World Cup Group Stage- Matchday three What the VAR?

What a start to the final round of games as Group A’s highly anticipated Russia v Uruguay turned out to be a storming win for the South American’s. The hosts were in some way playing their hardest opponent and combined with resting a player or two, were seemingly found out. It didn’t help that Igot Smolnikov received his marching orders after his second yellow card after just 36 minutes. Suarez had put his side up after 10 minutes and a Cheryshev own goal made it 2-0 after 23. It was always going to be difficult for the hosts, who of course had already qualified but the  90th minute goal from Cavani, meant they would face the winner of Group B. In the other game, Mo Salah saw his side denied a point after Al Dawsari scored the winning goal in the dying seconds. It meant Egypt were going home with no points having gone in with so much hope. Whether Salah’s pre tournament injury had a psychological effect who knows, but if reports are true, we may have seen the last of the talented star for the last time.

So Group B, was far from over, Iran Spain and Portugal were all still with a chance of getting out the group. Iran just had to beat Portugal, who would miss out whilst Spain would go through with a win or draw. It was a night of VAR controversy in the Portugal game that didn’t see anything much until Ricardo Quaresma put Portugal in front just before half time. Meanwhile in the first half of the other game, Morocco seemed to be really intent on getting a result in their final game albeit too late. Maybe had their shooting on goal been a bit better, they might have been with a chance of progression. Boutaib had put the North African nation in front on the quarter of an hour but didn’t see that lead last as Isco levelled.

Spain looked average and against any other team they might have been really forced to pay. Pique had luck on his side following a rash challenge, where luckily he had got the ball and then a handball. Spain had De Gea to thank on several occasions (something that Man Utd fans will come to recognise)

Second half was when it all got a bit tasty in the Portgual. As it had stood, Portugal were winning the group with Spain second. In the Portugal game Ronaldo was fouled in the area and the referee turned it down only to review it and award the penalty. Up stepped Cristiano Ronaldo, it would surely be 2-0 but the low struck penalty was saved by the keeper. VAR requests were pleaded for and ignored until Ronaldo got caught up with an Iranian and seemed to strike him with a flailing arm. It was a red card review and after another long wait the referee reviewed it. It never really looked like a red and would have been harsh and the ref only produced the yellow card. It was though in the dying minutes that the biggest controversy. Sardaz Azmoun had knocked down the cross from the wing and hit Cedric who went to head the ball only for it to bounce off the arm. It was far from intentional but the referee and the ref turned it down. He did though choose to review it. Surely he would stick to his original decision… well no he actually changed his decision and awarded the penalty. The Portuguese were rightly angry and it could have been even worse had Iran converted their shot on goal. That would have seen Iran go through at Portugal’s expense.

In the other game Morocco took the lead again when El-Nesyri fired home to leave Spain 2-1 down and thus give Portugal the advantage. The late penalty for Iran would change all that and then in the 90th minute Spain thought they had levelled and it was disallowed by the ref who then rightly overturned his decision.

Group C saw three of its nations in with a chance but that ended when Peru grabbed their first win of the competition to beat Australia. In the other game between Denmark and France, it finished 0-0 in what was the first of the tournament and one that saw both teams booed off at full time.

Argentina faced a tricky evening as they Nigeria, it was win or bust for the South Americans as a changed Croatian line up took on Iceland. Croatia had qualified, but Iceland had to win and hope for the best. Argentina took on a Nigeria side that had played well against Iceland.

Argentina got the goal they needed in the 14th minute when Lionel Messi put the ball in the back of the net just as the Barca Messi would. Argentina continued to attack and the Nigerian’s were standing strong keeping everything out. Their resolve paid off as they levelled early in the second half. Mascherano joined the hug and throw an opponent to give away a penalty. Victor Moses stepped up and converted the kick in style. That penalty was sending Argentina home and when the camera panned to Maradona, the disgraced footballer was in tears (oh diddums). That penalty was sending the 2014 finalists on an early trip home. The other game had seen Croatia take the lead, despite the changes, the Balkan nation were still going for the win. Iceland were putting the shots in and came close in the first half and maybe had they scored, it might have changed the game for them. Croatia though got the opener through Milan Bedij early in the second half. The Icelandic nation though weren’t giving up, maybe hoping that they might just somehow make it out the group stages. That hope came when Lovren handled the ball to give a penalty away. Siggurdsson converted.

It was now game on could Croatia stand fast or would Iceland overcome. In the Argentina game, time was running out, Nigeria were heading through but 4 minutes from time that all changed as Marcus Rojo volleyed home to break Nigerian hearts. For Iceland hope was back on. Another goal from the team that beat England, would see them grab second ahead of Argentina. Those hopes were crushed in the 90th minute when Peresic struck home and Croatia were finishing with 100% record and three group wins for the first time. The whistle went at the Argentina game and we were treated to scenes of pathetic moronic behaviour by Maradona. It’s no wonder people dislike him an Argentina.

