Home nations gear up for road to Russia

After something of a mixed tournament for the home nations sides at the recent European Championships, the beginning of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers offers up an opportunity for some to write the wrongs of France and for others to continue to build momentum. So with a little under two years before the ‘big one’ kicks off in Russia, how will the home nations fare in their quest to make it to the finals?

Northern Ireland

After ending their 30-year exile from a major tournament with their appearance in France in the summer, Michael O’Neill will be hoping his side can show the same form that saw them qualify for Euro 2016 as group winners from a qualifying group containing sides such as Romania, Greece and Hungary. A fast start in the Euros qualifiers paved the way to qualifying, with three wins from their opening three games, including an impressive away victory over 2004 European Champions Greece. With key players such as Steven Davis, Gareth McAuley and Kyle Lafferty excelling throughout the campaign the Belfast faithful eventually celebrated finals qualification with a game to spare following another memorable performance in a 3-1 win against Greece at Windsor Park. In getting to the finals, O’Neill’s side had already achieved something special but weren’t willing to go to France just to make up the numbers, as they would eventually prove. Drawn in a tricky-looking group containing reigning world champions Germany, Poland and Ukraine not many people believed the Northern Irish would progress to the knockout stages, even with the expansion of the tournament leading to the possibility of three teams progressing from the same group. However, buoyed on by their ecstatic support form the travelling Green and White Army and driven by wonderful performances from captain Steven Davis and goalkeeper Michael McGovern, Davis’ team eventually snuck through to the knockout stages in 3rd place despite slender defeats to both Poland and Germany, with a 2-0 win over Ukraine proving to be decisive. That led to the ‘Battle of Britain’ in the last-16 as Wales were the opponents in the first knockout round. A tense and nervy occasion for both supporters and fans, in a game of few chances Gareth Bale’s cross was turned into his own net by Gareth McAuley and the Euros journey was over for Northern Ireland as they exited the tournament with their heads held high.

Whilst following on from such a memorable campaign will be difficult, the confidence gained from their Euros adventure will give Michael O’Neill’s side every opportunity to qualify for their first World Cup since 1986. Drawn in Group C, the Irish will renew acquaintances with world champions Germany following their summer meeting, with Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino making up the qualification group. On paper it looks difficult to see anyone but Germany finishing top of the pile from this group, leaving second place and with-it a play-off Northern Ireland’s best chance of making it to the finals in Russia, something very much achievable for the Irish. Much of this may depend on how they fare against Czech Republic and Norway, their most likely challengers for qualification. Starting out in their first game with a trip to Prague, O’Neill will look for his side to once again make a fast start to a qualification campaign in a match which even at this early stage looks critical to their chances of making it to a second consecutive major tournament. A challenging prospect but with the core of the squad that made it to France still intact, supporters have every right to feel optimistic.

Wales

A fairy-tale summer beyond the wildest dreams of many Welsh fans, Euro 2016 will be a tournament fondly remembered for years to come for the country as they made history in reaching the semi-finals of a major tournament for the first time. Although a 2-0 defeat to eventual winners Portugal in Lyon saw the fairy-tale come to an end, the Welsh players, coaches and supporters returned home in joyous celebration with the wonderful memories of victories over the likes of Russia, Northern Ireland and Belgium still very much in the conscience. Whether it be Wayne Hennessey, James Chester, Joe Allen or Hal Robson-Kanu, each and every member of Wales’ squad returned home heroes with key players such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and captain Ashley Williams playing their part as always.

It all started in Andorra in 2014 where Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale got his country out of jail with a late winner in their opening qualifier. That goal would set the tone for a memorable campaign for Wales as they looked to reach their first major tournament in 58 years. After a great start which saw further wins over Cyprus and Israel as well as draws against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Belgium, Wales fans really started to believe that something special was happening when Gareth Bale’s goal in Cardiff in June 2015 saw Chris Coleman’s men secure a priceless victory over a Belgium side who at the time were considered the second best team on the planet according to the world rankings. Another Gareth Bale winner in Cyprus took Wales on the cusp of qualification with three games to go and despite a 0-0 draw in the next game, the party was only put on hold as qualification for France 2016 was assured in Bosnia where despite their first defeat of the group campaign, results elsewhere saw Wales guaranteed a place in the summer finals.

