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.

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England 1-0 Slovenia takeaways

  1. I think it was Sir Alf Ramsey who stated you wear your boiler suit for the qualifiers and your dinner suit for the finals. Gareth Southgate has followed th first half of that statement (not literally). This was an awful performance, it never quite reached Iceland levels of awfulness but it did remind me of Algeria af the 2010 World Cup.

Of course we should bare in mind as that statement suggests most qualifiers are tense but poor partly because of the lack of preparation time (4 days). last night Argentina failed to beat Peru whilst last time out France couldn’t beat Luxembourg, another big name will cock things up tonight and or tomorrow- England are not alone in struggling to find a performance in the qualifiers. Germany who’ve had the same manager for a decade and the spine of the team in place since 2010 and Spain who’s cast reads like an a-z of Champions League finalists have been consistently good in this campaign.

One final point on this- England’s best World Cup in living memory (Italia 90) was preceded by the dullest qualification campaign I can remember (and required the late intervention of a crossbar in Poland) whilst England’s best qualifying campaigns were the perfect 10 of Euro 2016 and the rampant performances of Capello’s England enroute to South Africa- and we know how that turned out.

2. Gareth Southgate’s priorities between now and next summer are- sort out the midfield, try some different midfielders and rejig the midfield. Dier and Henderson just aren’t a pairing, Dier needs partner who can find a quick and questions remain over his international class whilst Henderson has only ever looked International class when partnered with Jack Wilshere. Wilshere is inevitably becoming better in our heads through absence but must get a run of games to be an option. Elsewhere it would be wise to give Harry Winks the start against Lithuania and Fabian Delph must play In November if he can retain his current form. It looks like Nat Chalobah will have to wait for the spring internationals. One thing we’ve learned for sure; Jake Livermore isn’t the answer.

3. Joe Hart is repaying his managers faith (sort of). Hart made a splendid double save when Slovenia created their best chance deep into the second half. Some took this to be Hart guaranteeing himself the job next summer. They forgot to mention he gave away a stonewall penalty which the referee happened to miss. Hart had a good game that keeps him number one for now but with the friendlies likely to see others given a shout he’s not home and dry but at least he isn’t turning into David James or Rob Green. Butland and Pickford have been good this season but neither has made a watertight case for the start as yet, that and his own competence is keeping Hart at the front of the queue.

4. Rashford is brilliant- he really is! Rashford was again dynamic and exciting with a confidence and freedom not seen from an England forward since Rooney in 2004

5. Jesse Lingard has earned a start- picking winners out of last nights performance (other than Rashford and Kane) is a biggest Pygmy in the village contest but Lingard (who came on after 63 minutes) certainly advanced his case by simply being willing to run and not being Oxlade-Chamberlain (more on him below) A certainty to start on Sunday.

6. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won a lot of credit with Southgate by scoring a fine goal at Hampden Park. It’s fair to say he’s spent the lot over the last 4 games. He was absolutely rank in central midfield against France and contributed next to nothing in 3 successive games on the wing on the grounds Lallana and Welbeck were unavailable- once they’re both back he’s gone unless he secures a regular start at Liverpool.

7.  Some major team surgery is required- in the ITV commentary team. The loss of key players has seen Mark Pougatch over promoted to team captain whilst the team continues to struggle after the transfers of Roy Keane (who provided the hard knocks) and Gareth Southgate (who provided calm analysis). Now we have Ryan Giggs still struggling to find his feet at this level and Ian Wright who provides a fans perspective (media speak for being banal, obvious and occasional moronic). The World Cup is still 8 months away and the upcoming friendlies give the editor the chance to experiment, much more of this and said editor might resort to lighting a large Tactics Truck beacon in the sky over Wembley for Andyman to return- things are that bad!

England 1-0 Slovenia: Kane sends England stumbling to St Petersburg.

This was supposed to be a party- the moment Gareth Southgate’s England would play some flowing football and storm to Russia. But England qualifying games are rarely that simple. For those who’ve been living on Mars since Sunday night a win would take England through and a draw would be enough if Slovakia failed to beat Scotland.

England started confidently with Sterling in his revised number 10 role causing the Slovenians problems as England dominated possession without creating a clear cut chance. Then in the 8th minute Sterling gave the ball away in midfield and Slovenian danger man Ilicic broke into the England box and was clipped by Hart- fortunately for England the referee saw it as a collision rather than a foul- a let off.