The holders Germany went into the game against South Korea knowing that they had to win irrespective of the Mexico v Sweden game as anything less would enable the Scandinavian side to take second place. Germany would even qualify regardless if they beat South Korea by two or more goals. Mexico faced Sweden knowing a win would secure them a place in the next round, but defeat could possibly send them on  an early flight back.

Germany surely wouldn’t struggle against South Korea, but they did as they failed to convert their chances along with some key defending from the Koreans. Neither side could break the deadlock, but with Mexico and Sweden also deadlocked, it was still advantage Germany. Sweden though could consider themselves unlucky to not have a penalty following a Hernandez own goal.

It was advantage Sweden in the 50th minute when Augustinsson volleyed home. Having been denied at the end of their game against Germany, they weren’t going to be denied twice. Just past the hour, it was 2-0 with a Granqvist penalty. Mexico were now at risk of elimination with the other game still goalless and a threat from Germany. Mexico looked far from the side that had played in the opening game where they had taken Germany apart. Things got worse for the Latin American side as they went 3-0 down when Alvarez put the ball in his own net.

All eyes were now on the Germany game and for all their shots, they couldn’t convert. Time was running out and it was now in injury time. For Germany it was about to be their worst nightmare. The last time they had gone out in the group stage was in 1938, now they could add 2018. Kim Young-Gwon struck home off a corner which at first was ruled out for off side. VAR though showed it to be not offside. For Manuel Neuer, who hadn’t played much before the tournament, he probably wish he hadn’t been picked. He spilled the ball but luckily recovered. That was that for him though as time ran out Germany searched for an equaliser, Neuer, went forward but left himself stranded  as Ju- Se-Jong launched the ball finding Son Heung-Min who put the ball in the back of the net.

It was hard to believe that the Germans were going out, not only having won in Rio but hammered Brazil 7-1.

Brazil went into the group knowing that a win would send them into the group stages. Serbia only needed to win but failed to take the opportunities that would be presented to them. The South American’s though took those chances with Paulinho netting in the first half and Thiago Silva in the second half to steer them to top spot.

Switzerland who looked like possibly missing out before the late winner, knew that a draw for them would take them through to their third finals in four attempts. Having been unlucky to concede two late goals in injury time against Brazil, Costa Rica were hoping to go out with some pride. They had a number of chances and  could consider themselves unlucky not to put one or two past the Swiss, so when the European nation broke the deadlock, it seemed that it would be game over especially with the Swiss dominating the possession although if it was game over, Joel Campbell had no intention of giving up. Costa Rica would pull level through Kendall Waston when he headed home a Campbell corner. The Swiss looked like taking all three points when Drmic struck in the 88th minute, but Costa Rica were awarded a penalty only to see the decision overturned for offside. Los Ticos did get a penalty in injury time and not overturned. Bryan Ruiz though struck the crossbar bouncing out to ricochet off the back of Yann Sommer’s head. It was only a point in the end, but the Swiss were through setting up a tie with Sweden.

Colombia came through their group with a second half goal that was enough to beat Senegal, who looked initially to be the only African nation to get to the knock out stages and the 2-2 draw against Japan would prove costly. This was because Poland’s 1-0 win over a disappointing Japan put them level on points and identical records and that meant one thing, the disciplinary record. Yes the yellow cards added up and Japan had 4 to Senegal’s 6.

England and Belgium faced off knowing who their opponents would be at the end of the game. Southgate and Martinez made changes and in turn made for an average game. The deadlock was broken early into the second half as Januzaj’s bending shot beat Pickford The Three Lions had their chances and Rashford should have put his chance away. It didn’t seem to bother England although chances remained few and far between. The whistle went and it was over. Belgium would now face Japan on Monday whilst England would have an extra day facing Colombia.

The group stages now over and now the Last 16 is about to kick off. The big games are here and it will be no second chances.

 

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World Cup Group Stage – Match Day 2 Review

Given their form running up to the World Cup, who would have thought that Russia could muster a win let alone two but that’s what they did. The second game saw them take on Egypt and Mo Salah. Having beaten Saudi Arabia 5-0, one maybe had thought that Egypt might prove hardier opponents. The first half drab but the second half picked up. The Russian opening goal had deflected off the knee in bizarre fashion and into the net. It was probably something that summed up Egypt’s plight so far. Two further goals in three minutes from Cheryshev and Dzuyba and it was game over for the African nation even with the penalty from Mo Salah.

