The 2016 European Championship was a resounding success, and preparations for Euro 2020 moved a step forward as the qualifying groups were drawn on Sunday. England, drawn in Group A, must now ready themselves for the likes of the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.
Germany, who were in Pot 2 as a result of their UEFA Nations League relegation, will be competing against the likes of The Netherlands and Northern Ireland for qualification. Italy find themselves doing battle with Bosnia and Herzegovina, whilst Spain will be keen to overcome Sweden and Norway.
The 55 competing nations were divided into ten groups, with half of the groups containing five teams and the other half containing six. The four Nations League semi-finalists - Switzerland, Portugal, Netherlands and England - were all guaranteed to be in a five-team group.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for the finals, whilst there is also four play-off spots which are available through the Nations League play-offs.
Reigning champions Portugal will do battle with Ukraine, Serbia, Lithuania and Luxembourg as they seek to retain their title. Led by talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, they will be be keen to replicate their previous success.
World Cup winners France, featuring the likes of Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe, will face Iceland, Turkey, as they look to further assert their global dominance.
Euro 2020 Qualifying Draw in Full:
England, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Kosovo
France, Iceland, Turkey, Albania, Moldova, Andorra
Belgium, Russia, Scotland, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, San Marino
Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Greece, Armenia, Liechenstein
The first round of matches will take place between 21-23 March 2019, and the qualifying stage will conclude in November. The four Nations League finalists will not be in action on either matchday two or three, as they will be competing in the finals of that tournament in June.
The tournament will be held across 12 different countries, with England's Wembley Stadium hosting both of the semi-finals and the final.
This past week has seen the Republic of Ireland play two pivotal games in World Cup Qualifying Group D for Russia 2018. Going into the away game against Georgia and the massive home tie against fellow group leaders Serbia, manager Martin O' Neill knew that four points were a must to give Ireland complete control of the group.
Going into the Georgia game I was always of the opinion that a point would be a super result in Tbilisi. Although Ireland got the point, it was the matter of how they played that was a real worry. Ireland took the lead after only four minutes when Shane Duffy headed home his first international goal for his country but that is we're the good news ended. Instead of pushing on and getting a second goal to see off the Georgians, the Irish were totally outplayed by the home side. Time and time again they conceded ground by giving away silly passes and I wondered sometimes did our lads know we were playing in green. After taking that early lead on the night, the way the Irish played it was only a matter of time before the home team scored and that they did in the 34th minute when Kazaishvilli found the net. It was a well deserved equalising goal by the home side as going behind in the fourth minute could have destroyed better teams. Overall it was a disappointing night for the Irish as they never really showed up as a team. The result brought all sorts of criticism from the media and the general consensus of opinion was that this performance had been Ireland,s worst in many a long day.
The Serbia game did not need to be hyped up by manager O' Neill as Ireland knew this would be a game not to lose against a tricky and talented Serbian side. The Irish went into the game still reeling from the fall out from the Georgian game after all the media criticism thrown at them. The atmosphere inside the Aviva stadium was electric as the fans felt this could be another one of those special Irish nights in Dublin. Martin O' Neill made two changes in his side from the Georgian game, bringing in fans favourite Wes Hoolahan and David Meyler to replace Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter, it seem to do the trick early on as Ireland played with a much better high tempo sort of game. Early on, Shane Duffy thought he had grabbed his second Irish goal in as many games when he headed home after only ten minutes, but his joy was short lived when the assistant referee raised his flag for offside. This seemed to ignite the crowd and the Irish pushed on to try and grab that all important lead goal but it just would not come. Time and time again Ireland waisted chances with awful crossing into the penalty area, it was either a case of hitting it to long or not getting past the first defender. In the second half it was much of the same and I just could not understand why O' Neill did not tell the players at half time to get the ball to the goal line and pull it back, as I felt this was the way to break down a pretty resolute Serbian defence. Although the Irish were playing so much better than in the game against Georgia they also knew that the Serbians could cause problems, which they duly did in the 55th minute of the game when a Kolorov thunderbolt gave them a one nil lead. It was a shot that not many goalkeepers in the world could have saved and it was clinical on the part of the Serbians. It gave Ireland a huge mountain to climb and they really never got half way up as the away side dug in to hold onto their golden goal. In the 68th minute of the game Maksimovic was sent off for a foul on Daryl Murphy who would have been clear in on goal had it not been for the challenge. The ten men dug in and held on for the win although Ireland did really put it up to them, the home side even had a big call for a penalty late on when Murphy was bundled off the ball, but the Turkish referee waved play on and with that decision saw Ireland,s chance disappear.
