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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Serbia’s Next Generation Spoils Brazil’s Party

Serbia have won the Under 20's World Cup (Image from Getty)With the majority of media coverage focused on the Copa America, Women’s World Cup and Under 21 European Championships, its understandable that few people really knew that the Under 20 World Cup was happening this month in New Zealand. In what had been a fairly unremarkable tournament, the final between surprise side Serbia and Brazil was anything but. In a thrilling encounter, Serbia secured a memorable late win over their South American rivals etching a new chapter in their short but colorful history. Serbia who were debutants to the tournament performed like champions in front of the sold out 25,000 seater North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. The Balkan peninsula took a 70th minute lead through striker Stanisa Mandic who brushed home a Nemanja Maksimovic cross from four yards out. Brazil who had dominated the game stepped up a gear and piled more pressure on Serbia but were unable to find a way through. It was going to take a moment of brilliance from one of their players and that is exactly what they got. Manchester United midfielder Andreas Pereira had only been on the pitch less than seven minutes when he picked up the ball wide on the left. After evading the challenges of Zivkovic and Maksimovic, Pereira surged into the box with right back Milan Gajic in pursuit. Pulling the ball back inside, he lost Gajic before drilling a low shot past Predrag Rajkovic to tie the game.

But it would be Serbia who had the last laugh when deep into extra time Maksimovic ran on to a through pass from Zivkovic which split the Brazilian defence wide open. With two defenders racing on to him, Maksimovic only had time to take a few touches before looking up and coolly slotting the ball past the diving Jean in the Brazil goal. Chaotic scenes followed with the Serbia bench running onto the pitch to celebrate whilst the Brazilian team sank to its collective knees. After the match, Serbia’s head coach Veljko Paunovic spoke warmly about his giant killers by insisting that the team unity was the key reason behind their success in the tournament.

“Were we lucky? Yes, we were lucky. But you have to deserve your luck and we worked extremely hard. We are a team that plays as one and, in the end, I think the team that wanted most to win this trophy has won it, It will give us confidence for the future but we must continue building, and rebuilding, our football and our society.”

Paunovic was right. His Serbian team had entered the tournament as rank underdogs but emerged as champions by playing together. There are no pre Madonnas in this team, only grafters who were willing to fight tooth and nail for each other. After defeat in their first group match to Uruguay, Serbia could have crumbled but instead they rallied to beat surprise outfit Mali (who finished third overall after beating Senegal in the third place playoff match earlier in the day) in their second match. A convincing 2-0 win over Mexico propelled them into the knockout stage and a match against Hungary. Again that never say die attitude that epitomised this Serbia team rang true. Despite being a goal behind going into the closing moments of the match, Serbia once again pulled themselves level through a strike from substitute Ivan Saponjic. Seconds later they would be reduced to ten men with the dismissal of Gajic but that would not deter Serbia who dominated in extra time, finally making the break through with two minutes to go sending them into the quarter finals. In their next match, they faced a tricky game against an ever improving USA who had dispatched Colombia in the last round. The match would be a stalemate and eventually be settled by penalties with Serbia goalkeeper and captain Predrag Rajkovic saving the decisive penalty.

Serbia did expect to meet Germany in the semi finals but Mali had different ideas by knocking out one of the tournament favourites on penalties.  Like in the round of 16 and the Quarter finals, the semi final between Serbia and Mali would go all the way into extra time after Youssouf Kone’s strike cancelled out Zivkovic’s fourth minute drive. Once again it was the substitutions and tactical alterations by Paunovic that changed the game in Serbia’s favour. Ivan Saponjic netted a memorable goal that was enough to win the match and send Serbia into the final against favourites Brazil. The rest they say is history.

