Thoughts So Far…

A couple of things to remember before today’s Quarter Final.

England haven’t beaten either of their last two opponents in 90 minutes. Yes, the 1-0 defeat to Belgium nine days ago was basically a reserve game where losing wasn’t the worst outcome, but after having watched the Red Devils in action against Brazil yesterday it’s hard not to argue that even if that game had been between two full strength sides, England would have needed to have pulled all the stops out to beat our near neighbours.

Colombia didn’t have James Rodriguez available but England should have won that game in 90 minutes. If Colombia had played as well as they could have done – and I’ve got no idea why they didn’t apart from the last five minutes of the second half – then England would have been in trouble. The Cafeteros lost because they deserved to and I’m sure that had Bobby Moore still been with us he’d have felt pleased that the swines who framed him for stealing that necklace all those years ago were knocked out in a penalty shoot out that we finally won.

To some extent, we’re lucky to be playing Sweden this afternoon: they’ve never beaten us outside Sweden but two of the last three competitive meetings – including both games in the World Cup finals – have ended in draws. If we progress, then it’s possible we’ll either play the hosts or Croatia – and we’ve got a lot in common with the latter side – and I’ll cross that bridge if we come to it,

Don’t get me wrong, this is a refreshing change from the last few tournaments.

But I don’t think I’m alone when writing that I am worried about the level of expectation amongst casual fans (and especially how they’ll react if/when England are eliminated) but I’ve also had to field several ridiculous enquiries about a dating app for England fans and a couple of less than stellar attempts to emulate ‘World Cup Willy’, ‘Back Home’ and ‘Three Lions’.

If football does actually come home in just over seven days’ time, expect the camp followers and the baggage train to be very much in evidence.

World Cup 2018 Preview

Well, here we are again!

As some of you already know, we lost all the content from March 2013 but in some respects that was a blessing in disguise – it means we don’t have anything to refer to from the disastrous outings in the last two tournaments.

A bit like the England team itself in that case.

There are only five players in this squad that went to Brazil four years ago and so this is practically a brand new side – the veteran is Ashley Young, who is five months older than Gary Cahill despite having won 24 fewer caps – and the only teenager in the side is Trent Alexander-Arnold. This looks like a squad for the future, but time will tell.

That being said, England are currently 16/1 to win the whole thing – about right considering it’s been 12 years since we got to the quarter finals and 28 since the semi finals – but that’s a bigger price than both our Group G rivals Belgium and arguably the least impressive Argentinian side since 2002.

With all due respect to both Panama and Tunisia, for once I agree with both the bookies and the pundits: the group is been us and Belgium, but as we face the Red Devils last it may come down to who can score the most goals against Panama. The Belgians get first crack at that next Monday (BBC1, 4:00pm) before we take on Tunisia (BBC1, 7:00pm) so at least we’ll have an idea of what we need to achieve in our second game (against Panama, Sunday 24th June, BBC1, 1:00pm).

Goals are where the potential issues are: only Harry Kane and Danny Welbeck have scored more than ten goals in their international careers and – unlike previous tournaments – they aren’t going to get much help in that respect from the midfield. In some respects Kane is comparable to Romelu Lukaku – he’s two months younger and they have similar strike rates in international games – but we don’t have anyone like Kevin DeBruyne or even Marouane Fellaini behind them.

The other problem with Belgium might be familiarity. Eleven of the Belgian squad play in the Premier League and four of them belong to Spurs – that’s only one fewer Tottenham player than in the England squad. But it’s also worth remembering that since their fourth place finish in Mexico ’86, Belgium haven’t got past the second round in a European based World Cup Finals tournament since 1990. Here’s a reminder of the last time they got that far:

Assuming we do get out of Group G – and a draw with Belgium should probably be enough – our next opponents will be one of the qualifiers from Group H. That section has been widely predicted as the most open of all the groups this summer and I’d agree with that: although Colombia reached the second round in Italia 90, it’s been 36 years since Poland qualified from the group stage in a ‘European’ World Cup and neither Japan nor Senegal have ever done that. We could be in trouble if it’s Poland: they’ve been rated higher in than us in the ever reliable (!) FIFA rankings since February 2017 and although they’ve not beaten us for 45 years, records like that are made to be broken.

