Thursday, August 21, 2008

World Cup Qualifying – The Road to South Africa 2010

In 657 days, the World Cup will kick off in Africa for the first time. Qualifying is presently underway in all the regions though only two European teams have played thus far. There have already been some significant upsets: defending Asian Champion Iraq was bounced out of qualifying by a surprising Qatar, and China was also victims of the same group. In North and Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF), Panama, who was ranked #60 in the world at the time, was sent packing by El Salvador.

That brings us to where we are today: Africa will have 6 teams in the competition for the first time, Europe will have 13 teams, Asia will have 4.5, Oceania 0.5, CONCAF 3.5, and South America 4.5. How does a region get represented by half a team? Each region that is represented by half a team will meet another such region in a playoff for a place at the World Cup; thus Asia will play Oceania and CONCACAF will play South America.

Here is a look at the current group standings, who is likely to advance, and a few picks for potential upsets.

Africa

African qualifying is already most of the way through the first stage that will narrow the field from 47 teams down to 20. The winner of each of the 12 groups along with the 8 best second place teams will advance to the next stage. So far Nigeria is the only team to secure a berth in the next round. There is some complicated math involved in this group, as Eritrea dropped out of the competition right before it started, leaving one group with only 3 teams. This means for calculating the 8 best second place teams, the points gained against the worst team in the group will not be counted. A new complication is that Ethiopia has been suspended by FIFA (football’s governing body) for failing to follow a plan to bring actions taken by the Ethiopian Football Federation (EFF) in line with FIFA regulations. At the moment it is not clear what effect this will have on qualifying.

Group 1 – Cameroon, Cape Verde, Mauritius, and Tanzania
Cameroon are the big favourite to win this group, and they appear to be on their way to doing it. They had a surprise 0-0 draw at Tanzania, but I think that will be their only slip-up in this stage. Cape Verde have been the best of the rest, beating Mauritius and Tanzania. I see them making it to the next stage as a second place team, with Tanzania third and Mauritius last.

Group 2 – Guinea, Kenya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe
Guinea are the favourites in this group. However, through 4 matches it is much closer than anyone in Guinea would like, with their team suffering a loss at Kenya and a draw with Zimbabwe. Kenya have turned Nairobi into a fortress by winning both home matches there. Their road form needs some help if they are going to progress. This was a tough one to pick - I am going with Guinea to get some results and advance as the group winners, Kenya to progress as a second place team, Zimbabwe to place third and Namibia fourth.

Group 3 – Angola, Benin, Niger, Uganda
Angola were the favourites in this group, having qualified for the last World Cup. However they currently find themselves sitting in second place behind Benin. Uganda beat Angola at home then drew with them in Angola - these performances have the Ugandans tied with Angola in second place. Niger have lost all of their matches and that doesn’t look like it will change. Benin are in the driver’s seat playing both Angola and Uganda in their last two matches, knowing if they win they are in, but if they draw both of their games, all three teams will end up tied for first place, and the team that progresses will be based off of their goal difference. Benin currently have the best goal difference at +4. However with both Angola and Uganda still to play Niger, that could change. The way I see it is that Angola will beat Benin in Benin, and Uganda will manage at least a draw with them in Kampala, meaning Angola win the group and Uganda advance as a second place team. Yet there is another piece of news that could dramatically affect the outcome of this group: a Scottish club, Hearts, have just named the Ugandan boss their new coach - this could spell disaster for the Ugandans.

Group 4 – Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and South Africa
Your first question about this group is probably something along the lines of, “Why is South Africa in the qualifying round?”, given that as hosts they have qualified for the World Cup already. The answer is that the African World Cup qualifying also doubles as the African Cup of Nations qualifying. If South Africa were to qualify for a place in the World Cup, the qualifying spot would simply go to next best team. This is the easiest group of all to predict, as the favoured Nigeria have won all 4 of their matches to date and already qualified for the next stage. South Africa had some poor results so far, and have been strongly criticised in the media for it; ultimately it doesn’t matter where they finish, as I don’t see the second place team from this group advancing. South Africa were coached by Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Brazil at the 2006 World Cup, however he resigned for family reasons and returned to Brazil. He was replaced by another Brazilian, Joel Santana. The coaching change hasn’t helped ease the struggles of the Bafana Bafana.

