it's been quite some time since i've written about soccer on here (or anything for that matter - i'm not sure if and when that will be rectified), but it's getting down to it. with matches scheduled world-wide for Saturday and Wednesday, the field for Germany 2006 will be much clearer in the next week. with so many important games coming up, there's going to be a lot to cover, so if you don't care mcuh about the details, you can just skip to my predictions for each area so that you can ridicule me later when my half-assed analysis proves worthless.
Currently: the U.S. is in! having clinched on Labor Day weekend with a 2-0 victory over Mexico. a tie to Guatemala a few days later coupled with a Mexico win put Mexico in and tied them with the U.S. at the top of the group (though i believe the U.S. hold the head-to-head tiebreaker). the winner of this group puts themselves in a very strong position for getting a top seeding in the World Cup draw, which is very important if you want to avoid the Argentinas and Germanys of the world in the opening round. The fight for the 3rd spot is just about wrapped up with Costa Rica ahead of Guatemala by 5 points and Trinidad and Tobago by 6 points with 2 matches to play. the big battle here is for the 4th spot, which earns the right to play the 5th place Asian team in a home-and-home playoff.
This Week: a point by the Ticos against the U.S. tomorrow would put them in unless Guatemala stunned Mexico and then beat Costa Rica on Wednesday. Mexico might be pressed by a Guatemalan team desperate for points as they try to say ahead of T&T who is away to last place Panama before finishing with Mexico at home. if the U.S. can tie Costa Rica and then dispatch Panama in Foxboro, they should take the group and be well positioned for the big show.
Predictions: the U.S. gets a tie and a win to lead the group. Mexico slips past the Guatemalans but ends up tying T&T who first beat Panama. Costa Rica gets two ties to qualify, and Trinidad finishes a point up on Guatemala.
Currently: if you thought the previous was convoluted, just wait. there are 5 groups in Africa and only the winner of each group will advance. with just one game left for each team (all played tomorrow), it's going to be a finish that is sure have some stunning results - all the moreso because 4 countries have a chance to qualify for the first time in their histories. group leaders Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Angola and Tunisia have a simple agenda: win and they're in. but looming behind them are Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote D'Ivoire, Nigeria and Morocco respectively. of the five, Ghana is closest to qualification needing only a tie to qualify. even with a loss, they can still get in, unless Congo DR completely whomps South Africa (unlikely given the importance to Bafana of finishing in the top 3 to earn a place in the African Nations Cup).
This week: starting from the top, Togo need to win at (the other) Congo because Senegal is unlikely to lose at home to Mali. i haven't seen them play, but i am an unabashed Togo supporter based on a report that i did in high school (one of those where an encyclopedia probably played a major role) and the fact that it's just a tiny sliver of a country on the Bight of Benin in West Africa. if i can get all Larry King here for a second, "Bight of Benin" would make a great pretentious band name. moving on, Ghana have a relatively easy go of it at the Cape Verde Islands. Cote D'Ivoire shot themselves in the foot with their home loss to Cameroon back in September, so if they're to make their inaugural trip to the World Cup, they'll have to win at a Sudanese team they previously beat 5-0 and hope for some help from Egypt against Cameroon. they could easily get it, as Egypt is the highest scoring team with 25 goals in 9 games though they have been fairly hapless on the road. major surprise Angola needs only to maintain their current tie with Nigeria to move one, as they hold the advantage head-to-head. if they can beat a weak Rwandan team or get help from a Zimbabwe side that lost badly at home to Nigeria last year, they will be dancing in the streets of Luanda. finally, and most excitingly comes the North African battle for Group 5 as Morocco travels to Tunisia (in a match to be refereed by an Egyptian) needing a win to advance in the last game of the day on Saturday.
Predictions: to make this quick, i predict the following qualifiers: Togo, Ghana, Cote D'Ivoire, Angola and Morocco in a minor upset on the road. that would be make for 4 first-time qualifiers, which would be quite amazing.
