So the UEFA Groups are set. Group of death…sorta…Group A? An England – Croatia rematch! Israel’s chances looking decent. It looks to be a long road for all.
The top teams from each of 9 groups qualify outright, while the 8 best runner-ups compete in a playoff to determine the final four spots. That’s 13 spots overall available for Europe.
Now let’s go group-by-group.
Portugal, Sweden, Denmark look to fight for the automatic out of this group and this could arguably be the “Group of Death”, except I think Portugal is going to come away with the spot on this one while Sweden, Denmark, and possibly even an on-form Hungary fight for two. Expect Sweden though to take second and qualify for the play-offs.
Either way, we’re going to see a team we haven’t seen in the World Cup a while here. The Euro 2004 champs – Greece – have looked decent as of late, but they haven’t matched the form of Israel who is my pick to take this group. A little bold as they haven’t appeared since 1970 – but crazier things have happened and I look forward to watching both Ben Sahar and Toto Tamuz take bigger roles on front line. If Israel even slips in the slightest – Greece will take the number one, but I’d peg them for two and a trip to the playoffs.
There’s only one walk-over in this group as Czech Republic faces some tough depth of competition. They’ll still come out far and away on top and I see Poland grabbing second, but it is hard to dismiss Northern Ireland’s renaissance. Their hopes – however – depend solely on the continued productivity of David Healy who has looks to need a finishing clinic based on his most recent EPL performances. As one of the three spoilers – along with Slovenia and Slovakia – any of them can upset Czech Republic and Poland so expect a couple surprises here and there.
Somewhat clear cut for me. Germany and Russia have proven they’re for real. Yes, Russia hiccupped in form, losing to Israel with a Euro 2008 qualification in their sights but if Guus Hiddink is still in charge, you can expect an even more consistent Russian squad to contend for a trip to South Africa. Unfortunately, the Germans are in the way and I just don’t see anyone impeding them…
Spain and Turkey look to be the favorites and as always, I’d expect Spain to punch an automatic ticket based a phenomenal squad of players, decent depth, and real veteran leadership – but once in South Africa, expect that Spanish underperformance again. Will we be seeing the youthful exuberance of Bojan Krkic and possibly De la Red? Probably not if David Villa is firing on all cylinders. La Roja have lost only once to Turkey in 8 match-ups but the Turks seem to always surprise people, especially if the team has at their disposal the young Nuri Sahin, and veterans Nihat and Emre. Belgium can contend, but there’s no Marc Overmars to captain that team to consistency. Your best bet at a spoiler comes in the form of Bosnia who has been slowly gaining respect from their opponents throughout the Euro qualifiers. Spain on top, Turkey second. By the way, is FIFA expecting us to believe that Armenia/Turkey match-up wasn’t intentional?!?!
For the English, the ditch couldn’t get any deeper – or so they thought. Three Eastern European teams does not bode well for the Lions. Will Lampard, Gerrard, Terry, and Rooney let them miss a second major competition though? I can’t see it happening, but that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t. Croatia’s new generation of Luka Modric and Eduardo da Silva has already left an indelible scar on English football. This will either be a dominant performance from England or they will scrap their way through leaving it to chance on the final day. England will rebound with – gulp – renewed vigor while Croatia will outperform Ukraine for second. Believe it or not, a key (one of many) to England’s success seems to be the inclusion of David Beckham and that all depends on England’s pick of gaffer.
Serbia underperformed this past year and I would expect them to come back strong, but France will prove to strong for either. The French will take first, while Serbia and Romania will battle for second. Romania is on the rise as could be seen by their recent performance in the Euro qualifiers, while Serbia – after their split with Montenegro – has been struggling but I wouldn’t exactly say they were on their way down. Plus, I could never bet again a healthy Nemanja Vidic captained back-line. Serbia goes second.
Ireland is really going to like their chances in this group but it will really depend on their performances against the lesser – but equally dangerous – sides of Cyprus, Georgia, and Montenegro. Italy will run away with it, while Ireland and Bulgaria duke it out for second. Only Italy out of this group as both the Irish and Bulgarians will get swallowed up in any sort of playoff.
The group of five is deep. Holland has a little leeway to give in terms of form and what not, but Scotland and Norway will be ready to pounce on any inconsistencies with the Dutch. Scotland will beat Norway, finish second and join the playoffs. Norway only finished a point out of Euro qualification and could benefit from possible underestimation as their string of results went largely unnoticed. This is all in contrast to the run of Scotland who scared both France and Italy before bowing out gracefully in the homestretch.
Automatics (9): Portugal, Israel, Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Italy, England, France, Netherlands
Playoffs (8): Scotland, Serbia, Turkey, Greece, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Croatia
Final Spots (4): Turkey, Sweden, Russia, Croatia
What are your thoughts? Any match-ups your looking forward to? Players that are going to make their mark?