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Saltire-ra?

Following an overdue victory at the latest World T20, how can Scotland use the experience to propel themselves towards a brighter future?

Nagpur, India, 12th March 2016. Scotland were playing Hong Kong in front of an almost empty stadium in the World T20. Both teams had already been eliminated from the tournament and rain had reduced Scotland’s run chase.

Scotland, donning bright pink shirts, required four to win from 13 balls with Sussex batsman, and part-time spinner, Matt Machan facing Hong Kong’s spinner Nadeem Ahmed. Machan, not wanting to hang around, placed his back knee on the crease, put his front foot forward and sent the ball over midwicket to end the match with a six.

For most of the world, it had nothing riding on it. For Scotland, that six was the shot that sealed their first ever victory at an ICC tournament. At the 20th attempt. All those involved with Cricket Scotland were delirious.

Machan came to the crease after Matthew Cross, Scotland’s wicket-keeper, was dismissed. Matthew made an important, brisk 22 that sent Scotland to the verge of victory: “I think the biggest feeling was relief that we had won our first World Cup game. I think it was a matter of when, not if, and we had deserved to win.”

Malcolm Cannon has been Scotland’s CEO for just over a year, hence that tournament was his first in the role. He recollects: “The tournament was a great learning curve and opportunity for Associate members.”

The tournament saw eight nations split into two groups of four, with one from each progressing to the next round, when the test nations joined. The early matches, those involving the Associates, were all played in less than a week.

The format meant that every run was crucial, every dropped catch fatal. In their second match, Scotland found themselves 20 for four. The pressure of the situation had told.

For Matthew, the experience brings back a mixture of emotions. He describes playing in India as “great”, but adds: “The only disappointing aspect was having won the original qualifying tournament [to get to India] to have to go through another qualifying group.”

Malcolm acknowledges this, but still sees the tournament as a success for his nation: “Scotland got themselves into winning positions in all three games and got over the line in only one – frustrating or not this is progress.”

At all major tournaments, Associate nations usually come in and leave with their heads held high. There are the occasional drubbings, but in most matches they provide more of a test than most people think they will.

In the 50-over edition, it is usually Ireland who produces the biggest splash – who can forget flame-haired Kevin O’Brien’s inspirational knock to dispatch England in Bangalore?

For T20, the traditional giant-killers have been Netherlands, but in 2016 it was the sport’s newest nation that picked up the mantra. Playing an aggressive, no fear form of cricket, Afghanistan won many friends as they toppled test nations Zimbabwe and eventual champions West Indies.

Eight runs. Two fours. For Netherlands, that was the difference between progression and an early flight home. Their captain, Peter Borren, gave an emotional press conference after the tournament, which included a plea for more opportunities. He went on to say: “There is a lot of money in cricket. [It’s] just not really being spent on expanding the game.”

More money would lead to more opportunities. But, with the money that Cricket Scotland receives, Malcolm has an idea about where he intends to spend it and how it will improve Scotland’s quality of cricket.

“We have a strategy, which we published in January this year, looking to grow the sport at grass roots level, growing the number of girls and women involved in the sport significantly and improving our world standing in both the men’s and women’s game.”

The strategy is focused very much on improving the stature of the sport within Scotland. Statistics on participation levels of sports played in Scotland are hard to come by, but a survey by SportScotland in 2008 found that only one per cent of 8-15-year-olds play cricket once a month. For girls of that age, that figure drops to 0.5 per cent.

While slightly out-dated, it proves there is a lot of work to be done to improve the profile of the sport. How does Malcolm intend to get more youngsters active?

“We are working with clubs and schools and recently won the Global Development Award from ICC for our schools and clubs programme. We are also raising the noise level around both men’s and women’s cricket through traditional and social media all the time.”

Their programme includes support to cricket clubs from professionals, and a scheme to improve local facilities. There is clearly a drive to recruit more grassroots cricketers.

Malcolm already believes they have some “very strong” prospects in the next generation, with his vision looking to provide a better structure through which to nurture Scottish talents.

At the professional level, Malcolm hints at the potential for expansion, but the desire to become a Test nation is never explicitly stated. And then, how easy is it to improve when you’re not reaping the rewards of being a full member?

Scotland’s status within the game is a consideration when setting future targets, however Malcolm doesn’t see it as a hindrance: “The ambitions, while a stretch, are achievable as they focus on realistic targets which are not attached to being a Test-playing nation, but more on developing our footprint on the global game through the greater amount of contextual cricket played at all levels in the shorter formats.”

And that vision has been handed a boost at the ICC conference in July, hosted by Cricket Scotland in Edinburgh. A revamp of the ODI structure was on the agenda, with a 13-team league over three years discussed. While Scotland aren’t guaranteed a slot in this, at least to begin with, it opens the potential for playing more regular matches, including away ones, against Test nations.

At this stage, Matthew thinks the idea has merit and that Scotland would “deserve to be there”. However, he adds: “It’s more a question of whether the big teams would co-operate.”

Edinburgh’s agenda also brought to the table the tantalising prospect of two divisions for Tests. Peter Borren could be grinding out a draw in the Caribbean, as Ireland blow Bangladesh away in overcast conditions during the first morning in Dublin. Scotland, initially at least, would be waiting in the wings for their chance to shine in white.

“The ICC has some very exciting plans to introduce more context to all three formats of the game, and we are wholly supportive of these ideas.” Malcolm tells me: “These proposals enable existing members to play more cricket and to be ‘promoted’ up the ranks while exposing existing full members to potential ‘relegation’.”

This new push for globalisation seems to have been a direct result of the failings of the World T20. Along with Peter Borren’s comments, Irish captain William Porterfield told a press conference: “It is a shame that the ICC at the top level insist on cutting teams … It doesn’t happen in any other sport. Every sport grows.” He went on to claim that Associates’ requests fall on deaf ears.

It’s a statement that Matthew agrees with, ruefully admitting Scotland play “nowhere near enough games against the top ten teams”.

However, just a few months after the World T20, Porterfield got his wish. Barring injury, he will become the first Irish captain in history to lead his nation out at Lords, as early as next summer.

What about Scotland then? Is a similar event on the horizon for them? If it is, Malcolm is keeping it secret.

“We work closely with the ECB on England and England A fixtures. We will be playing England in 2018 in Scotland.” He goes on to tease that the future tours programme “should offer all nations some exciting opportunities”.

This is important, as all the talk about growing the game at the grassroots level will be futile if the professional sides can’t get regular cricket. Fixtures are crucial, including regular playing time for their cricketers.

So, how many fixtures would Scotland play in an ideal world? Malcolm is unsure: “It’s still to be decided what the ideal amount of international cricket is – there are vast discrepancies even between full members.” The tone of his answer suggests that he feels Scotland could benefit from more.

In Nagpur, on Scotland’s fateful night, Matt Machan took a couple of wickets before hitting that winning six. He’s one of the few members of the side to turn out regularly for a county at grounds up and down England.

With a stint at Nottinghamshire behind him, Matthew is currently on Essex’s books. He was enthusiastic when I asked him if he would recommend the system to young Scottish players: “Playing against different and professional opposition every week improves you and brings different challenges.”

Malcolm is also a fan of the system: “We feel this is a good way for our players to get high-quality games and coaching in a well-tested structured environment.”

Matthew has felt the effects of the different coaching: “Training with Scotland is more specific to our certain roles within the team, whereas county training is a bit more relaxed and guys are usually given the freedom to train what they feel they need to.”

It’s quite clear to see how, with Matthew being an all-rounder, the two methods have been beneficial to him.

When pressed about how they will get more players through the system, Malcolm can’t see things changing much from how they are, stating: “We will work closely with counties over the coming years.”

Currently using the system to his advantage, Matthew has plans to play regular county cricket, aiding his attempts to help Scotland win more matches.

Currently, only ten nations play international cricket at the highest level. In a world with over 200 countries, the potential pool of recruitment for cricket is low. With the popularity, and global nature, of sports such as football continuing to grow, cricket is in real danger of being left behind.

With continued impressive performances on the international stage, and a renewed emphasis on equal opportunities from captains, this year feels groundbreaking for Associate nations.

