World Cup 2014 Outlook: Europe
Nations eliminated: Faroe Islands, San Marino, Scotland.
Nations alive (FIFA ranking): Spain (1), Germany (2), Croatia (4), Netherlands (5), Portugal (6), Italy (8), England (9), Russia (11), Belgium (12), Switzerland (14), Bosnia-Herzegovina (15), Greece (16), France (18), Denmark (20), Czech Republic (24), Montenegro (25), Sweden (27), Norway (29), Hungary (33), Romania (34), Serbia (36), Albania (38), Ukraine (39), Ireland (41), Wales (45), Bulgaria (46), Turkey (54), Slovenia (55), Slovakia (56), Iceland (61), Israel (62), Poland (65), Belarus (67), Austria (76), FYR Macedonia (78), Finland (84), Armenia (89), Estonia (89), Georgia (96), Lithuania (105), Northern Ireland (116), Azerbaijan (118), Latvia (119), Cyprus (122), Moldova (134), Luxembourg (145), Kazakhstan (146), Malta (156), Liechtenstein (158), Andorra (205).
Nations qualified: None.
Fifty-three nations compete for 13 slots. There are eight groups of six teams and one of five teams, playing each other home and away. Groups end on Oct. 15. The nine group winners advance. The eight best group runners-up are paired into four two-legged ties to take place between Nov. 15 and 19. Those four winners also qualify.
1. Denmark. The Danes -- which beat the Netherlands at Euro 2012 -- was humiliated 4-0 at home Tuesday by Armenia in arguably the most improbable result so far. The former Soviet Republic of around three million people had lost at home to Group B's bottom side, Malta, last week but stunned the crowd in Copenhagen, scoring its first inside 30 seconds. The Danes' chances of reaching Brazil now look remote. They are level on points with Armenia, four points adrift of second-place Bulgaria with four matches to go.
2. Belgium. As the U.S. knows after last month's 4-2 friendly defeat in Cleveland, Belgium is a force. A 2-1 win over Serbia on Friday put Belgium three points clear of Croatia at the top of Group A and saw Marc Wilmots' team become the first in Europe to secure at least a playoff place. Belgium qualified for six successive World Cups between 1982 and 2002 and finished fourth in 1986. But it hasn't reached a major tournament since 2002. With a roster full of English Premier League talent such as Vincent Kompany, Christian Benteke, Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard, that's surely about to change.
3. Russia. Rich, in his mid-60s and frustrated after dramatically quitting the England job last year, Fabio Capello could have retired and savored his art collection. Instead, the Italian took charge of Russia -- a lucrative but pressurized endeavor. After winning his first four Group F fixtures without conceding a goal, avoiding defeat against Portugal last Friday would have virtually sealed the 2018 hosts' place in Brazil. But Helder Postiga's ninth-minute strike gave Portugal a 1-0 win in Lisbon on Friday that dropped Capello's charges to second place, albeit with games in hand. Still, finishing top is now a challenge, and Israel is lurking in third, only a point behind.
Montenegro. It only joined FIFA in 2007 after separating from Serbia and did not play its first competitive match until September 2008. Its population is only about 630,000 -- roughly the same as Boston. Yet with the help of Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, it is leading Group H ahead of three of Europe's most populous countries -- England, Ukraine and Poland. A 1-1 draw at home to England in March gave Montenegro genuine hope of a first-place finish that was shaken last Friday by a 4-0 home defeat to Ukraine that leaves the group wide open ahead of the next set of fixtures in September.
While France bickered its way to an early exit from South Africa, Spain was headed to the title. Then Spain easily knocked France out of Euro 2012. Now the two powerhouses are vying for first place in the five-nation Group I. An underwhelming Spain has a one-point advantage over Didier Deschamps' mediocre side thanks to a 1-0 victory in Paris in March and should win its three remaining games.
The Netherlands was pointless and pathetic at Euro 2012, but the 2010 World Cup runner-up is on course to qualify for next year's finals with ease. Louis van Gaal took over as coach from Bert van Marwijk last summer, and with six wins from six Group D matches (20 goals scored, two conceded) the Dutch are virtually assured of an automatic berth.
Italy and Germany are also moving serenely toward Brazil, but England faces a battle for a top-two spot. Avoiding defeat in Ukraine in September will be vital. Talented minnow Bosnia-Herzegovina is well-placed to reach its first major tournament. And at least for the moment, Albania (fruitless FIFA member since 1932 but second in Group E) can dream.
Automatic qualifiers: Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, England, Spain. Via playoffs: Croatia, Portugal, France, Ukraine.