Another month, another round of international fixtures for the footballing world to feast upon. Usually these are routine matches, but this break in particular had a couple of tasty storylines involving our home nations; how would interim England boss Gareth Southgate get on in his first games in charge? Would Wales wilt under the pressure of their new found status as a top footballing nation? And could Scotland kick on and retain top spot of the group, continuing on from their impressive performance in Malta in Matchday 1? Let’s find out.
England: 08/10: Malta 2-0 , 11/10: Slovenia (D) 0-0
So far, so typical England. Wins on the board; check. Languid, maligned performances against poor opposition; check. Managerial controversy leading to sacking of said manager; early than usual, but a resounding check! Anything new? Not really, even interim boss Gareth Southgate is an ex-international and has coached many of the current first team during his stint with the under-21’s.
It’s no real surprise then, that Malta were despatched of comfortably at home 2-0, with ‘The Wayne Rooney Show’, coming close to overshadowing the entire evening at Wembley. He was booed by sections of the crowd, stationed in the somewhat familiar midfield holding role which is threatening to divert the path of his to date illustrious career and was even nutmegged by a member of the opposition. Not good.
But let’s not forget this is a man who will be England’s leading goalscorer for years to come, a man who has won all there is to win at club level with Manchester United and a man who has playing in the Premier League since his debut at the tender age of 16 years of age in 2002, an absolute age ago. Rooney isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last Englishman to wear the white shirt that is vilified by members of the press and the public, but sometimes you just wonder what all the fuss about one man is about.
Over to Tuesday and a testing trip (?) to Slovenia and a side that would batten down the hatches to their supposedly superior opposition? England got off to a pacy start, with Rooney now having been benched to allow Eric Dier to add more steel to the soft-centred core of a midfield. Dele Alli’s interplay with his teammate and Daniel Sturridge in the lone striker role offering the sort of pace and trickery England have been lacking in recent games. Aside from a few long shots, though, there wasn’t much for either team to shout about in the first period, with slack passing by John Stones and Dier providing Slovenia with a few sights on goal, which Joe Hart and the woodwork dealt with, fortunately for England.
It was Hart again making the vital saves that kept England on parity with their hosts, the impressive Josep Illic working his way through the defence, before earning a corner, which saw one top save by Hart…which led to another corner and ANOTHER top save! The much maligned Torino keeper was earning his keep here. In an Eric Dier-esque move, newly anointed captain Jordan Henderson’s wayward backwards pass played in Illic, but it was Hart again that saved the day, and probably earned the MOTM award.
As the game entered the closing stages, the feistiness of both teams grew, an altercation between the two sets of players caused by a Gary Cahill challenge that caught a Slovakian player high. It was a frustrating night for England, and not one Southgate will be adding to the CV in any hurry.
So, so far, so England, really. With a third of the group gone, it’d take a strong person to bet against this side reaching Russia, but there’s a lot that needs to change. It’s important the FA get the next steps right, the right personnel, the right playing staff and the right management need to be put in place. They’ve effectively got two years to get it right before their next meaningful phase of competitive football, but attitudes need to change and change fast. Too often during the Slovenia match, were elements of that Iceland games creeping back into the English style of play, laziness on the ball, slack passing and, worst of all, a lack of any discernable passion from the players. However, there’s one nation who you’d hope would stoke the fires inside the English bellies, and fortunately enough they play England next. That nation? Scotland.
Wales: 06/10: Austria (D) 2-2 , 09/10: Georgia (D) 1-1
Wales found their games a far sight more of a challenge than last time out’s 4-0 Moldova win, with the real disappointment coming in their 1-1 home draw against Georgia. It was a game which began with the aching familiarity of a 2016 Wales game; Gareth Bale puts them ahead and they meander around awaiting the second goal to come about. But it didn’t this time. If anything Georgia were unfortunate not to snatch all three points from Cardiff, but Tornike Okriashvili’s second half effort saw them take the solitary point home.
The game followed potentially the toughest test of the campaign, away to Austria in Vienna. Going 1-0 up via a wonderful volley from the in-form Joe Allen was a good start, and they were soon settled into their rhythm. There aren’t many teams that seem to play better against better opposition, but Wales are one of those teams to seemingly relish the challenge – if only a couple of their home nation neighbours could do the same.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Welsh, as Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovic soon drew the home side level after just a six minute lead. Spurs’ Kevin Wimmer soon sorted that out by deflecting the ball into his own net with a moment of misfortune, and it was that man Arnautovic who restored order for Austria, levelling a few minutes after the break.
The sum of those two games then, leaves Wales trailing the Republic of Ireland and Serbia at the top of the qualifying standings, the upcoming two matches against those opponents will be very tasty. But just three games in and a tough away trip that those two still have to make out of the way, they are in with a shout of at least the play-off spot. This group is fairly wide open, without a traditional European heavyweight such as Spain or Germany, and that has led to some interesting results already.
Republic of Ireland: 06/10: Georgia 1-0 , 09/10: Moldova 3-1
The Republic of Ireland continued their fine form with two wins out of two, to build on the momentum of a draw away to Serbia in Matchday 1. Yes it was two wins against the minnows of the group, Georgia and Moldova, but it could’ve been so easy to slip up, as Wales did just a few days after the Republic’s own 1-0 home win over the Georgians.
