Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Portugal: Not Dead Yet?

Portugal's World Cup qualification hopes, while far from certain, got a bit of a boost today.

First, the Portuguese went on road to Budapest and defeated Hungary, with Pepe's 9th minute header constituting the lone scoring in the match. Obviously, three points were absolutely essential. Second, group leaders Denmark failed to get three points against Albania, drawing away 1-1. If Denmark had won that match they would have been mathematically guaranteed to finish ahead of Portugal and would have likely finished as group winners. Now Denmark still has it all to play for. It was nearly a trifecta of good results for the Portugese, but a late own goal snuck Sweden past woeful Malta. It was the second time in a week that Sweden has been fortunate to win; Ibrahimović scored a 93rd minute winner against Hungary over the weekend.

With two matches to play, here is the current UEFA Group 1 Table and remaining schedules:

Denmark: 18 points, +11 GD
Sweden: 15 points, +6 GD
Portugal : 13 points, +5 GD
Hungary: 13 points, +4 GD

Denmark: Sweden, Hungary
Portugal: Hungary, Malta
Sweden: at Denmark, Albania
Hungary: at Portugal, at Denmark

Given their table positioning and schedule, it's hard to imagine Hungary cracking the top two. Can Portugal do so? Absolutely. In theory they could still win the group and qualify directly without the playoff round, though that scenario is quite unlikely (two Portugal wins, two Denmark losses, Sweden beats Denmark but loses/draws with Albania). More likely the Portugese are trying to reach second place. The simplest scenario would involve Denmark defeating Sweden at home, and Portugal winning both their games. Given that Sweden is awful fortunate to have sixteen points and must travel to Copenhagen, a Swedish loss is possible and bordering on likely. The Portuguese results aren't hard to imagine either; Portugal must first defeat Hungary at home, whom they just defeated away. Then Portugal plays a Malta side that has scored two goals in qualifying. Both were own goals (one giving Sweden three points). Couldn't make that up: they actually haven't scored in all of qualifying, at least not for their own side. I'm guessing Portugal can find a way to win.

Assuming a pair of Portugal victories, even a draw in the Denmark-Sweden match wouldn't be awful. Portugal and Sweden would then be even on points going to the last matchday, and at least even on goal difference (even if Portugal defeated Hungary by a single goal, ahead if the margin was wider). It would then turn into a goal scoring contest in the last round, with Sweden facing Albania. Albania have seven points and are not a good side, but are not truly awful like Malta. Portugal would have the advantage in such a race to the better goal differential.

The worst result for Portugal would be a Swedish victory over Denmark, which would leave Portugal two points behind both sides. Cristiano Ronaldo and company would then need help in the last matchday. Sweden is likely to defeat Albania at home, so more likely it would come from Denmark hosting Hungary. Even a draw might not be enough, as the Danes currently sport a considerable advantage in goal difference over the Portugese, though not an impossible advantage to overcome with Malta still on the slate. But it's quite likely Sweden defeating Denmark would be the death of the Portugese World Cup hopes, regardless of their results.

Still, Portugal's chances of appearing in South Africa got a big boost today. For those of us that want to see one of the world's dynamic sides and perhaps the world's best player on the biggest stage, that's a good thing.

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