This weekend has brought the qualifying phase of the World Cup to the wire. All that is left are games on Wednesday for most confederations, followed by various playoff games on Nov. 14 and 18 (Europe, for example will weed 8 2d place teams down to four qualifiers those dates). With the qualifying almost over, let’s look at who is in, and what drama has been left:
The IN Crowd:
Europe: Netherlands, England, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Serbia, Italy
South America: Brazil, Paraguay, Chile
Africa: South Africa (hosts), Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire
Asia: Australia, Japan, Rep. of Korea, Dem. Rep. of Korea
CONCACAF: Mexico, United States
The only real surprises are the easy qualification of Australia, and the first place finish of Ghana. It’s great to see the result from Australia, which joined the AFC instead of continuing to slog through the dismal process of qualifying Oceana teams had to follow. Interestingly, it is quite possible the Kiwis from New Zealand will also qualify, via the Oceana route (currently in a playoff against Bahrain). Ghana got a friendly draw when Nigeria and Tunisia were put in the same group, leaving relatively poor teams in Ghana’s Group D. Props to Denmark, who were surprisingly strong in a group that included Sweden and Portugal.
The Drama Club:
Starting with CONMEBOL here, because that’s where the biggest drama remains.
Argentina, who have made every finals since their shocking failure to qualify in 1970, are forced to cross the Rio de la Plata to take on their neighbors Uruguay. Argentina have the upper hand, leading Uruguay in the table by two points, so all Argentina need to do (barring a miracle discussed below) is tie the game in the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo Wednesday. This is, of course, easier said than done. Also trying to upset the apple cart are Ecuador, who can qualify outright if they beat already qualified Chile by six goals or more, or by five goals while scoring more goals than Argentina manage against Uruguay.
Much more likely: Ecuador pips Uruguay for fifth place, landing them in a playoff against the fourth place team from CONCACAF. But it would be enormously funny to see Argentina go down to Uruguay, and for Ecuador to beat Chile, sending the famous blue and white stripes home for 2010, a perhaps just and fitting result for having hired one Diego Armando Maradona as the team’s manager (too bad he can’t fist in a goal from the manager’s seat…).
Note: Venezuela have an outside chance at crashing the party, though they have to beat Brazil and a series of rather miraculous results have to occur elsewhere for this to happen. However, just the fact that Venezuela are in position to do this, when they have long been the soccer doormats of the continent, should give them reason to be proud.
Group 1: Denmark qualified. Portugal make the playoffs if they take care of Malta on Wednesday. This is about as certain as anything gets. Sweden and Hungary go home disappointed.
Group 2: The Swiss will qualify unless they lose Wed. at home to Israel. If they do lose, then Greece will qualify outright by beating Luxembourg (an almost sure thing at home). Whichever of the two doesn’t qualify outright will be in the playoffs, unless Greece lose at home to Luxembourg, in which case Israel or Latvia could actually slip in. Since Greece ain’t losin’, Israel and Latvia are going home.
Group 3: An interesting group. Slovenia have a game at home against San Marino, which is the most guaranteed win possible (I’m not sure the last time San Marino actually managed a point in UEFA qualifying). Thus, they will finish with 20 pts. Slovakia are currently top with 17 pts., but have to travel to Poland, who have been eliminated. Thus, the Poles can play spoiler, and by winning force the Slovaks to the playoffs. A tie between the Poles and the Slovaks should still send Slovenia through, though I’m not clear on the tie-breaking rules for who qualifies and who goes finishes in 2nd place (I think the Wiki breakdown here is not accurate).
The Czechs and the North Irish will be playing for pride; they need a San Marino win to have any hope, so they are both going home.
Group 4: Germany qualified directly. The Russians are in the playoffs. The games on Wednesday don’t mean squat.
Group 5: Spain qualified directly; Bosnia-Herzegovina (!) are in the playoffs. Turkey (so much for their Euro 2008 Semi-final appearance!) and Belgium are sent packing.
Group 6: England are qualified. The Ukraine will finish in 2d place, barring some phenomenal slip-up Wed. against Andorra (second only to San Marino in minnowness). The Croats will be going home, a point shy of the playoffs.
Group 7: Serbia are qualified. The French are in the playoffs. Shades of 1994 for France…
Group 8: Italy have qualified. Ireland get to go to the playoffs. A dismal Bulgarian team go home (they lost to Cyprus, for goodness sake!!).
Group 9: The Netherlands qualified. Norway technically have a chance at the playoffs, but it requires that Portugal lose to Malta by 3 goals or more. Bye, bye, Norway. Scotland, too, are goners.
Asia: The only drama is whether or not Bahrain can manage to score away to New Zealand on 14 Nov. They drew 0 - 0 in Bahrain.
There are only three spots left up for grabs, and only one of them involves a head-to-head Nov. 14. That spot involves Group C, when Algeria go to Egypt with both countries alive. If Algeria win, or tie, or lose by 1 goal, Algeria are through to the Finals. Egypt go through if they win 2 - 0, or win by three goals. Not sure why the Wiki site says Algeria go through on an Egypt win by two goals other than 2 - 0.
Group A has Cameroon headed to Morocco, while Gabon head to Togo. For Gabon to qualify, Cameroon has to lose, and Gabon tie (plus some other requirements regarding goals scored, etc.), or Cameroon ties and Gabon wins. Cameroon are in the drivers’ seat, as Morocco have yet to win in this group.
Group B has the more interesting situation. Nigeria, perennial qualifiers, must go into Kenya and pull out a win, then hope that Tunisia, ahead of them in the table, don’t manage a win. A Tunisian tie, combined with a Nigerian win, sends the Eagles to the Finals again on goal differential.
The US and Mexico have managed to qualify. The only thing left here is to see if the Ticos of Costa Rica can hold on to the third spot ahead of Honduras. Fourth place has to play whomever manages to finish fifth in CONMEBOL in a playoff, so it is to be avoided.
Sadly for the Ticos, they have to travel to the US, while Honduras goes to El Salvador. Honduras MUST win to qualify outright; if they do, Costa Rica MUST beat the US to stay ahead of Honduras (Costa Rica’s goal differential sucks in comparison to Honduras). The game in El Salvador will be over when the US v Costa Rica match starts, so the Ticos will know what the situation is when they kickoff.