With the World Cup qualifiers dominating the midweek agenda, columnist Pat Nevin runs his expert eye over the group campaigns…
The World Cup qualifiers have rightly taken centre stage over the past week as many of the final group positions are being sorted out. Maybe the slightly disappointing thing from a European perspective is that there have been so few surprises, so far anyway.
I do not think anyone is even mildly surprised that Belgium have cantered their way down the home straight in their group. Croatia may well be rated higher than them in the FIFA rankings, but they are clearly dated statistics and the Belgians are a coming, if not an already arrived, world power. It is great to see so many young Chelsea players having such important roles in such an exciting team.
Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are stalwarts already, but with Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku scoring twice against Croatia and Thibaut Courtois having shipped only three goals in the entire qualification so far, they can all look forward to being in Brazil and playing a big part in the tournament.
Belgium are maybe not superpowers in a European sense but most of the other big boys seem to be cruising through almost effortlessly. Italy have qualified already with an eight-point lead and only one game to play. Armenia at home in the last one shouldn’t cause too many problems either.
Germany looked to have a tricky group at the start but Ibrahimovic’s Sweden could do nothing to stop Joachim Low’s man-machine cruising through. They have scored 31 goals, the second highest of any team and I have a suspicion that had they put their minds to it, double that number would have been possible. It was great to see Andre Schurrle get his name on the scoresheet this week. Well it was unless you were Irish I suppose, but for our new wide attacker, he knows he has a battle to get a berth in the first 11 come the summer. That goal will help and it will also do much to boost his confidence back at the Bridge.
The other big hitters are of course the Dutch, who were already safely through, but decided to have a little qualification party by embarrassing the once mighty Hungarians 8-1. So far so predictable, but where are the surprises? Maybe the Portuguese are slightly disappointed, but in that they are in the same group as Russia, it is no surprise that they are going to the wire tonight and one will need to win a play-off decider. Both are fine nations, but are they really European superpowers? Probably not really when you consider the history of European football.
Spain and France however undoubtedly are superpowers, though only one can qualify automatically from Group I. Our Spaniards will be confident another summer will come around with very little rest for them, their destiny is on their own hands.
Even though I am Scottish I will admit that England are a superpower in European terms, but it has been a while since they have really challenged seriously. It is hard to call their qualification one way or the other, has it been good, bad or indifferent? I will be amazed if they do not go through automatically as Poland are already out and really shouldn’t be able stop the quality that England have, particularly at home. Having said that, the overriding feeling is that England have made heavy weather of what shouldn’t really have been a particularly hard group for a superpower, with all due respect to Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine.On the other hand there have been 29 goals scored on the way, but yes I understand 22 of them were against San Marino and Moldova.
England are an enigma, but they will still not represent a surprise if and when they make it through. For me there are only two surprises on the whole continent when we consider possible direct qualifiers. Switzerland have been pretty special in what was a wide-open group. We know how good the Swiss can be, the national team has a good sprinkling of Basel players who played so well at the Bridge recently, but most of the team are plying their trade in the Bundesliga, some argue the best European league at the moment. So well done them for qualifying with a game to spare.
But the real surprise package could well be Bosnia Herzegovina. With a game to go they are level on points with Greece at the top of their group, but with a vastly better goal difference. Greece have Liechtenstein at home, so that is a ‘gimme’, but the Bosnians have to go to Kaunas in Lithuania and win. It would be a brilliant story for this country that only started playing official international games in its present state back in 1996. Since then they have actually come painfully close to qualifying for tournament s a number of times, but have always missed out.
This could be the one and Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko, their top scorer, will I guess be at least as proud of that achievement as he is of his winners’ medal for last year’s Premier League. Having said all that, if Greece pip them, you can’t help feeling they are a nation that deserves something to celebrate after all the financial upheavals. It may be the least stylish looking group as far as the media is concerned, but it is one I will be watching closely tonight. Maybe we will have to wait for the play-offs for a real shock.
So last week’s quiz question was how many Chelsea players would score international goals this week, up until today? As made clear originally loan players didn’t count, so Romelu Lukaku’s brace does not feature. Ex-players such as Drogba, Kalou and Robben all scored too, but the only ones that I deemed admissible were Andre Schurrle in Germany’s 3-0 win against the Republic of Ireland and Oscar’s strike against South Korea in a friendly played in Seoul. Congratulations to the others who scored at age group levels, but the big congratulations here go to Dr Barry Breen from Donegal in Ireland who was chosen at random from those who correctly guessed two goals.
To have a chance of being the lucky winner next week of a season review DVD, signed by Fernando Torres and Cesar Azpilicueta, could you tell me which great former Blues player, Chelsea FC royalty indeed, was born in Windsor?Answers as ever to [email protected]
Good luck with that and most importantly to the other big international match this weekend, England v Wales or as it is more correctly named, Chelsea v Cardiff.