By Tom Hardwick
On Thursday 5 October, three of the home nations took to the pitch for their penultimate qualifying games, each still in with a chance of securing a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
England took on Slovenia at Wembley in front of a somewhat underwhelming crowd of 61,598 fans, and despite the pessimism in the air England still somehow managed to disappoint, scraping a 1-0 win. Henderson, Rashford and Kane all tested Oblak before half time, with Henderson’s chance coming from an intelligent piece of play involving Rashford, but ultimately there were few clear-cut chances for England despite dominating possession.
The game remained unspectacular in the second half, with efforts such as Rashford’s underhit lob in the 62nd minute failing to lift the apathetic mood until the increasingly talismanic Harry Kane lived up to the role of captain by converting a cross from Kyle Walker on 94 minutes.
This goal did seal World Cup qualification and was well celebrated, but most fans are perhaps more sceptical of England’s ability to compete next summer, with a laboured win over a team beneath Burkina Faso and Haiti in the FIFA rankings doing little to suggest that the Three Lions can hold their own against the world’s best.
Northern Ireland were riding the crest of a wave that had seen them unbeaten in competitive fixtures at Windsor Park in four years before their game. Over 18,000 fans filled the ground to the rafters, but ultimately the side were well beaten.
"Despite the pessimism in the air England still somehow managed to disappoint"
Sebastian Rudy fired Germany ahead with a stunning strike early on, and soon after Sandro Wagner made up for striking the woodwork with an impressive curling finish. The game was dominated by Germany, and Joshua Kimmich soon added a third for the imperious looking side. There was time for Josh Magennis to add some gloss to the scoreline when he headed in late on, but Northern Ireland were conclusively beaten 3-1 and now will have to navigate a playoff tie for a place in Russia.
Scotland were also in action, overcoming Slovakia to leapfrog them in the table by two points. Robert Mak received a second yellow for diving under a non-existent challenge from Craig Gordon, allowing Scotland to establish themselves in the game.
Chris Martin and Leigh Griffiths were both denied by the woodwork, and just as Scotland’s qualifying campaign seemed to have been delivered a mortal blow, superb work from Griffiths allowed Ikechi Anya the space to play a ball across the box, which Skrtel turned into his own net under pressure from Martin.
This last-minute goal secured a 1-0 win and saw Hampden Park erupt, as it looked like Scotland the chance to secure second place in the final fixture of qualifying.
By Tom Shrimplin
There was mixed bag of results for the Home Nations and the Republic of Ireland on Sunday 8 and Monday 9 October.
First of all, there was devastation for Scotland as despite a five-game unbeaten run, Gordon Strachan’s side were unable to reach the play-offs as they were reduced to an agonising 2-2 draw away to Slovenia.
The away side were comfortable in the first half with a 4-2-2 formation, with chances from Andrew Robertson and Chris Martin before Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths latched onto midfield maestro Darren Fletcher’s header to score from a tight angle.
However, in the second half, Slovenia were much improved with substitute Bezjak punishing Scotland’s poor defending of set pieces by scoring two goals.
Scotland now needed two goals to finish as runners-up, but despite an equaliser from substitute Robert’s Snodgrass, a couple of other chances and Slovenia going down to 10 men in injury time, it was too late for Scotland to clinch that final goal.
Scotland are now manager-less with Strachan quitting after five years at the helm, with the team finishing third in Group F on goal difference in an ultimately heart-breaking campaign.
However, the most exciting game came from Group D as Martin O’Neill’s Ireland edged to a 1-0 win against Wales. Playing in Cardiff City Stadium, Chris Coleman’s Wales side fed off the atmosphere as they took possession of the game from the start.
While an aggressive but disciplined Republic of Ireland side stuck to their game plan as their sturdy defence stayed deep and narrow to frustrate and unsettle the home side.
Indeed, Coleman’s side were only reduced to taking a few half-chances, losing Joe Allen just before the end of the first half after a robust challenge from David Meyler and a slight helping push from James McClean.
Without their influential playmaker Wales lost all sense of direction as number 10 Aaron Ramsey moved deeper into midfield into a position where he looked uncomfortable and frustrated in for the rest of the game.
Then roughly two thirds into the match O’Neill’s side fully exploited Wales’ weakness, with the trio of Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter and McClean working together to get the winning goal, as McClean thundered the ball in to the back of the net.
From then on Coleman’s side threw all men forward as they now needed two goals to gain second place in the group. However, the Republic of Ireland stood firm for the remaining half an hour and ended the game as victors. Now Ireland are waiting to find out who will be their opponent in the play-offs, while Wales are left licking their wounds and ruing missed chances.
"The Republic of Ireland stood firm for the remaining half an hour and ended the game as the victors"
Joining the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs are Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland who even while losing 1-0 against Norway were assured of a place as one of the best 8 runners-up after Scotland’s 2-2 draw with Slovenia.
Nevertheless, even though O’Neill had named a strong side even as several of their players were at risk of being suspended for the first leg of play-offs, O’Neill’s team were unable to score except in their own net.
The only goal in the game came from Chris Brunt’s failed attempt to clear the ball after goalkeeper Micheal McGovern. Despite efforts from Stuart Dallas, Conor McLaughlin and substitute George Saville, Northern Ireland were unable to equalise.
The team are now left waiting to see if this loss will lower their FIFA ranking enough to not be one of four seeded teams in the play-offs.
Last but certainly not least, England again offered a disappointing performance as they managed to beat Lithuania 1-0 courtesy of a first-half penalty calmly slotted in by Harry Kane.
Indeed, only Kane, alongside Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks- the latter on his debut for England- offered a few sparks that kept the game from being totally dull.
Gareth Southgate’s experimentation with a three-man defence and seven changes from the previous game, did little to remedy the lethargy that surrounds the team as has done previously.
Ultimately this performance only affirms that this is not a vintage England side heading into Russia that will be heavily reliant on the likes of Kane to make any progress in the tournament proper.