Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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The Grasshopper Who Lost Its Spring

In November 1996, Grasshopper Club Zurich flew to Scotland to take on Glasgow Rangers in the Champions’ League group stage, in a game that I watched from the stands. Led by Swiss icon Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Grasshoppers were looking for all three points as they attempted to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Having hammered Rangers 3-0 a few months earlier, the team were confident that they could get the result but found themselves taking on a Rangers side with the bit between their teeth who were eager to forget what had been a terrible group stage (they had lost their first 4 games) and get a vital win on home soil. In a highly competitive match, Rangers ran out 2-1 winners with Ally McCoist scoring a brace whilst Andy Goram performed miracles in goal to deny Grasshoppers.  Despite the defeat, both sets of fans were impressed by the way Grasshoppers performed that night and would have been forgiven for thinking that they would be a regular competitor in the Champions League going forward.

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Fast forward 23 years and Grasshoppers are at their lowest ebb following relegation from the Swiss Super League, ending their 68-year stay. Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 titles could no longer dream of electric Champions League nights against Europe’s elite. Instead they are facing up to an uncertain future, one that is less of a dream and more like a nightmare. Financial mismanagement since 2003 and a plethora of changes in the boardroom have contributed to Grasshoppers current situation, one that doesn’t look to be resolving any time soon. In the last 15 years, the Zurich club have had 13 coaches and 8 different presidents and have effectively been homeless after their Hardturm ground closed in 2007. After its demolition in 2008, the proposed plans for the new stadium got trapped in a never-ending tug of war between those politically motivated by visions of grandeur and those motivated by money. Finally, after a decade of frustration for the club and its fans, the city of Zurich approved the construction of the new ground.

Former home - The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

Former home – The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

The lack of a place to call home has hurt Grasshoppers deeply. Forced to play at the Letzigrund athletics stadium, the home of rivals FC Zurich has been tough on the club in terms of trying to connect with their fans but more importantly financially with little revenue coming in because of the ground share at the smaller stadium. The construction of a new ground should solve those issues but it’s not as if that project will be easy to get done, despite it being green lit. Grasshoppers only just managed to get approvals to proceed winning a close 53.8% of the vote meaning that there is still plenty of local distain for the project that could derail it.

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

On the field, Grasshoppers have struggled too. Despite finishing 2nd in the league and winning the Swiss Cup in 2013, they have failed to pull together a consistent challenge leaving the fans to wonder if the club will ever return to its dominant position it once held in the 70’s and 80’s. Their last title 15 years ago seems like an eternity. A failure to unearth the next Kubilay or develop an effective youth progression program has resulted in a mediocre team on the pitch. Added into this a lack of funds to purchase new players and a ground to attract them in the first place, it was always going to be a difficult slog regardless of the manager. But with uncertainty in the boardroom also comes indecision about how the club should be run, its playing style and who should be enforcing that. That led to some baffling appointments as manager/head coach including the hiring of Tomislav Stipic in March of this year. Starring relegation in the face, Stipic was brought in to replace Thorsten Fink much to the disbelief of the fans as Stipic’s resume hardly screamed success. A lack of experience at a top flight team and two relegations at lower league sides in Germany left many wondering how this guy would save them. In the end he lasted only 6 games and was sacked after failing to win any of them. Uli Forte, who led the club in that 2013 season returned much to the protest of the fans who were still bitter about the nature of his departure six years before, but he couldn’t turn around the club’s fortunes with Grasshoppers eventually relegated in early May. He has agreed to stay on as the club looks to bounce back and gain immediate promotion.

