Monthly Archives: September 2018

Nations League of Opportunity

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The much mocked and riled UEFA Nations League could finally be a positive change from Europe’s footballing governing body as they reduce the number of energy sapping pointless friendlies for the big teams, and provide an opportunity for some of the lower ranked footballing nations to play some meaningful games to improve them.

As the dust settles on the inaugural round of UEFA Nations League fixtures and we all dread the return of league football across the continent, a quick reflection shows that the new format has been well received across a lot of Europe and could actually be a good idea on a number of levels. Firstly, rather than friendlies club sides manager’s would rather do without, and fans would rather didn’t feature in excess of 17 different players appearing for both sides, games have been both competitive and useful for the teams towards the top of the Nations League pyramid – with the higher ranked nations playing each other in a competitive game which hasn’t been win at all costs for competition qualification, but at the same time hasn’t been as pedestrian as friendly. Likewise, teams towards the bottom of the pyramid haven’t played games where they have been humiliated by the traditionally stronger nations, learning absolutely nothing other than how to chase shadows and pick the ball out of the net – they have played teams with similar quality and history, giving them a chance to play in competitive games and give them a feel for what it is like to win games, or defend leads going in to the final minutes, or keep the ball; this can only stand them in good stead for future qualification games.

The UEFA Nations League is not a league of friendlies as it offers sides who struggle during regular qualification for the European Championships in 2020 a ‘back door’ in to the competition – the trick being that you can’t abandon the Nations League on the basis that Euro 2020 qualification is most important, and then if that isn’t achieved, revert back to the Nations League – by that time the Nations League will be done and dusted. Teams should give the Nations League due attention, as it may be their saving grace come Euro 2020.

The format is confusing:

  • 55 teams split in to four leagues (Leagues A, B, C and D) according to UEFA rankings
  • Each league (A-D) is then split in to four groups (Groups 1 -4) of 3 or 4 teams
  • In each league (A-D) four teams are promoted (group winners) and four teams are relegated (bottom of each group)
  • Winners of Groups 1-4 in League A qualify for the final of the Nations League
  • Each Nations League gets four play-off spots (if the Group winners have already qualified for the Euro’s the spot goes to second place and so on) – 16 teams who go in to four groups with top team in each going forward to the Euros. The four teams in each group play semi-finals and final to determine qualification. The play-offs not being played until March 2020, but the line-up determined by games before the usual Euro Qualification games.

The format may be confusing but ultimately teams need to perform well to give them an insurance option for qualification for the Euro’s, and at the same time it offers the lower ranked and smaller nations a potentially more attractive route to qualifications – top a group of similar ranked teams and then win three ‘one-off’ games (rather than a longer qualification campaign in the traditional ranked format).

The Leagues and Groups are based on UEFA Rankings so they should be relatively comparative and close-matched – and for the most part in Leagues A and B they are, but looking at Leagues C and D, years of poor qualification records mean there is some disparity between the teams – in particular, Scotland look to have a modest group with Albania and Israel; Bulgaria with Slovenia, Norway and Cyprus; and, Serbia with Romania, Montenegro and Lithuania. In Group D Macedonia are the best of a poor bunch against Armenia, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar.

It is League D Group 3 which intrigues me the most: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Malta and Kosovo. In any regular qualifying game or normal friendly, all four of these teams would be long odds against a win, but on paper they all have the potentially to both win the group and finish bottom of it. My money would be on Kosovo though.

As a country, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008. In footballing terms, they played their first game as an independent nation almost two years to the day since they achieved independence in February 2010, a 3-2 home defeat by Albania. Despite applying for FIFA member the October following independence, this was rejected on the grounds that the independent state was not recognised by the international community – this meant they couldn’t even play friendly matches. It took until May 2012 for FIFA to revert that decision, allowing Kosovo to play international friendlies, but this was followed by a period of protest by Serbia resulting in the decision to allow them to play international friendlies to be revoked. It was not until January 2014 that FIFA granted permission for Kosovo to play against other FIFA member associations in international friendlies, but not representative teams of countries of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo’s first international friendly followed in March 2014, a 0-0 draw with Haiti. In terms of competitive football, Kosovo made their debut in the qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup following being accepted in to UEFA in May 2016 – they finished bottom of a qualifying group which contained Croatia, Finland, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine (Group I), with 1 point, 3 goals for and 24 against (see above regarding teams learning nothing from traditional qualifying games where they stand little chance of learning anything). The campaign had started with reasonable positivity with a 1-1 away draw with Finland.

