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.

Advertisements

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

Group 5: At the walls of Sarajevo

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

grp5

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

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

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

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

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

Previous: Group 1, Group 2, Group 3

Group 4: The pun I can’t quite make

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

grp4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Groups 1 and 2 here.

East meets North

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

grp3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Group 1 is here.

Group 2: The Who? Who? Group

Participants: Greece, Israel, Switzerland, Moldova, Latvia, Luxembourg

grp2

This group is a bit of an odd duck, not least because of the combination of the terminally-disappointing Greeks and the desperately grasping Swiss.  The Swiss are in fact doing better than they should thanks to a languishing Israel.  They are enhanced by a major victory – and hindered by a terminal defeat.

Every game played against Moldova or Luxembourg should be a victory.  And indeed every one has – except the Swiss, who were taken 2-1 by Europe’s Washington, D.C.  This erases the advantage they should enjoy from their victory over the Greeks at the Piraeus, and hinders their ability to get the better of a tie by shrinking their goal differential.  (Ties are broken first by how many more goals were scored than allowed, and then by total number allowed.)  I don’t think it’s likely to be repeated by anybody; but this leaves Greece, Latvia and Israel with 12 free points and Switzerland with only 9, which means they’re that much more vulnerable.  Greece has two gimmes left to collect, while the Swiss only have one.  All else being equal this puts the Greeks at most one win away from the top spot.  They can get this from the Swiss or the Latvians.

Should the Swiss lose to the Greeks they will be denied the top spot and be put at risk for second place, especially as they aren’t guaranteed to come out atop the Latvians or the Israelis (though notionally and practically the latter are a greater threat).  The Latvians, like the Hungarians, are doing well thanks to a scheduling fluke – all but one gimme game was scheduled early – and shouldn’t survive to take first or second place.

Now Israel is a bit of a wild card.  They have been checkered so far despite their nominal strength, but they have the potential to sneak into 2nd place.  As long as they beat or draw Latvia they’ll surpass them by the end of the qualifiers; but barring a major shake-up they will have to overcome the Swiss in the final group game in order to move on.  It’s not an insurmountable task considering how spotty the Swiss have been, but they’re a serious threat.  (Unless an unlikely gift from the gods radically changes Israel’s position.)  A lot will be riding on Israel and Switzerland on 14 October, especially if the Swiss again beat Greece; then it will be likely that only an Israeli victory can save both Greece and Israel, and the latter only if they’re perfect, which they have so far failed to be.

Prediction: This one’s very tough.  Greece definitely has a much easier route to the top, but the Swiss are standing squarely in their path.  If they lose to the Swiss than a win or draw against Israel, assuming both win the rest of their games, will put the Swiss into the Cup.  At the risk of standing in front of the facts I think Switzerland will do it and qualify – Greece has not had a great few years but should have no problem coming in behind them.  Israel’s route is just too treacherous at this point, though there is a non-negligable chance they can sneak into number two.  At whose expense is unclear.

We’re now less than a year from South Africa, and the final line-up of teams is beginning to take shape.  For the crucial leagues (a grotesquely-expanded Europe and South America) qualifiers continue for the rest of the year.  But most teams have finished just over half their games, so it’s simultaneously far enough away that some prediction is possible while being close enough for me to avoid embarassing myself (too badly).

So here goes for Europe.  I’ll post a group or two a day as in the course of a long lazy Sunday I managed to pour 4000 words before getting to Group 9, which is too much even for me.  Also the delay will allow the mini-round of qualifiers to take place this Wednesday 12 August, which will at least update the figures even if none of the games are very dramatic.  (Scotland v Norway is the best of a dull bunch.)

The UEFA qualifiers are organized into eight groups of six teams each and a further group of five.  They’re derived from taking one team each from six preset pots.  These pots were organized based on FIFA rankings of all the national teams – so Pot A was the best, Pot B the next, etc.  This was to ensure that there wasn’t a “Group of Death” which pitted strong national teams against each other while weaker teams qualified in less-competitive groups.  You’d think that this functioned to distribute spots freely to the best teams while crippling the chances of weaker ones.  You’d think wrong.

There are 13 spots to be distributed amongst the UEFA teams.  The eight group winners will qualify automatically after ten games per group (eight for group nine – two per team).  Of the nine group runners-up the top eight will go into a single pot and play four games to determine the final four qualifiers.

Teams are assigned points based on performance.  3 points for a win, 1 for a draw (to each) and nothing for a loss.  So 13 points out of six games (which is what most teams have played) means 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss.

Group 1: Great Danes and Little Iberians

Participants: Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Hungary, Albania, Malta

grp1

If I did have to nominate a “group of death” this year, so far it would be this one.  Denmark and Hungary have soared at the expense of Portugal and Sweden, which have both suffered under the weight of draw after draw.  (Portugal failed even to secure a win in their first meet against Albania.) Meanwhile Denmark, probably channeling their 2007 disgrace, came through a shock last-minute win against Portugal and a solid performance against Sweden to sit atop the pool.

The top four teams have four games left to play.  My instinct is that Denmark’s numbers vis-a-vis Portugal are slightly inflated, as Denmark already played both their games against Malta while the Portuguese have one to go.  Fourth-place Sweden are the only other team with another game against Malta.  We can assume both will win: a draw or loss to Malta by either would surely spell doom.  However even if Portugal beats Denmark at their next meeting and assuming a win against Malta, they’ll still fall one-point behind the Danes.

Hungary’s position in second-place is deceptively weak.  They’ve only played Sweden once – their sole loss – while they’ll face Portugal in two of their final four.  Hungary’s four wins have come solely from Albania and Malta, the weakest sides.  Saving the hardest games for last may be a morale boost, but Sweden and Portugal’s victories over Malta will put them only one point behind.  Even with a draw, either can squeeze ahead by beating another team, and Sweden still has a match against relatively-easy Albania.  Even a draw there would tie Sweden up with Hungary.  There are just too many outs left for the others.  Hungary will slip.

I doubt the Danes will, however.  Their injury-time win against Portugal (where they were behind from the half until the 82nd minute, and then again from the 84th until injury time) is evocative of Turkey last year, which was constantly outplayed but never outspirited.  While the Danes will be at home next time, the Portuguese will have returned to them Cristiano Ronaldo, absent at their last meeting a year ago.  This should help, but then he didn’t do much against Albania in June.  I think it’s likely that the Danes’ last win was something unusual and Portugal goes into the next meeting with better than even odds.  I also don’t think it will matter.  The resurgent Danish side is more than capable of taking any two of Albania, Hungary or Sweden, and two are all they’ll need.  Against both Swedes and Portuguese they’ve proven themselves more than capable of performing with élan.

Predicting number two is not easier.  Portugal should have the edge but they drew Sweden in both of their meetings, and given the numbers at work a draw is tantamount to a Swedish victory and evidence of a shaky Portuguese side.  Sweden’s loss against Denmark at home doesn’t speak better of them though.  It needs to run up the numbers against Malta in order to get the better of any tie and take down Denmark at Parken if they can.  In no case can they accept another draw against Albania.

Prediction: Denmark to clear to South Africa.  Portugal will rally, possibly on the strength of a victory against the Danes, to make second.  Sweden has more than an outside chance, but the decision whether they go forward isn’t theirs.