The Challenges Facing Scotland After Yet Another Failed Qualifying Campaign

In an expected result, Scotland finished off their dismal qualifying campaign in style with a 6-0 win over lowly Gibraltar matching their result in Glasgow. Not quite the end they were hoping for but all dreams of reaching France next summer died when they failed to see off Poland with only thirty seconds remaining. Dissecting what went wrong in this campaign has a strange familiarity to it. Like a path ventured down too many times, Scotland continues to present the same problems over and over. Plucky when the underdog, Scotland displays the passion for which they have become famous for. But passion hardly ever ends in points and for some bizarre reason that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s when we are supposed to be top dog that is the main concern, unable to cleanly dispatch the lesser nations of the Faroes Islands, Estonia and our new nemesis Georgia. But surely both are equally important. Qualification isn’t dependent on taking the scalp of a larger, more technical nation but it can’t hurt right?

Poland's last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention (Image from PA)

Poland’s last minute equalizer knocked Scotland out of contention
(Image from PA)

In this campaign when Ireland snatched four out of six points from Germany and ran Poland close in both of their meetings, why could Scotland not match or better that? Arguably they are a better team than their North Sea neighbors, even if you only base that on our two meetings with Ireland when Scotland took home four from six in terms of points. Why do they have the belief  that they can get a result yet Scotland appears to not. There are a thousand excuses for why Scotland failed to beat Germany or Poland, everything from unfortunate deflections to better quality of players and the personal favourite – they simply lacked that wee bit of luck on the ball. Nonsense, all of it. In football anything can happen. Look at Greece who went from struggling to win a European Championship game to tournament winners in just a few matches. It’s eleven men vs eleven men, not David vs Goliath. Germany were strangely under par in qualifying and were there for the taking but Scotland lacked belief that they could actually do it. Even when they do score, blind panic sets in and Scotland fold like cheap deck chairs. They prefer to go behind and rally rather than take the lead and control. But time after time, taking the lead is a curse. This is what cost Scotland a qualification spot really, not dropping three points against Georgia.

Shane Long fires Ireland's winner against Germany so why couldn't Scotland do similar? (Image from Getty)

Shane Long fires Ireland’s winner against Germany so why couldn’t Scotland do similar?
(Image from Getty)

It doesn’t help that the entire team seems unconvinced by the defence. Once a staple of Scottish football, the defense looks less convincing by the day. Bremner, Greig, Hansen, Gough and Hendry have been replaced with middle of the road defenders, all of which are good but never great. Indeed Strachan only ever played the same back four twice in ten matches. Leaky is not the word as Scotland shipped 12 goals in qualifying including Gibraltar’s first ever international goal. In comparison Wales conceded only four times as they qualified highlighting the real issue Scotland faces- they cannot defend. Makeshift left backs, rotating centre half, limited right backs and goalkeeper loyalty conundrums all plagued this campaign and ultimately cost Scotland qualification. Being tight at the back can be the difference between winning and losing, stopping the opponents from scoring then nicking a goal at the other end to secure an unfavorable 1-0 win. Scotland did it in the past against France (twice), Holland and England despite being under a barrage of pressure for the entire ninety minutes. Both in Scotland and in Poland, the Scots had the lead before letting it slip. Six points instead of 2 may have been the difference between Scotland progressing to France 2016 and Poland staying at home to lick its wounds.

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland (Image from Getty)

Defenders like Grant Hanley are good yet unconvincing for Scotland
(Image from Getty)

So what is the solution? Perhaps following the NFL’s lead and appointing a defence coach who knows how to organize the back five  and make them solid once more. Scotland could employ a permanent defensive midfielder to sit and cover the back line but again without coordination this move would be limited. There is a nucleus of players there to work with but the need structure and guidance if they are to be successful. Fresh blood is often what is needed but the lack of talent coming through is a concern however this is hardly a new problem for Scotland or indeed most countries of our size like Northern Ireland or Wales. Good players can become great if deployed correctly and possess the belief needed to succeed. Scotland have just under a year now to regroup, refocus and go again before the World Cup qualifiers kick off. That should be enough time to sort of Scotland’s defensive frailties and reestablish the passion and belief needed to help them qualify.

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The Uninspiring Italian Hired As Leicester Boss

Claudio Ranieri's appointment was so uninspiring that they even announce his hiring with him sitting down  (Image from Getty)Former England striker Gary Lineker is never short of an opinion about anything these days. The BT Sport host uses the marvels of social media and his uncanny ability to be wherever a TV camera or radio mic happens to be when something occurs in football. He has become the medias go to man for comments, one liners and headline grabbers. So when Leicester City, one of Linekers former clubs announced the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as their new manager, there was only ever going to be one man who the media called. And once again Lineker delivered calling the well-travelled Italian “an uninspiring choice” and an indication of a growing problem in football which sees the same group of old tired managers clambering for all managerial appointments that become available. For once he may have a point but we hesitate to admit that just in case it goes to Linekers already swollen head.

