The dashing of surprise

Earlier in the week, I had planned to write a piece on the Euro 2004 playoffs, celebrating the surprise results in Saturday’s games and wondering if this marked a new equality in European international football.

Luckily for me and my predictive reputation, I didn’t get the time to write it, so I’m not left with egg on my face after 4 of tonight’s results.

Partly, of course, it’s the nature of a two-legged ties to reduce the possibility of shock results. While a ‘small’ team can often pull off a good result against a ‘big’ team in one game, the return leg offers the big team the chance to settle the score, as both Spain and the Netherlands did tonight, putting multiple goals past the Norwegian and Scottish sides who’d pulled off good results on Saturday.

Croatia‘s tie against Slovenia looked from the draw like it would be the closest of the playoffs, and it proved to be that way, with just asingle goal securing the Croatians’ passage to yet another major final, continuing their presence at a major tournament, but denying the Slovenians what would have been a frankly amazing third qualification in a row after Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup.

Wales pulled off one of their best ever performances in Moscow on Saurday, holding Russia to 0-0, but tonight fell victim to that other curse of the two-leg tie: the away goals rule. Once Russia had scored, it left Wales searching for two goals to win, rather than one to draw, and though they had a gallant performance, luck just wasn’t with them. However, despite the downbeat ending, this has been a positive qualifying tournament for the Welsh and they will be looking to build on this and perhaps hold on to the positive feelings surrounding Welsh sport after the national rugby side’s great performances in their World Cup.

However, leaving the biggest to the end, there was one shock this evening and I suspect the partying may go on in Latvia for a long time after their superb 2-2 draw in Turkey for a 3-2 aggregate win made them the first former Soviet country to qualify for a European Championships (approximately one hour before Russia became the second) since the CIS’ appearance in 1992. It was proof that even with a two-leg system, seeming sporting miracles can occur, even a side ranked 56th in the world beating the third-place team from the last World Cup.

This means the sixteen teams competing in Euro 2004 next year will be Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The draw for the finals, in which these teams will be arranged into four groups of four through the use of various plastic balls, glass bowls and Lennart Johansson, takes place on the 30 November with the tournament itself beginning on the 12 June next year.

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