Some uninformed thoughts from this part of the globe. Group 1 France are in, Slovenia are in the playoffs. Wow, 7 wins in 7 matches. Do you think Les Bleus are on a mission after that miserable WC02 showing? Nothing scarrier than a bunch of mad Frenchmen... I guess. It's the third straight qual campaign to end in a playoff for the plucky mountaineers of Slovenia. Props to the country where alpine skiing and basketball are still the major sports, but it's getting to the point where mere showing in the finlas will not be good enough any longer. This is probably the least surprising group of the 10. Israel is the team that always seems to be improving but never quite enough. The last names of the players rule out the possibility that their Yiddishe Mommes are holding them back, so it must be the lack of home field advantage. Maybe, next year in Jerusalem? As for the two island nations, Cyprus did well to be respectable (and may still overtake Israel for third) and Malta were the usual whipping-boys. Group 2 1. DEN 14 (@BIH) 2. ROM 14 (none) 3. BIH 12 (DEN) 4. NOR 11 (LUX) The Group of Quiet And Not Very Glorious Death has provided an interesting scenario. Norway have a much better chance of making the playoff spot out of fourth place than the second-place Romania who have no matches left. Denmark are assured of at least second place and even a draw at Bosnia and Herzegovina gets them straight to Portugal. They appear to be as strong as at the last year's WC, especially in such a punishing group. The Bosnians control their own destiny. A win vs. Denmark and they are going to Portugal, nicely setting off a UEFA PR campaing titled "Recovery Through Football" or something like that. But even a draw knocks them straight out of contention. A tall task, but this will be an exciting month of anticipation in the long-suffering country. Norway's assignment is to dispose of the patsy Luxmebourg (0 pts) and hope that Denmark hold off Bosnia. Not a bad deal, considering their horrid WC qual campaign 2 years ago. Oh, where art thou, Gheorghe Hagi?! This will likely be the second straight time Romania will miss the train to a major competition. With no matches left to play, Moldova's big brother will be reduced to rooting for the lowly Luxembourg. If the EU banking capital can somehow manage to deny Norway 3 points and if Denmark doesn't lose in Bosnia, the Yellowshirts get the playoff spot. To summize their chances, Larevedere! Group 3 Czech Republic goes, and the Netherlands are in the playoff. The Czechs are back after missing the World Cup and, boy, are they out to remind Europe of how to pronounce their consonant-heavy names! Last night's win against the Dutch was both impressive and desisive. Considering their hockey triumphs, they are probably the most successful post-Warsaw Pact nation. Holland probably hoped for more, but this is better than they got in the WC quals, so the Orange will take it. Looks like the post-Euro2000 recovery is a bit more painful than expected. No big surprises in this group. Austria's loss to Moldova makes their third place look like an achievement. As for the Mamalyga, their 2 wins (Austria, Belarus) and assured 4th place are nothing short of humongous. They get a trip to Amsterdam next month for their troubles. May the great big brynza in the sky smile upon their unfortunate hides. The Belarus luck was used up by the hockey team at the recent Olympics and there will be hell to pay in years to come. One lowly win against Moldova at home is a big step down from the respectable WC02 qual campaign. Group 4 Sweden are in, which is nothing surprising, as they were a blond head and a set of broad angular shoulders above their competition. But the battle for the playoff spot is very interesting: 2. LAT 13 (@SWE) 3. HUN 11 (POL) 4. POL 10 (@HUN) What a success for the little Latvians! Sure, they are staring at the necessity to beat Sweden (who, if hockey is an indicator of anything, are at their most dangerous when there is nothing to play for) on the road, but whatever the result, they have far exceeded the expectations of the hockey-crazy country. If Latvia does not win, the Hungary-Poland match takes a paramount importance. If Latvia loses, the winner of the match gets the prize (a draw gets Latvia through). If there is a draw in Sweden, the White Eagles go bye-bye and the Gulash are in with a win. Hungary and Poland are on the different ends of the "Underachiever" portion of the European football spectrum. Whatever the result, the Magyars will probably consider this campaign a relative success. The Big Red Machine days are sadly a long-forgotten history. Polska, however, are probably the most over-rated team in Europe and their continuous failures to live up to their talent level are the most annoying phenomenon this side of Russia. Looking at all this with wisdom of the ages are San Marino, who, having generously and equally distributed all the possible points among everybody involved, are back in their hills, grooming sheep. Group 5 1. GER 15 (ISL) 2. ISL 13 (@GER) 3. SCO 11 (LTU) Wow, did Yuri Kovtun ever know that by scoring an own goal in that Euro qual match in 1998 he was launching Iceland on the road to European respectability? Who knows what goes on in Yuri's head, but what is going on on the faraway outpost of Europe is some serious Scandinavian-style partying down. Yes, their chances of advancing are slim enough, but who cares? This is the second straight Euro quals where the Mighty Ducks II villain coutry managed to make waves. Of course, beating Germany in Krautland and thus ensuring first place is a tall order, but even a loss or a draw can land them a playoff spot if Scotland do not beat Lithuania. All in