Monday, October 19, 2009

Euro Playoffs: France vs. Ireland, Etc.

These four European second-place playoffs sounded more intereresting in theory than in practice. I'm looking at the pairings now and having trouble conjuring victory for the four unseeded teams.

Here they are, with home team in Game 1 listed first:

Ireland vs. France

Portugal vs. Bosnia-Herzegovina

Greece vs. Ukraine

Russia vs. Slovenia

France, Portugal, Greece and Russia are the seeded teams. And which has the best chance of losing? Or at least some chance?

Hmm. I suppose my choice would be ...

France. And, mind, I don't think the French will lose.

Before getting into that, I do now wish the thing had been unseeded. So that there was a chance France could play Russia and Bosnia could play Slovenia, etc. Those would be fairer fights, and the stakes would be just as enormous. But the FIFA/UEFA decision to make the top four (according to FIFA world rankings) unable to play each other ... takes some drama out of this. Though anything can, in theory, happen in a home-and-home playoff.

I can't see Greece losing to Ukraine. The rap on Greece, most of the past decade, is that is struggles to score but it just put up five goals on Latvia, a pretty good side, and so those scoring issues appear to be less acute. And Ukraine isn't a bad side, but it's in the this tournament only because England needed to win at home against Croatia to clinch its group, and did, and then didn't need a result at Ukraine, which defeated the English, and finished second. Ukraine doesn't inspire much enthusiasm -- though it seems to be the unseeded team the seeded quartet feared most.

Nor can I see Portugal losing to Bosnia. The Portuguese are hot, having finished with a rush to secure second in their group. Plus, Bosnia just gave up five goals to a Spanish team that was Just Kicking the Ball Around, having nothing to gain or lose -- after having clinched its group months ago.

And Russia and Slovenia? Don't see the unseeded team winning that one, either. Russia came This Close to defeating the Germans at Moscow, which would have won the group for Mother Russia. Slovenia is tough in defense, but it's a itty-bitty country that can't help but be overawed by Russia.

Ireland and France? Ireland has a chance. A decent one. For two reasons: 1) Irish grit and 2) The Domenech Factor.

Ireland is a hard-headed side that yields goals grudgingly. Scoring them always is the issue for the Irish, who are slow and modestly gifted, technically ... and may, in fact, be the least athletic team ranked in the world's top 40.

Meanwhile, France continues to run out various incarnations of an all-star team that rarely impressed in qualifying. It seems to be about Raymond Domenech, their goofy coach, who somehow has destroyed French elan and turned his First XI (whomever it happens to be just now) into a nervous, fidgity crew.

French talent remains far, far better than that the Irish can call on. Ireland has no one like Thierry Henry, even in his athetic dotage.

Still, this process has the potential to be interesting, especially if the underdogs can get a result in the first match, on Nov. 14.

The return match will be Nov. 18. And at the end of that day, I fully expect the four seeds to be headed for South Africa 2010.


  1. Don't bet against the Irish. For once they look more dangerous than France, who hoofed way too many easy chances to avoid this playoff. That is what makes this perhaps the most exciting of the four pairings on paper. The Irish have tradition of over-achieving and surprising, and the French a recent well-deserved reputation for disappointing. The only other matchup that comes close to this one for drama is Costa Rica-Uruguay, which goes down on the same days. Be honest - most Yank observers don't know any players on B-H, Slovenia or Ukraine. Another great matchup in November is Egypt-Algeria in Cairo. Hosts have to beat visitors by two clear goals to close goal difference and tie up the standings. Too tall an order - bet on Algeria to be in South Africa. At least one French-speaking team will be there - a bientot, d'accord.

  2. Plus the Ireland-France first leg is in Dublin. Ce n'est pas tres biens, get ready to sing the Bleus.

  3. Isn't it just as likely that the inverse proposition is true (that France is the likeliest of the seeded teams to progress)?


    * Slovenia survived the most competitive group in UEFA, while Russia ended up playing only two games that mattered -- and lost them both.

    * The Bosnians score goals. (They'd already locked up second place before their recent match with Spain.) And beside the definition of mercurial in any decent dictionary is a picture of the Portuguese national team shirt.

    * Even according to FIFA's own rankings, Greece (16) against Ukraine (22) is pretty much a coin flip. Additionally: the World Football Elo Ratings (which, unlike FIFA's, take scoring as well as mere results into account) rank Ukraine 17th. Greece is 34th.


    Indeed, isn't it just about as likely, as opposed to all four favorites advancing, that all four underdogs will win their playoffs?