Euro 2016 Play-off Previews
With automatic qualification done and dusted, just four places remain up for grabs for Euro 2016. The remaining places will be settled by this week’s play-offs and here Michael Cox takes a closer a look at each of the ties.
Norway v Hungary
On paper, this is probably the least interesting of the four Euro 2016 play-offs, and a clash between two similar sides.
Both Norway and Hungary are well-drilled defensively and strong in the centre of the pitch, but lack genuine attacking talent. Both struggled to score goals regularly in qualification: Norway managed just 13 in 10 games, Hungary 11 in 12. When you consider the standard of some of the minnows they faced during that phase, it’s somewhat underwhelming. The only player in either squad to score more than twice during qualification was Norway’s holding midfielder Alex Tettey, hardly a reliable source of goals.
Per-Mathais Hogmo has struggled since succeeding Egil Olsen as Norway coach, winning just seven of 23 matches, and it’s difficult to see his side taking command of the tie during the first leg in Oslo. A counter-attacking approach in a 4-4-1-1 system seems the most likely strategy, with Markus Henriksen pushing forward to support Alexander Soderlund, who has a decent record for Rosenborg but has managed just one goal in 23 international appearances. Set-pieces will be crucial for the home side.
Hungary briefly looked like a very efficient side during qualification, racking up one-goal victories in a clinical, unfussy manner. However, since the departure of coach Pal Dardai they appear less impressive, with Bernd Storck taking charge and only winning one match, a narrow win over the Faroe Islands. The 4-3 defeat to Greece in the final group game was a fantastic game, but entirely the opposite from what you expected from Hungary under Dardai.
They do boast the tie’s most talented attacking weapon in Balazs Dzsudzsak, now playing in Turkey with Bursaspor. Now the side’s captain, he’s nevertheless endured a difficult run of form over the past couple of years, and hasn’t yet proved capable of leading by example. He’s expected to start on the left, though Storck might consider switching him to the opposite flank to play up against inexperienced attack-minded left-back Haitam Aleesami, probably Norway’s weak link.
In all, don’t expect goals.
Bosnia v Ireland
Bosnia and Ireland are two very different teams – Bosnia have the standout individuals like Miralem Pjanic and Edin Dzeko but have often struggled to find a workable system, whereas Ireland are well-organised and tactically disciplined, but don’t have star attackers capable of changing a game by themselves. An open game will favour Bosnia, a cagier contest players into Ireland’s hands.
That said, Bosnia have looked much more settled since Mehmed Bazdarevic replaced the tactically naive Safet Susic as coach, and he’s presided over an excellent run – Bosnia have won five of his seven games in charge.
He does have decisions to make coming into this tie, however. First, Mohamed Besic is suspended for the first leg in Zenica, although this was the case for the final two group games which Bosnia won. Bazdarevic will be tempted to use playmaker Haris Medunjanin, although this could be a risk alongside Pjanic in a two-man midfield. And it should be a two-man midfield because of Dzeko’s return to fitness and form, which means Vedad Ibisevic will have a strike partner, after playing upfront along for wins over Wales and Cyprus.
Martin O’Neill also has suspensions to cope with. Jon Walters and John O’Shea – the side’s only ever-present in qualifying – are both out for the first leg, with perennial super sub Shane Long also ruled out through injury.
O’Neill has routinely played two strikers upfront throughout qualifying, either in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-1-2, but will surely have considered playing a more cautious 4-4-1-1 from the start in Zenica, with the option of mid-game switch if required. If not, Robbie Keane will be joined by Daryl Murphy, who hadn’t registered a single league goal until Saturday when he smashed a hattrick past Rotherham.
Ireland’s key man, though, should be Wes Hoolahan. Only Mesut Ozil has recorded more assists in this season’s Premier League than the Norwich man – and against a side lacking a quality holding midfielder, this could be his time to shine.
Sweden v Denmark
A proper derby between two neighbours who have been linked by the Oresund Bridge since 2000 – and if you think that seems like a long time ago, consider that Denmark coach Morten Olsen has been in charge since then too. He’ll finally depart after Denmark’s campaign is over – which will be either later this week, or next year in France, depending upon Denmark’s result here.
Olsen has created a well-organised side, but like so many teams in this play-off process, Denmark are badly struggling for goals. They didn’t register in their last three qualification games, with goalless draws against Armenia and Albania, then a 1-0 defeat to Portugal. They rely too heavily upon Nicklas Bendtner, who has a perfectly respectable international scoring record, but isn’t the most dependable player. He only managed two in the qualifiers, although laid on four assists for others.
For much of Olsen’s 15-year reign, Denmark have been able to count upon dangerous, speedy wingers, but here Christian Eriksen takes the creative lead. There’s a danger that if Sweden nullify the Spurs man, Denmark will again struggle to score.
Sweden, like Denmark, are heavily reliant on a cocky frontman – but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is clearly a superior player to Bendtner, and registered eight times in qualification. However, there’s been a long-standing debate about his best role in the national side, and coach Erik Hamren has again started to field him behind another striker, having initially started the qualification campaign with Ibrahimovic upfront.
Hamren has struggled to find much harmony in the attacking midfield positions, which means Ibrahimovic increasingly drops deep to provide creativity himself. Late developer Erkan Zengin has impressed in spells, but Sweden might struggle to create from open play – Ibrahimovic needs to provide some individual magic.
Ukraine v Slovenia
These two countries met at this stage ahead of the 2000 tournament, with Slovenia triumphing – but Ukraine probably start this tie in better shape.
Ukraine aren’t entirely different from the side which played the 2012 tournament on home soil, with much of the attacking play based around two speedy wingers who like cutting inside and shooting. Yevhen Konoplyanka has been in particularly fine form since joining Sevilla, and will be a goalscoring threat from the left flank, with right-sided Andriy Yarmolenko also very dangerous having netted a hattrick against Luxembourg in qualification.
Ukraine generally dominated possession during their qualifiers and conceded only four goals – two of them in 1-0 defeats to Spain – and will be confident of another clean sheet in the home leg. The back four is settled, and usually protected by two intelligent holding midfielders.
Slovenia are a peculiar side, littered with genuinely outstanding players like goalkeeper Samir Handanovic and creative midfielder Josip Ilicic, with Josip Ilicic in fine international form. But it’s difficult to say precisely what they excel at – they have a decent defence and a reasonably impressive midfield, while upfront they’re still depending upon 36-year-old, Japan-based Milivoje Novakovic – who, admittedly, still continues to score with impressive regularity.
Arguably the key performers, however, will be the full-backs up against Ukraine’s dangerous wingers. Right-sided Andraz Struna and left-sided Bojan Jokic only truly cemented their first-team places midway through the qualification period, and will need strong performances here.
For an alternative look at this week’s matches, check out FREEbets.org.uk‘s preview, complete with odds and tips for each of the games.
November 12th, 2015 by Michael Cox