2014 World Cup: Re-Analyzing the Qualification Standings and Predicting the 32
With the conclusion of England and Poland's postponed match, we can close the book on another month of enthralling action in 2014 World Cup qualification.
As we stand now, 120 teams are competing for 31 spots to join Brazil in the world's biggest competition.
Over the past week, so much has changed throughout the qualification that it is tough to know where to start our discussion.
So why don't we just dive right into all of the standings?
Here is a complete analysis of where we are in World Cup qualifying and a prediction of the 32 teams that will be headed to Brazil in 2014.
For analysis of last month's standings and my predictions at that time, click here.
Asia: The Process and Where We Are in It
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Asia began qualification for the 2014 World Cup with 43 teams competing for 4.5 spots. If you are new to this sort of thing, this means that four teams will qualify directly to the World Cup, one will enter into a playoff with a team from South America and the rest will be eliminated.
As of this moment, the process has gone through three rounds, with 33 nations already eliminated and only 10 remaining.
Those 10 were split into two groups of five, where every team will play each other team twice (home and away). After this, the top two teams from each group (as judged by normal group procedures) will qualify for the World Cup, the bottom two will be eliminated and the two third-placed teams will compete for the playoff spot mentioned above.
We are currently halfway through these groups, with each team having played four of their eight total matches.
Asia Group A
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Only two matches were played in this group, and yet the whole complexion of it changed dramatically.
An Iranian victory over South Korea brought everyone within three points of each other and solidified Iran's position as one of the top two teams.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's victory at Qatar salvaged what was beginning to look like a lost campaign for the Uzbeks and knocked Qatar out of their fairy-tale third spot.
Iran's victory did nothing but make me more confident in my prediction of South Korea and Iran to advance from this group.
However, I see Qatar's home-loss as a deal-breaker, as they will now probably need a few good results on the road.
I'll switch that one to Uzbekistan.
Qualify: South Korea, Iran
Eliminated: Qatar, Lebanon
Asia Group B
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The story of this month's action was Australia's come-from-behind victory over Iraq, which salvaged their campaign, and Jordan's momentum-killing loss to Oman.
Now, three teams sit within a point of each other for one qualification and one playoff spot.
The movement this month has just made Japan sit in an even stronger position at the top of the group. I still cannot fathom a way for them to not win this group.
Meanwhile, Australia's battling win over Iraq has hopefully righted their ship, so I still have them going through.
Finally, I will not waver from my pick of Jordan to get the third spot. With a home match against Oman still left, they should be able to leap-frog their competition.
Qualify: Japan, Australia
Eliminated: Oman, Iraq
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A month ago, I had the Uzbeks crashing out of the competition in one of the bottom two spots. Now, I have them overcoming Jordan here and making it to the intercontinental playoff.
Looking closer at Uzbekistan's play thus far, they haven't actually had a rough match yet. Even their home-loss to Iran came because of a stoppage-time heartbreaker.
Hey, at least I recognize when I'm wrong, right?
Advance to playoff: Uzbekistan
Africa: The Process and Where We Are in It
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Africa started out with 52 nations competing for five places.
As of now, they have played through one full round of competition, eliminating 12 nations and knocking it down to 40.
They then separated the teams into 10 groups of four, where every team will play each other team twice (home and away). At the end of that, the top team (as judged by normal group procedures) advances to the final round of qualification, where those 10 teams will be paired and play a two-legged tie to determine the five qualifiers.
Right now, every team has played two out of six of their group matches, giving us a little taste of what is to come.
No matches were played in any group this month, yet there were still changes that are very much worth discussing.
Africa Group A
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|Central African Republic||2||1||0||1||2||2||0||3|
This has turned into a very interesting group, as South Africa has drawn both Botswana and Ethiopia to sit in third.
Meanwhile, the Central African Republic has been a surprisingly strong side, while Ethiopia has a nice lead in the group.
Not enough has happened here for me to change my prediction just yet.
I still expect Bafana Bafana to figure out a way to get this done and qualify for the next round.
