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.

Sin Bins and shootouts – UEFA talks

UEFA will be meeting to discuss the idea of introducing sin bins along with changing the method of the penalty shootout. Why they need to discuss making changes or introducing things that really aren’t necessary is beyond me, but UEFA seem to think it’s a good idea but then UEFA introduced the ill-fated silver goal in 2003.

Sin bins have over the past three years been tested in UEFA development competitions and so you would think that if they were deemed successful then they would be introduced further into higher leagues already. The English FA though have decided that they will introduce them on a trial basis. Leagues that are six tiers below the National League and lower.

I don’t see the point of introducing the sin bin, it’s pointless and unecessary. It might sound great but it will possibly lead to more expense for Sunday league clubs. Why would that be? Well if you are to have a ‘sin bin’ in the lower levels, someone will need to monitor. The referee and assistants will be needing to concentrate on the game rather than someone having time out of the game.  It might even lead to the team with a player down resorting to negative tactics, but that’s just my opinion.

There is a simple way to reorder the balance of respecting the referee and the game. It’s not a sin bin, it’s in fact an idea from rugby union. Have the referee with a mic so the conversations between player and referee are heard. This should in one step cut out the dissent from players and the players who try to surround a referee.

So to the dreaded penalty shoot out. Fantastic for the neutrals but not so much for fans of the teams involved. Currently it is the ABAB approach which has worked well for decades. Following an IFAB meeting, it was trialled at the UEFA Under-17 European wish to trial. Spain met Germany in the semi final. The game ended goalless in 90 minutes and extra time. Spain won 4-2 but the ABBA process looked like making barely any difference. Spain were in the final against England and the game went to penalties. Yes England did lose. Again the ABBA setup seemed to make no difference as Spain won 4-1.

To be honest, instead of faffing about with various things, the football governing bodies should be making progress with video technology and retrospective action which we will see in the Premier League in the coming season. Diving will be punished retrospectively.

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.

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.

Expansion failure – Euro 2016

So Euro 2016 is done and dusted and Portugal are the European Champions having beaten France in extra time. UEFA and Portugal fans will naturally be happy, but those of a classic footballing mind will no doubt be in despair at the result. Some may ask and wonder why I feel the expansion to 24 nations has been a failure and I shall tell you why.

The expansion meant that not only did the top two of each group qualify but you had the top four best third placed nations reaching the knock out stage. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice to see Northern Ireland make the knockout stages but they had lost two out of the three games and in any other tournament that would hardly have been a route into the next round of a competition.

With the expansion it meant more games being played, so you would think that more goals would be on the cards. There were more goals but then there was at the same time more games. The goal per game average was lower than Euro 2012. In Euro 2012 there were 76 goals in 31 games, this was an average of 2.45. In Euro 2016 there 108 goals in 51 games  which equalled 2.12 goals per game. This was one of the lowest averages for sometime. Many games were 0-0 at half time and to be honest, sitting through the first 45 minutes in a game with no goals and little action is not the best way of enjoying a tournament. Fans want to be excited and to be honest the fans seemed to have more passion than some of the players.

Before the tournament I had been quite excited about the expanded tournament, but sadly that excitement dwindled with only a few standout games. Despite concerns, it seems UEFA are not going to budge from the 24 team set up at Euro 2020, where it will  be hosted across the European continent.

If no change comes and the tournament football still disappoints, there are two options that UEFA should take. That is either revert back to 16 or increase to 32 and have top two only. The increase to 32 would make the current qualification process more tricky, something that the governing body may not wish to look into.

My Euro 2016 Group stage predictions – The results

So, at the start of the competition I wrote two blog posts covering the six groups. In these posts I shared my predictions and with the group stages at an end, it’s time to see how well or not so well I have done.

Group A

So this group looked like being quite a reasonable one to predict. The hosts France would top the group with Romania coming second on goal difference. Switzerland would finish third together with Albania finishing bottom. Well what do I know. Turns out France would finish top  of the group. They wouldnt be held by Romania, who would end up finishing bottom. The Swiss would go unbeaten with one win and two draws.

Group B

The group featuring two of the home nations was always going to be an interesting one to watch. The top two in my predictions would see both home nations finishing in the top two with Slovakia finishing third. I wasnt too far wrong, a solid defence by Slovakia denied England a win and top of the group. I did though predict Slovakia finishing third and Russia bottom.

Group C

Thia group saw another home nation representative, this time Nothern Ireland. In a group containing Germany, Poland and the Ukraine, very few would have given them hope of getting anything. For me though the determination would see them get third and thats exactly how it finished. I was spot on with my predictions on places so that was quite impressive.

Group D

This group seemed to be an easy one to predict, Spain would come top with Croatia and the Czech Republic battling it out for second spot…..Turns out it wasnt. It had started well, Croatia and Spain opening with victories followed with a draw between Czech Republic and Croatia. Come the last round though, both Croatia and Turkey both changed the script. The Balkan nation beat the holders to win the group and Turkey decided to find where the opposition goal was. Thanks Group D for literally nothing.

Group E

This saw the Republic of Ireland in amongst Italy, Sweden and Belgium. It looked pretty tricky for the Irish, who would have to be on their top form to progress. Italy won the group ahead of Belgium who started off slowly. After their indifferent opener, they beat Ireland 3-0. Sweden with the mighty Ibrahimovic, continued their Euro finals woe. They came bottom with a point, thanks to the unfortunate own goal from Ireland. The Irish did fulfil one prediction of beating Italy and claiming third spot.

Group F

The final group saw one that was a little drab but actually come the group matches, it turned into something more interesting. I was quite bold in my predictions. For me I tipped Hungary to win with Portugal second. Little did I know that Portugal didnt fancy their shooting boots till late on. The Hungarian side would get the draw against Portugal but also Iceland, who themselves surprise.