Shakespeare sacking no surprise

Imagine my annoyance on Tuesday afternoon when I was finishing off an article on the Premier League sack race and before publishing it Leicester City beat me to the punch, incidentally I had Craig Shakespeare in the silver medal position behind Ronald Koeman.

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Shakespeare did well as interim manager but things never looked like working out when he got the job on a permanent basis. As first team coach under Claudio Ranieri, Shakespeare shared in Leicester’s remarkable title triumph of 2016. It also placed him in the perfect position to asses what was going wrong in Ranieri’s second season and after the Italian was fired Shakespeare quickly rectified the problems, stopped the tinkering and reverted to what made Leicester such a success in the first place- it worked as he pulled Leicester clear of trouble and into mid table safety.

But it’s becoming increasingly rare for interim managers promoted from the coaching staff to become successful managers. Liverpool’s boot room system worked brilliantly in the 70s and 80s as they moved from Shankly to Paisley to Fagan and finally Dalglish. More recent successful examples are hard to find- Harry Redknapp was promoted at West Ham after Billy Bonds was fired in the 90s and David O’Leary successfully stepped up at Leeds after George Graham left for Tottenham.

The difficulty of moving from interim to permanent boss is you need a plan to move forward not just the means to fix the old problems, Shakespeare never looked like having that in his locker. Leicester bought good players in the summer but the pieces didn’t seem to fit together- Iheanacho looked too similar to Jamie Vardy, Vincent Iborra wasn’t fit with only Harry Maguire seamlessly fitting into the team by replacing the ageing Robert Huth. Shakespeare was of course unlucky that Adrien Silva signed 13 seconds too late to play for the club until January, he and Iborra will make an intriguing midfield duo for the next manager.

The fixture list didn’t do Shakespeare any favours either, they started at Arsenal a game they deserved to win but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory- a game that turned on substitutions and Shakespeare got his wrong. The early fixtures then gifted them a trip to Old Trafford and home games against Liverpool & Chelsea. After coming through those difficult games with narrow defeats home matches against Bournemouth and West Brom became must win- Leicester drew both and the club’s Chinese owners pulled the plug.

It was ruthless but justified, Leicester still have the attraction of being recent Premier League Champions and have a squad with greater talent than two thirds of the Premier League, yet they are in the bottom 3.

The talent at their disposal and willingness to spend big (Slimani, Silva, Maguire, Iheanacho) should attract a big name to the club- I was aghast that Sam Allardyce was the first name in the frame, a move that would show a stunning lack of imagination and hand them a manager who would simply pull towards a 40 point survival target, mercifully that report appears wide of the mark.

Sean Dyche has got Burnley punching well above their weight and his growing reputation merits consideration for a next level Premier League club like Leicester. Marco Silva would have been a great appointment back in the summer but he’s now off the market. Chris Coleman will inevitably come into consideration after his successful stint with Wales, Coleman has proved he can handle big names (Bale & Ramsey) and successfully mould a team around them. He’s currently considering his future after Wales failed to make the World Cup and may opt to stay in post but he’s another Leicester will surely sound out.

Further afield former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel has been mentioned, but he has a reputation as a spikey figure who might not fit with the club although there’s no denying he is a high calibre coach. One word of advice for Leicester’s board is steer clear of ex Premier League manager’s looking to get back in- the likes of Alan Pardew and Ian Holloway. Leicester are unlikely to hit the heights of 2016 again but they should be in a position to push for cups and European football, it’ll be interesting to see who they believe will be the man to take them there.

As for Shakespeare he joins that long list of very good coaches who couldn’t quite cut it as a manager. He may get another shot in a hot seat but it’ll likely be at a high end Championship club- Sheffield Wednesday might be a good fit. Otherwise a first team coach position will come along sooner or later, maybe even a position in Gareth Southgate’s backroom staff, he did previously have a seat during Allardyce’s brief stay at St George’s Park, but when it comes to Premier League hot seats most only get one chance and Shakespeare has had his.

 

 

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Russia 2018- global extravaganza or disaster waiting to happen?

I’d really love to be Gianni Infantino or at least I’d like his job. He gets to run a globally powerful organisation whose credibility is so low that literally anything you do is an improvement on your predecessor (as long as you don’t stick your fingers in the till).

Even better- said organisation’s big event has already been handed out until 2022 so it’s not your fault if it’s a disaster!

Sepp Blatter’s regime handed the 2018 & 2022 World Cup to Russia & Qatar back in 2010 in dubious circumstances, and inadvertently triggered the downfall of their house of cards.

