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

Ireland Down But Not Quite Out

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.

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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.

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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.

2018 World Cup Qualifying Begins

Last week saw the qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia begin.

It will be a long road for all the nations and it would be great to see a good representation from the home nations. My focus as you know always falls on the Irish, after the summer that the Republic of Ireland recently had in the European Championships in France there is optimism around the squad and also the country for the 2018 World Cup.

Martin O'Neill and his squad will have to navigate through a tough group which includes Serbia, Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Unlike England, Martin O'Neill has only a small panel of players to pick from and injuries will play a big part along the way. I expect the competition for the one qualifying spot to be fought out between Serbia, Austria, Wales and the Republic. A lot of points will be won and lost when these four all play each other and to win your home games will set you up for a chance to qualify, what you pick up on the road will seal the deal.

First up for Ireland was a tricky trip to Belgrade to face Serbia. It was a game that the Irish dare not lose and after the referee passed the pitch playable at 6.15pm, rain had fallen all day long in Belgrade and it was really touch and go, it was game on for Martin O'Neill and his players. Jeff Hendrick got Ireland off to a flying start after only three minutes when he scored his first international goal, mind you Ivanovic did get the final touch before it entered the net. What was to develop over the next 59 minutes was not only poor, but very frustrating. Ireland seemed to sit very deep and invite the Serb's onto them. Now it is unclear to me and a few other pundits as to whether this was a tactic O'Neill used to try and hold a lead, surely not as the Irish goal came so early in the game.

The Serbian side came forward and pounded the Irish back four. In the 62nd minute they got a well deserved equaliser when Kostic tucked the ball home after the Irish back four was pulled totally apart. After the Serbian equaliser, Ireland did not change anything tactically and simply could not string a pass together to try and calm the Serbian storm.

In fact throughout the whole game Ireland only put 94 passes together where as Serbia found each other 361 times, a really poor performance in my opinion. The stat alone tells you the amount of pressure the Irish were under and in the 69th minute went two one down after Tadic converted a very soft penalty awarded by the Hungarian referee. Two goals in seven minutes had turned the game on its head and a possible rout was on the cards. The Irish team had been totally outplayed for much of the game but the second Serb goal seemed to ignite an Irish fight back.

O'Neill's men got the ball down and started to come out and play a bit. The Irish equaliser came from a Daryl Murphy header from a corner, the marking was all over the place and Murphy duly took advantage of it. This was also Murphy's first international goal and it had taken nine years to arrive. Martin O'Neill was delighted after the game with the point and passed on all the plaudits to his team. One thing you can say about O'Neill is that he stands behind his team in public, but I wonder what was said after the game in the dressing room, as in my opinion it was a very poor performance and the tactics used were wrong.

Elsewhere in Ireland's group there were wins for Wales and Austria who had victories over Moldova and Georgia in that order. Every point in this group will be vital and on reflection the Irish result in Belgrade was brilliant. Before the match I was hoping for a draw and seeing how the game developed the draw was all the more sweeter. This group is going to be one hell of a bumpy ride and next up for Ireland on October 6th is Georgia in Dublin. Three points are required from that game and Martin O'Neill knows that, Ireland can not afford to sit back, they have to take the game to the Georgian's and be on the front foot from the off. The Ireland manager must surely start Wes Hoolohan if he is fit, this guy can open up defences and we can be sure Georgia will come to Dublin to try and spoil the party. The anticipation is already building up in Ireland for the game and let us hope the Irish take all three points to keep the momentum going along the road to Russia 2018 World Cup.