Ireland now move on to play Moldova at home and Wales away and they know if they can win both games they could still make it onto the plane for Russia next year. The Irish teams destination has basically come down to two cup finals and both games take on a huge importance now, not only for qualification but for the future of Ireland manager Martin O' Neill. On paper Moldova in Dublin should be three points for the boys in green, but the Welsh game will be a huge occasion for both countries and with the Welsh on a great run now it might be the winner takes all for the second spot in the group that will see either side make the play offs.
6 Things Southgate Should Do in Order to Ensure a Better England Performance Against Slovakia
England stuttered over the line to claim a flattering 0-4 victory over Malta on Friday. Despite claiming the vital three points in the end, it was a performance to forget for Gareth Southgate's men.
Here's six things the Three Lions boss needs to improve on in order to ensure victory against Slovakia on Monday...
1. Boring England
Nothing quite beats travelling over 1,000 miles to an Island inbetween Italy and Tunisia to see your national team partner Jake Livermore and Jordan Henderson in the heart of midfield.
The Three Lions were lacking creativity and excitement in the middle of the park against Malta, largely down to the fact Southgate opted for two defensive midfielders in his starting line-up.
2. Know Your Opponent
Linking perfectly to the first point on this list, Southgate has to be aware of who he's facing and set up his team accordingly.
From the outset it was clear Malta's game plan was to defend in numbers, flood the middle of the park and get the ball as far away from their goal as possible, something that Southgate played into perfectly.
On Monday, England will be defending against the likes of Marek Hamsik, a scenario in which two defensive midfielders would be more understandable.
3. Who's the Captain?
Please, Gareth, just pick a captain.
Southgate looks as confused as the fans as to who should be given the armband full-time, often changing captain on a game by game basis.
Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane, Joe Hart and Gary Cahill are all in contention for the England captaincy, with Liverpool's midfielder Henderson given the responsibility on Friday evening.
4. Keep the Ox on the Wing
Regardless of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's desire to play through the middle with club and country, Southgate has to keep him on that right-wing.
The new Liverpool man has shown over the years how dangerous he is running at defenders on the right flank. Showing a great turn of pace on Friday, the only criticism of the Ox was that he didn't spend enough time giving England options out wide.
5. Why Is Butland Still Not in Goal?
When Torino President Urbano Cairo said he "didn't expect so many mistakes from Joe Hart", clearly Gareth Southgate wasn't listening.
Despite fans calling for goalkeeping prodigy Jack Butland to be given the No 1 spot in between the sticks, England's manager seems determined to keep Mr Head & Shoulders in goal for the foreseeable future.
6. Don't Blame Injuries
Although England were certainly missing some key players in Friday's trip to Malta, the performance Southgate's side showed was nothing short of catastrophic.
The Three Lions currently have an injury list that most Premier League clubs would love, only missing two or three key players.
Although Adam Lallana's creative spark was clearly a loss for England, there should be enough quality in that squad to break down even the best of international teams, with positional play in the final third clearly something that needs addressing in training.
Wayne Rooney retirement: Gareth Southgate still refuses to rule him out of World Cup
But the England manager also challenged the younger members of his squad to step out of Rooney’s shadow and show they have the leadership qualities to drive the national team forward.
Southgate, who has given first call-ups to Watford midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah and Leicester defender Harry Maguire, had planned to meet with Rooney to discuss selecting him for the World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia after leaving him out of his last two squads, only to be told by the 31-year-old he wanted to focus on his return to Goodison.
Nevertheless, Southgate spent 30 minutes trying to persuade the Everton star and said the door would be left open in case of a change of heart.
“Have I seen players change their minds? I think we all have,” he said.
“Do I see the value of a senior player and what he may add in terms of experience and developing some of the other players? Definitely.
“Part of that question should go to Wayne – you’ve got to respect his decision and the thinking behind that.
“But it is a good question. We have to see where he was at, where the squad was at, where everything else was at. It would be foolish to say no, because anything is possible.
“That’s why I made the call to him this week because there’s a recognition that my decisions in March and June were based on the way he was playing and the form he was in then. That’s been different this season.”
Southgate backed plans, reported in yesterday’s Daily Express, for the FA to stage a tribute to Rooney at Wembley in the coming months insisting that his 119 caps – the most for an outfield player – and his England record 53 goals deserve celebration.
“I know already there is discussion around that and absolutely we should be recognising his career with England and showing appreciation,” he said.
With Joe Hart’s position as first-choice goalkeeper in jeopardy from Jack Butland, Southgate will be looking to Gary Cahill, Harry Kane and some of the other younger players to show leadership qualities from the moment the squad meets up on Sunday.
“Wayne’s been somebody it may have been easy to hide behind for people,” Southgate said. “He’s the one who has carried that burden. That’s been unfair on him. Now everybody has the chance to take the mantle.
“Others have to grasp that initiative and responsibility and it is an opportunity. If we are going to be an outstanding team moving forward then you need players who are going to step up in the big moments.
