It feels like a long time ago since the road to Euro 2012 got underway. It’s so long ago in fact, when it started, Wayne Rooney was rapidly going bald and not the Samson-esque picture of virility he is now. It’s been a Long and Winding Road for most of the teams, with positives, negatives and at least the faint deluded hope of claiming a place in the playoffs. Except for Wales. Their musical metaphor is ACDC’s Highway To Hell. With the campaign now in the closing stages, here’s a look at your chances of having to find out what the respective currencies of Poland and Ukraine are.
It has largely been labourious and unspectacular stuff from England, but that pretty much describes every qualifying campaign for a major tournament since about 1990. Just when they look set to throw away the shackles and cut loose, they find another way to stumble. Despite some performances that suggest otherwise, the suspicion remains Fabio Capello has eleven players capable of competing with the best teams in Europe at his disposal, he just hasn’t found a combination that gets the most out of his players – he’s almost like an anti-Allardyce.
Their campaign to have something to do next summer reaches a pivotal point with the game against Bulgaria. Win it and you’d expect England kick on and romp merrily to automatic qualification, but drop points and the picture becomes messier than John Terry’s love life. Three points at home to Wales three days later should be virtually guaranteed, but as ever, this is England, so anything is possible. Montenegro have emerged as the surprise challenge for automatic qualification. England’s campaign ends with a tricky trip to Podgorica and given the team’s recent habit of crumbling like 11 well-made meringues in high-pressure games, it would be in their interests to make that game as dead a rubber as is possible. They’ll do that with two wins in coming days and some points dropped by the Brave Falcons. That means Wales would need to do Capello a favour by beating the Montenegrins on Friday. So expect this one to go down to the wire basically.
At times the major danger to Ireland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign has been Giovanni Trapattoni’s ability to alienate some of the best players at his disposal. With the curmudgeonly self-confidence that comes with age, the Italian doesn’t take much crap from players, the media and anyone who has a theory at odds with anything he believes in. It’s not an approach to find a great deal of favour with the pampered moderately talented millionaires of this day and age, but it has yielded some decent results for the team and given them a realistic shot at another chance to be robbed by a Frenchman in a play-off.
If you’re an Ireland fan, enjoy the table while you can. The Boys In Green sit proudly atop Group B, but that position will come under real threat in coming days. Slovakia at home and Russia away. Four points would be brilliant. Two points would be begrudgingly acceptable and anything less would almost certainly see automatic qualification disappear over the horizon and make the race for second place significantly more challenging. Going against the received wisdom of playing at home being an advantage, the away game in Moscow may be the one Trapattoni targets for the win. Some of the best performances of the Trap era have come away from home when the manager can park the chartered plane in front of the goal and play on the counter-attack. If Ireland retain leadership of the group on Tuesday night, then it might just be some gentle investigation done into how close to Poland and Ukraine Ryanair can get you. Somewhere near Greece is our best guess.
It’s a mark of Northern Ireland’s progress over recent years that another solid qualifying campaign isn’t now treated as a heart-warming ‘minnow done good’ story and is now more in keeping with what’s expected. Sadly Italy not being a laughing stock has made Norn Iron’s task harder than was probably expected after the shambles that was the Italian World Cup campaign. Under Cesare Prandelli, the resurgent Azzurri look firmly on course to claim the automatic qualifying spot, but Nigel Worthington has got his team in a great position to claim the a place in the play-offs.
It’s possible, but it’s going to be harder than finding the funny bits of Give My Head Peace. If they can make Serbia the latest team to have their noses bloodied in Windsor Park they’ll be in a decent position heading into the closing stretch. That’s followed by back to back games against Estonia and if they were to come out of that match-up with the lion’s share of the points, that would set them up for a showdown against a possibly already qualified and not especially arsed Italian side. If all goes to plan, that should have them there or thereabouts for a playoffs place. There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ mixed up in this scenario, but at the very least it’ll have been another great campaign for Norn Iron and Gerry Armstrong will have got a lot more media work out of it. And isn’t that heart-warming enough in its own right? No, probably not.
Even the most ardent of kilt-wearers would have admitted automatic qualification was out of reach from the moment the name of Spain was pulled out to be in the same group as Scotland in one of UEFA’s notoriously long-winded draws. Since then, it’s all been about claiming that coveted second place and although a haul four points from four games doesn’t scream ‘BOOK THE TICKETS NOW’, things could be looking at lot more rosey after the next couple of assignments.
The Scots look better under Craig Levein and gave the World champions a real run for their money when they visited Hampden Park. Sadly, they also made Liechtenstein looks like Barcelona at the same venue so it’s swings and roundabouts on the positivity front. Despite not playing a competitive game since – and the Carling Nations Cup doesn’t qualify as a competitive game despite what Sky Sports try to tell us – Scotland head into the final stretch on the back of some decent performances in friendly matches. Taking too much from form in friendly matches can be dangerous, but after the George Burley era, we’ll take whatever we can get. First up it’s the Czech Republic. Years of being everyone’s dark horse for major tournaments means the Czech’s have a reputation of being stubborn opposition, but the good news for the Tartan Army is they’re nowhere near as good as they used to be. And Petr Cech will be watching this from the comfort of his sofa. Victory is by no means guaranteed, but it’s a great time to play the Czechs and claim the win that would catapult the Scots right back into the race for second place. Then Lithuania come to Hampden and although they’ll also live up to the stereotype of being dogged Eastern Europeans, a win has to be expected and all of a sudden there are ten points in the bag and the prospect of more on offer when they visit the Brazil of tax haven principalities next month. They may end up falling short, but at least being in the shake-up makes the prospect of leaving your house on cold winter evenings with no underwear more bearable.
The less said about this qualifying campaign for Wales the better. ‘The early stages of a rebuilding process’ is the polite way of putting it, but equally it could yet turn out to be the ‘latter stages of the catastrophic decision to give Gary Speed the job.’ Being a loyal servant to your country as a player will buy an inexperienced manager a certain amount of time, but it’s not an indefinite supply of goodwill and the shoots of recovery need to start appearing soon or else the patience runs out. Just ask Steve Staunton. Gareth Bale showing the early symptoms of the pesky non-specific injury that Ryan Giggs had to endure for much of his international career hasn’t helped, but Wales should be producing performances of a better standard than this.
The good news for Wales is that although this campaign has been a bigger national embarrassment than Gavin Henson, there is talent coming through. With the draw for the World Cup qualifiers done and there being no further seeding pots to drop into, the pressure is off Gary Speed to deliver anything and he can use the remainder of the campaign forging a team for a more respectable tilt at booking at ticket to Brazil. As for the next few games, getting on the scoreboard would be the minimum requirement. It’s not exactly clear how they’ll do that, but doing it at Wembley next week would be the ideal time to do it. Never fear, better times lay ahead Wales. We hope we can say the same for you Gavin.