World Cup Group G Preview

A lot of interest will be shown in Group G as it contains England, the group also contains Panama, Tunisia and Belgium. On paper there are only two teams who are going to qualify out of this group and that is Gareth Southgate,s England and Roberto Martinez,s Belgium, the other two are only along for the carnival of football. In this part of the World a lot of the media interest will be around England and sometimes that is not always a good thing if your an England player or manager.

England have qualified for this years finals by topping a group that included Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta. It was a campaign that saw previous England manager Sam Allardyce having to step down after been caught out by a newspaper sting which involved him been prepared to give a third party  advice on how to get around certain FA rules. Gareth Southgate was reluctant to step up to the job but since he has come in he has done a tremendous job. Gareth,s sheer professionalism has shone through and the results on the pitch have been superb. The jury is out on whether the three lions can actually win the tournament but there is no doubt that everyone will be tuned into their games come kick off. Two players to keep an eye out for in this tournament are Tottenham Hotspur,s Harry Kane and Manchester City,s John Stones, Kane has just got better and better over the past couple of seasons and in my opinion he is someone that the young children who play our beautiful game can look up to and aspire to be. His goal scoring displays for Spurs helped his club challenge at the top of the Premier League and if he can produce the goods for his country in Russia  who knows how far they can go. John Stones is a classy on the ball defender who really has come on leaps and bounds under the tutolidge of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, his ability to come out from the back with the ball reminds me of so many of the top defenders who have played around the world over the years. If England are to do well in this tournament they will need a bit of luck and strong performances and if they can put those two scenarios together who knows what will happen.

Panama have qualified for the finals for the very first time in their history. In a dramatic qualifying campaign which also included Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, USA and Trinidad and Tobago, the qualification went down to the very last game and they beat Costa Rica and the USA lost away to Trinidad and Tobago, the USA losing was the shock that let Panama through. It was an amazing fete by Panama and they will arrive in Russia as total outsiders, but I am not sure that will even bother them as just taking part will be their final. Manager Hernan Gomez is a Colombian who has been at the World Cup before when he led his home nation to the 1998 finals in France and Ecuador to the finals in 2002. His experience as a World Cup coach is excellent and he also went to the finals as assistant coach in 1990 and 1994. Two players to look out for when the tournament begins are Gabriel Gomez of Atletico Bucaramanga and Blas Perez of Municipal. Gomez is Panama,s most capped player with over 140 international caps to his name since his debut in 2003. He has played his football in Panama, Colombia, Portugal, Cyprus, Mexico, USA and Costa Rica as his appearances in these countries tell us he has a vast amount of experience. Gomez was also a key figure in the Panama team who came third in the 2015 Concacaf Gold Cup. Perez made his debut in 2001 and has more than 40 goals to his name. Panama will turn up at these games with no expectations and this might just allow them the freedom to go and express themselves, something that may lead to a few surprises.

Tunisia made history at the 1978 tournament by becoming the first African nation to win at a World Cup finals by beating Mexico three one. That victory played a big part in FIFA,s decision to increase Africa,s presence at the finals from one participating teams to two. This will be their fifth appearance at the finals but they have never got past the first round. They qualified for these finals by coming top of African Group Round 3 which also included Tunisia, Congo Dr, Libya and Guinea. Although they were unbeaten in the group they only managed to win it by one point ahead of Congo, that just goes to show us how tight things were in qualification. Two players to look out for when the tournament starts are Youssef Msanki of Al-Duhail and Balbouli from Etoile du Sahel. Balbouli is considered to be Tunisia,s finest keeper and possibly one of the best African keepers ever. He is captain of both his club and national team and has played 79 times for Tunisia since his debut in 2007. Youssef has scored over 50 goals for Tunisia and was their leading scorer in the qualifying campaign. It will be astonishing if Tunisia get out of this group and maybe their best shot is not getting hammered in their games, which will probably lead to a tactic of parking the bus in Russia.

Belgium without a doubt have a fantastic squad on paper, the problem is you do not always win things on paper. A lot of people feel that this is Belgium,s time and if they turn up as a squad and not 23 individuals they could go a long way in this tournament. In 1986 they came fourth and the last time out in Brazil they got to the quarter finals, they will be  looking this time to better all that and under manager Roberto Martinez they have showed a vast improvement in their performances. They qualified for the finals by topping a group which included Greece, Bosnia, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar and not only did they top the group but they were unbeaten in the whole campaign and won the group by nine points. Two players to look out for when the competition starts are Eden Hazard of Chelsea and Manchester City,s Kevin De Bruynne, two players who could set this tournament alight. Hazard at the moment is arguably in the top four players in the world, a smashing player who can turn a game in the blink of an eye. Kevin played a huge part in helping Manchester City win the Premier League and he is also a player who can get you a goal out of nothing. With these two players in the midfield Belgium have to be a real contender but it will depend on the unity in their squad, their game against England promises to be one of the special games of the first round.

Matches

Belgium v Panama        18/6/2018

Tunisia   v  England       18/6/2018

Belgium  v  Tunisia        23/6/2018

England  v  Panama       24/6/2018

Belgium  v  England       28/6/2018

Panama   v  Tunisia        28/6/2018

World Cup Group F Preview

There is no doubt that Group F will be a cracker. The Group consists of the World Champions Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. It has the making of a very special group with every team in it expecting to go through to the knockout stages. It is another one of those so called group of death scenarios were every point will be valuable. The Germans will be a tough nut to crack and there is no way they will want to relinquish their title without a huge effort. The other three teams will battle it out for that all so important second spot and this could make the games a lot tighter and more exciting.