With most of the country still on a high after a whirlwind two years full of so many highs, the serious business resumes for Coleman’s side as they look to make their second appearance at a World Cup finals – 60 years after the first (and last) in 1958. A tough-looking group awaits with Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Georgia and Moldova the opponents. A visit to Serbia in June next year will offer Coleman and his side a shot at redemption following their embarrassing 6-1 defeat in Novi Sad in 2012, whilst games against Austria and neighbours Ireland will also be crucial. Starting out with a home game against Moldova, it is vital that Ashley William’s team get off to a perfect start especially with a trip to Austria awaiting in October. Coleman may well expect his side to secure maximum points in the games against Georgia and Moldova, and whilst that should be the target, Georgia in particular should not be treated as an easy 3 points as Scotland fans will tell you only too well. After the great expectations created from the last two years and the wonderful job that Chris Coleman has done to rebuild the fortunes of the national team, Group D – whilst throwing up some big obstacles – is a group that this squad of players will believe is there for the taking, especially for a side who have lost just three of their last 16 competitive games. However, it may be a case of cautious optimism for supporters in such a competitive group.

Republic of Ireland

Given the performances of Northern Ireland and Wales following such a long absence from tournament football, it may be easy for some to overlook the Republic of Ireland’s achievements in France. Nonetheless Martin O’Neill’s side returned home content with their performances in the finals, with that crucial victory over Italy providing another unforgettable moment under the stewardship of O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane. A plucky last-16 exit to hosts and eventual runners-up France was probably about right for an Irish side who worked hard to progress from arguably the toughest group in the whole competition. Facing former world champions Italy, a much-fancied Belgium side and Sweden, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Republic would suffer the same fate as Euro 2012 where they exited the competition at the first stage with no points and 3 defeats. After a somewhat frustrating draw against Sweden, followed by a 3-0 defeat to Belgium, O’Neill’s side were up against it going into their final group games against the Italians, knowing only a win would see them through to the knockout stages. However having been in a similar position against Germany in Dublin where Shane Long secured a famous victory which proved crucial in helping Ireland qualify for the finals, this time it was Robbie Brady’s turn to write his name into Irish football folklore with his late header sealing a deserved 1-0 win that saw the Irish progress to the knockout stages.

With rumours continuing to circulate that O’Neill will sign a new contract, he and assistant Keane will look to build on the momentum created by their Euros journey when they face Wales, Austria, Serbia, Georgia and Moldova in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Having not appeared at a World Cup finals since 2002, Russia 2018 would be the first experience of a World Cup for this current Irish squad something sure to motivate the players ahead of a tricky-looking qualifying group. Whilst the likes of Wales, Austria and Serbia will provide big challenges, the Republic will be confident following their qualification from an even tougher qualifying group for Euro 2016. Drawn in a group including Scotland, Poland and Germany, the Irish fought their way through with a number of big results including late equalisers against Germany and Poland, as well as a late winner in Georgia and that historic night in Dublin against the reigning world champions. The retirement of record goal-scorer Robbie Keane may leave something of a void, but in reality the likes of Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long and Seamus Coleman have played a more important role in Ireland’s recent success. Given that and the nature of their performances both in Euro qualifying and the finals itself, the Republic will travel to Serbia for what could be a decisive opening game confident that they can make it to Russia.

