Europe reaches the halfway pole on the road to Rio
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- A European nation that qualifies for the World Cup truly earned it.
Of all the continents, Europe has arguably the most arduous four-year cycle toward World Cup glory, considering, between tournaments, a similarly grueling qualifying process takes place to land a spot in the continental championship. That will be a little easier for the Europeans in 2016 when the field expands from 16 to 24, but the path is still a downright grind.
With qualifying finally done for the 2012 Euros - which will take place in Poland and the Ukraine - it's as good a time as any to handicap the favorites that should find themselves in Brazil come 2014.
GROUP A: Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland, Macedonia, Wales
The favorite -- Croatia
The likely runner-up -- Serbia
The spoiler -- Wales
Croatia needed a two-legged playoff victory over Turkey to claim a spot in the Euros, and the Vatreni are eager to get back to soccer's biggest stage after missing out in South Africa. Eduardo, captain Darijo Srna and wily striker Ivica Olic provide the offense, and goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa likely will anchor the back.
The best word to describe this group would be "stubborn." The cultural rivalries of Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia will lend itself to intensity on the pitch, while Scotland is known for a resolute defense. Wales is on the upswing despite not qualifying for the Euros, with Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey forming a dynamic midfield partnership.
GROUP B: Italy, Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia, Malta
The favorite -- Italy
The likely runner-up -- Denmark
The spoiler -- Czech Republic
Three Euro qualifiers are in this group, though it is somewhat surprising UEFA's seeding coefficient has Denmark ranked higher than the Czechs. Cesare Prandelli has done a masterful job overhauling the Azzurri following their 2010 flameout, though next year's tournament will show just how far Italy has come. The Danes were steady in winning their European qualifying group over Portugal, and it may finally be time for Nicklas Bendtner to deliver on his potential.
GROUP C: Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Austria, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan
The favorite -- Germany
The likely runner-up -- Sweden
The spoiler -- Ireland
This group features the clearest line of demarcation between the haves and have-nots, which means the winner of this group will have gotten the most of the nine road points available from matches at Austria, the Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan. Joachim Loew continues to have Germany running on all cylinders, Sweden quietly chugged through qualifying and Ireland finally brought itself back on the global stage by rolling through a two-legged playoff versus Estonia - a draw that proved positive karmic payback for losing a World Cup spot to France on Thierry Henry's infamous handball goal.
GROUP D: Netherlands, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Andorra
The favorite -- Netherlands
The likely runner-up -- Hungary
The spoiler -- Romania
The only upset that would come out of this group is the Netherlands losing a "meaningful" match since the World Cup finalists should be able to clinch the top of the table with a match or two to spare. Turkey's playoff ouster resulted in the resignation of coaching vagabond Guus Hiddink and a likely roster overhaul on the horizon. Hungary may be the team that can step into this void for a potential playoff spot, with the Magyars at least capable of giving the Dutch a challenging match.
GROUP E: Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Albania, Cyprus, Iceland
The favorite -- Norway
The likely runner-up -- Switzerland
The spoiler -- Slovenia
Norway likely will have to retool slightly after narrowly missing qualifying for the Euros as it preps to make its first World Cup since 1998. Not making the Euros is a disappointment for the Swiss, who are trending in the wrong direction after underwhelming in South Africa in group play. Slovenia and Cyprus could both play the role of spoiler in this group, though Slovenia's World Cup experience gives it the advantage of being the bigger thorn in a favorite's side.
GROUP F: Portugal, Russia, Israel, Northern Ireland, Azerbaijan, Luxembourg
The favorite -- Portugal
The likely runner-up -- Russia
The spoiler -- Israel
Portugal's hold on the favorite spot would be more tenuous in a more challenging group, but Cristiano Ronaldo can be a match-changer in any of the important road clashes, evidenced by his strike to spur Portugal into the Euros. Russia did what it needed to in finishing ahead of Ireland to win its qualification group, and Israel arguably could have done more had it not lost Yossi Benayoun to a knee injury in European qualifying, making it a sleeper that could swipe a second-place spot.
GROUP G: Greece, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Latvia, Liechtenstein
The favorite -- Greece
The likely runner-up -- Bosnia and Herzegovina
The spoiler -- Slovakia
Perhaps the most underwhelming of the nine qualifying groups, Greece may be playing for something bigger than a World Cup spot given the unrest that has plagued the country due to financial unrest. Slovakia failed to build on its surprising World Cup showing with a fourth-place finish in European qualifying, leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina a viable contender after its two-legged playoff loss to Portugal.
GROUP H: England, Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, San Marino
The favorite -- England
The likely runner-up Montenegro
The spoiler -- Poland
England can't seem to get away from Montenegro for group play purposes, but the Three Lions have had little trouble dealing with it as they rolled to the top of their European qualifying group. Poland is a bit of an unknown entity since it did not have to go the qualifying route as host, while Montenegro once again may be destined for a two-legged playoff to determine its fate.
GROUP I: Spain, France, Belarus, Georgia, Finland
The favorite -- Spain
The likely runner-up -- France
The spoiler -- None
The straightforward prediction of Spain and France finishing 1-2 is not as cut and dry as it appears. The reigning World Cup and European Championship winners are rightfully the favorite, but France has re-emerged as easily the best non-seeded team in qualifying - and nothing says fun like continental powers vying for a World Cup spot. The two matches between La Furia Roja and Les Bleus will be appointment viewing, with more weight on those matches because there are only five teams in the group.
Updated November 18, 2011