Group B Preview

Here we are again: the tournament starts this evening, England are playing tomorrow and according to the bookies the path to glory in France should end with yet another defeat in the quarter finals. We’ve got to get out of the group first, so let’s take one step at a time.

RUSSIA (8pm tomorrow, ITV1 and Radio 5 Live)

Despite having Fabio Capello in charge for part of the campaign – the Russian FA bought out his ludicrously expensive contract – Russia qualified as runners up from a weak group that included Montenegro (remember them?), Liechtenstein and Moldova. However, they’ve only won twice in their six friendlies since then: a late winner from Roman Shirokov was enough to beat Portugal last November and mighty Lithuania were swept aside in March. Most recently, they’ve taken the lead and lost in games against both the Czech Republic and Serbia. All but one of the team (Roman Neustaedter – who was also eligible to play for Germany, Ukraine and Kazakhstan) play in Russia and seven of them played for champions CSKA Moscow last season. If you’re as old as I am, that looks suspiciously like the way the Soviet Union used to do things.

We’ve only played Russia twice: both games were in the unsuccessful qualifying campaign for the 2008 European Championships and we lost by the odd goal in three in Moscow back in October 2007.

Player to watch: Artem Dzyuba (Zenit). Leading scorer during qualification and second highest Russian native goalscorer in the Russian Premier League last season. Dzyuba and Hulk have formed an impressive partnership at club level but Dzyuba may have to manage on his own in this tournament.

WALES (2pm Thursday 16th June, BBC1, S4C and Radio 5 Live)

Apart from the brief but confusing period a few months ago when Wales were ranked higher in the FIFA rankings, it’s fair to say that England have been the best team of the four in Group B for some time.

Wales’ meteoric rise started when Chris Coleman took over the job in exceptionally trying circumstances following the death of Gary Speed in November 2011. Their form going into the tournament has been poor: one win in the last six (against mighty Andorra) and they’ve been shut out by both Ukraine and Sweden in their last two matches. Nine of the squad played for teams in the Sky Bet Championship last season – and six of those players were playing for clubs that finished in the bottom half of the second tier

Next week’s game will be the 103rd meeting between England and Wales, but only the fifth game between us since the turn of the century and the first ever match outside the UK. The last time Wales scored against England was in May 1984, when Mark Hughes scored the only goal of the game in the last ever meeting in the old Home International Championship.

Player to watch who isn’t Gareth Bale: Ashley Williams (Swansea). Ever present during the qualification campaign and only Chris Gunter of Reading has won more caps as a defender. Next season will be his tenth at Swansea: they were in League One when he joined them.

SLOVAKIA (8pm Monday 20th June, ITV)

One defeat in their last ten games indicates that the Slovaks are going to be tough to beat. With the possible exception of Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel of Liverpool, they don’t have any ‘household names’ in the side, but they’re exactly the sort of combination of locally based players and exports who tend to do well in international competition (think of the South American teams that aren’t Argentina or Brazil). Only three of the squad play in the Slovak Super Liga but with four players with Serie A clubs and two (Dusan Svento and Peter Pekarik) playing in the Bundesliga, they are no mugs.

This will be the fourth game against Slovakia: we’ve won the other three and beat them 4-0 in a friendly in March 2009. Get used to them: we were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group and face them again at the start of September.

Player to watch: Vladimir Weiss (Al-Garafa, Qatar). Still only 26, he’s in danger of becoming a journeyman due to his inability to last longer than a season at any particular club and these days seems to be in it for the money. Only missed two qualifiers and was part of the Slovakian squad that surprised everyone in the last World Cup: he could benefit from Hamsik getting all the defensive attention in midfield, which might reignite interest in him from the bigger European clubs.

…and finally ENGLAND

After a heavy dose of realism in the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup, there are still a number of questions to be answered. Qualification from Group B as winners is the minimum expectation – isn’t it always – but we’ve not got past the quarter finals in any tournament for 20 years and that looks as if it might happen again. With that in mind, here are three questions that need answers:

  • Who is Wayne Rooney’s long term replacement? Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford look like the obvious answers. Jamie Vardy is probably too old and Daniel Sturridge is too fragile. There’ll be issues with this group as soon as they come up against a well drilled defence and Rooney’s inability to score in tournament finals has always been an issue.
  • Is the lack of defenders with international experience going to be a factor? Only Gary Cahill has more than 30 caps and four of the rest of the defensive players have a combined total of just 34 appearances in the full England squad.
  • If this campaign turns into a disaster, how quickly will the FA react if they need to replace Roy Hodgson? If so, with whom?

I know that sounds negative, but there is another way of looking at this. Eleven players in the final 23 are 25 years old or younger and it’s clear that they should form the basis of the England team in the years to come. Furthermore, it’s actually refreshing not to have to write about John Terry and Rio Ferdinand or if Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard can play in the same team.

