Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Waning Seconds: Europe's a Mess

Sweet god, the final seconds of Panama and Mexico left me stunned.

Just as I resigned myself to a underwhelming Mexico settling into matches against New Zealand by default, Luis Tejeda pushed himself through a sloppy Mexican defense to score and put Panama and Honduras into fits of delight.

Four minutes later, Raul Jiminez, in his third minute of play, scored a scinitillating bicycle kick to retake the lead, revive El Tri's hopes and make any fan of futbol stand up and shout (even if you take a certain bizarre appreciation of Mexico's struggles). Suddenly you can see how scrappy, frantic and down right desperate the North American Goliath had become. Blood is drawn, the players wrassle up and down the pitch in frenzied efforts for Panama to get one more equalizer that never materizalized.

It's that kind of action that makes world cup qualifying exciting, that makes me want to watch well past 10 PM when I don't know or have a vested interest in either team. While I'll turn away from playoff baseball to watch it. That's just how fun it is.

And then I look at Tuesday's action and I think...please, let there be even one match with 5 minutes as good as the final 5 of Mexico/Panama.

Whether we get it or not, we got it Friday night, and Tuesday, a number of teams are going to get their own moments of glory. Here's how it sets up for the last day of group stage qualifiers.

A brief update on the teams I wrote about last Thursday. Only Venezuela and Jamaica have been eliminated, and here's how it works out for those left.

IF Honduras beats or draws with Jamaica: They go to the World Cup
IF Honduras loses to Jamaica and Mexico beats Costa Rica (plus goal differential): Mexico goes to the World Cup, Honduras plays New Zealand in the playoffs
IF Honduras doesn't lose and Mexico wins/draws in Costa Rica: Honduras goes on, Mexico goes to the playoffs.
IF Mexico loses in Costa Rica and Panama beats the USA: Honduras goes in, Panama faces New Zealand, Mexico is out.

If Uruguay loses or draws to Argentina: Ecuador and Chile are in, Uruguay faces Jordan in the playoffs
If Uruguay beats Argentina, Chile or Ecuador lose their match and there's a swing in goal differential: Uruguay and the winner of Chile/Ecuador go to Brazil, the loser of Chile/Ecuador faces Jordan in the Playoffs.
And  now...for the mess that is Europe...hey, look it's one of two phrases that appear both on my blog and in World Bank board rooms! (The other, of course, is 'Robert Mugabe's a tool')

Alive for an Automatic Berth
There are only four spots left, and mercifully it's easy enough to follow. 

Azerbaijan can't handle that...
In Group F Russia just needs a point in Azerbaijan to push themselves past Portugal. They've handled lesser squads on the road as easily as an oligarch handles obscene sums of cash.

In Group I Spain needs a point against Georgia to see off France. Georgia could have all of their nation, all of the state of Georgia and all of the intergalactic six-footed, speed-demons of Georgorious 7 and still be underdogs against Spain.

Group G gets a little more complicated. Bosnia/Herzegovina and Greece are dead even on points, with B/H at a staggering +23 goal differential and Greece at just +6. So Bosnia holds the tie breaker as they go to Lithuania and Greece hosts Lichtenstein. Greece needs a better result than B/H (a win rather than a draw, a draw rather than a loss), while the Golden Lilies can make it in with any equivalent result, so they might as well get a win to play it safe.

Hardest to figure out is Group H, England has the lead, but being England it's not that safe. They're only a point up on The Ukraine who is going to face San Marino. Yes, that San Marino. The San Marino that has mustered one goal in nine matches. The San Marino that wins about as often as someone's finger actually lands on San Marino when they spin a globe. Meanwhile, England faces Poland at home, a home match is nice, but they only drew with them before, with Ukraine guaranteed to beat San Marino, the three lions need a win.

Alive for a Playoff Spot
There are eight playoff spots up for grabs (which will eventually turn into four honest-to-goodness world cup berths).

However qualifying for one is tricky business. You don't just have to finish second, you have to finish as one of the eight best second place teams by having a good record against the top five teams in their group (because it would be unfair to count their matches against last place. Especially since Group I only has five teams. 

So to judge these odds, we need to use some inferential thinking.

We know that Sweden is in, and if we assume that Spain, Bosnia, and Ukraine do what they need to do (while England fails, like they usually do) then we can also book spots for France, Greece and England too [Technically Montenegro could qualify if they beat Moldova and San Marino beats Ukraine...and technically the US Congress is "working" right now]. That leaves us with 4 spots and 5 groups that will try to supply them.

Here's where things get tricky.

In order to qualify you need to have more points against the other top 4 teams in your group than at least one other 2nd place finisher. Lots of teams and groups could end up in that situation, but right now it seems most likely to land on Group B, where Bulgaria has just 7 points and beloved underdog Armenia has 9 points (after you take away their wins over Malta). Even if Bulgaria wins they end up with 10 points, Armenia could get as high as 12 if they pull off a miraculous win IN Italy (11 if they pull of a slightly less miraculous draw), but finishing 3rd or 4th is more likely. Denmark has the most likely route with a final game against Malta but even that should set them up with just 10 points...so let's call that our minimum number of points required.

Even if they can't pass Russia, Portugal should be already taken care of. Their worst case scenario is a Russia win, a loss to Luxembourg and a Northern Irish win. Even that would give them 12 points and keep them in front of Group B's runner up so again, they're safe.

Ditto Croatia, who's assured of 2nd place behind Belgium and should have 11 points regardless of whether Macedonia, Scotland or Wales finishes bottom of their table. (Ideally Scotland finishing bottom would help out the Croatians the most...to which I imagine most Scots would say, "HELL NO!")

Add caption
Iceland should be good to go if they beat Norway or just do better than Slovenia. But things aren't as rosy for the NZS. A win for Slovenia should seal their spot, but if they win 2nd by drawing in Switzerland and Iceland loses it may be all for naught since most of Slovenia's points come from whaling on Cyprus and they could end up with just 10 points, and be stuck arguing goal differential against the Danes or Bulgarians.

The most likely group (other than B) to wind up at the bottom of the runner's up table is Group D with it's three way battle for survival. With a win against a resilient Estonia, Romania should be 2nd place and safely into the playoffs. A loss for Romania and a win for Hungary over hapless Moldova (pretty likely) should give them second place, 11 points and safe passage into the playoffs Romania could be even better positioned A victory for Romania should have them dancing. Turkey's got the toughest route ahead, as a win is unlikely v.s. Holland so they'd need Estonia and Moldova to win in order to finish second. Of course, doing that puts them in the same position as the Slovenians, bickering over goal differential.

Most likely we'll end up with Russia, The Ukraine, Spain and Bosnia/Herzegovina going to Brazil, and Sweden, Greece, France, England, Porugal, Croatia, Iceland and Romania with Denmark being out of the money.

No comments: