Category: Russia 2018 Latest

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.

 

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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.

Europe

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

World Cup qualifying- final round

Qualifying is almost done bar the playoffs. By Wednesday at least 22 teams will have secured their passage to Russia with only 6 playoff matches and a final round of games in Africa to play on November.

Who’s made it?- Russia, Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nigeria

What’s left to play for?

Europe:

Group A

France held their nerve to claim a vital win in Bulgaria and stay top with only a home win over Belarus required to go through. The big story however is Holland are almost out- after Sweden romped to an 8-0 win over Luxembourg and the Dutch narrowly won 3-1 in Belarus , they now need to beat Sweden by 6 goals to make the playoffs.

Group B

Switzerland and Portugal will square off for top spot in Portugal on Tuesday night. Saturday night saw the European Champions needing to bring Ronaldo off the bench to beat the mighty Andorra whilst the Swiss rolled Hungary 5-2. His royal CR7ness will need to come up with the goods on Tuesday if Portugal are to secure the win they need with Switzerland only needing a draw. Whoever loses out is guaranteed a play off spot,

Group C

Germany are through after their convincing win in Belfast and whilst Northern Ireland are guaranteed second place they require a result in Norway tonight to ensure they avoid the dreaded lowest placed runner up spot and miss the playoffs- a draw should be enough for Micheal O’Neill’s men.

Group D

It may be a fixture more famous for rugby than football but Ireland visit the Principality Stadium for the winner takes all (well more likely a playoff spot) game with Wales. Wales currently hold the edge but both need to win as a draw may see the Welsh finish as the lowest placed runner up. Serbia missed the chance to secure the group by losing in Austria this week but have a second chance at home to lowly Georgia on Monday night.

Group E

Poland will secure qualification with a draw at home this afternoon against third placed Montenegro, meanwhile resurgent Denmark will guarantee themselves a playoff berth with a home win over Romania.

Group F

Given England have scored 4 goals in injury time and Scotland 5 after the 84th minute we should have expected Harry Kane’s 93rd minute winner and Chris Martin (not the one from Coldplay) forcing an 87th minute Slovakian own goal. It all means England have qualified and Scotland will make the playoffs if they win in Slovenia tonight. A draw almost certainly won’t be enough for the Scots given third place Slovakia fave the open goal of a home game with Malta.

Group G

It’s done and dusted- Spain are there after Italy laughably failed to beat Macedonia at home. Italy have to make do with a playoff spot- needless to say they’ll be the team to avoid.

Group H

Belgium had already qualified but still provided some fun (Gareth Southgate take note) with a 4-3 win over Bosnia. Greece will finish second with a home win over Gibraltar but may need to top up their goal difference to avoid the lowest placed runner up spot and elimination.

Group I

Iceland will make their World Cup debut with a home win over last placed Kosovo on Monday night. Meanwhile Croatia travel to Kiev needing a point to secure second place- a win for Ukraine will see them leapfrog Croatia and claim a possible playoff.

South America

Argentina are in deep trouble- they lie sixth in the group and will be out if they don’t make it to at least fifth. The good news is they have their destiny in their own hands- a win and they will finish at least fifth, the bad news is the game is Ecuador away (at altitude) where they often struggle. Elsewhere Brazil qualified years ago and Uruguay are practically there due to their strong goal difference. Colombia face Peru with the winner guaranteed qualification meanwhile Chile need a result away to Brazil to make sure of a top 5 finish. Finally Paraguay’s late goals against Colombia gives them a shout of a playoff spot.

Africa

Congratulations to Nigeria who’ve secured qualification with a game to spare. Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal all look good to join them but will have to wait until November to make sure. The real intrigue is in Group C where the tradition African powerhouse Ivory Coast are a point behind Morocco with 1 game to play, and the last game is: Ivory Coast hosting Morocco. Watch this space.

Concaaf

The USA finally got going with a 4-1 home win over Panama which puts them on course to join Mexico and Costa Rica in the finals- a draw away to Trinidad & Tobago will be enough. Panama and Honduras meanwhile are level points for the playoff spot with Panama holding a stronger goal difference, they host Mexico and costs respectively on Wednesday when the group concludes.

Asia

Syria scraped a 1-1 Home draw (played in Malaysia) against Australia with the return leg in Sydney on Tuesday. The Socceroos will be hit favourites to progress and face the 4th place Concaaf team.

Oceania

This week New Zealand will finally discover which South American will knock them out, sorry lads.

