Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

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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Raising Awareness Of The Silent Killer Affecting Football

 

On the morning of November 10th 2009, Hannover 96 goalkeeper Robert Enke kissed his wife goodbye and said he was off to training. Two years later, Wales’s manager Gary Speed said farewell to his colleagues at the BBC after filming Football Focus, saying he would see them next week. Unfortunately it would be the last time that anyone would see these men alive again as shortly after their subsequent departures, they took their own lives. Their deaths, along with the attempted suicide of referee Babak Rafati a week before Speed, in a hotel bathroom just shortly before he refereed a German league match highlighted that depression in football is very much a problem. The pressures of the modern game is affecting all of its participants with some unable to cope, forcing them to look for an escape.

Babak Rafati tried to take his own life due to depression (Image from Getty)

Babak Rafati tried to take his own life due to depression
(Image from Getty)

Enke’s death shocked German football as it came as a surprise to many, with few signs that the player was in trouble. However underneath his calm professional façade lay a man who had been battling depression for nearly six years. The death of his daughter Lara in 2006 due to a severe heart defect, three years into his depression only heightened his sense of despair and despite seeking treatment, Robert decided on that cold morning in 2009 to step in front of a train and end his pain. Speed’s death was also a shock given how highly regarded he was in the game. After a glittering career with Leeds, Everton, Newcastle, Bolton and Sheffield United, Speed had now turned himself into an accomplished manager and was in the process of revitalizing the Welsh national team when he died. Former teammate Alan Shearer and BBC presenter Dan Walker had spent the day with him at the BBC’s Manchester studio watching his former club Newcastle play against Manchester United and commented that Speed appeared to be in high spirits. But in truth Speed was suffering and later that night he would hang himself in his garage, only to be found the next morning by his wife.

Leeds paid tribute to their former player Gary Speed (Image from PA)

Leeds paid tribute to their former player Gary Speed
(Image from PA)

According to the World Health Organization, depression affects an estimated 350 million people per year globally across all age groups and is the leading cause of disability worldwide. Depression is hard to spot as it often disguises itself amongst the normal lows of life. However consistent feelings of detachment, disillusion and despair can indicate a larger problem. Self diagnosis does happen however fewer than half of people (or in poorer regions it can be less than 10%) who recognize that they may suffer from depression seek help. Many factors prevent treatment from happening such as cost, accessibility of help and the social stigma of admitting you have a problem. Even talking to a love one can be hard with few caring to admit to what they perceive as a weakness. For families and friends, spotting depression in others can be extremely difficult given the varied levels that the disorder has. Early warning signs are increased irritability, lack of energy or appetite to do anything, sleepless nights or sleeping too much and general disengagement from society. Unlike some other disorders, depression can be treated with a range of psychotherapies and if needed antidepressant medications.

Depression affects 350 million people worldwide (Image from Getty)

Depression affects 350 million people worldwide
(Image from Getty)

Since Robert Enke’s death, his wife Teresa has worked hard to raise awareness about the condition and destroy the social stigma attached to it in an effort to encourage others who suffer from this disorder to seek help. She set up the Robert Enke foundation in his honour and is working closely with his former club Hannover 96 and the German FA to offer confidential support options to anyone else in the game who may be suffering in silence. Pressure is part of all professional sports but for footballers who are always in the public eye for better or worse, the pressure can be too much to cope with. The awareness of the disorder brought on by the untimely deaths of Enke and Speed has increased dramatically and is helping others with their fight. Some things are changing with depression no longer a taboo subject in clubs with players encouraged to talk to the clubs medical staff, coaches or a teammate if they are find themselves spiraling out of control. But it is a long road ahead with more needed from the games governing bodies to help promote further awareness and support in order to prevent another tragedy like this happening again.

For further information about depression, please see the World Health Organization page here: http://www.who.int/topics/depression/en/

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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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Wales On The Brink As Britain Prepares To Invade The Euros

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

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

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

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

Bale does it again (Image from Reuters)

Bale does it again
(Image from Reuters)

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

The Unlikely Hero - Kyle Lafferty (Image from Getty)

The Unlikely Hero – Kyle Lafferty
(Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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Home Nations Take Step Closer to France

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Bale Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet – Winning Over the Press

Love me again? Can Bale win over the Spanish media? (Image from Getty)

After becoming the world’s most expensive player following his record breaking move to Real Madrid, it’s not hard to understand why the media spotlight appears to be permanently fixed above Gareth Bale’s head. The welsh winger, who made the switch from Tottenham to Madrid in the summer of 2013, has embraced life in the Spanish capital and despite a rocky start that was plagued with injuries and language barriers problems, Bale has impressed with some breathtaking  performances.  Two in particular set him apart from everyone else, including his pragmatic teammate and World player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.  With the Portuguese superstar confined to the stands due to injury, it was to Bale that Madrid turned for inspiration during their Copa del Rey final against Barcelona last year. And he didn’t fail to impress scoring a wonder goal that is now one of the most viewed goals of all time.

Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real  (Image from Getty)

Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real
(Image from Getty)

With only minutes left in the game, Bale picked up the ball on the left wing just inside his own half, nudged it past Barca right back Marc Barta and set off after it. With his path blocked he was forced to run into the manager’s technical area which handed Barta a five yard head start. It mattered little for Bale who outpaced Barta, collected the ball and coolly slotted past Pinto in the Barca goal to hand Real the trophy. A month later, he would be on hand again late in the game to head Real into the lead during a hard fought Champions League final against rivals Atletico Madrid. It would be the turning point in the game. With Atletico now broken, Real surged into a 4-1 lead and ultimately picked up their 10th Champions League title. Bale had secured legendary status and appeared to be loved by both the fans and the media.

The love hate relationship that exists between the press and players like Bale is born out of necessity with both parties with much to gain. But whilst Bale remains impartial to the local Spanish press, preferring to keep them at arm’s length by living a quieter, event free life in order to protect both his image and his family, keeping them onside is equally as important. After all they tend to be two faced and have the ability to pander your name to the masses which can make life more difficult. Bale is experiencing this first hand and as a result is suffering the consequences. Once loved and adored by the Spanish newspapers Marca and AS, who waxed lyrically about his match winning performances last season as Madrid marched to domestic and European trophies, they have started to turn on him slating his every move and criticizing his performances on the pitch for Madrid this season.  Whilst critical of the entire Real Madrid team following their 2-1 defeat to Barcelona on Sunday, Marca pinpointed Bale as the main culprit and even refused to rate him in their review of the game the next day.  AS did decide to rate him however gave him a 4.5 out of 10, indicating that he was by far the worst performer for Real on the night. Whilst Bale freely admits to a dip in form in the last few weeks, the stats still showcase that he is having a good season having scored 14 times in the league with countless assists for his teammates.

Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona  (Image from Marca)

Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona
(Image from Marca)

But with the boos now ringing out from the Madrid faithful in the stands due to what they see as a series of under performances since the turn of the year, the focus of that anger is now starting to be concentrated on the teams more talented individuals. Bale in particular has received some harsh treatment from the Real fans, fuelled by the negativity being spewed out by the Spanish press. For the generally laid back Bale, the pressure is starting to show on the 25 year old. Two weeks ago, Bale ended his 829 minute goal drought with a double against Levante. He celebrated by covering his ears, indicating acknowledgement of the boos aimed at him that had been ringing out for several weeks before running to the corner flag and kicking it hard out of pure frustration.

The negativity is affecting Bale and the way that he plays with the skinny nervous welsh boy that used to exist now reappearing. To make matters worse, Bale’s car was attacked by some fans following the defeat to Barcelona on Sunday. He was not the only player but Bale must now be considering his own safety and that of his family. With the season nearing its end, it could be a summer of transition for Bale who may decide to quit La Liga in favour of a move back to the Premiership and an escape from the boo boys. Real will not want to see him depart, given that they view him as the long term successor to Ronaldo who at 30 years old and with a growing list of injuries will soon run out of steam. If Bale does stay, he will need to win over the fans and more importantly his toughest critics, the press. They once adored him so it is possible that Bale can charm them into loving him once more.

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Europe’s Minnows Finally Turn Up To The Party

Europe's minnows finally stepping up? (Image from Getty)It’s been an interesting start to the 2016 European Championships qualification campaign with a series of surprising results so far. In the earlier match weeks Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Iceland showed non believers that spirit and determination sometimes can overcome experience and skill as they set about securing a handful of points in the race for qualification. Meanwhile the so called European heavyweights appeared to be sluggish out of the gate with Holland, Spain and Greece all failing to dispatch teams ranked much further down the FIFA official rankings. Whilst the Dutch and the Spanish have rebounded in spectacular fashion, Greece stuttering start to the campaign under new coach Claudio Ranieri came to an abrupt halt this past weekend when the lowly Faroe Islands arrived in Athens and left with their heads held high and three vital points in the bag. Joan Edmundsson’s 61st minute miss hit shot was enough to condemn the Greeks to bottom place in group F and to give the Greek FA enough leverage to finally dispatch Ranieri.

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece  (Image from AFP)

Joan Edmundsson celebrates his goal against Greece
(Image from AFP)

To be fair, the Faroes result was a shock but not as much as San Marino’s point against Estonia. The enclave microstate has not managed to secure a single point in their last 61 international games so ending that run meant more to them that winning itself. For a while it looked like the match would follow the usual storyboard with Estonia pressing from the off. But the resilient San Marino side held on to the end, securing a valuable point and ending that horrific losing run. The last game the San Marino actual won was in a friendly back in April 2004 against fellow strugglers Liechtenstein who have had their fair share of defeats as well since then. But recent results including a 0-0 draw against Montenegro in October followed by Saturday’s stunning 1-0 victory over Moldova have given Rene Pauritsch’s side much need optimism for the future. Liechtenstein now find themselves in a strange position, three points ahead of Moldova in fifth place with the former Soviet state rooted to the bottom of the table. It’s the same position that Malta now finds themselves in after their 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in Sofia this past weekend. The tiny Mediterranean island used to be the whipping boys of European football but in the past few years have started to show a more formidable side to their play, carving out friendly wins against the Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Luxembourg whilst holding Northern Ireland to a draw. However in international competition the team still lacks that killer instinct showing only flashes in recent years, especially in the 1-0 win over Armenia in June of last year. Sunday’s match in Sofia started much like most of the others, with Malta going behind after only 6 minutes to a bundled in goal by Andrey Galabinov but fought back well to earn a point from the penalty spot converted by left back Clayton Failla.

