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    Articles related to UEFA 2006 WC qualifiers:

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    Update: UEFA WC qualifiers - Matchday 2

    by Matthew Monk

        While most of the confederations have been engaged in qualification for Deutschland 2006 for over a year now, Europe – as is its want – has only just bothered to start, being pre-occupied by Euro 2004 and the Champions League since the end of Korea/Japan 2002. So it is with not a little pleasure that our qualifiers have finally started in such rousing fashion, with another excellent round of matches following on so soon from the excellent Matchday 1.

        Unlike Matchday 1, the second round of games took place across Europe on a Wednesday night, which means that unless you were on holiday, ill or don't work, there is no chance that you could have kept in contact with all the games as they happened, seeing as the first game kicked off in Kazakhstan seemingly sometime on Tuesday evening, while the games in Scotland and Wales finished over 6 hours later.

    Group 1

        There are three 7-team groups in the UEFA qualifiers, and Group 1 is probably the toughest of them. Out in front after winning their opening three matches – though this is Matchday 2, there were four incredibly uninspiring games in August involving teams that had failed to make Euro 2004 – are perennially good qualifiers Romania. 9 points from 3 games, scoring nine goals and conceding only three, is a good start, but as the only significant victory was over Finland in Bucharest, it is going to be a long while until Romania will feel comfortable of truly competing with Holland and the Czech Republic for a place in Germany.

        The two big guns of this group – Holland and the Czechs – got underway by meeting each other in Amsterdam, in the biggest match of the night anywhere in Europe. In Portugal this summer, these two teams played out a wondrous game, with the Czechs finally winning 3:2, and as such Holland had much to prove. That they duly did, winning 2:0 to kick-start their campaign, but after such few games nothing is even remotely decided in this group.

        Finland are currently the team in second place here, but they have only picked up points against Armenia and Andorra so far, and as everyone in this group will do that, their failure to return from Romania with a point looks like proving costly. That the Finns will meet, and surely beat, Armenia in Tampere next month is taken for granted. That their game in Amsterdam four days later will be do-or-die at even this early stage is also true. Finland has at its disposal a genuinely good generation of players, headed by Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia, but unless they can hold or even beat the Dutch, they will face an uphill struggle just to stay in touch already. And just for extra measure, Holland under new coach - the legend that is Marco van Basten - seem revitalised. Ruud van Nistelrooy was missing against the Czechs, yet Holland controlled proceedings comfortably. You have to think that unless something pretty amazing happens, the best Finland can hope for will be a draw.

        Another big game in prospect is Romania's visit to Prague on Matchday 4. If Romania can make it 12 points from 12 next month, and should Holland beat Finland, life may become much easier for Anghel Iordanescu's side. In reality there are five capable teams in this group if we include Macedonia (and we are by the way), and so any team which can pull away from the others may just stay away. The Czechs are not panicking yet, though they would have been hoping for much more from Amsterdam. Losing in Portugal this summer to Greece was a major disappointment for the Czechs, who expected to return home comfortable champions, especially after brushing Holland, Germany and Denmark aside on their way to the semi-finals. It is therefore perhaps expected for them to still be a little shell-shocked (and a little short-handed, being without Nedved and Poborsky at the moment), but should they fail again against Romania, another World Cup, just like 1998 and 2002, may well be devoid of the Czech Republic. Make no mistake about it, there is a big game in prospect here.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                      P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Romania         3  3  0  0   9- 3   9
    2.Finland         3  2  0  1   6- 2   6
    3.Macedonia FYR   2  1  0  1   4- 2   3
    4.Netherlands     1  1  0  0   2- 0   3
    5.Czech Republic  1  0  0  1   0- 2   0
    6.Armenia         2  0  0  2   0- 5   0
    7.Andorra         2  0  0  2   1- 8   0

    Group 2

        Put your hand up if you honestly thought that at the end of Matchday 2, Group 2 would be headed by Georgia, that Turkey would only have two points from two games, and that had Kazakhstan held on for 90 seconds longer in their first ever competitive match as part of UEFA, Denmark and European Champions Greece would be joining them at the bottom of the group? Thought not!