World Cup Qualifying Part 2: All Around The World

Away from Europe qualifying is reaching its climax across the globe, so in brief who’s on their way to Russia?

Whose made it?

Brazil, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia & Iran

South America update:

With Brazil home and hosed Uruguay are the only other team who can guarantee a place this round with an away win at Venezuela. Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile are playing musical chairs with Colombia & Peru currently sat in the automatic qualifying places and Argentina in the playoff place whilst Confederation Champions Chile are currently set to miss out. Chile host Peru in the game of the week but this will go down to the final run off games next week but surely Messi won’t miss out will he?

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Asia Update:

The groups are finished and the 4 qualifiers confirmed, Now it’s down to the playoff between Australia and war torn Syria, with the Socceroos overwhelming favourites. Their reward will be a playoff with the 4th placed Concaaf side speaking of which…

Concaaf Update:

Costs Rica will join Mexico in the finals if they beat lowly Honduras this week. The real story here is the US who’ve endured a torrid campaign and currently sit in the playoff spot a point behind Panama who visit the States this week. The Americans need the win  and should have enough to push Panama down to the playoffs.

Oceania Update:

New Zealand trounced the Soloman Islands are now await the 5th place side from South America. Clearly the All Whites would prefer to play Peru to Argentina. But New Zealand go in on good form and won’t be the pushover some have predicated.

Africa Update:

The final round of African groups are only 6 games long meaning with 2 games to go a lot can change and nobody is secure yet. Tunisia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Egypt are all current group favourites. Group D remains the curious one with the romantics favourite Burkina Faso currently top on goal difference from the Cape Verde Islands whilst Senegal and South Africa have to replay their game from earlier this year after some suspicious refereeing.

World Cup Qualifying Round 9: The draw takes shape

World Cup qualifying Part 2: Rest of the World

 

 

 

 

 

 

Malta 0-4 England 3 points and not much else.

These are the least fun internationals to watch, it’s literally a Premier a league club playing a full strength aside away to Crawley Town.

Gareth Southgate sought to even the odds by selecting Joe Hart in goal. Southgate made the point that this doesn’t mean Hart is guaranteed to start going forward and 3 Premier League games isn’t enough of a sample size to judge his goalkeepers form.

Within a minute Raheem Sterling got a clear sight of goal but mis-controlled. Two minutes later Harry Kane forgot it’s no longer August and hit a point blank header straight at the keeper.

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As the opening period pressed on the selection of Phil Jones & Gary Cahill at centre back whilst the more natural ball playing Stones, Keane & Maguire sat bored looked odd as did picking Jake Livermore who did ensure any hard Maltese tackling was met with greater force but whose passing has all the range of an 8 year old throwing the shot putt.

As a result the remainder of the first half was drab as England were pedestrian whilst Malta played a back 7. The delivery on the flanks and 6 first half corners was awful.

Unsurprisingly Marcus Rashford was introduced for the second half at the expense of Sterling. Within 2 minutes he’d shown more endeavour than Sterling had managed in 45, gliding past the Maltese right back with his pace.

The breakthrough finally arrived on 52 minutes with Livermore looping in a cross which Alli held and a neat reverse picked out Kane who fired home 0-1.

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It sparked Malta into sporadic attacks going close on 58 minutes.

Jamie Vardy came on after 70 minutes and within 3 minutes nipped in behind and forced a decent save from the keeper.

The pace slowed in the final 15 minutes but on 85 minutes Ryan Bertrand made sure of the win with a long range effort that bounced in front of Hogg 0-2.

Rashford continued to impress and a beautiful flick sent Walker away but he shot instead of laying on a tap in for Vardy.

The floodgates belatedly opened and a fine Kane cross was flicked home by late sub Danny Welbeck 0-3 on 90 minutes.

Rashford crossed and Kane smashed home with the final kick of the game for 0-4.

Ultimately England made heavy weather of their night in the Mediterranean sun although the result rarely looked in doubt.

Slovakia will offer a far sterner test but England should benefit from playing opponents more willing to attack rather than packing their own 18 yard line.

Rashford will surely start and I’d expect Dier to replace Livermore. But given England’s lack of creativity in central midfield I’d like to see Keane or Stones play given their ability to bring the ball out from defence.

Win on Monday and England are virtually home and that’s about all Southgate could gain from this game.

Player Ratings

Hart 6- did nothing wrong and a first clean sheet of the season!