It’s also worth remembering that since the last World Cup, England have only failed to win four of their 21 games and have only lost twice in that period – including a narrow defeat against one of the best sides in the world last November.  I think there’s good reason to be optimistic about Euro 2016, but I’m not going to get carried away.

This tournament could be a big step in the right direction at the right time and that’s fine by me. Let’s see what happens.

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.

Capello Resigns

by on February 8, 2012
in Fabio Capello

More to follow (probably tomorrow at this rate), but following a meeting with David Bernstein et al, Fabio Capello has resigned as England manager.

Hardly a surprise given some of the recent nonsense that’s surrounding the England team but resigning four months before a major tournament is…well, I know what I think. And if you stay tuned, when I’ve calmed down then you’ll be able to read it.

Capello’s Striker Dilemma Ahead Of Euro 2012

by on February 8, 2012
in Euro 2012, Fabio Capello

If you’ve come here looking for our take on whether or not John Terry should have been stripped of the England captaincy or not or whether Fabio Capello should leave the England job now, then you might be a bit disappointed. All I’m going to say is that France have a terrific group of young strikers and to be honest,  right now (a freezing cold afternoon in February) it doesn’t matter who the manager is.

Although we’re at the end of the Capello years, he’s still getting paid a decent wage and he’s got some thinking to do before the summer. Guest blogger Richard Smith takes a look at both the Terry issue and an area that always seems to be problematic for the team before major competitions.

As Euro 2012 approaches the England problems seem just on the verge of emerging. Firstly the Wayne Rooney ban which has cost England his services in for the opening two fixtures has been followed by the crass FA decision to remove the captaincy from John Terry.

In some respects, England are lucky that Rooney’s ban was not the original three matches but nonetheless, the absence of the Man Utd striker for two games is bad enough and makes life very difficult to replace him.

As far as the Terry situation is concerned, then the FA have done him nor the national team any favours by going above Fabio Capello’s head and removing him as team captain, due presumably to his impending court case where he has been accused of racism towards Anton Ferdinand. That case is not due to be heard until after Euro 2012 and whilst the full and due process of law is running its course, Terry remains innocent until proven guilty. This is of course unless you are the FA who clearly sees the case as a cut and dry affair and that Terry must be guilty as charged. It is a position that is seen as outrageous by most in football and one that proves if nothing else that the FA are no friends of the individual footballer nor respecters of the England fans nor it seems the due process of law as their action has made Terry look guilty even though he is pleading the opposite.

At least it seems that Terry will be able to wear the Three Lions shirt in Poland and the Ukraine which will be very important for team continuity albeit if you believe what you read in the papers this may not be the case! It is almost a prerequisite that the England preparations prior to a major tournament are disrupted and with five months before the tournament kicks off, it would appear the pantomime has already begun.

Back to team matters, there is already much debate as to who Capello should select as the four for Euro 2012 and with Rooney a definite pick, the other three places are up for grabs.

Darren Bent of Aston Villa is probably the man who holds sway at the moment but his good form of last season has not been so evident this term as his Villa team struggle in mid-division of the Premier League. Bent has scored nine times in the Premier League and managed three England goals during Euro 2012 Qualification.

Jermaine Defoe has been a regular squad member for the last few seasons, but he is struggling to establish himself in the first team at Spurs this season and hasn’t been on the scoresheet for England since his hat trick against Bulgaria in September 2010.

Emerging talent comes in the form of Danny Welbeck of Manchester United and Daniel Sturridge of Chelsea but neither have had a long enough run in the national team to establish themselves and may be considered by Capello as too inexperienced to take. Bent’s team mate at Aston Villa, Gabi Agbonlahor is another player who is just falling short of international recognition and now at the age of 25 one feels his best chances are gone despite him being one of the very quickest players around. Bobby Zamora now of QPR has been given a couple of chances but he is a player who would be more of a last resort than a certainty and at 31 he has seen better days too.

This does not leave Capello very much left to choose from, Andy Carroll of Liverpool showed signs under Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool that he is beginning to mature but is facing mounting criticism for his lack of goals. If the £35m man can continue in that vein as well as find the net a few times before the season ends, then he could make a late run for the squad but as it stands currently, the four strikers would almost certainly comprise of Rooney, Bent, Defoe and Sturridge but with Rooney out for the first two games, it’s safe to say none of the England contingent will be in the reckoning for the Euro 2012 Golden Boot and who starts upfront against France on Monday 11th June is still very much anyone’s guess.

We should have a better idea when England take on the Netherlands at Wembley on 29thFebruary when it will make a refreshing change for football to dominate the back page, let’s just hope it’s positive column inches!

