Premier League stars Courtois, De Bruyne & Hazard to lead Belgian quest in Russia 2018

Vincent Van Genechten, armed with his extensive knowledge of Belgian football, is back again to discuss in Part III of our Q & A the Belgian national team’s prospects ahead of the World Cup next summer.

Q1) How far do you expect Belgium to go in Russia 2018? Can Belgium reach the World Cup semi-final?

The Red Devils enjoyed a very successful qualification campaign, racing through their group while scoring a large number of goals. They must be one of the favorites, right? Well, that is where it gets tricky. On paper, Belgium has all the quality players to lift that prestigious World Cup trophy. Looking at the squad list, which other country has a world class goalkeeper such as Thibaut Courtois, an elite defender as Toby Alderweireld, an assist-machine in the form of midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and a difference maker like forward Eden Hazard at the disposal of is manager? Believe me, not that many… Continue reading

World Cup 2018: Belgium to rely heavily on Chelsea’s Hazard?

Once again we welcome back the knowledgeable Vincent Van Genechten who has ample experience covering Belgian and Italian football. In Part II of our Q & A with Vincent, we delve deeper into the affairs of the Belgian national team and turn attention to specific players, namely Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku.

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Q1) Eden Hazard had a great 2016/17 Premier League season. He was ranked as one of the top EPL Fantasy Players. How important is Hazard for Belgium?

You just have to look at who is Belgium’s captain to know how important Hazard is for this team. He has been very important since Martinez took over. He is not that vocal like Vincent Kompany or Jan Vertonghen, but you can clearly see much revolves around Hazard when the Red Devils play. In the past Hazard had the tendency to disappear in big games but those times are behind us. When Belgium needs him, he makes himself visible on most occasions. Continue reading

Wales fail to make World Cup 2018 despite consistency

Perhaps the problem for Wales was being far too consistent and predictable in terms of approach and the familiar faces in the starting lineup. Some may argue Gareth Bale’s absence from the critical encounter versus the Republic of Ireland doomed the chances of the Welsh.

Despite failing to qualify for World Cup 2018, the Welsh can take solace in the fact that for a second successive qualification campaign, Chris Coleman and his squad remained competitive till the end. Coleman was able to call upon almost the same players the last 3 years.

Of all the player who helped beat Belgium 3-1 in the quarter finals of Euro 2016, only two did not feature for Wales in Tbilisi, as they beat Georgia 1-0 on October 6th, 2017. One of those players was the injured Bale. Continue reading

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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Will Argentina qualify for World Cup 2018?

Argentina will later tonight take a major step towards qualifying for Russia 2018, or will face the unthinkable and miss on qualifying for the World Cup. It is almost shocking to see a team featuring the likes of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero (currently injured following the accident in Amsterdam), Inter’s Mauro Icardi (though added in most recent months to the squad), Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain (excluded in recent matches) as well as Juve’s emerging star Paulo Dybala and of course Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi.

Argentina has an embarrassment of riches in attack yet the national team continues to struggle to find the back of the net, with only Bolivia having scored less goals in CONMEBOL qualifiers (with just 2 games left for each team). It is definitely a failure when one considers the options in midfield as well with the likes of Paris Saint-Germain duo Angel di Maria and Javier Pastore on the team as well.

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Tonight is a must win game for Argentina with Peru the visiting team. Peru and Argentina are tied on 24 points yet the Peruvians are ahead in 4th place because they have scored more goals (despite both teams having a +1 in goal differential).

Will Argentina look for Messi time and again, as the Peruvian defenders will expect, or will La Albiceleste surprise everyone and try to spread the responsibility to different players? Messi will remain the focal point for the Argentinians, but will the team succeed in securing the win with Aguero sidelined, Higuain excluded and the coach indicating he will not start Dybala because he feels he is too similar to Messi?

It is a must win game for Argentina and most likely all eyes will be on Messi. Win and he will be hailed as a hero, but lose and once again he will be held responsible by some for the national team’s failures. In reality it has been a difficult situation for Messi with Argentina because of the high expectations and, at times, the unfair criticism.