Group A in European qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia could stand for any number of things.
A is for Aged, if you look at the third-placed country, a diminished Netherlands, with veteran captain Arjen Robben and septuagenarian manager Dick Advocaat.
A is for Absentee when it’s a Sweden without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their internationally retired – and injured – totem for most of this century.
Going into the last 180 minutes of jousting for the top two spots the A in Group A stands for Anxiety. France, one point above the Swedes, and four clear of the Dutch, lead the table, but arrived in Bulgaria for their penultimate game against a backdrop of nerves.
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They know their opponents have live ambitions – Bulgaria, with six points still to play for, could conceivably leap all the way up to top spot by the middle of next week – and a historic hex over France.
France’s manager Didier Deschamps was a France player on the infamous November 1993 night when a 90th-minute Bulgaria goal denied the French a place at the following summer’s World Cup. The Frenchman who gave the ball away in the lead-up, David Ginola, was never forgiven.
Deschamps feels jittery for other reasons. He has almost half a possible first team on the injury list, including a quartet of the younger players who, thanks partly to the size of their recent transfer fees, will identify the French as real candidates to go far should they make it to Russia 2018.
Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele, Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy and Paris Saint-Germain’s Layvin Kurzawa are all out with fitness issues, as is Laurent Koscielny from the centre of the defence.
And, for all France's apparent riches in attack – Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Alex Lacazette – they have been outscored by the post-Ibrahimovic Sweden in the group. They contrived to draw 0-0 at home to Luxembourg in their last outing.
“We are not going to go back over Luxembourg,” said Deschamps, “apart from just the normal analysis looking over an abnormal match we ought to have won.”
It almost sounded as if Deschamps was drawing a dark blind over anything that might make his players neurotic about their odd capacity to turn superiority into setback.
France may sit top of Group A but they are there precariously because of 0-0 draws against Luxembourg and rock-bottom Belarus, and because they turned a 1-0 lead in Sweden in June into a 2-1 loss, with the decisive second Swedish goal conceded in the 94th minute after a dreadful error by goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris.
Sweden host Luxembourg on Friday night, and a win would take them into next week’s last group match against the Netherlands with comfortable breathing space over Holland, who also have an inferior goal difference. The desperate Dutch, who play Belarus on Saturday, are on the brink of missing out on a second successive major tournament.
Their plunge has been dramatic. In 2014, Holland were ranked third in the world by Fifa. They duly collected bronze at that year’s World Cup, a festival that began with a resonant 5-1 thrashing of the defending champions Spain.
Three managers later, Advocaat, in his third stint in charge, was asked to pick up the pieces of a campaign that had lurched in the wrong direction with defeat to Bulgaria. France thrashed the Dutch 4-0 in June.
The prospect of even clambering into the play-off slot depends on France or Sweden slipping up and the Netherlands revving up.
Advocaat has entrusted the task of putting together back-to-back wins against Belarus and Sweden, preferably with a handsome goal-difference, to a squad without Wesley Sneijder, whose current form at his new club Nice, says the manager, does not justify his adding to his record 132 caps. “Personally, I’d have liked him to be here,” said Robben, “but the decision is with the coach.”
Advocaat has called up instead not a bright, young prospect but Ryan Babel, 30, who in the six years since his last cap has hopscotched around club football from Germany, to Spain, to Turkey, via a spell with the UAE’s Al Ain.
Robben is under few illusions about Holland’s chances. “Never say never, but we have to be realistic,” he said of the possibilities of his making a tournament where he has collected silver and bronze medals in the last two editions. “It looks very, very hard for us.”
For the Netherlands, the A in Group A looks a lot like it stands for ‘Adios’.