Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Seven qualifying groups ended as predicted. Even Wales was hardly a surprise, for the group was weak anyway. If anything, qualifications were dull – but, as ever, criticism was shunned – just watch out, in few months everything will be different when the boys start playing for real. The only bomb dropped from Group1. At first it was considered tough group, but the favourite was more or less clear: England. Portugal and Czechoslovakia were able to give a fight, but nothing else. Cyprus did not count of course. Portugal was still rebuilding and judged to be in transition, therefore not ready for a real challenge. Czechoslovakia was under the radar since 1970 – after miserable performance at the 1970 World Cup, CSSR was in a crisis – a whole generation stepped down and there were no strong replacements in sight, at least not to European eye. The country failed to do much in the European Championship 1972, failed to qualify for the World Cup 1974, and on club level the Czechoslovakians were still pleasant to watch – but only to ¼ finals at best, when they were inevitably outclassed. It was expected Czechoslovakia and Portugal to compete for the second place in the group – may be giving trouble to England, but at the end everything would be ‘normal’. England was the likeliest winner – the failure of 1973 was not to be repeated: it appeared that England managed to learn a lesson or two since then, and, most importantly, managed to change generations and build new strong team. One thing was ‘certain’ - England was not going to underestimate the opposition as they did in 1973. And predictions were kind of fulfilled – England played three games at home, before anybody else, and collected 5 points easily: 3-0 with CSSR; 0-0 with Portugal; and 5-0 with Cyprus. The tie with Portugal produced some grumbling, but not real concern – after all, it was expected the opposition to steal a point or two. But look at the record – 8 goals scored and none received! No way England would fail.
Malcolm MacDonald celebrating one of his 5 goals against Cyprus: he was the top scorer of the English 1974-75 season with 27 goals and looked like England found a scoring machine.
Portugal, looking desperate against constant assaults, extracted a point at Wembley – 0-0. Their keeper Damas, sandwiched between menacing Watson and Channon clears the ball, but… Portugal was clearly not able to do more than that. A slip of the English perhaps… but then look at the weather. Excusable mischance, to be amply compensated later – the team was just too strong.
In a way, the picture was telling what was to be: the opponents missing a punch, but not the English, who were to knock down the rest. In reality – the Czechoslovakian goalie Ivo Viktor clears the ball from Dobson. But symbolism so far represented the true situation: Viktor appears desperate, Dobson too strong… England won with confidence 3-0.
So good so far! Clear supremacy, strong team, rich on choices and variations: MacDonald and Dobson were not even real starters, so imagine the wealth of the English pool! They had Kevin Keegan after all!
For many, Keegan was already the best European player. With him England was unstoppable. May be the best was just to cancel the remaining games – what was the point when England was so strong?