Euro qualifying at its midpoint: Predicting the 19 automatic qualifiers

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We’ve reached the halfway point of the race to qualify for Euro 2016, and only one nation has a guarantee of participating in the tournament in France: France.

Some big-name teams have surged through their group, while others have fell behind only to right the ship heading into the stretch run.

[USMNT: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things]

Before we get into the business of predicting who will come through, let’s take a look at some winners, losers, and statistical heroes.

Biggest surprise: Northern Ireland and Wales

Biggest disappointments: Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina

Scoring leader: Danny Welbeck, England (6 goals)

Most goals scored: Poland (16 goals)

Fewest goals allowed: tie — Romania, England, Belgium (1 goal)

As for the teams and their chances to get to France as participants in next summer’s party, there’s plenty of time to foul things up. But some have put themselves in very good positions.

The top two teams in each group will advance, while the best third-place side will also advance. The remaining third-place sides will be drawn into  playoff ties.

In Group A, the Czechs and Iceland are a point a part at the top, with the Netherlands five points back of an automatic spot. But hold on, because the Dutch get both nations they’re chasing at home. Turkey is two points back of the Netherlands for the playoff spot.

The prediction: 1) Iceland2) Czech Republic, 3) Netherlands

source: Getty Images

Group B is cluttered at the top now that Israel dropped back to back matches to Belgium and Wales. It seems the Red Devils have righted their ship, but with Bosnia & Herzegovina four points back of third and six back of second, plenty could change.

Safe prediction: 1) Belgium

Less safe: 2) Wales

Toss up: 3) Israel or Bosnia and Herzegovina

To Group C, where the top three look certain. Slovakia leads the group with 15 points, followed by Spain three back and Ukraine six back. Spain has only two home qualifiers left compared to Slovakia and Ukraine, but is also Spain.

The prediction: 1) Spain, 2) Slovakia, 3) Ukraine

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Germany feels like a safe bet to move up from its second place slot, a point behind Poland, but the next three slots are a question. Poland should be safe, but it’s likely to come down to Scotland and Ireland for the third spot. A June 13 match in Ireland could determine the whole deal, and Scotland’s remaining home matches include big tests like Poland and Germany.

The prediction: 1) Germany, 2) Poland, 3) Ireland

source: Getty Images

England is crushing the field in Group E, but its 5-0 record hasn’t guaranteed much thanks to the presence of minnows Lithuania, Estonia and San Marino. Switzerland’s home loss to England hurts, but not as much as Slovenia giving up its edge for second with a loss at Estonia. Look for a flip-flop here.

The prediction: 1) England, 2) Switzerland, 3) Slovenia

Group F has played out in unpredictable fashion, with Pot A Greece and Pot B Hungary currently out of automatic qualification spots. Greece is 10 points out of an auto spot, in fact, and can only hope to make up six points on Hungary. It’s possible, but far from likely. Now can Hungary catch either No. 1 Romania (5 point lead) or No. 2 Northern Ireland (4 point lead)? The hope may rest with Greece not reclaiming its edge, as the Greeks still have to visit the top two sides and host Hungary.

The prediction: 1) Romania, 2) Northern Ireland, 3) Hungary

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Still a bit in the balance in Group G, as Russia waits to see if it’ll get its three points for the abandonment of its match versus Montenegro. Both sides have been charged, leaving them and Liechtenstein within one point of each other in the race for third. Austria leads the group with 13 points, while Sweden is second. Das Team is going through, figuring on six from six at home against Liechtenstein and Moldova. Russia can catch Sweden if it gets all three points from the abandoned match and no punishment. I don’t see the second part happening given the Serbia/Albania mess.

The prediction: 1) Austria, 2) Sweden, 3) Russia

source: Getty ImagesGroup H looks fairly set to stay as it’s began, with Croatia cruising aside from a 1-1 draw at No. 2 Italy. The only question is whether Bulgaria can make a run at Norway. Seems unlikely.

The prediction: 1) Croatia, 2) Italy, 3) Norway

In the five-team Group I, Portugal has overcome its slow start to sit atop Denmark and Albania by two points. Yet Cristiano Ronaldo’s bunch have just one home match left in the second go-round, and it’s against No. 2 Denmark. The schedule won’t cost them an auto spot, but it will the group.

The prediction: 1) Denmark, 2) Portugal, 3) Albania

And the bonus prediction for the top third-place side? Look for Slovenia to edge Ukraine and Hungary.

Everton’s Silva: ‘It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score’

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Like in the two games leading into Friday night, Everton have done their part in creating clear-cut chances.

They haven’t done their part in finishing, however. A major point of concern for manager Marco Silva following his side’s 2-0 loss against Aston Villa. From the BBC:

“It is really difficult to see how we can lose this game when we create so many chances to score. It is a tough place to play football.”

The Toffees have now outshot all three opponents they’ve faced this season (34-21), but have only a goal to speak for their attacking dominance. Against Villa, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Theo Walcott squandered ideal chances in the first and second halves, respectively. In the minutes following his Everton debut, Alex Iwobi was the closest to converting for the visitors, hitting the post in the closing minutes of the match.

Silva, as critical as ever before, acknowledges that despite his team succeeding when it comes to creating chances, they desperately need to move the ball past the white line.

“The most difficult thing is to create and when you do you have to put the ball in the net,” the 42-year-old added. “It is concerning about the goals we didn’t score and of course we should score more. Against Palace we created lots of chances to score and didn’t and again today.”

