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.

eden hazard chelsea

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: Martinez turning Belgium into Contenders?

We are pleased to welcome one of our former writers Vincent Van Genechten who has extensive knowledge on both Belgian and Italian football. In Part I of this Q & A, we will be discussing the Belgian national team, in particular manager Roberto Martinez and his approach.

Q1) What do you make of Belgian manager Martinez? Some are skeptical about him being the right man for the job. 

It has been nothing less than a successful reign for Martinez since he took over from Marc Wilmots. Is he special in his approach? Yes. I mean, who leaves out a world class player like Radja Nainggolan just to make a point? But that has been pretty much the only point of criticism I can give Martinez so far. He was able to guide Belgium to tough away wins against Bosnia and Greece, when his team finally showcased a sense of urgency, fighting spirit and finishing ability against good defenders. 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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England beat Lithuania but show signs that they haven’t moved on

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How do you see a half pint measure? That you still have half, or that you only have half?

This could well be represented with Gareth Southgate’s England team, a team who got all three crucial points in their World Cup qualifying match over Lithuania. England of course were expected to win, especially being at home and did so- it was job done.

It was also achieved in a rather relative professional matter, the goals, one by Jermain Defoe and the other by Jamie Vardy were well taken and executed well. Mention should go out to Defoe, who at his age of 34 was deemed surplus to requirements as far as international football went. But the striker has been superb in an ever growing nightmare of a season for his club Sunderland who are at the foot of the Premier league. Credit should go to Southgate to realise that the striker was in form and deserved a call up, one that was immensely justified.

But England’s performance was incredibly laboured, even lethargic because within ten minutes of kick off they had checked out their opponents and quickly realised that Lithuania playing what seemed to be almost six men at the back had come to Wembley Stadium for a 0-0 result. Perhaps with huge luck Lithuania would have countered in the final quarter of an hour for a shock of shock wins but this was never in realistic terms going to happen.

And so the three lions had to be awakened as such, it never even had to be a rude one as Lithuania rarely threatened. The key in the end was getting an early goal, which Defoe did and the rest was history. By the time the second half had kicked off the area around the bench, so gloriously filled with fans for the big games was almost empty. Most had opted not to make the visit, whilst some may have still been at the bar behind the stand or grabbing a snack.

This match underlined the English mentality- and you do wonder if much will change under Southgate’s wing. True he wants to be a winner and he may take more risks player selection wise than this predecessors but this was a match devoid of any tempo, the opposition were clearly here for the taking and the 70,000 or so fans deserved to see a game ending with four or five goals rather than just the two that England could muster up in 90 minutes.

Let’s hope that this was just a bad day at the office, yes a win is a win and it’s three points, but this match could well lead onto a path that many English fan has walked many a time, only to be re routed backwards when the going gets tough.

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Germany aim to build upon excellent start to qualification campaign

Euro 2016

Current World Champions Germany started their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with a commanding 3-0 away victory over Norway in Oslo.

Whilst Thomas Mueller scored twice, the 27-year-old’s Bayern Munich team mate Joshua Kimmich showed great composure to score his first international goal, as Germany delivered an accomplished performance.

In doing so Joachim Low’s side issued a strong statement of intent that they are fully equipped and focused upon reaching the 2018 finals in Russia in as efficient and serene a manner as possible.

Dominant display against Norway

Not only did Germany monopolise possession – 73.7% – against the Norwegians, whilst playing with dynamism and enterprise, but they also created a wealth of excellent goal scoring opportunities, of which Kimmich and Muller were the beneficiaries.

Furthermore a series of fine saves from Norway’s goalkeeper Rune Jarstein, who plays his club football for Hertha Berlin, prevented Germany from winning by a wider margin.

On numerous occasions the 32-year-old former Viking Stavanger player repelled fine efforts from German players, who strolled throw the game with the utmost confidence and efficiency.

Czech’s await Low’s Germany

Therefore Germany laid a solid platform upon which they can build a successful qualifying campaign, with it being their aim to continue constructing that against the Czech Republic, for whom the influential duo of Petr Cech and Tomas Rosicky are no longer available following their international retirements.

