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World Cup 2018

World Cup Qualifying’s need for change

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Last week, all European nations found out who they would be facing during the qualifying phase for the World Cup in 2018 with a draw in St Petersburg. In addition to this, South American qualifying was drawn, as were various stages of the Oceania, Africa and CONCACAF (North & Central America) qualification phases.

The real question though, is what was the point of the ceremony? Some continents have already started their qualifying whilst the first European qualifier is still over 12 months away. It seems ridiculous to rank teams for the draw that long before they will be qualifying whilst some teams have already faced qualifiers before the big, glitzy, official event. The Oceania, Africa and CONCACAF draws were messy due to their complex formats while the South American section involved putting 10 teams in a pot just to pull them all out again, with the only meaningful outcome the decision on fixture order. It would make much more sense for each governing body to do their own draws on a need to basis at their own headquarters, saving the cost and travel required for everyone to travel to St Petersburg.

Everybody knows football costs are escalating, but is it any wonder when the governing body is willing to splash out on a lavish ceremony that quite simply isn’t required. Of course, when it comes to FIFA and money, holding a draw ceremony is hardly a big problem in the grand scheme of things, but is another change that the incoming president – assuming Sepp Blatter does stand down as claimed – should be looking to make.

The draw itself did throw up some interesting ties in Europe. Just the group winners will automatically qualify for 2018, in stark contrast to the current Euro 2016 qualifying when a third place finish might be good enough to get to France. It means either Spain or Italy face the prospect of a playoff tie, as do one of France and The Netherlands, whilst lesser fancied teams could face a more straightforward passage.  However, some of the groups have familiar looks to them with England facing Slovenia and Lithuania, two sides also in their Euro 2016 qualifying group. With International attendances suffering as the club game continues to grow, FIFA need to implement measures to avoid this repetitiveness. Ensuring teams avoid each other during each four year cycle would always give fans the opportunity to see new teams and new players, something that should stimulate interest. Even in England where international games are still popular, many fans would struggle to justify paying the extortionate ticket prices to see Lithuania twice in as many years.

A World Cup should also involve countries from all parts of the globe, especially the World Cup for the planet’s most popular sport. However, the winner from Oceania will face a play-off against the fifth placed team in South American qualifying. South America is blessed with talent at the moment with the past two Copa America winners Uruguay and Chile alongside usual powerhouses Brazil and Argentina. Columbia, with star man James Rodriguez, reached the quarter finals in 2014 whilst Paraguay matched that feat in South Africa four years before. The chances are, Oceania will be without a representative when 2018 rolls around.

James Rodriguez announced his arrival on the world stage with a series of stellar performances for Colombia during Brazil 2014.

The World Cup is one of the greatest shows on the planet and naturally benefits from having the best players and best teams there. However, the only way football is going to grow in Oceania is by giving their countries exposure to it on the biggest stage. Whilst the qualifier is unlikely to do much damage at the tournament, neither is the fifth best team from South America as there are already four teams better than them on their continent alone, without taking into account that Europe has provided the last 3 winners.

Qualifying is already underway across much of the world with 25 teams already being knocked out in Oceania, Africa and Asia. In Europe though, the World Cup will take a back seat as Euro 2016 qualifiers restart in the autumn before the tournament itself next summer. The questionable draw procedure raises the prospect of a World Cup top seed crashing out in the early stages in France, or not even making the tournament with nearly half of qualifying still remaining. Equally possible is a third or fourth seed making a serious mark on the tournament and making a mockery of the ranking system used. Poland, currently top of Germany’s group after a victory against their neighbours last October but were only seeded in pot 3 last Saturday. What is to say a team that beat the World Champions cannot win the European Championships? For football’s sake, let’s hope this doesn’t happen and following next summer’s tournament the groups resemble a sensible line up. Although, maybe it would force a rethink among the powers that be to create a fairer system for all involved, because World Cup Qualifying is in need of a revamp.

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England National Team

England youngsters begin to repay Gareth Southgate’s faith

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Gareth Southgate

It has not been a vintage few years for England’s national team. Many have tried to find the root of the problem but perhaps the man most qualified is the head coach of the reigning World Champions, Joachim Low.