The World Champions Germany will without a shadow of doubt not let anyone down when it comes to putting in a challenging performance in this tournament. They qualified as the only nation to do so with a 100% record, winning all of their games in the group. That group consisted of Northern Ireland, Czech Republic, Norway, Azerbaijan and San Marino. They go into the tournament not only as World Champions but Confederations Cup holders as well, having beaten Chile in last years final one nil. On their road to Russia they scored forty three goals and conceded only four, no matter who your opponents are that is some record. Their most decisive and clinical victory was an eight nil win away against San Marino with midfielder Serge Gnabry scoring a hat trick. The Germans will go a long way in this tournament as they always do and it is amazing how they can always get it right when it comes to the finals. Manager Joachim Lowe dropped a major bombshell when finalising his twenty three man squad by not picking Manchester City,s Leroy Sane and by doing so it sent out a clear signal that he only wanted players who are in form. Going into the tournament two players to look out for are Thomas Muller from Bayern Munich and Real Madrid,s Toni Kroos. Muller will get you a goal from anywhere and he is a product of the Bayern Munich academy and in the 2010 World Cup he won the golden boot. He was also part of the German side that won the cup in 2014, the first side from Europe to win it on South American soil. Toni Kroos was born in the former East Germany shortly before the famous wall fell and he made his name at Bayern Munich. He anchored the German midfield in Brazil 2014 and a lot of the analysts are of the opinion that without Toni in the German side they are not as effective. At club level he has won two Champions League,s with Madrid and also two FIFA World Club Cups. The Germans will be one to watch in Russia and a semi final place is a given if you look back at their history over the years in the competition.

Mexico have hosted the Finals twice in 1970 and 1986 but on both occasions failed to really produce any sort of a challenge to lift the trophy. In my opinion they are the one side that always promise so much and fail to deliver. They qualified for this years World Cup by winning the Concacaf group which included Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, USA and Trinidad and Tobago, they actually won it by five points and at no time did they look in any danger of not qualifying. Last year they reached the semi finals of the Confederations Cup and they will look to go one better this time around, although they have never gone past the quarter final stages in the finals and I can not see them doing it this time around either. Going into the tournament two players to look out for are Andres Guardado of Real Betis and Oribe Peralta of America FC, Guardado has won over 140 caps since making his debut in 2005 and has helped Mexico win the Concacaf Gold Cup twice. Peralta was part of the Olympic team that won the medal in 2012 beating Brazil in the final. His goal scoring record for Mexico is excellent when you think he has scored a goal in every other game. The Mexican squad will bring a lot of talented players to Russia but the one thing they will need to do well is have the ability to dig in and get a result, you do not always have to play sexy football to be a winner, something the Mexicans should have a long think about.

Sweden have a great record in the World Cup and have finished third on two separate occasions. They qualified for these finals by coming second in a group which included France, Netherlands, Bulgaria and Luxembourg, by finishing second they entered a play off against Italy and to a lot of people's suprise they beat the Italians one nil over the two legs. Jakob Johansson was the Swedish hero as he was the man who scored the winning goal in the home tie. The second leg was a real backs to the wall effort in the away tie in Milan but great defending got the job done. When the qualifying group for Russia was drawn the Swedes were very much outsiders especially given the fact that their superstar Zlatan had retired from International football. Manager Jan Olof Andersson took over the international reigns in 2016 when Sweden were eliminated in the first round of the European Championships in France. He has done the job he was brought in to do and getting through to the finals through the play offs was an excellent achievement. Two players to keep an eye out for during these finals are Hull City,s Seb Larsson and Krasnodar defender Andreas Granqvist two of the players who got this Swedish team to Russia. Larsson has been a mainstay in the Swedish midfield side since 2008 and that fact tells you he never lets his country down. Granqvist is the captain of the side and his heroics in Milan during the second leg of the play offs were the foundation that saw the Swedes qualify for the finals, he is a no nonsense defender who actually plays his club football in Russia and his experience there will be a great help as he advises his team mates on what to expect over the next couple of weeks.

South Korea are another nation who were involved in hosting the tournament when they co hosted in 2002 with Japan, a tournament that was possibly the best ever run competition. In 2002 they reached the semi final and were within a hairs breath of going all the way to the final, matching that achievement has been an uphill struggle since. They qualified for Russia by coming second in the Asia Round 3 Group A which also included Iran, Syria, Uzbekistan, China and Qatar. This is the ninth time they have qualified for the World Cup and it shows us how strong their game is, there are quite a few European teams who would love that record. Manager Shin who took over from former German international Uli Stielike has also played for his country and has scored three goals in 23 appearances. Two players to look out for during this tournament are Totenham,s Son Heung-Min and Lee Dong Hook who plays for Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in South Korea. Son has been successful with all the clubs he has been with and his performances for Spurs last season were excellent. Lee is his countries top goal scorer with more than 30 goals in over 100 appearances. He is also top scorer in his domestic league and has had spells with Werder Bremen and Middlesborough in Europe. Korea will need a big effort to get out of this group and their games against Mexico and Sweden are going to be the matches they have to pick up the points from.