The winner of the ICC Intercontinental Cup will play the lowest ranked Test team for the chance to become the 11th Test nation. It’s a carrot gladly gobbled up by nations hungry for the chance to progress. But it wasn’t enough. Edinburgh offered another light at the end of the tunnel; the wheels of revolution had begun to roll.

This year’s World T20 was initially a poisoned chalice for the Associates. They had next to no time to make their mark. At the time, the next World T20 wasn’t scheduled for another four years.

When Matt Machan hit that six over mid-wicket, the Scottish players went crazy on the bench. As Matthew explained, it was probably an outpouring of relief. But if any of them were thinking about their future, their country’s future, they might have considered one where that six was the last taste of major tournament cricket they would experience. Back then, it felt like a possibility.

Through moments like that, Borren and Porterfield and the reaction to the passion of the Associates, the ICC have announced the next World T20 will take place two years earlier than planned. They’ve even expanded it to allow more Associates the chance to impress.

Matthew wants to play in more World Cups, and the ICC finally look ready to commit.

Nagpur, India, early March, a half empty stadium. It wasn’t the most glamorous of settings. On the surface, it was proof that the Associates don’t bring in the crowds. Scratching underneath, however, reveals two countries locked in a battle of importance for eras to come.

Machan’s six altered the course of Scottish history, and potentially the Associates’ future.

It just might drive a generation of Scottish cricketers to an endgame where they don’t play to survive; they compete to thrive.

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Now Only The Play-Offs Remain

In Hope For The Home Nations? I analysed the chances of all the home nations had of qualifying for the European Championships in France next summer. I expanded upon that with Who Will We Be Watching This Time Next Year?, by not only isolating the home nations but overviewing the whole of Europe and how they are getting on. By the time Update: Euro 2016 qualifying came along there were only 2 matches left for each team and qualifying was getting closer. Now, as the title suggests, the group stage is finished – 20 qualifiers have been decided and only the play-offs remain.

Fifty-three nations entered the race to qualify for the Euros, ranging from Portugal in the west to Kazakhstan in the east. France qualified automatically as hosts, and have since been joined by the 9 winners and 9 runners-up of the group stage as well as the 1 best third placed side. The remaining 8 third placed sides have gone into the play-off draw.

I think my favourite aspect of this qualification campaign is the number of debutants that it has thrown up. Iceland were the first, and were then followed by Northern Ireland, Wales, Albania and Slovakia. You could reasonably add Austria to that list, as 2016 will be their second Euros but first they’ve successfully qualified for. I’m a huge fan of the underdog, and I can’t wait to see all of them grace our screens next summer.

Below is a list of all the qualifiers, what date they achieved it on and how many Euros they have competed at. The letters are merely referring to nations who used to compete under a different name (Czechoslovakia, USSR, West Germany) or bold print to indicate champions of that year and italics to indicate hosts.

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So, how did each group finish? From now, I will include a screenshot of each group as well as the final round of fixtures and a brief summary of how each team fared. I will finish with information on the sides who finished third.

Group A:
Qualifiers: Czech Republic, Iceland, Turkey

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I’ll discuss the elephant in the group in a minute, but it would be unfair on Iceland, Czech Republic and Turkey not to mention what a fantastic achievement it is for all of those teams to qualify first. Czech Republic have a rich footballing history however aren’t anywhere near the team they were a few years ago, and the same could be said on a lesser extent for Turkey. The Czechs reached the final in England 96, semi in Portugal 04, have qualified for every Euros since they gained independence but only one World Cup. Turkey finished third in the 2002 World Cup, reached the 08 Euros semi-final but that side has broken up and they haven’t qualified for anything since. It’s good to see them back.

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Iceland have even less football pedigree, and qualification for that small nation sent shockwaves across Europe. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, after all they reached the play-offs for the World Cup in Brazil and in Lars Lagerback have a very successful international manager. Even if it isn’t as surprising as we thought, it’s still a wonderful story. The best story from this group is definitely the Netherlands failing to qualify. And, if I may be so bold, I think that is absolutely fantastic! I’m fed up of the same teams qualifying all the time, the big teams always making the qualification system look easy and I’m so glad that the Netherlands have failed while Iceland and Turkey succeeded. Maybe we are gaining a competitive Europe? Or maybe not as Kazakhstan and Latvia only gained 5 points each! Turkey went through as the best third placed side thanks to Kazakhstan’s victory over Latvia in the last match.

Group B:
Qualifiers: Belgium, Wales
Play-offs: Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Unsurprisingly, Belgium, Wales and Bosnia are the three teams advancing from this group. The only real question before the stage started was which order Wales and Bosnia would finish it. In the end, Wales finished a comfortable 4 points above them and will compete at their first Euros. Belgium only lost once as their golden generation continued to make qualifying for major tournaments look easy. Hopefully they look better at the actual tournament now! Bosnia will have to settle with the play-offs.

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In fact, I make it sound easier than it was. Despite finishing 5 points behind Bosnia, Cyprus were very close to squeezing into the play-offs. At one point during the last set of matches, Israel were drawing 0-0 with Belgium and Cyprus were beating Bosnia. If Cyprus had held on as Israel lost, then it would be Cyprus rather than Bosnia in the play-offs. What a story that would have been! While Cyprus excelled, it was the same old story for Andorra, who once again failed to pick up a point.

Group C:
Qualifiers: Spain, Slovakia
Play-offs: Ukraine

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After 6 matches, Slovakia were top of this group, with a 100% record. They wouldn’t win again until the final match, which ended up being a must win against Luxembourg. Even then, following a shock home defeat to Belarus at the weekend, they weren’t able to seal qualification easily, almost letting a 3 goal lead slip. However, Marek Hamsik kept his cool to guarantee qualification with a 91st minute consolidator. They will be competing at their first ever European Championship this summer.

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There was no surprise that they were joined by Spain, who looked in ominous form as they comfortably navigated a potentially difficult group. Ukraine never seem to do well in play-offs, so their fans won’t be looking forward to those two matches! In the rest of the group, there were promising signs for Luxembourg and Belarus, while Macedonia appear to have gone backwards from where they were a few years ago.

Group D:
Qualifiers: Germany, Poland
Play-offs: Republic of Ireland

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This was actually a more enjoyable group than most assumed it would be when it was drawn. At that point, everyone assumed it was going to be a 3-way battle for the second automatic qualification spot however it ended up being a genuine 4-team assault on the top spot. Germany sealed qualification as group winners eventually, but it wasn’t before they dropped points home and away to Ireland, lost in Poland and very nearly drew with Georgia in Leipzig.

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Going into the final two matches, Scotland needed to win both to scrape into play-off contention. Up until the last kick of their first match against Poland, they were on course to do exactly that (although Ireland’s shock win over Germany wasn’t helping anything). That pain then passed onto Ireland, who had all of a half to score a goal against Poland yet they couldn’t manage it and so now have to rely on the lottery of the play-offs to book their place in France. No points and a goal difference of -54 is nothing to be pleased about however Gibraltar’s first qualification campaign has been completed without many mishaps. Georgia looked good in patches, but lacked the quality needed to permanently trouble the top 4.

Group E:
Qualifiers: England, Switzerland
Play-offs: Slovenia

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While the qualifiers from this group are no surprise, the ease with which England managed it will raise an eyebrow or two across the continent. The only team to complete qualification with a 100% record is something to be proud of, despite the level of the opposition. While this qualification was essentially sealed in Switzerland on the 8th September 2014, the 3 Lions still needed to finish the job, which they did with 9 more impressive victories. The most encouraging stat from this campaign is the lack of goals conceded, 3 in total of which 2 occurred in one match.

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Switzerland were always favourites to go through with England, although it took them until the penultimate round of matches to confirm it. That was mainly due to Slovenia’s impressive form throughout, who pressed Switzerland all the way and only stumbled with a disappointing home draw with Lithuania on the 9th October 2015. Given Switzerland only just beat Estonia (94th minute winner), should Slovenia have managed to hold on against Lithuania there would have been a nervy few minutes for Switzerland in Tallinn. Neither Estonia nor Lithuania looked out of their depth, and San Marino both scored a goal and picked up a point, which will please them no end.

