Finishing off the international calendar for the year were a series of tasty looking games for our Home Nations. It was the first competitive fixture of the century for the oldest rivalry in world football, England v Scotland at Wembley Stadium. In Belfast, Northern Ireland’s focus was on doing a respectable job against Azerbaijan, while the Republic were away to Austria, keen to maintain their strong unbeaten start to the campaign. Wales, meanwhile, were looking to bounce back from the disappointment of a home draw to Georgia in Matchday 3.
England 3-0 Scotland – Fri 11 Nov – 7.45pm
With pre-match buildup dominated by the preposterous FIFA ban on either side wearing poppies, which both teams incidentally ignored, the football on the pitch seemed hardly important. Both were in difficult places; interim manager Gareth Southgate trying to rouse his troops after lacklustre performances in the previous qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia, while Gordon Strachan was clinging onto his job, after a 3-0 defeat away to Slovakia last time out.
In a match full of plenty of boisterous fan support, there was little quality to reflect that out on the pitch. England was stagnant from the word go, the returns of the in-form Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling from injury doing little to raise performance levels. However, it was the precision and decisive quality from the English XI that saw them comfortably despatch of their neighbours. This was despite a performance of sheer effort from the Scotland, whose pressing and persistance did see them trouble the Gary Cahill and John Stones in the England defence on a handful of occasions, but they were ultimately unable to take their chances when it mattered.
Daniel Sturridge repaid Southgate’s faith in keeping him in the starting eleven, cleverly guiding Kyle Walker’s whipped cross past Craig Gordon and into the bottom-left corner. It was a strong night for Walker and his left-back Spurs teammate Danny Rose, as both bombed forward as often as possible, providing overlaps aplenty. It was Rose who supplied the second decisive goal for the home side, replicating the first, but this time it was Lallana on the end of it, as his deft header saw him move level with Sturridge with two goals from four games.
Scotland then saw their opportunities, as James Forrest begun a quick, incisive move of passing and movement, that saw him with a golden opportunity in the penalty area, which instead of slotting past Joe Hart, he slotted wide of goal. As mentioned, their heart and effort matched that of their rampant 14,000 supporters, but unfortunately for them, the quality of this 2016 Scotland team is just not there. It was clear to see on the night, and emphasised moreso, as just minutes after Forrest’s miss, England proceeded to accelerate up the pitch, win a corner and Cahill notched the third header for England and the death knell for Scotland and possibly Strachan.
Gareth Southgate now looks set to be offered the permanent managerial job based on the points haul of seven out of nine. It’ll be interesting to see how his side perform against Spain on Tuesday in a prestige Wembley friendly. But as mentioned, this may be the end of the line for Strachan. With the Winter to find a new man to lead the country, you wouldn’t blame the Scottish FA if they fancied a change, as this qualifying campaign looks set to follow the same storyline of the last 18 years of failure.
Northern Ireland 4-0 Azerbaijan – Fri 11 Nov – 7.45pm
Perhaps one of the contenders for the Scotland job might be Michael O’Neill, the man who has single-handedly given Northern Ireland one of the most sustained periods of success in their national team’s history. No side will fancy going to Windsor Park nowadays, and it’s totally down to the man in the hotseat, he’s developed his team and made them hard to break down and dangerous on the break.
Azerbaijan, while not the hardest of opponents, were yet to concede a goal in the campaign and were a game past Irish teams would’ve drawn with, or maybe even lost at home to. But with this team you got the impression a loss was never on the table. Beginning with the decision to go with two strikers due to Jamie Ward’s injury and a concious tactical addition of a pressing game that’s bringing club success to Liverpool and Spurs this season, was impressive.
The decisive passing that accompanied that was even better. But it was the clinical finishing that really summed up a great night’s work for the Northern Irish. A man who thrives at this level and for this team, is Norwich’s (yes I had to look that up!) Kyle Lafferty, the man who opened the scoring in the 27th minute, and in doing so hit his 20th goal for his country. From there, it was down to centre-back Gareth McAuley to head home from the man-of-the-match Chris Brunt’s free-kick before half-time. Things were rosy for the home team.