Africa Group B
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Tunisia and Sierra Leone have quickly started to pull away from their rivals in this group.
Two wins for Tunisia is great, while Sierra Leone's draw with Equatorial Guinea has them in second.
The two matches between these two nations should be decisive.
The fact that Tunisia just defeated Sierra Leone to qualify for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations should give the Tunisians some good momentum.
Tunisia to the next round.
Africa Group C
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Here's a very interesting group.
Morocco looked like the biggest rivals of Morocco, while Gambia seemed the weakest in the group.
A draw with Morocco and a win at home to Tanzania has the Ivorians in top spot, while Gambia's draw with Morocco has the Moroccans down in third.
Ivory Coast may just be the class of Africa, let alone this group.
With a bit of an advantage already, I see them running away with this.
Africa Group D
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This group provides one of the most interesting stories of the month for World Cup qualifying.
Coming into the group, it was natural to think it would be all about Zambia and Ghana. After all, Zambia are the reigning African champions, while Ghana are the World Cup quarterfinalists they beat in the Cup of Nations semifinal.
In their first matches, Ghana destroyed Lesotho 7-0, while Zambia suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Sudan.
In the second match, Zambia pulled off a 1-0 victory over Ghana, while Sudan drew Lesotho.
Hence, Ghana and Zambia were level with Sudan at the top.
So why doesn't the table say that?
Well, Zambia protested their loss to Sudan, saying that Sudan's Saif Ali should not have played due to yellow-card accumulation. FIFA agreed and overturned the result, awarding Zambia a 3-0 victory.
Now, Zambia has a strangle-hold on the group and hold a 3-0 victory over an opponent that aren't as weak as they seemed.
It's hard to go against Zambia here, but I'm going to do it anyway.
I think Ghana can pull off a home win over Zambia and take the group on goal difference.
Either way, though, the winner of this will probably win their playoff. But more on that later.
Africa Group E
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This group is still very much up for grabs, with two home wins providing the distance from the top two to the bottom two.
Burkina Faso and Niger were impressive in finding their way to qualification to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, while Gabon were unimpressive in finding a way to miss out.
Nothing has changed here this month.
I feel a little worse about my prediction, but I'll stick with Gabon.
Africa Group F
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Similar to the Ivory Coast in Group C, Nigeria has a one-point lead in this group that gives them a huge advantage over their rivals.
A win over Namibia and draw away to Malawi has gotten them here.
I feel safe in saying that Nigeria will walk away with this group.
Africa Group G
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After just two matches, Egypt are running away with this group.
A three-point advantage over Guinea is just accentuated by a 3-2 victory in Guinea.
Egypt might have the easiest time of any African team in this stage of qualifying.
Africa Group H
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This is my favorite group in Africa and one that could really go any of three ways.
Benin, Algeria and Mali are all fantastic teams that have the potential to pull this off.
As of right now, home-field advantage has been a key, as even Rwanda got a home-draw against Benin.
Again, I would not be surprised if this one goes to any of the three teams at the top, but I'm going for Mali.
The 2012 Africa Cup of Nations third-place finishers have looked good over the past few years and should be able to overcome a rough loss in Benin to find their way to the next round.
Africa Group I
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This group has the potential to go in any direction over the next four matches. I mean, just look at 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying.
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Togo shocked us with great runs to the tournament, while Libya and Cameroon disappointed in crashing out.
Where will it go from here? One can only imagine a few more twists and turns.
The return of Samuel Eto'o didn't have the amazing results that Cameroon were hoping for on the weekend, while Emmanuel Adebayor's return to Togo has had the Togolese playing much better.
Nothing's changed, so I'm still going for Libya to give us that feel-good story.
Africa Group J
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If you want a story to watch in Africa, it's in this group.
You see, Senegal were the prohibitive favorites entering the group and have a good lead in it through two matches.
However, the despicable riot their fans started as they crashed out of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifying could be a huge problem for them. Africa's governing body, CAF, will certainly discipline Senegal.
So the question must be asked: How will this effect their World Cup qualifying bid? Could they be disqualified?
