The irrelevant Euro 2016 Qualifying Process
The weekend that Premier League action restarts following an international break is one that is anticipated more than most, as it comes on the back of qualifying fixtures or friendlies between countries that simply do not mean as much as the club games. I love the major international tournaments, from the World Cup, to the European Championships or Copa America – basically anything that is not the Olympic Games, where football is an after-thought – but these two-year qualifying group stages are just irrelevant and boring. That has never been more true than now, as Euro 2016 will feature 24 countries – up from the 16 of recent iterations of the competition – and thus it will be very hard for the major nations to avoid qualifying for the finals. This past fortnight should have been exciting (except for the awful scenes that broke out in the match between Serbia and Albania): Poland beat the World Champions, Germany; Iceland defeated Netherlands; Slovakia won 2-1 against Spain; England overcame San Marino – so many unexpected successes, but still all the big guns will make it to France because nearly half of the continent will. With the hosts the only nation guaranteed a spot, that means that 53 countries are competing for 23 slots. Then consider this list of 20 nations:
San Marino, Andorra, Malta, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Cyprus, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Lithuania, Albania, Gibraltar, Estonia, Latvia, Wales, Armenia, Montenegro, Northern Ireland
None of these teams are going to qualify, so it basically means that 23 spots are being contested by 33 teams. Plus, I did not even put Scotland, Finland and Iceland in that grouping because I felt that it might be a little harsh on them, even though the latter two have never made it to a major tournament, while there are Scottish people who are legally allowed to drink who were not born the last time their home country made a European Championship or World Cup (Euro 96). When UEFA determined the seedings for the qualifying draw, Israel were ranked as the 23rd best team in Europe (thus expected to qualify for the 24 team tournament) despite the fact that they: a) are not in Europe; and b) last competed in an international tournament in 1968, when they came third in the Asian Cup, held in Iran. The whole system is a joke and it will get even worse when the tournament itself arrives and some crappy team gets three draws in the group stage and somehow makes it to the second round, because they’re one of the best third-place finishers, just like the 1990/1994 World Cups. Ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the qualifying for the African Cup of Nations was actually getting interesting, except for the fact that Morocco has pulled out of hosting the event due to ebola fears and now there may not actually be a tournament for which to qualify…still more interesting than the UEFA competition, however.
Premier League Recap and Weekend Preview
At least the Premier League is back this weekend and I get to watch Tottenham play…oh I actually cannot remember who they’re facing this weekend. Let me just check…Saturday early kick off, 12:45pm local time, that’s 7:45am Eastern and 4:45am Pacific, still there’s always coffee to help with the early start…and they’re playing…Manchester City away. Oh for fu…
Since my weekend will be ruined by Spurs before it even really starts, let’s have a quick look back at the action from two weeks ago – the highlights:
- Chelsea maintained their unbeaten record with a 2-0 victory over Arsenal and also managed to get under Arsene Wenger’s skin once again as he reacted to a challenge on Alexis Sanchez by confronting and pushing Jose Mourinho, who clearly loved the whole incident.
- Tottenham earned a win for Mauricio Pochettino against his old club, Southampton, holding on to win 1-0 thanks to a Christian Eriksen goal. Somehow that result meant that Spurs, who had not won since the second game of the season, have spent the last two weeks above the Gunners, who suffered their first defeat of the campaign in the aforementioned game with Chelsea.
- Fans of 2-2 draws got to enjoy two more of them, as the matches between Leicester and Burnley, plus Swansea and Newcastle ended with that scoreline, bringing the season’s total to 10. In the latter match, Papiss Cissé once again scored both – as he had done against Hull – probably saving Alan Pardew’s job ahead of the international break.
- Manchester United moved into the top 4 with a 2-1 home victory over Everton, with Angel DiMaria and Radamel Falcao both getting on the score sheet. This proves that Louis Van Gaal is indeed a genius and he can inspire his team to greatness…or, they were very lucky to get away with the three points, needing to rely on some stunning saves from David de Gea and Leighton Baines’ first ever penalty miss in the top flight.