Group F:
Qualifiers: Northern Ireland, Romania
Play-offs: Hungary

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I’ve been very critical of this group in the past, however I’m truly delighted to see Northern Ireland top it and qualify for their first ever European Championships. This is a qualification few, myself included, thought impossible a few years ago. Back then, they were guaranteed to have a tough group and not challenge anyone except for the odd night at Windsor Park. This time, they made the most of the easy group they were drawn in and will gain a ranking boost from an appearance in a major tournament, hopefully making qualifying for another one easier in the future. Even if they don’t, it will be great to see them participating at at least one in my lifetime.

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Romania have a relatively successful record in qualifying for major tournaments since the 1990’s, and they’ve qualified again. Hungary were looking like qualifying through being the best third placed team until the events in Group A unfolded so will have to settle for a play-off spot. Finland and Faroe Islands will be pleased with their respective campaigns, whereas Greece will be bitterly disappointed. 12 years ago they were conquering Europe, now they are finishing bottom of a group containing the likes of the Faroes!

Group G:
Qualifiers: Austria, Russia
Play-offs: Sweden

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When Austria co-hosted the Euro’s in 2008, few thought they would be gracing the 2016 edition. Congratulations to them, for it’s the first European Championship they have successfully qualified for, and they did it in some style! A group containing Russia and Sweden as well as the dangerous Montenegro was never going to be easy and yet they blew the opposition away and finished unbeaten.

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Sweden went into the final two games knowing they needed to win both and hoping Russia slipped up. The Swedes did their side of the bargain, but unfortunately for them, Russia didn’t. Russia deserve to qualify while Ibrahimovic and co will be dangerous opponents for anyone in the play-offs. Montenegro continue their tags as the nearly men of European football – never quite doing enough to qualify but always having a chance going into the final few matches. Moldova and Liechtenstein were always going to be the whipping boys, and that proved to be true.

Group H:
Qualifiers: Italy, Croatia
Play-offs: Norway

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While it’s no surprise that Italy and Croatia qualified, Norway were very close to spoiling their party. In fact, Norway have valid grounds for disgruntlement given that Croatia were deducted one point for racist behaviour – a number which seems strangely low. But none of that matters, what’s done is done and Norway will have to fight through the play-offs. This group was a three-way race almost from the moment it started, with Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta not doing much other than making up the numbers.

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Italy continued their impressive record of qualifying for major tournaments with an unbeaten campaign and will go into France next summer as, rightly, one of the favourites. Croatia have a seriously impressive qualification record for Euro’s – only failing to reach one (in 2000) but a modest tournament record, with only two quarter final appearances. They’ll feel next summer is a chance to change that.

The a in this group is a reference to a note about Croatia’s racism punishment. 

Group I:
Qualifiers: Portugal, Albania
Play-offs: Denmark

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I made a horrendous call on this group back in June, when I said that the group was all but wrapped up with Portugal and Denmark qualifying. Obviously, that has proven to be incorrect! Denmark’s despair is Albania’s delight, who are another side making their European Championship debut in France. In fact, for the Albanian’s, it’s their first appearance at any international tournament. How wonderful it is that we will be seeing so many sides for the first time at major tournaments in one summer.

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Portugal were always going to qualify from this group, despite losing their first match at home to the aforementioned Albania. They won every match following that, and with a strong side will be amongst the favourites in France. Denmark have a decent side, but with so many good sides entering the play-offs, they might find it a step too far. This was a group marred by crowd trouble and so UEFA will no doubt be glad to see it finished. Serbia and Armenia exit without 10 points between them.

For the a in this group, see notes on Who will we be watching this time next year

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The Third Placed Sides:

Below is a table that shows why Turkey gained automatic qualification for the finals while the other 8 have to go through the play-off system. The way this table is calculated is the results against sides placed 1st,2nd,4th and 5th in the group, ignoring results against the 6th in groups A – H. That becomes crucial when examining why Turkey went through instead of Hungary. Turkey had 2 draws against Latvia, but 2 wins against Kazakhstan meaning if the former finished 6th their third placed record would be four points lighter (and 6/7 if they hadn’t beaten Iceland in their last match). Kazakhstan’s victory over Latvia in their last match meant Hungary would have to take part in the play-offs.

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All that leaves us with is the final round of qualifying, the dreaded play-offs. The remaining 8 sides have been split into two groups of four based upon their UEFA coefficient. Seeded are Bosnia, Ukraine, Sweden and Hungary and, on the 18th October, each will be drawn against one of Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Slovenia. They will then play a two-legged tie in November to decide the remaining four places in France.

Keep an eye on this blog for that, and then the draw, which will take place on the 12th December.


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Update: Euro 2016 qualifying

On June 18th, I put together an article concerning the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying tournament, the results from the matches so far and what I thought would happen in the remaining games. I planned to re-visit it when qualifying was finished to give you the final tables, who’s qualified, who hasn’t and who needs the play-offs, which I will do, however it deserves another update now.

Of the 9 groups, 8 have 6 teams and 1 has 5. The majority of the sides have played two games over the last week and have 2 remaining to play next month (the exception is obviously the five team group). When we last saw the tables, only France, as hosts, had qualified. Now, however, a few more nations have joined them and it’s impressive because some of them are nations you don’t particularly associate with major finals.

So, this article will detail the results from this week as well as outline fixtures and potential scenarios going into the final round of qualifying. As a reminder, the top 2 countries will qualify automatically for the finals, with the 3rd being classified by amount of points won against the top 5 clubs in their group. The best of these will qualify for France, the remaining 8 will go into the play-offs to decide the final 4 places. Finishing 4th, 5th or 6th means you have no chance of playing in France.

Group A:

In June, Iceland were top with Czech Republic second and Netherlands in third. Turkey, Latvia and Kazakhstan followed in that order. Nothing had been decided except that Kazakhstan couldn’t finish in the top 2 positions of the group.

As it stands: Iceland, Czech Republic, Turkey, Netherlands, Latvia, Kazakhstan

The upshot of those results is that Iceland have qualified for their first ever major tournament and Czech Republic have joined them. Netherlands remain on 10 points and have been overtaken by Turkey for third spot. Latvia and Kazakhstan have both been eliminated and can no longer qualify.

Turkey are on 12 points, Netherlands, as I said above, are on 10. Due to the 3-0 victory in Konya, should they finish level on points then Turkey would finish 3rd ahead of the Netherlands. With everything else decided, the scenarios for this group is simple. Netherlands need to finish with more points than Turkey.

On paper, and given how the group has unfolded, it looks more likely that Netherlands will finish 3rd. Turkey have to play both the qualified groups from the division whereas Netherlands have a seemingly easier trip to Kazakhstan. However, Netherlands are making a royal mess of this group and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them continue that.

Group B:

Very much like group A, all that had been decided in June was that Andorra, the 6th placed side in group B, couldn’t finish in the top 2 positions. World-Cup debutants in 2014 Bosnia were struggling in 5th, behind Cyprus and Israel in 4th and 3rd respectfully. Those 3 were separated by only a point, and were 2 behind Belgium in 2nd and 4 behind Wales in 1st.

As it stands: Wales, Belgium, Israel, Bosnia, Cyprus, Andorra

Wales and Belgium are now both guaranteed a finish inside the top 3 (meaning at least one will automatically qualify). Only Israel, in 3rd, can now spoil their party. The best Bosnia and Cyprus can hope for is 3rd place, while with 8 losses and -27 goal difference, it is no surprise that Andorra won’t be hopping over the border to France next summer.

Wales, 5 points ahead of Israel, only need a win to guarantee qualification although could do it with a draw should Israel lose at home to Cyprus. Despite not being guaranteed, given that both Belgium and Wales play win-less Andorra, they should sew up first and second. All that remains to be seen is in what order they do it!

Cyprus are four points behind Israel so need to win when they visit Jerusalem. Any other result will mean they can’t finish 3rd, leaving only Bosnia and Israel. I can’t really call this group. Bosnia have two winnable games however Wales still need to guarantee qualification so won’t roll over in Zenica. It looks like Israel need to beat Cyprus, heading to Belgium for the final round won’t be easy.

