Bish's Briefs - Fabio and Traps are halfway to Euro 2012
Published: 09 Feb 2010 - 09:00:37
So was it a good draw? Or was it a bad draw? One thing is for sure - if England fail to make it to a second successive European Championship they will only have themselves to blame.
The obvious highlight for Fabio Capello's side is the chance to revive Home Nations animosities with two matches against John Toshack's Wales - games that will see two former Real Madrid managers go head-to-head.
The sides last met in qualification for the 2006 World Cup with England coming out on top, in two matches that were closely fought, particularly in Cardiff when a goal from Joe Cole was just enough for Sven Goran Eriksson's men who owed a debt of thanks to a superb display from Paul Robinson in goal.
A promising Welsh squad, whose best days lay further down the line, will do well to take anything in these two fixtures. It would be a huge surprise if Wales ended a wait to beat England that now stretches over quarter of a century.
England did well in being put alongside Switzerland from Pot 2, and thus avoiding far trickier trips to Serbia or the Czech Republic. The Swiss have reached the finals on three occasions and have an experienced and decorated coach in Ottmar Hitzfeld, but there still remains a lack of top-class talent in their line-up highlighted by them falling at the first hurdle on home soil in 2008.
Pulling Bulgaria out of Pot 3 meant that England avoided Scotland, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and now face a tricky trip to Sofia to take on the nation of Dimitar Berbatov. The Bulgarians should prove nothing to fear for England, although they contain a couple of maverick players in Berbatov and Manchester City's Martin Petrov who will no doubt be fired up to put one over several of their club colleagues.
The Bulgarians have only qualified for one of the last six major tournaments, but may fancy themselves to finish in second for a play-off place.
From Pot 5 England did not do so well when they were drawn with Montenegro - by far the most dangerous side in the pot - who only found themselves there as result of coming under the UEFA banner as recently as 2007, following the state's independence from Serbia. Since being recognised by FIFA they have mover 127 places up the world rankings to 72nd - by far the highest ranked side in Pot 5.
England should have more than enough to dispatch Montenegro, whose star man Marko Vucinic of Roma, a former Serbia international, has hit eight goals in 15 caps, but a trip to the intimate Podgorica City Stadium will never the less be tricky.
One thing that England will have to contest with is being in one of the three groups containing just five teams meaning there is less room for error - a couple of poor results could prove damaging but even then they would have the safety of a play-off place. As a former England manager said to me yesterday: "If they don't make it out of that group then they don't deserve to be at the finals".
SCOTLAND FACE TOUGH TASK
Elsewhere, Craig Levein faces a tricky start to his reign as Scotland manager after being paired with defending Champions Spain and the Czech Republic, who they have lost to on all three previous meetings.
Yet again, for the fourth successive time in European Championship Qualifying, they find themselves alongside Lithuania. Liechtenstein make up the group from Pot 5.
Levein claimed to be "thrilled" at the draw. Perhaps, he is "thrilled" at the prospect of no-one expecting Scotland to progress, ensuring safety in his job for a further two years. Expect another agonising campaign for Scotland, who may have to wait longer still to make their first appearance at a major tournament since 1998.
IRELAND HAVE NO EXCUSES
Giovanni Trapattoni's Republic of Ireland will be relatively pleased with their draw as they chase their first appearance at the finals since 1988 when a goal from Ray Houghton was enough to defeat England in the group stage.
They'll pick up plenty of air miles on trips to Russia, Slovakia, Macedonia and Armenia whilst they will also face Andorra - a game that should be staged in Barcelona due to the 1,800 capacity of their national stadium.
Russia were the weaker side in Pot 1 and with Guus Hiddink expected to leave his post as Head Coach upon the end of his contract in July the Irish should be happy to face them.
Their priority of the Irish should now be to arrange one of their fixtures against Russia early on in the campaign as the Russians negotiate a likely transitional period with the appointment of a new coach . How well they adopt to their new home at Aviva Stadium may be crucial to their progress - those tricky away fixtures put extra emphasis on their home games.
BAD LUCK OF THE NORTHERN IRISH
Northern Ireland were not so lucky and find themselves within a group containing more sides at this summer's World Cup Finals than any other - three, by way of Italy, Serbia and Slovenia.
Their performances in recent years, particularly under Lawrie Sanchez, when they rose 97 places in the world rankings, put them in the unfamiliar position of Pot 3 - unfortunately for them the draw has probably ensured that five years of improvement will not be rewarded this time around.
The toughest group looks like being Group A, where we will see a re-run of the 2008 semi-final between Germany and Turkey. Joachim Loew's side should demonstrate the stereotypical Germany efficiency in reaching what would be their 11th at the finals. No team has reached the finals as often as the Germans who have also appeared in six finals, winning three - both records.
The group is slightly weakened by Austria out of Pot 3 whose only appearance at the finals was courtesy of them joint-hosting the competition with Switzerland in 2008. However, Belgium in Pot 4, should add an extra edge.
Their star has been on the wane over the last decade but thanks to the Standard Liege whose youth system has garnered the talents of players such as Marouane Fellani and Axel Witsel and developed the talents of Steven Defour who signed for the club aged 18, the horizon looks prosperous. Add players such as Thomas Vermaelen and Wesley Sonck and they should ensure that Belgium's reputation is on the mend.
Their clash with Germany' will also evoke memories of their nation's finest footballing hour when they came runners-up to West Germany at Euro 1980 in Italy. They finished five points behind group rivals Turkey in qualification for the 2010 World Cup - the tables may turn this time around.
Many argue, and I am one of them, that it is harder to win the European Championships than the World Cup - that may change when the competition is diluted to 24 qualifiers for EURO 2016.
It would be a great shock if any of the top seeds, Spain, Germany, Holland, Italy, England, Croatia, Portugal, France or Russia did not make it through to the finals with the added insurance of the round of play-offs.
The gap between the seeded sides in Europe and those that make up Pots 3, 4 , 5 & 6 are, with the odd exception, significant. But history tells us that seeds do not always qualify and that nothing should be taken for granted. Remember Steve?
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