Walker 5- Solid but poor control in key situations. It’s fortunate for him Trippier is injured.

Bertrand 6- not great crossing but got his first England goal. Danny Rose & Luke Shaw won’t be quaking in their boots

Cahill 7- showed calm authority cleaning up the odd Maltese break

Jones 6- never looked entirely comfortable but did little wrong.

Livermore 5- a steely presence in a game that was never going to need it. Created nothing and gave away a coupe of free kicks.

Henderson 7- the captain for the night started brightly but faded.

Oxlade-Chamberlain 6- direct and pacey but inconsistent in quality, in other news water’s wet.

Alli 6- still looking for that signature game for England but ticking along for now, nice assist for the opener.

Sterling 4- awful, missed a decent chance in the first minute and then made the Malta right back look like Bonucci.

Kane 8- unlucky with an early header but confidence grew after the opener. It’s now 5 goals in his last 3 internationals.

Subs

Rashford 7- excellent, showed pace and penetration, will start on Monday night.

Vardy 6- showed his usual pace and unlucky not to score

Welbeck 6- late sub showed plenty of energy and nicked a late goal.

World Cup qualifying Part 2: Rest of the World

Europe will take 14 places at the World Cup, who might get the other 18?

South America (Top 4 qualify, 5th place playoff vs Oceania winner)

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Brazil are officially through with 2 points separating the next 4 (Colombia, Uruguay, Chile & Argentina) and Ecuador 2 points adrift. It’s fortunate for 5th placed Argentina their trip to Uruguay this week coincides with Ecuador’s away match in Brazil. Ecuador host Argentina in the final match of the group for what might be a nervy night for Messi and co.

Prediction

Qualifiers: Brazil, Columbia, Uruguay & Chile

Playoffs: Argentina

Oceania(Winner gets a playoff against 5th place South America)

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No wonder Australians are trying to convince us the GPS is wrong and they’re part of Asia, the reward for winning this confederation looks like being a playoff against Argentina. Anyhow New Zealand & The Solomon Islands are set to play-off for the right to book their hotel in Buenos Aires.

Prediction

Playoff: New Zealand

Concaaf(Top 3 qualify, 4th place plays Asia play off winner)

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Ever the most predictable qualifying continent, the Mexicans have almost got it sewn up with Costa Rica 3 points back and the USA struggling to get over the bad start that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job. The US host Costa Rica on Friday and then play 4th placed Panama

Prediction

Qualifiers: Mexico, Costa Rica & USA

Playoffs: Panama

Asia (Top 2 from both groups qualify, 3rd placed teams playoff- winer faces 4th place Concaaf)

Group A

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Iran have qualified and visit South Korea on Wednesday, The South Koreans fresh from sacking coach Uli Stielike will be looking nervously over their shoulder at Uzbekistan who are only a point behind them and guess who plays on Baku the following Monday, could a World Cup regular be in trouble?

Prediction 

Qualifiers: Iran & Uzbekistan

Play offs: South Korea

Group B

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This one is close, Japan have a 1 point lead over Australia & Saudi Arabia with 2 to play. Japan host Australia on Wednesday and are away to Saudi 5 days later. The Australians host Thailand in their final match and a win will likely see them through.

Prediction 

Qualifiers: Australia & Japan

Play offs: Saudi Arabia

Africa (5 Group winners qualify)

There’s still a lot of football to be played before Africa’s participants are decided- 4 of the 6 rounds are yet to be played so here’s a brief summary of where they all are;

Group A

It’s a straight fight between Tunisia & Benik Afobe’s Democratic Republic of Congo who play each other in Tunisia this week.

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Group B

Nigeria are in control of this one, surprisingly 2017 Cup of Nations winners Cameroon are a distant second and Riyhad Mahrez’ Algeria look out of contention. It looks like the Super Eagles will be swooping into Urals next summer.

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Group C

The Ivory Coast have been the long standing super power of African football but are facing a major challenge from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Gabon. Aged 28 next summer represents Africa’s greatest talent of his generation’s chance of gracing the biggest stage. The first clash of the big two is this week on Gabon.

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Group D

Little Burkina Faso have been the great underdog story of recent years and are locked in a tight group with South Africa & Senegal and the punchbag team of Cape Verde Islands . This will be close with South Africa striking the one big blow thus far by beating Senegal at home.