Matches

Germany  v  Mexico      17/6/2018

Sweden     v  South Korea  18/6/2018

Mexico      v  South Korea   23/6/2018

Germany   v  Sweden    23/6/2018

Mexico       v  Sweden     27/6/2018

South Korea  v  Germany  27/6/2018

 

World Cup Group E Preview

For those of us who love the beautiful game and all it has to offer, Group E contains the team who are the World Cup, Brazil. When the draws are made for these competitions the first team we all look out for are the Brazilians and what group will have the pleasure of samba football. This year Brazil have been placed in a group with Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia. It has the making of a very good group and there will be bundles of skill on show. The Brazilians should qualify as the winners of the group but the second place is wide open, it really is a toss up between the other three. The games in this group will be much anticipated and all the fans who love beautiful football will have the three Brazilian games already pencilled into their diary.

Brazil qualified for this years competition by winning the South American group which had all the big guns in it, including the likes of Argentina and Uruguay. Qualifying for the finals this year has kept up their record as the only team to have qualified for every World Cup, an unbelievable achievement when you consider the talent of all the other teams in the world. Their record of winning the competition five times and finishing runners up twice tells us why they are so loved around the world. Over the years they have produced world class players like Pele, Jarzinho, Gerson, Garrincha, Romario, Ronaldo, Bebeto and Ronaldinho a list of some of the stars that have given us so much pleasure over the years. Two players to look out for as we go into the competition are Manchester City,s Gabriel Jesus and Barcelona,s Phillipe Coutinho. Jesus has scored six goals in the campaign and was joint top scorer with Neymar, he has the knack of knowing exactly where the goal is and I would put him down as one of the favourites to be the top goal scorer. It will be very interesting to see how Couthino gets on in this tournament after his domestic season, it was a season for him that was very disruptive with his transfer move from Liverpool to the Catalan giants been the highlight. The stage is set for him now to go and have a great tournament and let us hope he does not disappoint. I know one thing for certain is that Brazil will play in this competition with no fear and could go very close to winning the trophy for the sixth time.

This World Cup will be Switzerland's eleventh appearance at the finals, a magnificent achievement for a nation that would not considered to be a real force in international football. They had a magnificent qualifying campaign and only lost out in the last match to Portugal for the top spot. They had to come through the dreaded play offs and controversially they beat Northern Ireland one nil over the two legs, the only goal of the tie was a hotly disputed penalty awarded to them when the referee had adjudged that an Irish player had handled the ball. The referee has since come out and said he got it wrong, but these things happen in football and when your luck is in you tend to get those decisions going in your favour. Manager Vladamir Petkovic who was born in Sarajevo has done a magnificent job with the players at his disposal and he has created a team that are very hard to beat and they do play some nice attractive football. Two players to look out for when the tournament starts are Stoke City,s Xherdan Shaqiri and new Arsenal defender Stephan Lichtsteiner who have 150 caps between them. Shaqiri who is midfielder who can also get you goals and so far he has netted twenty for his country. Lichtsteiner is one of the best right backs in the world and has already played in two World Cup final campaign,s this sort of experience will be vital to the Swiss because the man is a winner. Switzerland can possibly get out of this group and if you take Brazil out of the equation their game against Serbia will probably decide their faith.

Costa Rica will be appearing in their fifth World Cup finals and they will hope that they can go a little further than they did in 2014 when they had a magnificent tournament when they reached the quarter finals. They had a tough group in 2014 but they were magnificent and they actually topped the group which included England, Uruguay and Italy, a tremendous outcome for The Ticos as they are known. It just goes to show us that on any given day they can be a real threat. They qualified for Russia by finishing second in a group that also contained Mexico, Panama, Honduras, USA and Trinidad and Tobago. Two players who will be well worth keeping an eye on during the tournament are Vancouver Whitecaps player Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz of  Sporting Lisbon. Bolanos was joint top goal scorer on the road to Russia. This will be his third World Cup and his experience from the previous two will be invalid, he has also appeared at the Under 17 World Cup in 2001 and the 2005 FIFA World Club Cup. Ruiz is Costa Rica,s captain and has played more than 100 times for his country. He famously scored the winning goal in a one nil victory over Italy in the 2014 finals. Bryan is the man to get the goals and if his team mates put in a better than average performance in the three group games they could get on a roll again like 2014.

Serbia have qualified for the finals for the fourth time after they topped one of the toughest groups on the road to Russia. They topped the group they were in by two points and it also included Austria, Wales, Georgia, Moldova and the Republic of Ireland. Their one nil victory in Dublin was the game that swung it for them as it was Martin O' Neill,s side they finished ahead of. Manager Mladen Krastic only took up the reigns after qualification for the finals were complete, he has previous managerial experience with Partizan and German side Werder Bremen and has won a few trophies with both clubs. The squad are a very tight knit group of players and not only are they a team but twenty three friends if you are to believe the reports. Two players from that group to keep an eye on during the tournament are Nemania Matic of Manchester United and Alexsandar Kolorov of Roma. Matic will be the anchor man in midfield and he will allow the play maker to go and do his stuff. If you have seen him play for Chelsea and then Manchester United you will know how central he is to any team he is playing for. Kolorov is one of the fastest players to go down a wing I have ever come across, I often wonder what training he does to get the miles into those legs of his. At club level he has won trophies with Lazio and Manchester City and his move to Roma has given him a new lease of life and he plans to stay around for a while yet. If the real Serbia turn team  up in Russia they could get out of this group and they could be an interesting team in the knockout stage.

