World Cup Spring Review.

The one certainty in the Spring list was that the Oceania group would come to completion, with one more team being knocked out. New Zealand confirmed their place in the intercontinental play offs in their first game, but they left it late. For the match against New Caledonia in Dunedin, Chris Killeen, a former bit part player at Norwich and Celtic who now plays in China gave them an early lead, but New Caledonia equalised early in the second half and it was deep into injury time when Tommy Smith (of Ipswich) became the “delighted scorer” with the winning goal. The reward for the squad was that they did not have to travel to the Solomon Islands for the midweek game, and those players who had crossed continents to get there were allowed a couple of days break before taking the long flights home. Playing with a squad of locally based players, New Zealand wrapped up the six match group in 100% style, and now play the fourth team in the North and Central American group.

Tahiti won their last home match, against the Solomon Islands and by 2-0 but go to the Confederations Cup as the biggest underdog in the competition’s short history.

Asia did not play until the midweek dates – and there was a potentially serious blow to Australia’s chances, when an early strike, followed by an own goal at the start of the second half left them 2-0 at home to Oman. Tim Cahill scored with a header within minutes of the second goal against to give the “Socceroos” some chance, while Brett Holman’s late strike from distance levelled the scores at 2-2. The result at the King Abdullah International Stadium in Amman did not help the Aussie hopes either. Japan went into the game, knowing a win, (which would have been their fifth in six games) would mean they were the first team to reach the finals in Brazil. However on the stroke of half time, Japan went down to a headed goal by Khalil Baniateyah, and pushing forward in the second half, they went further behind to a classic counter attack, Ahmad Hayel Ibrahim scoring on the break. It took Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa to start a comeback, but this ended with Endo, Just a minute after Kagawa had scored, Uchida was brought down in the penalty area, but Endo’s penalty was saved by Ammer Saddar.

Japan still lead the group with 13 points. One win from their final two games is enough to secure top spot, while a draw is all that is needed to qualify. Japan are at home to Australia next. Jordan’s win catapults them up the table to second place, with seven points, compared to Australia and Oman on six, Iraq on five. The advantage may lay with Australia and Iraq as they each have to play three times in June, while the others play twice. After visiting Japan, Australia finish with two home games,

In the other group, Uzbekistan and South Korea both had home wins, and this increases the chances that they are the pair to go through. The Koreans are in second place with ten points, but still have three games to go, as do third placed Iran (7 points and exempt from this month’s games). Uzbekistan hold onto the lead they took with November’s win in Iran. Qatar (in South Korea) and Lebanon were the beaten teams, both have two games left to play. It is no longer possible for Lebanon to win the group, and they can only finish level on points with South Korea, but they still have a chance of qualifying through the play offs.

In South America, It is notable that no team either lost twice or one twice over the pair of fixture dates. Ecuador, like Peru played one game only – and won. Columbia, Chile and Venezuela each won one, and lost one, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia drew one, and lost the other, while Argentina with four points continue to lead the table, they had a straight forward 3-0 win over Venezuela. Lionel Messi scored his customary goal, a penalty on half time, while the other pair were down to Higuain of Real Madrid. Argentina were then held to an unexpected draw in Bolivia, but this neither harms Argentina’s chances, nor enhances Bolivia’s slim chance of continuing beyond the group games. Bolivia took the lead through Marcelo Moreno, the former Shaktar Donetsk and Wigan player, now with Gremio in Brazil. Valencia’s Ever Banega got the equaliser. Bolivia had earlier lost 5-0 in Columbia, who had five different scorers. Bolivia stay eighth in the nine team table, above Paraguay who picked up a point in Uruguay. Uruguay went ahead with just eight minutes to play with when Luis Saurez scored, but levelled through Benitez (Edgar, who plays for Toluca in Mexico). Paraguay actually took the lead in Ecuador in the second game, this time the scored was Russian based Luis Caballero. Another Benitez (this time Christian, (30 appearances for Birmingham City) who also plays in Mexico, for Ameria) scored against them, along with two from Jefferson Montero, and an opener from Felipe Caicedo Corozo (once of Manchester City, now at Lokomotiv Moscow). Of the bottom trio, it was Peru that gave themselves some hope, playing only one world cup match, they beat Chile with a late goal Farfan goal, and now find themselves only two points behind Uruguay. Uruguay, after only gaining one point against Paraguay, lost 2-0 in Chile. Chile are therefore in the fourth qualification place despite defeat in the first of the pair of games.

So to North and Central America, the final group hexagon played its second and third game, still seven rounds to go. Three teams go through with fourth place getting the play off against New Zealand. After Honduras’ opening win over USA, they now played at home to Mexico. Poor finishing on the home side’s part lead to the Mexicans taking command, and Hernandez scoring twice. Rarely used in the Premier League, one suspects Hernandez is just waiting for the chance to move to a team that will display his talents. His goals did not quite do the trick for Mexico though. Carlos Costly pulled a goal back with under fifteen minutes to play, and then a minute later, Costly was brought down by Francisco Rodriguez. Jerry Bengston stepped up to take the penalty, and although this was saved, the ball fell to Bengston to score the rebound. Honduras then went down in their third game to a Panama team who had drawn twice in their opening games. Jamaica’s home draw with Panama also meant they had two points from two games, but they then fell 2-0 at Costa Rica.

Costa Rica had drawn their first game, and played the USA in Denver in the second. This was a farcical game played in a heavy snowstorm

(Not my photo, hope I do not break any copyright)

It should either not have been started or abandoned at some stage, but apparently even the Costa Rica players wanted to continue once the game started. Costa Rica did decide to put in a protest, but this was summarily dismissed by FIFA. The USA won 1-0, thanks to a rather fortuitous goal. They then fought out a scoreless draw in Mexico. So after three round of fixtures, five of the nine games have been drawn, including all three involving Mexico, (both games in Mexico were scoreless). Panama as the other unbeaten side in the group lead, one win and two draws, Costa Rica, USA and Honduras each have one win and one defeat, while Jamaica two draws and a defeat are currently last. Everyone plays three times more in June.

So onto Africa. Ten groups of four teams, only one team through from each (to a knockout round which decides Africa’s five qualifyers). Only one game played to take the groups to the half way stage, there will be two in June and one in September to complete. Only two games were away wins on this occasion, the first being Malawi’s win in Namibia. This make Group F very interesting, especially as it took a late equaliser for Nigeria to draw at home to Kenya. Nigeria and Malawi each have five points, Namibia have three and Kenya two. Nigeria have two away games in June, Malawi two home games before the leading pair meet in Nigeria in September.

Mali won 2-1 in Rwanda, their goals being scored early second half, and turning the game around after being one down at the break. Algeria won their match 3-1 at home to Benin, which means both Mali and Algeria have six points and leapfrog Benin and share top spot on six points each. Benin has four, while Rwanda have one only. Mali play both their June games at home, while Algeria are away before they meet in Algeria in the final game. There are three teams with a 100% record at the half way stage, Tunisia, Congo (Brazzaville) and Egypt. The French born Christopher Samba of QPR scored Congo’s goal, in a 1-0 win over Gabon. Only one team has lost all three games, this being Cape Verde Islands. As they are in Tunisia’s group, they need to win all, and hope Tunisia lose all to have a chance. June should see around 20 of the African teams knocked out, but only one or two will make it to the next round before the final game.

And so to Europe. The feature of England’s games in Group H this tournament has been an easy win on the Friday night (against no hope opposition) followed by a disappointing draw on the Tuesday. The easy match was won with aplomb in San Marino, eight goals without reply, but then in Montenegro, they could not apply the finishing touch to a dominant first half, and lost control after the break. England are looking more like a second placed team than a group winner, and with one of the nine second placed teams missing the cut for play offs, they may be watching the second place table in October. Neither England, not San Marino play in June, while the other four get a game. San Marino are not yet knocked out, but need to win all four, hope England lose four and catch up a goal difference of 47 just to finish second, (they cannot win the group). If either Poland or Ukraine win in June, then San Marino will be knocked out.

The five team group is between Spain and France, and Spain became favourites by winning at the Stade de France thanks to Pedro’s goal just afore the hour mark. This was the only game in midweek, while on the Friday night, Spain had slipped up, when Teemu Pukki scored a late equaliser for Finland. France comfortable beat Georgia. The only summer games here are between Belarus and Finland, and hence not likely to be of great consequence in the final table. In Finland win both, Belarus are out, but the reverse is not true as Finland have more games to play.

