Two cuts sent to visual Qualification for Euro 2020 gets under way this evening, and the big boys have been limbering up in their own inimitable way.
Qualification for Euro 2020 gets under way this evening, and the big boys have been limbering up in their own inimitable way.
Germany’s clash with The Netherlands in Amsterdam on Sunday is the match of the week, and the Germans are desperate to prove their eclipse in the Champions League is just another blip. England start their tour of the Balkans with a trip to Montenegro. And Italy, stuck with the same set of players, have paraded a new set of suits. It’s a four-year contract with Armani, intended to take them to the next World Cup.
For Ireland, the tournament begins with a low-key fixture, but it is no exaggeration to say that these opening two games against Gibraltar and Georgia have to be made to count.
In a tough group, Ireland have the small advantage that the two strongest sides meet early on. So for now at least, it has to be a matter of never mind the quality — just get the points.
Gibraltar are a weak side. In the Nations League, they lost to both Macedonia and Armenia by a four-goal margin — but a year ago this week they beat Latvia 1-0 thanks to a deflected free kick from Liam Walker two minutes from time. They also secured a surprise 1-0 away win in Armenia in October with a penalty from Joe Chipolina.
He and his cousin Roy are both stalwarts of Gibraltar’s main club side, Lincoln Red Imps, who famously pulled off a shock 1-0 win against Celtic in a 2016 Champions League qualifier. The scorer on that occasion was Lee Casciaro, now 37, and Gibraltar continue to lean heavily on their older players.
There is a clue to the way they play in those 1-0 scorelines. They have a stubborn defence, recently alternating between four and five at the back, and tend to rely on set-pieces and breakaways for goals. Both their goals in the home game against Armenia came from quick breaks, and at half-time the score was 1-1. But they then conceded three in six minutes and, as against Macedonia, tired noticeably in the final stages.
Georgia present a quite different challenge.
Unlike the Gibraltar side, who all know each other well, their players are scattered far and wide, from Eastern Europe to California.
They don’t concede many — just three in their last 10 games — and are a good technical side. In the Nations League, they won promotion with two games to spare, albeit from a poor group.
Vladimir Weiss, their coach for the past three years, made his name with Slovakia in the 2010 World Cup when they reached the last 16 by beating Italy. Georgia don’t have that flair and their key men are mainly in defence — centre back and captain Guram Kashia, Jaba Kankava in midfield, and giant goalkeeper Giorgi Loria.
However, some younger players are coming through, among them attacking midfielder Giorgi Chakvetadze, still only 19, who scored four in four games in the Nations League campaign in the autumn.
It may help Ireland’s cause that Georgia have to travel to Dublin immediately after facing Nations League finalists and group favourites Switzerland.
After underachieving in the World Cup, the Swiss produced the comeback of the year last November, beating Belgium 5-2 after going 2-0 down in the first 17 minutes.
They don’t have real stars, especially in the absence of Xherdan Shaqiri, who is injured, but their spine of players from the Bundesliga, including four from Borussia Monchengladbach, makes them a very solid team. Luckily for Denmark, Haris Seferovic, the Swiss hat-trick hero against Belgium, is out injured for Tuesday’s match in Basel.
So could Denmark start their campaign with a surprise? It’s possible, because the Danes have Lasse Schone and Kasper Dolberg, two of the Ajax players who stunned Real Madrid earlier this month, as well as Christian Eriksen pulling the strings.
Statistically speaking, Denmark ought to be among the strongest sides in the tournament, having achieved draws against both World Cup finalists last summer.
They warm up for the Swiss with a friendly in Kosovo tonight.