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

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

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

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

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

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

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FULL TIME. So that’s it. No denying the Dutch were good for this, especially after bringing on Elia (it would be incomprehensible if they can’t find a place to start him after a display like that). As for Denmark, all this means is that it won’t be 1986. They’re not running away with anything. But from today’s form I can see them taking results against both Cameroon and Japan, who play momentarily. Now they’ll need to; but that’s the hardest match out of the way. Thanks to Mike de Vries and Sean Carroll and Peter in Denmark, and to the surprising number of people who checked in on this. For a first effort, it was a gas.
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90+3 min. Sneijder takes a knock and petulantly stays on the ground like a dead fish, spewing abuse at a Danish player.
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90+2 min. A final, desperate run is wasted. The Dutch still have near-unchallenged authority in the two-thirds of the pitch near then. I came to work 90 minutes early for this.
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88 min.  MASSIVE CLEARANCE! Elia fatally breaks into the box again and beats Sorensen, but the effort isn’t fast enough and a defender (Poulsen?) boots it off the line at literally the terminal moment. If it were close, that would have been the moment of the match.
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85 min. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!! Elia breaks away with Kuyt on the two central defenders. Elia winds up, strikes half-powerfully and it bounces off the post, pass the outrunning Daniel Agger and straight to Dirk Kuyt. He boots it into the empty net.
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80 min. Denmark actually moves again, but three times are either dispossessed or let the ball run away from them. How do you come back from this? Also, I think I was slightly unfair to Daniel Agger, but then so was the Jabulani. Though really I blame the vuvuzela. And international communism.
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77 min. Remembering the match against Portugal, we know that Denmark comes on late. It’s their bread and butter. Van Persie off for youngster Affelay. Teams are getting younger and younger all the time… ESPN also wants you to vote for man of the match. My pick’s Daniel Agger (NED).
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73 min. Elia is practically rioting on the Danish right, outrunning his men and crossing for van Bommel. The back line is holding but the Danes are not looking like winners. They need a chance and pronto. 18 year-old Christian Eriksen comes on for the effort.
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71 min. Confronted with a big opening Mark van Bommel decides that charity requires the donation of his ball to some of the poorer neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city. A decisive man, he uses his right foot to send it express.
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70 min. Elia gets away, but Sorensen calls out the militia and the effort is cleared away on a pass.
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68 min. Van der Viart off, Elia on. American commentator says all that Mike de Vries just said for free and is richly praised by John Harkes.
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66 min. A free kick for reckless glaring is awarded to Denmark. It’s a good ball in, but headed away, and a resulting cross back scorches away faster than Jay Leno’s ratings. “Thinking from a Dutch perspective we might see Affelay or Elia come on in order to stretch the Danish back line late on,” prognosticates Mike. We’re gonna hold you to that.
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62 min. Striker Beckmann on for Bendtner! Probably insurance for Bendtner’s injury issues, but that doesn’t smack of much confidence of salvaging a result. Denmark are dropping passes everywhere and, like England, look like the error has got under their skin. How doesn’t it? “Remarkable that the Dutch haven’t scored any goals actually,” Peter remarks from Copenhagen. I think it’s more remarkable that they have. This performance is shaky. Probably good enough to hold on, but shaky.
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59 min. Decent save by Sorensen. The mostly unmarked Van Persie passed to the entirely unmarked Van der Viart, who takes a stab. Not much for it, as the Danish defender was out of position to convert for the goal.
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57 min. First sub. Enevoldsen off, Gronkjaer on, almost immediately gets his first touch.