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria  (Image from PA)

Failla converts the penalty that gives Malta a point against Bulgaria
(Image from PA)

When the idea of changing the qualification criteria for this upcoming European Championships was floated, it was met with a tidal wave of negative responses from critics citing that it would not make for interesting viewing nor makes it easier as UEFA President Michel Platini suggested for smaller European nations to qualify. Platini ignored the objections and pushed ahead with his master plan to rejuvenate what has becoming a stale second tier tournament behind its much more glamorous cousin, the World Cup. But after four matches which has shown that the qualification process is far from pre determined and is in fact wide open, Platini will surely now be sitting back with a large grin across his face. All nine groups are very much still in play with a variety of nations who have struggled to qualify in the past like Wales, Iceland, Scotland and Cyprus all in good positions. There is still a long journey ahead before reaching France but if qualifying continues to throw up these startling results, it may not be impossible to believe that the tournament will see not just one but several new faces taking part.

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Sheffield United Delay Decision On Evans As Protests Increase

Ched Evan was released from prison last month (Image from AFP)In a controversial move, Sheffield United have invited convicted rapist  and former striker Ched Evans to come back and train with them following his release from prison. Evans was convicted of raping a 19 year old girl in a Holiday Inn hotel room in May 2011 and served two and a half years of a five year sentence before being released last month. The former Wales and Manchester City player insists he is innocent and is desperate to return to the game after what he said was a very painful and harsh lesson. Despite public opinion being mixed, United has offered Evans a route back into football, although the club still insists that no decision has been made about whether they will resign him.  Citing the opinions of the Players Football Association who suggest that Evans has served his time so should be allowed to resume his life as a footballer, United’s actions appear to be in direct opposition of many associated with the club who are shocked by these latest developments.

Evans during his Sheffield United days before his conviction  (Image from Getty)

Evans during his Sheffield United days before his conviction
(Image from Getty)

This move has spurred anger amongst some fans with over 155,000 signing a petition against allowing Evans to return to the club. And in the last week Sky TV host Charlie Webster has quit her post as patron for the club in protest stating on the BBC Newsnight program that the decision to let a convicted rapist represent the club sends the wrong message to its younger fans. As a women’s right activist who herself was sexually assaulted in her teenager years, Webster has blasted the club and the player calling for them both to rethink this move. Her point is that as a player at the club, Evans is viewed as a role model for younger fans who are still learning how to respect and treat women. By allowing the player to return to his career at the club would send a message that what he did was acceptable which potentially sets a dangerous precedent. Webster informed the club of her decision to quit and has stated that she felt strongly that she had to act and give a voice to victims of sexual abuse.

Charlie Webster has quit her post as patron of the club in protest  (Image from Getty)

Charlie Webster has quit her post as patron of the club in protest
(Image from Getty)

Evans would not the first player to come back to the game after spending time behind bars. Joey Barton and Marlon King both made successful comebacks after serving their time for assault whilst Jermaine Pennant spent a period in jail for drink driving whilst excluded. Even Lee Hughes has managed to rebuild his life and career after being found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving. But all of the players mentioned above have one thing in common – they are all or at least have come out as remorseful for what they had done. Evans however has so far showed little remorse nor has not apologized to his victim, continuing to plead that he was wrongly convicted and that the sex was consensual. Whether he is telling the truth or not is to be debated but he was still convicted of a crime in a court of law. His lack of apparent remorse or reluctance to ask for forgiveness in any regard appears to be one of the key issues troubling many onlookers to this story.

Joey Barton walks free after serving time for assault  (Image from Getty)

Joey Barton walks free after serving time for assault
(Image from Getty)

There is a popular belief among many that football has created a false sense of entitlement in its players and that they can do no wrong. Awash with money and with boosted egos from the praise received from fans and the media alike, these footballers are turning into celebrities in their own right who believe that they should be treated differently than everyone else but this is not the case. They are still ordinary members of the working community and in such need to adhere to the laws of the land that they reside in. There should be no special treatments for them nor exceptions but in some cases this is not the case. Evans found out the hard way that his actions are accountable and must now stand up and recognize this as well. The argument over whether a convicted rapist should be allowed to return to his former place of work is not for us to determine nor is it our place on this blog to hand down a moral sentence to all in this situation.

Nick Clegg has warned Sheffield United about letting Evans return  (Image from PA)

Nick Clegg has warned Sheffield United about letting Evans return
(Image from PA)

But in this case, Sheffield United has the chance to send a strong message about what it believes around this issue rather than what it is choosing to do which is sitting on the fence. Either they publically stand up and back Evans by signing the player or distance themselves from him all together. They cannot bring him back on a temporary basis in the hope that the media attention and public outcry will simply fade over time. Now under increased pressure to act following revelations that key sponsors are about to walk away from the club if Evans returns, Sheffield United will need to make their decision quickly to avoid further problems. Regardless of what United chose to do, the question of whether Evans should play for any team is still up for debate but it is clear that until he shows real remorse for his actions three years ago, the voices that are objecting to Evans continuing his football career will likely continue to get louder and louder making a return to football in any capacity unrealistic.