That the goal came via a meandering Seamus Coleman run down the right channel before cutting inside and somehow walking the ball across the goalline can be forgotten about. The performance wasn’t the best, but with players like captain Coleman, James McLean and Shane Long, results can be gained and in these campaigns it’s all about consistency and picking up maximum points at moments like both of these games.
Following the win at the Aviva, it was a trip to Moldova for the Irish, and a game they should easily win…right? While the victory was never in any doubt, the 3-1 scoreline may cause some concern amongst fans, conceding against a side that managed just four goals in the entirity of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. James McLean ws the Boys in Green’s saviour notching a couple of strikes to take the pressure off the away team, who went into the half-time break level wiht the minnows. Everton’s James McCarthy was returning fresh after injury, but was criticised on social media for being largely anonymous until he was substituted late on.
So it’s so far, so good for Ireland. Seven points out of a possible nine from the lowest three seeds in the group is par for the course for a team with aspirations of making it to Russia in 2018, but the first proper test will come in November, with an away trip to Vienna, as the long road continues.
Scotland: 08/10: Lithuania (D) 1-1, 11/10: Slovakia (L) 3-0
A devastating double-header sees Scotland’s renewed hopes of making their first tournament in twenty years lying in tatters after just three qualifying games, as first Lithuania and then Slovakia left the Scots ruing their mistakes.
First it was home to Slovenia, and despite a fiercely loyal following backing their boys all the way, it was a turgid performance they were rewarded with. The fluidity and the positives that came with the 5-1 win away at Malta, yes it was only Malta, last time out were swiftly wiped away, as it took a last-gasp leveller for the Scots to rescue a point at home to the Lithuanians. It was a result that was indicative of a Scotland of a decade or so ago, and a Scotland that Gordon Strachan had hoped to erase from the minds of the playing staff and fans. The fact it took James McArthur and co 89 minutes to find the net will be a chilling prospect to even the most optimistic of fans.
From there it was to Trnava, and Slovakia, a side that had almost managed to shut out England for 180 minutes in the past four months. Not the easiest of tasks. It was only for keeper David Marshall that the visitors didn’t find themselves more than one goal down going into the interval, Robert Mak putting them 1-0 up after seizing upon Marshall’s save from the enigmatic Marek Hamsik. Robert Snodgrass was proving to be a thorn in the Slovakian’s side, and went close to equalising, sliding post the post with his effort.
Hopes for an equaliser were all in vain though, as Slovakia and Mak hit the second which may have sounded the Scots death knell in the second period. The attacked beat Russell Martin too easily with a piece of skill before slotting home his second past the excellent Marshall. It was too easy though, and something that has never been eradicated from this team, that soft defence. By the time Adam Nemec nodded home Mak’s corner it was goodnight Scotland, and maybe even goodbye Strachan.
Next time out it’s England. At Wembley. Enough said.
Northern Ireland: 08/10: San Marino 4-0, 11/10: Germany (L) 2-0
With Windsor Park’s refurbishment finally a done deal, and sporting alumni including Rory McIlroy and the new FIFA president Giovanni Infantino in attendance, Northern Ireland lived up to the favourites billing and smashed four past a struggling San Marino side.
Michael O’Neill’s men aren’t normally used to being the favourites in games at this level, but when you play a team of part-timers, you tend to be expected to win by a fair margin. However, aside from Steven Davis’ early penalty, the Northern Irish couldn’t translate their dominance into goals, and it wasn’t until the second half sending-off of Mirko Palazzi that they really kicked on. A late onslaught by sub and cult hero Kyle Lafferty (double) and Burton Albion’s Jamie Ward added a finer sheen to a comfortable evening for the hosts. Next up, oh, only the champions of the world.
Germany were always going to be a different kettle of fish compared to San Marino, heroes compared to zeroes. And it didn’t take long for that to show. Two goals inside the first 20 minutes ultimately decided the fate of a game that was likely to follow the two sides Euro 2016 encounter, which saw a new hero arise in goalkeeper Michael McGovern’s performance, but ended in 1-0 defeat. Well, Julien Draxler and Sami Khedira quickly put memories of the Irish resistance in the past. It still didn’t deter the fantastic travelling support who continued to back their side, with Ward rewarding them with a shot on goal….even if it was straight at Manuel Neuer.
A sign of just how far Northern Ireland have come nowadays, was that this was the first time they’d conceded two goals in a game since 2014. For a side that once toiled with Luxembourg and the Faroe Islands, it was a stat that spoke volumes. That solid defence was the basis of a second-half showing that showed resilience and determination; qualities which are the difference between qualification and not, as they found out in their quest to reach France.
The next four games for NI, stretching to next September, will make-or-break whether they will still harbour hopes of going to Russia by this time next year. Azerbaijan home and away, Norway (h) and San Marino (a), all have to be down as three-pointers for any realistic hopes of a play-off spot to be well and truly alive. It’ll be an adventure, but that’s the way this lot tend to like it.