World Cup 2018: Northern Ireland rising under O’Neill’s Management

The rise of Northern Ireland since Michael O’Neill’s appointment in December 2011 has been remarkable. He inherited a team from his predecessor Nigel Worthington which ended the qualification campaign for Euro 2012 with four successive defeats.

As well as being beaten twice by Estonia, defeats to Italy and Serbia combined to leave Northern Ireland fifth in a six-team group. Thus, Worthington’s reign ended in disappointment, but that of Neill did not begin well either. He led his team to just a single victory from the 10 World Cup 2014 qualifying matches, as the Northern Irish once again ended a qualification campaign in fifth place.

michael oneill northern ireland

Despite the negative results, there were positives for O’Neill. Away draws against Portugal [1-1] and Israel [1-1], along with a 1-0 home victory over Russia, provided some hope and indicated there is potential for Northern Ireland’s fortunes to improve.

Although they amassed just seven points during their bid to reach World Cup 2014, Northern Ireland were given a rather decent draw for the Euro 2016 qualification campaign. Not required to face any of the strongest teams, such as France, Germany, Portugal or Spain, they took advantage of being placed in a winnable albeit competitive group.

By winning their first three qualifiers – as many as they had done in the two previous qualification campaigns – O’Neill’s side put themselves in a strong position to qualify for the finals.

After responding well to a 2-0 defeat to Romania by beating Finland 2-1 and avoiding defeat in their five remaining fixtures, Northern Ireland topped Group F to qualify automatically for Euro 2016.

The goals – seven in nine appearances – of Kyle Lafferty, were vital in helping them reach the ultimate objective of making Euro 2016. The great commitment of the players combined with the collective approach and team spirit, promoted by O’Neill, formed the foundation behind this team’s accomplishment. Each one of the attributes was again on display evidence in France during Euro 2016.

A 2-0 victory over Ukraine, courtesy of goals from Gareth McAuley and Niall McGinn, sufficed to secure a place in the last 16. Unfortunately, the end was marked in the Round of 16 following a 1-0 to Wales.

Despite the defeat, O’Neill kept faith in the squad and decided to regroup. He firmly believed the players were dedicated and competitive enough to help the Northern Irish compete for a spot in World Cup 2018.

That decision is proving to be the correct one so far. With their fine Euro 2016 journey fresh in the memory, O’Neill’s players comfortably secured second place behind Germany, in a group also featuring the Czech Republic and Norway. Most of the key players ply their trade in the English Premier League or the English Football League Championship.

Northern Ireland

A defensively solid unit, with key members such as Michael McGovern, Conor McLaughlin, West Bromwich Albion duo Jonathan Evans and Gareth McAuley, has been instrumental in Northern Ireland keeping clean sheets in all but two matches in their qualifiers – both defeats world champions Germany.  On the attacking front, the responsibility of scoring goals was shared by several players, with Chris Brunt, Steven Davis, Kyle Lafferty, Josh Magennis and Jamie Ward, all having scored more than one goal.

Under O’Neill’s guidance, Northern Ireland have developed a good habit of defending well, whilst exploiting opportunities to score from set pieces. Their transition from the team which struggled badly in the Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 qualifying campaigns, into a team to be reckoned with has steadily evolved leading up to participating in Euro 2016.

Credit must be shared between the manager’s intelligent approach to focus on his squad’s best attributes while the players themselves have given their best on the pitch. The commitment of the players cannot be questioned. Will this be enough for Northern Ireland to overcome Switzerland and qualify for Russia 2018?

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Is Kingsley Coman set to become one of the world’s best players?

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After the ashes have settled and the disappointment for the French team losing on home turf in the Euro 2016 final there are still some positives to take from Les Bleus tournament.

One of course is the rising emergence of players such as Dimitri Payet, surplus to requirements at Marseille they sold him to Premier League club West Ham United where he was supposed to start his journeyman career. But Payet it seems has blossomed late on and looks a good deal for any club now or in the future.

