With the clock counting down to next summer’s European Championships in France ticking past the year mark last week, Europe is beginning to reap the benefits of UEFA’s decision to expand the 2016 championships to 24 international sides. Six games into the qualification, there has been surprise, intrigue and excitement, with several larger sides struggling and smaller nations on the verge of qualification, as we witness the most exciting qualification campaign for a major tournament in living memory.
The decision to expand the Euros by UEFA and Michel Platini was not without controversy. Germany manager Joachim Loew has distinctly against the idea and Henry Winter, football writer for the Telegraph, described Platini’s decision as “misguided”. The worries were the qualifying campaign would become a complete bore, with more established sides such as Spain, Germany and the Netherlands breezing through qualifying with half of their fixture list to spare. Furthermore, at the tournament, there would be several smaller nations who would be taken to pieces at the group stage, rendering the first round of the tournament as a complete non-event. However, evidence from the early stages of qualifying suggests that Loew and Winter were wrong to cast doubt over the tournament, and UEFA may have found the perfect balance.
The greatest factor of the qualification process for the tournament so far is that each group has a story to tell. One of the biggest is that, contrary to popular belief before the start of qualifying, the larger nations have struggled to assert their dominance over the rest of the field; Spain trail Slovakia in Group C; Germany have lost to Group D leaders Poland as well as dropping points at home to the Republic of Ireland; the Netherlands have a tough fight even to achieve a play-off position in Group A, trailing Iceland and the Czech Republic whilst hovering precariously above Turkey. Even sides which have had perfect campaigns, like England, have hardly had it all their own way, facing some tough tests against sides such as Slovenia and Estonia, where they required late winners on both occasions to spare their blushes.
With an increased chance of qualifying for smaller nations, matches against Europe’s elite have suddenly gained much more importance. Points gained against the top sides in the group could mean automatic qualification rather than a play-off, or a play-off rather than another qualification failure. The promise of playing in a major tournament has added an extra incentive to matches against big teams, and has tightened up the qualifying groups as a result.
Not only have the bigger nations struggled in qualifying, but smaller nations have really benefitted from the expansion, particularly some of the home nations. Wales, who have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup are currently top of Group B, ahead of 2nd-ranked Belgium, and are consequently on the verge of cracking the world’s top 10. Northern Ireland sit second in Group F behind Romania, and have a real chance of making a major tournament, which was scarcely believable after just one win in World Cup 2014 qualification. In addition, Iceland, Poland, Austria and Slovakia all lead their groups in spite of recent qualifying struggles which suggested that, at best, they would be fighting for second or third in their respective groups. The expansion of the tournament provided these smaller nations with a realistic chance of qualifying for the European Championships, subsequently raising their performance level and allowing them to reach their maximum potential. These sides now have a great deal of confidence in themselves, and reaching a Euro 2016 will only increase competition for places in future tournaments.
The greater prize on offer has not only had an impact on intermediate-level nations such as Wales and Iceland, but also filtered further down to the micro-states of Europe, who have also raised their level in qualifying. With the exception of new boys Gibraltar, there is not a single country that looks out of place in European qualification. Andorra may not have gained a point but have been much more competitive in Group B than in previous campaigns. The Faroe Islands have defeated top-seeds Greece twice and sit fourth in their qualifying group. Liechtenstein are only three points behind third-placed Russia in the race for Group G’s play-off spot. Even perennial whipping boys San Marino managed to pick up a point against Estonia. The increased level of competitiveness has filtered all the way down to the bottom, making qualifying a much more exciting and unpredictable affair.
Whether the excitement of qualifying will translate to the tournament remains to be seen; there is the possibility that we may see more defensive football in the group stages and the occasional drubbing, but the story of the qualifying campaign thus far suggests that this is unlikely to happen. Each qualifying match, from top to bottom of the group, has gained more importance and therefore a more competitive nature, providing us with a rich qualifying tournament that should transfer to the expanded group stage. Furthermore, the tournament will now have a round of 16, giving us eight extra tense knockout matches with a penchant for drama and even dreaded penalty shoot-outs.