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board  (Image from Tumblr)

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board (Image from Tumblr)

The demise of Grasshopper is a startling warning to all the other clubs in the Swiss Super League that even the mighty can fall. Other European leagues have witness similar iconic clubs fall from grace, most notably Glasgow Rangers who suffered a financial meltdown which led to administration and relegation to Scotland lowest tier and AEK Athens who dropped down in Greece following similar financial difficulties. Financial issues tend to be the leading cause of these demises and things may only get worse in the future as teams spend beyond their means with the hope of gaining quick successes both domestically and in Europe. UEFA’s introduction of their financial fair play rules was a vain effort to curb this overspending but has faced fierce criticism of late as Europe’s elite have found clever ways to bypass or take advantage of the federations inability to accurately track and enforce its rules. As a result, the gap between the elite and the chasing pack widens reducing the likeliness of one of them fielding a team capable of going all the way and lifting one of the major trophies like the Champions League. For Grasshoppers, the focus is not to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition again but simply to recover. The road to recovery can be a long and treacherous as Rangers and AEK can attest to, one filled with more than a few bumps. But it’s a necessary journey that the club must take if they are to regain what many see as their rightful position back in the Swiss Super League.

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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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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 1 – Groups A, B and C

Watching the European Championships or any major international tournament with your friends is generally highly enjoyable. That is until your so-called friend starts spouting stats and facts about each team making you feel simply like you don’t know anything about football. But fear not, we are here to help. Below is your group by group cheat sheet which should help impress your friends and shut up Mr. Know it all. Each group contains who should win the group, who are the dark horses (a horse racing term for an unexpected winner that in football only seems to appear at major tournaments), one player to watch and some good old fashion generally knowledge about each team. Enjoy!

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Captain Lorik Cana will lead Albania out at their first ever tournament (Image from Tumblr)

Group A – Albania, France, Romania + Switzerland

Q: Who should top the group? – France

Q: Who are the dark horses – Switzerland

Q: Player to watch – Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

France host for a record-breaking third time. Its a record that France should hold onto going forward after UEFA announced its intentions to hold the next set of European Championships across multiple countries. Albania play their first ever major men’s tournament having qualified second in a group containing Portugal, former winners Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. More remarkable is that they only scored ten goals in 8 games, the lowest of all the qualifying teams. Goals will be a problem for them in France. Romania drew more games in qualifying than any other (five) but benefited for the collapse of Greece under the management Claudio Ranieri (who would be sacked only to re-emerge months later and lead Leicester to a surprise Premier League title) beating them in their first match. They also have in their squad the tournaments tallest player in goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon (6ft 6in).  Finally the Swiss kick off their Euro 2016 with an interesting clash with Albania which will see brother face brother as midfielder Granit Xhaka faces up to his little brother Taulant. Both born in Switzerland to Kosovo Albanian parents, Granit opted for his country of birth whilst Taulant picked Albania. It will be the first time they have faced each other at international level and a first for the European Championships but not in major competitions with the Boateng brothers (Kevin Prince and Jerome) holding that honour when Ghana met Germany at the World Cup in 2014

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More than just Bale? (Image from Tumblr)

Group B – England, Russia, Slovakia + Wales

Q: Who should top the group? – England

Q: Who are the dark horses – Slovakia

Q: Player to watch – Deli Alli (England)

England embark on a record ninth Euro’s appearance (more than any other nation) but also sadly own the record for most appearances in the quarter finals without winning the trophy (eight times). This year the selection of Marcus Rashford means that England will have the youngest player at the tournament (18 years old). They face an aging Russia side that is the second oldest (behind Republic of Ireland) however the late inclusion of 26-year-old Zenit midfielder Artur Yusupov should lower it slightly. Interestingly Yusupov was not originally in the squad for the Euros but benefited from being in the right place at the right time. Yusupov lucked out when he happened to stay in the same hotel as the Russia national team in Monaco whilst on his holidays. After Igor Denisov pulled out, Yusupov was asked to cut his holiday short and make up the numbers. Much to his girlfriend’s annoyance, he accepted and immediately joined the squad despite not having his boots (he had to borrow a pair whilst his boots were flown in from Russia with love). Slovakia’s players may not be that well-recognized but could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Their key player is Napoli’s Marek Hamsik who will have the best haircut at the Euro’s – his signature mohawk. If Slovakia are to progress they will need him and fellow midfielder Vladimir Weiss to be on form, creating chances for their forwards. Weiss finished qualifying with the most assists which contributed to 33% of all of Slovakia’s goals. Wales found goals hard to come by in qualifying scoring only 11 times (7 of which were scored by Gareth Bale – 64%). They may be seen as a one man show but in fact have one of the best defences with only Spain, England and strangely Romania conceding less in qualifying. Manager Chris Coleman has the team playing as one and defending as such which shows in the qualifying stats with forward Hal Robson Kanu the third highest fouler with 26.

