UEFA 2010 World Cup Qualifying Playoffs Preview – Saturday, November 14, 2009 & Wednesday, November 14, 2009
Last week UEFA released the seeds for the final eight matches of the UEFA qualifying season for the 2010 World Cup. The seeding system – based on the division of the eight second-placed teams into a top-four and bottom-four pot, guaranteeing that the four “best” teams would face the four “worst” – has been controversial, with the bottom four teams protesting vigorously and the top four keeping mum. But it’s now a fait accompli, and with the seeding done the time has come to pick up the pieces and see who’s a runner – and who’s better off spending their time in church, praying to the soccer gods.
Ireland – France
Portugal – Bosnia and Herzegovina
Greece – Ukraine
Russia – Slovenia
There’s a peculiar pattern here, at least in my mind; the ranked pot teams whose play have been strongest seem to have been assigned to the unranked teams least likely to pose a threat. Russia, the best of the seconds, face Slovenia (formerly the luckiest); Portugal face Bosnia; France meets Ireland; and Greece and Ukraine square off. The draws are as interesting as they could have been with none of the top four teams facing each other.
Breaking down the ties
Taking a cue from Twenty-One, we’ll take the last part first: Slovenia is toast. It kills me to say it, since it would be strangely satisfying for a team seeded so low to make a run at the big prize. But from the moment UEFA announced it would seed rather than randomize these ties it was clear that whoever faced Russia would die fast and quiet. To be honest the Slovenes have to be somewhat happy to make it this far, so if anybody has to face the Russians I suppose it should be them. Fair or no, it’s not a contest. Russia to dominate.
Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina aren’t quite so clear cut, but this is only because of Portugal’s weakness. B/H have never qualified for an international tournament and they came second in a pretty weak group, notable mostly for the dominance of Spain and the implosion of Belgium. (Though unlike some second-placed sides – France and Ukraine come to mind – B/H at least has an attack that’s both robust and carries some depth.)
Portugal showed some flashes of what they’re capable of in their last two group matches against Hungary and Malta. (Okay, a team captained by my 88 year-old grandfather would shine against Malta; but he’s quite spry, isn’t he?) Portugal have struggled but I think they’ve finally realized that their backs are to the wall. For Portugal to miss out on the World Cup would be unprecedented this side of the Millennium; for B/H to make it would be equally unreal. What’s a more powerful motivator – hope or shame? Maybe it’s the Catholic in me – in more ways than one – but I go with shame. Portugal to win.
The general consensus is that Ireland, avoiding the certain doom of drawing Russia, did little better by getting France as a consolation prize. (The Guardian’s redoubtable Football Weekly took this view pretty much unanimously, discussion starting at the 36:00 mark.) How much of this is a sense of Celtic despair I don’t know, but it’s not an opinion I share. Ireland are a better team than Bosnia and these days France are far the poorer of any of the teams with whom they share the ranked pot. French coach Raymond Domenech is halfway towards his inevitable sacking as he continues to experiment with the French line even as they slide off the cliff. France’s play has lacked any sense of direction or life and while I’m sure they’re all very proud of a 5-0 shutout of the Faroes it hardly takes anything special.
Ireland, meanwhile, remain undefeated in a group that was at least as challenging as France’s. They managed to hold off the Italians, who were a bit dissolute but not struggling, not once but twice. They’ve stopped relying so much on the foot of captain Robbie Keane and have managed their possession more broadly. Their play is rougher – 20 fouls to the Italians’ 13 – but it got the job done and kept the usually-graceful Azzurri flow disrupted.
France these days doesn’t rely on anything as tawdry as pace, preferring instead frantic, undirected and borderline-selfish play. This works against easy teams who cannot hope to match their players’ individual quality, but Ireland does not fall into that category. As I see it the only reason Ireland gave up an outright victory against the Italians in their recent meeting was their own shellshock at winning a second goal and the rapidity of the Italian reaction.
The French have displayed no similar dexterity, either mentally or physically. Indeed I don’t think they realize how deep their feet are in it. Eventually they have to stop drawing fixtures. They’re still a strong team, to be sure, and playing the second match at home is a boon; but in the end the problem may be beyond the material mechanics of play.
I’m not sure the French have ever recovered from the trauma of 2006. The je non c’est quoi isn’t there, and that’s what it comes down to. The Irish are ready to win and know what they’re up against, while the French are not. Ireland will triumph, though I doubt by much.
Greece and Ukraine are tough because very evenly-matched. I think Ukraine are better than Greece on their best days, but the Greeks have the benefit of a consistency of play that Ukraine lacks. It’s difficult to explain a scoreless draw to Belarus one day and a victory over top-flight England the next, which pattern of play first doomed and then saved them from third place in their group. Ukraine are also not a very broad team: they still rely too heavily on the team of striker Shevchenko and winger Nazarenko to deliver their goals. Of the ten first-round goals that counted towards the playoffs (that is excluding Andorra), the pair accounted for nine of them. Goals are goals, true, but if you know where your opponents’ goals are going to come from it’s easy enough to mark them (or lay them up, which would hardly be unprecedented.)
That said both are pretty marginal teams and it’s only by the thinnest of margins that Greece ranks above Ukraine. What it comes down to is that Greece can win anyday while Ukraine will win – sometimes. The former is a better bet, so I think Greece will qualify. At least Ukraine will have a guaranteed place in Euro 2012.
But what do you think? Comments welcome.