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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O’Neill Takes Calculated Risk Adding Keane To The Ticket

O'Neill/Keane ticket - a winner? (Image from Getty)In a move set to reinvigorate Irish passions, the announcement of the dream management duo of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane yesterday is exactly what the country needs. Since the removal of Giovanni Trapattoni as manager last month after failing to steer Ireland to World Cup 2014, rumours around the appointment of O’Neill as the preferred candidate have been growing gradually day over day. It comes as no surprise that the former Leicester, Celtic, Aston Villa and Sunderland manager has been handed the role but the addition of Roy Keane to the ticket at the last minute was a curve ball that few could have expected. Keane, who has been out of management since leaving Ipswich in January 2011, joins as assistant manager and has expressed his enthusiasm for the role and how he is looking forward to working alongside O’Neill. The duo’s first test will be against Latvia in a friendly match in just over 9 days’ time. Expect fireworks.

Giovanni Trapattoni was dismissed after failing to qualify  (Image from David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

Giovanni Trapattoni was dismissed after failing to qualify
(Image from David Maher / SPORTSFILE)

O’Neill’s managerial record speaks for itself and he is one of the smartest coaches in the game, bringing both experience and knowledge to the job. But whether he can control the temperamental Keane, not known for his composure or biting his tongue will be interesting to watch. The pair has only worked together before as TV pundits, often sharing the microphone on ITV sport and have the same ideology that stems from their time working at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough.  Clough’s influence on the pair is clear to see but that’s where the similarity ends. Whilst Keane speaks his mind and is not afraid of the repercussions, often playing the hard man with ease, O’Neill prefers to be more reserved, softly spoken yet forceful with his views. The theory behind combining these two footballing greats is to get the best out of a talented Irish side with a sort of good cop, bad cop routine. In fact, it was O’Neill’s idea to approach Keane about the role in the first place, much to the reluctance of the Irish FA. Having dealt with Keane related issues in the past, the FA were hoping to avoid any similar types of problems in the future so adding Keane to the package to secure O’Neill was not exactly what they had planned. But without Keane, there would be no O’Neill so the FA agreed.

Which Keane will show up?  (Image from Getty)

Which Keane will show up?
(Image from Getty)

O’Neill is taking a risk in bringing Keane into the fold, one that can go either way. Keane’s arrival to the setup could help to reignite the passion in the players that started to dwindle towards the end of Trapattoni’s reign.  Winning only 4 out of 10 games in the World Cup qualifying group C was not good enough and resulted in Ireland finishing in fourth place behind Austria. Keane was not impressed by Ireland’s defeat at home against Austria as a TV pundit so now having the chance to work with the players to ensure it doesn’t happen again will make him more determined than ever. It will be up to O’Neill to manage that approach as Keane has a reputation for heavily criticising players performances and effort levels, something that the professionals of today take offence to. Keane’s mantra is that you play hard to win, and the effort you apply should be the same as he applied as a player, which has the tendency to create problems between him and the players under his control. If Keane does disrupt the dressing room, there may be little that O’Neill can do to rescue the situation and could result in him losing his job, especially if results on the pitch go south as well. Time will tell how the new look Irish management team perform together and more importantly which Roy Keane will show up to the party.

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