After that it’s anyone’s guess. As for predictions, I’d say that another unsuccessful trip to the quarter finals is probably on the cards but as long as the team performs at a better level than 2014 – not an unrealistic expectation – then the fans can be happy. A little bit of luck and we might even lose narrowly to the Germans yet again.

From a wider perspective, in the same way as winning the Champions League and the Premier League seem to have become competitions that only elite teams can win, I’m not expecting a ‘new’ name on the World Cup this summer.

However, it’s worth pointing out that no country has won consecutive titles since Brazil in 1962 and with some serious questions about the morale of the Germany squad following an ill advised photo session that featured Mezut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan with the Turkish PM, the Germans might not retain their title.

Spain – who sacked their manager yesterday – have a dreadful record in European based tournaments and despite been written off, Argentina actually have a slightly better record than Brazil do when playing in European World Cups.

Like most of us, I’ll probably have a much better idea of who might win the whole thing in a couple of weeks time but the two teams I’ll be following are Brazil and France: the former because they have a point to prove after their disastrous semi final four years ago and the latter because – on paper at least – they have the talent to compete with the Latin Americans. The question with the French is whether Didier Deschamps can utilise that talent effectively.

Finally for now, here are a few games that could be worth following:

Potential Upset: Russia v Egypt (Tuesday June 19th, BBC 1, 7:00pm BBC1)

I know FIFA rankings can be a bit odd, but Egypt overtook Russia in June 2016 and even though it was against the Soviet Union, the Egyptians won their only previous meeting back in June 1991. I also think there’s the possibility of a surprise result in the game between Argentina and Iceland (Saturday, 7pm ITV) but that may be along the lines of Argentina not winning.

England’s possible next opponents: Poland v Colombia (Sunday June 24th, ITV, 7:00pm) 

Four hours or so after England v Panama finishes so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best game between two sides that may not qualify for The Round Of Sixteen:

Australia v Peru (Monday June 26th, ITV 3:00pm)

The assumption is that France and Denmark will qualify from Group B, but if anything upsets that plan then both of these teams might need to win to qualify for the next round: this pair are suspect defensively so there might be a few goals in a game that features two very colourful kits.

Most entertaining triple header: Wednesday 27th June

South Korea v Germany (BBC, 3:00pm, BBC)

Mexico v Sweden (BBC2, 3:00pm)

Brazil v Serbia (ITV, 7:00pm)

Brazil and Germany finish their group games on the same day. Although both of them should have qualified for the The Round of Sixteen, Serbia might need a point or three to join them. If South Korea v Germany starts getting out of hand, turn over to Mexico v Sweden on BBC2 because that’s probably going to be the game that settles the runners up in Group F.

Next scheduled post: a preview of England v Tunisia, which will be up at some point on Monday!

Possible England Lineup For The World Cup?

They aren’t amongst the favourites for the World Cup, but Gareth Southgate’s side could cause an upset this summer.

After all, we have one of the best strikers in the world and that’s often – but not always – an advantage. However, Southgate will have selection issues as on paper as there are many players who could have an impact.

Since becoming the England national team manager back in 2016, Southgate has always preferred three defenders at the back. With Manchester City’s John Stones and Leicester’s Harry Maguire looking assured of their places in the World Cup, Kyle Walker has been shuttled between right back and central defence in some friendlies.

We’ve seen in previous tournaments – notably 1990 – that some flexibility is desirable when picking a team. Southgate will be expected to field creative players like Dele Alli even though a 3-4-3 would not favour the Tottenham midfielder. Alli is not a flying wing player like Raheem Sterling or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but he can cause problems for defences by dropping in the hole behind Kane and creating chances.

