Strike one to Hungary, they’re on course to qualify for the Euros for the first time since 1972 and a major tournament since 1986. Norway have got some work to do if they’re to reach the event for just the second time in their history, having featured in 2000.
Ireland picked up a crucial away goal in Bosnia last night but that tie remains finely poised at 1-1. An ominous fog descended on the pitch at half time but in the first 45 minutes you could tell the hosts were the better team, I couldn’t see much after the restart so good honest drinking took priority but I look forward to the return.*
Anyway, here’s a look ahead to Saturday’s games.
Ukraine v Slovenia
I’m doing this in lieu of a betting piece, although at the moment I’m leaning towards throwing something out tomorrow depending on how much I drink tonight – that could depend on finding a good spot to watch Ireland and how they fare but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I was going to pick a winner out of these four games I’d go for Ukraine at home on Saturday – so the way things have been going for me you may want to remortgage your house and get on Slovenia.
From what I’ve seen of Ukraine lately they’re a fairly average side but they do have two very exciting wingers in Sevilla’s Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, who is surprisingly still at Dynamo Kyiv – he’s looked like a guy who could cut it in one of Europe’s big leagues for a while now. There’s also some good experience in the squad and they have big contingents from Shakhtar Donetsk, Dnipro, Dynamo and Zorya Luhansk – who admittedly I don’t know anything about but the other three are European football regulars. It helps at international level when players play together for club and country, think David Beckham and Gary Neville as perhaps the archetypal example.
Slovenia are tactically very good but lacking in quality in some areas and that often gets exploited at this level. As a nation with a population of just over two million people they’re never going to be blessed with a huge pool of players to pick from but they do have quite a few guys who play in Serie A, Josip Ilicic of Fiorentina in particular stands out, and then a couple more who play in Spain and Germany so there is talent.
Ukraine should be able to take a first leg lead in front of their own fans but if Slovenia can nick a goal and keep it fairly tight I wouldn’t totally discount them.
Sweden v Denmark
This is the one that, for the neutrals, is the most interesting. A Scandinavian derby, insert suspect Viking reference here, and perhaps a last chance for Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kim Kallstrom (yes he is still playing) and Andreas Isaksson to feature in a major tournament. The same goes for Danes Lars Jacobsen, Michael Krohn-Dehli and Simon Poulsen.
It is, of course, Zlatan who holds the most intrigue. Love him or loath him, that guy is an enigma and personally I’m a huge fan.
He hasn’t confirmed, but the 34-year-old has indicated he’s ready to call time on his international career if the Swedes fall short.
“I would love to play at the European Championship in France.
“I have played there for four years. I have put Sweden on the world map and now I have put France on the world map too.
“If it’s over [for me] after the play-offs? We’ll see. If you’re asking me now? No. If you ask me after the play-offs? I don’t know.”
I love that, does he mean the ‘football world map’? I presume so, but with Zlatan you’re never really sure. Maybe he thinks before Paris Saint-Germain signed him there was just open water between the south east of England and parts of Switzerland and Italy. Probably not – however plausible the idea that he thinks he gave the world Camembert and Asterix simply by willing a nation to exist is.
On the game itself he could well be the changer. I’d argue that player-for-player Denmark perhaps have a stronger team but Zlatan is the kind of guy who can prove the difference. He’s never scored against Denmark either and that basically thickens the plot to an unstirable soup.
As a derby this one over the two legs is just too close to call, it could take a questionable decision or an individual moment of brilliance to decide it and on paper you’d expect this to be the showstopper of the four qualifiers.
*Late addition, this post was originally published prior to the Bosnia/Ireland match.