Group 5 – Gabon, Ghana, Lesotho, and Libya
Ghana are the favourites to advance from this group, given the star power on their roster: the likes of Chelsea midfielder Essien and new Inter Milan-signing Muntari. They have dropped a few points so far, but I still see them making it to the next stage as group winners. However, the dropped points by Ghana have made for quite an interesting battle between Ghana, Gabon and Libya. Libya have games against Ghana at home and Gabon away, while Gabon are away to Lesotho and home to Libya. I think that Ghana will win against Libya meaning that Libya will go to Gabon needing a win, which I see them getting. Libya has been playing well and they are my pick to make to the next stage as a second place team, with Gabon third and Lesotho well behind in fourth.

Group 6 – Algeria, Gambia, Liberia, and Senegal
Senegal are heavy favourites to advance from this group. After a terrific run in Korea/Japan 2002, Senegal failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but the Teranga Lions will be hoping to be back in the big show this time around. Senegal has been disappointing on the road, managing only a draw at both Gambia and Liberia. While they still have to travel to Algeria, and play Gambia at home, I don’t see them dropping any points, and they should advance as group winners. As for second place, there is a good battle going on between Algeria and Gambia; even Liberia are not out of the running yet. Unfortunately for all of these teams, they are taking too many points out of each other, and I don’t see any of these teams advancing to the next stage. That said, I do see Gambia grabbing the second spot, with Algeria third and Liberia fourth.

Group 7 – Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, and Mozambique
Les Elephants of Côte d’Ivoire are the favourites in this group, with many of the top African footballers on their side, such as Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure, and Didier Zakora. All of these players play their professional football in London with Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham. Much like Senegal in the previous group, Côte d’Ivoire has had some disappointing results, however they seem to have found their form and will easily qualify in first place. This is another tight race for second, with all three teams still in it. Madagascar still have to travel to Côte d’Ivoire and I don’t see them getting any points there; they will likely finish last. Mozambique host Côte d’Ivoire and travel to Botswana. I see them drawing with Botswana and losing to Côte d’Ivoire; this will result in Botswana finishing in second place. However, I don’t see the Zebras (Botswana) having enough points to qualify as a second place team. Mozambique will likely finish in third and Madagascar in fourth.

Group 8 – Ethiopia, Mauritania, Morocco, and Rwanda
Morocco are the favourites to advance and I see them doing it, only I see them advancing on goal difference. That is because Rwanda has been one of the surprises of qualifying, beating Morocco 3-1 in Kigali, en route to a perfect 3-0 start before a loss in Morocco. I think that the Rwandans will keep up the pace and easily qualify as a second place team. Ethiopia has just been banned by FIFA for not solving problems within the EFF, though the EFF is trying to sort this out before the next scheduled match. I don’t see Ethiopia’s troubles affecting the outcome of the group, though. Mauritania have just had a coup, which may result in their remaining home match against Rwanda being played at a neutral venue.

Group 9 – Burkina Faso, Burundi, Seychelles, and Tunisia
Tunisia went into the group as favourites, but that has changed now, as they find themselves in second place behind a Burkina Faso team that is finally reaping the rewards of a solid performance at the 2003 Under-20 World Cup. Burkina Faso have won all of their matches including away to Tunisia. I think that they will advance out of the group with their perfect record intact. Tunisia will cruise into the next round as a second place qualifier. It should be mentioned that the Burundians have played some good football, but faced two much better teams in this group; they will grab third, with the Seychelles finishing in fourth.

