Some random thoughts based on the final day of World Cup Qualifiers.
1 – The better team in Sweden-Portugal went through, but it’s a shame that it had to happen in the first place. Neither team are world-beaters, both boasting one mind-bogglingly-good superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo and The Zlatan, and supporting casts that are nowhere near as good. That being said, Portugal are on-balance the better team, and they cemented their spot in Brazil with a 3-2 win at Sweden’s Friends Arena. Ronaldo was terrifying, scoring a hat trick to carry Portugal through. Zlatan was also superb, getting two goals including a brilliant under-the-wall free kick, but Portugal advanced 4-2 on aggregate. What’s sad is that this was the fixture in the first place. Sweden are a better side than Greece, France (more on them later) and probably Croatia, but they got a terrible draw against Portugal. It is a shame that The Zlatan will not be gracing the tournament in Brazil this summer.
2 – Similarly, France have no business being in Brazil. Their first leg against Ukraine was one of the most abject performances in Qualifying history. Even their 3-0 victory at home to carry them past Ukraine was garbage. Benzema was hilariously offside for the second goal, and Sakho’s first was suspect as well. Shocking really, to see France get through to the World Cup on bad refereeing. That’s never happened befo-, wait, right. Moving on.
Only good news is we’ll get to watch the biannual implosion from infighting. I’m beginning to think that French soccer players hating one another is considered a sign of respect – it’s the only possible explanation for how much Benzema and Ben Arfa dislike one another. They’ll be lucky to get through the Round of Sixteen.
3 – Greece scored goals. After only scoring twelve in the entirety of their qualifying group- conceding four – they managed to score four in two games against Romania to book another spot at the World Cup. I pity the fan whose team is drawn against them, because oh boy are you in for an excruciatingly boring ninety minutes against possibly the most consistently defensive team in the history of football.
4 – At the other end of the scale, we’ve got the Dutch. They are going to be a classic Van Gaal-coached team this summer, which is to say they’ll score eight but concede six. Attack, attack, attack, attack, and then attack some more – Van Gaal’s philosophy at Ajax, Barcelona, Alkmaar, and Bayern Munich has been put into further practice in charge of the Dutch National Team. The Dutch games against Japan and Colombia were properly entertaining. I don’t expect them to win the World Cup – given that Van Gaal is the exact opposite of ‘defensive minded’ when it comes to setting his teams up, but they’ll be entertaining as hell to watch along the way. The possibility of the team physically combusting under the heat of the animosity between some players is also very real, and would be equally entertaining.
5 – Why in the flying fuck are Spain playing against Equatorial Guinea and South Africa?! Neither team qualified for the World Cup – neither team even came bloody close, and yet the RFEF has demanded that Del Bosque’s Furia Roja continue their insane Harlem Globetrotters-esque World Tour to irrelevant countries to play pointless friendlies against minnow nations that are willing to pay a bunch of money to the RFEF for the game. Were I a Spanish international, I can think of a million things I’d rather be doing than playing in such absurd friendlies – get a root canal, climb Everest in a speedo, discuss philosophy with Joey Barton, slow-dance with John Terry, even martial arts against The Zlatan. If Spain collapse in Brazil against any team that isn’t Argentina, Brazil, or Italy (the only sides that I view as posing a genuine threat to the Spaniards), the fault will lie firmly with the outrageous stupidity of their national federation for not bothering to do anything even close to ‘World Cup prep’ in their international friendlies.
Oh, and Victor Valdes has torn his calf and is out 3-6 weeks. Barcelona are now short Messi, Xavi, Fabregas, Valdes, Tello, and Jordi Alba. Thanks-a-bloody-lot FIFA Virus. If we don’t drop enough points to fall behind Atletico and Real by the time the Winter Break is over, it’ll be a bloody miracle.
6 – Alejandro Sabella is a brilliant manager. First, he built his Argentine squad around Messi’s unbelievable talent, and it paid huge dividends in the CONMEBOL qualifying group – they cruised to the top of the group, Messi finally found proper form for Argentina, their defense was solid, and the classic conundrum of ‘how do we fit Argentina’s four hundred brilliant forward players into an 11-man squad and still be at all good?’ seemed solved. For the past five months, Messi’s been battling injury, and Sabella has been equally adept at dealing with this. He’s switched to a more balanced 3-4-3/4-3-3, employing Ezekiel Lavezzi and Alvarez either side of Gonzalo Higuain against Ecuador. They had difficulties down the wings (not having the strongest fullbacks in the world) and so Sabella switched to a back against Bosnia-Herzegovina (his preferred formation when he won the Copa Libertadores with Estudiantes in 2009) and packed the midfield with Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez, and Angel Di Maria while playing Aguero and Palacio up front. They won comfortably 2-0 against a potential World Cup opponent, and looked defensively solid. If Argentina manage to win the World Cup (and I’d put them in the top three teams at the moment alongside Spain and Brazil) it won’t be purely due to the genius of Messi. Sabella deserves enormous credit for turning a potential-loaded but choke-prone side into genuine world-beaters. Messi or no Messi, they’ll go far.
7 – Africa had the most genuinely interesting final round of qualification playoffs in the world. There were shocks and surprises all over the place. Algeria-Burkina Faso was supposed to be a cake walk for the North African side, but it took away goals and Burkina Faso hitting the woodwork in the dying minutes of the return leg for the Algerians to get to the World Cup after Burkina Faso won 3-2 at home. Ghana-Egypt was supposed to be the tie of the round, but the Black Stars rampaged to a 6-1 home win in the first leg, effectively meaning they could have not shown up to the second leg, taken the automatic 3-0 loss, and still made it through comfortably. It’s a shame to see Bob Bradley’s tenure of the Egyptian national side end in such a way, given the role he’s had in making the national team a rallying point amidst the political and social chaos in the country, but that’s football. Cameroon-Tunisia was a proper goalfest, even with Samuel Eto’o effectively exiled from the national side, with Cameroon advancing after a 4-1 win at home. Ivory Coast – Senegal was far closer than the 4-2 aggregate scoreline suggested, and both games in the tie were superb. Ethiopia-Nigeria was expected to be a nail-biter, but then ended with the Nigerians comfortably winning 2-1 and 2-0 to get to their second consecutive World Cup.
From the standpoint of the big soccer powers – Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Italy, and Germany – I’d want to avoid Ghana in the Group Stage. They’re by far the strongest team currently in the African Confederation, boasting a lineup heavy with Champions League regulars – Juventus’s Kwadwo Asamoah and Schalke’s Kevin Prince-Boateng, and half of Marseilles’ forward line. That they beat the US and came within a Suarez hand-ball of beating Uruguay last time around suggests that they’re a force to be reckoned with.
With the conclusion of Uruguay v. Jordan a foregone conclusion, we now have all 32 teams qualified for the 2014 World Cup: Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Spain, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Switzerland, England, Croatia, France, Greece, Portugal, Russia, United States, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Australia. The draw for the Group Stage occurs on December 6th. We’ll have more analysis immediately before and after that takes place.