Matches

Costa Rica  v  Serbia     17/6/2018

Brazil v Switzerland      17/6/2018

Brazil  v Costa Rica        22/6/2018

Serbia  v  Switzerland    22/6/2018

Switzerland v Costa Rica  27/6/2018

Sebia  v  Brazil                     27/6/2018

By David Meier

Operation Irish Transformation

Since been thrashed by Denmark in the World Cup Play offs there has been a lot of doom and gloom around Irish football. It was very disappointing for Ireland not to make it to the World Cup  and the hangover continued with a defeat away to Turkey in February and then the Irish were given a bit of a lesson by France last week in Paris. The Turkish game was the beginning of a new era for Martin O'Neill after players retired but on the night the game was a dour drab affair. It was ninety minutes of sheer boredom and to be brutally honest the Irish offered nothing. It was a struggle to find any positives out of the game, but one did come along in the shape of West Ham United,s Declan Rice. On his Irish debut he was man of the match and he put in a display that any nineteen year old would have been proud of. After the game a lot of the talk was that O'Neill had unearthed a gem, not only had he done that but he had stolen him from under the noses of England. As often happens with Irish players Declan qualifies to play for the Republic as is grandparents are from Cork. On the night it was the only bright light at the end of a very dark tunnel and although Turkey won they did not show much either.

Although the Republic of Ireland are not going to Russia, they had set up a few end of the season matches against France in Paris and then to finish off the long season they played the USA in a friendly in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The game in Paris was played in terrible conditions with torrential hail and rain belting down on the twenty two players for ninety minute minutes. The French ran out easy winners with goals from Giroud and Nabil Fekir. Mind you the second goal was a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Doyle who instead of putting Fekir,s shot around the post, managed to parry it up and over himself and into the back of his own net. Martin O'Neill had picked a really experimental side as he had quite a few of his regulars out with injuries, but he played the same system as usual and it what can only be described as a holding job, the Irish never got a sniff of a chance. Two decisions Martin made on the night were  to hand a debut to Blackburn Rovers Derrick Williams and the player did not let his manager down, putting in a strong calm and relaxed performance. Martin,s second decision was to create history when he brought on Shamrock Rovers player Graham Burke in the seventieth minute, the first League of Ireland to be capped since Joe Gamble of Cork City in 2007. It was a great achievement for the player and great news for the league also, but overall the French ran the show and deserved their win. Martin O'Neill has a lot of work to do going forward but his blooding of new players can only help that.

If the weather in Paris was horrific for the French game, well the total opposite could be said for Ireland's last game of the season against the USA. It was an incredible evening in Dublin as the temperatures off the pitch soared, it was short sleeves and shorts all around for the 32,000 fans who turned up to see what Ireland could produce against a very under strength USA. Although this was a friendly it was also a celebration to say goodbye to one of Ireland's great's John O'Shea who was retiring after earning over a 100 caps for his country. Gentleman John has decided the time is right to go and he leaves so many great memories and great performances behind, it will be a long time before we see his like again. The first thirty odd minutes of the game were slow and had the feel of a testimonial about it, but once O'Neill called O'Shea ashore the tempo of the game rose and we had a meaty affair on our hands. The USA took the lead right on half time and yet again it was when Ireland were defending a free kick. It came about when a long free kick was floated to the far post and somehow found its way back across the penalty area to Wood who tapped home. It was awful defending by the Irish as they allowed a ball to travel a huge distance without someone making any sort of a move to go and clear it, in fact once the ball came back across his goal, keeper Colin Doyle should have commanded his area, instead everyone stood still allowing Wood to sneak in and grab the lead for the away team. The Irish equaliser came from Shamrock Rovers player Graham Burke who tapped home on the line, his goal was another piece of history as it was the first goal scored by a League of Ireland player since 1978 when the late Ray Treacy scored against Turkey. The equaliser gave the whole team and the stadium a lift and Ireland kept going right to the end and in the dying moments of the game Alan Judge buried a chance which was created by James McClean, it was magnificent for Judge as he has not long returned from a broken leg. Overall the Irish deserved the win and it was a promising display from a new look side. On the night the outstanding player for the Irish was Declan Rice and once again he was named man of the match, that says a lot about this nineteen year old as he has only started three senior games and on two occasions has won that honor. He looks very cool on the ball and similarities are now been mentioned between himself and former Republic of Ireland great Paul McGrath, it is a big pair of boots to fill but if Declan can keep going with his progress it could possibly happen. The result finishes off a disappointing time for the Irish and it is onwards now to the next set of fixtures and hopefully Martin O'Neill can get his side back to winning ways.

World Cup Group D Preview

Every World Cup draw produces a so called group of death and the 2018 finals has been no different. The term group of death does not mean people are going to die but what it does mean in footballing terms is that losing games in this group will cause major qualification problems, as there is no wiggle room if you want to get to the next phase. Group D consists of Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria, now that is some line up, four quality teams. The group is wide open in my opinion and not even group favourites Argentina are guaranteed a safe passage through to the next phase. The group is made even more intriguing with the fact that Croatia and Iceland were in the same qualifying group to get to these finals, so the match between them will be tight. No matter what the outcome of this group will be, I am sure these group of matches could possibly produce some of the best football in the early stages of this tournament.

