Double delight for Gareth Southgate, Gordon Strachan and Michael O’Neill

Jack Kitson by Jack Kitson / 05 September 2017, 11:09

England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all bagged maximum points from their two fixtures during the latest wave of international fixtures, meaning each of their respective gaffers will be content heading into the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers in a month’s time.

Below we dissect the main talking points.

When will a club take a chance on Michael O’Neill?

The magic Michael O’Neill has conjured up at Northern Ireland has been nothing short of spellbinding.

Prior to O’Neill’s appointment at the backend of 2011 the Green And White Army were way down in 88th in the FIFA World Rankings, while they hadn’t taken part in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

O’Neill has since propelled the country up a record high of 22nd in the rankings, led his country through to their first ever European Championships (Euro 2016), and now they have a good chance of bagging a place at the (2018) World Cup after securing at least a play-off spot.

Northern Ireland have thrived in Group C, recording six wins in eight qualification games, accumulating five victories on the spin for the first time in their history, while they’ve only conceded two goals - no team has let in fewer.

It’s bizarre that under-the-radar O’Neill has yet to be lured over to either the Premier League or a top Championship club, however while his loyalty to his country must be applauded, next summer could prove to be the ideal time to return to club management for the first time since 2011.

Meanwhile, a job could soon be opening up at Crystal Palace

Birthday boy Gareth Southgate gets the job done

England were criticised for lacking heart and passion in their lacklustre 4-0 victory over minnows Malta last Friday, but Gareth Southgate’s men responded admirably to a third minute strike from Slovakia to come-from-behind to win 2-1 on Monday, meaning The Three Lions now need just two points from their final two games to seal their place at the 2018 World Cup.

England haven’t lost a World Cup qualification game in eight years - Ukraine, after they’d already qualified - with that their only defeat since a shock loss to Northern Ireland back in 2005.

Southgate, who celebrated his 47th birthday on Sunday, has now overseen 10 matches as England boss, winning only five, giving him a 50% win rate - the lowest of any England boss since Kevin Keegan (39%) - which to be honest isn’t particularly impressive.

The countries England have beaten are not eye-catching and are not in the top-20: Slovakia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta (x2), while the three teams England have faced in the top-20 they’ve failed to beat, losing to both Germany and France, while they blew a 2-0 lead against Spain, drawing 2-2.

England may be waltzing through another qualification campaign, but Southgate knows that the grand stage of major tournaments is where his troops need to perform.

Gordon Strachan’s Scotland storm back into the frame

Wins over Lithuania and Malta mean Scotland have not only propelled themselves back into the mix for a 2018 World Cup play-off spot, but won back-to-back qualification games in the same campaign for the first time in two-and-a-half-years.

Taking less than maximum points from these two Group F fixtures would have been both embarrassing and confidence crushing, and let's not forget job-ending for Gordon Strachan. However, the fact is that the Scot's have subsequently reduced the gap between themselves and 2nd-placed Slovakia to just a single point with two matches remaining.

The teams clash at Hampden Park in a month’s time, which is followed by a trip to Slovenia three days later. The fate is in their own hands as The Tartan Army bid to progress through to their first World Cup this millennium, with their last appearance stretching back to 1998.


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