The international break rolled round last weekend to the lament of many football fans around the country. Gone was the twists and thrills of the Premier League, to be replaced by the same old big nations beating the same old small countries. Or so we thought. In the last few years the bigger footballing countries have tended to canter through qualifying without breaking a sweat. The only ‘traditional’ European footballing heavyweight (this term is used loosely) that has failed to qualify for a major tournament in the past ten years has been England – shock horror.
However, the first round of fixtures of the European Championships Qualifiers got off to a surprising start this week, with several smaller nations pulling off shocks. With 24 places to play for rather than the traditional 16 there are far more meaningful games than in previous qualifiers, where teams were well aware there was no chance of them getting through before a ball had even been kicked. Take Wales for example, who have been placed in a group with World Cup qualifiers Belgium and Bosnia, as well as Israel, Cyprus and Andorra. If just two teams were going through we all know who we would put our money on, but with a third qualifying place available teams like Wales, Israel and Cyprus know they’ll probably never have a better chance to advance to a major tournament. Gareth Bale even donned the Wales jersey against a minor nation, which has become increasingly rare since his move to Real Madrid.
Wales may have only managed to beat Andorra courtesy of a Bale double, but Cyprus pulled of a shock in the other Group B game. Ranked 140th in the world, below footballing luminaries such as Guatemala and Tajikistan, the Cypriots beat Bosnia 2-1. The Balkan nation are ranked 19th and had just played in their first ever World Cup, so hopes were high for their team. Edin Dzeko captained the Bosnians and they seemed to be cruising courtesy of a Vedad Ibisevic goal, as the home team dominated in front of a passionate crowd in Zenica. They missed several good chances for a second and were punished when striker Dimitris Cristofi equalised on the stroke of half time. This filled Cyrpus with hope and Cristofi went on to score a second in the second half. Bosnia golden boy Miralem Pjanic missed a penalty late on to compound their misery but the coach, Safet Susic took it reasonably well, saying that ‘we can only congratulate Cyprus.’
Elsewhere, bigger fish than Bosnia were being fried, with Albania beating Portugal in their own back yard. After a group stage departure at the World Cup Portugal were hoping for a good start to their campaign, but were beaten by a sensational Bekim Balaj volley. Without Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal looked toothless, and his absence laid bare the lack of quality in Portugal football at the moment. Gone are the days when Pauleta, Figo, Ronaldo and Rui Costa would spearhead the Selecção attack. The lack of depth the national team has is being attributed to the big clubs, namely Benfica and Porto, buying foreign players at the expense of home grown talent. Sound familiar?
To be fair to the Albanians they have had a very good defensive record over the last couple of years, and are a far cry from the team England laboured to a victory over back in 2011. Their victory on Sunday heralded the end of Paulo Bento’s time in charge of his national team. After a good start – he led them to the last 4 of Euro 2012 – things went downhill, and they only got through to the World Cup courtesy of Ronaldo, who pulled them past Sweden in the play offs.
Speaking of the World Cup, semi-finalists Holland also went down to a defeat this week, against the unfancied Czechs. This means Guus Hiddink is the first Holland manager to lose his opening two games since … Guus Hiddink back in 1995. Daryl Janmaat is already learning how to defend like a real Newcastle player, as he made a mistake to gift Vaclav Pilar the winning goal near the end of the game. Holland had actually looked the better of the two sides in the second half, but Robin van Persie looked off the pace throughout. The win was Czech coach Pavel Vrba’s first, and puts his team in a commanding position in Group A.
Fast improving Iceland pulled off one of the shocks of the week as they beat Turkey 3-0. The Turkish keeper had looked shaky throughout and it was his mistake that allowed Iceland to score the first goal. Defender Omer Toprak was then sent off, making things even tougher for the Turks. Galatasaray striker Burak Yilmaz then missed a gilt edged chance to equalise and was made to pay as Iceland went on to score twice more. The Turkish team are something of a conundrum on the national stage as with the players they posses they should be performing better than they are. Experienced ex-AC Milan coach Fatih Terim is in charge though and he should have the nous to lead his team to at least third place in the group.
Iceland are a team to watch. They very nearly qualified for the World Cup, losing to Croatia at the play off stage. They have improved remarkably in the last two and a half years, leaping from 141st in the Fifa rankings to 46th. This rise has very much been based on a team ethic and organisation, and they are in with a very real chance of reaching the Euro finals.
There were several other shocks around the continent, with Slovenia beating Ukraine, Northern Ireland claiming their first away win in 4 years in Hungary, and Serbia gaining a creditable draw in France.
Although Michel Platini’s decision to increase the amount of teams in the European Championship has drawn criticism, it has given teams with little hope of reaching previous finals the inclination to get out there and attack teams. To put it bluntly; something worth playing for. This has certainly contributed to the unusual amount of upsets in the first round of fixtures, and has breathed a little bit of life back into international football.