Wednesday 10 September ~
England aren’t the only big football nation under pressure only one game into World Cup qualification – in fact they’re in very good company. Last Saturday’s most eye-catching result was the Group Seven game between two of the worst teams at Euro 2008: France and Austria. The 3-1 win for the Austrians, from two first-half free-kicks and a second-half penalty, has left France coach Raymond Domenech looking as vulnerable as he did when knocked out of Euro 2008 by Italy.
Tonight France host Serbia, who beat the Faroe Islands with two late goals on Saturday. The French Football Federation president Jean-Pierre Escalettes used revolutionary imagery to defend Domenech this week: “People are coming to see Domenech’s head roll more than to watch a match. That is not right.” But should France fail to get a positive result Domenech looks unlikely to survive. In this event one of the favourites for the job would be Didier Deschamps and, according to several reports, this is what Deschamps has in mind while stalling over the current vacancy at Newcastle United. So while Newcastle fans will be hoping for a France win tonight, their prospective new boss himself faces the prospect of becoming national team coach or working with Mike Ashley, Tony Jimenez and Dennis Wise. Quite a choice.
If it helps, England can also take heart from the fact that both Italy and Group Six rivals Ukraine needed very late goals to get expected results on Saturday. The game between Cyprus and Italy reflected the current boom in Cypriot football as reported in the current issue of WSC – the latest example being the 3-1 aggregate victory for Cypriot champions Anorthosis Famagusta over Greek champions Olympiakos in the third Champions League qualifying round. At national level Cyprus were holding Italy 1-1 until a 92nd-minute goal from Udinese striker Antonio Di Natale. After dominating the match and missing a large number of chances, Ukraine needed an even later Andriy Shevchenko penalty to beat neighbours Belarus. Tonight Ukraine are away to Kazakhstan while Italy are at home to Georgia, who lost 2-1 to Ireland in Germany on Saturday.
Closer to home Scotland have yet to win in the four games under George Burley. The abject loss in Macedonia at the weekend makes tonight’s game in Iceland intriguing, especially as Iceland gained a creditable 2-2 in Norway at the weekend. It’s debatable as to how well the Scottish management team is handling the media pressure. This morning Scotland assistant manager Terry Butcher promised to go for a victory in Reykjavik but also came out with a fierce defence of Burley: “I would have done things a lot differently to George in terms of reacting to the criticism. I’d have grabbed a few people by the throat and had a go back by now but, by law, I can’t do that any more.”