Southgate has a number of options upfront: Danny Welbeck and Harry Kane have very good strike rates at international level, with Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford in reserve. Vardy could be an ace in the hole this summer, especially if Southgate decides to go for a surprise 4-4-2 line up – even if that means omitting Dele Alli:

An alternative could be a 4-3-1-2 formation:

That’s without picking the likes of Rashford, Lingard, Smalling, Trippier, Shaw, Bertrand and
Jones, who will all hoping to earn a flight to Russia in a few weeks time. Flexibility could be Southgate’s secret weapon in the 2018 tournament, but a lot may depend on the individual performances of Kane and Alli on the biggest stage in the football world.

Both the players and the fans will be hoping for a better performance than in Brazil four years ago: on paper, the players who could feature in Russia this summer should be able to get out of Group G but that’s what we assumed last time round – and look what happened then!

A Game We Can Win

Unexpectedly given pre-tournament expectations, England have reached the quarter finals of the European Championships for the first time since 2004.

Or to put it another way, we’ve reached the quarter finals for only the third time since the competition started just over half a century ago.

If that seems a rare feat, consider this. We’ve not played a competitive game against the Italians since the epic goalless draw in the Olympic Stadium in Rome which ensured qualification for the 1998 World Cup. Even more surprising is that fact that we’ve never played the Italians at a neutral site in a major tournament. Considering we first played them in 1933 and between us we’ve qualified for almost every World Cup and European Championships, it almost looks like we’ve gone out of our way to avoid each other. Ironically, we next them in a friendly in August.

Before I continue, it’s worth chucking in some facts about the quarter finals in the recent Euro tournaments, basically so you can start planning what to say when you turn up bleary eyed for work tomorrow morning. In the European Championships Since 1996:

* On average, at least one quarter final per tournament has gone to extra time, although none did in 2000.

* In the games that went to extra time, all but one were eventually decided on penalties

* Most of the quarter finals have been won by countries that won their groups: victories for Spain and Germany over the last two days took those numbers to eleven wins in 19 games for group winners in quarter finals

If we apply those statistics to today’s game there’s the possibility that England might actually win a penalty shoot out in the latter stages of the European Championship since Stuart Pearce dramatically made amends for his miss in the 1990 World Cup Semi Final when he scored in the shoot out against Spain in 1996.

However, before getting carried away there are some numbers that you should be aware of. We’ve only beaten Italy twice in our last ten meetings – the last win was at Le Tournoi in 1997 – and we’ve failed to score in half of those games. Not only that, the fact that we’re currently ranked higher in the FIFA rankings could count against us. Since 1996, at least one quarter final has seen a lower ranked side beat a higher ranked team – that hasn’t happened yet in Euro 2012.

Overall, these statistics point to something that we’ve all been expecting. This is going to be a tight, low scoring game – there may only be one goal in it – that could easily go to extra time and penalties. And whoever wins will probably be beaten by Germany in the semi finals.

So who have we got to look out for? Remarkably, Cesare Prandelli has already used 20 players in three games although the midfield of De Rossi, Marchisio, Pirlo and Thiago Motta played in all three group games: it should be remembered that Pirlo and De Rossi are also more than capable of getting on the scoresheet. Antonio Cassano of Milan normally starts up front but hasn’t finished a game yet and it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if he wasn’t on the pitch after 70 minutes today: it’ll be interesting to see who plays up front with him. Mario Balotelli started against both Spain and Croatia but was substituted in both games; although he came off the bench to score in the last minute against Ireland I’m wondering if he might be used to replace Cassano and the more experienced- and potentially more lethal – Antonio Di Natale will be alongside Cassano for Italy. The other question is which formation the Italians could use – they lined up in 3-5-2 against Spain and Croatia but changed to a 4-1-3-2 against Ireland and could use that again against us, largely because we don’t really play Mediterranean style football.

