The Sheep and The Goat

Just what has happened to Argentina?

I’m not an overly religious man. Outside of attending a deluge of weddings and funerals in the last eighteen months, I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped across the chapel door. And the forecast ain’t looking good either. Like any self-respecting Roman Catholic man in Ireland approaching his thirties, going to Mass to be pontificated to by a member of the clergy interests me in the same way venereal disease does. Which, in itself, is a fitting analogy.

In the lead up to the World Cup, some of you might have caught the piece on Guillem Balagué’s trip to Belfast. I more or less made sure you did. Tactically securing a retweet from a man who has north of a million followers on Twitter has done wonders for me in terms of developing an Asian readership. A big dhanyavaad to all my boys in Bangalore.

Anyone needing a refresher, voilà…

Balagué Backs Messi to Defy Boo Boys

Despite backing Lionel Messi to overcome the rising tide of animosity emanating from the media in his homeland, the notion that all was not right in the first place was of particular interest, I thought.

After all, any media outlet east of Buenos Aires, practically dutch rudders the guy – the maestro, the magician, the GOAT. Greatest of all time. I know somebody, somewhere has finally made sense of all the bovine related speak in their WhatsApp group over the past year. You’re very welcome.

Balagué refuted the suggestion that afternoon, that Messi played any role in Mauro Icardi’s exclusion from the Argentinian squad, implying that it was one of a growing number of sticks being readied to beat the Barcelona playmaker with, should the South Americans return from Russia empty handed. And whilst, the tale might seem far fetched when read in isolation, the sentiments of such a story surely could not have escaped the consciousness of fellow members of La Albiceleste.

Messi cut a fraught figure on Thursday night, pre-game, playing and post-match. He was made to endure his own torturous road to Calvary, burdened by a cross weighing approximately forty four million football headcases. Against the backdrop of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick for Portugal against Spain last Friday night, he too was ineffective against Iceland on Saturday. Evidently, all is not well.

We all want answers that we are never going to get in the immediacy, unfortunately. But that’s not to say, all won’t be revealed in time.

Ill feeling may well have festered in the camp. The notion of Messi putting to bed the debate as the finest to ever pull on a pair of football boots has certainly overshadowed the hope of twenty two other players becoming the first side in a generation from their country to become World Champions.

Egos could well be bruised. After all, marquee talents in the shape of Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala have been restricted to only a few moments game time between them to save a sinking ship. The exasperation on Kun Agüero’s face when he was substituted less than ten minutes into the second half, and immediately after the Croats scored their first goal, on Thursday night, was difficult to hide. Are there whispers about Icardi? Does Messi have a say in tactics, on who plays, when they play and how the play?

He has yet to be nailed to the Cross, for now. Nigeria, next Tuesday evening offers him a final chance to actually get on the end of a bloody cross or two, and complete a Messiah-like resurrection.

But the vultures are circling over head.

I’m not an overly religious man, but let me tell you about Matthew’s parable of The Sheep and The Goats.

Judgement will be passed amongst those gathered, and we will be separated into sheep and goats. The sheep on the right hand, the goats on the left. Blessed are the sheep, the lowly who toil. They will ascend to glory. But of the lofty, stubborn goats. The eternal fire is prepared for them.

It begs the question. Who would be a goat?


The Tasty Tips & Offers You Should Be Snapping Up Before Tomorrow

Impress Your Friends and Become the OG Profit King in your WhatsApp Group

“It’s World Cup Eve, Dave.

F**k the Rank Bank.

It didn’t get the views,

I thought it would have.

But when the bets go on,

Make me your guru,

With tips and offers,

To make all your dreams come true.”

Right. Straight in here. No kissing…


Four years have passed since their apocalyptic implosion on home soil in 2014, and not many have survived to tell the tale. Be left in no doubt, the Samba Boys are back – after a scintillating qualification campaign, and an eleven game unbeaten run that has seen them concede only two goals since June last year.

