The Welsh Gull

Torquay United, the Football League and other stuff

Euro 2016 qualifying predictions

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No reasoning, as it’s mainly off the top of my head.

Group A
1. Netherlands
2. Turkey
3. Czech Republic
4. Iceland
5. Latvia
6. Kazakhstan

Group B
1. Belgium
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
3. Wales
4. Israel
5. Cyprus
6. Andorra

(we’re doomed now, aren’t we?)

Group C
1. Spain
2. Ukraine
3. Belarus
4. Slovakia
5. Macedonia
6. Luxembourg

Group D
1. Germany
2. Poland
3. Republic of Ireland
4. Scotland
5. Georgia
6. Gibraltar

Group E
1. Switzerland
2. England
3. Slovenia
4. Estonia
5. Lithuania
6. San Marino

Group F
1. Greece
2. Romania
3. Hungary
4. Finland
5. Northern Ireland
6. Faroe Islands

Group G
1. Russia
2. Sweden
3. Montenegro
4. Austria
5. Moldova
6. Liechtenstein

Group H
1. Italy
2. Croatia
3. Norway
4. Bulgaria
5. Azerbaijan
6. Malta

Group I
1. Portugal
2. Serbia
3. Denmark
4. Armenia
5. Albania

Qualified teams
France
Netherlands
Turkey
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Spain
Ukraine
Greece
Romania
Germany
Poland
Switzerland
England
Russia
Sweden
Italy
Croatia
Portugal
Serbia
Belarus
Republic of Ireland
Montenegro
Norway
Denmark

Play-off losers
Czech Republic
Wales
Slovenia
Hungary

Thing I’m most looking forward to – (Hopefully) some new/different teams qualifying

Thing I’m least looking forward to – Tedious technocratic debates over whether or not minnows should have to pre-qualify after England thump San Marino 16-0

Written by James Bennett

July 16, 2014 at 18:39

Euros with 24 teams: the review

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Norway seem likely to be heading back to the big stage in 2016

So after five tournaments, the Eurotopia is done, and it has provided an intriguing batch of alternative tournaments to dream about. But this did have a serious point to it. With qualifying for the first 24-team European Championships soon to get underway, there are two questions yet to be answered about the expansion:

- will the tournament become over-saturated with too many teams?

- who is likely to benefit?

Oversaturation?
I’ve always been in favour of the expansion, mainly for selfish reasons – it gives Wales a better chance of qualifying. But also I think it needs freshening up. With little difference between the number of UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup and the Euros, the same teams tend to qualify, which compares badly to the Africa Cup of Nations and the AFC Asian Cup.

I believe allowing new nations to step up will benefit European international football as a whole, in the same way the expansion of the Africa Cup of Nations has allowed countries like Botswana, Niger and Ethiopia to progress as footballing nations, in turn weakening the positions of the country’s juggernauts like Cameroon, Nigeria and Egypt, who have all failed to qualify for recent tournaments.

But the counter-argument of it diluting the quality of the tournament should not be ignored. Euro 96, 2000 and 2008 in particular have gone down as classic tournaments, and this stems from a small competitive field of talented teams. Adding in weaker teams could disrupt that – no longer will we see groups like England-Germany-Portugal-Romania of Euro 2000 (or Shearer-Matthaus-Figo-Hagi if you want), or France-Italy-Netherlands-Romania of Euro 2008. At least one less competitive nation in each group at these tournaments was guaranteed.

In the light of disappointing recent World Cups, it looked as if we would have to prepare for more stilted group stage matches with the big teams doing just enough to get through. But the 2014 World Cup seems to have changed perceptions and brought out the optimism in people. Euro 2016 could yet follow it as an attacking tournament with plenty of surprise results.

Who will benefit?

Taken in isolation for a moment, here are the teams that gain an extra participation through 24-team Euros from 1996:

Norway – 4 (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012)

Rep of Ireland – 3 (1996, 2000, 2008)
Scotland – 3 (2000, 2004, 2008)

Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Israel – 2 (2000, 2008)
Northern Ireland – 2 (1996, 2008)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Switzerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Turkey – 2 (2004, 2012)

Armenia – 1 (2012)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 1 (2012)
Bulgaria – 1 (2008)
Croatia – 1 (2000)
England – 1 (2008)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Greece – 1 (1996)
Hungary – 1 (2012)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Romania – 1 (2004)
Russia – 1 (2000)
Slovakia – 1 (1996)
Slovenia – 1 (2004)
Serbia – 1 (2008)
Sweden – 1 (1996)
Ukraine – 1 (2000)
Wales – 1 (2004)

However, this clearly doesn’t tell the whole story – it won’t tell us who is likely or unlikely to qualify unless we combine actual and theoretical qualifications. In the event, Croatia, England, Norway, Russia and Sweden would have been added to the list of teams who would have qualified for all five of the Euros along with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, while a number of others would get four of the five.

But five tournaments is still a pretty small sample size, so I have another way of examining this.

“The European Cup of Nations”
Until fairly recently, the Africa Cup of Nations was held in even-numbered years, which meant every other tournament would be held in the same year as a World Cup. This led to qualification for the two tournaments being merged into one competition.

It gave me the idea of looking at what would have happened had UEFA brought in the same thing. Obviously this is in no way realistic on so many levels, even if it would have been enormous fun to travel to Sweden for an international tournament in January (so if you are reading Michel…). But it is interesting to look at who the 24 teams qualifying for such a tournament would be, if only to act as a further comparison.

I started with 1994, which was notable for being the last World Cup with 24 teams overall, giving me 20 years of fictional tournaments to work with.