Uruguay secured their passage into the knock out stages with a solitary goal against Saudi Arabia via Luis Suarez. A far from convincing win for the South Americans and they will need to step up if they want to progress in the knockout stages.

Group B saw a quieter second round of games, Portugal beat Morocco with a goal from none other than Cristiano Ronaldo who netted after four minutes. Portugal were top and their star man was top scorer. It also finished a bad week for the Moroccans, who had seen their World Cup bid for 2026 rejected and now eliminated from the 2018 competition. Portugal’s time at the top was short lived as Spain came through with a win against Iran. A hard fought win against a tough Iran side who had already opened their tournament with a win against Morocco. Costa’s 54th minute goal put the Spaniards on top of the group having had a better disciplinary record.

Group C saw France take control with a solitary goal to beat Peru 1-0 and qualify for the knock out round. It wasn’t easy for Les Bleus as Peru gave the 1998 World Cup winners a run for their money. Chances were there but minimal were converted and the South American nation had slightly more possession. Possession counts for nothing unless you use it, but the fortune wasn’t with Peru. They were eliminated.

Australia drew with Denmark in another game featuring VAR. The Danes had gone in front early on with Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen netting after 7 minutes. Mile Jedinak converted the penalty after Yussuf Poulsen’s handball. It was a point that meant that the Green and Gold nation were still within a chance of qualifying for the knock out stages. They might need to step up in the final game but will though need France to beat Denmark.

Well what a match day two is was for Group D. Argentina went into the game needing to get a result against Croatia, but for a second game in a row, the South American nation looked far from it’s past line ups that had seen it reach several finals. Croatia grabbed their first win against South American opposition in five attempts yet had started not so greatly as they finished. Argentina conceded their first through a blunder by Caballero gave Rebic a chance to put the ball away.  Had the Balkan nation been more accurate in front of goal, they might well have embarrassed Argentina even more. The second goal came in the 80th minute and was game over when Croatia broke away with Luka Modric making it 2-0 with a cracking goal. It was interesting to see the lack of running back from the Argentinian players in the build up. Rakitic made it 3-0 and heads dropped. Messi retired from international football once before, could Messi retire from international football for good, especially as he will be 34 going into the 2022 tournament.

Iceland’s surprise defeat against a better performing Nigeria, gave Argentina hope in making it out of the group. Having lost to Croatia, the Super Eagles knew it was win or bust. Whilst it was goalless in the first half, a double from Ahmed Musa lifted the African nation’s spirits. Crucially though Iceland missed a VAR penalty and going into the third round of group games, the previously doomed looking Argentina, might still have a chance of qualification.

Group E saw Costa Rica eliminated after two late goals from Brazil that in turn put them top of the group on goal difference. With time running out and Brazil still not looking like Brazil, it looked like two draws out of two especially when VAR actually overturned a penalty award. Step up Coutinho in the 91st and Neymar in the 97th minute. When they face Serbia, it will be winner take all. This came after Switzerland came back from 2-1 down to beat Serbia,  thanks to Shaqiri’s runaway 90th minute winner. Serbia though could feel hard done by after an obvious and blatant penalty was not given. The Swiss look favourites to qualify following their win as they complete their group campaign against Costa Rica. There is still a chance that Serbia could qualify given that they wont hold back against Brazil who wont be given the opportunity to waste their chances. Come Wednesday night we shall know who progresses.

Group F saw Mexico move closer to securing qualification with a 2-1 win over South Korea, it would come as no surprise given the Central American nation’s beating of Germany in the group opening game. Hernandez scored the second to reach 50 international goals. It was disappointing for South Korea who to be honest still have a slim chance of progression should they beat Germany and Mexico beat Sweden, but that seems very optimistic.  Their slim opportunity came thanks to Germany who came back from 1-0 down against Sweden to grab an injury time winner. It had been win or bust for the holders Germany. Having lost to Mexico, defeat against Sweden would be devastating and handed the holders a group elimination that was seen at the last World Cup.

Group G saw Belgium trounce Tunisia 5-2. The team that had proved to be difficult against England, were attacked early and were two up after 16 minutes with one each from Hazard and Lukaku. Dylan Bronn gave hope to Tunisia just two minutes later. That hope looked to have disappeared when Bronn went off with an injury in the 24th minute. That hope was then all but crushed when Lukaku netted in first half injury time. Hazard added his second five minutes into the second half to give them a big goal difference. Batshuayi of Chelsea made it five and a plus seven goal difference until Tunisia added a second to still leave the Red Devil’s a strong goal difference.