Group C:

Following June’s matches, Slovakia were top with a 100% record over the 6 games and were already guaranteed of at least 3rd place. Spain were 3 points behind in 2nd, 3 ahead of Ukraine in 3rd. Belarus were 8 points behind in 4th, 1 point ahead of Macedonia. Luxembourg could only hope for 3rd although that looked unlikely as they propped up the group with 1 point.

As it stands: Spain, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Luxembourg, Macedonia

Slovakia have stalled, only collecting one more point since we last saw the group and have been overtaken by Spain for first. Luxembourg’s win over Macedonia, combined with Ukraine’s over Belarus, eliminated the 3 teams lagging behind in this group. Ukraine, Slovakia and Spain will all finish in the top 3 places – the only questions are in which order and who will be going to France automatically.

Spain need a win to qualify and will almost definitely do that on the 9th with an easy match against Luxembourg. Slovakia remain 3 points ahead of Ukraine and will hope to remain that way going into the final fixtures where they unquestionably have the easier match. Slovakia should finish 2nd, Ukraine 3rd however Luxembourg have already shown themselves not to be push-overs.

Group D:

Gibraltar sat bottom with 0 points in June with only a vague hope of reaching 3rd spot. Georgia were teetering close to elimination with only 3 points and it was a four-horse race between Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Germany and Poland. Ireland were the side missing out in June, residing in 3rd place. It’s all changed…

As it stands: Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Georgia, Gibraltar 

Germany are now guaranteed at least 3rd spot, Poland and Ireland could still finish anywhere from 1st to 4th while the best Scotland can hope for is 3rd spot. Despite a magnificent win over the Scots, Georgia have been eliminated. They have been joined by Gibraltar, who have a goal difference of -44.

Ireland could, and arguably need to, halt the German qualification party in Dublin on the 8th. Scotland absolutely need to beat Poland, and have to hope that Ireland don’t beat Germany. Should the Irish beat the Germans, the group will be decided in all but exact placing. As a side note, should Ireland and Scotland both win in those first fixtures, then Germany will be on 19 points, Ireland 18 and Poland 17.

Germany should seal qualification at the latest on the 11th, while Poland have a home match v Ireland to guarantee theirs. From a British perspective, the best we can hope for is Germany beating Ireland, Ireland beating Poland and Scotland winning both their matches. That would see Germany finishing top, Ireland second and Scotland third due to their victory over Poland.

Group E:

England were the second team to have a 100% record from 6 matches and were on the brink of qualification. No team was out and all could finish in the top 2 but San Marino in last with 1 point looked a little adrift. From the bottom up, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Switzerland were all in with a chance of qualification – indeed, only 6 points separated them.

As it stands: England, Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino

England sealed qualification and kept their 100% record alive, with the added bonus of seeing Wayne Rooney become their leading goal-scorer of all time thanks to two penalties. San Marino are now out (although at least they finally scored a goal!), and Lithuania’s only hope of qualification is finishing in 3rd. Estonia are 5 points adrift of 2nd, which Switzerland retain thanks to a very late comeback against Slovenia.

It looks like 3 home wins on the 9th October, which would eliminate both Lithuania and Estonia. Slovenia and Switzerland have an equal goal difference played in matches between them and so if Slovenia beat San Marino and Switzerland lose to Estonia then Slovenia will finish in 2nd. This is due to the fact they scored 2 goals in Switzerland and kept a clean sheet when hosting them.

Group F:

Euro 2004 winners Greece were rooted to the bottom of group F in June. As I said at the time, the group made no sense. Faroe Islands were in 4th, Finland 5th with Hungary, Northern Ireland and Romania leading the group. For those who know football in the 21st century, this came as a massive shock.

As it stands: Northern Ireland, Romania, Hungary, Finland, Faroe Islands, Greece

Northern Ireland would have qualified with victory over Hungary, however the last minute equaliser at least kept them top of the group. Hungary’s 2 draws have kept them in with a chance of finishing in the top 2, whereas Romania’s 2 0-0 draws have stalled their progress. The Faroes and Greece have been eliminated, with Finland being the only other team who can qualify.

N.Ireland are four points ahead of Hungary in 3rd, meaning they need a win to qualify. They should get that with their remaining fixtures (hopefully!), That being said, Hungary and Romania also have fairly easy matches so will all fancy their chances. This crazy group is going right down to the wire.

Group G:

In June, nothing was decided in group G. All 6 teams could finish in any position, although Austria led the way, followed by Sweden and Russia. Montenegro and Liechtenstein were 3 points behind Russia, Moldova were bottom with 2 points.

As it stands: Austria, Russia, Sweden, Montenegro, Liechtenstein, Moldova 

The situation now is that Austria have qualified and Russia have a 2 point cushion in second. Sweden and Montenegro are fighting for 2nd and 3rd with Russia. Liechtenstein and Moldova have been eliminated.

How this group finishes will depend on whether Austria take their foot off the pedal. Montenegro will be hoping so as they have to play them and travel to Russia. The Russians and Sweden have two winnable matches and so it’s perceivable that the table will finish exactly as it is now, i.e. Austria, Russia, Sweden.

Group H:

Once again, in June no-one was eliminated, qualified, or so far adrift they could only finish 3rd from group H. With one point in last and 4 in fifth, it was unlikely that Malta and Azerbaijan would qualify. At that point, Bulgaria in fourth were only 2 points away from 3rd place Norway. Italy and Croatia were 1st and 2nd, as expected.

As it stands: Italy, Norway, Croatia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta

Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta have now all been eliminated, meaning Italy, Norway and Croatia are fighting it out for the top 3 places. However, that situation could change if Croatia lose their appeal against a points deduction for racist behaviour at their match against Italy. Should that appeal be unsuccessful, they will lose a point – allowing Bulgaria the chance to qualify. With two wins, Norway have sprung into second place.

Croatia, at the moment, are only one point behind Norway and have the easier matches so you would expect them to pip Norway to second place. However, any slip up against Bulgaria (who may have the added incentive of being back in contention) and it will almost certainly be the play-offs for a side we are so used to seeing at major tournaments. Norway haven’t qualified for one since 2000. I, for one, am hoping they succeed.

Group I:

The five team group containing Armenia, Albania, Denmark, Portugal and Serbia was already almost completed in June. Serbia and Armenia were on 1 point each and could only hope for a third place position while Portugal could not finish any lower than 3rd. Denmark and Albania, in 2nd and 3rd, were 9 and 7 points ahead of Serbia and Armenia respectfully.

As it stands: Portugal, Denmark, Albania, Serbia, Armenia

As mentioned in the last post, crowd tensions between Serbia and Albania meant that Serbia were awarded the win but deducted 3 points however this was overturned by the court of arbitration for sport and the win was instead awarded to Albania. So now, Albania gained 3 points for the win but Serbia were still deducted 3 points, meaning their victory over Armenia didn’t count for anything. As a result, Albania are now only 1 point behind Denmark. All in all, Serbia and Armenia have been eliminated with Portugal, Denmark and Albania fighting for the top 3 places.

Denmark look in trouble with their remaining match being Portugal away. Albania play both the eliminated sides and so now look in a good position to qualify, however anything can happen in football.

Overall

Euro 2016 is starting to take shape with France, England, Austria, Czech Republic and Iceland already qualified. Some big names like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Germany will surely join them soon however other big names like Netherlands are in serious trouble. This could be a European Championships with many different teams to usual, and that I see as only a good thing.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the British sides. England are through, Wales are all but, Northern Ireland have a great chance and Scotland have an outside one. There is still potential for Britain to be represented by all corners at next years tournament. Another area to keep an eye on is the Scandinavian countries. Iceland are already there, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and even Finland still have a chance.

I’ll return with the finished groups following the final matches in October, as well as having a look towards the play-offs as we’ll know then who the best third placed sides are.


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Who will we be watching this time next year?

UEFA Euro 2016, being held in France, is under a year away now, and the qualifying tournament has started to heat up. A few months ago I wrote an article suggesting that it might be the first tournament to feature all the home nation sides since 1950. It was always my intention to keep you up to date with how all are doing, however I’ve decided to extend that to include updates on how all the sides are doing. The reason for this is because there are a number of fascinating qualification stories which do not always directly involve a nation in the British Isles. International football doesn’t always attract the attention that domestic football does however I think you’ll agree with me that this qualifying tournament is the definition of intriguing.

