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After Friday's beat-down of Ireland, Germany is undefeated and flying high. With three rounds of UEFA qualifying games in the books, and the situations in other federations also starting to take shape, we check in to see who looks likely to go to Brazil and who might be stuck at home.
Belgium and Croatia sit atop this group, each on 7 points after 3 matches. But Belgium looks the more lively of the pair, as their recent 3-0 victory over a decent Serbia side let everyone know the Belgians will be a force to be reckoned with. They've allowed only a single goal through 3 matches, and they're getting production from several players. About the only thing missing from the Belgian side is an appearance from Daniel van Buyten. But with another match the day after tomorrow, and against a less-threatening Scotland team, maybe DvB will get a few minutes of playing time.
Croatia has the same record, but they needed a comeback and a good save to defeat a lowly Macedonia team. Still, 2 teams from each group will advance, so Croatia has the inside track on at least a spot in the play-in round (with a winnable match against Wales coming up). If they take 3 points from that match, Croatia has to be feeling good about this past week, despite not looking their best. But if Wales can come up with a win, suddenly they're in the conversation.
When this group was drawn, conventional wisdom probably had Italy as the favorites, with Denmark and Czech Republic fighting for the play-in spot. But Bulgaria has thrust themselves into the discussion. They held Italy to a draw earlier this year, then fought to a draw vs. Denmark on Friday despite playing most of the match with ten men.
On Tuesday, Bulgaria visits Prague in a huge match-up. In fact Group B probably has the best action in the upcoming set of matches, as Italy vs. Denmark is also a battle of teams with legitimate WC hopes. All 4 of these teams would like a win, but the Danes probably need one the worst - they've managed only 2 draws from 2 matches.
We all know that Germany is dominating the group, with 3 wins from 3 matches and a +9 goal differential. But Sweden, despite looking mediocre in a win over Faroe Islands, is a side that can test the German defense. Hummels will probably still be out, but Lahm will return. We'll have more on this tomorrow.
Below Germany, the Swedes are the best of a struggling bunch. Austria was held to a 0-0 draw vs. the Kazakhs, but they get another shot at the same opponent on Tuesday. This time, it's from the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna, and Austria has to be expected to win. If they can do that while Germany beats Sweden, Austria is back in the picture (especially considering they still have both of their games against Faroe Islands still to come).
Romania kept their surprising run alive with a 1-0 win over Turkey. The Tricolorii (notice the two "i"s - that's what makes them the Romanian three-colors) haven't made a World Cup since 1998. They now have their biggest match in years on the docket, with Netherlands visiting Bucharest this Tuesday. Both teams are a perfect 3 for 3 and tied atop the group table.
Hungary is still lurking, and if either of those top 2 starts to slip, they'll be waiting to sneak into one of those top spots. Turkey, meanwhile, has lost 2 of their 3 matches so far, and has struggled to consistently create anything offensively. Also, remember when Nuri Sahin was good? Whatever happened to him?
Switzerland, my surprise pick to shock the world, stumbled a bit with a 1-1 draw vs. Norway. And the Swiss could have lost, with Norway twice going close in the final minutes. Now, the top 2 in this group battle on Tuesday as Switzerland travels to Iceland. With both sides having very manageable schedules after this one, winner of this match can feel cautiously hopeful of going to Brazil.
Russia and Portugal were the favorites when this group was drawn; so far, that expectation has held true. Those 2 sit atop the table, with Russia's win over Portugal the only time either has lost. Of the also-rans in this group, Israel might be the one national side that could challenge. But at some point, they'll have to beat one of those 2 heavyweights if they want to have a chance to advance.
"G" is for "God, how many groups are there?" Greece and Bosnia-Herz's stale 0-0 draw on Friday opened the door for some of this group's other contenders to make some noise. The likeliest might be Slovakia, who beat Latvia 2-1 on Friday to pull into a tie atop the table. The Slovaks host Greece on Tuesday, which should help generate some separation.
England is atop this easy group, as expected. Poland and Ukraine were expected to compete for the other opportunity to advance. But Montenegro has thrust themselves into the conversation, and Ukraine looked punchless in their recent 0-0 draw vs. Moldova. Now Tymo's boys host Montenegro while Poland battles England on Tuesday. Moldova and San Marino face off in a match between winless minnows. Even without a real chance to make the World Cup, nobody likes to go through a qualification campaign without a single win. So this will be a chance for these guys to give their fans something to cheer about.
France and Spain's group, with the only real question which will get the automatic spot and which the play-in spot. These two giants will face each other in 2 days, which should go a long way towards answering that question. Georgia, Finland, and Belarus were not expected to be able to compete with the big boys. That's probably how it will turn out; still, Georgia is maybe the best of the bunch. If they can beat Belarus on Tuesday, maybe they can give people something to talk about.
- Back tomorrow with a detailed look ahead to Tuesday's games, including the Germany vs. Sweden battle, France vs. Spain, and the suddenly big Netherlands vs. Romania tussle.
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