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Poland beat Germany in qualifying – can they do it again at Euro 2016? (Image from Tumblr)

Group C – Germany, Northern Ireland, Poland and Ukraine

Q: Who should top the group? – Germany

Q: Who are the dark horses – Poland

Q: Player to watch – Yevhen Konoplyanka (Ukraine)

World champions Germany enter the Euro’s in indifferent form having struggled at times during qualifying. However history is on their side. Germany are the constant theme at the Euros having featured in every one since 1972. They have also reached the most finals (6), winning half of them – a record they share with Spain. At this Euro’s Germany will be heavyweight hitters (they are the heaviest squad on average at 80.3kg) as they look to become only the second side to win the Euros whilst current World Champions. Northern Ireland feature for the first time having never reached the finals before (they have qualified for two WC’s in the past). Michael O’Neill’s side enter the tournament as the inform side unbeaten in their last 12 games. They will rely on the goals of Kyle Lafferty to get them out of the group stage after his heroics in qualifying. Lafferty has found game time at club level hard this past season and in fact made more appearances for Northern Ireland since August 2015 than he did at his various clubs (9 for country versus 6 for club). That is in stark contract to Poland’s Robert Lewandowski who was a constant for Bayern and Poland last year and has been in devastating form. He finished the season in Germany with 42 goals in all competitions plus as top scorer in qualifying with 13. However Poland are far from being the Lewandowski show with several other members helping them to finish as the top scorers overall with 33 goals. Ukraine on the other hand could only muster 15 strikes (6 of which were against Luxembourg). Having only ever won a single game at the Euros (2-1 vs Sweden at Euro 2012 – surprisingly one more win than the Poles have achieved), they will be looking to build on this and hopefully progress with a win over Poland. To do so they will need Seville’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Dynamo Kiev’s Andiy Yarmolenko to be on form. Both players are looking to impress during the tournament to earn money spinning moves to the Premiership or Bundesliga. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is an avid collector of wines so will be looking to toast his sides progress if they can get beyond the group stage for the first time.

Look out for Part 2 – Groups D, E and F on Monday.

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UEFA’s Landmark Ruling Opens Pandora’s Box

Norway celebrated a hard fought 2-1 victory over England in the Under 19’s women’s Elite Round group 4 qualifiers early last year. But days later those celebrations were muffled after Europe’s football governing body UEFA ruled that part of the match would have to be replayed. In a landmark decision, UEFA stunned football by demanding that the last 18 seconds of the match be played again. The reason behind this was a mistake by German referee Marija Kurtes who awarded a free kick to Norway for an encroachment by England player Rosella Ayane in the run up to a penalty. Having awarded England a last minute penalty with the game at 2-1 in Norway’s favour, Kurtes correctly penalized England for the encroachment (when a player enters the box before the penalty kick is taken) but instead of ordering a retake as the rules say she instead rewarded Norway a free kick. Law 14 states that if the penalty results in a goal (which in this case it did with Leah Williamson converting) but an attacking player encroaches then the penalty must be retake. If however the penalty is missed (and an attacking player encroaches) then an indirect free kick must be awarded. This is where the error by Kurtes happened but is understandable as a misunderstanding of a complex rule. The replay took place three days later just hours after England faced Switzerland and Norway faced Northern Ireland in the last group game. Kurtes for her part was sent home in disgrace and did not officiate the replay.

