The qualifying scenario for Group C in Euro 2012 – the treacherous ‘Group of Death’ that appears at every major tournament – is a genuine head-scratcher. But I think I’ve gotten to the bottom of it.

The easiest, and most likely, scenario is for Spain to beat Croatia and Italy to beat the battered Irish, with the points tally finishing Spain 7, Italy 5, Croatia 4, Ireland 0. If the Croats pulled an upset, then you can just swap their position with Spain’s at the top of the group.

But if Italy win, and Spain-Croatia draw, then the top three teams are locked on five points each.

The first tie-breaker is head-to-head record between the teams in question. With Italy, Croatia and Spain (hypothetically) playing out three draws, they can’t be split.

The next criterion is goal difference in these head-to-head fixtures. Again, with three draws, the GD is 0, meaning the teams can’t be split.

Then it goes to goals scored in head-to-head matches. The Italy-Spain and Italy-Croatia games both finished 1-all. So if Spain and Croatia fail to score, then Italy top the group with two goals in head-to-head fixtures, and Spain and Croatia are equal with one. Spain then qualify with a superior overall goal difference in the entire group (+4 versus +2).

If Spain-Croatia finishes 2-all, then those two sides – having scored three goals in the head-to-head matches, as opposed to Italy’s two – qualify. Again, Spain tops the group with a superior overall GD to Croatia.

If Spain-Croatia play out a 1-all draw, that’s when things get really interesting.

Spain would have scored 6, conceded 2, and collected 5 points. Croatia would have scored 5, conceded 3, and collected 5 points.

In there first two games, the Italians scored 2, conceded 2, and collected two points. It would be up to Italy to decide their own fate. This is what they’d need to do.

So, if Spain-Croatia is 1-1, these are the scenarios for Italy.

Lose or draw: don’t qualify, with less points than Spain and Croatia’s tally of five.

Win by one goal: don’t qualify, despite finishing with five points, because the next criteria is GD in all group games, which would be Spain (+4), Croatia (+2), Italy (+1).

Win 2-nil: Three teams locked on five points, but Spain first (overall GD +4), Croatia and Italy (both GD +2). However Croatia would qualify in second place because they would have scored five goals to Italy’s four.

Win 3-1: the most interesting result. Spain top the group (GD +4). Italy and Croatia tied on GD (+2) and goals scored (5). The next criteria is a penalty shoot-out if the tied teams’ final game is against each other, which unfortunately it’s not, meaning it goes down to UEFA ranking, so Italy (no.4) qualify at the expense of Croatia (no.6).

Win by two goals (4-2, 5-3, etc.): Spain top the group; Italy and Croatia both have a GD of +2, but Italy qualify by scoring more goals.

Win by three goals: Spain (GD +4), Italy (GD +3), Croatia (GD +2).

Win 4-nil: Spain and Italy both have GD +4 and 6 goals to their credit, and because they can’t have the penalty shoot-out, it goes down to ranking, where Spain (no.1) qualifies in first place, before Italy (no.4) in second.

Win by four goals (5-1, 6-2, etc.): Italy and Spain would both have GD 4, but Italy would top the group having scored more goals.

Win by more than four goals: Italy top the group with the superior GD, Spain finish second.

I hope I’ve accurately navigated this confusing system. To summarise, the winner of Spain-Croatia tops the group, and provides Italy the chance to finish second if they win. Spain and Croatia book their passage to the quarters with a 2-all draw, but a nil-all draw sends Croatia home and gifts Italy first place if they collect three points. A 1-all draw confuses the issue, and means Italy would need to score at least three goals to qualify ahead of Croatia.

And poor old Ireland, already slapped with the misfortune of having their first major tournament in a decade being hosted by grisly Gdansk, will be left on the bottom of the group.

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