Now that the long, hard, slog that are the World Cup qualifiers is over and that fans begin to toy with the hypothesis of spending a lifetime worth of savings on a tickets for Brazil, it’s time to look back on what we’ve witnessed in the last 18 months, before the World Cup hysteria kicks in.
1) World Cup, meet Bosnia-Herzegovina
For a country that has suffered so much, a football tournament, however important it might be, would normally prove little more than a pleasant distraction.
However, as Vedad Ibisevic slotted home the winner against Lithuania yesterday, a whole nation forgot about the tragedy and sorrow that had become synonyms with the Balkanic country.
When people think of Bosnia, they no longer think of the bombs that fell on Mostar and Sarajevo, but of Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begovic and Ibisevic, the three star players of a team that under Safet Susic’s tutelage have completed a remarkable transformation.
Bosnia are no longer one of the whipping boys of European football, in fact only England, Germany and Holland have scored more than the Bosnians in the European Qualifiers, thanks to Susic’s attacking attitude.
“We know that it can cost us, but that is the price we are willing to pay. In the end, we play to score more goals than the opposition,” said Susic and that statement alone ensures Bosnia will be one of the teams to watch in Brazil.
2) Roy’s quiet revolution goes ahead
Judging on this morning’s headlines, one would be forgiven for thinking that England have one foot in the World Cup final, instead they have simply earned the right to compete in Brazil.
However, for the first time in at least two decades, England should approach a major tournament without any false hopes of success and, for once, there could some positive surprises in store.
Throughout the qualifying campaign, Roy Hodgson has come under intense criticism for an overly cautious approach, but his boldness in the final two games has seen England playing some of their best football.
Whether the FA’s PR machine likes it or not, England remain criminally short of world class players and games against Montenegro and Poland highlighted some defensive frailties England will not be able to afford in Brazil.
In the words of Roy Hodgson, England have bought a lottery ticket, but it’s unlikely it’ll be the winning one.
3) Italy remain a mystery
One of the only five European teams to clinch a spot in the World Cup before last night, Italy were held to a 2-2 draw at home by Armenia, stretching the Azzurri’s unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers to 40 matches.
However, failure to pick up three points against Armenia meant Italy will not be seeded in the World Cup draw and, much like England, they could find themselves in a very tricky group next summer.
The Italians never seem to take the qualifying station too seriously, but they’re an altogether different proposition when it matters, as they showed at Euro 2012 and at the Confederations Cup.
Under Cesare Prandelli – who has already announced he’ll leave after the World Cup – tactical diligence and compactness have often masked a lack of real talent, but the natives are growing restless at Prandelli’s penchant for trying new formations, while Mario Balotelli remains a disaster waiting to happen.
4) Change is in the air
Since they met in the Euro 2008 final, Spain and Germany have emerged as European football’s role models. Spain’s unprecedented success and tiki-taka philosophy ensured they added a World Cup and another European crown to their trophy cabinet, while Germany appear to be the only European team equipped to break the Vicente del Bosque men’s hegemony.
However, for all their qualities, both have some issues.
Spain were taught a lesson by Brazil at last summer’s Confederations Cup, as the first chinks began to appear in their tiki-taka armour and Del Bosque has hinted that his team might adopt a more traditional approach in the future, after hailing Alvaro Negredo – who scored against Georgia last night – as crucial for his side.
Germany, on the other hand, have enormous talent at their disposal and even though they sailed through their group, their defence looked a little more suspicious than Joachim Low would have liked, conceding eight goals in two games against Sweden.
Both teams will arrive in Brazil among the favourites, but neither of them is unbeatable.
5) The system needs changing
Denmark finished second, but that still wasn’t enough to qualify as runners-up as they were classified as the worst runners-up of the lot.
Belgian and Switzerland, meanwhile, will be seeded in December’s World Cup draw, while England, Italy and – if they make it – Sweden, will not as FIFA have decided they will take into account the FIFA ranking as of October 17th.
Time for a change, lads.