England’s Hunt For A New Manager Takes An All Too Familiar Path

Abject failure, catastrophe, disaster beyond repair, calamitous. All over exaggerations heard about the current problems facing the England national team following their disappointing exit from Euro 2016. Yes, it was a surprising exit at the hands of Iceland, but one that truthfully those closest to the game would know was coming for some time. It all started during the qualifying campaign. England qualified for France fairly convincingly, and with little effort, which ultimately ended up being their downfall. With no real competitive games as such in two years (with the exception of Switzerland), England was on auto pilot for too long. When manager Roy Hodgson did retake the controls in the few months in the run up to the tournament, it was as if he had forgotten exactly how to fly and was hastily retraining himself. A series of pointless international friendlies did nothing to convince the watching spectators that lifting the trophy in July would be a possibility. Instead those games only served to confuse the fans and media with former England winger confessing that he couldn’t work out what system England were playing and what the general plan was. These experimental games only seemed to serve the purpose of giving players like Danny Drinkwater and Andros Townsend false hope that they might squeeze on to the flight to France. In the end, neither did, and for their own reputations sake it’s probably a good thing.

Danny Drinkwater’s man of the match performance afainst Holland in a friendly before Euro 2016 did little for his chances (Image from Tumbl)

During the tournament England played a strong possession game which appeared to please Hodgson and the always animated Gary Neville. But possession without purpose leads to nothing and England made qualification from the group look extremely difficult for themselves. Hodgson, to be fair, did not help England’s chances when he made some strange choices, including shoehorning Wayne Rooney into the team as a midfielder so he could compensate for picking four other strikers in the squad of 23. His decision making in the run up to the tournament and throughout was poor; selecting a barely fit Jack Wilshire ahead of Drinkwater or the impressive Mark Noble of West Ham, for example. Similarly, putting his top marksman Harry Kane on all free kicks and corner kicks was so baffling even Kane probably didn’t understand why. Finally, his lack of a plan B on several occasions costs his side more than just three valuable points and potentially a fairly good shot at winning a relatively poor tournament outright.

Hodgson appeared to be unsure of his best team and formation leading up to Euro 2016 (image from Tumblr)

In the end, Hodgson fell on his sword resigning moments after the defeat at the hands of Iceland in the last 16. Almost instantaneously debates began over who should take over – Englishman or foreign, young or old. Sam Allardyce, Jurgen Klinsmann, Roberto Mancini, Arsene Wenger, Eddie Howe, Glenn Hoddle and strangely Steve Bruce were all linked with the position with Big Sam the clear bookies favourite as the search got underway. Leading the recruitment process is FA chief executive Martin Glenn (who candidly admitted that he knows nothing about football) so would be seeking out the advice of others in order to make an informed decision. In the end, a three man panel of Glenn, FA technical director Dan Ashworth and FA vice chairman David Gill will pick the 18th manager of England who will lead the team through the qualifying campaign for Russia 2018. However, as usual, the discussion around who they should appoint is focused on what type of manager they want to bring in, rather than the question that needs to be answered: what style or identity should the England national team have? That question more than any other will dictate who the right man (or woman) for the job should be. It’s an approach used by other nations during their selection process and was integral to the decision of the RFU (Rugby Football Union) to appoint Australian Eddie Jones to the position of head coach of the England Rugby team, a move that has already proved to be the right one.

The appointment of Eddie Jones by the RFU was doen based on the style of play that they wanted England to adopt (Image from Tumblr)

Answering that question however may be the difficult part. England historically has relied on big name players at the heart of their team with a formation developed around them, most of the time unsuccessfully. Nine times out of ten England breezes through qualifying for major tournaments creating a false sense of security that the formation is working. However it’s worth noting that England generally avoids the harder teams in the qualifying group draws due to their regular high positioning in the FIFA World rankings. As a result, it’s only at the tournament itself when England faces tougher oppositions that problems with the choice of formation occurs, usually leading to an exit. The lack of a plan B often also stems from this with the belief that plan A is good enough to work. Turning this on its head and starting first with the style or identity that England want to have will help define the formational options and the manager capable of making it work. For example, if England decided to follow Germany’s lead in playing a high pressing possession game then someone like Jurgen Klinsmann would make more sense than Sam Allardyce. It’s not necessarily that the Sunderland manager doesn’t know how to play a high pressing game but his experiences to date indicate that his preferences are towards other styles. If however England chose to play like Iceland as a tough to break down unit who are more rigid than fluid in nature, then Sam becomes one of the stand out candidates. Fundamentally the FA trio must focus less on Russia and more on the long term future of the national team. Build the foundations now to create long term success rather than constructing a half-baked solution that will need repairing or scrapping in four years time.

Is Sam Allardyce the right choice? (image from Tumblr)

Italy’s success at this year’s Euros are an indication of how effective this approach can be. The Italians were not blessed with the most talented squad going into the tournament with several Italian journalists calling it the worst team in fifty years. But in manager Antonio Conte they had a coach who understood the style that Italy wanted to play and built a formation around that. The players he then selected fit into this system rather than the other way around (which is what England did). When PSG’s Marco Veratti dropped out due to injury, Conte turned to Lazio’s Marco Parolo; a similar type of player who can drop straight into the gap left by Veratti rather than reworking his system to accommodate a different type of player. The entire squad knew the system, how they intended to play and what their role was leading Italy to a quarter final spot. England must learn from past mistakes, define their style and approach going forward. Once they have done this, only then can they confidently choose a manager who can be most effective in executing against that, regardless of who that is and where they come from.

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Euro 2016 – Ten Takeaways From The Group Stage

1. Let’s not get shirty

Generally one of the quietest men on the technical bench is the kit man but that wasn’t the case for the Swiss representative who was kept extra busy during the France vs Switzerland match. In a fairly heavy handed and tempestuous match the Swiss kit man was called upon not once, nor twice, but five times to replace ripped strips. It was a huge embarrassment for the shirt maker Puma who blamed it on a defective batch. But by then it was too late with the Internet exploding with a series of memes and jokes, the best of which came from Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri who remarked that he hoped the shirt manufacturers also didn’t make condoms.

2. Cheer up Ronaldo!

It’s proving increasingly difficult to like Cristiano Ronaldo. His narcissistic nature coupled with his constant need to hog the limelight (case in point: the Champions League final where he did nothing for 120 minutes then insisted on taking the decisive fifth penalty in the shoot out win) are lumping the Portuguese star recently in the same bracket of affection as Donald Trump. Arguably the world’s best player (ahead of Messi), this should have been Ronaldo’s chance to win over his haters. Instead, Ronaldo has come across as a whiny little b@tch. First, he complained that Iceland parked the bus against Portugal and didn’t really try. He then refused to acknowledge and shake their hands after the game, but did take a moment to pose with a pitch invader for a photo. Days later after missing a crucial penalty against Austria, Ronaldo was caught on camera grabbing a reporter’s microphone and tossing it into a nearby lake. Hardly the behaviour of a world class player. At least a brace in the final game against Hungary put a smile temporarily back on his face.

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It’s not been an easy group stage for Ronaldo (image from Tumblr)

3. Riots and flares

Unfortunately any positive memories generated from the group stage will be tainted with the ugly scenes of rioting in the stadiums and in the host cities. Gangs of imbeciles from a variety of nations (primarily Russia and England) have caused havoc and threatened to ruin what has been a good start to the tournament. Added to this, the throwing of flares at games by Russian, Turkish and Croat fans has led to UEFA handing down a stern warning or two to behave (like that will work). It has gotten so serious that the Croatian players had to plead with their fans (who bizarrely were fighting each other) to stop throwing flares after a steward almost suffered horrendous burns to his face when a flare blew up just as he was picking it up. When will these idiots learn? On a brighter note though, news is surfacing from France that one such idiot stuck a flare up his backside in order to hide it from the security searches only for it to explode leaving the yob with a burned bum and bruised ego.

4. The Underdog

When Platini expanded the tournament to 24, he did so in the hope of giving smaller nations the chance to qualify. But in doing so he created a new generation of underdogs – teams who many suggested had no chance of progressing. Sides like Albania, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Iceland and Wales all reached new heights by not only qualifying but also recording victories in the group stages. What this demonstrates is that the gap between the traditionally more powerful nations in Europe (Germany, Italy, England, Spain) and the rest is narrowing. Part of this is down to the Bosman ruling which allowed players more freedom of movement across Europe, which in turn helped to develop them with the knock on benefit being that their national teams also improved. Whilst they may have exited at the group stage, Albania have shown that they are a team who are improving year over year  and could become a regular qualifier for international tournaments in the years ahead.

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They will be back – Albania (Image from tumblr)

5. Third place progress confusion

Nothing like taking a tried and tested formula and throwing that out the window in favour of a new approach. Expanding the Euros from a 16 team to 24 team tournament meant that some of the smaller nations had a better chance of qualifying and it worked. However the confusion surrounding who progresses to the knockout stages could have been avoided. The best four out of six third place teams progressed with the other 12 group winners and runners up leaving only eight packing their bags and heading home. However for some of the third place teams, like Albania, the wait to see was the killer. Having played and won dramatically on Sunday, Albania had to hang around until Wednesday to find out if they were continuing on in the tournament or heading home. In the end they were sent home along with Turkey, so the extra few days proved slightly pointless. Perhaps next time UEFA will change it again and have the eight third place teams play off to see which four progress. I’m sure the fans wouldn’t mind watching that.