Argentina are without a doubt one of the big power houses of World football, they have won the World Cup twice and have finished runners-up on three separate occasions. Over the years they have produced some magnificent players and I am not just talking about Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, their production line of talent goes much further than those two special players. Qualifying for this tournament was not plain sailing for the Argentinians and they had to win their last match of the qualifying campaign against Ecuador to book their ticket for the big show. In that game it was a Lionel Messi hat trick that got the job done and now that they have got to Russia anything is possible. Going into the finals, manager Jorge Sampaoli knows he can not solely rely on Lionel Messi to get him out of trouble in every game and he needs the other players around the maestro to shine. Two players to look out for going into the tournament are Angel Di Maria of PSG and Juventus striker Paulo Dybala. Di Maria is around a long time and he is a solid player for both club and country, always prepared to put in a good shift when on the field. Dybala in my opinion is a little gem and if he gets good service during the tournament he could be a contender for the leading goal scorer. I have seen him play a lot this season in Italy and he is the type of player who will steal a goal out of nowhere for you. If you are to believe the seeding process for the games, Argentina will qualify as group winners but I am not so sure, especially looking back at their qualifying campaign.

Iceland are appearing at the World Cup Finals for the very first time and after their heroics in the 2016 European Championships nobody will underestimate them. They will also bring with them the " Viking Chant " which they did with their fans at the end of each game in 2016. It was something new to see and it showed to the outside world how much the fans meant to them. They have qualified for the finals by topping their qualification group which included Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo. It was a tremendous feat to win that group as only a few years ago the men from Iceland would have been the team in that group were everyone would have expected to pick up all six points from both of the games they would have had to play against the men from Reykjavik. A lot of credit has got to go down to former manager Lars Lagerbeck from Sweden, who installed a new belief in the Icelandic team. Two players to look out for going into the tournament are Everton,s Gylfi Sigurdsson and Aron Gunnarsson of Cardiff City. Sigurdsson is a smashing creative midfielder and his opponents need to be warned, if you give this fella a chance he will punish you. Gunnarsson is the captain of the squad and takes no prisoners, he can play right back or is just as comfortable in central midfield. One thing to keep an eye out for at the end of every game will be the chant, which will be led by their captain and who knows, they could be ready to ruffle a few more teams feathers in Russia.

Croatia only became a nation in its own right in 1990 with the break up of Yugoslavia after a horrible war, one that we should never forget though. They have already appeared in four World Cup Finals and that is understandable with the amount of talent they have produced over the years. They qualified for Russia through the play offs by thrashing Greece four one on aggregate. They were in a group which included Iceland and that rivalry will be renewed in Russia. They travel to Russia with possibly one of the best talented squads to ever board a plane from their home soil, it will all depend like everything does in football if the eleven players on the field can gel. Two players to look out for going into the tournament are captain Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic both players have had a very successful season with their clubs Real Madrid and Juventus. Modric is key to everything that happens to Croatia going forward and if he is not stopped he can cause all sorts of problems to the opposition. Mandzukic is a good old style centre forward and if Modric the magician, can make chances for him he will take them. The game of the group in my opinion will be Croatia v Argentina and this will be a match not to be missed.

The fourth member of this group are Nigeria who are known around the world as the Super Eagles. This will be the sixth time that they have qualified for the finals and they could be a dangerous side if allowed to play. They qualified through to Russia by winning a group that also included Zambia, Cameroon and Algeria. They topped the group although a three nil defeat was awarded against them when they fielded a suspended player in the away game against Algeria. Two players to look out for when the competition kicks off are Ahmed Musa of Leicester City and Chelsea,s Victor Moses. Musa made history at the 2014 World Cup Finals when he became the first Nigerian to score more than one goal in the finals. Moses played for England at youth level but switched back to Nigeria in 2012. As a player he reminds me of the old style wing back who raids down the right hand side whenever he gets the chance  but is not afraid to do his share of the defending either, it is always a great attribute to a player when he can work in both halves defending and attacking. Nigeria will be a joy to watch in the finals and look out for their physical presence as they do like to get stuck in. May the other three teams be warned.

Matches

Argentina  v  Iceland   16/6/2018

Croatia       v  Nigeria   16/6/2018

Argentina  v  Croatia    21/6/2018

Nigeria       v  Iceland    22/6/2018

Iceland       v  Croatia    26/6/2018

Nigeria       v  Argentina  26/6/2018

 

World Cup Group C Preview

Group C throws up a very interesting prospect indeed as France, Denmark, Peru and Australia are set to battle it out for the two qualifying spots. It will be one of the toughest groups to call and could possibly produce the overall winners in a French team that look extremely exciting to watch. It is a group that has a great mix of styles and talent, involving four nations that were born for football, when this group is over I have no doubt we will have seen some thrilling games and excellent play from the four teams involved.

