Sunday was a rare football-free day which allowed everyone involved in the full list of international fixtures on Saturday to reflect and recap. Some 19 of the 32 teams who will compete in South Africa next summer are now known and only two group winners are yet to be confirmed in the European region. Switzerland are in pole position to top Group Two, while Slovakia and Slovenia look set to battle it out for automatic qualification in Group Three.
The penultimate round of World Cup qualifying matches certainly did produce some talking points, however players and managers alike will be keen to put these behind them and focus on the upcoming final round of fixtures – although, for the home nations at least, Wednesday’s fixtures are little more than a practice match. The Republic of Ireland will have one eye on exactly which teams seal the remaining play-off places, with Portugal, Greece and the Ukraine looking likely to be potential opponents for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men. However, for Eire, as with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the main concern ahead of Wednesday is exactly who they will have available for selection following a spate of injuries and suspensions (it should be noted that Northern Ireland technically can still finish second, however a San Marino victory over Slovenia is as likely as Sir Alex Ferguson receiving a Christmas card from Alan Wiley this year).
Robert Green of England and Ireland’s Glenn Whelan are both suspended while Cardiff’s Darcy Blake has become the latest in a long line of Welsh pull-outs. Nigel Worthington will have to make do without Kyle Lafferty and George McCartney for the game in the Czech Republic while the story that dominates Monday’s back pages is that Wayne Rooney has pulled out of the England squad for their final game against Belarus with a calf injury. Having been the only England player to emerge with any credit from the disappointing defeat in the Ukraine, Rooney’s absence will undoubtedly be a major blow for Fabio Capello. The Italian will be keen to finish the qualifiers on a high, and while a solid defensive performance is perhaps more of a priority, the attacking prowess of the joint leading scorer in the qualifiers will certainly be missed.
He is also doubtful for Manchester United’s game against Bolton on Saturday and Sir Alex is not the only Premier League manager who will be sweating over the fitness of his star players. Fernando Torres has been ruled of Spain’s final qualifier while teammate Steven Gerrard is to be assessed before the Belarus game after picking up a knock on Saturday. Michael Ballack is another player to have picked up an injury while on international duty and club managers up and down the country will be hoping that they are not the next to be adversely affected following the next round of fixtures.
One player who is most certainly fit and raring to play for their country – regardless of the importance of the match or the potential effect on his club – is Emile Heskey. The back pages of several of Monday’s papers prominently feature the story that the Aston Villa striker may decide to quit Villa Park in January. Heskey has started all four games for England so far this season, despite starting only one game for Villa and he has now publicly acknowledged his concern that this lack of first team football could affect his chances of going to South Africa. He said: “I will have to sit down and think about my next move”, however he is likely to be given another chance to impress Fabio Capello on Wednesday and will be hopeful that a good display will not go unnoticed by Martin O’Neill. Unfortunately for Heskey, his club manager will certainly take note of his comments and the Irishman will certainly not be as happy as Capello to see the big striker nail his colours so firmly to the England mast, showing where his priorities truly lie.
Another story which has helped to deflect attention from England’s poor performance on Saturday is the fall-out from the flare throwing incidents which forced two stoppages in the game. FA director of communications, Adrian Bevington, has confirmed that the FA has already spoken to the FIFA match delegate about the incident and will be making a formal complaint in due course. A modest fine is the most likely outcome given the precedents in this area, however, the Ukraine’s problems could be further compounded if the FA also decides to take any action following alleged racist chants towards West Ham’s Carlton Cole.
All in all, it was a pretty dismal weekend for all four home nations and Ireland. With only one draw and four defeats to show from the weekend’s fixtures, the success story ironically ended up being the much criticised online streaming of the England game. With around 500,000 viewers including some cinemas, no major technological glitches and only minimal complaints of slow streaming speeds the whole episode was hailed “a success” by those involved. However, the majority of football fans will hope that the events of the weekend are never repeated. They will be pleased then that England’s game on Wednesday is back on terrestrial television and will be hopeful that England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire can get better results in their final qualifying game to banish the disappointment.
That said, given the relative unimportance of the fixtures, an even greater majority of football fans may just be looking forward to the end of these internationals qualifiers and the return of the Premier League next weekend.