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Three talking points as Scotland’s World Cup dreams were crushed in Slovenia

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Scotland

It was another ‘oh so near’ tale for Scotland, but their hopes of reaching a first major tournament since 1998 were cruelly dashed after an agonising 2-2 draw with Slovenia in Ljubljana on Sunday saw Slovakia finish in second place ahead of Scotland on mere goal difference after they comfortably saw off Malta 3-0 in Trnava.

The Scots came up short in the harshest manner, Leigh Griffiths sending the travelling contingent of Scottish supporters into delirium with an angled effort across Jan Oblak to give the Tartan Army lift off, but Slovenian substitute Roman Bezjak twice profited from some slack defending on set-piece situations to turn the game on its head.

Robert Snodgrass netted a late equaliser to offer Scotland hope, but despite Slovenia losing captain Bostjan Cesar to a red card on his 100th international appearance, they were unable to get the crucial third goal that would see them into the World Cup qualifying play-offs, ensuring that the wait for a first major tournament appearance this century goes on.

In itself, the result isn’t necessarily a bad one, with Slovenia having kept clean sheets in all of their previous home qualifiers in the group. However, as the nation is left to rue yet another near miss, which key talking points emerged from another agonising evening for Scottish football?

Sloppy defending at set-pieces costs Scotland dear

Scotland manager Gordon Strachan had highlighted the importance of remaining organised at the back in the face of Slovenia’s attacking presence, particularly at set-pieces with the height and strength that Srecko Katanec’s side have at their disposal.

At full-time, Strachan was left ruing the genetic backwardness of his team for their failure to get the three points required in Slovenia, but in truth, the goals they conceded were soft at best and could well have been avoided had his side not neglected to get the basics right at the most crucial of times.

The free-kick that led to Slovenia’s equaliser may have been a harsh one, Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson, an old adversary of Strachan, blowing up for a free-kick against Darren Fletcher for a soft foul on Josip Ilicic.

Ilicic himself took the free-kick toward the far post, guilty party Fletcher culpable for losing his man as Roman Bezjak stole a march on him to nod the ball home beyond the helpless Craig Gordon.

Others may point out the goalkeeper’s own error in perhaps not coming out to claim the ball inside his own six yard box, but with the Scottish defence lining up as deep as it did, Gordon was left with very little time or space to come out and claim. Coupled with Fletcher losing his marker, the self-destruct button had been pushed.

Scotland’s woes at the back didn’t end there. If the first was disappointing to give away, the second was almost criminal, Christophe Berra failing to connect with an incoming corner kick, and when the ball was laid to Bezjak, Katanec’s inspired substitution did the rest, calmly stroking the ball home through a crowd of players and into the bottom corner.

Even with Robert Snodgrass netting an equaliser it was too little too late, as the Scots were left needing two goals in eight minutes plus stoppage time to qualify for the playoffs; a proverbial mountain to climb. It was all a bridge too far in the end, but had they held their nerve and nailed the basics, it may well have been a different story.

Does Strachan’s 4-4-2 formation and starting line-up warrant scrutiny?

One means of Gordon Strachan setting up his side to combat Slovenia’s aerial presence was in the way he set-up his team going forward.

He could do little about his side’s individual errors at the back, but he opted for two up front in the shape of the impressive Leigh Griffiths and the imposing frame of Chris Martin, adding height to the attack to support Griffiths, an option to aim at with the diagonal ball, and to give Slovenia’s towering defenders a physical presence to worry about.

With Barry Bannan and Matt Phillips deployed as wide men to provide service to the forwards, the selection looked positive and initially paid off as Scotland weathered some early pressure before beginning to stamp their authority on the game. Fletcher was impressive in the midfield battle, whilst marauding full-backs Andrew Robertson and Kieran Tierney began to venture forward in support.

Once Scotland got the opening goal, they seemed to drop too deep and invite Slovenian pressure, which ultimately they proved unable to withstand.

Some would argue based on Robert Snodgrass’ impact, alongside the presence of other creative options such as Matt Ritchie and Callum McGregor that Strachan’s starting line-up was the wrong one. Given the start the Scots made, and the option to turn to the bench if required, the starting XI seems more an element that Strachan actually got right.

Snodgrass’ introduction in the 79th minute swung the game back in Scotland’s favour, but arguably he should have been thrown into the fray earlier for a more decisive impact. Then, only in the 80th did Strachan go for broke and introduce a third striker in Steven Fletcher. Having got his substitutions spot on against Slovakia at Hampden, he unfortunately seemed to come up short.

Ikechi Anya, his final change and provider of the winning goal in the Slovakia match, was his first roll of the dice in Ljubljana, following Bezjak netting the equaliser. The Derby County man was largely ineffective, but following his impact at Hampden, it is easy to relate to Strachan’s decision to turn to the pacey winger.

Where next for Strachan as Scots reflect on damaging start?

Strachan’s critics will be picking holes in his starting XI in Ljubljana, but many Scotland fans will be left ruing the poor start to the campaign which left the Tartan Army with a mountain to climb in the second half of the campaign in the first place.

Four games into the campaign Scotland had a meagre four points, a solitary win in Malta followed up by a disaster draw with Lithuania at Hampden before back-to-back 3-0 defeats away to Slovakia and England. Re-invigorated by a late Chris Martin winner at home to the Slovenes back in March, the Scots ended their campaign with a six-match unbeaten run, picking up 14 points from a possible 18 to remain unbeaten in 2017. But it was just too much to do.