The three other teams in this group could get a huge break here.
Obviously, I can't predict what the sanctions will be for Senegal. Hence, I must work under the assumption that it will not effect their World Cup bid.
Thus, I still have them coming out of this group.
Africa Final Round
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As a refresher, my 10 group winners coming out of the current stage of Africa are: South Africa, Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Gabon, Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Libya and Senegal.
From here, each team will be drawn with an opponent, whom they will face in a two-legged tie to determine the five teams to go to the World Cup.
Now, I obviously cannot predict the draw. Hence, I will predict the five qualifiers merely on merit.
Ivory Coast and Ghana are the class of Africa and should have an easy time getting through their ties.
Meanwhile, Gabon and Libya are the weakest of the bunch and will be watching the World Cup from home.
I see South Africa and Tunisia coming up just short, while Egypt has looked very good recently.
That leaves three teams for just two spots.
I still believe Nigeria will find their way through, but this riot has scared me off Senegal. Even if they are allowed to continue with their bid, they will likely have to play on neutral ground or in front of empty stadiums, taking away their home-field advantage. I'll swap them with a deceptively talented Mali side.
Again, a lot of this comes down to the draw, but here's how I have it:
Qualify: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali
Eliminated: Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Gabon, Libya
North America: The Process and Where We Are in It
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North America's 35 nations have been competing for 3.5 spots, with the final half a spot representing a playoff with a team from Oceania.
The third round just wrapped up on Tuesday, knocking it down to six nations still in the running.
These six teams will now play each other twice (home and away). After that, the top three will get to the World Cup, the bottom two will be eliminated and the fourth will enter into the playoff.
North America Hexagonal
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Well, there's not much to talk about from this table. However, we can still discuss how the teams got here.
The momentum factor has to go to Jamaica and Honduras. Both had back-against-the-wall matches on Tuesday, and both came through with vital wins to book their places in this group.
The USA's big win over Guatemala ensured their spot, while Costa Rica made absolutely certain of their safe passage with a thumping win over Guyana.
Mexico and Panama got through relatively easily, with almost no drama on the final day.
Despite the USA running into a few troubles along the way here, I still have Mexico and the United States finishing one-two in this group and advancing to the World Cup.
However, my mind has changed on the rest of the group.
Honduras had not played well in World Cup qualifying and were in trouble heading into their match with Canada on Tuesday. In need of a win, they got it. Oh, and it was an 8-1 win. I try not to overreact too much to single matches, but it looks like Honduras is back. I'm putting them back up to third.
Meanwhile, Jamaica's loss to Guatemala made me a little skeptical of the Reggae Boyz. Sure, they did well to work their way into this position with a win, but that was against Antigua and Barbuda. I'm not sure they will be able to hang here.
That leaves just Panama and Costa Rica fighting for the playoff spot. Panama looked a bit weak against Cuba, but they only needed the draw. Meanwhile, Costa Rica have been coming on strong.
I'm still going for Panama right now, but this should be a great race.
Qualify: Mexico, USA, Honduras
Eliminated: Costa Rica, Jamaica
South America: The Process and Where We Are in It
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Here's an easy process.
The nine nations in South America were drawn into one big group, where every team will play each other twice (home and away).
From there, the top four teams gain automatic entry into the World Cup, the fifth gets a playoff against an Asian team and the bottom four are eliminated.
As of right now, a little over half the matches have been played.
South America Group
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The complexion of this table has shifted greatly over the past week.
Argentina still sit in the top spot with Ecuador and Colombia right behind them, but those three have pulled away from the rest of their competitors.
Meanwhile, Uruguay and Chile, both of whom lost twice, have come back to the crowd and even let Venezuela leapfrog them for the final automatic spot.
Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia suddenly have a bit of life again just a little over halfway through.
Let's start with the obvious ones.
Argentina and Colombia are going through with style. I'm still not sold on Ecuador's away form, but their home form has been good enough to almost guarantee their spot.
Bolivia and Peru don't have enough to go through, while Paraguay has dug themselves far too great of a hole to get out of.
