Argentina and Messi in turmoil
With a team that boast riches such as the likes of Messi, Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain, Dybala and Otamendi would any man, woman or child believe that they would be on the cusp of missing out on the 2018 World Cup?
The answer is no.
“La Albiceleste” are fifth in the South American qualification standings with two games remaining with the top four qualifying automatically. They have gone through three managers in 18 months with Jorge Sampaoli currently in charge. Sampaoli was brought in with the thought that he could turn around the national side’s fortunes but another poor performance saw Messi and Co. draw 1-1 at home against bottom side Venezuela.
These poor performances must be especially painful for Argentine eyes due to the fact that their arch rivals, Brazil, are producing exceptional performances game in, game out. Neymar and his Samba colleagues are playing like the Brazil of the ‘70’s. If they were to fail to break into the top four in the South American qualification group, they would face New Zealand in a two leg play-off, which on paper seems relatively straightforward but in their current form, this tie could prove to be problematic.
N.I show their class
It seems that Michael O’Neill and his Northern Irish squad have somehow secured second place in Group C behind, the reigning World Cup champions, Germany. Northern Ireland are aiming to reach the worlds showpiece event for the first time since 1986 and compete in successive major tournaments for the first time in their history.
They have silenced many doubters that said that their venture into the last 16 of Euro 2016 was a pure fluke.
Between the defensive solidity of Evans and Brunt paired with the graft and finishing ability of Steven Davis and Kyle Lafferty, the Northern Irish men have a solid spine to a team that are full of spirit and belief. They still need a big result from their final two fixtures to seal a play-off spot.
This is quite remarkable for a country of their size. To be out-performing other nations such as the Czech Republic and Norway shows what a stellar job Michael O’Neill and his backroom staff must be doing.
Wales gain ground while Ireland falters
Two fixtures ago, Wales seemed dead and buried while Ireland were in a fine position to qualify top of Group D. Now, the Welsh juggernaut has finally launched back into action.
Back to back wins over Austria (1-0) and Moldova (2-0) has seen Chris Coleman’s men overtake the Irishmen and take a firm hold of second place behind Serbia.
The Republic of Ireland have had two disastrous outings in recent times by drawing with Georgia (1-1) in Tbilisi and crucially losing at home to Serbia (1-0) at the Aviva Stadium. It was the manner of the performances that has angered the Irish fans the most with strange line-up choices and bizarre substitutions causing unrest within the camp. Martin O’Neill’s men face an uphill battle if they have any hope of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
For Wales, it’s a matter of holding their nerve and drawing on past experiences, especially from Euro 2016, if they want to secure a play-off spot.
England pushes on
England have never been graceful or a joy to watch during any qualification campaign over the past two decades but what they have been is efficient.
In qualification for Euro 2016, they had a flawless campaign and collected a record high thirty points, without playing any eye catching football, but as history will show they were poor in France and rather spectacularly lost 2-1 to Iceland in Nice.
Once again they ground out a tough 2-1 win over Slovakia at Wembley to move five points clear of their European rivals. However, it wasn’t a walk in the park. Lobotka opened the scoring in the third minute after a fine flowing move which consisted in Vladimir Weiss nutmegging Ryan Bertrand twice in the same move.
Eric Dier superbly flicked in at the near post to draw the Three Lions level before Marcus Rashford’s brilliant shot from 20 yards clinched all three points.
That puts Gareth Southgate’s side within one point of automatic qualification and will definitely come as a sigh of relief for the former Middlesbrough player.