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Saturday, 19 September 2015

Euro 2016 qualifiers: 10 talking points from the latest action


Robin van Persie, Steven Fletcher and Andrea Pirlo all underperformed, while Wales’ defence led by Ashley Williams continues to impress and Shane Long needs to start for Ireland. Photograph: Corbis, AP, Rex

Wednesday 9 September 201508.58 BSTLast modified on Wednesday 9 September 201511.42 BST

1) England adding steel behind an attack that looks after itself

Well, that’s finally over then. For those experiencing post-goal record withdrawal symptoms there is at least the consolation that Wayne Rooney can break England’s scoring record all over again next month against Lithuania and Estonia, and then again against France the following month, each goal from now on to be accompanied in an ideal world by a similar farrago of anticipation, ecstasy and commemorative newspaper pull-outs.

The goal record is, of course, a distraction from the real business of England attempting to improve on recent tournament performances. Indeed scoring hasn’t been the problem as much as keeping the opposition out and instilling a solidity through the rump of the team that was missing at the last World Cup. Since the deathly 0-0 draw with Italy at Euro 2012 England have played nine games against opposition with high-class attackers without keeping a single clean sheet, in the course of which Brazil, Italy, Germany, Uruguay, Chile and Sweden have put the ball in their net 16 times. Tuning up that post-Gerrard midfield block and making sure he has full-backs who can defend as well as attack: this is Hodgson’s real test ahead of next year and as such the clean sheet against Switzerland, the toughest – or least un-tough – team in the group was more significant than Rooney’s late penalty at the other end.

If Switzerland did find some joy passing their way around and through England in the first half there were some positives too. Luke Shaw was solid, imposing and aggressive in his positioning, unafraid to press high up his flank. Jonjo Shelvey ran willingly. James Milner had a good first half. If there is a lack of real star quality here there was no lack of hustle. England’s best chance of succeeding is to play in the style of mid-ranking underdogs everywhere, remaining compact and breaking with speed. Better – or indeed worse – teams than Switzerland will still trouble them. But never mind the goal records. There were at least some cautiously encouraging signs behind an attack that will more or less look after itself. Barney Ronay

2) The Welsh backline deserves some praise too

3) Long needs to start for Ireland against Poland and GermanyWales will qualify for Euro 2016, of that there is no doubt. The praise for that qualification will mostly be heaped on Gareth Bale and since he has earned his side seven points via his six goals, he deserves it. However, there should be some reserved for the Wales defence. Against an admittedly blunt Israel, they kept another clean sheet meaning they have now gone 504 minutes without conceding a goal. Only Romania have let in fewer throughout the entire qualification process and of the two that Wales have let in, neither have come from open play. Against Israel, who played with just Muanes Dabbur up front, they had little to deal with but keep their concentration sufficiently and when Israel did make a rare foray forward, any danger was tidied up with all the calm expertise of an experienced bomb-disposal unit. Of course, the jewel in this defence has been the captain, Ashley Williams. At one stage against Israel, he combined two of his best traits – his reading of the game and his pace – to beat his man to the ball and flick it over his head before taking the ball under control. He is a class and consistent act and now that he has proved it on the international stage, Swansea might have a fight on their hands to keep him at the club. Ian McCourt

The way Shane Long fluffed a late chance to make the end of Monday night’s game against Georgia smoother for Ireland showed why Martin O’Neill has found it difficult to trust him with a regular starting place despite his speed, aerial power and dynamism. But the way Robbie Keane performed in the first half, and the way Ireland improved in the second, indicated that the Southampton player has to begin next month’s critical double-header against Germany and Poland. “The last thing you want to do while you are searching for a goal is to remove your specialist goalscorer,” said O’Neill of his decision to withdraw Keane at the break. “Robbie has been terrific but he’s just not getting any younger,” said the manager, suggesting that the 35-year-old’s powers appeared to have dwindled so much that being a surer finisher than Long was no longer enough to offset his inability to contribute anything else against anyone other than the most obliging of opponents. Germany and Poland operate in a different universe to LA Galaxy, and Ireland are still far from sure of beating Scotland to France. Paul Doyle

