- Dirty Sanchez: Wenger set to lose another Weapon from his Arsenal?
- Ibriana Jones: Red Devils of the Lost Ark!
- Chelsea set to win Title at a Kante!
- Leicester face tough choices as losses compile
- The Year of the Roo-ster!
- Marvel at the latest Craven Cottage arrival: Fulham Sign Thanos!
- Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record is a rare piece of Manchester United history. Take notice.
- MOTD: Ibrahimovic salvages United point against Liverpool
- The Crystal (Palace) Maze!
- Glory Days for Andre Gray!
Euro 2016 Qualifying Play-offs Analysis: The Final Four
That’s all, folks; the qualifying stage for Euro 2016 has officially concluded with the final play-off games taking place over the course of the the international break of 2015.
For some nations, the qualifiers have been more emotional than the latest John Lewis Christmas advert, while for others it may have seemed like they were “Half the World Away” from ever reaching a major tournament, like Northern Ireland, Iceland, and Ireland, only to reverse their fortunes halfway through.
England were perfect in qualifying, but a 2-0 friendly loss to Spain in Alicante highlighted that they are still at the “Definitely Maybe” stage when it comes to being a major force next summer. Mario Gaspas’ spectacular goal graced the game, so move over Balotelli, theres a new “Super Mario” on the scene!
However, England did show their promise in the emotional 2-0 friendly win over France at Wembley, with nineteen-year-old Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli providing an early Christmas Cracker for the English supporters and captain Wayne Rooney volleying in a lovely strike for the Three Lions in the early stages of the second half.
I suspect most of the current England squad were not exactly A* students at French GCSE, but everyone gave their all in joining in the French national anthem on a windy night in North-West London. The likes of teenager Alli were giving a performance to enhance his claim for next summer, while also experiencing an atmosphere and occasion which they will be telling their grandkids about in many winters to come.
Now, Richard Lewis will review the last four countries lucky enough to book their tickets to the European tournament next June, completing his three-part series looking back on Euro qualifying and what’s to come next summer:
Main Man: Tamas Priskin
Rising Star: Laszlo Kleinheisler
Manager: Bernd Storck
Captain: Balazs Dzsudzsak
My Headline of the Tie: The Hungary Games: MockingNorway Part 2
How they are Shaping Up: The last time Hungary reached a major international tournament was in 1986, when Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence was not even born. The subtitle for Hungary’s playoff tie that took them through to the finals with a 3-1 aggregate victory was “MockingNorway Part 2,” with former Watford and Ipswich striker Tamas Priskin scoring a crucial goal against rivals Norway to help end Hungary’s twenty-nine years of hurt. It turned out to be a fitting tribute to former goalkeeper Martin Fulop, who sadly passed away at the age of thirty-two, having guarded the sticks in England for clubs like Sunderland and even Manchester City on an unusual emergency loan move in 2010. Fulop would have been proud of the performance of current Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly, who is famed for his madness of wearing long, grey baggy trousers when playing football. Kiraly put in two man-of-the-match displays between the sticks for Hungary in the all-important games against Norway.
However, it is hard to see the side who finished behind Northern Ireland and Romania in qualifying go very far at the tournament next summer. There are very few household names in the Hungary squad, but Premier League followers will recognize former Fulham and West Bromwich Albion attacker Zoltan Gera and current Liverpool back-up goalkeeper Adam Bogdan (you can’t miss him, he is the one with bright ginger hair sitting behind Jurgen Klopp!). Top nations like Germany or Spain could give Hungary a thrashing, but the Eastern European side will certainly be able to hold their own against the debutants of the competition, such as Albania and Slovakia.
Republic of Ireland
Main Man: Jon Walters
Rising Star: Robbie Brady
Manager: Martin O’Neill
Captain: Robbie Keane
My Headline of the Tie: Walters Works!
How they are Shaping Up: The “bad cop” and “even badder cop” combination of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane at the helm in the Irish dugout has paid off for the FAI, as the luck of the Irish returned to the Green Army after many misfortunes in the recent past. It was Stoke centre-forward Jonathan Walters who delivered the gold at the end of the rainbow, as his brace in the second leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina sealed the Irish’s spot in the Euros.
