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.

 

 

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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.

World Cup to 48 – No thanks

 So the reality of an expanded World Cup moves ever closer. FIFA voted on Tuesday 10th January for a 48 nations in 2026. If you thought Russia and Qatar being handed the World Cup Finals was a crazy idea, then expanding to 48 seems one step too far. Of course it will all be about making it more profitable and making more money. It is all very well making things profitable if the actual product improves. Sadly it is very unlikely that the football will improve. The  reality is that the teams from Europe and South America will continue to dominate whilst African nations keep their toes dipped in the pool as it were. It is very unlikely that other than Japan, South Korea or Australia,the Asian teams or even those from Oceania (should they qualify) will be nothing more than adding numbers to the loss column. There were five options available for the member nations to vote for but it seems

  • Keep The Existing Structure
  • Expand to 40 ( 8 Groups of 5)
  • Expand to 40 (10 Groups of 4)
  • Expand to 48 (16 Groups of 3)
  • Expand to 48 (Opening 32 play off round)

As you can see there are five options. The first one is the if it aint broke dont fix it option, you then have the increase to 40, this was an idea that the former UEFA man Michel Platini had suggested, which could have been bearable and then finally the 48 option.

It is one thing to make the World Cup bigger but to choose the most ridiculous option of 16 groups of three is just bordering on pointless and with two going through. The last time the World Cup finals saw groups of three was when Spain hosted the World Cup in 1982. Back then it saw just the group winners make it into the next round. That idea seemed to have been quickly thrown away as the following World Cup finals format returned to group then knockout rounds. If the idea of three team groups was a bad idea then, why in gods name does anyone think it’s going to be better in 2026. I guess in the post Qatar fall out anything might seem bearable.

The Scottish FA seem to support it, I guess anything that enhances their chances of qualifying can only seem good. That said they dont seem to be able to make headway in a group that contains Slovenia, Slovakia and Lithuania. I guess though anything that keeps the Scot’s somewhat happy. The not so happy people included the European Club Association, who opposed it and called it regrettable and merely for political reasons. The Spanish La Liga are also against it.

There may not be any reversal in the decision, but one can only hope that before the competition has reached it’s centenary year, the tournament may have seen its enjoyment tarnished.

Champions League – Last 16

The Champions League draw took place this morning and England’s three remaining representatives were hoping for a easier start to a possible run to the final. For Arsenal and Man City it was familiar ground but for Premier League champions Leicester, this was still new ground. In fact for the Foxes, they were the only debutants in the knock out stages in this rounds competition.

Having snatched the group on the final round of group games, Arsenal found them meeting their Champions League nemesis, Bayern Munich. Having lost to them at the same stage in 2013 and 2014, Arsene Wenger will hope it’s third time lucky for the Gunners. Bayern, who finished second in their group will look to progress to the final having lost to runners up Atletico Madrid.

Leicester City find themselves in at the deep end as they face Spanish club Sevilla, who won last seasons Europa League final against Liverpool. The Spaniards came second to Juventus in their group and in their domestic league are flying in third place. The fortunate thing for Leicester is that they will be at home in the second leg and if they are yet again flying in Champions League form and still within a shout, it could make all the difference.

Man City will hope to make it to the Semi finals again and will see their chance of progression the easiest out of the three home clubs Whilst they face French club Monaco beat Tottenham twice, they wont be easy. City will hope that their form has turned round by the time the two clubs meet.

In the other last sixteen fixtures Real Madrid look favourites against Napoli, despite the defending champions finishing second in their group albeit behind Borussia Dortmund. Benfica face a tricky tie when they face Borussia Dortmund. The Portuguese club will need to be tight at the back against the strong German club. PSG’s failure to top the group with a final round draw sees them face Barcelona. The French club will host Barcelona in the first leg and travel to Spain for the second. It should prove to be a mouthwatering tie with both teams looking to reach the final.

All too late? – Fifa’s move for change

Fifa appear to be finally learning from the mess that has engulfed the organisation and brought the end of Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini. They have appeared to decide to make a U turn on the decision not to have fixed terms along with more stronger checks on how the organisation is run.

 Fixed term appointments are not a bad thing, but they should have been put in place years ago. Had this been done, we may not have been in this position to begin with. Hindsight though is a wonderful thing.

In my opinion though the whole of the FIFA executive committee should be scrapped and started again. As it stands the Executive committee consists of one president, one Senior Vice President, seven Vice Presidents, sixteen members one Co-opted member for Special Tasks and the General Secretary.

Frankly that seems a ridiculous amount of members in the role of Vice President on an executive committee. Does FIFA actually require seven Vice Presidents? Im not sure it does to be honest. They should instead have one outright president, one deputy president and two Vice Presidents. The members should consist of three members from each of the Associations. An equal balance within the associations would mean equal balance and fairness in FIFA.

Openess should have always been the case with FIFA, especially with such a big organisation. In 2015 it should be the norm without hesitation. Whilst it is is positive, it is very much shutting the door after the horse has bolted.

Notably with the recent events, the changes in FIFA, may require investigations within the other affected to root out any possible issues. Trouble wont be sorted with just an investigation at the highest of the organisations. It needs change all over. We shall though have to wait and see.