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.