The spanner it through in the works knocked England out of their stride and a loose period of play saw England continuously give the ball away and snuggle to regain their early composure.

As was the case last month against Slovakia it was Rashford who got England going again, a darting run down the left jangled Slovenian nerves and a neat cross almost put Cahill in. Then in the 20th minute the temperature raised after some agricultural defending from the Slovenians and England started to move up the gears. England’s first clear sight of goal came from Henderson in the 25th minute who broke into the box and hit an angled shot that drew a good save from Oblak.

By now Rashford was enjoying himself and playing with the impudence of a schoolboy but the defensive problems continued as Slovenia consistently found gaps between England’s midfield and defence. in the 34th minute Sterling drew a poor challenge from holding midfielder Krhin just outside the box, bit despite the promising central position of the ensuing free kick England opted for the less than prolific Walker to take it, needless to say he blazed it over the bar. Before long Krhin was booked as Slovenia’s defending grew ever more clumsy, but England continued to labour. The last action of the first half inevitably centre on Rashford whose trickery drew a foul and he forced a smart save from Oblak with the ensuing free kick and then a flick on from Cahill with the ensuing corner but with no reward 0-0 at half time

Slovenia started the second half the sharper and Ilicic swung in a cross that left back Jokic headed tamely at Hart. But the game settled back into the pattern of the first half with Slovenia looking tidy with their limited possession and England slow and ponderous whilst keeping it for longer spells. The crowd became firstly bored and then restless as Walker gave away a needless chance and Slovenia again grew in ambition.

Finally on 62 minutes England showed some pace when a quick break from a Slovenia corner saw Sterling feed Rashford who tried to chip the keeper but didn’t get enough on the ball, minutes later another quick move down the left saw Sterling shoot from the centre of the box and force a desperate clearance from Cesar.

The introduction of Lingard for the ineffective Oxlade-Chamberlain gave England the impetus as he linked well with Sterling and Rashford to unsettle Slovenia’s defence and again down the left Rashford created a chance for Kane who’s angled shot flew wide.

But the drab shapeless look soon returned and on 82 minutes some awful officiating saw a foul on Lingard go unpunished then from the ensuing break an offside missed forcing Hart into an excellent double save.

The most entertainment in the closing stages looked like being provided by a paper aeroplane and a (fully clothed) pitch invader, until the 4th official weirdly found 6 minutes of injury time that initially sounded like a punishment for the crowd for laughing at the pitch invasion. But suddenly England found some thrust and the otherwise awful Walker pounced on a poor clearance and whipped in a cross which Kane toe-poked home 1-0 on 93 minutes, 5 minutes later England’s qualification was confirmed.

This game was like a visit to the dentist: awkward painful but with the necceasary work completed. Clearly there’s plenty to work on and the media bullsh$t started in earnest when Ian Wright pointed out how much harder Northern Ireland’s group is (that’s because England are ranked higher than Northern Ireland, Ian!) But the bare minimum requirement has been met and for the next 8 months that will have to do.

Player Ratings

Hart 7- Lucky not to concede a penalty in the early stages and had little to do until his brilliant double save.

Walker 5- Awful until injury time. Started brightly but quickly faded, gave away 2 good chances when he suffered brain farts both by knocking aimless balls into gaping holes in England’s defence. But made amends with his powerful runs in injury time and finally a great cross which Kane dispatched.

Bertrand 6- Solid in defence (as usual) and linked well with Rashford. Edging ever closer to being first choice left back.

Dier 5- Frankly awful, provided little defence stability and ponderous on the ball.

Cahill 6- Solid against nobody for the most part, occasionally threatening at the over end but little to write home about.

Stones 6- As above but little sign of his ball playing skills- his one forward thrust saw him miscontrol and pick up a booking.

Sterling 6- Some early incision and drew some fouls with his footwork but not comfortable as a number 10. Played far better in the final third of the game when played on the right.

Henderson 5- forced a good save from Oblak but like Dier provided neither defensive stability nor attacking incision, how is he in the running for the captaincy?

Kane 6- Had to feed off scraps as England struggled to create chances. Worked hard and took his chance when it finally arrived.

Rashford 8- Creative, quick and the best player in a white shirt by a long distance. One negative was his dodgy set piece delivery.

Oxlade-Chamberlain 5- Early zip quickly disintegrated. Hooked early in the second half. Will be dropped in Lithuania.

