The Euro 2016 qualifying group stage is over, with 20 of the 24 places spoken for. Ben Lyttleton recaps the big stories, surprises and disappointments.
The drama of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign went down to the final minute after an astonishing series of results in the final round. It’s ironic that the man who deserves credit for overhauling the system, Michel Platini, may not be in charge of UEFA (or FIFA) by the time the tournament comes around next summer, but if the qualifiers are anything to go by, the competition in his native France will be outstanding.
Here is a wrap of the main talking-points from this week’s action and a look ahead to what's on the horizon both on the club and country scene:
What to make of the four first-timers?
Next summer’s European Championship will see four debutant nations in the competition: Wales, Iceland, Albania and Northern Ireland. Cynics may point to the fact that next summer’s competition has expanded from 16 to 24 teams, though it should be noted that Northern Ireland finished atop its group. The quartet all preached the same message of collectiveness and teamwork above everything, even if in the case of Wales, it felt at times that Gareth Bale, who scored seven and set up two of its 11 goals, was single-handedly leading the nation to France.
Each case is fascinating in its own right: Northern Ireland, whose coach Michael O’Neill only won one of his first 18 games in charge, has no stars in the side and its main striker, Kyle Lafferty, cannot get a game at his club side Norwich City.
Wales was indebted to coach Chris Coleman’s predecessor Gary Speed, who instilled a sports-science approach and was beloved by his players before he tragically committed suicide in November 2011.
Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify, with a population of 300,000 and its rise is in part down to its FA installing 15 indoor pitches and 22 artificial pitches to allow training all-year round. Finally there's Albania, who finished fifth out of six in its World Cup qualifying group but ended up 10 points ahead of Serbia.
Will the added value of these stories over a dramatic qualifying campaign–one that went down to the final minute, as Selcuk Inan’s superb last-minute free kick (watch below) saw Turkey overtake Hungary as automatic qualifiers as the best third-placed side–detract from the quality of the tournament next summer? Possibly, but it still seems a price worth paying. Next month’s playoffs will pit four seeded teams (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary, Ukraine and Sweden), against Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Slovenia. More excitement beckons: why limit the drama to four weeks in France when you can make it last two years?
What happened to Netherlands and Greece?
Robin van Persie is not known for his aerial game but two of his headers, 16 months apart, will come to symbolise the rapid demise of the nation that finished third at the 2014 World Cup. After losing 3-2 at home to 10-man Czech Republic, Holland finished in fourth, behind the Czechs, Iceland and Turkey in Group A, continuing a bizarre run of third-placed World Cup sides failing in Euro qualification (from Poland in 1984, France 1988, Italy 1992, Sweden 1996, Croatia 2000 and Turkey 2004).
The winning goal came from a surprise source: a headed own goal by Van Persie, which surprised everyone just as much as his flying header against Spain lit up the World Cup. Only two players started both games-Wesley Sneijder and Daley Blind–and everyone has a different theory for the change in fortunes.
Some have blamed Guus Hiddink, whose laid-back style did not suit a mainly young group of players; others that Louis van Gaal clearly over-achieved in Brazil and the players became complacent; still others the bottleneck in development that has left the squad lopsided with players over 29 and under 24.
Either way, coach Danny Blind, promoted from assistant after Hiddink’s dismissal mid-campaign, has refused to resign and it might get worse before it gets better: Holland is in a World Cup qualifying group with France, Sweden and Bulgaria.
The other surprise flop was Greece, who became the first top seed to finish bottom of its group, after losing home and away to the Faroe Islands. It paid the price for trying to change its style of play (including a failed 4-2-4 experiment under Claudio Ranieri while the new technical director, recently retired Giorgios Karagounis, clashed with Ranieri and the successor he chose, Sergio Markarian. By the end of the campaign, Under-21 coach Kostas Tsanas took over and Greece won its first game, 4-3 over Hungary. Does that point to a brighter future? Only if the lessons of this campaign are learned.
Is Belgium world's best team, Lewandowski best center forward?
Does it even matter? Not really, no, but it’s fun having the discussion. The Belgium issue could be significant, as FIFA’s next ranking will have Belgium at the top–ahead of Germany, Argentina and Colombia–for the first time in its history. This is not the place to argue the rights and wrongs of the ranking system, but what it does is increase the level of expectation on a small country that did not even qualify for the last Euros.
Belgium was more impressive in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, when it faced tougher opponents and its star players, including Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, played better. Marc Degryse, a former international and now a columnist, wrote that Marouane Fellaini was Belgium’s best player in qualifying, that Radja Nainggolan’s omission from the World Cup squad was a mistake and that coach Marc Wilmots needs to throw off the shackles and stop always playing with two holding midfielders. Belgium has friendlies coming up against Spain and Italy, which could give a glimpse into telling us if it is indeed the world's best.