Group 10 – Chad, Congo, Mali, and Sudan
Mali are the favourites from this group, and should advance as group winners - their only loss came away to Sudan. After Mali, the group is wide open - so far Chad and Sudan have only played 3 matches. Sudan also qualified for the African Cup of Nations in 2008 and is the second favourite from the group. The home and away matches against Chad are going to be highly charged battles, with the problems of Darfur hanging over them. Darfur is a region in the west of Sudan which borders Chad, and is where militias have been committing genocide, causing hundreds of thousands of people to cross the border into Chad. The Government of Chad had not being saying much publicly until the militias crossed into Chad as well. From a footballing standpoint I see these matches as two draws or possibly they trade victories. I think that Congo have enough talent to grab a win against Sudan in Sudan. This will see them in second just above Sudan. It will not be enough for the Congo to qualify, though, as I don’t see them gaining enough points to advance.

Group 11 – Swaziland, Togo, and Zambia
This was Eritrea’s group, but they withdrew just before the qualifying was to begin. Togo is the favourite, or I should say was the favourite, from this group. Togo were surprise qualifiers for Germany 2006, led by Emmanuel Adebayor, the £30 Million rated striker from Arsenal in the English Premier League. Togo will play no matches in Togo as a result of crowd violence in Lome during the last round of African Cup of Nations Qualifiers. Zambia were expected to give Togo a challenge but after the first match played at a neutral venue, in Accra, Ghana, Togo won 1-0. Then things got interesting: Zambia travelled to Swaziland, a match the Chipololo boys (Zambia) were heavily favoured to win, and it was a draw. Swaziland then followed that up with a shock 1-0 victory over Togo. Togo’s next match is against Zambia in Zambia. This is a huge match in this group. For me, Togo have been a disappointment, and I see Zambia winning the match and moving on as the winners, with Swaziland sneaking a second place spot. The Togolese will likely crash out despite their stunning qualification for the last World Cup.

Group 12 – Congo DR, Djibouti, Egypt, and Malawi
Egypt are the favourites to advance from this group, given that that they are the 2006 & 2008 African Champions. They had to come from behind to beat Congo DR in Egypt, and then suffered a shock defeat at Malawi. They now face the difficult task of travelling to Kinshasa to face Congo DR. I think that the Congolese will manage at least a draw here. If they win, the top spot is theirs, but if it is a draw, it sets up an exciting final day. Egypt are behind on goal difference by 4 and face Djibouti at home, which is a sure win, while the Simbas (Congo DR) travel to Malawi and need a win. What makes it interesting is that Djibouti have one of the leakiest defences, already allowing 23 goals, so Egypt scoring 4 or more goals is not out of the question. Weighing all of the factors, I like the DR Congo to beat Egypt at home and beat Malawi away, winning the group, while Egypt easily qualifies for the next round as a second place team.

African Summary
To summarize, I have Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Zambia, DR Congo, Guinea, Angola, and Morocco advancing as group winners. Advancing with them will be the 8 best second place teams, which I foresee being Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Egypt, Tunisia, Swaziland, Libya, and Cape Verde. These teams will be drawn into five groups of four teams playing a round robin system, with the winner of each group making the World Cup. There is nothing for second place this time… ok, I lied - the African groups are also the qualifying groups for the African Cup of Nations (ACN) in Angola in 2010. The second and third place teams in each of the groups of four will also qualify for the ACN. Angola, as the hosts, are already in, so the three other teams drawn with Angola (assuming Angola progress, which I predict they will) will automatically qualify for the ACN. It would be a relief to some of the surprise teams like Swaziland, Kenya and Cape Verde to qualify automatically for the ACN, so that they are free to focus on making the World Cup.

Europe

European qualifying gets underway in August, and is the only region that has yet to begin. The draw for groups was made a few months ago. Because the teams were drawn based on older rankings, you may notice that some groups are much more difficult than others. I would prefer to see the draw done after the European Championships and based on the new rankings. All in all there are 13 places up for grabs here, with 8 groups of 6 and 1 group of 5. The group winners all advance to the World Cup, and the 8 best second place teams are play off against each other for the remaining four places.

