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Sunday, November 15, 2009
Updated: December 7, 11:23 AM ET
A good first weekend for SPI

By Nate Silver
Special to ESPN.com

In its first full weekend of action, the Soccer Power Index had a rather good day. One of the teams it had highlighted as being underrated (Cameroon) advanced into the World Cup, while other favorites (Uruguay and Portugal) scored key goals to give themselves a leg up in their home-and-home playoff matches. Let's take a look at who has moved up and moved down significantly, based on their ratings, as a result of Saturday's competition:

Moving Up

Uruguay (+0.5 points from 80.5 to 81.0). Uruguay, in spite of achieving an impressive plus-8 goal differential in CONMEBOL qualifying, had developed the habit of dropping matches it shouldn't have lost, such as a 1-0 defeat to Peru in September. But lately, Uruguay has come up big in the clutch, salvaging its opportunity to qualify for the World Cup with key wins over Ecuador and Columbia late in CONMEBOL qualifying, and moving into a commanding position to do so after a 1-0 win in the first leg of a home-and-home playoff against Costa Rica. Uruguay will have pretty much everything going for it when the teams play the return leg in Montevideo on Wednesday: home-field advantage -- always very powerful for Latin American clubs -- the lead in the aggregate score, and the fact that Costa Rica will be without the services of midfielder Randall Azofeifa, who was sent off in Saturday night's match.

Cameroon (+0.8 points from 78.2 to 79.0). The SPI ratings for African teams will inherently be more volatile, since they play fewer important matches than teams in Europe or South America and will therefore see SPI's opinion of them more profoundly affected by any given result. However, Cameroon's win over Morocco was particularly impressive, coming by two goals (2-0), being on the road, and securing its World Cup birth. There is strong evidence of "home-continent advantage" in World Cup play, and the Indomitable Lions will be a tough draw for anybody in South Africa next year.

Egypt (+0.7 points from 74.1 to 74.8). Equally impressive was Egypt's win over Algeria, as the Egyptians managed to prevail by the two-goal margin necessary to even the standings in Africa's Group 3 and force a special tiebreaker against Algeria in Sudan. Egypt, which won the 2008 African Nations Cup, is the stronger team and the favorite to advance, although its inconsistent defense gives Algeria good chances in the rematch.

Mozambique (+2.0 points from 55.4 to 57.4). The largest improvement for any international team in Saturday's games was for Mozambique following its surprise win over Tunisia, a 1-0 result that enabled Nigeria -- which was nearly upset by a very weak Kenyan team -- to leapfrog over Tunisia and advance from Group B. The result doesn't mean much for Mozambique -- which had long been out of the running -- but was a stark reminder to Tunisia that teams always exert a full effort in World Cup qualification matches, particularly at home.

Moving Down

Ireland (-1.0 points from 71.6 to 70.6). France was the stronger team going in and the favorite to advance over Ireland -- but the underachieving French play of late had given the Irish reason to be optimistic. Alas, although Ireland played France competitively at Croke Park, the 1-0 defeat on Nicolas Anelka's 72nd-minute goal leaves them in an unenviable position heading into the second leg at Stade de France on Wednesday. The French will know they can play for a draw.

Nigeria (-1.1 points from 74.5 to 73.4). Here's one of the things that separates a predictive ranking like the SPI from a retrospective one: A team can lose points even after a win. Such was the case with Nigeria, which needed until the 83rd minute to defeat a Kenyan team that had been rated as just the 100th-best squad in the world before the day began. Nigerian fans nevertheless have reason to be happy, for now -- their team advanced to South Africa but isn't likely to be as tough as Cameroon or Ivory Coast.

United States (-0.6 points from 79.4 to 78.8). There's only so much that can be learned from a friendly -- especially one that took place on the road and where the U.S. was without the services of players like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard. Nevertheless, the Americans are going to have to beat teams like Slovakia, whom the SPI had rated as just the 50th best club in the world, if it hopes to advance to the knockout stages of South Africa. Instead, the U.S. was defeated 1-0 on a Marek Hamsik penalty.

Tunisia (-1.3 points from 70.8 to 69.5); Algeria (-1.5 points from 70.1 to 68.6). These teams wound up on the losing side of the critical matches described earlier.

 

Moving Sideways

Greece (-0.2 points from 72.4 to 72.2); Ukraine (+0.3 points from 76.9 to 77.2). Ukraine did improve its rating slightly after securing a scoreless draw in Athens, while the Greeks saw theirs inch downward. But the movement was fairly trivial; while SPI would ordinarily regard a home draw as a bad result, it wasn't expecting much from the Greeks, whom it had already perceived as the weaker side. The saving grace for Greece is that a 1-1 or 2-2 draw in the second leg would secure its berth to South Africa because of the away-goals rule. But Greece just hasn't performed all that impressively since its Euro '04 championship.

Nate Silver is a renowned statistical analyst who was named one of "The World's 100 Most Influential People" by Time Magazine in 2009. He gained acclaim for outperforming the polls in the 2008 U.S. presidential elections and created baseball's popular predictive system, PECOTA.