Qatar is another matter 5 years away with a desert sized list of issues attached. But what of 2018 in Russia.

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Whilst the decision to award Russia the tournament has aroused suspicion (although no proof of wrong doing has ever been confirmed), it has always seemed less controversial than handing out 2022 to a small nation with no football history an impractical climate, dubious human rights record but masses of cash.

Aside from Holland, Russia is probably the most storied football nation never to host its biggest event. They’ve won the European Championships and have made numerous long runs in tournaments (admittedly all but one as the Soviet Union) and qualified frequently for World Cups. So why the controversy and what are the prospects?

Mixing Politics & Sport

The obvious place to start is with Putin. The Russian President had long been mistrusted in The West and the tensions have been consistently cranked up in recent years over Russia’s involvement in the Syria and the Ukraine crisis’.

But even Blatter can’t be blamed for not predicting what would happen in those parts of the world back in 2010. In the same period the more respected IOC happily awarded Sochi the 2014 Winter Olympics and FIFA will point out it’s a global organisation not just a Western one.

But it’s hard not to compare awarding this World Cup to Russia to the IOC’s controversial awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. Laughably at the time some claimed China’s hosting the Olympics would encourage them to adopt more progressive human rights policies- presumably said observers also thought South Africa should have been awarded a major tournament in the 1980s to encourage them to abolish apartheid.

The awarding of 2008 to Beijing looked commercially motivated and aside from the Torch relay fiasco eventually showcased a positive view of China, but it hasn’t altered China’s stance on Tibet.

With Russia Blatter’s FIFA probably saw money and unlike the western bidders a compliant media that wouldn’t raise questions about FIFA’s shady financial dealings or complete lack of transparency.

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Of course a controversial host doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a bad World Cup. Many fans of a certain age quote Argentina ‘78 as their favourite World Cup, the abiding image of that tournament is the ticker-tape eruption in the Stadia whilst people wax lyrical 40 years on about Kempes, the Dutch hitting the post in the dying minutes of the final and Archie Gemmill.

Yet at the time Argentina was controlled by a military Junta under who thousands were murdered and the tournament itself was dogged by the outright corruption of referees and match officials.

And on the subject of dodgy bidding processes it now appears there may have been skullduggery in the awarding of both Brazil and South Africa the tournament, Russia played by the rules of the bidding- it’s not there fault the rules were absurd.

Trouble on the terraces and in the drug testing labs

Russia’s sporting status sank to a new low before the 2016 Olympics. Scores of Russian athletes were banned from the games after the World anti doping agency (WADA) uncovered a widespread doping program.

Since that scandal erupted the Fancy Bears website based in Russia has launched a counterattack by hacking WADA in an attempt to discredit the organisation. Football has remained largely clear of doping issues but it remains a huge concern in Russian sport- not helped by its most famous sportsperson being given a 2 year ban for failing a drugs test. Admittedly Maria Sharapova has never been part of any Russian sporting program and is US based but it reinforces the image of a nation with a doping problem.

But the biggest worry about Russia 2018 comes from inside the Stadia: the threat of crowd violence and racist chants. Last month in the Champions League under 19s Liverpool reported Spartan Moscow for racial abuse one of their players suffered from the Moscow crowd. It was the latest in a long line of racial slurs visiting players have suffered in Russia. Even more worryingly the 2018 anti racism chief previously claimed the problem didn’t exist in Russia.

The other major crowd problem is hooliganism. The ugly scenes in Marseille during Euro 2016 were bad enough and yet shockingly one Russian MP claimed it was job well done because they beat up some English hooligans in the town and stormed the barriers in the ground after the game- never mind the fact that some of those caught up in the melee were children. All of this would seem to make Russia an unappealing destination for the Greatest Show on Earth.

Will crowd trouble erupt next June?

I don’t expect hooliganism to be a factor at World Cup venues this summer. The main reasons being the high levels of security we’ll be seeing at the grounds and the difficulty in obtaining tickets mean World Cup crowds are all together different from club crowds. Usually that’s a criticism of World Cup ticketing- this time it’s a plus, with crowds likely to be a mix of supporters clubs, school kids, families, Middle class fans and corporate guests.

An example of this came at Euro 2012 when the build up was dominated by worries of crowd trouble and racist chanting in Ukraine, particularly after a Panorama expose featuring Sol Campbell advised fans to stay at home. In the event English fans were neither targeted nor visiting players subjected to racist idiots, with England fans tweeting what a great time they were having. The organisers will be hoping for similar next summer, it remains to be seen if they practice the zero tolerance to racism they’ve promised- but at least FIFA is no longer run by a man who thinks you combat racism by shaking hands at the final whistle.