At the end of that qualification campaign, Kosovo’s international record (competitive and friendlies) read: Played 24, Won 6, Drawn 3, Lost 15 – with the 6 wins all coming in friendlies against the likes of Sapmi, Monaco and Equatorial Guinea. It wasn’t an immediate birth of a footballing super-power.

Fast-forward to the current day, and in the six games since the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign they are unbeaten – winning five and drawing one. Giving them an overall record of Played 30, Won 11, Drawn 4 and Lost 15 – for a such a young footballing nation, a 50% non-defeat record is not a bad building block to start from. The friendly against Latvia in November 2017 resulted in a 4-3 victory – the first time they had scored four goals since independence was definitely a turning point following a disappointing qualifying campaign, and this victory came after their manager during World Cup qualifying, Albert Bunjaki, resigned following the poor results in qualifying, with a win percentage of 16.7%.

Bunjaki may have seen them as poor results but their worst defeat was 6-0 against Croatia in October 2016, just five months after being accepted in to UEFA, and don’t forget, Croatia reached the final of that tournament. Apart from a 3-0 loss away to the Ukraine days after the Croatia defeat, and a 4-1 loss to Turkey, Kosovo weren’t beaten by more than two goals in any game.

Following the victory over Latvia at the end of the World Cup Qualifying campaign (presided over by Caretaker Coach Muharrem Sahiti, Kosovo appointed the Swiss Bernard Challanders, a former coach of Young Boys, Zurich, Sion, Thun and Armenia, as well as the Under 17s, 18s and 21s of Switzerland. Since starting his role with the Swiss under 21 side on 1st July 2001, and including his five games in charge of Kosovo, he has a win percentage of almost 42%, winning more games than he has lost (129 to 111).

Since taking over the Kosovo team he has led them to four victories and one draw – with friendly wins over Madagascar, Burkina Faso, the Faroe Islands and most importantly Albania, and a draw against Azerbaijan. They are also yet to concede a goal under him (current goal difference is +8). He seems to have taken what they were good at in defeat in to games against comparable opposition – not conceding too many goals, and adding goals to the mix (they only scored 3 goals in the World Cup qualifying campaign). At the lower levels of European International football, teams concede a lot of goals – if you can be stingy at the back and not concede often, the likelihood is you will get chances. As was evident in the recent Nations League game against Faroe Islands. Going in to the tournament, Azerbaijan where probably favourites for League D Group 3, and recognising this as the toughest of their ties, Kosovo got a 0-0 draw in Baku – drawing away and winning at home is a good method to make sure you are in the mix at the end of the tournament, and you would expect them to get a win away at Malta and maybe even at the Faroe Islands, so it could all be in their hands.

If you look at the Kosovo squad, they aren’t made up of nobodies playing in part-time leagues in the middle of nowhere; their last squad featured players from Dinamo Zagreb, Mouscron, Zurich, Akhmmat Grozny, Heerenveen, Bronby, Swansea, Start, Genk, Sheffield Wednesday and Willem II – all teams people have heard of and the majority of which play in the top flights of their respective football pyramid. These are just the players who have chosen to play for Kosovo since their independence and acceptance in to UEFA. Prior to this the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami, Cana, Xhaka and Januzaj all qualified to play for Kosovo but chose alternatives potentially due to Kosovo not being accepted by UEFA for International Football. These are all players who would improve any team in Leagues B, C and D. Now Kosovo players no longer have to look elsewhere for international football, there is the chance that more talent can come through the system to represent the national side.