England

What is there to say really?! Following a pitiful Euros tournament that culminated in the resignation of Roy Hodgson following a last-16 defeat to Iceland, new coach Sam Allardyce is left to pick up the pieces and restore the confidence of a group of players who once again failed miserably at a major tournament. Two draws, one defeat and one last-minute win against four sides who England – given the quality of players available – should beat was quite frankly unacceptable and has left faith in this current England squad in short supply amongst fans. Having eased through their qualification group with a 100% record – albeit in a pretty easy group – hope was high going to the Euros with impressive youngsters Delle Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier to go with the more experienced players such as captain Wayne Rooney and Joe Hart. However a crippling lack of confidence on the big stage once again proved to be England’s undoing and it is Sam Allardyce’s job to restore the fragile confidence of this group of English players. In naming his first squad much remains the same, with Rooney continuing as skipper and the bulk of the Euros squad included, but the inclusion of Danny Drinkwater and Michail Antonio over Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley is a sure sign that Allardyce will pick players on form and not reputation.

In truth a group containing Scotland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta shouldn’t cause too many problems for England with the most likely challenge for top spot coming from neighbours Scotland, with Slovakia and Slovenia possibly challenging as well. The first game of Allardyce’s reign sees England on the road to Slovakia where they will face up just over two months after their goalless draw in Saint-Etienne. A tricky-looking game to start up with for the new coach, but although Slovakia made it to the knockout stages following that draw and a win against Russia, England should do what they should have done in the summer and secure a win. After that surely all eyes will turn to Wembley in November when the Scots come to town before England make the trip to Glasgow next June, in what will probably be the only memorable match-ups for England fans to look forward to. Slovenia, like neighbours Slovakia, may prove tricky but in all reality it is hard to imagine England failing to top this group however poor they have been in recent years.

Scotland

An agonising summer for the Scots as they were the only ones to be left at home whilst the other home nations went on their summer travels. A silver lining may have been having the perfect view to watch the Auld Enemy’s demise – something sure to have provided some much-needed laughter and cheer up North – as well as the performances of Wales, providing hope that even after a long absence from tournament football, success is still possible. Having four of the five home nations at the tournament was a brilliant experience, only disappointing by the fact that the qualifying groups for the tournament made it unlikely from the start that we would see a major tournament with each of the home nations competing. When Gordon Strachan’s side were drawn alongside the Republic of Ireland to compete with Germany and Poland for finals qualification it always looked unlikely that both them and their Irish neighbours would make it through. Even though the expansion of the tournament to include 24 teams in the finals meant the top two teams from their group would automatically qualify, it always looked like a tall order to prevent Germany and Poland from taking those spots, leaving the Scots and Irish to fight it out for the play-off berth. Yet it could have been so different. Where Ireland secured a win and a draw against the world champions, Scotland went down to two narrow defeats. Where the Irish scored a last-minute winner to win away in Georgia, the Scots suffered a devastating defeat which ultimately proved to be decisive. There was also late drama against Poland home and away, where in both games having fallen behind, Strachan’s side recovered to take the lead only to be pegged back on both occasions. All of this leading to the likes of Darren Fletcher and Steven Naismith being unable to prevent their country missing out on qualification by the finest of margins.

Despite the disappointment of Euros qualification, there is hope ahead of the World Cup qualifiers that Scotland will make it to their first major tournament in twenty years in 2018. A draw that includes a tasty-looking pair of clashes against fierce-rivals England will get fans all excited, while opponents Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta will provide a challenge albeit an easier one than in their previous qualifying group. It would be easy to pinpoint England as the crucial games in this campaign, and given England’s struggles recently there is every chance that Scotland could take points off the Auld Enemy. However, with England experienced in qualifying with minimal fuss over the last few years, Slovakia and Slovenia are the games that Gordon Strachan will most likely pinpoint with the aim being to make sure his men finish at least second and guarantee a play-off. Given the fact that Scotland competed well against Germany over two games even in defeat, and came close on both occasions to beating a Poland side that would go on to just miss out on a semi-final place at the European Championship finals, Group F should be one that Strachan and co approach with confidence when they travel to Malta for their opening group match.

 

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