England had won a hard fought game against Tunisia,  which had they taken early chances might have been a bit clearer result, although it didn’t help that the referee was seemingly thinking he was refereeing a wrestling match. Their game against Panama was completely different. England were all over Panama, when Panama players weren’t fouling England players that is. Thankfully the referee wasn’t taking any rubbish. Southgate’s team finished the first half 5-0 up and points secured. Harry Kane grabbed a third goal to nail a hat trick in a game that saw Man City defender John Stone almost grab a hat trick. England could find themselves disappointed that they conceded as it put them back level on goal difference with Belgium. Thanks to their better disciplinary record, England go into the Belgium game in pole position. Belgium national coach may find enforced changes with fitness checks over Mertens, Hazard and Lukaku.

The final group saw an entertaining game between Japan and Senegal that had seen both sides take the lead at one point in the game. Japan went into the tournament as outsiders to qualify, but found themselves leading the group following their win over Colombia. Senegal had opened with a crucial win and knew that anything other than a defeat gave them a reasonable chance of qualifying. Colombia who had been expected to do well netted their first win of the group over a very disappointing Poland. Lewandowski struggled again and their final game against Poland will see them finish without a win or get a result that could throw open the qualifying. That though may take some doing.

Lets see what Matchday 3 brings us, will there be upsets or last game salvages for the big nations.

World Cup Preview – Group D Messi drives Argentina but who will follow

It’s Group D and one of the first trickiest ones to decide, well tricky in deciding who goes through with Argentina. The South American nation will naturally be favourites but in a group that consists of World Cup debutants Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria, it may well be very close to call.

Argentina make their 16th finals competition and lost to Germany in Brazil 2014 final. Their final appearance had previously come against West Germany shortly before the German unification. They go into the finals on the backs of mixed friendly performances. They found themselves beating Russia and Italy, but lost against group opponents Nigeria 4-2 and were on the receiving end of a 6-1 drubbing by Spain. That might be enough to make an Argentinian football supporter feel a bit nervous, but the World Cup will be a different kettle of fish they would hope? Of course it would, but there is one not so good omen that lingers for Argentina in the World Cup. Back in 2002 Argentina were drawn in the same group as Nigeria where the South American nation lost in the opening game. This time they meet at the end of the group stage.

Nigeria, looked strong in the World Cup qualifiers winning the group five points clear of Zambia but apart from the African national championship (Not to be confused with the African Cup of Nations)where they got t the final, the post World Cup Qualifying games have not brought much joy. Since March 23rd, they have managed only one win and a draw and four defeats, most recently against the Czech Republic and England.

The Super Eagles appear in their sixth finals and would hope to achieve reaching the  last 16 as they had in 2014 when they were eliminated by France. The Last 16 is the nations best achievement which was their progress in the USA 94 and France 98 tournaments. In the knockout stages they saw  defeat by Italy in 94 and a heavy defeat by Denmark in 98. Should Denmark win their group and Nigeria finish second in theirs, they could once again meet in the last 16. If the African nation are to make it into the knock out stages, then they will certainly have to up their game.

Croatia came second in their qualifying group where they came second to Iceland who are also in Group D. They missed out on winning the group after a penultimate draw at home to Finland and had to play Greece, who they easily brushed aside. They will look to do much better than their 2014 group stage exit, where their only win was against Cameroon. In fact their best performance are in France 98 when they finished second behind none other than Argentina. Could this be a positive omen? Who knows but they will need to be on good form. The post qualification friendlies have like for other nations, brought mixed results. Two defeats against South American opposition in the form of Peru and Brazil, whilst beating Mexico. Their final friendly fixture sees them take on Senegal, who will be a good test as African opponents. They kick off their tournament campaign against Senegal.

Croatia take a strong squad that features 7 Italian based players and four Spanish based player, some of which won trophies this past season. Will this though convert to international glory, who will know. What we do know is that Croatia will meet Nigeria for the first time in their history.

Finally in the group, it is World Cup debutants Iceland. The small island nation came close in 2014 when they reached the playoffs before being eliminated in the playoffs by fellow group nation Croatia. The Icelanders then went on to Euro 2016 where they reached the quarter finals.

It is astonishing that Iceland prior to the World Cup 2014 qualifiers had not won more than 4 games (2002). They will though be hoping that their form going into the finals improves. Prior to their 2-2 draw against Ghana, which the European nation had blown away a 2-0 lead, had lost three straight games and four in eight overall. Defeats against Norway, Peru and Mexico all saw defeats that conceded three goals. Not form or a defence that you want when you are likely to be facing Messi in one game and Mandzukic of Croatia in another.

 

Group Prediction

Argentina take the group, Croatia take second Nigeria 3rd and Iceland 4th in a tight race.