In drawing their maiden qualification game 0-0 with Northern Ireland, as Cech’s predecessor Tomas Vaclik remained largely untested, Karel Jarolim’s side were neither able to play with any cohesion nor fluency.  As such they must aspire to produce a vastly improved performance in order to compete against a wonderfully balanced and talented German side.

The last time that the two nations faced one another was during qualification for Euro 2008 as the Czech Republic won 3-0 in Munich courtesy of goals from Libor Sionko, Marek Matejovsky and Jaroslav Plasil.  Of the players featuring in that game, none are still involved in either the current German or Czech international set-ups.

In contrast to the relative inexperience of Jarolim’s pool of players at international level, whereby only captain Tomas Sivok has made more than 50 appearances, with the Bursaspor defender having been capped 58 times for the Czech Republic, eight members of Low’s 23-man squad have surpassed the 50-cap mark.

Fine mix of experience and youth among German squad

Specifically Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and Mario Gotze have each represented Germany on more than 50 occasions.  Given that whilst Germany’s squad is blessed with a wealth of experience, it also has a strong youthful element with home-based players such as Julian Brandt, Julian Draxler, Joshua Kimmich, Max Meyer, Julian Weigl all having proven themselves as capable of performing well on the international stage.

Great potential exists for Low to introduce more young players into his squad during this qualification campaign.  That is particularly the case given the emergence of a fine crop of talented young German defenders, which include Emre Can, Matthias Ginter, Antonio Rudiger, Niklas Sule and Jonathan Tah, whilst Manchester City’s 20-year-old forward Leroy Sane constitutes another excellent attacking option for Low.

Low aspires to lead Germany to another major international tournament

The 56-year-old is now amidst his sixth major international tournament qualification campaign as Germany manager.

In the role Low has an impressive record of having won 77.38% of the competitive games for which he has taken charge of Germany.

As such Low will aim to strengthen that record by guiding Die Mannschaft to victory over the Czech Republic, which would put Germany in complete ascendancy in their efforts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, despite only having played two games.

Although by no means decisive in terms of determining the overall outcome of qualification Group C – which also contains Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Norway and San Marino – Germany’s game against the Czech Republic assumes great importance for both teams.

Whilst the Czech’s will seek to inject some much needed momentum into their campaign following their disappointing draw with Northern Ireland, Germany’s ambition is to secure a second successive victory and build upon the fine start they made by dismantling Norway.

German efficiency characterises Low’s managerial reign  

Ever since Low’s appointment in 2006, Germany have professed in running extremely successful qualification campaign, with that being a feat which they are more than capable of achieving again, so as to reach the 2018 World Cups finals in Russia and defend their World title.

Just 72 hours after hosting the Czech Republic in Hamburg, Germany will then travel to Hannover to play Northern Ireland, who Joachim Low’s side beat 1-0 during the group stages of Euro 2016 courtesy of a Mario Gomez goal.

Therefore although a demanding schedule awaits Germany, it is one they are extremely well equipped to manage, particularly under the expert guidance and tutelage of Low, who appears set to lead his country to another major international tournament.

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2018 World Cup Qualifying begins badly for Euro 2016 finalists

 

Euro 2016

The first round of the European section of 2018 World Cup Qualification fixtures are now complete, as the 54 competing nations launched their respective campaigns to try to reach the finals in Russia.

Whilst there were several noteworthy results, two were particularly surprising and they involved the Euro 2016 finalists, France and Portugal.

Both countries toiled in their first competitive games since playing one another in the Stade de France on 10 July, when the Portuguese triumphed 1-0.

Portugal’s poor start

In order to do so, Fernando Santos’ side produced a wonderfully assured and confident performance, which they were unable to replicate as they opened their 2018 World Cup Qualification campaign with a 2-0 away defeat to Switzerland.

In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, with the Real Madrid forward missing the game through injury, Portugal conceded two first half goals, as Breel Embolo and Ahmed Mehmedi scored for the Swiss, for whom Granit Xhaka was sent off in injury time.

That represents the fourth red card that the Arsenal holding midfielder has received since the start of last season, as despite performing well he continues to suffer from disciplinary issues.