In theory, the qualification process should be simple. There are 53 teams competing in it, split into 8 groups of 6 and 1 of 5. The Euro’s used to be contested between 16 teams however UEFA have increased it to 24 for 2016 meaning that the top 2 from each of the 9 groups will qualify along with the best third placed side and the remaining 4 spots decided by play-offs between the other 3rd placers. France have qualified automatically as hosts. Simple right? Yes, however there are a few little complications. For a start, given the odd number of teams competing the third place ranking isn’t as simple as who has the most points. It’s the most points against every team except who finishes sixth, which means that we won’t have an idea who the best third placed side is until the qualifying finishes. Secondly, UEFA’s out-dated coefficient ranking system has thrown up some really hard groups (ie Group B) and some really easy ones (ie Group F). Finally, the problem of recent tournaments has been lack of competitive matches for hosts so UEFA have stuck France in Group I with their matches being no more than friendlies organised against the 5 teams in that group.

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Europe were represented by Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Switzerland. Most of these were expected to qualify for France, and while they still all might you will see that some are making it harder than it needs to be. This qualification process has been the most unpredictable I can remember for a long time and we could see some new names at a major international tournament, which is great for everyone concerned. Having said that, UEFA qualification processes can seem unpredictable before the big nations pull it back and qualify easily so we’ll see what happens.

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To date, 6 games have been played with 4 remaining in the first 8 groups. For Group I, it’s 5 played with 3 left (except for Albania). These matches will be played in September and October later this year, and by 17th November (when the play-offs finish) we will have the completed line up. In the tables, a bracketed Y means that team can’t qualify automatically but might make the play-offs while an X means they are guaranteed at least a play-off spot.

Group A:

How it stands: Iceland, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Turkey, Latvia, Kazakhstan

On paper, this group seemed fairly straightforward. Netherlands would win easily; Czech Republic would be second and leave Iceland/Turkey fighting out for third place. Following the first set of matches, that theory was already looked wrong. Czech Republic beat Holland and Iceland thrashed Turkey 3-0. Since then, Iceland have only lost once (away to Czech Republic) and deservedly lead the group. Netherlands appear to be struggling, but will take heart from the fact they entertain both Iceland and Czech Republic at home as well as travelling to Kazakhstan and Turkey. Assuming they get a maximum 12 points from those, they will easily win the group.

With no disrespect to Czech Republic, I hope Iceland hold onto second place. Most will be surprised to see Iceland at a major international tournament however it’s been coming for a little while. They qualified for the 2011 U21 euros, missed out on away goals this year and reached the play-offs for the 2014 senior World Cup. They are a relatively young side on the rise and it’ll be nice to see that rewarded with a spot in France.

Group B:

As it stands: Belgium, Wales, Israel, Cyprus, Bosnia, Andorra

I wouldn’t go as far as saying Bosnia were expected to qualify from a group boasting Belgium, Wales and the dangerous Israel however few expected them to sit one place away from the bottom of the table. The writing appeared on the wall as early as the first match when they lost at home to Cyprus. Draws with Belgium and Wales were respectable, but a 3-0 loss in Haifa damaged their campaign. Hope was provided by a 3-1 victory in the return fixture over Israel. Unfortunately, they have to travel to Belgium and Cyprus, as well as hosting the in-form Wales. Third is probably the best they can hope for.

Wales and Belgium look likely to get to France now. They’ve played each other twice already (1 draw, 1 Welsh victory) and so both have favourable fixtures remaining. With the quality in both of their midfields, it would be a huge shock to see them choke, although you can never rule out a Welsh collapse. Both of them add a lot to world football and so neutrals will be hoping they can qualify. If Bosnia continue to falter, Israel or Cyprus could find themselves with at least a play-off spot.

Group C:

As it stands: Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine, Macedonia, Belarus, Luxembourg

Before any of the matches kicked off, Group C seemed to be incredibly open to me. Assuming Spain would win the group, any 2 of Slovakia, Ukraine and Belarus could have realistically claimed 2nd and 3rd while Macedonia can always produce a shock at their ground. What’s happened is that the other 3 sides have blown Belarus and Macedonia away. Slovakia have been outstanding, winning all 6 of their matches and will finish in the top 3. Even though they might concede top spot to Spain when they travel there, Ukraine and Belarus at home and Luxembourg away means they should still qualify.

Ukraine look set to at least feature in the play-offs with a third place finish. They’ve already played Luxembourg (who will almost certainly finish sixth) twice and hence these next four games are crucial for them to push them into the best third place slot and qualify without the play-offs. Ukrainian fans have bad memories of play-offs and I’m sure they won’t want another one.

Group D:

As it stands: Poland, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, Georgia, Gibraltar

One of the toughest groups to call who would come in second, it’s also the group to feature a UEFA debutant, in Gibraltar who have sadly lost all their 6 matches. For me, Group D is possibly the most fascinating of the lot of them. Poland currently lead the group, from Germany, but they could realistically finish as low as fourth. All of Poland, Germany, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland remain competitive, although Ireland’s hopes are fading. Poland travel to Germany and Scotland, in amongst hosting Gibraltar and Ireland. If we assume they’ll beat Gibraltar and lose to Germany, the other two fixtures are huge.

Scotland will be feeling relatively positive about their chances to progress. In their last four matches, they get to play Gibraltar and Georgia as well as hosting Poland and Germany. Two easier fixtures away from home and two harder with home advantage – that’s probably the run in you want! Ireland play the same sides, but have to travel to Poland and can’t really afford to lose to Germany whereas Poland and Scotland can.

Group E:

As it stands: England, Slovenia, Switzerland, Estonia, Lithuania, San Marino

E is for England. It’s been a perfect start to the qualifying campaign for England, banishing the demons of the World Cup and looking to start a new era with exciting players and positive play. That being said, it’s important not to get carried away as besides trips to Switzerland and Slovenia (both games we’ve already won) this group really is lacking in quality. Given the two harder games are out of the way, England should make it a perfect 10. E is also for Estonia, who would probably be in the top 2 if they were consistent. Beating Slovenia in the first match, they then gave San Marino their point by not being able to find a way past the San Marino defence. Trips to England and Switzerland to come means they’ve missed their chance.

Switzerland and Slovenia will probably finish in 2nd and 3rd respectively, as they are placed at this stage, however it would be wrong to rule out the Baltic States. Lithuania could sneak into the play-off spots, as they have the fixtures to be able to shape their own qualification. Traveling to Estonia and Slovenia, results there and a presumed three points at home to San Marino could mean that by the time they host England they’ll be guaranteed 3rd.

Group F:

As it stands: Romania, Northern Ireland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece

I keep staring at Group F and thinking it’ll all make sense eventually, but it never seems to get any clearer. Firstly, how on earth did these six teams get placed together? Only one of them has qualified for a major tournament in this millennium, with two never appearing at one. Secondly, the highest seeds, Greece, remain rooted to the foot of the table and have lost all their matches played at home. They could still qualify, but it would take something remarkable from here and rather than getting better, at the moment it’s just getting worse. Last week they lost to the Faroe Islands, the Island nation’s second win in this group (with the first coming in Greece). The Greeks are in dire straights.

Northern Ireland are in dreamland. With Romania now out of the way, trips to the Faroes and Finland with hosting Greece and the crunch match against Hungary, there is genuine and deserved optimism that N.Ireland could book their place in France. Romania should win the group from here, but beyond that the group is difficult to call. The order probably won’t change much from what it is now, although we would all love the Faroes to sneak into the play-offs! Given what’s happened already, you wouldn’t bet against it.

Group G:

As it stands: Austria, Sweden, Russia, Montenegro, Liechtenstein, Moldova

Group G highlights the lack of depth in quality in European football. Sweden have international pedigree but have failed to replace the golden side of the early 2000’s, Russia are a growing force however lack the quality of other fringe European sides (Bosnia, Wales, Poland etc), Austria have only qualified for a major tournament recently because they hosted it and the other 3 have never made it as independent countries.

