Scotland Still Alive

April 1, 2009

scotlandScotland held off Iceland for the second time today at Hampden Park for a 2-1 victory and renewed hope that continued strong play could earn them a spot in the playoff to reach the 2010 World Cup. Ross McCormack opened the scoring in the 39th minute, finally giving the Scots a goal at Hampden. But Indridi Sigurdsson’s 54th minute equalizer stunned the Tartan Army and put Scotland’s hopes on hold. Just ten minutes later though, Steven Fletcher tallied Scotland’s second goal and gave the home side the lead for good.

No one in Group Nine will be catching the Dutch as they cruised to their fifth win in as many matches in qualifying play. But second place is now Scotland’s. The hope would be that this important victory will carry over through the summer and serve as an inspiration in the match in Norway in August. Perhaps by then the myriad injuries can be overcome for a complete squad.

Also today, England scraped by Ukraine with a rather lucky 2-1 victory. Peter Crouch scored early for England, who held that lead for most of the match. But in his return to England, Andriy Shevchenko tallied an important goal as a substitute to draw the Ukrainians even in the 74th minute. John Terry earned the home victory for the English though with his 85th minute goal from close-in.

England did not need the victory as they were already in first place in Group Six, but taking five wins from five matches is a nice run for the side who did not even qualify for Euro 2008.


Big Day in World Cup Qualifying

April 1, 2009

Both England and Scotland will take part in World Cup qualifying matches today as the Scots host Iceland and the English host Ukraine. Scotland’s woes and slight chances in Group Nine have been chronicled here over recent days. England are right out in front of Group Six with a chance to almost assure qualification with a victory over Ukraine.

Ukraine are in second place (on differential) in Group Six and can do themselves a world of good with a win at Wembley today. They are tied on seven points with Croatia who play Andorra today, which is all but a guaranteed win. So the Ukrainians need a result of some kind to keep pace and hope for a second place finish. The English press are of course acting like today’s match is do-or-die for their side. But really it is a somewhat insignificant match, though it is always nice to do well at home. There is plenty of wiggle room though with a five-point lead atop the group.

Scotland on the other hand are in a desperate position. Iceland and Scotland are tied on four points (with Iceland ahead on differential) as the lowest scoring second-place teams in all of Europe. If that remains the case, whoever finished second would not even make the qualifying playoff for second places teams (only the top eight go on). Additionally, Scotland have not fared well at home in the George Burley era. For whatever reason, the Scots have not been able to score goals at Hampden Park, traditionally a location of huge advantage. But after Saturday’s crushing defeat in Holland, perhaps fan support will be more skeptical in this match.

The Scots did defeat Iceland in Reykjavík last fall but continue to face huge injury problems and now the suspension of Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor after a rowdy ‘drinking session’ at Loch Lomond after the Holland defeat on Saturday. It may all be coming undone for Burley and the Scots so I really don’t expect to see much of a quality result today.

Predictions:

Scotland 1Iceland 1
England 2
Ukraine 1


Scotland on the Ropes

March 30, 2009

scotland

After a 3-0 defeat at the Amsterdam ArenA on Saturday against Holland, Scotland find themselves in deep trouble if they want to even finish second in Group Nine of the UEFA qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Now sitting in third behind Iceland, Scotland need desperately to start earning points. With nine groups, the eight-best second-place finishers have a play-in for additional World Cup spots. At the moment, even if Scotland were in second in Group Nine, they’d still be out as the worst of the second-placers.

But to the match for a moment: the score shows a very comprehensive victory on the part of the Dutch. From all accounts the score was basically indicative of the disparity in the match. It did not help Scotland to have ten regulars missing due to injury (as explained here last week) but still, 3-0 is a blowout. But it did not have to end that way. In the 74th minute, trailing 2-0, Gary Caldwell headed in a Ross McCormack corner to pull one back for the Scots. Yet inexplicably, the French referee disallowed the goal. Video replays and even Dutch scorer Robin Van Persie (“The goal Scotland scored was good – I didn’t see anything unusual when I watched the replay on television”) indicate absolutely nothing wrong on the exchange. So instead of a possibly momentum-earning goal, and at the very least help in the goal-differential column, the Scots remained two goals down, eventually yielding a third late in the match.

I am not going to argue that Caldwell’s goal would’ve sent Scotland on to a victory, or even a draw, but it’s just that kind of occurrence that is all too familiar for fans of Scotland football. If it’s not injuries or screw-ups, the referee interferes with a legal play. I feel worst for the 10,000-strong Tartan Army that descended upon Amsterdam, only to meekly retreat after the 3-0 thrashing.

On Wednesday, Scotland will host Iceland in the most important match of the qualifying so far. Having already defeated Iceland in the fall, the Scots at least have evidence that they’re capable of beating someone in this group. But the injuries will not be magically better in just a four-day span, so expect to see a struggle on the part of Scotland. Iceland are certainly beatable but with the way things are going, it would not be surprising to see Scotland’s chances at the 2010 World Cup ended on Wednesday night at Hampden Park. Even a draw is bad as the Scots would remain behind Iceland on differential. But if three points are in fact earned, Scotland are right back in the mix and have plenty of time for their better players to recover and return with their next match not taking place until mid-August.


England’s New (Old) Look

March 28, 2009

lampard

In today’s friendly with Slovakia at Wembley Stadium, England broke out their much-anticipated new kits. Moving away, this time, from the pointless, weird, accented, ugly and ridiculous that have marred England’s kits over the past twenty years. Instead they went with a very clean and classic, almost Wimbledon look. I can’t say I really like the names across the back or the numbers font, but compared to what they could be, they’re not so bad. All in all, it appears rather pristine. At least until a huge grass stain is earned.


