Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

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

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

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

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

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

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

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

 

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

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

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

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

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

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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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