UEFA set a dangerous precedent with this ruling that could change the direction of football. However this is not the first time that such an incident has taken place. In 2005 Uzbekistan met Bahrain in a fourth round World Cup playoff match. Leading 1-0 in the first leg, Uzbekistan was awarded a penalty which they duly converted. However the referee Toshimitsu Yoshida spotted an encroachment by an Uzbekistan player and disallowed the goal and offered an indirect free kick to Bahrain instead. The game did end 1-0 but so incensed by the mistake, Uzbekistan formally requested to FIFA that the game be recorded as an automatic 3-0 victory. Instead FIFA decided to classify the entire game as void and ordered it to be replayed. The resulting replay ended as a 1-1 draw and after a 0-0 draw in the second leg, Bahrain progressed much to the annoyance of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification (Image from AFP/Getty)

Uzbekistan players embrace after defeat sends them out of qualification (Image from AFP/Getty)

These decisions by FIFA and now UEFA showcase a dramatic swing in the forward direction of the game. The decision also devalues the role of the referee. Once seen as a fundamental part of the game, tasked with holding matches within given guidelines, their role has become marginalized over the past twenty years. Fourth officials were introduced; headphones and microphones added allowing the match officials to talk to one another and recently goal line technology to confirm if the full ball had crossed the line. All of these additions have chipped away at the referee’s decision making process. This all in a world where the game is scrutinized from multiple angles over and over thanks to TV cameras all over the grounds making their job harder. Yes they should be held accountable for their actions and for mistakes that are made however not backing the referee’s decisions could result in their role becoming even less important. The other problem is that now there is an example for teams to use when they feel aggrieved by a referee mistake. Calls for replays will become more frequent but where does UEFA draw the line? Does the ruling only apply to last minute mistakes or would a referee mistake in the first minute of the game result in a replay of the entire match? With the European Championships approaching, would UEFA award a replay during the tournament throwing the scheduling and outcome into disarray?

Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA  (Image from Bongarts/ Getty)

Referees like Marija Kurtes should be supported not used as scapegoats by UEFA and FIFA
(Image from Bongarts/ Getty)

These questions and more remained unanswered. UEFA insist that their Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body (CEDB) who fundamentality made the decision were correct to do so and has backed the replay but you have to wonder what Pandora’s box they have opened with it. In terms of the Group 4 qualifying group, the replay which will start with a penalty to England may be irrelevant if England beat Switzerland and Norway win against hosts Northern Ireland. Six points each should be enough to end the group as first and second regardless of the outcome of the replay. However with only the group winners and the best placed runner up progressing to the showpiece event in Israel in July, the stakes are high. England’s 9-1 victory over Northern Ireland on Monday may work in their favour especially if they convert the penalty in the replay and draw the match. In this case with both teams level on points, goal difference would be used to decide who finishes first and who is runner up. If Norway does finish second in the group and is knocked out, they could in theory protest to UEFA or FIFA and insist that the entire game against England be replayed. Then what would UEFA do?

Rooney Overtakes Charlton To Become England’s Greatest Ever Goal Scorer

It was always going to be Wayne Rooney that took the penalty. Picking up the ball, he walked confidently towards the spot before placing the ball down. Hands on hips, Rooney stood quietly looking at the goalkeeper who stood between him and greatest. With England leading and only six minutes of regular time left, he could afford to miss but Rooney was never going to. The stadium was silent as Rooney started his run up but erupted in cheers as his rifled shot smashed into the back of the net. Rooney had done it, he had beaten Sir Bobby Charlton’s long standing record of 49 goals for England and in doing so became England’s all time leading goalscorer. At 29 years old, Rooney had managed to do what the likes of Shearer, Greaves, Lineker and Owen had failed to do, etching himself into the record books.

Rooney celebrates his first goal for England against Macedonia  (Image by Andy Hooperway)

Rooney celebrates his first goal for England against Macedonia
(Image by Andy Hooperway)

After the match, an emotional Rooney gave an impromptu yet rousing speech to his England teammates challenging them all especially Harry Kane and Theo Walcott to beat his record. He singled out Ross Barkley for praise after the Everton midfielder shone in a match that he started from the bench. Fabian Delph has started the match but only lasted 9 seconds before pulling up with a hamstring injury gave Barkley his chance. Delph like Rooney entered the record books that night but for all the wrong reasons becoming England’s shortest ever international appearance. His injury however couldn’t mar Rooney’s night as the England captain finally grabbed the record for his own.

