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Ghana doesn’t seem to care whether it plays football or not February 5, 2012

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Ghanaian football, Tunisian soccer.
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Ghana coach Goran Stevanovic has crafted the most nihilistic side at the African Cup of Nations (photo credit: Africa Soccernet)

As usual, things haven’t gone according to plan for me regarding the Africa Cup of Nations. I’d wanted to watch all the games, or failing that at least see all the teams, but it didn’t work out. Now only four sides are left for me to think about. I’ll try to post my thoughts on each of the ones left at least.

I used to like Ghana, but I don’t anymore.

Many Americans first saw the Black Stars when they knocked the U.S. out of the 2010 World Cup and got a bad impression. I remember them from their swashbuckling 2006 campaign, where they were a glass-jawed side that tore teams apart at stretches but never seemed to believe in itself. Very charismatic.

Ghana 2012, though has none of that, even though it has more stardust and confidence than ever before. Marseille attacker Andre Ayew is the best player I’ve ever seen in Ghana’s colors and the team is built around him. Every time he gets the ball, there’s anticipation, because he can do anything he wants with it.

But Ayew, against Tunisia, was also outrageously cynical. In two extra time minutes, I remember him hitting the ground in feigned agony three times. And that’s very much emblematic of the entire team.

Every time the ball enters Ghana’s box, you can hear coach Goran Stevanovic screaming “Away!” over the crowd. Whenever the opposition gets a break, Anthony Annan hurdles out of nowhere and chops the ball-carrier down. Plenty of sides do this sort of thing, but the overall impression with Ghana is unmistakable: This is a side that doesn’t care one way or the other whether it plays football.

That said, it’s also the most complete team at the tournament.

Surprisingly, Libya lacked purpose and Equatorial Guinea had it in spades. January 21, 2012

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in Africa Cup of Nations, African soccer, Equatoguinean soccer, Libyan soccer.
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Walid El Khatrouchi (in white) was Libya's most dangerous player. Photo credit: MTNfootball

The great deal written in the British media about Libya’s qualification for the African Nations Cup suggested that the Desert Knights would be a team with real inspiration. Libya is like a new country now, and in the players’ minds, we were told, that meant they had everything to prove both on behalf of themselves and their countrymen.

But Libya did not play like a team that had a burning purpose. Indeed, the contrast with Equatorial Guinea, their opponent in the tournament opener, was stark. Marcos Paqueta has been Libya’s coach for a long time, while Gilson Paulo has been in charge of Equatorial Guinea for a matter of weeks. It was Gilson, however, who seemed to have a clear grasp of his players’ strengths and weaknesses and how best to exploit them.

Strategically, Equatorial Guinea resembled North Korea at the last World Cup, with a reliance on packing men behind the ball and breaking quickly to exploit the speed, technique and finishing ability of the front two. Tactically, the hosts were very sophisticated for a team thrown together in such a short time. They focused on keeping two spare men at the back when Libya had the ball and responded well to what passed for Libya’s shape, with left wingback Randy exploiting right-back Abdulaziz Belrrish’s weakness on high balls and playmaker Ivan Bolado taking advantage of the space left by the ill-discipline of Djamal Mahamat.

Libya was tactically a mess. Where it was clear Equatorial Guinea was playing 3-4-1-2, it was impossible to say what Libya’s formation was. There were definitely four at the back and Ahmed Al Zuway was a lone forward, but none of the players in between had a clear role. They all seemed to get sucked into the center, making it easy for the Equatorial Guineans’ back three to cope with them.

The system didn’t play to the Libyans’ strengths. Zuway is clearly slow and ponderous, but in the first half, he kept trying to turn and run at the Equatorial Guinea defense, losing the ball every time. Even in the second half, though, he was at a clear disadvantage, since he was outnumbered three to one.

Belrrish looked overmatched against Randy no matter what he did, even missing simple headers, but when he tried to break forward, he made matters worse, since his runs were bad and left the defense at Randy’s mercy. And there didn’t seem to be anyone covering him, Mahamat, nominally a defensive midfielder, kept charging forward too.