So what are the positives?

Part of the mystique of World Cup’s is holding them in far away places most travelling fans and those watching from home have never visited and know little about. Joey Barton recently claimed Brazil can’t win the World Cup in Russia because of the cold climate, actually Joey June in Russia is quite hot (much warmer than the UK or South Africa) around World Cup time. OK Joey Barton doesn’t represent a scientific sample of the public, but it is an illustration of how staggeringly ignorant most are of Russia with their understanding of the country based on Putin, The Cold War and Dr Zhivago. It’s the equivalent of someone’s understanding of America being restricted to Trump, Watergate & John Wayne. As someone who’s visited Russia frequently in recent years I can say Russia has plenty to offer and those heading there next summer will find plenty of none football related things to see and do. Whilst those watching from the living room will also learn more about this largely unknown land.

In football terms the biggest match hosted in Russia to date was the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United & Chelsea, despite fears of a catastrophe the handling of the game and both sets of fans went off without a hitch.

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More recently Manchester United’s Europa League tie with Rostov saw the town of Rostov treat the arrival of United’s superstar squad like a Royal visit; not that it stopped Jose whinging about the state of the pitch. Away from Moscow & St Petersburg in the Russian interior teams are likely to find a similar welcome from the local population.

World Cup’s like Olympics needs to leave a legacy- the infrastructure projects this World Cup has brought about will undeniably make life better in parts of the country that desperately need it.

Host nation bounce?

This summers Confederations Cup went off without a hitch in terms of infrastructure (if not FIFA’s inspired decision to use VAR). But the performance of the home team didn’t suggest a run the World Cup semifinals is on. Russia failed to get out of the group, only managing to beat New Zealand. Guus Hiddink’s stylish side characterised by Andrei Arshavin is long gone, Russia’s current side appear only marginally better than their awful Euro 2016- their lack of options summed up by the inclusion in the first 11 of Yuri Zhirkov (yes the one who played for Chelsea about 7 years ago) although they do possess a potential match winer in Alan Dzagoev. They will be favoured by the draw seeding but it’s hard to see them progressing beyond the last 16 and carrying their nations hopes to the later stages, something that usually boosts a tournament.

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Ultimately this World Cup has plenty of red flags (no pun intended) but past tournaments have shown our worst fears are rarely met as countries pull out all the stops to show their nation in a positive light, let’s hope the Russian organisers and public take up this once in a lifetime opportunity.

 

Ranking England’s midfield options?

England’s new riddle in the middle. Regardless of formation England need to improve in central midfield, England need a holding player (Dier) and a more attack minded partner. The problem is the lack of outstanding options, back in 2006 England had Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Carrick, Hargreaves & Jenas, any of whom would now be first name on the team. Now we have promising youngsters not quite ready, veterans in their twilight and injury prone players who should be in there prime, time are tough.