1994
The World Cup that none of the Home Nations qualified for would have produced the ECoN that all of them would have qualified for, giving England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland a chance to compete at an as-yet undetermined location. Joining them there would be France, who famously missed out on a place in the USA courtesy of a wayward David Ginola cross, European champions Denmark and the golden generation of Portugal. Austria, Hungary and the Representation of Czechs and Slovaks (RCS for short; the former Czechoslovakia to you and I) would have made up the central European contingent, and Iceland would have made their first major tournament.

1998
Play-off losers Russia, Ukraine, Hungary and the Republic of Ireland all would have progressed to a tournament that probably would have been in France as a dry run for the World Cup. Surprise non-qualifiers Sweden and Portugal would also have made it, along with Greece and Turkey. Israel and Lithuania were tied for the last place on the six-game record that was usually used to determine these things, but over eight matches, Israel had the better record so I’ve given them the place.

2002
Louis van Gaal might not have guided the Netherlands to the World Cup but they would have made the ECoN as the best third-placed team. Scotland qualified in similar fashion after their disappointing campaign, along with Slovakia, Yugoslavia and surprise package Belarus. The play-off losers were Austria, Romania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic, getting a reprieve after a surprising failure to qualify.

2006
A reduction in the number of spots for UEFA teams means there would have been ten additional qualifiers for the ECoN in Germany, led by play-off losers Slovakia, Turkey and Norway. There would have been joined by seven of the eight third-placed teams: Bosnia & Herzegovina would have qualified for the first time, along with the more familiar flags of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Romania, Russia and Israel. Scotland were the third-placed team to miss out after picking up only 13 points from ten games.

2010
With only 13 UEFA teams qualifying for the World Cup, there would need to be eleven additions, and these were dominated by Eastern European teams. Russia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Ukraine were among the play-off losers, while Croatia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Latvia were amongst the best third-placed teams. In addition, play-off losers Norway and third-placed Sweden and Finland made up the Scandinavian additions, and the final spot went to the Republic of Ireland despite the Hand of Frog.

2014
Another eleven teams and it’s the same old suspects. From the north, Sweden, Denmark and surprise package Iceland qualify as play-off losers, along with Ukraine and Romania. Of the third-placed teams, Serbia and Slovenia represent the former Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia represent the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and Austria represent the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finland, Montenegro and Israel finished third in their groups lost out, the former pair on goal difference.

In total…
Here are the combined total additional appearances including both 24-team Euros and ECoN

Norway – 6 (96, 04, 06, 08, 10, 12)

Republic of Ireland – 5 (96, 98, 00, 08, 10)
Scotland – 5 (94, 00, 02, 04, 08)
Ukraine – 5 (98, 00, 02, 10, 14)

Austria – 4 (94, 02, 06, 14)
RCS/Czech Rep – 4 (94, 02, 10, 14)
Hungary – 4 (94, 98, 12, 14)
Israel – 4 (98, 00, 06, 08)
Romania – 4 (02, 04, 06, 14)
Russia – 4 (98, 00, 06, 10)
Slovakia – 4 (96, 02, 06, 14)
Sweden – 4 (96, 98, 10, 14)
Turkey – 4 (98, 04, 06, 12)

Bosnia & Herzegovina – 3 (2006, 2010, 2012)
Bulgaria – 3 (2006, 2008, 2010)
Denmark – 3 (1994, 2006, 2014)
Northern Ireland – 3 (1994, 1996, 2008)
Yugoslavia/Serbia – 3 (2002, 2008, 2014)

Belgium – 2 (1996, 2004)
Croatia – 2 (2000, 2010)
England – 2 (1994, 2008)
Greece – 2 (1996, 1998)
Iceland – 2 (1994, 2014)
Poland – 2 (2000, 2004)
Portugal – 2 (1994, 1998)
Slovenia – 2 (2004, 2014)
Switerland – 2 (2000, 2012)
Wales – 2 (1994, 2004)

Armenia – 1 (2012)
Belarus – 1 (2002)
Estonia – 1 (2012)
Finland – 1 (2010)
France – 1 (1994)
Latvia – 1 (2010)
Lithuania – 1 (1996)
Montenegro – 1 (2012)
Netherlands – 1 (2002)

Combine it with the actual qualification figures and we have a tiered system on who is likely to qualify for 24-team European Championships in the future.

Almost certain – teams who would have qualified for all possible tournaments
England – 11
France – 11
Germany – 11
Italy – 11
Netherlands – 11
Portugal – 11
Russia – 11
Spain – 11
Sweden – 11
Croatia – 10 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)

This group can feel fairly safe about their chances of making Euro 2016. Barring an absolute disaster, they will be there and most will be amongst the leading contenders for the title. Of these, only Germany, Italy and Spain have actually qualified for every tournament, with France missing the first of them and Netherlands missing 2002. By contrast, Russia and Sweden failed to qualify for four of them.

Very likely – teams who would have qualified for all bar one or two
Czech Republic – 10 (1 as RCS)
Denmark – 10
Norway – 9
Romania – 9
Switzerland – 9
Serbia – 7 (4 as Yugoslavia/Serbia & Montenegro; out of 9 attempts to qualify – banned for WC94 and Euro 96)

This group will also feel pretty confident as they have a good record in qualifiers, theoretically qualifying for three-quarters of the 24-team tournaments. Norway are perhaps the surprise package here having not qualified for an actual tournament since Euro 2000 but are consistently around the top three in their groups. When including theoretical qualifications, the Czech Republic missed only 1998 and Denmark missed only 2008.

Likely – teams who would have qualified for most tournaments but not all
Greece – 8
Republic of Ireland – 8
Turkey – 8
Belgium – 7
Bulgaria – 7
Scotland – 7
Ukraine – 7 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)

This group are there more often than not but are on the margins – the running total of teams after this group is 23, so you can expect a couple of these teams to miss out. Nonetheless, expectations should and will be high, as a number of these nations haven’t been at a major tournament for some time, particularly Scotland, who last made one in 1998.