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World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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40 Not Out As The Evergreen Giggs Continues To Impress

Giggs at 40 (Image from PA)Ryan Giggs should be putting his feet up rather than pulling on the Manchester United jersey before running out to face Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. The Welsh wing legend celebrates his 40th birthday today and is showing no signs of slowing down. Giggs performance against Leverkusen was nothing short of magical and was more in line with a 25 year old footballer in his prime than a player close to retirement. By the age of 40, the majority of footballers have long since retired with the average age of players quitting being 34. The physical and emotional damage done to a footballers body during the course of their career results in a quickening of the aging process, with injuries taking long to heal and a general slowing down the muscles reaction times. But Giggs is different; he is a player who keeps himself in pinnacle condition to prolong his career. He sticks to a strict diet, exercises daily, takes extra steps to help his muscles recover and more importantly doesn’t drink. It’s the latter than generally catches up on many footballers with the rich lifestyles and the excess notoriety eventually taking its toll.  The Manchester United legend has stayed away from the limelight as much as possible so that he could focus on his playing career. And what a career he has had.

Giggs was the star player against Bayer Leverkusen  (Image from Getty)

Giggs was the star player against Bayer Leverkusen
(Image from Getty)

Having played over 1,021 senior games to date, including a record breaking 953 for his one and only club, Manchester United, Giggs is quite simply a living legend. His medal cabinet speaks for itself: 13 Premiership titles, 4 FA cups, 4 Football League Cups,  9 Community/Charity Shields,  2 Champions League titles, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 International Cup and 1 FIFA Club World Cup during a glittering 24 year career. Added into this, Giggs has been awarded the personal honours of 2 PFA Young Player of the Year, 1 Players Player of the Year, 1 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, 2 Welsh Player of the Year awards, an English Football Hall of Fame inductee award and an OBE from the Queen. Not a bad haul for the now 40 year old. When he does retire, Giggs will be able to look back over all the various awards and trophies he has collected with a sense of pride in his achievements but for the fans of Manchester United and Wales, it will be his on field displays that live long in the memory.

Wonder goal against Arsenal  (Image from Getty)

Wonder goal against Arsenal
(Image from Getty)

Famous displays like his dazzling run and goal in the 1999 FA Cup Semi Final replay against Arsenal, his superb performance against Juventus in the Champions League in 2003 where he scored two goals to send United through, his strike against West Ham in the 2009 season that would help guide United to their eleventh title or his goal and stunning performance in the 3-3 draw with Barcelona during the now famous 1998 Champions League winning run. Whilst Giggs never played at a World Cup, his passion and determination to push Wales forward was always evident to see. With 68 caps for Wales (including 4 at Under 18 and 21 level), Giggs is an icon in his homeland. As a youngster, Giggs did captain England Schoolboys and played once for England under 16’s, scoring on that occasion. But contrary to popular belief, he was never eligible to play for the full England team having been born in Wales to Welsh parents. His appearances for England Schoolboys were due to his enrollment at a school in Salford, England. Giggs has since revealed that even if he was eligible, he would have always chosen Wales, who he eventually went on to captain on eighteen occasions. Giggs also represented Great Britain in the 2012 London Olympics, playing four times and scoring once before team GB crashed out in the quarter finals against South Korea.

Giggs lined up for Team GB  (image from PA)

Giggs lined up for Team GB
(image from PA)

 His contribution to United’s cause over the past 24 years, under the guidance of manager and mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, have made him a legend at the club. That journey continues today as Giggs remains an important fixture at the club under the new role of player/coach in David Moyes backroom setup. Whilst his long term future lies in coaching and possibly one day in management, Giggs focus is on continuing his playing career and has targeted 1,000 senior appearances for United as his next goal. With talk of a contract extension on the cards and with 26 games left in the league plus more in the various cup competitions that United are still competing in, it may not be an unrealistic goal. If Giggs continues to put in the same types of performances that he did against Leverkusen on Wednesday, it will be hard for Moyes to leave him out of his team, despite his age.  Age appears to be only a number to Giggs who still has the same spring in his step as he did when he first took the field for United all those years ago.

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Harry Wilson Joins Welsh Ranks, But For The Right Reasons?


Harry Wilson may not be a household name as yet, but he is already an international footballer after making his debut for Wales on Tuesday night. The 16 year old Liverpool midfielder came on as a substitute against Belgium as despite having not made a first team appearance for his club. He becomes the youngest ever player to represent Wales, beating previous record holder and welsh legend Gareth Bale by 108 days. Born in Wales to Welsh parents, playing for his country of birth looked like the only option but an English grandfather meant that he could have crossed the border to play for the three lions. Wales boss Chris Coleman, well aware of the English connection and amidst rumours of interest decided to call up Wilson to his full squad now, rather than risk losing him.