Apart from the enforced changes upfront due to Wayne Rooney’s suspension, Roy Hodgson has been fairly consistent in his team selection. Nine players started all three group games and both Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have made cameo appearances in all of the games so far: arguably the biggest surprise has been Danny Welbeck. However if you’re going to base your attacking options around making Wayne Rooney comfortable then attempting to copy Manchester United’s style puts selecting Welbeck and Ashley Young ahead of arguably better players into context. Much has been made of the lack of Young’s defensive qualities at this level and if he starts today he needs to have the game of his life in that respect.

If we beat Italy, the old nemesis lies in wait in the semi finals. Germany took a while to get going against the Greeks on Friday night but once they hit their stride they look fantastic. I ‘watched’ Spain v France last night but my wife and I saw ‘The Woman In Black’ before it and that was more tense and dramatic than the game: my opinion is that ‘tiki taka’ is about as thrilling as ‘catenaccio’ used to be in so far as it’ll bore you into submission before striking when you probably expect it. Croatia and France learned that lesson the hard way.

Let’s not get too carried away if we win tonight. A bit carried away will be perfectly acceptable though.

It’s Beginning To Look Like The End Of An Era

Well, it’s two weeks since Fab resigned 19 months later than he should have done and it’s finally time for me to pick up my virtual pen and appraise the current situation.

Personally, I think Capello should have gone after the shambles of the World Cup in South Africa. If you’d said in July 2010 that he wouldn’t have been in charge for Euro 2012, I don’ t think many people would have disagreed with you: arguably the bigger surprise is that he was still in charge less than six months before the tournament started.

The big problem the FA faces with his abrupt departure is whether the process of finding a new manager should be begun immediately or after the European Championships.  Stuart Pearce will be in charge for the friendly against the Netherlands next week but the bookies make the loveable but dysgraphic Cockney dog walker Harry Redknapp the favourite for the job – in fact, if Redknapp’s odds were any shorter it’d be worth betting against him getting the job.

However, despite being the people’s choice there are some issues surrounding Redknapp. He’s only won one major domestic honour (the FA Cup with Portsmouth four years ago – and they beat a Championship side to do it) and – if as seems likely – he has to fulfill his obligations to Spurs before he leaves them, there’s the prospect that he might only have twelve days in which to familiarise himself with the job. Spurs’ last game is scheduled for May 13th: England’s first warm up for the Euros is against Norway on May 25th.

The main issue that seems to have finally exhausted Capello’s patience is the decision by the FA to strip John Terry of the captaincy of the England team. Regardless of what you think of the decision or why it was made, it seems to have been the catalyst for Capello’s resignation – presumably because he thought he was the only authority who could remove the honour from Terry. It looked likely that the former captain would travel to the Euros in some capacity (although probably not in the seat next to Rio Ferdinand), but following today’s news that the Chelsea defender will be out for two months it looks as if Terry might miss what looks increasingly like his international swansong: he’ll be 32 in December.

It seems unlikely, but with Capello gone, Terry a possible doubt and Rooney missing the first two games this summer due to that bloody stupid red card he picked up in Macedonia, fan expectations could be more realistic for this tournament than they have been for previous ones. England are currently fourth favourites behind Spain, Germany and Holland which looks about right – until you remember that the previous winners have never successfully defended the trophy and neither ourselves nor the Dutch have ever won it.

So if ‘Arry is as canny as most people seem to think he is, I’d not be surprised if the following scenario occurs:

He stays at Spurs until the end of the season, with a big Cockney farewell knees up at White Hart Lane (the last game of the season is against Fulham). Harry then goes straight into the England job and manages to get through the group stages before the customary knock out by the eventual winners – at which point he’s largely absolved for any blame because he’s hardly had any time in the position. So his first real task will be qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil: Redknapp may be secretly hoping that John Terry may have announced his international retirement at that point.