France qualified for the finals from a very tough group which included The Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria, Luxembourg and Belarus. On the road to Russia they only lost one game which was away against Sweden. The French won the group by four points and with the strength and quality of the other teams involved that has to go down as a good campaign. Their star men going into the tournament will be Grizeman and Pogba, two players with bundles of talent in their armoury. Pogba has not set the world alight this season with his performances for Manchester United but that seems to be down to,as widely reported a rift between himself and his club manager Jose Mourinho. It will be very interesting see how different he performs under French manager Didier Deschamps. The French have left out a few big stars from their squad including Martial, Lacazette and Benezma and if you can afford to leave a trio with such talent at home the rest of the squad must be talented indeed. The French will do well this summer and if they can produce a team spirit and unity that the 1998 squad showed they might just do it again. The only problem I see ahead for Deschamps men is the national history and the expectancy, let us not forget they lost the 2016 European Championship on home turf and that was down to outside pressure more than bad play.

Australia have qualified for their fifth finals and this will be their fourth in a row, this is an amazing statistic considering the Football Federation of Australia was only formed in 1963, nowadays it is called the Australian Football Federation. It has taken the men from down under 22 games to qualify for the finals because in that part of the world the qualifying is so complicated. They have had to go through two qualifying groups and only finished third in their second round of group games, a group which included Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand. Finishing third in the Asia group meant they had to play Syria in a play off which they won three two on aggregate over two legs. Their qualifying was not over yet and you would have to believe that the Australians have travelled the most miles to get to their final goal of reaching Russia. They had to face Honduras over two legs in the Concacaf / Asia play off and they came through that tie, three one overall. All the goals came in the second leg and it was Aston Villa,s Jedinak who was the hero with a hat trick. The Australian squad is spread across the world including countries such as England, Scotland, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, Japan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and The Netherlands, which in turn gives them a wide experience of styles and cultures. Their game against Denmark will give us some sort of idea of what they are made of and if they have the quality to get out of this group.

Peru have not qualified for the World Cup Finals since 1982 and that famous shirt with the red stripe has really been missed. When they qualified for Russia the government announced a national day off for celebration, that is what it meant to this proud nation. They came through the intercontinental play off by beating New Zealand two nil, with goals from Farfan and Ramos in the second leg. Coach Ricardo Gareca has been a huge success since arriving in 2015 and he has instilled an inner belief in the players to go out onto the pitch and do well. It is his first international job after club involvement in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Two players to look out for during the tournament are Jefferson Farfan from Lokomotiv Moscow and Edison Flores who plays with Danish side Aaborg. It is very hard to make a case for Peru to do anything in these finals but for them just to be taking part after such a long absence will be success in their minds.

The fourth team in the group are delightful wonderful Denmark, a side who got through to Russia via the play offs by thrashing the Republic of Ireland five one in the second leg in Dublin. It was a night when star player Christian Erikksen showed how good he is on the international stage by scoring a hat trick. To get to the play offs the Danes had to negotiate a group that consisted of Poland, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan. They finished five points behind group winners Poland and as I mentioned earlier they were amazing in that second leg in Dublin. Manager Hareide has built his side around Erikksen and if the player can shine the Danes could be in for some summer in Russia. It is a very risky policy putting so much faith in one player but it does also show how much faith the manager has in the player. Two other players to keep an eye out for going into the tournament are goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and the often ridiculed Nicklas Bendtner a player who always seems to self promote his class but in fairness nearly always falls short. The second spot in this group is up for grabs and the game that could decide if Denmark progress to the knockout stage is the one against Australia, a winner takes all game you might say.

Matches

France v Australia    16/6/2018

Peru     v Denmark    16/6/2018

Denmark v Australia 21/6/2018

France  v Peru             21/6/2018

Australia v Peru          26/6/2018

Denmark v France      26/6/2018

By David Meier

World Cup Group A Preview

The World Cup kicks off on the 14th of June and it begins at 4pm UK time with Russia v Saudi Arabia. Group A is made up of Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudia Arabia and it could be a group that throws up a suprise or two. Out of the four nations involved only Uruguay have shown any real form lately and going into this tournament I fancy them to top the group. The second qualification position is wide open and do not rule out a suprise. The host nation are without doubt favourites to progress through to the second phase but do not be suprised if Egypt claim that spot.

As host of the tournament a lot will be expected of Russia but I am not sure they will be a team to be feared. As hosts they have not played many competitive games since been knocked out of the 2016 European Championships at the group stage. In that tournament they only managed to gain a point by drawing with England. The 2107 Confederations Cup was a disaster for them and they only managed to beat New Zealand by two goals to nil. It will take a massive improvement in their form and a few lucky breaks for them to be successful during the summer and like in all tournaments it is always good for the host nation to do well. Two players who a lot will be expected of are striker Alaexandr Kokorin who plays for Zenith Saint Petersburg and his fellow team mate Yuri Zhirkov, who in my opinion is a cracking player. Time will tell if they can get the results to have a good tournament but they will need to win their opening game to get some momentum going and then maybe they can progress.

Uruguay qualified from the South American group that was topped by Brazil and they are an excellent side with plenty of stars in the squad. I would place them as favourites to top this group and with the likes of Suarez and Cavani upfront I may not be to far off the mark. Uruguay have a good record in the World Cup and they are one of only eight teams who have actually won the World Cup, having lifted the trophy in 1930 and 1950. There is no reason to believe that they can not go very far in the tournament. Last year I was lucky enough to see them play in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland and although they lost it was a great chance to see them pass and move the ball around as only South Americans can do. It would be a big shock to me if they do not get out of this group and when they do anything is possible.