Always with an opinion - Gary Lineker  (Image from AFP)

Always with an opinion – Gary Lineker
(Image from AFP)

After the sacking of the ostrich quoting former manager Nigel Pearson, speculation over who would take over the foxes went into overdrive with the British press and football gossip blogs wetting the bed in excitement. They threw the usual set of candidates into the mix:  a former player (Neil Lennon), a former manager (Martin O’Neill), a current player with no managerial experience (Esteban Cambiasso) and a well-traveled British steward of the managerial game (Sam Alladyce). They even did some back of a napkin math figuring out that Guus Hiddink’s departure from the Dutch national team meant only one thing; that he was bound for Leicester. There was no way that Hiddink’s failure in recent months to inspire the Dutch to qualification wins had anything to do with it nor his intention to step away from the game the moment he left the Holland job. Including Hiddink’s name gave the media what they wanted – a name to play on, a big star who would excite the foxes fans enough that they part with their hard-earned cash in order to buy their newspaper for the exclusive details behind his imminent arrival.

One for the fans - Guus Hiddink  (Image from PA)

One for the fans – Guus Hiddink
(Image from PA)

But in the end the Leicester board pulled a fast one, appointing “a highly respected coach with both club and international experience”. The well-traveled Italian has managed primarily in Italy (Cagliari, Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus, Parma, Roma and Inter) and Spain (Atletico Madrid, Valencia twice) as well as stints as boss of Chelsea, Monaco and Greece along the way. The perfect fit for Leicester it would seem apart from a few minor details. Firstly Ranieri’s success at the various clubs he has been limited to say the least and his international experience is less than impressive having been sacked by Greece after failing to win a single game. At club level, the last trophy Ranieri picked up was the French Ligue 2 title with Monaco back in 2012 which was his first trophy since 2004. Managers should be judged on their success and for Ranieri the judges are still very much in debate chamber. He has won 9 trophies in a 27 year managerial career but most are lower league titles: 1 each from the Italian Serie B and C leagues and that French Ligue 2 crown with Monaco. He did find some success early on in his career at Fiorentina and Valencia (during his first stint in charge) securing the Copa and Supercopa Italia titles and the Copa Del Rey, Intertoto Cup and Super Cup respectively. But apart from this, Ranieri has fallen short on a too frequent basis.

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title (Image from Getty)

Monaco under Ranieri seal the Ligue 2 title
(Image from Getty)

His success at Monaco was expected given that the team was funded by a billionaire and had a squad that was earning ten times what their nearest league rivals were making.  It’s a familiarly story throughout Ranieri’s managerial career with the Italian lucky on more than one occasion; inheriting a good squad but failing to move it forward. His time at Chelsea for instance coincided with a change in their financial fortunes with Roman Abramovich rolling into town, bulging suitcases of money firmly under both arms. After failing to impress the Russian, he left to re-join the then reigning La Liga and UEFA Cup champions Valencia but couldn’t inspire his talented side to perform and was sacked eight months later. Spells at Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan followed, all of which had strong enough squads to challenge but in typical Ranieri style, he fell short on all three occasions. Escaping to the south of France was supposed to repair Ranieri’s damaged reputation and things looked good for the Italian as he guided them back to Ligue 1. But the jump appeared to be too hard to cope with and again Ranieri was sacked after failing to make the grade.

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012  (Image from PA)

Ranieri has failed to win anything since 2012
(Image from PA)

Then came a switch to national football with the surprise appointment to the Greek national team managers position. Greece were on a high after reaching the last 16 of the 2014 World Cup, narrowly missing out on a quarter-final spot thanks to an agonizing penalty shoot out defeat to Costa Rica. Ranieri’s arrival heralded a different approach and one that the Greeks believed would take them to the next level by sailing through qualification for Euro 2016 but instead the country slid backwards. His strange tactical alterations and lack of ability to speak the language lead to confusion among the players who looked like an amateur team in an already weak qualification group. Defeats to Romania, Northern Ireland and the lowly Faroe Islands was enough to end Greece’s hopes of qualifying and with it led to his sacking for which Hellenic Football Federation’s president, Giorgos Sarris publicly apologized for his “unfortunate selection of manager”.

Confusion reigned during Ranieri's spell in charge of Greece  (Image from Getty)

Confusion reigned during Ranieri’s spell in charge of Greece
(Image from Getty)

Ranieri’s reputation is in tatters which makes his appointment at Leicester so baffling. Leicester’s survival last year was down to consistency under Pearson who found a tactic and team mid way through the season that worked and stuck with it. That resulted in the most dramatic of turnarounds which saw Leicester fly up the table to safety. But now in his place the board has hired a man known ironically as the Tinkerman due to his constant need to alter tactics and team selection making consistency almost impossible. Hardly what Leicester needs going into the new season. Ranieri is dramatically different from Pearson which is maybe why the board selected him. He is quiet, reserved and polite unlike Pearson who made a name for himself last year with his brash, bully like approach. Quite simply he is vanilla, plain and simple which by itself is very uninspiring so perhaps Lineker was right after all.

