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Around Europe: Expanded Euro field making for spirited qualifying

Ben Lyttleton puts a bow on the international fixture window in Europe, where Iceland and Netherlands opened eyes for different reasons.

UEFA changed the format for European qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France next summer, with matches from Thursday through Tuesday this week. The Euros will have 24 teams in the final tournament, and while there were fears that it might become bloated and oversaturated, this week’s qualifying drama has shown that those doubts are unfounded.

Here is what caught our eye this week:

1. The Platini effect is working

The European Championship, it used to be said, is harder to win than the World Cup, because there are fewer weaker sides once the tournament begins. The tournament used to be 16 teams, in four groups of four, with no easy games and a bad start potentially proving decisive. England and Germany were against the original proposal to expand to 24 teams–which came from Scotland and Ireland–and in the 2009 congress at which it was passed, 41 federations out of 54 voted for it.

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But you can see why it works: UEFA president Michel Platini is all for smaller countries enjoying their moment in the sun (cynics say it’s his way of gaining future support) and maybe the increased teams has allowed some bigger sides to take their foot off the pedal. That said, the likes of Iceland (beat Holland), Slovakia (beat Spain), Poland (beat Germany), Albania (beat Portugal) and Austria (beat Russia home and away) are capable of upsetting the odds in France next summer.

Not to mention Wales and Northern Ireland, who are both top of their groups. Bravo to Platini for giving them the chance to do so. The new scheduling, with games played either Thursday/Sunday, Friday/Monday or Saturday/Tuesday, has also worked, allowing international football to take the limelight over a decent period of time. UEFA calls it “the week of football” and, credit where it’s due, it actually works.

2. Dutch continue Euro curse of World Cup third place

All sorts of reasons have been put forward for the Netherlands' dismal campaign that this week saw it slip to fourth place in Group A and now reliant on other results to even make third place and a spot in the play-offs. There's the aging generation of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. The incoherent tactics of Louis van Gaal's successor Guus Hiddink and his reluctance to select Davy Klaassen and Jordy Clasie. The bizarre selections from Hiddink’s successor, Danny Blind, including switching his son Daley from left back to defensive midfield–the joke ‘the Blind leading the Blind’ is actually not that far from the truth–and complacent players have all contributed to the possibility that Holland may not even make the playoffs for a place in the extended tournament.

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But there might be one other reason and it comes down to the Netherlands' performance in Brazil in the World Cup. The team that historically finishes third in the World Cup often struggles to qualify for the Euros: just at look Poland (1982), France (1986), Italy (1990), Sweden (1994), Croatia (1998) and Turkey (2002). Germany broke the pattern in both 2006 and 2010 but six in a row in a 20-year period is some bad run of luck.

Maybe the next European side in the third-place playoff in Russia 2018 might want to bear it in mind.

3. Should Wales be renamed Bales?

Of course football is a team game and that was why Gareth Bale’s celebration when he headed Wales ahead late on against Cyprus on Thursday was so poignant. He stormed straight for the team bench where an enormous pile-on took place. It was not all about him, but the team. But when it comes to this Wales team, despite the quality of Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey, and others, Bale is the guy who makes the difference.

Gareth Bale's goal lifts Wales by Cyprus, to cusp of Euro 2016 berth

His position is "anywhere across the front three" and his teammates’ role is to get him the ball to make a difference. Wales have scored nine goals in this qualifying campaign. Bale has scored six and set up two of them.

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As Stuart James, writing in The Guardian, put it: “There should be an inquest into what on earth he was doing on the other goal.”

Wales was ranked 117 in the world four years ago, just behind Haiti, and now it is ninth. Sunday’s draw with Israel has left it needing to beat Andorra at home to reach a tournament for the first time in 58 years. Bale has already scored twice against Andorra (in a come-from-behind win in game one) and you can probably on a few more in Cardiff next month to secure a heart-warming story.

Let’s hope the groundwork done by Gary Speed, predecessor to coach Chris Coleman before his tragic suicide in November 2011, is acknowledged as well.

4. Some players are just harder to love

There was an Englishman, a Spaniard and a German. The Englishman played for Manchester United, the Spaniard used to play for United and the German, well, United wanted him to play there. This week, the fates of Wayne Rooney, Gerard Pique and Thomas Muller showed us that talent and achievement do not equal love and affection.

Take Rooney, who Tuesday broke the all-time England scoring record with his 50th goal, a penalty against Switzerland. He may well break United’s scoring record this season as well and, still only 29, there are plenty more records to break too (including most England appearances). Yet there is not so much love for Rooney among fans or the media; perhaps because England has generally failed to deliver in tournaments over the last decade, or because his first England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson made the mistake of comparing him to Pele when he broke out at Euro 2004.

With those expectations, how could he possibly deliver? Despite his misdemeanors in the past, Rooney is a model England captain and deserves more credit than he gets.

The Pique story is slightly more complicated. A two-time Euros and one-time World Cup winner, the serial champion with Barcelona was booed in Spain games against Costa Rica (in Leon in June) and Saturday against Slovakia as a result of the Spanish federation switching the venue of England’s November friendly in Spain from Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium to a potentially more friendly atmosphere in Alicante.

“There is a campaign against Pique led by the most rancid media in Madrid,” wrote Barcelona-based Sport. AS columnist Alfredo Relano replied: “The things that Pique does feel wrong … and it feels wrong to me that he never seems to be able to pull back after he’s put his foot in it.”

