Published: StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 1st September 2006, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2006/09/01/euro-group-f-preview/
Robin Peake runs a low down on who can block Northern Ireland’s path to Austria and Switzerland.
FIFA Ranking: 20
Odds to qualify: 9/4
N.Ireland’s record against: P5 W2 D0 L3 F7 A5
Last game against N.I: 0-1 (Gothenburg, 3.6.81)
After a timid exit to the World Cup in June, Sweden will be out to prove that they deserve to be the top seed in this group. Yet Lawrie Sanchez has reason to be optimistic ahead of meeting Sweden. Their only world class player Henrik Larsson has retired from international football (again) and recent results suggest the team is on the decline. Before reaching the World Cup they were thrashed 3-0 in Dublin in Steve Staunton’s first match in charge and a shaky start to the tournament saw the dogged tenacity of Trinidad and Tobago earn a well deserved point by producing a tactically astute performance which Lawrie and co. can take great comfort in. Traditionally strong in defence, their strikers, in particular Ibrahimovic, will need to start to live up to their billing if Sweden are to qualify.
Key player: Olaf Mellberg
FIFA Ranking: 7
Odds to qualify: 4/5
N.Ireland’s record against: P16 W1 D5 L10 F8 A35
Last game against N.I: 0-0 (Belfast, 11.6.03)
At 6/1 to win the tournament outright in two years time, Spain are certainly a force to be reckoned with on paper. However, turning potential into performance has always been their greatest problem, particularly on the big stage as millions watched them go out with a whimper in the second round of the World Cup to an ageing French team. Nevertheless, Spain have a history of easing through qualification: Since 1974 they have only missed one major tournament. How Northern Ireland fare against them may depend on how much input the recently resigned Gerry Armstrong has with his immense knowledge of Spanish football, but don’t expect a repeat of the famous victory in Valencia ?82 as Spain march towards the top of the group.
Key player: Fernando Torres
FIFA Ranking: 17
Odds to qualify: 3/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P9 W1 D4 L4 F7 A13
Last game against N.I: 1-1 (Copenhagen 1.9.01)
Many Danish players have made their mark in Britain over the years: Schmeichel, the Laudrup brothers, Gravesen, Rommedahl. But it is two who haven’t who perhaps pose the greatest threat in this Danish team. John Dahl Tomasson was a flop at Newcastle but since moving on to Feyenoord, Milan and now Stuttgart he has rediscovered the golden touch that evaded him during his one year stint on Tyneside. And worryingly for Northern Ireland supporters, the golden touch includes international football where he has scored 38 goals in 79 appearances, roughly a goal every other game. His strike partner for these qualifiers may well be another striker who hasn’t made his name in Britain yet. Niklas Bendtner who is on the books at Arsenal but currently on loan to Birmingham City scored on his international debut in the 2-0 victory over Poland this month. And with 2 goals for the Midlands club already this season, things look bright for the 18 year old. The Green and White Army will hope that fellow team-mates Maik Taylor and Damien Johnson can warn their international colleagues fully.
Key player: Jon Dahl Tomasson
FIFA Ranking: 78
Odds to qualify: 33/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P4 W3 D0 L1 F6 A3
Last game against N.I: 1-2 (Belfast, 7.6.95)
The country which dashed Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro ‘96 managed to qualify for (and give a good account of themselves) the last European Championships. However, a lot can change in football in the space of a qualifying campaign as Northern Ireland fans will testify. A Latvian side built on discipline in Portugal two years ago conceded nearly two goals a game in their last qualifying campaign and it was only for the saving grace of having Luxembourg and Liechtenstein in the same group that bumped up their points tally to a respectable 15. Whilst Marian Pahars is a familiar name to Southampton fans, an injury prone 30 year old should not strike fear into Sanchez’s heart. Expect this campaign to be one of rebuilding for the Latvians.
Key player: Maris Verpakovskis
FIFA Ranking: 106
Odds to qualify: 100/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P4 W2 D0 L2 F5 A2
Last game against N.I: 3-0 (Belfast, 5.9.01)
While Northern Ireland were gaining some much needed confidence from a victory over Finland, Iceland were holding Spain to a goalless draw in Reykjavik as Raul collected his 100th cap. Astonishingly, the result was achieved against a team ranked 99 places higher than them without their captain and most recognisable player, Eidur Gudjohnsen who ironically requested to withdraw so he could play for his new club Barcelona in the Spanish Super Cup. Make no doubt about it, Reykjavik has seen some wonderful results over the last few years (wins over Sweden, Italy, Russia, the Czech Republic and draws against Germany and France) but it is on their travels that Iceland have traditionally struggled. Hence why a win for Northern Ireland on Saturday is so important and anything else can be classed as a disappointment. Much of this will depend on Maik Taylor and the back four as they fend off not just Gudjohnsen but Gunnar Heidar Thorvaldsson, top scorer in the Swedish Premiership last season and now with Hannover 96. Some minor injuries and a lack of competitive action so far may take the edge of his game, but a repeat of defensive mistakes seen in opening day against Poland 2 years ago is not an option with a striker of his quality around
Key player: Gunnar Heidar Thorvaldsson
FIFA Ranking: 124
Odds to qualify: 1000/1
N.Ireland’s record against: P3 W2 D1 L0 F8 A1
Last game against N.I: 0-0 (Vaduz, 27.03.02)
The only team in the group with a lower seeding than Northern Ireland, they still cannot afford to be taken lightly. The last time the two teams met it was the beginning of a 13 game goal drought. Whilst that is unlikely to be the same again, Northern Ireland fans shouldn’t expect goal feasts against a team which obtains results through discipline and a team ethic. In their last campaign both Slovakia (0-0) and Portugal (2-2) left Vaduz humiliated and we can only hope that Northern Ireland don’t underestimate the team of journeymen otherwise there is potential for valuable points to be lost
Key Player: Peter Jehle