Semi-regulars – teams who would have qualified for around half the tournaments
Austria – 6
Poland – 6
Slovakia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Slovenia – 5 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Bosnia & Herzegovina – 4 (out of 9 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC98)
Hungary – 4
Israel – 4
Montenegro – 1 (out of 3 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC10)

The fates of these countries will depend on the quality of generations of players – Austria benefited during the 1990s, Poland during the 2000s, and Hungary in the distant past but have also performed well in the 2010s. Bosnia & Herzegovina will be expected to qualify after making the 2014 World Cup and Israel, who last qualified for an actual major tournament in 1970, are in the same qualifying group as them. Montenegro are hard to call but I’ve put them in here as they have performed to this level in recent campaigns.

Outside shot – teams who would have qualified once or twice a generation
Northern Ireland – 3
Iceland – 2
Latvia – 2
Wales – 2
Armenia – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Belarus – 1 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Estonia – 1
Finland – 1
Lithuania – 1

These teams will pop up once every now and then, making up one of the 24 countries at roughly every other tournament. There are five ex-Soviet states here, with only Latvia having qualified for an actual tournament. Iceland will be contenders for 2016 after a strong 2014 campaign. Northern Ireland, Finland and Wales lurch from struggling to being an occasional surprise package, which the latter have the potential to be in the upcoming campaign.

Very unlikely – teams who would never have qualified
Albania – 0
Andorra – 0 (out of 8 attempts to qualify – first attempt Euro 00)
Azerbaijan – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Cyprus – 0
Faroe Islands – 0
Georgia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Gibraltar – 0 (yet to enter)
Kazakhstan – 0 (out of 5 attempts to qualify – first attempt WC06)
Macedonia – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Liechtenstein – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
Luxembourg – 0
Malta – 0
Moldova – 0 (out of 10 attempts to qualify – did not enter WC94)
San Marino – 0

Of all these, Albania, Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Macedonia and Moldova form their own little sub-group of nations ms who have the potential to make it with a very good generation, as demonstrated by Estonia who would have fallen into this group but for one outstanding campaign. Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta and San Marino are almost certainly far too small to ever get anywhere near qualifying; even George Weah couldn’t drag this lot to a major tournament.


Things look grim for Lorik Cana and Albania

All images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 23:35

Euro 2012…with 24 teams

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The last qualifying campaign before the move to a 24-team format saw a shift back to smaller groups with only the group winners guaranteed to qualify. This time all the big guns made it through unscathed, with Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, England and Spain all winning their groups, along with Greece, Denmark and Russia, and Sweden qualifying as the best runners-up.

But behind them, there were plenty of surprises, with three teams entering the play-offs with a chance of making their first major tournament. For Bosnia & Herzegovina, it wasn’t much of a surprise, as they had been progressing for a while, and Montenegro were the new kids on the block but clearly had capable players. However, Estonia’s shock second place in a group also containing Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland was a huge shock, but they were unfortunate to be drawn with a Republic of Ireland side fired up after losing to France in the 2010 World Cup play-offs.

Similarly, Montenegro were beaten by old hands the Czech Republic, while Bosnia were dumped out by Portugal. In the last tie, Croatia beat Turkey, giving the tournament another familiar feel. It’s easy to see why many thought an expansion was necessary – by now, it was largely the same teams qualifying for every European Championship. A shake-up was needed.

The additional qualifiers
The evidence for this is all too clear in the list of teams that would have qualified for a 24-team Euro 2012 – it would have featured a stack of unfamiliar teams making a breakthrough. For a start, there are the play-off losers, which included three new teams, along with Turkey, who again missed out on a major tournament. Firstly, there is Bosnia & Herzegovina, who would instead qualify for their first major tournament two years later. In this campaign they were unfortunate to finish behind France, after a late Samir Nasri penalty forced a draw between the two teams in the final match of the group.


Estonia’s record goalscorer Andres Oper might have added to his tally at a 24-team Euro 2012

Montenegro finished behind England (despite not losing to them) and ahead of Switzerland, Wales and Bulgaria to finish second in their group; it was only their second qualification campaign as an independent nation. Estonia were the true anomaly, though – after this campaign, they slipped back to fifth place in their World Cup qualifying group, suggesting it was a one-off. It may prove to be the closest they come to reaching a major tournament.

The other four spots are taken up by the four best third-placed finishers, and there were even more surprises. Joining semi-regular qualifiers Switzerland and the team that always gets close to qualifying but doesn’t, Norway, there was another new nation in a major tournament and one returning after a long absence.

Driven on by an emerging young generation including Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Yura Movsisyan, Armenia had finished third behind Russia and the Republic of Ireland after going into their final game in Dublin with a chance of making the play-offs (an opportunity lost when they lost 2-1 to the Irish). Nonetheless, they make a 24-team Euro 2012, along with Hungary, who would have finally qualified for a major tournament for the first time since 1986 and a European Championship for the first time since 1972.


Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Armenia narrowly missed out on a play-off berth but would have made a 24-team tournament

Of the third-placed teams missing out, Scotland were the most unfortunate, finishing behind Switzerland on goal difference. Israel, Belgium, Serbia and Romania were the other four teams, the latter having the worst record and thus would also miss out on a play-off if that was used to determine the final four spots.

The draw
Seeding is relatively straight forward. A modified version of the original co-efficient was used, and 15 of the 16 teams that actually qualified were the top 15 teams in the ranking, leaving only co-hosts Poland further down. The result is all of the additional teams fit below them.

In the actual seeding, World Cup finalists Spain and the Netherlands are seeded alongside the co-hosts, with Germany, Italy, England and Russia in Pot Two, Croatia, Greece, Portugal and Sweden in Pot Three, and Denmark, France, the Czech Republic and the Republic of Ireland in Pot Four.