Venezuela still has some tough matches to go, but Uruguay and Chile seem to be coming unglued.
I'll go for Uruguay to pull off fourth and Venezuela to find their way to the playoff.
Qualify: Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay
Eliminated: Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay
Oceania: The Process and Where We Are in It
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Another fairly simple process to understand here.
The 11 teams of Oceania have already been cut down to four.
Those four were put into a group, where every team will play each other twice (home and away).
At the end of this process, the top team in the group goes on to a playoff with a North American team, while the other three are eliminated.
As of right now, every nation in the group has played four of their six matches.
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The Solomon Islands and Tahiti are already mathematically eliminated from contention in this group, but still have two matches to play.
The group is setting up for one big showdown: New Zealand vs New Caledonia on March 22, where New Caledonia will need a win.
New Zealand already got a win in New Caledonia, so it shouldn't be too much to ask for a draw in Wellington.
I expect them to get it and move on to the intercontinental playoff.
Playoff: New Zealand
Eliminated: New Caledonia
Europe: The Process and Where We Are in It
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The qualification process for Europe takes the 53 teams in the continent and produces 13 qualifiers.
To do so, they split the teams into nine groups, where every team will play each other twice (home and away).
After every match in the group has been played, the nine group winners automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the teams who finish third and below are eliminated.
As for the nations who finish second, they are ranked based on their performance, and the worst second-placed team is eliminated. From there, the eight remaining teams are drawn into pairs that will compete in a two-legged tie to determine who advances to the World Cup.
As of this moment, the teams have played either three or four of their 10 matches (or eight for Group I).
Europe Group A
What looked to be at least a three-horse race quickly became a two-team duel this week.
Serbia's losses to both Belgium and Macedonia have allowed Belgium and Croatia to pull away from the pack, while Scotland's continued disappointment has them at the bottom of this competitive group.
I'm definitely going for Belgium and Croatia to finish first and second in some order.
For me, I'll go with Belgium to top the group. The Belgians are just so young and talented that I think they will find a way to nick the top spot away from the Croats.
Eliminated: Serbia, Macedonia, Wales, Scotland
Europe Group B
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Have Italy been absolutely convincing in their first four matches? No, not really.
However, they have a nice little cushion at the top of the standings and look to be on their way to another World Cup final.
The rest of the group is setting up nicely for a run at the second spot.
Italy should have no trouble holding onto this group from here.
Denmark has disappointed me over the past few matches, so I will go for the Czech Republic in second.
Second: Czech Republic
Eliminated: Bulgaria, Denmark, Armenia, Malta
Europe Group C
|Republic of Ireland||3||2||0||1||7||8||−1||6|
All that needs to be said about this group can be summed up in one word: Wow.
After destroying Ireland 6-1 in Dublin, Germany raced to a 4-0 lead within an hour against Sweden. The group looked set to be a runaway for Germany and a battle for second between everyone else.
Suddenly, Sweden turned it on, and before the final half-hour was over in Berlin, the match ended 4-4.
That point could prove vital for Sweden as they look to hold off Ireland and even compete with Germany.
It was an epic collapse, but I still see Germany holding onto the top spot.
I now feel even better about my pick of Sweden in second.
Eliminated: Ireland, Austria, Kazkhstan, Faroe Islands
Europe Group D
This group just doesn't like draws.
Even though they only have a three-point lead, the Netherlands are starting to run away with this group, destroying the second and third-placed teams 4-1 each at their own homes.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been greatly disappointing, allowing Hungary and Romania to state their cases for the second spot.
Their match with each other should tell us a lot.
The Netherlands look like shoo-ins to win the group, and I'll go for Romania to take the second spot.
Eliminated: Hungary, Turkey, Estonia, Andorra
Europe Group E
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Well, this one isn't as much of a runaway for Switzerland as it first looked like it would be.
Norway have recovered from their disappointing loss to Iceland and seem ready to threaten the Swiss for the top spot.
Meanwhile, surprising up-starts Albania and Iceland are poised to challenge Norway for the second spot.
Slovenia has been very disappointing at the bottom.
