27 March 2005

UEFA Group Four: A Turning Point For France

So what's up with UEFA qualifying? To refresh our memory: UEFA has 51 teams in the final stage of qualifying, chasing 13 World Cup berths. (Germany qualifies automatically as the host nation, making a 14th spot for UEFA.) There are 8 groups of either six or seven teams. Each team faces all others in the group twice, home and away. The top team in each group will qualify for World Cup 2006, as will the two best second-place teams. The remaining 6 second-place teams will match up in a home-and-home playoff to determine the last 3 qualifying teams.

In short: first place in your group is great; second place is still good, and anything else leaves you at home next summer.

Group Four appears to be in the most interesting position at the moment, which is a bit surprising. The six teams in this group are France, Ireland, Israel, Switzerland, Cyprus, and the Faroe Islands. You might naturally assume that France would win the group, while Ireland, Israel, and Switzerland would battle for second. But you'd be wrong. At the moment, things are much more interesting, and there's a real chance that France will miss the World Cup next year. France's problem is highlighted by yesterday's result: a 0-0 home draw to Switzerland. This follows similiar 0-0 home draws to Israel and Ireland. They do have two away wins... but these are from Cyprus and the Faroes. So they have not yet scored a goal against any of the group contenders.

Thus the group is all up for grabs. With half the games played, three teams sit on 9 points: Ireland, France, and Israel. Switzerland is fourth with 6 points, but with a game in hand they're right in the thick of it. All four teams have a very real chance of winning the group. Since France have already played (and drawn) their home games against the other contenders, they may be in the most precarious position.

This is certainly not the France team that found glory in World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000. Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram have all retired from international play. Robert Pires is missing as well, dropped from the team since being substituted out at halftime against Cyprus in October. And yet, France still have a quality roster: Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Patrick Vieira, William Gallas, Sylvain Wiltord, Djibril Cisse, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Mikael Silvestre, and Fabien Barthez still suit up for Les Bleus. These players will already be remembered for their 1998 and 2000 wins. Do they have anything left to prove? They have yet to score a goal against any of the contending teams, which may be their answer.

Yet no other team has stepped up. The four contenders have done nothing but draw with one another; the only thing that differentiates them is how badly they've beat up on Cyprus and the Faroes. Ireland is perhaps in the best position, as they've already played their away games against the contenders, drawing 1-1 in Switzerland and Israel. But all four teams still have real hopes of winning the group, not to mention finishing in second.

Next Wednesday will be crucial for France. They play Israel in Tel Aviv, and they desperately need a win to keep their hopes alive. Conversely, Israel can grab the group by the throat with a win. Meanwhile, Switzerland will look for a win at home to Cyprus, to close the distance to the other contenders.

Nobody will win the group on Wednesday... but France or Switzerland could probably lose it. We'll see where things stand Thursday morning.

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