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Portugal Defeat Spells Trouble For Bento

 

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

Portugal failed to break down Albania (Image from AFP)

Portugal failed to break down Albania
(Image from AFP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An International Friendly That Actually Means Something

FIFA have yet to accept Kosovo as a member (Image from Getty)In amongst the list of international fixtures played on Wednesday night was an unassuming game with huge significant importance. The clash between Kosovo and Haiti was not the most glamorous on the list (that honour went to either Spain vs. Italy or Holland vs. France) but was the setting for another first in football. It was the first full international game that Kosovo have played on the world stage since the country gained independence in 2008. Still yet to be confirmed with either UEFA or FIFA membership, Kosovo has played several unofficial international friendlies in the past but it wasn’t until FIFA gave the national team permission to play against FIFA member associations in international friendly in January this year that an official game could be scheduled. Due to time constraints and the pre existing fixtures scheduled for Wednesday 5th March, Kosovo could only arrange a game against Haiti but that did not matter to the team that has strived for so long for this moment.

One small step - Kosovo vs Haiti  (Image from FIFA)

One small step – Kosovo vs Haiti
(Image from FIFA)

The game against Haiti; played in the Olympic Stadium Adem Jashari in Kosovo ended in a stalemate but the importance of the match cannot be understated. It is a major milestone in Kosovo’s football progression and will likely help in their quest for FIFA membership. They have a long way to go before they can compete in qualification stages for European Championships or World Cups and several hurdles to get over including how to build a squad. Several Kosovo born players have already committed themselves to playing for other countries, mostly because of Kosovo’s footballing status being in limbo for so long. Albanian captain, Lorik Cana as well as Swiss international trio Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami were all born in Kosovo but moved to their respective countries as children to escape the war. All four have long advocated for Kosovo to be accepted by FIFA and given membership but as yet FIFA has declined. The recent move by UEFA to accept Gibraltar into its ranks has proved to be the catalyst towards full FIFA membership (still being considered) but it may be a path that Kosovo needs to go down first.

Lorik Cana backs Kosovo's campaign for membership  (Image from PA)

Lorik Cana backs Kosovo’s campaign for membership
(Image from PA)

Opinions are divided on whether Kosovo should be allowed to join both UEFA and FIFA ranks, with neighbouring Serbia the biggest objector as it sees Kosovo as part of its own sovereign territory. There has been some progress with the presidents of the two respective football Associations (Serbia’s Tomislav Karadzic and Kosovo’s Fadil Vokrri) meeting last year in Zurich to discuss a mutually beneficial solution that would allow Kosovo onto the international stage and promote football across the war torn region. Following the meeting, Kosovo will be able to play in a similar way to the Catalonia and Basque teams which meet once or twice a year and ‘borrow’ players from the FIFA-recognized nations they play competitive international football for. That is until full UEFA and FIFA membership can be obtained.

Will he, Wont he? Januzaj still to decide  (Image from Getty)

Will he, Wont he? Januzaj still to decide
(Image from Getty)

In the game against Haiti, head coach Albert Bunjaki and assistant Tord Grip decided to go against selecting better known Kosovo players like Cana and Xhaka, instead choosing young players who haven’t been capped at full international level for another country. That said, there were some familiar faces including goalkeeper Samir Ujkani (capped 20 times by Albania), defender Lum Rexhepi who has played at all levels for Finland from under 16’s and up, Norwegian midfielder Ardian Gashi and Switzerland striker Albert Bunjaku. They did reach out to rising Manchester united star Adnan Januzaj who also has Kosovo roots but the player turned down the advance as he is yet to decide which country he wants to represent. Whether Januzaj chooses to play for Kosovo or not, the future of Kosovo football looks bright as it rises from the ashes of war.

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Moscow Punished But Will This Help Prevent Racism In The Future?

Racism still is an issue in the game (Image from stock)It was announced on Wednesday that CSKA Moscow will be sanctioned for last week’s controversial racist chanting towards Manchester City players during their Champions league clash. Their punishment… the closure of one of their stands but will this really stop abuse being cried out from the terraces?  In last week’s fixture which finished with a 2-1 win for City, Yaya Toure addressed the issue to the referee during the game yet no action was carried out by the official. Toure remained on the field for the remainder of the game but continued to talk about this issue after the game. During an interview, he commented:

“It was unbelievable and very, very sad on my part. As an African player it’s always sad to hear something like that. For me, as captain, I was wearing an armband which said ‘no to racism’ and I was totally disappointed by the fans”

Yaya Touré reacts to racist chants from the Moscow fans  (Image from Getty)

Yaya Touré reacts to racist chants from the Moscow fans
(Image from Getty)