I still think that Switzerland will have too much for the rest of the group and will win the group.
Norway's draw in Bern was impressive and strengthens my belief in them.
Eliminated: Albania, Iceland, Slovenia, Cyprus
Europe Group F
Here's an understatement: This group had an eventful week.
Portugal went from a huge contender for the top spot to fighting for their lives for the second spot.
Israel went from very bottom of the group to second place.
Russia didn't look like world-beaters, parking the bus at home against Portugal and struggling to find a breakthrough against Azerbaijan, and yet they are running away with this group like no other European team.
It's hard to go against Russia for the top spot here.
I still think Portugal will get second, though.
Eliminated: Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg
Europe Group G
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Bosnia and Herzegovina sit atop the group, level on points after their draw in Greece.
Bosnia's goal-differential seems unbeatable, but they have yet to play the sleeper in the group, Slovakia.
Greece already beat the Slovaks 1-0 in Bratislava, so a lot of this story will be told by the matches between Bosnia and Slovakia in 2013.
Bosnia look like the class of the group and ready to finally break through to a major tournament.
Even if they are unable to defeat Slovakia, I think they will be able to beat Greece in Bosnia.
Other than that, I think Greece will be able to hold off Slovakia for second.
Qualify: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Eliminated: Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Liechtenstein
Europe Group H
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This group is pretty wide open.
England have drawn both Poland and Ukraine, opening the door for Montenegro to vault them should they continue their winning ways.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's loss to Montenegro and draw to Moldova has them near the bottom of the group, a surprisingly poor start that could spell big trouble for them.
Poland's draw with Montenegro has them in a good position heading into a stretch where they play struggling Ukraine and minnows San Marino.
I still think England will get the job done in this group, taking full advantage of their matches with Montenegro to take control of the group.
For the second spot, it will be a battle between Poland and Montenegro, with Ukraine maybe getting involved if they can figure out a way back to form. I'll go for Poland right now.
Eliminated: Montenegro, Ukraine, Moldova, San Marino
Europe Group I
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France's salvaged 1-1 draw in Spain opens the door for a tense run-in in this group.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group look well out of the running, with the closest contenders behind even though the leaders have a match in hand.
This one will be France and Spain at the top, but in what order?
If there were ever a time for this great Spain team to be had, it's now. If France can nick another result, this time at home, they could take this group.
Unfortunately, I just don't see it happening.
Eliminated: Belarus, Georgia, Finland
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As a quick recap, the nine teams I have finishing in second in their groups are: Croatia, Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Norway, Portugal, Greece, Poland and France.
Now, I can't really predict too far into the future, so I will do this off of merit.
Based upon the groups and how much difficulty I think they will have in theirs, I can see Norway being the ninth-ranked second-place team, and thus, being eliminated before the playoffs.
That leaves the other eight to be drawn in pairs.
Of these eight, I see Portugal, France, Croatia and Sweden as the strongest.
Now, obviously the draw has to cooperate with this to happen, but I'll go for them as the playoff winners.
Qualify: Croatia, Sweden, Portugal, France
Eliminated: Czech Republic, Romania, Norway, Greece, Poland
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My playoff teams for the inter-confederation playoffs are:
North America: Panama
South America: Venezuela
Oceania: New Zealand
The playoffs would thus pit Panama against New Zealand and Uzbekistan against Chile.
Even though they have looked good in qualifying so far, I think New Zealand is a bit weak. For evidence, just look at their loss in the OFC Nations Cup. Hence, I see Panama getting by them for that spot.
Also, I think Venezuela will have too much firepower for Uzbekistan and get the final place in Brazil.
Qualify: Panama, Venezuela
Eliminated: New Zealand, Uzbekistan
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So to recap, here are my 32 teams going to the 2014 World Cup:
Asia: Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran
Africa: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali
North America: Mexico, USA, Honduras, Panama
South America: Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Venezuela
Europe: Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, England, Spain, Croatia, Sweden, Portugal, France
So there's my list.
What do you think? Is there something I missed? Let me know in the comment section below.
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