New content (finally), including an affectionate tribute to Sepp Blatter and a post about how success in the qualifiers is no guarantee of success of finals.
Although I am not entirely sure that last one is a new topic…
To some extent, I suppose that the disappointment of being knocked out of the World Cup so early is a good thing: no excruciating penalty shootouts to sit through this time.
On the other hand, the usual post mortems, excuses and eulogies – which are always prepared in advance – were trundled out a fortnight or so before they normally would be. I’ve dodged the worst of the finger pointing that’s been going on, but over the past few days since the defeat to Uruguay it’s been unavoidable. Harry Redknapp in particularly seems to have been experiencing some sort of Schadenfreude, but I suppose that’s to be expected from him. Would he have done any better? Who cares.
For what it’s worth, my take on the last couple of weeks is as follows:
Defensively England are in a very bad spot. Rooney’s appearance on the left side of the field against Italy was a tactical experiment that failed, but Rooney is an offensive player, not a defensive one. The real problem was that the defensive players were both inexperienced and not good enough: it’s now very clear that John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole will be very difficult to replace, just as Carles Puyol’s absence clearly had an impact on Spain.
Spare a thought for Steven Caulker too – if Andre Vilas-Boas hadn’t been stupid enough to sell him to Cardiff, there’s a reasonable chance Caulker might have made enough of an impression at Spurs to have earned a place in the squad. It wasn’t his fault Cardiff were relegated.
Offensively the two performances weren’t too bad: if you watch the highlights of the Uruguay game, it could have easily ended 4-3 to either side. Raheem Sterling lived up to expectations but the question marks about whether Wayne Rooney is a genuinely world class striker remain. He’s got one World Cup left and he needs to remember that, but the bigger problem is that neither Wellbeck nor Sturridge were that impressive and Ricky Lambert is too old to be a serious long term option.
Despite the odd yet still cliched mixture of downbeat and optimistic statements emanating from the senior players and management following the elimination, I think we’ve got some serious problems to face over the next couple of years. I’m not sure any of the squad have been entirely realistic about their chances of continuing their international careers: there doesn’t seem to be any doubt amongst them that they are international class players, although it’s fairly clear to those of us looking on that some of them clearly aren’t.
If anything, the two games were uniquely English performances. Shorn of their talented foreign clubmates, England looked like a mid table Championship side (and I know exactly what that looks like): a couple of decent prospects mixed in with some gnarled old pros who have had better days and a few that were promising a decade ago but never quite made it. The fact that Suarez and Balotelli were identified as the main goalscoring threats but still managed to score three goals in two games will have been a nice little earner for the punters that play the ‘anytime goalscorer’ markets between August and May.
After the Costa Rica game, the next matches are in September. The first is a friendly against Norway and the second is the Eur0 2014 qualifier against Switzerland. If something sensational happens tomorrow, I’ll be back then: otherwise enjoy the summer.
A couple of weeks ago, if I’d written Thursday 31st May 1962 and Tuesday 3rd June 1986 you might have thought I was just mentioning random dates. True, some notable events took place on both days: Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was hanged in Israel on the last day of May ’62 and tennis superstar Rafa Nadal was born on 3rd June 1986.
From an England point of view, the same thing happened on those dates as what happened last Saturday night. England lost their opening group game in the World Cup finals. Hungary won 2-1 in Rancagua, Chile courtesy of goals from Lajos Tichy and Florian Albert (Ron Flowers scored an equaliser from the penalty spot) in front of almost 8000 spectators; just over 24 years later about three times as many more fans attended the game against Portugal in Monterrey, Mexico which England lost by a single goal from Carlos Manuel about 15 minutes from time.
Youtube clips here:
Lost in all the pessimism about where or whether Wayne Rooney should be playing is the fact that England reached the quarter finals – and lost to the eventual winners – in both of those tournaments. Admittedly, the quarter finals began straight after the group stages in ’62 but the format in 1986 was more or less the same as it is now. And things got a lot worse in 1986: the second game was a goalless draw against Morocco that featured Ray Wilkins earning two yellow cards in as many minutes immediately before half time.
It’s worth remembering that England have only lost two of their thirteen ‘middle’ group games and both of those defeats (0-1 v USA in 1950 and 1-2 v Romania in 1998) came after we’d won our first game. However, it would be amiss of me not to mention that we don’t have a great record against Uruguay though: only two wins in nine games (the last coming in Montevideo in June 1969!) and that we’ve won neither of our World Cup finals games against them (1954 quarter final and 1966 group game).
But here’s arguably the most surreal stat of the lot: from 1966 onwards, only one player from South America has scored against England in the group stages.