Coleman secures Wilson before England did  (Image from AFP)

Coleman secures Wilson before England did
(Image from AFP)

Wilson joins a long list of young talented players who have been handed full international honours by Wales in attempt to secure their long term commitment to the country. Learning from past mistakes when they nurtured talent through the junior ranks to under 21 level only for the player to then switch allegiance to neighboring England.  The problem lies deep within FIFA guidelines that only recognize that full international competitive caps as international status. Once capped, players cannot represent any other nation unless under extreme circumstances such as separation of state (similar to Yugoslavia in 1992 which is now broken into seven new countries. Capping Wilson now in a world cup qualifying game, even at 16 years old, was smart on Coleman’s part as it secures him to Wales’s cause.

Wilson makes his debut against Belgium  (Image from PA)

Wilson makes his debut against Belgium
(Image from PA)

However is it really fair to do so? Wilson is still very young and with options in front of him around who he represents, does Wales somewhat selfish move act to manipulate his desire to play at the highest level of football? After all what 16 year old would pass up the chance to play international football? Granted the call up is an invitation that can be refused (Manchester United whizz kid Adnan Januzaj recently turned down an approach by Belgium last month as he is yet to decide who he wants to play for) but can someone of Wilsons age really be asked to choose then? Wales is by no means alone in their approach with other smaller nations following suit. Wales’s group e rivals have all been guilty in the past of looking and capping young promising players in order to deepen their selection pools and will continue to do so until the guidelines are adjusted by FIFA. It might not be ethically fair right now but it’s the system the game operates under so Wales and other nations for that matter are within their rights to play within these rules.  But a few people are uneasy at this approach including Welsh striker Craig Bellamy who is unsure if capping early makes sense especially if it’s only to secure loyalty.

Peter Edwards celebrates his win thanks to his grandson's cap  (Image from PA)

Peter Edwards celebrates his win thanks to his grandson’s cap
(Image from PA)

One person not arguing about Wilsons cap is his welsh grandfather who is due for a huge payout of £125,000 from bookmaker Ladbrokes after placing a £50 bet when Harry was only 18 months old, that his grandson would be capped by Wales. His grandfather Peter Edwards, 62, was quoted odds of 2,500/1 when he placed the bet with the bookmaker in Wrexham. Surely he has to split those winnings with Wales’s manager Chris Coleman, who handed the player his debut? As for the player, Wilson spoke on twitter of his delight at making his debut and for the support he received. The player has a bright future ahead both domestically with Liverpool and now with Wales but he needs to not let the cap go to his head and focus on becoming a Liverpool first team regular. For the time being, Wilson will now go off and celebrate becoming Wales’s youngest full internationalist likely with his grandfather who will be working out how to spend the winnings his grandson just earned him.

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Scotland the timid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland Boss Ponders How To Stop Bale Ahead Of Wales Clash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter (Image from PA)

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter
(Image from PA)

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

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

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

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

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Gareth Bale – Ugly Duckling to Golden Goose

It’s hard to believe that Gareth Bale used to be seen as a bad luck charm for Tottenham. A product of the famed Southampton youth system, Bale was signed by Tottenham for an initial £5 million in the summer of 2007 after impressing in his break through season with the saints. Bale, a promising left back, was only 17 years old at the time of his move to North London but was confident of his ability to step up his game and play in England’s top division. Already a Welsh international (Bale was the youngest ever player to represent Wales aged 16 years and 315 days), Bale’s future looked rosy with then manager Martin Jol excited by the prospect of the youngster. But all did not go to plan for Tottenham or Bale. Bad luck appeared to follow Bale during the first two years of his career at Spurs, with a series of injuries limiting his playing time. When he was fit however, the bad luck did not disappear and unfortunately for Bale, he was quickly marked by the media and fans as a bad luck charm as Tottenham were unable to win with Bale on the pitch. The streak lasted for two years and severely damaged the youngsters confidence and credibility so much so that Spurs looked at options to with ship him out on loan or sell him.

Bale makes his Saints debut at 16 years old (Image from PA)

Bale makes his Saints debut at 16 years old (Image from PA)

That was until a sit down with manager Harry Redknapp in 2009, gave Bale back the confidence he had been lacking. Redknapp felt badly for the young full back and looked to help him develop as a player. What Redknapp did was move Bale to a more attacking role on the left-wing, allowing the player express himself more and utilize the electric pace he had to its fullest. The move gave Bale the freedom he needed and re installed the belief in his own ability that had been lacking in the past two years. Shortly after the move, Bale ended his run of bad luck in the Premiership by featuring in the 2-1 win over Burnley, which would act as the spring-board towards where Bale is now. Since that game, Bale has not looked back and has now become one of the most feared wingers in the world today.

