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What once looked like a Dutch runaway surely is no longer. Since the World Cup ended, the Dutch have lost 4 of 5 matches, only defeating Kazakhstan in the process. Before this string of losses, they had just one defeat in their previous 28 matches. Before that streak, they lost 4 straight. The Dutch appear to be a team that in between remarkably good and surprisingly bad. Even worse has been Turkey, as they have just 1 point through 3 matches (a draw at Latvia, no less). WGF projects them to finish with around 13 points. We give them less than a 5% chance of even reaching the finals. It would take a miraculous turnaround to right the ship. We give them a 90% chance of finishing 4th in the group.
As bad as the others have been, Iceland and the Czech Republic have really stood out in qualifying. Each team sits on the full 9 points from 9 in qualifying. That’s the real problem for Turkey is that in addition to performing poorly, others have done extremely well. There’s a ton of ground to make up. It looks like 2 of 3 from Iceland, Czech Republic and Netherlands will qualify directly for France. We like Iceland the most, and it is a true toss-up between the other two. Kazakhstan and Latvia should be the bottom 2 in some order, as we have thought all along. Imagine, Latvia came from the same pot as Scotland, Finland and Wales while Iceland came from the same pot as Georgia. The draw is cruel. Make your own luck.
Also, we believe that if the best 3rd place team does not come from Group C, it is likely to come from Group A in the form of the Netherlands, Iceland or Czech Republic.
Czech Republic v. Iceland – Plzen, Czech Republic
At least one of these teams will be perfect no more. This is going to be a great game. If either team wins, they will be in commanding position to qualify for France. It is mind boggling why Iceland chose to travel to Belgium for a friendly, but that’s another story. While the Czechs have been winning, they’ve conceded in every match they’ve played in 2014 for an average of 1.57 per game. They need to fix that. This is going to be a tight game. We think there’s an almost 70% chance that both teams score. We’re going to go ahead and give the slight edge to the home side, but don’t be surprised to see a draw.
Prediction: Czech Republic 2 – Iceland 1
Netherlands v. Latvia – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Arguably the worst thing that could have happened for Latvia was the Dutch losing at home to Mexico. Now, there’s certainly a bit of panic that has set in, and the Oranje know that they MUST get 3 points. They’re going to come out hot and heavy, peppering the Latvian keeper time and time again. Expect massive possession numbers. We’re going to be kind and round up Latvia’s projected negative goals scored to 0. Don’t expect anything other than 3 points and at least 3 goals for the Dutch.
Prediction: Netherlands 3 – Latvia 0
Turkey v. Kazakhstan – Istanbul, Turkey
This is a do or die game for Turkey. There’s no doubt about it. If they can’t pick up 3 at home against Latvia, they’re all but eliminated from the tournament. The last time Turkey hosted Kazakhstan, it was a narrow victory for the hosts by 2-1. Even if the score line repeats itself, all that matters is the 3 points. For all of Turkey’s shortfalls, we do not have a match on record with them not defeating a team at home outside of the WGF top 60. Kazakhstan is currently #101. We think Turkey takes a first step here. Gotta start somewhere.
Prediction: Turkey 3 – Kazakhstan 0
This is yet another group where our initial projections were spot on. Belgium is the clear favorite. We give them a 93% chance of topping the group. We did not have a single simulation where they finished lower than 3rd. We don’t give any team higher odds than Belgium of qualifying for EURO 2016. After that, the waters get a bit murkier. Israel, Wales, and Bosnia-Herzegovina can all stake claims to an automatic qualifying spot. It is also a mathematical certainty that one of the three will miss out on the finals. All of this, of course, assumes Belgium does not shit their pants. Who hasn’t been known to do that form time to time.
We currently give the slight edge to Israel, followed by Wales. Bosnia’s defeat at home to Cyprus will surely have a ripple effect throughout all of qualifying. It will be one that is hard to forget. Wales currently tops the group, yes, but they’ve defeated the bottom 2 teams and managed just a draw with Bosnia at home. There’s still plenty of work to be done. We have Andorra as 98% last place and Cyprus 92% 5th place. No other group has 3 teams over 90% in a given position. Cyprus has a remote chance but has fared poorly since their surprise opening day victory.
