Tuesday, September 25, 2012

European Championships 2013 – the unfashionable uneven years #2

Part two in the series - ladies first, natch.

Under-21 European Championships – Israel 2013

The second qualifying tournament coming to a close in October (12th and 16th) involves slightly more risk than the three berths yet to be decided for the Women’s Euro in Sweden – everybody has to play-off.  After a qualifying group round that kicked off in March 2011, and could mean that some players at the finals are pushing 30, ten group winners and four best runners-up are thrown into an all-or-nothing two-legged play-off to determine who will join hosts Israel in the finals.

Having ten qualifying groups but only two groups at the tournament seems a little odd, but given what’s going on with the CAN qualifying at the minute, perhaps this isn’t so bad.  The seedings for the playoffs are more arguable, as these are based on coefficients generated from performances getting to and at the 2009 and 2011 tournaments, as well as the currently qualifying campaign, which given the age-limit on the competition, may not be massively representative.

However – the seeded teams were the seven group winners with the highest coefficients: Spain, Czech Republic, England, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and France. Unseeded – the other group winners Sweden, Russia and Serbia and the best runners-up Switzerland, Denmark, Slovakia and Norway.  There is of course one anomaly in that unseeded Switzerland at 34.034 are ranked higher than France and Italy in the seeded pot, but it wouldn’t be a coefficient system without something peculiarhappening.

Overall the group stage featured fewer ridiculous results than the women’s qualifying; there are minnows, of course, but of a more traditional sort – San Marino, Andorra, the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg. More surprising wooden spoons went to Iceland (3 pts), Latvia (2) and Estonia (1), but overall things were pretty recognisable and nobody got to double figures, the biggest hammerings being a couple of 8-0s (Czech Republic v Andorra, and Germany over San Marino) and the funnest-looking match an epic Denmark 6 – 5 FYROM.  How hosts Israel will fit into this is unclear – as the U21 coefficients are only calculated for the playoff contenders, they don’t have a specific ranking, but the senior team is 75th in the current overall FIFA rankings, so…

For the home nations, Wales were shaded into 4th in Group 3 by Montenegro in not a very tricky group, Northern Ireland tanked a bit in Group 4, only one point above the Faroe Islands in last place, and Scotland were runners-up to the Netherlands in Group 10 but didn’t make the cut.  The Republic of Ireland put a decent shift in, coming third after Italy and Turkey, and above Hungary.  England, described rather dourly as “perennial qualifiers“ on the official website, won Group 8 finishing ahead of Norway (also through), Belgium, Azerbaijan and the aforementioned Iceland.

The play-off draw threw up some tasty-looking ties:
  • Spain (holders) v Denmark
  • Italy v Sweden *
  • Czech Republic v Russia *
  • Slovakia v Netherlands
  • Germany v Switzerland
  • England v Serbia *
  • France v Norway

*ties involving two group winners

England’s matches against Serbia should be tight affairs, as both have a good record in the competition.  Germany v Switzerland should also be a good match, their rankings almost the same; Germany only dropped two points in the group stage (a 4-4 draw with Bosnia Herzogovina in the last match, when they presumably had a bit of a rest), but Switzerland were in a group with defending champions Spain, losing to them 3-0 then drawing 0-0 in the home game – although they also drew 0-0 with Estonia in their opening match (the Estonian's only point…). 

The play-off approach for everybody means there is still an air of uncertainty over the tournament, with several matches too close to call.  My undoubtedly unsuccessful accumulator would be: Spain, Italy, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Switzerland, Serbia (probably on penalties) and France.  The finals will be held in Israel from 5-18 June 2013.

For a good round-up of the French team’s qualification and chances, see this article from Coffee House Football: http://lepetitcarremagique.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/les-bleus-bright-young-stars/

Sunday, September 23, 2012

European Championships 2013 – The Unfashionable Uneven Years #1

While the world looks on avidly as the qualification process for Brazil 2014 (now featuring endangered armadillo) gets under way, some other qualifying campaigns are drawing to a close.  Next summer will see the Women's Euros in Sweden and the U21 Euros in Israel, both of which are at the play-off stage.

