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.

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.

Hodgson Backed To Succeed By Baggies Assistant

Regular contributor Thomas Rooney shares a few thoughts about Roy Hodgson…

Much has been discussed about new England manager Roy Hodgson. Some disagree with the decision to appoint him, others believe he is the perfect man for the job.

One thing that cannot be underestimated as far as the Euro 2012 Odds are concerned is how well West Brom have handled the situation though. They have worked well with the FA and ensured a smooth transition for their manager to move on now that the domestic season is over.

Even Hodgson’Â’s West Brom assistant – Keith Downing – has praised the Baggies boss for his career move, saying that he can be a better candidate for England than the previous favourite for the job, Harry Redknapp.

The Baggies assistant said: “

‘There was a mass public demand for Harry and rightly so. Roy’s work has been really intense. He’s been very focused. His job has been equally impressive.”

“’He’s kept this club up and established it as a Premier League side. And he did that at Fulham. His CV is excellent and he should be considered”

‘“I just hope people will give him the opportunity, though I know it’s the toughest job in the world. Let’s see how he does. The low expectancy might help him.”

‘Roy is his own man and he’ll make the players realise what he wants to do, and they will adhere to it.

“He’s got a wealth of stories: Inter Milan, Switzerland, Malmo. We do sometimes had a chuckle. He’s dealt with some big players and his CV is fantastic.”

‘“There’s a warmth about him, and it’s not just football, football. He has an interest in your family life and how things are going. He’s a fascinating man and a lot of the players enjoy his company. He’s interested in people.”’

England will certainly hope that they have made the right choice, but it is clear that Hodgson gets huge respect from the people he works with. If this continues with England, he has a good chance of a decent Euro 2012 tournament and people might start looking at the England Euro 2012 Odds and wondering if the current price is a bit too big.

The likes of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have leant their support to Hodgson too and this is important for the England boss. He needs the support of the senior players, much like Roberto Di Matteo has done at Chelsea – and we saw how well that worked on Saturday evening!

England Squad For Euro 2012 Announced

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Robert Green (West Ham United), John Ruddy (Norwich City)

Defenders: Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Phil Jones (Manchester United), John Terry (Chelsea), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), Gary Cahill (Chelsea), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Leighton Baines (Everton)

Midfielders: Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Stewart Downing (Liverpool), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Scott Parker (Spurs), Ashley Young (Manchester United), James Milner (Manchester City)

Forwards: Jermain Defoe (Spurs), Wayne Rooney & Danny Welbeck (Manchester United), Andy Carroll (Liverpool)

There is also a standby list, but I’m not going to bother listing them.

A few random thoughts:

a.) All but two of the players come from teams that finished in the top eight in the Premier League in 2011/12 – although there are no players from Newcastle United. At least John Ruddy plays for a team in the Premier League: Robert Green is still mistake prone.

b.) None of the squad plays outside England. No surprise there.

c.) The only omission that might cause a few raised eyebrows is that of Rio Ferdinand, but there were signs this weekend that he wouldn’t have made the team. I think it may be time for him to hang it up.

On the whole, the squad is not a huge surprise. Only Ruddy and Oxlade-Chamberlain are uncapped and I would imagine that the decision to include the Arsenal midfielder is similar to the one Sven-Goran Eriksson made to take Theo Walcott to the World Cup in 2006. There also seems to be a discrete changing of the guard: I’d be surprised if the trio of Chelsea pensioners (Cole, Terry and Lampard) will be preparing to travel to Brazil in a couple of years time: Phil Jones for John Terry and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Frank Lampard looks like the way forward to me. I’d also not be surprised if this is the last time we see Steven Gerrard playing in a tournament for England.

One potential drawback is the lack of alternatives to Wayne Rooney up front. My guess is that Hodgson will be trying out variations of 4-5-1 in the upcoming friendlies with Messers Defoe, Wellbeck and Carroll being given opportunities to audition for the role, but I’d expect Defoe to be in the starting eleven for the games against France and the Ukraine with attacking support being given by the midfield. However, this looks as if it could cause the usual argument about Lampard and Gerrard being the ‘same player’, but if only one of them occupies central midfield then there’s some flexibility on the flanks.