Antoine Griezmann we already knew about- here is a player that continuously lights up the Cauldron a stadium in which he is the orchestrator for his club Atletico Madrid. Samuel Umtiti almost unheard of outside Ligue 1 had an outstanding tournament and his reward was a move to Barcelona.

And then there is Kingsley Coman. He was 19 when the Euro’s started and 20 when it finished and literally went from teenager to adult in that time. French coach Didier Deschamps was hesitant to use the attacking winger, for fear of his youth, never starting him in a game. And so he quickly became known as the super sub, but what a sub.

Each time Coman was unleashed onto the pitch he was able to inject countless amounts of energy into the team. He was quick, decisive, made the right pass and rarely lost the ball and he didn’t seem to phase him at all that he was playing in his first ever major tournament.

Whilst there is talk of his countryman Paul Pogba going back to Manchester United for upwards of £100 million, some of Europe’s elite could do no wrong to keep one eye on this kid. Thing of it is, the elite already have him under their wings.

Coman came through the PSG ranks but with the bottomless pit of money and proven talent at the squad and he being just 17 he was sold on to Juventus. Juve in turn gave him just 15 appearances before coming to the decision to loan him out to German giants Bayern Munich. This season he will start his second and probably last season with the Bavarians. The reason is that if Juventus don’t call Coman back the player will be available to Munich for just £20 million. A bargain that feels more like theft given the humongous transfers of the past few weeks.

If Pogba does, as expected leave Juventus, the Old Lady will surely recall Coman back. He looks like the back bone, the hope and the glory for the French national team in the coming years.

There are not many players in world football right now that when they receive the ball you can’t quite anticipate what will follow next, he loves his football and we love the excitement he gives us- stardust is Coman.

Sam Allardyce is the new England manager

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When England failed abysmally at Euro 2016 and Roy Hodgson as expected quit his post moments later the players hoped that the new England boss would come from foreign shores. They haven’t got their wish as the FA has given the green light to Sam Allardyce.

Allardyce or ‘Big Sam’ as he is known in England will be doing his best impression of his famed Cheshire cat grin with the news. Indeed a few weeks ago linking the former West Ham United and Sunderland manager to the job would have been distant, but any English manager working in the top flight for so long has the ultimate dream of leading their country and at 61 time was not on his side. He’s finally, after managing for nearly 25 years in the game, landed the big job and he will be relishing every moment of it- but was he really the right man?

The problem for the FA going with a foreign manager is the slap in the face and rubber stamp to the heart of English football emblazoned with a seven lettered word- ‘failure’. Going abroad would have been admittance that there isn’t any English born manager available that has the talent to lead the national side. Also the top nations don’t go looking abroad. New European champions Portugal have done in the past but they finally won a major trophy with Fernando Santos, Portuguese. Indeed all of the semi final teams from Euro 2016 were all managed by coaches from that country. Why should England be different?

The FA can of course point to the fact that when they did look further away they came up with Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello who both respectively took one step forward and several back. Would an English manager in their time have done any worse? Okay Steve McClaren aside, but these managers demanded huge salaries and huge attention and their legacies as football coaches will not be remembered for their time with the English national team.

Allardyce in the end didn’t have too much competition- there was talk of Steve Bruce perhaps Alan Pardew but in the end the FA have gone for a man who some players he’s coached have recently come out and said he has a calming influence and really does care for the progression of the team. Progression is a huge word and one that ultimately won over the FA because Allardyce has agreed to nurture the next England coach as part of his job.

The problem for Big Sam is that he is more remembered for relegation dog fights than battling it out near the top of the league. And the big worry must inevitably remain that he may, even if he is English, be another manager that could well be taking backwards steps than advancing in his new job. Only time will tell.

New boss Ventura has important role with Italy

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Euro 2016 proved valuable for Italy. It didn’t end in success, but the team went further than many imagined. In doing so, the Azzurri regained part of themselves, something lacking in Brazil two years earlier.