Bale destroys Maicon in a famous Champions League match (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

Bale makes his Saints debut at 16 years old (Image from PA)

Now 23 years old, Bale is playing some of the best football of his short career, for both club and country. As a vital cog in both teams setup, Bale’s success has been mostly down to three things – his blistering turn of pace, his close control and self drive. It is clear from watching Bale this season that he is a man possessed, keen to show those who doubted his ability in those troublesome years that he has what it takes. With 18 goals to his name this season and numerous assists for both club and country, its hard to argue with Bale now. Both Spurs and Wales look towards Bale for inspiration and nine times out of ten he delivers. When Wales were trailing Scotland 1-0 in a vital World Cup Qualifying match, it was Bale that stepped up to grab the two goals that eventually won Wales the game. And against Newcastle at the weekend, It was Bale’s performance and brace that push Tottenham on to gaining a vital three points. Bale is quite simply indispensible to both Tottenham and Wales with both looking out of sorts when he doesn’t feature.

The Welsh Wizard does it again (Image from Getty)

The Welsh Wizard does it again
(Image from Getty)

With Real Madrid and Barcelona likely to be fighting over Bale’s signature this summer, Tottenham are in for a major payday if they decide to sell the exciting Welshman. Spurs are likely to hold out for over $50 million before finally letting their prize asset leave , which is a considerable markup on the $3 million they were posed to accept from Birmingham in 2009 for Bale just before Redknapp halted the move. Current Tottenham boss Andre Villas Boas has built his team around Bale and will not want to lose him even if it gives him the cash injection he has been looking for. After all how do you go about replacing a player like Bale? It’s strange to think that less than three years ago, Bale was surplus to requirements at Spurs, a bad penny that they couldn’t get rid of quick enough.

Gareth Bale Celebration (Image from Getty)

Gareth Bale Celebration
(Image from Getty)

Now Bale has transformed from that ugly duckling into the golden goose and Tottenham will be doing everything in their power to keep him. Bale feels a sense of loyalty to the club that stood by him during those dark years but will be tempted by the prospect of testing his new-found ability in La Liga. No matter where he ends up next season, one thing is for certain – Bale will continue to terrify defenders in what ever league he plays in, much to the surprise of many who wrote him off all those years ago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Je Suis Joey – You Understandy?

In 1957 John Charles transferred from Leeds United to Juventus to become one of the first british players to try his luck on foreign shores. The accomplished striker/ centre half is widely considered as one of the greatest all round players that Wales has ever produced. His move to the Turin giants turned a lot of heads at the time as it was for a then British record £65,000 transfer fee. Charles wasn’t the first (that honour lies with John Fox Watson who moved from Fulham to Real Madrid in 1948) but he is recognised as the trend starter. Following Charles’ move, several British nationals have moved to other countries with various degrees of success. For every David Beckham (Real Madrid) and Paul Lambert (Borussia Dortmund), there is Darius Vassell (Ankaragucu) and Scott Booth (FC Twente).  Some struggle to adapt to the lifestyle or style of game that their new country plays but for a majority, the language barrier often is too hard to grasp.

Paul Lambert had success in Germany with Dortmund

A few footballers have adapted well, picking up the language like Michael Owen (he learned Spanish in three months after moving to Real Madrid) or David Platt (picked up Italian after his move to Bari and is now fluent). Then there are people like Joey Barton. The fearless midfielder, who left the UK to join Marseille on loan in the summer, has adapted to life in the south of france. He appears to be getting on well with his new teammates (so far) and has avoided trouble that appeared to be constantly perched on his shoulders at all times during his spell in England. He has even picked up the language, well sort of. Like most Brits abroad, when the language becomes a problem, there are one of two approaches – talk louder in a desperate hope that they will understand you or do as Joey did and speak English with a french accent.

Oh dear Joey…

The latter usually fools the press in that country allowing the player to get away with not knowing the language but unfortunately the media is now global so it doesn’t take long before they find out. This is what happened to poor Joey. Asked to speak to the french press after his long-awaited league debut against Lille this week, and so far unable to speak French, he decided to conduct the interview in English but with a french accent. The results are comical.

Barton starts off his interview talking about the game, highlighting key aspects of his performance:

“For me it’s important that people speak about the qualities I bring as a footballer. As i say, yesterday i make one tackle and all everyone speak about is this tackle, and no speaks about the 50 yard pass that kills Balmont and causes a red card for him” 

Joey was asked about the former Manchester United and Marseille player Gabriel Heinze, a solid tackler like Joey in his day, and if Joey felt he was like him in any way as a player:

He’s Argentine, i’m English. Big Difference, Big Big difference. Big Ocean. The Atlantic. It’s different”

The infamous Atlantic Ocean – very big

The interview and in particular the way Barton speaks brings back memories of another Englishman abroad, Steve McLaren. After joining FC Twente of Holland  as manager in 2008, Steve was asked to take part in an interview with Dutch TV ahead of a crucial Champions League game against Arsenal. McLaren did the interview but again, like Barton, spoke english but this time with a dutch accent. The clip became a Youtube sensation and has haunted McLaren ever since.

” I sort of knew, when i came here… Champions League… Liverpool, Arsenal…i thought maybe one of them we would draw and it is Arsenal. I think, one of the toughest teams in the draw and i think it will be very very difficult for our players. For young players, big games, champions league… Arsenal… at home.. the emirates…”

Spreekt u Engels??