UEFA Nations League

Has there even been an idea as more pointless and unecessary from a  football governing body? I guess not and never will….don’t be silly of course there is. Not only do UEFA wish to kick this tournament off in 2018, but FIFA are looking to expand itthey intend on inviting nations from other confederations. Why? Why look to expand a competition that has not even kicked off yet.

The tournament will be the third competition for European nations and will see four sports for the Euro 2020 finals, most likely going to the lower nations in the European football family. The idea is to replace all the meaningless friendlies that take place inbetween the International qualifiers. The games will be played between September and November 2018 and the final four in the following summer.

There will be four leagues A-D with Leagues A and B containing 12 nations, League C containing 15 and League D containing 16. Each League will be split into four divisions. There will be promotion and relegation between each division within the leagues with the winners of each division playing for the opportunity to stake an early claim for a Euro 2020 finals place.

The competition will have 6 match days starting in September 2018 Match Days 1 (6-9) and 2 (9-12) with Match day 6 between 18-20. The finals taking place between 5-9 June 2019. This means that nations will also have a chance of taking it easy in the qualifiers if they have already especially as the Euro 2020 qualifiers will run from March 2019 to March 2020.

The format has been highly criticised as it gives a means of allowing the lesser European nations who would not usually stand a hope in hell of qualifying, a spot in the finals. Not only that teams who had already been knocked out of WC 18 qualifiers a chance to purposely lose games in order to drop down into the lower league and have a better chance of qualifying. Are lesser nations really worthy of taking places in the finals? Not really. We only have to look at the standard of some of the nations that make it to the World Cup finals.

The reality of it all in a way of course is money. These games will no doubt get tv coverage advertising and other commercial opportunities as it rolls into the European Championship qualifiers. If they really wanted to end pointless friendlies then they could easily just restrict the number of International weeks outside of the qualifying rounds.

With the introduction of the European League, it will surely reduce the opportunities for non European nations to play European opposition, it is quite possible that there could be regional competitions and even no doubt a lower nation World Cup featuring all the nations that couldn’t win in the proper one as we all know that where there is a competition there is a money opportunity. They could probably trying and build up San Marino v Malta, but we all know that would be a tedious borefest.  I’d rather go watch an Ismithan League game

I won’t be looking forward to one little bit, I’m sure not many others will especially when there will be clubs concentrating on European competition and wanting to keep players fit and available.

 

 

World Cup Qualifying – UEFA Group E-I

So welcome to part two of the UEFA World Cup Qualifying round 7-8. This time we feature groups E-I which include the likes of England, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Poland and Denmark. Let’s kick off though.

Group E

With the likes of Denmark, Romania and Poland all aiming for qualification for Russia 2018, it was always going to be a close call in who would claim top spot and who would be hoping their second place would be enough to gain a play off spot.

Romania looked the strongest  starting with an unbeaten three game run, albeit with a home win draw against Montenegro together with a 5-0 away win against Armenia and a surprise away draw in Kazakhstan. Their of qualification received a serious blow as they lost both home and away to Poland meaning the draw at home to Denmark, left them with a lot to do going into round seven and eight.

Denmark who had missed out in 2014 due to a poorer second place record, were looking to make it into the finals. They had a nervy start which saw them reaching a record of 2-2. They had a lot to do and they seemed destined to do it. A draw in Romania was followed up with a win away to Kazahkstan which was crucial going into round seven and eight, which included a home tie against Poland, who they lost away to earlier in round.

Poland who failed to qualify in 2014 no thanks to drawing four games, were looking strong with the hitman Robert Lewandowski leading the Polish line. The Munich striker was hot on form hitting two hat tricks in two separate games. Poland in this round were looking unbeatable going into these rounds.

Round seven saw Poland travel to Denmark odds on to win and move a step closer to qualification whilst Montenegro travelled to Kazahkstan and Romania hosted Armenia. It wasn’t going to go by the book in this round as the Danes pummelled the Poles 4-0 whilst Montenegro scored a win and Romania scraped a 1-0 win at home to Armenia.

Round 8 saw Denmark travel to Armenia whilst Montenegro hosted Romania and Poland hosted Kazahkstan. The Danes bagged a 4-1 win whilst Montenegro bagged a solitary goal to win 1-0. Poland were back on track with a 3-0 win which kept three points gap between them and the chasing pack. For Denmark and Montenegro they were level on points, goals scored and conceded. They were separated purely on the result between them which saw Montenegro win 1-0.

The final two rounds will have a key outcome of the group.  Round nine should see Poland beat Armenia making qualification virtually guaranteed. Montenegro and Denmark face off in which the winner will surely take second spot. In the final round Poland host Montenegro and are likely to be favourites. Depending on result of the Montenegro/Denmark result, the outcome between Denmark and Romania could see the Danes get through and claim a playoff spot.

