Wilshere Injury Overshadows Workmanlike Win Over Denmark

by on March 6, 2014
in History, Injuries, Songs, World Cup 2014

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.

World Cup 2014 Starts Here.

It’s exactly 100 days until Brazil take on Croatia in the first game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, so it seems like as good a time as ever to come out of hibernation.

Over the last few months, quite a few things have happened.

Theo Walcott will miss another World Cup. At the risk of sounding controversial, at least Roy Hodgson didn’t have to adjust to Walcott’s injury two weeks before the final. There’s still time for another superstar to get crocked: after all, it always happens.

Sir Tom Finney died. I liked Tommy Docherty’s comment that Sir Tom was better than Messi, but some of the nostalgia about the minimum wage for footballers was misplaced. Yes, Sir Tom had a trade and only earned £14 a week: but to put that into perspective, that was more than the average wage in 1954 and would mean he’d be earning about £560 a week in 2014. Considerably less than Wayne Rooney and only a third of what an average League Two player might earn this season: but still above average.

Sol Campbell claimed that he didn’t get a longer run at being England captain because he was black – which might have had more credibility if he’d made the allegation at the time rather than wait for his autobiography to come out six years after he last played for England.

The draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers was made: Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino are in our group, which quite frankly should be a piece of cake and a bit of a joke.

However, the main reason for emerging from under a pile of slightly soggy leaves and squinting into the sunlight is that there’s a friendly against Denmark tomorrow  (ITV1, 8:00pm). Due to their being no postponements either last weekend or this weekend it’s a bit of an anti-climax unless you’re looking for some hints about which players might feature in England’s long term plans.

Southampton’s Luke Shaw is arguably the biggest surprise: having played less than 50 senior games for Southampton, it’s not immediately obvious why he’s in the side. Then you remember that Ashley Cole‘s international career is coming to an end – as are his days at Chelsea – and attacking left backs have been something of a traditional problem for England since Terry Cooper retired.  I’m slightly confused that a couple of the red tops aren’t sure about Steven Caulker: let’s put it this way, I thought Caulker’s transfer to Cardiff was one of several mistakes that Andre Vilas-Boas made that cost him his job Spurs boss and as much as I am enjoying how badly Cardiff are doing at present, their defensive frailties aren’t purely down to Steven Caulker. If/when Cardiff are relegated, I can’t see Caulker hanging about in the Championship. I hear David Moyes needs a couple of centre backs…

The Danes aren’t a bad side to be playing at this point in the season: although the won’t be playing in Brazil this summer, they’ve got a decent squad with some familiar names. Kasper Schmeichel, Daniel Agger, William Kvist and Nicklas Bendtner should all be familiar to English fans but with 14 of squad playing in the Danish Super League – including the wonderfully named Casper Sloth -  it looks like a developmental team to me.

However, I wouldn’t get too carried away with the idea of an England win – we’ve lost two of the last five meetings in this country to the Danes, including a 3-2 defeat the last time they played here in 2003. Additionally, the Danes have won three of their last five aways, including World Cup qualifying wins in Malta and Armenia.

Carry On Up The Jungle

After the initial feeling of melancholy following the draw, it’s time to get realistic.

Let’s face it, the chances of any European team winning a Latin American World Cup are slim – it’s never happened. Uruguay won in 1930 and 1950, Brazil won in 1962 and Argentina won in 1978.

I’d be really surprised if that trend didn’t continue next year – and the other ‘trend’ is that England last won the World Cup almost 50 years ago. We haven’t even played in a Latin American World Cup since 1962.

But there are a few things to be optimistic about. Getting Italy out of the way first is good (stick a tenner on the draw and you probably won’t be disappointed) even if it kicks off at 2:00am on Sunday morning and Manaus sounds as if it’s hotter than a Las Vegas pavement at noon in August.

The Italian fans will be going spare at the kick off time – it’s the only first round game that kicks off that late.

If we assume that Italy won’t have any problems with Costa Rica the day after we play Uruguay, then that’s the key game. I’m not sure how many of the Uruguayan team who played at the Olympics last summer will be in the running for the final 23 next summer, but I saw them play a scratch Team GB side in Cardiff and they were underwhelming. It really does depend which Uruguay turn up: they’re capable of beating anyone but they’re also capable of the type of churlish and petulant behaviour that has ruined their international reputation since the 1960s. And you know who embodies that: if I was a photographer I’d be looking for a bust up between Liverpool players.

So even at this distance, it looks as if the qualifiers from Group D will be the team that scores the most goals against Costa Rica. So there’s every chance that we’ll know exactly what we have to do in the last game, which seems to happen every time we play in the World Cup.