The Republic of Ireland avenged their fair share of misfortune in past play-offs for major tournaments, such as the infamous “hand of Henry” when they missed out on a place in the 2010 World Cup. However, the referee seemed to even out this injustice of six years ago by rewarding O’Neill’s side a controversial penalty for a harshly adjudged handball against Bosnia in Dublin, which Walters finished off to set them on their way to the 3-1 aggregate victory. Football Fever hit the Aviva Stadium for the night of celebrating qualification success and the jubilant occupants of the arena took a pint of Guinness in one hand and a golden roasted potato in the other, of course.
Former Aston Villa manager O’Neill and former Villa assistant Keane are working with an aging squad, with the likes of Robbie Keane, John O’Shea and Shay Given likely to be playing their last part in a major tournament for their country next summer. Norwich winger Robbie Brady and Derby County midfielder Jeff Hendrick spearhead a slightly less noteworthy new generation by making their first impression on the international stage over the course of qualifying. The twenty-three man party will be made up of a mixture of Premier League and Championship players, with a couple from the MLS in the form of captain Keane and striker Kevin Doyle. The Republic join fellow home nations Northern Ireland, England and Wales in reaching France 2016 — making a British and Irish derby encounter in the group stages very likely.
Main Man: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Rising Star: Emil Forsberg
Manager: Erik Hamren
Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
My Headline of the Tie: Scandinavian Wars: The Zlatan Awakens
How they are Shaping Up: Sweden were victorious in their playoff battle with Denmark, who felt the Force of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the play-offs. The Paris Saint-Germain striker made it three goals in the two playoff games to seal the Swedes spot in France.
Having missed out on the 2014 World Cup, Ibrahimovic was determined to play at Euro 2016 and prove he can produce on the biggest stage. The much travelled former Barcelona forward was akin to a Jedi Master in confidence, scoring a monstrous free-kick. There would have been no chance of Erik Hamren’s side making the tournament without the big PSG man and Ibrahimovic may be competing with Poland’s Robert Lewandowski for the crown of the best out-and-out number nine at the summer tournament. It is not a (Han) Solo effort for Ibrahimovic, but the Scandinavians without him would be like R2-D2 without C-3PO!
Sweden definitely have the quality to make it out of the group stages in seven months time, with the Last 16 a possible target for the side in yellow and blue, who now seem to be European tournament regulars. Premier League fans may recognise Sunderland winger Sebastian Larsson in the Swede’s squad, while England faced the Scandinavians in Euro 2012, when Roy Hodgson’s side claimed an exciting 3-2 victory in Group D. The 4-3 aggregate win over Denmark confirms a good year for Sweden on the European stage, having also won the Eurovision singing contest in May 2015.
Main Man: Andriy Yarmolenko
Rising Star: Yevhen Konoplyanka
Manager: Mykhaylo Fomenko
Captain: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk
My Headline of the Tie: The Yarmolenko Show!
How they are Shaping Up: Ukraine complete the twenty-four team pot in Euro 2016. UEFA will obviously do their utmost to keep the Ukrainians away from Russia in the group stage draw, with the tension between the neighbouring countries previously causing a headache for UEFA in competitions such as the Europa League.
Dynamo Kyiv forward Andriy Yarmolenko provided the magic in Ukraine’s play-off 3-1 aggregate triumph over Slovenia and while Ukraine may have been missing influential midfielder Ruslan Rotan for the encounters with Slovenia, the likes of Yarmolenko, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Yevhen Seleznyov were on hand for the goals and creativity, proving manager Mykhaylo Fomenko could still formulate a winning rotation without Rotan.
Ukraine will aim to get out of the group stages in France, but may fall short again if they are placed in a competitive group, like they were in 2012 as joint hosts.
Everton were close to signing Yarmolenko over the summer transfer window and there will surely be some top scouts keeping a beady eye on him at the tournament, if he is not already snapped up in January.
Homepage photo credit: By Michael Kranewitter (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons