The European section of qualification sees 51 teams in eight groups battle it out for 13 qualifications spots plus the holders Germany.
The eight group winners plus the two best second place finishers will automatically qualify. In addition, three further teams will qualify through a playoff between the six other second place finishers. Simple.
Group 1 always looked like it was going to a two-horse race between Holland and the Czech Republic – both established European teams with a wealth of talent to choose from. Accordingly they hold the two tops spots. It’s close as to who will finish top though with Holland leading by a single point having defeated the Czechs in their opening match, the return leg on the 8th of October will prove crucial.
Group 2 isn’t the most glamorous in Europe but this has created a more open race. At the beginning it was anyone’s pick who would come out on top between Ukraine. Turkey, Greece and Denmark. However it’s the Ukraine who are running away with it leading by seven points largely thanks to star striker Andrei Shevchenko. The Eastern Europeans have never qualified for a major tournament but it would take a horrendous loss of form to stop this side doing just that. The race for second place is hotting up with four points separating them with Denmark having a game in hand.
Portugal are a class apart in Group 3 yet only hold a three point lead over Slovakia in second who are a further three points clear of Russia. Undefeated in eight games, the perennial underachievers should comfortably make it to Germany leaving four former Soviet states to battle it out for second spot.
Surprisingly, former World and European Champions France are languishing fourth in Group 4 behind Ireland, Switzerland and Israel – however only three points separates all nations.
Although unbeaten, the French have drawn twice with Israel as well as with Switzerland and the Irish to leave them needing results to go their way despite having a game in hand. Should the “all conquering” French not make it to Germany, which is more than possible, then amazingly they won’t have actually qualified for a World Cup finals since Mexico in 1986!
Group 5 sees Italy out in front by four points despite an early defeat to third place Slovenia who are level on points with second place Norway. The playoff spot is relatively open with Belarus and Scotland one and three points behind respectively.
The UK has three teams in Group 6 but it is Poland leading the way on 18 points ahead of England in second with 16.
The English have a game in hand but the Poles have been ruthless during qualification, slipping up just the once. Once again the final match between the top two should decide who automatically qualifies although with both teams doing so well the second place should also qualify automatically probably behind the second place finisher from Group 1. Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan and the disappointing Welsh are really just making up the numbers in Group 6 with Austria the only real challengers to the top two.
Spain lead Group 7 by a point from Serbia & Montenegro. However the eastern Europeans have a game in hand and have yet to conceded a goal during qualification. Again it seems like a two horse race between the top two with Lithuania, Belgium and Bosnia-Herzegovina four points adrift and the whipping boys of European football, San Marino, taking their usual place at the bottom of the group with no wins, no draws and no points.
Finally Group 8 sees Croatia and Sweden out in front. They’ve conceded only five goals between them and look a cut above the rest of the group. Again the battle will be over who takes top spot and who goes through the risky and heart breaking route of the playoffs.
The majority of teams in Europe have just three or four matches to push themselves into contention for automatic qualification. No real surprises in most groups with the real battle being between the top two in each. Group 4 however is where the action is.The Irish look like they are finally realising their potential and the Israelis and Swiss have become very difficult to beat.
This means that France will genuinely have a struggle on their hands to make it to the finals. While they should breeze past the Faroe Islands and Cyprus even a team including Henry, Vieira and Trezeguet will struggle to beat the Irish and Swiss unless they find some form and consistency. Unless they lose the arrogance that both won and lost them two major tournaments they might find themselves back where they were in the early nineties, a fading team living on past glories.