With the new teams slotting in below, it means that Germany and Italy are promoted into the top pot, with England and Russia joined by the four Pot Three teams in Pot Two. The four Pot Four teams are joined by Switzerland and Turkey in the new Pot Three, and the last pot is made up of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Norway, Hungary, Montenegro, Estonia and Armenia.

It’s quite a top-heavy seeding, with only France and a few tricky teams in Pot Three and a weak batch of new additions in Pot Four. It feels almost like a World Cup. After quite a competitive 24-team Euro 2008, this is more polarised, if only because some teams improved enormously in the interim period. But at the same time, it feels like a very interesting tournament because of the diverse range of teams in it.


Mirko Vucinic came close to leading Montenegro into their first major tournament, but does Euro 2016 beckon?

All images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 20:39

Euro 2008…with 24 teams

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In a change from previous campaigns, Euro 2008 qualifying saw seven groups with the top two in each automatically qualifying and no play-offs. This was surely good news for the continent’s most powerful nations, with most finding their way to Austria and Switzerland, but it wasn’t enough for England, who became the campaign’s biggest casualty by finishing behind Croatia and Russia under the ill-fated leadership of Steve McClaren.

Joining usual suspects France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Portugal were semi-regulars Poland, Croatia and Russia, reigning European champions Greece, and two teams returning to a major tournament finals: Turkey, for the first time since the 2002 World Cup, and Romania, for the first time since Euro 2000. It was one of the most memorable qualifying campaigns ever, particularly for British fans, and yet despite many shock results, the teams that made it had a familiar feel.

The additional qualifiers
With eight extra spots open, though, it’s fairly clear that every team who finished third in a group would also have qualified. The British Isles as a whole would have benefited enormously from this in particular. England and McClaren would have been given a narrow reprieve after edging Israel on head-to-head, while Scotland, who beat 2006 World Cup finalists France twice but narrowly missed out, would have been fairly rewarded for their efforts.

The Republic of Ireland would have been back at the Euros (for the first time in twenty years if ignoring previous reprieves in 1996 and 2000) under the management of Steve Staunton, while their neighbours Northern Ireland would also have made it after a sensational campaign in which they beat Spain, Swden and Denmark and striker David Healy topped the overall qualifying scoring charts with a record tally of 13 goals.


David Healy inspired Northern Ireland to a famous win over Spain but missed out on a major tournament

Elsewhere, Norway feature after another reprieve (and there’s more to come), led by the goalscoring talents of John Carew and Steffen Iversen, and they are joined by Dimitar Berbatov’s Bulgaria, who finished a point behind the Netherlands in Group G despite drawing twice with Albania (the first of which cost Hristo Stoichkov his job as manager). The other third-placed team was Serbia in their first campaign since Montenegro’s independence; they finished ahead of Finland on head-to-head record in Group A.

This leaves one more spot for the fourth-placed team with the best record, being contested between Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Slovakia and Ukraine. In a huge disappointment for Jari Litmanen fans, Finland just miss out, finishing with the second-best record behind Israel, who again head to a 24-team Euros after previously “qualifying” for Euro 2000. However, we can just pretend that we could have had a play-off between the two sides and that Finland may have won it…


Despite scoring six goals, Dimitar Berbatov couldn’t inspire Bulgaria to Euro 2008 qualification

The draw
The national team co-efficient was again used for the seeding, and as usual it threw up some odd pots. With two co-hosts and reigning champions Greece automatically placed in Pot One, it would have seemed almost as if the top pot was actually the bottom one but for the inclusion of the Netherlands. Pot Two included Croatia, Italy, the Czech Republic and Sweden, while Pot Three included Germany, Portugal, Spain and Romania, and Pot Four featured France, Poland, Turkey and Russia. Remarkably, this could have produced a potential group of Netherlands-Italy-Spain-France, and indeed brought three of the teams together, with Romania as the Pot Three team.

Naturally, adding six extra teams to the mix is going to water this down somewhat. Croatia and Italy would have been promoted to Pot One, with Pot Two being made up of the Czech Republic, Sweden, Romania, Germany, Portugal and Spain. England, stuck in Pot Three with Poland, France, Turkey, Russia and Serbia, would likely have faced a tough draw. The bottom pot included Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Norway and Israel.

The toughest possible draw? Netherlands-Spain-England-Ireland would have been fun. Alternatively, Italy-Portugal-France-Scotland would have been fiercely competitive. Euro 2008 was a great tournament (with one of the best TV intros), but unlike its predecessors, adding more teams may not have detracted from its quality. This was definitely a time where there were more than 16 competitive international teams in Europe and provides arguably the best case for the expansion.


James McFadden sunk France in Paris with a brilliant strike; given the chance, could he have been Scotland’s hero on the big stage?

Next time – four new teams to the Euros, plus the return of one of the great footballing nations

All images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

July 15, 2014 at 01:43

Euro 2004…with 24 teams

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Beginning after a World Cup full of shocks in the Far East, Euro 2004 qualification would continue the surprises. The biggest came in Group Six where Greece, who hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since the 1994 World Cup, topped the group ahead of 2002 quarter-finalists Spain. Belgium missed out as Bulgaria qualified for their first post-Stoichkov tournament, while Switzerland returned to the fold for the first time since Euro 96 ahead of Russia and the Republic of Ireland.

The play-offs would thus see a wide range of teams, including Spain, the Netherlands (beaten by the Czech Republic in their group), World Cup semi-finalists Turkey, Russia, Croatia, Slovenia, Norway, Scotland and two more surprise packages, Wales, who had inflicted Italy’s only defeat of the campaign, and Latvia, who beat Poland into second in Group Four.

