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As expected, Group C is really a 3 horse race. A little unexpectedly, however, Spain has faltered and opened up the automatic qualification to Ukraine and Slovakia. At the moment, we project an alarming discrepancy between these “Big 3” and the other 3 in the group. This “Big 3” would put the Miami Heat’s to shame. We currently have each of the top 3 between 21 and 23 points, while we do not have any of the other 3 teams projected at higher than 8 points. That’s pretty remarkable. That massive discrepancy adds up to the fact that we give the 3rd place finisher in Group C an almost 50/50 shot of being the best 3rd place team and qualifying directly.
At this point we believe that the Big 3 will take all 6 points from the others. As far as what will separate the top, we currently give Slovakia the slight edge at 39.4%. Spain is 2nd at 36.2%, and we give the remaining odds to Ukraine. Again, at this point it would be a major, major shock to see any of Ukraine, Spain or Slovakia not in France for the finals. We give each of the three around a 90% chance or higher of ultimately reaching the finals.
Luxembourg v. Ukraine – Luxembourg, Luxembourg
If you’re one of the best teams in UEFA (and we think Ukraine is), you have to get 3 points against Luxembourg, even if it’s on the road. While Luxembourg is not at the poor level of an Andorra or San Marino, they’re still bottom of the group. We have 7 matches for Luxembourg on record against teams ranked higher than WGF #20. They have 0 points, 3 goals for and 22 goals against. On the other hand, against teams outside our top 55, Ukraine has 13 wins and a draw from 14 matches with 39 goals for and just 2 goals against. In 8 matches on record away from home against teams outside the WGF top 50, Ukraine has not conceded a single goal. The deck is stacked against Luxembourg here. This one goes as planned.
Prediction: Luxembourg 0 – Ukraine 3
FYR Macedonia v. Slovakia – Skopje, Macedonia
Macedonia is on an L9 against teams in our Top 40, which Slovakia is. In those matches, they’ve scored just 4 goals and conceded 23. Slovakia will look to keep their perfect record unblemished, and while they should find some resistance, it would ultimately be a surprise to see them fall short of the 3 points. While Macedonia is tough at home (4 wins in last 5), we think Slovakia will show why they’re currently atop Group C.
Prediction: FYR Macedonia 0 – Slovakia 2
Spain v. Belarus – Huelva, Spain
La Furia Roja is a machine at home. They haven’t had anything other than victories at home since March 2013. And they’re winning home games by an average of almost 2.5 goals per game. Belarus is tougher than they appear. They only lost 2-1 at Spain a year ago, but at that point Spain had already punched their ticket to Brazil. With this group extremely competitive at the top, Spain should put the pedal to the metal and bang home at least 3 goals against Belarus. Anything less would have the doubters out.
Prediction: Spain 3 – Belarus 0
England looks like they may run away with the group. We only project Belgium and Italy at this point with a higher chance than England of qualifying. Their odds are currently at 99.25%. They’ve already won at Estonia and Switzerland, and there really should not be much doubt. Lithuania find themselves a surprise 3rd, but this is largely cosmetic. They’ve defeated Estonia at home 1-0 and won at San Marino 2-0 before succumbing to Slovenia at home. Things are only going to get tougher, and unfortunately we are not projecting much success. Despite the 6 points, we have them with less than a 1% chance to reach the finals. Estonia, meanwhile, should be in a very similar position, barring an unexpected run.
The real question in this group at this point is which of Slovenia and Switzerland will join England as an automatic qualifier, and which will be resigned to the playoffs. Currently we give Slovenia the slight edge, but the difference is miniscule. They’ve already defeated Switzerland, and although Switzerland has an easier remaining schedule, we think that the difference should offset based on what has already been accomplished. This probably won’t get sorted out until almost the bitter end of qualifying.
England v. Slovenia – London, England
This is absolutely a match to be seen. Speaking of places where Slovenia can set themselves apart from Switzerland, this is it. If Slovenia can even get a point out of this matchup, it will go a long way given Switzerland has already lost to England. England, meanwhile, simply needs to avoid disaster and stay out of harm’s way. A draw is fine, and a win would be even better. If England takes care of business at home, their ticket is as good as punched. Slovenia has everything to play for but is not a great road team. 10 losses in their last 11 road matches against teams in our top 80!