  1. (1) Eric Dier– Still not in his best form and needs a more forward thinking partner in England’s midfield. But the one player on this list nailed on for Russia.
  2. (8) Harry Winks- It’s damming with faint praise to say he’s the biggest winner from England’s last 2 games. But Winks provides the more attacking option that England otherwise lack. Level headed and hard working and playing for the best developer of young talent in the league, the only issue with Winks is his inexperience and he faces tough competition for a start at Tottenham.
  3. (2) Jordan Henderson– Awful for England since the start of the season, I suspect Henderson isn’t the shoe-in many think, unless his Liverpool form improves. The problem with Henderson is he lacks the positional discipline to be a holding midfielder or the passing range to be a deep lying playmaker he’s a jack of all trades and master of none, if others get their form and fitness together I think Henderson will miss the boat (or more specifically plane.)
  4. (12) Fabian Delph- Having got back in The City team and Pep’s good books for his ‘kindness’ an England recall became inevitable as was him going down injured. But if he retains his club form he will get his 10th cap next month. Delph won’t solve England’s creative void but he might provide an alternative to Dier screening the defence.
  5. (3) Jack Wilshere- Hasn’t started a Premier League game this season and widely linked with a recall- a sentence that perfectly sums up Wilshere’s career. He has at least put his worst injury problems behind him (touch wood) and his Europa League form is a reminder of his undoubted talent, but he needs games to get back in the England set up, his flat performances at Euro 2016 were a reminder of the risks of taking an undercooked Wilshere even when he isn’t injured.
  6. (6) Nathaniel Chalobah– Would have got his debut last week were it not for a badly timed injury that will keep him out until New Year. That means Chalobah will only have the 2 spring internationals to make his case for the World Cup. A favourite of Southgate from the under 21s Chalobah remains in contention for the plan b holding midfielder for when Dier picks up the inevitable suspension.
  7. (4) Jake Livermore- ‘We can consider this season a failure for young English midfielders if Livermore is still 4th on this list in May’ I said in August, an by the reckoning things are improving. Livermore has struggled to find his best form at West Brom and didn’t play a minute last week in a squad with only 4 central midfielders, still has 5 caps to tell his grandchildren about.
  8. (13) Danny Drinkwater- If Wilshere can’t get a run at Arsenal Drinkwater will be the passing midfielder England will need to look at. Drinkwater’s skill set is a good fit for Chelsea, the problem is he needs to displace at least one of Kante, Bakayoko or Fabregas. I suspect Drinkwater will get his chance once the schedule starts to bite so I doubt he’ll be in England contention in November, March however…
  9. (5) James Ward-Prowse- A neat and tidy player who could upgrade England’s options at set pieces, lost his place at Southampton to Mario Lemina, he needs to force his way back in at Southampton to rekindle his England chances.
  10. (7) Tom Davies– Had a great breakout season last term, now in the maelstrom of chaos that is Everton’s midfield. He’s playing far better than Morgan Schniederlin but we’ll need to see where the pieces fall when the chopping and changing finishes at Goodison. For now he’s a regular in a fine Under 21 side.
  11. (11) Ruben Loftus-Cheek- The tallest hobbit in the Shire of Crystal Palace. Loftus-Cheek is getting plenty of game time in a rotten side and will likely stay with the Under 21s until after the World Cup.
  12. (NE) Jonjo Shelvey– Chris Waddle thinks he should be, there again he also thought a mullet looked good for almost a decade. He does have a fine passing range but discipline is a major issue. Needs a great season and no more red cards- the later half of that looks the bigger challenge.
  13. (10) Lewis Cook- A World Cup winning captain but not yet a regular for Bournemouth. A huge talent and if he gets a regular game a contender for the midfield linkman role. His time will come but not yet.
  14. (14) Michael Carrick- He’s 36 but is ‘guaranteed to get a mention every time England or Man Utd fail to pass the ball well’ was my opinion in August, but he needs to get back in the Manchester United team first to remind his many fans in the press of his merits.
  15. (NE) Tom Carroll– a tidy player playing well but under the radar at Swansea. Good but not necessarily better than Henderson.

Dropping off the chart: Tom Cleverley, Will Hughes

England fans should get behind Southgate…for now

Two sluggish 1 nil wins and England made it to the World Cup to a chorus of apathy and disapproval. In the media scrum that followed everyone had their say and sadly that meant a ‘speak your brains’ phone in on Five Live. Depressingly someone called in to say sack Southgate and replace him with Harry Redknapp or Carlo Ancelotti apparently because Ancelotti speaks better English than ‘That other Italian they had.’ A word of advice for anyone who feels like phoning in live on air- know the names of the people you’re taking about!

No Instant Fix

Quite a few people have suggested the newly out of work Ancelotti, but I wouldn’t agree on the grounds that when England went foreign in the past it was to get the best out of a highly gifted generation of players so you could understand the FA seeking out the best first team manager available. Now the aim is to bring through the youngsters, set a template for the junior sides to come into in years to come and improve on the awful tournament performances of 2014 & 2016.  With the emphasis on bringing through the players and coaches parachuting in a high price overseas manager isn’t a fit.

As for Redknapp he should have got the job in 2012, but let’s be clear in 2017 he’d be a disaster. He was fired from his last successful job in 2012 and since then made a disastrous mess of QPR and more recently Birmingham due to overspending on veteran players. If ‘arry got the England job his first move would be to recall John Terry, Peter Crouch & Michael Carrick- anyone who doubts that should look back at his comments last season that Terry was the answer for every Premier League side struggling at the back, he then offered Terry a truckload of cash to join Birmingham. If the focus is on bringing through youngsters it would be like appointing Mario Andretti to run a speed awareness course. And thats before we get to the due diligence required to check into any skeletons in his closet.

Ultimately changing the manager won’t fix the problems and England need a manager who is bought into their long term plan.

