Can Messi Inspire Argentina one more time?

Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

Still hurting – Argentina came so close in Brazil only to fall at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware  (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.

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Maradona wins the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 (Image from Tumblr)

His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.

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Sampaoli needs a Plan B and quickly (image from Tumblr)

The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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No More Excuses For Sorry Scots

Growing up in Scotland, football was my life. When I wasn’t at school, sleeping or eating I had a ball at my feet. Summers were spent at one of three places that kids in my hometown of Largs could play the beautiful game – Barrfields, Bowen Craig and Inverclyde. From early morning to the streetlights coming on signaling it was time to stop, I played football with my friends;  4 aside with jumpers for goalposts to a knockout tournament in pairs when real goals were an option. But eventually one by one the fences went up, the gates were locked and playing the game we loved was only possible if we booked a pitch and paid. My love affair with the beautiful game never wained but the amount of time I spent outside playing it did. Unfortunately my experience was not unique with similar situations happening all across Scotland as kids no longer able to play in the busy streets now also had no where else to play. Twenty years on, the knock on effect of this action along with a hatful of other problems has lead to the decline of Scottish football as we see it now.

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One by one the fences were erected and kids were stopped playing football (Image from Inverclyde Sports Centre, Largs)

Yet another tournament has passed that the Scotland men’s national team have failed to take part in. That makes nine in a row with the realization of a tenth only one more disappointment away. But disappointment isn’t the word not anymore. Scotland fans used to be disappointed about not qualifying but at the same time were optimistic that we would get it right the next time. Gradually over time with each passing failure that optimism disappeared and has now been replaced with pure frustration. Every two years the debate rages on radio call ins and in the press about the reasons why and what needs to change in Scottish football. But nothing ever seems to change despite the endless chatter. It has gotten so bad that the Scotland fans can not listen anymore, frustrated as we sit on the sidelines stranded once again while our neighbors all appear to be moving on.

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The SFA’s use of the tagline “This Time” in their latest ads for ticket sales for the upcoming qualifying campaign says it all (Image from SFA)

Enough is enough. We have heard the excuses for twenty years and it’s starting to get old. We don’t have world class players, they are not technically as good, the system is broken, there aren’t enough kids coming through and my personal favourite we were just unlucky. Bad luck can stretch for more than a few years granted, even seven if you break a mirror but seriously how many have Scotland broken then? We must have literally smashed the glass ceiling at this rate. The brutal truth and a difficult one to say and write is that we are full of excuses which fundamentally must stop before we can move forward. Accepting the truth that as a footballing nation we have regressed whilst others in similar positions have progressed is painful. Whilst we bicker over what is wrong, the rest are moving forward leaving this once proud nation languishing in the football wilderness. Enough with the 100 pages reports that suggest radical overhauls, systemic failures and a complete restructuring of scottish football only to be read once and then used a paperweight at the SFA. Enough of the dinosaurs at the Scottish Federation pondered the meaning of football (and life) instead of taking action; much as France, Belgium and Germany did. All three nations had eureka moments spurned by failure which prompted the swift changes that brought recent successes. The SFA will argue that all three are countries with larger populations and considerably deeper pockets which allowed for the quick progression and they may have a point but what then about Iceland?. The tiny island with a total population of only 330,000 may have embarrassed England in the second round of Euro 2016 but it should have made Scotland fans weep uncontrollably at the same time. With a fraction of the population of Scotland and a much smaller budget to play with, they boast more professional coaches, better facilities and a blossoming youth development program that should make us break down and cry. Iceland’s future looks remarkably bright whilst Scotland’s looks bleaker by each passing day.

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Iceland’s infrastructure which includes several 5G indoor all weather pitches puts Scotland to shame (Image from Telegraph.co.uk)

But the SFA are not the only ones guilty of burying their heads in the sand. The clubs are at fault too. Enough with the attitude that change is not welcome and that the clubs in Scotland’s top tier must protect themselves from it. A succession of frustrated performance directors have been and gone – first Dutchman Mark Wotte then Scot Brian McClair both tried to change peoples perspectives but gave up after months of banging their heads against the wall. Reform comes in many shapes and sizes, some more complex to execute than others  and whilst a few are so hair brained in conception that only the SFA would consider them, all have good intentions behind them. Change is needed now and the clubs need to embrace and support such change. Their self preserving attitude is damaging the core of Scottish football and its national teams chances of progression.

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Scotland line up against Brazil at the 1998 World Cup in France, the last time Scotland qualified for a major tournament (Image from Getty)

That said, there is and has to be hope. As the Flower of Scotland says “We can still rise now, and be a nation again”. Its not too late to make radical changes to Scotland’s setup – embrace the learnings of others, change our approach and reap the benefits in the long run. But to do so we need to accept that we are stuck in a rut, absorbed by our own defeatist attitude and over reliance of excuses. France, Belgium, Germany and Iceland all woke up to their problems and made the changes needed with the result being an upturn in fortunes. Scotland can follow a similar path towards progression and turn around their fortunes on the pitch. Only then will the Scotland fans be able to turn dreams into reality as the national team books their spot at a major international tournament once more.

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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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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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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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