Now that the Confederations Cup is safely tucked away in Brazil, we can once again turn our attention to the real contest. The qualifying rounds for the 2010 FIFA World Cup are still being played out, but here is a brief rundown on who's shaping up as the likely field and what we can probably expect to see.
This is part three of a four part series. On this page, the main contenders from the European Confederation are discussed. To see predictions for the other confederations, please use the links in the following table of contents.
|Part One - Africa|
Part Two - Asia and Oceania
Part Three - Europe (this page)
Part Four - The Americas
a. Denmark and/or Hungary (to qualify)
Denmark is looking lean and mean to win this qualification round, and Hungary looks...well...hungry for success. With more than half the matches already played in the round, the early favorites Portugal and Sweden are struggling to get into contention.
Denmark looks to has a great chance of retaining the lead. They have won five of the six matches, and obtained a draw in the other. They are three points clear of Hungary and have a very healthy goal ratio of 13:2.
The next match for Denmark is a tough one, as it faces Portugal. But the match will take place in Copenhagen, which may help their chances. Even if they don't get through that match without a problem, their next opponent will be Albania. That match should supply another win for Denmark, and the remaining matches are both home games against Sweden and Hungary.
Winning these matches will only be necessary if the other teams also get wins. Otherwise it is sufficient to simply not lose any matches.
Hungary is only one win behind the leaders, but they still have to face Portugal twice, plus there will be a match against Sweden and Denmark. Its path is more difficult, but achievable if Denmark stumbles too many times.
Portugal has a lot of ground to make up, and would need to win at least three of its remaining matches, while also hoping that Denmark does not win any more matches. If Hungary wins two matches, it will also make things very difficult for Portugal.
It's not impossible, but the Portuguese team will have a lot of pressure throughout the rest of the remaining matches, and they only have to lose one match to be out of contention for the top spot unless Denmark fails to win a single match (unlikely) or Hungary fails to win twice.
Sweden is level with Portugal on points, but their goal ratio is 6:2 compared with 8:4 (strange, considering that Portugal is regarded as a strong defensive team and Sweden is regarded as an attacking team). Sweden's path is just as difficult, if not more so.
b. Greece or Switzerland (to qualify).
One of these two should make it through, but I don't think both will, unless Round Two is kind to them. They have had the good fortune to be drawn together in a very weak group, so each is helping the other to survive in a strange kind of symbiosis.
The two teams are dead level on points, with Greece being ahead due to their better goal ratio. I believe Greece has the edge here. Switzerland can struggle at times.
Nipping at the heels of the leaders is Latvia who have an excellent chance of knocking at least one of them off the perch, but they can't afford to lose any more games, and must win at least two, while hoping their opponents do not win. They are not in a great position, but it is certainly not over for them yet.
Israel is too far behind. To catch up they would need to win at least three matches and this does not seem very likely. They would also need for the other teams ahead of them not to make any upward progress. If Israel only wins two matches, then they cannot get to the top position no matter what else happens.
Moldova of course, is already out of contention. Luxembourg would need an absolute miracle.
c. Slovakia (to qualify)
I was tempted to just chicken out of this one and put "anyone from Group Three except San Marino", but it looks like Slovakia should be able to hold on here. Poland is a big danger, and Northern Ireland are amazingly in second place and trailing by just two points.
This could be a big year for Northern Ireland if they can keep it going and hold off the challenge from Poland.
Czech Republic and Slovenia are just behind Poland on eight points each. Both are good enough to score wins in this group, but they will need a ton of luck to make it through to qualification.
It would take a minimum of four straight wins and for all of the higher teams to draw against each other or lose to San Marino. It is putting it mildly to say that such circumstances would be very difficult to arrange.
d. Germany and Russia (to qualify)
Hard to imagine either of these teams failing to get through. Whoever finishes second in this group should be able to win a spot in Round Two. Both teams are two wins ahead of the next contender, Finland, and they have much better goal ratios.
The only possible way for Finland to get past one of these teams is in the very unlikely event that Germany loses a match against Azerbaijan, or that Russia loses to Azerbaijan, Wales, or Liechtenstein.
If neither of these things happen, then the outcome of Germany v. Russia has no effect on Finland's chances and even its match against Germany won't make a difference. The only change that the game can make, unless the unexpected happens (as described above), is to allow Russia to move into first place.
None of the remaining teams in this group can qualify, no matter what the outcome of any matches are (unless Germany and Russia fail to win a single match, and Wales wins all their own matches, and Finland does not win all of their matches).
The calculations behind these predictions are too complex to include here, so I will just have to ask you to trust that I have crunched the numbers. It has taken me 13 hours just to get this far into my analysis, so I'm not skimping here!
e. Spain (to qualify)
Unless Spain fails to win at least two of its four remaining matches and Bosnia-Herzegovina win all of their remaining matches, there is no way for Spain to be knocked out of the top spot.
Provided that Spain wins two matches, it will take its tally from 18 to 24, a target that can only be reached by Bosnia-Herzegovina at 12 points (and with four more wins they would also be on 24 points). Even then, they need to make up the difference in the goal ratio in order to move ahead of Spain.
Turkey remains in contention, currently in third place on eight points. They can only get into first place in the unlikely event that Spain does not win any more than one match and Turkey wins every match (four wins would take their total to 22, putting them one ahead of Spain if that team only win one match).
