Monday, 19 October 2009

Reasons to be cheerful.. Un, Deux, Trois

Today seen the biggest ego in football (next to Cristiano) get the draw he wanted.  The 'big boys' of European football have been issued their life-line for world cup qualification.

It was this afternoon that the play-off's in the European Qualification region for the World Cup were drawn.  Republic of Ireland were dealt arguably the cruelest card of all, paired alongside former World champions France. 

The draw in full was as follows (left team at home first)...

Republic of Ireland vs France
Portugal vs Bosnia Herzegovina
Greece vs Ukraine
Russia vs Slovenia

FIFA's decision two weeks previous to introduce seedings for the play-off draw in order to help the bigger, more marketable nations take their 'rightful' place on the world stage, could have a detremental impact on everyone else... and FIFA doesn't seem to mind.  How the so-called protector of smaller nations Michelle Platini has kept so quiet during this quite blantant moving of the goalposts beggars belief.  Have FIFA gagged the UEFA chief? Have they slipped a few extra sugars into his tea?  Or could it be that Platini's own country stood to gain massively from the change of rules? In my view, this seems to be the case.

As a neutral looking at the draw, it would seem the next eight games will be a mere formality.  France, Portugal, Greece and Russia all have favourable draws due to their seeding status.  However, as much as I'd rather see the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Arshavin showcasing their 'star-power' at the greatest competition in world football, I would (to quote Kevin Keegan) "LOVE IT, JUST LOVE IT" if this masterplan to bundle them into the tournament through the back door back-fired.

So here's to the little guys... Republic of Ireland, Slovenia (should have been NI!), Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Ukraine. 

But you know what, despite the cards being stacked against them, I still think there's room for at least one shock somewhere in Europe. 

The French should have coasted their group with Serbia their only real threat, yet they only just sauntered over the finish line into second place.  The Republic of Ireland came close to topping a group that involved the current World champions, Italy. They will give France a fright at Croker but I feel with the all-important second leg being in Paris it could be curtain's for the Irish if Benzema and Henry up the ante.

The same can be said for Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal.  They got lucky in the final round of games and have Denmark to thank for disposing of the Swede's for them to sneak in behind them.  They're up against super-minnows Bosnia-Herzegovina, a relatively unknown quantity, but as we saw with Serbia topping their group, Portugal should be on their guard.

Greece versus Ukraine is probably the most likely one of the four matches to go against FIFA's seeding stategy.  The Greeks are fading quickly.  The Euro 2004 winners had aruably the easiest group during qualifying yet made a bit of a hash of even attaining second spot.  They did it, but face a strong Ukraine side who pipped Croatia to second place in a group that contained a resurgent England.

Finally, Russia will be up against Slovenia.  Expect a Russian win at home and away in this one.  No disrespect to the Slovenian's but they're not a great side.  They did well in beating Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland to second place, but really that was all about the amount of draws those three teams had with each other... not realising they were leaving the door open for the unfancied Slovenia to shimmy on through!  No sour grapes from me though, I think they were value for second place (even though we beat them at Windsor!)

Good luck to all the minnows. Cristiano can top up his tan elsewhere this year, South Africa and the footballing world doesn't need you... but FIFA unfortunately does.

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