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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Mainz Reacts To Jara’s Loose Hand

Gonzalo Jara in trouble again for fingering Cavani in Copa match (Image from Getty)The antics of Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara during Wednesday’s crunch quarter-final Copa America clash with Uruguay were despicable. The centre back played a hand literally in the sending off of PSG striker Edison Cavani in the 63rd minute of the match that ultimately swung the balance of the game in favour of Chile. Cavani received a second yellow after appearing to lash out at the defender, striking him in the face. However on closer inspection from a different angle, the reason for Cavani’s actions can be better understood. In footage capture from behind the two players, Jara is seen approaching Cavani at the half way line and sticking his finger into Cavani’s backside. The striker, who was doubtful for the match after his father was arrested for killing a man in a car accident, reacted as most would by pushing Jara away. The act itself was not worthy of a card but the referee was fooled by Jara who fell to the ground in theatrical fashion.

With Uruguay reduced to ten men, Chile went on to win the game thanks to an 81st minute strike from right back Mauricio Isla and progress to face Peru in the semi finals on Monday. Uruguay, quite rightly so were incensed by the actions of Jara and protested saying that he had deliberately done it to get Cavani sent off. Those protests may have fallen on deaf ears with the Copa organisers Conmebal but they have been heard loud and clear by Jara’s club, German Bundesliga side Mainz 05. The side’s Sporting Director Christian Heidel has revealed that the club is appalled by Jara’s actions and is ready to take their own actions by selling the player this summer. Heidel told German newspaper Bild that Jara knows he will be sold if the club receives a reasonable offer. He went on to state that the club will not tolerate that sort of behaviour from a player who represents their club. His disgust is less about Jara’s wandering hand but more so about the theatrical spill he took in order to ensure Cavani was dismissed.

Mainz Sporting Director Christian Heidel is ready to sell Jara  (Image from Mainz 05 website)

Mainz Sporting Director Christian Heidel is ready to sell Jara
(Image from Mainz 05 website)

Jara has as yet failed to make a statement in response but it’s believed that relations between Mainz and himself have rapidly deteriorated. It is however not the first time that this has happened with the Chilean defender well-known for his lack of discipline and hot streak. His career, which has taken him from his native Chile to Germany via a five-year stay in England with West Brom, Brighton and Nottingham Forest, is littered with disciplinary action so it’s hardly surprising that his current club is having similar issues. That said, it is unusual for a club to react in such a manner based on an incident at international level. When Luis Suaraz famously bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup last summer, his then club Liverpool decided to once again to support their player despite several fan protests. It was only after they received a substantial offer from Barcelona that they decided to sell their prize striker but if this had not materialized he would still be at the club today. Mainz decision to sell Jara based on his actions for Chile is a radical step but one that can be rationalized if you consider players as an extension of the clubs brand. Mainz at its heart is a family club, who actively promote games to the next generation of fans with attractive family ticket packages. Having a player like Jara associated to the club could potentially send out the wrong message and damage their brand in the long run. Ridding themselves of the player now appears to be a sensible approach, with any fee a bonus given that he was signed last summer as free agent.

Chiellini shows off the bite mark  (Image from Getty)

Chiellini shows off the bite mark
(Image from Getty)

Jara and his agent will have a busy next few weeks as they start to look for yet another club for the troubled Chilean. There is an argument that the pressure placed on the Chile squad to reach the final is immense which could have resulted in Jara taking such drastic actions to gain the competitive edge in a match which they were in danger of losing. Winning the Copa at home for the very first time would mean a lot to the Chile players including Jara who have developed as a team over the past five years. For the next couple of games, Jara will give his all for Chile in the hopes of lifting the trophy and perhaps also putting himself in the shop window for a potential new club.That is as long as he keeps himself out of mischief which is still to be seen.

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YouTube Star Roche Makes FIFA Goal Of The Year List

Goal of the Year contender - Stephanie Roche (Image from Getty)There are a couple of familiar names on this year’s FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year and one not so familiar. Irish striker Stephanie Roche is hardly a household name like the other two other contenders on the list – Manchester United and Holland striker Robin Van Persie and Real Madrid and Colombia midfielder James Rodriquez but her place on this year’s list is as much deserved as theirs. The former Peamount United striker has earned her way onto the shortlist with a stunning goal against Wexford Youths in October. Receiving the ball on the edge of the opposition area from a cross from teammate Wendy McGlone, Roche neatly controls the ball with her right before dinking it over her marker with her left and spinning round to hit an unstoppable volley past the helpless Wexford Youths goalkeeper Mary Rose Kelly.