In terms of the group, it’s a surprise to see Austria leading Sweden and Russia. They might well stay top for they have relatively easy fixtures remaining, aside from the visit to Sweden. Which of Russia or Sweden takes the second place could be determined as early as the next round when Russia host the Swedes. Russia will be grateful to have 8 points; it could quite easily be 6 as they got given a 3-0 victory over Montenegro following crowd trouble, which got stopped when they tied at 0-0. Those extra 2 points could be crucial in overtaking Sweden, as the Scandinavian country have the harder run in.

Group H:

As it stands: Croatia, Italy, Norway, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Malta 

The difference between Groups F and G compared to Group H highlight exactly why the coefficient system is out of date. The biggest teams in those groups were Greece and Russia, neither of which have the quality (and pedigree) that Croatia and Italy boast and yet both of the latter are in the same group. Italy, in second, only have a 2 point cushion between them and Norway, and a 4 point one to Bulgaria and will play both of them in the run-in (in Italy). With 3 home games out of 4, Italy will fancy their chances of winning the group.

Croatia’s run-in is considerably harder than Italy’s, so it’s good for them that they’ve laid the groundwork and have a four-point cushion in the automatic qualification spots. They have to travel to Azerbaijan and Norway, hosting Bulgaria in between. A nice trip to dead weights Malta will round off their campaign, although it might be too late. Watch out for Norway, their fixtures (Bulgaria (A), Croatia (H), Malta (H), Italy (A)) will either mean they fall away or secure qualification, essentially they won’t be relying on other results.

Group I:

As it stands: Portugal, Denmark, Albania, Serbia, Armenia

Group I is the last group, the only one with 5 sides and the easiest to predict. Portugal and Denmark will qualify automatically, with Albania contesting the play-offs (or having an outside chance of best third place). Albania have four matches left, starting with 2 against Denmark and Portugal but ending with easier fixtures against the sides with only 1 point from 5 games. While qualification is far from assured, the gulf in class between Denmark and Portugal and the rest will be too much and they will qualify in style.

In fact, the most interesting (and upsetting) aspect from Group I was the match between Serbia and Albania in Serbia. Political tensions run high in the two countries, and violence had been expected. The match was stopped twice, and eventually abandoned before the half time whistle. Following this, a pro-Albanian flag on a drone was flown across the stadium and the Serbian fans reacted by invading the pitch and attacking the Albanian players. UEFA awarded the match as a 3-0 Serbian victory before docking them 3 points and forcing them to play their next 2 home matches behind closed doors, essentially making the result mute. For more information, visit this page. From that, it seems ridiculous that UEFA allowed them to be drawn in the same group.

Overall:

With 4 games left for most teams, the qualification tournament is entering the home straight. Some established footballing nations, such as Netherlands, Russia and especially Greece, have work to do to secure their place in France. Only two sides have a 100% record left, England and Slovakia, with Wales, Poland, Romania, Austria, Croatia and Italy all unbeaten. There is a genuine chance of having more than one side at next years Championships who have never qualified before, I for one sincerely hope that this materialises. The next matches take place in September, with the groups finishing in October. Following those matches, I will produce another article with the finished tables and preview the play-offs.


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New World Champions or same old, same old?

The 11th edition of the cricket world cup is about to start, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately for English cricket fans, it will be difficult to watch much of it. The nature of 50 over cricket and time zones of the different continents mean the matches are starting late at night and finishing early in the morning or starting early in the morning and finishing around mid-day. Unlike the last world cup, it won’t be possible to watch all the matches as some start at the same time. That being said, the competition is always worth following and hence I shall attempt to predict all the results of the matches. I should mention that I’m notoriously bad at predictions and wouldn’t take my word for it should you wish to use my tips for bets!

However, this tournament may well be one of the easiest to predict for a long time. For years now, the ICC has failed to get the format correct for the primary world competition in cricket. There are too many matches in the pool, and it is easy to predict who will get through. Shocks rarely occur in 50 over cricket (although don’t mention that to the England attack that got pummelled by Kevin O’Brien) so many see the world cup as a foregone conclusion and take no interest in the group stage.

What exactly is the format? The field is made up of the 10 test playing nations along with 4 associate nations. These nations qualified through the cricket league championship of 2011-13 (top 2 – unsurprisingly Ireland and Afghanistan) while the other 2 come through the qualifier of the sides outside of the top 2 in the cricket league and the best sides in division 3 (test sides are classed as div 1, the world cricket league div 2). The winners of this qualifier were Scotland and UAE. There are 2 pools of 7 with the top 4 coming through both and playing a standard knockout competition. The purpose of the format is so every team can play at least 6 matches, which is admirable yet flawed. Unfortunately, as we’ll see later, the drawing of the pools has left the 8 qualifiers in almost no doubt and so the tournament will come down to which of those can put together a run of 3 wins on the bounce.

I can’t criticise without suggesting a better format so here is my idea. If you want 14 teams then have the 4 associate nations play a mini-group before the tournament to see which 2 sides progress. Then, with the 12 remaining sides separate them into 4 groups of 3 (or 3 groups of 4 – more complicated but more matches and so a fairer result). With 4 groups of 3, it is simply the top 2 who make it through to the quarter finals, 3 groups of 4 would be the top 2 plus the 2 best 3rd placed sides. To draw the groups, you could use a seeding system based upon the world rankings of the sides. Every side will play at least 2 or 3 matches, the associate sides will play more and have a chance to win matches on the biggest stage plus there is the added bonus of the tournament not lasting for too long. The ICC seem obsessed to play matches such as Australia v Sri Lanka in the first week, instead of leaving that for the final stages. You didn’t see Germany v Argentina in the football world cup groups! An ODI can take 7 hours; no one has the time or patience to watch 49 matches of that length. In fact, you could go further and use the 49-match format for the T20 edition. More matches are good for T20 and there will be more chance of a shock quarter finalist so the group stage will be more watchable.

I digress; if my idea was so wonderful I’m sure one of the leading people in cricket would have thought of it. For now, let’s take a look at all the teams involved in this year’s edition:

Making up the numbers:

 UAE:
World Ranking: 14
Pool: B
Previous best: Group stage (1996)

I admit to knowing little to nothing about UAE cricket. I am vaguely aware that, thanks to Pakistan playing their matches there, cricket has been on the rise again for the last few years and it’s no surprise that they are back in the world cup. It’s unlikely they will win a match however with Ireland being the other associate member of their group. Don’t expect much from them, a good tournament would be to not get thrashed in all their matches.

552654745  Scotland:
World Ranking: 13
Pool: A
Previous best: Group stage (1999, 2007)

Scotland have never won a match at a World Cup and are unlikely to again this time around, although an impressive victory over Ireland in the warm-ups suggest there is potential. Their second match against England will be the one they desperately want to win, and given England’s insecurities at the moment they might well. If there is any romance left in the world cup, Scotland might provide it but it’s more likely they’ll get bowled out for less than 150 every time they bat first. Might be competitive against England and Afghanistan

Potential to shock:

 Zimbabwe:
World Ranking: 10
Pool: B
Previous best: Super 6 (1999, 2003)

Zimbabwe will be incredibly grateful they are in the easier group, however that has meant being drawn with Ireland. They should beat the UAE and could beat Ireland and the West Indies. India aren’t the best in Australia and so if they get under the skin of the Indians that might well be the closest we get to a shock in the group stages. Unfortunately, this Zimbabwe side is a mere patch on ones in the past and it’s unlikely they will make much of an impression this year.

 Afghanistan:
World Ranking: 11
Pool: A
Previous best: –

Afghanistan’s cricket story is quite remarkable. Back in 2000 they didn’t exist yet now they are in a World Cup and there is even a chance they will walk away with one or two victories. If ever any good can come out of war then this is it. What are their chances? Well, they should beat Scotland. Past that, it’s plausible to see them getting a positive result against Bangladesh and pushing the more established nations closer than they would like. This will be a learning experience for them but I expect more than I do from Scotland, UAE and Zimbabwe.

