Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Portugal really in bad shape? (and other UEFA qualifying analysis)

Outside of CONCACAF, UEFA is my favorite confederation to watch when it comes to World Cup qualifying. I love seeing quality teams go at it, but what really excites me is the possibility that several of those teams could get left out. There are always a couple of surprise packages, and it's a guarantee that one of the "elite" teams (England/France/Germany/Italy/Netherlands/Portugal/Spain) will be in trouble.

From the US point of view, this is the single most important region to watch. I want us to advance as far as possible in the World Cup, and one of those elite teams missing out will help us more than anything. This time, it's Portugal and France that are struggling a bit. Now it doesn't look like the seeding (of the top 8 teams in 2010) would be affected much if either failed to qualify. BTW, that link goes to Football Rankings, a great blog for all your seeding and ranking needs: FIFA, UEFA, etc. Highly recommended.

Anyway, the top 9 teams in the world (the above 7 from UEFA and Argentina/Brazil) have a lock on the 7 available seeds for 2010. However, the big deal is in the UEFA pot for the 2010 draw. That's the most important of the four pots in the final draw. If all 9 of those teams qualify, then there's a 25% chance of drawing either Portugal/Netherlands in addition to the seeded team. The difference between those two teams and say, Serbia or Switzerland is huge. So even though the seeded teams would still be strong, a top team missing out would affect our chances greatly.

Current UEFA qualifying standings (FIFA.com)

What I'm going to look at now is how some of the groups may turn out. I want to assume some winners in the easy games, to see how misleading the current standings may or may not be. I'm using vajradaka from Bigsoccer's UEFA qualifying spreadsheet to project the results. Let's look at group 1 and Portugal first. Here is the current table:

Group 1

GP W D L Pts
1 Denmark 4 3 1 0 10
2 Hungary 5 3 1 1 10
3 Portugal 5 1 3 1 6
4 Sweden 4 1 3 0 6
5 Albania 6 1 3 2 6
6 Malta 6 0 1 5 1

It doesn't look great for Portugal. They've only earned one point against both Denmark and Sweden at home. In addition, both of those teams have a game in hand. But what I want to look at is, what if the top teams are victorious in all of the matches they should win? I'd have to include Hungary as an easy match. Despite their current position, they've only beaten Albania (x2) and Malta.

If I give Denmark/Portugal/Sweden wins in all their matches against the other three (and let's say Hungary beats Malta just to make things more complete), we get the following table:

W D L Pts
1 Denmark 7 6 1 0 19
2 Portugal 9 5 3 1 18
3 Sweden 8 5 3 0 18
4 Hungary 10 4 1 5 13
5 Albania 10 1 3 6 6
6 Malta 10 0 1 9 1

Portugal is still in bad shape, but not all is lost. It basically all comes down to the one match remaining where they can make a difference. That would be September 5th in Denmark. If they win that match, then they should be in the playoffs no matter what. Only a split between Denmark and Sweden would give them a chance to miss out as they'd be tied with Sweden and it'd come down to goal differential (but they should have a higher GD anyway).

If Portugal wins in Denmark, how the DEN-SWE games will affect them:

Denmark Portugal Sweden
DEN sweep 25 21 18
SWE sweep 19 21 24
1 win each 22 21 21
2 draws 21 21 20

However, if Portugal were to draw in Denmark, then only Denmark getting 4 points or more against Sweden would allow the Portuguese to finish in second. So Portugal really is in dire straights in that scenario.

If Portugal draws in Denmark, how the DEN-SWE games will affect them:

Denmark Portugal Sweden
DEN sweep 26 19 18
SWE sweep 20 19 24
1 win each 23 19 21
2 draws 25 19 23

So in summary, it would really help them Denmark dominates Sweden. But they really need to win in Denmark on 9/5. Even after all this, the playoffs would almost certainly await.

Group 7

Now how about France? I don't think there are any easy games in that group among the top 5. However, we can take the 6 remaining games against the Faroe Islands out of the equation.

Current standings:

GP W D L Pts
1 Serbia 5 4 0 1 12
2 Lithuania 5 3 0 2 9
3 France 4 2 1 1 7
4 Austria 4 1 1 2 4
5 Romania 4 1 1 2 4
6 Faroe Islands 4 0 1 3 1

Standings after giving wins to all remaining Faroes opponents:

GP W D L Pts
1 Serbia 6 5 0 1 15
2 France 6 4 1 1 13
3 Lithuania 6 4 0 2 12
4 Austria 5 2 1 2 7
5 Romania 5 2 1 2 7
6 Faroe-Islands 10 0 1 9 1

France is the only team which has two remaining games against them, so their position looks better when you take that into account. Plus, their other four games include three home matches (Lithuania, Romania, Austria). So I expect France to easily qualify for the playoffs at the very least. Now the top spot may still be in question, because Serbia also has 3/4 of the other matches at home and the only away match is Lithuania on the final matchday when they should already be eliminated. They've already beaten Austria and Romania away, so I assume they can do it at home too.

Serbia plays France at home on September 9. Even if they slip up and draw one of their other matches, they could conceivably still finish top of the group with a draw against France. It would come down to GD then. They probably would finish first in such a scenario unless France mauls the Faroes twice. So if France wants to finish first, they probably will need to win in Serbia. Otherwise they'll be taking their chances in the playoffs.

On a side note, I really hope that they don't seed the playoff teams like they did last cycle. If both Portugal and France make it, they should have a chance to meet each other. Don't protect the big countries, they already were seeded for the group draw.

What about other groups?

Group 3

If every team beats San Marino:

GP Pts
1 Slovenia 7 14
2 Slovakia 5 12
3 Czech Rep 6 11
4 N.Ireland 6 10
5 Poland 6 10

Slovenia is in a good position. They're the only team with two remaining games against San Marino (whereas Northern Ireland has faced them twice). They've also already played @ Poland and both games against the Czech Republic. They could be a good bet to finish in the top two (Czech's have 3/4 at home, should still finish 1st). However, it seems like the evenness of this group could cause it to end up as the group with the worst second place finisher, which means no playoffs. I think it's either this group or group 9.

Group 4

If the top three beat the bottom three every time:

GP Pts
1 Germany 8 22
2 Russia 8 21
3 Finland 8 19

10-Jun Finland-Russia
10-Oct Russia-Germany
14-Oct Germany-Finland

Group 5

If Belgium/Bosnia/Turkey lose to Spain but beat Armenia/Estonia:

GP Pts
1 Bosnia 8 15
2 Turkey 8 14
3 Belgium 8 13

1-Apr Bosnia-Belgium
9-Sep Bosnia-Turkey
10-Oct Belgium-Turkey

It really is vital for Turkey to get a result against Spain tomorrow. Bosnia's in good shape, and they have a home match against Spain on the final matchday when they'll have nothing to play for.

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