EURO qualifiers: It isn’t easy picking a winner

Germany may be the World Cup holders, but their recent appearances in the Euro qualifiers suggest that they may have passed their peak.

Gareth Bale of Wales celebrates with his country’s flag after his team qualified for the 2016 EURO by defeating Andorra 2-0 in Cardiff. Bale is convinced that Wales will do well in the tournament in France.   -  AP

Shane Long strikes for Republic of Ireland against Germany in the 2016 EURO qualifier in Dublin   -  REUTERS

Hard to predict or choose a favourite for the forthcoming European Championship Finals in France. The French themselves, under former captain Didier Deschamps, will benefit from home advantage, but as hosts, they have of course been limited to playing only friendlies, and results and even team selection have been somewhat contradictory. Does Deschamps really know what his best team will be? What in particular will he do with the talented attacker Antoine Griezmann?

Frustrated in France, obliged to seek success in Spain, Griezmann has ultimately found it. Last June Deschamps criticised him for his display in a 4-3 loss to Belgium, who themselves, though they twice failed in the qualifiers to beat Wales, have enough firepower to make a strong challenge. Since then he has come well on international form and flourished after an uneasy start at Atletico Madrid. But he is far happier tucked in behind centre striker Benzema than out on the right wing where Deschamps tends to use him. But a team, which has the flair and precocious power of Juve’s Paul Pogba in attacking midfield, surely has possibilities; even if the decision of winger Franck Ribery to retire from international football has been a serious blow. And what of the 58 million Anthony Martial?

Germany? World Cup holders they may be, but their recent appearances in the Euro qualifiers in Dublin, where they so sensationally lost 1-0, and at home to Georgia, where they won with unexpected difficulty, suggest that they may have passed their peak. It was surely significant that the Irish had beaten them in Dublin with such a straightforward goal. A hefty clearance by their substitute goalkeeper and the opportunism of Ireland’s Shane Long brought the Irish a sensational victory.

The feeble lament afterwards of Joachim Low, the much-applauded German manager, that the Irish had endlessly deployed the long ball was all too indicative of Germany’s problems. They weren’t kicked off the park. They did make and missed a great many chances, but they lost to the underdogs and for all the excellence of Muller, Ozil, Neuer, Kroos and the rest, this looks like a team in decline.

Both Irish teams surpassed themselves in the eliminators with the two O’Neill’s, Michael of Northern Ireland and the more celebrated Martin of the Republic, surpassing themselves in tactics and inspiration.

The Republic might well have qualified directly rather than being obliged to play off had they not been forced to play so soon in Poland after the massive physical efforts involved in seeing off the Germans.

England duly won all their qualifying games, the only major opponent in the group, the Swiss, who were beaten away in an important opening victory. If only Jack Wilshere could be fit for the finals, not to mention the striker Daniel Sturridge, I think England could give a decent account of themselves. Just how important Wilshere can be was dramatically shown near the end of last season when he moved upfield (where I believe he truly belongs) to strike fine goals with either foot to help England to a very narrow win in Slovenia. The return of 21-year-old John Stones to the defence, where Roy Hodgson must surely use him in that unconvincing centre, would make a large difference. His Everton team-mate, young Ross Barkley, deserves a regular midfield place. Hodgson should conquer his exaggerated fears of Barkley losing the ball, when he is such a talented and incisive attacker.

Gareth Bale, the refulgent star of a Welsh team that has become the first of its kind ever to qualify legitimately for an international tournament (remember, they only sneaked in through the backdoor to the Swedish World Cup of 1958, though they were by far the best of the four British teams when they got there) is convinced Wales will do well in France.

I am not so sure. Apart from Bale the only outstanding player in the side is Arsenal’s lively midfielder Aaron Ramsey. And while it is true that in Welsh teams of bygone years (though hardly in 1958, when there were several stars) obscure players have surpassed themselves in internationals, I don’t think it is likely to happen in France. No doubt, they held Belgium twice at bay in the qualifiers, and their defence, marshalled by central defender Williams of Swansea City, is one to be reckoned with, but they look distant outsiders to me.

No one outside Austria itself seems to be talking about their greatly impressive team and I wonder why. Once such a power in Europe, from the time of the so-called Wonder Team of the 1930s into the early 1950s when the dominating Ernst Ocwirk controlled the midfield, they have lapsed sadly since then. Yet now they have sailed through their qualifying group, dropping but a single point, with a formidable attacker in the 6-foot 4-inch 26-year-old Viannese Mario Arnautovic, who has made Stoke City’s attack something to be reckoned with, Note their formidable 4-1 conquest of Sweden, Ibrahimovic and all in Stockholm. Harnik scored twice from attacking midfield that day. Arnautovic, who played for 88 minutes, didn’t, for once, but beware of him.

In that qualifying group, the Russians limped home far behind Austria, though the Austrians beat them only 1-0 home and away. This isn’t an exciting Russian team but they do have a scoring striker in Dzyuba.

Spain are there. Holland, who thrashed them in their opening game of the last World Cup, have fallen pitifully by the wayside. The Spaniards held off the challenge of Slovakia — who beat them away but succumbed to them in the return — and still have enough talent in the team to make their mark in France. By that time they must hope that Cesc Fabregas will have recovered the form he seems to have lost at Chelsea, where the incisive but aggressive Diego Costa has been his usual contentious but sometimes elusive self. But De Gea is back in goal at Manchester United and Sergio Ramos has stayed at Real Madrid to marshal defence.

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