6. Plucky Iceland

The smallest nation ever to have qualified for the Euros, Iceland were not expected to do much at the tournament. But two draws and a late 94th minute winner against Austria, Iceland qualified and in doing so showed that they should have been given more credit. After all, they did qualify ahead of the Dutch, including beating them twice en route. Frustrating Ronaldo in the opening match was a joy to behold as Iceland quickly became the neutrals go-to team. A mouthwatering knockout stage match against England now awaits. Their passionate fans showed how wonderful this tournament could have been if other nation’s fans had embraced the same attitude. The stat that seems to be on every commentator’s lips is that 8% of the Icelandic population is at the Euros, but on some occasions it feels like the entire nation had descended on France.

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Iceland scored their first ever goal of the Euro’s against Portugal (Image from Tumblr)

7. A new finalist

In any given tournament, the luck of the draw is very much a decisive factor in how far you progress within it. After an enthralling group stage that saw a few surprise upsets (Hungary topping their group, Croatia one upping Spain) the two sides of the knockout bracket look very different. On one side are the competition’s so-called heavy hitters: Spain, Italy, France, England and Germany, meaning that one by one they will be eliminated en route to the final. On the other side is Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Belgium, Portugal and Wales, meaning that there is a good chance that we will see a new team reach the final for the very first time (the only exceptions being Belgium and Portugal who reached the 1980 and 2008 finals respectively).

8. Late Goals

If the group stage has taught us anything, it’s to watch until the very end (or in Iceland’s case the very very end, deep into injury time). The group stage has given us its fair share of goals, but surprisingly a chunk of them have come within the closing minutes. From 69 goals in total over the 36 games, 27.5% came in the last ten minutes of games. The reason for this is uncertain, but you could speculate that it’s the reluctance of teams to press up the pitch, since more than half of the sides are content to absorb the pressure and hit on the break. It might be that Euro 2016 signals the return of the defensive approach or it could just be that every team is trying to replicate how Leicester City won the English Premier League this season.

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Iceland’s 94th minute winner against Austria was one of 19 goals scored by teams in the groups in the closing stages (Image from Tumblr)

9. French passion

If the sight of Dimitri Payet wiping the tears from his eyes after scoring a spectacular winner on match day 1 doesn’t get you, nothing will. The West Ham star has been the revelation of the French team and embodies the passion that is running through the country at present. Les Blues haven’t seen this amount of hope and good will towards them since the last time their country hosted a major tournament – the 1998 World Cup. Whilst this squad is arguably not as strong or as complete as that side was, there is optimism that perhaps they can go all the way just like they did 18 years ago. With Payet in form, Pogba pulling the strings in midfield and Greizmann still to shine, it would be foolish to bet against them.

10. Hidden gems

As always there are players who excel in the group stages and make a name for themselves. Beyond the more well known faces of Bale, Ronaldo and Pogba are a host of new faces – players almost unknown to the vast majority of fans before the tournament began. Players like Marek Hamsik of Slovenia who scored a peach against a very poor Austria side. Or Switzerland’s rock between the sticks Yann Sommer who has impressed with some fine saves as the Swiss progressed to the knockout stages. Finally, Turkey’s Emre Mor, the youngster who completed a move to Borussia Dortmund just before the start of the Euros. Mor didn’t start the first game but shone brightly enough when he came on, which forced his coach to start him in the next two games.  He is one to watch in the very near future.

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 2 – Groups D, E and F

Group D – Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic + Turkey

Q: Who should top the group? – Spain

Q: Who are the dark horses – Turkey

Q: One to watch: Emre Mor (Turkey)

Having won back to back Euro’s in 2008 and 2012, Spain are looking to make history by completing the treble and lifting the trophy in Paris on July 10th. However a poor performance at the last World cup where they failed to progress out of the group stage has forced a dramatic rethink with Del Bosque tinkering his squad. The result is that several big name players like Diego Costa, Santi Carzola and Juan Mata miss out in favour of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Nolito and the uncapped Lucas Vazquez. The end product is the shortest squad in the tournament (averaging 5ft 9in) but that should matter little as technically they are one of the most gifted squads. Spain did qualify with ease, losing only once along the way to Slovakia but that was to a late goal and against the run of play. Few will bet against Spain at least reaching the final if not going all the way. Croatia however have little chance of making it to the final. They are very much a side in transition under Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman turn fairly unspectacular coach. His appointment was widely slammed at home in Croatia and will need an outstanding Euros to keep his job. he does have a talented squad that contains Real’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic but Cacic lack of credbility or tactical knowledge means that Croatia often underwhelm. Only a win against Turkey in their opening game will give them a chance of progressing.

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Sergio Ramos of Spain arrives to defend their title (Image from Tumblr)

Turkey have no such problem under Faith Terim, the legendary three times national manager who also strangely holds a Italian Knighthood. Turkey enter as the lightweights literally with the lightest squad on average of all sides at 74kg. But that wont deter an experienced group who should progress at the expense of the Czech Republic. Led by Barcelona’s Arda Turan who was unable to play for the Catalan’s until January due to the club’s transfer ban, Turkey are a unique mix of youth and experience that almost didn’t click in qualifying. An 89th minute free kick in game ten against Iceland allowed Turkey to scrape through as the best third placed team. Winners of their group in qualifying were the Czech Republic so it will be the third time in a year and a half that the two sides have met in competitive competition. It’s one game a piece but the bookies will favour the Czech’s who topped the group that also contained Iceland and Holland. Despite free scoring hitting 19, the Czech’s failed to keep a clean sheet in ten attempts conceding 14 goals in the process, the most of any of the nations to qualify. Manager Pavel Vrba has a wealth of knowledge and is widely respected having won five consecutive Czech coach of the year awards from 2010-2015.That however may not be enough to progress especially if Spain and Croatia both beat them before they face Turkey on the last match day.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland + Sweden

Q: Who should top the group? – Belgium

Q: Who are the dark horses – Sweden

Q: One to Watch: Yannick Carrasco (Belgium)

In the so called group of death, the smallest of margins will likely determine who advances and who goes home. Speaking of small, Italy happens to have the tournaments shortest player in its ranks. However what Lorenzo Insigne (5ft 6in) lacks in stature he makes up for in raw talent with the Napoli striker key to Italy’s success. Manager Antonio Conte may have already sealed his exit from the national team (he joins Chelsea afterwards) but wants to go out on a high no matter what. Repeating their feat of four years ago when they reached the final is definitely on Italy’s agenda but suffering another 4-0 defeat (the worst defeat in a Euro or World Cup final) is not. Standing in his way is some lofty competition including Sweden who are the tallest squad at the Euros at an average of 1.86m, the most recognisable being their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To say they are dependant on Zlatan to ensure they have a good tournament is an understatement with the former PSG striker hitting 11 of the 19 goals they scored in qualifying. In truth it was a difficult campaign with Sweden only making it via the playoffs at the expense of Denmark. Since then 2 wins, 3 draws and a defeat to Turkey highlight their indifferent form going into the Euros.They will need Zlatan to be at his very best if they are to escape the group.

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Yannick Carrasco of Belgium could be one of the stars of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

One team that is very much on form is Belgium who have assembled the most expensive squad of any of the qualified nations. A total of  $319m in transfers has been paid for Belgian players like Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne both of whom secured big money moves last summer. Many point to attacking options of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi  as the reason why Belgiam are considered dark horses for the tournament. However in qualifying, only four goals from 24 were scored by the strikers – with each one only scoring once. A worrying problem for manager Marc Wilmots to think about. Finally the Republic of Ireland are set to make their third appearance at the Euros having first qualified back in 1988. That year only eight teams took place with the Republic finishing third behind eventual finalists Holland and the Soviet Union but ahead of England after a Ray Houghton goal sealed a memorable victory. This time around, the Republic is unlikely to provide a shock having scraped through qualifying (they did beat Germany though). As one of the oldest squads (average age of almost 30), its likely that this tournament will be the last for several of their star players. Robbie Keane has been one of the most constant performers for the Irish but at 35 the LA Galaxy striker is nearing the end of the road.

Group F – Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal

Q: Who should top the group? – Portugal

Q: Who are the dark horses – Austria

Q: Who to watch: Joao Mario (Portugal)

Cristiano Ronaldo enters the tournament with a hunger to rewrite history and finally forget about the horrors that fell upon him at Euro 2008. That year he helped Portugal reach the final on home soil only to fall at the last hurdle to Greece in a shock loss. Cristiano Ronaldo could become the first man to score at four Euro finals if he nets in France. He currently sits on six goals in his career, so is every chance to catch Michel Platini’s nine goals at the top of the tree if Portugal have a good tournament. This time around there will be no Luis Figo or Nuno Gomes to help him, with afresh batch of players being brought into the fold for this tournament. Several members of Portugal’s under 21 winning side from last summer have made the move up to the full team including the impressive midfield trio of William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Andres Gomes but surprisingly Bernardo Silva, the creative force of that team misses out. Another side with an impressive youthful squad is Austria.The former co-hosts of 2008 have improved year over year since that tournament and are one of the most improved sides in Europe rising over 95 places in the FIFA world rankings in less than 8 years. They blitzed group G in qualifying, topping the group with nine wins and a draw scoring 22 and conceding just 5. Bayern Munich’s David Alba has grown into their most important player but its the supporting cast of Stoke’ Marko Arnautovic, Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik and Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger that make Austria a tough team to play against. Much is expected of this side and talk of being a dark horse may not be too far from the truth.

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Portugal are pinning their hopes on Ronaldo once again (Image from Tumblr)

Iceland on the other hand are not expected to do much. The expansion of the Euros to 24 means we get the charming inclusion of a country like Iceland, in their first ever tournament. Their population is 330,000, making them the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship finals. Co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade who will replace Lagerback at the end of the tournament), Iceland rely on team spirit to get them over the line. All time record goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen makes the squad despite being 37 years young. He wont however be the oldest player at the tournament with Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly set to take that honour at 40 years old. Known for his tatty grey jogging pants that he wears in every game instead of shorts (based on comfort), Kiraly is looking to add to his 103 caps at Euro 2016 but not much is expected of this Hungary side whose best years are behind them. Despite a troubled qualifying that saw them go through three different managers in the process, Hungary booked their passage to France with a convincing 3-1 aggregate win over Norway. Like the Irish, this will be the final roll of the dice for several of the Hungary players including Zoltan Gera and Kiraly.