Gianluigi Buffon implored: “What we leave behind is an enormous treasure and it mustn’t be wasted.” Emanuele Giaccherini: “We’re getting another great Coach like [Giampiero] Ventura, who breathes football and who is the perfect link after [Antonio] Conte.” The message is clear: build on what was started.

It’s a scenario which has already played out once before. Former Torino boss Ventura took over from Conte at Bari in 2009, leading them in Serie A following promotion under Conte. There he built on Conte’s attacking 4-4-2 formation – “Thanks to Conte I had a solid base to build on,” he would later say. He now will continue from Conte’s Azzurri framework.

With World Cup qualifiers around the corner, the 68-year-old is not expected to rock the boat. He has his own staff, but will largely retain the team which took the Nazionale to within a whisker of the Semi-finals.

Italy face a tricky start on the road to Russia. A match in Israel is followed by a return meeting with Spain. Only top spot in each group qualifies, so a good start is imperative.

In order to keep the group together, Ventura must coax Andrea Barzagli out of retirement. The defender said Euro 2016 would be his last tournament, but Ventura is hoping to have the BBC defence at his disposal. So too Daniele De Rossi, who had a fine tournament. With Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio still out injured, the Roma veteran remains important.

But Ventura was known for giving youth a chance at Torino. He got the best out of Matteo Darmian and in his last season regularly fielded Marco Benassi, Daniele Baselli and Andrea Belotti. The latter could well be an option as the centre forward position remains an Azzurri question mark.

There are other promising youngsters to consider, including Domenico Berardi, Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli. Considered too raw by Conte, that may be the case here too initially, but a big part of Ventura’s reign will be to integrate the next generation.

Adding those talents to the solid base seen in France will put Italy in good stead for the future. There’s renewed optimism surrounding the Azzurri and the next two years will be vital.

Can Italy put Barzagli’s retirement plans on hold?

Germany v Italy - EURO 2016 - Quarter Final

Andrea Barzagli was inconsolable. His tearful statement, “In a few years nobody will remember anything about this Nazionale,” came in the aftermath of Italy’s penalty shootout defeat to Germany in the Euro 2016 Quarter-finals.

As it stands, the match in Bordeaux will be Barzagli’s last in the famous blue shirt. An international career spanning 12 years and 61 appearances, he was a 2006 World Cup winner.

“I’ll leave the Azzurri after the Euros. It’s right to give the younger players a chance.” Barzagli made that announcement late last year, after Italy had sealed their spot in France. The emotion of his post-match interview suggests he won’t go back. That is, unless Italy can change Barzagli’s mind.

The Azzurri were criticised before heading to France, but confidence grew after victory over Belgium. They expertly dispatched of Spain and fell agonisingly short against the Germans – Barzagli one of those to net in the shootout.

Antonio Conte moulded a group exhibiting tremendous team spirit. The Juventus defence consisting of Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, as well as Gianluigi Buffon, proved the pillars. They rarely featured as a unit for Juve in 2016 due to Chiellini’s persistent injuries, but called the best defensive unit by teammates and opponents, it was easy to see why. Perhaps the emotion of a strenuous month which Italy weren’t ready to see end got the better of the 35-year-old.

Now they start a new era under Giampiero Ventura. Reports suggest he does not want to make sweeping changes right away. That includes not losing Barzagli.

“Never say never,” Claudio Orlandini, Barzagli’s agent, said last week. “He started out with an idea, but thoughts can change. People in the national team asked him to stay.”

With good reason too. Not that Italy don’t have good youngsters on the rise, because Daniele Rugani and Alessio Romagnoli are just that. But with a qualifying date with Spain in October, the new coach wants as settled a team as possible.

Should Barzagli stick by his decision, Italy would be losing the best defender of the trio. The brains of the operation. Barzagli is rarely flustered and rarely beaten. He does not receive the plaudits of his partners in crime, but is just as valuable.

