Michal Bilek may have kept his job last week as coach of the Czech Republic but the chances of his side, in my opinion, reaching the World Cup in 2014 look very remote indeed. Italy, you would expect, can start booking their accommodation in Brazil after a blistering start in Group B. The Italians sit in top spot after collecting 13 points from a possible 15 while Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Denmark are vying for 2nd place and a back door ticket to Brazil via the playoffs.
At first glance the Czech Republic look in good shape to usurp a Bulgaria side that have played a game more but I fancy Denmark, who have a much kinder second half to the campaign, to surge past both countries and snatch second place.
Here are my thoughts on the three sides looking to reach the play-offs.
The Bulgarians have yet to lose a game in the group and have surprised me with their doggedness and resilience; however, both of their wins came at home against the two weakest sides in the group (Armenia and Malta). They now face a run of three consecutive away games that could see them lose momentum and their grip on the play-off spot.
Bulgaria used to be a regular fixture at major championships in the 1980/90’s but they look a shadow of previous generations and it would be a shock to see them in Brazil next summer.
Italy (A), Malta (A), Armenia (A), Czech Republic (H)
Michal Bilek’s tenure as coach can be summed up by four days last month. The Czechs got outplayed and hammered 3-0 by Denmark in Olomouc on March 22 – a result that blew the group wide open as the Danes were teetering on the brink of an early exit. Then, with the country fearing the worst, the Czechs go to Armenia and hand out a 3-0 beating of their own with Matej Vydra, who was in the midst of a purple patch with Watford, notching two goals and saving Bilek from the boot.
Italy visit Prague in June and the FACR made it very clear the Czechs need to take something from this game if they harbour any ambitions of qualification — something I couldn’t agree with more. The Czechs face the toughest run in with Italy still to play home and away, finally they round off the group with a trip to Bulgaria.
Italy (H), Armenia (H), Italy (A), Malta (A), Bulgaria (A)
The Danes find themselves four points off Bulgaria with a game in hand but, more importantly, they have a wonderful run of fixtures coming up. Double header’s with Armenia and Malta should see them surge up the table and apply some real pressure to their rivals. The other fixture is at home to Italy on 11th October – the ideal time to face the Euro 2012 finalists who should have qualification already assured.
The Danes can also boast a superior head to head record over the Czechs and have plenty of scope to rack up a few goals against the Maltese. Everything seems to be their favour.
Armenia (H), Malta (A), Armenia (A), Italy (H), Malta (H)
Denmark looked dead and buried to me after picking up just two points from the opening three games but the 3-0 win in Olomouc has given the group a different complexion. Denmark should be odds on to steal second spot from under the noses of Bulgaria and the inconsistent Czech Republic.
However, should the Czechs or Bulgarians take the scalp of Italy there could be one final twist no one quite expected.