Women’s European Championships – Sweden 2013

Already Qualified:

  • Sweden (hosts) – FIFA Ranking 6 – winners in 1984
  • Italy (group winners) – 10 – only team to have appeared at all 10 Championships
  • Germany (g.w.) – 2 – current holders, have won last 5 tournaments, 7 in total (1 as W Germany)
  • Norway (g.w.) – 13 – winners in 1983 and 1987, secured qualification in last game v Iceland
  • France (g.w.) – 5 – only team with a perfect record in qualifying
  • Finland (g.w.) – 18
  • England (g.w.) – 8 – secured qualification in last game by beating Croatia
  • Denmark (g.w.) – 12 – secured qualification in last game by beating Portugal
  • Netherlands (best runners-up) – 14

Play-offs (October 20/21 and 24/25):

Scotland (22) v Spain (17)
Scotland are looking for a first finals appearance, but they laboured a bit in what was not a very tough group, and have a toughish draw to proceed after being beaten 5-0 by France in their last qualifying game, and barely managing a shot.  Spain have only appeared once before, in 1997 (losing in the semi-final to Italy), but they were in Germany’s group for qualifying, and were the only team to take points off them, in a 2-2 draw at home (lost return leg 5-0).  
Predict Spain to qualify.

Ukraine (23) v Iceland (16)
Iceland were topping their group until the final match, a decider with Norway, which they lost 2-1.  Ukraine went into their final match v Finland 6pts behind, but managed a 1-0 win away.  Both were in reasonably competitive groups (i.e. at least 3 decent teams and only one hopeless case), and look fairly evenly matched. 
Predict Iceland to qualify, but it could be tight.

Austria (35) v Russia (20)
Russia have three previous appearances, in 1997, 2001, 2009 but didn’t make the knock-out stages. They were in a group with Italy, Poland, Bosnia Herzogovina and Greece, which kept things reasonably tight, FYROM providing the traditional cannon fodder element.  Austria have never qualified before and are the lowest ranked team still in this, but gave Denmark a scare with a 3-1 win in their last match – Denmark dropped to second but had a game in hand, and went back top after beating Portugal 2-0.
Predict Russia to qualify.
Seven matches saw one team hit double figures, the highest tally being Germany 17 – 0 Kazakhstan (in second place, Spain 13 – 0 Kazakhstan). (Poor Kazakhstan). Honourable mention also to Italy for beating FYROM 9-0 in both legs, which shows a pleasing symmetry, although possibly not if you're on the receiving end.  

The goal difference figures in the standings tables give you an idea of the gulf in class between the best teams and the rest, and one has to wonder whether it does either group any good to see those kind of scores so frequently; the best teams are rarely tested outside actual tournaments, so face few loseable games, while the newcomers spend most of their time picking the ball out of the net and have few winnable opportunities. The Euros do feature a preliminary stage, in which the scorelines looked much more reasonable (OK, Luxembourg shipped some, but also beat Latvia) and which put Armenia and FYROM through to the main qualifying competition; it might be an idea to expand that next time as Kazakhstan, Turkey and Bulgaria all went straight in - and all were on the end of two double-figure routs.

The resulting three-group format of the finals leads to a slight ‘all must have prizes’ aspect to qualification for the knock-out rounds, as the winners and runners-up of each are joined by the two best 3rd-placed teams.  Expanding to 16 teams would seem sensible to make the group stages more interesting - as above, the real minnows are not going to get through, and the highest-ranked non-qualifiers Switzerland, Belgium, Poland and Republic of Ireland, and of course the losing playoff-teams, are all decent enough.  

While Sweden have qualified as hosts so haven’t had to go through qualifying, they have three key points on their side – home advantage, having players in the top leagues in Europe getting CL experience, and appointing Pia Sundhage as their new coach.  Only Germany and France are above them in the rankings, and while the defending champions will be the favourites, probably by some distance, Sweden could well get to the final.

The tournament will take place from 10 July, the final scheduled for Sunday 28 July at the Solna Arena.