Group 1 – Albania, Denmark, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, and Sweden
Portugal are the favourites to advance out of this group, but anything can and does happen in qualifying. Portugal are aware of this, having qualified for the European Championships second in their group behind Poland. Portugal will be going into the qualifying with a new coach, as Scolari has left to join Chelsea. His replacement is Carlos Quiroz, former Real Madrid Manager and Manchester United Assistant. How this will affect their form, I don’t know. I do see them winning this group and qualifying for the World Cup, though. Second place in this group is wide open. Sweden, Denmark, and Hungary are all capable of grabbing it. I think that Albania will be the spoilers, getting a few results, but not enough to nab second, and Malta are along for the ride. Sweden are in a period of overhaul, as a number of players are announcing their retirement from international competition. Sweden will rely heavily on the scoring of Inter Milan Striker Zlatan Imbrahimovich. It is a difficult choice to make, but I see Denmark emerging from the fray as the second place team, with Sweden third, Hungary fourth, Albania fifth, and Malta sixth.

Group 2 – Greece, Israel, Latvia, Luxembourg, Moldova, and Switzerland
Greece are supposed to be the favourites in this group, but after their performance at the Euros, where they lost every match and were the only team not to register a point, it is difficult to count them as favourites. This group is the main reason why I think the qualifying draw should be made later - if you look at the FIFA rankings before Euro 2008, Greece are #8, but when you look at it after they are #18. While #18 isn’t bad, 6 of the 9 groups include two teams that are both better than #18! Anything could really happen in this group. Switzerland are a solid team that doesn’t score too often. They didn’t allow a goal in the last World Cup, and lost on penalties to Ukraine in the round of 16. At Euro 2008, they were unlucky to lose against Turkey, and beat the Portugal B team. The Swiss are another team going into the qualifying campaign with a new head coach. This group is a great chance for Israel to make the World Cup - they finished right behind England in the difficult Euro 2008 qualifying group that included Croatia and Russia. I think that Israel will seize the opportunity and win the group, with Greece, Moldova, and Switzerland fighting it out for second. Latvia, who qualified for Euro 2004, will be the spoilers stealing points, while Luxembourg will end up being tourists - they should enjoy the history of Greece & Israel, the mountains and valleys of Switzerland…. I think that Greece will rediscover some of the form that led them to the top of Europe in 2004 and get second place. Switzerland will be in third, Moldova in fourth, Latvia in fifth, and Luxembourg in sixth.

Group 3 – Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Poland, San Marino, Slovakia, and Slovenia
The Czech Republic are the favourites in this group, but they are another team that, like Sweden, is going through a roster transition. Petr Rada is the new head coach for the Czechs, replacing Karel Bruckner. The Czech Republic have faltered in qualifying before, missing the World Cup in all but their last attempt, despite being ranked highly. Poland are the looking good for second place; they had some injury problems in the most recent Euros, but also the emergence of some new talent. Northern Ireland is the team that strikes fear into the hearts of opponents. David Healy, the top goal scorer of the Euro 2008 qualifying, led Northern Ireland to a dramatic victory in Belfast over Spain, the winners of Euro 2008 and the top-ranked team in the world. On their day they can beat anyone, but the question remains - how often will it be their day? Unfortunately, I see them making another dramatic push for qualification only to fall short again. Czech Republic to win, Poland to finish second, Northern Ireland in third, Slovakia in fourth, Slovenia in fifth, and San Marino in sixth.

