Thursday, October 17, 2013

Europe's road to Brazil takes final turn

European teams have played their last big night of qualifiers with a handful of tickets to Brazil 2014 given out.

The big names – Germany, Italy, Spain, England and the Netherlands all made it through as group winners and Switzerland kept up their recently consistent record in qualifying for major finals. Of UEFA’s nine group seeds, only Norway were eliminated, but three of them could only make the playoffs. Three third-tier seeds – Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Switzerland, jumped to first place finishes.

In truth there were no big-name casualties, although some famous names live to fight another day via the playoffs.

1998 World Cup winners and 2006 finalists France is the biggest name to miss the initial cut, though Les Bleus remain a strong favourite to reach Brazil via the playoffs. In their defence they had Spain to contend with in Group I. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal will also await the draw, having finished second to Fabio Capello’s Russia, who bagged the golden ticket from Group F.

Belgium make a welcome return to the finals and will bring a string of outstanding young players to Brazil, but little Bosnia & Herzegovina are the most notable European qualifier, topping the less than arduous Group G above Greece.

The Euro 2004 winners join Sweden, Iceland, Croatia, Romania and Ukraine alongside France and Portugal in the playoffs. Iceland are the most unusual name in the hat, having beaten Slovenia and Norway to second place in Group E, and it is nice to see Romania, whose dazzling team from 1994 lives long in the memory, back in contention having failed to make it to the last three World Cups.

Of the eliminated, 2002 semi-finalists Turkey missed the boat again, as did 1998 semi-finalists Croatia. Eastern Europe had slim pickings overall, with 2010 qualifiers Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Euro 2012 co-hosts Poland left on the quayside and only Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia passing automatically.

Denmark were the unlucky second-placed team to miss the playoff cut, having finished second behind Italy in Group B but gaining fewer points than the eight other second-place teams. The Danes will surely rue their three draws in Copenhagen for costing them advancement.

An off-colour 90 minutes often made the difference between going through and going out. Had the Czechs not lost at home to Armenia or the Serbs to minnows Macedonia, things would have been different for them.

Italy won the fewest games of any qualifier, with six victories out of ten, and Germany the most with nine.

Holland’s Robin Van Persie was the continent’s top gunner with 11 goals, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Edin Dzeko with ten. Germany were the top-scoring nation with 36 strikes in ten games, Holland were second with 34 and England third with 31.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, England and Holland all scored eight times in a single match, but only Ukraine netted nine, at home to San Marino. The Italian-speaking republic had the worse statistics across UEFA, with a goal difference of -53 far worse than the next leakiest defence, that of Andorra who finished -30 with Malta on -29. Unlike Andorra however, San Marino at least found the net once, in their 1-5 home loss to Poland.

The UEFA playoffs draw is on the 21st of October with the two-legged games taking place on the 15th & 19th of November.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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