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The next man in

When The FA appointed Gareth Southgate the cupboard was bare, one year on the candidates for the England job are there but all have questions to answer and missions to complete at club level first;

Brendan Rodgers has long been established as a good coach and provided a standard of play at Liverpool not seen since the late 80s (admittedly helped by having Luis Suarez in the side). After things went pear shaped at Anfield but he’s enhanced his reputation with Celtic, where the job he’s done should be measured in improved performances rather than domestic silverware, it’s also been long rumoured Rodgers coverts the England job.

The elephant in the room with Rodgers is he isn’t English, could the man from Northern Ireland manage England? Many have pointed out that with every other coach at St Georges Park having to be English the program could be undermined by having an Ulsterman at the top of the tree. Of course Rodgers isn’t comparable with Fabio Capello, he has come through the ranks in England and clearly there isn’t a cultural problem.  The other issue with Rodgers is his goal of making Celtic a credible european force is only partially completed- they have improved but need a run (more likely in the Europa League) after Christmas to complete what he started. And then there’s his tendency to turn into David Brent.

Sean Dyche has done a great job at Burnley taking them to 2 promotions and looks like securing a third straight season in the Premier League. The problem with Dyche is he really needs to do it with a bigger club first, his ideal next step would either be given greater resources at Burnley or move on to one to next level premier league club (West Ham, Everton or Newcastle all spring to mind) before considering a move to international football. There’s also his tendency to come out of with stone age comments in press conferences- comparing English managers to own brand supermarket jeans isn’t a good look.

Eddie Howe- An easier fit for the FA than Dyche, Eddie Howe has achieved a lot with Bournemouth and his sides no play nice football. But he currently needs to fight his way out of a relegation fight and like Dyche may need a higher profile and better resourced club job first, he also failed to get a tune out of Jack Wilshere and has struggled with big signings. All that being said if the job came up tomorrow Howe would be favourite.

Paul Clement- Clearly a world class coach from his time with Real Madrid, Clement made a big impact on arriving at Swansea and kept a relegation threatened side in the Premier League. Clement’s sides play possession based football and he clearly has a lot to offer. The negative is like Howe he’s in a relegation battle right now and not only needs to win that, he has to progress Swansea up the Premier League table to prove he has the management nouse to match his coaching chops.

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I’m not saying Southgate is a better manager than any of these fellas, what I think is important is they need more time in club football to hone their craft and if the aim is for 2020 and 2022 it’s better to wait and see if they can progress the way we hope rather than throwing them in at the deep end. And we should remember that Southgate didn’t want the job, his preference was to gain more experience with the under 21s and have a go at the U21 Euros of 2017 before being ready to go for the senior job, unfortunately Sam Allardyce walked into a bar with some undercover reporters and that was that.

The Pros and Cons of Gareth

Nobody should make an argument for Southgate being a top class manager, there’s no evidence of that. He’s at best a work in progress manager who’s had to step in and learn on the job. The style has been none existent but Southgate is a studious man who has successfully avoided the pitfall of experimenting in qualifiers- which ultimately did for Steve McClaren.

Southgate’s best work appears to have been behind the scenes with the players clearly bought into his program and working to make improvements in grassroots football. He’s also promoted youngsters, shown a tactical flexibility that Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Erikkson lacked, steering clear of 4-4-2 and using a safe 4-2-3-1 for qualifying and experimenting with 3-4-3 in friendlies. He speaks well, is promoting youngsters and isn’t going to do something stupid and embarrass his employers (unlike the last bloke).

But the style or lack of it is England’s biggest problem and there’s been little on display over the last 12 months, notably in the last 6 games (Scotland, France, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia & Lithuania). Part of that is down to the lack of central midfield options (what he would’t give for a Gerrard, Scholes, Lampard or even Jenas.) But he hasn’t shown much sign of crafting a solution around that weakness- perhaps the switch to 3-4-3 will be the best way of doing that. And although England haven’t conceded many goals in qualifying (3 and 2 of those were direct free kicks)  we’ve yet to see if Southgate can forge a tight defensive plan.

One coach Southgate unfortunately reminds me of is former England Rugby Union Head Coach Stuart Lancaster. The parallels are obvious, Lancaster came from the RFU backroom after doing well with the junior levels and got the big job on the basis of a successful stint as interim manager. Lancaster jettisoned the veterans and brought through the young players but couldn’t quite blend them into a winning team and ultimately failed at the Rugby World Cup, his successor Eddie Jones has since made the same team into a ruthless winning machine. Of course Lancaster made some enormous selection blunders (Sam Burgess, dropping Mike Ford) and there’s no sign of Southgate doing that thus far.