Next summer will also give us the chance to see quality players from smaller countries perform on the biggest stage; Gylfi Sugurdsson, David Alaba, Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale (and, unfortunately, his hair) all look set to grace a major championships for the first time in their careers. Qualifying has so far showed us that Europe has so many more talented teams than the usual few that represent UEFA at major tournaments, unearthing new talent and growing football nations. An attempt to improve the European Championships via the method of expansion had the potential to be a disaster, but the changes have deepened the quality of Europe’s national sides and given us a great qualifying campaign. Change is often met with scepticism, but the criticisms of the growth of the Euros have proved unfounded, with Europe is already benefitting from the expanded tournament.
France 2016 may or may not turn out to be a classic tournament, but it is already all the better for its expanded entry list. At a time where football bodies can do no right in the eyes of the media, UEFA deserve a lot of credit for their decision to expand the European Championships. Bring on next summer!
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Michael O’Neill confirms Bailey Peacock-Farrell is in his plans
The Northern Ireland manager has confirmed the Leeds United goalie will be a regular in the senior squad.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has given hope to Leeds United goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell this week regarding his international future. Northern Ireland take on South Korea during the international break and the Leeds stopper may have hoped to be involved.
On this occasion there was no call-up for the Leeds goalie. But, as quoted by the Belfast Telegraph, he is set for a long-term future in the national team set-up:
“Conor Hazard is a goalkeeper that we have high hopes for.
“He trained with the senior squad last June. We have three young keepers in Hazard, (Conor) Mitchell and Bailey (Peacock-Farrell). The three will be rotated and managed between the Under 21s and senior side going forward.”
Peacock-Farrell has recently made his second breakthrough into the Leeds United first-team. With Felix Wiedwald out of form and usual second choice Andy Lonergan ill, the 21-year-old was brought into the first-team to face Championship leaders Wolves last week. It was the stopper’s first Leeds appearance since his last and only one, v QPR in April 2016.
He impressed in the game, winning the man-of-the-match award and retained his place for the Reading game at the weekend.
Unfortunately it seems his emergence came too late to earn a Northern Ireland call-up. Instead, O’Neill went with experienced pair Michael McGovern and Trevor Carson with first time call-up Conor Hazard. It seems the Celtic talent, currently on loan at Falkirk, will be Peacock-Farrell’s main rival for the national team set-up.
The Leeds goalie has plenty to do before he wins his first Northern Ireland cap. He has been called up to the senior squad once before, but for now will be battling with Burnley’s Conor Mitchell for the number one spot with the under-21s.
But it seems a future in the Northern Ireland national set-up is in the long-term plans for the Leeds United goalkeeper.
Fans at Elland Road will hope he can produce the sort of form that warrants a return to his national team.
Where does Andrea Pirlo rank amongst the greats of his generation?
If you asked any football fan to list the top players of the century, there is surely no doubt that Andrea Pirlo would be near the top on the majority of them.
Having announced his retirement from the game aged 38 earlier this month, the Italian has amassed over 20 winners’ medals, including the Champions League in 2003 and 2007, and the World Cup in 2006.
He has been named Serie A Player of the Year on three separate occasions as well as being named in the FIFPro World XI in 2006, and the UEFA team in 2012.
Pirlo was instrumental in guiding Milan to the 2005 Champions League final, although they lost on penalties – he stated that he considered quitting after that game given the way Milan lost the match, having gone 3-0 up, showing his passion and will to win.
He was then was voted the third best player at the following year’s World Cup as Italy won the competition.
As a player, Pirlo never relied on physicality, and was not a heavy goalscorer, with his highest tally in any campaign being for Milan in 2002/03, where he scored nine goals.
That was only his second season at Milan, having been transferred from close rivals Inter for £10 million.
His move coincided with the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti, who was one of the biggest influences on Pirlo’s development as a player.
Under Ancelotti, Milan and Pirlo won the Serie A, Champions League, Coppa Italia and the UEFA Super Cup all in a four-year spell.
In terms of his playing style, it was his passing that set him apart from the majority of players, as well as his vision, which made him into one of the world’s greatest deep-lying playmakers.
Probably the two closest comparisons to Pirlo in terms of modern-day players are Xavi and Andres Iniesta, both of Barcelona.
