World Cup European Playoff Preview
Without wanting to sound too negative, I’ve never really placed much value on friendlies and the games against Chile and Germany are probably the last time Roy Hodgson can field experimental line ups before the serious business of preparing for the World Cup starts.
Although it’s nice to see Southampton providing so many players following their successful start to the new season, I get the feeling that the best some of the Saints personnel can hope for is to make the final list of 44 names that will appear before the squad for Brazil is cut down to 23.
The real action takes place elsewhere over the next couple of days and I’d rather concentrate on the teams that could well be facing England next summer. France and Croatia are short priced favourites to qualify at the expense of Ukraine and Iceland – yes, Iceland – and although Portugal and Greece are the bookies favourites to accompany them to Brazil, it’s never that straightforward.
For example, Romania have beaten Greece in three of their last five meetings and according to the ever reliable FIFA rankings the Romanians have improved a lot over the past couple of years. Although they haven’t qualified for the finals since 1998, they’ve done better than the Greeks when they have but the Greeks had the best record of any of the group runners up and this one looks as if it could be a lot closer than expected.
One to watch: Ciprian Marica. Romanian striker who currently plays for Getafe in La Liga and scored five times during qualifying: his individual total was seven less than the Greek team total.
Iceland probably don’t stand much of a chance against Croatia but once again this is a team that has shown astonishing improvement over the past year and saw off Slovenia and Norway in the process of qualification. The Croats lost three of their last four qualifiers and to be honest, any team that loses twice to the current Scottish team doesn’t deserve to go to Brazil.
One to watch: Kolbeinn Sighthorsson. 23 year old striker who has scored 13 times in 19 appearances for the Icelanders and curently plays for Ajax. If Iceland reach Brazil, expect a multi-million pound bid from one of the big clubs. That may happen even if they don’t.
France were unlucky on two counts. The rules concerning automatic qualification for the winners were changed and they were drawn with Spain: the defeat to the current holders in Paris in the spring was all that separated the two countries at the end of qualification. Ukraine’s strength is defence, but they’re capable of annihilating poor teams and they’ve lost none of their last seven qualifiers and scored 27 goals in the same time frame: if France have an off day, we could be in for a suprise. Having written that, our near neighbours have won four of the last five meetings and have qualified for every World Cup since 1998.
One to watch: Vyacheslav Shevchuk. Veteran Ukrainian defender who played in the last four qualifiers including the goalless draw with England: spent most of the last decade with Shakhtar Donetsk as Razvan Rat’s understudy but has come into his own as an overlapping fullback since the latter moved to West Ham.
The ‘big’ game is Portugal v Sweden, which has been reduced to a battle between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibramhimovic that may distract the man in the street away from the rather mundane reality of the situation. The Swedes are loads better than they were but have declined in the last three years; Portugal have been treading water recently and even though they’re probably justifiable favourites to qualify for Brazil, they could be a big disappointment when they get there.
One to watch: Bruno Alves. The most experienced – and tallest – central defender in the current Portuguese squad is two inches shorter than Zlatan Ibrahimovic so it’ll be interesting to see how these two get along. Alves has picked up more than his fair share of bookings over the years so if there are any fireworks they could start here. Honourable mention: Mikael Lustig. If Ronaldo decides to wander onto the left wing, it’ll be the Celtic right back’s job to stop him.
Television: England v Chile (ITV1, 8:00pm) but I’ll be watching Portugal v Sweden (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) as that’s actually for something.