The smoke has cleared, or some of it at any rate, and the two final World Cup groups are set. In the first of them, we find Italy, surely the favorite after its dazzling performances against Argentina, West Germany, Austria and the Netherlands - all European teams. The second group is composed of Poland, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. So there will be at least one European team in the final, as, indeed, there has been since 1958.
The groups take up battle tomorrow when in Buenos Aires the Italians play what might well turn out to be their most important game, against West Germany. Austria will meet Netherlands in Cordoba in a game that, given the present form of the two teams, can be avoided. Brazil, in the second group, will meet Peru in Mendoza in what should be a fascinating contest, while Poland, which has bored everyone to tears so far, meets Argentina, which will be without Leopoldo Luque. Luque, who has his arm in a sling, recently lost his brother in an auto accident.
Italy should take care of the West Germans comfortably, and win its group without great difficulty. The question is whether the West Germans have been bluffing with their dreadful form against Poland and Tunisia. The Tunisians very nearly beat them. It may be that they wanted to finish second in their pool so that they could get into Group Two. The story goes that although Helmut Schoen, the manager, was against it, a number of the players were happy to lose to East Germany in Hamburg four years ago - the only meeting yet they could avoid the East Germans between the two countries - so that until the final.
Last fall, in Berlin, the West Germans played gloriously to beat a strong Italian team, 2-1. Since then, the West Germans have fallen off, while the Italians have surged. I think you can expect the Germans to play a parsimonious sort of game, rather than the attacking style they exhibited against Italy last year. They will be defending hard, man to man, and looking for a goal on the breakway.
This would not entirely suit the Italians, who also like to counterpunch, as they so effectively did against Argentina. On the other hand, it is hard to see West German players capable, on present form, of breaking through the Italian defense, as they did in Berlin, where Klaus Fischer played vigorously at center-forward between two flank players in Rudi Abramczyk and Karl-Heinz Rumennigge.
The Scots have gone home, not exactly trailing clouds of glory. They left behind the impression of a team that blew it. How ironic that only in their final game, against Holland, whom they beat 3-2, did their confused coach, Ally Macleod, have sense at last to put Graeme Souness in the team.
Beforehand, when Jan Jonbloed, the veteran Dutch goalkeeper, was asked whether he thought Scotland capable of scoring the three goals they needed to qualify with a 3-0 win, he answered, "Yes, but not in 90 minutes." Well, Scotland got them in 90 minutes, deploying a 4-4-2 formation that had no need of Willie Johnston or any other left winger - Kenny Dalgish and Joe Jordon operating splendidly on their own.
The Dutch looked rough, defensive, negative, sterile. The coaching og the Austrian, Ernst Happel, seems to be making them about as adventures as his dreary Belgian club, Bruges was, when it lost the European cup final against Liverpool last month.
Perhaps if they can get Johan Neeskens fit - he has a badly bruised chest and went off after a few minutes - and can bring Aarie Haan back into the midfield, they will do better.
(Three of Wednesday's four games will be shown at DAR Constitution Hall. West Germany vs. Italy will be shown at 12:45, Brazil vs. Peru at 3:45 and Poland vs. Argentina at 6:15. General admission will be $12.50 and will cover all three games.)