4) Hector solves left-back headache for Löw

5) O’Neill must search for solution to Lafferty’s absenceThere were plenty of positives for Joachim Löw to take from Germany’s two wins in two games, not least Mario Götze’s return to form as well as the impressive display in midfield of Ilkay Gündogan. However, the most positive positive may be the performances of Jonas Hector. Left-back has long been a problem area for Die Mannschaft, with Löw testing a number of different players and tactics to solve the problem, but if Hector’s performances against Poland and Scotland are anything to go by, that could be one less problem keeping the German manager awake at night. He was repeatedly reliable in defence and just as importantly he offered Germany plenty of width in attack. As Manuel Neuer pointed out after the Poland game, Germany often “face a situation where the opposition has retreated deep into their own half and that means that our full-backs have to move forward and give support. We need more passing options then and crosses which can lead to us scoring goals” – and that is exactly what Hector offered. Against Poland, this was best seen in his fine interplay (with Karim Bellarabi) and his swift movement that led to him setting up Thomas Müller for the opening goal. He also had a hand in the second German goal and his general all-round display led to him being voted man of the match on the German FA’s website. Those two games were only Hector’s sixth and seventh appearances for Löw’s side but already it looks like he will be hard to dislodge from the starting XI. IMC

The euphoria and relief that surrounded Kyle Lafferty’s late, late equaliser against Hungary at Windsor Park overshadowed the consequences of his 10th-minute booking for a foul on fellow goalscorer Richard Guzmics, but they are serious for Michael O’Neill. Lafferty’s impressive return in the European Championship qualifying campaign now stands at seven goals in eight matches but he will be absent for the first time when Greece visit Belfast next month due to suspension. Northern Ireland require two points from their final two matches, at home to Greece and away to Finland, but also a credible alternative to their talisman. It demonstrated the paucity of options that O’Neill talked up Josh Magennis in the aftermath of the Hungary draw when the Kilmarnock forward is yet to score in 14 international appearances. Nottingham Forest’s Jamie Ward should have recovered from the hamstring injury that forced him to miss this double header but, even with only two points required and Greece bottom of the group, goals are no formality for Northern Ireland. They have scored 12 in qualifying and Lafferty has been involved in eight (including one assist). Reports that O’Neill has asked Connor Wickham, who has 17 caps for England Under-21s, to consider switching allegiance show the manager’s search for a solution is already under way. Andy Hunter



6) Plenty of concerns going forward for Conte

7) Fletcher still the best of an average bunchOn the face of it, it looks like a decent qualifying campaign for Italy. With two games left, they are top of their group by two points and remain undefeated. However, those figures camouflage some serious problems facing theAzzurri. They are struggling to find the back of the net – of all the teams topping the six-side groups, only Wales have scored fewer goals – and they needed a questionable effort from Graziano Pellè against Malta and a Daniele De Rossi penalty against Bulgaria to win their last two games. Pellè has done OK so far for Antonio Conte but at 30 years of age, he is hardly a long-term solution, while others (think Mario Balotelli or Stephan El Shaarawy) have failed to fire consistently. “We could’ve finished off the game with many more goals tonight,” said Marco Verratti, “and it’s something we have to improve, as we can’t always get lucky with the result.” Other than this, there is the question of Andrea Pirlo. He was poor against Malta – a team ranked 160 in the world – and the subject of much criticism in Italy. Conte deemed himself “mortified” by the attacks on the veteran midfielder but he still dropped Pirlo for the match against Bulgaria. That left De Rossi, Marco Verratti and Marco Parolo in midfield, all fine players but as a trio they are somewhat lacking in consistent creativity. That dearth will not help solve the striking crisis and Conte will need to think long and hard about how to solve these problems if and when Italy make it to France. IMC

