England sweat the small stuff against Slovakia
Another England game, another chance to gauge how highly the England team are thought of by the England fans. The empty seats (worsened by a ticket printing error that left a few thousand waiting outside after kick off) could be explained by the fact that qualifying campaigns do little to raise the national pulse, or simply that the prospect of Slovakia is never likely to fill Wembley.
Either way, sell-out crowds are one of our favourite national-team obsessions, along with that infernal armband and who takes the corners. However, for a good 40 minutes or so (or 40 years, depending on your perspective) this match suggested attention should be turned to the now quintessentially English inability to pass, control or otherwise keep possession of a football.
England permanently look like a team 1-0 down, such is their inherent impatience, and that’s precisely what they were within three minutes against a Slovakia side who could have ended the night top of the group. In the end, two moments of technical clarity from Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford dragged Gareth Southgate’s work-in-progress over the line.
The World Cup beckons, but who will take our corners in Russia?
¡Forward, Northern Ireland!
There is increasing talk of Michael O’Neill chancing his arm in the thankless day-to-day maelstrom of domestic football. That may well be where his ambitions lie, but it really does seem like the only way is down from here. After a feel-good Euro 2016 campaign that announced their return from the wilderness after 30 years, the Northern Irish look nailed on for a play-off spot in a bid to reach the World Cup for the first time since Mexico ‘86.
They’re also even better than the team who topped their Euros qualifying group. They have already matched their tally of 16 goals (in two fewer games) while shipping just two at the other end. At home – the bouncing Windsor Park – they have won four from four without conceding. “Those things," as O’Neill put it after the 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, “are huge feathers for us.”
Matters are helped by a curious Group C, in which Germany have rightly run away with it, ahead of Azerbaijan and the palest shadows of what only officially can be called Norway and the Czech Republic. In between – five points from the top, but nine clear of the rest – sit 37-year-old Aaron Hughes, the Evans brothers and Ballon d’Or contender Chris Brunt.
Any play-off draw is likely to be a solid test at the very least, but the momentum is with Northern Ireland.