I’m not prepared to go any further than that for now, but suffice to say that if we get out of the group then the ‘Round Of 16′ looks as if it might be easier…but that’s another discussion for another day.

World Cup European Playoff Preview

by on November 14, 2013
in World Cup 2014

Without wanting to sound too negative, I’ve never really placed much value on friendlies and the games against Chile and Germany are probably the last time Roy Hodgson can field experimental line ups before the serious business of preparing for the World Cup starts.

Although it’s nice to see Southampton providing so many players following their successful start to the new season, I get the feeling that the best some of the Saints personnel can hope for is to make the final list of 44 names that will appear before the squad for Brazil is cut down to 23.

The real action takes place elsewhere over the next couple of days and I’d rather concentrate on the teams that could well be facing England next summer. France and Croatia are short priced favourites to qualify at the expense of Ukraine and Icelandyes, Iceland – and although Portugal and Greece are the bookies favourites to accompany them to Brazil, it’s never that straightforward.

For example, Romania have beaten Greece in three of their last five meetings and according to the ever reliable FIFA rankings the Romanians have improved a lot over the past couple of years. Although they haven’t qualified for the finals since 1998, they’ve done better than the Greeks when they have but the Greeks had the best record of any of the group runners up and this one looks as if it could be a lot closer than expected.

One to watch: Ciprian Marica. Romanian striker who currently plays for Getafe in La Liga and scored five times during qualifying: his individual total was seven less than the Greek team total.

Iceland probably don’t stand much of a chance against Croatia but once again this is a team that has shown astonishing improvement over the past year and saw off Slovenia and Norway in the process of qualification. The Croats lost three of their last four qualifiers and to be honest, any team that loses twice to the current Scottish team doesn’t deserve to go to Brazil.

One to watch: Kolbeinn Sighthorsson. 23 year old striker who has scored 13 times in 19 appearances for the Icelanders and curently plays for Ajax. If Iceland reach Brazil, expect a multi-million pound bid from one of the big clubs. That may happen even if they don’t.

France were unlucky on two counts. The rules concerning automatic qualification for the winners were changed and they were drawn with Spain: the defeat to the current holders in Paris in the spring was all that separated the two countries at the end of qualification. Ukraine’s strength is defence, but they’re capable of annihilating poor teams and they’ve lost none of their last seven qualifiers and scored 27 goals in the same time frame: if France have an off day, we could be in for a suprise. Having written that, our near neighbours have won four of the last five meetings and have qualified for every World Cup since 1998.

One to watch: Vyacheslav Shevchuk. Veteran Ukrainian defender who played in the last four qualifiers including the goalless draw with England: spent most of the last decade with Shakhtar Donetsk as Razvan Rat’s understudy but has come into his own as an overlapping fullback since the latter moved to West Ham.

The ‘big’ game is Portugal v Sweden, which has been reduced to a battle between Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibramhimovic that may distract the man in the street away from the rather mundane reality of the situation. The Swedes are loads better than they were but have declined in the last three years; Portugal have been treading water recently and even though they’re probably justifiable favourites to qualify for Brazil, they could be a big disappointment when they get there.

One to watch: Bruno Alves. The most experienced – and tallest – central defender in the current Portuguese squad is two inches shorter than Zlatan Ibrahimovic so it’ll be interesting to see how these two get along. Alves has picked up more than his fair share of bookings over the years so if there are any fireworks they could start here. Honourable mention: Mikael Lustig. If Ronaldo decides to wander onto the left wing, it’ll be the Celtic right back’s job to stop him.

Television: England v Chile (ITV1, 8:00pm) but I’ll be watching Portugal v Sweden (Sky Sports 1, 7:45pm) as that’s actually for something.

Bom Dia Brasil!

by on October 15, 2013
in World Cup 2014

The Only Valid Comparison With 1973: If The Result Is The Same

Although the amount of memories concerning the 1973 game has been interesting – it remains one of the biggest footballing disappointments of my life – it’s vital that we don’t confuse the circumstances.

The situation England were in on the day of the game four decades ago was far worse that it is today.  On the morning of 17th October 1973, England were bottom of Group 5 and had only won four of their last ten games at Wembley. Although most early to mid 1970s football teams looked like a cross between Suzi Quatro’s backing band, the cast of ‘The Likely Lads’ and your dad’s mates from work, the Poles also had frightening surnames without vowels and even though their main threat was injured, they had one or two decent players.

Along with Poland our group contained Wales. That’s it. Poland finished third in the 1974 World Cup and Wales reached the quarter finals of the 1976 European Championships. It was not an easy group.