Group F

This group featured double home nation representation as the auld enemy were paired up. England would have gone into qualifying the favourites to qualify in a group that consisted of Slovenia and Slovakia as the other more likely nations hoping to make it to Russia 2018.

Despite the wins and the luck along the way, England found themselves going into round seven and eight, with 14 points, Slovakia had 12 with Slovenia on 11 and Scotland on 8. It had looked bleak for Scotland going into round seven. The Scots though had not given up despite the difficult task and points difference.

Chances of winning the group were slim to nil for Scotland, especially with England who were facing a trip to Malta. England netted a 4-0 win in Valetta thus securing  The Tartan Army faced a trip to Lithuania needing to avoid the last minute equaliser scenario. A draw would have seriously hampered the Scots chances. Thankfully they bagged a 3-0. Slovakia and Slovenia were facing off and the Scots were hoping that the two qualification rivals would finish in a draw. It was looking that way until the 81st minute when Miha Mevlja put the ball into his own net. This left England on 17 points Slovakia 15, Scotland and Slovenia on 11.

Round eight saw something that would not happen very often, Scottish fans cheering on an England victory. The reason being that England were hosting Slovakia at Wembley. The Scots themselves were playing Malta whilst Slovenia were playing Lithuania. England went down early and Scots might have thought their rivals might be doing it on purpose but they came back to win 2-1. Scotland had to do their bit as well and that was easy as they  beat opponents Malta 2-0. Slovenia pasted a 4-0 win against Lithuania which could prove crucial come the end of the group stage if they are tied with either Slovakia or Scotland for second place.

Rounds nine and ten will see the play off spot in Scotland’s own hands. The Scots host Slovakia and travel to Slovenia. The trouble for Scotland is that Slovakia host Malta, which will give them 18 points meaning that dropped points for Scotland would mean game over. Fortunately for Scotland and Slovakia, England take on Slovenia which should see three points for the three lions.

The final two rounds should be interesting and wouldn’t be interesting to see all the home nations at a World Cup finals.

Group G

This one was that saw two footballing giants Spain and Italy drawn together with Albania and Israel providing the best supporting act nominations as it were in Group G. The first meeting between Italy and Spain had seen a point a piece and were going into round seven, only goal difference separated the two with Spain on +18 and Italy +14. Whoever won at the Bernabeu, would ultimately seal the group, especially with the fixtures in round nine and ten. Unfortunately for Italy, the Spaniard’s would have the advantage as they would win 3-0. The reason why it was bad news was that in round eight, they travelled to Liechtenstein and netted an 8-0 win. This gave Spain plus 29 with Albania and Israel left to play. Italy in their next tie managed a 1-0. The Italian’s losing mean that Albania and Israel could boost their slim hopes of a play off place.

Albania hosted Liechtenstein and got three points with a 2-0 win.  other in round seven in a one goal affair. They missed out closing a gap as they drew their next game away to Macedonia. A victory would have seen them close the gap to four points. Israel’s hopes of a play off were blown away when they lost both games, including one against Italy.

Rounds nine and ten see Spain face Israel and Albania and Italy also facing Albania alongside Macedonia. Italy could still win the group, but it would need Albania and Israel to take points off Spain whilst getting points off Albania themselves. Italy mind you would have to win their games to have a chance which should be the case seeing as the only nation to take points off them is Spain. It would appear that Italy would be heading for a play off, but they would be more than likely seeded.

Group H

This was always going to see one nation guaranteed to qualify and that was Belgium. It was just a matter as to who would take up second spot and a possible play off match. Going into round  seven and eight, Belgium had a four point gap over second placed Greece and a further point ahead of Bosnia.In round six Belgium and Greece had met and played out a draw although the Greeks could consider themselves unlucky not to take three points from the group leaders, that would have closed the gap to one point. Gibraltar came close to scoring their first point in their match against Cyprus, but were denied by a late winner.

Round seven saw Belgium host Gibraltar where the visitors suffered a 9-0 thrashing. Greece hosted Estonia but couldn’t breakthrough and had to settle for another draw which looked likely to hamper their qualification hopes.point. Bosnia though missed a great opportunity to move second when they went down 3-2 to Cyprus in Nicosia.

Round eight saw Belgium qualify for the finals as group winners with a victory over Greece, who themselves saw another chance to maintain a hold on the play off spot disappear. This allowed Bosnia to move second when they scored a 4-0 win away to Gibraltar.

