EUROPE – UEFA
Group A: Belgium and Croatia are flying, with the second-placed Croats nine points clear of third-placed Serbia, with Scotland and Wales further back. Belgium have won all their games apart from a 1-1 home draw with Croatia, and are already assured of at least a playoff spot. Despite that, Belgium are only three points ahead of Croatia, and the two play a massive qualifier in Zagreb on Tuesday. The winner should take the group, the loser should be in the playoffs. A draw works for Belgium.
Group B: Italy are large and in charge, four points clear at the top of the group. They play second-placed Bulgaria on Friday in a big game, Italy make direct qualification a formality with two wins, while Bulgaria need points to stay ahead of third-placed Czech Republic, who are a single point out of the playoff place. The Czech’s play Italy on Tuesday, whoever can take a point off Italy could gain the upper-hand in the battle for second. Meanwhile, Armenia and Denmark are in serious peril, three points off second place. Denmark need to beat Malta, and beat Armenia on Tuesday to give themselves hope and take revenge for a 4-0 drubbing at home in the reverse fixture against the Armenians. If they don’t take six points, Denmark will be headed for the biggest disappointment of Morten Olsen’s 14 years in charge.
Group C: Germany are steamrolling their way towards Brazil, as Jogi Lowe’s side looks to build on a comfortable five point lead atop Group C. The battle for second is a quagmire, with three nations on 11 points. Sweden, Austria, and Ireland all missed out on South Africa, and all come into these qualifiers with intense pressure. Surprisingly, Austria have looked the most impressive of the three sides, with a far superior goal difference to Sweden and Ireland. But it’s Austria who get Germany in this round, while Sweden get Kazakhstan. All the other games involving these sides are against each other, and Ireland face a make or break week, with games against both Austria and Sweden. The Austrians have the easiest path to the playoffs, but it’s six to five and pick ‘em when predicating who will have a chance to go back to the World Cup.
Group D: The Netherlands are all but in, and can clinch qualification if things go their way in this round of fixtures. Second-place seems to be a battle between Hungary and Romania, who are on 11 and 10 points respectively. The two nations play in Bucharest on Tuesday, and the winner is in pole position for the playoffs – still, don’t count out Turkey just yet. Frequent manager Fatih Terim, the current Galatasatary manager, has just been reappointed to revive the Turks sagging campaign. The man who guided Turkey to the semi-finals of Euro 2008 takes over a team three points out of the playoff position. They have more talent than either Hungary or Romania, Terim can pull it all together.
Group E: In by far the weakest qualifying group, perennial good-luck side Switzerland have the inside track to automatic qualification, four points clear atop the group. The Swiss are surprisingly trailed by Albania, who are bidding to make their first major tournament ever. The region’s Cinderella has Iceland on their tails, along with Norway. Slovenia, who acquitted themselves well in 2010, are just about out of the running. Switzerland are feeling good, but things could move in the coming days in the race for second. Whoever makes the playoffs, they won’t be favorite to win the playoff.
Group F: There is intrigue at the top of this group, a three-way drag-race between Portugal, Russia, and outsiders Israel. Portugal, who haven’t missed a World Cup since 1998, but had to go through the playoffs in 2010, are leading the group with 14 points, but they have a game in hand on their two rivals. Russia, managed by Fabio Capello, sank to a disappointing defeat at Northern Ireland in their last qualifier, but they still control their own destiny with a window to an automatic berth. Israel also control their own destiny, heady times for a side that has never played in a World Cup. The three only face off in one match in the coming break, Israel and Russia on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Of the three nations, only two can move on. Portugal and Russia have the talent, but it would be unwise to count out the feisty Israelis.
Group G: There are two clear favorites in a settled Group G: Bosnia and Herzegovina for automatic qualification, and Greece, right in the mix again, for the playoff spot. Bosnia are on 16 points, with an impressive 5-0-1 record, while Greece are four points clear on third-placed Slovakia, three points off the pace at the top. If both teams take care of business, they’ll finish first and second. Bosnia have talent, they could be a force in Brazil, and as countless teams will attest, Greece know how to navigate a major tournament.
Group H: England expects – to qualify, at least. The Three Lions are two points out of first place in Group H, trailing the recently-severed-from-Serbia Montenegro. England does have a game in hand on the leaders, but they’ll most likely have to play it without Wayne Rooney. Also in the mix is Ukraine, one point behind England, three behind Montenegro. Ukraine and England play a huge game in Kiev on Tuesday, while Poland, who are disappointingly sagging in fourth, can revitalize their campaign by beating Montenegro on Friday. It’s a competitive group, one that England will do well to win, even with their obvious edge in talent and prestige.
Group I: The one group in Europe with only five teams has two good ones out in front of qualifying. Spain lead on 11 points, while France sit on 10. The pressure is on Spain to win all their remaining games and relegate the French back into the playoffs, and with games against Finland, Belarus and Georgia remaining, the defending champions of the world are a good bet to take nine points and book their trip. France have to win out and hope Spain slip, otherwise, they’ll have to go through the playoffs