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Europe’s Minnows Finally Turn Up To The Party

Europe's minnows finally stepping up? (Image from Getty)It’s been an interesting start to the 2016 European Championships qualification campaign with a series of surprising results so far. In the earlier match weeks Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Iceland showed non believers that spirit and determination sometimes can overcome experience and skill as they set about securing a handful of points in the race for qualification. Meanwhile the so called European heavyweights appeared to be sluggish out of the gate with Holland, Spain and Greece all failing to dispatch teams ranked much further down the FIFA official rankings. Whilst the Dutch and the Spanish have rebounded in spectacular fashion, Greece stuttering start to the campaign under new coach Claudio Ranieri came to an abrupt halt this past weekend when the lowly Faroe Islands arrived in Athens and left with their heads held high and three vital points in the bag. Joan Edmundsson’s 61st minute miss hit shot was enough to condemn the Greeks to bottom place in group F and to give the Greek FA enough leverage to finally dispatch Ranieri.

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece  (Image from AFP)

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece
(Image from AFP)

To be fair, the Faroes result was a shock but not as much as San Marino’s point against Estonia. The enclave microstate has not managed to secure a single point in their last 61 international games so ending that run meant more to them that winning itself. For a while it looked like the match would follow the usual storyboard with Estonia pressing from the off. But the resilient San Marino side held on to the end, securing a valuable point and ending that horrific losing run. The last game the San Marino actual won was in a friendly back in April 2004 against fellow strugglers Liechtenstein who have had their fair share of defeats as well since then. But recent results including a 0-0 draw against Montenegro in October followed by Saturday’s stunning 1-0 victory over Moldova have given Rene Pauritsch’s side much need optimism for the future. Liechtenstein now find themselves in a strange position, three points ahead of Moldova in fifth place with the former Soviet state rooted to the bottom of the table. It’s the same position that Malta now finds themselves in after their 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia this past weekend. The tiny Mediterranean island used to be the whipping boys of European football but in the past few years have started to show a more formidable side to their play, carving out friendly wins against the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg whilst holding Northern Ireland to a draw. However in international competition the team still lacks that killer instinct showing only flashes in recent years, especially in the 1-0 win over Armenia in June of last year. Sunday’s match in Sofia started much like most of the others, with Malta going behind after only 6 minutes to a bundled in goal by Andrey Galabinov but fought back well to earn a point from the penalty spot converted by left back Clayton Failla.

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria  (Image from PA)

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria
(Image from PA)

When the idea of changing the qualification criteria for this upcoming European Championships was floated, it was met with a tidal wave of negative responses from critics citing that it would not make for interesting viewing nor makes it easier as UEFA President Michel Platini suggested for smaller European nations to qualify. Platini ignored the objections and pushed ahead with his master plan to rejuvenate what has becoming a stale second tier tournament behind its much more glamorous cousin, the World Cup. But after four matches which has shown that the qualification process is far from pre determined and is in fact wide open, Platini will surely now be sitting back with a large grin across his face. All nine groups are very much still in play with a variety of nations who have struggled to qualify in the past like Wales, Iceland, Scotland and Cyprus all in good positions. There is still a long journey ahead before reaching France but if qualifying continues to throw up these startling results, it may not be impossible to believe that the tournament will see not just one but several new faces taking part.

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World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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How Euro 2004 Could Have Solved England’s Defensive Problems

Eric Dier completes move back to England (Image from Getty)

The European Championships held in Portugal in 2004 will be remembered as the year that Greece shocked the world by beating the home nation in the final to lift the trophy. The Greek team, led by German manager Otto Rehhagel and influential captain Theodoros Zagorakis demonstrated how teamwork and dedication can overcome raw talent and upset the odds. Angelos Charisteas 57th minute goal was enough to seal the win and cement Greece’s place in football folklore. But Euro 2004 may turn out to be a significant tournament for England too despite Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men crashing out in the round of 16. It was the tournament itself that led to a ten year old boy moving from England to Portugal in a switch that would change his life forever. Sporting Lisbon’s Eric Dier is not that well known to many England fans at present but he soon will be after sealing a £4million move back to England with Tottenham.

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004  (Image from AFP)

Greece shocked the world at Euro 2004
(Image from AFP)

The 20 year old move to Portugal fourteen years ago when his mother accepted a job in the country during Euro 2004 and it wasn’t long before his footballing abilities started to catch the eye of his International school’s PE teacher, Miguel Silva. Realizing his potential, Silva recommended him to Sporting Lisbon who signed the player to their youth ranks. Over the next ten years, Dier progressed through the Sporting youth system eventually forcing his way into the Sporting Lisbon B team in 2012 and a year later earned his first team debut aged 19. He made a blistering star to that match by setting up the only goal of the game  against SC Braga in November 2012. Fifteen days later he opened his account for Sporting with a fine strike against Moreiense FC in a 2-2 draw and has not looked back since. Since his debut, Dier played 26 times for Sporting and became a permanent fixture on their team sheet.

