Celtic in­va­sion shakes Euro

North­ern Ire­land, the Repub­lic and Wales look to con­tinue their good for­tunes in 2016 qual­i­fi­ca­tion as Dutch seek first win

The Star Early Edition - - SOCCER - SAPA-AFP

NORTH­ERN Ire­land and Ice­land have punched above their weight so far and will be out to land fur­ther blows in Euro 2016 qual­i­fy­ing this week­end, while world cham­pi­ons Ger­many seek a morale-boost­ing win over the am­a­teurs from Gibraltar.

Else­where, Eng­land skip­per Wayne Rooney earns his 100th cap against Slove­nia, Scot­land clash with the Repub­lic of Ire­land, and reign­ing Euro­pean cham­pi­ons Spain host Be­larus.

A shock 1-1 draw with the Repub­lic in Ger­many last month left Joachim Loew’s men, al­ready seen off by Poland, play­ing catch-up in fourth place in Group D, three points shy of the Poles and the Ir­ish.

Min­nows Gibraltar, who have leaked 17 goals to none scored, should rep­re­sent easy pick­ings for the con­ti­nen­tal su­per­power.

“We know we’re clear favourites and that is ex­actly how we want to step out against them,” said Loew.

Gibraltar, who only played their first in­ter­na­tional in Septem­ber, have mod­est am­bi­tions from the game in Nurem­berg, as their goal­keeper, Jor­dan Perez ex­plained. A fire­man by pro­fes­sion Perez told Sportbild mag­a­zine: “Any­thing be­low seven goals and I’ll be sat­is­fied as then we can say that we’re bet­ter than Brazil (routed 7-1 by Ger­many at the World Cup).”

Ger­many were stung by Sun­der­land de­fender John O’Shea’s 94th minute equaliser for Ire­land.

And to­mor­row the 34-yearold veteran comes up against his Premier League club team­mate, Scot­land striker Steven Fletcher.

“I am look­ing for­ward to it, to be fair. I have been run­ning rings around him in train­ing, so if I could do it in the game, it would be fine,” Fletcher said.

Ice­land stunned heavy­weights The Nether­lands 2-0 last time out to main­tain their un­likely per­fect run in Group A. The tiny Nordic na­tion of 325 000 in­hab­i­tants take on the Czech Repub­lic, who sim­i­larly have not missed a beat in the three qual­i­fiers so far.

The un­der-per­form­ing Dutch team’s third-place fin­ish at the World Cup is now a long dis­tant mem­ory, with new coach Guus Hid­dink un­der fire at home.

Any­thing short of out­right vic­tory against Latvia in Am­s­ter­dam will only fur­ther weaken his po­si­tion.

Like Ice­land, the Czechs also saw off The Nether­lands, and they are un­der no il­lu­sions as to what lies ahead when the Ice­landers come call­ing on Sun­day.

“They are well or­gan­ised, com­mit­ted, tough and their big­gest weapon is the team- work; they work hard for the team not only in de­fence but also in the at­tack,” said the Czech Repub­lic’s Chelsea keeper Petr Cech.

North­ern Ire­land lead Group F by two points from Ro­ma­nia, with the pair fac­ing off in Bucharest to­day.

The vis­i­tors are with­out their cap­tain Steven Davis, who has failed to re­cover from a ham­string in­jury picked up in his club Southamp­ton’s win over Le­ices­ter last week­end.

Eng­land host sec­ond-placed Slove­nia at Wem­b­ley aim­ing to tighten their grip on Group E, with Rooney set to be­come only his coun­try’s ninth player to reach 100 caps.

And man­ager Roy Hodg­son reck­ons the 29-year-old Manch­ester United striker can go on and be­come Eng­land’s most capped player of all time, an hon­our cur­rently held by goal­keep­ing great Peter Shilton.

“If we are gen­er­ous and give him another five years, which is not beyond the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity, he should beat Peter’s record (of 126 ap­pear­ances).”

In Group G, 2018 World Cup hosts Rus­sia are in Vi­enna to play lead­ers Aus­tria with a whiff of cri­sis hang­ing over man­ager Fabio Capello after Rus­sia’s foot­ball fed­er­a­tion ad­mit­ted they were un­able to pay the Ital­ian’s multi-mil­lion dol­lar salary.

The for­mer Eng­land boss said this month: “I haven’t been paid ac­cord­ing to my con­tract for five months. I am get­ting close to the limit. I am some­where near.”

In Group C, Spain are at home to Be­larus miss­ing in­jured Chelsea mid­fielder Cesc Fabre­gas, with Vil­lar­real’s Bruno So­ri­ano called up in­stead. Group H serves up a sum­mit meet­ing be­tween Croa­tia and Italy while in Group B Gareth Bale lines up for sur­prise ta­ble-top­pers Wales against third-placed Bel­gium.

The Welsh are try­ing to reach their first ma­jor tour­na­ment since the 1958 World Cup.

Bale’s Real Madrid team­mate, Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, kick­started Por­tu­gal’s Group I cam­paign with his 51st in­ter­na­tional goal in in­jury time against Den­mark last month.

New coach Fer­nando San­tos will be ask­ing for more of the same against Ar­me­nia in Faro.

PIC­TURE: GETTY IMAGES

IRE­LAND, STAND­ING TALL: Gareth McAluey of North­ern Ire­land cel­e­brates his goal with his team­mates dur­ing an ear­lier match in the Euro 2016 qual­i­fiers. North­ern Ire­land, as well as their Repub­li­can peers, have shocked the tour­na­ment and are top of their re­spec­tive groups.

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