How so? Pique has upset some with his outspoken support of Catalan independence. After Barcelona won the treble last season, he mocked its Madrid rivals during the celebrations; and recently he was banned for abusing an assistant referee during the Super Cup defeat to Athletic Bilbao. None of which takes away his importance to the team, or the partnership with Sergio Ramos that won a historic three successive tournaments. Pique himself didn't seem bothered by the hecklers, but it is a sub-plot to a Spain side that is looking stronger again. 

Muller leads Germany by Scotland to brink of Euro 2016 berth

Muller, meanwhile, scored three goals in Germany’s wins over Poland and Scotland, and is probably the most popular of the three.

Why so? Maybe because he feels more authentic: with his terrible haircut, socks rolled down and habit of scoring messy goals–of his two against Scotland, one was deflected and the other scuffed in off the post. When you watch it, you think, "Maybe I could do that."

Then you see his assist for Ilkay Gundogan’s winner, a fantastic reverse pass at the end of a flowing move and realize that not only can you not do that, but very few other players could as well.

“He has a sixth sense,” said Germany coach Joachim Low. “He only thinks of scoring, scoring and scoring. You can't teach that.”

Muller has eight goals this campaign, one behind the German record of nine scored by Jurgen Kilnsmann in 1996 and Miroslav Klose in 2012. Muller may not have Rooney’s £300,000 weekly salary, nor Pique’s medal collection and pop-star girlfriend. But he is still only 25 and might turn out to be better than both of them. He is already more popular.

5. Coaching change works for Russia

The Netherlands sacked  Hiddink and suffered back-to-back defeats under his successor, Blind; for Russia, the decision to ditch Fabio Capello paid immediate, and much-needed, dividends as the 2018 World Cup host beat Sweden 1-0 and Liechtenstein 7-0 to overtake Sweden in Group G with two games left to play.

New boss Leonid Slutsky, who is combining the role with coaching CSKA Moscow, opted for experience in his side and started the crucial Sweden win with Sergei Ignashevich, 36; Vassili Berezutsky, 34; Igor Denisov, 31; and Roman Shirokov, 34, who was restored to the captaincy. Oleg Kuzmin, a 34-year-old defender, also came on as a substitute.

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​Slutsky played an attacking formation with normal striker Alan Dzagoev as the link-man between two forwards, Andrei Kokorin and the match-winner, Artem Dzyuba. It says something about the current state of Russian football that the only player in the squad who is not playing in the domestic Russian league, Dennis Cherysev, stayed on the bench. “As a coach, I want to see as many of Russians in the top clubs in Europe as possible,” said Slutsky. “That experience only benefits our players.”

Russia looked more relaxed, and played more offensively, than anytime in the last three years under Capello, who was a successful club coach but has failed to come close to success with England (2008-2012) and now Russia. In fact, when it comes to return on investment, the highly-paid Italian could go down as one of the biggest flops in international football. Dzyuba scored four goals as Russia ran amok against Liechtenstein (at home under Capello, it had won 4-0).

With two games to play, Russia is two points ahead of Sweden in the race for second behind Austria (who impressively beat the Swedes 4-1 Tuesday). Even if Russia drops to third, with Slutsky in charge, it will be a team to avoid in the playoffs–and you can’t say the same for Holland.

Top three players of the week

Robert Lewandowski (Poland): A diving header against Germany and two more against Gibraltar, the Poland forward has found his groove this week and will be the main figure in Poland’s last two games against Scotland and Ireland if it wants to maintain second position in Group D.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)/Wayne Rooney (England): OK, so it was only a penalty that they scored but both made history in their own way. Sigurdsson’s spot kick helped Iceland beat the Netherlands in Amsterdam, 1-0 and the 0-0 draw against Kazakhstan saw the Nordic nation to a first tournament in its history.

Rooney scored two penalties this week: first against San Marino, leveling Sir Bobby Charlton’s record as top England scorer of all time; and then breaking it six minutes from time against Switzerland on Tuesday.

Artem Dzyuba (Russia): Five goals in two games is not too bad for the Zenit St Petersburg striker, who followed up a crucial winner against Sweden with four goals in a 7-0 drubbing of Liechtenstein. Russia& leap-frogged Sweden into second place and now looks like a good bet to make it to France next summer. Dzyuba has played an important part in that. 

Top three goals of the week

Ilkay Gundogan (Germany vs. Scotland)

This turned out to be the winner in a 3-2 thriller and it was a marvelous team move culminating in Muller’s superb reverse pass for Gundogan to slide the ball past Allan McGregor. Germany’s other two goals were scrappy affairs–Muller scoring very Muller-like goals–but Germany showed it can still be a class above when it needs to be.


Blaise Matuidi (France vs. Serbia)

A corner, a crowded penalty area, a headed clearance; it didn't look like Matuidi’s left-footed volley from 25 yards out would make it through the gaps, but there was so much power on it that it might just have taken a defender with it had anyone got in the way. It may only have been a friendly, but Matuidi is putting down a marker as one of the stars of the season so far.


Jake Gosling (Gibraltar vs. Poland)

Never mind that Gibraltar was 8-0 down at the time this goal was scored, nor that Gosling’s smart effort, running in between two defenders and slipping the ball into the corner of Lukasz Fabianski’s net, was not the best goal of the game: this was Gibraltar’s second goal ever in competitive play (Lee Casciaro got the other in the 6-1 loss in Scotland). Hopefully there will be more to come.