Tonight’s Priority: Don’t Lose.

Tonight’s game is the last World Cup qualifier this year: the next one is in San Marino in March and although England have a three point lead and a superior goal difference, it’s important to remember that we’ve played one more game than our nearest rivals – and that Montenegro’s game in hand is against San Marino next month, the same night we have a friendly against Sweden.

In that context, avoiding defeat in Warsaw tonight is vital. The good news is that in our eight games in Poland since July 1966, we’ve only lost once – the traumatic defeat in June 1973. Even though I was only eight, I knew it was an important game: some of my school friends came round just before kick off to ask me if I wanted to go outside to play on my bike: I remember leaning out of the front room window at my parents’ house and telling them I wasn’t coming out because I was going to watch the football.

In retrospect, I should’ve gone out.

The bad news is that we’ve only won three of our trips to Poland, but although our hosts are probably a second tier side in terms of European national football, they aren’t exactly mugs either: they’ve only lost three of their last 20 games at home but that includes a surprising defeat to the Czechs in the European Championships last summer that ended Polish hopes of qualification from the group stage.

The current Polish squad are a cosmopolitan lot: they play in ten different countries although the majority of them are based at home or in the Bundesliga: current leading goalscorer Robert Lewandowski plays for Borussia Dortmund, as does influential midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski, but the latter will be missing tonight due to injury. Although there”s a lot experience within the Polish side, goals have been in short supply: they’ve only scored more than two goals in one of their matches in the last year and that was against Andorra. The only player based in England is Tomasz Kuszczak (currently of Brighton) although he’ll probably start the game on the bench.

The lack of Polish goals is actually a good thing for England: we’ve only been shut out once in the last 20 games (Italy in the quarter finals of the European Championship) and we’ve scored in four of the last the five games in Poland so one might be enough. I’m expecting Roy Hodgson to pick his strongest (and most experienced) team to start this evening, with Steven Gerrard replacing Wayne Rooney as captain and Ashley ‘Pottymouth’ Cole to return at left back. Theo Walcott won’t play any part this evening after he was clattered by Aldo Simoncini on Friday evening.

To return to the main theme, not losing tonight is crucial but coming away with a point wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world either, especially if Montenegro are unable to win in Ukraine tonight – and that game starts an hour before ours, so we should have at least some idea how that’s going when the teams take the field tonight.

 

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Wanted: Goals. Lots Of Them.

It’s back to the World Cup after a month or so off, so a quick recap on the overall position: we’re level on points with Montenegro and Poland but have an inferior goal difference to the Montenegrins. After San Marino we have to play Poland in Warsaw next Tuesday: for those of us that have reached a certain age, playing Poland in the World Cup is a bitter sweet experience that ranges from the realisation that Bobby Moore’s international career was over to the joy of Gary Lineker’s hat trick in Mexico more or less saving Sir Bobby Robson’s job.

Montenegro don’t play tonight, but they have a tough looking trip to Ukraine on Tuesday, so this evening’s game is a good time to play the worst team in the world – that’s official: along with Bhutan and the Turks and Caicos Islands, San Marino are mired at the bottom of the FIFA rankings. It might also be a good time for England to find their shooting boots, as we’ve not scored more than three goals at Wembley since September 2010.

To be honest, Roy Hodgson could’ve picked a squad from the Football League that could probably beat San Marino. All but one member of their current squad play in the Sammarinese league: the exception is midfielder Mirko Palazzi, who plays for Rimini in the Italian equivalent of League 2. Most capped player is defender Damiano Vannucci and the main goalscoring threat is Andy Selva, who has bagged eight goals in 55 games since 1998 and has the honour of scoring the only goal in the only game San Marino have ever won: a 1-0 victory over Liechtenstein in 2004.

