An easy group? Draw your own conclusions
Sunday December 11, 2005
Paraguay, Sweden and Trinidad & Tobago? England did not draw a qualifying group so much as land on a riser in the great World Cup game of snakes and ladders, a handy short cut that leads straight to Germany or Poland in the next round.
As we know with England, that is when the action starts. There is nothing to fear in Group B, not even from Sven-Goran Eriksson's fatherland. While you might hear the statistic that England have not beaten Sweden since 1968 a couple of hundred times between now and the match in Cologne on 20 June, what also ought to be borne in mind is that seven of the 11 fixtures since then have ended in draws and that the only two competitive defeats greatly accelerated the departures from England office of Graham Taylor and Glenn Hoddle.
Furthermore, by the time England play Sweden in the final game of Group B, it is likely that a draw will suit two qualified sides, with perhaps only the preference of Germany or Poland to play for.
Does this presume too much? Not really. If you add up the Fifa rankings for the teams in each group, you are left with an approximation of difficulty for purposes of comparison. As the accompanying panel shows, Italy's group, not Argentina's, looks most like a Group of Death - or, as the germans say, Todesgruppe - with a 'difficulty factor' of 72 being by far the toughest.
Not that it seems to bother the Italians. 'We knew we'd be facing some tough matches even before the draw,' said coach Marcello Lippi. 'We have two teams [the Czech Republic and the United States] ahead of us in the Fifa rankings. That's not a big problem. We're improving all the time and we'll be even better by the time the tournament starts.'
France are in the easiest group, with a total almost double that of Italy's (the higher the number, the easier the group), while England, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Spain are sitting pretty with figures in the high nineties or just over 100. This is exactly the way Fifa want things, although should anyone cry fix, it must be pointed out that Spain usually manage to mess up everyone's calculations no matter how easy a route they get.
England do not seem in any danger of screwing up. They had the easiest schedule in European qualifying and have the third easiest group in the finals - if you have faith in Fifa rankings, that is.
The rankings method is useful for broad comparisons, but is not totally reliable. Argentina (95), for instance, appear to have only a slightly more difficult task than England (104), yet Jose Pekerman's team have to play Holland, a fate Eriksson was relieved to avoid, and the potentially tricky Ivory Coast.
Similarly, Italy's figure is based on questionably short rankings for the Czech Republic and the United States, whereas Ghana - ranked 50 but arguably strongest of the African qualifiers - could be the team to cause an upset.
It will be a major surprise if Paraguay or Trinidad & Tobago prove capable of anything so dramatic and the Sweden game could be a formality. The only danger to England would be to make Manchester United's mistake and assume they will be able to get a result if they need it. You could tell from Sir Alex Ferguson's pre-match comments that he expected his big guns to blow away Benfica when Champions League qualification was on the line, only for United to learn the costly lesson that the big guns would have been better used against Lille and Villarreal .
Because Sweden are England's final opponents, there seems little chance of Eriksson being so complacent. He will want qualification sorted before going into that game and so will Sweden coach Lars Lagerback. 'My first thought was that this was almost unreal, to play England again. But now it feels OK,' he said. 'We know them well and we have a good record against them. I think it will be even between us, England and Paraguay.'
There is every chance Lagerback and Eriksson will get their wish and after that, for England, one doubt remains - the usual one.
A diet of relatively undemanding matches leading to a big team in the quarter-finals or semi-finals stage normally spells exit. But England cannot have it both ways. In the 2002 World Cup they put out Argentina and Nigeria in the group stage and still suffered stage fright in their quarter-final against Brazil. This time, make no mistake, they have a much easier group stage and Eriksson has six months to work out what happens after that.
Rank and file
Fifa rankings are not entirely scientific, especially given variance with World Cup seedings, but they are far more reliable than people think. Add them together for each group and you'll see France have by far the easiest task and Italy the hardest.
Group A: Germany 16, Costa Rica 21, Poland 23, Ecuador 37. Total 97
Group B: England 9, Paraguay 30, Trinidad & Tobago 51, Sweden 14. Total 104
Group C: Argentina 4, Ivory Coast 41, Serbia 47, Holland 3. Total 95
Group D: Mexico 7, Iran 19, Angola 62, Portugal 10. Total 98
Group E: Italy 12, Ghana 50 (but possibly Africa's strongest team), US 8, Czech Republic 2. Total 72 (Group of Death)
Group F: Brazil 1, Croatia 20, Australia 49 (biggest dark horse, surely), Japan 15. Total 85
Group G: France 5, Switzerland 36, South Korea 29, Togo 56. Total 126 (piece of cake)
Group H: Spain 6, Ukraine 40, Tunisia 28, Saudi Arabia 32. Total 106 (even Spain can't cock up this one)
Why we shouldn't give Woodward a rum deal
One of the many terrific lines in the second series of Blackadder comes when Edmund asks the bonkers Captain Rum whether or not it is standard maritime practice for a ship to employ a crew. 'Opinion is divided on the subject,' Rum replies. 'All the other captains say it is and I say it isn't.'
This leads us naturally to Southampton, where there are now two schools of thought on a similar question. Everyone in football thinks you need a football man to run a professional club and Rupert Lowe thinks you don't.
Sir Clive Woodward may well fall flat on his face in the big wide world of football, but full marks to him and his eccentric chairman for having the guts to give it a go. By his admission, Woodward is not ready to be a football manager in his own right, but you need only to hear pundits such as Alan Hansen queueing up to say Woodward never will be ready to find yourself sticking up for the underdog.
Hansen rightly describes professional football as a conservative game, but he seems content to accept and even admire this sad state of affairs. Why shouldn't anyone try something different and why does football seem to be willing Woodward to fail? There are dozens of reasons why he might fail and he is probably aware of most of them, although that should earn him admiration rather than ridicule.
Is football guilty of inverted snobbery because Woodward is from a 'posh' game and a middle-class background, or is the sport simply afraid of being made to look straightforward by a novice? Perhaps Woodward's crime is that he does not resemble Arthur Daley or Ron Knee and never attended school of witchcraft and wizardry, where they teach you how to deal with agents, hide behind a spiral staircase and fly by the seat of your pants. No wonder he says he need another two years; it could take him that long to learn to prevaricate to South Coast standards, even if he does have Dennis Wise and 'Arry Bassett to help him.
Give the guy a break. Football is supposed to be a simple game, the great Bill Shankly said so. Hansen - managerial experience nil - ought at least applaud someone brave enough to give it a try, wherever he's from.
Time to settle old scores
Quick question: had technology or refereeing awareness allowed Tottenham's phantom goal at Old Trafford last season to stand, would it have been credited to Pedro Mendes or Roy Carroll? Surely if you got a shot on target from the halfway line you would be miffed to see it go down as an own goal simply because the goalkeeper was too surprised to deal with it properly.
I only ask because Peter Crouch's first 'goal' for Liverpool last week was awarded to Mike Pollitt. The Wigan goalkeeper made a mess of an attempted save and clearly punched the ball into his net, but as the shot was goalbound anyway (at least it was after its deflection on the edge of the penalty area), why must that count as an own goal rather than an unsuccessful effort to save?
Goalkeepers often get the last touch to scoring shots, as when getting a hand to a penalty, for example, yet the mere fact of reaching or diverting the path of the ball does not rob the striker of the goal. True goalkeepers' own goals are when the ball is punched or knocked into the net from a cross or pass that would not otherwise have gone in. Pollitt must have been embarrassed enough about his clumsiness at Anfield without having to see his name on the scoresheet.
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