Libya’s only bright spot was attacking midfielder Walid El Khatrouchi. The Al-Ittihad player actually took up arms against Muammar Gahdaffi, so it’s no surprise he was the single most determined man on the field, but he also seemed to be the most consistently inventive. His runs were good and he was full of improvised flicks and dribbles. When he went off, Libya’s hopes left with him.

There are mitigating factors. The crowd was definitely a big part of Equatorial Guinea’s performance and the noise from the supporters may have cowed Libya. It’s also possible that the weight of representing what feels like a whole new nation was too much for the Libyans. In any case, they’ve got a lot of improving to do.

The upcoming World Club Cups will be in Morocco. December 19, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in International soccer, Moroccan soccer.
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Note: a previous version of this post stated that the next World Club Cup will be in Morocco. That is incorrect. That tournament will be held in Japan.

Fifa seemingly announced today that the 2013 and 2014 World Club Cups will take place in Morocco. I’m in favor.

The conventional take:

This is a good thing because this is an event that has heretofore only taken place in Asia. Good that it should leave that continent. It doesn’t make money anyway, so why not move it around.

My egostistical take:

If I was to make one change to FIFA, it would be the outlawing of games I personally want to watch at 2:30 a.m. Pacific time. That’s when I had to wake up to see this most recent World Club Cup final. Prime time in Morocco is far more manageable for me. (also, it probably stands a chance of increasing interest in Europe. Probably good for the tournament, but I don’t give a good goddamn about that. Why did I even bring it up.)

Half Volley Ballon d’Or nominee: Faty Papy December 11, 2011

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer, Burundian soccer, HalfVolley World Footballer of the Year Award, Turkish soccer.
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Burundi midfielder Faty Papy followed a familiar path to stardom. At 15, he was disastrously described as the “savior of Burundian football.” At 18, he was snapped up by a major European club (Trabzonspor). At 19, he was dumped in the Dutch second division on loan. At 20, he was released and set adrift. He returned to East Africa, where he failed spectacularly in the Rwandan league. He is now 21 and without a club.

When he signed for Trabzonspor, he was called “Zidane,” his Turkish Wikipedia profile probably says. His career’s pretty much just a rerun of the great Frenchman’s.

I’m normally against giving out awards to has-beens, just because the awards committee’s thinking something like, “If we don’t give Zinedine Zidane the Ballon d’Or at some point in his career, how can people take the Ballon d’Or seriously?” Obviously rubbish. Awards like the Ballon d’Or, even the Half Volley Ballon d’Or are inherently nonsense, and only become moreso when subjected to useless political concerns, worries about legacies and posterities.

Nevertheless, will people ever respect the Half Volley Ballon d’Or if we don’t give it to a great but declining player like 21-year-old Faty Papy at some point? Is that a risk we’re willing to take? It’s almost too late.

Name: Faty Papy.

Position: midfiedler

Nationality: Burundian

Club: None.

Algerian Hairstyle: That of a douche bag from middle school. June 18, 2010

Posted by michaeltomlinson in African soccer, Hair, World Cup 2010.
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Faouzi Chaouchi looking very natural and blonde

Remember seventh grade? personally I don’t recall much, but I know that those were the years of great hair experimentation. The most fancied option of the time and the often maligned bleached doo nearly always stole the show. So, Algeria not to be outdone by late 90s and early 2000’s suburban white children have gone the way of the bright blonde as well. It isn’t just that its blonde, but its gelled and spiked and an all around poor showing by the North African’s and their stylists. Karim Ziani most notably is sporting the florescent look as is Chaouni who is missing his start in goal due to “injury.” Or it could just be that he is ridiculously god awful. Though his replacement M’Bolhi nearly let in the first ball kicked near him which he misjudged on the fly like a T-ball outfielder. Of course as I say this he makes a decent stop on Lampard. maybe i’ll give him a chance, but the hair, not a chance.

African Nations Cup so far January 14, 2010

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.
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Normally, I have no compunction about heedlessly disregarding my complete ignorance of a subject to write about it here. Football means nothing, not just in proportion to the tragedy sown when armed men opened fire on the bus containing Togolese footballers, but in absolute terms. It is an entertainment.