        This is undoubtedly a group that will not look anything like this come October 2005, but for now it is good to see some of Europe's no-hopers in charge. Albania somehow managed to hold on to beat Greece on Matchday 1, but then were put to the sword by Georgia, who currently stand proud at the top of the group on 4 points from 2 games – one of which was against 2002's third-place team, Turkey.

        It is Turkey, along with neighbours Greece that have the most to worry about going into next month's games, especially as the nil-nil draw on Wednesday did few favours for either side. Turkey have the unenviable task of playing Kazakhstan at home, and then travelling to the Park Stadion in Copenhagen, neither of which games will be easy. Greece on the other hand have to visit Kyiv to be tormented by the Ukraine – it's not so easy when you are European Champions and everyone wants to take your crown.

        But then there is a very long way to go, only Greece of the fancied teams have actually lost a game yet, and this was always likely to be a close group. And it was a great story in Almaty, where Kazakhstan did so nearly hold Ukraine to a very creditable and deserved draw on Wednesday. We have a long time to watch Denmark, Turkey and Greece pull away in this group. Let's enjoy things while we can!

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                   P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Georgia      2  1  1  0   3- 1   4
    2.Ukraine      2  1  1  0   3- 2   4
    3.Albania      2  1  0  1   2- 3   3
    4.Turkey       2  0  2  0   1- 1   2
    5.Denmark      1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    6.Greece       2  0  1  1   1- 2   1
    7.Kazakhstan   1  0  0  1   1- 2   0

    Group 3

        Outside of Bratislava, Middlesbrough or Nürnberg, very few people spend much time discussing the footballing qualities of Szilard Nemeth and Robert Vittek. That all changed this week, were Slovakia have surprised a fair few people, to top Group 3 and do so quite rightly.

        Slovakia are the poor relations of the Czech Republic, separated from their far more illustrious cousins 12 years ago as a result of the Velvet Revolution, and only now starting to find their feet in international football. England and Turkey visited Bratislava during the Euro 2004 qualifiers a couple of years ago, and were given a rough ride, although Slovakia never seemed quite capable of going that final step and actually grabbing one of those all-important two top places. Now things are different. Slovakia deservedly held Russia in Moscow on Matchday 1, and now – thanks to the hapless Liechtenstein – find themselves sitting atop the group, with 11 goals from three matches. Whether the Slovakians really do have what it takes to still be here in 12-months time is difficult to say, but if they are, no one will say that they do not deserve to be so.

        Portugal and Russia seemingly had the easiest passage of all UEFA's traditional 'top teams' in what was said to be a weak group, but with the rise of Slovakia, Estonia and Latvia over the last two years, Group 3 is now a five-horse race. Portugal are two-for-two after victories against Latvia (just) and Estonia (easily) and look good to eventually run out winners, but Russia is a nation distracted by terrorism not football right now, and the other Eastern European nations here could all conceivably beat each other on any given night.

        On Matchday 3, we have Slovakia vs. Latvia to look forward to, while four days later the Baltic derby between Latvia and Estonia holds as much gravitas as Portugal vs. Russia – a situation impossible just 6 months ago.

        Only Luxembourg and Liechtenstein offer no resistance here, and surely it is now time for UEFA to eliminate at least one of these countries by instigating an additional preliminary round. So far, in only five games, 20 goals have been conceded by these teams, and how many more will go in after Russia and Portugal have finished with them next month is anyone's guess. I suppose we do have something to look forward to though – Luxembourg and Liechtenstein actually meet next month, so someone will finally get points.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                     P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Slovakia       3  2  1  0  11- 2   7
    2.Portugal       2  2  0  0   6- 0   6
    3.Estonia        3  2  0  1   6- 5   6
    4.Latvia         2  1  0  1   4- 5   3
    5.Russia         1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    6.Luxembourg     3  0  0  3   4-11   0
    7.Liechtenstein  2  0  0  2   1- 9   0

    Group 4

        Group 4 was supposed to be an easy ride for France, the dominant force of the turn of the century, but now falling to pieces at an alarming rate. Following their capitulation at Euro 2004, not just Zinedine Zidane retired from international football, but so did Bixente Lizarazu, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly and now Claude Makelele – half of the European Champions of just four years ago no longer represent their country. All Raymond Domenech needs now is for Thierry Henry or Djibril Cisse to 'retire' as well, and France would well and truly be in crisis. Things do not look good at the Stade de France.

