Europe in chaos

Fulham’s Alexander Kacaniklic (left) tore open the German defence playing for Sweden.-AP Fulham’s Alexander Kacaniklic (left) tore open the German defence playing for Sweden.

The recent batch of results from a batch of European World Cup qualifying group matches had the mind reeling, writes Brian Glanville.

It seems plainer than ever that nobody understands football; which may be seen as part of its allure or part of its perversity. The recent batch of results from a batch of European World Cup qualifying group matches had the mind reeling. Sweden, four goals down to Germany in Berlin with 62 minutes gone, rose from the ashes and scored four times themselves to achieve an astonishing draw. Spain, at home to France in Madrid, after a long, triumphant run of victories, could have been expected to cruise home against a French team which has been striving for consistency, yet scored a well merited, if very late injury-time equaliser through a striker who hasn’t been able to gain a regular place with Arsenal since he joined them expensively, last summer.

Northern Ireland, held embarrassingly to a draw in Belfast, against the mere minnows Luxemburg, would seem to have been lambs to the slaughter when they went to meet Portugal in Porto. A Portuguese team in which the prolific Cristiano Ronaldo was due to win his 100 {+t} {+h} cap and celebrated the occasion to clamorous applause before the kick-off. Whereupon the Ulstermen surpassed themselves, were as good or even better than their hosts, actually took the lead, and were limited to a draw by a somewhat scrappy goal scored by the home striker Postiga, a failure some years ago at Tottenham, but a frequent international scorer since his return home.

In waterlogged Warsaw, England were lucky to survive against a Poland team which surely would have beaten them had their outstanding and most dangerous attacker, Jakub Blaszczykowski only been fit to play.

Not least against an erratic Ashley Cole, who, quite evidently and seriously, missed his Chelsea centre back and captain, John Terry who as we know has voluntarily retired from international soccer, as a result of his indictment by the Football Association. Not only is Terry, whatever his racist outburst, still such a solid defender himself, despite an inevitable loss of pace with the years, but he is a huge influence on the defenders around him, both encouraging them and advising them on their positioning and decision making.

England, as we know, drew uncomfortably and unimpressively in Warsaw. But perhaps still more embarrassingly Germany, four goals up against a seemingly beaten Sweden in Berlin after 68 minutes, were sensationally held to a 4-4 draw. The star Swedish turn being the 21-year-old attacking midfielder, Alexander Kacaniklic, briefly at Liverpool, who came on as a substitute, galvanised his team and made two of the Swedish goals. The first of them being scored by, another player of anything but Swedish origins, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that talented but ever unpredictable maverick striker.

How surprising it was, four days later at Craven Cottage, when Fulham, involved in a largely tedious encounter with Aston Villa, should keep Kacaniklic on the substitutes’ bench throughout the match. But his effervescent display and the extraordinary recovery of the Swedish team at large makes you wonder about the qualities of a German defence which till then, had the reputation of powerful solidity. I sometime wonder about the huge experienced centre back Per Mertesacker, so formidable when in the air or coming to face the ball, in Arsenal’s current defence, but clearly less happy when he has to turn.

Another shock was Northern Ireland’s well deserved draw in Porto against a Portuguese team which seemed certain to walk all over them. Yet in the event, though the Portuguese applied most of the pressure it was the Irish who so nearly won. Portugal’s desperation to attack, thus leaving big gaps at the back, was cleverly exploited by Kyle Lafferty’s pass to Niall McGinn, who ran on coolly to score. But the Irish hero was the young Manchester United centre back, Jonny Evans, a towering figure in a defiant Irish defence.

France on the face of it had scant hope of success or even survival versus Spain in Madrid, a Spanish team which came off the back of 24 successive victories. And indeed it was only at the very end of injury time that the substitute, Olivier Giroud, who had been having an uneasy time of it with his new club, Arsenal, headed the equaliser. Yet it was wholly deserved since, by and large, France had been much the better team, with Spain saved time and again by the goalkeeping of Iker Casillas. In Warsaw we saw a strange selection by Roy Hodgson, a manager I have long known and admired and whom I would have been very happy to see take the England role as long ago as 1994 when he had so skilfully guided a previously un-fancied Swiss team to the World Cup finals in America.

Yet in Warsaw, sheer common sense seemed strangely to have deserted him. How could he have justified putting Tom Cleverly, essentially a central midfielder, out on the left flank, where he had neither the essential pace nor the elusive skills to be of any effect. Why replace him in midfield by his Manchester United colleague, Michael Carrick, whose recent displays for England had been no more than mediocre? Why not use Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a revelation this year with both Arsenal and England and a born attacker, on that left flank till far too late in the game? And it is legitimate to ask why Jermaine Defoe, who looked isolated and peripheral, as the solitary striker played when another Manchester United player, striker Danny Welbeck, had done so well at Wembley against Ukraine.

It looks at long last as if England like Arsenal will be able to use the constructive midfield talents of the precocious Jack Wilshere, out of action for more than a year. Arsene Wenger, his manager, insists it is wrong to place so much hope in him, but given the abysmal dearth of English playmakers, what else is there to do? In the hope, of course, that he will finally be free from all those crippling injuries.