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Dublin: -1°C Thursday 15 April 2021

World Cup 2014 qualifying: 10 talking points

Hats off to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iceland and Ghana, while France are firing again..

Poland fans at Wembley last night.
Poland fans at Wembley last night.
Image: Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport

1) Pharaohs on the wane, Black Stars rising

The great Egypt team will remain unfulfilled. The play-off against Ghana was the last chance for some wonderful champions, most obviously Mohamed Aboutreika, to earn the right to showcase their skills at the World Cup but on Tuesday in Kumasi they were confronted with the truth that time and domestic tumult have taken a heavy toll. With a team made up mostly of players who have won the Africa Cup of Nations three times in the last decade, Egypt were blown away 6-1 by Ghana. The Black Stars were too sharp, too strong, too lethal (and Egypt’s defending dreadful). The Ghana manager, James Kwesi Appiah, was largely unheralded when he was appointed 18 months ago after excelling with the country’s youth teams and he has gone on to show how wise it was to trust in him, deftly moulding a side in which veterans (such as Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari and Michael Essien) appear uplifted by explosive young entrepreneurs such as Majeed Waris, Christian Atsu and the 20-year-old defender Rashid Sumaila. There is still a second leg to come but it is difficult to imagine Egypt avoiding defeat in that, let alone overturning a five-goal deficit. Ghana are on their way to Brazil and no one will relish facing them when they get there. Spectators, however, will love watching them. PD

2) Hats off to audacious Bosnia-Herzegovina

There is so much to celebrate about Bosnia-Herzegovina’s qualification for Brazil, primarily the happy aside it offers to a country that has suffered so much. It is also a boon for neutrals because they are far more fun to watch than Greece, the team they beat to the top of Group G on goal difference. Whereas the best Greek players are defenders, the brightest Bosnian talent is in attack – and their manager, Safet Susic, has the wit and neck to choose his tactics accordingly. Only Germany, Holland and England have scored more in the European qualifiers than a Bosnian team that hurtle at opponents with no handbrake. “It may sound tactically immature, I am fully aware of that, but I just think it would be wrong to play different,” said Susic ahead of the decisive win in Lithuania, where his side only scored once despite playing with their usual abandon. “I just think that it would be wrong to play differently. We know that we expose ourselves too much and that there is a huge risk in a way we play – using one defensive midfielder and opening up huge space for an opponent – but it would be unfair to the fans, to the game and to us if we were to suppress such a talent and such a skill. We know that it can cost us, but that is the price we are willing to pay. In the end, we play to score more goals than the opposition – and it has paid off so far.” PD

3) Bellamy’s farewell to Wales and reminder to Belgium

So, a fitting send-off in Brussels: Craig Bellamy ended an admirable international career by teeing up a lovely equaliser for Aaron Ramsey, and Belgium were given a valuable reminder of the dangers of blurred focus. Marc Wilmots’ team had wanted to end their triumphant qualification by winning in front of their home fans and they created countless chances to kill Wales off but only Kevin De Bruyne managed to take one until they were hit with a late counter-attack. This was a return to the sort of sloppiness that this young team appeared to have left behind during their impressive dominance of a difficult group, although, in fairness, much of their erratic finishing appeared to be borne of over-exuberance in a festive home stadium rather than the nonchalance of the past. Bellamy and Ramsey’s late flourish was good for Chris Coleman and not a bad thing for Wilmots, either. PD

4) France are firing again

Two months ago being drawn against France in the play-off might not have seemed such a daunting prospect – they were on a record-breaking barren run, having failed to score in five consecutive matches, and manager Didier Deschamps was under pressure, not least for keeping faith with Karim Benzema, who had failed to find the net in more than 1,000 minutes. Deschamps finally gave a start to Olivier Giroud for last month’s qualifier in Belarus and the Arsenal striker inspired Les Bleus to a 4-2 win and then scored twice in the 6-0 thrashing of Australia last weekend ? and even stimulated an improvement in Benzema, who finally broke his epic duck. Benzema scored again on Tuesday night in the 3-0 win over Finland – and the in-form Loic Rémy came off the bench – and Franck Ribéry and Mathieu Valbuena were superb. The message to all the other teams in the play-off draw is clear: France are to be feared. PD

