European World Cup qaulifying: What to watch for

Will he make the World Cup?; Photo by Tpower

Will he make the World Cup?; Photo by Tpower

With the US team having touched down safely in San Pedro Sula, let’s break away from Concacaf to look at the European qualifying tournament. A lot will have to exactly right for the US to get a seed, and that path is extremely unlikely, but whether or not these European teams end up in the seeded pot, they can still significantly affect the group the US will be drawn into in Cape Town this December. First, I’ll break down the qualifying structure, the how each group stacks up and which teams are likely to go in automatically or into the playoffs, then what its all likely to mean for the US team.

Europe’s 13 places in the World Cup Finals are by far the most places of any confederation. It divides all the teams in the confederation into nine groups, with each group winner earning automatic qualification and the top eight second place teams going into a home and away playoff. The teams in the playoffs with the top four rankings in the yet to be released October FIFA World Ranking will receive a seed and presumably an easier path to the World Cup.

Eight of the nine groups have six teams, with the last having only five. UEFA has to make some adjustments to the final points to fairly compare the nine second place teams, and instead of simply weighting up or down, what they’ve done is more complex. For the second place teams from groups with six teams, points earned in matches against the last place team in each group are deducted, and then all nine second place teams are matched up and the one with the lowest point total is eliminated. Since most of the groups have genuine minnows in them like San Marino or the Faroe Islands, this means that most of these second place teams will have the full six points deducted from their score. Norway on 10 points secured second place from the group with only five teams, so the target for the second place sides is 17 otherwise it would go to goal difference (Norway’s is +2).

Three teams have already won their groups and qualified automatically: the Netherlands (Group 9), Spain (5), and England (6). While most of the rest of the groups have clear favorites, there are some very competitive battles that could see teams currently in first fail to even make the playoffs.

Group 1: Denmark leads this group on 18 points, followed by Sweden on 15, and Portugal on 13. The Portuguese have really struggled through the qualifiers, but have turned it on of late and will need two wins against Hungary and Malta and other results to go their way or Cristiano Ronaldo will be on the outside looking in next summer. The Danes need one win to secure the top spot as their goal difference is better than the Swedes. Those two play in Copenhagen on Saturday (on FSC on tape delay at 5pm Eastern). Sweden closes with what should be an easy game against Albania and four points will probably see them through even in Portugal win both games. Prediction: Denmark wins group, Sweden to playoffs.

Group 2: The Swiss currently lead this group on 17 points, ahead of both Greece and Latvia on 14 and Israel on 12. The key matchup in this group is Saturday’s Greece v Latvia clash in Athens. Both of those teams have easy last games so the winner of this game should get to the playoffs. If they tie, it would go to goal difference which the Greeks currently lead by one. Prediction: Switzerland win the group, Greece to playoffs.

Group 3: Slovakia is way out in front with 19 points, Slovenia is tied with Northern Ireland on 14 points, with the Czech Republic on 12. Slovakia really only needs one point to go through because of its superior goal difference and wouldn’t even need that if it came at home against Slovenia on Saturday. Northern Ireland only has one match left, away to the Czechs on Wednesday so the best they can do is second with a win in Prague. The Irish also need the Slovenes lose to the Slovaks because they close against guaranteed win San Marino. The Czechs are not out of it, needing two wins and the Slovenes to lose to the Slovaks (why did they have to get drawn in the same group). But the Czechs have only one win against teams other than San Marion and it seems unlikely that they will all of a sudden find their form. Prediction: Slovakia wins, Slovenes to playoffs.

Group 4: By far the most straight-forward group. Germany tops the group by one point over second place Russia, but the two teams play a winner take all match in Moscow on Saturday. Germany wins or ties and they qualify automatically and the Russians will be in the playoffs. Russia wins and it’s the reverse. Prediction: I’m going to go nuts here and say the Russians are going to pull this off and beat the Germans – Russia wins, Germany in playoffs.