And that’s what Ventura sees. Whether he would go all the way to Russia remains to be seen, but the incoming tactician is hoping to keep a player who can still play a part in helping Italy get there.

Eder: Portugal’s unlikely Euro 2016 hero

Euro 2016

Almost as unlikely as Portugal winning Euro 2016, was their match winner in the final against France.

When Cristiano Ronaldo went off injured after just 25 minutes, Portuguese prospects of winning a first European Championship suffered a damaging blow, since they lost their main goal – scoring threat.

As such Ronaldo’s team mates were required to assume a greater level of responsibility for trying to unlock the French defence without their talismanic captain.

Euro Ecstasy for Eder

The Portuguese players did that collectively and came close to scoring on numerous occasions, before Eder found the net with a wonderful low 25-yard drive.

Prior to appearing as a substitute against France, when he was introduced for Renato Sanches after 79 minutes, Eder’s involvement in the finals had been extremely limited. Specifically he had only made two other late substitute appearances in Portugal’s first two group games against Iceland and Austria, which those amounting to approximately 15 minutes of playing time for the Lille forward.

Given that Eder’s emergence from the bench to score Portugal’s winning goal in the final was entirely unexpected, as he became the sixth substitute to score in a European Championship final, with Olivier Bierhoff, Sylvain Wiltord, David Trezeguet, Juan Mata and Fernando Torres having previously done so.

The manner in which Eder controlled the ball from Joao Moutinho’s pass, strongly resisted the challenge of Laurent Koscielny, before sending a powerful 25-yard shot into the net, displayed a confidence which defied both the striker’s lack of game time at the finals and indifferent club form over the past year.

Differing spells at season at Lille and Swansea

Whilst playing for Swansea, whom he joined from Sporting Braga in June 2015 for a fee in the region of £5m, during the first half of the 2015-16 season, Eder did not score in 15 appearances.

Following that barren run of form, he was loaned to Lille in the January transfer window and quickly established himself as an important member of the French Ligue 1 club’s squad.

By scoring six goals in 13 Ligue 1 games, Eder helped Lille finish fifth and qualify for the Europa League, whilst earning himself a four-year contract with the club and a place in Portugal’s Euro 2016 squad in the process.

Rising to international stardom

Eder’s only other experience of playing in a major international tournament arrived at the 2014 World Cup when he made one start and two substitute appearances, as Portugal were eliminated at the group stage.

Furthermore before his superb strike against France, Eder had never scored in a competitive international game, with his three previous goals coming in friendly’s against Italy, Norway and Estonia.

Ultimately there could scarcely have been a better time for Eder to register his first competitive goal for Portugal as he became Selecao’s unlikely Euro 2016 final goal-scoring saviour and enhanced his reputation on the senior international stage.

UEFA announces Euro 2016 awardees and team of the tournament

Antoine Griezmann France Euro 2016

The title of UEFA’s Euro 2016 player of the tournament has been awarded to the French striker Antoine Greizmann, as reported by the Independent.

Great Greizmann

Griezmann also finished the tournament with the Golden Boot as he scored six goals, which was double that of any other player, to help France make the final.

Despite not being able to score in the final, whilst missing a great opportunity to do so with a header as France lost 1-0 to Portugal, Greizmann’s earned the award of the tournament’s most outstanding player by producing a series of excellent performances throughout Les Bleus campaign and particularly during their knock-out phase wins against the Republic of Ireland, Iceland and Germany.

Superb Sanches

Ultimately an unfitting end to a fantastic tournament transpired for Greizmann, whilst Portugal’s Renato Sanches enjoyed an altogether happier conclusion to his first major international finals. Specifically at 18 years and 328 days old, the Bayern Munich midfielder became the youngest ever European Championship finalist and winner, whilst also winning the Young Player of the Tournament award ahead of his France’s Kingsley Coman and fellow Portuguese Raphael Guerriero.

