Thursday, November 12, 2009

WQC UEFA Playoff Preview: Ireland - France

Will Irish eyes be smiling? Will the French come out of next week with their joie de vivre? Is that a cheesy enough intro? No? In an epic struggle between Guinness and champagne, eleven footballers from each these two great republics will battle it out to see who books a trip to South Africa and who weeps in front of the television next summer. Will France be able to overcome the luck o' the Irish or will Ireland best France despite them having a certain je ne sais quoi? That should do.

How they did in the group stage.

Making the playoff always means the same thing. You did pretty well in the group stage, but not well enough. Unlike Ireland, France were expected to win their group. They went 6-3-1 with a goal differential of +9. The other teams in their group were Serbia, Austria, Lithuania, Romania and the Faroe Islands. I'd say that's an average to a bit above average group. Serbia bested them despite France getting a win and a draw against the Serbs. The French gave away points with an early loss at Austria and two draws against Romania, the last of which was two months ago in Saint-Denis.

Looking at results, Ireland are probably the most interesting team remaining. They are the only country in the playoffs that didn't lose in the group stage; their problem is that they got far too many draws. Their group mates were Italy, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Montenegro and Georgia. Again I'd rate that as a pretty average group. Playing Italy to two draws is certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Less impressive are the two 0-0 draws against Montenegro and 1-1 draws against Bulgaria. In terms of goal differential, Ireland weren't impressive. Their four wins over lowly Georgia and Cyprus were all by a single goal. I don't recall another team coming out of a group stage like that with every match either a draw or just with one goal in it. Based on that we can expect a couple of close matches.

Likely Lineups

France have some big injuries. Franck Ribery will be out with a knee injury. Jeremy Toulalan is also expected to miss out on one or both of the matches with a tweaked adductor muscle. In addition, Abou Diaby will probably be ready but has had injury issues. On the other side, Ireland have few injuries. They will be without backup forwards Shane Long, Noel Hunt and Caleb Folan.

One issue many have with Domenech is that the squad has lacked consistency in both lineups and tactics. France have run a 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and the somewhat in-between 4-2-3-1. Ireland on the other hand have kept to the traditional 4-4-2.

I think the lineups will look something like:

Finnan ...O'Shea ...Dunne ...Kilbane

Keogh...Whelan ...Andrews ...McGeady

............Keane... Doyle

Henry .........................Anelka



edit: I've changed the France lineup from my initial idea. For some reason I had Gallas out of the starting lineup despite being the most regular center back in qualifying. I also apparently got the replacement for Toulalan wrong. According to an article in Lequipe, Alou Diarra is the likely starter instead of Sissoko and the center-back pairing will be Abidal and Gallas. At least that's what my quite limited knowledge of French tells me the article says. They also list Gignac up top instead of Benzema. I could see that going either way and I think whoever doesn't start is a likely sub for whomever does.

How they rate.

I applied my new rankings system to all UEFA countries. Fully weighting all matches in qualifying and the finals for Euro 2008 and this qualifying campaign, France came out as the 15th best scoring team and 13th best defensively. I was surprised they were that low to be honest. Overall they were 10th indicating that they weren't far below the teams ahead of them in either attack or defense. Ireland came out 26th best overall. They rate 18th best defensively but only 30th best at scoring.


I'm still unsure which model is best. I'm using the new averages model to come up with the coefficients and then either using Poisson or ordered logit to get the estimates for how likely each possible result is. As I've written before, the logit model is less sensitive to the scoring and defensive factors of the two teams. The results of each model are somewhat close but using Poisson gives a more extreme result.

For the tie as a whole, the logit model predicts that France will advance 62.3% of the time and Ireland 37.7%. The Poisson model gives France a better chance with a 73.1% shot at playing in South Africa, 26.9% for Ireland. For the first leg alone, the averages-logit model has it extremely even with France having a 37.4% chance of winning, Ireland 35.8% with the remaining 26.8% going to a draw. The Poisson model gives France a 40.5% chance of winning outright, Ireland a 30.3% chance of pleasing the home fans and them leaving it all to play for with 29.2% probability. For both models the most likely outcome for the first leg is a 1-1 draw.

Personally, I expect it to be very close. I think Ireland definitely have a chance. Part of that is that I am not a fan of Domenech. My suggested lineup above is what I think they probably run based on what they have done in the past. That lineup should get the job done, but if I were French I'd be worried about both who and what he'll put out there. Ireland should be a tough opponent and I don't see France playing them off the park either leg, especially the first. Despite all that, I think Franced definitely have an edge.

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