Another major issue with Lancaster was his players were clearly not ready for tournament rugby at the World Cup with many overwhelmed by the experience. And that’s probably Southgate’s strongest card. As a veterans of 4 tournaments under 4 different managers as a player Southgate should have a better feel of what will and won’t work in the pressure cooker of tournament football, indeed he’s already adopting some of Terry Venables ideas.

There’s also one area in which Southgate’s side have shown tangible signs of improvement- mental toughness. England’s mental fragility has been their biggest problem at recent tournaments. Southgate was quick to point out his side didn’t drop to their knees when 2-1 down at Hampden Park instead they kept their cool and equalised. There was more of the same when Slovakia got an early goal at Wembley. Will they do that in a tournament? We’ll have to wait and see but for now England fans need to stick by their manager and hope he knows what he’s doing, and no more talk of ‘arry.

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup qualifying: Dutch Despair, American Angst and Messi Magic

For most qualification is now over, joy for some and agony for many, when the World Cup expands to its bloated 48 team format for 2026 I’ll miss the drama of qualifiers. The football is often ropey as teams try to fashion together performances from a few training sessions but the drama is incredible.

It’s like an endless run of playoff finals as teams fight for a place in the promised land of the finals knowing failure will send you into the footballing shadowlands.

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The final round got underway on Sunday with England and Germany facing dead rubber games whilst Poland held their nerve to join those sides in Russia with a comfortable 2-0 win against Montenegro, a result that guaranteed Denmark a play off berth.

The drama came in Slovenia where Scotland were in town seeking the win that would keep their World Cup dream alive. The Scots got off to a great start and went ahead through the inform Leigh Griffiths but made the mistake of retreating too deep too early and conceded two goals as Slovenia dominated the second half. A late Robert Snodgrass effort drew the Scots level late on and Matt Phillips almost poked home a winner at the death but it wasn’t to be and Scotland’s 20 year wait for qualification will continue for another four. The result not only gave Slovakia second place in the group (and a nervous and ultimately fruitless wait to see if that would get them in the playoffs) it also guaranteed Northern Ireland a playoff spot.

Monday night saw a tense Battle of Britain (sort of) match between Wales and Ireland with both needing the points to get a playoff spot. But without the talismanic Gareth Bale Wales struggles to break down a stubborn Irish defence and a second half James McClean strike saw Ireland sneak a 1-0 win. Only 15 months on from their heroic run to the Euro 2016 semi finals Wales are out of the World Cup and their 60 year wait for a return to the World Cup will go on. Serbia as expected wrapped up the group with a home win over Georgia.

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With Spain and Italy playing dead rubbers the only remaining questions were in Group I where Iceland became the smallest country to qualify for the World Cup with a home win over Kosovo. It’s a staggering achievement from a side who are consistently proving their Euro 2016 win over England was no fluke, this time the illustrious noses been pushed out of joint were Croatia’s. The Croat’s seemed to be in control of this group for long periods but some late slip ups left them needing a win Ukraine to make the playoffs- which they duly delivered and also means FIFA won’t have to deal with the awkward situation of Ukraine being on the guest list for Russia’s party.

Tuesday night saw the best match of the round; Portugal hosting Switzerland in a winner takes all clash. In a packed Stadium of Light (not the one in Sunderland) The Swiss looked compact throughout the first half but a dangerous cross on the stroke of halftime caused panic in the Swiss box and resulted in an own goal. Portugal were lucky to lead at half time but were imperious in the second half and scored a brilliant team goal via Andre Silva to secure their passage and send the Swiss to the playoffs.

The biggest casualty of European qualifying was also claimed on Tuesday night- Holland. The only surprise here was there was no surprise, needing to win by 6 against Sweden the Dutch gave their best performance of the campaign in the Amsterdam Arena and Arjen Robben hit a brace to earn a 2-0 half time lead. But this was never within the bounds of possibility and despite camping in the Swedish half they couldn’t find another 4 goals. In his final game for his country Robben gave the Dutch their sole highlight and the crowd gave him an emotional send off.

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That result also guaranteed France qualified after an up and down campaign. And finally Greece beat the might Gibraltar to grab the final playoff place.

