One of the great things about the FIFA World Cup format is the last match days of the group stage. It’s unusual for a group to be completely settled prior to the last day, so there’s frequently a good bit of drama. Often, the goal differential and goals scored tie-breaker rules come into effect to decide positions. As we saw at last year’s Confederations Cup, it’s possible for the team dead last in the table (vis USA) to qualify for the next round through a series of improbable results. To make it even more dramatic, they play the final matches for each group simultaneously, so the table is shifting around in real time and an added-time goal could swing a group. Anyone who watched USA-Egypt last summer knows how excruciating that can be.
Overall, the vulnerability of some of the tournament’s biggest names means that there is a lot less gamesmanship (in the negative sense) at play this time. The tendency for already-qualified teams to play “negotiated draws” really taints the proceedings. But because of the unpredictability of next-round opponents, and the high variability between playing, say, Argentina in your next match versus South Korea, lots of teams should be going for the win.
If you are setting your DVR, here are the one’s to watch (reasons below): Mexico-Uruguay, Nigeria-South Korea, both of the Group C matches, Denmark-Japan, Italy-Slovakia, and Chile-Spain.
So, what’s to play for going into the last match day?
Group A: Mexico and Uruguay both go through if they draw when they play each other. Nothing France can do if that happens. However, they will both want to avoid playing Argentina, the likely Group B winner, in the Round of 16, so Mexico will be playing to win, since a draw favors Uruguay (who would qualify first on goal difference in the case of a draw). France could just pip the loser on goal difference if they get a multi-goal win over South Africa and either Mexico crushes Uruguay or vice versa. Unlikely. Mexico and Uruguay should advance, although who finishes first and who finishes second is up for grabs.
Group B: Argentina clinch first place with a win or draw over Greece. South Korea clinch second place with a win or draw over Nigeria, assuming Greece lose to Argentina. If Greece draws Argentina and South Korea lose to Nigeria, Greece goes through in second place. Nigeria has a chance for second if they beat Korea and Argentina beat Greece. Probably Argentina and Korea, but we could see a weird finish for second here if Argentina rest their stars and Nigeria goes for it against Korea.
Group C: Lots of permutations here, with England, USA and Slovenia all capable of winning the group and all four teams still capable of qualifying. If both games draw, Slovenia wins the group and USA likely go through second on goals scored (they have a +2 advantage over England in goals), unless England score three more goals than the USA score. The crazy scenario is an England-Slovenia draw and Algeria beating USA, which would result in both England and USA eliminated. USA must beat Algeria to control their own destiny — they would automatically advance with that result. A draw would only work if Slovenia draw or beat England. If USA beat Algeria and England beat Slovenia by similar scores, USA goes through first and England second. Going to be a great day of football on June 23rd.
Group D: Despite the table, I think Germany and Serbia are in the drivers’ seats. Serbia play a demoralized Australia without either Cahill or Kewell, out on red card suspensions. Germany play a Ghana team they should match up very well against, even without Klose. If they both win, as I think they will, then order is restored and Germany qualify first, Serbia second. Any result against Germany would put Ghana through. If Serbia-Australia ends in a draw and Ghana lose, Serbia could be in trouble. They would be level on points with Ghana, probably level on goal difference (unless Ghana lose by 2), with Ghana having the goals scored and head-to-head advantages. If Ghana-Germany ends in a draw, and Serbia beat Australia, we could see Serbia and Ghana through, and Germany eliminated.
Group E: Holland are through. They play an already-eliminated Cameroon in a meaningless match for both teams. Holland need only a point to guaranty they finish first in the group, and even if they lose, they probably finish first on goal difference. Denmark-Japan is the decider for second place, as they both sit on 3 points going into the last match. Japan have an advantage on goal difference, so could technically play for a draw; Denmark, on the other hand, has to play for the win. Given how these teams have played so far, it should be a great final match, one I’m really anticipating.
Group F: All four of these teams are still capable of qualifying, although there are some unlikely permutations. Despite New Zealand’s amazing performances against Slovakia and Italy, this is still looking like Italy and Paraguay, although definitely not in that order. Italy still have work to do against Slovakia, who won’t be easy to beat. A draw works for Italy if New Zealand crashes against Paraguay, but If New Zealand draw Paraguay, it’s going to come down to goals scored, where the Italians and Kiwis are currently even. Hard to imagine New Zealand beating Paraguay, who should get through in first place. Slovakia could still qualify with a win over Italy and a New Zealand loss to Paraguay.
Group G: Brazil qualify, almost certainly as group winners. All they need is a draw versus Portugal in their last match to get a point and go through on top. Portugal would also be content with a draw, as it would insure that they progress ahead of Ivory Coast. Portugal could top the group with a win. Ivory Coast’s only chance is for Brazil to humiliate Portugal, while they knock in a bunch against North Korea — enough to reverse the astonishing -9 goal difference they currently have versus Portugal after Portugal’s 7:0 win over North Korea. The Dear Leader’s boys are eliminated and have nothing to play for.
Group H: Chile and Spain play for all the marbles in a wide open group. Only Chile controls its own destiny and wins the group with a draw. That draw would be disastrous for Spain, who would be eliminated in this case if the Swiss beat Honduras. If Chile wins, they qualify on top and Spain are eliminated with a Swiss win or draw versus Honduras. If Honduras beats Switzerland and Chile beats Spain, second place will come down to goal difference where Spain have a slight advantage. If Spain beats Chile and Switzerland beats Honduras (a likely scenario), then Chile, Spain and Switzerland will each have 6 points and it comes down to goal difference and perhaps even goals scored to determine which of the three gets eliminated. Honduras could still qualify in second place with a win over Switzerland and a Chile win over Spain, assuming they could make up some goal difference on Spain.