Can it really be time for 2014 World Cup qualifiers? Didn’t we just get finished with Euro 2012 just a few weeks ago?
The answers are yes and yes, as the never-ending international football calendar swings into World Cup qualifier mode for the next 14 months as the countdown to Brazil 2014 officially begins for UEFA entries this weekend.
As usual, European entries will compete in nine different qualifying groups, with the winners of each, and the runner-up side with the best mark, granted immediate passage into the festivities in Samba-land come 2014. The other eight runners-ups will compete in four head-to-head matchups in November of 2013 to determine the final four UEFA entrants, which will total 14 of the 32-team field.
Heavyweight sides such as Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy figure to advance as expected, as most qualifier groups feature a clear favorite (or two) and several outsiders. In this particular set of qualifiers, however, a couple of groups look a bit more tricky than others. World Cup and two-time Euro holders Spain, for example, have been drawn into a qualifying group with potentially troublesome France. Meanwhile, both Italy and Holland are being presented with dangerous matches off the bat in their respective groups.
The first of those matches takes place Friday in Eindhoven at Philips Stadion where the Dutch play host to an upset-minded Turkey in Group Four action. A quick check of European wagering outlets notes that Holland is favored to win, but not prohibitively so, at 1/2, with the take-back on the Turks at 11/2. The draw, which looks interesting, is priced at 16/5 for this 2:30 p.m. (ET) kickoff.
For the Dutch, it has been a turbulent few months since their spectacular spinout at Euro 2012. Considered one of the pre-tourney favorites after reaching the finale of World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Holland instead lost all three of its groups matches to exit proceedings in Poland and Ukraine very ignominiously. In the aftermath of that embarrassment, manager Bert Van Marwijk resigned, replaced by the veteran Louis Van Gaal, whose pedigree includes stints at most of the top sides in Europe including Ajax, where he won a Champs League crown in 1995, plus Barcelona and Bayern Munich as well as an earlier stint as the Dutch manager in 2000-02 that was marked by failure to qualify for the memorable Japan/South Korea World Cup.
We’ll see, however, how Van Gaal aligns tactically after Van Marwijk was widely criticized for his lineup deployments at the Euros. Van Marwijk did not seem to make the most out of Schalke striker Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who began the first two group matches on the bench. Many believed the Dutch should operate with Huntelaar as the target man in a 4-2-3-1, with Robin Van Persie (now at Man United) withdrawn slightly to a position on the wing, from where he can also terrorize opponents with incisive cuts into the box and service to Huntelaar.
This combo worked nicely when deployed in the Euro qualifiers and the two top scorers seem perfectly compatible in such an arrangement, but Van Marwijk opted against it at the Euros and Van Gaal has hinted at the same in recent friendlies in which Van Persie was not featured. Most believe some combo in which Van Persie and Huntelaar can both be featured would be best for the Dutch.
As for the Turks, they are hellbent to make amends for missing out on Euro 2012 when losing in a knockout qualifier vs. Croatia. To avoid being placed in another playoff, the Turks have to win their qualifier group.
Veteran manager Guus Hiddink resigned after the Euro miss and has been replaced by Abdullah Avci, most-recently the Turks’ Under-17 coach.
But Turkey must find some consistent goal-scoring options if it wishes to compete favorably in Eindhoven. Bolton striker Tuncay Sanli will have to shine in the target role to give the Turks their best chance.
Meanwhile, Italy looks to pick up where it left off in what was a surprising advance to the finale at Euro 2012 when its 2014 campaign gets underway on the road in Sofia against a rugged and functional Bulgaria side that will be primed to take its best shot at the group favorite right out of the chute. Euro wagering outlets have priced the visiting Azzurri at 7/10 on the win, with the take-back on the host Bulgars at 17/4.
Draw prices are at 5/2 for this 2:45 p.m. (ET) kickoff at the Vasil Levski National Stadium.
This might be a more tricky assignment than it looks for Italy, however, as manager Cesare Prandelli has had to make lineup adjustments due to the absences of strikers Antonio Cassano (Inter) and Mario Balotelli (Man City). Cassano, who recently transferred to the blue half of the San Siro, has fitness issues while Balotelli recovers from eye surgery. Both have been left off of the rosters for this match vs. Bulgaria and next week vs. Malta.
Giorgio Cellini and Thiago Motta have also been left off the squad due to fitness concerns.
Look for Prandelli to give long looks to Roma's Pablo Osvaldo and Milan's Giampaolo Pazzini in the places of Cassano and Balotelli. Osvaldo, in particular, has intrigued Prandelli.
As for the Bulgars, they have not been able to coax Fulham striker Dimitar Berbatov to return to the international scene, in which the former Man U hitman last performed in 2009. Coach Lyuboslav Penev is also going to be minus potential contributors such as Bolton winger Martin Petrov and Sporting Lisbon forward Valeri Bojinov as well as Aston Villa midfielder Stiliyan Petrov, who is fighting acute leukemia.
The 21-man squad includes four players from current Bulgarian league leader Ludogorets. But solving still-effective Italy goalkeeper Gigi Buffon could be a tall order, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see the Bulgars close up shop and play for a nil-nil result.