Prediction: England 2 – Slovenia 1
San Marino v. Estonia – Serraville, San Marino
Not much to say about San Marino matches. Our predictor is awfully generous here, giving San Marino an almost 7% chance of actually WINNING the match as well as a 14% chance of getting a point. If San Marino is to get anything out of qualifying, it probably happens here. Estonia needs 3 if they want to be taken seriously. We think they’ll get it.
Prediction: San Marino 0 – Estonia 3
Switzerland v. Lithuania – St. Gallen, Switzerland
We think this is where the tide starts to turn and Lithuania fades back into the pack. Switzerland simply must win this game if they want any shot of avoiding the playoffs. Prior to losing to England, Switzerland hadn’t lost at home in over 2 years. They need to reclaim that form and take care of business. Don’t expect a massive scoreline, but also do not expect this match to ever be in much doubt. Lithuania is another team that struggles mightily on the road. They have just 3 points from 14 road matches over the last 3.5 years against teams in our Top 100.
Prediction: Switzerland 3 – Lithuania 0
This is a tough group. Strong. The good news is that 3 or 4 teams have the potential to finish top 2 in the group. The bad news is that since they’re going to bang on each other a number of times, the best 3rd place side is highly unlikely to come from this group. We estimate that number at around 3%. At the moment, we give the edge to group leader Austria. At almost 60% to finish top of the group, they’re in great shape. We give them over a 92% chance of qualifying. It’s further justification that our rankings and initial projections were not unfounded.
After that, we like Sweden. Russia slipped up and did not defeat Moldova at home. They’ve looked increasingly weak dating back to the World Cup, and are now at their lowest ever WGF rank at #32. That’s not to say they’re a bad team or won’t reach France, but they’re currently not among UEFA’s best. We don’t have them in the UEFA Top 20 right now. Since the draw, we’ve thought Montenegro was a shoe-in for 4th in the group. Not much has happened to change that thinking. They will, however, have plenty of opportunities to pick up points against the projected top 3. But failing to win at Liechtenstein is a huge hole to climb out of.
Austria v. Russia – Vienna, Austria
We just got done talking up Austria and beating down Russia. Austria now has a chance to prove it truly belongs. Austria already failed to defeat Sweden at home, so this is a pretty important match. 3 points here would be absolute gold. We give them about a 50/50 shot of defeating Russia. Austria has an 8 match unbeaten streak on the line, and they haven’t lost in over a full calendar year. They’ve also scored goals in 10 straight, but it’s obviously fair to expect a low scoring match here, as Russia just does not concede many goals. In their last 41 matches, Russia has conceded just 22 goals. Only the USA was able to tag them for multiple goals. We’ll see if Austria can appease the predictor.
Prediction: Austria 2 – Russia 1
Moldova v. Liechtenstein – Chisinau, Moldova
While this is certainly not a premier fixture, it’s an important one for each. Basically, the team (or teams) that fail to pick up 3 points is on extremely thin ice. Liechtenstein is on a road L13, with 2 goals for against 38 conceded. Moldova simply must take advantage of this opportunity to have any shot of qualification. Fortunately, our rankings do like them, as we see an almost 80% chance of victory. A win wouldn’t affect Moldova’s group outlook too much, but it’s a must have game. We still have them with an almost 2% chance of finishing top 3. Anything other than victory would wipe that to 0.
Prediction: Moldova 3 – Liechtenstein 0
Montenegro v. Sweden – Podgorica, Montenegro
This should be a good one. Montenegro has been in a downward spiral since looking like they had a chance to reach Brazil 2014. They had a streak of 9 straight unbeaten heading into their June 2013 home qualifier against Ukraine. They were demolished 4-0. They have just 3 victories in their past 12 matches, including an embarrassing 5-2 home defeat to Moldova in their final World Cup Qualifier. Sweden is a team that is maddening, but for all their faults, they beat the bad teams. They’ve won all 13 matches on record against teams outside our top 60. Montenegro currently sits at #54. It’s fair to expect a very close match that should be decided by no more than 1 goal. If Sweden takes 3 points, Russia could be in trouble.
Prediction: Montenegro 1 – Sweden 2