Capello on Hand To See Swans Fly

Easily the best footballing side in the Championship last season, it’s hardly a surprise that Swansea have been attracting a lot of positive attention due to their performances in the Premier League. Thomas Rooney thinks a couple of Swans should be given a chance in the England squad and if the widely predicted changes happen after Euro 2012, Thomas has a point!

While The F.A were busy announcing an upcoming friendly fixtures against Holland, it was Swansea that were evoking memories of the Dutch pass masters of years gone by as they sauntered past Arsenal while Fabio Capello watched on from the rocking Liberty Stadium stands.

Those studying mobile free bets note how Brendan Rodgers’ side have become the feel-good story of the season, and the fairy-tale ending, or at least the pinnacle of their achievements this season, likely came as Danny Graham slotted home the winner against Arsenal recently. Although Capello may have come to cast his eye over Theo Walcott, who despite getting on the scoresheet continues to be an enigma when it comes to producing consistently decent performances.

Although Walcott may have been in Capello’s thoughts before the game it was the Welsh outfit’s band of Englishmen that would have occupied his drive home to the capital after the game.

Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham have all proved themselves wonderfully capable of adapting to life in the Premier League, and soon they will be joined by another precocious talent, Chelsea’s Josh McEachran who completed his loan move from the capital earlier this week.

Graham in particular has thrust himself into the limelight ever since his move from Watford over the summer with his clinical and powerful finishing.

Dyer and Sinclair have long been talents that have been marked for bright futures – few would have envisaged however that they would find a home and room to flourish with a newly promoted side given little chance of survival by the experts. These three fit seamlessly into a side that contains no less than seven men who would be available to Capello, and it is their style of play along with their results that have won them praise this season.

Occupying a large point of the Italian’s mind ever since the draw took place, is of course Euro 2012, and he will already have in his mind an almost fully formed picture of the squad he will take with him into battle once more.

It is unlikely any player wearing the white of Swansea will make it into his final squad. It is their effervescence as a unit that appeals most about Swansea, their philosophy under Rodgers that brings them together and allows them to out-pass the finest English passing side of the last twenty years, Arsenal.

But while they may miss out on Capello’s final squad, perhaps due to the lateness of their charge or even the fact they come from a distinctly unfashionable club, there are few who would begrudge Swansea their success. Keep your eye open for a few of them in Rio in 2014, at least a few of them will be there, at the World Cup.

Capello Turns Down Inter Approach

by on June 21, 2011
in Fabio Capello

Regular guest contributor Pete South looks at today’s breaking news: Fabio Capello’s decision to rule himself out of the Inter Milan job.

Fabio Capello has rejected the offer to return to club management with Inter Milan after officials from the club approached the 65-year-old, according to the manager’s son.

Capello reiterated his intention to quit his post as England boss after Euro 2012 and has been linked with a return to Italy previously, but the Inter approach marks the first time anything concrete has been put on the table before the former AC Milan manager.

Speculation had increased that he was in talks with Inter, and it was his son Pierfilippo Capello that revealed there had been contact between the two parties.

When asked by the Sun if Capello had been approached by Inter he responded: “Yes. But Fabio will remain with the FA.”

Capello is said to be keen to repay the faith the FA showed in him after England’s poor World Cup performances last year by seeing out the remainder of his contract.

Inter are in the market for their third manager in little over 12 months since the departure of Jose Mourinho after former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez was sacked after six months and Leonardo’s departure for a role with French side Paris Saint-Germain.

However the club’s sporting director denied Capello’s son’s claims and said there had been no talks between Inter and the FA or Capello.

I can confirm that Inter has not contacted Fabio Capello or the English FA,” said Inter Milan sporting director Marco Branca.”We are not interested in Capello. There are still no developments on the coaching front.”

While Capello will stay put until next summer’s European Championships, his right hand man Franco Baldini looks set to leave the England set up and take up the offer to work with Roma after media reports suggested the FA had allowed him to talk to the Italian club.

The general manager will take up a similar position at the end of England’s qualifying campaign – but could return for the finals should England qualify.

Adrian Bevington, the managing director of Club England remained tight-lipped on the subject, but said the issue will be dealt with after England’s final qualifier against Montenegro in October.

“We are confident from our conversations with Franco that he will remain solely focused on England’s qualification campaign,” said Adrian Bevington, the managing director of Club England. “Once we’ve qualified we can look at it again.”

The former midfielder is said to be keen to get back into the day-to-day routine of new football kits and weekend matches that club management brings, but would like to show his loyalty to Capello.

The loss of Baldini would be a huge blow for England ahead of a major tournament, with the 50-year-old acting as a key link between the squad and the manager.