Belgium v. Wales – Brussels, Belgium
The first of two critically important matches in Group B. Wales will be looking to get anything out of this match, while Belgium will be looking to continue their impressive run of form. Belgium has just 1 loss in their last 13 matches: their World Cup quarterfinal loss to Argentina. Belgium is scoring at will, averaging right around 2 goals per match over their last 30 contests. Over that stretch, only WGF top 10 teams have held them scoreless. Wales has not fared so well against good teams. Just 1 point from 7 matches against the WGF Top 16, but that point was actually away to Belgium, albeit in a meaningless World Cup Qualifier. Our predictor is ambitious. We’re sorry Wales fans.
Prediction: Belgium 3 – Wales 0
Cyprus v. Andorra – Nicosia, Cyprus
This is new territory for Cyprus. We have no match on record with them playing a team outside of our Top 80. Andorrs is ranked #168. The lowest they’ve played is a home match against Moldova, which they won. Andorra is right up there as one of the worst in Europe, and we expect the hosts to take care of business. Don’t expect an impressive blowout. Anything less than 3 for Cyprus is virtual tournament elimination.
Prediction: Cyprus 2 – Andorra 0
Israel v. Bosnia-Herzegovina – Haifa, Israel
Huge match. Absolutely huge. It’s actually best for Wales if this ends up a draw. Either team picking up 3 points will increase the odds that they have to navigate through the playoffs. As is often the case, if either team wins, they’ll be in position to grab a direct qualifying spot. This is a huge match not just for qualification, but for Israel in general. They haven’t been to a major tournament since the 70s, and a win here puts them in position to reach France in 2016. Expect a tough, low-scoring battle. We don’t think much separates these teams on the pitch.
Prediction: Israel 1 – Bosnia-Herzegovina 1
There is about as clear segmentation in this group as any other. Italy and Croatia are going to finish 1-2 in some order and qualify directly. They’re clearly better than the other 4 teams in this group. Malta is going to finish last, and Azerbaijan should end up in 5th. All of this is known after just 3 matches. The real thing to watch in this group is going to be what happens between Norway and Bulgaria for 3rd place. We’ll be honest here. We think both of these teams are not very good. Both teams float in our mid-60s, and in another group, each would probably have little chance of reaching the finals. But in Group H there is opportunity.
Bulgaria and Norway are very close in class. Norway just lost at home to Estonia, which is not how you want to enter qualifying. Additionally we think there is virtually no chance that the best 3rd place team comes from this group. Italy and Croatia are steamrolling everyone, so the points obtained probably won’t be high enough.
Azerbaijan v. Norway – Baku, Azerbaijan
We’ve like Azerbaijan from the start, but they’ve had a rough beginning to qualification. They’ve yet to record a point. They’ve also lost 5 straight against UEFA competition. But this game is a tremendous opportunity to get back into it. Norway has proven time and time again that they are beatable. Given that they’ve already lost at home to Bulgaria, it’s critical to get something. Norway needs to keep their success rolling. A win isn’t mandatory, but getting any points should give them the edge over Bulgaria. This should be high and tight.
Prediction: Azerbaijan 1 – Norway 1
Bulgaria v. Malta – Sofia, Bulgaria
While Norway is not in a must win situation, Bulgaria certainly is. This is the easiest match on paper that they’ll have in qualification, and you can’t squander an opportunity like this. It’s 3 points or bust. Malta has been playing tough lately. Italy only beat them 1-0 and Croatia only 2-0, but they haven’t scored in 6 matches. The last time they scored a road goal was June 2013. We don’t expect that streak to end. While we are harsh on Bulgaria’s quality, we know that they’re the better team here. We expect them to show it. We give Bulgaria an 87.2% chance of victory
Prediction: Bulgaria 3 – Malta 0
Italy v. Croatia – Milan, Italy
While this is a premier matchup with two of Europe’s top teams, the result of the match is largely insignificant. Both of these teams are going to finish in the Top 2 of the group, and nobody here is going to fault Croatia if they happen to lose at Italy. These teams last met at EURO 2012, where naturally, they played to a draw. These teams also currently sit back to back in our rankings. A Croatia victory would be surprising, but a draw wouldn’t be unfounded. We’ll give the slight edge to the home side here.
Prediction: Italy 2 – Croatia 1