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 1 – Groups A, B and C

Watching the European Championships or any major international tournament with your friends is generally highly enjoyable. That is until your so-called friend starts spouting stats and facts about each team making you feel simply like you don’t know anything about football. But fear not, we are here to help. Below is your group by group cheat sheet which should help impress your friends and shut up Mr. Know it all. Each group contains who should win the group, who are the dark horses (a horse racing term for an unexpected winner that in football only seems to appear at major tournaments), one player to watch and some good old fashion generally knowledge about each team. Enjoy!

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Captain Lorik Cana will lead Albania out at their first ever tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Group A – Albania, France, Romania + Switzerland

Q: Who should top the group? – France

Q: Who are the dark horses – Switzerland

Q: Player to watch – Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

France host for a record-breaking third time. Its a record that France should hold onto going forward after UEFA announced its intentions to hold the next set of European Championships across multiple countries. Albania play their first ever major men’s tournament having qualified second in a group containing Portugal, former winners Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. More remarkable is that they only scored ten goals in 8 games, the lowest of all the qualifying teams. Goals will be a problem for them in France. Romania drew more games in qualifying than any other (five) but benefited for the collapse of Greece under the management Claudio Ranieri (who would be sacked only to re-emerge months later and lead Leicester to a surprise Premier League title) beating them in their first match. They also have in their squad the tournaments tallest player in goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (6ft 6in).  Finally the Swiss kick off their Euro 2016 with an interesting clash with Albania which will see brother face brother as midfielder Granit Xhaka faces up to his little brother Taulant. Both born in Switzerland to Kosovo Albanian parents, Granit opted for his country of birth whilst Taulant picked Albania. It will be the first time they have faced each other at international level and a first for the European Championships but not in major competitions with the Boateng brothers (Kevin Prince and Jerome) holding that honour when Ghana met Germany at the World Cup in 2014

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More than just Bale? (Image from Tumblr)

Group B – England, Russia, Slovakia + Wales

Q: Who should top the group? – England

Q: Who are the dark horses – Slovakia

Q: Player to watch – Deli Alli (England)

England embark on a record ninth Euro’s appearance (more than any other nation) but also sadly own the record for most appearances in the quarter finals without winning the trophy (eight times). This year the selection of Marcus Rashford means that England will have the youngest player at the tournament (18 years old). They face an aging Russia side that is the second oldest (behind Republic of Ireland) however the late inclusion of 26-year-old Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov should lower it slightly. Interestingly Yusupov was not originally in the squad for the Euros but benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Yusupov lucked out when he happened to stay in the same hotel as the Russia national team in Monaco whilst on his holidays. After Igor Denisov pulled out, Yusupov was asked to cut his holiday short and make up the numbers. Much to his girlfriend’s annoyance, he accepted and immediately joined the squad despite not having his boots (he had to borrow a pair whilst his boots were flown in from Russia with love). Slovakia’s players may not be that well-recognized but could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Their key player is Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who will have the best haircut at the Euro’s – his signature mohawk. If Slovakia are to progress they will need him and fellow midfielder Vladimir Weiss to be on form, creating chances for their forwards. Weiss finished qualifying with the most assists which contributed to 33% of all of Slovakia’s goals. Wales found goals hard to come by in qualifying scoring only 11 times (7 of which were scored by Gareth Bale – 64%). They may be seen as a one man show but in fact have one of the best defences with only Spain, England and strangely Romania conceding less in qualifying. Manager Chris Coleman has the team playing as one and defending as such which shows in the qualifying stats with forward Hal Robson Kanu the third highest fouler with 26.

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Poland beat Germany in qualifying – can they do it again at Euro 2016? (Image from Tumblr)

Group C – Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine

Q: Who should top the group? – Germany

Q: Who are the dark horses – Poland

Q: Player to watch – Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)

World champions Germany enter the Euro’s in indifferent form having struggled at times during qualifying. However history is on their side. Germany are the constant theme at the Euros having featured in every one since 1972. They have also reached the most finals (6), winning half of them – a record they share with Spain. At this Euro’s Germany will be heavyweight hitters (they are the heaviest squad on average at 80.3kg) as they look to become only the second side to win the Euros whilst current World Champions. Northern Ireland feature for the first time having never reached the finals before (they have qualified for two WC’s in the past). Michael O’Neill’s side enter the tournament as the inform side unbeaten in their last 12 games. They will rely on the goals of Kyle Lafferty to get them out of the group stage after his heroics in qualifying. Lafferty has found game time at club level hard this past season and in fact made more appearances for Northern Ireland since August 2015 than he did at his various clubs (9 for country versus 6 for club). That is in stark contract to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski who was a constant for Bayern and Poland last year and has been in devastating form. He finished the season in Germany with 42 goals in all competitions plus as top scorer in qualifying with 13. However Poland are far from being the Lewandowski show with several other members helping them to finish as the top scorers overall with 33 goals. Ukraine on the other hand could only muster 15 strikes (6 of which were against Luxembourg). Having only ever won a single game at the Euros (2-1 vs Sweden at Euro 2012 – surprisingly one more win than the Poles have achieved), they will be looking to build on this and hopefully progress with a win over Poland. To do so they will need Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andiy Yarmolenko to be on form. Both players are looking to impress during the tournament to earn money spinning moves to the Premiership or Bundesliga. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an avid collector of wines so will be looking to toast his sides progress if they can get beyond the group stage for the first time.

Look out for Part 2 – Groups D, E and F on Monday.

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Three Reasons France Will Win Euro 2016

Along side World Cup winners Germany, former winners Spain and Italy and outside bets England and Belgium, France enter Euro 2016 as one of the early favourites and rightly so. This will be the 15th time the European Championships have taken place and the third time France has hosted (1960 and 1984 the other two). In 1960, France reached the semi finals losing out to Yugoslavia in an enthralling match that ended 5-4 despite France being 4-2 up with 35 minutes left to play. In 1984 with Michel Platini leading the way France went one better by reaching the final beating Spain by 2-0 to lift the trophy for the first time. Since then, France have always been in contention but have failed to reach the latter stages apart from on one occasion in 2000 when a late David Trezeguet goal handed them victory over a battling Italy in the final to earn their second crown. Now back in France, the French know that this is their chance to add yet another trophy to their growing collection and we at BOTN blog believe that they will. Here are the three reasons why:

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The European Championship trophy is lifted up by France’s Didier Deschamps in 2000 (Image from Tumblr)

Form

If you take a look at the winners of Europe’s top five leagues (England, Spain, France, Germany and Italy) and count the number of players that feature for those teams with their respective national sides, France comes in fourth with 6 players behind Germany/Spain (seven) and Italy (eight). But when you factor in the top three sides of each league, those stats dramatically change with France way out in front. Man to man, France has the most in-form players across Europe out of any of the squads attending this years tournament. At the back, Hugo Lloris has had a superb season with Tottenham and narrowly missed out on a winner’s medal losing out to surprise winners Leicester City.  At left back, Patrice Evra continues to roll back the years with Juventus and has earned himself a new 2 year contract despite being 35. At centre back, the Premier League pairing of Arsenal’s Laurent Koscieniny and Eliaquim Mangala may not be everyone’s ideal pairing and to be fair aren’t France’s either but with injuries to Raphael Varane and Kurt Zouma, the duo looks likely to be first choice. The good news is that both are in good form, ending the season well and should be ready for the Euros. Supporting the defence is a midfield packed with talent. At the heart of it is Juventus Paul Pogba who has established himself as one of the first names on Deschamps team sheet. Alongside Pogba is likely to be N’Golo Konte, Leicester City’s breakthrough star whose rise to promenance has been nothing short of amazing. Over a year ago, Konte was playing for lowly Caen and was further from the national team thoughts than most but a move to Leicester City last summer followed by an outstanding debut season which saw Konte play a pivitol role in Leicester’s surprise run to the title has catipulated him into the French national team and a role at Euro 2016. His form during the season, alongside three stand out performances for Les Blues in recent friendlies has push him ahead of Yohan Cabaye and Blaise Matuidi for a starting spot. On the wings, France have talent in abundance with West Ham’s Dimitri Payet also benefiting from a move to the Premier League. His form for the Hammers this season as well as his natural talent at dead ball situations make him a contender for a starting place. Ahead of him however is Atletico’s Antonie Griezmann who is in the form of his life, helping Atletico push Barcelona all the way in the La Liga title race. He played a crucial role in Atletico reaching the Champions League final and will be looked to by Deschamps to provide the inspiration that powers France to glory this summer.