Nevertheless regardless of Xhaka’s dismissal Switzerland comfortably consigned Fernando Santos to his first competitive defeat in 15 matches as manager of Portugal, who created plenty of chances but were unable to convert any of them.

Faltering French open campaign with a draw

The frustration associated with that issue was one also experienced by Portugal’s Euro 2016 final opponents France.

Specifically despite dominating their first 2018 World Cup Qualification campaign game against Belarus, Les Bleus did not play with the fluency and attacking verve that they consistently displayed throughout Euro 2016, as Aleksandr Khatskevich’s side performed valiantly to secure a creditable point.

Instrumental in earning that was the Belarussian goalkeeper, Andrey Gurbonov, who on numerous occasions denied Antoine Greizmann.  The Atletico Madrid forward, along with Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane, each went close to scoring for Didier Deschamps team, whose best efforts to win the game ended in vain.

Much changed French squad

Of the French team to start against Belarus, there were only five surviving members of the side which began, the Euro 2016 Final against Portugal with the quintet being Giroud, Greizmann, Laurent Koscielny, Pogba and Moussa Sissoko.

Furthermore relative to the squad that Deschamps’ selected for Euro 2016 that which he took to Belarus assumed a markedly contrasting look since it contained eight different players.

Whilst Yohan Cabaye, Kingsley Coman, Patrice Evra, Christophe Jallet, Hugo Lloris, Eliaquim Mangala, Bacary Sagna and Morgan Schneiderlin all featured for France at Euro 2016, they were not called upon by Deschamps for France’s trip to Borisov, whilst their replacements were Geoffrey Kondogbia, Kevin Gameiro, Layvin Kurzawa, Sebastien Corchia, Alphonse Areola, Raphael Varane, Djibril Sidibe and Ousmane Dembele, respectively.

Improvement to be sought by Euro 2016 finalists in upcoming qualifiers

Given the number of alterations Deschamps has made to his squad, the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign could potentially be a transitional one for France, who similar to Portugal will aspire to avenge their disappointing start by producing improved performances in their upcoming qualifiers against Bulgaria and the Netherlands, which are set to take place next month.

The first of those games takes place at the Stade de France on 7 October, whilst three days later Les Bleus will face Danny Blind’s Dutch side in Amsterdam.  Similar to France, Oranje opened their qualification campaign with a draw, as their game with Sweden ended 1-1, whilst Bulgaria won a thrilling encounter against Luxembourg 4-3.

On that basis, France’s qualification group is set to be characterized by great competitiveness.  So too is Portugal’s, since the Faroe Islands held Hungary to a goalless draw, whilst Latvia only narrowly defeated Andorra 1-0.

Therefore in order to reach the 2018 World Cup finals, both France and Portugal will require to recover from indifferent starts to their qualification campaigns and assert their authority and quality in extremely challenging group.

Italy start World Cup qualifying with important victory

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It wasn’t a night Giorgio Chiellini will want to remember. But for Giampiero Ventura, Italy’s 3-1 win over Israel was an important first step on the road to Russia.

They took a 2-0 lead in Haifa on the half-hour mark thanks to Graziano Pelle and Antonio Candreva. Then came Chiellini’s nightmare. Already booked for a foul after a mistake, another error opened the door for Israel’s Tal Ben Haim to chip Gianluigi Buffon and get the home side back in the contest.

Chiellini’s ‘off night’, as he later put it, was compounded with a second yellow card – his first dismissal in 90 Italian appearances. It left Israel sensing the chance to pounce and forced Italy to hold on. Much to Ventura’s satisfaction, the 10 men weathered the storm. “We worked as a team, suffered as a team and won as a team.” The win was sealed by Ciro Immobile’s goal.

According to the striker, Ventura told him earlier in the day he would find the back of the net and he did so emphatically. The pair worked closely at Torino in two different spells and so know each other well. It’s the same for Angelo Ogbonna, drafted in to help the defence following the red card rather than Daniele Rugani or Davide Astori. Ogbonna was Ventura’s captain at Torino until 2013.

Marco Verratti showed why hopes have been pinned on him to pick up the mantle left by Andrea Pirlo. It was his first 90 minute showing since February and despite battling a knock picked up in the second half, he was impressive in possession at the heart of midfield and without the ball. He will be a key player for Italy during this qualification period.

