Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Rain In Spain

So Scotland rather predictably lost out to Spain last night while simultaneously the Czech Republic booked their playoff place with a fortuitous 4-1 win.  Had Lithuania been given a penalty just before the Czech’s scored their third, things might have been different.  At the end, Scotland came up short in another group that they should have escaped from.
David Silva Scores the goal that ended Scotland's hopes

As predicted from the outset, Scotland were vying with the Czechs for that second place, and it was those two ties where the playoff place was decided.  For many Scottish fans, the tie in Prague was all about Levein’s 4-6 formation, imagine the lack of ambition in not playing a striker.  In reality, this was a close game not helped by the Scottish defence’s tendency to hoof the ball forward to the Czech defence.  If it was the inability to hold on to possession that was Scotland’s only failing on the night, that might have been forgivable.  The bigger crime was Scotland’s awful defending at the goal as the defender Hubnik was given the freedom of Prague to do whatever he wanted… which was to put the ball in the back of the net.

That game was Levein’s early problems in a microcosm.  Struggling to get his team to gel while still trying to figure out his best formation, Levein’s Scotland struggled to retain possession and to do anything useful with it.  It is symptomatic of the period that in the next game, against Spain, Levein played 4-2-3-1.  It wasn’t until the Carling Cup matches and the early season friendly with Hungary that the 4-5-1 formation, with a midfielder dropping into a defensive position, developed.  Then, the return match with the Czechs was upon us.

In truth, Scotland did not perform.  Yet found themselves 1-0 and 2-1 up.  Had they not sat back, then maybe the Czechs would have left Hampden with nothing.  But as soon as Scotland went ahead, the Czechs seemed to pin Scotland back with relative ease.  The Czechs still showed better technique than Scotland, but there is no way that this side are as good as some of the Czech sides of the past.  An opportunity lost then.

While Levein is an almost certainty to be at the helm of the Scotland national team come the first World Cup qualifier, there is a growing backlash.  4-6 and those early sluggish performances have sparked criticisms, with callers to “Your Call” on Tuesday night calling for Levein’s head.  So far those calls are in the minority.  There is however three things to bear in mind.  The first is that at the moment there isn’t really an obvious successor to Levein. 

Callers named Souness as someone they would like to see at the helm.  The thing is, Souness hasn’t really been a successful manager since leaving Rangers in April 1991.  He won the English Cup with Liverpool in ’92, and memorably won the Turkish Cup with Galatasaray in 1996 and… well that’s it really.  Secondly, Scotland is still very much a work in progress.  Lastly there is a record of Scottish Managers failing to get the country to the European Championships but succeeding with qualifying for the World Cup.  Stein and Roxburgh failed to qualify for any of the European Championships in the 1980’s.  Stein then took us to the World Cup in 1982, and before his untimely death got us almost to the 1986 tournament.  Roxburgh failed to get us to Euro 88, before taking us to Italia 90.

I think that Levein is still the best person for the job, even if it has taken him a bit of time to get to grips with the job.  But it is looking more and more as if his whole career rests on what happens during the WorldCup qualifiers.  No pressure then.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Almost There?

European Championships, Qualifying Group I: Rheinpark Stadion, Vaduz; Liechtenstein 0, Scotland 1

Scotland’s unnecessarily hard fought win in Vaduz has, coupled with the Czech Republic’s 2-0 loss on Friday night to Spain, seen them creep past the Czech Republic into second place.  All Scotland need to do to keep a hold on the play off place is to get a better result in Spain than the Czech Republic gain in Lithuania.  Easy!

The win was unnecessarily hard fought because Scotland really should have been home and hosed by half time, with Naismith missing three chances.  Naismith’s first chance came on 11 minutes when he headed an Adam free kick wide.  Ten minutes later, Naismith headed a cross weakly into the ground, which fell into the hands of the Liechtenstein goalkeeper, four minutes after that Naismith rounded the goalkeeper but put into the side netting.  Just past the half hour, Scotland got the goal they deserved.  Bardsley put a high hanging cross into the box and Craig Mackail Smith (above) put a looping header past keeper Jehle.  It was the first time in the game that the forward actually got on the end of a cross, or was supplied with service.

The second half pretty much followed the same pattern, Scotland retaining possession and probing, with Liechtenstein content to put 10 men behind the ball.  Both Naismith & Berra had chances at the end, but both were kept out by good saves by Jehle.  Don’t know about you, but a 1-0 win felt like a below par score and not really representative of Scotland’s dominance – but completely representative of chances created.

Scotland’s last date in this Euro 2012 campaign is of course that game in Alicante on Tuesday, with the Czech Republic’s tie in Lithuania taking place simultaneously.  In short a very difficult task awaits against the World Champions and defending European Champions, knowing Scotland we’ll either win 1-0 or lose 4-0.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Rugby World Cup Proper Starts Here

40 games down and 8 to go in what has been at times a dramatic World Cup tournament. Not quite the vintage of 2007, or 1995, but there are those 8 games and there have been big fallers. Most notably Scotland, who did show some signs of a revival but couldn’t defend at key moments. Rather like four years ago, there are some interesting ties. 

Ireland V Wales; Wellington: Saturday 6pm (6am BST)
Ireland beating Australia 15-6
First up is the clash of the two form teams. Ireland topped Group C, by beating Australia in the second week and by thrashing Italy last week. Wales should have, could have beaten the defending champions, South Africa, in week one. That loss though has a silver lining in this winnable quarter final (as opposed to Australia).This really could be the tie of the round. 

The head to heads in this competition are not a great indicator neither. Wales won the first World Cup encounter in Auckland during the inaugural tournament, Ireland won the last World Cup encounter at Johannesburg in 1995 to set up a Quarter final with France. With this possibly being the last hurrah for Driscoll, O’Gara and one or two others I think Ireland may do it. 

England V France; Auckland; Saturday 8:30pm (8:30am BST)
For the third World Cup in a row, England play France in the knock out stages. France are in disarray after their shock defeat to Tonga, where a last minute try saw them get the bonus point that gets them here. The Six Nations Champions are struggling for form, having seen them get here via a second half fight back against Scotland. 

History suggests an England win. England has only lost one World Cup meeting to France, the 3rd/4th place playoff in 1995. France lost the Quarter Final in 1991 (in Paris), and two semi finals (2003 and 2007). England will win again, and play possibly Ireland next Saturday. 

South Africa V Australia; Wellington: Sunday 6pm (6am BST)
Truth be told, this tie may well be as close as the Wales/Ireland tie. South Africa should have lost to Wales and struggled to beat Samoa, while Australia put away Italy but lost to Ireland. Both sides look as if they need to find their best 15 (and some form) fast. 

With a win apiece in their previous World Cup meetings (South Africa winning the opening game of the 1995 tournament, Australia winning a tense Semi final in 1999), this tie looks too close to call. I think Australia will somehow bag a result and face New Zealand in the second semi final. 

The key moment of this World Cup?
New Zealand V Argentina; Auckland: Sunday 8:30pm (8:30am BST)
New Zealand has gone through this tournament with ease, and should win this tie. Yet, it’s normally at this point the nerves start for the All Blacks. As if to ratchet up the tension further, the All Blacks have lost their virtuoso Fly-half Dan Carter (right) to injury. 

I think New Zealand will win, like they did in 1987 in their only other World Cup meeting. There’s plenty of time for the All Black hex to strike against Australia next week.