In fact, five of the eight European qualifying groups contained just three teams – for the most part down to the fact that Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were still coherent political units but also because some of the no hopers like Andorra and San Marino wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the World Cup in those days.

We’d lost twice in that ten game period. To West Germany in the quarter finals of the European Championships in April 1972 and to Northern Ireland the following month – presumably the green shirts both sides wore had some sort of negative psychological impact. In the next home game following our elimination from the World Cup, we lost again. Some bloke named Fabio Cappello got the only goal for Italy.

However, three convincing wins on the trot – including battering Austria 7-0 a couple of weeks before in a morale boosting friendly supposedly organised because the Austrians were supposed to play a bit like the Poles – must have raised expectations to unreasonable levels.

England’s first World Cup qualifying campaign for over a decade had been poor: having had to come from behind to draw with Wales at Wembley in January 1973 (exactly what would happen against Poland), the real damage had been done in Chorzow in June when England lost 2-0.  Not for the first time, defensive mistakes and a red card cost England in a big game: unusually, in his normal comfort zone of the left hand side of the field just outside the eighteen yard box Bobby Moore dithered in possession and was robbed by Wlodzimierz Lubanski who scored Poland’s second goal seconds later. Alan Ball lost his temper with just over ten minutes left and was sent off: it all seems horribly familiar doesn’t it.

The situation this morning couldn’t be any different.

* Poland have never won at Wembley. Or in England either – their first game here was at Goodison Park in January 1965. We finally managed to beat Poland in the 1986 World Cup when Gary Lineker scored a hat trick.

* Including 1990, we’ve played against the Poles in the last home game of the World Cup qualifiers on three occasions. We’ve won all three games and Poland have only scored once.

* The Poles lost 1-0 to Ukraine on Friday and they cannot qualify for Brazil.

* If we do not beat Poland we will be in the playoffs and there will be some very scary teams in that position. Like Spain or France.

Let’s put it this way: if I’d known the full circumstances before the 1973 game, I’d have been more worried than I am this match. If Poland can stop England from automatic qualification tonight, the impact on English football will be far greater than what happened 40 years ago: with all the contemporary distractions, a generation of disappointed nine year olds could turn their backs on the England team for good.

England v Poland, 8pm ITV1.

Squeaky Bum Time For England – Or Is It?

So we’re finally down to the last pair of qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup and to say the situation is finely poised is an understatement. Any of the top four in Group H could go through: England could qualify automatically or not at all.

As we’ve got a day before the first game, let’s put things in perspective – thanks to England Football Online for the stats.

Starting with the qualifiers for 1990, we’ve won our group four times out of six and never finished lower than third. That was in 1994, when we failed to qualify and Graham Taylor did not like that. We’ve won eleven of the last 12 home qualifiers with the opposition failing to score in eight of those games. In five of those six qualifying campaigns, we won both of our last home qualifiers so it’s not like this situation is one we’re unfamiliar with.

Furthermore, it’s extremely unlikely our goal difference advantage is going to be wiped out over the next two games. The last time we conceded more than five goals in two consecutive home games was back in June 1995 and I couldn’t be bothered to look further back than the 1958 World Cup to see if we’d ever let in more than six.

England have only lost twice at home since March 2010 and if it hadn’t have been for a  late Arjen Robben winner for the Netherlands in February last year that record would have been better. The other home defeat was against France: it’s worth making the assumption that only the very best teams can beat England in England.

That’s not to say that it’s going to be plain sailing. We’ve not won three consecutive home games since the end of 2011 (Wales, Spain and Sweden) and have kept four clean sheets in the last ten games. We’ve not stopped the opposition scoring in consecutive home games since that three game winning streak and with Joe Hart‘s form currently being erratic to say the least and Ashley Cole missing completely, that could be a worry. And most importantly of all, we’ve yet to beat Montenegro.

On the other hand, although Montenegro are unbeaten in their last six away games it’s not as if they’ve played any of the giants of world football in that sequence. The suprise win in Ukraine last October was probably the best away result in the history of Montenegrin international football but I genuinely believe that we can’t read too much into that result. Their qualification hopes are very precarious indeed: they should beat Moldova next Wednesday but they need to hope that Poland don’t lose to Ukraine on Friday to stand any chance of automatic qualification.

The Montenegrin squad is pretty experienced: eight of them have appeared 30 or more times for their country with midfielder Simon Vukcevic – who some of you may remember having a cameo role with Blackburn recently – leading the way with 42. Current leading goalscorer is Mirko Vucinic of Juventus although it looks as if both he and Manchester City’s Stevan Jovetic could be missing tomorrow – which leaves aging yet relatively inexperienced pair Andrija Delibasic and Dejan Damjanovic as Branko Brnevic’ attacking options. Fulham signed defensive midfielder Elsad Zverotic on transfer deadline day, but he’s yet to make an appearance for the Cottagers and has been an unused sub four times this season.