There’s not much to report from the England squad before the game other than Frank Lampard and Ryan Bertrand will be missing and there was a press fuelled debate about who should be captain before Wayne Rooney was given the job, but other than that this game is a good opportunity to make a statement. Both the Polish and the Dutch have reached double figures against San Marino recently and in the context of having to score as many goals as possible to ensure a first place finish, that’s tonight’s priority.

Result: England 5, San Marino 0. Considering San Marino had lost five of their last six games by more than five goals, I don’t see how this can be seen as anything other than a reasonable result. It took over 35 minutes to break the deadlock and although England ran out easy winners in the end, since 2007 only Moldova, Northern Ireland and Cyprus have beaten San Marino by scoring fewer goals. The other worrying aspect of the game – apart from Clive Tyldesley not knowing that Jakub Blaszczykowski is injured and won’t be playing for Poland next week – was that England lost Theo Walcott after ten minutes following a collision with Aldo Simoncini.

Gerrard Backing Shelvey Decision

Thomas Rooney takes a look at Jonjo Shelvey’s promotion into the senior team.

England captain Steven Gerrard believes that his Liverpool teammate Jonjo Shelvey has a bright international career ahead of him.

Shelvey was called-up from the under-21 squad to the senior team on Monday, a decision that surprised a few as he has not yet really cemented his place in the starting eleven for the Reds. However, Gerrard seemed to be very pleased that he was given the call from Roy Hodgson.

“I am delighted for Jonjo. He has been improving all the time since he arrived at Liverpool and has grown into a good footballer with good vision who can create and score goals.

“He also listens which means he will only get better with more games and experience.”

The call-up for the young Liverpool man has received a fair bit of criticism, with many saying that he is still unproven and does not deserve a chance at international level. This case does have a point as well, as the former Charlton man has not exactly set the world alight on Merseyside, despite a couple of good performances in the Europa League this season.

However, Shelvey does have a great deal of potential and could really start to shine after this call-up to the national side. If you popped to a forum on www.PlayBaccarat.com and asked who he was, people might come up short, but why not give him a go?

At 20-years-old, this is the best time to give players such as Shelvey a chance to work with England. Many people forget that getting a call-up does not mean that you are going to play. The squad has over 20 players in it, and you can only use 14 throughout 90 minutes.
But, when a couple of injuries come along like they have done, then it is the perfect opportunity to give youngsters the experience of working with the national side – so when you really do need to call upon them in the future, they know what to expect and will not be overwhelmed by the occasion.

It was never going to be a decision that pleased everybody, but Hodgson has a long term plan with England and is starting to build for the future. Giving players such as Shelvey the chance to be involved around the set-up of the team can only benefit them.

Communication Breakdown

I’m trying to think of how far back the record of PR disasters surrounding England players, managers and the FA actually goes: it’s a long way and might even start as far back as the Alf Ramsay era. Ramsey was famous for his curt manner with the press and although we’re separated by five decades and an almost unimaginable leap in technology, I’m almost certain that to some extent the anti-England agenda that occasionally manifests itself in the mainstream press dates from that time.

In the last week, we’ve seen what can happen when both managers and players attempt to communicate information and opinions in an informal atmosphere. Although Roy Hodgson was giving an honest answer to a reasonable question about Rio Ferdinand’s international future when he took a tube train to the Emirates to watch Arsenal play Olympiakos in the Champions League, it’s fair to say that either a political answer or keeping schtum altogether would’ve been better options. I happen to agree with him: I think this might be the last time Ferdinand gets mentioned  in this blog as a player. Rio Ferdinand is too old and unfit to play for England but could make a decent coach somewhere along the line.

On the other hand, exactly what Ashley Cole was hoping to achieve when he tweeted about the FA in the wake of the John Terry case is beyond me. At first I thought his ‘foul mouth rant’ was a joke: but then I saw the ‘verified’ symbol next to his handle. In a way, referring to the FA as ‘a bunch of twats’ is a simple case of it takes one to know several. Having been ‘encouraged’  to be a bit more media friendly in the summer and being only two caps short of a century of international appearances, you’d have thought that Cole would’ve been smart enough to realise that keeping quiet would’ve been the best option under the circumstances, especially as there are still questions about the captaincy going forward.

