Football: Chasing American dreams

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The Independent Online
THE new year, dominated by the World Cup, promises to be as problematical as the old one for Graham Taylor and England. By the middle of November, at the very latest, we will know which of the home countries, not forgetting the Republic of Ireland, will be there when football finally goes Mickey Mouse in the United States, 18 months from now.

For the moment, and to the delight of the hosts, the big bucks are on the Boys in Green. Jack Charlton's Anglo-Irish coalition earned friends in abundance during Italia '90, and would be welcomed with open arms in a country which is the Irishman's second home.

Their Dad's Army of a side seems to be ageing by the minute, but canny Jack is working his simplistic magic again, and after four games they have yet to concede a goal in qualifying Group Three, where they are handily placed between Spain, the leaders, and Denmark's European champions, who are third. Northern Ireland, looking like also-rans, need an improbable win in Dublin on 31 March to revive their moribund challenge.

England, like the Republic, occupy second place, but rather more precariously. Where there is Gazza there will always be hope, but Norway, with seven points from four games, are firmly in the driving seat in Group Two, and Taylor's team are also under pressure from behind, where the Netherlands and Poland are lagging only on goal difference.

The Dutch, having just won 3-1 in Turkey, where most visitors end up settling for a draw, are an obvious threat, and Poland can cause mischief anywhere, but the Norwegians are the surprise. Their next match is at home to the Turks, in April, and if they win that, as they should, they will take some catching.

For England, the acid test will come between the end of April and the beginning of June, a period in which they are at home to the Netherlands and away to Poland and Norway. By 6 June, when they cross the Atlantic for a trail-blazing tournament featuring Brazil and Germany, we should have a fair idea whether the trip is a recce or just a busman's holiday.

Wales miss out more often than Cinders, and are unlikely to make it to the ball this time. Belgium, with maximum points from five games, are red-hot favourites to win Group Four, with the prolific Romanians the best bet for second place.

If the Welsh have Britain's worst record in qualifying competition, Scotland have the best, but it is a tradition they are going to be hard pressed to maintain after taking just two points from their first three games. Switzerland and Italy are both forging ahead of them in Group One, the Portuguese are uncomfortably close behind, and a good away win is needed somewhere, possibly in Portugal in April, by way of inspiration.

Scotland does have a second string to its bow in the shape of the European Cup, where Rangers are the first British club to take part in the Champions League now used to determine the finalists. Out- played at home by Marseille in their first game, when they were lucky to draw 2-2, they will need all their celtic gung-ho, and more, if they are to progress from a group which also includes CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge. Rangers v Milan in the final? Dream on.

(Photograph omitted)