Asked about his team’s chances of beating Arsenal, McLaren replied:

” I say, i think we are not just, what you call, underdogs, but massive underdogs”

Barton to be fair has been quick to ridicule himself on Twitter boasting ” Steve McLaren, eat your heart out” but it will not detract from the media attention which he will get from the British press after this interview. Barton has 6 months remaining of his french loan so has enough time to learn the language. But if he is unsuccessful, then perhaps a transfer to Holland to work with Steve McLaren is exactly what he needs. At least they speak the same language, sort of.

To see Barton’s interview, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3U-r8T31Ns

To see McLaren’s interview, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZnoP4sUV90

Turner Wins No Prizes in National Stance

Cardiff defender Ben Turner has reportedly turned down an unofficial approach by Wales boss Chris Coleman to play for the Welsh national team, because quite simply he is not Welsh. The Birmingham born Englishman is qualified to play for Wales under the controversial Grandparent rule which allows any player, who has a grandparent of a different nationality, a chance to play for that country as well. Turner’s grandmother is from Wales which allows the player to choose between her country of birth and his own, England. Having represented England at Under 19 level and having not been capped yet at full level, Turner could have easily switched under FIFA rules. But the 24-year-old decided not to, as he felt it would be wrong:

“It would be like I was pretending to be a Welshman when I’m not. I’m English and that’s how it is. It was very flattering to be asked and I know Chris Coleman well from when we
were both at Coventry so i did consider it, It went through my head that ‘who am I to turn down playing for Wales? But I’m not doing it because of that, I’m doing it for my own reasons which are the right reasons.

Turner knows his chances of gaining a full cap for England are slim and Wales could be the only way to play international football but he is realistic to the end:

“I probably won’t have the chance to play for England but, in my head, that’s not the point. Would a Welsh guy asked to play for England, would he do that? There are lads who grow up dreaming about playing for Wales because they are Welsh and are born in Wales. Who would i be if i denied them the chance?”

Turner stance on this is rare as more footballer’s switch alliance from one country to another, just so that they can experience international football. FIFA have blurred the rules so much that there are now various ways to gain recognition for nationality than ever before. Birth place, birth parents or maternal grandparents nationality, even time spent in one specific country can allow a player to change to a new country. Brazilian born footballers Fábio César Montezine and Marcone Amaral Costa now play for Qatar having qualified after living in the country for 2 years. France won the 1996 World Cup thanks in part to the trio of Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Marcel Desailly despite the fact than none of them were born in France – Zidane (Algeria), Vieira (Senegal), Desailly (Ghana). Current Italian striker Giuseppe Rossi was born in the United States of America but chose to represent Italy due to his Italian father.

The home nations are guilty of this as well with several players representing the country without being born there. Tony Dorigo (Australia), Owen Hargreaves (Canada), John Barnes (Jamacia), Rob Jones (Wales) were all born in other countries but went on to play for England. Scotland, due to a smaller population and therefore pool of players to choose from have also used the rules to their advantage. Matt Elliott, Steven Fletcher, Dominic Matteo and Andy Goram are all english born but have played for the Scottish National team as have Swedish born Richard Gough and Malaysian born Shaun Maloney.  These are just a few examples but the number is increasing as the pressure for success at international level grows.

So is this a bad thing? Well yes it is. There are three main problems attached with this relaxed regulation. Firstly it holds the ability to damage the long-term success of international football by creating dream teams of foreign players. Look at Germany as a good example. In the last European Championships, the Germany team fielded was built three Polish born players – Piotr Trochowski, Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose who have pledged their alliance to Germany. If they had played for the birth country, then perhaps Poland’s tournament may have finished differently. Secondly, younger talent will suffer as they compete not only with the talented other youngsters in the own country but also with foreign talent too. Finally it could affect national pride as the players have no real connection to the country apart from a grandparent or a short spell living there. The fans are passionate about their country and want the players selected to be as passionate as they are, singing the national anthem and giving everything they have for the country and cause.

FIFA have opened themselves up for a long-term headache which they will need to address sooner rather than later. It may result in them reverting back to the place of birth rule as the only factor considered for national recognition but country managers, FA’s and fans will argue that this will damage their teams. It may come down to the players to decide and if they act as Turner has done, then International football as we know it now may change for the better.

Time’s up for Levein

Win or lose tonight, Craig Levein’s time as Scotland manager looks to be at an end. With only 2 points from a possible 9 and Gareth Bale’s 25 yard strike in the 2-1 defeat to Wales this past Friday haunting his dreams, Levein appears to be a dead man walking. Defeat against a strong Belgium side tonight, who sit top of the group, will definitely end his 3 year stint as Scotland boss but even a win might not be enough to save him.

Critics and fans alike have been quick to proclaim Levein’s failures in great depth, like his decision to field no striker  and 6 midfielders against a poor Czech side which led to a 1-0 defeat. But the statistic that may be the most crucial of all is Scotland’s win percentage of competitive matches during Leveins’ time in charge – 26%. Yes that right, 26%. After you strip out pointless friendly wins against Denmark and Australia and look at only matches played in qualifying tournaments, Levein’s record has been appalling. With 3 wins (two against Lithuania and one against Liechtenstein) out of a possible 11,  this actually makes him the worse Scotland coach in 54 years, which will surprise a lot of Scottish fans who believed that Berti Vogts owned that title.

