World Cup Qualifying: European Zone
For many, soccer’s World Cup is the finest sporting event on the planet.
But getting there is no mean feat for the countries involved. In the
European Zone, a brutal 15-month qualifying round will reduce 52
countries to thirteen. As the host nation, Germany automatically
qualifies. Each team will play between ten and fifteen matches, with
several games coming in pairs only four days apart. This provides
several opportunities for the astute handicapper, as bad lines and
heavily bet public teams are commonplace. By taking a closer look at the
eight European qualifying groups, we can separate the wheat from the
Group 1 (Finland, Romania, Netherlands, F.Y.R. Macedonia, Czech
Republic, Andorra, Armenia):
The Finns are off to an excellent start and have a chance of stealing a
second-place spot. But with the Czechs, Romanians and Dutch involved,
this is arguably the toughest group of the lot. The Macedonians are a
sturdy home side and will frustrate the top teams in this group, but
qualification will remain a distant dream for them.
Group 2 (Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, Denmark, Albania, Greece, Kazakhstan):
The Danes will have an exceedingly difficult time in a group full of
eastern teams. All of them, bar Kazakhstan, are capable of holding
Denmark to at least a draw on their home grounds. Euro 2004 champions
Greece will be unable to cope with such a tough group. Ukraine have a
great chance of representing their country in 2006. Albania and Georgia
will play spoiler.
Group 3 (Slovakia, Portugal, Estonia, Russia, Latvia, Liechtenstein,
Luxembourg): This is the weakest group, but Slovakia are a big surprise at the top
with an impressive 3-0-1 start. They would be bitterly disappointed not
to pick a qualifying spot. Expect Portugal to finish in the top two,
with Euro 2004 participants Russia and Latvia missing the cut.
Group 4 (Switzerland, Republic of Ireland, France, Israel, Cyprus, Faroe
Islands): Here is another mediocre and wide-open group. France should get through,
but they are a shadow of their former selves. Don’t be surprised if
Switzerland or Ireland finish tops. They both have the quality to take
advantage of a French team in crisis.
Group 5 (Slovenia, Italy, Belarus, Norway, Scotland, Moldova):
The Slovenes have an excellent chance of taking second place in this
group. They’ve already beaten Italy and have enough talent to see off
their weaker group opponents. Norway, Belarus and Scotland will only
cancel each other out. Expect the Scots to be let down again.
Group 6 (England, Poland, Austria, Wales, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland):
England were blessed with the most favourable draw of the qualifying
round. Poland will be a minor irritant, but Austria, Azerbaijan and the
other two British countries have no serious hope of progressing. Under
the circumstances, England have no excuse not to dominate this group.
Group 7 (Lithuania, Serbia and Montenegro, Spain, Bosnia-Herzegovina,
Belgium, San Marino): This is undoubtedly a second-rate group and Spain should win it with
ease. The Serbs will be disappointed with anything less than second-place, but the Belgians won’t make it easy for them. The two
Balkan sides are always tough on visiting teams, and Spain will be no
Group 8 (Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Hungary, Iceland, Malta): Here is another second-rate, but difficult and wide-open group. The
Croats, Swedes and Bulgarians will be desperate to qualify, but at least
one of them will be disappointed. Finishing in top spot will require a
near-perfect performance, and Hungary and Iceland are both capable of
playing spoiler. Look for Croatia to progress at Sweden’s expense.