European zone – UEFA
Group six: Second place race wide open as England goes clearThe WC qualifiers in the European zone have reached the halfway stage and England can already relish their presence in South Africa next year. The team that stopped them on the way to the latest European Championships, Croatia, are well aware that this time the best they could achieve is the second place, leading to the additional qualifications in November.
In Croatia there was a great deal of discussion as to what score would suit their team best in the game between England and Ukraine. The optimistic minority hoped for a Ukraine win, hoping that that would still give Croatia some chances of overtaking England. Provided, of course, that Slaven Bilic boys emulate their 2007 feat when they won by 3-2.
The majority wholeheartedly supported England, justifying that choice with the estimate that any other score would only complicate things further for Croatia, rather than open a window for another upset. The 2-1 win for Fabio Capello's team was welcomed by that group of fans and writers, because the Croats now have a realistic chance of finishing second, rather than having to depend on other teams' results for even that consolation prize.
While England are considered certains champions of the group, Croats are aware that with four more wins and a calculated loss in London they would surely end up at least level on points with Ukraine; also, should the Eastern Slavs drop any more points apart from the three in Zagreb next June, Croatia would finish ahead of them on points. And then hope for the best possible draw for the additional qualifiers, where they could encounter their neigbours Bosnia and Hercegovina coached by Miroslav "Ciro" Blazevic.
Scotland, Northern Ireland and Eire still in play
Of other UK teams, Northern Ireland currently fare best, following up on their marvellous Euros campaign. Even though they hold the top position in the Group 3, it seems unlikely they could actually win the group since Slovakia are just one point adrift with two games in hand, while the group's favourites Poland and Czechia can still be counted on to wake up and show their class.
Scotland's options of achieving the direct qualifications have all but vanished now that Holland have opened an eight-point gap at the top. Still, the second spot is well within reach for the Tartan Army, provided enough points are won to avoid the worst record in the separate table of all second-placed teams in the nine groups.
Wales in the Group 4 have already lost all hope, having suffered four defeats out of six games, with Germany and Russia far, far ahead.
The remaining English-speaking nation, Ireland, may regret having only drawn with the newcomers Montenegro last September, because the loss of those two points made a win over Italy in Dublin next October an imperative. Even though the Irish managed to snatch a marvellous 1-1 draw in Italy on April 1st, the mission of beating Azzurri, the world champs and battle-hardened veterans, looks a bit daunting. Just as Scotland discovered 18 months ago when they came tantalizingly close to their second ever European championships, only to suffer a last minute 1-2 defeat to the undisputed kings of qualifying campaigns.
Copyright Ozren Podnar & Soccerphile
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