        First of all, Israel came to Paris again and although they did not quite manage to win like they did 11 years ago, held France well enough to suggest that a repeat of qualification for USA 94 is not impossible. France simply did not know how to break down Israel, who came for a draw and got it. Forget the fact that France can still field Henry, Cisse, Vieira, and Pires, the new generation is not a patch on Euro 2004, never mind Euro 2000 or France 98 vintage.

        Things did improve slightly in the Faroe Isles on Wednesday, where Djibril Cisse impressed when coming off the bench to replace Louis Saha, but the sending off of Patrick Vieira means that the games against Ireland and Cyprus now look much, much harder. The Ireland game in particular looks likely to be a tough night for France. Ireland comfortably demolished Cyprus on Matchday 1, but then struggled in Switzerland last Wednesday. Knowing that qualification from this group is going to be very tight, Brian Kerr (the Irish manager) will undoubtedly send his side out looking for a draw, giving France more headaches.

        Group leaders at the moment are Switzerland, fresh from a 6:0 obliteration of the Faroes on Matchday 1 and besting the Irish in Basle this week. If Köbi Kuhn's side can return from Tel Aviv with a win next month, then Switzerland may already have one foot in the play-off's at least, but given the fact that no team is likely to lose to Cyprus or the Faroes, and with France looking this disjointed, qualification is likely to be decided next Autumn some time at the earliest.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                     P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Switzerland    2  1  1  0   7- 1   4
    2.Ireland        2  1  1  0   4- 1   4
    3.France         2  1  1  0   2- 0   4
    4.Israel         2  1  1  0   2- 1   4
    5.Cyprus         2  0  0  2   1- 5   0
    6.Faroe Islands  2  0  0  2   0- 8   0

    Group 5

        And so to Italy, just about the only major European footballing power to start qualification off with two wins.

        Italy are rebuilding after two devastating failures under Giovanni Trappatoni at both Korea/Japan 2002 and Euro 2004. Marcello Lippi is the latest Italian coach to be given the chance to emulate Enzo Bearzot and Vittorio Pozzo, and have a crack at winning Il Mondiale, and given that he has a transitional squad and injuries to cope with, he isn't doing too badly.

        First of all, Norway were eventually seen off 2:1 in Palermo, but then on Matchday 2 the equally tough trip to Moldova was seen off well enough, thanks to Alex Del Piero's first half strike. With two more difficult games away to Slovenia and at home to Belarus next month, the same results might just see Italy more or less securing a berth at the World Cup by the end of October.

        The rest of the group is tight. Slovenia and Scotland played out a dull 0:0 draw at Hampden Park on Wednesday, and with Berti Vogts struggling to get any flair out of his young but potential full squad, Scotland already look in difficulties. Whether he will remain in situ should Norway and Moldova stop the Scots again next month is very unlikely. Highly regarded David Moyes is unsettled as coach of Premiership Everton, and should the SFA come calling in the near future, it is hard to see him not grabbing the chance with both hands.

        Slovenia are the team closest to Italy at the moment, following a good home win against Moldova. Norway and Belarus are also in the mix. Second place here is going to be a hard fought marathon, although the games in Glasgow and Oslo next month may also give us a clearer picture. Even Moldova here could still find themselves involved in the qualification process, with Chisinau a horrible place to go in search of victory.