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Griezmann should play a pivotal role for France in the Euros. (Image from Tumblr)

Upfront Deschamps has options despite overlooking the obvious pair of Karim Benzema and Kevin Gamiero. The former finds himself excluded due to off field shenanigans with the Real Madrid striker under investigation for allegedly attempting to blackmail fellow international Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape. Benzema would likely have been a starter given his form for Madrid but Deschamps has taken the bold move to remove him from the equation for the betterment of the entire squad. Sevilla’s Gamiero on the other hand just can’t seem to quite force his way back into the national team despite being in blistering form. The former PSG striker who scored in the 3-1 victory over Liverpool in the UEFA Cup final hasn’t featured for Les Blues since 2011 making him the forgotten man. Ahead of him however are three strong options, all of whom are playing well for their respective clubs. Like him or loathe him, Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud is a proven goalscorer with 14 goals for his country so far in just under 50 appearances. with Benzema now excluded, he is in contention for a starting spot but faces stiff competition from Andre-Pierre Gignac. Many feared that Gignac’s international career was over following his strange decision to leave Marseille for Mexican side Tigres but the move to North American has worked out well with the powerful striker rekindling his form and reestablishing his belief in his own abilities. Unlike Italian head coach Antonio Conte who has refused to call up the in-form Toronto forward Seb Giovinco due to his stance that the MLS is too weak a league, Deschamps has had no such hesitations and has given Gignac more game time than first expected. Finally the emergence of Anthony Martial at Manchester United has given Deschamps a new but nice headache with the electric teenager forcing his way into his plans. Whilst United stuttered this year under Louis Van Gaal, Martial has blossomed into one of their star players despite constant unfair pressure that came with his record-breaking monster transfer from Monaco. This trio, along with the exciting talents of Antonie Griezmann, Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Dimitri Payet France have goals in them.

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Benzema misses out due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Deschamps/Harmony

Heading into this tournament, the French are in an unfamiliar position – they actually all like each other. Historically the French national team has been splitting at the seams entering into major tournaments with in squad squabbles often derailing their challenge before it can begin. But heading into Euro 2016, the French are playing with a new-found sense of camaraderie which should bode well for the tournament. At the heart of this is manager Didier Deschamps who has built a squad that complements each other and more importantly has removed any potential bad apples that could ruin the pot. There is no place for the feuding Benzema and Valbuena for the reasons mentioned above nor is there a spot for Hatem Ben Arfa despite a stellar season with Nice. The former Newcastle winger has been on fire since returning to France scoring 17 goals this season but his colourful history as a disturptor has obviously been taken into consideration by Deschamps who has decided not to risk it. With a more balanced squad than ever before and a renewed focus, France look better prepared for this tournament than any other.

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Home support will be key for France at Euro 2016 (Image from Tumblr. Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)

Home turf/Passage

Never underestimate how important home field advantage can be. Playing the tournament in France in front of their own fans will benefit the national team much as it did at the World Cup in 1998. That year, France’s golden generation finally lived up to its potential and lifted the coveted trophy much to the delight of the thousands packed into the Parc des Princes. In that tournament, France benefitted from having an easier path to the final with their quarter-final clash with Italy proving to be their first real test. This year, France’s route to the final is arguably similarly easy having been placed in a very winnable group with Romania, Albania and Switzerland. Progression as the group winners should set up a clash with the Ukraine followed by a tie against either Austria/Iceland or Slovakia/Wales in the quarters. That leaves only a clash with Germany or Italy in the Semi’s and a potential final against Spain or England all being well. By the semi’s, France should have momentum behind them and with the home crowd in support, they should go on to lift the trophy to similar euphoric scenes as were seen in 1998.

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European Championships 2016 Review

The European Championships in France are vastly approaching and with less than two weeks until the tournament starts. It may be time to consider the contenders for the tournament and what footballers may impress. Here are five potential winners to consider.

France

When host nation France kick off the tournament on June 10th 2016 at the iconic Stade De France stadium in Paris, expectations will rise and reach fever pitch. It only seemed yesterday to most followers of Les Bleus, when they lifted the trophy back in Rotterdam in 2000. Since then French football has gone through many transitions and from the devastation of an early group stage exit at the 2010 World Cup a new young and exciting side has emerged.

Built around the young and powerful Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, Didier Deschamps has produced a side that can threaten any side in Europe on their day. They possess huge potential in young strikers Antoine Greizmann and Anthony Martial, who have had great seasons respectively with Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, and will be the blueprint of French football for many years to come. Experience is vital too and they can look to wise old heads of Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna to help carry a nation.

However, the loss of Karim Benzema may be a big blow to their hopes. After he was excluded from the squad regarding a bizarre blackmail story with fellow French teammate Mathieu Valbuena. It has left a dark cloud over French football. The striker much like Pogba is a genuine world class footballer and will be devastated to miss out on a home tournament. Someone will have to fill the gap that Benzema has left.

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Benzema has been left out of the French squad due to off field issues (Image from Tumblr)

Spain

In some ways Spain have gone quietly under the radar coming into the tournament and this may help their chances. This is a side that for all their world class talent were so underwhelming in Brazil and were never really able to get going. They still are to be taken seriously however and Vicente del Bosque will be desperate to make up for that disappointment.

What cannot be underestimated is that they are still much very strong defensively and offensively. Real Madrid and Barcelona defenders Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos are in their prime and are still on their day as good as any centre-backs in Europe. Barcelona full-back Jordi Alba can still be a dangerous outlet for the national side going forward too. Their midfielder is full of quality and they have strength in depth in so many areas. David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Koke can all open up defences with great movement and passing.

The question mark and in recent times has been their strikers. Spain have struggled to really find a natural goal scorer in matches and have tried numerous experiments. They have tried Diego Costa, Roberto Soldado and Paco Alcacer in lone roles and all have failed to establish themselves as Spain’s main man up front. They may place their faith in Juventus striker Alvaro Morata, who at 23 has a bright future and continues to impress at the Italian club, domestically and on the European stage.

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Spain will rely on Morata to fire them to glory (Image from Tumblr)

England

When the tournament starts it will be fifty years since the national side lifted the World Cup trophy back in 1966 at an ecstatic Wembley and still to this day it is a source of inspiration for the suffering fans. Every tournament is the same too, the expectations rise only for the side to perform poorly. Only for another golden generation to fail where their predecessors were so successful.

The 2014 World Cup added to a long line of failures at major tournaments and since then Roy Hodgson has vowed to create a brand new generation that can be exciting but at the same time be able to rise to pressure. Emerging is a new generation of young players with big potential and exciting ability.

Harry Kane is a prime example of this new system. He has adapted well to international football bringing the form that helped him win Premier League golden boot for Tottenham this season. There are mentions for his club team mate Dele Ali, who like Kane has been a revelation since he made the move from League One side MK Dons last summer and Ross Barkley. The young Everton midfielder, who is exciting to watch and has a huge future for the Merseyside club.

From an England’s fan viewpoint, they will be hoping they can go one better than the past generation that featured David Beckham, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Wayne Rooney is the last remaining active player of that generation and would be desperate to at least be one player to win a major international tournament.

It would be great also to note the achievements that Leicester and Jamie Vardy have achieved this season. It was not so long ago that Jamie Vardy was playing in the lower tiers of non-league football in England has had a remarkable rise. He has helped Leicester achieve a fairy tale by winning the Premiership this season and that story may continue with England.

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Harry Kane will lead the line for England (Image from Tumblr)

Germany

Germany are the World Champions and will be hoping to replicate recent sides such as France and Spain, who in recent times have followed World Cup wins with winning a European Championship.  They are in good shape but may be slightly different from the current side that ended the World Cup with several stars retiring and will have to replace the hole their influence had on the side.

Phillip Lahm, the Bayern Munich full back was the engine of the German National side and has retired leaving a huge gap to fill in defence. Miroslav Klose was always the talisman with a knack for always scoring vital goals for the national team and his retirement was always set to happen at the age of thirty seven. The record scorer with seventy one goals would always be a big miss for any side.

There is still enough world class talent to make them favourites and forward Thomas Muller is their star man going into this tournament. A man for the big occasion. His record in World Cup finals for goals is very impressive and will be eager to make a mark in this European Championship. Mesut Ozil is always a creative force and with numerous assists for Arsenal will be looking to unlock defences for the national side.

Matts Hummels, who has swapped Bayern Munich from Dortmund in recent days is a world class performer and adds defensive stability to the back four. It would be good to look out for Wolfsburg’s talented midfielder Julian Draxler as well who has huge potential. Mario Gotze may have had little game time at Bayern but still could be a game changer on his day as well.

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Germany are in good spirits ahead of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Italy

Out of all the contenders Italy are the most unpredictable. They usually reach the final of a major tournament and win it or struggle and fail by crashing out at the group stages. However they could never be counted out due to the quality and pedigree they possess.

The Azzurri are Europe’s most successful side in World Cups and will be eager to make up for the final disappointment back in 2012. In truth, they were simply torn apart by Spain on that night and Antonio Conte was appointed in the aftermath to lead Italy to glory. His domestic success with Juventus has made him one of Europe’s best coaches and will be changing the blue of Italy for Chelsea at the start of next season.

His management has built a calmness to the national side and this is based around the legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, who at the age of 38 is still one of the best goalkeepers in world football. A huge influence on the national side and still breaking records too, going 870 minutes without conceding a goal in Serie A for Juventus this season. The experience of Daniele De Rossi is still there for the Italian side and the Roma midfielder can still have an influence breaking up the play in the midfield.

Leonardo Bonucci is the man in defence for the Italians after a rock steady season for Juventus and will be the man to help keep things nice and steady defensively. Lorenzo Insigne is a dangerous and exciting performer for Napoli. Huge expectations may be on his shoulder to deliver the goals for the side and will be looking at the influence of Lazio winger Antonio Candreva to supply the chances.

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Zlatan the Great Fires Sweden Into The Euros

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like marmite, you either love him or loathe him. But deny as much as you like, Zlatan is one of the best players the game has ever seen. The 34 year old, 6ft 5in striker was a Swedish legend well before he stepped up in the second half last night to curl the ball over the Danish wall to put Sweden 2-0 up of their playoff match. The winner of ten Swedish football of the year titles, Zlatan has been the figurehead of Swedish football for over a decade now so it seemed fitting that it would be his goals (one in the first leg and two in the return) that would send them through to Euro 2016. It is also fitting that the player who put Ligue 1 firmly back into the public eye after years away from it should be front and centre as France hosts the latest major international tournament. It wouldn’t be the same without Zlatan there, inspiring many on the field with his amazing abilities and as many off the field with his outrageous behaviour.

