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UEFA EURO 2016 Play-off Preview
Euro Playoffs - Preview
This week see’s the start of the UEFA European Championship Playoffs which will determine the final four finalists to next years finals in France. The ties will be played between the 12th and 17th November and are two legged games played home and away. These are teams who finished 3rd in their qualifying group though Turkey, who also finished 3rd, qualified automatically as they had the best 3rd place record. Lets take a look at each set of fixtures and examine who might progress.
EURO 2012 Opening Ceremony
Norway v Hungary (Oslo - 12th Nov & Budapest - 15th Nov)
Norway, ranked 46th in the world, finished with a creditable 19 points in a group that contained Bulgaria, Croatia and Italy. They are probably not as good as past Norwegian sides but will still be a hard side to beat. In qualification their away form saw defeats in Italy and a comprehensive 5-1 thrashing in Croatia but they were still able to win in Bulgaria, Azerbaijan and Malta keeping clean sheets in the process. It is often these type of away games that are the toughest with poor pitches and intimidating atmospheres a challenge. At home they only dropped points to Italy and were surprisingly held by Azerbaijan a result which highlights the fact that the days of an easy Euro qualifier is typically in the past. Defensively they seem solid and rely on the likes of Tom Hgli, Vegard Forren and Havard Nordtveit. Offensively, Marcus Pedersen is the man in form and expect him to line up with Alexander Soderlund who has an impressive 22 goals in 29 games this season with his club Rosenborg. Coach Per Mathias Hogmo will feel confident with the form of these two forwards and has also included Real Madrid’s Martin Odegaard in his squad. Whilst not a regular with his club Odegaard is certainly one for the future and even at just 16 years old is certainly a player who can change the game. It would be great to see Odegaard at next summers championships should Norway get through this tricky play off match.
Hungary are currently ranked 33rd in the world and had the second best 3rd place finish. This is their chance for a first major tournament appearance since the 1986 World Cup. Historically they have excellent pedigree and during the 1950’s they went 4 years unbeaten and featured the great Ferenc Puskas who was the highest scorer of the 20th century. They were famed for starting the total football phenomena that many sides are still trying to play today. Modern day Hungary does not have such greats but are another solid side. They only lost twice in qualification to Northern Ireland and to one time European Champions Greece and were only pipped by Turkey by 1 point to automatically qualify with the best 3rd place record. Goals could be a problem with key players being forward Tamas Priskin and goalscoring midfielders Zoltan Gera and captain Balazs Dzsudzsak. Coach Bernd Storck is assisted by former German International Andreas Moller. Watch for forward Daniel Bode whose two goals as a substitute secured a crucial 2-1 victory as well as veteran goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly who is one match away from his 100th cap.
Martin Odegaard - Norway's Boy Wonder
Bosnia & Herzegovina v Republic of Ireland (Zenica - 13th Nov & Dublin - 16th Nov)
Bosnia & Herzegovina lost 3 matches in their qualifying group their only defeat at home coming against the minnows of Cyprus. They scored 17 goals but conceded 12 so whilst they do not struggle offensively they clearly have some issues at the back and could be susceptible to Ireland’s pacy forward line. Managed by Mehmed Bazdarevic they boast former Manchester City forward Edin Dzeko in their ranks and should not be underestimate particularly in view of their FIFA ranking of 20. Dzeko is now with Roma and Bosnia did qualify for the last World Cup in 2014 and whilst they did register their first win at the finals tournament, they bowed out at the first round. Many of their current squad ply their trade across Europe and in addition to Dzeko perhaps their most noted players are goalkeeper and current Chelsea number 1 Asmir Begovic, Everton's tough tackling Muhamed Besic and Hertha Berlin striker Vedad Ibisevic. The 31 year old Ibisevic boast 25 goals in 69 internationals and joined Berlin in the summer from fellow Bundesliga side VfB Stuttgart where he scored 33 goals in 86 appearances. For his new club he already has 4 goals in 6 appearances and coping with this duel goal threat will be Ireland’s main problem if they are to progress. Zukanovic, Lulic, Duric and Pjanic all play their football in Italy and so whilst on paper this might appear to be an easy tie for Ireland, there is still a lot of work to do for Martin O’Neil’s side and on close examination you see that Bosnia are quite a force.
Ireland qualified for the play offs coming from a tough group that included, Germany, Poland, Scotland and Georgia. Despite this they only lost twice and were unbeaten at home. They defeated World Champions Germany 1-0 and held them to a draw in the away match. Their only defeats came in the games against Poland and Scotland. Captain Robbie Keane was their top scorer with 5 goals and much will be expected of the LA Galaxy based striker. At 35, this tournament will likely be Keane’s final outing with the national team and he boasts a record of 67 goals in 143 appearances. Shane Long (if fit) and Stoke City’s John Walters provide an additional goal threat. In manager Martin O’Neil they also have a man at the helm with great football experience and pedigree and he is ably assisted by Roy Keane. Surprisingly, Ireland are ranked 42nd in the world but are much better then this ranking suggests. Ireland will not have good memories of play off matches with them falling to Thierry Henry’s infamous hand ball goal in the 2010 World Cup playoffs though they did make the 2012 Uefa Championships failing to gain a point and managing just 1 goal. O’Neil will be hoping that defender John O’Shea is fit for the home leg though that seems unlikely given his hamstring injury and O’Shea will miss the 1st leg anyway due to suspension. In addition to their forward’s Ireland will look to the likes of Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, James McCarthy and Kevin Doyle but they will really need to rely on the Irish fight and passion if they are to make it through to the next stage.