Group 4 – Azerbaijan, Finland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Russia, and Wales
This is the first of two groups that pit Euro 2008 semi-finalists against each other. Germany go into this group as the favourite - they have a lot of young players that have performed well for them. Russia are the new kid on the block; under Guus Hiddink they have seen a significant raise in the level of their play. Russia were surprise semi-finalists at Euro 2008, upsetting the Netherlands in the quarters. They look likely to continue improving. Wales and Finland are in the same boat: they are always on the outside looking in. Wales are coming off a disappointing Euro 2008 qualifying, finishing 5th in their group, while Finland looked good finishing in a tie for third and only 3 points shy of qualifying. I think that they are both tough to qualify from this group. I believe that Russia will emerge as the team to beat and win the group, with the Germans finishing in second, Wales in third, Finland in fourth, Azerbaijan in fifth, and Liechtenstein in sixth.

Group 5 – Armenia, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia, Spain, and Turkey
Here is the second group featuring two of the semi-finalists from Euro 2008. Newly crowned European Champions and World #1 Spain are heavy favourites to win this group and qualify for the World Cup, though they will be doing it with a yet-to-be-named new coach after the resignation of Luis Aragones. Turkey found a way to win in the European Championships, usually in the final seconds, shocking the Czechs, Croatians, and nearly the Germans. They have kept Fatih Terim on as coach, and he should have the players ready to continue their success. This group is very much a two horse race with the other teams fighting it out for third. It is difficult to imagine Spain not winning this group… in fact I can’t do it, and thus am picking them to advance to the World Cup as group winners, with Turkey in second place. A point of interest is that former Spanish coach Aragones has taken over Turkish club side Fernerbache - I wonder if he will give his new charges some tips on beating the Spanish? Stats are not in the Spanish court either, with the European Champions always having difficulty in the following World Cup: 1992 European Champs Denmark failed to qualify in 1994; then in 2002, France, champions from 2000, failed to make it out of the group stage; Greece followed by failing to qualify in 2006. Germany managed to buck the trend in 1998, as they made it to the Quarter Finals. For Turkey, the match to watch is Turkey and Armenia, as the countries do not officially recognize each other and have no diplomatic relations. Armenia is upset that Turkey has never recognized or apologized for the genocide of Armenians. In fact, this has been a point of tension between Turkey and other countries such as the USA and France, who have made official statements about the genocide.

Group 6 – Andorra, Belarus, Croatia, England, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine
This group sees a rematch between England and Croatia. England are keen on revenge as Croatia eliminated them from the Euro 2008 qualifying at Wembley. Another interesting match up is England and Kazakhstan, this being entirely fuelled by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his portrayal of a fictional Kazakh reporter named Borat. This was not well received in Kazakhstan, so I am more interested in what happens off the pitch than on it in this one. Ukraine, who attended the last World Cup, are in a tough position to make it to South Africa; for that to happen they are going to need a lot of production out of their strikers, Shevchenko and Voronin, both of whom are warming benches at Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively. Belarus are another side that are improving, but I don’t think that they have improved enough to give Croatia or England any problems. New English coach Fabio Capello has been sorting out a lot of the problems that plagued the squad under Steve McLaren, so I see England winning the group and Croatia finishing in second, with Ukraine third, Belarus fourth, Kazakhstan fifth, and Andorra sixth.

Group 7 – Austria, Faroe Islands, France, Lithuania, Romania, and Serbia
France should be the favourites in this group, which I am voting as the most boring group in World Cup Qualifying. Austria, Faroe Islands, and Lithuania shouldn’t give anyone any problems. Under the leadership of the recently not fired Raymond Domenach, France go up against ultra-defensive Romania and ultra-defensive Serbia. Domenach is well known for his belief in astrology: not picking some players for France’s disastrous Euro 2008 campaign because they had the wrong star sign, and then blaming their exit on the hotel layout. I had picked France to win the group under the leadership of the new coach, but with Domenach still in charge I am struggling to put them second. I see Romania winning the group, and France narrowly beating Serbia to finish second. I think that there is enough talent in the French players to overcome Domenach and his craziness. Also I have Austria fourth, Lithuania fifth, and Faroe Islands in sixth.