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A couple of other England related lines: a spectacular case of sour grapes from Harry Redknapp who then went on to tell a story that demonstrated exactly why he shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the England job.

Gazza has joined twitter.

In a loving tribute to the 1970s, Jack Wilshere had a cigarette and then grumbled about how England players should be born in England. If we’re going to lapse into cliches, how about the one about footballers are paid far too much for kicking a ball around a field and are usually thick as sh…..

There’ll be an update tomorrow night after the game has finished.

England v Montenegro, 8pm ITV1

Update: a cagey first half that ended scoreless ended with a 4-1 England win. Two immediate points: Andros Townsend’s debut was very impressive – but Danny Wellbeck needs to stop being cute with his finishing and just leather it. Back on Tuesday.

England’s Path to Brazil and How They Can Succeed There

by on September 30, 2013
in World Cup 2014

Guest Post

With the biggest football tournament only a few months away, it is already time to start looking at what England can achieve this summer in Brazil. The 2014 World Cup is going to be a spectacular event, with 32 teams looking to give it their all and lift that historic trophy. Spain will be favorites, given their 2010 success, while the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Netherlands and Colombia cannot be excluded from among the favorites. While England are not fancied to do too well this summer, there are a number of reasons why they have an outside chance of having a great tournament. Of course, they need to qualify first.

In order to qualify, England need to win their remaining two games. The good thing for them is that they are top of their group, which means their destiny is in their hands. In addition, the remaining two games are at Wembley. Home advantage should be a huge bonus to England, with most of their best results coming in front of the home fans. They have beaten Brazil at Wembley in the past year, so getting past a couple of qualifying opponents should not be a difficult task. Injuries will play their part, but whoever lines up for England is good enough to get the job done.

With the likes of Montenegro to come in their qualifier games, England will be very confident of topping the group. They have come through the hardest tests, and will only have themselves to blame if they cannot get the business completed in the right manner. The worst case scenario would be having to go into the playoff scenario, if they come second in the group. That will be tricky, but again England would back themselves to get through no matter what the circumstances.

After qualification is secured, England have to ensure that they are in the best possible shape to have a run at the 2014 World Cup. This is only possible if Roy Hodgson picks the correct 23 man squad. Too often England have taken players who are eihter too functional or not ready for the major tournaments. If Hodgson can get his balance right, England can match almost any team on their day. Here is a look at the squad Hodgson should take.

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Ben Foster, Jack Butland

While Ben Foster is not currently playing for England, he can be pursuaded to do so. He provides an experienced back up to the great Joe Hart. While Hart is a very capable goalkeeper, he needs to be pushed when he is on England duty. Foster is the type of keeper who can claim his place if Hart is not in form.

Defenders; Johnson, Jones, Smalling, Jagielka, Cahill, Baines, Cole

England would love to have the services of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry for this tournament, but it looks as though that ship has sailed. Those two are in the past and England must move on without them. Ideally, one of Phil Jones or Chris Smalling will be in the center half position, along with Gary Cahill. Smalling and Jones are both inexperienced, but have quality and speed in abundance. A partnership of Jagielka and Cahill is too slow to prosper, especially against quality attacks. Johnson and Baines should be the first choice full backs, with Ashley Cole a very capable back up. Baines offers greater attacking threat, and is significantly younger than Cole.

Midfielders: Gerrard, Lampard, Carrick, Barry, Walcott, Cleverley, Wilshere, Lallana

Strikers: Rooney, Defoe, Carroll, Sturridge, Welbeck

Aside from the goalkeeper and a solid back four, the 4-3-3 is England’s best bet for being successful in Brazil. Against the top sides, going 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 is a mistake. England’s midfield three should be Carrick, Gerrard and Jack Wilshere. These three are significantly different from each other, which means they will bring different qualities. Carrick can sit deepest, making interceptions and being the bridge between midfield and defense. Gerrard will play slightly further forward, supplying passes to the flanks and up top. Wilshere is perfect for the role furthest forward, running at players and playing quick one-twos with the strikers.

The three up top should be Rooney central, Walcott on the right and Sturridge off the left. Another alternative is to have Sturridge cutting inside from the right, and Welbeck doing the same from the left. The front three should be mobile, interchanging, and lethal in attack. Rooney will be the focal point, with passes played to his feet and for him to run onto. This will occupy both center halves, and allow the two outside attackers to cut inside and wreak havoc. Wilshere will also link up with Rooney, and the four of them will be difficult for any defense to handle.