all, good job by the islanders! Fugly kits though. As for the Trainspotters, they are pretty much the makers of their own future (unless the Krauts get beaten, of course): all they have to do is get past Lithuania and the playoff spot is theirs. Not too bad, but I bet before the start of the tourney they thought 2nd place would be theirs with much less effort. If they fail, that 2-2 draw with the Faroes will be the main feature in many a Scottish nightmare for a while. Props to the Lits (10 points) who have given it all they have, but basketball is still this country's number 1 sport for the forseeable future. The Faroe Islands will take the 1 point they salvaged from Scotland as consolation on those cold nights out in the ocean. They've also got their marinated herring, but getting the proper recipe from Russia would be a good move. Group 6 Great merciful crap (copyright Homer "I Ain't Blind" Simpson), whatever happend to Greece?! Looks like Hellas will be able to enjoy both the Olympics and the Euros next year. All their compatriots have to do is beat Northern Ireland at home and first place is theirs. This, of course, means that Spain, who trail the Greeks by 2 points, will go to the playoffs after their trip to Armenia. The circle of underachievment conitnues, yet all will be forgotten if the Spaniards do make the very short trip to Portugal. Ukraine will have to find some other time to gloat at Russia as their campaign once again fell miserably short. Considered the 2nd best team in the group, they fell victims of the Greek resurgence and their own lack of killer instinct. Giving Ulster 2 of their 3 points definitely didn't help. Armenia's two wins versus the Other Irish were probably as much as they hoped to achieve. Northern Ireland's continuing trip through the tides of Deep Doodoo is not surprising anyone. Group 7 So... Mr. Bond, vee meet vahnce again! The Turkey-England confrontation in Istanbul's "Hell" will decide the winner of this one. England will be satisfied with a draw, but this is not what they must play for against this particular bunch of firey-eyed Yanychars. This will be scary, exciting and not at all pretty, in short: everything it was hoped to become when the draw was announced. Slovakia and Macedonia became unfortunate victimes of that draw, never having a chance to compete with the two mutually-hateful rivals. Liechtenstein's 1 point (against the Macs) could be the country's greatest achievement ever. Group 8 Vee dont need no Hristo Stoitchkov! Bulgaria, the stunners of USA94, are back with a non-spectacular but more than adecvate performance. Croatia or Belgium, the two being currently tied with 13 points, will have to be satisfied with a playoff spot. Croatia hosts Bulgaria and the Red Devils take on Estonia and whoever gets more points, advances. The Belgians appear to have an easier matchup, but consider that Bulgaria has nothing to play for and that the Croats own the tiebreaker. Estonia is by no means a whipping boy, managing to get points from both Bulgaria and Croatia in this tournament already. Andorra, having lost all the games, are done to console themselves with the fact that at least none of them were blowouts. Group 9 Italy lead Wales by 1 point and appear to be on their way to Portugal. Their last match is against Azerbaijan, while the Unpornounceables have to play Serbia and Montenegro. Still, a good job for the Welsh to make at least the playoff. Italy did well in the strong group and will be able to showcase their rocking light-blue kits in Portugal. Bringing along the cattenaccio is optional. Another disappointment for the Serbs, especially after last night's dominating perfromance vs. the Vermicelli. Alas, the 1-1 draw was not enough. Finland... Well, they've still got the hockey... Although, after the worlds debacle they will probably not want to bring that up right about now. Azerbaijan... Well, at least they are no longer banned. That (and a win over Serbia) is a good thing (c). Group 10 1. SUI 12 (IRL) 2. RUS 11 (GEO) 3. IRL 11 (@SUI) Get ready for some well-supervised craziness, as Russia, Switzerland and Ireland gor for the two available money spots all at the same time! This is the most horrible of the groups, as there are 9 (count them, nine!) possible outcomes and all are equally likely to occur. It will probably be too annoying to list them all, so here it comes: 1. Russia over Georgia: a) if SUI beats IRL: 1. SUI, 2. RUS b) if SUI draw IRL: 1. RUS, 2. SUI c) if SUI lose to IRL: 1. RUS, 2. IRL 2. Russia draw Georgia: a) if SUI beats IRL: 1. SUI, 2. RUS b) if SUI draws IRL: 1. SUI, 2. RUS c) if SUI loses to IRL: 1. IRL, 2. RUS 3. Russia loses to Georgia a) if SUI beats IRL: 1. SUI, 2. RUS b) if SUI draws IRL: 1. SUI, 2. IRL c) if SUI loses to IRL: 1. IRL, 2. SUI Ain't this a beauty? In short, Les Suisse must avoid losing, else they have to root for the Georgians, the Oirish must win to get the playoff spot and root like hell against Russia, and the Russkies must try to not embarass themselves against the Lobio and hope the the Swiss don't win. Cool... Russia, of course, is in the shite of their own making, having lost to Albania and Georgia, but they did redeem themselves last night with a fabulous win over the Swiss. More was expected from the Irish but that opening 4:2 debacle in Moscow really set them back. The Swiss, the only ones who control their own destiny, would've considered this campaign a smashing success if not for that thrashing in Cherkizovo last night. This kind of went and killed their arguments about bad refereeing in the 2:2 home draw against Russia. As for the rest of the group, Albania was a huge surprise with 8 points, and Georgia underachieved once again.