The strike, which was luckily captured on film by someone in the 95 person strong crowd, has become a YouTube sensation capturing thousands of views only weeks after it was initially posted. The buzz created by the video has worked in Roche’s favour who has now been given a professional contract by French side ASPTT Albi as a result. Pundits and former players have also been quick to praise the strike and in particular the technique applied by Roche in executing the volley. Former Republic of Ireland defender Paul McGrath, ex England striker Matt Le Tissier and former player turned pundit Gary Linekar have all taken to social media to wax lyrically about the strike. Roche herself is over the moon by the attention the strike is getting and by her subsequent nomination stating on BBC Radio 5 in the UK that she has been overwhelmed by the messages of support and encouragement and is generally happy that her goal is getting recognized, not just for herself but for women’s football in general.

Roche’s goal was one of ten to make an initial shortlist before it was eventually whittled down to just these three. Now it is up to users of FIFA.com and FranceFootball.fr to decide which one of the three goals wins the award. Roche though faces tough competition as both goals by Robin Van Persie and James Rodriguez, which happened during this past summers World Cup have enough merit to win the award themselves. Real Madrid ace Rodriguez was undoubtedly the star player at the tournament, scoring six goals as he helped Colombia march into the quarter finals only to be eventually beaten by a Neymar inspired Brazil. But it was his volley in the round of 16 match against Uruguay that earned him a place in this year’s list. With his back to goal some 25 yards out, Rodriguez controlled a headed pass on his chest before swiveling round to unleash a venomous dipping volley which crashed into the net off the crossbar. Perhaps seen as less spectacular that Roche’s or Rodriguez’s volleys, Van Persie’s elegant swan like diving header goal for Holland against Spain in their World Cup group opening match was equally as impressive. The goal which showed great vision and technique by the Dutch striker who carefully watched the ball before leaping well to head the ball over Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal, setting Holland on its way towards a shock 5-1 victory which effectively ended Spain’s defence of their title before it even began.

The award named after Hungarian and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas, who scored his own fair share of spectacular and impressive goals during his career, will be presented in Zurich on January 12th 2015 at a star studded event. Roche will be present, along with Van Persie and Rodriguez for the announcement of the winner and if Roche’s name is called she will become the first ever female winner of the award.

You can view all three strikes again and vote for your favourite here: http://www.fifa.com/ballon-dor/puskas-award/video=2463789/index.html

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Brighton Blunder As Gus Poyet Is Dismissed on Live TV

Shocked on the BEEB - Poyet (Image from BBC)Gus Poyet knew his time as Brighton boss was coming to an end, following a suspension by the club for inappropriate behavior. But what the former Uruguayan midfielder did not expect was to be sacked on live TV, which shamefully for Brighton was exactly what happened. In a mistimed move by the south of England club, a press release was issued on their official website that acted as the catalyst for what has become an embarrassing episode for all involved. The letter to the fans, announced the part of ways between Brighton and Poyet in so many terms, which came as a surprise to the manager who found out, not through his agent or by the club but through the BBC, where he was acting as an analyst for their Confederation’s Cup coverage.

Sacked - Poyet  (Image from Getty)

Sacked – Poyet (Image from Getty)

The former Chelsea star, who had been in charge of Brighton for three years, helping them gain promotion from League One and then narrowly miss out on promotion to the Premiership before his sacking, looked bemused as he talked to BBC presenter Mark Chapman about Sunday night’s events. However the club was quick to come out on Monday defending its position, stating that Poyet did know and he had been informed before arriving at the Match of The Day studios. Brighton have offered Poyet the chance to appeal, which he is likely to do, even if it’s a lame gesture to ensure he gets a payout. Regardless of who is actually telling the truth, the situation is less than impressive from a club who has spent the last four years under Poyet begin exactly that. Under his reign, The Seagulls became a team not to mess with, first storming League One and then defying the odds to challenge for promotion in the Championship.  Brighton players like Liam Bridcutt and Gordon Greer gained international caps, thanks mostly to Poyet and his approach to the game. He turned an average team into challengers and average players into internationals. But something happened following Brighton’s playoff defeat to Crystal Palace that neither the manager nor the club wish to discuss in detail. Poyet and his assistant Mauricio Taricco were suspended pending an investigation, which has now resulted in their dismissals.

Bridcutt has flourished under Poyet  (Image from PA)

Bridcutt has flourished under Poyet
(Image from PA)

As the story unravels, a third character appears in the shape of former Maccabi Tel Aviv boss, Oscar Garcia who is now favourite to take over, despite interest from others such as Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McLaren. It would appear that Garcia has already agreed personal terms indicating that the deal has been done for some time or at least been in discussions. That hints that when Poyet was suspended, he knew or at least the club did that Poyet was no longer going to be in charge. Indeed Poyet’s refusal to attend a club disciplinary hearing last Monday also indicates that he felt it would be in vain to attend. Brighton will move ahead with their appointment, even if Poyet takes up the right to appeal as it will be more of a formality and a discussion about compensation rather than a revival for the fallen coach.

