Thursday, March 22, 2007

Euro 2008 Qualifying Preview

So European club footy takes basically a 2 week break for the next 2 rounds of qualifying matches for Euro2008, to be contested next summer in Austria & Switzerland. With both host nations qualifying automatically, the remaining 14 spots are being contested thusly: the remaining 50 soccer-playing nations of Europe are divided into 7 groups {6 groups of 7 and 1 group of 8}. Each will play the rest once at home and once away, and at the end the top 2 in each group will be qualified for Euro2008; everyone else will watch from the comfort of home.

For about 2 years I have been planning on going to Switzerland/Austria next summer during Euro2008, but now that one of my best mates is living in Brasil it may be a better idea to go there for 3 weeks instead, so we'll see.

Anyhow, it's still fairly early in the proceedings, but already some interesting things are developing. A round of matches will take place on Saturday, another round next Wednesday, and then players will return to their clubs which will resume play next weekend.

A quick and dirty guide:
Current Standings
Schedule of Matches for Saturday & Wednesday

Group A
The team to keep an eye on this week are Portugal, semifinalists at World Cup 2006 as well as Euro2000, and finalists at Euro2004. They currently sit in 4th place in the group- they aren't in trouble yet but sit behind an OK Finland team and legit Serbia & Poland teams. They have an interesting week - home to Belgium on Saturday, who are good but they should still beat, and then on Wednesday night a very tricky away match in Serbia, who currently sit in 2nd place in the group and should beat Kazakhstan on Saturday. If Serbia handle Kazakhstan and then are able to beat Portugal on home soil, they will take control of the group and Portugal will enter a mild panic, especially if they only manage a home draw with Belgium.

Long term it looks like those four teams {Finland, Serbia, Poland, Portugal} will be fighting for the 2 spots, unless Belgium starts to make noise, in which case throw them in as well.

Group B
Initially everyone assumed that the two spots from this group would go to Italy & France, last year's World Cup winners and runners-up respectively, with perhaps WC06 quarterfinalists Ukraine having a chance to nick one of the spots if the Azzurri or Les Bleus completely fucked up. 5 games in and this is now the most interesting group, with Scotland playing well and shocking France 1-0 late last year to leap into first place ahead of France, Italy, and Ukraine. The $64,000 question is: can Scotland keep it up, or will they fade and leave it to the big boys to try to keep Ukraine out just as the original script was written? The only match involving two of the top 4 in these next two rounds is next Wednesday night when Scotland play away to Italy. If they can get a draw then they should be able to hang around for a while longer. If they are able to replicate their shock win in Italy, then look out, the 4 horse race is on. I'm sure the ever-optimistic Scots are already chalking this one up as a loss which starts their decline from contention here. What say you, Trojan & Thistle?

Long term, this group will be fascinating to watch and see if Italy & France can get the spots that the world expects them to get, and if Ukraine and Scotland can battle them and even knock one of them out.

Group C
Joint group leaders Turkey and Greece meet this Saturday in the key matchup of the entire qualifying process in this group. They are the two best teams, two favorites to win the group, and oh yeah, they fucking hate each other, and have been battling to varying degrees for hundreds if not thousands of years. Worth keeping an eye on for this alone, but if one team wins they can take early control of the group.

Long term, it looks like Turkey & Greece will battle with Norway for the 2 spots, with Bosnia-Herzegovina having a longshot chance of contesting {they came very very close to qualifying for Euro2004}

Group D
This group looks pretty boring, with heavy favorites for the 2 spots Germany & Czech Republic already forging out in front. It looks like Ireland are the only team that might be able to put any pressure on them, but even that doesn't appear too likely at this point.

The one interesting thing is that they two powerhouses play each other Saturday, with Germany traveling to the Czech Republic for perhaps the match of the day on paper.

Long term, it looks like these two spots will easily go to Germany & Czech Republic, with Ireland on the outside looking in. The rest of the group is pretty poor, which will only play into the hands of the 2 top dogs.

Group E
Originally it was assumed the England would win the group and Croatia, Russia, and Israel would fight it out for the other spot. But thanks to England's utterly lackluster play thusfar {0-0 home draw with Macedonia and 0-2 loss at Croatia most recently}, this is the most hotly contested group at the moment, with the top 5 teams {Croatia, Russia, England, Macedonia, Israel} currently sitting on 10, 8, 7, 7, and 7 points.

