Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Second Place - First Loser or Half as Good as First?

A confusing aspect of World Cup qualification from UEFA is the playoff round between second-place teams. The best 8 second-place teams from the 9 groups are paired up and the winner of the home-and-home tie gets a trip to South Africa. Because group 1-8 have 6 teams and group 9 has 5 teams, results from the worst team are excluded. Here is a link to the official explanation at FIFA.

The obvious place to start is with group 9 because no extra work is needed. Right now Scotland is in 2nd with 10 points. They only have one match to go, tonight (or tomorrow depending on where you are) against the Netherlands. Macedonia and Norway are three points behind them so the runner-up from group 9 will have 13, 11 or 10 points with 10 or 11 being more likely than 13.

Here is where the other groups are:

Group 1

Malta have last place pretty well locked up. The most likely second-place team is Sweden, followed by Portugal. Hungary and Denmark also have a small chance of finishing second.

Ignoring the Malta results:

Sweden have 9 points in six matches. They still play Albania at home and have a trip to Denmark so they'll almost certainly have 12, 13 or 15 points if they finish second. It's quite unlikely that they'll finish second but not make the playoff.

Portugal have 7 points in 6 matches. Because they are two points behind Sweden and 3 behind Hungary, they'll need at least 4 points and probably 6 from their matches against Hungary in order to finish second. That puts them at 11 or 13 points and most likely in the playoff.

Group 2

The bottom team from this group will most likely be Moldova but could be Luxembourg. Greece, Latvia or Switzerland will almost certainly finish second.

Greece have 10 points in 6 matches if you ignore Moldova. Same if you ignore Luxembourg. Because they still play both and group is competitive, they'll have at least 13 relevant points if they finish second.

Switzerland have 10 points in 5 matches if you ignore Moldova and 16 points in 6 matches if you ignore Luxembourg. While they would have to drop some points near the end to finish second, the remaining match with Luxembourg pretty much assures them of a playoff if they blow their lead.

Latvia have 10 points in 6 matches if you ignore Moldova and 7 in 5 matches ignoring Luxembourg. In order to top Greece for second they'll need some strong results so they will make the playoff if they finish second.

Group 3

San Marino is the worst team in Europe. This group is wide open and any team could finish second other than them.

Slovakia have 10 points in five non-San Marino matches. It's possible but quite unlikely that they get fewer points in their last three matches than Scotland does against Netherlands tomorrow and hold on to second place.

Northern Ireland have 8 points in 6 matches. They are in a bit more trouble as far as this goes, but like many other teams they won't finish in second unless they get some results so they are very unlikely to be the worst second-place team.

Poland have 5 points in 5 matches. This is actually the same situation as Northern Ireland because they'll be at 8 points in five matches if they are to have a shot at second place.

Slovenia have 8 points in six matches. Same as the two teams above.

The Czech Republic have 6 points in 6 matches. The point situation is such that they have to win out to finish second. That means 12 points which should be good enough.

Group 4

Azerbaijan or Liechtenstein will be the worst team in the group. Whether Russia or Germany finish second, they'll have more points than Scotland ignoring the bottom team.

Group 5

Armenia is the overwhelming favorite to finish last. Second is between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey.

Ignoring Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina have 9 points in 5 matches. They still face Estonia and at least a draw with Turkey is very likely if they finish second. They are extremely unlikely to be get second but not make the playoff.

Turkey have 8 points in 6 matches. They aren't finishing in second without a win against B-H so you can pretty much call this 11 points in 7 matches. Their match against Belgium is similar so they are even less likely to finish second but not have a shot at qualification.

Group 6

Andorra will be the worst team.

Both Croatia and the Ukraine have 11 points in 6 matches. Because things are so tight between them, it's all-but mathematically impossible for them to finish in second but with fewer points than Scotland or Norway.

Group 7

The Faroe Islands are the worst team in the group. France or Serbia will almost certainly finish the group in second place.

France have 11 points in 6 matches. They'd have to lose at Serbia and at home to Austria as well as have Scotland beat the Netherlands to finish below them. Even then there is some chance another second-place team finishes below them. Needless to say, that parlay is very unlikely.

Serbia have 12 points in 5 matches. They would have to lose out and have all sorts of crazy things happen to not at least be in the playoff.

Group 8

The last-place team will likely be Georgia but could be Cyprus or Montenegro. Ireland, Bulgaria or Italy will finish in second.

For Ireland, if Georgia are the bottom team then they will qualify with a second-place finish as they have 13 points in 7 matches. If it's Cyprus they are likely in with 10 points in 6 matches, plus a likely three points coming when they play Georgia. If Montenegro is the excluded team then they are a lock with 15 points in 7 matches.

For Bulgaria second place will be good enough. Ignoring Georgia, they sit with 10 points in 6 matches. Ignore the Cypriots and they have 8 points in 6 matches. If Montenegro is the bottom team then they currently have 7 points in 5 matches. The most important thing for them is that because they are currently 5 points behind Northern Ireland, they will pass Scotland if they can manage to finish in second.

Italy on the other hand, will only finish second with mediocre results in their last three matches. Fortunately the Italians are solid already with 11 points in 5 matches if you don't consider Georgia, 14 points in 6 matches if you ignore Cyprus and 11 points in 5 matches if you forget about Montenegro. The playoff round awaits them as a consolation prize if they fail to win the group.


As you can see, the group 9 runner up is very likely to be the worst second-place team. In fact, according to the Poisson model the three most likely teams to finish with that dishonor are Norway, Scotland and Macedonia - the three teams from that group that could finish second. Group 9 produces the worst 2nd-place team in over 80% of the simulations. Here are the 10 most likely teams to finish second but not make the playoff:

Norway - 37.1%
Scotland - 36.5%
FYR Macedonia - 6.6%
Czech Republic - 3.1%
Portugal - 3.0%
Poland - 2.7%
Northern Ireland - 2.1%
Republic of Ireland - 2.1%
Sweden - 1.9%
Slovenia - 1.5%

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