Sep 9, 2009

A big day for England (less so for the rest of Britain)

With a 5-1 victory at Wembley, the English national team was able to exorcise the ghosts of its last meeting with Croatia and advance to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. 5-1? Against effectively the same Croatia side that gave England fits in their 2007 meeting? You could write off last year's 4-1 England victory in Zagreb as a fluke, but this suddenly makes England look pretty good. Compared to their pre Euro 2008 selves, that is.

The victory makes a few things perfectly clear:
1. Steve McClaren was a horrible national team coach (or manager, as he's known over there).
2. David Beckham has absolutely no place in the England lineup and should not be included in the World Cup squad, even as a substitute. Let him play in a ceremonial friendly match for all we care, but for God's sake please declare his national team days over and done with, once and for all.
3. Aaron Lennon is a player on the rise and a star in the making and should be given every chance to flourish fnor England (see item 2, above).
4. Frank Lampard and Steve Gerrard might just be able to form a solid midfield nucleus, provided they aren't asked to do too much. With players like Lennon, Wayne Rooney and (when he's healthy) Theo Walcott, they won't need to.
5. Robert Green may be a serviceable national team goalkeeper, but more skill is needed on defense if England are going to go anywhere at the World Cup.

So much for England.

Coming into today's crucial World Cup qualifying matches, we naively (and, it turns out, wrongly) thought all four British teams plus the Republic of Ireland had a shot to make the main event in South Africa.

How quickly things change! It looks like England will now be the sole representative from the U.K. Wales, a distant longshot to begin with, are now officially eliminated after losing to Russia. Scotland lost at home to the Netherlands and are now done as well. Northern Ireland, which actually had an outside chance to win its group and qualify outright, lost at home to Slovakia and now has a real fight on its hands if it is even going to finish second.

That leaves Ireland, which didn't even play but saw its (slim) chances of winning Group 8 dashed after Italy beat Bulgaria. With a five point lead on the third-placed Bulgarians with two games to play, you might figure Ireland to be in the driver's seat. But a look at the remaining schedule (Ireland host Italy and Montenegro; Bulgaria are at Cyprus and host last-placed Georgia) reveals potential trouble ahead for Giovanni Trapattoni's side. Two points from the last two games are likely needed if Ireland are going to finish second. Montenegro may not have a win yet, but nearly all the games they have played have been close--including a scoreless draw against the Republic one year ago.

Elsewhere, Portugal threw a giant wrench in Hungary's plans, winning at Budapest 1-0. With first-placed Denmark stumbling in Albania (a 1-1 draw) the group is very much up for grabs. The next matchday features a battle between Denmark and second-placed Sweden. The Danes then host Hungary on the last matchday. If Portugal win out (they host Hungary next and finish with Malta at home) they should finish second.

Matters are tight in Group 2 as well, with four teams (Switzerland, Greece, Latvia, Israel) still in the race. Greece somehow managed to drop points at lowly Moldova, while Switzerland and Latvia drew.

In Group 4, Russia and Germany will fight it out for first place in the next matchday. Russia trail by a point. Everybody else is out of it.

Turkey stayed alive with a 1-1 draw at Bosnia, meaning Bosnia will need a result from one of its last two games (at Estonia and home to Spain) if it is to hold off the Turks for second place in Group 5. Spain have won the group after trouncing Estonia. No surprise there.

France barely managed to stay alive with a 1-1 draw at Belgrade. With a four point lead, the Serbs can clinch the group if they win one of their last two games (at home to Romania and at Lithuania). Expect France to win their last two games, against Austria and the Faroe Islands, to finish second.

That brings us up to date in Europe. Stay tuned for the situation in the Americas once those games are completed later tonight.

Photo taken from Aaron Lennon unofficial Web site without permission.

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