Friday, September 4, 2009

World Cup Qualification - UEFA

How It Works

The 53 European national teams (52 plus Israel if you like) are divided into 9 groups - 8 groups of 6 and 1 group of 5. Each group plays a league format with every team playing against every other team in their group twice, once in each country. The top team in each group automatically advances to the finals in South Africa. The worst 2nd-place team is eliminated and the other 8 go into a playoff round. These 8 teams are randomly paired up. Each pair plays a home-and-home knockout round. After the two matches, the team with the most goals in both matches combined wins. If they score the same number then the team that scored more goals away from home wins. If they also scored the same number of away goals (in other words, the scores were the same in both matches) then they go to extra time and penalties if necessary. A potentially important thing is that in determining the 8 best second-place teams, for the second-place team from the groups with 6 teams the results against the worst team in their group are ignored.

Where the Groups Are Now

Group 1

Denmark have a stranglehold on the group. They are up 3 points with just four matches to go. Even better, they still have a matchup with Albania and their other three games are at home. The model predicts that Denmark have a 97% chance to win the group. Portugual and Sweden are given 1.3% and 1.2% respectively and Hungary 0.5%.

The race for second is much more interesting. The model rates Sweden as the favorite but with only a 35% chance of making the playoff. Portugal are close with a 32% chance of playing for the spot. Hungary has a 15% chance to finish as one of the top 8 second-place teams and Denmark a little over 2%. Hungary looks great if you just look at the table but the schedule is really bad for them. After playing Sweden tomorrow/tonight, they play two matches in a row against Portugal before finishing at Denmark. They are the only team in the top four that does not have a match left against Albania or Malta.

This group has about a 15% chance of producing a second-place team that does not qualify for the playoff round. Sweden has roughly a 5% chance of suffering that fate, Portugal 6% and Hungary 4%.

Group 2

Despite being even and playing in Switzerland today, Greece are in better shape. The difference is scheduling. Greece still play against both Luxembourg and Moldova, while Switzerland plays Latvia, Luxumbourg and Israel. Latvia and Israel aren't completely out of it. Although they are fourth currently, Israel have a better chance than Latvia of making the playoff since they have an easier schedule and host the Latvians today.

The second-place team from this group made it to the playoff in 98% of the simulations.

Group 3

Slovakia appear to be in a dominant position but it's deceptive. Their four remaining matches are against the teams not named San Marino. They are still favorites but it's far from a lock - the model gives them a 52% chance of winning the group. The Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Poland are all in it with roughly a 13% chance of winning the group. Slovenia is at 8% to qualify automatically.

Second place is wide open. Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Northern Ireland are all about equally likely to make the playoff at 18-19%. Poland is given 15.5% and Slovenia 13.2. With Poland hosting Northern Ireland and the Czechs traveling to Slovakia today is an important day for all four of those teams.

The group combined has about a 15% chance of finishing with the worst second-place team. Everyone but San Marino has roughly a 3% chance of being knocked out despite finishing second in the group.

Group 4

This group is a two-horse race. Germany are currently up four but Russia play Liechtenstein in St. Petersburg today. Their schedules are pretty similar for the last three games. They play each other October 10th in Moscow, a match which likely decides the group. Germany has a 75% chance of finishing first, and Russia 25%. Flip those for finishing second. Whichever finishes second will be in the playoff.

Group 5

Spain has all-but mathematically won the group. Bosnia-Herzegovina is in great shape to finish second, but Turkey still has a chance. This is again due to scheduling - B-H still have to play Spain and Turkey just has the other four teams left. If B-H get at least a draw at home against Turkey on Wednesday then they'll have things close to locked up. The model gives B-H a 63% chance of getting into the playoff round and Turkey 32%. Both finish second but fail to make the playoff about two times in a hundred.

Group 6

Not much needs to be said about England's situation. Ukraine's match in hand is against Andorra, so you can just about count them and Croatia as tied right now. Both play England, with Ukraine having the edge of facing England at home instead of away. That flips when both play Belarus. The last matchday Ukraine play at Andorra and Croatia in Kazakhstan. This race stands a good chance of coming down to goal difference. Croatia have a five-goal edge there right now but again Ukraine still has two matches against Andorra.

It's too close for me to personally call. Falling back on the Poisson model, I'm told that Croatia has a pretty big edge and a 74% chance of getting second to Ukraine's 24%. Belarus also has a 1.5% chance. It is very unlikely that the second best team from this group doesn't make the playoff - the chances for the three potential teams add up to 0.7%.

Group 7

Once again the schedule makes the group appear less competitive than it is. France's match in hand can be thought of as their home fixture with the Faroe Islands because otherwise Serbia and France have similar schedules. It will be very tough though for the French to go through top if they don't get a win next week in Serbia. The model rates the Serbians as 64% favorites to win the group and France at 36%. For second place, according to the simulations France will make the playoff 58% of the time, Serbia 35% of the time and Romania 4%. France has a little over a 1% chance of finishing in second but out of the playoff round.

Group 8

Italy are in the driver's seat. The Irish have a chance but they'll need to beat Italy in Dublin next month and have Italy slip up somewhere else along the line. Bulgaria aren't completely out of it but would effectively need to win out and probably have Ireland - Italy end in a draw or have the winner lose a game they shouldn't. The Poisson prediction is that Italy win the group 86% of the time, Ireland 10% and Bulgaria 4%. Ireland are given a 43% chance of getting into the playoff via a second-place finish, Bulgaria have a 33% shot at it and Italy 10.5%.

There is about a 13% chance that the worst second-place team comes out of this group. Ireland figures to have a 10% chance of finishing in second and not getting into the playoff, Bulgaria a 2% chance of doing the same and it isn't very unlikely but could happen to Italy, Montenegro and Cyprus as well.

Group 9

The Netherlands have mathematically qualified as group winners. The race for second is wide open. Norway are the favorites for that spot - they rate as the best team of the contenders and have the easiest two matches facing Iceland and Macedonia.

A problem for these teams is that there is a pretty strong chance that the team that finishes second will be the worst second-place team. Norway has a 41% chance of getting into the playoff round and a 21% chance of finishing second but being eliminated anyway. Scotland has a better chance of being eliminated than making the playoff if they come in second. The model gives them a 7% chance of making the playoff and a 12% chance of being eliminated as the worst second-place team. Macedonia is similar - they have about a 5% chance of finishing second and getting in and a 14% chance of finishing second but that not being good enough.


Every group has at least a somewhat compelling battle for second. There are still 26 teams that are predicted to have at least a 1 in 10 chance of qualifying overall if you rate everyone as equally likely to win in a playoff.

I had hoped to give something more detailed on the matches today for each UEFA group, but ran out of time. I'll promise it for Wednesday's matches.

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