 Ireland:
World Ranking: 12
Pool: B
Previous best: Super 8 (2007)

Ireland have genuine pedigree in the world cup. Not only have they made it out of the groups before, they beat England in the last edition and will want to impress in 2015 given the precarious position the associates find themselves in. I for one are very glad they Irish aren’t in England’s group, and as an admirer of Irish cricket am hopeful they could upset West Indies, India and possibly Pakistan. This won’t be a tournament for spinners hence why India and Pakistan’s stock is lowered. Ireland should beat Zimbabwe and the UAE and if they win one more match, they will make the quarterfinals. It’s possible, it’s possible…

 Bangladesh:
World Ranking: 9
Pool: A
Previous best: Super 8 (2007)

I was tempted to put Bangladesh in the making up numbers category. They always underachieve on the world stage and usually exit stage left before they have properly entered. I don’t expect much different this year however they should beat Afghanistan and Scotland leaving them only needing one more result to qualify for the quarters. England, Sri Lanka and the two hosts are tough opposition but not impossible to beat. Their pneultimate match is against England, it’ll be a must win for both.

Dark horses:

 West Indies:
World Ranking: 8
Pool: B
Previous best: Champions (1975, 1979)

The Caribbean nations are in disarray. As usual, player debates have dominated the build-up to the tournament and they have brought a much weaker squad than usual. England hammered them in the warm-up and without Dwayne Bravo, Pollard or Narine it’s tough to see how they can win matches. That being said, Gayle remains a powerful man at the top and with Ireland, Zimbabwe and UAE in their group, they will feel they should make the quarters. That should be as far as they go however it’s worth not writing them off as all it takes is one Gayle special and they will be in the semi-finals.

 India:
World Ranking: 2
Pool: B
Previous best: Champions (1983, 2011)

Don’t let the reigning champions tag and world ranking fool you here, India are in no position to be classed as favourites for this world cup. They can’t buy a win in Australia, losing every match they’ve played (apart from v Afghanistan) including in the tri-series with England and Australia. They will make it out of the group but then will face one of the co-hosts or Sri Lanka. All three sides are better than India at the moment so I highly doubt they’ll reach the last four. Their only hopes lie with Kohli and Dhoni.

 England:
World Ranking: 5
Pool: A
Previous best: Runners-up (1979, 1987, 1992)

If England hadn’t sacked Cook and vaguely impressed in the tri-series then I would have moved them down a category. But lets not kid ourselves, beating India and West Indies doesn’t mean they will win the World Cup. At the moment, they need to think about purely getting out of the group. A lot will rest on their matches with New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. If they can win two then they will qualify 3rd rather than 4th meaning avoiding South Africa in the quarterfinals. Playing India or Pakistan gives them a chance of being in the semi-finals, which would be a fantastic result. For me, a lot relies on how well Joe Root plays. If he fires then he is the glue that holds an exciting middle order together. If he doesn’t then Morgan, Taylor and Buttler will have too much to do. Also, it’s worth keeping an eye on Steven Finn and Chris Woakes.

Chris Woakes may have a good tournament, West Indies probably won't

Chris Woakes may have a good tournament, West Indies probably won’t

 Pakistan:
World Ranking: 7
Pool: B
Previous best: Champions (1992)

Are Pakistan ever anything other than dark horses? They are hardly being mentioned this year yet with the easier group and the potential to play England in the quarters, they could be in the last four before people have noticed. Of all the dark horses, they will be the side the big four fear the most. With Afridi still knocking around, there is always a chance of victory however Pakistan, as usual, could just as easily implode. One thing is for sure, Pakistan are never dull on the world stage!

Likely Winners:

 Sri Lanka:
World Ranking: 4
Pool: A
Previous best: Champions (1996)

With Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Malinga and Mathews, Sri Lanka just have to be classed as a favourite. More than that, Kulaesekara will love Australian and New Zealand conditions so Sri Lanka are a side for all continents. Easily the best sub-continent side in Oceania, the only downside for them is the group they are placed in. They will need to bring their A-game from the start and hope to win or finish second in the group. If they do that, I reckon they will make it to the final. If they don’t, then it will be a lot tougher.

 New Zealand:
World Ranking: 6
Pool: A
Previous best: Semi-finals (1975, 1979, 1992, 1999, 2007, 2011)

I love this New Zealand squad. Brendon McCullums, Tim Southee, Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson and Ross Taylor are all match winners. They’ve even brought Daniel Vettori out of retirement. A lot of people have tipped them to go all the way and in home conditions, who can argue with that? The Kiwis are impossible not to like (unless you are an Aussie I guess) and no one would begrudge them a maiden title. This could be the making of them, and I for one sincerely hope it is.

Could this be the World Cup final?

Could this be the World Cup final?

 South Africa:
World Ranking: 3
Pool: B
Previous best: Semi-finals (1992, 1999, 2007)

The bridesmaids of cricket could finally be ready to become the bride. The already formidable talent of AB De Villiers (and likeable character) recently bludgeoned the fastest ODI century in history. Hashim Amla remains an unmovable force, De Kock is one of the biggest young talents around, every team fears Steyn and Morkel and in David Miller they have the best finisher in the world. Even their lack of spinners shouldn’t hurt them too much in these conditions. They’ll cruise through their group and should make the semi-finals, from there it all comes down to whether or not they believe they won’t choke yet again.

 Australia:
World Ranking: 1
Pool: A
Previous best: Champions (1987, 1999, 2003, 2007)

A sickeningly good world cup record, home conditions, a world class bowling outfit and the best captain in cricket – only a fool would bet against Australia winning. If all that wasn’t good enough, Warner and Smith can take the match away from anyone and they start with England and Bangladesh, two easy victories for them. Everyone will be playing catch up and it’s likely to remain that way for the rest of the tournament.

So now that I’ve given you an outline of all the teams involved, I shall predict every match. The tournament starts with New Zealand v Sri Lanka, which is probably the hardest match to predict in the whole of the pool stage!

Pool A:

 New Zealand beat  Sri Lanka (just!)
 Australia beat  England
 New Zealand beat  Scotland
 Bangladesh beat  Afghanistan
 New Zealand beat  England
 Australia beat  Bangladesh
 Sri Lanka beat  Afghanistan
 England beat  Scotland
 Afghanistan beat  Scotland
 Sri Lanka beat  Bangladesh
 New Zealand beat  Australia (mainly because it’s being played in NZ)
 Sri Lanka beat  England
 Australia beat  Afghanistan
 Bangladesh beat  Scotland
 New Zealand beat  Afghanistan
 Australia beat  Sri Lanka
 England beat  Bangladesh
 Sri Lanka beat  Scotland
New Zealand beat  Bangladesh
 England beat  Afghanistan
 Australia beat  Scotland

My table:

Team Pld W L T NR Pts
 New Zealand 6 6 0 0 0 12
 Australia 6 5 1 0 0 10
 Sri Lanka 6 4 2 0 0 8
 England 6 3 3 0 0 6
 Bangladesh 6 2 4 0 0 4
 Afghanistan 6 1 5 0 0 2
 Scotland 6 0 6 0 0 0

In Pool A, as expected New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka and England qualify.

Old foes meet in the pool stage and possibly again after

Old foes meet in the pool stage and possibly again after

Pool B:

 South Africa beat  Zimbabwe
 Pakistan beat  India
 Ireland beat  West Indies (just)
 Zimbabwe beat  UAE
 Pakistan beat  West Indies
 South Africa beat  India
 West Indies beat  Zimbabwe
 Ireland beat  UAE
 South Africa beat  West Indies
 India beat  UAE
 Pakistan beat  Zimbabwe
 South Africa beat  Ireland
 Pakistan beat  UAE
 India beat  West Indies
 South Africa beat  Pakistan
 Zimbabwe beat  Ireland
 India beat  Ireland
 South Africa beat  UAE
 India beat  Zimbabwe
 West Indies beat  UAE
 Pakistan beat  Ireland

My table:

Team Pld W L T NR Pts
 South Africa 6 6 0 0 0 12
 Pakistan 6 5 1 0 0 10
 India 6 4 2 0 0 8
 West Indies 6 2 4 0 0 4
 Ireland 6 2 4 0 0 4
 Zimbabwe 6 2 4 0 0 4
 UAE 6 0 6 0 0 0

In Pool B, South Africa, Pakistan and India qualify. Now, in my scenario West Indies beat Zimbabwe, Ireland beat West Indies and Zimbabwe beat Ireland with all losing to the top 3 and all beating UAE. All 3 are on the same amount of points so the qualifier will be decided by net run rate. I’ve given the West Indies the edge in this regard due to their tight loss to Ireland and the fact I think they’ll beat UAE more comfortably than the other 2. I’ve also assumed Ireland would beat UAE more comfortably than Zimbabwe will, given the nature of Zimbabwe’s unpredictability.