We’ll see…

It’s September, it’s raining and we’re playing Wales…

You’ve got to hand it to Wales – bottom of the group without any wins or hope of qualification and they beat our nearest rivals on Friday night. We’re now three points clear at the top of the group with a far superior goal difference to Montenegro going into tonight’s game.

We’ve not played Wales at Wembley since February 1983 (the qualifier for the 2006 World Cup was played at Old Trafford) which surprised me a bit because I grew up with the old Home International tournament and we played each other at least once a year until that competition was abandoned almost 30 years ago.

Before anyone gets too carried away, it’s worth pointing out that in the last ten meetings between England and Wales where we’ve been the home team we’ve only lost once (0-1 in May 1977) but we’ve only won four of those games. Five games were drawn, including the match in Janary 1973 that arguably did more damage to England’s chances of qualifying for the 1974 World Cup qualifying competition than both of the disastrous games against with Poland.

It’s worth highlighting our recent home record against the Welsh because we’ve drawn three of our four home games since beating Bulgaria a year ago – our poorest run of home form for about five years. Wales are currently on a four game losing streak away from Cardiff but won’t need any motivating for this game: however, they’ve had a problem scoring away from home recently – one goal in four games going back to before the last World Cup – and it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if England kept a clean sheet.

Regarding team news, Wales have Liverpool’s Craig Bellamy and David Vaughan (Sunderland) suspended but Jack Collison is expected to return even though if he plays tonight FIFA rules means that he’s committed his international future to Wales - the West Ham midfielder has only previously appeared in friendlies, which means he could theoretically still switch to England.

We’re going to be missing Leighton Baines, Darren Bent and Micah Richards but as none of them played any part in the win at the weekend it looks very much as if the same team that won at the weekend will start tonight’s game.

TV coverage is on ITV1 with the waffle and hype part of the show (featuring Frank’s fiancee’s mate Adrian) starting at 7:00pm before the game kicks off 45 minutes later. As usual with ITV’s bizarre football coverage, if you’ve missed the game for some reason there’ll be a break for the news at 10:00pm and then you can watch highlights. I’m sure there must be people who’ll miss the live game for good reasons, but it’s basically saying to the rest of us ‘turn over or go to bed’…

England Under 21’s Fail To Inspire Confidence In The Future Of The National Team

Guest contributor Richard Smith takes a look at the recently concluded Under 21 tournament, where at least we drew with the eventual winners…even if we didn’t qualify for the semi finals because we forgot a game lasts at least 90 minutes.

If manager Stuart Pearce achieved one thing at the Euro Under-21 Championships in Denmark, it was to mentally prepare the players for future disappointments for when they represent their country at senior level.

The England Under-21 team’s humiliating exit from a tournament for which they were the second favourites to win was borne out of the usual reasons and excuses more commonly associated with their senior counterparts. Lack of ideas, inability to keep the ball, insistence on playing the long ball and worst of all, their inability to create clear cut scoring opportunities. In 270 minutes of football at the tournament, they managed to score just two goals!

To be fair it has to be said that England was the better team in their final match against the Czech Republic. They were winning 1-0 with just stoppage time left to play…

Had the score remained 1-0, the headlines would have read completely differently of course. Pearce would have received the plaudits, the players would have been branded “battlers” and more importantly, they would have had every chance of making the final.

Instead in those dying seconds, a Czech Republic attack took full advantage of England’s defensive frailties. They scored somewhat fortuitously with a toe poke in the 89th minute before wrapping things up with a second goal in injury time.

Two lacklustre draws and a defeat from their three games meant only third place in their group and ignominy. Admittedly, the England group was the harder of the two, but the side should have had enough talent to qualify to the semi finals, two of which have just completed transfers amassing £38 million!

Was there anything in those three matches for England fans to get excited over for the future?