With a challenging bout against Wolves at Goodison Park next on the schedule, the Portuguese will certainly look to tinker his attack to improve the team’s poor conversion rate. Despite falling to score 10 yards in, Iwobi contributed positively for Everton at Villa Park. Moise Kean, still adjusting to the rigors of the league, can be another prudent option to consider.

Luckily, Everton have time – and a match against Lincoln City midweek – to weigh their options. Silva, as he clearly explained at Villa Park, would want the goals to come in sooner rather than later.

Villa’s Wesley hopes to ‘continue like this’ after scoring first goal

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Anwar El Ghazi was the x-factor Friday night, giving every Aston Villa supporter in attendance at Villa Park the excuse to roar at the top of their lungs following his composed finish in the dying seconds of stoppage time.

But about an hour earlier, Villa’s $28-million striker, Wesley, gave the same supporters a reason to believe that they had a chance against Everton, and, most importantly, that Villa made the right decision in securing his signature just months ago.

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With a timely run and a well-paced strike, the Brazilian opened his Premier League and Aston Villa account. Something manager Dean Smith knew was bound to happen. From the BBC:

“Wesley is not rewarding me but this performance was very good tonight. I believe in him, I have watched him for a while at Club Bruges, playing in the Champions League so I know the calibre of player we were bringing in. You can’t judge someone after two games.”

Prior to Friday, Wesley was less effective than expected in the claret and blue, recording only two shots on target in his first 164 minutes in the league. Smith was swarmed with questions about the striker’s ineffectiveness as the pressure continued to pile on.

Against Everton, however, with the Villa struggling to keep possession and most playing through frenetic counter attacks, the 22-year-old made the most out of the small number of chances he saw. 21 minutes in, he scored. A couple of minutes later – if it wasn’t for a superb last-second tackle from Everton’s Yerry Mina – the Brazilian would have had a brace.

When he wasn’t aiming for goal, the striker was effectively displacing Everton’s back four with his clever runs and brawny hold-up play. One could tell that the Brazilian was playing the game to his strengths, in peace.

“I am very happy tonight, what a performance from the team,” Wesley said after the match. “We worked hard, played very well and we hope to continue like this week by week then we will see what happens.

“The manager knows me, he sees me everyday working hard and the supporters know me too. I keep calm, I know my qualities and today you saw that I can do.

“I hope to continue like this, the last two games were very difficult but now I have to help my team with goals.”

Time will tell if Wesley will continue on the same path, but after a slow start, its quite crystal clear that everyone at Aston Villa is behind the Brazilian striker.

Late El Ghazi goal seals Aston Villa victory over Everton

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With three points under their belt and Villa Park rocking like never before, it now feels like Aston Villa are finally back in the Premier League.

Pinned back the majority of the second half, trying to conserve a 1-0 lead, Anwar El Ghazi‘s last-gasp goal sealed the deal for Villa, edging Everton 2-0 on Friday.

Wesley‘s cathartic welcome to the Premier League 21 minutes in gave Dean Smith‘s side the room to breathe, despite being behind the ball the majority of the match.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]


Four things we learned

1. Certainly not the case last time they featured in the Premier League, Villa now have the luxury of boasting game-changing choices off the bench like El Ghazi, who can come in and finish things off.

2. Three matches in, and the Toffees’ glaring void is a clinical finisher up top. They’ll need to find a solution, sooner rather than later.

3.  In the 30-minute cameo, Alex Iwobi displayed that he can turn out to be a difference-maker for Everton this season, if utilized properly.

4. On a good night, there aren’t many stadiums that roar louder than Villa Park.

Man of the Match


Jota, positive for 77 minutes on the right side of the midfield, combined time and time again with Villa right back Frederic Guilbert for the greater good of creating energetic counters. The Spaniard’s first assist of the season came in similar fashion, when Wesley finished off his precise through ball.

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Everton, like in the first half, imposed themselves on the home side, dominating control of the ball. A lack of fishing and creativity in the final third, however, complicated things for Marco Silva‘s side. As the clocked ticked, the ingenuity was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after coming on, Iwobi put forward the clearest chance Everton had experienced all night. The substitute’s shot, though, struck post, denying any chances of a brilliant debut by the former Arsenal man.

Villa continued to sit back with its four-man backline and Douglas Luiz right above as the No. 6, while remaining attentive on when to spring forward and take advantage of an unbalanced Everton.

El Ghazi surprised many, riffling a shot from 25 yards out. Pickford, vigilant as ever before, calmly blocked it out of danger.

Right before stoppage time, the Toffees were a couple of feet from walking away from Villa Park with a vital point. Theo Wolcott, however, failed to keep his strike leveled, skying the ball well over the bar.

Just minutes later, substitute El-Ghazi showed those watching how to finish, leading Villa to their first Premier League win since 2016.

AT HALF: Wesley scores first goal for Aston Villa

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With pressure certainly on, Wesley scored his first Premier League goal, which has Aston Villa 45 minutes out of their first points since their return to the big stage.

Following a sublime through ball from Jota, the Brazilian didn’t shy away from slotting the ball past Jordan Pickford and into the back of the net.

[ STREAM: Aston Villa – Everton ]

Such timely run and clinical finish showcased by the 22-year-old put into perspective why Villa were willing to shell out $28 million for the striker this summer.

Welcome to the Premier League, Wesley.