Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dutch in the ditch

The latest round of European World Cup qualifiers went largely to script.

The big boys all won comfortably - Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and England all registered victories. Surprise European Championship semi-finalists Wales drew again and struggling to make it to Russia next year have probably reverted to type.

Only Switzerland and Germany have 100% records after five games. Gibraltar, Lichtenstein, Malta and San Marino kept up their pointless campaigns. 

As it stands the seven automatic UEFA qualifiers will be France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia. In the playoff berths are Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Montenegro, Slovakia, Italy. Greece and Iceland.

Dutch girls detained
Happier days for Dutch fans at World Cup 2010
The one stand-out story has to be the demise of the Netherlands, who lost 2-0 in Bulgaria and sacked coach Danny Blind afterwards.

As if failing to make it to Euro 2016 was not stunning enough for the doyens of classy soccer, the country which has produced Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullitt, Dennis Bergkamp and Arjen Robben and who finished third at the last World Cup, now languishes fourth in their group behind France, Sweden and Bulgaria.

All is not lost. For a first half of the campaign, two wins, a draw and two losses is not qualification form but recovery is still possible. The Dutch sit only three points behind second-place Sweden and a play-off spot.

Their rocky road to Russia in Group A so far:

06/09/16 Sweden 1:1 Netherlands
07/10/16 Netherlands 4:1 Belarus
10/10/16 Netherlands 0:1 France
13/11/16 Luxembourg 1:3 Netherlands
25/03/17 Bulgaria 2:0 Netherlands

They will surely take three points at home to Luxembourg in their next outing before a tricky trip to Paris at the end of August, where they really need to avoid defeat. Three days later they will have to take revenge at home to Bulgaria before winning in October in Belarus, a side who have surprisingly beaten the Dutch before in qualifying.

It looks however, like the fight for the playoff spot will all come down to the final day when the Netherlands host Sweden. 

What has gone wrong with the Netherlands? It seems to be a classic case of being caught amid an inter-generational transition. Only four of the players who came third in Brazil in 2014 were on the pitch in Sofia: Defenders Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind and attackers Arjen Robben and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Attention has centred on Danny Blind's fielding of 17 year-old debutant Matthijs De Ligt at centre-back, which even by the Netherlands' standards of developing young stars seemed recklessly premature.

The risk turned duly sour as Bulgaria raced into a two-goal lead after twenty minutes and De Ligt was hauled off at half-time. Blind, skipper of Ajax's youthful European Cup-winning team in 1995, may have seen something similar in the young Ajax defender, but it proved his downfall as manager.

Fred Grim is the caretaker choice but the KNVB will surely ring up Ronald Koeman to see if they can tempt him from Goodison Park, which seems unlikely.

Frank De Boer, most recently Inter coach last season, is a more likely possibility, or maybe Philip Cocu of PSV. One name surprisingly doing the rounds is Louis Van Gaal, who took them to third in WC 2014.
Looking at the young faces in Blind's side, none seem obviously to be of the same calibre of the great Dutch players of the last quarter-century, a revival which began with the Euro '88 triumph and featured consecutive Champions League finals for Ajax in the mid 1990's, World Cup semi-finals for the national team in 1998 and 2014 and second place in 2010.

Their domestic league was never powerful but now looks increasingly lightweight compared to England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. 
As with good players, its best managers are easily tempted away. In 2011, Martin Jol wasted little time in swapping Ajax, the great Dutch club, for lowly Fulham in the Premier League.

Three years later Ronald Koeman guided Feyenoord to second in the Eredivisie and a Champions League spot but left to coach Southampton who had finished eighth in England.

More recently two Dutch starlets have come to England but fluffed their lines: Memphis Depay, who signed for Manchester United just before the 2015-'16 season to great fanfare but was quietly sold to Lyon in this year's January transfer window after an unimpressive year and a half at Old Trafford.

Vincent Janssen, the Dutch player of the year after a whopping 27 goals in 34 games for AZ Alkmaar, has been firmly in Harry Kane's shadow since joining Tottenham. He has only scored once for the north Londoners since joining last summer and 15 of his 20 appearances have come from the bench too.

Perhaps the Dutch football philosophy needs challenging, despite the long admiration from around the world for their nation's over-achieving.

4-3-3 and multi-functional players remain articles of faith for Oranje but tactics are evolving around them. Leicester won last year's Premier League with an effective direct style, speed and three individual talents, 4-2-3-1 has been all the rage this decade and now it seems 3-4-3 as practised to effect by Chelsea on top of the Premier League (and England last week against Germany) is the formation du jour.

If the Netherlands stick to their guns and refuse to learn from the competition, they will have fallen into England's historic trap and will miss out on another tournament next summer.

And that would be a tragedy for one the most outstanding football nations of the last half century.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive.
* China kept their slim hopes of making it to Russia 2018 alive with a 1-0 win over South Korea 1-0 in Changsha in their AFC World Cup qualifier this afternoon.

Yu Dabao of Beijing Guoan got the only goal for Marcelo Lippi's side in the 34th minute, his nation's second win over Korea in 32 attempts.

With four games to play, Iran 1-0 winners in Qatar, remain four points clear of the Reds at the top with Uzbekistan, who fell to a last-gasp penalty away to Syria, a point behind in the playoff position. Despite a 100% home record, Uli Stieleke's Korea have only point in their three matches away from home.

China is scattering money around its domestic league to attract overseas stars and its hour must surely come, but fifth out of sixth, their national team's next realistic hope of World Cup participation is at Qatar 2022.

In Asia's Group B, Saudi Arabia and Japan occupy the top two slots with 13 points, and Australia are third with ten.