Strength of Schedule Rankings
That one lucky victory is not the only bad sign for Manchester United supporters either. Since there were two weeks in between fixtures, I spent some time (okay I did it today at the last-minute, but still) looking at the strength of schedule each team has faced so far. I mapped out who each club has faced so far, giving their opponents a value from 1-20 based on their current league position – it looked something like this:
|Position||Team||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4||Week 5||Week 6||Week 7|
|1||Chelsea||Burnley||Leicester||Everton||Swansea||Man City||Aston Villa||Arsenal|
|2||Man CIty||Newcastle||Liverpool||Stoke||Arsenal||Chelsea||Hull||Aston Villa|
|3||Southampton||Liverpool||West Brom||West Ham||Newcastle||Swansea||QPR||Tottenham|
|4||Man United||Swansea||Sunderland||Burnley||QPR||Leicester||West Ham||Everton|
|5||Swansea||Man United||Burnley||West Brom||Chelsea||Southampton||Sunderland||Newcastle|
|6||Tottenham||West Ham||QPR||Liverpool||Sunderland||West Brom||Arsenal||Southampton|
|7||West Ham||Tottenham||Crystal Palace||Southampton||Hull||Liverpool||Man United||QPR|
|8||Arsenal||Crystal Palace||Everton||Leicester||Man City||Aston Villa||Tottenham||Chelsea|
|9||Liverpool||Southampton||Man City||Tottenham||Aston Villa||West Ham||Everton||West Brom|
|10||Aston Villa||Stoke||Newcastle||Hull||Liverpool||Arsenal||Chelsea||Man City|
|11||Hull||QPR||Stoke||Aston Villa||West Ham||Newcastle||Man City||Crystal Palace|
|12||Leicester||Everton||Chelsea||Arsenal||Stoke||Man United||Crystal Palace||Burnley|
|13||Sunderland||West Brom||Man United||QPR||Tottenham||Burnley||Swansea||Stoke|
|15||Crystal Palace||Arsenal||West Ham||Newcastle||Burnley||Everton||Leicester||Hull|
|16||Stoke||Aston Villa||Hull||Man City||Leicester||QPR||Newcastle||Sunderland|
|17||Everton||Leicester||Arsenal||Chelsea||West Brom||Crystal Palace||Liverpool||Man United|
|18||Newcastle||Man City||Aston Villa||Crystal Palace||Southampton||Hull||Stoke||Swansea|
|19||Burnley||Chelsea||Swansea||Man United||Crystal Palace||Sunderland||West Brom||Leicester|
|20||QPR||Hull||Tottenham||Sunderland||Man United||Stoke||Southampton||West Ham|
This is obviously not a perfect process, since it does not take into account home/away factor, nor does it necessarily reflect how good a team is – you would expect Arsenal to be a tougher opponent than Southampton, despite their current positions in the table. But what it does show is the form of the clubs that each team has faced, so when I then plugged in the values and worked out the average position of the opponent of each team, the rankings came out as follows (SOS = Strength of Schedule, AVP = Average Position of opponent, basically the higher up the list, the harder the fixtures have been for each side)
So Manchester United have had, relatively speaking, the easiest fixtures thus far, yet they still sit precariously in fourth place, ahead of 5th and 6th placed Swansea and Tottenham on goal difference. As you would expect from looking at the league table, this also suggests that Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton are likely to move up the standings in the coming weeks as everything evens out (maybe not so with QPR, who have helped improve opponents’ positions by being rubbish and losing to them), while the likes of Hull, Crystal Palace and United have inaccurately lofty positions to this point. Or, I could just have had too much time to think about the Premier League with no games to watch, plus my desire to avoid this weekend’s likely massacre at the Etihad.
Weekend Action and Predictions
Following on from Manchester City’s demolition of Spurs on Saturday, Arsenal can reclaim their regular position of being above their North London rivals by beating Hull at home, two ever-presents in the Premier League meet at Goodison Park as Everton take on Aston Villa; there is an all-claret-and-blue affair between Burnley and West Ham; a London derby as Crystal Palace host Chelsea; Newcastle and Leicester will be the teams drawing 2-2 this week; and Sunderland have the longest trip of the weekend, as they head to the south coast to play Southampton. Last season, Tim Sherwood took over at Spurs following their home defeat to Liverpool and he could repeat the trick this campaign – should rumors have any basis in fact – at QPR, as Harry Redknapp’s position has come under increased scrutiny ahead of their meeting with the Reds on Sunday. Also that day, Stoke play Swansea at the Britannia, while the Monday Night matchup is between West Brom and the overrated Manchester United.
Last time, 3-7; Season, 28-42
Home team listed first
Manchester City vs Tottenham – Don’t ask
(okay, Home win)
Arsenal vs Hull – Home win
Burnley vs West Ham – Draw
Crystal Palace vs Chelsea – Away win
Everton vs Aston Villa – Home win
Newcastle vs Leicester – Draw
Southampton vs Sunderland – Home win
QPR vs Liverpool – Away win
Stoke vs Swansea – Away win
West Brom vs Manchester United – Draw