Outright Betting – best price 21/5 (Royal Panda)

Outright favourites for the tournament with most big names going 4/1, serious value can be found in scouring the new customer offers if you want to get into Brazil in a big way for very little outlay. Most people will have Paddy Power accounts I’m presuming, but the boys in green are offering Brazil at 100/1 for any new customer looking to back them to go all the way – £1 max stake, of course. As are Betfair – the exact same offer. Throw Coral into the equation with 60/1 for new customers and savvy punters could be looking at a return of £263 for three single one pound bets.

No Goals Conceded in Group – 5/1 (PaddyPower)

Blessed with so much flamboyance in attack, it’s sometimes easy to overlook how solid they are in defence. Could be backed at around 6/4 to overcome all three opponents – Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia – in their group games, but feel there’s good value in them at 5s to do so without conceding a goal.

Cheeky Outright Prices

The Outright Winner Market is obviously going to be the most popular with everyone having an opinion on who might be the one left standing come July 15th. Personally, can’t see past France (best price 7/1 – Unibet).  I feel that having been granted a very envious group stage draw, Les Blues can ease their way into form in the tournament. Others to keep an eye on at bigger prices include Portugal (best price 25/1 – William Hill) who’s chances of winning their group are being helped no end by their Iberian cousins and their off field issues. If the European champions manage to take advantage and nick top spot, they could have a straightforward run to the semi final. And at a HUGE price, Senegal (best price 200/1 – Bet365) are very interesting. Talented squad, wide open group, their tricky African style will cause headaches for any of the more established names should they make it through to the knock out stages.


Remember, you can go each-way on outright betting with most bookies offering half the odds should your team end up beaten finalists.

And be sure to check out 888 who have some very tasty new customer prices if you fancy one of the bigger teams to triumph – 25/1 on both France and Spain amongst the most tantalising.

Golden Boot Front Runners

Ahhhh, much to consider here. Not least, whether you throw coin at a player who you think can go deep in the tournament, or do you look at the group games for those facing porous defences and take anything else as a bonus.

James Rodriguez bucked the trend in 2014 – a goal in each group game was followed by a brace against Uruguay in the round of 16, his final strike coming in a quarter-final defeat against Brazil.

In the six tournaments that preceded 2014, we had winners (or in some cases co-winners) play in the maximum amount of games each tournament allowed them – remember that teams who reach the semis are guaranteed a third-fourth place playoff.

With this in mind, punting on the Winner/Top Goalscorer combined market usually offers some great value and the 40/1 that Royal Panda are offering on a France/Antoine Greizmann double is definitely worth a few pound if I’m thinking the French can make it to the Moscow finale.

Another tactic is to look for goalscorers who not only can be relied upon from open play, but have a monopoly over free kicks and penalties too. Unsurprisingly, Neymar (best price 11/1 – Royal Panda) and Messi (best price 11/1 – Ladbrokes) head the betting, however the spread of goals in the Brazil team may dilute the PSG striker’s hoard, while the injury to Manuel Lanzini is sure to have a detrimental effect on Argentina’s creative aspirations in attack.

I fancy the Germans to really let loose, especially in the group stages, and will surely make at least the semis. So players like Timo Werner (best price 16/1 – 10bet)  and old reliable himself, Thomas Muller (best price 33/1 – Bet365) may offer good value.

Again, most bookies will pay 1/4 of the odds on the top four if you are going each-way. Word of warning, however – the likelihood of players tying on goals scored means in most cases “dead-heat rules” will apply. So, be sure to check your chosen bookies rules with regard to same.

In terms of offers, 888 are coming strong again offering 80/1 on Neymar, 100/1 on Messi and 125/1 on Ronaldo for new customers – £5 max stake applies. Sun Bets are also offering a fiver free bet each time your boy rattles the back of the net, provided you stump up £25 on him from the get go.

P.S. Last thing on goalscorers I swear. Check out some of the specials markets, in particular those offering over/under on players tournament goals. If you like betting in and around that even money pivot, Mario Mandzukic to score over 1.5 goals, I thought, was a good price at 5/4 with William Hill.