The death of these men does mean something. It would be a desecration of the men who died for me, with a grasp of Angolan affairs so basic as to be completely irrelevant, to attempt to pass off an opinion of the mechanations behind the incident, so I won’t. If anyone does have an informed perspective and the patience to explain it to me in great depth and breadth, please do, and if anyone knows of a writer in the English language whose work could save them the trouble, please send a name along.

It feels crass, considering what happened to the Togolese team, to write about something so trivial as the football on display. The tournament has forever been tarnished. No feats on the soccer field could ever overshadow it and, no matter how brilliant, the winning team will be forgotten as soon as it is crowned, leaving only one, indelible, painful memory.

Juxtaposed with the sorrow, though, the tournament reminds me why I fell in love with football in the first place, and also why I hate myself for loving it. In “The Road to Wigan Pier,” a work as brilliantly bitter as any of his, George Orwell wrote of Cold War England, “By the way, did you know that quite likely fish and chips and the football pools have averted revolution in England by providing ‘panem and circenses’?” Football gives hope to people with nothing in which to believe. The pure joy of a real game of football scratches an almighty itch in the human psyche. It’s an anesthetic.

There is definitely joy on the pitches in Angola. I was unable to see the tournament’s first three games, but the last four have all been endlessly engrossing. The pick of the lot was the match on Tuesday between Nigeria and Egypt. For a period, Nigeria looked too good for any team in the world to handle. A bold claim: the game has never been played so well, so fast as the Nigerians played it in stretches. John Obi Mikel was looking like a Juan Roman Riquelme mated with a bulldozer.

Egypt, though, was also playing well, but at a more relaxed tempo, and had perhaps the better system. The three-man defense often looks archaic, but not the way Hassan Shehata’s Egypt uses it. The mark of a good formation is when a team looks to have its opponents outnumbered both on defense and attack, and Egypt does that. A hallmark of the Pharaohs’ play was the late-second half attacks in which the four behind Ahmed Hassan advanced as one, and it was too much for Nigeria’s defense eventually.

Both teams play attractive styles of football that simply don’t exist in the European game. Nigeria’s ultra-high-tempo game will be a welcome addition to the World Cup. Egypt’s unorthodox movement will be missed.

But I don’t favor either of them to win the tournament. Despite Cameroon’s shock loss to Gabon, I think the Indomitable Lions will come out on top. That game was much different from the Egypt-Nigeria affair. Both teams’ French coaches have imposed more European styles on them. Gabon reminded me of Rangers in their run to the UEFA Cup final a couple of years ago, and the Panthers’ playerd did an excellent job of getting behind the ball.

Cameroon was more impressive, though. Truly magical African playmakers seem to be a rarity these days, but Cameroon has one of the few in Achille Emana. The Real Betis number 10 nearly got Cameroon’s equalizer several times with his sleek touches and slinkier running. Behind him, Alex Song and Jean Makoun are an extremely classy pair of enforcers. A common theme at this tournament seems to be players granted greater freedom than they are at club level and Samuel Eto’o also showed he is a defter passer and trickier dribbler than I personally considered him when he played for Barcelona.

Gabon and Cameroon, along with Egypt, are also exceptions to another common theme among the tournament’s teams: awful goalkeeping. A great deal of Nigeria’s attacking impetus was sapped by keeper Vincent Enyeama, who never once considered a short pass when he received the ball at his feet. But he wasn’t even the worst. Video highlights of the Angola-Mali and Malawi-Algeria games show some really awful keeping errors.

Didier Ovono, Gabon’s stopper, was not among the culprits in the shortage of goalkeeping talent. Though he did drop a cross in the second half, he was inspirational in leading his team from behind. He made some superb saves in the first half and distributed the ball well, but the thing that impressed me the most about him may sound perverse. I’ve never seen a more effective cheat.

In once second-half incident, he even fooled the commentator pretending to have been kicked in the head by an onrushing Cameroonian. It was a calculated move with Gabon in the lead. Referees know that, no matter what, they have to stop play at the merest hint of a head injury, and even though he wholly convinced nobody, Ovono still ate valuable seconds off the clock. That wasn’t the only aspect of his game by any means, just the most glaring. For me, he and Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan are the players of the tournament so far.