In a dramatic series of games, the biggest teams progressed: the Dutch, inspired by a Ruud van Nistelrooy, hat trick, beat Scotland 6-0 in the second leg despite losing 1-0 in Glasgow, and Spain beat Norway 3-0 in Oslo to secure a 5-1 aggregate win. But the rest went down to the wire. Despite securing a 0-0 draw in Moscow, Wales lost 1-0 at home, with Russia progressing despite a positive drugs test for midfielder Yegor Titov, while a second half goal from Dado Prso was enough to give Croatia a 2-1 aggregate win over Slovenia in Ljubjana. But the big shock came in Istanbul. Latvia had won 1-0 in Riga, but went 2-0 down in the second half. However, goals from Jurijs Laizans and Maris Verpakovskis secured their first qualification for a major tournament.

They joined all of the other juggernauts in Portugal – France qualified winning all eight of their group games, while England and Germany all progressed without defeat, and Sweden and Italy also confirming their presence. But who would have been the other eight teams to make it a 24-team tournament?

The additional qualifiers
Again, all five of the losing play-off teams would have been guaranteed a place in the finals, as finishing in the top two of a group would have been enough.

For Slovenia and Turkey, it would have been their third consecutive major tournament. Norway would have returned after missing the 2002 World Cup, while Scotland would be appearing for the first time since the 1998 World Cup (not counting their appearance in a 24-team Euro 2000) with a team managed by Berti Vogts and probably captained by Barry Ferguson.

But the real story would have been Wales. They had (and still have) only qualified for one major tournament: the 1958 World Cup. There had been a number of other close calls – they reached the last eight of the 1976 European Championships when it was still only a four-team tournament, while they had come close to qualifying for the 1982, 1986 and 1994 World Cups – but this is the closest they have come in the last two decades. As a result, Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed, Robbie Savage and others missed out on their best opportunity to appear at a major international tournament.


In club football, Ryan Giggs won just about everything, but he never played in a major international tournament

The remaining three teams would have been the best third-placed teams. While the likes of Israel, Austria and Slovakia fell comfortably short, it was three major tournament regulars who would have benefited. Belgium would have qualified for yet another tournament despite missing out by a point to Bulgaria and on goal difference to Croatia, while Romania would have bounced back from missing out on the 2002 World Cup, armed with pre-positive drugs test Adrian Mutu of Chelsea. The final spot would have gone to Poland, who had finished three points behind the inspired Latvians.


Adrian Mutu was present at Euro 2000 and 2008 but Romania failed to qualify in between

In the event of a play-off to decide these three slots, it may have been a litle more intriguing. The Republic of Ireland and Serbia & Montenegro would have been tough opponents, but the real surprise package would have been Iceland, who had finished third behind Germany and Scotland in Group Five, missing a real play-off spot by a point. However, this great generation of Icelandic players (Gudjohnsen, Helguson, Hreidarsson, Ingimarsson, Bergsson et al) would have missed out on an automatic slot in a 24-team Euro 2004 on goal difference, as their 13 points tied with Poland’s total but with a difference of +2 compared to the Poles’ +4.

The draw
Again, the pots for the first round draw were determined by the national team coefficient, based on the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 qualifying campaigns. In reality, the four seeds were Portugal, France, Sweden and the Czech Republic, with big guns Italy, Spain, England and Germany locked into the second pot, and the Netherlands down in the third pot due to their underwhelming performances in both campaigns. It was less spread out than Euro 2000, which produced a couple of very strong groups, but did at least produce a lot of tight competitive games, as well as the early eliminations of Germany, Italy and Spain.

With 24 teams, it is again diluted, although perhaps not as much as Euro 2000, which is perhaps down to the low co-efficients of Latvia, Greece, Switzerland and Bulgaria. Indeed, only Italy and Spain are promoted into Pot One, leaving England and Germany in Pot Two with the Netherlands, Turkey, Croatia and Belgium. Pot Three would include Russia, Denmark, Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania, while Pot Four would include Scotland, Switzerland, Greece, Norway, Latvia and Wales.

So while it is no longer possible to get a Portugal-Spain-Russia-Greece, or Czech Republic-Germany-Netherlands-Latvia, it is possible to get a group as competitive as France-England-Denmark-Switzerland or Italy-Germany-Russia-Norway. There’s still plenty of promise there for an exciting tournament – especially if you’re Welsh.


Yildiray Basturk’s only major tournament for Turkey was the 2002 World Cup, but the playmaker almost certainly would have appeared in a 24-team Euro 2004

Next time – four British Isles teams are helped to Austria and Switzerland

All images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

July 14, 2014 at 21:42

2014 World Cup: Knockout round predictions

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The second round is often fairly straight-forward other than the odd shock or two – the heavyweights tend to find their way through, unless they are paired off with each other. I don’t see there being a Italy-South Korea tie in this round, particularly as in most cases there’s a fairly clear divide between the quality of the group winners and the quality of the runners-up.

If there is a shock coming, it is in the second tie of the round. Colombia are now fancied to do well, but there is always one team who blitz the group stage, start being talked of as genuine contenders, and then fall relatively quickly – Spain 2006 is a prime example, along with the last two Brazil teams. Uruguay now have the momentum and motivation to beat them. I’d not be surprised either way but I suspect Uruguay will come through it, due to them having a little mental edge in terms of experience and getting the result in a tournament. Having said that, I’d say Colombia have a slightly better chance of winning the tournament than Uruguay because Uruguay’s surge may lose its edge by the latter stages whereas Colombia are perhaps better-equipped to go further.

With France, Germany, and Argentina likely to win fairly comfortably, Brazil having just about enough to see off Chile, the Netherlands have a tough time against Mexico but probably just edging it, and Belgium grinding their way past a stubborn USA, the last remaining tie is between the two underdogs, Costa Rica and Greece. As I said in the previous article, I’m not convinced Costa Rica are as good as is being made out, and Greece have a habit of pulling off results like this, so I suspect they’ll sneak it again.