And for a bit of fun…

One of the more successful modern features that most leading online bookies have introduced in the social media era has been the “request-a-bet” service. So if you have something very specific that you think you can get decent odds for – get involved. Here are some things people have dreamt up offering pretty alluring rewards. Be warned – they’re complicated:

  • Germany, Brazil & France to win all group games & Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran & Panama not to win a match – 50/1 with William Hill
  • Red cards record (29+) to be broken – 80/1 with Sky Bet

And one that certainly made me laugh…

  • England to win the World Cup & Danny Welbeck to score last goal of the tournament – 150/1 with Paddy Power


Ha! Lid!

Whatever you fire money at, may the Lord of Chance look favourably on you. And keep it fun!



Balagué Backs Messi to Defy Boo Boys

Today’s blog post is brought to you by the letter B.

It could have easily been Barcelona. Shorts and sunglasses. Sun blazing from a cloudless sky. The males flock to the watering hole, and, with pints in hand, chew the footballing fat of a Thursday lunchtime.

Yes, after Guillem Balagué bringing some sultry Catalan weather with him, Belfast gave him some culture of it’s own in return – marching him into a dark backroom, and throwing a spotlight on him, whilst a room of thirsty men sit eager to hear his testimony. Ahh, home!

The Spaniard spent this afternoon at The Black Box venue in the heart of Belfast, where he graciously gave a candid and leisurely appraisal of his latest biography, Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs, as well as tackling head on and in his own unique style, current stories emanating from the Premier League and Spain, ahead of the World Cup. Seven days, ladies. Seven. Days.

Local football writer Keith Bailie opened proceedings, quizzing Balagué about his good friend Pochettino, who was refreshingly unconcerned when the former Revista de la Liga front man asked for full and candid access to the Spurs supremo’s life, when the idea of the book surfaced just prior to the kick off of the 16-17 Premier League campaign.

Balagué explained that Poch wanted to “kill the myth of the manager” through the book, to crack open the shutters that surrounded his early years in England. Despite struggling with the language, Pochettino’s unconscious ability to endear himself to those around him has been captured by Balagué, who pointed to the Argentinian’s almost sorcerer like capacity to strike instantaneous chemistry with strangers.

“He makes a call within five minutes of meeting a player, whether he stays or goes. It’s no surprise that those who are most central and steadfast in the Tottenham side are players who have most chemistry with the manager. Victor Wanyama in particular enjoys a great relationship with him, also Lloris, Harry Kane and Dele Alli”.

This, he suggests goes a long way to explaining why these players are reluctant to leave White Hart Lane, despite the stringent wage template that Daniel Levy has carved into the North London outfit’s board table.

It may also help us mortals understand why the players work for him the way they do, in that high pressing system that has become synonymous of his time in England.

In summing Pochettino up, Balagué pointed to hard work and that ability to forge strong relationships with those around him as being central to his success as a manager to this point, and denounces the “he’s never won a trophy tag”, pointing to the fact that Spurs under his tutelage have outperformed the financial scenario they find themselves in. A team with the sixth biggest outlay on wages finishing fifth, third, second and third in his four seasons in charge.

In what will be music to the ears of all on the Seven Sisters Road, the insider is insistent that his old friend is in no hurry to return to Spain, regardless of the ongoing rumours in the wake of Zinedine Zidane’s departure from Real Madrid.

“He obviously signed his new contract at the end of the season and as much as Florentino Perez wants him, he knows that Daniel Levy is almost impossible to deal with”.

Balagué – famous for his willingness to share information coming out of La Liga – didn’t disappoint when pressed on this Summer’s potential coming and goings either. Deep breath…

  • Suspects Bale will not force a transfer away from Madrid in the wake of Zidane’s departure. Agent is seeking assurances from the board that Bale is still a central figure in the Galactico’s plans – with or without Ronaldo.
  • Ousmane Dembele will definitely not be swapping the Camp Nou for Anfield this season.
  • Leeds United’s pursuit of veteran manager Marcelo Bielsa – the father of the 3-3-3-1 high press – is not as far along as the press would have you believe. Leeds new board are desperate for a big name after the Heckingbottom fiasco, but no indication from Bielsa camp at this point of contact.
  • Hinted at a revolving door at Spurs over the next couple of years as they are still a selling club, with Poch not afraid of selling big assets in order to facilitate strengthening the squad where he sees weakness – Kane not for sale however.

