Following the initial set of qualifiers on Saturday and with a second round to come on Wednesday, I took a look at the standings in the World Cup qualifying groups this morning and was quite surprised to see a number of good sides struggling to get going. Here’s the top five countries in a bit of a sticky situation.
1. Portugal & Sweden/Group 1/Currently 3rd & 4th, both 4 points off top.
Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry men were seeded first for this group but have struggled to break down teams and have drawn three of their five games. A goalless draw on Saturday against Sweden helped neither side and with no game on Wednesday the Portuguese and indeed Sweden could find themselves seven points off qualification come the next round of games in June. The Swedes were in pot two originally but with Ljungberg retired and Larsson very, very old, have struggled up front and have scored just twice in four games. Everyone’s favourite overrated player Zlatan Ibrahimovic has neither of those two goals despite playing every game so far. Sweden have a game in hand on C-Ron’s men but it is against surprise package Denmark who top the group having played just four games. I would imagine both teams will get it together enough to overtake Hungary (a good young side, currently second) but I think Denmark will comfortably hold on to keep one of them out of the top two spots.
2. Bulgaria/Group 8/Currently 3rd and 7 points off 2nd.
This is perhaps not a huge shock but at the same time when the draw was made, ex-Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov and his Bulgarian merry men were seeded higher than ex-Spurs striker Robbie Keane and his Irish merry men. Bulgaria’s problem is that have drawn all four of the games while Italy and Ireland have won a few games and built up nice leads. Italy will finish top without too much trouble and Bulgaria will hope the Azzuri can beat Ireland on Wednesday while they beat Cyprus. If that happens, it all looks rosier with just a four point deficit, a game in hand plus Ireland at home next. If it doesn’t it may start to be too much of a gap to overcome.
3. Poland/Group 3/Currently 5th and 3 points off top.
Poland are a very workmanlike side who are definitely greater than the sum of their parts. There are no stars in their team, just lots of grafting midfielders, an overrated goalkeeper and a Brazilian. This random motley crew have qualified easily for Euro 2008 and the last two World Cups. The trouble being that they have stunk out each tournament and got knocked out in the group stages each time. This time round they find themselves fifth in a very tight group full of neighbours like Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Though only three points off Northern Ireland who are top, it just feels like one of those groups where no one team is good enough to dominate. They have a banker against San Marino on Wednesday but will need to avenge defeat to Northern Ireland in June to properly get back on the road to qualifying.
4. France/Group 7/Currently 3rd and 5 points off top.
Somehow France decided to stick with Raymond Domenech after their dismal showing at Euro 2008. He seems like a very ‘unique’ coach who is influenced by astrology and proposed to his girlfriend on live TV after they got knocked out of the Euros. Considering the talent the French have at their disposal, they should be dominating the group they’re in. Instead Serbia have made the best start and Les Bleus find themselves in third with some work to do. A big game against Lithuania on Wednesday will go some way to deciding their fate. A win sees them overtake Lithuania into second whilst keeping their game in hand. A tough away game in Serbia still awaits but the final two games are at home so they should be safe. Eventually.
5. Romania/Group 7/Currently 5th and 5 points off 2nd.
If France are in slight trouble, it’s nothing like the pickle Romania find themselves in. Marooned in fifth place they are five off Lithuania in second and a mighty eight off table toppers Serbia. One of several second seeds who have struggled to match their ranking (past performance is no indication of future as finance people would say) they have a problem in that they are probably fighting France for a spot. They can’t catch Serbia but already have a three point deficit on France. While home defeat against Serbia was not especially helpful, they will probably look back and see that the opening 3-0 thrashing by Lithuania in Bucharest was where their campaign started and finished.