Cool Nickname Watch: many of these teams have great nicknames such as South Africa's Bafana Bafana (roughly: "the best of the best"). others that i like are Togo's Les Eperviers (the Hawks), Ghana's Black Stars, Nigeria's Super Eagles, Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, Kenya's Harambee Stars (Harambee = "let's all pull together"), the opposite themed Liberia Lone Stars, Algeria's Desert Foxes, Benin's Ecureuils (Squirrels), Malawi's Flames and Rwanda's Wasps
Currently: if you thought Africa was unsettled, you haven't looked at the European standings, where 51 teams are fighting for 13 spots from 8 groups. and just to make things more convoluted, only 1 team - the surprising Ukraine - has so far qualified, other than host country Germany. but by Wednesday, we'll have 10 qualifiers and 3 home-and-home playoffs. if you were in Europe right now, you'd be hearing about nothing else, sporting-wise. to simplify this a bit, let's break this down into a few categories:
* Knocking on the Door: Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Poland
* Looking Good: England, Sweden, Croatia, France, Norway, Serbia and Montenegro, Spain, Turkey
* Hanging Around: Slovakia, Russia, Greece, Switzerland, Israel, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina
* Need Help: Scotland, Denmark, Romania, Ireland, Lithuania, Belgium
This Week: [deep breath] so in Group 1, the Czechs can make it easy by beating the Netherlands at home tomorrow. even if they do they're unlikely to win the group as Holland finishes up against doormats Macedonia. if they lose, then they would likely need a positive result at Finland to advance, provided that Romania wins in Helsinki first. and that's one of the easier groups. [inhale] Ukraine is in from Group 2 and Turkey has the edge on second place, but they have only one game left in a hostile Albania. Greece and Denmark lurk 2 and 4 points back respectively with 2 games to play each including tomorrow's game against each other in Denmark. whoever wins there might have an edge as they both have easier games against Georgia and Kazakhstan to finish out. [inhale] moving on to Group 3, Portugal need only crush puny Liechtenstein to punch their ticket. Slovakia and Russia are battling for 2nd place in a race likely to be decided by Wednesdays game against each other in Bratislava. first, Slovakia must avoid a loss to Estonia who might still be mathematically alive for 2nd, but it would probably require an advanced degree to figure out how. [inhale] Group 4....where to start? four teams are within 3 points of each other. Swtizerland and France are tied at the top with 16, Israel has 15 and Ireland has 13. Israel has only one game left versus two for the other, but theirs a is home date with the Faroe Islands for which the current odds are 1-25. Switzerland has the tough row to hoe, at home with France and away to Ireland. both Les Bleus and Les Mangers Pomme de Terre should have no problem taking 3 points from Cyprus in their other matches. assuming Israel finished at 18 points, the Swiss-Irish match on Wednesday will probably be do or die for both. [inhale] Italy leads Group 5 and will clinch during one of the their two remaining home contests, but that's where the simplicity ends. Norway and Slovenia are tied with 12 points, while Scotland has 10 and Belarus has 7. Belarus would need the intervention of St. Jude to move on to the next round, while Norway appears to have the inside track with an easy homer against Moldova before facing Belarus. Scotland has risen from the dead with 8 points in their last four games, including a big win at Norway, but they'll need wins against Belarus and Slovenia to have a shot. if Slovenia could somehow topple Italy in Palermo (almost 1 year after beating them at home) they could have hopes of moving on. [double inhale] Group 6 is blessedly easy. Poland and England will advance, and England can overtake Poland if they can first dispatch Austria before hosting and beating the Bialo-czerwoni. [another deep breath] but who wants easy, when there's Group 7 where only poor, pitiful San Marino (population 28,800) has been eliminated. Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina are the countries lucky enough to still play the Marinos, but Serbia and Montenegro currently leads the group at 16 points: a 2 point lead on the Spaniards and 3 over the Bosnians, while the Belgians and Lithuanians are seeking to find a way to leapfrog their way to a playoff place. so which matches are important? how about all of them? seriously. the potential permutations - there are 729 of them, not accounting for different scores - are too many to process. neither Spain nor Serbia has lost a match yet during qualifying, so let's not complicate this any more and just call them the favorites. [inhale, shake it out] the cool down exercise brings us to Group 8 where the winner of tomorrow's Sweden-Croatia collision in Zagreb will grab control of the group with the other likely headed for qualification by bring one of the top two 2nd place teams, thereby escpaing from the playoff process.
Predictions: OK, let's take Ukraine, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Poland as given. France still has injury questions, but i like them to emerge from the morass of Group 4. i'll take Croatia in a minor upset in Group 8 and Bosnia-Herzegovina in a major coup in Group 7. England and Sweden will be the two 2nd place teams to automatically advance. for the 3 playoff series, the Czechs should be there along with Norway. i predict Greece slipping past Turkey in the Battle of the Aegean, Slovakia taking out Russia and Spain overcoming Serbia. that leaves Switzerland and Israel who i'm predicting will end up tied, in which case i think Switzerland advances based on goal differential (they tied 2:2 and 1:1 in their head-to-head matches). so there you have it. the draws for whichever 6 teams are headed for the playoffs take place on October 14, with the matches to be played on November 12 and 16.
