Some favourites are already under pressure even before the second week-long “festival” of football for Europe’s international teams gets underway. New this season, the Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) “Week of Football” will once again last six days. Beginning on Thursday, 9 October, it will end on Tuesday 16 October and will include 52 international matches in the qualifying competition for the UEFA EURO 2016.
A number of surprising results at the start of the campaign have led to the first “casualties”.
Portugal’s 1-0 home defeat against Albania in Group I in September was followed by them having to appoint a new head coach. Fernando Santos, who up to recently had been in charge of Greece, is the new coach after Paulo Bento stepped down after the criticism directed at him during the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and then after the disaster against Albania. FIFA world ranked No. 11, Portugal is now hoping for a marked improvement in the game against Denmark on 14 October. The Danes who started off with a 2-1 win against Armenia will themselves face Albania three days earlier on 11 October.
Having replaced Louis van Gaal at the helm of the Dutch national team after the World Cup, Guus Hiddink is another prominent coach of a top team to come in for a lot of criticism. After finishing third in Brazil, the Netherlands however lost their opening Group A game 2-1 in the Czech Republic. Hiddink and the Oranje team were also beaten 2-0 in a friendly against Italy. It was the worst start for a new “bondscoach” since 1995 when the coach also went by the name of Hiddink – the Dutchman then guided the “Elftal” to the World Cup semi-final. Hiddink, whose managerial style is far more liberal than that of his predecessor van Gaal, and his methods and tactics are already being called into question.
Whilst van Gaal, who has since moved on to manage Manchester United, employed a defensive 5-3-2 in Brazil, Hiddink went back to the Netherlands’ more usual 4-3-3 system in Prague. The Czechs scored the winning goal in added time. “I was livid,” said Hiddink, who bided his time before commenting on the performance in which several players were nowhere near at their best.
Next up for the Netherlands on 13 October is an away game in Iceland who surprisingly beat Turkey 3-0 in their first game. The northern Europeans’ task was made easier by the sending off of Ömer Toprak with the score at 1-0. “We played very well for the whole of the 90 minutes. The first half was fantastic and the second really good,” said goal-scorer Kolbeinn Sigthórsson.
The Turks will be looking to redeem themselves at home against the Czech Republic on 10 October.
Other teams forced to return home early from Brazil after the group matches however got off to a good start in EURO 2016 qualifying. England played convincingly to beat Switzerland 2-0 in Group E – both goals in Basel were scored by Danny Welbeck. The Three Lions will now meet San Marino in Wembley on 9 October before travelling to Estonia for the away game on 12 October. As for the dethroned world champions Spain, their 5-1 win against Macedonia in Group C has warmed them up for the top game in Slovakia who themselves notched up three valuable points with a 1-0 success in the Ukraine.
The biggest euphoria after a bitter World Cup exit has however been felt in Italy who first beat the Netherlands in a friendly and then chalked up their first win in Norway for 77 years when beating the Scandinavians 2-0 in Group H.
They will be looking to add a further six points in the games against Azerbaijan (10 October) and then away in Malta (13 October). Antonio Conte, who after winning the league championship three times in succession with Juventus was appointed the new national coach when Cesare Prandelli stepped down after the World Cup, has come in for a lot of praise. He didn’t select Mario Balotelli for his first games in charge saying he only wanted real workhorses in his team.
The second round of matches in EURO 2016 qualifying will open on 9 October with the top game in Group G when Sweden takes on Russia. In their opening encounters, the Russians profited from two own goals in the 4-0 win against outsiders Liechtenstein whilst Sweden returned from Austria with a 1-1 draw. Supposedly easier opponents await both teams after the top match on 12 October as Russia and Sweden will meet Moldova and Liechtenstein respectively.
A 2-1 home defeat against Cyprus at the start of their Group B campaign in September was a major setback for World Cup participants Bosnia-Herzegovina. It means they are under big pressure ahead of their home game on 13 October against Belgium who will be playing their first game.
A potentially interesting match is the one in Warsaw on 11 October when Poland host the world champions. Germany came out of their Group D game unscathed after beating Scotland 2-1 and this after a rather lacklustre performance when losing 4-2 to Argentina a few days earlier. The world No. 1 was not quite firing on all cylinders as coach Joachim Löw has been forced to change his team around. Poland did all that was expected of them when cruising to a 7-0 win against Gibraltar - Robert Lewandowski contributed four of the goals. “We want to win both matches,” said Löw who also looked ahead to the home duel against Ireland on 14 October. Poland has another tough game on its hands as they will host Scotland.
One doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the second “week of football” will spring its surprises.