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal  (Image from Getty)

Dier spent his formative years in Portugal
(Image from Getty)

But a move back to England was always on the cards and with interest from Newcastle and West Ham, Tottenham had to move quickly to secure the youngster in time for the start of the new season. Comfortable anywhere across the back line or as a defensive midfielder, Dier gives Spurs options and is the third signing of the Mauricio Pochettino era following Ben Davies and Michael Vorm’s arrivals at the club from Swansea. The move will allow Dier the chance to prove himself in one of the world’s biggest leagues for the second time, after spending a brief six month loan spell with Everton back in 2011. The switch is good news for England as well as it is likely to speed up Dier’s development and fast track him towards becoming a full international. Despite interest from Portugal, Dier has committed himself to England and has played at all levels except for Hodgson’s full first team. It would be foolish for Hodgson to ignore the player as he is unlikely any of the other options available to the England manager. Having spent his formative years in Portugal, where technique on the ball and winning with possession is focused on rather than traditional defending techniques like closing down and tight marking, Dier is unique as an England centre half and could offer a new dimension to a somewhat stale defence. Mature beyond his years, Dier has future England captain writing all over him but his soft spoken approach will need to adapt if he is to follow the likes of Butcher, Terry and Ferdinand into the role.

Future England Captain? Eric Dier  (Image from FA)

Future England Captain? Eric Dier
(Image from FA)

Before Dier can start to think about that, he will need to earn his spot in Tottenham’s first team against some tough competition in the form of Dawson, Kaboul and Vertonghen. However with Romanian flop Vlad Chiriches soon to depart and rumours swirling about Dawson’s future at the club, Dier will get his chance to impress sooner rather than later. It will be up to him to prove that the hype around this young talented English defender from Portugal is accurate and that he can go on to lead Tottenham and eventually England to glory.

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European Squad Announcements Shock Few – Part 2

Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia (Image from PA)Fresh from helping Manchester City secure their second Premier League title in three years, Edin Dzeko’s will now turn his focus towards leading the line for Bosnia in their first ever World Cup appearance. Head Coach Safet Sušić has put his faith in the squad that got them to Brazil naming few changes to his provisional 30 man squad. Bosnia will look towards Roma’s Miralem Pjanic for inspiration from midfield whilst will relay on Dzeko and strike partner Vedad Ibisevic to score the goals needed to advance past the fellow Group F competitors Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. At the back, Stoke’s Asmir Begovic will play in goal whilst Emir Spahic and Sead Kolasinac, who both play in the Bundesliga, will be in place to protect him. The former Yugoslav Republic, who joined FIFA in 1996, qualified top of Group G in the European qualifying stages at the expense of Greece who were forced into the play off’s. They eventually did progress at the expense of Romania and will look to build upon the success they found ten years ago at Euro 2004, when they shocked the world by beating Portugal in the final. Manager Fernando Santos, who will step down after the tournament, has named a familiar looking squad as he finalized his 23 for Brazil. Fulham’s Konstantinos Mitroglou will compete with Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras, PAOK’s Dimitris Salpingidis and Greek legend Theofanis Gekas for the starting striker position after Santos axed three other competitors. Forwards Dimitris Papadopoulos, Nikos Karelis and Stefanos Athanasiadis all miss out as do Olympiacos defender Avraam Papadopoulos and more surprisingly PAOK midfielder Sotiris Ninis. The never aging Giorgos Karagounis will captain the team as part of a highly experienced squad.

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece  (Image from Getty)

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece
(Image from Getty)

Also favouring experience is Portugal coach Paulo Bento who sliced his provisional squad down to 23 on Monday much to the disappointment of Ricardo Quaresma and Inter’s Rolando who miss out. Cristiano Ronaldo unsurprisingly makes the cut despite struggling for fitness as does Monaco’s Joao Moutinho and Manchester United’s Nani. Only one Benfica player (Rúben Amorim) makes the cut despite a fantastic season that saw them regain the Portuguese title and end up as runner’s up in yet another Europa League final. Andre Gomes and Ruben Rafael in particular were worth spot in the team but both have time on their sides so playing for Portugal at a major international tournament is likely to happen for them in the future. The same can’t be said for Josip Šimunić who misses out on one last World Cup campaign for Croatia after making a neo Nazi salute after the conclusion of his country’s nail biting playoff victory over Iceland. He was suspended for 10 games by FIFA, meaning he misses out on his last chance of a final swansong. His international career is now surely over which will be a huge blow to the 36 year old. Also missing out in new Barcelona signing Alen Halilovic who was expected to be the wildcard selection in Niko Kovac’s squad. But the head coach has gone for experience over flair and selected the likes of Niko Kranjcar, Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric instead. Whilst he hasn’t cut his provisional squad of 30 down yet, there were some interesting inclusions such as 19 year old Hajduk Splits midfielder Mario Pasalic and Fiorentina’s 20 year old striker Ante Rebic. Both youngsters are part of an exciting new breed of talent (including Halilovic) that is emerging from Croatia, partly due to most teams in the region having to downsize and focus more on youth players to survive the financial crisis. This tournament comes too soon for them but expect to see a more dominant Croatia side in forthcoming international events.