Currently: only one table for our friends to the South, but that doesn't mean that the analysis won't be a bit complex. every team here had two games left, and standard-bearers Argentina and Brazil are in. Ecuador and Paraguay have the inside track on the two remaining qualifying slots four points clear of the next tier, while the race for the fifth spot and a chance to play-off against Australia is still very up-for-grabs with Uruguay, Colombia, Chile and even Venezuela having a chance.
This Week: the schedule makers knew what they were doing when they mapped things out. Brazil and Argentina play also-rans Bolivia and Peru on Sunday, meaning that the 3 matches on Saturday all have serious implications. Venezuela - a team that is much improved in recent years - must win at home against Paraguay to cling to any hope. Colombia must not be kind hosts to the Chileans, with whom they are currently tied. Chile needs to reverse the away form that has seen them outscored 11-2 in four consecutive losses away from Santiago, although they will avoid the ignominy of finishing last as they did 4 years ago. finally, Uruguay needs to steal at least a point, and preferably three, on the road from Ecuador ahead of their final matchup with Argentina, but they will have to overcome the extreme elevation in Quito where Ecuador is undefeated in qualifying. things don't get any easier on Wednesday as Peru and Bolivia play each other, meaning tough games for everyone else. Venezuela will have to hope that the Brazilians aren't playing their best team, though it seems unlikely that they would lay down in front of the home crowd. meanwhile, Paraguay hosts Colombia and Chile hosts Ecuador in games that will settl the jumble in the middle of the table.
Predictions: it's hard to see Ecuador and Paraguay stumbling enough to be passed in the standings, so the main question is who emerges from the scramble for the 5th spot? one tantalizing scenario - with Venezuela defeating Paraguay, Uruguay losing to Ecuador and Chile and Colombia drawing - would have four teams tied with 1 game to go. Uruguay's tough schedule makes them unlikely to cling to their current 1-point lead, unless Chile and Colombia tie and then collapse in their final game. even then, Uruguay will need to find a point somewhere to avoid being done in by their unfavorable goal differential. i'm forecasting Chile to eke out a tie and then beat an already-qualified Ecuador to set up a playoff with the Socceroos.
Currently: Australia is the lone representative from this region moving forward, having dispatched the unheralded and unexpected Solomon Islands by a 9:1 aggregate in their home-and-home during September. they await the 5th place team from South America for a playoff in November in the hopes that they can succeed where they have failed in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 when they fell one step short of the World Cup. this is also their last time representing the region before joining the Asian Confederation for all future competitions.
Prediction: Australia will finally take a playoff (against Chile, if my powers are more than mere guesswork) and qualify for Germany 2006.
Currently: Uzbekistan's incredible 2nd-half comeback against Kuwait in August catapulted them into a play-off with Bahrain for the right to take on the 4th place team from North America. the first leg was originally played in September with the Uzbeks winning 1-0. however, a controversial and incorrect refereeing decision led to the amazing consequence of FIFA voiding the result of the match entirely and rescheduling it. this, even though the call unfairly penalized Uzbekistan in a match that they went on to win. if the result from Saturday turns out differently, you can bet that some hell will be raised. already qualified from this region are South Korea, Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This Week: the home-and-home series plays on Saturday and Wednesday. the team with the most aggregate goals advances.
Prediction: i'm going with Uzbekistan, for justice's sake as well as to get a little representation from central Asia. they should fall to Trinidad & Tobago in the end however.
OK, so you've waded through all of this and now you find yourself wondering "how can i watch some of this hot ball-kicking action?" the news is a mixed bag. ESPN2 is showing the Costa Rica v. U.S. at 10pm ET. if you've got DirecTV and the Setanta Sports USA channel - they're showing Scotland v. Belarus at 10am, Czech Republic v. Holland at 2:30 pm and a tape-delayed Belgium v. Spain at 7pm. those of us with digital cable (at least in the Time Warner world) will have to settle for Fox Soccer Channel's showings of Russia v. Luxembourg at 11am (snooze) and Bulgaria v. Hungary at 1pm (meaningless). Spanish-language channel WNJU (Ch. 47) is showing Italy v. Slovenia an hour delayed at 4pm ET and Mexico v. Guatemala live at 9pm. the Italy match is live at 3pm on Italian channel RAI (Ch. 505), but that's a subscription service. other subscription only channels with games include Caracol (Ch. 815; Colombia v. Chile at 4pm) and TV5 French (Ch. 555; Tunisia v. Morocco at 3:35pm). you can also order the England v. Austria game on pay-per-view for $24.95. anyone paying for that, however, is either English or fanatical. but then, if you've just read almost 3000 words about this, that probably describes you.