Sunday, 26 July 2015

World Cup 2018 Qualifying Draw Reaction

(Pic : ESPN)

The European draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers was made in St Petersburg yesterday. Qualifiers begin in September 2016. Owing to their good form in Euro 2016 qualifying which has boosted their global ranking to 10th place, Wales were amongst the top seeds for the very first time.

Unlike Euro 2016 qualifying, only the group winners qualify automatically, with the best 8 runners-up facing two-legged play offs in November 2017.

Starting with Wales in Group D (Wales, Austria, Serbia, Rep. Ireland, Moldova, Georgia), the draw could've been better, it could've also been a lot worse.

Austria are currently, and in a similar manner to Wales, exceeding expectations in Euro 2016 and look set to qualify to a European championships for the first time through qualifying itself (their only appearance to date has been as co-hosts in 2008) - however they have pedigree at World Cups. They have a mean defence in particular and shouldn't be under-estimated.

Serbia are making a pigs ear of Euro 2016, accompanied by off-the-field problems, so although on paper they seem like one of the strongest teams from the third pot, at the moment it's arguably one of the best draws – it's certainly better than getting Sweden, Greece, Poland or Ukraine. They'll probably be Wales' main challengers for top spot.

The Republic of Ireland will be contenders, but I don't think they've got anything to really threaten Wales or Serbia. It'll certainly be a tricky away tie in Dublin, but at home it's got to be a Wales win on current form.

Moldova and Georgia are two names that should send shivers down the spine of Welsh football supporters, so there's going to be the opportunity to exorcise some ghosts. Georgia are the strongest side in pot six, and Tbilisi is a tough place to go so this isn't a great draw.

All in all, winning every home game is realistic on current form, so it'll come down to getting points away – which might be trickier than it sounds. Avoiding the play-offs will be essential because some of the potential opponents look pretty hard to beat.

I would've quite happily have swapped with Portugal in Group B (Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra) or England in Group F (England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta). This is arguably the third best draw Wales could've got.

Turning to England, they could easily get maximum points in that group, while Scotland have a real chance to push for second with Slovakia. Slovenia have recent pedigree at international tournaments and could be the surprise package.

Northern Ireland have been handed the short straw, though things are looking promising for Euro 2016. Maybe if a few results go their way they can push for second in Group C (Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino), and the revamped Windsor Park could prove intimidating for visiting teams.

Group I (Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland) is this year's "Group of Death". All of those sides could realistically be in with a shout, though you would think Croatia have enough to win the group.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

One Dennis Bergkamp, 10 Great Goals

(Pic :
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Bruce Rioch signing Arsenal's greatest ever player (of the modern era, if not ever) – the Non-Flying Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp. Thierry Henry may have scored more goals and Tony Adams provided great leadership, but in terms of all around game, loyalty to the club and attitude on and off the pitch, Dennis pips it in my eyes.

10. v West Brom (Premier League [H] 2005-06)

I start with Dennis' final goal for the club – his 120th. It was a Supporters' Day held as part of a number of themed events to mark the final season at Highbury. In the end, supporters decided it should be dedicated to Bergkamp, who was retiring at the end of the 2005-06 season. Safe to say he returned the compliment.

9. v Barnsley (Premier League [A] 1997-98)

The game against Barnsley was part of a remarkable run-in in 1998 which saw Arsenal eventually win a famous league and cup double (very nearly a domestic treble) – and it was arguably Dennis' finest season in the red and white. This win meant Arsenal only needed 6 points from final last four games to seal the title, and I suspect this swaggering performance was the moment Arsenal fans realised it was going to happen.

8. v Sunderland (FA Cup [A] 1996-97)

Roker Park was one of those proper old schools grounds where soft southern teams would fear to go. It was the last season before it was replaced by the Stadium of Light. Even Sunderland supporters had  to applaud this beauty.

7. Second v Southampton (Premier League [H] 1995-96)

People may not remember that Bergkamp was heavily criticised for a lack of goals in his first six games. Stuart Pearce - perhaps with a hint of xenophobia as foreign players were rare at the time - even suggested Arsenal had wasted their money and should've signed Stan Collymore instead. Yes, he really said that. It wasn't until a sunny September 23th that Dennis got his first goal. That was good enough in its own; the second was even better. That's how you shut up critics.

6. v Tottenham (Premier League [H] 1996-1997)

One of Dennis' trademarks as a player  was his close quarters control. He seemed to have an ability – reportedly learnt by kicking a ball against a wall as a youngster - to know how the ball reacts to being kicked in different situations. This meant he could bring the ball down from the air and control it on a sixpence – Highbury had one of the smallest pitches of a top-flight ground. This was demonstrated to no greater effect than this last-minute goal against Spurs.

5. v Bolton (Premier League [H] 1995-96)

At the end of the 1995-96 season, Arsenal were battling Everton, Tottenham and Blackburn Rovers for the last qualifying place to the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League, and was a bigger draw than it is today). In the 84th minute, Dennis produced this stunner to seal European football against Bruce Rioch's former club. It would be Bruce's last competitive game in charge of the club, and Arsene "Who?" Wenger was appointed manager the following September....days after Arsenal had limped out of the UEFA Cup against Borussia Mönchengladbach.

4. v Bayer Leverkusen (Champions League [H] 2001-2002)

Due to Dennis' aviophobia, he would rarely make away trips for European games, meaning his impact would only be felt at home. This is a sublime chip from the edge of the area, and the final goal in a comprehensive 4-1 victory against eventual Champions League finalists that season, Bayer Leverkusen.

3. v Southampton (Premier League [A] 1997-98)

This goal's perhaps overlooked, mainly because it was a warm up for what happened the following week....

2. Third v Leicester (Premier League [A] 1997-98)

Rounding off one of the Premier League's great hat-tricks with the complete "Bergkamp goal" – quickly bringing a long ball down in the penalty area, using a quick turn to beat the last defender and putting just enough curve on the ball to beat the keeper. Not only that, he did it again in mirror version against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup.

1. That Goal v Newcastle (Premier League [A] 2001-2002)

I don't need to add anything.