Second place is a more viable option for Turkey and their prospects are boosted by the fact that they already have their hardest matches behind them. They are the only team that does not face Spain in the matches that are left.
The math here is very simple. If Bosnia-Herzegovina does not win any more matches, then Turkey only needs to win two in order to pull ahead of them. If Bosnia-Herzegovina wins one match, Turkey will need to win three. And if Bosnia-Herzegovina wins more than one match then, to have any hope at all, Turkey must win all four.
Belgium is in a similar position to Turkey but disadvantaged, firstly because they will have to play against Spain, and secondly because they are trailing by one further point.
f. England (to qualify)
England exited from the 2006 World Cup after failing to break down the Portuguese defense in the third Quarterfinal match. They are firmly on track for another tilt, and only need to beat one of their three remaining opponents to make sure they get the chance.
A solitary win would lift England's total from 21 points to 24, and since all the other contenders can only achieve a maximum score of 23 points, England would then be certain of qualification.
If England does not win any more matches, then either Croatia or Ukraine (or both) can get ahead by winning all four of their matches. Belarus also would need to win at least four matches out of the five they have remaining. In doing so, they would knock both Ukraine and Croatia out of contention for a place.
If Belarus wins four matches, then their total points would be level with England's at 21 and the decision would come down to the goal ratio. But England seems perfectly safe as things stand at the moment.
In fact, it is not really necessary at all for England to win. All they have to do is not lose any matches. Three draw results would also bring their total to the magic number 24, and as a consequence this would be a big help to Belarus in their quest for second place because it would mean that both Ukraine and Croatia could then only obtain a maximum of 21, while the maximum possible score for Belarus would be 22.
Currently, the chaser with the best chance to graduate is Ukraine, as they have two upcoming matches against Andorra, but Croatia and Belarus must play against each other twice before taking on England and Kazakhstan.
g. Serbia and/or France (to qualify)
Serbia has a good lead in Group Seven. They are eight points clear of France and have a very healthy goal ratio of 15:5, which none of the other teams are even close to.
In the 2006 World Cup, I wrote on my forecast site that I did not think much of Serbia's chances, mainly due to its poor performance in the qualifying rounds. That prediction turned out to be true, as they lost all three of their Round 1 matches and failed to progress any further in the competition.
Their last World Cup match against Côte d'Ivoire saw a big improvement, with the Serbian team scoring two goals in the first half. Côte d'Ivoire did to Serbia what Brazil did to the U.S. in the Confederations Cup, staging a second half comeback to win by 3-2.
Serbia has three fairly easy assignments ahead of them. Home games against France and Romania—which they are expected to win—followed by an away game against Lithuania. Thus, I believe they will pick up at least another six points, bringing their final total to a minimum of 24.
France, in theory can top this score by one point, but in order to do so they must defeat Serbia. They are the only team apart from Serbia that still has the potential to score more than 20 points.
Lithuania are in third place with nine points, but can only score another nine, and this would only help them to equal Serbia's current score. Therefore, only if Serbia loses all of its remaining games does Lithuania has any chance at all, and even then they would need to be ahead on the goal ratio.
Austria and Romania, each with seven points and four matches left to play, are able to score a maximum total of 19. To stay clear of these threats, Serbia only needs to win one match (which would give them 21).
If Serbia can manage two wins and a draw, then even France can't catch them. France still has the potential to do some serious damage, and with two scheduled matches against the Faroe Islands, they should be able to bring their total up to at least 16 points, but are expected to do a lot better than that.
Serbia and France are the two most likely to take out the quinella here.
h. Italy (to qualify)
Italy could be expected to be doing a little better than this. Draws with Ireland and Bulgaria have prevented Italy from making a clean sweep. Ireland now sits just one point behind the "World Champions".
Ireland has a very good chance to pick up at least another six points from their three remaining matches, which would give them a total of 19, and a win or draw over Italy would see them looking very good indeed.
Italy, however, is aleady a point ahead and have four matches left to play, so in theory they should still finish on top. They should have at least six points coming to them, if not many more.
But the Irish should not abandon hope! It's still possible that Italy will stumble, or that somehow Ireland can even pick up the full nine points available to them. Unlikely, but not impossible. Should Ireland only make into second place, however, its prospects of qualifying diminish rapidly.
The only other team in this group with any sort of a chance is Bulgaria. Bulgaria's prospects can be summed up by the simple fact that if either Italy or Ireland wins two more matches, then Bulgaria cannot finish on top. Also, if Ireland wins just one match, Bulgaria will need to win three just to get ahead of Ireland.
It is not totally impossible for Cyprus, Montenegro, or Georgia to qualify in theory, but it is totally impossible in reality, so not really worth considering.
i. Netherlands (qualified)
There is not much to be said about the final group. The Netherlands, clear of the nearest competition by a full 14 points, have already qualified. All that is left for Scotland, Macedonia, Iceland, and Norway to fight for is second place, but even if they make it that far, it is highly unlikely for any of these teams to make further progress.
Holland showed incredible form in Euro 2008, while not at all showing their best in the 2006 World Cup. They've been given a very easy ride in this year, and hopefully it hasn't spoiled them.
This team currently looks like the most likely to be standing opposite Brazil on the day of the World Cup Final.
[End of part three. Please click here to continue.]