British country assesses chances and the prospects of a domestic bonanza in two years’ time

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SHAFAQNA – Wales: Bale brilliance allied to team spirit With seven points from their opening three Group B fixtures, Wales have made their best start to a qualifying campaign since Euro 2004, when they won four in a row. That campaign ended, as has happened so many times since Wales’s 1958 World Cup appearance, in disappointment in the shape of a play-off defeat to Russia, but the efforts of Chris Coleman’s side this past week have raised hopes that this time might just be different.

After all, it is not often a home team are applauded off after a goalless draw, but that was the reaction inside a packed Cardiff City Stadium after last Friday’s stalemate with Bosnia-Herzegovina, underlining the buoyant mood on and off the field in the principality.

Despite a long injury list and – by his sky-high standards – muted Gareth Bale display, they held their nerve to claim a point with the help of some superb second-half saves from goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Coleman said it was his proudest moment as manager and another team effort then earned a 2-1 victory over Cyprus on Monday.

If Bale’s brilliant flick sent Hal Robson-Kanu through on goal to score the winner, it was a night where the Welsh showed they can dig in as they defended their advantage for almost the entire second half with 10 men following Andy King’s sending-off.

Coleman suggested that previous Wales teams would not have held out in either game and this new-found determination is embodied by Bale. There is no risk of any club v country row with the Real Madrid star who, as Ryan Giggs noted this week, is delivering for Wales when it matters – it was his late free-kick winner in Andorra, remember, that set the ball rolling last month. “He’s stepping up – he has to deliver at Real where the expectation is huge and the pressure is on and it’s showing in his performances for Wales that he can still deliver,” said Giggs.

Wales now have a valuable good start – “the two times I came close, the momentum was there from the off,” added Giggs – although it would help Coleman to have his two key midfielders, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, back from injury for their next fixture – the trip to Belgium on 16 November.

They look well-placed as it is for at least a third-place finish and play-off spot, and Bale for one is a believer. “It’s a different feeling in the camp now – everybody is really fighting for each other.”

Star man so far Gareth Bale.

Qualifying chances 7/10 (8/10 for play-offs).

Scotland: Strachan restores belief

“This is the hardest group in the European Championships by far,” is Gordon Strachan’s verdict on Group D. Yet what is already apparent is his Scotland team are ready to give it a good go after the way they built on the promise of last month’s unfortunate  2-1 opening defeat in Germany with their efforts this week.

In Saturday’s 1-0 win over Georgia they produced what Strachan declared as the best attacking football of his reign, even if it took an own goal to get them over the line. Then they went to a Poland side fresh from beating Germany and showed real defiance: first recovering from conceding an early goal to lead 2-1, then holding on for a potentially vital point after Poland had equalised. And if they rode their luck at times in both games – Georgia’s Irakli Dzaria missed a late chance at Ibrox, while Poland hit the post in Warsaw – that too seems a pleasing change to the time-worn script.

Steven Naismith put Scotland ahead in PolandSteven Naismith put Scotland ahead in Poland (Getty)
Under Strachan, the gloom that had descended during Craig Levein’s time in charge has lifted. It was four years ago this month that Levein played his infamous 4-6-0 formation in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Prague and it is testament to Strachan’s coaching acumen that he has not just raised them to 29th in the world from 72nd but got Scotland attacking with genuine belief.

Strachan is reaping the rewards for bringing Steven Fletcher back into the fold after the Sunderland forward’s fall-out with Levein and, moreover, for unearthing Ikechi Anya. The pacy Watford winger scored the Scots’ goal in Germany and Anya was also involved in their opening goal in Warsaw which showcased their team play: Fletcher dropped deep and fed the winger and he showed great vision to pick out Shaun Maloney for a composed finish. Factor in Steven Naismith’s intelligence and eye for goal and the promptings of James Morrison in midfield and there is real cause for optimism.

The same applies further back, where Hull left-back Andrew Robertson made an impressive competitive debut against Georgia and where Scotland have one of last season’s best Premier League goalkeepers – Cardiff’s David Marshall, who pulled off a vital late save from Poland’s Robert Lewandowski. Celtic Park will be packed for next month’s visit of the Irish (not to mention the “friendly” with England four days later). The outcome of the games with the Irish could be key, though Strachan warns that “this will go the last day”.

Star man so far Ikechi Anya.

Chances of qualifying 6/10.

Northern Ireland: Lafferty’s goals deliver perfect start

One Belfast newspaper might have got slightly carried away when asking: “So how are your French lessons coming along?” But the sense of excitement generated by Northern Ireland’s perfect start in Group F is understandable. After all, not even in the days of reaching back-to-back World Cups under Billy Bingham in the 1980s did Northern Ireland kick off a campaign with three straight victories.

It is already a vast improvement on their efforts in 2014 World Cup qualifying where Michael O’Neill’s team won just one match and offset promising results – beating Russia and drawing in Portugal – with a home draw and away defeat to Luxembourg.

Yet in this past week they have showed that last month’s 2-1 win in Hungary was no flash in the pan – first with a 2-0 victory over the Faroes and then  going to Piraeus to beat the top seeds in the group, Greece.

Northern Ireland’s Jamie Ward scored the opener in GreeceNorthern Ireland’s Jamie Ward scored the opener in Greece (Reuters)
Tuesday night’s triumph showcased Kyle Lafferty’s revival of fortunes. Last September Lafferty was accused of letting his team down after his sending-off in the home defeat by Portugal. A year on, he has scored in all three victories and O’Neill warrants credit for getting the best out of the Norwich forward.

“Kyle has all the attributes to play right at the top level of the game – pace, technique, power, size,” said O’Neill of the former Burnley and Rangers player who added to Jamie Ward’s early strike with a second-half goal on the counter-attack in Greece. “What he has done in the last three games is bring it all together. International football suits him, particularly away from home, when there is space.”

It is not all about Lafferty, of course. Northern Ireland have an experienced nucleus in Gareth McAuley, Aaron Hughes, Steven Davies and Chris Baird. O’Neill believes that in the last campaign they fell short at key moments in games but now have “added that little bit of quality”.

Given they are in one of the weaker groups, it is no wonder they are dreaming of reaching a first major finals since Mexico ’86. A third-place finish – and play-off spot – seems an increasingly realistic goal, even if they slip up in Romania next month. “We wouldn’t have dreamed we’d have nine points from three games,” added O’Neill.

Star man so far Kyle Lafferty.

Chances of qualifying 6/10 (8/10 for the play-offs).

Republic of Ireland: O’Neill and Keane show defensive steel

Irish football exorcised an old ghost in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday night. It was in the Ruhr city 26 years ago that their inaugural European Championship adventure was ended by a late Wim Kieft goal for the Netherlands that eliminated Jack Charlton’s team from the Euro ’88 finals.

Yet for Martin O’Neill’s side the 1-1 draw against world champions Germany had fans looking forward not back, as the prospect of a place at Euro 2016 moved a step closer thanks to John O’Shea’s injury-time equaliser.

That, more than the seven the Irish put past Gibraltar on Saturday – when Robbie Keane scored a hat-trick inside 18 minutes – will have raised their hopes. It means, after all, that the Irish have taken four points from difficult trips to Georgia and Germany. The 2-1 win in Georgia came thanks to Aiden McGeady’s 90th-minute winner, a piece of individual magic that O’Neill described as “a stroke of genius”.

O’Shea is not known for his wizardry but his strike past Manuel Neuer was just as special in its own way, a centre-forward’s finish by a player winning his 100th cap. O’Neill’s men now sit level on seven points at the Group D summit with Poland and it was all the more impressive for the absence of arguably Ireland’s two best players, right-back Seamus Coleman and midfielder James McCarthy.

Republic of Ireland players celebrate John O'Shea's last-gasp equaliserRepublic of Ireland players celebrate John O’Shea’s last-gasp equaliser (PA)
In a tough group, Ireland can still afford few slip-ups, meaning the pressure is still on for their next two fixtures – against Scotland in Glasgow next month and at home to the Poles in March– but the signs are certainly positive under the O’Neill-Roy Keane  double act.

Ireland look very well-drilled defensively and, in the absence of the retired Richard Dunne, O’Neill has a strong-looking central defensive pairing in O’Shea and Stoke City’s Marc Wilson. He also seems to be bringing the best out of James McClean, the Wigan winger, who scored twice against Gibraltar and shone again in Gelsenkirchen.

There are still some question marks, not least over the reliance on the veteran Keane in attack owing to the failure of the other strikers, notably Shane Long, to stake a convincing claim.

The debate in Ireland over the inventive Wes Hoolahan’s confinement to a substitute’s role in Germany may run. Yet the table tells its own satisfying story and O’Neill could not be happier. “I said to the players if we had six points after four games we’d probably be relatively pleased,” he said. “Now it’s seven from three.”

Star man so far John O’Shea.

Chances of qualifying 7/10.

SOURCE : http://www.independent.co.uk/

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