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