The only thing worse than a striker who doesn’t score is one who misses an abundance of chances to do so. Steven Fletcher hasn’t quite reached whipping-boy status in the eyes of the Tartan Army yet but there is audible concern about his return. In 22 appearances, Fletcher has scored just four times. Three of them came in this campaign against Gibraltar, with a match against Iceland back in 2009 the only other time Fletcher has found the net for his country. It is poor, that cannot be denied. And yet, criticism of the Sunderland player is unfair. Part of this seems to resonate in his substantial club salary, which is hardly Fletcher’s fault. Fletcher doesn’t pass up opportunity after opportunity on the simple basis Scotland don’t create them. Against Germany, he wasn’t afforded a single clear sight at goal. The fact also remains that he is the best forward Scotland have for Gordon Strachan’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, owing to an ability to hold the ball up and bring others into play which is vastly superior to Leigh Griffiths or Chris Martin. Unless Strachan alters his philosophy, and there is no sign of that, Fletcher is the man for the job. It may not be a task the player himself even particularly relishes. Scotland’s scoring woes have undermined far more campaigns than this one. The nation has cried out for strikers who can reach so much as double figures in goals. Pinning this frustration on Fletcher is misplaced; he is the best of an average bunch. Ewan Murray
8) Time for the Dutch to wave goodbye to Van Persie

“The Lions look foolish” was how one Dutch newspaper reacted to the defeat to Turkey; “What a disgrace” was how another reacted; while a third said: “We don’t count anymore”. That last front page came with a picture of Robin van Persie, lying on the ground, looking like a decrepit telephone pole hit by a sharp left hook of lightning. There are plenty of things wrong with the Dutch side right now and there is plenty of rebuilding that needs doing but Danny Blind should start with pointing the former Manchester United and Arsenal striker in the direction of the exit. He has done little over a long time to suggest that he is worthy of starting up front for the Oranje and yet there he was with the No9 shirt on his back starting in a crucial game. For the record, his sole impact on the game against Turkey was a yellow card and one effort off target. (It is also worth noting that in his last 12 games for Holland he has scored only one goal that has not come from the spot and that was against Latvia.) Between himself and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (who started against Iceland), they have six league goals between them in 2015 while back in Germany, Bas Dost, who has 16 goals to his name during the same period, was forced to watch the two dismal defeats from his couch. IMC



9) Austria will be hard to beat in France

Marcel Koller’s team went to Sweden on Tuesday night needing a point to qualify for the finals and came away with an utterly comprehensive 4-1 win. It was a fitting way to seal their place at next year’s finals as they have been by far the best team in the group. They have won seven and drawn one of their eight games, scoring 16 goals in the process, conceding just three. Their pressing game is suffocating for opponents and, until the 91st minute on Tuesday night, they had not conceded a goal in open play in the group for a whole year. In addition to the work ethic and tactical superiority they have a world-class player in David Alaba who, with the national team, is allowed to play, and dominate, in central midfield. The Bayern Munich player will be crucial to Austria’s hopes in France as every team needs a bit of stardust to go far at a major tournament. As for Sweden, they are now looking at the play-offs after two defeats in four days. There will be calls for Erik Hamren to resign and maybe they need someone else in charge to provide fresh impetus. They were woeful and were lucky to just concede four. Austria had enough chances to score 10. Marcus Christenson

10) Dzyuba drags Russia back into automatic contention

It did not take long after the final whistle for the pictures of Artyom Dzyuba’s head to be superimposed on to Lionel Messi’s body with the Ballon d’Or trophy clutched to his chest. That is stretching Dzyuba’s recent performances for Russiaa bit too far but he has almost single-handedly dragged them into second place in Group G. It was he who got the only goal of the game against Sweden and it was he who shone like Sirius in the 7-0 win against Liechtenstein. He scored four goals – all four of which displayed his predatory instincts and his intelligent positioning – as well as winning the penalty that Aleksandr Kokorin converted and playing a key role in Fyodor Smolov’s. Leonid Slutsky’s side have two more games to play – Moldova away and Montenegro at home – before they can be assured of the second spot in the group but with Dzyuba in this sort of goal-scoring form, they should already be scouting for expensive places to stay. IMC

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