5) Warmth for Iceland

Iceland has a population the size of two Lutons, but since two Lutons is a concept that we do not wish to contemplate, let’s stick to calling them Iceland and get on with congratulating the country for reaching the World Cup play-offs despite it having so few people. They have nurtured well the players that nature has bestowed on them. Good planning and infrastructural investment coupled with a good attitude makes Iceland an example to small nations everywhere and tricky opponents for someone in the play-offs. So to the likes of Johann Gudmundsson, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, Alfred Finnbogason, Birkir Bjarnason and Gylfi Sigurdsson, we say: take a bow, sons. PD

6) Negredo will be key to Spain

Alvaro Negredo scored in Spain’s predictably narrow win over Georgia, taking his team to the World Cup and his international tally to 10 goals in 19 games. Spain’s manager, Vicente Del Bosque, says the striker still has much improving to do but must know that he is already crucial to his country. When Brazil battered Spain in this summer’s Confederations Cup final it was proof either that Spain were jaded or that their tiki-taka tyranny had at last been foiled. Bayern Munich’s upgrade on the Barcelona model hints at the latter; either way, Negredo is part of the solution, providing, on top of all the other qualities, the brute force and aerial strength Spain lacked, not so much a Plan B as a Plan A+. PD

7) Where did it all go wrong?

Spare a thought for Denmark, the country with that most galling of tags: the worst runner-up. The conclusion of the campaign is a time for every country to look back with regret at the moments where they took a wrong turn on the road to Brazil and for the Danes it is not hard to pinpoint: that amazing 4-0 home defeat to Armenia in June must feel even more agonising now. Mind you, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and co must wince when they look at the table too, knowing that if they had not lost at home to Malta just a few days prior to that victory in Copenhagen, then glory might have been theirs. As for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, well … PD

8) Sweden’s missed chance

The Swedes could have been seeded in Monday’s play-off draw but blew a 2-0 lead at home against Germany and lost 5-3. A Germany side that had already won the group and been out partying until 4.30am after their game against the Republic of Ireland on Friday night. Chelsea’s André Schürrle scored a hat-trick, his third the pick of the bunch – a light touch with the outside of the foot followed by a curling shot into the top corner. Sweden can be mesmerising one moment and awful the next (especially in defence) and, although it may be more exciting than during the 2000s, it is not necessarily better. They will struggle to get out of their group, if they even make it to Brazil. MC

9) England are (slowly) improving

There were worrying signs in the first half as Poland hit England on the counter-attack but, gradually, Roy Hodgson’s side became more imposing and fully deserved their win in the end. There is a lack of world-class players – Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard are the only ones who come close – and it was perhaps indicative that the pair were the only players on the scoresheet on Tuesday night. Still, Hodgson could not have done more than win his qualifying group, and he showed in the last two qualifiers that he is not averse to the odd gamble. England are on the right way and could do well in Brazil – but can anyone really see them going past the quarter-final stage? MC

10) Forward hope for Scotland

Kenny Miller ploughed a lone furrow as Scotland’s striker for so long that it seemed impossible to imagine an alternative. The reality has actually been highly encouraging for a nation which has now won three out of four competitive matches. Since Miller’s retirement from international duty in August, Steven Naismith has staked a firm claim and Gordon Strachan has shown a willingness to be bolder in home games. Naismith, ably supported by Robert Snodgrass, performed excellently against Croatia and was similarly impressive as the Scots won in Macedonia last month. With Jordan Rhodes perfectly suited to the system Strachan deployed against the Croats and Steven Fletcher also an automatic squad pick when he returns from injury, Scotland may finally have offset the scoring problems which have undermined their hopes of qualifying for a first major finals since 1998. Continuation of such promise will be essential if progress to Euro 2016 is to be secured. EM

This article titled “World Cup 2014 qualifying: 10 talking points” was written by Paul Doyle, Marcus Christenson and Ewan Murray, for

© Guardian News & Media Limited 2013

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