So what now for the final two rounds. For Belgium, they can relax and enjoy themselves and can have a hand in who takes second place. Round nine sees the group leaders Belgium travel to Bosnia, where the hosts have yet to concede a goal. This could bode well for Bosnia in their quest although at the same time, Belgium have only condeded one on their travels. Greece travel to Cyprus which should favour the visitors. They will of course need to focus on their own game and not worry about what’s happening elsewhere.

Final round sees Greece with an advantage as they host Gibraltar. A big win would be crucial if they were to somehow finish on the same points as Bosnia. Bosnia though travel to Estonia, who they had previously beat 5-0. A repeat of this would give them a huge goal difference.

So who will be hoping to take a spot in the playoffs? Well that will depend on how Bosnia  do,, if they beat Belgium then they are home and dry. Given their record against the teams in 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th, they may struggle to get a playoff compared to Greece’s record. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.

Group I

The final group in the UEFA qualfying zone and it’s one that is very much undecided. It’s a battle between Turkey, Croatia, Iceland and Ukraine and going into rounds seven and eight it was the case of very much all to play for. Croatia lead the group ahead of Iceland on goal difference, with both on 13 points whilst Turkey and Ukraine worth on 11 and also separated by goal difference.

So, to round seven and Iceland looked favourites when they travelled to Finland. Their hosts had only managed to gain one point previous, although that was a win denied ten minutes from time against Kosovo. Unfortunately for Iceland, their hosts finally decided that they might make and effort and gain some pride. A solitary goal in the 8th minute was enough to hamper Iceland’s hopes.

Croatia though were not making any mistakes in Round 7 as they hosted Kosovo. It was again a solitary goal that separated the two nations, coming from Domagoj Vida in the 74th minute. The final game of the group saw the two rivals Ukraine and Turkey coming together at the Metalist. Both on 11 points and whoever lost could possibly see their hopes of automatic qualification disappear. A first half double from Yarmolenko kept the hosts hopes of taking the group still very much alive. It Come the end of round 7, Croatia were on 16 points, Ukraine 14, Iceland 13 and Turkey 11.

Round Eight saw another topsy turvy round. Key games saw Iceland host Ukraine and Turkey host Croatia as Finland played Kosovo in the game between the two eliminated nations. A victory for Croatia, would have given a little breathing space and a healthy 19 points. It wasn’t to be as Cenk Tosun grabbed the only goal of the game in the 75th minute. Iceland hosted Ukraine, both needing a win, especially for the hosts having had the surprise defeat whilst Ukraine with a win could go top. It was back to normal for the hosts as they won 2-0, leaving the group positions the same as it were going into the two rounds albeit the points changing. One thing of note is that Iceland Ukraine and Turkey all have a plus 4 goal difference going into the final two rounds. Iceland and Ukraine have the same goals for and against record.

The final two rounds of games could be very interesting in seeing who finishes where. Croatia host Finland in round nine but travel to the Ukraine in the final game. Croatia had won the first tie, but given the way the results have gone, it would not be a certainty. Iceland could eliminate Turkey with a win in round nine, especially if Croatia win their tie. There could be a twist though, with Ukraine likely to beat Kosovo, the final game between Ukraine and Croatia, could well be a winner takes all. Two wins for the Ukraine would see them on 20 points, with Croatia on 19.

World Cup Qualifying Review – UEFA Group A – D

The UEFA part of the journey to the World Cup Finals has just completed round eight for some groups and things are still very much up in the air for a number of groups. Only two nations have qualified (at the time of writing this blog post) and whilst most of the favourites will be there, I imagine that there maybe the odd big name casualty come round ten completion.

Group A

This group was always going to be an interesting one what with France, an Ibrahimovic free Sweden together with a doomladen Dutch side. The group had progressed to round six with some mixed results and going into round seven it was crucial for France not to drop points against the Dutch having lost to Sweden in round six. There was no sign of that problem happening as France crushed the Dutch 4-0 at the Stade De France. A Lemar double with a 90th minute goal turned a narrow win into a thumping win and a crucial boost to their goal difference which was now plus three ahead second placed Sweden’s plus eleven.

The victory for France turned out to be crucial as Sweden lost 3-2 away to Bulgaria. The Swedes lost their group lead after being unable to overcome a Bulgaria side who have blown hot and cold. The other game saw Luxembourg grab their first win in the group.

Round Eight was not a good one for France as they were held to a goalless draw at home to Luxembourg. Despite various attempts to break through Les Bleu could not do it. It gave the visitors four points from the round and off the bottom of the group.

The Swedes having lost to Bulgaria needed to keep in touch with France and that they did. Belarus were the hosts and their win over Bulgaria seemed an age away. They had nothing to play for apart from pride, but that seemingly went out the window when they found themselves 3-0 down at half time.

