Troubled giants struggle in Euro and African Nations Cup qualifying
Russia has been in seeming decline ever since Euro 2008
Egypt has won the last three African Cup of Nations but might not qualify
Although England top its group, its not assured of Euro qualification
With the qualifying series for both next year's European Championships and the African Cup of Nations roughly half-complete, a number of big names are in danger of missing out.
England returned to the top of its qualifying group with a 2-0 win over Wales on Saturday, but it remains level on points with Montenegro, and must travel to Podgorica in October. Bulgaria's draw with Switzerland means that there is a six-point gap from second to third in the group and, barring an extraordinary collapse, England should at least be sure of a runners-up spot and a probable playoff (the best eight second-placed teams from the nine groups face off for the final four slots).
The performance on Saturday, at least, was encouraging. England faced down a hostile crowd, and had the game won within 15 minutes thanks to a penalty from Frank Lampard and a goal from Darren Bent. The switch to 4-3-3 gave added security in a midfield in which Scott Parker and Jack Wilshere excelled, while Ashley Young reveled in his in-between position, hovering between the right wing and the center, between midfield and attack. In the equivalent position on the left Wayne Rooney seemed less comfortable, and there must be concerns about a potential lack of attacking width in a game in which England is less dominant, but overall the impact of the change seemed positive. Then again, it was only against Wales, who are undergoing a process of transition and were awful.
When Gareth McAuley headed Northern Ireland into the lead on Friday night, Serbian fans must have feared the worst. After all the optimism of the World Cup qualification campaign , after all the promises that this time it would be different, Serbia seemed locked on the familiar path to ignominy -- a coach deposed in controversial fashion, fans misbehaving and the team drastically underperforming. The home defeat to Estonia and the home draw against Slovenia will still take some getting over, but coming back to beat Northern Ireland 2-1 with goals from Marko Pantelic and Zoran Tosic at least gives Serbia hope of taking second-place in the group behind Italy and qualifying for the playoffs.
Serbia's coach, Vladimir Petrovic, having overseen friendly victories over Bulgaria and Israel before Friday's win, is adamant that his team is beginning to come together, and there were signs, particularly in the second half, of a fluency rooted in the two wingers, Tosic and Milos Krasic. As so often, though, the feeling is that Serbia must first overcome itself before it even begins taking on opponents. Serbia trails Italy by six points, is level with Slovenia, a point ahead of Estonia and two clear of Northern Ireland, both of whom have a game in hand. Tuesday's fixtures, in which Serbia travel to Estonia and Slovenia go to Belfast, both look crucial.
When Russia devastated the Netherlands in the quarterfinal of Euro 2008, it seemed psychological Rubicon had been crossed. Here was the new Russia, self-confident and outward-looking, powered by a wealthy domestic league. Since then, though, as numerous players have moved abroad, progress has stalled. The failure to qualify for the World Cup could be written off as an unfortunate draw, being grouped with Germany, and then by bad luck and complacency in the playoff against Slovenia. However, Russia is also in serious danger of missing out on the European Championship. Two points separates the top four in Group B, and in terms purely of qualification, Saturday's goalless draw in Armenia is a reasonable result. But it was achieved with a worrying absence of flair, and it puts pressure on the home game against the same opposition in June. The coach Dick Advocaat, already the subject of significant criticism, has been further targeted -- the former Soviet international Viktor Ponedelnik accused him of acting "like a czar" -- and the long-term viability of his switch to a 4-2-3-1, with Andrey Arshavin playing off Aleksandr Kerzhakov, and flanked by Alan Dzagoev and Igor Denisov is debatable.
Egypt has won the last three African Cup of Nations, but there is a serious possibility it will not be in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea to defend its crown. A 1-0 defeat to South Africa on Saturday -- the winner coming from Katlego Mphela in the final minute -- leaves it six points behind Bafana Bafana with three games to play. Only the top side in the group is sure to qualify, along with the two best runners-up from the ten four-team groups. Egypt isn't even sure of making second, trailing Niger, who beat Sierra Leone 3-1, by five points.
The recent political upheaval is a contributory factor in Egypt's wobble. The national league has been suspended for three months, while there is a feeling that soccer is not the priority it once was in Egypt. Perhaps there was a slight lack of sharpness at Ellis Park, but Egypt was nonetheless the better side for long stretches and the attempt to portray the game as part of some great South African resurgence is disingenuous. The result may, in time, come to be seen as a symbolic turning point, but South Africa was lucky, and if Egypt can win the return in Cairo in June it may yet battle back into contention.
Before the period of Egyptian domination there was the era of Cameroon, and its struggles mean that Gabon-Equatorial Guinea could go ahead without the winners of six of the last seven Cups of Nations. The Indomitable Lions went down 1-0 to Senegal on Saturday, West Ham's Demba Ba getting the only goal late on. Senegal, seemingly resurgent nine years on from its heroics at the World Cup in South Korea, has won all three games so far, and leads Cameroon and DR Congo by five points.
For Cameroon, there is a sense of chickens coming home to roost. It struggled to beat Gabon to qualification for last year's World Cup and has been a robust but unimaginative side for much of the last decade. Samuel Eto'o alone cannot make up for a lack of creativity and various hints from within the squad suggest that his frustration has made him a disruptive and divisive presence. By the time he quit as coach after the World Cup, Paul Le Guen seemed exhausted by the dressing-room politicking. Javier Clemente's attempts to use Eto'o on the right with Achille Webo as the central striker have not made Cameroon any more dynamic.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.