Sport

The rocky road through Euro 2016 qualifying.

Home nations pic 1.

We’re now over half way through qualifying for Euro 2016, which will take place in France next summer, and the four home nations – five if we’re to count the Republic of Ireland – find themselves all still in with a chance of heading there for the tournament. As such a situation is almost unheard of, certainly the first (and though I dread the thought, possibly the only) time in my life it has occurred, I thought I’d take a few moments here to reflect on this past weekend’s performances and assess each sides chances with four qualification games remaining.

Wales 1-0 Belgium

Wales showed impressive team spirit and undeniable quality to make the team ranked second (yes, second!) in the world look rather average, with Gareth Bale scoring the winner in the 25th minute. In truth they never really looked in trouble after that; though Belgium have some classy individual players, whether or not they’re able to function effectively as a team is somewhat in question (no doubt if they did, they’d be able to more easily justify their ranking). As it stands, Wales look the best team in the group.

Will they qualify? Yes. Their excellent win on Friday night puts them in as strong a position as they could have hoped for at this stage (14 points, three clear at the top with four games to play) – and with their main rivals in the group still to take points off each other, I can certainly see Wales securing a top 2 spot from here. Added to that, their recent resurgence could see them as top seeds in the draw for the next qualifying campaign (for the 2018 World Cup in Russia), which will provide Welsh supporters with great confidence that they can build on this success and look towards the next World Cup with genuine hope.

Republic of Ireland 1-1 Scotland

It was said beforehand that neither of these teams wanted a draw, but based on how the match transpired, Scotland won’t be too disappointed to get out of Dublin with one. They were terrible in the first half against ‘that team on the other side of the border’, but somehow got to the half time interval only 1-0 down to Jon Walters’ 38th minute goal. Ireland weren’t brilliant themselves, yet they may feel this was a missed opportunity – especially as they let their lead slip so soon in the second half with a John O’Shea own goal. Probably a fair overall result.

Will either of them qualify? Maybe one, but not both. While the game was built up as ‘must win’ for both sides, in reality a draw means both are still well placed to fight for third place in the group – though I think it means they can pretty much rule out top 2 (the Scots may still harbour hope), with Germany and Poland looking strong. The Irish shouldn’t feel too disheartened quite yet; they’re still in with a chance, but with a slightly tougher run-in to come, they probably won’t feel like it. I’m certain one of these two will definitely be in the playoffs, barring a mild collapse by one of the aforementioned top 2, and they’ll stand a fairly decent chance of coming through that game to make it to France next year. Unfortunately I can’t see both of them making it, whatever happens…

Northern Ireland 0-0 Romania

A match my home nation could have won, but from which the most important aspect is that they didn’t slip up when the pressure was on. Both sides had chances – Romania gave the home fans more than one ‘heart in mouth’ moment on the counter attack, while Kyle Lafferty had a priceless opportunity five yards out which he hit straight at the keeper. Ultimately I’m disappointed we had to settle for a draw here, because I felt we edged it against the team currently ranked 12th (above England) in the world. Still, I’ll take a clean sheet.

Will they qualify? Maybe. Though I’m biased of course, I can’t quite bring myself to honestly believe yet that Northern Ireland will manage a top 2 finish in their group. They do at least still have it in their own hands, sitting in second place and two precious points clear of Hungary. If they do have a blip, they will have the consolation prize of a third place playoff… but although one could argue the drama would make it all worthwhile if they made it to France through that method, having to settle for it would feel like a defeat after the start they had.

Are the Northern Ireland class of 2014/15 set to make history in 2016?
Are the Northern Ireland class of 2014/15 set to make history in 2016?

Regardless, their next two matches, away to the Faroe Islands and home to third placed Hungary (that’s now become an even bigger game than Romania) within the space of four days in early September, will define their destiny. They are perfectly capable of winning both matches, though we should also know, all to well, they may lose both and ruin all their hard work up to this point. I do still believe Northern Ireland will make it to France next year… but I can’t shake the feeling they may give us a few scares along the way. Would be typical.

Slovenia 2-3 England

Who’d have thought England’s match would provide arguably the most excitement of the weekend? When Slovenia took the lead in the 37th minute and remained ahead going into the second half, you would have been forgiven for thinking England had finally relented to their easy group and taken their foot off the gas. But in the last 30 minutes they turned it up, with two goals from Jack Wilshere (the second, world class) giving them the lead before Slovenia equalised in the 84th minute and Rooney struck the winner two minutes later to give his country a win that in the long term may look reasonably routine.

Will they qualify? Yes. England really can afford to cruise now, having won six out of six in the group and not all of them straightforward (though to be fair, Switzerland have proven the only true test). They have a nine point cushion on third placed Slovenia, and I can’t see the latter winning three out of their last four matches, so one could say they’re already there. But as we know, England will still be closely scrutinised over their last four matches and the media won’t let them rest on their laurels. Their defensive display in this match in particular raises some fair concerns over their potential to achieve greater things in France next year.

He has his detractors, but Wayne Rooney still pops up to score when needed.
He has his detractors, but Wayne Rooney still pops up to score when needed.

So those are my thoughts. Wales and England are just about there after this weekend; for Scottish and Irish fans, we still have our defining moments to come. In truth, I would love all of them to make it to next year’s tournament – even that other Irish team, and even that ‘big’ team who feel they’re entitled to be there.

Most importantly, though, I wish beyond all else for my wee country to qualify for a major tournament for the first time in 30 years and therefore, what would be the first in my lifetime. The real nerves, the real memories are yet to come. Hopefully by this time next year, we’ll be getting ready to form them.

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