UEFA 2014 World Cup qualifying: What to watch for and what's at stake

Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno

There's a whole lot of nonsense going on with the UEFA playoff system. Hopefully the end result is reasonable, but there's a good chance that someone's going to get jobbed and end up very, very mad.

There are 53 teams in UEFA, which leaves them one team short of making a nice even set of groups. One group in their qualifying section, Group I, has fewer teams than the rest of the groups. This complicates the playoff scenario, since it would be unfair to keep France out of the playoff if they had 14 points from eight games, while the second place team with the second fewest number of points had 15 points from 10 games.

That means UEFA had to come up with a convoluted system to make sure the teams in Group I weren't at a disadvantage. What they came up with is a ranking of second-placed teams that discounts the results teams in the other groups get against the sixth-placed teams. This makes it tough to figure out who's likely to qualify for the playoffs and who isn't. Let's make this a bit easier to swallow.

Already qualified

Belgium, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland These teams all have nothing to worry about, as they've already clinched first place in their groups. They've qualified directly for the World Cup and their matches on Tuesday are run-outs for pride, as well as potential spoilers for other teams trying to qualify for the second round.

Really fuzzy

Portugal, Croatia These teams are guaranteed to finish at least second in their group, but might miss out on the playoff if things don't go their way. This is mostly because the last placed teams in their group could change. Portugal dropped points against Northern Ireland and would benefit from them dropping into last place. Also, if Luxembourg somehow beat them and stayed in last place, the loss wouldn't count against them. If Portugal lose and Azerbaijan end up in last place, then they're in trouble. Croatia have a loss to Scotland who they play on Tuesday and will be hoping that they drop into last place, because their two wins over Macedonia are currently doing them no good.

In decent shape

Sweden, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, England, Spain, France The losers of the Spain-France and Bosnia-Greece battles for an automatic qualification spot will be guaranteed chances to redeem themselves in the playoffs. The same goes for England and Russia, who will be in the playoffs no matter what happens to them on Tuesday. Sweden are the only team in UEFA who cannot win their group, but are guaranteed to participate in the playoff.

The weird outlier

Ukraine The only team whose fate is not sealed in any way, shape or form. They have no guarantees and could end up in first place, in a playoff or in third place. Expect to see them finish second and in a playoff if England don't choke against Poland. They're playing San Marino, so they should be able to hold off Montenegro, and there's no chance they'll finish as the worst runner-up if they hold on to second.

Hanging on

Bulgaria, Denmark, Armenia, Turkey, Romania, Hungary, Iceland, Slovenia, Montenegro My personal favorite team here is Armenia, who look like they're in worse shape than they actually are. One of their losses was to last-placed Malta, so they'll be in with a good chance to not finish as the worst runner-up if they beat Italy while other results in the group work out in their favor. Group B the one with Bulgaria, Denmark and Armenia looks odds on to have the worst runner-up at the moment. Turkey, Hungary, Portugal, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Denmark and Armenia are the teams who could potentially finish as the worst runners-up. Iceland are in the playoff if they beat Norway, while Romania are in if they beat Estonia and Turkey don't beat the Netherlands.

Gone, but not forgotten: The decent teams we've already lost

Serbia, Czech Republic, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Slovakia, Poland Obviously there are more teams that have been eliminated, but these are the most notable. Better luck next time around.

What to watch for on Tuesday

An England chokejob This isn't likely at home against a mediocre Poland team, but it's certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Everyone remembers the hilarious loss to Croatia in 2007, right? Poland are nowhere near as good as that Croatia side, but they also only need a draw to force England into a playoff. Given the fairly dour style that Roy Hodgson's boys play, it wouldn't be shocking to see them struggle to score. And given Joe Hart's recent form, it would be even less shocking to see him pull a Paul Robinson, Scott Carson or Robert Green.

Ibra balling out of control Sweden-Germany doesn't matter in the standings, which means we might see an awesome, wide-open game that resembles a World Cup third place match.

Bosnia's tricky away game Bosnia and Herzegovina will qualify if they win away to Lithuania, but that's not as easy as it sounds. Lithuania have put together a decent campaign, managing seven points from four home games and a goal differential of minus-one. Only Greece have won there, and they only won by one goal. Don't be stunned if Bosnia get sent to yet another playoff. Let's hope they don't draw Portugal for the third straight major tournament qualifying cycle.

Scotland playing spoiler If Scotland can pull off an upset against Croatia for the second time, they could be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Even a draw makes it possible though unlikely for them to miss out, but a loss would mean that Armenia doesn't need to make up goal difference.

Complacency in Group I There's really no excuse for Spain to slip up at home against Georgia, but stranger things have happened. They drew Finland at home earlier in the tournament and Georgia, while not outstanding, are certainly not a horrible team. Crazier things have happened.

Schedule (all times ET)

Group A

Serbia vs. Macedonia - 2:30 p.m.
Belgium vs. Wales - 3 p.m.
Scotland vs. Croatia - 3 p.m.

Group B

Bulgaria vs. Czech Republic - 2:15 p.m.
Denmark vs. Malta - 2:15 p.m.
Italy vs. Armenia - 2:45 p.m.

Group C

Faroe Islands vs. Austria - 2:45 p.m.
Republic of Ireland vs. Kazakhstan - 2:45 p.m.
Sweden vs. Germany - 2:45 p.m.

Group D

Hungary vs. Andorra - 2 p.m.
Romania vs. Estonia - 2 p.m.
Turkey vs. Netherlands - 2 p.m.

Group E

Cyprus vs. Albania - 12 p.m.
Norway vs. Iceland - 2 p.m.
Switzerland vs. Slovenia - 2 p.m.

Group F

Azerbaijan vs. Russia - 1 p.m.
Israel vs. Northern Ireland - 1 p.m.
Portugal vs. Luxembourg - 1 p.m.

Group G

Greece vs. Liechtenstein - 1 p.m.
Lithuania vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina - 1 p.m.
Latvia vs. Slovakia - 1 p.m.

Group H

England vs. Poland - 3 p.m.
Montenegro vs. Moldova - 3 p.m.
San Marino vs. Ukraine - 3 p.m.

Group I

France vs. Finland - 3 p.m.
Spain vs. Georgia - 3 p.m.

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