Oscar García to replace Poyet  (Image from PA)

Oscar García to replace Poyet
(Image from PA)

Poyet now faces a summer of uncertainty as he hunts for his next job which based on his abilities to turn Brighton from a League One almost ran to Championship contenders in less than five years, it shouldn’t be a long search. Indeed before Jose Mourinho decided he was ready to return to Stamford Bridge, Poyet was one of the names touted as a possible option. Whether he stood any chance is only known by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich but given the positive start to his managerial career at Brighton, it’s not inconceivable. Poyet knows he must just bide his time, keep his grace and composure and the right opportunity will present itself again. Brighton will be hoping that Poyet doesn’t return to haunt them one day as the two head down different paths, both of which are very uncertain at this point.

To see Poyet’s reaction to sacking, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvb_V4G9Fr4

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Why being The Whipping Boys Teaches Nations Nothing

Tahiti taken apart in the Confederation Cup (Image from AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON)Everybody loves the David vs. Goliath ties in football, that is until Goliath crushes David into dust and the crowd are left feeling somewhat disappointed. Routing for the underdog is built into our nature; we secretly want them to prevail even at the expense of the more skillful or well liked team. But when we watch in horror as they collapse under the opposition pressure and start to leak goals like a sieve, we start to wonder what exactly are they learning from this?

The harsh true is nothing. Tahiti’s three performances at this year’s Confederation Cup, where they shipped 24 goals and only scored 1, was embarrassing to watch and occasionally painful. As a second string Spanish side toyed with them on like a lion plays with a dying zebra, you can’t help but think how is this helping the Tahiti players? Losing 10-0 to Spain only days after a 6-1 defeat to a young Nigeria side won’t exactly be a confidence booster. Pundits talk about experience and learning curves, but the only thing the Tahiti goalkeeper learned over the two games was how to pick the ball out of his net 16 different ways. In fact, he celebrated as if he had just won the game when Spain hit the cross bar. Added into that a third and final humiliation, an 8-0 defeat at the hands of Uruguay, Tahiti will be remembered not for their play but for being the whipping boys of the 2013 Confederation Cup.

Tahiti goalkeeper Xavier Samin celebrates as Spain hit the bar  (Image from Getty)

Tahiti goalkeeper Xavier Samin celebrates as Spain hit the bar
(Image from Getty)

Tahiti to be fair deserved to be there just as much as Spain, Uruguay or Nigeria after winning for the very first time the Oceania Nations Cup last June, mostly thanks to favorites New Zealand pressing the self destruct button against New Caledonia in the semi finals. With no Australia to content with, Tahiti brushed aside a group made up of Samoa, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, before dispatching the Solomon Islands 1-0 in the semis, teeing up a return fixture with surprise finalists, New Caledonia who they eventually beat 1-0. The question however is not necessarily if Tahiti should have headed to Brazil for the tournament but why does FIFA rate the Oceania Nations Cup so highly that its winner gets to participate in the world cup trial run tournament that is the Confederation Cup? With Australia and New Zealand the only countries from the region in the top 60 teams in the world and New Caledonia squeezing into the top 100 nations in 97th place, what benefit does it serve to have this group as an automatic qualifier? Surely rolling them into the wider Asian group would make more sense, with stronger sides like South Korea, Iran, United Arab Emirates contesting it; a stronger team would have gone to Brazil to represent the region rather than Tahiti? By no means is this a dig at the tiny island community, whose entire squad play on the island, with the exception of 33 year old striker and French native Marama Vahirua, who plays in France for Nancy. Instead it’s asking the question of the infrastructure that helped to send them to their humiliating demise in Brazil this month.

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain  (Image from PA)

Tahiti were outclassed by Spain
(Image from PA)

This isn’t the first time that a major tournament has seen the qualification of a nation, only for them to become laughing stock and the whipping boys. Saudi Arabia had the pleasure in 2002 when they lost their first match 8-0 to Germany before going on to lose the other two matches in their group by score line of 1-0 and 3-0 respectively. In 2010 North Korea put up a gallant effort not to become a laughing stock, mostly because they feared imprisonment back home by their fearless ruler if they did. They did hold Brazil at bay in the first game before eventually losing 2-1 but in the second match, a rampant Portugal tore them apart hitting seven past them without reply. By the time they played the Republic of Ireland, some of the first team squad had already fled the country, seeking political asylum in nearby countries. The rest stayed to be beaten 3-0 and went home to face up to their impending prison terms. For Tahiti, their return home has not been as brutal with very few in the country actually thinking that they achieve much if anything, but the experience will have taught the players very little expect for looking gracious in defeat.