He suggested after the game that either several stands or the stadium should be closed for a couple of games. In the end, UEFA agreed with this and under its regulations have gone ahead and decided to close one stand (section D) of the Arena Khimki for CSKA Moscow’s next home game in the Champions League which will be against Bayern Munich. If a second offence is committed in Moscow then this will lead to the closure of the stadium along with a fine of 50,000 Euros. Still, are these strong enough punishments to ‘kick out’ racism? Already this year there have been many examples of clubs breaching the expected standards:

  • ·         Dinamo Zagreb vs. FC Sheriff (30th July) – Forced to play a game behind closed doors due to claims of racist behaviour.
  • ·         Legia Warsaw vs. Steaua Bucharest (21st and 28th August) – Warsaw were fined £128,500 for racist chanting during both legs of this game and they were then forced to play two games behind closed doors.

There been three other cases of racist behaviour from the Europa League which begs the question: are the sport’s governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA being strict enough? Arguably in order to prevent this issue from reoccurring, the punishment should be made more fierce and dangerous for clubs to breach. Perhaps clubs could face lengthier periods of closures, removal of points or even expulsion from the competition. Although these precautions sound harsh, it’s a threatening consequence that would surely lead to the removal of racism from the game or at least the European cup competitions. This year there has been countless stories from around the world in regard to racism disrupting matches.

Both FIFA and UEFA have rolled out anti racism campaigns with little success  (Image from FIFA)

Both FIFA and UEFA have rolled out anti racism campaigns with little success
(Image from FIFA)

 

In January this year, Milan’s Kevin Prince Boateng walked off the pitch during a friendly with Italian fourth division side Pro Patria after suffering from racial taunts and monkey noises from the crowd. In this case, the referee responded by instructed all players to follow suit. In October 2012, racism took the spotlight again during an international under 21’s game between Serbia and England. Danny Rose and several other Black English players were racially abused by Serbian fans. UEFA did take action by banning four Serbian players and two of their coaches for two years. The country was also hit with a £65,000 fine and was ordered to play their next competitive Under-21 match behind closed doors. The penalty sparked furious reactions from the English FA who called the lack of punishment as deplorable and appealed the decision.

Danny Rose was subjected to racism taunts against Serbia  (Image from PA)

Danny Rose was subjected to racism taunts against Serbia
(Image from PA)

By intensifying the punishment, both clubs and countries will be forced to look into their fans behaviour and carry out intensive checks. Clubs may look into increasing the amount of security they have present at games or even removing certain fans from the ground indefinitely.  These ideas have been touched on before but whether or not clubs are prepared to execute such drastic measures is yet to be seen. Nevertheless, would losing a certain group of supporters be such a loss in revenue for the sake of the long term future of the game. Surely not.

Post by Richard Waterhouse

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Scotland the timid?

World Cup Dream dies for Scotland (Image from PA)Another campaign, another disappointment for the tartan army.  Tuesday’s defeat to Serbia confirmed what most had already accepted that Scotland would not be travelling to Brazil next summer to take part in the FIFA World Cup. The two nil score line followed Fridays loss to Wales and made it now mathematically impossible for Scotland to progress. It has now been 16 years since Scotland took part in a major tournament and memories that event, France 1998 are fading fast. Yet again it’s back to the drawing board for the SFA and new head coach, Gordon Strachan.

The Tartan Army ponders another failed campaign (Image from Getty)

The Tartan Army ponders another failed campaign
(Image from Getty)

Whilst the damaged had already been done before Strachan arrived,  the two performances offered little in the way of comfort for the bewildered Scottish fans. New faces were introduced to the mix and old faces returned but the defeated attitude remained in tact from the Levein days. A spirited first half against Wales where Scotland took the lead was all undone as the players failed to show up in the second half.  Defeat led to dejection which shone through on Tuesday as all pride was lost. In both matches, the same mistake was made. When Scotland lost a goal, they scrambled up field immediately  to try and get a goal back which resulted in too much space at the back for Wales and Serbia to attack. Patience departed the squad as they were left in a blind panic which ultimately led to their undoing. It was painful viewing for Strachan and his assistant Mark McGhee, who looked on helplessly on both occasions as their team fell apart.

