Euro Qualifying Sees Upsets Galore

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.’

Albania celebrate victory against Portugal
Albania celebrate victory against Portugal

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.

European Championship 2016 Qualifiers Draw
European Championship 2016 Qualifying Draw

Perez Repeats Same Old Mistakes

Real signed Rodriguez off the back of a successful World Cup
Real signed Rodriguez off the back of a successful World Cup

It’s the summer of 2003. David Beckham has just arrived at Real Madrid for £25 million from Manchester United. The latest in a long line of Florentino Perez’s Galacticos, Beckham would have to start. This meant breaking up a successful squad. Claude Makelele was allowed to leave for Chelsea for £16.8 million, while popular winger Steve McManaman also departed on a free for Manchester City. As if that wasn’t enough, forward Fernando Morientes also departed, for a loan spell at Monaco.

Sound familiar? Swap James Rodriguez for David Beckham and the outgoing players for Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria and Alvaro Morata and you have a description of this summer’s transfer dealings by the club.

On Friday, Perez was happily announcing that ‘for the third consecutive year, Forbes considers us the most valuable club in the world.’ This is an impressive feat, and Perez has played a massive part in making Madrid the money making giant that it is today. The Los Blancos president is a man who is driven by commercial success, but as he was announcing these financial results to the public he seemed completely oblivious to the fact they have come at the expense of the team.

As it was back in 2003, Real have been significantly weakened by their summer’s transfer business – despite large investment. Rodriguez and Toni Kroos would be welcomed into almost any team in the world, but were there signings really necessary? Madrid only started performing well last season when Isco was dropped and the team reverted to a 4-3-3, rather than the 4-2-3-1 with the young Spaniard behind Benzema. This gave Ronaldo and Bale extra space to exploit, as well as allowing them to come inside on their favoured foot. Rodriguez plays in the same position as Isco, and judging from Real’s first few games of the season, brings the same conundrum as his Spanish counterpart.

Di Maria’s departure came against both the player and manager Carlo Ancelotti’s wish. The Argentine was deemed expendable by Perez, despite his man of the match performance in the Champions League final. His departure was necessary in order to cover the Rodriguez and Kroos transfers, but the way Perez handled his exit rankles. Accusing the player of leaving the club for money, and falsely claiming he had offered di Maria a bumper contract, has seen the normal introverted Argentine brand his old president’s words ‘lies.’ Perez has form for doing this to players (more on that later).

One thing di Maria’s departure has done is cause players to speak out against the Galactico project, in a similiar way Zinedine Zidane did in 2003. When Perez took the decision to sell Makelele and buy Beckham, Zidane commented that ‘why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?’ Perez had criticised Makelele heavily when he left Madrid, leaving Makelele to say that ‘he (Perez) was not interested in me because I was not going to help sell any club shirts.’ It would seem he hit the nail on the head.

Perez and the original Galacticos
Perez and the original Galacticos

It was another Ballon d’or winner’s turn to question Perez this season, with Ronaldo saying that ‘I have strong opinions but I can’t always say what I think. But if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done so.’ Ronaldo was venting his frustrations at di Maria and Alonso’s departures. Interestingly, Alonso was going to stay at Madrid until Perez took the decision to sell di Maria. Only then, did he ask for a transfer to Bayern Munich. Alonso is an intelligent footballer, and clearly saw what effect Perez’s meddling on the team was having.

One common theme at Madrid under Perez’s stewardship has been that players are sacrificed for the commercial benefits. In effect, the ‘less attractive’ players, such as defensive midfielder Makelele, are sacrificed for players deemed commercially attractive – the Rodriguezs, Beckhams and Ronaldos of this world. This attitude towards transfers has left Ancelotti with a lopsided squad for the forthcoming season. His forward line is arguably weaker than last season, with Karim Benzema and Javier Hernandez his sole options. Hernandez is not an upgrade on Morata, and the fact Morata came through the academy means he will be missed by Real fans. To give him his dues, Perez was wiley enough to insert a buy back clause in his deal.

There is also a distinct lack of centre midfielders. Alonso was replaced by Kroos, a good signing, but the Spaniard’s experience and willingness to lead on the field will be greatly missed. Modric, Khedira and Illarramendi are the other options, meaning there’s a distinct lack of a top class holding midfielder. This may be corrected in January with rumours that Real are interested in Christoph Kramer, but by then the Primera and Champions League may be out of sight.

The rest of the squad seems fairly well balanced, aside from Isco and Rodriguez. Here Real have two players for one attacking midfield role – a role that when used does not allow Bale and Ronaldo to flourish. It seems Real have sold the wrong players, as well as investing in the wrong areas of the team. It will be all too familiar to those who saw the same situation unfold in 2003.

In that season Real had probably one of the best midfields in history – Zidane, Figo, Beckham, Solari and Cambiasso. But when that midfield is playing in front of a centre back pairing of Ivan Helguera and Francisco Pavon you are in trouble. That year Los Blancos finished 4th, and exited the Champions League in the quarter finals.

Perez has repeated the same mistakes he made in his first tenure at the club, namely that of placing commercial interests above sporting ones. Until that attitude changes Real will never enjoyed a sustained period of success as they did in the 1950s, or as their arch rivals Barcelona have in the past decade. If they are to win anything at all this year it will be down to Carlo Ancelotti’s managerial nous, rather than anything Perez has done. Either way, he’ll probably sack the Italian anyway.