Starting Friday, 53 European nations will begin their journey to become one of 13 from UEFA to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The anticipation and expectations are high, and the headlines about the nine intriguing groups are everywhere as the big day has finally arrived. After extensively analyzing the groups, and eventually deciding on who I favor to make a run over the multiple home/away qualifiers, here are my top five things to look out for over the next 14 months:
1. Belgium (Group A)
The hype in Belgium has got to be high right now. Here’s a team that you didn’t see in Euro 2012, but with its current rise in talent, will be looking to at least grab a spot in a playoff next year. But to say that their road to Brazil would be difficult is an understatement. Even if you ignore the fact that they will face fierce competition from Croatia and Serbia for one of those two top group spots, you see that they, along with everybody else in Group A, will not have one easy game. Scotland, Wales, and Macedonia will all be tough matchups, home or away, and the potential to “lose” points is substantial. In order to get themselves off on a great note, and to perhaps ease some early nerves, I would expect to see them grab at least 4 points from their two opening fixtures. My prediction is a win in Wales followed by a draw at home against Croatia, results that would be perfectly acceptable for them. However, don’t be surprised if they were to grab anywhere from 2-6 points in those opening two games.
2. Group C’s Second Team
I have Germany ranked as the second best team in Europe, only behind Spain, current World and European champions. To predict that they will win this group is nothing bold at all. But because of the teams they are grouped with, I think that Group C will be the most exciting of the nine. While the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan will be expected to finish in the bottom two spots, Sweden, Ireland, and even Austria can all compete for that second group spot, which would probably see them make a playoff. My final predictions are listed below if you want to see my pick, but this is the one group that I can see playing out in numerous ways. Unless I don’t see Germany in Brazil in 21 months, I won’t be surprised with whatever final group standings we see.
3. Who Will Step Up In Group E?
You’ll want to read my predictions at the end of this article. Group E contains my bold prediction that could make me look like a hero when all is said and done…or just stupid. Regardless, I’m looking to see who will step up and take control of this group. Looking at the teams, Switzerland would seem to be the one who has the edge over the other five countries. If they can win at Slovenia, they’ll have a great chance to get the full six points from their opening two when they go against Albania at home. A few slip ups from them, or any other country could leave the door open for an underdog to come out of this group though.
4. Russian Redemption? (Group F)
Not only did Russia get knocked out of Euro 2012 in the group stage by Greece, but they narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa by losing a playoff to Slovenia. How heartbreaking. The group they’ve been placed in is pretty favorable however, with Portugal and them expected to advance. Could they take this group from the Portuguese and not have to deal with yet another playoff? Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, and Luxembourg shouldn’t worry a team with the talent that the Russians have, but we’ll have to wait and see how new coach Fabio Capello adapts to his new squad.
5. Can England Get Back To Elite Status? (Group H)
After watching England so closely this past year, I’ve come to the conclusion that if the expectations are lowered a bit, England have a better chance to succeed. Assuming they qualify, I’d put them outside the top five of the thirteen European nations that qualify for the World Cup. They have slipped into the second tier, and are definitely going through a change with a handful of young players entering the squad. These qualifiers will give us a better look at just how good they are. If they obtain more than 20 of 30 points, they’ll be fine. In a group like this, the likes of Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and Italy wouldn’t have much trouble. England shouldn’t have trouble ultimately qualifying, but it may not be easy. I predict seven wins, two draws, and a loss for the Three Lions. 23 points may simply be too much to give them at this point though.
And finally, the list of 13 countries who will qualify:
Croatia, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Portugal, Slovakia, England, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Russia, France
*Iceland stands around 60/1 to make the World Cup the last time I checked. You can thank me later. Don’t blame me if my boldness doesn’t pay off though. Happy watching everybody!*