Speaking a year after Germany’s success in Brazil (where England were dumped out after finishing bottom of their group), he claimed that England must “face up to the fact [that] their young players don’t get the minutes for their clubs”.

It is widely acknowledged that any green shoots of talent which emerge are trampled down by the Premier League and its preoccupation with expensive foreign signings. This, he added cheerfully, also meant that “in the last few years £100 million has been put back into [German] youth development”.

However, failure in Rio was by no means the peak of English embarrassment, emphatically beaten to that title by the defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016. It was this result that led to Chris Waddle’s memorable complaint that the products of England’s development system are “all pampered, they’re all headphones and you can’t get anything out of them”.

Waddle did it most colourfully, but he was one of many to attribute the defeat to a failure to deal with adversity, an inability to adapt in tough times.

After witnessing another leisurely stroll through qualifying for 2018, this time under Gareth Southgate, England fans will be searching for evidence that the next tournament could be different. Friday night’s match against Germany showed that Southgate is beginning to address the problems.

He introduced five debutants at Wembley, the most notable of which were Chelsea starlets Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who have finally received some top flight game time following loan moves to Swansea City and Crystal Palace, respectively.

Now at less illustrious clubs, their inclusion shows Southgate’s willingness to select players from any team, a stark change in selection policy.

Loftus-Cheek and Abraham will benefit not only from the playing time, but also from the unique experience of playing for a struggling team.

The former, just seven appearances into his first proper season in the league, has managed to impress in a Palace team infamous for suffering the worst ever start to a Premier League campaign and changing their manager after just four games. It appears that Loftus-Cheek is not a player who shrinks in adversity, but one who thrives.

Abraham, similarly, has been thrust into a Swansea side who are current favourites for relegation and his four strikes this season represent over half of the Swans’ league goals. He is raw, but is clearly a player able to perform for a struggling team, something which may well come in handy during his England career.

Gareth Southgate has recognised that the many who fail to break into top teams can still become top players. This is not an issue specific to English players, prospects from overseas have also been spun out by the revolving door transfer policies of moneyed clubs.

In the first of his few appearances for Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek took the place in the squad of a young Egyptian who was subsequently loaned out before being discarded. However, despite failing to cement a first-team place at Chelsea, Mohamed Salah is doing brilliantly at Liverpool. His reaction to that setback is an example to all English youngsters.

The England manager will continue to put his faith in players from ‘unfashionable’ clubs and has called up Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook for Tuesday’s game against Brazil. This should encourage the next generation to step out of their academy comfort zone and seek real footballing experience.

If the precocious talents of England’s all-conquering development sides are encouraged to broaden their footballing horizons, we may finally produce players capable of dealing with the glare of an expectant nation. Rounded professionals not ‘pampered headphones’; music to the ears of England fans.

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Match Reaction

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.

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England National Team

Three talking points from England’s World Cup qualifying win in Lithuania

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England

Gareth Southgate’s England ended their World Cup qualifying campaign in Group F unbeaten on Sunday with a 1-0 win in Lithuania, Harry Kane’s first-half spot-kick enough to secure all three points after his Spurs teammate Dele Alli was upended by Ovidjus Verbickas inside the penalty area.

In truth, that was the only real highlight of the 90 minutes, Southgate’s experimental line-up failing to excite in a dour display in Vilnius, following up Thursday night’s below par showing against Slovenia at Wembley which had rubber-stamped the Three Lions’ place in Russia.

The main talking point of the night came from Southgate’s three-man central defence, including a debut for Leicester City defender Harry Maguire, whilst fellow debutant Harry Winks impressed after being handed his first senior cap in midfield.

Despite England boss Southgate facing various critics on social media over his inclusion of the Tottenham youngster in his squad following the injury forced withdrawals of Fabian Delph and Phil Jones, the midfielder was a rare bright spark in a dead-rubber game for England, and was only denied a debut international goal by a flying save from Lithuania goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus after the interval.

Despite a qualifying record of nine wins and one draw from ten matches, there still appears to be much room for improvement for England, who only managed four shots on target.