However, apart from possibly in the context of wearing expensive clothes, the words ‘Ashley Cole’ and ‘smart’ seem never to be destined to be used in the same sentence again. I wrote what I thought of John Terry here and I’ve got no problem with including Ashley Cole in the description of some contemporary football players in the fourth paragraph.

I’m pleased that the FA seem to have indicated that Cole won’t play against San Marino at the weekend, but that’s not really a punishment. He’s just lucky he wasn’t around in when Ramsay was boss.

He wouldn’t have played for England again.

I’ll be back later in the week when I’ll attempt to concentrate on the two forthcoming games. But it’s only Tuesday afternoon: plenty of time for tweeting.

Could St George’s Hold Key to Future Success?

Bringing success to England’s national football team has long proved to be an almost impossible task. Many managers have tried and failed to replicate England’s finest moment when Sir Alf Ramsey guided them to their first, and only, World Cup in 1966.

Trying to discover the winning formula now lies with Roy Hodgson.  Undoubtedly a proud Englishman, Hodgson cannot be accused of taking the job for his own financial gain (although, the multi million salary must have made signing the contract that little bit easier), which is an allegation that has been thrown at many of his predecessors.

After being thrown in at the deep end just a month before Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, Hodgson made a mixed start to life in the hot-seat. There were certainly positive signs, such as the attacking threat shown against the Swedes in Kiev, but even the most avid Englishman would struggle to argue that the Three Lions were comprehensively outclassed by the Italians in their latest quarter final defeat.

So where does Hodgson and the nation go from here? The opening of the new National Football Centre could hold some of the answers.

Anyone that has watched England play over the years will know that the English are technically inferior to the majority of their opponents. With rare exceptions in the shape of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and the like, England do not currently produce players of the same technical ability as their counterparts on the international stage.

But the problem stems from the very top. Other European nations have invested heavily in coaching, with Italy, Spain and Germany all possess over 20,000 coaches who hold either a UEFA B, A or Pro Badge. England has just under 3000. This just shows the ground that the English have to make up to be competitive once again.

St George’s Park offers a ray of hope. Here, Coaches from all over the country will come to learn their trade and set England on their road to recovery.

Football betting experts will know that England have a long way to go, and it could take many years before they are challenging for honours once again, but at least this project shows that the FA are prepared to invest in the future of the game in this country. Many will hope it’s not too late

John Terry: A Career

If you’re reading this expecting some kind of eulogy, then I’m afraid you need to look elsewhere. In purely footballing terms, Terry will be remembered as one of the better central defenders who played for England, but I’d put him on a par with Dave Watson (13 fewer caps and two fewer goals when England were really terrible) rather than Bobby Moore.

However, Terry will not be remembered in purely footballing terms. Just after the 911 terrorist attacks, Terry – along with four other Chelsea players – was fined for harrassing American tourists whilst he was drunk. Just under a year later was charged with assault and affray outside a nightclub and was given a temporary ban from appearing for England by the FA but was cleared after a court case.

Since then, he’s been fined for parking his Bentley in a disabled bay, allegedly had an affair with Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend (at which point Capello took the England captaincy away from him) and was in court once again this summer following the ‘incident’ with Anton Ferdinand at Loftus Road last October.

So if anyone’s made his position ‘untenable’ it’s hardly been the FA has it? My personal opinion is that Terry is the embodiment of pretty much everything that’s wrong with the elite group of contemporary English footballers: arrogant, overpaid, having no moral compass, seemingly incapable of expressing genuine regret or remorse for any of their actions and – following his laughable display at the end of last season’s Champion’s League final – a bit of an all round dick.

I’ve no doubt he’ll be lauded elsewhere, but I’m actually quite glad he’s decided to retire from the England team. In a couple of decades time he’ll be one of those balding, overweight has beens that Sky Sports dust off to tell us about their ‘glory days’: at first you won’t recognise him…but then it’ll slowly dawn on you…is that John Terry?