However, some of Guillem’s most interesting comments were saved for the maestro himself.

Balagué’s admiration of Lionel Messi is no secret. On several occasions he’s made the admission that the Argentinian is the best footballer of all time – a view he reaffirmed today in Belfast.

But the Rosario man goes into the World Cup with gathering clouds of animosity collecting above his diminutive little head. A wave of Anti-Messiism has come forth from his homeland in recent times. The presumption that he has underperformed in the blue and white stripes has intensified as his success in Catalunya has become greater, and this is the stick that most of his detractors beat him with, explains Balagué.

“People use the fact that he has been in Barcelona from the age of 12, that he isn’t really Argentinian, that he doesn’t really care. In reality, he is still that Rosario boy, he speaks with a Rosario accent, his family are all around him. His home is like a little Rosario. Messi is most definitely Argentinian”.

And it is these nay-sayers that Balagué believes are behind stories stirring the notion that Messi has played a direct role in influencing the choices for the Argentinian squad this Summer. Some South American media outlets have not been shy in pedalling that Messi vetoed the inclusion of Serie A’s top scorer, the mercurial Mauro Icardi, over the well documented personal standoff the Inter man has had with former international teammate, and friend of Messi, Maxi Lopez. Balagué refutes such a suggestion.

“Any influence Messi has on Sampaoli’s squad is bore simply out of management’s hopes to get the most from their star man. Messi tends to cut in from the left and right, he has done his whole career, and Icardi is a true number 9 who occupies the space in which Messi eventually wants to be. We’ve seen this before, most infamously with Zlatan, of course”.

And what of the World Cup and the prospects of arguably the game’s greatest player getting his hands around the Jules Rimet trophy?

“Well, it settles two arguments really. Firstly, it settles the argument between himself and Cristiano. But when we talk about “greatest of all time”, we talk Maradona, we talk Pelé who have both won World Cups. Lifting the World Cup would complete Messi’s legacy, for sure, and then we can say he’s the greatest of all time. Personally, I’d love to see it happen, and I think they’ve a great chance. I constantly tell my Argentinian colleagues that they are living in a golden generation for football in their country. They have reached the final of the last World Cup, as well as two Copa América finals since, and have been beaten in extra time in one and penalties in the two others. Maybe now is the time”.

Fortunately, we won’t have long to await the answers.

And so, after a handshake and a photograph and him ribbing me for not having a score on me to buy his book, I emerged back into the Thursday afternoon sunshine, pleased with my £8 investment.

Balagué. Ball. Black Box. Beer. Belfast….Brilliant!

All Aboard the Gravy Train…

Next stop Moscow!

There’s one in every workplace.

We all know them. The infuriating shits that are barely fit to scratch themselves throughout the year, but still walk away at Christmas with their share of the office bonus.

There’s one in my office too. Tall and dark, good-looking, a hit with ladies young and old, not to mention exceptionally well endowed. The bastard even has enough time to sit in his office and write his sports blog during working hours – the prick…

Anyway, what follows is an eleven of jammy buggers on their way to the World Cup after spending much of the year playing Golf Clash on their phone.


Sergio Romero (Argentina & Manchester United) – Goalkeeper

Sergio-Romero-829386Despite not conceding a single goal whilst custodian during United’s first four FA Cup ties on their way to the final this season, Romero managed only a solitary league appearance. Last game of the season. Dead Rubber. Watford. Although, can boast seven clean sheets from ten appearances in all comps this season, it has to be said.

Gary Cahill (England & Chelsea) – Centre Half

2189537-45748070-2560-1440Have come to the conclusion that either A) has compromising photos of Gareth Southgate or B) has embarked on a fully fledged relationship with the English manager. How he makes the squad after a season of sitting on the bench at Stamford Bridge is anyone’s guess.