Jail was the reward for the North Korean players following the South africa World Cup  (Image from ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Jail was the reward for the North Korean players following the South africa World Cup
(Image from ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

For smaller teams across the world, FIFA needs to look more closely at how to improve the quality of football they are playing and instill confidence in them rather than making them sacrificial lambs to be slaughter by the world’s best. Encouraging teams to climb the official rankings by playing teams higher than they are will encourage development. This does not mean that a team in 138th position (currently occupied by Tahiti) should play the team ranked 1st (Spain) but instead they should look to line up matches against the likes of Cyprus (122nd) or at a push Latvia (119th).  By pitting two teams of similar caliber against each other, the result is not a foregone conclusion and therefore could make for a more compelling match.

Latvia - Much better opponent  (Image from Getty)

Latvia – Much better opponent
(Image from Getty)

In addition, qualification for major tournaments should be split in two with the bottom 140 nations in the FIFA 200 rankings playing against each other to determine which 20 teams go forward to the second stage with the top 60 in the world. Yes this means more games but at least if they are able to reach this phase they will be prepared for the tougher teams rather than rolling over as we see too often in international football. Everyone wants to see a David succeed against Goliath but to make this happen you have to prepare them first, and not just with a sling shot and pebble.

Think we are too off the wall? Did Tahiti give their all and should be commended for it? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook now: www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or  https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog

Peruvian Goalkeeper Redeems Himself With An Amazing Double Save

Hero of the hour - Angelo Campos (Image from Reuters)In any given match, the momentum of the game can swing on any moment. It may be a penalty given, a wrong off side shout that keeps you in the game or a sending off but sometimes it a piece of play that inspires and invigorates the team mates around you. It can be enough to instill confidence back into a team and strip the opposition bare of any it has remaining. Games are won and lost on these moments but it’s not something the players or even the manager can ever plan for.

In Thursday nights opening game in the Under 20 Sudamericano, Peru faced up to a strong Uruguay team, who were looking to kick off Group B with three points. Peru were also looking to start their campaign off with a bang and were hoping to repeat history and beat Uruguay 2-0, just as they did in January 2011 in the same tournament. For a while it looked as though Peru would when they took the lead through 19-year-old striker José Yordy Reyna in the 17th minute of the game. Reyna has been playing well for the national team as well as his club side Alianza Lima in the Peruvian league. Alianza Lima, which suffered tragedy in 1987 when their entire team and coaching staff were killed when their plane crashed on the way back from a game, have been investing in youth for some time now and is starting to reap the rewards. Reyna is one of many players that have come through their academies and are now playing for both club and country.

Alianza Lima team 1987 (Image from Reuters.com)

Alianza Lima team 1987
(Image from Reuters.com)

Reyna and his teammates managed to keep an impressive Uruguay at bay until 4 minutes before the end of the first half when Nicolas Lopez was slipped through to equalise. But Peru were to finish the half on high note as they took the lead yet again through defender Edwin Gómez and finishing the half 2-1 ahead. Hopes to extend their lead were squashed early on in the second half as Uruguay came out the blocks quickest and hit a brace in a three-minute spell to go 3-2 ahead. Goal provider for Lopez, Ruban Bentancourt turned into goal scorer as he pull his side level once again. Less than ninety seconds later Uruguay scored again through striker Diego Rolan, crushing Peru’s hope of a victory.

But then the moment that turned the game around. With less than 7 minutes left in the game and following a Peru attack, Uruguay managed to turn the ball over and quickly counter attack sending a high long ball towards their striker Gonzalo Bueno. With the last Peruvian defender beaten for pace, Bueno was through and only had the keeper Angelo Campos to beat. Campos has predicted this happening and was already racing towards the ball as Bueno claimed his first touch to try to bring the ball under control. Skillfully he managed to flick the ball round Campos and passed the ball into the open goal for what he thought would be his country’s fourth goal. But Campos had other ideas and raced back to claw the ball off the line and save the day. But the danger had not passed as the ball was still in play and Bueno came in for the follow-up. Campos, whose momentum had carried him into the netting, quickly got to his feet again to deny Bueno his second chance and keep his team in the game.

Save no #1 by Campos

Save no #1 by Campos

The wonder saves were enough to lift the heads of Campos’s team mates who fought back to draw the match, scoring in the 88th minute of the game through a penalty from midfielder Cristian Benavente. The goal earned Peru a point and started off their campaign on a brighter note. If it wasn’t for Campos’s double saves, the likelihood would have been that Peru would have gone on to lose the match. Most would have decided that it was too late to do anything about it, and let Bueno’s shot trickle into the empty net. But not Campos showed determination and an attitude of not giving up even on a lost cause.

Save no #2 by Campos

Save no #2 by Campos

To see the double save, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o90lOzhvhuI