African Nations Cup preview December 16, 2009

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.
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Pfft. Africa. Why must it play its football at a time so oppressive to European schedulers? Why does this continent continue its reign of tyranny over European leagues that just want to be left to spin obscene amounts of money in peace? The nerve of a continent that thinks it can use its imperial powers to strip countries such as Belgium, France and the Portugal of footballing resources such as Joseph Akpala, Stephane Sessegnon and Marc Zoro!

But I suppose it’s football. I suppose we are obliged to give it some sort of mention. So let’s get it over with. Here’s the preview in the form of six of that most contemptuous journalistic construct: lists.

African-based players: As more and more teams begin looking to Europe’s lower leagues ahead of their own championships for talent, the native-based player is becoming more and more of a rarity at the ACN. But they’re not extinct yet. These three are looking to use the tournament as a springboard for European employment or at least recognition.

  1. Mohammed Aboutreika (Egypt and al-Ahly). Widely acclaimed as the best player still based on the continent, Egypt’s key man would have hoped the World Cup would provide him the opportunity to prove his talent to a wider audience. The Pharaohs’ inability to make the tournament, though, mean the subtle playmaker’s gifts will probably always be confined to his native continent. But his vision and precision will make Egypt a pretty good bet for their third continental championship in a row.
  2. Chiukepo Msowoya (Malawi and ESCOM). The 21-year-old striker was Malawi’s topscorer in qualifying, with six in eight games, including this impressive goal against Egypt. And he wasn’t even a starter. While Aboutreika will be out to prove he was good all along, Msowoya will be looking to convince Europe’s clubs he’s good enough to warrant an exciting continental career. It would appear he has the talent to do it. First, though, he must dislodge the more experienced Essau Kanyenda from the starting lineup. European clubs might also be interested in South Africa-based Moses Chavula, a left-back with potential.
  3. Loco (Angola and Primeiro Agosto). Most of the home side’s stars are based off of the continent, but the 24-year-old defender is notable for more than football’s most interesting hairstyle. He and fellow Africa-based fullback Gilberto (Egypt’s al-Ahly) are both critical to their team’s chances and, at 24, he might be about to put himself up for a big Euro move.

The missing countries. This nations cup is notable for the big casualties in the qualifiers: quality teams who won’t be at the cup because of unsatisfactory performances in the qualifiers. It will still be a rich competition, but maybe a bit the poorer for the absence of these three.

  1. South Africa. The Bafana Bafana have their problems. The widely held belief is they will be the first hosts to miss out on the second round of the World Cup. All the more reason for them to be disappointed at their failure to make it beyond the first round of qualifiers for this cup. Teams are always fearful of going into the World Cup without competetive matches. The ANC provided South Africa with the perfect opportunity. Nevertheless, if a team views the competition as a stepping stone, maybe it’s just as well they’re not around.
  2. Morocco. You wouldn’t have picked the Atlas Lions to finish winless in a qualifying group that also included Gabon and Togo, but they did. Too bad, because with the talent they had all through the side, I would have made them among the favorites not just for the ANC but to do well in the World Cup: Marouane Chamakh, Mounir El Hamdaoui, Jaouad Zairi, Houssine Kharja, Mbark Boussoufa, Badr El Kaddouri, Karim Zaza and perhaps Younes Kaboul.
  3. Senegal. Another massive absence. The Senegalese have already trimmed talented players too old to play for their 2012 side from their national team, meaning Africa has lost forever the chance to see El-Hadji Diouf, Tony Sylva, Souleymane Diawara, Papa Bouba Diop, Mamadou Niang and Khalilou Fadiga in the flesh.

Stars we’re disappointed not to see. Aside from these big teams, there are also stars for smaller African nations who won’t be making the cup because of their nations’ performances. Here are three of the best.

  1. Dieumerci Mbokani (DR Congo and Belgium’s Standard Liege). The Congolese marksman averages a goal every other game for Liege and far, far more than that for his country. The Leopards have a habit of producing prodigious goalscorers and Mbokani is just the latest in the line.
  2. Pascal Feindouno (Guinea and Qatar’s al-Rayyan). Feindouno was once the continent’s preeminent playmaker, a gifted passer and a taker of audacious goals who has since jetted off for a lucrative spell in Arab football. Without his subtlety, the responsibility for being the tournament’s West African creative genius will likely fall to Benin’s Stephane Sessegnon.
  3. Tinashe Nengomasha (Zimbabwe and South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs). Zimbabwe is a welcome presence at any tournament, and the Warriors appeared to be doing well until Robert Mugabe made the nation an international pariah. In Nengomasha, they have a crunching midfielder as good as any in the South African league. But he won’t be at the cup.

