World Cup 2014 qualifiers: 10 talking points from the weekend's action
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Can Trapattoni ever feel the Irish force?
A routine win over the Faroe Islands cannot deflect the suspicion that this campaign will represent another opportunity lost by the . Wes Hoolahan brought much-needed invention to the Irish attack, as everyone knew he would, and Giovanni Trapattoni finally admitted that the Norwich schemer is yet another player he has ignored for too long, only giving the 31-year-old his first competitive start last week rather than, say, before the predictable Euro 2012 flop.
A similar reluctance to recognise the counter-productiveness of his crude tactics enabled Austria to equalise in the dying seconds in Dublin during March and that result looks particularly damaging to Ireland's qualification hopes after Austria followed it up with victory in Sweden on Friday. Ireland are now likely to need to beat at home and Austria away and only have a chance of doing so if Trapattoni genuinely realises that Ireland are not as talent-deprived as he has often made them look. It is all very well deploying Hoolahan against the Faroes when James McCarthy is unavailable, but does Trap have the gumption to play them both in high-stakes matches against proper opposition? Paul Doyle
Never mind the maths, feel the passion
The jaded, the desperately cynical and the English will mock the Scots as they celebrate their side's stunning win in Croatia, pointing out the comparatively minor worth of the result to a team already knocked out of the World Cup. But therein lies the root cause of the glee: were out of the World Cup before a ball had even been kicked in qualifying, Craig Levein's morbid fatalism extracting all the fun, passion, hope, vim and vigour from the national XI.
They were on a hiding to nothing from the off. Compare and contrast with the infinitely more dynamic Gordon Strachan, who has already rebuilt confidence to the extent that Scotland went over to Croatia "believing we could get something", according to Robert Snodgrass, the goalscoring hero also opining that he and his pals "could have nicked a few more goals". A few! A positive attitude isn't the be all and end all, but the fancy tactics and progressive phases of play can come later: for now, Scotland are having to pick themselves off the floor, and the new positivity that fuelled tired legs as they relentlessly pressed into impotent frustration is a welcome start. Scott Murray
Croatia operating well below billing
Having said all that, Croatia were nothing short of abysmal. The pointlessness of the Fifa world rankings isn't exactly news but players representing a team ranked fourth in the world should be able to perform basic functions like trapping and passing the ball, whether they're being hassled by Alan Hutton or not. Scotland, taking things one step at a time, can be forgiven for their part in a match which at times descended into Sunday park nonsense, but the Croats were too easily harried into a shapeless and panicked mess. Belgium are three points clear at the top now and should seal the automatic qualification spot, for while they still need to travel to Split, a draw shouldn't be beyond their starlets against a rickety team which looks worryingly over-reliant on Luka Modric. SM
Bad noose for Stuart Pearce…
Damage report, Mr Pearce. Best players: out. Defensive organisation: out. Midfield creativity: out. Enough of what's out! What's in? Ice-blended mocha drinks and Stuart Pearce's neck in a noose after Norway's victory over England on Saturday night. "Humiliation isn't a word I'd use," said the Under-21 manager afterwards but a humiliation is exactly what it was as Norway, a country with far less resources and far less money, earnestly embarrassed for 90 minutes. Afterwards, Pearce was bullish about his prospects of keeping his job – "I always view what I do over a two-year period and results don't change my mentality" – but it is nigh on impossible to see how he will do so, especially given the performances in Israel, not to mention the fact that his side have now failed to pick up a win within the bounds of 90 minutes in their last eight encounters at the Under-21 European Championship finals. The question is: who should be next? Ian McCourt
Good news for Roy Hodgson
But it's not all doom and gloom and fume for English fans. On Friday night, Ukraine mauled Montenegro in Podgorica and in doing so did England the biggest favour since the US accepted Piers Morgan's visa request. Before the game the England manager, Roy Hodgson, had expressed a desire for a draw between the two sides challenging England for a place on the plane to Brazil. However, Ukraine's 4-0 win – during which both sides had players sent off and thus suspended for forthcoming key clashes – is a much better result. It means that England now have a far superior goal difference to the leaders of the group, Montenegro, as well as a game in hand, and yet are still a point ahead of Ukraine. Roy Hodgson's side have four game to go – Moldova at home, Ukraine away, Montenegro at home and Poland at home. The crossing to Kiev will be critical as will the meeting of Montenegro at home but if England come out of those games with four points then Hodgson can start preparing his excuses for a quarter-final finish come next summer. IMC