Some of you may remember him. Enjoy the game.
The funny thing about the 2014 World Cup is that after years of getting far too excited by the prospect of two draws, a win and a defeat by penalties in the knockout stages, the message from the FA is probably a little too downbeat this time round.
Combined with the controversy over the awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar and the race against time to finish the stadia (and who would have seen both of those coming, he added sarcastically), there’s a general feeling that somehow this World Cup will not be up to the standards that have been set recently. At the time he made it, Greg Dyke’s throat slashing gesture was supposed to represent his feelings about the draw for the group stage, but given his rather ridiculous recent proposals about ‘League 3′ it might have a sign of some sort of career hara kiri. Or maybe it was neither of those things but a warning to Sepp Blatter about staying on as FIFA president after 2014.
At first glance, Dyke was probably right in thinking that the draw hadn’t been kind to us. Since 1994, we’ve never had two top ten FIFA ranked countries in the same group as us. Yet when we faced sides from countries ranked in the top ten, we’ve won both games – against Colombia in 1998 and Argentina in 2002. Then there’s the fact that England have won actually won half of their last 12 group stage games and have only lost once in the same period – against Romania in 1998.
Goals have been scarce though. Although we haven’t scored more than two goals in a group game since Gary Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland in 1986, on the positive side England have only been shut out twice in the group stages since 1998 – and lost neither of those games – and have kept eight clean sheets in the last dozen matches.
So how about our opponents?
Far, far too much time has been spent discussing the Italians and Uruguayans as if they’ve only got one player. Andrea Pirlo and Luis Suarez are undoubtedly world class players but there are another ten men on each side. From 1994 onwards, Italy have only won half of their six group stage games against European opposition and in that time frame the last time they played UEFA opposition in their group opener they lost to the Republic of Ireland in New Jersey.
As for Uruguay, they’ve not beaten a European side in the group stages since they beat France in 1966 and haven’t even scored against European opposition at group stage for 12 years. Despite having Suarez – and there’s no guarantee how fit he is – they aren’t Liverpool and they were very fortunate they came up against Jordan in the playoffs.
Oh and I almost forgot: the FIFA rankings are useful for something. From ’94 onwards, only 50% of the highest ranked teams according to the FIFA numbers published in the May immediately before the World Cup actually won their group. For Group D, that figure drops to 20%. Highest ranked team in our group: Uruguay.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to start indulging in wishful thinking. I’m concerned that we’ll be too conservative against Italy tomorrow night even though a win would take a lot of the pressure off for the next two games and even losing wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’m also worried that we’ve only actually won our qualifying group once in the last six four attempts because – with the greatest respect to the teams in Group C – we might be facing weaker opposition in the first knock out round than we did in our group. And then there’s the fact that the last five World Cup winners all won their groups.
Overall, it’s not as bad as it looks. The last time expectations were as low as they are now was when ‘World In Motion’ came out: Hillsborough the year before, a disastrous performance at Euro 88 and then having to face two of the teams that had beaten us in that competition in the World Cup in Italy. We all know how that ended, but almost a quarter of a century later it’s time for another decent run at the semi finals.
This is where it starts getting a bit odd, primarily because this is clearly the weaker half of the draw – but there are still some potential surprises.
Of the sixteen teams in Groups E to H inclusive, only one country (France) has won the World Cup in the last two decades. Only the Germans have reached the final over the same period and just two of the remaining countries – Portugal and South Korea – have reached the semi finals since 1990.
The French are clear favourites to win this section even though Switzerland have been ahead of them in the FIFA rankings for almost two years and could be a genuine surprise contender. The key game appears to be the first match in the group (Switzerland v Ecuador, Sunday 15th June, 5pm, ITV) but if that ends all square it may be a case of who scores the most goals against Honduras – with the Swiss facing the Hondurans last in Manaus on Wednesday 25th June (9pm, BBC1)
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Argentina have been as underwhelming as we have in recent World Cups and although I can see them winning the group and possibly getting to the quarter finals if they avoid France, that’s usually as far as they get. Although they’re the weakest European team, debutants Bosnia & Herzegovina look far stronger than Nigeria but although Iran have never qualified from the group stages they’re no mugs. If Bosnia & Herzegovina get stage fright and are soundly beaten by Argentina in their first game, Iran v Nigeria (Monday 16th June, 8pm BBC1) could be worth keeping an eye on.
The worrying thing about this edition of The Group Of Death is that if we count the West Germans as Germany, then this is the longest interval without a German team winning a World Cup since they first appeared in 1934. The 2014 final will be nine days after the 60th anniversary of their unexpected win against Hungary in the 1954 final and six days after the 40th anniversary of the West German win over the Netherlands in the 1974 final.