José Fonte (Portugal & Dalian Yifang) – Centre Half

skysports-jose-fonte-west-ham-fonte_4179761José Fonte – the darling of the BBC studio for awhile there, before moving to China. You could nearly have been fooled into thinking he was out-of-contract, doing a bit of easy media, you know, waiting for the right opportunity to come along, right? Wrong! After spending November through to February on the physio table whilst still a West Ham player, Fonte took the hump that he didn’t see any minutes on his return. Jumped at the opportunity to move to China “to keep World Cup dreams alive” said David Moyes – wink wink, nudge nudge. Nothing like killing two birds with the one stone, José.

Marcos Rojo (Argentina & Manchester United) – Centre Half

Marcos-Rojo-780241There’s not much to be said about industrious Argentinian footballers at Old Trafford at the minute. Having spent the early part of the season recuperating from the nasty cruciate ligament injury that put pay to the previous campaign, Rojo failed to find form or regular game time, having returned to action in November. What he did manage to find were plenty of yellow cards. Six in the nine Premier League games he featured. There’s a word for people like Marcos Rojo and that word is shite.

Danilo (Brazil & Manchester City) – Wing Back

Danilo-654150Signed by Guardiola last Summer as part of his Wing Back Revolution, Danilo must have thought himself a shoe-in for the rest of the season when Benjamin Mendy crumpled in a heap against Palace in late September. A direct hit to the babymaker then, when Pep put more faith in reserve midfielders Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko to fill the left berth for the remainder of the campaign, the Brazilian only seeing a bit-part therein.

Bryan Oviedo (Costa Rica & Sunderland) – Wing Back

Sunderland-v-Queens-Park-Rangers-Sky-Bet-ChampionshipSo yes, not strictly Premier League, but let’s take a moment to toast the remarkable shit-show that Bryan Oviedo has had since breaking his leg at the start of 2014. Arguably, at the peak of his Everton career then, the four years since have been nothing but misery. Nowhere near the player of old, two consecutive relegations with Sunderland, and all this whilst having to be mates with Darron Gibson. Let’s hope the World Cup perks his spirits a bit.

Adrien Silva (Portugal & Leicester City) – Midfield

Che29Too often I’ve had people say to me, “Aaron, that was the longest 14 seconds of my life”. Henceforth, I’ll direct them to read up on the unfortunate case of Adrien Silva. One of the shining lights from Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, he was courted by reigning champions Leicester for much of the 16/17 campaign – who finally bagged him on Transfer Deadline Day back in August – or so they thought. Yes, a tardy fax machine and six months later Silva was able to make his Leicester debut. Having taken until April to command a starting berth in what was an underperforming Leicester side, the last six weeks of Silva’s season werw hardly what one would call inspiring – seven games, five defeats , a scoreless draw at home to struggling Southampton and a solitary victory. It’s fair to say not the most fantastic start to life in the Premier League for the man.

Lee Chung-yong (South Korea & Crystal Palace) – Midfield

33A684B400000578-3575171-Lee_Chung_yong_has_been_hit_with_a_club_fine_for_criticising_Ala-m-4_1462484785622Make no bones about it. Lee Chung-yong steals a living. Since New Years Eve, the midfielder has spent a grand total of 21 minutes on a Premier League pitch – spread over five different games. Other interesting facts include that the literal translation of his name to English is “Blue Dragon”, and his dislikes include drinking coffee and smoking. So there you have it – Lee Chung-yong He-No-Smoke-Bong.


Nacer Chadli (Belgium & WBA) – Forward

Here’s a pic of Chadli in the buck raw

Roberto Martinez – full time banter merchant. Only he could get away with leaving Roma colossus Radja Nainngolan out of Belgium’s squad, yet pick renowned glass-man Nacer Chadli and hail it as a “tactical decision”. Probably the most fortunate of this dud eleven to make the plane to Russia, Chadli started only two league games this season for a team that finished bottom of the league. Ha Ha Ha!! Bobby, stop, you’re killing me. Like a mini-Dracula there in your wee coat.