Zusi creates a problem for Donovan
Graham Zusi continues to make leaving out a legend easy. There is no clearer justification for Jürgen Klinsmann's decision to overlook Landon Donovan than the recent performances of Zusi, who again impressed on the right-hand side of USA's midfield during their dramatic win in Jamaica. Zusi has the discipline and strength that Donovan lacks but also a valuable creative edge, as shown by the perfect cross for Jozy Altidore's goal, the second time in two games that he has teed up the in-form striker. PD
Balotelli remains forever young
Mario Balotelli may have moved club and country but it seems that he has left none of his impetuous nature behind him. Since he moseyed to Milan, he has picked up almost as many yellow cards as he has goals but against the Czech Republic he went one better. With his side drawing 0-0 and in need of some forward force for a win that would have put them six points clear of Bulgaria and dreaming of caipirinhas and capybaras, Balotelli lunged late and led with an elbow to ensure Italy ended with 10 men. The excuses came rolling our afterwards – "he will always be the target of provocation," said Cesare Prandelli, while Gigi Buffon maintained the forward was "unlucky" – but at some stage, Balotelli simply has to grow up. Despite his bouts of brilliance – and he has been brilliant for Milan – Balotelli's temper is far too inconsistent to lead an international side with the type of lofty ambitions that the Azzurri are anchored with. If he can mature, he could ensure do not suffer the same ignominious exit as befell them in 2010 but unfortunately for him and his country, that is still one very big if. IMC
Sweden must avoid another slip-up
When Sweden last played the Faroe Islands, the Faroes' keeper Gunnar Nielsen was in inspired form and kept Zlatan Ibrahimovic at bay for much of the match. At the other end, Rogvi Baldvinsson's surprise 57th-minute strike put the underdogs into the lead before Alexander Kacaniklic evened things up. Eventually, Ibrahimovic scored the winner in the 75th minute but the point remains that the – given a fair wind and a bit of luck – can beat Sweden. The Group C rivals face each other on Tuesday night in Stockholm and the Swedes are coming into the match on the back of some pretty poor form: their last five games include just one win (against Macedonia), 0-0 draws against the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia, a defeat to Argentina and, last week, another loss to Austria. They sit second in the Group C standings and can little afford a slip-up against the supposed group whipping boys. Tom Bryant
Clubs should keep an eye out for Ospina
With the transfer window soon to open, those clubs in search of a keeper could do worse than fluttering their wherewithals in the direction of Colombia and Nice's David Ospina. The 24-year-old beat back wave after wave of one of the most lustrous line-ups in international football when he faced Argentina at the weekend and his double save on the 16-minute mark was one of the highlights of the match. Angel Di María swung in a free-kick from the right, failed to clear it and the ball dropped on to the foot of Gonzalo Higuaín. At this point fans of La Albiceleste could be forgiven for shouting gooooooooooooooooooooool since Higuaín was inside the six-yard box and missing looked harder than punching a pathway out of a wet and worn paper bag. But somehow Ospina managed to get his body in the way of Higuaín's hammered drive. The rebound fell to Marcos Rojo who, like Higuaín, was inside the six-yard box and who, like Higuaín, looked set to give his side the lead. But Ospina sprung from the ground and into action, tipping Rojo's goal-bound header over the bar. Even when Leo Messi came on in the second half, Ospina's sheet remained free from blemish. IMC
Mifsud and Malta's magic moment
Honk the good-times klaxon, break open that special bottle and blow the dust off that old Maltese jersey you bought on holiday a few years ago but wore only once to five-a-side on a Monday night and then never wore again as you thought it brought bad luck. It is time to celebrate. It had been 20 years since Malta won an away international – Estonia were overcome 1-0 in May 1993 – but that same scoreline was enough for them to claim victory over an Armenia side that are 67 places ahead of them in the Fifa world rankings. Michael Mifsud is the man who will never have to pay for a pint in Valletta ever again as he scored his side's only attempt on target. But the goalkeeper, Justin Haber, was just as crucial to their success, pulling off a lorry-load of saves to ensure Armenia's domination was not converted into goals. The win provided the only points have earned from this current qualifying campaign but that did not seem to perturb Haber: "I am so proud to be part of this team, which goes down in Maltese football history," he maintained jubilantly afterwards. IMC