IAN LADYMAN: Pre-qualifying tournaments can relieve the international game of boredom

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I was not familiar with conversations between English players after Germany beat them 4-1 to beat them out of the World Cup in South Africa almost 11 years ago.

But you can imagine that Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard wanted revenge at some point.

There was little chance of that. That crushing duel in Bloemfontein is the last time the teams met competitively and that is not surprising. In terms of games among the European superpowers, it is the norm.

Pre-qualifying would help eliminate the international mismatches like England against San Marino

Pre-qualifying would help eliminate the international mismatches like England against San Marino

England, for example, didn’t play against France in a meaningful game for nine years and against Italy for seven years.

Before the recent arrival of the Nations League, England had not played in competitive play against Spain or the Netherlands since Euro ’96. This is why international football away from summer tournaments has become so annoying.

Due to the sheer number of emerging and smaller countries now flooding into qualifying groups for the World Cup and European Championship, the staple food for a country like ours is now not well matched with those of San Marino, Andorra, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein.

Germany lost to North Macedonia last Wednesday. Some have heralded the result as proof that the minnow nations are getting stronger. But that is not it.

It’s what’s called a fluke. Do you remember the Buster Douglas floor Mike Tyson out of nowhere in 1990? That is it.

The truth is that international football is stifled by the lack of competitive qualifications and there is an answer, if anyone is brave enough to explore it.

International football is stifled by the lack of competitiveness of qualifying play

International football is stifled by the lack of competitiveness of qualifying play

International football is stifled by the lack of competitiveness of qualifying play

It’s called pre-qualifying and is already happening in Africa and Asia, where 28 and 12 countries, respectively, have to win a two-legged knockout to make the main qualifying groups for the World Cup.

This would be a first for Europe, but why should we really shy away from it? It is already happening in both the Champions League and the Europa League. The Nations League has also been seeded and that has already delivered some international football with an edge and welcome meaning.

Pre-qualifying may be an elite idea, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Professional sports are all about competition and high demands. It should never be a party to which everyone is invited simply because they exist.

The counter-argument is that smaller countries will never develop if they are denied the right to test themselves against better teams.

Belgium also beat low-placed Belarus 8-0 in their World Cup qualifying group last week

Belgium also beat low-placed Belarus 8-0 in their World Cup qualifying group last week

Belgium also beat low-placed Belarus 8-0 in their World Cup qualifying group last week

I would say that the current system is not an improvement, just laziness. For example, if Kosovo knows that they will be fed an endless diet of lucrative major tournament qualifiers, where is the incentive to raise standards, improve coaching and facilities to produce better players?

A pre-qualifying system wouldn’t be perfect. Any team can play badly over a two-legged draw. There would be casualties. But when has sport ever been fair?

A country that consistently failed to reach the group stage would have reason to research its domestic game and look for answers.

FIFA in particular would of course start from an idea like this. They have already announced that the 2026 World Cup final will be made up of 48 teams.

Results such as North Macedonia's shocking qualifying win in Germany last week are a fluke

Results such as North Macedonia's shocking qualifying win in Germany last week are a fluke

Results such as North Macedonia’s shocking qualifying win in Germany last week are a fluke

The only way this can happen is through a qualification system so bloated that just about anyone who raises their hand gets a ticket to the US, Canada and Mexico.

But that doesn’t mean it’s good for the game. It’s just good to make money. More games, more TV slots to sell, more ads. We all know that exercise well.

The truth is that international football between tournaments is boring and no more satisfying the needs of spectators and viewers than the teams that easily win games and those that lose heavily.

Nobody wins. Not even North Macedonia. Not in the long run.

CROSSING KING TRENT REAPING REWARDS FROM REST

Many of the comments and opinions about the England squad’s leaving out Trent Alexander-Arnold stinked to the point.

No player should be assured of international selection, especially when his form is as patchy as the Liverpool fullback’s.

Many will see Saturday’s excellent performance at Arsenal (which was a great cross) as proof that Gareth Southgate should never have let him down.

Likewise, it could be considered evidence of a return to previous standards by a player who has just benefited from a two-week rest period and thought carefully about his game.

Trent Alexander-Arnold benefited from a two-week break after his absence from England

Trent Alexander-Arnold benefited from a two-week break after his absence from England

Trent Alexander-Arnold benefited from a two-week break after his absence from England

CHELSEA WOULD DESIRE SERGIO AGUERO

It’s impossible to push players to a level of excellence as mercilessly as Pep Guardiola without fraying relationships at the edges.

That’s what happened to the Manchester City coach and Sergio Aguero.

So parting ways is best for both parties. The only question for Aguero now is: where now?

Little is known how close the attacker came to Chelsea in 2017. With City trying to buy Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal and Guardiola eager to promote the young Gabriel Jesus, Aguero would have left for Stamford Bridge had Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak not personally discouraged him.

Chelsea could seduce Sergio Augero (R) if the Argentinian wants to prove Pep Guardiola wrong

Chelsea could seduce Sergio Augero (R) if the Argentinian wants to prove Pep Guardiola wrong

Chelsea could seduce Sergio Augero (R) if the Argentinian wants to prove Pep Guardiola wrong

Now, almost four years later, Chelsea are strongly linked again.

Aguero is likely to finish his career at home with Independiente in Buenos Aires, but he’s only 32 and still has Premier League goals in him.

If he didn’t take the chance to prove Guardiola wrong, he wouldn’t be human.

BLADES CAN ONLY DAMAGE THEIR OWN REPUTATION

Sheffield United has marked Chris Wilder’s departure by attempting to publicly destroy his reputation.

They may find satisfaction, but have they not considered what such a low price does to their own country?