Subs

Lingard 7- Bright and linked well with Sterling and Rashford.

Keane n/a Touched the ball at some stage, I think.

 

 

 

England v Slovenia preview

So here we are England will seal their 6th successive World Cup appearance and 9th in the last 10 with a win at Wembley against Slovenia.

With a 5 point lead in Group F and a big goal difference advantage over the rest a point will almost certainly be enough. But against a side ranked 55th in the world a win at Wembley will be expected and for Gareth Southgate a perfect sign off on a successful qualifying campaign in front of 80,000 Home fans. But mess things up and a frosty night in Lithuania awaits to stumble over the line.

Despite their low ranking Slovenia gave England a rough time in a 0-0 draw in Ljubljana a year ago and sit only a point behind second placed Slovakia so arrive at Wembley with qualifying ambitions of their own. Their brightest star is Athletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak who’s impressed in Atheltico’s recent run of Champions League campaigns. Going forward the main creative threat will come from Serie A regular Josip Ilicic- who clocked up 100 appearances for Fiorentina before moving on to Atalanta this summer.

History

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The draw Slovenia gained last year was the first time they managed to avoid defeat to England- losing the previous 4 meetings. The most notable being the final group match of the 2010 World Cup when Jermain Defoe stabbed home the only goal of the game and secured England’s only win of a largely awful campaign. More recently the sides met in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. England came from behind to win 3-1 at Wembley and then 3-2 in Slovenia when Jack Wilshere bagged a memorable second half brace.

Team News

Since the squad was announced last Thursday Fabian Delph and Phil Jones have been ruled out with injury whilst Dele Alli will serve his one match ban for flipping the bird in the Slovakia game last month. It’s a particular blow for Delph who was likely to play following his good run of form for Manchester City. But Delph’s injury is short term and he should be back for City when the Premier League resumes, he currently looks a key component to Pep Guardiola’s side so should get his chance in the November internationals.

England Squad Takeaways

The late call up to the squad is Tottenham’s Harry Winks who’ll be hoping to make his debut. Winks has been promoted from the Under 21’s and with Delph joining a lengthy injury list in midfield has been given his chance sooner than expected, but the talented young playmaker looks a confident player who may well grab his opportunity with both hands and it is good to see a young player with potential getting the late call up rather than a veteran with little upside.

There’s been no word yet on team selection but inevitably there’ll be a lot of focus on the goalkeepers. Southgate backed Joe Hart after his error against Scotland in the summer but then was partly to blame for Slovakia’s goal at Wembley. Southgate needs to give his other keepers a chance with at best 7 games remaining before the World Cup (assuming we make it!) I’d like to see Jack Butland given the start but I suspect the manager will stick with Hart.

Elsewhere the absence of Jones means a change in central defence- the favourite must be John Stones after a good start to the season with City and his ball playing skills should be a huge asset against a side likely to sit deep for long spells.

Prediction

Slovenia will come looking for a point and hit on the break when they can. I expect England will score in the first half and should run out comfortable winners 2-0.

 

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?

Argentina-AP

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup Qualifying Round 9: The draw takes shape

The home straight is in sight for europe’s national teams, on the final bend of the year long campaign some are storming ahead whilst others are nervously looking over their shoulder.

Last time I compiled a group by group summary so this time I’ll keep it snappy:

Who’s made it?

Russia & Belgium

Who could make it this round?

Germany need a draw away to Northern Ireland to make sure, England will be there if they beat Slovenia at Wembley and Serbia if they beat Austria meanwhile if Spain win they’re practically there short of a double digits defeat to in their final game. All theses teams have the fall back of simply winning their last match to ensure qualification.

Any big guns in trouble?

Most of the big names are at least on course for November’s playoffs. But Holland who placed 3rd in Brazil aren’t so much flirting with danger as dropping their pants for disaster. The Dutch are 3 points behind second placed Sweden in Group A with an inferior goal difference- they need to win in Belarus (preferably scoring more goals than the Swedes manage against Luxembourg) to set up a grand stand decider against Sweden in Amsterdam on the last day.

2018 World Cup Qualifications - Europe - France vs Netherlands
Soccer Football – 2018 World Cup Qualifications – Europe – France vs Netherlands – Saint-Denis, France – August 31, 2017 Netherlands’ Arjen Robben looks dejected after the match REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

And the biggest games of the round are:

Scotland vs Slovakia

It’s 20 years since Scotland last made it to the World Cup, with Del Amitri’s cheery ‘Don’t Come Home Too Soon’ ringing in their ears- possibly explaining why they haven’t bothered going since!