Had Scotland held on for victory against England back in June, the two extra points would have seen them through, but with little expected from the tie with the eventual Group F winners, that draw with Lithuania looks the standout culprit.

And Strachan’s role in that slow, costly start to the campaign is coming under heavy scrutiny. Having revitalised Scotland at the end of an already doomed World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign, his first full campaign, the race to qualify for Euro 2016, had ended in heartbreak after a stoppage time Robert Lewandowski equaliser for Poland at Hampden Park denied Scotland a playoff berth.

Still reeling from that agonising exit, the renaissance was put on hold as Strachan tinkered with his side in search of a winning formula, to the detriment of his team’s results on the pitch. Now, with those lost points proving costly, the knives are out.

However, having seemingly learned his lessons and led Scotland through 2017 without defeat thus far, there is room to argue that Strachan deserves a third crack of the whip in trying to get Scotland to a major tournament.

Having seen his side benefit from a nucleus of players that regularly feature in Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic side, including breakthrough youngsters Kieran Tierney and Stuart Armstrong, there is a sense that now this Scotland team needs continuity in order to build on its progress over the past 11 months, rather than a more untimely overhaul which could see the Tartan Army go two steps back before going forwards again.

After all, they’ve been here before: Alex McLeish vacating the hot-seat following Scotland’s agonising 2007 loss to Italy (which saw them miss out on Euro 2008) sparked three campaigns of regression under George Burley and Craig Levein, and there is every chance that they could be heading back into the wilderness if the Scottish FA choose to dispense with Strachan’s services.

There is little talk of the football hierarchy in Scotland dismissing Strachan, but only time will tell whether the intense pressure from his critics will be enough for the former Celtic and Middlesbrough boss to throw in the towel himself.

Scott is a Port Vale fan who writes regularly for The Boot Room as a freelancer. He is a fan of several sports but most of his experience in journalism comes from football and volleyball. He has produced several works on major Championships for both the FIVB and CEV in the volleyball world out in Switzerland, and is currently studying for a BA Hons in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

Barcelona

Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona: Three talking points from Stamford Bridge

Rob Meech brings us three talking points as Chelsea held La Liga leaders Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Lionel Messi finally broke his goalscoring duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona the edge after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie.

Messi had failed to score in eight previous attempts against the Blues, but he was not to be denied on this occasion as he cancelled out Willian’s 62nd-minute opener.

A Chelsea clean sheet would have been a massive boost ahead of a daunting trip to the Camp Nou next month.

However, Messi’s equaliser 15 minutes from time means Antonio Conte’s men face an uphill battle to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s showpiece competition.

Here are three talking points from Stamford Bridge…

Conte’s tactical approach so nearly pays dividends

But for the fatal error that led to Messi’s leveller, Chelsea would be heading to Catalonia in three weeks’ time with a one-goal lead to protect.

That they came so close to victory is testament to Conte’s tactical nous, which stifled Barcelona while also allowing the home side to flourish.

As expected, the visitors dominated the ball throughout the encounter. However, they created precious few opportunities as Chelsea’s back line held firm.

Conte had resisted the temptation to start with an out-and-out striker, with Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud both named on the bench.

The fluid movement of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian caused more problems than Barcelona have been used to this season and the Blues’ second-half goal was a deserved one.

Heading into the second leg, Conte will need to devise another masterplan if Chelsea are to proceed to the last eight.

Third time lucky for impressive Willian

The tricky Brazilian has by no means been a regular for Chelsea this season.

But he was given the nod against Barcelona in a three-man attack that featured Hazard as a false number nine.

It’s a system Conte has favoured recently, but although it failed to get the best out of Hazard, the same could not be said about Willian.

He was Chelsea’s chief threat and, on another night, could have walked off with the match ball.

Willian twice hit the post in the first-half, showing great skill on each occasion to create space and leave Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen with no chance.

Despite his misfortune, Willian was unbowed and he broke the deadlock with a pinpoint finish that raised the roof at Stamford Bridge.

It was a fitting reward for a top-class performance that highlighted his natural ability.

Surely he can’t be far away from cementing a regular spot in Conte’s starting XI?

Messi ends Chelsea goal drought to have decisive say

It is not often that British football fans get to see the little magician at such close quarters, so each time he arrives on these shores it is to be cherished.

Chelsea had a game-plan to nullify his influence and in the first half this worked superbly.

Although there were the usual sublime touches that we have come to expect, Messi was largely shackled by a solid rearguard display from Chelsea’s three-man central defence.

However, it only takes a side to switch off for a moment for the Argentinian to flex his muscles.

A misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen was intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose pull back enabled Messi to slide the ball past Thibaut Courtois.

Once the ball had arrived to him in the box, there was no doubting where it would nestle.

Messi’s exuberant celebrations underlined the importance of his equaliser in the context of the tie.

It could be the decisive moment.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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Champions League

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.

The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.

Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…

Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino

Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.

But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.

By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.

But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.

Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.

Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.

Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping

It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.

No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.

As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.

And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.

However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.

On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.

Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods

When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.

The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.

Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.

Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.

Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.

As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.

But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.

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