England’s potential play-off perils

With Friday’s convincing 4-1 win against Montenegro increasingly becoming a distant memory, England turn their focus on tomorrow night’s clash against Poland, which will decide whether Roy Hodgson’s men can start book their hotels in Brazil, or whether they’ll have to wait a little longer.

While Poland have seen their already slim chances of reaching next summer’s tournament evaporate after Friday’s defeat against Ukraine, underestimating team containing the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Jakub¬†Blaszczykowski would be foolish, particularly as failure to top Group H would pit England against rather uncomfortable opponents in the play-off.

UEFA’s machiavellian regulations haven’t escaped the World Cup Qualifiers, meaning that working out all the possible permutations is a task more suited to a mathematician than to a football fan.

Eight spots are available for the play-offs, meaning that one of the nine second-placed teams will miss out on a second chance to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.

Furthermore, given that Group I only contains five teams, every other second place teams¬†have points they’ve gained against the bottom sides in their groups removed, before the remaining eight teams are split into two pots based on their ranking.

If at this time you’re starting to feel the first symptoms of an acute migraine, let us make things a bit clearer.

England are ranked 17th in the FIFA ranking, meaning that they will avoid the likes of Croatia, Portugal, Russia, Greece and Bosnia Herzegovina – depending on who, between the Portugal and Russia, Greece and Bosnia top their respective groups – but could face France, Sweden and Denmark.

France, ranked 25th in the world, are almost guaranteed to finish second in their group, unless Spain conspire to shoot themselves in the foot by losing at home against Georgia as well as throwing away a superior goal difference.

Considering that England have failed to beat France since 1997, a potential two-legged decider against the foes from across the Channel is unlikely to be what Roy Hodgson wants to wake up to on Wednesday morning.

Ibra’s Scandinavian army, on the other hand, are guaranteed a spot in the play-offs as they’ll finish behind Germany in Group C, regardless of the outcome of their clash against Ozil & Co. tomorrow.

Home and away fixtures against Sweden would be far from ideal for Roy Hodgson’s men, who fell victims to his Zlataness in a friendly last November, when the PSG striker netted all of his team’s four goals.

Denmark, on the other hand, would be a slightly easier opponent even though new Spurs man Christian Eriksen could be a threat for England’s midfield, while Nicklas Bendtner is – whisper it – slowly becoming to resemble a centre-forward.

The Danes, however, are still to reach the play-off and to do so they’ll have to beat Malta at home – hardly a gargantuan task – and hope Czech Republic won’t lose in Bulgaria.

England’s other potential opponents are likely to emerge from Group D, where three teams are still in with a shout of reaching the play-offs. To do so, Hungary will have to recover from Friday’s 8-1 shellacking at the hands of Holland and beat Andorra at home, while hoping neither Turkey nor Romania pick up three points against Holland and Estonia respectively.

Turkey would pose a threat to many teams in the play-off, particularly considering the hostile atmosphere that characterises most of their grounds but to secure a second chance to reach the World Cup, Turkey must equal or better Hungary’s result and considering that Hungary host Andorra, Turkey will probably have to beat already-qualified Holland.

Romania, meanwhile, will have to beat Estonia by a large margin to equal or better Hungary’s result as well as to ensure they better Turkey’s goal difference.

Bottom line, England? Three points against Poland would do nicely, thanks.

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