Disappointed to miss out - Alen Halilovic  (Image from Getty)

Disappointed to miss out – Alen Halilovic
(Image from Getty)

Also nurturing youth is Switzerland who have named an interesting team for the World Cup. Alongside the experienced figures of Valon Berhami and captain Gokhan Inler are fresh faces like Wolsbergs Ricardo Rodriguez, Basel’s Fabian Schar, Grasshopper’s Michael Lang and Numberg’s striking sensation Jospi Drmic who finished this season with 17 goals to his name. Speaking of Germany, manager Joachim Low has always been an advocate of developing young talent and Germany have that in abundance. Low named 27 players in his provisional squad including youngsters Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Kevin Volland alongside now permanent fixtures like Mario Gotze and Mezut Ozil. Lazio striker Miroslav Klose is looking to play in his fourth world cup and will lead the line unless Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle can convince Low that he is the better option.

Germany's Young Gun - Julian Draxler  (Image from AFP)

Germany’s Young Gun – Julian Draxler
(Image from AFP)

Striking decisions are also affecting Cesare Prandelli in the Italy dressing room but for all the right reasons. He has a wealth of options to choose from in his provisional list including the experienced trio of Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. But a host of young pretenders like Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile are all competing for a final spot in the team. At the back, the shock exclusion of Domenico Criscito and Davide Astori still has many wondering why whilst Alberto Gilardino and Pablo Osvaldo’s exclusions are more to do with character rather than talent. New Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has no such problems as he already knows that Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar will lead the line for Holland in his final tournament in charge. The disappointment of losing Kevin Strootman to long term injury has forced the Dutch coach into a change of tactics with him now preferring a 5-3-2 formation. That means that the likes of Jean-Paul Boëtius, Quincy Promes and Jonathan de Guzmán all run the risk of being cut from the squad as Van Gaal names his 23. Manchester City defender Karim Rekik, who has been on loan at PSV this season, was a surprise call up into the provisional squad but is likely to be axed as well as Holland gear up for the World Cup.

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Will Falcao be mentally ready for Brazil?

Race to be ready for Falcao (Image from Getty)Radamel Falcao has always dreamed about playing in the World Cup and looked set to do so after helping Colombia book their place in this summer’s event in Brazil by scoring nine times in qualifying. But after a clumsy foul in the Coupe de France clash against minnows Monts d’Or Azergues, Radamel Falcao’s World Cup dream lies in tatters. An ill timed tackle from behind resulted in anterior cruciate ligament damage to Falcao’s right knee and has ruled him out for the rest of the season. With the recovery time for this type of injury usually between six to nine months, Falcao’s chances of making the 2014 World Cup are slim. Surgery on his knee the day after the match has given him a slim chance of making it, but even then he might not be ready. Falcao faces an uphill battle to be ready both physically and mentally, with the latter likely to be the hardest test of all. The psychological effects of extended time on the sidelines due to injury can take its toll on any player but the fear of a reoccurrence of the injury can be even worse. Without enough time to get in some practice matches before the World Cup kicks off, Falcao could be dropped into the high octane environment that is the group stages.   

Falcao's World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge  (Image from PA)

Falcao’s World Cup dream in tatters following this challenge
(Image from PA)

Played at a hundred miles per hour with every moment made to count, the group stages of a World Cup have historically been injury laden affairs. England fans will remember the 2006 World Cup where they watch star striker Michael Owen collapse during the group stage match against Sweden after rupturing his cruciate ligament and ending his World Cup.  Having been out injured for a spell before the tournament, Owen was rushed back in order to make the squad that went to Germany as he was seen as England’s best forward option by coach Sven Goran Eriksson. He managed to play the first two games in the group stage but in truth Owen was not fully fit. As he fell to the ground in the 1st minute of the final group game against Sweden, Owen knew that it was a direct effect of not being able to rest before the tournament and fully recover. The injury Owen suffered in the 2006 World Cup was not a career ending one but he never fully recovered the form and speed that had made him famous and eventually retired after several disappointing season back in England. The fear for Falcao is that he rushes back to play and suffers a similar fate as Owen, ending what has been an electric career so far.

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

Falcao could risk long term problems like Owen if he plays in the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

If he can make the tournament, then all eyes will fall on head coach José Pékerman and how he uses his star player. With Colombia pitted in a winnable group against Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan, they could afford to rest Falcao and slowly introduce him into the tournament, preparing him for the knock out stages instead. But if they struggle in their first match against Greece, Pekerman may be forced to turn to Falcao to ensure qualification. Failure to qualify from the group stage for Colombia is not an option and its passionate fans. Having failed to do so in the last two tournaments they competed in (1994 + 1998), Pekerman is keen to have his team progress and was building his team around Falcao. But following the Monaco frontman’s injury, Pekerman has had to put his faith in others like Teófilo Gutiérrez, Jackson Martinez, Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel. Bacca has been in good form since his move to Sevilla in the summer and could be selected to start in Brazil in place of Falcao alongside either Martinez or Gutierrez. Given the choice though, Pekerman would choose Falcao ahead of all others as he recognizes that he is without question the best striker in the world right now.