In terms of playing style, England must be slightly conservative against the better teams. Sitting behind the ball and counter attacking is their best bet. A gung ho approach will result in them getting overrun, while they are not suited to playing a patient, possession based game.

The final area which England must work on is the penalty situation. There will come a time when they have to win a shoot out in order to progress. Whether extra practice is involved, or players need to speak to a sports psychologist, Hodgson should do whatever is necessary to put previous penalty debacles in the past. If he can succeed in doing that, England will be dark horse for the 2014 tournament.

Betting on England in the World Cup

by on September 18, 2013
in World Cup 2014

The England football team does not have a glorious record in the recent World Cups, but that does not stop the more fervently patriotic from putting bets on them every time another one rolls around. The most popular bets are usually simple outright ones on England to win the tournament, although they are pretty risky – given that England haven’t even qualified yet (and haven’t won a World Cup in 50 years). However this is not the only gambling option available when it comes to England in the 2014 World Cup, so what bet would be good to place?

The current 25/1 odds on England to win the tournament that are being offered by most bookmakers seem remarkably low given the nation’s poor record. Of course they are still well below favourites like Brazil (3/1) and Germany (5/1) and it would be a brave punter that went with this bet – even at decent odds. At the opposite end of the spectrum you can also get just 11/2 on Roy Hodgson’s men to fail to qualify, but this seems equally ill-advised in the wake of securing the crucial draw in the Ukraine. Overall then, a bet on England to win their qualifying group, at 2/5 could represent the strongest wager, but given how low the odds are on this now, playing one of the online casino football slot games from places like www.gamingclub.com/au might be the best choice right now.

For example, a slot game like Shoot – a five reel video slot inspired by the vintage football magazine of the same name. Overall this is a game with appeal for anyone with the slightest interest in football history – and its greatest players. The reels feature photos of former stars like Marco Van Basten, Pele, Kevin Keegan and Maradona – all of whom feature in one of the bonus games: the Trade’em game. This asks you to choose four of the players from the twelve offered, with either cash bonuses or the activation of either of the other two bonus games, as your prize. When you consider that Shoot also offers a jackpot of no less than $20,000, it is clear that this is a slot game that hits the back of the net every time.

What Have Greg Dyke & Wayne Rooney Got In Common?

Answer: they won’t be taking any part in tonight’s game in the Ukraine, although I’m prepared to give half a mark if anyone answered ‘they’re both overrated millionaires on the downside of their careers’.

At least supposed  ‘want away striker’ Rooney has a football related injury – and quite a nasty one too – whilst FA Chairman Dyke has ‘a business meeting’ that means he’s unable to attend the game. Coming so soon after the former BBC chairman unveiled his vision for the future, it’s slightly surprising that he’s reverted to being a corporate shill so soon.

Before I go any further and get myself into trouble, congratulations to Frank Lampard on winning his 100th cap tonight.  I wrote this post about the other centurions and here are Lampard’s details:

He made his England debut in October 1999 in a 2-1 win over Belgium in Sunderland and the team that night is a weird mixture that signals the end of one era and the beginning of another as well as being Steve Guppy’s only England cap:

Seaman (Martin), Dyer (P. Neville), Southgate, Lampard (Wise), Adams, Keown, Redknapp, Ince, Shearer (Heskey), Phillips (Owen), Guppy

The only other player in that team currently still playing is the apparently ageless Kevin Phillips. The number one ‘record’ in the UK charts was ‘Genie In A Bottle’ by Christina Aguilera (I don’t remember it either) and on the same day the London Eye was manoeuvred into position.

Apart from Danny Welbeck’s mystery yellow card on Friday night, events on the pitch went well. Despite taking the lead against Poland, Montenegro could only draw and – as I predicted – Ukraine battered San Marino 9-0.

To be perfectly honest, we’re in a very good position here. We’ve got a superior goal difference, a game in hand over Montenegro and our last two qualifiers are at home. Although we’ve not beaten Montenegro since the turn of the century, we’ve not lost to them either. Poland have never won at Wembley.

However, we’ve played in Ukraine twice and both of those games were settled by one goal so don’t expect fireworks tonight – if the game is a draw, it’s a decent result for ourselves and the Ukrainians and puts the burden of qualification back on the Montenegrins. Ukraine’s last match is at San Marino and as I’ve said all along, Group H is about how many goals you can score against them.

Finally this morning, in the ‘No Sh*t Sherlock’ category: this (via Sky Sports)

Ukraine v England (7:45pm), ITV 1 (coverage starts at 7:15pm) and Radio 5 Live.

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