The Netherlands hosted Bulgaria in a must win game and having been previously hammered by the French, confidence might have been severely bashed especially with Bulgaria beating Sweden. It couldn’t have been more different. The Dutch won 3-1 with two goals from Davy Propper helped them to three crucial points especially with the French failing to win.

The final two rounds of games see Sweden host Luxembourg and will hope to do better than the French whilst Netherlands travel to Belarus and France travel to Bulgaria. These results will prove crucial given that in the final round, The Netherlands host Sweden and France host Belarus. Providing they win the previous game France should win the group. Given the three point advantage for the Scandinavians, they will hold advantage going into that final game.

Group B

Group B already has the top two already secured, it was just the matter as to who will win the group. The Swiss top of their group and are on a streak and yes I almost typed roll. They have a 100% record and don’t look like dropping a point anytime soon and with Hungary the next vistors to Switzerland, followed by the return match between them and second placed Portugal, it will be winner takes all.

Portugal in their next game travel to Andorra, who shouldn’t be too much of an obstacle. There could still be a twist in the tale come the final game. Portugal have the superior goal difference with a plus 24 compared to the Swiss plus 15 and with three points separating the two nations, should the Portuguese win, then it’s advantage to Cristiano Ronaldo’s team.

Group C

Group C is another group which has the top two already locked in. It is also a group with home nation participation in the form of Northern Ireland. Germany currently dominate the group with 24 points and a point from winning the group. Northern Ireland sit in second with a play off spot guaranteed and three points back. Their only dropped points being a 2-0 defeat against Germany and a 0-0 draw in the Czech Republic.

Game number nine sees the Germans travel to Northern Ireland and based on previous results, its three points for Germany but then we all know how shocks can be thrown up every so often. The final round of games sees Germany host Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland travel to Norway, who they previously beat at home.

Group D

Another group with home representation, sees a three way battle for the automatic and play off spots. Serbia currently lead with 18 points ahead of Wales (14) and Republic of Ireland (13).

Serbia have been in control of the group unbeaten with five wins and three draws. There win at the Aviva stadium put another dent in the Republic of Ireland’s qualification bid. The Serb’s look certain to win the group finishing up with a trip to Austria and hosting bottom placed Moldova in the final game. They could afford to draw in Vienna whilst beating Moldova. Anything else and their qualification hopes will be in other nation’s hands.

Home nation representatives Wales, had at one point looked like struggling to finish in the three let alone top two having drawn five of their eight games. As the Irish were losing, Woodburn of Liverpool was netting a 74th minute winner against Austria. Woodburn was involved once more as Wales moved second with a 2-0 win away to Moldova.

In the final round Serbia travel to Austria and should easily nail the automatic qualification spot with a win. Their result against Georgia though could be either. The Georgian side have been a difficult team to beat away from home with only the Irish managing to get three points from the game. Giving Wales record, it would be easy to suggest that they might only get a draw against the former Soviet nation, but having beaten Moldova they will be high on positivity going into that game. Anything less will give the advantage back to the Irish as they face Moldova in the penultimate game. The final game for both sees them face off in Wales in what will literally be a winner takes all game. Whatever happens though, it will be a noisy night in Cardiff.

Check out Part 2 coming soon featuring Groups E-I. Till then arrivederci, Auf Wiedersehen, au revoir and goodbye.

 

The not so beautiful game – The treatment of Sulley Muntari

Yet again football in Italy has failed to properly deal with the racism issue. This time Pescara midfield Sulley Muntari was the victim in a Serie A game between his club Pescara and Cagliari. Having received abuse, the Ghanian and former Portsmouth player went over to the fans who he had identified as those ones shouting racist chants. Having confronted the racists, I chose not to call them fans as decent football supporters don’t result to such levels, Muntari spoke to the referee. Thinking that the referee would deal with the matter, he was surprised to be on the receiving end of a yellow card. What was he given the yellow card for? dissent. I mean come on, if a player gets punished for reporting racism to a match official, then we are in trouble. Naturally the player walked off the pitch letting the game carry on.

It is appalling but yet not surprising to see the Italian FA failing to deal with the racism problem once more. We have seen time and time again that the racism problem raises its dirty head once more. Another example of failure to deal with racism is the treatment of Mario Ballotelli. The football enigma has been often a victim to the disgusting racism with the n word and monkey taunts. On one occasion was seen to be crying whilst on the bench having been on the receiving end of abuse. The response by his manager, Clarence Seerdorf and his players? Nothing to do with racism, but his passion for the game causing him to get upset.

What it needs is for a ban of some sort by either UEFA or FIFA on the Italian Football Association to make them realise that they need to take things more seriously. Handing out fines will simply not do.