Could Bacca replace Falcao?  (Image from Getty)

Could Bacca replace Falcao?
(Image from Getty)

Regardless of where you come from or which country you will be supporting at the World Cup, everyone is hoping that Falcao can recover in time to participate. After all, the World Cup should be about the world’s best teams and in them the world’s greatest players. With Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wales Gareth Bale already missing out due to their respective countries failing to qualify, fans will be hoping Falcao won’t be added to this list too.

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A Greek Tradegy For Moyes As Slump Continues

Moyes slump continues (Image from Getty)David Moyes must be wondering what he has to do to catch a break. After a convincing 2-0 win over Crystal Palace at the weekend, Moyes took his United team to Greece to face Olympiakos in the last 16 of the Champions League in a buoyant mood. But within five minutes of the kick off, Moyes sat slumped in his chair as he watched wave after wave of Greek attacks rein down on his withering United defence. The English champions looked stunned by the audacity of their opponents who really shouldn’t have been a challenge for a strong Manchester side. But the onslaught continued until eventually they wore down the United defence and smashed the ball into the net for a one goal lead.

Frustrating night for Rooney  (Image by AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINISARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Frustrating night for Rooney
(Image by AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINISARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

Like a house of cards, United crumbled and with Moyes unable to rebuild it at half time, it wasn’t long before Olympiakos added a second. Punishment dealt out by the hands of an Arsenal loanee made things harder to bear for die hard Reds fans who watch Joel Campbell nutmeg Michael Carrick before unleashing a powerful curling 25 yard shot past the diving De Gea. The nutmeg on Carrick summed up everything that was wrong with the united Engine room – outplayed, outclassed and outshone.  Carrick tried desperately to control the play but alongside him Cleverly looked more and more like a player who doesn’t belong in a United shirt.  The England midfielder was caught wandering too many times and when he was involved was drastically out of position as can be seen in his heat map.

Not so Cleverly - Tom's heatmap shows his lack of effort  (Image from OPTA)

Not so Cleverly – Tom’s heatmap shows his lack of effort
(Image from OPTA)

Cleverly wasn’t the only one in the midfield lacking direction. Wingers Valencia and Young looked as though they were still on mid season break caught once too often in possession and adding nothing to United’s attacking play. Upfront Robin Van Persie’s frustration grew as the game went on, with few passes falling to his feet. For United’s principle goal threat to only touch the ball a total of 24 times during 90 minutes (half of which were within 15 yards of the half way line) showcases how badly United midfield played. Strike partner Rooney was forced to drop so far that on occasions he looked like a defensive midfielder rather than a forward. Not idea when already trailing in a game. United failed to adjust their tactics with Moyes preferring personal changes in an effort to rescue the game. But 2-0 down the game was lost and all efforts in the last 30 minutes were on damage limitations knowing that United could rescue a 2 goal deficit, but perhaps not a three or four goal gap. Credit where credit is due, Olympiakos were impressive, and technically superior than their English opponents with Campbell, Hernan Perez and Olaitan in particular shining brightest. The Athens based club currently sit top of the Greek Super League and have been in blistering form coming into the fixture but few will have expected the ease on which the win was obtained.

Joel Campbell wheels away after scoring  (Image from Getty)

Joel Campbell wheels away after scoring
(Image from Getty)

What now for United and for David Moyes? Starved of ideas, the right players and fan support Moyes must be wondering why he took on such a challenge in the first place. He would love to write off the season and start planning for next year much like he did on a few occasions at Everton but unfortunately few at Old Trafford are used to that mentality. Success has been drilled into them for the past 20 years so failure has become an evil word that is rarely spoken. Moyes must remain focused, like a golfer after a bad shot, shrug it off and get back to practice. He has a squad capable of playing but they need confidence – both in him and his tactics. Unfortunately the only way to do so is to win using tactics that the team feels comfortable with. Since taking charge in the summer, Moyes has not fielded the same team twice, unlike Ferguson who hardly tinkered if his team was winning. Injuries and lack of form have hindered Moyes in his attempts towards consistency but making several changes to a team week in week out can have a significant impact. To rescue his Champions League dream Moyes must return to the same team that thrashed Bayer Leverkausen in the group stages and hold faith in them. United will have another 90 minutes back at The Theatre of Dreams to rescue their season but without changes, Moyes can expect another nightmare.

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Brazil Or Bust: The Challenges Facing Teams At The World Cup

Sepp Blatter and Fernanda Lima at the Draw (Image from Getty)Friday’s World Cup draw was anything but easy to understand. The complicated system employed by FIFA to stack rank then draw the 32 teams left many wondering what had just happened. The look on England manager Roy Hodgson’s face said it all. But now that the draw is over, each team has full clarity of the task in hand and who they will be facing next summer. For some the draw was kind whilst others will be wondering whether to go at all. Speculation over who will win the tournament has gone into overdrive with Brazil, Argentina and Spain set as early favourites based on their FIFA rankings and the groups drawn but there are other factors at play that need to be considered.