Back to the drawing board for Strachan and assistant McGhee (Image from Reuters/David Moir )

Back to the drawing board for Strachan and assistant McGhee
(Image from Reuters/David Moir )

As ever blame reverts back to the structure of Scottish football and in particular its grassroots. Henry MacLeish’s detailed report into the national game highlighted the problems over three years ago and pointed towards a solution that would radicalize Scottish football to the core. Unfortunately for the ever loyal Scottish faithful, the report is likely acting as a door stop only at the SFA rather than being acted on. Yes Mark Wotte has been introduced as performance director with the mandate to address youth development but one man cannot change Rome in a day nor can he change the Scottish game overnight. A plan needs to be developed, money spent and time given for it to alter the present. An overhaul of the current league setup and major plans to improve the quality of the game in Scotland were highlighted against Serbia when the starting line up did not feature a single SPL player. Granted Celtic’s Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew were missing but apart from those two, it is hard to think of another who would displace one of the starting eleven that took the field that night. France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany have all taken radical steps to reposition their league to be more youth focus and are now reaping the benefits but as yet Scotland abstains, much to the annoyance of its fans.

McLeish's report set out clear plans to rejuvenate Scottish Football from the ground up(image from Getty)

McLeish’s report set out clear plans to rejuvenate Scottish Football from the ground up
(image from Getty)

Patience is needed, first and foremost, for change to happen but this does not help Strachan’s current problem. His main concern should be that Scotland has lost the one thing that made them so formidable in years gone past – their battling spirit. Scotland the brave is now Scotland the timid with no bite left within the lion rampant. The players lack the belief that they can actually qualify for a major tournament and this shows in their game. Out muscled and outplayed in Serbia and shamed into dirty tactics at home, Scotland does not present a viable threat to many nations who have evolved along with the modern game. Gone are the days of Colin Hendry, Kevin Gallacher and Gary McCallister who would give their all every time they pulled on the dark blue jersey. Kenny Miller and Darren Fletcher are two of only a handful of players in the current setup who can run their socks off in a game for Scotland but to succeed in international football, you need all eleven men plus the entire subs bench to be covering every inch of the pitch together as a single unit.

16 Years of Hurt - Scotland's last appearance at a major tournament was France 1998 (Image from PA)

16 Years of Hurt – Scotland’s last appearance at a major tournament was France 1998
(Image from PA)

Yes Scottish players need to improve their technique, bulk up and regain their composure but most of all its the spirit and team belief that will change their fortunes. The tartan army will turn out wherever and whenever needed, even to shovel snow in Serbia to make sure the game goes ahead, and all they ask for in return is for the team to give it’s all in every match and maybe just once manage to reach a major tournament. They need something to shout about, a team to be proud of and then the Tartan Army will truly shine. After all, it is at major tournaments where the tartan army can best lay claim to be the best support in the world.

Scotland Boss Ponders How To Stop Bale Ahead Of Wales Clash

Much to Ponder - Strachan (Image from Getty)Later this afternoon, Gordon Strachan will embark on the next phase of his managerial career as he leads out Scotland for his first competitive match in charge against Wales. Strachan faces an uphill struggle as he tries desperately to revitalise Scotland’s world cup qualifying chances which so far have flatlined with no wins in the first four matches. The diminutive Scot was brought in to replace Craig Levein who did very little to improve his own managerial reputation during his time as the top man but fortunately for Strachan has set the bar so low that a single win in qualifying will look better on paper than Levein’s efforts. But getting that elusive win in the forthcoming double-header will not be easy as Scotland have to travel to Serbia next Tuesday after entertaining Wales at Hampden today. When the draw was made for the groups, Wales appeared to be the easiest team but few had remembered about Wales secret weapon – Gareth Bale.

Mission Impossible - How to stop Bale (mage from PA)

Mission Impossible – How to stop Bale
(mage from PA)

The Welsh winger is having the best season of his career. His performances have been so dazzling, that most would put him in 3rd spot, behind Messi and Ronaldo, as the best player in the world at the moment. He is impossible to contain, moving from one flank to the other after been given more freedom by his respective managers at Tottenham and Wales, and with electric pace and the ability to finish with both feet and his head, Bale is on fire. Going into todays game, Strachan will know that to beat Wales, he will need to come up with an effective plan to stop Bale. Easier said than done and only Strachan really knows how he is planning to do it but he certainly has a few options that he can use.