Qualified: Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Poland, Serbia, Iceland, Portugal, France

Playoffs: Italy, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Rep. Ireland, Croatia, Switzerland, Greece, Sweden

Asia

Incredible drama in Sydney where Syria and Australia played out a dramatic second leg of the Asia play-off. After the 1-1 draw on Tuesday most expected Australia to sail away with the home leg but Omar Al Somah didn’t read the script and gave Syria an early lead. The Socceroos hit back immediately through Tim Cahill (yes he’s still playing!) to make it 1-1 after 13 minutes. The Aussies threw the kitchen sink at the Syrians (not literally) but the Syrians held firm and forced extra time. Shortly into extra time the Syrians were reduced to 10 men and finally cracked with that man Cahill grabbing his 50th international goal. But there was still time for injury time drama as a Syria free kick smashed the Australian crossbar but the Socceroos survived, their reward is another playoff- against Honduras.

Qualified: Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan

Playoff vs Honduras: Australia

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Africa

Sunday night saw Egypt become the second team to ensure qualification with a 2-1 over Uganda thanks to an injury time Mo Salah penalty, it confirmed Egypt’s first World Cup since Italia ’90. The other 3 groups will go down to their final round of matches next month.

Qualified: Nigeria, Egypt

In Contention: Tunisa, DR Congo, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, South Africa

South America

So to the high altitude of Ecuador and could Argentina make it to Russia. It didn’t start well as Ecuador took an early lead. But in their hour (or even 90 minutes) of need Argentina’s genius came to the fore. Messi dragged his struggling side back into the game and then into the World Cup with a stunning hat trick as Argentina triumphed 3-1.

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Elsewhere Colombia made it with a 1-1 draw with Peru that sent the Peruvians into the playoffs. It all meant Copa America holders Chile will miss out, surely the only confederation cup finalists not to reappear in the following years World Cup.

Qualified: Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina

Playoff against New Zealand: Peru

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There’s always someone who unexpectedly messes it up at the death- be it Steve McClaren and his brolly or David Ginola ‘killing’ Gerard Houllier’s France there’s always someone, but few thought it would be the USA.

It’s been a horrific campaign from the Americans but their thumping win over Panama at the weekend had them back on track and facing the already eliminated Trinidad & Tobago should have been fine. Oh dear, they fell behind to 2 first half goals and despite Christian Pulisic pulling them back into the game and dominating possession the US couldn’t muster an equaliser.

But this shouldn’t have mattered with Honduras & Panama  both facing demonstratively better sides in Mexico & Costa Rica. But Honduras came from behind to beat Mexico whilst the real fun and games were in Panama. Costa Rica took a 1-0 lead into half time but then Roman Torres scored forcing home a set piece, according to the referee at least. The problem being it didn’t look to have crossed the line but the goal stood. Just to compound things Panama who were heading out until the 88th minute found another for 2-1 and leapfrogged Hondurans the US into automatic qualification.

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It means the US will miss the World Cup for the first time since Mexico ’86, the inquest will be long and painful whilst the conspiracy theories will run all the way to next summer. Whilst Panama will join Iceland as first time World Cup qualifiers.

Qualified: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama

Playoff vs Australia: Honduras

World Cup qualifying- final round

The Worst World Cup Qualification Cock-ups

Destination Russia

So it’s official- England will be at the 2018 World Cup finals. The next question is who will make the squad. Using the tabloids favourite cliche of airport terminology to illustrate who gets in the squad (or as they say who makes the plane) here’s a quick guide to who’s in, out and maybe

Boarding Pass for Moscow Domodedovo:

If you’re here then barring injury or a dramatic loss of form you will go to the World Cup with England;

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Jack Butland

Fullbacks: Kyle Walker

Centre backs: Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, John Stones

Central midfielders: Eric Dier

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Dele Alli, Adam Lallana,

Forwards: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy

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Sat in the Terminal 5 Departure Lounge:

If you’re here you’re close to going- maybe one good appearance from boarding the plane or perhaps in a 50/50 battle with another player for your place- nobody wants to be 24th man for England- somebody on this list will be;

England-v-Peru-International-Friendly

Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford, Fraser Forster, Tom Heaton

Fullbacks: Nathaniel Clyne, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand, Luke Shaw

Centre backs: Michael Keane, Chris Smalling, Harry Maguire

Central midfielders: Nathaniel Chalobah, Jake Livermore, Fabian Delph, Harry Winks, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jesse Lingard, Ross Barkley

Forwards: Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Jermain Defoe

Rushing for the Heathrow Express:

If you’re here you might go but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Maybe you’re a young player trying to break through or you’re settling at a new club or returning from injury- it’s a long time until the manager names his 23- at this point in the build up to Euro 2016 Marcus Rashford was still in the Man Utd youth team!

