So on to the Spring World Cup Fixtures week. In the Autumn, there is a pattern to the system with the international pairs of fixtures coming three times in successive months. Matches can also be grouped together in the summer, after most domestic leagues have finished, but the Spring fixture list seems designed mainly to annoy those running club football.
With the European seasons heading for their climax, the last thing any club wants is to lose its key players for a week and a half, or even to have a break from the search for honours. It is no wonder that players suddenly find their fitness and availability called into question. In England we have the advantage that our players play almost exclusively in the Premier League, which means that clubs withdrawing players face the opprobrium directly. Still, we get the fiasco when a manager says his player is going to be available for England on the Saturday, only to withdraw him on the Monday. If the player’s country is half a continent away, or further, then there is no one to say whether the “injury” is anything more than convenience.
To my mind, it would be better to miss out these fixtures, finish the league season a week earlier and then group more international matches in June.
Anyway, nothing will be settled this month in Europe, but some of the groups are going to come much clearer as they pass through the half way mark.
Scotland and Wales play each other in Group A, but both are already showing little help of qualification. The Republic of Ireland are better off in Group C – and if they can get a result in Stockholm, they have a good chance of at least finishing second to Germany. In Group D, Hungary play Romania. Both have won three of their four games, but lost the other, 1-4 at home to the Netherlands. Not surprisingly, the Netherlands top the group with four wins so far, and two home games this month – so they could be sitting very pretty next week.
Russia are also going for the fifth successive win, playing Northern Ireland in Belfast, the Russians are the only side to beat the Irish so far, but all their other matches have been drawn. Israel will become the second visitor to Belfast in this window. Both Israel and Portugal are on 7 points from 4 games, and they meet Friday in Tel Aviv. Group G sees Bosnia play Greece, two sides unbeaten with 10 points from four games – they have already played out a scoreless draw in Greece. For England, both the September and October fixture dates involved a 5-0 win on the Friday, but a 1-1 draw on the Tuesday. With away matches first in San Marino, then in Montenegro – a repeat might not be out of order. Montenegro are group leaders, while the earlier draws have been with Poland and Ukraine, who play each other on Friday. This could easily be one of the closer groups, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing out on the play-offs, it could well be a closer group that misses out on the final action. Finally, in Group I, where there is one less team, Spain and France should both get their third win on Friday, they have already drawn 1-1 in Madrid, and meet again at the Stade de France Tuesday.
One continent where the results will be decisive is Oceania. New Zealand, despite missing out on the Oceania title, and a place in the Confederations Cup in the summer have won all four group games. They only team that can overhaul them is New Caledonia, who visit them in Dunedin on Friday, in the first game that will be played. Only a win on Friday puts New Zealand through at first try, any other result and confirmation comes on Tuesday after New Zealand play in the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia play Tahiti.
African teams play one match only, in most cases over the weekend. This will be the half way point for ten groups of four, where only the winners get through to a play off. Home advantage is more notable in Africa than elsewhere, so only three countries have two wins out of two, and only two have lost twice. Group B is headed up by Tunisia who will try to win in Sierra Leone to reach nine points, Equatorial Guinea scored first on their visit to Tunisia, but went down 3-1. Cape Verde Islands went down 2-1 at home to Tunisia, having already lost in Sierra Leone. The remaining game, Equatorial Guinea v Sierra Leone was drawn. IN Group E, Brazzaville version of Congo have beaten Burkina Faso (away) by 3-0 and Niger by 1-0. They now play at home to Gabon, who have also beaten Burkina Faso (home) 1-0, but went down 3-0 in Niger. Egypt will also attempt to reach nine points when Zimbabwe visit the giant Borg Al Arab Stadium, (at 86,000 – the third largest in Africa). Mozambique have also lost 2-0 there, while Egypt have won 3-2 away in Guinea. Guinea won away in Zimbabwe, while Zimbabwe’s visit to Mozambique was scoreless. I have now mentioned all four of the 40 matches played so far to be won by the away teams!
IN South America, there is only one group – the division of nine teams in the end is four to the finals, four out, and one to a play off. The current working is three looking like clear qualifiers, Argentina, Ecuador and Columbia, and three looking very unlikely, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia. The other three are all on 12 points so far, from 9 games. Venezuela will play Argentina (away) and Columbia, while Uruguay play Paraguay (home), and Chile visit Peru before meeting each other in Chile.
The Concacaf region sees the second and third matches in a group of six teams, so still seven games to play after this month. The only winner in the first series was Honduras, who beat USA by 2-1. Honduras are at home again to Mexico, before travelling to Panama. The USA will play Costa Rica in Denver before their big match, the visit to the Aztec stadium in Mexico.
I have left Asia to last, as the groups there have only one set of fixtures, and these are not until Tuesday. After this there are three fixture dates in June which will see two teams from each group qualified, two out and one from each to play off (against each other, first). In Group A, Uzbekistan lead with 8 points, while South Korea, Iran and Qatar have 7. South Korea have a game in hand on the others, and play Qatar at home, Uzbekistan are at home to Lebanon giving the Iranians the month off. Group B is all to play for amongst Australia, Iraq and Oman (all 5 points) and Jordan 4. Australia have a game in hand are at home to Oman. Iraq take the month off. Japan are the other team and are rather clear group leaders. They have 13 points before travelling to Jordan – so a win on Tuesday will make them the first team to qualify to join Brazil in the finals.