Coaches who could make their names. The best coaches don’t go to Africa. But some horrible ones do. For all but the luckiest, the voyage to Africa is one-way: once you move there, it takes a hell of a lot to get back out. Here are three coaches who stand a chance of, if not doing just that, then at least enhancing their stock.

  1. Hassan Shehata (Egypt). If Shehata wins his third African Nations Cup, some European club is bound to take a punt on him. He has an interesting, endemic, distinct and rather effective style of play and knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em when dealing with difficult characters. He’s gotten the best out of Amr Zaki and Mohamed Zidan and justifiably jettisoned Mido.
  2. Alain Giresse (Gabon). I’m normally skeptical of European coaches in Africa, but Giresse, the former French international, ran Cameroon close for World Cup qualification using a team of French league journeymen and Gabonese league players. It would take a lot to get Giresse back into Europe, but progress to the Nations Cup’s next round would be quite impressive.
  3. Stephen Keshi (Mali). The Nigerian pulled off a momentous achievement by taking Togo to the 2006 World Cup, only to have his chance at the big time revoked after a poor performance at that year’s Nations Cup. Now he has a much better squad of players under him. Mali’s Eagles have made the semifinals in all but one of the Nations Cups they’ve played in and they have the best group of players they ever have. If his native country does poorly and Keshi’s team does well, he could yet get a chance at the World Cup.

European teams with coaches likely to blame the ACN. Not that these will be the only ones. But the African tournament leaves many clubs without some of their best men and their coaches with a ready made excuse.

  1. Chelsea. Not that it’s Carlo Ancelotti’s perrogative to wantonly cast blame, but Chelsea will lose England’s star of the season so far, Didier Drogba, as well as Sal Kalou, Michael Essien and John Obi Mikel at a time when the Blues’ championship charge is faltering. If Chelsea’s slump continues through January and Drogba comes back tired, you might see Arsene Wenger (it can’t be a coincidence that he jettisoned Adebayor and Toure this year) or Sir Alex Ferguson doing something uncharacteristic of European managers: thanking God for the Nations Cup.
  2. Nice. However, Chelsea will only lose four players. French club Nice stands to lose as many as 13! If one were a goalkeeper, you could make an entire team out of the Nice players African nations could call up. Nice coach Didier Olle-Nicolle can console himself, though, that the Democratic Republic of the Congo didn’t qualify, which means he won’t also have to lose defender Larrys Mabiala. Here’s an outfield of Nicois players who may be in Angola in January: Onyekachi Apam (Nigeria), Drissa Diakite (Mali), Jonathan Quartley (Ghana), Eric Mouloungui (Gabon);  Mahamane Traore (Mali), Kafoumba Coulibaly (Ivory Coast), Emerse Fae (Ivory Coast), Chaoukhi Ben Saada (Tunisia); Mamadou Bakayoko (Mali), Habib Bamogo (Burkina Faso). Of those players, only Bakayoko, Fae, Diakite and Apam can call themselves nailed-on starters, but with Nice only sixteenth in the division, you’d have to say Nice will be in trouble.
  3. Portsmouth. Though their lineup might not be quite as decimated as Nice’s, Avram Grant’s boys will still be hurting, specifically in attack, where the loss of Nwankwo Kanu, Aruna Dindane, Hassan Yebda, Nadir Belhadj and perhaps John Utaka will probably force Portsmouth to play Tommy Smith or Danny Webber. Gulp. Nevertheless, South Africa and Senegal’s failures mean they’ll at least retain the defensive midfielders Aaron Mokoena and Papa Bouba Diop.

Men not looking forward to the ACN. The tournament is a showcase for the entire continet’s soccer, but some people are probably dreading it. Here are a few.