The Knockout:

For the next stage of the tournament, the winner of A1 v B4 will play the winner of B2 v A3 in the last four and hence the winner of A2 v B3 will play the winner of B1 v A4.

For my tournament, the quarters:
 New Zealand beat  West Indies
 Sri Lanka beat  Pakistan
 Australia beat  India
 South Africa beat  England

The semi-finals:
 New Zealand beat  Sri Lanka
 South Africa beat  Australia

The final:
 New Zealand beat  South Africa

So there we have it, in the battle between the sides who never make it past the semi-finals I  think New Zealand will prevail and become World Champions for the first time. The last four were indeed the four I tipped as likely winners at the start and that is no coincidence, to me these four seem the outstanding teams in the conditions Oceania provide. Pakistan and England could be the sides who force their way into the semi-finals however it’ll depend on who they face in the quarters. The biggest shock for me was South Africa beating Australia in Australia. The reason I plumbed for that is that I think South Africa’s batting is better than Australia’s and that is what it could come down to in the crunch moments of this tournament. Bat will almost certainly dominate ball.

This won’t be the most exciting world cup, it’s unlikely to be remembered in 10 or 20 years time (especially in England), however it could be the world cup where we see NZ or SA rising to their potential. It strikes me as almost a fore-gone conclusion that we will see those two plus Australia and Sri Lanka in the semi-finals with the only shock being the possible exit of the West Indies in the pools. I hope I’m proved wrong for I would love to see the associates fight the test nations and win, propelling them to greater things. As things stand, this is the last world cup to feature associates (or more than one at least) which is a sad reflection of how tough life is for them. With all that being said, let’s enjoy Cricket’s golden tournament and hopefully marvel in some fantastic cricket. Let me know what you agree/disagree with!

I hope to provide regular updates from the tournament on this blog. I admit I won’t be watching much of it, so I’m not sure in what form the updates will take however I will strive to have something up every now and then.


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Hope for Home Nations?

When you ask people about the 1958 World Cup, most will mention the emergence of Pele or the first, and to date only, non-European team winning in Europe. Some will talk about it being the first appearance of the Soviet Union, or perhaps that it is the only World Cup where Italy failed to qualify. Yet, maybe the most interesting aspect about it was that all four countries in the UK qualified for the same tournament for the first time. It hasn’t happened since. Could it be about to happen again? The combination of extra slots available at Euro 2016 and an improvement in quality/belief of British sides has opened the door once more for that scenario.

wales

Wales haven’t graced a major tournament since 1958. The problem for Wales has never been in producing players, it’s been putting them together as a team. In their history they’ve boasted the likes of Southall, Giggs, Speed, Rush and Mark Hughes to name a few. Between 1991 and 1996 all 5 I mentioned there played in the same team but still couldn’t qualify for a tournament. For the 2004 edition of the European Championships, they reached a play-off but weren’t able to find a way past Russia.

Gary Speed was appointed manager in 2010 and he began a revolution, which has led to Wales being genuinely feared in qualifying competitions. While Allen, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies and Chester are all established premier league stars, they don’t exactly match the heights of previous teams. Where this one stands apart is the midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, easily the best British footballers of this generation. The big plus point for Chris Coleman, now the manager, is that all of his players are hitting their peaks at the same time. Speed’s young exciting side is now Coleman’s efficient outfit.

There are two problems for Wales. Firstly, they lack strength in depth, especially in attack. If they suffer a few injuries, the replacements are mediocre at best. Secondly, their lack of appearances on the world stage means they have a low FIFA ranking and hence keep getting hard groups. This time they have to deal with Belgium and Bosnia, both who were at this summer’s World Cup. That being said, a side containing their quality will challenge both sides, indeed they’ve already held Bosnia to a draw in Cardiff. Will they qualify? They just might, second place in their group will be between them and Bosnia so the 10th October next year should be the decider. If they lose that, a third place finish will at least give them the chance of sneaking in through the play-offs.

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Airing the thought that all of the Home Nations could feature at the same tournament usually brings ridicule and the accepted premise that Northern Ireland will never qualify. That stems from the lack of quality in the squad and the deserved low ranking. But again, Northern Ireland are a team on the rise. A lot of their players have played in the Premier League, and they have started UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying as good as anyone with 3 wins from 3 matches. The group contains Romania, Greece, Finland, Hungary and the Faroe Islands so qualification is very possible.

Will it happen? Well, I wouldn’t put any money on it. Despite the good start, including an incredibly impressive win in Greece, Romania and Finland are much better sides on paper than the Ulstermen are. But that isn’t to say it won’t happen. Strange things happen in football and we could see Northern Ireland appearing at their first European Championship and fourth major tournament (following World Cups in 1958, 82 and 86).

Wayne Rooney  Estonia v England - EURO 2016 Qualifier

 

Strangely enough, the only negative press surrounding the home nations has been with regard to English performances despite a 100% record. Roy Hodgson must hate weeks like the one he has just had. Club v Country debates, pointless matches and arguments over tiredness means it has been a loss-loss scenario for Hodgson and England. The most successful home nation have already passed the supposed biggest test of their group and the likes of Slovenia, Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino will cause no problems going forward. Nothing is guaranteed in sport, however it would take something biblical to stop England crossing the channel and taking part at Euro 2016.

Naisy

Now it’s time for me to eat some humble pie. In March 2013 I wrote an article slamming Scottish football. I said they offered nothing to the world of football, the Scottish system was failing and its continuation was reckless. While I stand by my comments about the SPL, it is inconsequential; they are no longer a mess on the international stage. What changed then? Well, Gordon Strachan seems to have installed a level of belief in them, not only that they can win but they can do it while playing good football.

When the draw was made, Scottish fans must have taken a sharp intake of breath. Germany, Poland and Republic of Ireland lay in wait in easily the toughest of all the draws for the home nations. But, so far, the Scots are making a good fist of it. A narrow defeat in Germany has been followed up by a victory over Georgia and a respectable draw in Poland. They lie fourth in their group, level on points with the World Champions and 3 behind the front-runners Poland and Ireland. These four teams could perceivably be locked in a four-way battle for three spaces throughout this qualifying format and it has to be said that Scotland would be favourites to finish fourth.

Barring England, Scotland have been at more European Championships than any of the other home nations. Admittedly this isn’t hard when Wales and Northern Ireland have never qualified! Can they do it again? Like with Northern Ireland’s group, I fancy the quality of the other teams to shine through and it’ll be up to Scotland to match that. Poland have started really well, capped off with a victory over Germany, but do they have the stamina to keep that up? Playing Scotland and Ireland in the final week rounds off their campaign. Assuming Germany have won the group by then the battle for the final spots will go right down to the wire.

In Euro 2016 there will be 24 teams for the first time in history. Part of the reason for the increase was to allow middle-ranked sides to qualify and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all in a position to take advantage. For me, it would be a real shame if England are the sole home nation representative. Wales should at least make the play-offs, Northern Ireland have put themselves in a great position to qualify and Scotland will have a chance right up until their final game. All four qualifying would be a massive boost to British football, and make the tournament extra special for us living in the UK. There is even a chance that Ireland could make it 5 teams from the British Isles.

However, we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in rekindling the spirit of 1958. Northern Ireland have a lot of work to do with a relatively weak squad, Scotland have a talented, hard-working side but have been placed in an incredibly difficult group while Wales have a tendency to mess things up. For all this hope and warranted optimism, there is still a real possibility that England, and possibly Ireland, are the only sides we will be supporting come France 2016.