BPI Matt West

Sweden celebrate after reaching Euro 2016 as Zlatan sinks to his knees (Image from BPI Matt West)

Ibrahimovic’s opportunities to entertain at the tournament may however be limited as Sweden changes of progressing past the group stage could be limited. Zlatan may be able to provide that moment of brilliance in front of goal but behind him is a host of problems. Sweden for all intents and purposes are an average side that is transformed by the inclusion of Ibrahimovic. Without him in their ranks, Sweden struggle to control games and lack the potency upfront to trouble sides. At the back, the once strong and resilient Swedish defence has been replaced with a nervous wreak who despite being 2-0 up and coasting in last nights game couldn’t prevent Denmark from leveling the tie and setting up a nervy final few minutes. Going ahead into Euro 2016, this will be a principle concern for manager Erik Hamren who needs to find a solution and quickly. The one shining light is the potential to draft in some of Sweden’s Under 21 European Championship winning side to freshen things up. Hamren has already bloodied a few of that team into the full national setup but will be looking to see if any of them can make the jump up in time for next summer.

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Hamren could call upon some of the Swedish Under 21 winning team for next summer tournament (Image from Getty)

Whilst the defence is a major concern, keeping Ibrahimovic fit and healthy is somewhat more crucial to Sweden’s chances next summer. Now in the latter stages of his career and lacking the pace and fitness that he once had in abundance, Ibrahimovic is winding down his stay in Paris and surveying his options. In the French capital, Ibrahimovic has become a god since his arrival in 2012 as part of the Qatari funded PSG revolution. He has helped the club to three titles in a row and has scored an incredible 115 goals in all competitions making him the club’s record goalscorer ahead of Pauleta. Ibrahimovic’s influence on the team, much like with the Swedish national side cannot be understated and is still a major component of Laurent Blanc’s plans. However age is against him and with that PSG have had to use him more sparingly this season as injuries have taken their toll. Zlatan’s confidence in his own abilities still outpace his age but he is now starting to consider where he should move to next if he is to leave Paris. England has already been ruled out due to its fast paced game but big money moves to the US or Qatar cannot at this stage. One thing is for sure that Zlatan has no intention of retiring from the game all together any time soon. He has hinted that Euro 2016 will be his swan song for his international career but believes that like a fine wine he is getting better with age. The nature of his performance in the win over Denmark backs up this claim as the player put in two stellar shows as he guided Sweden to the Euros.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring for Paris Saint Germain against St Etienne.

What next for Zlatan? (Image from AFP)

The defeat however did end the long standing managerial career of Morten Olsen who stepped down from managing Denmark after an incredible fifteen years in charge. Olsen took over as national boss after Euro 2000 and was instrumental in guiding Denmark to four major finals since then including the 2004 and 2012 European Championships and the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. The disappointment of missing out on France 2016 was clear to see when Olsen addressed the media after the defeat to Sweden. An emotional Olsen apologized to the Danish people stating that it hurt to end this way after more than 35 years as a player and coach and that he felt empty after the match. At 66, Olsen hasn’t confirmed what he will do next but retirement may not be out of the question. Whilst it will be disappointing not to see Olsen at the tournament, many will agree that it would be more disappointing if Zlatan wasn’t there to show the world one last time exactly how good he is.

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Vardy Run Continues But Hodgson Is Less Than Impressed

As far as zero to hero stories goes, Jamie Vardy’s takes the cake. The Leicester forward’s rags to riches story is remarkable given how far he has come in such a short space of time. Eight years ago, Vardy was playing non league football for Stocksbridge Park Steels F.C after being released by Sheffield Wednesday as  youngster. For many, being released by a football league club at such a young age would destroy your confidence but not for Vardy who used the experience as a learning curve. He knuckled down and trained hard with Stocksbridge which paid off with 66 goals in 107 appearances. That mentality and dedication has been the continuous theme in Vardy’s rise from non league to Premier League star. A constant performer, Vardy has risen through the ranks first moving to Halifax then on to Fleetwood before signing for Leicester in 2012. Now a regular for the Foxes and scoring for fun, Vardy is knocking on Roy Hodgson’s door so loudly that it is proving hard for the England manager to ignore him.

Vardy during his Stocksbridge days (Image from PA)

Vardy during his Stocksbridge days (Image from PA)

It was last season when Vardy first came to the England manager’s attention with some fine performances for Leicester under Nigel Pearson as they turned around a miserable start that saw them rooted to the bottom of the table at Christmas to securing  a mid table finish by the end of the season. Despite only scoring five times that season, it was Vardy’s overall contribution to the teams efforts and his non stop running that won him many plaudits. When Pearson was replaced in the summer by Italian Claudio Ranieri, many pundits believed that Leicester would struggle and eventually be relegated. However the Foxes have been in stunning form and currently sit 3rd in the Premier League with 25 points from 12 games. Key to their success has been Vardy who has scored in nine consecutive Leicester games and is now chasing Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s record of ten goals for Manchester United. His exploits have spawned praise from far and wide and has included some remarkable comparisons to some of the games greatest strikers including Argentine goal scoring legend Gabriel Batistuta.

Gabriel 'Batigol' Batistuta (Image from Getty)

Gabriel ‘Batigol’ Batistuta
(Image from Getty)

The comparison to Batistuta is complementary but somewhat in jest. Vardy’s form for Leicester this season (and arguably last) has been impressive and deserves the praise he is collecting. But his manager’s remarks after the game were directed more towards answering the question asked than making comparisons. The question posed to Ranieri was when was the last time that he saw a player score on such a frequent basis. His answer was Gabriel Batistuta’s eleven goal run for Fiorentina back in the 1994-1995 season. Ranieri, who managed the Viola from 1993 to 1997 was hardly saying that Vardy reminded him of Batistuta but instead remarking on his incredible goal scoring run which was similar to that of Batigol’s ten years earlier. Batistuta is one of the world’s greatest strikers to have played the game scoring over 300 goals in just over 500 appearances for club and country during a 17 year playing career. At 29 years old, Vardy is quite a long way behind Batistuta’s exploits with only 163 goals in just under 300 appearances (most of which were non league) and has yet to score for his country in four tries.

Scoring for England is the next goal for Vardy who deservedly should be called up for England’s next few friendly matches. With Rooney short of form, Sturridge permanently injured and Theo Walcott more comfortable on the wing, Hodgson has a shortage of recognizable front men. With qualification to Euro 2016 already secured, the friendlies between now and next summer will be crucial for Hodgson to judge who should make his 23 man squad. Rooney, despite bad form will be there regardless as will Tottenham’s Harry Kane but the other striker positions are still up for debate. Vardy is keen to impress and show Hodgson what he can do but he needs playing time to do so. Whilst happy to include him in recent squads, it would appear as though Hodgson sees Vardy’s role with the team as being a wide player rather than the one that has seen him be so deadly in front of goal for Leicester, the traditional number nine role. In a recent press conference, Hodgson appeared to blast Vardy by saying that Vardy will play in whatever position that he dictates and that the player should just be grateful to be included.

Hodgson seems less than impressed by Vardy (Image from AFP)

Hodgson seems less than impressed by Vardy
(Image from AFP)

This remarkable outburst was unprompted as Vardy had not made any statement or remark to the media about his unhappiness to play out wide. Hodgson’s reluctance may get the better of him if England find themselves a goal behind with twenty minutes left in a crucial group game in France next summer. As he glances along that bench for a player in search of a player would can run like a man possessed and create chances from nothing, will he regret not giving Vardy a shot and a chance to impress in advance of the tournament beginning. Lets see.

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Down But Not Out – Scotland Now Prepare For Bare Knuckles Fight With Poland

If only points were awarded for effort in football, Scotland would surely have walked away with something last night against Germany. They put up a good fight twice coming back from going a goal behind but in the end left Hampden with nothing but a sore head and a bruised ego. It wasnt an unexpected result but stung nonetheless as Scotland’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2016 took another blow. The sucker punch however was not against the Germans but instead last Friday night in Tbilisi when Scotland were TKO’d by an old foe in the form of Georgia. In a fight they had to win, Scotland looked sluggish failing to connect with any of their jabs at the home team before suffering a fatal blow to the abdomen which they were unable to come back from.

Georgia's suckerpunch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Georgia’s sucker punch knocked Scotland for Six (Image from Getty)

Much like a well-traveled fighter, Scotland has a checkered past. It has some famous shock wins against the heavyweights of world football including France and Holland in qualification but for each one there are several bouts they look back on and can’t believe they lost. It’s the same story year after year for Scotland and their supporters who turn out in their droves regardless of how bad the pummeling will be. They watch helplessly as lesser opponents push Scotland to the ropes time and time again, first jabbing then slamming Scotland with a hook and an uppercut. The fans see Scotland bleeding and want the referee to call time early to save their prize-fighter. But he can’t and he won’t. Scotland must defend itself but it can’t, unable to push their opponent back and stop the onslaught. Disbelief fills the stadium as the fans remember how Scotland managed to push better opponents, the so-called heavyweights all the way to the twelfth round. They think If only Scotland could be consistent then perhaps they would have a shot at something great.