All eyes on Brazil  (Image from PA)

All eyes on Brazil
(Image from PA)

Just looking at how the groups are laid out is not enough to try and work out who will be victorious in Brazil. There are other mitigating circumstances that will come into play and will affect the overall outcome. First and foremost the location of each game and the travelling required by some nations will have an effect on the condition of the players and how tired they will be. With only a few days between games, logistics will play a huge part in the preparations. Mexico look to have profited with a draw that sees their travel restricted top only a couple of hours each time. All of their matches will be played in the northern cities of Natal, Fortaleza and Recife. In the same group, home nation Brazil will spend a majority of time travelling as they attempt to appease the fans across the country. Whilst accustom to the climate and conditions, the heavy travel schedule over a short space of time make take its toll. Portuguese chances of progressing from the group stage took a hit when the draw was made. Not only did they land in a tough group with Germany, USA and Ghana, the way the fixtures are lined up could also factor into their potential success. A tough opener in Salvador against Germany is followed six days later with a tiring match against the US in tropical Manaus before a lengthy journey to Brasilia to face Ghana four days after that. Like many teams, the strength in depth of the squad will show as rotation will be key to survive the group stage. Squads like Croatia, Iran, Greece and Japan will all struggle as their key starting eleven falter and managers are forced to replace them with lesser quality players.

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup  (Image from Google)

Travel will play a major role in who wins the World Cup
(Image from Google)

The weather and climate will also play a major role. In places like Manaus, centered in the middle of the Amazon, teams will experience high temperatures and lung busting humidity. During July, heavy rain is not uncommon but the summer months fall during the countries “dry spell” so the rain is usually limited to mid afternoon showers. Still this will likely alter the playing surface, forcing teams into tactical changes and potentially player selection. It’s a world away from the cooler temperatures of the south in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro where the weather is more controlled and will suit the European teams more. Don’t be surprised to see dark horses Belgium storm through the group stages after being given a kind draw. With an easy group (Russia, Algeria and South Korea) and all their matches to be played in the south (Rio, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte), Belgium should be refreshed and firing on all cylinders come the knock out stages. France too should profit from having two of their three matches located in the south of the country. Travel will play a role but with a difficult game against the Swiss sandwiched nicely between ties against Honduras and Ecuador, France should progress with ease. England and Italy are both facing a difficult World Cup and will need to start strongly in their opening match against each other in Manaus on Saturday 14th June.  After the match, Italy travel east to Recife where they face Costa Rica then conclude the group with a likely winner takes all match against Uruguay in Natal. England however fly south to Sao Paulo to take on a Luis Suarez inspired Uruguay then north to play Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte. Hodgson will know that the match in Belo will be pointless if his team cannot pick up any points in the first two matches of the group. A tough challenge given the opposition, weather conditions and travel.

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel  (Image from Getty)

Belgium should benefit from an easy draw and little travel
(Image from Getty)

We are now just over six months away from the kick off of the 2014 World Cup. All 32 teams now know who they will be facing and what other challenges lie in wait for them when they reach Brazil. The toughest challenge for them all will be not necessarily the games themselves but everything around them. With transport infrastructure still an issue, hotels not complete and adverse weather conditions across the country, the winners of Brazil 2014 will have to overcome a variety of obstacles if they are to lift the famous golden trophy.

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Portugal and France Progress To Brazil As England and Spain’s Plans Are Thrown Into Turmoil

Ronaldo celebrates securing Portugals passage to Brazil (Image from PA)It was a dramatic night of international football on Tuesday that sent four more European teams to Brazil and others wondering if they want to go at all. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick eclipsed a stunning brace by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Portugal met Sweden in Stockholm for the second leg of the play offs.  With Portugal leading 1-0 from the first leg, the home fans were determined to help their team as much as possible, including disturbing the sleep of the Portuguese players the night before. Despite the underhanded tactics, Ronaldo would not be deterred from his goal of reaching another World Cup. The Real Madrid star put his team into an early lead before a Swedish comeback inspired by their talisman Ibrahimovic who has been in the best form of his life over the past two years. A quick fire brace including a wonderfully taken second goal pulled Sweden back level on aggregate and back into the match. But Ronaldo would have the last laugh as he stepped up a gear by grabbing a brace himself to complete his hat trick and put Portugal on the plane to Brazil. It wouldn’t be the World Cup without the Real Madrid star but others will be disappointed that Ibrahimovic will not be there as his creativity and flair have light up many a back page with yet another wonder goal.

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal's lead  (Image from PA)

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal’s lead
(Image from PA)

Elsewhere a convincing 2-0 victory for Croatia helped sealed their place at the expense of Iceland. The tiny Scandinavian country had reached the play offs against all odds so defeat over the two legs to Croatia will be painful to take. After all this was a Croatian side ripe for the picking having come off the back of a double defeat to Scotland in the group stages. Iceland’s approach and effort in qualifying should have been enough to secure their passage so falling at the last hurdle will be a harsh lesson for their young squad in staying focused and not being distracted by the main prize. Croatia will be joined on the plane by Greece who dispatched Romania over the two legs despite a spirited performance from Victor Piturca’s players.

