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UEFA World Cup play-offs highlight the dearth of top-class centre-forwards in Europe

UEFA World Cup play-offs highlight the dearth of top-class centre-forwards in Europe
From ESPN - November 14, 2017

There was a familiar theme to UEFA's World Cup play-off matches this week -- four of the eight matches finished goalless, two more finished 1-0.

It would be natural to assume these were cagey, defensive-minded matches with everyone desperate not to make a mistake. But that's only half-true, and the greater reason for the lack of goals was something much simpler: the quality from the various centre-forwards on show was remarkably dismal. From the eight games, just three goals were scored by strikers: Croatia's duo of Nikola Kalinic and Andrej Kramaric and a meaningless late penalty from Denmark's Nicklas Bendtner. Elsewhere, the profligacy was staggering.

It was particularly problematic for Switzerland. They squeezed past Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a hugely questionable first-leg penalty, but they should probably have thrashed Northern Ireland 5-1 over the course of the two matches, on the balance of play. This was not a case of Northern Ireland's brilliant defensive work keeping the Swiss at bay -- they conceded plenty of chances, some of them clear-cut.

Haris Seferovic, however, kept missing. He fired shots over, shots wide, and shots into the legs of defenders. He ran the channels effectively, and provided a useful forward passing option when sometimes Switzerland played too many passes in front of the opposition. But with such a meagre goal threat, at a certain point it becomes futile to provide him with regular chances.

There's no point singling out Seferovic for criticism, as such -- he did not play beneath himself, or bottle it on the big occasion, he's just not a top-class centre-forward. He managed just three apiece in his final two seasons with Eintracht Frankfurt, admittedly after hitting 10 goals in his first Bundesliga campaign, and has taken the step down to the Portuguese league where he's faring slightly better. But the pattern of his career -- largely disappointing in Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Liga, and more threatening in second-tier leagues -- underlines the point. This is not the type of player you expect to be leading the line for a decent size country at the World Cup.

There's a similar case upfront for Sweden, who played a typically disciplined, organised but joyless 4-4-2 in their first-leg victory over Italy, with their goal a deflected long-range effort from midfielder Jakob Johansson. One forward, Ola Toivonen has demonstrated the classic sliding scale of performance: good in the Netherlands, decent in France and very poor in England. His partner, Marcus Berg, smashed in goals in the Netherlands and Greece, but managed just 5 in 54 appearances in the Bundesliga. He's now playing in the UAE.

The lone striker for another Nordic qualifier from the playoffs, Denmark's Nicolai Jorgensen, has enjoyed a good spell with Feyenoord but is neat rather than clinical, and offered little over two legs against Ireland. Of the four sides to progress, only Croatia offer anything like a top-class centre-forward -- Mario Mandzukic, rather than the two players, Kalinic and Kramaric, who actually got on the scoresheet.

The defeated teams, too, had little up top -- largely using players who currently would not get close to a starting XI of any of the 20 Premier League sides. Ireland's Daryl Murphy plays in the English second tier -- 4 in 72 is his Premier League record. North of the border, Northern Ireland's Conor Washington has managed just six in 47 in that same second tier, having worked his way up from even lower leagues. Greece's Kostas Mitroglou had success in his native country and Portugal, but is something of a joke figure in England for his ill-fated period with Fulham.

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