So if indeed the end of the road comes for Craig Levein in the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels tonight, who will the SFA turn to as his replacement?

With little money and having been burnt before with Berti Vogts, the SFA is unlikely to go foreign in their next choice. And after watching Trapattoni’s expensive Republic of Ireland fairytale turn into a nightmare in recent months, the SFA will start its search on home turf. But the fear is that the Scotland job has become a poisoned chalice after the past few managers have struggle to get work following managing Scotland. With the exception of Walter Smith and Alex McLeish who quit the job to go back to club management, the former dismissed coaches like Berti Vogts, George Burley and Craig Brown have all taken a while to get back into football. Brown, who was manager for 9 years and last took Scotland to a major tournament (World Cup 1998) was sacked in 2001, only returning to full-time management some 10 months later with Preston North End. His successor, Vogts was out of work for 3 years before popping up as head coach of the Nigerian national team. Burley, who lasted less than 2 years in the role, was sacked in November 2009 and return temporarily as Crystal Palace boss in late 2010 before quickly being sack there as well. If the SFA is to hire a top manager, they will need to make the package and the job seem appealing. The list, likely to be drawn up soon, or perhaps already has been, is likely to include the following names:

Front Runner:  Gordon Strachan

The former Celtic and Middlesbrough manager is desperate to return to management and looks like odds on favourite to succeed Levein if and when he gets the chop. Strachan’s managerial record is mixed at best with success at Celtic marred by difficult times at Coventry and Middlesbrough. Is he ready for the job and can he take Scotland to their first major tournament since 1998?

Constant Runners: Graeme Souness/Mark McGhee

Souness has been touted to become Scotland boss three times now. His known temper and aggressive nature may put off the SFA but it may be what is needed. Is this the right time for the former Newcastle, Rangers, Benfica and Galatasary manager to step into the cauldron?

Mark McGhee’s stock rose during his successful time in charge of Motherwell, so much so that he tipped himself for the Celtic job, just weeks before joining Aberdeen. His time in Pittodrie ended badly and was replaced by former Scotland boss, Craig Brown. He missed out on the Scotland job to George Burley but has aspirations to get the job some day.

Fans Choice: David Moyes

If the fans could choose, the realistic majority would pick David Moyes. A complete manager with good tactical knowledge and strong people skills, he is the ideal candidate. He has spoken of his desire to manage Scotland at one stage in his career but would he leave his current role at high-flying Everton to take it on? It’s unlikely given his stock is rising in the EPL and uncertainty reigns over the futures of Di Matteo, Ferguson and Wenger with the latter two rumoured to be retiring at the end of this season.

Old Guard: Walter Smith/Alex McLeish

Walter Smith was the man the SFA once turned to rescue Scotland after a disastrous time under Bert Vogts. He managed to shore up a leaky team and put some pride back into the national squad, lifting the nation up 70 places in the world rankings by the end of his time in charge. He famously quit to go back to his beloved Rangers which may have soured his relationship with the SFA and some sections of the Scotland fans but he may be the right man for the job.

Former Rangers and Aston Villa manager McLeish loved his time in charge of the national team and was sad to leave it. Now unemployed, he may want to finish what he started and would offer the SFA a welcome and known face as they look to hire the next boss. Having led the team to the famous 1-0 victory over France in Paris, when James McFadden beat the goalkeeper from 40 yards out, he is well-remembered by the fans and playing staff so would be a safe pair of hands.

Young Pretenders: Stuart McCall/Ally McCoist

The tireless former Scotland midfielder has only been in charge of Motherwell for a short while but is already impressing. His passion for the game and his country could make him a strong candidate but it’s perhaps too soon for this job.

 The Rangers boss was assistant manager to Walter Smith during his days as Scotland boss and will look to follow in his mentor’s footsteps one day. But McCoist’s strong sense of pride in what he is trying to achieve at Rangers after all that the club has been through will likely rule him out of the running this time. A potential boss for the future, McCoist knows that his time will come if he succeeds in his current mission to get Rangers back to the SPL.

Outside Bet: Peter Houston/Kenny Dalglish

As current assistant manager to Craig Levein, Peter Houston may not be considered a contender if Levein goes, purely because of association. The SFA is unlikely to want to hold on to anything that resembles the Levein years as they start afresh which may be harsh on Houston. Having had some success at Dundee United, he should be considered but against more experienced candidates he may struggle to justify his appointment.

King Kenny is a Scotland legend. Often mentioned as a potential candidate, he has never been seriously considered until now due to his lack of involvement in football over the past years. That all changed when Dalglish came out of self-made retirement to take over from now England manager Roy Hodgson at Liverpool. Following his sacking, Dalglish is looking for his next challenge and it may be the right time for him to return to his country of birth and take charge.

Regardless of who takes over from Levein, the mantra will be fairly simple – restore some national pride in the team, get the results needed and steer Scotland to it’s first major tournament in nearly 20 years. Failure is simply not an option.