The truthful answer is no, compared to the technical ability of eventual winners, Spain, England are some way behind achieving success at an international tournament. Performances from the likes  of Mata, Herrera, Montoya and Adrian in the Spanish side raise questions about what on earth Man Utd and Liverpool are getting for their huge investments in the bright young stars of English football? Whether it’s a case of talent or manager in charge, something continues to be sadly amiss with the England national teams.

As far as Pearce is concerned, the poor showing will not be rewarded with the sack. The FA have punished him instead by giving him the onerous task of guiding the team through the 2013 Euro Under-21 qualification, a quest he obviously felt he could not refuse. What it does however, is rule him out of the search for the next England manager when Capello steps down at thhe end of his current contract, be it in the Autumn, should (god forbid) England fail to qualify for Euro 2012 or in 12 months.

It’s The Capello Index!

It’s here! ESPN Soccernet has the England team ratings here if you really feel you must see them.

It’s a bit bonkers though – Diego Forlan was born in Uruguay, but apparently his nationality is Spanish – and apparently we took Barry Gareth to South Africa rather than Gareth Barry and there’s no ‘ball given away in midfield’ stats for him. Wayne Rooney also somehow got a higher rating than Cristiano Ronaldo – who actually scored a goal in the finals.

Mexico Preview

England play their last game at Wembley before leaving for the World Cup Finals against a Mexican side that most of us will next see playing the hosts in the opening game of the tournament.

This will be the first time we’ve played ‘El Tri’ since 2001 (a 4-0 win at Pride Park in Derby if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me) and the Mexicans don’t have a good record in England: we’ve won all four games played here and they have yet to score. Despite that, we actually have quite a lot in common with them: until about half way through the qualifying campaign they were managed by Sven-Goran Eriksson and in the last four tournaments they have qualified from their group only to be unable to get past the second round. So…umm… actually quite a lot in common then.

It used to be quite rare for Mexicans to play abroad (Hugo Sanchez is the only name that springs to mind) but that’s changed. The provisional squad named by Javier Aguirre contained ten players who play their club football in Europe: captain Rafael Marquez and midfielder Jonathan Dos Santos play for Barcelona, defenders Francisco Rodriguez and Carlos Salcido (five yellow cards and a sending off in qualifying) are team mates at PSV Eindhoven and strikers Guillermo Franco and Carlos Vela play in this country for West Ham and Arsenal respectively.  However, the most intriguing Mexican prospect for years will probably be playing at Bloomfield Road, Blackpool next season: Javier Hernandez (who will only be 22 on 1st June) joined Manchester United recently and is arguably the best striker to have emerged from the country since Sanchez. I’ve not seen him play, but if I was Dimitar Berbatov I’d be on the phone to my agent if Hernandez starts banging them in during the tournament.

Hernandez is more of a long term goalscoring prospect as Mexico don’t really have a dominant striker – the apparently ageless Cuauhtemoc Blanco is 37, neither Franco nor Vela have really done the business at international level and Nery Castillo wasn’t even named in the provisional squad. The short term solution appears to be Alberto Medina, who didn’t play at all in the qualifiers but has scored in two of Mexico’s last three friendlies including the 1-0 win over Chile last Sunday.

I’ll go for an England win, but if we stop the Mexicans from scoring then I think we can look forward to both the Japan friendly and the first game of the finals against the USA with a lot of confidence. Another point to remember is that the Mexicans are tight defensively and have a decent track record in the World Cup – it would not be a huge surprise if they beat South Africa in the opening game – and so we may have to be patient. And no booing Jamie Carragher either.

In other news, Gary Linekerdecided to leave The D**ly M**l as a football columnist this week…Diego Maradona ran a journalist over (as far as we know it wasn’t one from the Mail)…Michael Ballack and Lassana Diarra won’t be playing in the tournament, which is a shame as I really wanted to use ‘Ballack’s Out’, ‘Never Mind The Ballacks’ or ‘What A Load Of Old Ballacks’ as article titles. It’s also a shame that we won’t be treated to a French player running around with ‘Lass’ on the back of his shirt, but you can’t have everything can you 😉