This would leave a quarter-final line-up of Brazil-Uruguay, France-Germany, Netherlands-Greece, and Argentina-Belgium.

Brazil-Uruguay would be the stand-out given the historical context. It could go either way. If Uruguay are psyched up after beating Colombia. they will prove very difficult opponents for Brazil, who will be reminded of the Maracanazo a thousand times that week (though this would take place in Fortaleza). That being said, I suspect Arevalo Rios will be running out legs in midfield and there are only so many feats you can pull off like this, so I’ll go for Brazil. Same goes if Colombia win, though it may be tighter.

France-Germany is also fascinating, a repeat of the 1982 and 1986s semi-final, both of which Germany won (as an additional footnote, Germany have beaten France only once in their last seven meetings, though that one win was last February). This will probably hinge on whether or not Schweinsteiger can make the difference in midfield for Germany, as they haven’t looked great there in his absence. Plus in Benzema France have a striker capable of bagging a couple off a dodgy defence, whereas Germany have lacked a central striker so far. I’m going for France, on the basis that a France-Brazil semi-final seems destined to happen.

France are of course Brazil’s bogey team in recent World Cups, having finished off the last relics of the great 1980s team in 1986, pounded Ronaldo and co in the 1998 final, and shocked them in 2006 courtesy of Zidane and Henry. I’d fancy them to do it again too. By this point, the pressure on Brazil would be immense, having seen off two South American rivals, while France will be able to sneak under the radar again despite having an attack that we know can expose this nervy Brazil defence.

In the other half, Netherlands-Greece is probably closer than you think. The Netherlands have based their attack around counter-attacking, but would meet a team who also do this, while also being slightly more defensively organised. The logical answer is to say the Netherlands have enough, but you also have to bear in mind that they will have played their previous game in Fortaleza, which may leave them tired, especially if Mexico perform well. However, Greece’s (or Costa Rica’s) will have been in Recife. I think Greece can do it, though – if they can get it to penalties, they are certainly in with a good chance, given the Dutch team’s record in shootouts.

Argentina-Belgium is another tough one to call, given that Argentina have looked great in attack but weak at the back and Belgium have looked great at the back but weak in attack, although both have found ways to win regardless. The location of the second round ties gives Argentina an advantage (Sao Paulo versus Salvador), but if Belgium can hitch onto Argentina’s flaws, they can stop them – of all the teams in this half of the draw, Belgium are probably the most likely to stop Argentina. Also Argentina haven’t gone past the quarter-finals since 1990, and have fallen there in three of the last four tournaments.

Of the four combinations for that semi-final, Netherlands-Argentina is the most appealing for the neutral (due to 1978 and 1998), so is probably the most unlikely to happen. Greece-Argentina would likely be very one-sided. Netherlands-Belgium would be a great local derby for this stage and another clash of styles. Greece-Belgium would be fucking terrible. Because things usually happen in the World Cup that I don’t want to happen, it makes Greece-Belgium the most likely outcome. Probably.

In any case, it’s virtually impossible to predict beyond the quarter-finals because the quarters are often very tight and between two teams capable of advancing – it’s where the great stories of the World Cup start to fit into place. But a France-Belgium final seems logical, even if it’s not expected – they are the two teams who have looked tight enough at the back and clinical enough going forward. The rest of the major contenders have only covered one of these aspects. However, both are young, inexperienced sides, which does count against them. Because of this, I’d make Argentina the favourites – I counted them out before the tournament started on the basis of their defence being poor, and their defence has been poor, but Messi is on another level at the moment and he’s going to be so difficult to stop. France-Argentina then? Argentina have won every single meeting between the two…

Either way, I don’t see this being the year of the Brazil-Argentina final as everyone is expecting. The knockout rounds, like the group stage, tend not to work as people expect. Off the top of my head, I have seen some great shocks: Croatia beating Germany in 1998; South Korea beating Italy and Spain in 2002; Greece beating France and the Czech Republic in Euro 2004 before winning the final; France beating Spain and Brazil in 2006 despite a dreadful group stage; Italy beating hosts Germany in the semi-finals of the same tournament; and the Netherlands coming from behind to stun Brazil in 2010.

These are the great games that define World Cups and yet they aren’t obvious before they take place. The games that will define this World Cup haven’t already happened, which is very exciting considering it has already been a very good tournament. However, it doesn’t become a great tournament until we have more great moments in the knockout rounds to savour. The number of goals may drop, but this is where a World Cup is made.

Teams most to least likely to win the World Cup (IMO):

1. Argentina – Pros: Messi, other great attackers, climate; Cons: defence

2. France – Pros: working well as a team, solid at the back; Cons: inexperienced at this level

3. Germany – Pros: deep squad, experience of going well into a tournament; Cons: lack of a striker, little wobbly at the back

4. Brazil – Pros: Neymar, home advantage, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: goalkeeper, defence

5. Netherlands – Pros: Van Persie, Robben, pace, options off the bench; Cons: defensive inexperience

6. Belgium – Pros: deep squad, difficult to beat; Cons: full-back positions, slow starters in games

7. Colombia – Pros: in great form, unheralded, climate; Cons: vulnerable defence not tested yet, inexperienced

8. Uruguay – Pros: experience, momentum, motivated, experienced manager; Cons: age, lacking their best player

9. Greece – Pros: well-organised, big game team, good draw; Cons: unreliable attack, prone to collapse

10. Chile – Pros: attack, pressing; Cons: unsuitable defence, tough draw

11. Mexico – Pros: in form, surprise package, balance of youth and experience; Cons: lack of overall quality

12. Costa Rica – Pros: attack, well-organised, climate; Cons: lack of overall quality

13. Switzerland – Pros: attack, experienced manager; Cons: defence, possible lack of depth, tough draw

14. Algeria – Pros: momentum, motivated (grudge matches); Cons: lack of overall quality, tough draw

15. Nigeria – Pros: exciting attack; Cons: defence, disruptive bonus dispute, tough draw

16. USA – Pros: well-organised; Cons: lack of overall quality

Written by James Bennett

June 27, 2014 at 02:05

2014 World Cup: Some quick thoughts on each team so far

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This may be completely incoherent. If so, I apologise. Also my track record in predicting this World Cup has been a complete disaster so feel free to ignore what I predict.