Ramadan Sobhi (Egypt & Stoke City) – Forward

4BA4C67300000578-0-image-a-16_1525091421179One could call Sobhi’s latest campaign a bit flaccid. Promised so much, delivered so little. At 21, he undoubtedly still has time, but a player who looked decent much of last season came alive far too fleetingly this year. En route to Russia (winning!), but also The Championship with Paul Lambert (losing!).


Kalechi Ihenacho (Nigeria & Leicester City) – Forward

skysports-kelechi-iheanacho-iheanacho-leicester_4207352Finally, Kalechi. Aw, Kalechi. How you frustrate us. The man who averaged one goal for Manchester City every 107 minutes, completed a game start to finish for Leicester only once this season, despite making twenty nine appearances for the Foxes in all competitions. Like Sobhi, youth on his side, and one of the brightest sparks for his relatively minnow nation at this years tournament. Goes without saying, a big flaccid season, but most likely a bigger one.

World Cup Rank Bank – South Korea

The Son rises in the East

In what must be a welcomed distraction from the threat of a psychotic neighbour standing over the fence in his garden, letting off fireworks and mouthing “I’m going to end you” in the dead of night, 2018 looks like proving itself to be a real turning point in terms of South Korea’s recent history, with sporting conquest front and central.

Having staged a successful Winter Olympiad (where FIB favourite Elise Christie had lots of time to relax on the ice), the Korean’s sporting attention will now turn in a northwesterly direction, and this Summer’s finals in Russia. In what is their tenth overall appearance on the grand stage, and incredibly their ninth in a row, the past hosts will be hoping to bask in the glow of the Son.


Manager: Shin Tae-yong

Another manager less than a year in his role, Shin Tae-yong has been christened by some as the “Asian Mourinho”. He stepped up from his role managing the U-20 and U-23 sides back in June of last year, when South Korea’s usual canter to a World Cup Finals threatened to derail after three defeats from eight in the final qualification stage. Alas, Shin dragged them across the line – just!

The 48 year-old had a distinguished playing career, spending 22 years at Korean giants Seongnam before a brief spell in Australia. He returned to Seongnam as manager in 2009, and, in what has been his greatest achievement to date, delivered the AFC Champions League in 2010, before being persuaded into the international set up by the KFA in 2014.


Star Player: Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspurs)

Surely, the greatest Asian footballer to grace the Premier League, the Spurs attacker has been in tremendous form this season and is the undoubted superstar for his country. Technically superb, able to fashion chances from little and having a knack of being in the right place at the right time, Son has a ratio of roughly a goal in every three since his move from the Bundesliga, in 2015. His international stats are strikingly simp85971ilar having scored 20 goals for his country in 62 appearances. In a team lacking in many household names, Son and captain Ki Sung-yueng will bear much of the creative responsibility.

S-on a side note, he will also be making a return to my Fantasy League Team this weekend – I know there’s at least a few people out there that will interested in that tit-bit. You know who you are. I see ya…


Road to Russia

South Korea began their qualifying campaign way, way back in June 2015, with a 2-0 win against Myanmar in their opening game of the AFC’s second round of qualifying. They sailed the group, winning all eight matches and in particular putting lowly Laos to the sword both home and away.

The final stage of qualifying wasn’t just as straight forward for the Taeguk Warriors. Having made a solid start to the group, if a little open at the back, the Koreans began to stumble after three successive away defeats to main rivals Iran, more worryingly China and catastrophically, cut-adrift Qatar. Uli Stielike was fired and Shin handed the task of not chicken ballsing the whole thing up, with the Uzbeks and, almost fairy tale like, the Syrians closing in. On a whirlwind final day, South Korea had to avoid defeat in Uzbekistan and hope that Syria couldn’t pull off a surprise away win against an already-qualified Iran. A stalemate in Tashkent, and the heartbreak of a draw for Syria in Tehran, in a game that they had led, and the Koreans were home in a boat.


Record v Ireland: Won (0) Drawn (0) Lost (0)

Short and sweet – nothing to report here. The Koreans fell only last week to Michael O’Neill’s band of Northern brothers at Windsor Park. Not that we can claim it.