Egypt are a bit of an unknown entity to most people but if they can produce players like Mo Salah what other little nuggets have they got hidden away. They got to Russia out of a complicated qualification campaign and they topped a group which consisted of Uganda, Ghana and Congo. They will go into the tournament as huge underdogs but I really fancy them to cause a huge shock and possibly get that second qualification spot. A lot will depend on them not getting stage fright and to have the belief they can go forward. Their game against Russia will be pivotal to their success and if they can beat the host nation on home soil it will be a huge victory for them and the Confederation from which they are part of.

The fourth team in this group will hope they are not in Russia just to make up the numbers. This is the fifth time they have qualified for the finals and you have to take your hat off to a squad of players who a lot of people would be pushed to name any of the starting eleven. They came through a qualification group that also had Japan, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand fighting for just two places, in the end a second place was good enough for them to book their tickets for Russia. During the campaign Nawaf Al Abed scored five goals and this was pivotal to there success. The twenty eight year old is currently playing for Al Hilal and if he has a good campaign he could get himself to a top European side, but only time will tell on that subject. The man in charge of the squad is manager Juan Antonio Pizzi an Argentinian who has played four international games for Spain. They will be a very focussed nation whilst involved in the tournament and we certainly won't hear of any disruption in their camp, but they will be going home after the group stage in my opinion.

Matches

14th June  Russia v Saudia Arabia

15th June  Egypt v Uruguay

19th June  Russia v Egypt

20th June  Uruguay v Saudia Arabia

25th June  Uruguay v Russia

25th June  Saudia Arabia v Egypt

By David Meier

 

World Cup Preview Group B

Group B contains Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Iran. This is one of the easier groups to call and I expect Spain and Portugal to progress through to the next phase without any problems. In a group that contains the 2016 European Champions Portugal and 2010 World Cup Winners Spain, I can only see one outcome to the group with both of the class acts qualifying through to the next stage. If I was to be pushed as to who will top the group my money would be on Spain, that is if I had some money to bet with by the way. Morocco and Iran are just along to make up the numbers in this group and barring a monumental shock, it will be Spain and Portugal who advance.

Spain qualified through to Russia by topping European section Group G which also contained Italy. They won the group easily and out of their ten games they managed to win nine and only drew the other one. The fact they came through a group that contained Italy, Albania, Israel, Macedonia and Liechtenstein unbeaten shows us how strong this Spanish side will be. Manager Julen Lopetegui has built a very successful side since the Spanish were knocked out of the 2014 World Cup and with players of the calibre of De Gea, Busquets, Ramos, Pique, Alba, Costa and Iniesta they will travel to Russia as one of the favourites for the title. The result in their game against Portugal will be a real indication as to how far they can go in the tournament and that is not a game to be missed.

European Champions Portugal go into the tournament after winning a group which contained Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra, losing only one game along the way to Switzerland. One player who a lot will depend on is of course Ronaldo and it will vital that the Portugese keep him fit. On the road to Russia he missed the defeat against Switzerland and his absence from that game just went to show how much the Portugese depend on him. Ronaldo will relish the chance to take on Spain and the prospective meeting with club mate Sergio Ramos could be one of the highlights of the tournament. Manager Fernando Santos will have a lot of quality to call on including Nani, Pepe, Quaresma, Andre Silva and Manchester City's Bernardo Silva. They will be one nation to watch in the tournament but I do not see them repeating their success from 2016.

It is very hard to put any favourable case together to even imagine that Morocco will do anything in this group. It is the first finals they have qualified for since 1998 and an early trip home is what I am expecting, especially if you consider who they are up against. Morocco qualified for the finals from an African group that consisted of Mali, Gabon and Ivory Coast. The captain of the side is Juventus defender Benatia and his experience will be needed if the African side are to have any sort of decent tournament. Manager Herve Renard has been steadily busy building his side and the fact they got to the African Cup quarter finals will stand them in good favour with their fans, but Morocco will be another side going home early.

The fourth team in the group are Iran and they have qualified for their fifth World Cup finals. Their manager is Portugal,s Carlos Queiroz and he will hope to take them through to the knockout stage for the first time in their history. The Iranians are widely accepted as Asia,s best at the moment but they will need to have a successful World Cup to claim that crown. The star man will be striker Sardar Azmoun who got eleven goals in their qualifying campaign. Sardar has been a star in the Russian league with Rostov and Rubin Kazan, in fact his form has alerted Liverpool who have had a look at the skilful 23 year old. It will be a tough ask for Iran to get out of this group but it is not beyond the possibility they could maybe cause a shock.

The Greatest Show On Earth

This June the big show arrives in Russia in the shape of the 2018 World Cup Finals. It is a time for all the football fans to sit back and enjoy the numerous amount of the games that are on view. A lot of people including myself will book holidays to coincide with the tournament so nothing can get in the way of our enjoyment, it will be the equivalent of having a month of Christmas days running one after the other. There is no doubt we will see new players emerge and it is a great opportunity to see teams that you would not normally sit down and watch. As we count down to the kick off I am licking my lips at the prospect of seeing how the tournament will pan out. Unfortunately for all the fans in both the North and South of Ireland our teams will not be there, that will not make it any less interesting for all the fans who live on this little island. The English supporters will follow their side with great pride and we can only hope that we do not see any crowd trouble. It has been widely reported over the past few months that Russian hooligans have planned a big welcome for the supporters following Gareth Southgate,s side, so let us all hope that story is all nonsense and the tournament is a complete success on and off the park.