        Matters are still too clouded, and too few results are in to really give us true findings. Italy might suddenly collapse against Belarus, or Slovenia might continue to qualify well as they did in Euro 2004 and of course during the last World Cup. The trouble is, you know that they will collapse in Germany should they get there, just as surely as they did in Korea last time.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                  P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Italy       2  2  0  0   3- 1   6
    2.Slovenia    2  1  1  0   3- 0   4
    3.Belarus     1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    4.Scotland    1  0  1  0   0- 0   1
    5.Norway      2  0  1  1   2- 3   1
    6.Moldova     2  0  0  2   0- 4   0

    Group 6

        Welcome to the soap opera that is the England football team.

        England have collected the four points they wanted from their first two games, yet how they managed it very few people – especially Sven Goran Eriksson – have much idea. For 70 minutes against Austria on Matchday 1, England were on cruise control, comfortably 2:0 up, playing good football. Then the second half collapse ensued, and Austria should have gained more than a point.

        So to Chorzow in the industrial wasteland of southern Poland. Poland are something of a bogey team for England, for ever remembered as the team that ended Sir Alf Ramsey's reign in 1973, and seemingly always paired with them in qualifiers since. As it happens, Poland have a dreadful record against England, and have not beaten them since 1973. Statistically it should be little surprise then that England won. That it was tells a bigger story.

        England are in crisis. The players themselves are the loudest exponents of the theory that they will peak as a side in 20 months time at the World Cup, and that they will win the tournament. Supposedly, Euro 2004 was to be their tournament as well, and given only a penalty loss to hosts and eventual runner's up Portugal in the quarter-finals, maybe they were unlucky not to prove this? To believe this nonsense, you have to ignore the fact that England capitulated a 1:0 lead over the declining French, edged past Croatia and Switzerland mainly by relying on an 18-year old prodigy, and gave away another winning position against the Portuguese all too easily. And then there was Austria where David 'Calamity' James allowed a weak shot to slide under his body to tie things up at 2:2.

        In Poland England won 2:1 thanks to a wonderful goal from another teenager, Jermain Defoe, and an own goal that the dejected Poles gifted England just ten minutes after grabbing a deserved equaliser. To make matters worse, the English players then petulantly refused to speak to any media outlet after the game, angry that the press – and by definition the public back home which happily buys their newspapers, and holds the same views – thought that a 2:2 draw in Austria was a poor result. Even Sepp decided that this was an appalling position to take, and criticised them while visiting England this weekend. All the petulance ignores the fact that this group of players is the best paid, highest profile group of footballers on earth, and also ignores the fact the England should be beating Austria and Poland comfortably if they are going to beat Argentina and Brazil in two years time. England next have to meet Wales at home, and then travel to Baku to meet Azerbaijan. Should they drop anything here expect to see calls for Eriksson's resignation grow. Should they lose either game, expect to see him go.

        Austria therefore lead the group unexpectedly. 200,000 more TV viewers tuned in to watch the home match against Azerbaijan than did so to see Beckham et al. Belief has now grown, and should they get another win against Poland in Vienna next month – which is a strong possibility by the way – then Austria will be very hard to stop.

        Wales and Poland are almost as disappointed as England. The Poles started brilliantly in Belfast, seeing off a stupidly optimistic Northern Irish side at a canter. Defeat at home to England though was a major setback, requiring a victory in Vienna as a minimum return next. Then comes the first do-or-die clash of this group, when Wales and Poland meet in Cardiff, just four days after England and Wales meet. Should Wales have taken a point or more off England, expect fireworks. Should England win – as they surely have to – expect Poland to all but eliminate Wales by winning comfortably.

        Only Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan seem already out of contention, though both gained creditable draws against the Welsh. The problem is for both sides, this tells us more about how over expectant Wales are than anything else.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                       P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Austria          2  1  1  0   4- 2   4
    2.England          2  1  1  0   4- 3   4
    3.Poland           2  1  0  1   4- 2   3
    4.Wales            2  0  2  0   3- 3   2
    5.Azerbaijan       2  0  1  1   1- 3   1
    6.Northern Ireland 2  0  1  1   2- 5   1

    Group 7

        If Sven Goran Eriksson has a problem in Group 6, then Luis Aragones has a nightmare engulfing him in Group 7.

