Articles related to UEFA 2006 WC qualifiers:
Update Sep 5, 2004
Update Sep 11, 2004
Update Nov 24, 2004
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Update Sep 7, 2005
Update Oct 8, 2005
Update Oct 12, 2005
Preview Nov 8, 2005
Review Nov 16, 2005
Preview: UEFA WC qualifiers, play-offs
by Mike Gibbons
Well it’s not long now until the draw for the finals, that spun out eons-long marathon of an event, where great players past and present are wheeled out to pat each other on the back and tell anecdotes about how great they are, Sepp and his cronies dispense balls containing the teams into some swirly type container and one by one they plucked out and put into eight groups of four, and finally the 2006 World Cup will start to take shape. There are at this point five places still up for grabs – two of which will be taken by either Bahrain or Trinidad and Tobago and Australia or Uruguay. The other three will be scrapped out in Europe over two legs, on the 12 and 16 November.
The draw for these ties was made last month, and despite the fact that all six teams in the bag finished second in their respective groups the asinine decision was taken to seed the draw according to that unfathomable chart that is the FIFA World Rankings, so there was no chance of the Czechs, Spanish or Turkish teams facing each other. Instead, it produced this…
Spain versus Slovakia
In a stunning lack of foresight, particularly in light of how tight their qualifying group was, La Liga officials recently had to re-jig the fixture list in order to make room for the play-offs. Spain are the biggest fish in the play-off pool by far, and certain to be seeded at the Finals if they make it, so the upcoming matches in Madrid and Bratislava are a very unwelcome hurdle for a nation that is currently ranked the eighth best team in the world.
Spain were unbeaten in qualifying with five wins and five draws, scoring nineteen goals and conceding three. To the naked eye that looks like clinical efficiency, and that they were unlucky not to be going directly to Germany to play in their eighth consecutive World Cup. A quick scan of their results reveals a slight problem; eleven of their goals were thumped past hapless San Marino, and they have lacked a real cutting edge in other matches. This is a touch baffling given that in their team they have Raul, scorer of 42 international goals and also the record scorer in the history of the European Cup/Champions League, and also the young prodigy Fernando Torres. Not only that but they are being teed up by the likes of Ruben Baraja, Joaquin and Xavi, all of whom are stars in what, certainly in my eyes, is the finest domestic championship anywhere in the world.
So just what is it with Spain? Since 1982 they have entered every World Cup as one of the dark horses, lurking just behind the favourites, and every time they have imploded in the quarter-finals or earlier. Maybe one day people will stop tipping them to finally break through, which may well be the day that, without that albatross above them, they finally fulfil their huge potential.
Slovakia have finally made the play-offs for the first time in six qualifying cycles for either World Cups or European Championships, pipping Russia to the post by virtue of a better goal difference. The draw obviously dealt them the worst possible hand, particularly with the first leg in Madrid, but having already achieved more than at any time in their short history the pressure will not be as great on them as it will on the Spanish players.
But have they got the players to pull off the qualifying miracle? They have recently beaten Germany in a friendly but that is hardly the jaw-dropping result it once would have been. Luis Aragones has already noted that the Slovaks are strong defensively, conceding only eight goals in twelve qualifying matches, so their best bet would seem to be playing for a clean sheet in Spain and the producing something in the home leg. They will be ultra-reliant on the two greatest goal scorers in their brief history, Szilard Nemeth of Middlesbrough and Robert Vittek of FC Nuremberg, and also their playmaker and most-capped player Miroslav Karhan.
Norway versus Czech Republic
Ah Norway. Can it really be 24 years since the legendary and hilarious words to Margaret Thatcher and other marginally less odious figures of English history – ‘Can you hear me? Your boys took a HELL of a beating!’ – were emotionally uttered by Bjørge Lillelien? Back then the 2-1 victory over England in the qualifiers was still very much pyrrhic as Norway were well already well out of the picture, but what strides they have made in a quarter of a century. They peaked in the mid-nineties, reaching the 1994 and 1998 World Cup finals under Egil Olsen, and then as now had many of their players playing in the English Premiership. One exception is the giant John Carew who has now taken his European football roadshow to Lyon, whom he has already helped qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League.
In Group 5 of the qualifiers they finished well behind Italy but well ahead of Slovenia to secure their play-off place, and yet scored only a miserly twelve goals, the lowest of any team from UEFA going or potentially going to Germany. At the other end of the scale, the Czechs scored 35 goals in their qualifying campaign and only just missed out on qualifying automatically, although for this play-off and possibly the World Cup if they make it they will be without their all-time top scorer Jan Koller who has a serious knee injury.
In good news for the Czechs they may soon have another talisman back in the fold. European Footballers of the Year coming out of retirement are all the rage at the moment, and following the lead of Zidane and Figo, Pavel Nedved has promised coach Karel Bruckner he will return for the play-offs at least. A welcome addition, as with Nedved on board the Czechs have played some of the best football in the last three European Championships, including their Euro 2004 epic with the Netherlands, maybe the best game of international football I have ever seen. Strangely though they have failed to qualify for a World Cup since the old Czechoslovakia split up, and will be all too aware what a banana skin the play-offs can be after being dumped out of the last World Cup at that stage by Belgium.
The first leg of this tie is in Oslo, which throws a bit of a bone to Norway if they can achieve some sort of result to take to Prague on 16 November.
Switzerland versus Turkey
Of all of the playoff matches this one looks like the toughest to call. Both teams were in tight groups, the Swiss just missing out on automatic qualification but remaining unbeaten to edge ahead of Israel and the Republic of Ireland, and Turkey managing to make the playoffs ahead of Greece and Denmark, the respective winners and quarter-finalists of Euro 2004, a tournament the Turks failed to make.
The Swiss are looking to qualify for their first World Cup since 1994, a tournament in which they delivered one of their greatest ever performances with a 4-1 humbling of Hagi’s super-talented Romania in Detroit. This time around they are captained by Johann Vogel of AC Milan and their main source of goals is Alexander Frei of Rennes in France, who scored six in the group qualifiers. The Swiss record is slightly deceptive – although they were unbeaten, they only won games against Cyprus and the Faeroe Islands, drawing all six against their main group rivals France, Israel and the Republic of Ireland. Unless they slip through on away goals, this inability to beat the teams around their level could be costly in the play-offs.
Twenty years ago they were one of the whipping boys of European football, but Turkey capped their amazing progression through the ranks by finishing third at the 2002 World Cup. Unfortunately for them the curse of finishing third at the World Cup struck them down as it has everyone else. A European team has finished third every year since 1982 – Poland, France, Italy, Sweden, Croatia and Turkey – and then immediately failed to qualify for the European Championships two years later. In the case of Turkey, this meant an embarrassing play-off collapse to Latvia in Istanbul when they were 2-0 up and looking certain to go through to Euro 2004. It tells you everything you need to know about FIFA’s World rankings that despite failing to qualify for that tournament and requiring a play-off win if they are to make it to Germany, Turkey apparently are the 11th best team in the world.
Many of the stars of that run in 2002 are still kicking around – Hakan Sukur has now cleared 100 caps, Ozalan Alpay is not far away and they still have the energetic Hasan Sas and Yildiray Basturk to count on. With the first leg in Switzerland the Turks will no doubt be counting on a raucous atmosphere in the final leg in Istanbul to help steer them through to Germany.
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