Scotland prepare midweek for today's game (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

Scotland prepare midweek for today’s game
(Image from Guardian.co.uk)

For one he can man mark Bale. By putting a player tight onto the winger and having him follow him wherever he goes, it should restrict the time he has to control, turn and size up the space.  This can be highly effective with the right player chosen to perform the duty. If Strachan and Scotland go down this route, he will effectively sacrifice a player to contain another. That player will have no position other than the one Bale occupies at that time and his job will be simple – to follow Bale and stick as close as humanely possible. Scotland have used this tactic before with either Scott Brown or Gary Caldwell acting as the marker but with Brown out and Caldwell likely to start at centre half, it may fall to the likes of Steven Whitaker to do this role. The only issue with this tactic is Bale’s awareness and pace. He has become accustom to having someone man mark him this season and is aware that very few people possess the pace that he does so Scotland will need to be careful that he doesn’t spin his mark and start running as no one in the team will be able to keep up with him.

Spain's Alonso man marked by a croatian defender (Image from Getty)

Spain’s Alonso man marked by a croatian defender
(Image from Getty)

Another possible option open to Strachan is the double team. Less tight marking but instead when Bale gets on the ball, he instantly has two markers tracking is every move, working together to deposes him. On the right flank Alan Hutton and Steven Whitaker again could be asked to do this (Hutton has already proved he can as he marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game when Mallorca met Real earlier this month), but as Bales often floats between the wings, Scotland will need to be careful that Bale doesn’t pull two players out of position leaving a gap for others to exploit. Generally with extremely skillful players or ones with pace, the double team is highly effective and is the most likely option that Strachan will adopt but he will have to decide who those two players are depending on where on the pitch Bale is at that time.

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter (Image from PA)

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter
(Image from PA)

The third solution harks back to a by gone age when footballers were real men and literally kicked lumps out of each other. Stories about former Scotland defender Billy Bremner are legendary but one story stands the testament of time and is still used as a tactic today by several teams. Bremner’s approach, when faced with a powerful or creative striker (or in this case Bale) he would simply make them aware of his presence within the first few minutes of the game by either dragging his studs down the back of the strikers leg or by stamping on his heel. The philosophy was simple – either it injures the player enough that he has to be substituted and the problem disappears or that he is rattled and mental scarred for the rest of the game, worrying that every time he gets the ball, he will get the same treatment from Bremner as he got in the first few minutes. Highly effective yet highly risky as one bad challenge early on may result in an injury but could also result in a dismissal for the defender which is something Strachan will definitely not want – facing up to Bale and Co with just ten men.

A typical Bremner challenge (Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

A typical Bremner challenge
(Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

Regardless of what Strachan chooses to do or what tactic he employs, stopping Bale from playing will be a key objective if his side are to get the three points. His problem may not actually be a problem as Bale struggles to shake off an ankle knock he sustained at the weekend for Tottenham. But Wales coach Chris Coleman cannot afford to play the game without Bale, having already lost Joe Allen and David Vaughan to injury. The Welsh medical staff have been resting Bale from training sessions in an effort to have him ready for today’s game but he may not be 100% which will come as good news to Strachan. The Scotland boss will be planning for their trip to Serbia as well and analyzing the risks that they present but for today only,the focus is on Bale and Wales and those valuable three points.

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SFA Place Their Bets On Scotland Revival As New National Boss Is Named

New Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan (Image from Getty)The SFA has finally listened to the fans and appointed its new manager in the form of Gordon Strachan. The 55-year-old former Celtic, Middlesbrough, Southampton and Coventry boss was presented to the media yesterday to draw to a close the speculation over who would eventually be chosen to replace Craig Levein. Strachan, the fans and bookies favourite from the start since Levein’s dismissal, seemed relaxed yet proud about the prospect of managing his country and the ambitious task of restoring some national pride. After an abysmal start to World Cup 2014 qualifying, which has resulted in Scotland lying bottom of Group A with only two points in four games, Strachan’s first task is to repair the spirit of his team and pick up the pieces of Levein’s disastrous reign. Replacing the worst Scotland manager on record, even worse than Berti Vogts, with a 22% win rate in all competitive games, Strachan will not struggle to eclipse what Levein did, as long as he can get the team playing again. The job may be seen by many as a poison chalice, but for the Scottish Hall of Fame inductee, it’s the right challenge at the right time in his career.