Group 8 – Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, and Montenegro
Italy are the favourites in this group, and have Marcello Lippi back at the helm. Lippi, of course, was in charge of Italy when they won the last World Cup. They face an improving Bulgarian side led by soon-to-be former Tottenham Hotspur Striker (depending on which paper you read) Dimitar Berbatov, and a strong Ireland squad led by former Tottenham Hotspur Striker Robbie Keane. I think that we can safely rule out Cyprus, Georgia, and Montenegro from contention. Italy have stumbled a bit lately, and the poor form at Euro 2008 cost coach Roberto Donadoni his job. The problem with the Azzuri is that the next wave of talent hasn’t been able to fill the gaps left by some of the departing veterans. Italy should use the qualifying period to get these players comfortable in the side. I think that this will be one of the tightest races: I have Bulgaria finishing first and Italy sneaking in at second with Ireland missing out. Georgia’s conflict with Russia has caused the cancellation of a UEFA Cup qualifying match and will likely cause some disruption to the match schedule - some of Georgia’s home matches may end up being played in neutral venues. I think that this will have the greatest impact on Georgia, whom I had in fifth, but I now have them finishing last behind Cyprus in fourth, and Montenegro in fifth.

Group 9 – Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Macedonia, and Scotland
Netherlands are the favourites in this group, especially after the way that they performed in the “group of death” at Euro 2008 - total football could be on its way back. Coach Marco van Basten has left to take the reins at Ajax of Amsterdam, and a new coach has yet to be named. Scotland are expected to offer the most resistance, having given World Cup finalists France and Italy a run for their money in Euro 2008 qualifying, but it is a wide open group - of all of the groups this one has the most parity. I see the Netherlands advancing as winners and Scotland taking second place, with Norway in third, Iceland in fourth, and Macedonia in fifth.

European Summary
Ok, I have Portugal, Israel, Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, England, France, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands qualifying for the World Cup as group winners. Denmark, Greece, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Croatia, Romania, Italy and Scotland will fight it out amongst themselves as second place teams. One of the second place teams will miss out and the other 8 will play each for a place in the World Cup. This could offer some thrilling matches - can you imagine Germany against Italy for a spot in the finals? What a shame it would be to not have both these great teams at the World Cup, but what an exciting playoff that would be!

Asia

This brings us to Asia, the land of upsets, where the 2007 Asian champions, Iraq, have already been sent packing along with China. The focus of this final stage of Asian qualifying has to be the presence of the small nations from the Arabian Peninsula: Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. They have been playing some good football to date, and are deservedly in the last ten teams. These ten teams are divided into two groups, with the top two teams from each group qualifying for the World Cup. The two third place teams will play each other in a playoff, the winner of which will take on the Oceanic Champions for a spot in the World Cup. In case you missed it, after the last World Cup Australia joined the Asian Football Conference.

Group 1 – Australia, Bahrain, Japan, Uzbekistan, and Qatar
Japan is the top ranked team in Asia at the moment, but I am worried about them in this group. They had some disappointing results on the Arabian Gulf, losing in Bahrain and drawing in Oman. With two of their opponents from that region, Japan are going to have to find a way to get results in the Gulf if they want to make it out of this group. That is something that I don’t think the Aussies will have a problem doing; they have been playing well, though a side filled with reserves was defeated by China in the last round. I see the Aussies winning the group and making their second straight World Cup. Uzbekistan have had a strong campaign thus far, suffering only one away defeat to Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen how they will deal with teams like Japan and Australia, or how those teams will deal with travelling to Uzbekistan. I think that the fight for second place will be between the Japanese and the Uzbeks, with Qatar in 4th and Bahrain in 5th. I was impressed by the Uzbeks in the last stage and I think they have what it takes to knock Japan into third.