But on Thursday night at Hampden the Scots have their destiny (mostly) in their own hands. Scotland currently sit 4th in Group F: level on points with Slovenia (who visit Wembley the same night) and a point behind Slovakia.

gordon-strachan-scotland-manager_3437357

Hampden will be a cauldron of noise for this must win game, after a poor start Scotland have taken 10 points from their last 4 games. But Slovakia gave England a fright at Wembley and are currently ranked 24 places above Scotland with incisive technical players in Hamsik & Lobotka who can hurt the Scots. With their final game away to Slovenia the Scots have no margin for error it’s 6 points or bust- but as Del Amitri said ‘even long shots make it!’

Bulgaria vs France

The highly talented French seemed to be cruising to Russia but a shock loss to Sweden in June and a frankly bizarre draw with Luxembourg leaves France needing to exorcise a demon to keep qualification on track.

24 years ago Didier Deschamps played for the highly talented French side that crashed out of qualifying to Bulgaria. On Saturday night Deschamps will sit in the dugout hoping Kylian M’Bappe and co don’t repeat the mistake against the same opponent.

The Worst World Cup Qualification Cock-ups

Northern Ireland vs Germany

Northern Ireland are guaranteed second spot whilst Germany need a point to ensure qualification.

Windsor Park has is the archetypal tough place to go- Spain & England have come a cropper there in the past, could the world champions follow?

Northern Ireland need to be careful though- they are guaranteed second place in the group but a heavy defeat could push them towards the lowest placed runners up spot and and missing the playoffs.

And what about Wales & Ireland?

If Serbia win Wales & Ireland are left fighting for a playoff spot. Wales travel to Georgia and Ireland host Moldova- both need to win and set up the decider in Cardiff next week. Wales have Gareth Bale fit and back in form having previously struggled in this campaign whilst Ireland dropped critical points in September. Both have easy looking games but it really is squeaky bum time for both teams.

England’s Premier League winners & losers

Winners:

Harry Kane

He’s so good Pep Guadiola reckons he’s an entire team… sort of. 5 goals in 4 days with A whole range of different finishes on display, Kane’s goal scoring statistics are becoming silly. Does anyone want to argue Jordan Henderson would make a better England captain?

Gareth Southgate

It’s been a good week for the England manager, first those helpful chaps on the FIFA disciplinary committee only gave Dele Alli a one match ban for flipping the bird on camera, meaning he won’t incur a 2 match ban next summer.

Then at the weekend 70 English players started premier league games (32%). That doesn’t sound a huge amount but it is a significant increase on recent weeks at a time when 8 England internationals are out injured. The FA needs to be aiming for around 85 English players a week for England to have a credible playing pool- the FA statisticians will be hoping this is the start of a trend rather than a blip.

Fabian Delph

Good in the Champions League, great against Chelsea even if he is playing at left back, 2 weeks ago Delph was the forgotten man of the Etihad- with Mendy out until Easter he’s a key player for City and this week gets a shot at reviving his England career.

Rob Holding

It’s been a humbling start to the season for young Holding who cut a haunted figure at Anfield a month ago. But a goal in the Europa League and a solid display against Brighton keeps him in the first team picture at Arsenal and suggests he’s not destined for the young player at Arsenal vortex that swallowed the careers of Callum Chambers & Henri Lansbury.

Losers

Saido Berahino

29 games without a goal!! Even the penalty spot isn’t offering a respite- that collapsed move to Spurs and subsequent sulk has seemingly wrecked his career. Doubt Tottenham would be interested in January

Nat Chalobah

A month ago he was given his first England call up now he’s crocked until Christmas. It’s unfortunate for a player who’s finally making headway as a Premier League regular.

Daniel Sturridge

Sturridge is not the only Liverpool striker needing a goal, but none need one as badly. Recalled to the starting lineup against Newcastle Sturridge missed 2 presentable chances and was hooked when Jurgen Klopp substituted his entire front line late in the game. The problem with Sturridge is everytime he starts a game we all hark back to 2013-14 when he looked a world beater, he looks anything but right now. How much longer will he be ahead of Dominic Solanke in the Liverpool queue?