  1. Shaibu Amodu. The Nigeria coach is not popular. If Nigeria doesn’t do well, his head could roll.
  2. Alexandre Song. Though Arsenal’s Cameroonian midfielder always looks more composed when he’s playing for his national team, he’s also the only defensive midfielder Arsenal have. With Song out of the picture, Arsene Wenger might bring in another defensive midfielder to displace him.
  3. Issa Hayatou. The Confederation of African Football chief will likely face renewed calls for the tournament to be moved to the summer. No fun.

Egypt, Algeria urinate on away goals rule November 17, 2009

Posted by Alex Tomchak Scott in African soccer.
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Sometime around the mid-1960s, presumably concerned by the possibility that people might enjoy themselves at soccer matches, the honchos and bigwigs at UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, had a catered (everything at UEFA is catered), occult-themed all-night orgy that produced the devil-spawn known as the away goals rule. Those who follow the sport have spent much of the subsequent 40-odd years watching what should be its most exciting games ruined by clubs sending out teams full of tortoises hiding in their shells in away legs. This weekend, Egypt, Algeria, and some wacky African rules provided us with a heartening reminder of the era before the rule existed.

The away goals rule, for those unfamiliar, dictates that, when two teams play a two-game, home-and-away tie and score an equal number of goals, the team that advances is the one that has scored more goals in the opposition’s stadium. I will grant that the rule kind of makes sense, since it’s probably harder to score if tens of thousands of people are baying for your blood than it is when they’re willing you to score.

But sensible or not, it sucks the enjoyment out of the game. It essentially means that the team that shows its fans a more uninteresting game goes through. It also robs fans of the thrill of replays, i.e., being able to see more games.

In Africa, though, the away goals rule is not in force. Egypt and Algeria played for a place in the World Cup on Saturday. Technically, they were also in a group with Rwanda and Zambia, but those teams performed so poorly that they were out of the running for a place at the World Cup by the time Saturday’s game in Cairo rolled around. In the game between the two in Blida, Algeria, the hosts won 3-1. On Saturday, Egypt won 2-0 to bring the teams level in the group standings and on goals scored against one another.

In Europe, it would have been enough to send Egypt through. But I noticed Egypt and Algeria are not in Europe. So instead, there will be a playoff, another leg to this gloriously exciting, blood-spattered rivalry. It’s a third course in a dinner that was only supposed to have two, and those have both been delectable, even if the only part I’ve seen is Emad Motaeb’s last-minute equalizer for Egypt, worth watching on Youtube for the incredulous Arabic commentary alone.

Of all the places to do it, this game will be played in Khartoum, Sudan, a spot nominated by Egypt and then drawn out of a cap (Algeria nominated Tunisia). Considering that we’re talking about the country which has spent most of the young century being criticized for appearing to encourage lawlessness (to put it lightly) within its borders, it will be interesting to see how the 15,000 police the Sudanese have called in will deal with the violent rivalry that sets up shop there this week.

On the field, we’re likely to see a good game, if anyone can find a way to watch it (no, seriously, if you have any suggestions for how to do that short of hopping a plane to Khartoum myself, PLEASE send them to me).

Egypt toppled Italy, the current World Cup holder, and came close to beating Brazil in this summer’s Confederations Cup, doing so with remarkable swagger and ingenuity. The Pharaohs have an incredible stable of playmakers and can pick from a quartet of forwards (Mido, Zaki, Moteab, Zidan) that would make all but a select few international managers’ mouths water. They play good soccer and they get results.

Which isn’t to discount Algeria, although I don’t believe the Desert Foxes will prevail. The point is, I’m excited by it all. Meanwhile, in Europe, where the away goals rule is in full effect, France’s 1-0 win in Dublin has probably set the stage for a cagey 0-0 in Paris that will see them through, not to mention that getting one goal against the Irish there will kill the tie. That was one of only two away goals scored, for a total of five goals between the four games, and three of the goals were scored between Russia and Slovenia.

I’m not blaming the away goals rule for the problem. The away goals rule didn’t create the eyesore that is the Greek national team, for instance. I’m just saying it doesn’t help when the Greeks and the Irish play for draws at home in the hope of being dragged over the finish line by the away goals rule. And I guess it’s not all bad. After all, it means the world will be subjected to no more than 120 more minutes, plus penalties, of Greece vs. Ukraine.