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

The surprise of the night was the comeback of Les Blues as Didier Deschamp’s French team clawed back a 2-0 first leg deficit against a powerful Ukraine side to win 3-0 in the second leg and book their place. A brace from Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and a solo strike from Karim Benzema was enough to turn around the tie that many feared was already over. Ukraine were blown away by a determined French side, inspired by Franck Ribery and Yohan Cabaye who were helped in their cause by the dismissal of Ukrainian defender Yevhen Khacheridi just before half time. A passionate crowd sang songs of allez les blues as France romped to victory.

France celebrate reaching the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

France celebrate reaching the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

Meanwhile friendly defeats for England, Spain, USA and Belgium have heaped concerns about their chances in Brazil next summer. England’s failure to trouble a heavily rotated Germany will surely concern manager Roy Hodgson and definitely the over exuberant British press. Spain’s surprising defeat in South Africa also came as a shock especially as Del Bosque had sent out an almost full strength team. Whilst they had chances, the reigning World and European champions looked vulnerable at the back, with some suggesting the exclusion of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas being the main catalyst. Dark horses for next year’s tournament, Belgium also suffered defeat for the second time in five days, this time to Japan. The Japanese who have also qualified took their chances well against the young and enthusiastic Belgium side eventually winning the match by three goals to two. In Austria, Jürgen Klinsmann led team USA preparations took a knock with a surprise 1-0 defeat to Austria. Having drawn on Friday with Scotland, Klinsmann was hoping to put Austria to the sword but they had other ideas. A single goal by Marc Janko thirty three minutes into the match sealed a famous victory and gave the German coach much to ponder.

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Bosnia Books Their Place At The World Cup As Iceland Looks To Follow

Job Done - Bosnia reach their first World Cup (Image from Getty)Amongst jubilant scenes in Sarajevo last night, one man stood alone at the centre spot trying to believe what had just happened. Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko realized that his dreams were coming true as he watched his country qualify for their first ever World Cup. It’s a remarkable achievement for Bosnia after years of struggling to recover from the war that threatened to rip their country apart. Until 1992, Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia but when the country began to break up back into its original components (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Serbia) the region was engulfed in a turf war known as the Yugoslav wars. Lasting over eight years, it’s often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II and decimated the regions, killing thousands and sending millions scrambling for the safety of other European countries. Dzeko was only six years old when war was dropped onto his doorstep and lived through the worst of it as his family decided to stay in Sarajevo and attempt to live a semi normal life. As a quiet skinny kid, the future was uncertain for Dzeko but despite uncertainty Dzeko spent his childhood years with a football attached to his foot. Dzeko was always destined to be a footballer and follow in his father’s footsteps who was a fairly successful professional in Bosnia, who also represented his country. But now Dzeko now stands above his father as a national icon, the man who shot Bosnia to their first ever World Cup. Scoring 10 goals in 10 qualifying games helped Bosnia to claim top spot in Group G ahead of Greece, Slovakia and Lithuania, securing their place in Brazil next summer. Dzeko will insist that it was a team effort and that the whole squad deserves the praise but it was Dzeko who led the line and ultimately got the goals to get them to the World Cup.

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place  (Image from Getty)

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place
(Image from Getty)

One team looking to follow Bosnia to Brazil is Iceland. After achieving the impossible by finishing second in a tough group, Iceland now are 180 minutes away from booking their first trip to a world cup as well. Standing in their way is one of seven teams and will face either Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Ukraine or France in a two legged play off to be contested next month. Iceland, who secured a spot after sterling performances against Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland in the group are a mix of youthful exuberance and experienced professionalism. 35 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen, who has played for Chelsea and Barcelona in the past but now represents Club Brugge, leads the line alongside Ajax’s talented young forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. The pair are supported from midfield by Tottenham’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, who is in the best form of his career, and by Sampdoria’s dynamic Birkir Bjarnason and exciting AZ winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who’s outstanding hat trick against Switzerland last month salvaged a well deserved point at a time when it looked like Iceland’s dream was falling apart.

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Having lost at home to Slovenia in June by four goals to two, Iceland went into the game with Switzerland in Berne knowing that they needed to get something from the match to keep their hopes of a qualification spot alive. But after a disastrous start, Iceland found themselves trailing 4-1 with just over 30 minutes to go. What happened next is an example of the new found belief running through this Icelandic squad who rallied to pull the game level with goals from Sigþórsson and a brace from Guðmundsson including a strike in the dying minutes, to secure a valuable point. In the end, that point plus some luck on the final day with Iceland holding on to a draw with Norway as Slovenia failed to beat runaway winner Switzerland, helped Iceland to finish second and keep their dreams alive.

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results  (Image from AP)

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results
(Image from AP)

Coach Lars Lagerback will be hoping that his team secures an easier fixture in the draw for the play off’s, with Croatia looking now like the best bet as a beatable team. Having failed to qualify directly and after losing consecutive games to Scotland, the Croatian FA have sacked Igor Stimac as head coach, throwing his team into a state of flux. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac will likely be in charge for the play off matches and looks favourite to secure the job long term after impressing with the junior team but whether he has enough time to revive a now battered Croatia side is still to be seen. Iceland will be weary that if they draw Croatia it might not be an easy game but with the other options being a Ronaldo inspired Portugal or an electric Ukraine side, an injured Croatia might be their best shot.

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