I’ll let that sink in for a moment.
Ghana will be extremely fortunate to do anywhere as near as well as they did four years ago, so arguably the pick of the games in this group is Portugal v USA (Sunday 22nd June, 11:00pm, BBC1) purely because this is the best American team for a few years. At the other end of the scale, Germany v Ghana the day before could be one of the most one-sided games of the tournament.
With three of these countries having got no further than the second round since 1990, this may turn out to be a far more competitive group than it looks on paper and a lot hinges on how well the strongest Belgium side for a generation performs. Algeria are probably the best African team after Ivory Coast and could give Fabio Capello’s Russia headaches when they meet in their last group game if there’s a second round place up for grabs (Thursday 26th June, 9pm ITV). South Korea only qualified on goal difference from Uzbekistan and – along with Australia – are probably the weakest side in the competition.
I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with the last pre-tournament analysis of England’s chances before the real thing starts…
With the 20th World Cup Finals only a couple of weeks away, it’s time for the first part of the 11 Lions World Cup preview.
First of all, a few things to consider if you’re either thinking of having a punt or want to know if your selection in the office sweep stands any chance:
* Only Brazil have ever retained the World Cup, so it’s unlikely Spain will win it again. However, the hosts have only won six of the 19 previous tournaments, so a Brazilian win isn’t inevitable either.
* The host country has only won half of the four World Cups held in South America, but South American teams have won all four of those tournaments. The only European team to reach a World Cup Final in South America was the 1978 Dutch side, but that was a 16 team tournament 35 years ago and I think it’s fair to say things have moved on somewhat since then. Argentina – currently second favourites – could be the team to watch. Those italics are there for a reason though.
* England haven’t played in a South American World Cup since 1962, which was the only time we’ve got past the group stage south of Mexico. That was on goal average and let’s not forget that one of the biggest footballing disasters in the history of the England team happened in Brazil in 1950. To put it another way, we don’t have a great record in South America.
* Groups A to D contain four of the five countries who have won the most recent World Cups as well as ourselves and Uruguay (past winners), Chile and the Dutch (previous runners up) and four of the six South American qualifiers. My provisional opinion is that I’m expecting the winner to come from this ‘half’ of the draw, but as you’ll read in a minute one or possibly two of the favourites could be knocked out immediately after the group stage finishes.
In the last five tournaments, Brazil have reached the quarter finals at the very least so unless the burden of winning the tournament becomes too much then I’d expect the hosts to qualify from Group A. Second place looks as if it will come down to the last game in the group between Croatia and Mexico in Recife on Monday 23rd June (9pm GMT, ITV1): the Mexicans have an excellent record of qualifying from their group in the finals but the Croats haven’t managed that since France 98 – something which the bookies don’t seem to have taken into account when making them second favourites in Group A. However, keep an eye on Brazil v Mexico on Tuesday 17th June (8:00pm GMT, BBC1) as the winner of that game (if there is one) will probably face a very nasty second round tie against the runners up of Group B. As for Cameroon, they’ve done nothing remotely interesting in the World Cup since 1990 except argue over money.
Bloody hell. Spain haven’t failed to qualify from the group stage since 1998 and although the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 finals they’ve never failed to get through their group stage when they’ve been present in the finals. That automatically makes the repeat of the 2010 final one of the ‘can’t miss’ games of the first week (Friday 13th June, 8pm GMT BBC1): as I mentioned above, if either country loses they may well end up facing Brazil in the (ahem) ’round of 16′. The draw wasn’t a good one for a decent Chile side and Australia might as well stick to bragging about how good they are at cricket whilst drinking weak lager.
The Group Of WTF with an extremely high chance of all the games being nervy, defensive affairs with none of the qualifiers from the group getting past the first knockout round. Japan are the only team in this section to have reached the second round since 1990, whilst Greece and Ivory Coast haven’t even got that far. The bookies and the FIFA rankings (at time of writing) make Colombia the favourites to win this group, but will the Cafeteros be able to cope if Radamel Falcao isn’t fully fit (update – he’s not and he was cut from the final 23)? And are they really better than either Argentina and Brazil?
This is England’s group and I’ll take a much closer look at our prospects nearer the start of the tournament, but some salient facts nonetheless:
Uruguay’s fourth place in 2010 was their best performance for 40 years, but between 1974 and 2006 they only qualified for three of the eight final tournaments and only got out of the group stage in one of those appearances. The current side is their best team for a while, but they may be a little overrated: they lost five of their 16 qualifying games, only beat Peru and Venezuela away from home and had to beat Jordan in the playoffs. To put that into context, imagine England having to play either El Salvador or Albania.