Team of the Tournament

The 22-year-old left back, who recently signed for Borussia Dortmund from Ligue 1 side Lorient, has also been included in UEFA’s team of the tournament, with three other Portuguese players featuring. They are goalkeeper Rui Patricio, centre back Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst the German trio of Joshua Kimmich, Jerome Boateng and Toni Kroos also made the team, along with the Welsh duo of Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey. The other two remaining members of the side selected by an expert panel of Fifa delegates, which included Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Gareth Southgate, were Dimitri Payet and Greizmann of France.

Close of an excellent tournament

As such the distribution of UEFA’s awards and announcement of their team of the tournament, represents the final chapter of an excellent 2016 European Championships, which presented wonderful entertainment and an abundance of memorable moments.

 

 

 

Misfiring Griezmann can’t lead France to Euro 2016 glory

Antoine Griezmann France Euro 2016

France forward Antoine Griezmann underperformed as Les Blues suffered a narrow defeat to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016 on Sunday night, missing two gilt-edged chances, and after the game admitted being “frustrated” at not beating the goalkeeper. “We hit the post, I had chances as well and I almost scored. The goalkeeper played well, too. It’s frustrating, but we must come back stronger,” said the Atletico Madrid man.

Griezmann had two headed efforts either side of half-time, forcing a finger-tip save from the impressive Rui Patricio in the Portugal goal, and putting another chance over the bar from close range when it looked easier for him to score. Given how good his heading has been in the Euros so far, it was a shock to see the Frenchman spurn such an opportunity, but his profligacy summed up Les Blues’ evening.

France were big favourites to win in the final after impressively beating Germany in the semi-final, but they couldn’t breach a stubborn Portugal backline at the Stade de France to get themselves ahead. “It’s cruel and magnificent at the same time. We’ve lived through some extraordinary moments, and the saddest moments as well. We have to learn. But tonight we gave it all and we have no regrets.”

Griezmann picked up the Golden Boot for his six goals and two assists in Euro 2016, and while pleased to be so prolific, the Atletico forward admitted it was hard to celebrate off the back of France’s final defeat. The 25-year-old formed a potent partnership with Olivier Giroud in the latter stages, but the two struggled on Sunday, and Griezmann said he’s too disappointed to cherish winning the Golden Boot award.

“Maybe later I can feel proud, but for now, it’s about the group. I’m very disappointed for my team-mates. I really wanted to offer them this trophy, but I couldn’t score and I’m disappointed. I’m proud of the squad, proud of everybody. Now we have to come back stronger. This time we didn’t manage it, unlike against Germany. It is a pity,” he added.

France’s only defeat in the tournament came in the final, and it was only the second time they were shutout by an opponent. Portugal made waves in the Euros for their defensive record, and such a robust approach was the difference in the end. Portugal had ground France down by extra time, and were looking more likely of scoring in their brief forays forward.

Questions of Deschamps as France let Euro 2016 slip away

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All the signs pointed to a French party. They started the Euro 2016 Final as clear favourites against a Portugal team which had clawed their way to the Stade de France showdown. France, meanwhile, were riding high following victory over Germany.

They had the chance to equal Michel Platini’s team of 1984 which won the European Championships on home soil. And the class of 1998. Captain then, Didier Deschamps could be a national hero once more.

But this was a tournament for ending hoodoos. Italy ended their barren spell against Spain. Germany then finally beat the Azzurri in a major tournament. Portugal came into the Final without a win in their last 10 against France. That included the Semi-finals of Euro ‘84 and 2000, plus the World Cup six years later. And the French did themselves no favours on a moth-infested Sunday in Paris.

Even with Portugal losing talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and France holding the ascendency, the game remained scoreless. Deschamps said afterwards the French “lost together”, although some of his decisions were curious, to say the least.

He has battled with midfield balance throughout the tournament. It started when it became clear Antoine Griezmann would be better suited to playing centrally. A man in form, Deschamps went with the Atletico Madrid player. For the Quarter-final with Iceland he was fielded in a 4-2-3-1 behind Olivier Giroud. But in the reshuffle, Deschamps had Paul Pogba become the holding midfielder.