Vedad Ibisevic - Bosnia
Ukraine v Slovenia (Lviv - 14th Nov & Maribor - 17th Nov)
Ukraine had an impressive qualifying campaign and only dropped points against Spain (losing twice) and Slovakia (one loss, one draw) both of who secured the 2 automatic qualification spots. They scored 14 goals and conceded just 4 in their 10 qualifying matches and are currently ranked 28th in the world. Captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is their most capped player with 140 appearances and the midfielder is classed as one of Ukraine's greats and packs a ferocious shot. He doesn't score many but he doesn't score a bad goal either. At 36, this is arguably the 3 times Ukrainian footballer of the years last chance at a big tournament as you have to think that Russia 2018 is two years to many. Coach Mykhaylo Fomenko can call upon a largely experienced squad and you have to fancy them as overwhelming favorites over two legs. Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka carry a goal threat from midfield and upfront Yevhen Seleznyov and Artem Kravets will fancy adding to their international tallies in this fixture. At the back goalkeeper Pyatov and defenders Shevchuk, Kucher and Rakitskiy all play together at Shakhtar Donetsk and having good familiarity at club level will certainly help on the international stage.
Slovenia, ranked 64 in the world, came 3rd in a group containing England and Switzerland. They made both work for 3-2 victories but really do have their work cut out if they are to progress. Like Ukraine they have a lot of experience with Inter Milan goalkeeper Handanovic having 79 appearances and defenders Cesar (the Slovenia captain), Brecko, Jokic and Illic having 297 caps between them. In midfield, Valtyer Birsa of Chievo and Andraz Kirm of Omonia pull the strings. Upfront, Japan based duo Zlata Ljubijankic and 36 year old Milivoje Novakovic will need to be at their best. Novakovic has 31 international goals and has quite a prolific European club goal scoring record. He missed Slovenia's last two games through injury and manager Srecko Katanec will be glad to have him back. Also watch for Robert Beric of Saint Etienne. Beric has been preferred as the 3rd striker to the more experienced Tim Matavz. However, Beric managed 30 goals in 38 games for Rapid Vienna last season and has 3 in 9 for Saint Etienne and could be something of an unknown quantity for the Ukrainians.
Anatoliy Tymoshchuk - Ukraine
Denmark v Sweden (Solna - 14th Nov & Copenhagen - 17th Nov)
Arguably the tie of the round and the Scandinavian Derby. Denmark (world ranking 35) qualified for the playoffs coming from a 5 team group which was won by Portugal with Albania surprisingly finishing second. Albania benefited by having the abandoned Serbia home match awarded to them as the result of crowd trouble, a result that ultimately gave them the 2 point cushion that pipped Denmark to second place. Denmark lost twice in their group, both times to Portugal though they managed just 8 goals from their 8 games. They are managed by Morten Olsen and captained by former Liverpool defender and qualified tattoo artist Daniel Agger. At the back alongside Agger, they also have the Simon Kjaer and in midfield can call upon the talents of Tottenham Hotspur’s Christian Eriksen. Eriksen is known as a dead ball specialist and playmaker and he will be the one expected to unlock the Swedish defence. Viktor Fischer of Ajax is one name to watch upfront and the 21 year old has a club goal scoring record of 21 goals in 60 games, which is not bad for a left winger. Also upfront will be the former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner. Bendtner is often criticized for his perceived over confidence, much of which I suspect is tongue in cheek and in reality, whilst he has enourmous self belief, he does not take himself too seriously. Currently playing in Germany for Wolfsburg, Bendtner’s goal scoring record at club level could be better. However the striker, who is still only 27, has score 29 goals in 72 appearances at international level and if Denmark are to progress he will definitely need to be on the top of his game. Between the goalposts, Denmark call upon Leicester City’s Kaspar Schmeichel, son of the great Dane Peter Schmeichel. Denmark won the competition in 1992 and went on to win the Confederations Cup in 1995 so they do have pedigree. They also have a chance to avenge the 4-1 slippering Sweden handed out in last summers 2015 Under 21 European Championship at the semi final stage.
Once again Sweden, ranked 45 in the world, find themselves in a playoff to get to a major championship and will remember how their World Cup 2014 campaign ended with a Ronaldo v Ibrahimovic battle as Portugal knocked them out. This could be Ibrahimovic’s last chance at a major tournament and it would be good to see him grace the finals. Sweden lost twice in qualifying the most surprising at home against Austria who topped the group and won 4-1. Their other defeat was away in Russia. Surprisingly goals against the minnows in the group were a struggle. Austria and Russia managed 8 and 11 goals in their two matches against Liechtenstein whereas Sweden managed just 4. Ibrahimovic at 34 is still their best player and a modern day great too. A 10 time Swedish footballer of the year, he has 84 goals in 99 appearances for club PSG and at international level boasts 59 goals from 109 games. He has scored goals wherever he has played and much will be resting on him as Sweden attempt to make next years finals. Sweden coach Erik Hamren can also call upon Kim Kallstrom and also the uncapped Emir Kujovic, the 21 goal Norkopping striker. Veteran goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson is still between the posts and they also boast the experienced Martin Olsson of Norwich City and set piece specialist Sebastien Larsson. This will certainly be a tie not to be missed.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Sweden
I expect all to be close games but I think Norway, Ukraine and Sweden will progress to the finals and all are sides you would not relish facing in a finals group match. The Ireland v Bosnia match is tough to call though with Ireland at home in the second leg they perhaps have a slight advantage if they can get a draw in Bosnia. If the ties finish level after two legs then away goals will determine who progresses. If this still fails to decide a tie extra time will be played and at the end of that period of 30 minutes away goals will count if the sides are level, assuming any are scored. If that fails to separate the teams then we go to penalties.