The Saudis won 3-0 away in Thailand, Japan won 2-0 in the U.A.E. but Australia could only draw 1-1 in Iraq. The top two in each group go to Russia with the two third-place nations playing off against each other home and away before another two-leg tiebreaker with CONCACAF's fourth-best for the final ticket to Russia.

*The South American qualifiers kick off later with Argentina and Colombia, fifth and sixth respectively and out of the automatic qualification spots, desperately seeking home wins against Chile and Bolivia respectively.

Elsewhere, second play first in Montevideo where Uruguay host Brazil.

* Lukas Podolski's rocket against England last night was the perfect swansong, a Roy of the Rovers winner even every Englishman watching had to doff his cap to and applaud.

Germany's wonder goal and result should not make the world champions lie back with confidence they can defend their crown in 2018: For the first half England were clearly the better team with a superior shape and excellent pressing.

But for Adam Lallana striking a post and Dele Alli letting Marc-Andre Ter Stegen off the hook with a tame shot, the visitors would have led at the break.

In the second half, the usual routine of multiple substitutions altered the nature of the game wholesale.

Gareth Southgate can nevertheless leave thrilled by his experimental formation which bodes well for the future. 3-4-3 seems to be the formation flavour of the month, much like 4-2-3-1 was in 2010.

* In a rare moment of sanity, FIFA have talked about limiting squad sizes to help increase the competitiveness of top leagues. When Premier League leaders Chelsea can send a whopping 38 players out on loan, something surely must change to even things up.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fifa World Rankings March 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for March 2017 were published on March 9 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The full top ten is: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Colombia, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.

England are 14th, down one, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in joint 12th. Egypt replace Iceland in 20th and are the top African team, ahead of Senegal, who are in 28th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 55th place; Japan are in 51st spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 40th place.

The USA are in 30th. Wales are 12th. Scotland are in 67th position. The Republic of Ireland in 24th place, Northern Ireland are in 39th position.

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Germany
4 Chile
5 Belgium
6 France
7 Colombia
8 Portugal
9 Uruguay
10 Spain
11 Switzerland
12 Wales
12 Poland
14 England
15 Italy
16 Croatia
17 Mexico
18 Peru
19 Costa Rica
20 Egypt

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

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Monday, March 6, 2017

New Chelsea Stadium Gets Green Light

Chelsea's new 60,000 seat stadium has received final planning permission and should be ready for the 2021-'22 season.

The 'matchstick cathedral' design by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, who designed the Beijing Birds' Nest Olympic arena and renovated London's Tate Modern, got the final nod from London Mayor Sadiq Khan today.

Didier Drogba poster at Stamford Bridge.


It will certainly be a distinctive stadium with 264 bent brick piers giving a skeletal surround with no sliding roof although one wonders how much sunlight will penetrate, as with many modern arenas.

Best known for the Bird's Nest, possibly the greatest Olympic arena of all time, the firm has also designed football stadia before: Munich's Allianz Arena, Basel's St Jakob Park and Bordeaux's stadium.

On the plus side, Chelsea are staying on their historic Stamford Bridge site where they have played since 1905. After a long quest by owner Roman Abramovich to find a new home, a search which included Battersea Power Station, Earls Court exhibition centre and allegedly even an enquiry about Hyde Park, the club is staying put after all.

The new stadium will along with Arsenal's Ashburton Grove and Tottenham's rebuilt White Hart Lane be the third club ground in the capital coming in at 60,000 seats (Spurs will have 61,000).

As with Tottenham, Chelsea will have to decamp to Wembley while their new home takes shape. Tottenham are due to play at the national stadium from next season but have hinted at waiting an extra season. That might eat into Chelsea's plan to play three years away from home before moving back to the Bridge.

Stamford Bridge is the closest London stadium to the city centre, accessible by tube and surrounded by housing, albeit expensive apartments and Georgian avenues rather than the working class terraces which usually accompany English club grounds.

It has the wealthiest location of any London club, as part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, although the adjoining Fulham Road was traditionally more blue collar than the neighbouring King's Road and its exclusive boutiques.

Unlike at Tottenham, where club owners have slammed City Hall for not subsidising transport improvements to London's most famously hard-to-reach ground, Chelsea has a tube station Fulham Broadway close by and several bus services calling outside the stadium, meaning getting to and from their new home should not be a problem even with an increase in crowds.

The name Stamford Bridge refers not to the English Civil War battle but to a crossing of a long-vanished tributary of the Thames, the Stanford or sandy creek.

60,000 is a significant increase on the current capacity of 42,000 and will boost the club's coffers as they stake a claim to return to being one of the leading sides in the Champions League, which they won in 2012. As it stands, Arsenal make substantially more money in matchday income.

The new capacity will fall short of the ground's record attendance however, 82,905 for the visit of Arsenal in October 1935.

London clubs record home attendances

  1. Chelsea - 82,905 v Arsenal, 1935
  2. Charlton - 75,031 v Aston Villa, 1938
  3. Tottenham - 75,038 v Sunderland, 1938*
  4. Arsenal - 73,295 v Sunderland, 1935
  5. West Ham - 56,985 v Sunderland, 2016
  6. Crystal Palace - 51,482 v Burnley, 1979
  7. Fulham - 49,335 v Millwall, 1938
  8. Millwall - 48,672 v Derby, 1937
  9. Brentford - 38,678 v Leicester, 1949
  10. Orient - 38,219 v Tottenham, 1929
  11. QPR - 35,353 v Leeds, 1974

* At White Hart Lane; 85,512 watched Spurs play Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League at Wembley in 2016.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile