Coral’s Heroes and Villains of Euro 2016 qualifying
The penultimate fixtures for Euro 2016 qualifying meant there was much at stake, and consequently, plenty of heroes to step up to the plate, or villains to spoil the party.
Who makes our list of football saints and sinners this week? Read on to find out…
Tenacious Turkey topple Czechs
The Turks needed to triumph in Prague, having lived up their fitting title of Comeback Kings to position themselves within four points of pinching a play-off place. Winning away to the Czech Republic would be no easy task, but Fatih Terim’s team produced the goods to take the spoils 2-1 on the night, denting their hosts’ chances of clinching Pool A top spot.
Captain Arda Turan may not have been on the scoresheet this time, but played provider with a perfect ball for Bayer Leverkusen star Hakan Calhanoglu to slot home and make it safe. Now the Crescent Moons require just a draw against Iceland to claim their ticket to France.
Robert Lewandowski’s record-equalling exploits
Prolific Pole Lewandowski’s lethal finishing had perhaps the most important hand in shaping a competitive Group D, with his deadly double ensuring Poland drew against Scotland and essentially dispatched the Tartan team.
The Bayern Munich marksman then popped up as if from nowhere to save the White Eagles again, his powerful and precise header putting the Republic of Ireland on the backfoot and automatically propelling Poland to the France finals, simultaneously equalling Euro qualifying scoring records with his 13th strike this campaign. Not bad for a week’s work. There is no other forward in such formidable form, and the Balkan boys (50/1 outsiders with Coral to win Euro 2016) can go far in summer with this sharpshooter up top.
Long road to France
Of course, Shane Long struck an incredible winner versus World Cup winners Germany, but the Southampton striker’s ability to score important goals is somewhat secondary to 28-year-old’s all-round excellent recent play.
Long could not conjure up another history-making moment for the Boys in Green while in Warsaw, as the Republic of Ireland lost attacking impetus after their frontman came off with a knee niggle, but he had previously kept Polish centre backs Michal Pazdan and Kamil Glik terrifically on their toes.
Martin O’Neill will be hoping his match-winner is raring to go for the play-offs on the back of that bullish showing.
While the Republic of Ireland are undoubtedly heroes for how they qualified for the play-offs, the copy book was somewhat blotted in Poland, as poor defending cost an automatic place on the plane to France. Yet, it was perhaps a lack of foresight and discipline in that fray which could still prove their undoing.
Skipper John O’Shea and ferocious frontman Jon Walters are now both banned for the first play-off match having, in the heat of the moment, both been drawn into needless bookings. The key pair will have to hope their cards do not prove pivotal moments after such a spirited effort to take third place.
Dutch on brink of devastation
The Netherlands did credibly defeat Kazakhstan 2-1 on the road, although their victory will not make much difference if rivals Turkey take a point from their tussle with Iceland.
Every small mistake now makes a difference at this stage, but Danny Blind’s boys could still not keep a clean sheet, lazily leaking a late strike to go level on goal difference with Turkey, epitomizing a lacklustre qualifying effort in the process.
Joachim Low’s lads lucky leaders
Germany topped their pile as expected to finally make the France finals, but Die Mannschaft have made harder work of qualification than one would expect of world champions, losing to both Poland and the Republic of Ireland along the way.
It looked as though Low’s complacent men could be stunned at the final hurdle as already eliminated minnows Georgia equalised through a stunning volley courtesy of captain Jaba Kankava, though Max Kruse eventually claimed victory for the Germans (who are 10/3 to win Euro 2016).
Die Mannschaft number one Manuel Neuer summed it up perfectly as he said: “I had to be very alert today. It felt like we didn’t play against Georgia, but rather against Italy or Spain given how many chances they had.”