As for Lewandowski, his return of three goals in the matches against Scotland and Ireland is paltry given his current run for Bayern Munich, of 12 in the last five games.
While it’s clear that his current purple patch is unsustainable, he is finally getting the opportunity to play in his favored position under Pep Guardiola, who in the past has gone with more versatile central strikers.
Last season, he rotated by playing Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller or Mario Goetze as a false nine, but this season, the Spaniard has gone more direct: Douglas Costa beats defenders out wide and provides perfect deliveries (11 assists so far) for Lewandowski, and Muller, playing just behind him, on which to feast. His current chance conversion rate is 38%, the highest in Europe, with Muller not far behind on 28%. By comparison, Lionel Messi is on 13%, Cristiano Ronaldo on 11%.
Which stars could miss the Euro stage?
Aside from the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edin Dzeko, whose teams Sweden and Bosnia & Herzegovina once again face the playoffs, some of the game’s biggest names face a battle to earn a place in their teams. Take Diego Costa, for example; injured and out of form for Chelsea, the Spain front line was much more mobile this week with Nolito, Paco Alcacer and Isco buzzing around ahead of the superb Thiago Alcantara. With Alvaro Morata proving his credentials as a big-game player last season, and Pedro, Raul Garcia and Jose Callejon also in contention, Costa could be pushed out.
There’s a similar debate in England as well, where captain Wayne Rooney, despite breaking the scoring record with 50 goals in an England shirt, might not be guaranteed a starting place if everyone is fit and coach Roy Hodgson goes with his preferred 4-3-3 line-up: Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge/Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck could be the strike force. If Hodgson picks a 4-2-3-1, then where is best for Rooney? The debate will continue, as it will in France, where the form of Paul Pogba has come under scrutiny. It’s early days yet in the season, but Pogba as Juventus's No. 10 has not yet worked, and the form of Lass Diarra and Yohan Cabaye could see those two challenge to join Blaise Matuidi in a midfield three.
Looking ahead on the club scene
Here’s a quick recap: in England, Chelsea is in crisis mode but Jose Mourinho is safe from the sack (for now, though he's not clear of discipline), while Jurgen Klopp could lead Liverpool to title glory this season–at least that’s the mood around Merseyside before what might be a tough debut at Tottenham Hotspur Saturday.
Bayern has as good as won the Bundesliga in Germany–already–after eight wins out of eight and 28 goals scored and is the outright favorite to win the Champions League.
That’s because Barcelona is struggling without the injured Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta as its long preseason and lack of squad depth begins to bite. Real Madrid, meanwhile, is still getting used to life under Rafa Benitez, with Ronaldo only scoring in one of his seven La Liga appearances so far (granted, it was a five-goal showing). Elsewhere in Spain, early-season front-runners Villarreal and Celta Vigo play each other Sunday in a game not many had pegged as a battle of contenders.
Italy could provide this season’s most fascinating title race, with Fiorentina currently in first and Inter Milan, Lazio, Roma and Napoli all fancying their chances with Juventus 10 points back. Inter and Juve play Sunday. Oh, and it’s a Champions League matchday next week, with highlights including PSG against Real Madrid, a desperate Arsenal against Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen against Roma. Phew!
Top three players of the week
Milan Djuric, Bosnia & Herzegovina: Coming off the bench, Djuric had two goals and an assist in two must-win games, helping the Dragons to the Euro 2016 qualifying playoff round.
David de Gea, Spain: The Manchester United goalkeeper made 10 saves in Spain's win in Ukraine and he could make it hard for veteran Iker Casillas to win back his place.
Joe Ledley, Wales: A squad player for Wales who became a viral sensation after some bizarre dance moves following Wales' qualification was sealed in Bosnia. Wales goal scorer Aaron Ramsey celebrated with him after his opener against Andorra and much of the Welsh post-match party seemed focused on the bearded maestro's moves. It's been a celebration a long time in the making.
Top three goals of the week
Selcuk Inan (Turkey vs. Iceland) - Turkey didn't need to win with the Netherlands capitulating against the Czech Republic, but this 89th-minute free kick made sure his side avoided the playoff round and secured an automatic berth.
Erik Sviatchenko (Denmark vs. France) - Denmark might have fallen to the Euro 2016 hosts in their friendly, but this weave-and-launch effort from Sviatchenko was a stunner.
Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands vs. Kazakhstan) - Sneijder helped keep the Dutch alive for another day with this sumptuous effort in the penultimate group match, which wound up being the game-winner.