When the tournament kicks off on the 14th of June we will have thirty two teams involved. When it comes down to the winning of the cup, you probably only have a pot of eight teams that can actually win the tournament, unless we get a really really big suprise. The sides who realistically have a chance of winning overall are Brazil, Germany, France, Argentina, Spain, England, Belgium and host nation Russia, who I only include because they are the host nation. The one team who always go a long way in these tournaments are World Champions Germany, no matter what happens they are always there or there abouts. It amazes me how they do it tournament after tournament, they always seem to get the timing of their form so right. Throughout all the World Cup Finals I have seen them appear in over the years, I have only seen them struggle once and that was in Argentina in 1978. They always come well prepared and totally focussed on the job ahead and you never hear their players claim they are tired at the end of a long season, I do not even think it is in their vocabulary to utter those words. So I am going for the Germans to retain their title. It will be some achievement if they manage to pull it off but they certainly will be worth having a bet on if you fancy a flutter. At the moment the bookmakers have them as favourites and they very rarely slip up.

Although I have placed Belgium in the pot as possible winners, they would be the outsider of that group to go to Russia and win it in my opinion. They have one of the most talented squads in the tournament and if they are to fulfill their potential this is tournament they must do it in. Any side who have players like Courtois, Hazard, Lukaku, Kompany, Benteke and De Bruyne have to be contenders. This squad of players in my opinion are as good as the Holland side that travelled to Germany in 1974 and went all the way to the Final, only to be be beaten by the hosts two one. This is Belgium,s third major tournament in a row and the time is now right for them to create history if they can produce the goods on the pitch as a team and not eleven individuals. The management team of Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry will keep the squad well grounded and try and produce a good feeling around the camp. Having Henry in the camp is a huge plus to all involved because his experience of winning the World Cup in 1998 with France will be invaluable. They are in a group which includes England and the fact that the play the three lions in their last group match will be a bonus, as they could have already qualified for the next stage before a ball is even kicked in that game.

Over the past few weeks we have seen quite a few friendly international matches and there have been some strange results. The results have have not changed my opinion on who are going to do well in this years finals and as I mentioned earlier those games were only friendlies. So let everybody who loves the beautiful game enjoy the tournament and have a great summer, let the games begin.

Waterford FC Roll On

There is a little corner of Ireland that has a great history of League of Ireland football that is second to none. Waterford over the years have produced some unbelievable sides, although the club has sometimes been under a different name. Waterford FC have returned to their official name which they were known under from 1930 to 1982, in between from 1982 to 2016 they were known as Waterford United. The success in the 1960,s for Waterford FC was amazing and they won the league three years in a row, 1968 1969 and 1970. They appeared in the European Cup and played against the likes of Manchester United and Glasgow Celtic. Those were glorious days for the club and the supporters flocked in their thousands to see their heroes on weekly basis. The attendance for the Manchester United game exceeded 48,000 and that was not just because it was United who came to town, it was also the fact that Waterford were successful at the time.

This season they are back in the SSE Airtricity Premier League and have hit the ground running after been promoted this season. They have started so well it is going to be hard for manager Alan Reynolds to keep his players feet on the ground after a magnificent start to the new season. The club has spread its net far and wide to sign players who are not only capable of keeping a club in the top league but to also mount a challenge for the title. A lot of credit for the acquisition of these players has to go down to former Director of Football Pat Fenlon who was brought in to do a job and the results are showing he was a success in that position. Pat has been around the Irish scene for a long time now and he has the knowledge and experience to build a successful club. The start to the season has been brilliant, they have won six of their opening games and before the latest round of matches they were sitting third in the league, only one point behind leaders Cork City. A lot of people are responsible for the success of the club and Chairman Lee Power has to be mentioned, Lee as we know is also Chairman of Swindon Town and he is a real leader off the park for both clubs.

On Friday night Cork City came to RSC stadium to face Waterford and it turned out to be one of the games of the season so far with three goals and six red cards. The away side took the lead after two minutes when McCarthy finished off a set piece by tapping home a chance created from an Aaron Barry header at the far post. Cork totally dominated the first half and Waterford looked out of sorts for the first forty five minutes. Although one nil down at the break, the home side really got going in the second half and equalised in the 51st minute when Cork defender McCormack turned a shot by Gavin Holohan into his own net. The following thirty minutes were to be a very nervy affair with both sides squandering chances. All of Waterford,s hard work payed off in the 81st minute when Courtney Duffus got the winner when he applied the final touch to an Akinade shot that seemed to be going in. The goal lit the touch paper for an amazing and tense finish and in the fourth minute of injury time it exploded. The incident that saw six men sent off occurred when Waterford,s Hery tried to delay the taking of a throw in by not giving the ball back, it developed into a mass brawl which saw referee Rob Rogers dismiss both managers and Hery, Buckley, Beattie and Aborah. It was an amazing end to what had been a great game and a superb occasion. One thing for certain was that the 3,684 fans who turned up to watch the game certainly got their money's worth and now Waterford sit top of the table with Dundalk, happy days indeed for the men from the sunny south east of Ireland.