By the time the 2018 World Cup gets underway in Russia next summer, Birmingham City fans will be hoping that their Championship status will have been preserved and they can sit back, enjoy the tournament and cheer on their national team. In the meantime, they can look forward to the usual mix of anxiety and frustration that comes with the territory in the bottom half of the second tier. But for one Blues’ player, the World Cup will provide an opportunity to shine on the greatest football stage of all.
Image source: FIFA via Twitter
Birmingham City’s World Cup star
Cheikh N’Doye has returned to the Midlands club after securing a place at next summer’s event as part of the Senegal national team. The Teranga Lions grabbed their spot in qualifying Pot 3 thanks to back-to-back wins over South Africa in November and moved up to 23 in the FIFA rankings as a result – their highest ever position. They now stand as the highest-ranked team on the African continent after leapfrogging Tunisia and Egypt.
The game was played against a backdrop of controversy as FIFA ordered the original qualifier against South Africa to be replayed due to a refereeing scandal. The South Africans appealed but the decision has been upheld.
The national squad will not meet up again until March when they have an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Madagascar scheduled. In the meantime, the midfielder can get back to the business of Championship football and helping the team in Royal Blue to climb up the table. The coming months could define the future relationships between club and player as relegation would almost certainly signal his departure from St. Andrews.
The former Angers captain arrived with big expectations after leading the Ligue 1 side to their first French Cup final since 1957 last season where they were narrowly beaten 1-0 by Paris Saint-Germain. His mix of physicality and composure in the centre of the field was just what former boss Harry Redknapp felt the team required. In fact, it was the now-departed manager that persuaded the 31-year-old that Birmingham was the right destination for him.
It was no surprise when the busy schedule in England initially left the player looking a bit short on fitness but he has adapted well to the relentless nature of the campaign. And with 16 starts already under his belt, there is no doubt that he will be a key figure in the quest to climb the table. Especially if he can overcome the language barrier as highlighted by new boss Steve Cotterill.
N’Doye has shown he is capable of being a dominant presence in the midfield, good in the air and on the ball, and always happy to take responsibility. At times he acts and plays like a captain but there is certainly room for improvement. However, it is no surprise that he has become an important part of the Senegal national team at this late stage in his career.
When Cotterill arrived at the club, following Redknapp’s dismissal, N’Doye’s role appeared to change somewhat with him initially being deployed in a more forward position, where he certainly proved to be a handful for the opposition. However, he has since reverted back to a deeper role where he is arguably most effective, breaking up play and winning second balls. Despite his obvious qualities, his distribution could be better but that should come as communication with his teammates improves.
So far, the main thing that has been missing is goals. He bagged 14 in 64 starts for Angers but has yet to get off the mark for the Blues. Tactics have probably played some part in this as he has rarely been afforded the opportunity to take up goal scoring positions during the start of the current campaign. But when he has had the opportunity to strike, his finishing has let him down.
Overall, his style of play may not be as eye-catching as some of his national teammates such as Sadio Mane, Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho, and Idrissa Gueye but his game is certainly effective and besides, he was not brought into the side to add flair.
Image source: Football Senegal via Twitter
World Cup Draw
Senegal will be in Pot 3 when the draw for the group stages is held in Russia next weekend, raising the possibility that they could be drawn against any of the top seeds including Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France and Spain. With one team from each Pot going into the eight groups, there is also a possibility that Senegal could be drawn against England.
When the Pots were first announced, Senegal were the second-lowest ranked team in Pot 3, and one of the teams that the top seeds would have been hoping to be drawn alongside. However, thanks to the somewhat skewed FIFA rankings system, their threat may have been undervalued somewhat. Their subsequent leap to World No. 23 now makes them the third-ranked team in their Pot behind Denmark and Iceland.
Pots for 2018 World Cup draw to be held December 1, 2017:
- Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France.
- Spain, Peru, Switzerland, England, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay, Croatia.
- Denmark, Iceland, Costa Rica, Sweden, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, Iran.
- Serbia, Nigeria, Australia, Japan, Morocco, Panama, South Korea, Saudi Arabia.
England squad focus
While Birmingham City fans may be keeping track on the progress of their Senegalese player next summer, there will, of course, be plenty of support for England right across the city. And, in the meantime, all eyes will be on who makes it into the final squad for the trip to Russia next summer.
Last weekend, there was a flurry of betting activity in the England World Cup squad market as Oddschecker punters reacted to the recent form of Will Hughes. Currently plying his trade under Marco Silva at Watford, the midfielder has been a regular at U21 level but has only made a handful of appearances in the Premier League since making the move from Derby County in the summer. However, two goals in four appearances meant that more bets were placed on the 22-year-old than any other during a two-day spell between November 18 and 19.