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight (Image from PA)

McArthur delivers a warning blow to the Germans which puts Scotland back in the fight
(Image from PA)

Unlike in Tbilisi, the effort was more apparent against the current world champions. Scotland battled hard, trying to stay in the fight they now most desperately needed to win.Their defence looks solid, if not totally convincing and held of the German onslaught of intricate passes and probing shots for a majority of the tussle. Against Georgia the midfield was lethargic and failed to create any really opportunities for the lone frontman Steven Fletcher to strike. But against Germany, Scotland where throwing wild punches, often missing the mark all together but still trying to push back. Germany had seen it before in their last fight but this time looked concerned as the pair exchanged blows in the first half. Twice Muller tried to knock Scotland out but twice they responded, first through Maloney and then by McArthur. The fight was evenly balanced going into the break. German trainer Joachim Low delivered a stern warning to Germany that they needed to win this fight to take a step closer towards the Euro’s. He told them to step up a gear and finish Scotland once and for all. They did just that with the fatal blow happening just moments after the restart, a blow that knocked the wind out of Scotland and left them dazed and confused. As the referee ended the fight, Scotland trudged off the park believing all was lost and it may be.

Up Next Another Heavyweight - Poland (Image from AFP)

Up Next Another Heavyweight – Poland
(Image from AFP)

To make matters worse, Scotland must watch as Wales and Northern Ireland edge closer towards the Euros. Once considered poorer versions of Scotland, the duo have now leap ahead of their northern rival and are challenging the heavyweights once more. The only chance Scotland has at redemption comes next month when they face up to another tough heavyweight in the form of Poland. They must win this fight and the following amateur bout against Gibraltar to stand any chance of reaching the play offs. Battered and bruised, Scotland must regroup and look deep inside themselves for the energy to go out in front of their home support once more and finally knock down a heavyweight. The gloves are officially off now as Scotland prepare to fight dirty in an effort to keep their dream of qualification alive.

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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

“Three more points” is the message that Wales boss Chris Coleman will be telling his team as they stand on the edge of greatness. After a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Cyrus in their seventh European Championship qualifying group match, Wales find themselves on top and within touching distance of next years tournament in France. It will be an amazing achievement for Wales who have failed to qualify for every tournament since 1958. Mathematically Coleman has it correct – three points from their last three games will be enough for Wales to reach the promise lands and rid themselves of the ghost of ’58. And with Israel up next on Sunday who they ironically beat back in ’57 to reach the 1958 World Cup, it’s surely a case of when not if for Wales. Rush, Giggs, Hughes and Saunders all tried in the past to propel Wales to a major finals without luck. But now this new generation looks set to do it and write their names into the record books.

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament (Image from Getty)

World Cup 1958 was the last time Wales played in an international tournament
(Image from Getty)

Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu have all played their part but Wales owe a huge debt to one man in particular who has been outstanding. With five goals and several assists so far, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale has played an instrumental role in putting Wales in with its best chance of qualifying in nearly sixty years. It was his goal that settled the tie with Cyprus much like his strikes against Belgium, Israel and Andorra before that. Bale appears to be unstoppable when he pulls on the red shirt of his home nation. Arguably a poorer side without their talisman in their starting eleven, Bale makes Wales tick but is far from the only reason why they find themselves in this position. Coleman has done a solid job since replacing Gary Speed under tragic circumstances, bringing his side together as one whilst instilling belief that qualification can and would be achieved. Standing in their way were some formidable foes but by playing as a group and more importantly for each other, they look set to do it. Stunning yet hard-fought wins over Belgium, Israel and Cyprus has Wales on a seven game unbeaten run that looks set to continue all the way until the Euros kick off next summer in France.

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

Wales will likely be joined there by England who are unbeaten in their group and are within touching distance themselves. But if current form continues and some other results fall favourably for them, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be joining Wales and England at the Euros making it a clean sweep for the home nations. Northern Ireland lie second in their group behind Romania but ahead of Hungary going into today’s crunch clash with the Faroes Islands. Three points today are essential before Micheal O’Neill’s side can even start to think about Monday’s defining match against Hungary. By that stage, Northern Ireland could have a five point cushion between themselves and Hungary, especially if Bernd Storck’s side fails to beat leaders Romania in their match today. With Greece and Finland still to come, qualification is hardly guaranteed but like Wales, the Northern Irish players have faith that they can make it happen. Unlike Wales though, Northern Ireland don’t have a Gareth Bale-esque figure in their ranks. Instead they have a team of grafters who give their all to the cause and to date have produced some fine results against Finland, Greece, Hungary and Romania. Kyle Lafferty, the gangly former Rangers frontman has been their unlikely hero, picking up the hero status from David Healy and running with it. Five goals in six games shows he is a man in form and if his country is going to qualify, they will need Lafferty to maintain that form and fire them towards France.

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

Out of all of the home nations, Scotland has the toughest challenge after being placed in a group with the current World champions Germany and heavyweights Poland. But Gordon Strachan’s side has performed brilliantly so far and kept themselves in contention going into the home straight. Currently third in the group only two points behind Germany and three behind Poland, their remaining four games will have the Tartan Army on tenterhooks. Up first is a must win game against Georgia today, played at the same time as Poland visit Germany with the result of that game arguably more important than Scotland’s. After Poland’s surprise victory at home against Germany, the group has been left wide open and is anyone’s for the taking.

Poland's win over Germany has left the group wide open (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Poland’s win over Germany has left the group wide open
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Strachan knows that to stay in contention he needs to win today and then prepare his side for two crunch home fixtures against the group leaders. He will look towards the more experienced members of his team – Darren Fletcher, Scott Brown and Shaun Maloney to provide the motivation to the rest of the squad as they remind the others of the anguish they went through after several failed qualifying campaigns. Not that the Scotland squad needs to be motivated though, having lost only one of their last six qualifying games. There is a real belief in the group that if they play together they can get the results they need to reach France. Two wins from their last four games might not be enough but three wins especially one over Germany or Poland could be. It would be an amazing achievement for Strachan’s men to reach Euro 2016 and join the other home nations in doing so.

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man is an expression that perfectly describes what happened on Saturday in Israel.  With Wales taking on group leaders Israel in a must win game, the welsh fans were looking to one man in particular to be their inspiration. Gareth Bale did not fail to disappoint and when his country needed him the most he was there to provide the goals and the gloss on a well fought 3-0 victory over their group rivals. The Real Madrid star who has had a problematic season so far in Spain with many of the Real fans turning on him was a constant threat from the first whistle to the last. He provided the set up for Aaron Ramsey to head Wales into the lead before adding a stunning brace himself to wrap up the points. His first was a perfectly taken free kick, curled over the wall into the corner leaving the goalkeeper stranded. The second came thirteen minutes from the end; a drilled shot from Aaron Ramsey’s pass was enough to give Wales the win and have them leapfrog Israel into top spot in the group. Israel and Belgium do have a game in hand to play against each other which could see Wales drop back down to second before their crunch game with Belgium in Cardiff in June.

Expectations were high for Scotland going into Sunday’s must win game against Gibraltar at Hampden. Having warmed up with a narrow win over Northern Ireland four days earlier, Scotland fans were expecting a goal rout against the tiny peninsula state. The visitors were playing only their tenth international since being granted UEFA membership in 2013 and had until Sunday failed to record a competitive goal or a win. So when Luke Casciaro collected a pass from Aaron Payas on the twentieth minute of the match before coolly slotting it under David Marshall in the Scotland goal, dreams of an upset were very much on the cards. Scotland looked rattled having taken the lead only moments earlier through a penalty from Shaun Maloney but soon found the composure needed to get back on track. Sunderland striker Steven Fletcher added Scotland’s second of the day with a glancing header just before the half hour mark before Maloney added a third with his second penalty of the day. Steven Naismith put Scotland into a commanding position with a four goal six minutes before the interval.  The second half started much as the first had ended with Scotland in control and Fletcher in particular looking hungry for more goals. He would add a brace to complete his hat trick and earn himself a place in history as the first Scotsman to score three goals in an international fixture since Colin Stein did it in 1969. The win leaves Scotland still in contention in 3rd place in the group of death which also included World Champions Germany, Poland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland meanwhile put their 1-0 friendly defeat to Scotland behind them when they took on Finland at Windsor Park on Sunday. Amidst scenes of protests outside the ground from religious groups who were calling on the IFA to boycott the game as it was played on a Sunday, Northern Ireland surged out of the blocks and into an early lead only to see the goal strangely ruled out. But the home support didn’t have to wait long before Kyle Lafferty drilled home his twelfth international goal after some good work from Niall McGinn who headed the ball towards the striker who sweetly volleyed home. The former Burnley and Rangers front man added a second five minutes later with a fine header from a Conor McLaughlin cross. Finland did manage to pull one back late in the game but Michael O’Neill’s men held on for another valuable three points. The win leaves them in second spot, a point behind Romania who they face next in June. With Greece already out of the reckoning and Finland struggling to find a winning formula, it looks to be a three way race between Romania, Northern Ireland and Hungary for the two automatic spots. A win against Romania followed by three points against the Faroe Islands could see Northern Ireland clinch its place at the European Championships for the first time in their history.

Harry Kane’s dream season continued with his debut appearance for England against a very poor Lithuania. In typical Kane style, he marked his first England cap with his first England goal only two minutes after coming on as a substitute. The Tottenham striker latched on to Raheem Sterling’s cross to head in at the back post and seal England’s four nil victory. Goals from Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Sterling handed England all three points and kept their quest for qualification on track. Sitting top of the group after five matches with a six point lead England will progress if they win their next two games against second placed Slovenia and whipping boys San Marino. Few would bet on England progressing especially given the depth of talent available to manager Roy Hodgson. Already blessed with several options upfront, Kane’s addition and strong showing on his debut including not only his goal but some strong link up play will be sure to give Hodgson some food for thought.

With five games remaining, all four home nations look to be in good positions to qualify for Euro 2016 set to take place in France. With two automatic places in each group and the best third place team qualifying, the home nations all know that this is their best chance of all reaching the tournament. They will want to avoid the playoffs considering who may be involved at this stage in the game. Holland, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Switzerland all occupy third spots in their respective groups and are struggling for consistent form. If that continues the playoffs could be one of the most hotly contested of all time. Hopefully be then all of the Home nations have already sealed their places and will be focusing on the challenges that lie ahead of them in France.

