Monday, September 21, 2009

Europe Qualifying, and Second-Place Teams

Warning! This could make your head hurt. As it did mine.

We are about to plunge into the way-more-complex-than-it-seems situation surrounding the second-place teams in Europe's nine qualifying groups.

The situation in Europe is this:

  • Group winners go straight to South Africa 2010, and we will know all nine of them no later than Oct. 14. (England, Netherlands and Spain already have clinched.)
  • Europe, however, has been awarded four more berths, and they will be contested by eight nations that finish second in their groups. Four home-and-home playoffs will be set up, and the four winners go to South Africa. The rules for how that system works are outlined here.
  • Notice that eight second-place teams get into the playoffs. Meaning just about everyone who is gazing at second place (yes, we're lookin' at you, France) assumes they will be able to get to South Africa via this back door. But one group runner-up doesn't even make the playoffs.
  • Most of the world figures that the left-out runner-up will be Norway, second in Group 9. That's quite likely, actually. And deserved, considering Norway tied Iceland. Twice. But it's not a done deal.

If you want to know why that is -- and if you're reading this blog you're probably a fan of Euro soccer -- well, read on. It might make for some heavy sledding, but someone has to do it, and this blog seems the likeliest place to take on this chore. Uh, responsibility.

If you read the rules for the second-place playoffs, you know this: Norway isn't dead. The Norwegians have 10 points, and are finished with qualifying from the five-team Group 9.

At the moment, at least two teams in all eight of the other groups have more than 10 points. So, it's over?

No. Because of this stipulation: After the second-place teams have been determined within each group, the results from their two matches with the last-place team in their group are expunged, for purposes of the nine-team second-place standings. Points from wins and ties, disappear, as well as all goals scored (or allowed).

Why? Because Norway played in the only five-team group and because the other eight groups had weak (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova) to pathetic teams (Andorra, Malta and, ugh, San Marino) at the bottom of the table. Norway didn't get to play two matches against those stiffs.

Still, even with deductions, I can figure out no scenario in which the second-place team out of four groups (3, 5, 7 and 8) finishes behind Norway in the second-place standings.

So, here are the teams that still could finish second in their groups, yet finish behind Norway in the adjusted standings. The table (below) shows their current real status relative to Norway.

(Key: MP-Matches played; W-Win; D-Draw; L-Loss; GF-Goals for; GA-Goals against; Pts-Points.)

N. Ireland--7---2--2--3---6--9----8
Czech Rep.--6---1--3--2---5--6----6

Note that three of those countries have played seven matches; this means that one of those countries' last two qualifiers (Oct. 10 or Oct. 14) is against the last-place team in its group -- which is good for finishing second, but not good for finishing ahead of Norway, because that match won't count in the playoff calculations.

Also note that while some teams still have a shot at finishing second . . . . well, it's a long shot.

So, let's look at the most likely scenarios that create a second-place team that Norway would finish ahead of for the eight-team playoffs. In what I believe is the likelihood of it happening. Ranging from "unlikely" to "just talking mathematically possible, here."

1. Ireland. The Irish are sitting on 10 points. A tie in either of their final two Group 8 matches, both at home, means they finish ahead of Norway. But the first match is against Italy, which must rate as favorites. And if Ireland loses to Italy ... well, Montenegro hasn't won a match in group play, but if the Irish choke and lose again, Norway would finish ahead via goal differential. Not likely, but the most straightforward scenario.

2. Sweden. If the Swedes do no better than one tie in a road game at Denmark and a home match with Albania, the Swedes can finish second in Group 1 with 16 points -- if Hungary and Portugal tie their match, and then lose or tie vs. Denmark and Malta, respectively. That would leave Hungary and Portugal at 14 or 15 points. Sweden's second-place points total would be nine points, to Norway's 10. Far-fetched, but it doesn't involve goal-differential tweaking or San Marino getting a result. (See below.)

3. Hungary. The Hungarians can finish second in Group 1 by narrowly beating Portugal and losing at Denmark while Sweden loses to Denmark and Albania -- and Portugal defeats Malta by one goal less than Hungary beat Portugal, so that Hungary wins the goal-differential (currently one goal in Portugal's favor). Then Norway and Hungary are each at 10 points in the second-place standings, and Norway goes ahead on its plus-2 goal-differential.

4. Portugal. Can finish No. 2 in Group 1 by losing at home to Hungary by the same number of goals it wins by at Malta. Combined with Hungary losing heavily at Denmark as well as Sweden losing at Denmark and at home to Albania. Portugal and Hungary would have 16 points and Sweden 15, and Portugal would be second on goal-differential. However, Portugal would have 10 points in the second-place standings, and if it had a plus-1 goal differential, Norway goes ahead and Portugal stays home.

5. Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnians lose twice in Group 5, at Estonia and home to Spain, but they still finish second if Turkey suffers even a tie versus Belgium or Armenia. If the Bosnians' aggregate in those games against Estonia and Spain is at least minus-7, they lose to Norway via goal differential. No, not at all likely. Bosnia isn't going to give up seven goals in two matches. Not even with Spain the opponent in one of them.

6. Turkey. The Turks finish second in Group 5 by tying at Belgium and winning at home over last-place Armenia while Bosnia-Herzegovina loses at Estonia and home to Spain -- and those losses are by an aggregate of eight goals or more. In that case, Turkey finishes second on goal-differential (plus 1 to Bosnia's 0), then loses to Norway on goal-differential (plus 2 to plus 1). No, not likely, either; Bosnia isn't going to give up eight goals in two matches.

7. Czech Republic. The Czechs finish second in Group 3 by defeating Poland (by no more than two goals) at home and tying Northern Ireland at home. That gives the Czechs 16 points, one more than the Ulstermen. But they/Norway would need help. Slovenia would need to lose at Slovakia and tie (or lose) at San Marino. That would leave Slovenia at 15 or 14 points. And back to the Czechs; they would have 10 points in the second-place standings, and would lose to Norway via goal differential. How likely? Massively unlikely, considering this scenario includes San Marino getting a result against visiting Slovenia when San Marino has been outscored 44-1 in nine defeats -- though it has played a pair of home matches that it lost by only two goals.

8. Northern Ireland. The Ulstermen tie the Czechs to get to 15 points in Group 3, and the Slovenes lose twice (at Slovakia, at San Marino!), the Czechs lose to Poland and the Poles lose at home to Slovakia. Then Northern Ireland is second, but has only nine points in the second-place table, to Norway's 10. How likely? Beyond "massively unlikely" because the scenario requires Slovenia to lose at San Marino.

9. Poland. The Poles defeat the Czechs by two or three goals on the road in Group 3 and tie Slovakia at home. That's 15 points. Meanwhile, Slovenia loses at Slovakia and San Marino, and the Czechs win at home over Northern Ireland. The Czechs also have 15 points, but if their loss to Poland was heavy enough and their victory over Northern Ireland slight enough, Poland could finish ahead via goal differential. The Czechs currently lead them, 9-8. However, Poland would have only nine points in the second-place standings, to Norway's 10. I'm calling this the longest shot of all, because not only does it involve San Marino beating Slovenia, it calls for the Poles to suddenly start playing well.

Wasn't that edifying? Only took me, like, three hours. Three hours of my life I'll never get back.

The point, to reinforce, is that Norway isn't dead, despite how it looks in the standings. But the most likely train of events, yes, has Norway left out of the second-place playoffs.

1 comment:

  1. Next question. How do they match up the eight 2nd place teams for the home and home playoffs?