World Cup qualification looking less likely despite wins

The worst runner-up rule, and not Bulgaria, may prove to be Denmark’s biggest hurdle to overcome on the road to Brazil

Denmark’s hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil have remained intact after narrow wins in Malta and Armenia over the last week, but only just, as there is a real danger of the second-placed team in Group B finishing as the worst runner-up and not making the play-offs in November.

The Red and Whites struggled in Valetta on Friday evening against minnows that possessed real menace in attack, but eventually came through 2-1 thanks to an own goal following excellent work by Christian Eriksen.

Substitute Viktor Fischer looked a genuine threat in that game, and it was his introduction in Yerevan on Tuesday night that swung the game in Denmark’s favour.

In a match that had 0-0 written all over it, the Ajax super-kid produced a moment of brilliance out of nothing 17 minutes from time. After skinning one defender near the touch-line, he poked the ball away from another defender, who clattered the youngster, giving away a penalty, which the captain Daniel Agger stepped up to coolly convert.

With two games left to play – home ties against Italy on October 11 and Malta on October 15 – the wins move the Danes up to third place in the group with 12 points.

While they are well adrift of the Azzurri, who on Tuesday night qualified for the World Cup as group winners thanks to a nervy 2-1 defeat of the Czechs after trailing 0-1 at half-time, Denmark sit just one point behind Bulgaria, who travel to Armenia and host the Czechs in their remaining two games.

Armenia, who sit three points behind the Danes, face Bulgaria and Italy away, while the Czechs, also on nine points, travel to Malta and then Bulgaria.

The group is in Bulgaria’s hands. They know that Italy have already qualified and won’t over-exert themselves in Copenhagen on October 11, so nothing short of two wins will do. The same is true for Denmark, and it will be a miracle, and quite frankly a qualification conundrum to baffle the team that cracked the Enigma code, if they lose to Italy and have a chance of qualifying.

Not only would that require Bulgaria to not win in Armenia, it would also be dependent on the other eight qualification groups as the worst runner-up will not qualify for the World Cup play-offs on November 15 and 19 and it does not look good for the teams in Group B.

Denmark have only won two of their seven games against the other top-five teams in the group (the results against the bottom side, Malta, will count for nothing). With nine points from seven games, they would sit last of the nine teams vying for the play-offs and therefore dependent on one of five teams slipping up in their final games against top-five teams. Those teams are Hungary (one game left), Croatia, Portugal and Sweden (two games remaining), who all have eleven points, and Ukraine, who have 12 but a vastly superior goal difference.

It is even worse for Bulgaria, who only have seven points from six games. Lose against Armenia and they are definitely out, although a shock result for one of the bottom sides in a far corner of Europe or a team moving up from third could change matters.

It is also worth noting that two teams – Hungary and Iceland – are currently second, but only just. Hungary is just one point ahead of Turkey and Romania, while there are three teams within three points of Iceland.

One thing is assured: the permutations heading into the final games are going to be messy.