Ukraine Almost Pull Off A Shock Win

Let’s not kid ourselves, that wasn’t anywhere near as good a performance as was expected

It’s all very well having low expectations, but I think it’s fair to say we were lucky to get away with a point last night. With other results going against us, England are now in second place in Group H on goal difference and it could have been worse. Without wanting to sound too alarmist, this group may come down to who scores the most goals against San Marino, in which case we may be lucky it’s our turn to play them next.

Of course, you could also argue that if Steven Gerrard had to be suspended for one game after picking up a stupid red card, San Marino would be the one most people would pick. As a kid in the early seventies I remember an FA crackdown on ‘the tackle from behind’ and although that would have been a decade or so before Gerrard was born, I’m a little bit surprised that he doesn’t know those tackles are illegal. As for Danny Welbeck’s attempt to win a penalty, that proved a couple of things: my eyesight is better than Andy Townsend’s and that Welbeck and Ashley Young have obviously been exchanging notes about diving in the penalty box.

It’ll be fascinating to see how Roy Hogdson reacts to the subtle change of circumstances. Four of the starting XI last night are over 30 and with neither of the youngest players looking particularly impressive last night it’s time to dust off the clichés about this team being ‘in transition’ or ‘a work in progress’…but you have to wonder if the current team will be anywhere near the finished article in two years time or whether some of the new faces will still be in contention if England qualify for the World Cup.

England have two further rolls of the dice before the end of the year, although you’d be hard pressed to find any value backing us to win the group or finish in the top two – you’d be better off taking a look at casino odds if you fancy a flutter – but England’s price to win the World Cup in Brazil began to drift after last night’s game finished. Not surprisingly, Brazil remain favourites.

Another England Win On The Cards?

After Friday’s stroll over Moldova, it’s Ukraine again tonight for the second time in less than three months. Since May 2000 they’ve played here three times and lost all of those games, scoring only one goal (Andriy Shevchenko’s equaliser in the 2-1 World Cup qualifier win in April 2009) so Roy and the team will be looking to pick up another three points in their quest to reach Brazil in less than two years time.  With Montenegro and Poland having drawn 2-2 on Friday (the Poles took the lead in Podgorica but fell behind at half time: they equalised just before the hour), after one game England are already two points clear at the top of Group H.

Another England win would be very useful indeed – I can’t see Poland losing to Moldova and Montenegro shouldn’t have any problems in San Marino this evening – as an early lead in the group before going into a home game with one of the weakest sides in Europe next month would be an ideal position before arguably the toughest game in the group.

Ukraine’s away over the last year hasn’t been particularly impressive: they’ve beaten Estonia and Israel but lost their other four road trips and seem to be having goalscoring issues, especially now that Shevchenko has retired and chosen to take up a career in the minefield that is Ukrainian politics. One goal in their last five games isn’t particularly inspiring and the two recognised strikers in the current squad have scored a grand total of three times in 27 combined appearances – although Marko Devic would have had another if it hadn’t been for the incompetence of the fourth official back in June. Unusually these days, almost all of the Ukraine team play at home: only reserve goalkeeper Andriy Dikan and captain Anatoliy Timoshchuk play abroad, although only Timoshchuk plays in what we used to call ‘Western Europe’.

We’re missing a few players for tonight’s match: Ashley Cole and John Terry are injured while Theo Walcott has been ‘violently ill’ after picking up a bug…I doubt if it’s the Stella Flu though. Raheem Stirling of Liverpool, Spurs’ Jake Livermore and Adam Lallana of Southampton have been called up but I’d be amazed if any of them got off the bench tonight. I must admit I like the way that Hodgson is not afraid to draft in younger players: even if it’s just for the experience, it shows them that they could be a part of the England setup if they continue to make progress with their clubs. The problem for Southampton is that international recognition for Lallana probably means he’ll be leaving them at some point, but as long as he doesn’t end up at Liverpool he could have a promising international career.

