Its time for Gareth Southgate to drop Joe Hart, Aaron Hughes embodies Northern Irelands ambition and Ben Woodburn has once again proved himself for Wales
1) Time for Southgate to be ruthless and drop Hart
Before the games against Malta and Slovakia Gareth Southgate suggested no other goalkeeper had staked a strong enough claim to take over from Joe Hart. It seems a strange statement given the fine form and obvious talent of Jack Butland and Jordan Pickford. It is an oddity of the goalkeeping position that, while mistakes are always highlighted, it generally takes a run of howlers to lose your spot. Sustained middling form, or the mild uncertainty that Hart has emanated for more than a year doesnt seem to be enough. Southgate missed a chance in the current break to show a little ruthlessness and address this. In the event Hart failed to get a hand on the first shot on target across the two games, Stanislav Lobotkas goal at Wembley poked past a starfish-pose-by-numbers England keeper. Tournament games come down to fine details, just as a goalie at the top of his powers can disguise many failings. Showing faith in your man is one thing. Right now Hart looks like the last outpost of the undroppable celebrity player culture that blighted successive England teams. Barney Ronay
2) Veteran Hughes embodies Northern Irelands determination
In the case of Northern Ireland statistics do tell an accurate tale of their remarkable achievement in finishing second in Group C and, in all likelihood, securing a place in the World Cup play-offs. A record five consecutive wins, over 10 hours without conceding a goal, seven clean sheets in eight qualifiers the finest defensive return in Europe and beating the Czech Republic for the first time at Windsor Park on Monday with only 28% possession; 72% possession counts for nothing when you do not trouble Michael McGovern once in the Northern Ireland goal. It again underlines Michael ONeills outstanding organisation that the defensive record continued with an injury-hit back-line against the Czechs and San Marino. The absence of Gareth McAuley and Craig Cathcart heightened responsibility on the 37-year-old Aaron Hughes in the double-header. A veteran who received his first international call-up almost 20 years ago excelled. His central defensive partner Jonny Evans reflected: He was my man of the match against the Czechs but hes not getting my champagne. He dragged me through the game. I was feeling it in the last half hour and heres this guy whos 37 running past me to push out and clear the box. He inspired me to get through the game. Hes a great role model. Andy Hunter
3) Woodburn again shows he is the real deal for Wales
Well, he went and did it again. Ben Woodburn, the 17-year-old Liverpool prodigy, scored the winning goal on his international debut on Saturday. In Moldova on Tuesday he provided a jet-heeled assist to give Wales a crucial breakthrough. The precision of his control while running Vitalie Bordian ragged down the left flank was an indication of the players pedigree, as was his cross that zipped along the six-yard line. Hal Robson-Kanu anticipated the ball, adjusted his body and threw his head at it, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance. Up until that point, Moldova had defended deep and defended well, but fortune favours the brave and Chris Coleman went for it. In the first half his Wales team were stodgy. But in the second they came out with clear instructions to press higher. Fifteen minutes later and Woodburn came on. Finally with just over 20 minutes remaining Coleman paired Sam Vokes with Robson-Kanu and the pressure became relentless. It was a deserved result even if it took a moment of individual class to unlock it. Second place is now Wales to lose. Paul MacInnes
4) Ireland must hope Hogan can have a striking impact
In a way the Republic of Irelands defeat by Serbia was more deflating for their fans than the abomination in Georgia had been three days previously. Because against Serbia Ireland played close to the best that they can play but still were not good enough. They have scored two goals in four home matches and Martin ONeill said afterwards that he wished he could call on someone such as a young Robbie Keane. If such a player were to appear again, it would have little to do with the developmental efforts of ONeills employers. As it happens, ONeills striking options may be enhanced in time for next months showdown with Wales: the Aston Villa forward Scott Hogan, having declared for the country of his forefathers at the age of 25, could be parachuted straight into the Ireland team. A short-term fix to a deep-rooted problem? Paul Doyle
5) Syrias incredible run may not be over yet
Sometimes footballs impact renders words unnecessary and that was certainly the case when a Syrian television commentator broke down in tears after witnessing his country secure an Asian play-off place with an unlikely late equaliser in Iran. The Syria teams story is a complex one and perhaps not your standard feelgood affair; you may query whether they represent a regime or a nation but it certainly does no harm to admire the sporting achievement of a squad that has been forced to play its home games in Malaysia and was given scant hope at the outset.