Group 2 – Iran, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), Republic of Korea (South), Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates
Iran, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea are the teams to beat in this group. It will be a big upset if North Korea or U.A.E. qualify. I think that South Korea and North Korea will draw both of the matches between them just as they did in the previous qualifying round and in most of the matches that I can recall between them. If South Korea are able to get a result from one of these games, then I see the Taeguk Warriors winning the group; if they are both draws, as I predict, then I have South Korea advancing in second place behind Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia are playing well at the moment and I see them making it back to the World Cup for the fifth time in a row. I think that Iran will draw too many matches and end up in 3rd place, setting up an exciting playoff with Japan. North Korea will finish 4th, with UAE in the last spot. Frankly, I think UAE will be lucky to get more than a few points in this group.

Asian Summary
I have Australia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea advancing to the World Cup, with Japan and Iran competing for the playoff spot against the winners of Oceania. I think that Japan will emerge as the Asian playoff team and most likely defeat the team from Oceania, but in a playoff anything can happen.

Oceania

Fiji, New Caledonia, New Zealand, and Vanuatu
This region was dominated by Australia for a long time, so with their departure for Asia, this is a big chance for another team to have a shot at the World Cup. Oceania is down to a two team race: New Zealand and New Caledonia. New Zealand currently have a one-point lead and a game in hand (at home to Fiji) over New Caledonia. These two teams will meet in a home and home series to decide who gets to playoff against the Asian team for a spot in the World Cup. New Caledonia have to win both matches to make it, assuming that New Zealand beat Fiji and there is no reason to believe that won’t happen. I think that New Caledonia will beat New Zealand at home to set up a tense match in New Zealand in October. I am going to go with the long shot: I see the Caledonians beating the All Whites to advance to the playoff against the Asian team.

CONCACAF

This brings us to the Americas - we will work our way from North to South. In CONCACAF, we see the first ever qualifying group featuring teams that have all made an appearance in the World Cup. This is group 2, the most difficult of the CONCACAF groups. There are three groups of 4, with the top two teams in each advancing to the final round, in which the top three teams will advance to the World Cup and the fourth place team will be in a playoff against a South American team.

Group 1 – Cuba, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United States of America
USA are heavy favourites in this group, and I see them having no problem qualifying for the next phase. After that, this group gets interesting. T & T should be the favourites, but they were very nearly eliminated in the last phase by minnows Bermuda. With star striker Kenwyne Jones currently out with a knee injury until October, they could be in tough against the other teams. T & T definitely have the quality, but have not been playing up to their potential. To make matters worse, they are up against Cuba and Guatemala in their first two matches where they are likely to still be without Jones. I think that Cuba have enough talent to make it through as a second place team, sending the Soca Warriors and Guatemala home.

Group 2 – Canada, Honduras, Jamaica, and Mexico
This is a group that should have CONCACAF officials rethinking the way that they set up qualifying groups. This group has three teams ranked higher than every team in Group 3, and three teams ranked higher than three teams in Group 1. That is because three of the top five teams in CONCACAF are all in the same group. This group is a three-way race between these teams: Mexico, Honduras, and Canada. Jamaica are certain to be the also-rans in this group. Mexico are the big favourites to advance and it would be a huge shock if they didn’t. They have brought in former England manager Sven Goran Erikson to lead the team, and as there are no quarter finals or penalties as a part of the group stage, I see Sven’s new team qualifying. This brings the fight for the second spot to Canada and Honduras. Canada need to find some consistency in their game if they are to advance. They played fantastically against Brazil in a friendly and then followed that up with a 2-2 draw against Panama, but prior to the match with Brazil, Canada had slumped to two 2-0 defeats against Estonia and South Africa. Canada need the team that gave Brazil a run for their money to show up for qualifying or it will be another failed qualifying campaign. Honduras have been impressive in their run up to this stage, except for the last match at Puerto Rico, where the Islanders held them to a 2-2 draw. These two teams need to get wins against Jamaica, and as many points as they can from Mexico, and of course from each other. In the end, I am predicting that Canada will progress to the next stage with a slim margin over Honduras, putting Jamaica in fourth.