Running up the groups, Group G saw one set of fixtures only, and reached the half way mark. The key match was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s 3-1 win over Greece, which places them three points ahead at the top. Slovakia missed the chance to move into second, held at home by Lithuania, while Liechtenstein picked up their first point 1-1 at home to Latvia. Everyone in the group plays in June, with the three leaders all away. In group F, Russia’s lead was not ended by the snow covered pitch in Belfast. In the comparable warmth of Tel Aviv, Portugal went ahead early, but then needed an injury time goal to level the scores at 3-3, after Israel had gone 3-1 up. Both Portugal (in Azerbaijan), and Israel (in the snow cleared Belfast) won 2-0 in midweek, to be one point behind Russia, but having played two games each more. Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg have not won a match between them, the Luxembourg-Azerbaijan game finishing scoreless.

Group E also played one game only to reach the half way stage, and has three games in June. Switzerland lead the group, despite a dismal scoreless draw in Cyprus. Albania (1-0 in Norway) and Iceland (2-1 in Slovenia) picked up good away wins and are two points behind the Swiss in the table. Norway would have been in second place with a win, so Hamdi Salihi’s goal, midway through the second half will be felt there. Salihi is a player who uses his passport, most of his career has been in Austria, but he spent the 2012 season with DC United, and then transferred to Jiangsu Sainty (China). In Group D, teams played twice this month, but have no summer game, everyone has played six, Netherlands are 100%, and Andorra 0%. The Netherlands were at home twice, beating Estonia 3-0, Romania 4-0. Andorra lost at home to Turkey, and away to Estonia, both times by 2-0. They can still reach second place, but only if Hungary and Romania draw their return meet in September, and then lose their remaining games, (and Andorra would need four wins). In their first meeting, Hungary and Romania shared points, Hungary twice taking the lead, but Romania clawing it back each time. The second equaliser was in the final minute. Hungary came back from behind to grab a point and second place, after their game in Turkey. Romania are a point behind Hungary, and the Turks another three points adrift.

Group C is a bit mixed up in games played, but not in points gained. Germany have played six, won five and drawn one. Kazakhstan fell to them twice in the Spring fixtures. The Kazaks have just one point from six games, and so can only reach second place, the Faroe Islands (no points) and Sweden have only played four times, meaning they each play twice in the summer. The Republic or Ireland drew 0-0 in Sweden, and then 2-2 at home to Austria – two goals from Jonathon Walker gave them hope after Martin Harnik had put Austria ahead, David Alaba got the late equaliser. This leaves the Irish on Eight points, level with both Austria and Sweden, but having played one game more than the Swedes. Group B is at a slightly confused half way stage, Bulgaria have played one extra game, Armenia have a game in hand. Both Bulgaria and Italy are unbeaten, but the similarity ends there, Italy have won four out of five, Bulgaria have drawn four out of six. Two goals from Balotelli in the first half gave Italy no sweat in Malta, the Maltese had already lost 6-0 in Bulgaria (Malta no points from five games). Bulgaria added a draw in Denmark to stay second, thanks to the Czech Republic’s curious inconsistency, losing 3-0 at home to Denmark, but then winning by the same score in Armenia.

Finally, Group A. Now generally, this round of games is too early for teams to be knocked out, and if one is to make an early exit, it is the usual suspects, San Marino, Andorra, Malta, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg one looks to. So take a bow, Scotland – the Scots were in trouble after their first two games, home draws with Serbia and Macedonia. Then they lost in Wales and Belgium. The last chance for face saving was at home to Wales, and Scotland did take the lead through Grant Hanley, then a penalty by Ramsey, quickly followed by a goal from Robson-Kanu turned the match. Scotland then went to Serbia, and not unexpectedly, lost 2-0. Wales fell at home to Croatia, despite a Gareth Bale penalty putting them ahead. Belgium quietly went about beating Macedonia twice, Eden Hazard scoring in each game, Kevin de Bruyn also on target away. And so both Belgium and Croatia find themselves on 16 points from 6 games, they meet in Zagreb in October, having already drawn 1-1 in Brussels. Scotland are on two points, and can only reach 14 – the first European team to be knocked out.