On Sunday the Juventus man did not have a licence to get forward. It was Moussa Sissoko and Blaise Matuidi doing that. While offering energy, they lack the craft of Pogba. France needed that to unlock a resolute Portuguese defence.

They did create chances – Griezmann had a header in each half and Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post in second half injury time, but the longer it went on the more France grew anxious. And Portugal grew in confidence. Deschamps substitutions, aside from throwing on Anthony Martial after the Portuguese goal, did little to change the course of the match.

There appeared no French fluidity through the centre, or cohesiveness in their attacking play. Would releasing Pogba have changed anything? It would have helped. Don’t forget, he was heavily involved in the second goal against Germany, minutes after N’Golo Kante came on to protect the base of midfield.

Portugal got the only goal in extra-time, leaving France to wonder how they let another home tournament triumph slip through their grasp. When tasked with breaking down a firm defence neither the players or coach had an answer.

Multiple heroes emerge to help hosts to Euro 2016 final

Euro 2016

Take a bow, Antoine Greizmann.

The great Greizmann

The French striker deservedly did so when substituted in the last minute of his country’s 2-0 semi-final victory over Germany, as he produced a man of the match performance and scored both goals to send Les Bleus through to the final of Euro 2016.

Whilst the role Greizmann has played in France’s run to the final cannot be underestimated, neither too can the contribution made by several of his team mates, who despite not making as many headlines as the Atletico Madrid player, have emerged as heroes in their own right for Didier Deschamps’ side.

Prodigious Payet

The first player to do so was Dimitri Payet. With France labouring to a 1-1 draw in their opening game of the tournament against Romania, the 29-year-old West Ham United playmaker scored a brilliant last minute winner, to transform the mood inside the Stade de France from one of frustration to jubilation.

Whilst Payet’s superb goal endeared him to the French supporters, so too did his emotionally charged celebration. Immediately after that Payet was substituted by Deschamps so as to receive a standing ovation from the French faithful.

Subsequently in addition to scoring in France’s second group stage game as Les Bleus beat Albania 2-0, Payet found the net in his country’s 5-2 quarter final win over Iceland.

Defiant defensive unit

During that game the centre back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti defended unconvincingly but recovered to form a wonderfully solid partnership in France’s semi-final win over Germany, with Hugo Lloris also performing heroically to keep a clean sheet against the World Champions.

Lloris has been in inspired form throughout the finals, producing great saves at vital moments. That has been all the more commendable given that the French captain has not otherwise been overly busy during his country’s games. As such, Lloris’ ability to pull off outstanding saves has testified his superb levels of concentration and focus, which manager Deschamps demands be displayed by the entire French squad.

Sissoko’s successful emergence

Another key member of that is Moussa Sissoko. Despite being overlooked for a place in France’s first XI at the beginning of the tournament by Deschamps, who instead chose to play N’Golo Kante in midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba, Sissoko started and performed excellently as Les Bleus emphatically beat Iceland 5-2.

The Newcastle United midfielder was afforded the opportunity to do so since Kante was suspended for the match after picking up his second yellow card of the finals in the previous round against the Republic of Ireland. Deschamps retained faith in Sissoko for the semi-final with Germany, which the 26-year-old handsomely repaid with another assured display, to put forward an extremely strong case for starting France’s final against Portugal.

Collective excellence

Absolutely certain to do so, barring the emergence of any unforeseen circumstances are Pogba, Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, who have been ever present and performed consistently well in the French campaign, during which Matuidi has enhanced his reputation as being one of the best box-to-box midfielder‘s in Europe.

Whilst Les Bleus progression to the final has owed much to the goal-scoring and creative talents of Greizmann, it has also been inspired by a cohesive and well disciplined team effort, which has been powered by many members of their squad including the unheralded quintet of Koscielny, Lloris, Payet, Sissoko and Umtiti.