And they continued that way in the second period. With Conor McLaughlin netting his debut international goal and that man Brunt capping his return for his country with a fine long-range effort, it was an impressive victory that leaves them second only to Germany in the group. It’ll be a keenly contested second place with the Czech Republic, but, whisper it quietly, the Irish army might be making their way east in 18 months time…
Austria 0-1 Republic of Ireland – Sat 12 Nov – 6pm
With the recent renaissances of both the Northern Ireland and Wales, the Republic have been somewhat forgotten about. Sure they had their moments in France at the Euros, but their acheivements didn’t match against the aforementioned. With their 1-0 win in Vienna, however, that may have changed, as the latest chapter in the Martin O’Neill-Roy Keane era provided more memories.
O’Neill’s claims of ‘going for it’ pre-match, weren’t exactly vindicated in the first 45, though, as Ireland failed to register a shot on target and had a meagre 35% possession to show for their efforts. Austria were firmly the team in the ascendency and looked capable of winning, if they could just finish one of their flowing attacking moves. But the resilient qualities this team has in abundance were in display yet again and they went in 0-0 at the break.
The golden moment came just minutes after the break. James McLean, nursing a back problem before the game, capped a fine counter-attack move, receiving the ball on the left-hand side via a wonderful Wes Hoolahan through-ball, before finishing from an acute angle. It was a superb move and could’ve been followed minutes later with a second as Jon Walters, the lone targetman, headed past the Austrian keeper and into the back of the net, before being correctly called off-side.
Naturally Ireland dropped deeper as the game reached its climax, but they were rarely troubled by a probing, but poor Austrian side. Marked down as dark horses for Euro 2016, they underwhelmed at last summer’s tournament and are still looking pretty sorry for themselves here. They now sit fourth in the group and a long way away from qualification. For Ireland, it’s another story, they’re sitting pretty at the top of the group, and look a good bet for reaching their first World Cup since 2002’s Far East adventure. Sure, another home nation might have something to say about that, though…
Wales 1-1 Serbia – Sat 12 Nov – 7.45pm
After that Irish victory in Austria, the tension and expectation would’ve been fervent at an expectant Cardiff City Stadium. Yet, ultimately, the mood would’ve been one of disappointment, as again, Wales surrendered a lead late on to lose two points, a habit Chris Coleman will be hoping to eradicate as soon as possible.
It was a topsy-turvy game that either side could’ve claimed to dominate, but it was the Welsh who took the early initiative. Hal Robson-Kanu’s incessant pressing providing that man, Gareth Bale with an opportunity, and boy did he take it, the £600k-per-week player hitting home to give his country the lead. From there, Wales fell into a dangerous pattern of coasting that they’ve got into of late in their new role as favourite and the expectations that go with that.
They suffered from tiredness too, the switch in formation from 5-3-2 to 4-4-2 perhaps asking more from players like Robson-Kanu, whose lack of match practice for West Bromwich Albion was telling towards the close as he was subbed off. Bale could’ve put an end to the game late on, with his goalbound shot bouncing clear off the woodwork. Then, the inevitable, the Serbian equaliser came just after they’d survived the scare, Newcastle’s in-form forward Aleksander Mitrovic finding space in amongst Wales’ tired troops to snatch a point. It sparked scenes of celebration on the Serbian bench and left the Welsh disappointed yet again.
It leaves them third in a group where only one team automatically qualifies, sitting four points behind top-of-the-table Ireland, and trailing the Serbs by two. The next match? Only a clash with the Republic in Dublin, a game which is the definition of ‘mouthwatering’. It’ll be a must-win for Wales, who cannot afford many more slip-ups full stop if they want to entertain aspirations of topping the group.
So that’s it till the Spring, when the race to Russia continues!