2014 World Cup Qualifying Preview for Europe
The 2014 World Cup of Brazil is nearly two years away but the qualifying campaign is set to begin this week for 53 nations of Europe.
The stress and intensity will surely captivate many of the contending nations, as there are merely 13 European spots up for grabs at the World Cup. Perennial power nations like Spain and Germany will be heavily favored and should comfortably make the tournament, but there is always room for many of the lesser known soccer nations of Europe, and this is their moment to make some noise and earn immense national pride. Here is how the qualifying looks to shape up group by group.
Group A: Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland, Macedonia, Wales
Although this group is without a dominant force, the talent level is pretty even across the board and there will be no free matches for any side, making Group A the most entertaining and unpredictable group. Only Croatia reached Euro 2012 and only Serbia qualified for the 2010 World Cup in previous tournaments. Other entrants have finished close during group play and will all be hungry in this group where any one of the teams could emerge as victors. I predict Belgium to finish on top as they have a plethora of young talent that is blossoming in the English Premier League. Players like Thomas Vermaelen, Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, and Romelu Lukaku are reaching an age where potential needs to lead to production, and they should be able to help veterans like Vincent Kompany earn a trip to Brazil.
Group B: Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia, Malta
The top three teams of Italy, Denmark, and the Czech Republic will battle it out for the two spots here. Italy, finalists at Euro 2012 are heavy favorites with strong players like Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo, and Daniele De Rossi. Denmark and the Czech Republic both reached Euro 2012 and have decent sides, but only one will earn the secondary playoff spot. The two teams will face off in match day one and will likely be fighting until the final day. I predict that the Czech Republic will earn the playoff spot due to the great goalkeeper they have in Petr Cech.
Group C: Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan
Germany is always a major contender at the World Cup so they should qualify with ease behind an exciting young team. Sweden usually qualifies for these tournaments and has a world-class striker with captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At 30 years of age, he is at the point where he has all the skills and talents to lead his side to greatness at the international level, and he should still have the physical ability to compete. However, Ireland will be a stern test. The side made great strides in qualifying for Euro 2012 behind striker Robbie Keane, but I feel that this tough group will serve too strong a test for Ireland to qualify for this tournament.
Group D: Netherlands, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Andorra
The Netherlands is routinely a football super power and recently reached the 2010 World Cup final. After a great qualifying campaign and high expectations at Euro 2012, the Dutch landed in a difficult group and crumbled during the group stage. Now with new coach Louis van Gaal and a host of stars like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder, they will surely take the group. The rest of the pack is competitive for second spot. Turkey hasn't qualified for a major tournament since their surprising semifinal run in Euro 2008 but have talented players like Nuri Sahin and only just missed out on Euro 2012 due to a playoff loss. Similarly, Estonia was eliminated during the playoffs for Euro 2012. They have never reached a major tournament and will be looking to build off of the decent qualification campaign last time around.Hungary and Romania are also decent sides that are capable of competing in this group as well. Therefore, the Dutch victory aside, the battle for second should be enticing in Group D.
Group E: Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania, Cyprus, Iceland
Probably the softest group of qualification, Norway, Switzerland, and Slovenia should all feel very optimistic about their chances of reaching the World Cup. None of the teams were involved in Euro 2012, but they all tend to come close during qualifications, and both Slovenia and Switzerland qualified for the 2010 World Cup, Switzerland as a group winner. However, I predict that this will be Norway's time as they have two solid defenders in John Arne Riise and Brede Hangeland. Now, when they get to Brazil I doubt any of these teams will win two matches, but someone out of this group will have an opportunity.
Group F: Portugal, Russia, Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg
Portugal and Russia will be the heavy favorites from this group. Portugal should win the group and I have them as a serious contender for a World Cup victory. Brazil will seem like home as a Portuguese-speaking nation, and most of their players will be in their early thirties, which typically is the best age for international soccer. They will have the veteran leadership and still have the skill to keep up with the young boys. Also, this will likely be Cristiano Ronaldo's best shot at winning a major tournament and he will be desperate for the honor. Alongside him should feature Nani, Raul Meireles, and Pepe. Russia should be good too though and have some solid youngsters who shone at Euro 2012 like Alan Dzagoev.This group will be a stretch for the other teams to compete in.
Group G: Greece, Slovakia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia, Liechtenstein
This group is without a traditional super power, but does include some great teams and players. Greece has been very successful at reaching recent tournaments and has a fine striker in Giorgos Samaras. Bosnia-Herzegovina has fallen on the wrong end of their past two qualification attempts by losing in playoffs, both times to Portugal. Main striker Edin Dzeko is world class and could propel the nation to the World Cup. Slovakia reached the 2010 World Cup but had a poor showing in Euro 2012 qualification and finished 4th in a group they had expected to win. Their key man is defender Martin Skrtel, who is a solid player for Liverpool and an experienced leader. I expect Bosnia-Herzegovina to emerge as the victors of this group with Greece earing the payoff spot.
Group H: England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, San Marino
This is England's group to lose but history suggests that they like to make things difficult for themselves during qualifications. They have a great squad with countless stars like Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, and John Terry, but they always seem to fall a bit flat as a national side. Their talent alone should see them through. But, they will be tested. Montenegro was in the same group as England during Euro 2012 qualification and although they only finished 2nd, they beat and drew England in their two matches, providing the English with quite a scare. Poland will be hungry as well and have an excellent young striker in Robert Lewandowski as well as a few other solid players like Jakub BÅaszczykowski and goalie Wojciech SzczÄsny. Poland usually qualifies for big tournaments and I expect they will finish 2nd in this group. The Ukraine has been good recently but mainly due to star striker Andriy Shevchenko. I fear they will not be the same following his recent retirement to enter politics.
Group I: Spain, France, Belarus, Georgia, Finland
Spain will win this group. They are way too good and have far too many incredible players like Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, and Xabi Alonso to not win. Spain has won the last three major tournaments, including the 2010 World Cup, and will be the favorites in Brazil to repeat. France will have a slightly harder road but will likely qualify through the playoffs. They also have an abundance of talent like Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema to see them through. France is very strange, however. They are either great and contend for the tournament, or they fall flat on their faces and collapse. If they come together as a team they could be a major threat to Spain and others at the World Cup, but that all depends on their willingness to work together. Unfortunately for the remaining teams of this group, they were paired with two strong soccer nations and they have only the slimmest of chances at qualifying.
And so there you have it for Europe's ambassadors to the 2014 World Cup. A quick recap of the group winners to be followed by some playoff predictions:
Group Winners: Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, Spain.
The playoffs will include the 8 best group runners-ups, and they will go head to head for the final four spots. My prediction for the playoff winners: France, Sweden, Russia, Greece. Let the games begin!
© Nicholas Spiller & Soccerphile.com