They may well have been punished had they been facing stronger opposition, with Jack Butland required to intervene on two notable occasions, including a flying save from his own defender Michael Keane following a botched clearance.

But what were the biggest talking points of a wet and windy night in Vilnius as a World Cup qualifying campaign that looks impressive on paper drew to a quiet close?

Experimental England remain unbeaten but laboured against mediocre opposition

With qualification secured, Gareth Southgate handed starts to some of the fringe players in his England squad as he looks to explore more of his options in a bid to identify his strongest starting XI and, with it, his most effective formation and tactical set-up.

Jack Butland, Kieran Trippier, Aaron Cresswell, and Michael Keane all started alongside debutants Winks and Maguire, with Dele Alli recalled after completing a one-match ban. Yet, far from the urgency and hunger to impress that many expected, England made hard work of it against a markedly average Lithuania.

Kane’s 27th minute penalty was England’s first effort on target in a match where they only managed four, and they failed to stamp their authority on the match as the Lithuanians themselves carved out half chances of their own as the game wore on.

In attack, there seemed to be a real lack of forward intent, with Marcus Rashford – one of England’s bright sparks in the win over Slovenia – often opting to run the channels and lose the ball amongst a flurry of Lithuanian defenders.

Few looked willing to gamble in the penalty area in support of lone striker and focal point Harry Kane, with midfielders, such as Jordan Henderson, opting to sit deep rather than venture forward in the aim of hurting the hosts.

The penalty award was a rare moment of craft, with Cresswell getting up in support and Alli’s impressive movement carving open an opportunity from which he drew the foul inside the box. That may well have been enough to secure the points on the night, but does little to stoke the fires of optimism ahead of clashes with stronger opposition in Russia.

The statistics seem impressive, but the performance offers little to write home about. With 30 players having been used by both Sam Allardyce and Gareth Southgate in this qualifying campaign alone, too much reshuffling and little stability and continuity may be one cause of the team’s ills.

On a more positive note, Kane’s strike was his 15th this season for club and country, and his seventh in his previous six appearances for England. The Spurs star will almost certainly be the man that Southgate elects to lead the line in Russia.

More defensive re-shuffling to follow?

Southgate rightfully waited until qualification was secure before re-shuffling the pack in Vilnius, opting to experiment with a 3-4-3 set-up akin to Antonio Conte’s title-winning Chelsea side of last season.

Michael Keane, John Stones and debutant Harry Maguire were the starring trio in the defensive line, and although relatively solid there were a few hiccups along the way.

Jack Butland – handed his opportunity in place of regular Number One Joe Hart – was required to keep out a miscued Michael Keane clearance which may well have ended in an own goal, and had to be alert to cover an 11th-minute flick from Davydas Sernas at his near post, before getting well behind a Deivydas Matulevicius effort after the interval.

On a positive note, Stones looked assured in possession and accurate with his passing within the back three, whilst Maguire enjoyed a relatively trouble free night, unlucky not to have grabbed himself a goal in the third minute from a headed opportunity.

Gareth Southgate has already hinted at the possibility of using the formation again in future, and the three who acted as guinea pigs on Sunday will have done their prospects no real harm here.

Its true effectiveness will be given a far sterner test in the coming weeks, however, with friendlies against Germany and Brazil at Wembley next on the agenda.

Harry Winks justifies inclusion in impressive debut

Gareth Southgate’s decision to include Harry Winks in his squad, even as a replacement for the injury hit duo of Phil Jones and Fabian Delph, raised several eyebrows.

The youngster was handed his international debut having only four starts for Tottenham under his belt, but he justified that inclusion with a man-of-the-match performance, playing a match high 98 passes and offering England a different dimension in the centre-midfield area, which is lacking in regular starters Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson.

It will certainly give Southgate a helpful selection headache for the upcoming games, even if Winks had to stand out amidst so much mediocrity on show in Vilnius.

He brought the bite that England fans expected from the rest of the side when he was allowed to go forward, and appeared far more adventurous than his more seasoned international teammates.

Having spent most of the match sitting deep to accommodate the ineffective Henderson, Southgate could do worse than give Winks game time in a more advanced midfield role.

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