With 369 days to go until the World Cup kicks off in South Africa and an hour before kick off in the next round of European matches. Here is my preview.
Group One looks certain to be the grounds for an upset as Portugal looks set to miss out on the World Cup. Group One is currently led by Denmark & Hungary both with 13 points. Albania, Portugal, & Sweden all sit on 6 points with Malta already eliminated on a single point. There is still a lot of potential for things to happen as the number of matches played ranges from 4 with Sweden to 7 for Albania and Malta. I think that this will not end well for Denmark as I see them slipping to a third place finish ahead of Portugal in fourth. It is Sweden that will storm back and take the group just ahead of Hungary, who will advance to a play-off against another second place team.
Group Two consists of Greece (13 points), Switzerland (13 points), Latvia (10 points), Israel (9 points), Luxembourg (4 points), & Moldova (1 point). This group still makes me angry. UEFA needs to pick groups after the Euro tournament, that would lead to groups being more even, this is the weakest group in the tournament by far. I don't think there will be a lot of movement in these standings, the only change that I have is Israel passing Latvia for third. Greece will advance to the World Cup while the Swiss go to the playoffs.
In Group Three we have once again witnessed the collapse of a strong Czech side. They are currently in fourth on 8 points. Northern Ireland are currently topping the group with 13 points but the real question is whether or not they can hold on to their lead. Slovakia sits right behind them on 12 points, Poland just behind them with 10. Then Slovenia joins the Czechs with 8 and lowly San Marino has none. This has been quite an even group with every team taking points off each other and of course off San Marino. I think that this trend will continue and Northern Ireland will hold on by a point to claim their place in South Africa. It is bad news for Slovakia though as they will finish second, but with the lowest points total they will not advance to the playoffs.
Group four features the battle of big clubs Germany and Russia. It is really only a two horse race, their are points to be gained from playing Azerbaijan & Liechtenstein but it won't be enough for Wales or Finland to catch either of the big two. The deciding match will be when Germany travels to Russia on October the 10th. Russia lost the first match with Germany earlier, but they have won the rest of their matches while Germany has a draw with Finland on its record. If the match ends in a draw then I think that the group will be decided by goal difference which would give the edge to the Germans. A win by either side would see them advance to the World Cup. I am going to back Guus Hiddink to lead the Russians to South Africa and Germany to enter the playoffs.
Group five was supposed to be a two horse race but Turkey has fallen off the pace slightly and Spain are walking away with this group and are essentially already qualified. The is a three way race between Bosnia, Turkey, & Belgium for the playoff place. Bosnia currently hold that spot, but I think that it will be the Turks that emerge in second when the dust settles.
I think that Group Six will finish exactly as it is now with England winning, Croatia in the playoffs and the Ukraine in third. Things could easily change especially if Calamity James makes one blunder too many once he returns from injury, but the way things look England should not have too much difficulty booking their place in South Africa. Another possible change would be in Croation coach Bilic leaves for club football, I think that could cause a drop off from the national side, much the same way that Uganda's qualifying campaign collapsed once their coach left.
Group Seven is a tight group featuring Serbia, France, Lithuania, Austria, Romania, & the Faroe Islands. There have been a number of odd results so far, and they may very continue. I think that France should win this group, but with the crazy coach who knows what odd lineups the zodiac will tell him to pick so they very well may miss the playoffs. However I think that their talent is such that they will win the group and go to South Africa. Serbia should finish second behind them and advance to the playoffs.
Group Eight is where we find the Defending Champions Italy. They are in a three way battle with Bulgaria and Ireland. I think that this will come right down to the wire and possibly be decided by goal difference. I have both Italy and Ireland finishing on 21 points with Bulgaria on 20. It is difficult to determine who should score more goals in their remaining matches but I will give the edge to the Champs. Ireland will advance to the playoffs. I think that anyone of these three teams could have won Group Two.
Wrapping up European Qualifying with Group Nine where the Netherlands are only 2 points away from securing their place in South Africa. Scotland are currently sitting in second and that is where I expect them to finish, which will send them to the playoffs.
Looking to join the qualifiers (Sweden, Greece, Northern Ireland, Russia, Spain, England, France, Italy, & the Netherlands) in South Africa the eight teams in the playoffs will battle for the four remaining places. As far as I understand it Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia, Ireland, & Scotland will be randomly drawn and play home and away matches against the team that they are drawn against. It is going to be exciting!
Enjoy the matches, Cheers