Group 5: Spain has already won this group and the battle is between Bosnia and Turkey for second with the Bosnians up 16-12. If the Bosnians beat the Estonians in Tallinn on Saturday, they’re in the playoffs. If they don’t, they might open the door for Turkey as the Bosnians face undefeated Spain in their last game. The Turks would still need to win at Belgium and home to Armenia – something I don’t think will happen. Prediction: Bosnia into playoffs.

Group 6: England has already won this group. The second place battle is between Croatia and Ukraine, with Croatia slightly favored on 17 points to Ukraine’s 15, but the Croats have just one game remaining. The problem for the Ukrainians is that they play undefeated England in Kiev on Saturday. All will come down to this game as these two should both win their final match. England hold the cards here and their memories may think back to European Championship qualifying when Croatia knocked them out of the tournament on the last day. An England loss would return the favor. Somehow I don’t think Capello would do that. Prediction: Croatia to the playoffs.

Group 7: Serbia lead on 19 with France in second on 15. The Serbs are in a comfortable position needing just one win against Romania or Lithuania, the latter having lost four straight matches including one to the Faroe Islands. The French also look set for second with a matchup against the islanders all that stands between them and the playoffs. Prediction: Serbia wins and France into the playoffs.

Group 8: Italy in pole position with 20 points, Ireland in second on 16. Ireland have slim hopes of pipping Italy for the top spot if they beat them in Dublin on Saturday then win at home to Macedonia on Wednesday while the Italians fail to defeat Cyprus in Parma. We know how the story goes when all the Italians need is a draw. Prediction: Italy wins and Ireland in playoffs.

Group 9: Play is completed in this only group with five teams. Netherlands have won with Norway coming second. Norway’s is unlikely to make the playoffs even with the deductions from the other teams. Prediction: Norway eliminated.

Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Russia, Serbia, and Italy would join the other group winners the Netherlands, Spain, and England, while Sweden, Greece, Slovenia, Germany, Bosnia, Croatia, France, and Ireland would go into the playoffs. The four seeded teams in the playoff draw would be Germany (4), Croatia (9), France (10), and Greece (12). Sweden will be the country these teams will hope to avoid, although anything could happen.

For those fans still hoping the US can get a seed, the best scenario would be for the Swedes to beat Denmark on Saturday then have the Danes rebound with a win at home against Hungary on Wednesday, keeping Portugal out. Pull for Russia over Germany, Ukraine over England, and Serbia to take care of business against Romania or Lithuania.

These games have implications beyond seeding, however, as it matters who gets into the European pot. In the current standings, Europe would have five seeded teams and the eight remaining would go into one pot. In the hypothetical of having all the seeded teams win their playoffs, the unseeded European pot would include the Netherlands, Croatia, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Denmark, Switzerland, and Slovakia. Really only Slovakia stands out as a weak team in that group and they aren’t that bad.

It would really benefit the US for the Netherlands to move up one spot and get a seed, thereby taking them out of the European pot. In order for that to happen, either Germany, France, or Argentina would need to fail to qualify, and that is certainly not out of the question. It is unclear how FIFA would adjusts the pots to accommodate a European pot of only seven teams – they’ll have to make it up somehow (they may add another team like Oceania’s one rep New Zealand or just pick that spot from another pot), and it is virtually assured that the team that does will be significantly worse than the Netherlands.

It would also benefit the US not to have Croatia in that pot, and since they will definitely be seeded and favorites to advance through the playoffs, we better root for Ukraine over England. The drop off between Greece and Latvia is significant, and if the Greeks fail to make the playoffs, Ukraine or the Irish would get a seed and have a good shot at making the tournament. The best case Euro pot would be Russia, Denmark, Serbia, Switzerland, Ukraine, Ireland, Slovakia, and New Zealand. The US would only be desperate to avoid Russia and have as good a chance at one of the weaker teams as one of the stronger ones.

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