Group A

Brazil: They seem less than a sum of their parts, which is unusual for a Scolari team. It’s just not gelling – they look a shadow of the team of the Confederations Cup. Defensively they look very nervy (which isn’t particularly surprising considering they play two attacking wing-backs and David Luiz is one of their centre-backs), and Neymar is carrying them in attack, although the addition of Fernandinho helped against Cameroon.

Mexico: Although I predicted them to go through originally, I wasn’t sure if they could withstand the loss of Montes, who had been a key player for them. But they have done very well. Not sure they go much further, though. I don’t think they’ve quite got the ability.

Croatia: Disappointing at the World Cup again. Lacked bite in midfield, which was always going to be a concern with their choice of playmakers over holding midfielders. They threatened Brazil in the opener but that may say more about Brazil than themselves.

Cameroon: Just dire. Created very little in the crucial first game against Croatia. From there on, without Eto’o, it was always going to be tough. Played well against Brazil but again, it probably says more about Brazil than Cameroon.

Group B

Netherlands: Very sharp in attack, clearly, but questions over the midfield. De Guzman was mediocre at best in the first two games and Sneijder has been a passenger. Also that defence has at times demonstrated why it wasn’t particularly highly rated before the tournament started. They played well against Chile, especially considering Van Persie was suspended, but I still think they are slightly overrated and I can’t see them winning the tournament.

Chile: Not sure what to make of them. Clearly that defensive situation can’t hold forever – there’s no height or physical presence at the back, and they are mostly midfielders. Sampaoli is clearly doing a very good job with very little beyond their star attackers, who fortunately have been mostly good. However, it’s not just about losing to the Netherlands – they didn’t look great against Australia. Yes, they beat Spain, but it was a disorganised, rattled, downcast, under-pressure Spain – I’m not sure it says much.

Spain: Del Bosque messed this up, but he messed it up a long time ago by continuing to stick by the same players all the way through qualifying. Xavi and Alonso should have been gradually taken out of the side after Euro 2012 in the way Villa was, and continuing to trust Casillas, captain or not, was always going to be very risky. I think Del Bosque realised what he had done after the Netherlands game, which ironically looked worse than it actually was, and threw in some changes, but at that short notice, changing key players and the style of play was always likely to be a step too far. He should have mixed the team up two years ago, or even after the Confederations Cup Final disaster.

Australia: Well, they didn’t get tanked in every game, which was better than they expected. They gave the two teams that qualified for the group a good run. If there is one disappointment, it is that the performance against Spain was disappointing, which makes you wonder what’s going to happen to the team without Tim Cahill and Mark Bresciano. They lacked presence up front without their captain.

Group C

Colombia: Ewing Theory in action! Before the start, I thought the loss of Falcao would hit them but they are playing wonderful football. Turns out the key man all along was James Rodriguez, who is this tournament’s new star. I do wonder if they can keep it up, though – many young teams like this start well but fall away when they come up against a tough, experienced heavyweight. Their next opponents? Uruguay, who could definitely be described as a tough, experienced heavyweight, even if they are without their best player.

Greece: As in Euro 2012, they were poor for two games and then won the last with an unconvincing display to somehow sneak through. And now they’ve got a plum draw too. Boo.

Ivory Coast: Very disappointing. Aside from a bright second half spell against a very average Japan team, inspired by the arrival of Didier Drogba, they never really looked like clicking. In particular Yaya Toure did not perform as we know he can, though in the circumstances that is certainly excusable. Even so, they could and perhaps should have made it out of the group, but for Samaras’ stoppage time dive.

Japan: Another disappointment. It just never came together going forward. Failing to score against the ten men of Greece pretty much summed up their tournament, and helped screw Ivory Coast over as well. They need a change of coach and a striker.

Group D

Costa Rica: The surprise package of the World Cup so far, although much of this seems to be based on their performance against Uruguay. In all three games, they were very solid and organised at the back, and they have utilised the talented Joel Campbell well on the break. However, I’d caution against saying they can go far because they never really threatened a flat England side with their leaky second choice defence in the last game, and didn’t even offer that much against Italy.

Uruguay: Poor in the first game, which ultimately came down to not having enough going forward due to the lack of Suarez. They threw players forward to compensate and got stung on the break. But after that, they solved their defensive issues with Lugano replaced by Gimenez, and Suarez’s return made them look threatening up front. However, they have now lost him, but what they have gained is a chip on their shoulder in response to his ban. I think they are still being underestimated and could yet go far.

Italy: They used the ball intelligently against England and defended well (Paletta aside), but when the onus was on them to attack and score goals, they didn’t do so. Their two goals in this tournament were a well-worked set piece and a handy bit of wing play (exposing the weak Baines) with a good header from Balotelli. Prandelli’s negative tactics against Costa Rica were bizarre, but they were outfought by Uruguay.