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Group E

Egypt look favourites but face an unlikely challenge from Uganda. Mo Salah and co are away to Uganda this week, a win will put them in charge of the group.

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Prediction

Group Winners- DR Congo, Nigeria, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Egypt

World Cup Qualification update Part 1: European dreams

World Cup qualification is now entering the home stretch, so who should be booking hotels in June for St Petersburg and who can slope off to Santa Monica?

Of course hosts Russia will be playing but nobody else is guaranteed a place just yet. It’s business as usual in places (i.e. Germany) but elsewhere there are surprising strugglers.

European Group Qualifying (Group winners qualify 8 best runners up go to 2 legged playoffs)

Group A

Sweden pulled off the shock of the tournament to date by beating France In Stockholm and assuming a slender group lead on goal difference. France face a blockbuster against Holland on Thursday- who are yet again in danger of missing out on even a playoff spot. This group will go the wire with Sweden away to Holland on the last day.

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Prediction

Winner: France

Playoffs: Sweden

Group B

Here’s a starter for 10- only 2 teams have 100% qualification records in Europe, Germany are one who’s the other? Incredibly it’s Switzerland. According to Fifa’s World Rankings (which are always proved right) Switzerland are number 4 in the world right now. Whatever the strangeness of Fifa’s formula’s it’s been an impressive campaign from the Swiss who beat European Champions Portugal early on to establish their lead. With both the leaders facing open goal matches this week, it’ll be as your were until the 10th October when the Swiss travel to Portugal for the decider, they’ll likely need a point.

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Prediction

Winner: Portugal

Playoffs: Switzerland

Group C

Germany are virtually there- sitting on a 5 point cushion with 4 to play. What makes this group curious is the battle for the playoff spot where Northern Ireland hold a 4 point lead over the Czech Republic. With Germany rolling into Prague on Friday night (that old chestnut) and Will Greigg’s boys away to San Marino a playoff spot is within Northern Ireland’s grasp.

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Prediction

Winner: Germany

Playoffs: Northern Ireland

Group D

The closest group of the lot with Serbia & Ireland tied on 12 points and Wales & Austria 4 points back. The Welsh have struggled with their favourites tag and drawn 5 of their six matches to date, Including of course that ugly clash in Dublin and that sickening injury to Seamus Coleman. The game of the week is in Cardiff with Bale fit and the Austrians visiting- both need the win to stay in touch whilst Ireland host Serbia 4 days later.

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Prediction

Winner: Ireland

Playoffs: Wales

Group E

Poland have dominated this group and hold a 6 point lead but face a tricky away tie to Denmark. It looks like Poland will win the group regardless with Denmark duking it out with Montenegro for 2nd, the Danes travel to Montenegro in October but with the lowest place runner up missing out all together it could be academic

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Prediction

Winner: Poland

Playoffs: None (worst placed runner up) Montenegro to finish 2nd.

Group F

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England look comfortable here, facing the open goal of Malta in Valetta on Friday night. Slovakia & Slovenia are facing each other the same day with Slovakia then visiting Wembley the following Monday. The intrigue will come in Lithuania where Scotland are the visitors, having got themselves back into the group taking 4 points from home games with Slovenia & England. This is a banana skin waiting to fling the Scots over their kilts- they need a win to stay in touch.

Prediction

Winner:  England

Playoffs: Slovakia

Group G

The game of the week takes place in Spain, with the 2010 Champions hosting 2006 winners Italy- tied for the lead and only separated by Spain’s marginally better goal difference. Qualifiers are rarely bigger than this with the Italians in surprisingly confident mood; I have a sneaking suspicion they’ll do it. There are 4 other teams in the group but frankly no one cares- better luck with the 2020 draw!

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Prediction

Winner: Italy

Playoffs: Spain

Group H

Belgium are cruising to Russia (not literally) with their remaining home matches against Gibraltar & Cyprus although they’ll need to finish it off minus Eden Hazard. A revitalised Greece & Bosnia-Heregovina are fighting it out for second, Greece’s slightly easier run in gives them the edge.

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Prediction

Winner: Belgium

Playoffs: Greece

Group I

Those pesky Icelandic’s are at it again, they’ve beaten Croatia and are only behind on goal difference. But this is a close group with Ukraine & Turkey also in the mix. Turkey travel to Kiev in the key game this week.  Croatia and Iceland both face local derbies of sorts (Kosovo & Finland respectively) but should win.

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Prediction

Winner: Croatia

Playoffs: Iceland