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Where Are They Now Series – France 1998 World Cup Winning Team

With the chaos surrounding the fitness and mental state of Brazil’s star striker Ronaldo, the media spotlight had swung away from the hosts and firmly on to their opposition.  With the pressure lifted, France was able to complete their historic march to the World Cup lifting the famed trophy following a stunning 3-0 victory. The team heralded as legends in France would later go on to lift the Euro 200 championship trophy cementing their status in World football as legends too. With Euro 2016 due to be held in France next summer, we now look back on that 1998 final team and ask where are they now.

Goalkeeper – Fabien Barthez

The eccentric Barthez played an integral part in his country’s first ever World Cup triumph by conceding only twice in the seven games during the tournament, winning the Yashin award for best goalkeeper in the process. The former Marseille, Monaco and Manchester United stopper took over the No.1 jersey from Bernard Lama shortly after Euro 1996 and held onto the shirt for almost a decade. In the final itself, he made a wonder save from a nervous looking Ronaldo which kept France in the game. After retiring in 2012, Barthez became honorary president of US Luenac and now splits his time between performing that role and partaking in his new passion for motorsport.

Right Back – Lilian Thuram

Widely considered as one of the world’s greatest ever defenders, Thuram retired in 2008 as France’s most capped player with 142 caps to his name. Versatility is the word that describes Thuram the best, as a player he was comfortable anywhere across the back four, either as an outright defender or an offensive threat. During a distinguished playing career that saw him turn out for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, Thuram won over all that watched him with his grace, passion for the game and outstanding physical and technical attributes.  A great thinker on the pitch, it comes as no surprise that now retired Thuram has shown interest in raising the awareness of a variety of political and social issues, both at home in France and in his role as UNICEF ambassador.

Centre Back – Marcel Desailly

Sent off in the final after receiving two yellow cards with twenty minutes to go and France two goals ahead, Desailly could only watch in anticipation of a Brazil revival. Luckily for him that revival never came and France completed the rout with an Emmanuel Petit strike in the dying minutes. Desailly, often criticized by many for his outspoken nature and often over exuberance about his own abilities, was the rock at the heart of the France side alongside Blanc. Like Thuram, he is considered to be one of France’s best defenders with 116 caps to prove it. The former Nantes, Marseille, Milan, Chelsea player finished his career in 2006 after a two year spell in Qatar, first with Al-Gharafa and then latter with Qatar S.C. Now working as a pundit for the BBC and Canal Plus, Desailly has the platform he so desperately wanted during his playing career in order to make his opinions heard.

Centre Back – Frank LeBouef

In for the suspended Laurent Blanc, the then Chelsea defender has only played a bit part in France’s run to the final but would play a larger role in their final 90minutes of the tournament. Tasked with man marking Ronaldo, LeBouef gave the performance of his life limiting the Brazilian to only few attempts on goal. Not considered to be on the same playing field in terms of legendary status as Desailly, Thuram or Blanc, LeBouef’s showing in the final did earn him cult status at home and abroad which has helped in his career after football. Now an accomplished actor, LeBouef starred in the Oscar nominated The Theory of Everything as the Swiss doctor who tells Stephen Hawking’s wife that he will never talk again. Hollywood is calling for more of LeBouef with several casting firms keen to sign him up following his performance in the film.

Left Back – Bixente Lizarazu

Having made his name at Bordeaux during a ten year spell in the late 80’s early 90’s, Bixente Lizararu was set for greater things. A brief stint in Spain was followed by a career defining move to Bayern Munich where he would play for seven years and win countless honours including the Bundesliga title six times and the Champions League. The diminutive left back, at only 5ft 7inches was a star player for both club and country, always reliable and never caught wanting.  During the final he was asked by Jacquet to control the runs of Rivaldo and Cafu, something that Lizararu did perfectly with the duo limited to bit parts roles in Brazil’s defeat. Since retiring, Lizararu has gotten involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitions, becoming the European champion in the blue belt senior 1 light division.

Midfielder – Didier Deschamps

Captain fantastic, Deschamps was a leader both on the pitch and off of it for France and played a starring role in lifting the World Cup and latter the Euro 200 cup.  Over a 16 year playing career with Nantes, Marseille, Juventus, Chelsea and Valencia, Deschamps perfected his trade whilst using his time wisely to ingest as much information about the game as possible. Since retiring, Deschamps has become an accomplished manager in his own right although serious honours have somehow eluded him to date. Now the France manager, Deschamps is looking forward to next summer when France host the European Championships with Deschamps keen to become one of only a few to win the tournament as a player and as a manager.

Midfielder – Christian Karembeu

Originally from New Caledonia, Karembeu was one of several players in the French squad from French overseas territories but it matter little to many as he earned his spot as part of the national team. An accomplished tough tackling midfielder, Karembeu alongside Deschamps and Petit boss the French midfield during the 1998 World Cup. He would only play a bit part in the Euro 200 triumph as well but by then Karembeu’s legacy was complete. Another player who started at Nantes, Karembeu travelled far during his playing career with spells in Italy (Sampdoria), Spain (Real Madrid), England (Middelsbourgh), Greece (Olympiacos), Switzerland (Servette) and France (Nantes, Bastia) chalking up 414 appearances along the way. Now strategic advisor at Olympiacos, Karembeu also campaigns for peace throughout the world as part of the Champions for Peace club.

Midfielder – Emmanuel Petit

The long blonde locks of Petit are probably what he is remembered most for but his role in the final could not be understated. His corner just before the half hour mark was met by Zidane to give France the lead and it was his goal in the dying minutes after a through ball from Patrick Vieira that sealed the victory. Petit in fairness had played a significant role in getting France to the final with his nonstop running and occasional goals. Having spent nine years at Monaco, it wasn’t hard to see why he jumped at the chance to reunite with his old boss Arsene Wenger at Arsenal after the Frenchman took over there. It was here that Petit was converted into a defensive midfielder in a move that benefited both Arsenal and France in the end. He would spend three years at the Gunners before moving to Barcelona and then back to the Premiership with Chelsea. Since hanging up his boots, Petit has become a football analyst back home in France whilst also throwing his support behind football initiatives like the Homeless World Cup.

Attacking Midfielder – Zinedine Zidane

Widely considered the greatest French football of all time (some argue Platini is), Zinedine Zidane did not have the greatest of tournaments but popped up at the right time to become a legend. Having been sent off in the group stage against Saudi Arabia, Zidane returned for the quarter final against Italy and semi final against Croatia without really having an impact. But buoyed by the chance to win his country’s first world cup, Zidane stepped out onto the pitch to deliver arguably one of his best performances in the Les Blues jersey. His two headed goals sent France into half time with a 2-0 lead and the momentum they needed to go on a win the trophy. After the final whistle, Zidanes name rang out across France as a legend with his image projected onto the Arc de Triomphe in Paris along with the words Merci Zizou. He would go on to play a bigger role in France’s Euro 2000 success and latter in their march to the World Cup final in 2006, where despite losing his head and the game to Italy (he was sent off for head butting Marco Materazzi in the chest after the Italian had insulted his sister), Zidane retired as a legend. Now manager of Real Madrid’s B team, Real Madrid Castilla many believe Zizou’s is destined to manage France one day, a notion the great man has failed to dismiss.

Attacking Midfielder – Youri Djorkaeff

The little magician, Youri Djorkaeff played a vital attacking role alongside Zidane in Jacquet’s 4-3-2-1 formation.  The son of former France defender, Jean Djorkaeff it only seemed fitting that it was part of France’s greatest hour given his performances up until that point. Despite only scoring once in the tournament, Djorkaeff was one of France’s biggest contributors of assists including that cross in the final for Zidane’s second goal.  After spending eight years in France perfecting his craft, Djorkaeff eventually left home to join Inter before a spell in Germany with Kaiserslautern. But it was his switch to Bolton in 2002 that he will be most remembered for, at least with British fans. During those years, Bolton attracted the likes of Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo to play for them but Djorkaeff was by far their best signing. After leaving England he spent the last year of his career in the US with New York Red Bulls before retiring to become a pundit and bizarrely a singer releasing “Vivre dans Ta Lumiere” as a single.

Striker – Stephane Guivarc’h

Picked ahead of Dugarry and a youthful Thierry Henry, Guivarc’h had only played a bit part up until the final despite being handed the number nine jersey by Jacquet at the start of the tournament. He did start against South Africa, Italy and Croatia in the run up but was substituted on all three occasions. Even in the final, Guivarc’h failed to complete ninety minutes, giving way to Dugarry on 66 minutes. The former Auxerre, Rennes, Rangers and Newcastle striker had a mixed career with the highlight of it being the World Cup win. Since retiring in 2002, Guivarc’h has done a variety of things including selling swimming pools. No diving jokes here.

Subs

Alain Boghossian

A 57 minute substitute for Karembeu, Boghossian is probably the least well known player to have played in the France win. Dogged through his career with injury, including picking up one a day before Euro 200 started, Boghossian was limited to only 26 caps for France. He did spend eight years in Italy making a name for himself with Napoli, Sampdoria and Parma before eventually retiring in 2003. He is now a coach with the French national team.

Christophe Dugarry

Replacing Guivarc’h in the final was surprisingly Christophe Dugarry ahead of France’s top goal scorer in the tournament Thierry Henry. Jacquet decided to throw Dugarry on with a view to introducing Henry later. But when Desailly was sent off, the plans were changed and Henry never took to the field. Dugarry had played well during the tournament so it was only fair to use him and as a different type of striker to Guivarc’h, one capable of holding up the play, it was just what France needed. The former Bordeaux, Milan, Barcelona, Marseille and Birmingham striker played 55 times for France over eight years starting in 1994. He joined LeBouef and Lizarazu in the punditry box after retiring in 2005.