England: For all the talk of promising signs, they created very little across the three games, and what they did create was usually blown by Rooney, who was crap as usual. They carried two luxury players in the team who are both at least four years past their peak. If England are to progress, they have to ditch Rooney and Gerrard instead of pandering to them – a team is not made up of the best eleven individuals, hence why Costa Rica have seven points and England have one. Defensive organisation helps as well, and that includes the midfield – the England defence wasn’t great but it received no protection, which comes from Hodgson not picking a defensive midfielder. If there is anyone to blame, it is him.

Group E

France: Impressive. I still don’t understand how they flew under the radar – they have some great young players. They are even managing to get the best out of Mamadou Sakho. Benzema has generally looked like the great striker he can be instead of the average striker he often is. Cabaye has held the midfield together well. Even Moussa Sissoko has played well. The draw against Ecuador was slightly disappointing but Ecuador needed the win more than them so I doubt it’ll be a major issue with Nigeria ahead.

Switzerland: A mixed bag, because they have looked very good going forward and have scored some great goals, but defensively they have looked very vulnerable, especially after Von Bergen was replaced by Senderos and his partnership with Djourou was as bad as it gets. But they did at least limit the damage at the end, which suggests they have some character in the team, and battered Honduras, although they are only Honduras.

Ecuador: Probably the most impressive side not to get through. Considering they were coming back from tragically losing their best striker a year ago, and didn’t have an awful lot of major tournament experience in the side, they played admirably. Going out on four points is unfortunate, especially considering they only lost the Switzerland game in stoppage time – had they held on for a draw, they would have gone through.

Honduras: They entertained with their mindless thuggery, but that’s about it. At least they scored this time.

Group F

Argentina: Again hard to fathom. The games against Iran and Nigeria exposed their defensive frailties, and the games against Bosnia and Iran suggested how the attack could be stopped. Across the three games, they were made to look a beatable team. And yet they won all three, mainly courtesy of Messi. Maradona’s 1986 team was probably better than we remember but this must be quite close to it. It’s odd but I am more confident of their chances now than I was at the start, mainly because Messi is clearly now capable of carrying this team.

Nigeria: A lot of people were writing them off after the Iran game but it wasn’t until after Argentina were similarly stifled by them that people started to accept that the lack of goals was because Iran were so well-organised defensively rather than Nigeria being poor. They have a great attack with plenty of options, but they are fragile at the back, particularly without Elderson Echiejile.

Bosnia & Herzegovina Without wanting to sound too patronising, it was a great effort for a first appearance. In the first game, they genuinely looked like they might snatch a draw against Argentina. In the second, they should have led but for a legitimate goal being disallowed. And in the third, they found a way to break down Iran, something the other two teams in the group struggled to do. There is promise there but Spahic and Misimovic are probably done internationally, which is an issue.

Iran: Performed as well as they could considering the lack of ability in the squad, and I’m delighted they got a goal. It is at least a bright spot in a dreadful tournament for Asia.

Group G

Germany: A lot of people raved about the performance against Portugal but it wasn’t particularly exceptional – Portugal were just terrible. They then looked wobbly against Ghana but just about survived. We can’t really judge much from the USA game because it was turgid, but they were at least more solid defensively. The return of Schweinsteiger to the midfield will help as the tournament goes on. Still one of the favourites but they have a tough draw.

USA: It’s odd that the worst team can go through and yet that is what has happened here. The bus-parking against Ghana somehow worked even though they couldn’t hold on for 90 minutes, they also couldn’t hold on against Portugal, and they offered little in attack against a largely disinterested Germany today. And yet they are through. John Brooks’ goal was the difference between going through and finishing bottom of the group.

Portugal: As with the USA and Ghana, this all rested on the first game. The pounding they took after Pepe’s reckless red card killed their goal difference, otherwise they would have been firmly in contention to go through going into the last game instead of only having a slim chance, which would have helped psychologically if nothing else. Otherwise, they seem to have gone backwards since Carlos Queiroz’s reign, which is bizarre considering that itself was so limiting. And yet without Brooks’ winner against Ghana, they would have still qualified.

Ghana: Another team that has regressed in recent years. The “loss” of Kevin-Prince Boateng (well, he was there in body but not in mind) was important as he made such a difference to this team four years ago. Waris’ pre-tournament injury also made a big difference up front, although Andre Ayew had a good tournament. And yet despite all that has happened, but until Dauda’s haphazard attempts at collecting a cross at the end, they were only a goal away from qualifying. Fine margins.

Group H

Belgium: I’ve seen comparisons with England of the past (2006-era) and it makes sense. This is a team with so much attacking talent you’d have expected them to put multiple goals past every team in this group, and yet they won all three games by one goal with late winners. But they were never really threatened in any of those games – even against Algeria when they were behind it always felt like it was against the run of play. But they are defensively solid, which is a big bonus over some of the other contenders. They could grow into the tournament, or they could go out in the quarter-finals on penalties in order to continue the England comparisons.

Algeria: Clearly the second best team in this group, even if it was largely off the back of one performance against South Korea. But what a performance! So glad that the demons of 1982 have been laid to rest. Even if they are battered in the next round, they can be delighted with their performance and go into the 2015 Cup of Nations as serious contenders. They have already achieved more than Ivory Coast’s “golden generation”.

Russia: Of all the teams in the tournament, this lot were the worst. Yes, Cameroon got pounded by everyone, Iran and Honduras only scored one goal, and they didn’t even finish bottom of their group, but considering they have talented players, they have underachieved enormously and have been soul-destroying to watch in the process. Fabio Capello has sucked the life out of this side. And it’s not a young side either, which is a concern heading towards 2018.

South Korea: Barely any better than Russia, but at least they scored two goals against Algeria and at least made it look like they were putting the effort in. However, their tournament was ultimately summed up by the bland performance against a Belgium side reduced to ten men. They never really threatened and ended up losing despite Belgium having no real reason to win the game.

Written by James Bennett

June 27, 2014 at 01:16

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