Before 2010, the last time Italy were eliminated at group stage was 1974: the Azzuri followed that with a fourth place finish in Argentina that included a win over the hosts and eventual winners. Before struggling in South Africa the Italians had reached the latter stages in all four of their appearances between 1994 and 2006. Could be extremely well placed to do that again, especially if they win this group and any of the big guns in Groups A & B are eliminated before the quarter finals.
Costa Rica have failed to qualify for three of the last five tournaments and haven’t got past the group stage since 1990 when they famously beat Scotland.
Key game: England v Uruguay (8pm, Thursday 19th June, ITV1) but as I’ve written before, this group could come down to how many goals England have to score against Costa Rica (5pm, Tuesday 24th June, ITV1)
Part Two will be coming up in a week or so.
Announced earlier this afternoon, the squad is pretty much what you’d expect:
Goalkeepers: Fraser Forster (Celtic), Ben Foster (WBA), Joe Hart (Manchester City)
Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Phil Jones and Chris Smalling (Manchester United), Luke Shaw (Southampton)
Midfielders: Ross Barkley (Everton), Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Adam Lallana (Southampton), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), James Milner (Manchester City), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere (I told you he’d be fit) (Arsenal)
Strikers: Rickie Lambert (Southampton), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool), Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)
Standby: John Ruddy (Norwich City), Jon Flanagan (Liverpool), John Stones (Everton), Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley (Manchester United), Andy Carroll (West Ham) and Jermain Defoe (Toronto)
A few things stand out.
* Despite finishing above Manchester United and Southampton this season, no Spurs players have been selected.
* Within the context of Greg Dyke’s preposterous comments last week about expanding the Football League to include some sort of Premier League II (or League Championship III), it’s interesting to note that Fraser Forster has never played in the Premier League. Jack Butland seems to have dropped out of consideration altogether.
* Without Ashley Cole, the defence suddenly looks very inexperienced at major tournament level. Johnson, Jagielka, Baines and Jones were all part of the Euro 2012 squad, but only Johnson was in the 2010 World Cup team.
* At time of writing, 11 of the 23 players in the squad have won ten caps or less; before the 1966 World Cup, the equivalent number was seven (including three members of the team that won the final: Ball, Hurst and Peters) and in 1990 there were five players who fitted that description. This is definitely a mixture of youth and experience.
* We’ll get one final chance to see if Lampard and Gerrard are capable of playing together, but I think we know all how that’s going to work out. Although they’ve amassed 212 caps and 50 goals between them, there’s an alarming drop off in terms of caps and goals after that.
* Presumably Wayne Rooney will be playing up front on his own, but Manchester United scored 22 fewer goals during the season that’s just finished compared to 2012/13, so if Roy decides to go with two strikers at any point, who will support Rooney? Four of the top five English players who scored more than 12 goals in the Premier League have been included – if Jay Rodriguez had been fit, I’m not sure Danny Welbeck would be going to Brazil.
Overall, the 2014 World Cup squad looks like the end of one era – and not a particularly successful one at that – but with only faint signs of a beginning of a new one.
The first XI isn’t really in any doubt as is the idea of packing the midfield against Italy and Uruguay, but if England need to score goals against Costa Rica it’s not abundantly clear where they’re going to come from. If you take away Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney, none of the rest of the squad have even reached ten goals in international games so far. The key to this tournament and the one in four years time is how well the young midfielders adapt if they’re called upon; they’re an exciting group – but at least one of them needs to exceed expectations in Brazil.
As regular readers will know, I’m not a huge fan of friendlies and although I only saw the first half last night I don’t think I’m about to change my mind any time soon. A close relative of mine was at the game and I sent him a text asking if he was bored. His reply: ‘a bit.’
It wasn’t the best performance by England against a reasonably good Danish side but then again it didn’t have to be. Grinding out 1-0 wins over teams that aren’t quite as good as we are has been a feature of England’s form in past tournaments of both the World Cup and the European Championships so no complaints there.
However, the news that Jack Wilshere will be missing for six weeks due to a hairline fracture of the navicular bone in his left foot is probably something to be a little concerned about. Wilshire – who should not be referred to as ‘Jack Wheelchair’ under any circumstances whatsoever – should be back in action within a month of the final cut off date for the 23 man squads so theoretically it’s Arsenal who will have the headaches not England.
Talking of headaches – and earaches – I can’t wait for this. In case you’re not familiar with the original (and as I’m pushing 50 I’m happy to admit that I’m not) then you’re in for an experience.