The Football Superleague of Kosovo is hardly a footballing hot bed – its is ranked the 55th league according to UEFAs coefficient, just ahead of San Marino and Gibraltar and some 15,000 coefficient points behind Scotland , and this is reflected in their performance in the Europa and Champions League entrants in the last couple of years – the furthest a team got was the 2nd Qualifying Round of the Champions League this year, where Drita where eliminated by F91 Dudelange of Luxembourg, which gives you an idea of the quality of the league. But this could be to the national sides gain. If a player has quality and wants to make it a decent level, he will more than likely have to move abroad, probably from a young age, and potentially to nearby countries of Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Croatia to help them progress. The key here though is that they have a country they can return to and proudly represent on the international stage, an option the likes of Shaqiri, Behrami and Xhaka weren’t afforded at that stage of their careers. The future has the potential to be very bright.

Part way through their failed World Cup campaign I spotted the trend that although they were a young side in terms of International football for the country, they weren’t getting tonked like we see with San Marino, Malta and Gibraltar, and from a personal point of view, backing them in the handicap market of +3 goals at roughly evens was pretty successful. To take it one step further I asked Skybet to price up a #RequestABet that they would qualify for either the Euro’s in 2020 or the World Cup in 2022 – they never responded. At present Skybet are offering odds of 8/13 for Kosovo to win League D Group 3 and odds of 2500/1 to win the Euros in 2020 – I’m not saying they will win the tournament, but they are currently 48th in the list to win it, which gives an indication on the bookies belief in their chances of qualifying – not very likely. In normal circumstances they would probably be right, but I imagine not so long ago Iceland were somewhere down that list and look how far they have come and what they have achieved in the last 6 or so years. And they didn’t have a ‘back door’ option to qualify. I don’t think it will be long until we (hopefully) see a Shefki Kuqi-style belly flop to celebrate qualification for a major tournament.

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Putting Things In To Perspective

Is one defeat in eight games for a newly promoted team really cause to start questioning the manager? Social media such as Twitter really is an ugly place when results don’t go your way.

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I, probably like most Blackburn Rovers fans, was pleased to learn that last Sunday’s game against Bristol City was going to be available to watch on the red button, and I sat myself down with anticipation and excitement at watching Rovers away from home – something I’ve not been able to do as regularly as I’d like due to the lack of Rovers games on Sky in recent years, and the growing cost of away travel. I, like most Rovers fans may not have seen any of the five goals since they were scored as replays were not on offer.

Although both sides started shakily at the back, arguably Rovers looked the more vulnerable when they took the lead from a Charlie Mulgrew corner which found its way in to the goal. I blinked/looked away when the corner was taken and as a result missed the ball finding its way in to the back of the net. From here, Rovers took control of the game and should have been more than one goal ahead as the half drew to a close with chances spurned by Adam Armstrong and Kasey Palmer – chances which would prove crucial. Bristol City equalised directly from a free kick just before the break. However, if you look at where the somewhat soft free-kick was given – right on the edge of the 18-yard box, on the line even – and where it was taken from, Josh Brownhill moved the ball back about 5 yards; just enough for him to get the ball up and over the wall and back down. Now I’m not saying Charlie Mulgrew hasn’t done this in his time with Rovers, but it represented a shift in the referees’ performance.

As the opening goal went in, the Bristol City players argued about something, but without a replay it was difficult to tell what; and ultimately this resulted in, or at least contributed to, Bristol City manager Lee Johnson being cautioned by the referee. The referee had been poor both ways in the first half, in particular getting in the way of the ball and attacking movements for City, but it seemed that once he had booked Johnson, any 50/50 he could give City’s way he did, every free kick or throw-in City could steal 5 or so yards from he allowed, and every possible free kick in Blackburn’s favour he could have given he opted not to – I don’t think Danny Graham won a free-kick all game. There were no big game changing decisions, but he was generally poor for both sides at different times of the game – and the free-kick scored by City on the brink of half time arguably changed the outcome of the game; if Rovers had taken a lead in to half time, re-grouped and focussed on defending the lead and hitting City on the break, which had worked so well in the first half, we may have left with at least a point.