The match to watch is Saturday as England travel to Tel Aviv to play a much-better-than-you -would-think Israel side. Israel did not lose a single match during World Cup 2006 qualifying, but were placed in a very tough group with France, Switzerland, and Ireland and just missed out finishing 4th. So they should not be taken lightly, especially at home. Many think that 1) Israel can beat England outright and 2) if they do England will be at massive risk of not qualifying and also that their manager, Steve McClaren, will be fired. Definitely the most interesting of all the matches on Saturday.

Long term, England has massive soap opera potential, and I am guessing that 4 teams {England, Russia, Croatia, and Israel} will fight it out for the 2 spots.

Group F
Can Spain save themselves? I for one hope so, since at the end of World Cup 2006 I picked them to win Euro2008. They have started out by digging themselves a massive hole, losing 2 of their first 3 matches outright and sitting in 5th place with only 3 points, already a massive 9 points behind group leaders Sweden. Basically their room for error is already gone, and they need to start winning matches outright instead of losing shockers to the likes of Norn Iron {Northern Ireland}. They are home to 2nd place and very solid Denmark on Saturday, and then home to pretty crappy Iceland on Wednesday. The absolute worst they can afford is a draw with Denmark and win over Iceland, and they really need the full 6 points from these 2 matches to get back into the race.

Long term, Sweden, Denmark and Spain should battle for the 2 spots, with longshot hopeful Northern Ireland likely to remember that they are Northern Ireland and fade back into obscurity after their famous win over Spain late last year.

Group G
Initially this group looked like Holland would win it fairly comfortably, leaving Romania and Bulgaria to duke it out for the other spot. And 4/5 matches in it looks exactly like that, with Holland in front on 10 points, Bulgaria doing very well in 2nd on 8 pts and Romania in 3rd on 7 pts. The match of this round is Saturday as Romania play at Holland, where Holland are favored to further assert their dominance over this group.

Long term this group is most likely to stay on script, with Holland qualifying at a canter and Romania & Bulgaria battling for 2nd, with a possible but not likely outside bid from Belarus, whose captain is Arsenal's Alexander Hleb.

So there it is. Best of luck to whomever your squad is.


DC Trojan said...

Here's your bold prediction of the day: Scotland will beat Italy, and then fail to qualify. It's a lock.

Kanu said...

Ahhh, Scottish optimism at it's best.

Love it.

moin said...

Well, I have to agree with DC Trojan here. I don't see Scotland qualifying (and I'm not even Scottish). I could see them managing a playoff spot if they had managed to hold on to Walter Smith as manager, but he resigned to take the vacancy at Rangers (so ya know which job has more prestige over there).

Anyways, I agree with most of your assessment of the group long term outlook. But if England and especially Spain doesn't win this weekend, they are in HUGE trouble (judging by their friendly match at Old Trafford a while back, they already are). McLaren is a dolt that's making some re-evaluate Sven's reign (but hey, at least he's English!), and well... Aragones is Aragones (for the love of God and all that is Holy, fucking drop Raul already!)

DC Trojan said...

Moin, you don't know the half of it. There's a lot of bad blood about the Glasgow teams and whether or not their supporters cheer on the national team. But in Walter Smith's defense, this wasn't his first go-round at Rangers, so it's marginally less awful than it looks.

Given the lack of money that Rangers has though, and the accompanying renewed emphasis on young Scottish players, Smith might actually do more for Scottish football on the international level by coaching at Rangers and developing home-grown players. Odd, that.

thistle71 said...

walter smith is dead to me. The sooner he and his dodgy outfit ditch the football and just go to holding klan rallies full time, the better. my prediciton is that he'll also fall back on hiring aging english rejects - ugo ehiogu, you know who you are - and cheap continentals.

scotland will rue the loss to the ukraine. if the ukraine beats lithuania, then they will be at 12 points on five games, like scotland and france. so anything less than a draw in italy and the qualification hopes will become more and more faint.

as it stands, the real recovery is just getting respectable wins and an increased FIFA ranking so we'll get a higher seeding in the WC qualifiers. that was the damage left by vogts.

either way, scotland is losing to italy tomorrow; 1-0 from a set piece.