How will they go?

Despite having the mercurial Son at their disposal, the writing is really on the wall for the South Koreans going into the Finals. Things were bad enough for our Oriental friends drawing Germany in Group F, but for a team that has fallen to Russia, Morocco and a Northern Irish team with Trevor Carson in goal over the past few months, I don’t expect them to cause Sweden much bother. Mexico should be a tighter affair.

Prediction: 4th – Seoul-ong little ones. Until next time.

World Cup Rank Bank – Serbia

Eager to scratch the 2010 ić

Having scratched and snarled their way to automatic qualification, laughing off Ireland’s tilt in the process, the Serbs arrive in Russia ready to go to war again. And that’s just their fans.

There will be no room for niceties on-field either, pitched into what on paper is a tough group. Can an experienced Serbian side draw on the pain of their demoralising exit at the 2010 finals, and advance to the knockout stages this round?


Manager: Mladen Krstajić

The former defensive hard man and one quarter of the feted “Famous Four” backline that qualified for the 2006 finals undefeated, giving as much up at the rear as a constipated nun. Krstajić leads the latest Slav charges, having stepped into the fray at Christmas, after slap head Slavoljub Musin was ousted at the end of their successful qualifying campaign, for being too successful with older players. Go figure.

It’s safe to assume that Krstajić will rely heavily on robustness and physicality if the Eagles are to make headway in the competition, and let me tell you, he isn’t short of it. Plenty of robusty beauties at his disposal.


Star Player: Nemanja Matić (Manchester United)

Rangey, consistent and combative – so good Mourinho brought him back to Chelsea after they had relinquished him as a youngster – the midfielder has been2017-08-26T182610Z_1342841797_RC15D36132B0_RTRMADP_3_SOCCER-ENGLAND-MUN-LEI a major influence in his first season at Old Trafford.  Matić has the ability to dictate the game, and will be crucial, not only in out-muscling advancing opponents and breaking up play, but collecting the ball from the back four and launching attacks of his own. His presence will also allow some of Serbia’s more expressive options further forward the freedom to flaunt their wares.



Little Known Fact: I’m a Slav For You

Interestingly, FIFA recognises Serbia as the sole successor to the famous Yugoslavian sides of the past. And yes, the break up of the Republic back in 1992, has since spawned seven recognised national football teams, but Serbia can, with a fair degree of clout, claim to have quite a prestigious footballing heritage. And who’s going to argue with them?

Yugoslavia can boast two fourth place finishes at World Cups and a gold medal at the Summer Olympics held in Rome in 1960 amongst their accolades. But perhaps Yugoslavian, and indeed Serbian, football’s greatest moment came in the Stadio San Nicola, Bari on the 29th May 1991. Red Star Belgrade, with a sumptuous, youthful midfield quartet of Prosinečki, Jugović, Mihajlović and Savićević became Kings of Europe. The latter three became synonymous with viewers of Gazzetta Football Italia of a Saturday morning in the 90s, or at least when Gazza hadn’t been out on a Friday night.


Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (3) Lost (0)

Having played the Serbs on five occasions now, since they launched their solo career back in 2006, we have yet to topple them, and in truth we haven’t really come close. Andy Keogh scrambled a draw with a last-minute equaliser in Croke Park in 2008, and scrambling to stay on terms has been the name of the game ever since with this lot. Their dominating performance over us in September put pay to any real hope of automatic qualification, and cued Martin O’Neill’s exit from…oh no, wait…


How will they go?

Despite being the lowest ranked team in their group, Serbia certainly have the capability to spring a few surprises and should not be underestimated. Having beaten Germany in Port Elizabeth in their second group game in 2010, they went into the final round-robin game with Australia knowing that a draw would be suffice to see them through. They blew it. This Summer offers a chance of redemption for veterans of that day, the likes of Stojković in goal, and defensive stalwarts Kolarov and Ivanović, and whilst the Serbs have exciting talent in the likes of a rejuvenated Mitrović up front, the aforementioned Matić and new Spanish-born wonder kid Milinković-Savić, the aging legs could be exposed most acutely by the brilliant Brazilians. Expect tough, not-so-pretty encounters with the Swiss and the Costa Ricans.