It’s an 8:00pm kick off this evening, although if you’re a masochist Clive Tyldesley and all his chums will be on air on ITV1 at 7:30pm – so that looks like a good time to go to the chip shop to me. Battered sausage for me please.

The Long Road to Rio starts with Moldova

It begins tonight. The road to Rio and a chance for Roy Hodgson to begin his long term England plan, starting with Moldova in front of what is more than likely to be a hostile crowd in the Zimbru Stadium in Chisinau.

The pitch hasn’t impressed the backroom staff or players and Ion Caras’s side are likely to put up a stubborn defense, but there can’t be any excuses if England don’t grab three points tonight.

And so to the team. No Rooney, of course. Ashley Cole, Andy Carroll and Adam Johnson are also injured. Johnson injuring himself during training and will now be watching the game on TV or playing european roulette. Cole hopes to be fit for Tuesday’s qualifier against the Ukraine and Carroll is out for at least six weeks with a ham string injury.

Leighton Baines is set to start for the first time in a competitive game. Hodgson is well covered for wide players with James Milner, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck can also play wide. Senior players Terry, Lampard, Carrick and Gerrard also figure in the England set-up.

The question is this; will failing to cull older players and allowing a younger team to gel at the beginning of the campaign turn out to be a mistake? Experience over youth, youth over experience – the ole’ chestnut.

 

A Look At ‘New’ England

Guest blogger Lee Clarke runs the rule over Wednesday night’s friendly victory over an experimental Italian side.

England 2 Italy 1 – If only this was a result from a certain major tournament two months ago.

The Three Lions defeat to The Azzuri in Kiev back in June was still fresh in the memory as England took to the pitch to face the team that had caused national heartbreak only 52 days ago.

Even if you are more interested in Premier League betting, you would have noticed that the two sides looked completely different from the Euro 2012 quarter-final in which England were denied a last four berth thanks to a penalty shootout.

Roy Hodgson handed debuts to no fewer than five players in Berne, with the stand out performance of the debutants being second half substitute John Ruddy. The Norwich custodian looked like a 50 cap player when he took to the stage for the second half.

What was really refreshing about Wednesday night’s game was that Hodgson was not afraid to try youth. Albeit mixed with some experience, but we can cope with that.

Jack Butland began in goal becoming the youngest goalkeeper to play for England by some margin. What a summer the young Birmingham goalkeeper has had. League Two with Cheltenham, to third choice England keeper, Olympics and now this. Talk about Roy of the Rovers stuff!

Everyone following Manchester united news will agree that Michael Carrick was a pleasing addition to the starting line-up for the strangely timed friendly in Berne. Carrick played in the position so often occupied for England by the much over-rated Gareth Barry.

Barry is, for me, not fit to lace Carrick’s boots, certainly on the last season and a halves form anyway.

The former West Ham and Spurs man was incredibly easy on the eye during Wednesday night’s game and rarely looks like losing possession when in control of the ball.

Indeed England certainly look to be getting to grips with the new three man midfield which Hodgson likes to employ. Tom Cleverley was the man sitting just behind Andy Carroll against Italy and with more game time at Manchester United he will only continue to improve. You half expect this season could be make or break for the youngster however.

Kyle Walker was a cert for the right-back berth at the Euros before injury ruled out the Tottenham star, he again proved his worth with a solid display, so too did Phil Jagielka. Always a steady performer it was nice to see him step up to the plate on the international stage and cap a fine performance with a first half goal.

One thing is certain about England under Roy Hodgson is that we are now much more difficult to beat and opponents are no longer easily able to grasp our bland style which was so blatantly obvious under Fabio Capello.

With more game time for the Three Lions mix of youthful exuberance and experienced steel we will only continue to get better. Only time will tell just how far the ‘new’ England can go.