Saturday, November 30, 2013

In it, But Win It? #8: Born To Runner-Up

For some reason, thinking of the UEFA Playoff games always makes me think of the scene from the Simpsons' where perpetual over-achiever Lisa ponders a life of (relative) mediocrity.
Announcer: And now, Avis Rent-A-Car is proud to present the second best band in America. Will you welcome Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa singing their number two hit, "Born to Runner-up". [Audience boos] 
Lisa: Why would they come to our concert just to boo us? 
Such is the situation for Europe's other qualifiers. You know, the ones who didn't win their own group but instead beat somebody else who, also, did not win their own group. After all, if you're African you once you win you have to keep on winning...but if you're European...meh.

Here now are some wholly inaccurate predictions about what will befall the next batch of Europeans to take their talents to the unamused masses.

File:Croatia football federation.pngCroatia
Contender Credentials: As one of the top 16 teams in the world, and a perpetually well prepared cup side, Croatia promises to be a tough opponent for whomever they're drawn with. They also boast a tremendous tandem in Midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Forward Mario Mandzukic (Bayern Munich), that should scare anybody.
Pretender Problems: After a sterling run to the semi-finals in their debut in 1998, Croatian football has been rather similar to other ex-Yugoslav states (Serbia/Slovakia/Slovenia), and is still searching for a breakthrough to equal Davor Suker's run of glory 16 years ago.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Now that he's head of the Croatian Association, Suker can use all the team's resources to finance a time machine to bring a good chunk of the '98 team in to play alongside Modric and Mandzukic en route to another 3rd place finish.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Drawn with faster, more agile players, everyone other than Modric and Mandzukic chokes up and turns into a red-chequered pumpkin.
Prediction: There's enough talent to get one win here, and if paired with a less compelling partner (Iran/Algeria) that alone should get them 3rd place.

File:Le nouveau logo FFF.png
Contender Credentials: Packed with some of the best talents in the world, and now with a world class side in Paris-Saint Germain. France has plenty of people playing world-class football everywhere you turn, particularly in Balon D'or Front-runner Franck Ribery. Add in the gritty ex-champion manager Didier Deschamps and its hard to see why France isn't a frontrunner.
Pretender Problems: Then you remember that they're France, and its hard to see how they even got this far. They needed a miracle win with their backs against the walls to beat Ukraine, and they got it. They are ranked by FIFA as the worst qualifier from Europe and they play that way until the last possible moment, so maybe it's a little much to expect another final appearance without Zinedine Zidane.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Deschamps gets the whole team to bond through trust falls and campfire circles until they are a well oiled machine that dominates in Brazil and unites a fractured nation.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: In fighting, racial tension and boneheaded play leaves them looking like a dog's breakfast on the world stage, yet again.
Prediction: As much as I mock the French, and I mock the French...I really do believe that they have a strong balance of talent, experience, youth and strategy. They just need time to gel away from the all important club season. Having done that they'll slip into the second round before falling to an upstart like Japan, the US or Ghana Round of 16

File:Greece National Football Team.svgGreece
Contender Credentials: Perpetually one of the toughest outs in Europe, Las Hellas knows how to frustrate and aggravate their rivals to the dying seconds of the match. They refuse to let in easy goals and in a tournament plagued by new and quirky balls that puts them instantly in competition for a top two spot in the group.
Pretender Problems: While they don't let in goals, they also don't score many, having gotten 2 in all their 6 previous World Cup matches. Forwards are as rare a commodity in Greece as retirees who don't mind cutbacks in public services, and while defense wins championships, you need someone (anyone) to put it in the back of the net too.
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Three straight nil-nil draws see them through a tough group dominated by one of the heavyweights.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Another tournament, another bout of defensively brilliant, offensively dim futbol and another fourth place finish in the group.
Prediction: Mostly underwhelming, with a few flashes of brilliance from captain Giorgious Karagounis' new mentee Kostas Fortunis which suggests better fortunes ahead. 4th Place

File:Portuguese Football Federation.svgPortugal
Contender Credentials: Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo. The media's obsession with Cristiano Ronaldo. Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pretender Problems: The back line's best hope is the rapidly ossifying Bruno Alves, and the scrum of hum-drum goalkeepers is once again proof that no matter how good the chosen one is up top, he can't do everything himself. (At least, not until he finds a way to clone himself)
Pie-in-the-Sky Scenario: Cristiano Ronaldo clones himself. Portugal wins their first cup. Portugal becomes a model for economic/scientific/football genius.
Pits-of-Despair Scenario: Cristiano Ronaldo injures himself while pretending that he was injured by a tackle. Portugal is pummelled, the economy tanks again.
Prediction: Ronaldo has enough offensive fire power (especially with his pal Nani) to overwhelm a couple minnows, but then runs smack dab into an equally potent offense in the next round. Round of 16.

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