Supreme achievement by Ireland both North and south of the border, Wales and Gareth Bale qualifying so impressively for the first time a Welsh team has reached a major finals.
1958’s fine team, largely and arguably superior to this one, having come late into the World Cup tournament through the back door on a play-off with Israel (having already been eliminated in the qualifiers). Only to prove by far the best of all four qualified British teams in the Swedish finals.
England of course are through at a canter, having won all their qualifying matches, though they had a hard time of it at the end of last season in Slovenia, when it took a couple of fine goals by Jack Wilshere – seriously needed in France next year – forever prone to injury to get them out of trouble.
Wales last group match was something of an anti-climax, beaten 2-0 by a Bosnian team lacking its one major star in Edin Dzeko, but still good enough to score two goals.
Watching the last two matches in this 100 per cent campaign it was hard to feel any enthusiasm for this England team. A good deal of hope resides in the young Ross Barkley: an impressive performance at Wembley, and in Lithuania where he scored an excellent goal, and has shown he can make them too.
Wayne Rooney, England’s all-time leading goalscorer, didn’t play in either of those two fixtures but I’m not at all sure how much his presence would count.
Wales? They did splendidly well to qualify, but they are dangerously dependent on Gareth Bale, with only Aaron Ramsey a player of outstanding quality, to help him in attack.
That said, in the grand old Welsh days of their father figure, Ted Robbins, Third Division players could be transformed into giants, but it hasn’t quite been happening now. The defence, until the defeat in Bosnia, has however looked thoroughly resilient, marshalled by the excellent Ashley Williams. But expectations should not be exaggerated by the current euphoria.
One’s great admiration should go to the two Irelands. A shame that the Republic have been consigned to the play-offs, but their astonishing win against Germany must physically have taken so much out of them before facing the Poles in Warsaw so soon afterwards
Their conquest of the World champions in Dublin was an historic performance and an immense credit both to their manager, Martin O’Neill, and their resilient team. O’Neill was indeed right to laugh at the pitiful whinge of his German counterpart, Joachim Low, who accused the Irish of employing long ball tactics.
“We expected Ireland to get ten men behind the ball and play long hopeful balls…we avoided 99 of those balls but the 100th was just too many,” he said.
The crucial difference being that Shane Long superbly exploited the towering clearance by his goalkeeper, Darren Randolph, while the Germans squandered a plethora of opportunities. Ireland won fair and square. They didn’t kick Low’s men off the park. And when Germany went on to squeeze against mediocre Georgia, helped by Thomas Muller’s penalty, it became more clear than ever that Germany were no longer the same team that defeated Brazil 7-1 last year.
Even then they were surely lucky in the final versus Argentina, when their much-lauded goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, should surely have been sent off for his shocking and potentially lethal mid-air challenge on the Argentinean striker Gonzalo Higuain
Northern Ireland are also through to the finals under the inspirational leadership of the other O’Neill, Michael, lesser known, but now an Ulster hero.
Remarkably, this team was below full strength, but every player surpassed himself, not least its veteran skipper, midfielder Steven Davis, now at Southampton. The absence of top scorer Kyle Lafferty and others was simply shrugged off.
Meanwhile, beware of Austria, who came through their group unbeaten, with the 6ft 4inch Marko Arnautovic, A Viennese, scoring goals for club, Stoke City, and country.
The euphoria of the Messianic coming of Jurgen Klopp to Liverpool is explicable, but perhaps a trifle exaggerated. Expectations on Merseyside are now massive, though Klopp seems a strong and resilient enough character to bear them.
Much is relevantly made of the way he transformed Borussia Dortmund, with his demanding, adventurous methods. Indeed I believe his Borussia deserved to win the European Cup against Bayern Munich in that final at Wembley when two Bayern players surely deserved to be sent off.
Yet it cannot be ignored that despite their triumphant years under his aegis, Dortmund faded badly last season. The possibility that over the glorious years he had simply demanded too much of them physically. Though selling the prolific Lewandowski to Bayern Munich as clearly a relevant factor in Dortmund’s decline.