That said, Rovers second half performance didn’t deserve anything from the game. Instead of the spirited never-say-die attitude we have seen so much in the last 18 months, we capitulated and looked like conceding at every attack – Raya was arguably our Man of the Match, and he conceded four. In my opinion, the game was lost because of the number and scale of the changes Mowbray implemented when we were only one goal down. As City’s second goal went in Graham was substituted for new boy Ben Brereton and within 10 minutes later, Ryan Nyambe had been swapped for Joe Rothwell, and 5 minutes later, Palmer replaced by Joe Nuttall – within 2 minutes of the latter change Rovers were two behind and seemingly no way back. For me, there was no need for such drastic changes, especially in formation. At one goal behind there is always the possibility of creating a chance, winning a penalty, or winning a free-kick on the edge of the box; the three changes and the system change showed that Mowbray wasn’t afraid to gamble for all three points, but it opened us up to our first loss of the season – a run that it would have been nice to continue for as long as possible. The changes made us more attacking focussed, yet we still didn’t create any clear-cut chances, and all it served to do was make us even more vulnerable at the back.

The key change for me was the Danny Graham substitution – yes he is getting on and probably doesn’t have 90 minutes in his legs twice a week anymore, but he leads by example chasing every ball down and challenging for every header and 50/50. By bringing Brereton on when we needed a goal, and making him our point of attack it only served to heap more pressure on him than the rumoured £6m price tag, and we created nothing for him to work with. I’m not saying Brereton shouldn’t have been introduced at some point, in fact, it was probably the ideal time to bring him on, but the change should have been for either Palmer who was changing or for Smallwood, moving Bennett in to the middle of midfield to provide a bit more bite. That way, Brereton was shouldering all the expectations, but he was still freshening things up, and it also allowed for Nuttall to replace Graham should he tire and/or a further change be required.

For context, that’s our first defeat of the season, in our first season back in the Championship, it’s only Mowbray’s 13th defeat in 78 games, we sit 13th in the league above the liked of Nottingham Forest, Stoke City, Norwich, Preston, Birmingham and Hull City.

Yet, when you look at social media anyone would think we had yet to win a game this season and we had been perennial strugglers. I don’t know why, but it still amazes me the opinions of so called Rovers fans – calling for Mowbray to go, Brereton (who played less than 40 minutes) not being up to it, and other fearing a relegation scrap all season. It was one bad result, we need keep things in perspective. I dare say those posting the negative comments are those who only attended the final game of last season and ran on the pitch – there were 27,600 people there that day, yet our average attendance at home so far this season is 12,384; if you want to have a moan and make your feelings known publicly, at least have the decency to go to the home games – especially when you so gleefully and moronically ran on the pitch spoiling the day for those true fans who have suffered recently and preventing them from celebrating with ‘their’ players. When Mowbray came in we were a basket-case of a club both on and off the pitch, and in the 18 months since his arrival he has turned the club around and brought back pride and optimism. So what if we were beaten 4-1 away from home, the guy has earnt the right to that and I’m sure he’ll be working hard to put things right.

One thing that has impressed me a lot about Mowbray is that every player he has brought in he has brought in for a reason, whether it be on loan or a permanent signing – gone are the days of endless journey-men loan slags coming in to the club, only to leave 3 months later (see Cameron Stewart, Liam Feeney etc). Yet now, every player we bring in looks like a calculated signing aimed to improve the team, not just get numbers through the door. Even the way Caddis and Whittingham have had their contracts terminated has been admirable – in years gone by if we couldn’t shift them by the time the window closed, they’d be kept on just in case. I dare say Mowbray had agreed with them both they’d be given a chance in pre-season and the League Cup and if no suitors came, they’d be allowed to leave via the front door.

I’ve pondered whether the international break has come at the wrong time as most footballers say after a defeat like that you just want to get back out there; but in this scenario I think it may have fallen at the right time. It gives the new players who have come in chance to bond with the rest of the team and get a feel for what the club is about – skill and hard work – and it gives them time to reflect on what went wrong ahead of a tricky tie against Aston Villa, who are arguably in the position some of our more pessimistic fans feel we are in. My only hope is those who are away on international duty, mainly Lenihan and Mulgrew come back unscathed.

 

Image source: https://www.bristolpost.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/bristol-city-blackburn-report-highlights-1961099

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