The giant striker Omar Al Somah, scorer of that equaliser, had only this month returned from self-imposed international exile; he plays his football in Saudi Arabia and so does the gifted forward Omar Khribin, who is one of his continents most exciting players and can seriously trouble Australia in next months two-legged tie. More than anything, Syria are a proper team tough, technically adept and superbly coached by Ayman Hakeem. The natural inclination is to suppose they have reached their limit but nobody who watched a few of their qualifiers will be in much doubt that they have a chance of beating Australia. The prospect of an intercontinental play-off against the US after that would be quite another matter; for now it is enough to savour what they have done so far. Nick Ames
6) Is David Silva Spains greatest ever player?
David Silva scored the pick of Spains eight goals against Liechtenstein on Tuesday night, curling a left-footed free-kick beyond the reach of Peter Jehle as Spain recorded their highest ever victory away from home. The Manchester City midfielder, who is not a regular penalty taker for his country, has scored 33 goals for his country* and sits fourth in the top goalscorer records for Spains national team behind three strikers: Fernando Torres (38), Ral (44) and David Villa (59), an astonishing return for a footballer renowned more for his creative nous than goalscoring prowess. Although there are no records available for the number of assists Silva has provided on the international stage, it is almost certainly even more mind-boggling considering Spains pre-eminence between 2006 and 2012 and the fact that he has notched up 66 in 223 Premier League appearances since joining Manchester City in the summer of 2010. Aged 31, he could yet overtake Torres and possibly even Ral in the scoring charts and, given his countrys successes during his pomp, is arguably a contender for the accolade of Spains greatest player of any era. *(spotters badge @giveittosilva) Barry Glendenning
7) Time for out-of-date Hampden to find its roar again
A fascinating subplot to Scotlands crucial meeting with Slovakia next month relates to match venue. Hampden Park, once a venue afforded iconic status as Scotland conquered all before them, is now widely regarded as a relic the country can easily do without. The Scottish FA is known to be considering the abandonment of Hampden after it is used as a Euro 2020 venue. Three sides of the stadium are out of date, access is poor and acoustics likewise. The visit of Malta on Monday, while hardly a marquee occasion, was against a horrendously flat backdrop. Such a scenario has become common. Traditionalists will vehemently object to a Hampden exit. Players, too, might want to retain the appeal of a national stadium rather than making routine visits to Celtic Park, Ibrox, Tynecastle or Easter Road. The significance of the Slovakia tie means a gripping atmosphere is to be hoped for. In its absence, a wider debate will ensue. Ewan Murray
8) Salah takes Egypt to the verge of World Cup return
It has been a long, hard road back to football relevance for Egypt but they are tantalisingly close to a first World Cup appearance since 1990 and the identity of their inspiration is little surprise. Mohamed Salah has made a vibrant start to the season with Liverpool but, like the rest of his team-mates, was subdued during the 1-0 defeat in Uganda last Thursday; that needed to be put right when the sides met again in Alexandria and he duly scored the winner, his 30th international goal in just 55 caps, six minutes in. But for the visiting goalkeeper Denis Onyango, Salah would have scored a couple more; the bigger picture is that a home victory over Republic of the Congo next month, coupled with anything bar a Uganda win over Ghana, will book them a place in Russia with a game to spare.
That is one of several enticing scenarios in a thrilling set of African qualifiers that should, in many cases, go to the wire. Salahs club-mate, Sadio Man, appeared to have put Senegal in the driving seat of a wide-open Group D with a late goal in Burkina Faso, but the Stallions hit back to draw and are the best bet for a new African presence at next years tournament. Ivory Coast could hardly have expected the 2-1 home defeat to Gabon, three days after beating the same opponents 3-0 away, that has suddenly tightened up Group C. If Salah and Egypt keep their heads, they should at last banish such concerns to the past. NA
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