Goalkeepers: Freddie Woodman

Fullbacks: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Aaron Cresswell, Ryan Sessegnon, Ben Chilwell

Centre backs: Jamaal Lascelles, Alfie Mawson

Central midfielders: James Ward-Prowse, Danny Drinkwater, Tom Davies, Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Theo Walcott, Nathan Redmond, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Demarai Gray

Forwards: Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Dominic Solanke

Boarding the flight to Maui:

If you’re here you ain’t going to the World Cup (this time at least) perhaps you went before on those brief trips to Brazil or South Africa or you’re still young and may spend Christmas 2022 in Qatar. OK the vast majority of English footballers won’t be representing their country next summer in Russia. But if you’re like stars here you are a highly paid well known (and maybe even liked) footballer and Hawaii is lovely in June.

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster

Fullbacks: Glenn Johnson, Leighton Baines, Mason Holgate

Centre backs: Ben Mee, Rob Holding, Callum Chambers

Central midfielders: Lewis Cook, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Jonjo Shelvey, Tom Carroll

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Marc Albrighton, Ademola Lookman, Josh Onamah, Andros Townsend, Scott Sinclair

Forwards: Andy Carroll, Jay Rodriguez, Andre Gray. Saido Berahino

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Lithuania 0-1 England: Baby steps of progress

With World Cup qualification confirmed in Thursdays snoozeathon at Wembley this dead rudder was a friendly in all but make.

Gareth Southgate’s pattern as manager has been to go low risk in qualifying and experiment in the friendlies. For the qualifiers Southgate has identified his best players (Kane, Lallana, Walker, Alli and latterly Rashford) and fill the gaps with the most experienced team players available (Hart, Cahill, Bertrand, Henderson). The result has been dull but solid with qualification never seriously in doubt. It’s been unpleasant viewing but probably the correct approach- Steve McClaren went for bold changes in qualifying and look how that turned out!

With nothing at stake Southgate switched to a 3-4-3 and made 7 personnel changes including debuts for Harrys Maguire & Winks.

Let’s be honest this was never likely to be a classic, this had the feel of a Europa League away tie (minus tension).

England started well and after 5 minutes an excellent Aaron Cresswell cross was almost headed home by Maguire. England were very neat and tidy but struggled to provide any penetration. Again Cresswell from a set piece saw England go close- his teasing cross fell to Michael Keane who struck a half volley just wide. On 27 minutes England made the breakthrough when a Alli one two with Jordan Henderson invited a clumsy challenge and from the resulting penalty Kane dispatched into the left hand corner 1-0.

If fans were hoping this would spur England on and force the Lithuanians to abandon their back 8-1-1 formation they were soon disappointed as the half petered out.

Lithuania started the second half on the front foot and got off a few potshots. At the other end Cresswell dug out another good cross which eluded Kane but fell to Winks on the edge of the box who forced a good save. The Lithuanian’s started to open up and a neat cross saw Keane almost put the ball through his own net but was saved by a smart Butland stop. The game started to wind down with a full 20 minutes to go with a few neat breaks from Lithuania and sub Daniel Sturbridge making a nuisance of himself but clear cut chances were few and far between. But a neat lofted ball from Winks almost put Maguire in for a debut goal but it didn’t come off and it finished 1-0.

Ultimately this wasn’t a good performance but it was a bit better than Thursday night and we could see some reason for cautious optimism in the performances of Winks and Maguire whilst Cresswell provided some quality from the left, it was however a disjointed performance with neat moments of skill not quite coming off and long periods of sideways passing.

It’s been a strange week in English football. I’ll write another piece about the media reaction and some of the good, bad and idiotic points raised. The England senior side are in a dark place at the moment- it’s odd to be writing that in the week they qualified for a World Cup but it’s true. However the performance of Winks hinted at better days to come. On the same day England’s under 17s opened their World Cup campaign by thumping Chile 4-0 with Jadon Sancho yet again looking a superstar in the making.

England have got the talent but we need to be patient, for now setting a nucleus in place and improving the side enough to give the kids a stage to play on has to be the goal. Lowering our immediate expectations and looking for improvement is where we stand as fans right now.

One thing recent England games have reminded me of was the pre Meszut Ozil Germany team of 2009. At the time Germany looked a compact functional side who Capello’s high flying England easily dispatched in a friendly that autumn. Then of course Ozil was promoted from the Under 21s who provided incision and creativity and set the Germans on the road to success.

I’m not saying Winks is going to be Ozil (besides Pochettino reckons he’s more like Iniesta!) but bringing through the young creative talents is the best way forward as England make small steps forward.