Prediction: 3rd – just fancy the Swiss to pip them to qualification.

World Cup Rank Bank – Nigeria

How cool do you think you are? You could think you’re pretty cool. My aul mate Baz played Darude’s Sandstorm on Paddy’s Night blowing into the top of a half drunk bottle of Vitazade. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool. Twenty four hours later, I now realise I was just drunk. But dare anyone tell me that the coolness of Nigeria’s USA ’94 garb, has depreciated over the last twenty four years – and this year’s isn’t too shabby either. Yes, from the land that brought you Daniel Amokachi’s right foot, Taribo West’s hair stylist and John Fashanu’s many hats – I give you, the Super Eagles!Super-Eagles-at-USA-94-

Manager: Gernot Rohr

The experienced German leads up a team of coaches, having been appointed to the role of head coach back in August 2016. You’ll remember a previous post where I made the rather spicy comment that angel-on-Earth, Hervé Renard, had seen more African outposts than Joseph Conrad. Well, Gernot gives him a run for his money – Nigeria being his fourth consecutive international management role having oversaw the fortunes of Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2010. That’s where the similarities with Herv the Swerve stop, unfortunately for Herr Rohr – who’s resemblance is more Albert Reynolds battering out the Anglo-Irish Agreement than it is Jesus.

Star Player: Kalechi Iheanacho (Leicester City)

Despite having somewhat of a disappointing time at Leicester to this point- his failure to dislodge Jamie Vardy playing a pivotal role – Iheanacho is proving his worth at international level with his country.  Having scored eight times in the green of the SuperKelechi-Iheanacho-676701 Eagles in only fourteen appearances, the young striker will relish the chance to put his name firmly back to the forefront domestically, by impressing at the tournament. Nigeria have plenty of exciting options alongside the former Man City man in attack in the shape of Odion Ighalo, Alex Iwobi and the more offensively deployed Victor Moses.


Road to Russia

Nigeria’s journey to the finals started along with the four other African representatives in November 2015, disposing of minnows Swaziland over two legs. Subsequently, they were drawn into what many pundits were calling “the group of death” alongside highly ranked Cameroon and Algeria and the tricky Zambia, with a berth in Russia only reserved for top spot. But a strong start to the group and three wins from three at home ensured they were the first African team to book their travel arrangements for this Summer. They even had enough in reserve to have their draw away to Algeria stripped from them and awarded to the home side in the wake of fielding an ineligible player. So cool. So Super Eagles.

Record v Ireland: Won (2) Drawn (1) Lost (0)

We have still to beat those pesky Nigerians. Having first welcomed them to Landsdowne Road in the farewell and good luck game before heading to Saipan, the Nigerians played out a one-all draw most recently with us back in May 2009, in a game played at Craven Cottage. Sandwiched between that was a three-nil drubbing in an end of season embarrassment called the Unity Cup, back in 2004, whilst any decent European footballing nation was focusing on the upcoming European Championships. Tasty names from that team sheet included the likes of Nick Colgan, Martin Rowlands and Ireland’s own miracle man Clive Clarke, who’s career was cut short a few years later after suffering a cardiac arrest whilst playing for Sunderland against Forest.


How Will They Go?

Group D is definitely one of the most exciting groups of the first stage. Nigeria are pitted against a GOAT inspired Argentinian side, the ever unpredictable Croats and debutantes Iceland – who we know only too well proved to England that revenge is a dish best served cold, the latter having made Kerrynigeria-2018-world-cup-home-kit-3 Katona synonymous with the island nation. Unfortunately for the Nigerians, the only thing that could well live long in the memory at this tournament are their absolutely naughty jerseys. Despite their undoubted flair in attack, I shudder to think what the likes of Messi, Mandžukić and Sigurðsson would do to their defence.


Prediction: 4th – let’s hope they score, so we can enjoy an audacious celebration at least.