Scotland Up Against It

March 26, 2009

tartan

If you’ll remember back to the bad old days of 2008, Scotland finished the fall campaign of 2010 World Cup qualifying with a nil-nil home draw to Norway at Hampden Park in Glasgow. The Scots had previously beaten Iceland 2-1 in Reykjavík and earlier lost to Macedonia in Skopje. The next set of qualifying matches begin this weekend and will be vitally important in determining who is in good position in UEFA Group Nine leading up to the conclusion of qualifying in the summer.

Here is Scotland’s schedule for the rest of the qualifying campaign:

March 28 – Scotland @ Holland (Amsterdam ArenA )
April 1 – Iceland @ Scotland (Hampden Park)
August 12 – Scotland @ Norway (Ullevaal Stadium)
September 5 – Macedonia @ Scotland (Hampden Park)
September 9 – Holland @ Scotland (Hampden Park)

The good news for Scotland is that they’ve already played away more often than at home so they’ll have a much higher chance for a final push with two matches in September in Glasgow. But Saturday’s tie with Holland is an extremely important one for the currently second-place Scots. If they can salvage a draw, let alone an away win, it would go very far in returning confidence after the scoreless debacle at home to Norway last fall. The Dutch are undefeated thus far in Group Nine and with a five-point cushion at the top, might not play their full complement of stars. At least that’s something Scotland can hope for.

If they do not earn at least one point in Amsterdam on the weekend, Scotland must win against Iceland at Hampden next Wednesday. Firstly, Iceland are on four points with Scotland but behind on goal differential, so breaking free of the closest competition would be important. Second, they have already defeated Iceland once so surely they can do it again at home. Third, if they do not win, they will be in serious trouble. And fourth, only the top eight second-place finishers make the playoff for World Cup spots, so Scotland will need as good a goal differential as possible if they remain in second place behind the Dutch.

The biggest obstacle for Scotland this week might be injury though. Ten first team players are out including: Paul Hartley (former Hearts star), Kirk Broadfoot and Barry Robson who scored the two goals against Iceland, and Lee Miller, one of the better players at the moment domestically with Aberdeen. If Scotland can pull off the upset in Amsterdam, it will be an historic victory indeed. But more realistically the Scots need to hope to earn a draw and if they lose, at least pull one or two back so their goal differential does not suffer to badly.

I’ll have a report on Saturday after the match with Holland.


US Hold Off Mexico in World Cup Qualifying

February 11, 2009

usWith the chance to take an early lead in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the Americans knocked off Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, 2-0. Michael Bradley scored both goals for the US with the first coming just before half-time on a corner kick volley and the second in extra time to ensure the victory for the Americans. Rafa Márquez was sent off in the 65th minute for a boots-up challenge on American keeper Tim Howard, reducing Mexico to ten men for the final twenty-five minutes.

The first half was mostly owned by the Americans in both possession and in momentum. Mexico’s young lightening bolt Gio dos Santos (of Tottenham fame) had an early chance on goal but was denied by Howard. After that shot the US largely controlled the tempo of the half. Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley alternated sides in the midfield and along with Michael Bradley helped feed Brian Ching and Landon Donovan up top. The Bradley goal came when Beasley’s corner was headed by Donovan and Oguchi Onyewu before the coach’s son sent the rebound into the back of the net on volley.

Unlike the first half, the Americans came out flat and dry in the second half. Where their passes were crisp and spacing well thought out in the first half, the exact opposite was true in the second. There were very few opportunities on goal, though possession was still a strong point for the Americans. They simply could not make that final through pass to get a shot on goal. But at the same time, Mexico did nothing to really write home about, leaving a boring and choppy second half. The game got fiesty for a bit surrounding Márquez’s red card but the match was free of fights and any other cards (Howard did receive a yellow card in the same sequence). Only in the final moments was the US able to get out into space with Donovan finding Bradley who rocketed in the game clincher.

While I’m glad that ESPN covered the game, it’s growing very tiresome having such pro-American color analysts. John Harkes was the man for the job tonight, refusing to give Mexico credit for anything and jumping all over Sven-Göran Eriksson’s halftime comments claiming bad luck for the Mexicans. To be sure, I was pulling for the Americans to win the match. But I don’t need someone on tv telling me how great MLS and the Americans are without even acknowledging the positive aspects of the other side. This is not a total criticism of Harkes, I happen to have liked him back in his UVA days. But he’s just the latest pool boy for USA Soccer and it’s incredibly annoying to hear every time.


A Long, Dark Winter

October 13, 2008

scotlandAs if it isn’t dark, damp and cold enough in Scotland over the winter months, Scots have new reason to feel depressed all winter long. Playing in front of the Tartan Army at famous Hampden Park, the grounds that held 149,415 Scots in 1937, their home stadium, was not an impetus enough to even score a goal against visiting Norway in Group 9. Granted, the Norse didn’t put one in either and a nil-nil draw was achieved, but Scotland really needed three points from a home match. As previously mentioned, the Scots will not play again until March in an away match in Eindhoven against the powerful Dutch. The nation will again have to hold its breath and cross its fingers in hope that their lads can come up with passion and ability in the winter months and come out fresh in March. Otherwise, the Tartan Army can sit on their thumbs in 2010 as the Scots miss yet another major tournament.