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55 min. Another Guardian commentator for Denmark, freshfromdk, remarks that he thinks the Dutch are playing a severe game and getting away with it. That it took de Jong so long to get booked is bizarre, but I’m not sure the Dutch aren’t just playing the physical game the Danes usually do but aren’t.
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53 min. Another Dutch foul leads to another wasted Danish free kick. “Well a dull first half gives way to a dull opening goal! A lovely header from Poulsen takes a touch off his own man,” quips Mike de Vries. But it was a lovely header, was it not? I call that looking on the bright side.
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49 min.Sean Carroll writes, “Come on Holland, a draw here is not good for Japan!” Yeah, Denmark’s stealing all that own goal thunder!
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46 min. HORROR! – An own goal to Agger, though Poulsen is sensed to have some culpability. A quick rush by Van Persie sends him wide, but he maintains possession and flings it into the box, where the defenders convert. Some team talk they must have had.
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Half -This match has rather been like a work by that Great Dane, Soren Kierkegaard – heavy with flashes of brilliance but long stretches of rather tedious digression. Fortunately that has not included many of the odd vowels favored by the Danes which, having never seen them on Sesame Street, I can only think heretical. (Come to think, do the Danes have Sesame Street? And what the Hell do the Japanese do?)
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ESPN are so invested in this match they’re encouraging people to wake up their friends – for Japan and Cameroon. Thanks for that.
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“The Dutch are too slow,” says Gullitt. I think the primary problem is that they’re a bit too fancy. But of course calling the Dutch slow is already too thinky for ESPN, which quickly cuts away to a report about Tim Howard’s injury as a result of Emile Heskey playing soccer in his general area.
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It goes out for a corner which Bendtner fails to convert. “Right now these two Europeans – the giants – are looking to change things up for the second half,” says American. Denmark? Giant? Aw, shucks. We’ll see what Ruud Gullitt has to say about this fact.
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Also, correction on 44: de Jong picks up his booking. About bloody time.
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44 min. – de Jong brings down Bendtner – his tackles are coming with increasing nastiness – but he dodges the card. Christian Poulsen’s free kick is wasted, on Simon Kjaer or indeed anyone shorter than a Chinese NBA star.
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43 min. – Van Persie gets clear in the penalty area, but can’t deliver a shot until Agger and Sorensen have all the roads covered. It goes agonizingly wide. In the commentary box, American commentator says blah-blah-blah. John Harkes says yes.
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40 min. – “They don’t ever actually build up a play,” sighs Peter. “They just shoot it off to the Dutch and wait for a counter.” What else do you do? Denmark’s got a world class defense but players up front who don’t have the ability to carve up a packed defense. The breaks are the best chance. Inter did it successfully during the Champions League final.
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38 min. – Absolutely deadly break leads to a shot from Kahlenberg palmed away for a corner. The resulting kick leads to a Sneijder breakaway, but though he’s good to win it he’s not to keep it. The Danish defense must be among the best we’ve seen so far.
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36 min. – Denmark wins a free kick, which Kjaer rifles into the wall. The Dutch are dominating possession but two of the three best shots have come off a Danish boot. This is really tight stuff.
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35 min. – On counter-attack the ball is crossed beautifully to Dennis Rommedahl, unmarked high on the right. Rommedahl rushes in and unleashes a zinger, which unfortunately goes straight into the arms of Martin Steklenburg. He’s definitely on notice after that one.
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33 min. – Van Persie nearly has a sitter but Simon Kjaer forcefully muscles him off. Schneijder for the corner… leads to a close-range cracker from Kuyt!
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32 min. – “Denmark are holding their defensive shape really well. They are frustrating the Dutch passing,” says Mike. And that’s exactly what they’ve got to do. Indeed it’s their only hope, that and finding the droids they’re looking for.
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30 min. – Oh, for those just joining us for a little pastry trivia: the Danish call Danish wienerbrød, which means “Viennese bread.” But then what do the Viennese call it? Must get to the bottom of this. A fair challenge brings down Martin Jorgensen, who doesn’t get back up. Some players mill about like cops at a crime scene.

27 min. – Does anyone else feel disconcerted to hear an American commentator? It’s like instant coffee, it just isn’t right. Meanwhile Dennis Rommedahl lifts in an excellent cross on a rare Danish attack; Bendtner heads narrowly wide.
23 min.Mike says, “I’m loving van der Wiel’s charging runs from deep. He’s causing a few issues. The Dutch are just starting to click into gear a little.” I was going to quip that that gear is neutral, but of course Denmark are wandering around at vague distance from their own goal, occasionally obligingly hoofing the ball towards the Dutch goal.

21 min. – Brilliant run by van der Viart ends in frustration some twenty yards out. He keeps possession but shoots well wide.

19 min. – The Dutch win a corner which comes to naught. No Rommedahl, but injuries seem today to favor Denmark, which was highly unexpected. “The danish players dont gain control over the ball at all. They just hit the ball randomly away from the Dutch,” Danish Peter complains. How very English of them. At least they’re not serving it up shined and on a doiley.

14 min. – Denmark are locked up tight but this far aren’t doing much but repelling slightly shiftless attacks. The vuvuzelas are eternally peppy, though. I can’t believe they want to ban them. I think they’ve got a delicious existentialist quality.

12 min.Sean reports that Japan favors the Dutch to take three points today. Surely this outcome is more likely than desirable. Peter in Denmark: “At least they haven’t scored.” Typical Danes.

8 min. – Good also to see Enevoldsen playing for Denmark; he made a bit of a splash in the qualifier against Senegal. First Van der Wiel makes a run and Kuyt follows up; both come to naught.

6 min. – Lousy DC bus system. I rush into work just in time to see a) a crunching tackle and missed Dutch free kick and b) Bendtner’s alive!  He’s alive!

It’s 7:00 and I’m alone in a windowless room, which means it’s time for my very own extraordinary rendition of the tried and true minute-by-minute. More speculative than a Greek government bond, it is my hope that this effort entertains, informs and failing that avoids the sort of humiliation normally reserved for a first-choice England goaltender. (No points for the observation that it’s far, far too late.)

Group E’s  juggernauts the Netherlands meet my own adopted Denmark in a match-up whose conditions bear some similarity to this year’s Arsenal-Barcelona tie in the Champions League. Both teams were automatic group qualifiers; both feature strong defenses and attacking players of individual brilliance; both share not merely a style but a shared experience of play, with many players on both sides hailing from the Dutch Eredivisie; and one is the obvious favorite, overflowing with talent, while the other looks in desperate need of their own hospital emergency room. The Dutch may be short the miraculous if folically-challenged Arjen Robben, but they have a side packed with players of unquestioned international quality like Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and the retiring Giovanni van Bronckhorst. By contrast Denmark feature a combination of old international hands and up-and-coming youngsters like defender Simon Kjaer and Arsenal’s Nicklas Bendtner, both of whom have been struck by the illness and injury plague that has also raised doubts over keeper Thomas Sorensen, striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, midfielder Daniel Jensen and even the coach, Morten Olsen. Olsen already ruled out Bendtner, though there are hints in the Danish press it may be a strategem, especially when he declares that he’d be perfectly satisfied with a draw. Given how badly outclassed Denmark is supposed to be, you don’t blame him.

But the teams’ histories are more complicated. The Dutch, of course, stand with Hungary and Spain as one of the best national teams never to win the World Cup. They created the total football that revolutionized the game but twice in a row fell just short of the prize, having to content themselves with a European Championship in 1988. They looked to repeat but the Danes, winners of the classic World Cup Group of Death six years before and admitted to the 92 Championship days before thanks to the expulsion of the collapsing Yugoslavia, saw them off in a thrilling semifinal penalty shootout on their way to a shock victory. Since then the Danes have been relatively unfancied and unimpressive, only reaching the World Cup Finals twice between 1986 and 2010, while the Dutch make regular appearances but never with the payoff they seek. As a result the teams rarely meet: the last time was  2008. Once again the Danes are the darkest of dark horses; once again the Dutch eye hungrily the prize that might very well, this year, be theirs.

I’ll be monitoring the match and updating regularly, so be sure to refresh the page. I’ll also be lucky to have the contributions of two of my fellow Group E fans from the Guardian’s band of international irregulars. Mike de Vries is a self-described “pessimistic Oranje supporter,” which did not stop him from effortlessly and rightly schooling me for my unintentional dismissiveness of a “youthful” Dutch side. (Average age: 27.7 – same as Denmark.) His blog is a great source of comment on these potential World Cup winners. Sean Carroll is a Tokyo-based writer and Japan aficionado who does, like, actual journalism, which I think will contrast nicely with my aimless blundering. Very much worth a look is his interview with Japan-based North Korea international Jong Tae-Se, which has kicked up quite a stir. Both gents have been good enough to lend their pith, mirth and insight on the match. I also hope to call upon my friend Peter Stockmann, who doesn’t have a website but is an actual Dane and can read Danish papers. Literacy is a huge advantage these days. The more you know.

(Starting off late here but feel free to e-mail your thoughts – wahlberg(dot)peter(at)gmail(dot).com. Sorry to be irritating, but I fear the spammers.

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.

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.