There is an argument that can be made that suggests Rooney’s path to 50 was much easier than Charlton’s for a variety of reason. Firstly the number of internationals played currently has rapidly increased since the sixties when Charlton ran riot giving Rooney a better chance of beating the record than ever before. In addition changes to the weight of the ball and the rules which favours the attacker more have also aided the Manchester United frontman in his quest. Finally the teams that England faced were arguably easier opponents than Charlton faced. Rooney benefited greatly by playing and scoring against smaller nations like Andorra, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein and San Marino  which between them contributed to 13 of his 50 goals to date. Against tougher opponents, especially in major tournaments Rooney has struggled only managing 6 goals in total which included braces against Croatia and Switzerland at Euro 2004 and single goals against the Ukraine at Euro 2012 and Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Sir Bobby Charlton during his playing days for England  (Image from Getty)

Sir Bobby Charlton during his playing days for England
(Image from Getty)

Charlton on the other hand excelled against the best teams of his day like Portugal, Argentina and the Soviet Union.  His brace against a tough Portuguese side including Eusebio set England on its way towards victory in the 1966 World Cup, a feat that Rooney has not managed to match. But like Rooney a majority of Charlton’s goals came in either friendlies (22 vs 14 for Rooney), in qualifying  (9 vs 30 for Rooney) or the now defunct British Home Championships (13 goals). In fact out of Charlton’s 49 goals, 16 came against the home nations – Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  Regardless of how they got their goals, both players are phenomenal in their own right. Charlton finished his England career at aged 32 shortly after being knocked out of the 1970 World Cup by a Gerd Muller inspired West Germany. At 29, Rooney still has plenty left in the tank and will likely continue playing for England for the foreseeable future. That will give him a chance to add further goals to his current tally, stretching the gap between himself and Charlton. Whether he can reach the next target of 100 international goals is yet to be seen but on current form, you wouldn’t put it past him.

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Five World Cup Stars Looking To Move Up In The World

Memphis Depay set up and score a goal in Holland's 3-2 win over Australia (Image from Getty)

With the first week of the World Cup now completed and the tournament now entering the second round of the group stage, fans across the globe have now had a chance to see their teams in action. After some spectacular matches including Holland’s 5-1 hammering of Spain, Costa Rica’s surprise 3-1 victory over Uruguay and a dominant 4-0 victory for Germany over Portugal, several players have stood out already leading to the much anticipated transfer speculation. There is no better platform for a player to showcase what he has to offer than the World Cup and a good performance can often lead to a high value transfer. Clubs too want their players to be successful as it drives up the value of them, potentially leading to an evaluated fee after the tournament has ended. Whilst several players will move as a result of this year’s World Cup, we now look at five surprise packages who after some good displays already could have earned themselves a dream move.

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar  (Image from AFP)

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar
(Image from AFP)

Matt Besler – Sporting Kansas City

For the first 45 minutes of the USA vs. Ghana match until an injury stopped him, Matt Besler was one of the best players on the park. The Sporting Kansas City defender was instrumental in organizing the US defense and stopping Ghana from posing a real threat. Besler’s rise to international status comes on the back of his growing reputation in the MLS. A permanent fixture for Kansas, Besler has now established himself as US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s preferred option at centre back too. He will be praying that Besler is fit to face Portugal on Sunday knowing that any positive result may help their chances of progression. Having spent his entire career in the MLS, it may be time for the 27 year old Besler to depart for pastures new with England or Holland likely destination. Besler previously turned down trials with English clubs Portsmouth, QPR and Birmingham but if he continues to perform he may have a tougher challenge of turning down some of the bigger clubs across Europe.

