in that the latter has played more games) and they still have a fixture against the Andorran schills.  Both play England yet; it will be crucial that neither lose badly.

LOSERS

Portugal

One useless man is called a disgrace...

Their course back to relevance was hard enough, even with the return of Ronaldo for what was supposed to be a win over group leaders Denmark (which I and the rest of the world gave them).  But they didn’t have it.  While Sweden’s win is a boon for them since it keeps the battle for 2nd place close, they would ideally like to be in the hunt for the top spot.  They were. Now they’re gasping for breath, and embattled second-place Hungary (who they face in two of their last three) will not just roll over and die.

France

They’ve been asking for this with shoddy play and poor coordination.  But giving up a game that, thanks to their previous missteps, was a must-win – and to an own goal at that – is really baffling.  There was no reason they couldn’t win.  There was no reason they shouldn’t win.  And yet they did not.  If they weren’t the runners-up in 2006 I would say they had absolutely no place being in contention.  Far from first place, I’m beginning to wonder if they’re really secure for second.

Something still tells me Serbia’s luck will run out.  But not yet.

Stay tuned for this Wednesday and Thursday.  Big fixtures include Portugal at Hungary, Turkey at Bosnia, France at Serbia, and anything in Groups 3 or 9. (The latter will be decided that day.)

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, Group 4, Group 5, Groups 6 & 7

Group 8: A Papist Potpourri

Participants: Italy, Bulgaria, Irish Republic, Cyprus, Georgia, Montenegro

grp8

A pretty weak group overall has Italy in the lead with the Irish visible in their rearview mirror.  Second-seeded Bulgaria has clearly been sold above its market value despite holding Italy to a 0-0 draw.  (10 of the 19 matches in this group so far have been draws.  Bits of them are sprinkled fragrantly all over the group.  They are sickly-sweet.)

Despite the frustrating number of draws and the obtuse grid of victories and losses, it’s pretty clear that the field is the Irish, the Italians and everybody else.  Everybody else has no chance of breaking out – none of the teams are that bad, but none are good enough to make a mark.  This creatres a mouth-watering opening for the Irish team, who have only been to the World Cup three times in 80 years of competition – all three since 1990.  They seem, haltingly, to be seizing this advantage.

The closeness of the top two is belied by the fact that the Irish have played an additional game (a draw), and the Italians have only taken a draw each to the Irish and Bulgarians.  The Irish have those plus additional draws to Montenegro and Bulgaria again.  Italy can expect to walk away with (relatively) easy wins from Georgia and Cyprus while I can make no such assurances about the Irish team; even draws against Bulgaria and Ireland a second time would give the Italians 22 points, which would get them over the top with a little room to spare.  The Irish would meanwhile require three straight wins to hit 22, and even then the Italians would come out ahead if they won their other games.  I don’t think it particularly likely that anyone will win any number of games straight, and I would definitely predict that whoever clears this group will qualify with fewest points in UEFA.

But neither of the leaders are likely to lose either.  This is bad for Ireland, as they need a major Italian stumble given the math they’re facing to hope to edge them out for the top spot.  I don’t think they’re going to get it, and it’s actually much more likely that the Irish trip and fall.  They’ll need their vaunted luck if they want to change the dynamics of the group this late in the qualifiers.

Prediction: Italy to qualify at the top.  Ireland to come in a fairly weak second.  The last thing the coach for Bulgaria will draw is probably a pistol.

Group 9: Can anyone untie the Gordian knot?

Participants: The Netherlands, Scotland, Norway, Macedonia, Iceland

grp9

This group was going to be fairly straightforward until today.  For some reason when I first compiled all this I checked back, saw Scotland’s game against Norway, and said to myself, “Wait awhile.”  Perhaps it was bad luck, but the wait rewarded me with the sight of the Tartan Army being violently thrown back at the gates of second place by an out-of-nowhere Norway.  The gory details are here, and to them there’s little to add.

It’s all about second place now.  It is not possible for the Netherlands to come in below first place, and even if it were they’ve stormed to victory in the entire group.  That would have made Scotland’s 7 points look pretty good, even compared with Macedonia.  In a group where each team plays only eight games, and is guaranteed to lose two of them to the leader, a relatively low score is necessary to break through.  Anything above 12 points – four wins – runs away with it.

Before this afternoon Scotland was in second place, separated by Macedonia based on the goal differential.  Going down to Norway 4-0 has blown the group open.  The Scots now trail Macedonia, who move up into second place; Norway has moved up into fourth, one point behind both, relegating Iceland and their four points to the bottom.  (Iceland has only one game left to play and is now out of contention, though they still have claws.)  Despite the positions, of the three teams remaining in the battle for second Scotland is now in the most grave danger.

Scotland faces the firewall: they’ve only one game left to play.  Their match against the Netherlands is really a foregone conclusion, especially if their play has even a shadow of what took place this evening in Oslo.  (A win there would not only erase the stain of their loss to Norway but would probably be the most dramatic upset of the qualifiers.)  The Scots have got lucky in that their match against the Dutch side comes the very last, so they aren’t certain to suffer the morale shock of two defeats in a row leading into it.

The match against Macedonia is now must-win for the Scots in any scenario.  I don’t see any way out of they falter here.  Not only do they need a win, they need a blow out, to make up for the four unanswered goals Norway took out of them today.  A Norwegian win against them might help, since it doesn’t matter where the goals allowed come from; but if Norway wins against the Macedons then Scotland needs Norway to lose to no-hope Iceland.  A draw will tie them at 10 points and the Norwegians would get the better of it.

Put another way, Scotland’s course is fucking hard.  It’s also reliant on a confluence of events which taken together are not likely.  (Though an Icelandic victory is not as unlikely as it might seem based on the last meeting with their Viking ancestors, a 2-2 draw, and the Icelanders aren’t as bad as their place would suggest.)

The Macedonians need merely take a page from the book of their famed ancestor: cut through the bullshit and win.  (The gods would approve.)  A win and a draw in their last two against Scotland and Norway will clinch it (in either order).  A win and a loss puts them into a solid position, though if they have to choose they’re prefer to beat Norway: They’ll probably get the better of any tie in the final rankings with the Scots, while a Norwegian win again both Iceland and Macedonia would see them sail through.  (A win and a tie would see them go through on goal differential.)

Therein lies the beauty of what Norway bought themselves today.  It’s not just points: it’s outs.  Before today they needed to beat Scotland and nothing else would do.  Now they’ve got options, though a loss at any point will continue to doom them.  (As opposed to the Macedonians who can maybe kinda afford one.)

Prediction: Obviously the Netherlands qualifies. Until today I’d have favored the Scots to beat Norway and go forward.  But this is why I waited.  The Scots are not out but they’re being handed their hats.  My second place pick is a weak Macedonia by the slightest of edges. This one’s 52-48.

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

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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

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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.