Scotland fans sent out an SOS for Strachan (Image from Caughtoffside.com)

Scotland fans sent out an SOS for Strachan
(Image from Caughtoffside.com)

After a successful playing career spanning over 26 years including spells at Dundee, Aberdeen, Manchester United, Leeds United and Coventry, the former FWA Footballer of the Year took up his first managerial job at Coventry following Ron Atkinson’s move upstairs to the Director of Football role. Having worked for a year previously as assistant manager to Ron and having played for him at Manchester United, he took the job with Atkinson’s blessing. It was during this time he would form a close bond with Garry Pendrey who joined Coventry in 1998 as assistant to Gordon following Alex Miller’s departure. The two grew close and Garry would end up following Strachan throughout his managerial career, including subsequent moves to Southampton, Celtic and then Middlesbrough. During the duo’s time at Celtic, they fought back the challenge of a Rangers team in transition, managed firstly by Strachan’s close friend and former Aberdeen teammate Alex McLeish, then French manager Paul Le Guen and eventually former Scotland manager Walter Smith, to win back to back titles for three successive years. Strachan’s time in the east end of Glasgow was his most rewarding as a manager as he finally experienced European football and in particular Champions League football as a manager. After failing to win the title in his four-year, Strachan left the club to take up his final managerial appointment at Middlesbrough but his time here would be restricted to only a year after struggling to change the fortunes of the north-east club.

Strachan won 50 caps for Scotland as a player (Image from BBC Archives)

Strachan won 50 caps for Scotland as a player
(Image from BBC Archives)

Strachan’s new job may however be his toughest yet. Sitting bottom of the group with qualification hanging by a thread and looking less likely, Strachan knows he needs to turn things around and quickly. With only one friendly against Estonia before a crunch double-header against Wales and Serbia, Strachan has little time to experiment. But his honesty in the press conference yesterday will come as a relief to the tartan army as Strachan looks to find a formation that works for the players he has first before tinkering with it later. After watching the sometimes inept tactics employed by Levein during his reign, including the much publicised 4-6-0 formation he adopted against a poor Czech Republic side in an important qualifying game, fans will be confident that the players who take the field against Wales in March will be relaxed enough with where they are supposed to be playing, that they may be actually able to play instead. Strachan also admitted to the media that the international game has improved over the years (Belgium’s rise along with Serbia as technical teams are good examples of this) so qualification for major tournaments is harder than ever. Scotland will need to adapt to survive and play better to qualify but Strachan knows this after watching endless hours of both domestic and international football since leaving Middlesbrough in late 2010.

Puppet on a string: Levein's tinkering cost him his job (Image from Daily Record)

Puppet on a string: Levein’s tinkering cost him his job
(Image from Daily Record)

Besides the team, Strachan will know that half of the battle he faces is controlling the media which turned on Levein fairly quickly into his reign as national boss, in some cases so severally that Levein was unable to recover and by the end became a bumbling wreck, repeatedly stating the remaining number of points available to Scotland in qualification, despite defeat after defeat. Strachan should be able to cope however as he has adopted a likeable style that draws the media in but controls them as he wants. His ability to make light of a situation or crack the occasional joke plays well into the media’s hands who cannot help but laugh and move quickly on. Qualification for next year’s World Cup, however, is no laughing matter and Strachan will know that it will be difficult to get the points needed to reach the tournament in Brazil, despite the fans hopes and prayers. Focusing on France 2016 should be a more realistic goal but Strachan has a never say die attitude and in his own words, his team will give 100% to their forthcoming qualification ties and above all else give it “their best try”. Realistically this is all the Scottish fans can hope for at this stage in the qualification process.

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