Recently available as high as 40/1 to make the plane to Russia, the playmaker has now been reduced to 16/1 with many bookies, although 25/1 can still be achieved by shopping around. Gareth Southgate has shown his willingness to give youngsters a chance at senior level, so if Hughes continues to get game time at Watford he could certainly be a surprise inclusion. Tammy Abraham, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Dominic Solanke have already been fast-tracked into the senior set-up after previously playing for the England boss at U21 level.
Potential draw for the Three Lions
As number 12 seeds, England have been placed in Pot 2 alongside Spain, Peru, Switzerland, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Croatia, meaning they cannot face any of those sides in the group stages. However, they will be drawn alongside one of Russia, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland or France from Pot 1. The best case scenario would be lowly-ranked Russia, while the worst would be reigning champions Germany.
A potential Group of Death for England would feature the highest ranking teams from each Pot, with only two teams from Europe allowed to face each other and no teams from the other Federations able to face each other. Based on this criteria, the worst-case scenario for the Three Lions would be the following group:
- Germany, England, Senegal and Australia.
On the flip side, the lowest ranked group that England could face would feature the following teams:
- Russia, England, Iran and South Korea.
Of course, the former group would provide added interest for fans of Birmingham and England with a potential showdown between England and N’Doye’s Senegal. It would also raise the prospect of a whole host of Premier League stars such as Mesut Ozil, Leroy Sane, Emre Can, Sadio Mane and Idrissa Gueye, facing some of their English teammates in the early stages.
World Cup Predictions
Next summer’s tournament will no doubt be contested by the usual suspects, with Germany, Brazil, France, and Argentina all expected to make it to the latter stages, while Spain, despite being drawn in Pot 2 will also be well-backed.
Julen Lopetegui’s men seem to have recovered from the slump that occurred at the end of Vicente del Bosque’s reign and are once again a force to be reckoned with. But, despite their revival, the Spanish national team are still only ranked No. 6 in the world, having risen two places from eighth on November 23. However, they are now priced at best odds of 15/2, ahead of higher-ranked nations Argentina, Portugal, and Belgium.
The Spanish team no longer rely on the old guard that led them to glory in 2010, with many new faces having been brought in under the new boss. However, Busquets, Iniesta, Pique, and Ramos are all expected to feature. Technically, Spain are still one of the best units around as Italy found out during the qualifying campaign.
Likewise, France’s position in the betting table defies their official FIFA ranking, where they are currently ninth behind both Poland and Switzerland. But, according to the bookies, they are third favourites for the crown. Their 6/1 price looks a little short when compared to Spain, although their appearance in the Euro 2016 final may have had a bearing on that.
Portugal came out on top in that final and have emerged as one of the top seeds for the 2018 World Cup after rising to No. 3 in the FIFA rankings. However, the bookmakers do not fancy their chances and they can be backed at a tasty price of 25/1.
It is no surprise that Germany and Brazil are neck-and-neck at 5/1 as joint-favourites in the betting. The Germans are reigning champions while Brazil have been in fine form since their disastrous 7-1 defeat to the Germans on home soil back in 2014. However, questions marks still remain about the demons that might be lurking in the minds of the Brazilian squad after that defeat.
Argentina will start the tournament as fifth favourites and there are plenty of football fans around the world who would love to see five-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi lift the trophy. The Albiceleste made it to the final last time round and now have highly-rated coach Jorge Sampaoli at the helm. If they can get the best out of their considerable attacking talent, they should pose a formidable threat. At 9/1, they certainly look well-priced.
Belgium have often been tipped as a dark horse for major tournaments in recent years and 2018 will be no exceptions. They have had a squad packed full of top-class talent for several years now and once rose to the top of the FIFA rankings. But, somehow, they have always fallen short. With Roberto Martinez now at the helm, they became the first European team apart from the host to qualify for the tournament and have gone 15 matches unbeaten since Martinez’s debut game – a 2-0 friendly defeat to Spain. The Red Devils are 14/1 to win the tournament which looks like good value considering their form.
Can England win the World Cup?
Last but not least, we should take a look at England’s chances. Following Roy Hodgson’s dismal spell in charge, expectations have reached an all-time low and that could be a good thing for Gareth Southgate and his men. The England boss has been afforded more room to experiment and many of the new players he has brought in will not have to carry the baggage of the old guard. As a result, we should see a Three Lions side that can play with more freedom and express themselves on the pitch.
The retirement of Wayne Rooney means that Joe Hart will be the most capped member of the squad and the No. 1 position is perhaps still the area of most concern for the England team. Hart is obviously a talented keeper and can be brilliant on his day but, like his predecessor David James, he can be prone to mistakes. He will be the one player who will still feel the pressure of intense scrutiny should he pull on the England shirt next summer.
Even the most optimistic fan would probably have to admit that England’s chances are slim but they should be at least capable of making the last eight. Much could depend on next week’s draw.