Group 3 – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Haiti, and Suriname
This group contains the only teams to pull off an upset in the last phase: El Salvador knocked out CONCACAF’s #4 team Panama, while Suriname beat neighbours Guyana. Similar to the USA in Group 1, Costa Rica should advance without too much difficulty. That said, they had their own problems with Grenada in the last phase, but they were able to get things together for the second leg. Costa Rica will win this group. In the battle for the second spot, I don’t think that the Haitians will mount a big challenge here - for me it is down to the underdogs from the last round, El Salvador and Suriname. It could really go either way here, but I am tipping El Salvador to advance to the next stage.

CONCACAF Summary
This places the USA, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in the final group. From this group I like Mexico, the USA, and Canada to grab the automatic spots for the World Cup. I think the fight for the fourth spot will be between Cuba and Costa Rica. El Salvador will be outclassed in this group. I think that Cuba might just have enough to sneak into the fourth place to play off against the South American team.

South America

In South America there is one large group with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. The top four teams qualify for the World Cup and the fifth place team will play off against the fourth place CONCACAF Qualifier. They have already played 6 of the 18 matches in this group, and there have been a few surprises to date. The largest has been how Brazil have struggled under Dunga: they are currently sitting in fifth place and facing criticism in the media after being beaten by a 10 man Paraguay. Paraguay have been the other surprise story in this group, as they currently sit in first place. FIFA has also repealed its ban on high altitude games, which should benefit Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador, who play some or all of their home games at high altitude. This leads to a lot of home wins and away losses for these teams. I can not imagine a scenario in this group where Brazil and Argentina do not qualify… though the way Brazil are going, they could end up in fourth. Colombia have been playing well; I see them qualifying for the World Cup. For the last two spots, I see a battle between current front-runners Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Venezuela. I don’t think that Bolivia and Peru are in contention. I think that Chile has enough strength to hold off the others, and Paraguay will ride their early success to secure the playoff spot. This would set up a playoff between Cuba and Paraguay, from which I see Paraguay coming out on top.

World Cup Qualifying Round Up

To wrap up the World Cup: the only team currently qualified is South Africa, as hosts. The five other African spots will go to the winners of the five groups of four teams that have yet to be drawn. It will be exciting to see which teams are drawn together. The twenty teams that I think will be in these groups are: Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Cote D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Zambia, DR Congo, Guinea, Angola, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Egypt, Tunisia, Swaziland, Libya, and Cape Verde. Europe has thirteen places up for grabs, 9 for group winners, who in my opinion will be Portugal, Israel, Czech Republic, Russia, Spain, England, France, Bulgaria, and the Netherlands. The eight best second place teams will be drawn in playoffs against each other. Here are my picks for the nine second place teams: Denmark, Greece, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Croatia, Romania, Italy and Scotland. Asia is down to two groups, and the top two teams from each advance. I think these will be Australia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. Then the two third place teams will meet in a playoff; I see this as Japan against Iran, with Japan winning. Japan would then meet the Champion of Oceania, whom I see as New Caledonia, with Japan winning again to qualify for the World Cup. With the Americas, in the North the top two teams from the three preliminary groups make the final group. I think these will be the USA, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, and El Salvador. The top three teams from this final group will then qualify for the World Cup. My prediction is Mexico, the USA, and Canada, with Cuba finishing in fourth to obtain a playoff spot against the fifth place South American team. I predict this being Paraguay, who will defeat Cuba to qualify for the World Cup. Now that you know my fifth place pick from South America, I view the top four, who all qualify automatically, as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. So there you have it: a clearer view of the World Cup qualifying, complete with the teams to watch. I hope that you enjoy the matches - I know I will!

1 comment:

Michal Krakowiak said...

Great roundup, Kevin. All in all, I agree with your picks except for a few of them. I give more chances to advance for Switzerland, Italy (first place!) and Iran. I'm hoping for Canada and Poland to play in South African Mondiale...