Working out the play-off contenders

To have a chance of reaching the World Cup finals, Portugal knew they had to win against Hungary on Saturday.

And guess what? They did so comfortably, 3-0, with a polished performance against a team that in all honesty is from a lower tier.

The 50,000 fans in Benfica’s Estádio da Luz saw goals from Simão Sabrosa (twice) and Liédson.

The buoyant mood was reflected in the strong applause for the naturalised Brazilian striker, known for his goals against Benfica, when he was substituted.

Also warmly received was Pedro Mendes. The Rangers midfielder replaced the suspended Pepe against Hungary and was one of the best players on the pitch – in what was only his third Portugal game.

Highly regarded at Porto, Tottenham and Portsmouth, Mendes must be one of the most underrated players in Europe.

An industrious and experienced midfielder, with good range of passing and capable of tackling and shooting, Mendes would be an astute inclusion in a squad which needs another defensive midfielder.

But while the players deserve praise, two other people also contributed to the nationwide post-match celebration: Jakob Poulsen and Sepp Blatter.

Poulsen scored what was probably the most popular Danish goal in Portugal ever.

Elsewhere in Group 1, the Aarhus midfielder’s long-range effort was enough to send Sweden to the defeat so vital to the Selecção's qualification hopes.

And with the Scandinavian derby over before Portugal’s game started, Carlos Queiroz’s played at a different time, Portugal started their match knowing they controlled their own destiny.

So despite many disappointing performances, Portugal are now odds-on for the play-off round, having one more point than Sweden with one match remaining – in Portugal’s case, at home to Malta, who have yet to score a goal in this group.

And so (probably) to the play-offs. Blatter is also heralded because two weeks ago FIFA, in a puzzling and unfair move, announced that countries in the draw would be seeded according to their world ranking.

Given that teams are already slotted into their qualifying groups according to past performances, it's harsh punishment for lower-ranked teams like Bosnia & Herzegovina or Republic of Ireland to be given an extra hurdle.

Even if this helps the Portuguese cause, a draw with no restrictions would have been the right choice.

About the play-off draw

There are nine groups in the European qualifying zone and only the eight best runners-up will be eligible for the draw.

Of these, seven groups are already sure to send a representative, even if the runners-up haven't been confirmed.

Group 1 is almost certain to take the other place unless Portugal lose to Malta, Albania win in Sweden AND Denmark beat Hungary, in which case Norway will be the extremely lucky recipients.

(In case you think it's unfair that Norway were in a group with fewer fixtures, results against the sixth-placed teams are removed from the comparison. Norway still lag behind.)

This means that fans are already trying to work out whether Portugal will be seeded in the play-off draw.

Already certain to finish second in their groups, and thus feature in the play-offs, are Russia, France, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republic of Ireland.

Among those jockeying for the six remaining places are, in order of FIFA ranking: Croatia, Greece, Switzerland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The four highest-ranked teams will be seeded. Russia and France are above Portugal and the chances are that either Switzerland or Greece – they are from the same group – will join that duo.

That leaves Croatia as Portugal’s rival for the last remaining seeded place – and the Croatians are currently in third, a point behind Ukraine, who play Andorra on Wednesday.

So it looks bleak for Slaven Bilic, and good for Carlos Queiroz.

So, assuming everything goes as expected, Portugal will be seeded and play against either Bosnia & Herzegovina, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia/Slovenia or Ukraine.

None of them will be an easy task and the Selecção will need to be at its best to book a flight to South Africa, but it's preferable to playing 2006 finalists France or Guus Hiddink's Russia, who until Saturday were only a point behind a rampant Germany.

And for the chance to avoid Russia, we can thank Sepp Blatter.

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