Patrick Vieira

Best known for his spell with Arsenal, Vieira was still a youngster when the tournament was in full swing so was limited to substitute appearances. At Euro 2000 however he would take Karembeu’s spot as starter in the midfield, a role he would hold for a further nine years. After leaving Arsenal in 2005, Vieira returned to Italy with Juventus and then Inter before heading back to England for a final year with Manchester City. It’s at City where Vieira has remained appointed as part of their new administration as Football Development Executive.

Manager

Aime Jacquet

The mastermind behind the win, it’s hard to believe that even up to a month before the start of the tournament that Jacquet was not liked by the French fans, many of who were calling for his head. Despite this, Jacquet created a siege mentality and national pride within the team giving them the opportunity to win the World Cup on home turf. After securing the World Cup, Jacquet quit his job later becoming technical director of French football a month later. He held that role until 2006 when he finally retired from the game.

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Portugal Defeat Spells Trouble For Bento

 

After a disastrous World Cup campaign where Portugal failed to get out of first gear, many questioned were asked whether Paulo Bento should remain in charge. The former Sporting Lisbon coach has only been in charge since September 2010 but his time has been less than spectacular. Despite a positive start to his international managerial career, which saw him lead Portugal to the Euro 2012 semi finals only to be knocked out by eventual winners Spain, Portugal under Bento have struggled of late with the coach coming under some heavy criticism for his lack of imagination or formation flexibility. A dismal World Cup qualifying campaign which saw Portugal sneak into the tournament via the playoffs was followed by three underwhelming performances in Brazil. A 4-0 hammering by Germany, a nerve jangling 2-2 draw with the USA that relied on a late Varela header to steal a point and a weak 2-1 win over an even poorer Ghana side meant that Portugal crashed out of the group stages for the first time since 2002. Yesterdays shock 1-0 defeat to Albania in the first Euro 2016 qualifying campaign match could be the last straw for Bento and his tenure as Portuguese national coach.

Portugal failed to break down Albania (Image from AFP)

Portugal failed to break down Albania
(Image from AFP)

Despite Portugal’s talisman and World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo missing out, Portugal should have had enough to dispatch an average Albanian side but in the end struggled to break them down. A volley by Slavia Prague striker Bekim Balaj in the 52 minute was enough to give Albania all three points and victory over Portugal for the first time in six attempts. Already in a tough group that features Denmark and Serbia, Portugal needed to get off to a strong start ahead of next month’s crunch game against the Danes but now Portugal face an uphill struggle to get back on track. Albania to their credit stuck to a game plan, to frustrate Portugal on the ball and break through Roshi and Lenjani when possible. The tactics work for the side ranked 70th in the world, giving them a memorable victory and setting themselves up nicely for their next Euro qualifying group match ironically against Denmark, three days before the Danes face Portugal.

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring (Image from getty)

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring
(Image from getty)

Whether Bento will be in charge for that match is still to be confirmed. The media has already been quick to hand down a death sentence to Bento but is it really his fault or are the problems that Portugal are going through out with his control? The biggest problem Bento has is a lack of depth in his squad. In years gone past Portugal had a wealth of talent they could call on – Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and Joao Pinto to name but a few. However this recent batch of players lacks the flair and skill of previous batches. Yes Portugal’s starting eleven does feature Joao Moutinho, Pepe and of course Cristiano Ronaldo but beyond that the talent pool has dried up. Portugal is struggling to produce the same young talent as before, a direct result of the financial problems that the Portuguese Primeira League is facing. Dropping attendances and global interest in the league has lead to a reduction in the money coming into it and the ability for clubs to properly invest in the future. There are some that still do such as Sporting Lisbon and Benfica who are producing players for the national side but not to the same standard as before. For proof, we only have to look at the results of the Portugal’s Under 21 team who have failed to qualify for the Under 21 European Championships at the last four attempts. Even when they did qualify in 2006 and 2007, they struggled to make it out of the group stages. The last squad to progress and actually managed to finish in third place in 2004 featured the likes of Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles, Hugo Almeida and Jose Bosingwa. But the failures of the Under 21 sides since then are now showing in the full national team with a lack of talent for Bento to call on.

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

The good news for Portuguese fans is that the current Under 21 side, managed by Rui Jorge looks set to make it to the 2015 Under 21 European championships, giving hope that a new generation of players is just around the corner. However for Bento it may come too little too late as he tries to cling on to his job. The result against Albania was poor with several star players like Nani and Joao Moutinho simply failing to show up on the day. Too often his ailing side has leaned on the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to save them from themselves so when he is not in attendance; Portugal’s other star players don’t appear to know what to do. Bento as manager needs to take a firmer stance with the players he has at his disposal and whip them into shape. He needs to develop a plan B, one that doesn’t include Ronaldo in a starring role and develop it quickly. The cavalry is coming but until then Bento will have to manage with what he has, pull up his sleeves and push his team onwards towards qualification for Euro 2016. That is if he still has the job.

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Scotland Take Aim For France And Euro 2016

Tom Hanks stars in Saving private Ryan (Image from Getty)In 1998, Tom Hanks starred in the hit movie Saving Private Ryan about a team of men on an almost impossible mission to rescue Matt Damon (Private Ryan) from deep within Germany. Their journey was long and treacherous with several heartbreaks along the way but eventually they made it to their goal and recued Ryan. 1998 was also the last year that Scotland qualified for a major international tournament – the World Cup in France. Like Saving Private Ryan, Scotland has been on a long journey that has seen eight heartbreaking attempts to qualify ending in failure. They have lost managers along the way (seven in total) but still they have persevered. After all Scotland’s goal is to finally end their 16 year hiatus from the international stage and make it to one of footballs premiere events. Now bossed by Gordon Strachan, optimism was high ahead of their new campaign – Euro 2016, with pride and belief firmly back in place. That was until the draw was made which has placed Scotland in one of the toughest groups, facing up to World Champions Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

Scotland's last appearance was at France 1998  (Image from DailyRecord)

Scotland’s last appearance was at France 1998
(Image from DailyRecord)

With the German’s favourite to claim top spot, all eyes are focused on the second automatic qualification spot (now in effect since UEFA changed the number of teams competing in the finals from 16 to 24). Qualification won’t be easy especially given the teams Scotland has to face. Poland, inspired by their captain Robert Lewandowski will be no push over’s as they showed against England in the last World Cup qualifying sections. Despite having an aging squad, Scotland will face a strong Polish side that are highly organized and like to attack on the break. The two teams are schedule to play each other in a friendly in March which will help them both to eye up potential weaknesses or hidden dangers. How much will be on show is unknown as both managers will be mindful to keep their cards close to their chests ahead of the qualifying games that actually matter.

Dangerman - Robert Lewandowski  (Image from Reuters)

Dangerman – Robert Lewandowski
(Image from Reuters)

The Republic of Ireland have been reborn with a new manager in Martin O’Neill, supported by the fiery Roy Keane, and will be looking to make Euro 2016 after failing to clinch a place at the World Cup this summer in Brazil. With a host of exciting youngsters like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick coming into the team, O’Neill is building for the future. The need for freshness has never been greater with talisman Robbie Keane, Andy Reid, Richard Dunne and Shay Given reaching the twig light years of their careers. Keane in particular has yet to commit to another campaign which could come as some welcome news to Scotland. The Los Angeles Galaxy striker has lead the line for Ireland for well over a decade now and has been their biggest threat. But general wear and tear plus a desire to prolong his career in the USA could force the former Inter Milan and Spurs striker to call it a day. With or without Keane, Ireland still pose a realistic threat to Scotland’s chances of qualifying and Strachan is well aware of this.

O'Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland's qualification  (Image from Getty)

O’Neill and Keane look to mastermind Ireland’s qualification
(Image from Getty)

Whilst Georgia and Gibraltar are outsiders in the group to qualify, both are out to prove something which could spell trouble for Scotland. Georgia continues to build their reputation on the international stage and under former Newcastle and Georgia legend, Temuri Ketsbaia they are making significant strides. He has built a side for the future with Rostov’s Jano Ananidze and Fortuna Dusseldorf’s Levan Kenia notable stand outs. Their biggest problem has been upfront where they have failed to fill the boots of former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze but the so far uncapped Giorgi Iluridze, who plies his trade with Hakduk Spilt, may provide the answer. Gibraltar will embark on an historic campaign when they kick off against Poland in September. It will be only their fifth ever match and their very first qualification game after being granted UEFA membership early last year. The team is made up of mostly semi professionals but will be out to show that they are not just there to make up the numbers.  Like San Marino and Andorra before, they will likely defend in numbers in the hope of pulling off a draw, much like they did against Slovakia last November.

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze  (Image from Reuters)

Replacement needed for Shota Arveladze
(Image from Reuters)

This may be Scotland’s best chance of qualifying for a while with two automatic spots up for grabs and a best placed third spot available too. They will need full points against Georgia and Gibraltar and a minimum of two wins from four against Poland and Ireland to stand a chance. They will also need Germany to do a clean sweep of the group to make it an even playing field and a three horse race. Strachan will not be expecting much from the two games against Germany but given recent history where Scotland have shocked the likes of France and Holland with victories, maybe snatching a point or three against Joachim Low’s team is not necessarily out of the question. If they can reach the twenty point mark, qualification to Euro 2016 could be within their grasps. The irony of a return to France has not been lost but there is still a long and treacherous journey ahead before they can achieve their goal.

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