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks  (Image from Getty)

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks
(Image from Getty)

Guillermo Ochoa – Free agent

“Simply Stunning” was how one broadcaster described Guillermo Ochoa’s performance against host Brazil and it’s hard to argue. The Mexican goalkeeper produced a heroic display that prevented Neymar and friends from stealing all three points. Mexico put in a shift against Brazil and deserved their point, if not more but would not have managed it without Ochoa making three tremendous saves during the game. One in particular, a Gordon Banks esque save, when Ochoa got down low to spoon away a Neymar header that was destined to be a goal, will live in the memory of Mexican fans for years to come. He followed up with a stunning point blank save from Thiago Silva and a late save from a left foot drive by that man again, Neymar. After the game, Ochoa’s image was shown on fan Instagram accounts and Tumblr pages depicted as Superman and even received a marriage proposal from Mexican singer Thulia based solely on his performance. A free agent after leaving French side AC Ajaccio, Ochoa is now being linked heavily with Liverpool and Arsenal, both of whom need a safe pair of hands for next season. But the two English clubs are unlikely to be Ochoa’s only option with various French, Italian and Spanish clubs now in the hunt for the Mexican Superman.

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media  (Image from Instagram)

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media
(Image from Instagram)

Dries Mertens – Napoli

His impact in the 2-1 turnaround victory for Belgium over Algeria was clear to see. Coming off the bench, Mertens added pace to what had been a lackluster Belgian side in the first half. The Napoli star has had an impressive season in Italy last season and has already attracted a few admirers but his performance and winning goal against Algeria will only add more clubs to that list. Napoli will be unwilling to sell given his contribution (1 goal for every three games) last year but may be forced to part with him given a substantial offer from Spain or England. The dynamic winger, who’s career goal tally is impressive to say the least, is likely to start Belgium’s next match against Russia in place of Nacer Chadli and will be looking to add to his World Cup goal tally. Luis Enrique is thought to be a fan of his as is Arsene Wenger so Mertens may have a decision to make come the end of Belgium’s World Cup journey.

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria  (Image from PA)

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria
(Image from PA)

Ricardo Rodriguez – Wolfsburg

Rodriquez made history against Ecuador by becoming the first player to assist two goals in a single World Cup match for Switzerland since 1966. The left back, who currently plays for Wolfsburg in Germany put in a stellar performance and is credited as one of the players who helped Switzerland turn around a 1-0 deficeit after Ecuador took the lead. The 21 year old has only been in the Swiss national setup for less than three years but has quickly established himself under Ottmar Hitzfeld as the team’s most reliable defender. Comfortable in attack as his is in defending, Rodriguez is one of Switzerland’s several Immigrant players. Born in Zurich to a Spanish father and Chilean mother, Ricardo could have played for either of these World Cup teams but chose the country of his birth much to Switzerland’s relief. A constant in the Wolfsburg team, Rodriguez’s performances for club and country, especially at this World Cup will likely lead to a transfer away from the Wolves to a bigger club, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund two favourites already for his signature.

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador  (Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador
(Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Memphis Depay – PSV

Sometimes a substitute appearance is all you need to impress and for Memphis Delay, that appearance happened during Wednesday’s game against Australia. The PSV youngster came on as a second half substitute and made a valuable contribution by setting up Holland’s equalizer and then scoring his first ever international goal – a 30 yard screamer that won the game. A fairly new addition to the full national side, having played at all levels for Holland from Under 15’s and upwards, Depay became the youngest Dutchman to score at a World Cup with his strike against Australia.  The 20 year old winger has been one of the revelations in the Dutch league this past couple of seasons and is destined for greater things., with PSV unlikely to hold on to one of their prized assets for much longer. Fans of Football manager will know that Depay often joins Barcelona in the game but fiction may become reality soon given Luis Enrique’s interest in the player. However he will face competition from Depay’s current boss at international level, Louis Van Gaal who is interested in taking the player to Manchester United as he starts his revolution there at the end of the tournament.

Depay's strike impressed the watching Van Gaal  (Image from Getty)

Depay’s strike impressed the watching Van Gaal
(Image from Getty)

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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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