Pirlo nearly joined Barcelona under Pep Guardiola in 2010, but Milan refused to sell him despite the Italian’s reported interest in the move. Had he made the move to Spain, Pirlo could have added another dimension to what was already an unstoppable Barcelona side.
He, instead, made the move to Italian giants Juventus, where, despite being at the age of 33 when he signed in 2011, was still a star performer for a side that has dominated Italy for years.
He won four consecutive Serie A titles with the Bianconeri, and carried on playing for his national team until Euro 2016, albeit less regularly towards the end of his career.
His non-selection for that competition by the now-Chelsea manager Antonio Conte signalled the end of his international career, with his record standing at 116 games, 13 goals for his country.
The peak of Pirlo’s career came before his move to New York City last year, although he still made 60 appearances for the club up until his retirement.
In terms of where he ranks amongst the greatest of this generation, you could argue for numerous players to take that accolade.
Pirlo and Xavi were match winners and were crucial in any success their team had – you could argue that Xavi had the toughest task in being the man, alongside Iniesta, entrusted with transforming Barcelona into a tiki-taka style team under the stewardship of Guardiola.
However, Pirlo was unable to settle fully at Inter, leaving to join rivals Milan, and even despite his impact on the club over the years, the Rossoneri board let the Italian go on a free transfer in 2011, where he continued to thrive at Juventus.
The likes of Lampard and Steven Gerrard, as well as Zinedine Zidane, cannot be underestimated based on their contributions to their clubs, but overall Andrea Pirlo would rightly be near the top of any list of the greatest midfielders of this century.
Three talking points as England earned a credible draw against Germany
England ramped up their World Cup preparations with a friendly match against long-time rivals Germany at Wembley Stadium. Despite a number of drop-outs earlier this week, the Three Lions managed to deliver a confident performance and the match finished goalless. It wasn’t a bore 0-0, as both teams had chances to score, but a draw was probably a fair result. Gareth Southgate will have learned a lot about his players on Friday evening, especially those making their debuts. Here are three talking points from the match:
Ruben Loftus-Cheek is a contender to make the World Cup squad
It was a pleasant surprise last week when Gareth Southgate named his squad for the upcoming friendlies, as he dropped players that hadn’t performed for England and replaced them with young, hungry players with potential. Ruben Loftus-Cheek wouldn’t have expected to be in the running for an England call-up at this stage of his career. He has had a promising start to a loan spell at Crystal Palace, but this was an early call-up.
Southgate knows the midfielder from his time as Under-21 manager and his decision to call up Loftus-Cheek looks a great one. The 21-year-old was positive in possession and played several forward passes that created good openings for the home side. Although none of them led to goals, the midfielder did cause problems for the world champions and looked at home at this level. He will need to show consistency and deliver at club level to remain in the manager’s thoughts, but this was a great start to life as an international player.
Leroy Sane is one of the best young players in the world
The Manchester City winger has been wowing the English public since moving to join Pep Guardiola’s side last summer. There are some that think he is helped by the players he is surrounded by at the Etihad Stadium and that might be true, but he is a great player in his own right and he showed that on Friday. Germany threatened a lot in the first half and their best player was Leroy Sane.
The quick-footed winger hit the bar in the first half with a great strike from distance, while he also saw an effort cleared off the line by Phil Jones. Defenders know what he is going to do when he gets the ball, but it is almost impossible to stop. Sane continues to develop on a weekly basis at Manchester City and this performance showed that he is going to be just as important for his country this summer.
Jordan Pickford staked his claim to be number one
The England goalkeeper’s position has been widely debated since Euro 2016, as Joe Hart has been on a downwards curve. He was initially dropped by Manchester City and has since been sent on two loan spells. The 30-year-old has failed to look as dominant as he once did at either Torino or West Ham United and that has opened up a possibility of England changing their goalkeeper ahead of the World Cup.
Jack Butland is many people’s favourite to take the jersey, but Jordan Pickford was selected on Friday and he gave a very good showing of himself. The Everton goalkeeper made three or four great stops to keep his clean sheet and looked at home on the international stage. He took the step up in his stride and that is an encouraging sign for the future. It may come too soon for him to be the number one in Russia, but this display puts him firmly in contention.
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