“Every time they play for England they have the chance to be involved in a historic performance. They have that choice every time they go on the field.”
If Rooney remains in retirement, Southgate could even contemplate going to next summer’s World Cup without a designated captain at a major tournament for the first time.
“I don’t know is the honest answer,” he said. “I still look at other countries who pick the most-capped player on the day as the captain.
“The more important thing is that the culture around the team is of people prepared to take responsibility and influence others in a positive way.
“I captained every club I was at and at times that was exhausting because I was taking all the burden for things; trying to do the community events and manage the dressing room and give the speeches at the right time. You need more than one person that can do that.”
Gareth Southgate should never call Wayne Rooney up again - Sir Geoff Hurst
England’s record goalscorer has not featured in any of his country’s last five games, but his current form at Everton could see him return to the squad for next month’s qualifiers against Malta and Lithuania.
Southgate has watched Rooney twice already this season and saw him notch his 200th Premier League goal in Everton’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City on Monday, with Rooney saying he plans to talk to the Three Lions boss in the coming days.
But Hurst, whose hat-trick fired England to their only World Cup title in 1966, believes Southgate should not consider recalling the 31-year-old.
“He has made some bold decisions and the bold one he can make is to say it’s the end of Wayne Rooney’s international career,” said Hurst.
“He has been an absolutely fantastic player. At club level he wasn’t playing regularly for Manchester United last season, which is an indication – and if you are not playing regularly at club level you certainly should not represent England.
“I wouldn’t necessary call it a bold decision to not play Wayne Rooney any more, but if I were in charge of the national team I would call Wayne up and say: ‘Thanks very much’.
“He has been a fantastic player, one of the greatest players in this country, but old Father Time – and I have been there as a striker – comes where you lose a bit of sharpness and I think his time playing for England is over.”
Rooney has made an impressive start to life back at Goodison Park, scoring the winning goal against Stoke last weekend and following it up with another at the Etihad Stadium.
But since exploding onto the scene at Euro 2004 with four goals in four matches, he has consistently failed to make an impact at major tournaments and has scored only once at a World Cup, in the 2-1 loss to Uruguay in 2014.
So even a sustained run of form for the Toffees would not alter Hurst’s view that Southgate should stick with youth.
“I am delighted for Wayne going back to a club he loves,” he added. “But he has to be playing over a long period of time to be successful and selected.
“If he does it for half a season where he’s scoring goals and playing well, then maybe he could argue his case, but then he’s still another half a season down the road and him coming back into the squad might then be a distraction, particularly if they have done well.”
The future of the national team bodes well if this summer is anything to go by, as the Under-19s and Under-20s both won summer tournaments while the Under-21s were beaten in the semi-final of the European Championships on penalties.
But players such as Chelsea trio Tammy Abraham, Nathaniel Chalobah and Lewis Baker, and Liverpool’s Under-20 star Sheyi Ojo, appear to have no way into their first teams, so have had to be loaned out.
And Hurst, who as McDonald’s director of football is heavily involved in the company’s commitment to grassroots football in this country, would like to see those sort of players get a chance at the top level.
“If you look at the Premier League, that is one of the disappointing aspects; that not enough young English players get a chance in the teams,” he added.
“We would like to see more of that, a lot get sent out on loan but we don’t seem to see as many progressing and playing first-team football at a higher level.
“That is the next step for the national team to progress, younger players playing at a higher level for their clubs on a regular basis.”
Sir Geoff Hurst was speaking at the McDonald’s & FA Community Football Day at Abraham Moss Warriors JFC in Manchester, celebrating 15 years of McDonald’s partnering with the four UK home nations & supporting grassroots football. For more information visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/betterplay
From guarding the national team to playing for them
A Ghanaian policeman who had been a security guard for the national football team has told the BBC that making his international debut was "a dream come true".
Samuel Sarfo made his debut for the Black Stars on Saturday, coming on as a substitute in the 81st minute of Ghana's 2-1 defeat by the USA.
The 26-year-old played as a central defender in the friendly match.
Sarfo told the BBC that he wants to turn professional.
Despite playing for the national team, he remains on active duty and also plays for Liberty Professionals in the local league where he is the captain.
He told BBC's Sport Nishat Ladha that he grew up with most of the players in the national team and that they had been supporting him, especially team captain Asamoah Gyan who told him to continue working hard.
Sarfo was first named in the national squad for an African Cup of Nations qualifier match against Ethiopia in June. He said he was living his dream playing for the national team:
"It was a dream come true. That is the dream of every young chap growing up in Ghana to don the national colours".
He said that midfielder Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, with whom he was pictured last year while wearing his police uniform had been supportive of him, even though Agyemang-Badu had not been selected this time.
Sarfo says that he wants to play professionally because the world needs to see what "Samuel Sarfo is made of".