A tricky night at the office, but three important points for the Azzurri. That’s because Spain visit Turin next month. The clash of the heavyweights will set up Group G, with only top spot automatically going to Russia. Ventura will have a defensive decision to make in the wake of Chiellini’s red card.

After eliminating Spain at Euro 2016, Italy cannot have any fear. A win opens the door, with fixtures away to Macedonia and Liechtenstein closing out 2016. Should they get past Spain then Italy can target 12 points by Christmas.

That’s why starting with a victory meant so much, even if they did it the tough way in typical Italian fashion. Ventura got his maiden Azzurri triumph and now the team can build towards next month’s mouth-watering encounter.

O’Neill continues to inspire Northern Ireland

Euro 2016

A fundamental responsibility of a football manager is to withdraw the best form from his players and mould them into a cohesive, well – balanced team, which is a description that aptly applies to Northern Ireland, under the guidance of Michael O’Neill.

Reasonable start to 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign

After leading his country to the Euro 2016 finals, where they reached the second round before being beaten 1-0 by Wales, O’Neill oversaw a typically determined and resilient Northern Irish performance as his side began their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign with a 0-0 draw away to the Czech Republic.

Although the game was a largely uneventful affair, during which Northern Ireland struggled to play with any fluency, they earned a creditable point, with that particularly being the case since a number of O’Neill’s players have not featured regularly for their clubs this season.

For instance despite a quartet of O’Neill’s starting XI in the form of Kyle Lafferty, Michael McGovern, Paddy McNair and Jamie Ward, lacking match sharpness, they each defied that to repay the faith shown in them by performing bravely to typify the desire to succeed and spiritedness which characterises the mentality of the Northern Irish team.

As such the 47-year-old’s ability to inspire such a disciplined, industrious and organised performance from his team is testament to O’Neill’s wonderful man management qualities, which enable him to galvanise his players to compete well against any opposition.

An expression of collective unity and defensive solidarity

That was once again evidently the case against the Czech Republic, as despite not carrying much of an attacking threat during the game, Northern Ireland produced a defensively solid display, with the centre back duo of Johnny Evans and Gareth McAuley being chief architects of that.

The pair has developed an excellent relationship not only on the international scene but also at club level, as they form West Bromwich Albion’s centre defence.  Whilst the 28-year-old Evans has now amassed 54 international caps, McAuley, who is the former Manchester United player’s senior by eight years has made 66 appearances for his country, with the first of those being at Windsor Park in June 2005 as they lost 4-1 in a friendly against Germany.  The reigning World Champions are another one of Northern Ireland’s 2018 World Cup Qualifying Campaign opponents, with the other being Azerbaijan, the Czech Republic, Norway and San Marino.

Ultimately the prospect of trying to reach their first World Cup finals since 1986 represents a significant challenge to O’Neill’s side but one which the will whole heartedly embrace, particularly given the involvement of players of the quality of Evans and McAuley.

O’Neill crafty creation of a competitive team

They are two of the most important members of O’Neill’s squad, which features players based at clubs in the top four divisions of English football and the Scottish Premier League.

Specifically whilst Evans and McAuley play in the English Premier League, O’Neill’s third choice goalkeeper Trevor Carson’s club side is League Two Hartlepool United, whilst Niall McGinn, who scored his country’s second goal in their 2-0 Euro 2016 group stage win over the Ukraine, plays north of the English – Scottish border with Aberdeen.

Another member of Northern Ireland’s squad for their draw against the Czech Republic was McGinn’s Aberdeen teammate Calum Morris, with the 26-year-old centre back being one of four uncapped players selected by O’Neill.  The other three were Carson, along with Tom Flanagan and Michael Duffy.  That provides a clear indication that O’Neill is committed to integrating new players into his squad so as to ensure it retains freshness.

Subsequently given that O’Neill assembles his squad from such a variety of levels of club football, the manner in which the former Shamrock Rovers’ manager’s creates and sustains a team that is capable of performing so well on the international stage is highly impressive and indicative of his innate ability to inspire Northern Ireland’s band of consummately professional players.