        Spain are football's greatest underachievers, winners of one solitary European Championship in the days when whoever entered virtually reached the final. Since then, they have failed time and time again, been eliminated early on in every tournament finals they reach, and all the while this goes on their club sides dominate all put before them.

        Spain have only played one game in qualification for the 2006 World Cup, but given the insipid way they limped out of Euro 2004, the last thing new coach Aragones needed was to be held so easily by Bosnia on Wednesday night. Nothing seemed to go right all night for the Spanish, and the next day the sports press delivered the type of savaging that had the English received it, David Beckham would never speak to a reporter again.

        "The national side shows no sign of improvement," said Marca. "It is remains a team without personality, without creativity and without a leader… experienced players appear to lack the ability to impose themselves on a team like Bosnia that was both technically and physically inferior." Heavyweight news daily El Mundo was little less critical, saying "The new Spain of Aragones has the same problems as the old side under Saez… The team gets bogged down up front and seems incapable of finishing off the opposition."

        If that is the reaction after one game, imagine what is going to be said should Spain drop anything against Belgium or Lithuania next.

        It is the Baltic state that currently lead Group 7, one point clear of Serbia after a draw in Brussels and a 4:0 victory at home to San Marino. The problem is that so far, only four games have been played and two of those have involved San Marino (who for the record have lost both, conceded seven goals and scored none). Only four more take place next month, though that includes Spain against Belgium and Lithuania, and the big Balkan derby between Bosnia and Serbia. We have a long, long way to go!

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                         P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Lithuania          2  1  1  0   5- 1   4
    2.Serbia/Montenegro  1  1  0  0   3- 0   3
    3.Belgium            1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    4.Bosnia/Herzegovina 1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    5.Spain              1  0  1  0   1- 1   1
    6.San Marino         2  0  0  2   0- 7   0

    Group 8

        The last European group is the most interesting, looks like it is going to be the closest group, and so far has seen the best performances.

        In pole position, after two wins over Hungary and Sweden are Croatia, who have come from nowhere in the last year to look like a very good side. England struggled to beat the Croats in the European Championships - even though 4:2 sounds comfortable - but since then Croatia have gone from strength to strength. First came a 3:0 win at home to Lothar Matthäus's confident Hungarians, then came an even more impressive 1:0 away win in Goteborg against Sweden, where most teams never even get a goal, never mind a win.

        So what has happened to Croatia? Well far from being the declining side many thought, Croatia have been re-born under new coach Zlatko Kranjcar, who has blended older remnants of the France 98 third-place squad with talented younger players, starting to find their way all across Europe, at top, Champions League sides. Up next comes a hard test against Hristo Stoichkov's also resurgent Bulgaria. The Bulgarians won their only game so far well, away against Iceland.

        It is Sweden who lost the most on Matchday 2 however, especially as it came just four days after obliterating Malta 7:0 away. Many in Europe fancy Sweden to challenge for the World Cup in Germany, just as they did in 1974 and repeated 10 years ago in the USA. They still should qualify from here, but since the new Croatia turned up, things will be a lot tighter. The two games against Hungary, and then also improving Iceland will tell us a lot more. This group will go all the way though.

    And so as of Friday 10 September, 2004 we stand at:

                  P  W  D  L   Gls  Pts
    1.Croatia     2  2  0  0   4- 0   6
    2.Sweden      2  1  0  1   7- 1   3
    3.Bulgaria    1  1  0  0   3- 1   3
    4.Hungary     2  1  0  1   3- 5   3
    5.Iceland     2  0  0  2   3- 6   0
    6.Malta       1  0  0  1   0- 7   0

        Oh, and by the way. In a re-run of the last World Cup Final, Jurgen Klinsmann's new Germany side drew 1:1 with Brasil in front of 75,000 in Berlin's new Olympic Stadium, the stadium Brazil of course want to be back in on July 9, 2006. By all accounts Germany played well and deserved the draw. Maybe we are on for a repeat of 1990? Maybe not.


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