So there you have it. The squad has been announced, the usual nonsense has started on twitter, I don’t like the new kit at all and although I don’t think England will win Euro 2012 I’ve got a feeling that this summer won’t be as much of an anti climax as the last World Cup was. All we have to do now is find the cheapest off licence, the biggest wallchart and we’re off.

I’ll be back next week with a look at the friendly with Norway.

Hodgson Already Under Scrutiny

So far so good: Roy Hodgson’s been in charge of England for a week and he’s not lost a game yet.

Rather than trying to jump onto the various bandwagons that were being dragged around in the wake of last weekend’s appointment, I thought it might be better to wait a week before giving a more considered opinion about the decision. One thing to clarify immediately: I won’t be making fun of the way the new manager talks.

Despite being at the cynical end of England fandom (I grew up in the Home Counties in the 1970s and my Dad was Welsh), I don’t have  any problems with Roy Hodgson at all.  In fact, there’s an argument to be made that he’s the latest of a long line of England coaches that goes all the way back to Walter Winterbottom (if you’re not sure who he was, try Wikipedia), through Sir Alf Ramsey (if you’re not sure who he was, you have the wrong site) and – more recently – Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson.

Hodgson’s appointment is something of a return to form for the FA. The key difference is that the new manager combines the old school values with knowledge and experience of managing outside the UK at both national and international level. That’s rare in English football: one of the drawbacks of having such an overinflated and overhyped competition such as the Premier League is that none of our top players go abroad any longer. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any players or coaches in France, Germany, Spain or Italy. Ironically enough – especially as Hodgson’s managerial career began in Sweden – I can think of a couple of reasonably successful British coaches in Scandinavia.

The appointment also seems to be a deliberate reaction against some of the novelty appointments that have been made over the past couple of decades. Capello, Eriksson, Hoddle and McClaren all shared a cosmopolitan profile with Hodgson, although the first two suffered from the apparently fatal malady of not being English, Hoddle was ‘a bit of a nutter’ and McClaren might have made a better England manager in ten years time.

Which brings me round to the last time the FA appointed a ‘fan favourite’. Kevin Keegan was an absolute disaster and there’s absolutely no evidence to show that Harry Redknapp wouldn’t have been the same. Strangely enough, Redknapp’s reliance on his bumpkin image to clear his  name in court earlier this year might have affected the perception of him by any prospective employers: his apparent inability to perform simple tasks might have helped Redknapp clear his name and endeared him to aficionados of ‘Carry On’ films or the works of Norman Wisdom (‘Strike a light, lads, we’ve only gorn an’ missed the coach to the stadium!’) , but won’t have given any of the blazers at the FA any confidence in his ability to manage the England team.

In fact, the only manager to have combined fan approval with the type of profile the FA seems to think is important was Terry Venables, who oversaw the most successful tournament campaign in the last two decades  – yes, sixteen years ago. As for some of the arguments that compared Redknapp to Brian Clough in so far as they were both who the ‘fans’ wanted for the job, it needs to be stressed repeatedly that Clough won the old League Championship as a manager when he was 38. If you want to compare Clough with anyone, try Jose Mourinho. Brash, outspoken, successful.

Back to the tournament at hand now: Hodgson has to prepare for a couple of friendlies in the next few weeks before Euro 2012 starts and although he’s guaranteed a place for Wayne Rooney in the squad that’s going to Eastern Europe, it’s the centre of defence that’s the biggest problem. Regardless of the fact that the forthcoming tournament could be the last one that both Rio Ferdinand and John Terry play in, there’s also the issue of Terry’s apparent inability to behave like an adult who is also a professional sportsman. The character defects of the Chelsea captain are both a.) glaringly obvious and b.) have a tendency to get him into trouble both on and off the pitch: basically he thinks he can get away with doing whatever he likes. Hodgson’s first job may have to tell Terry that he won’t be able to do that for England any longer: or possibly ever again.

I’ll be posting some more thoughts as the tournament approaches, but I must admit that I’m really intrigued to see how Roy Hodgson is going to do this summer. Although the ‘defeated in the quarter finals by the eventual winners’ scenario usually happens regardless of who the manager is, the rampant jingoism, crass newspaper headlines and pubs filled with ‘casual’ fans who have to be told which team is which may not be as prevalent as they might have been if Harry Redknapp had got the job. However, the sense of anger and disappointment if England fail badly in Poland and the Ukraine might be greater with Hodgson in charge rather than Redknapp: we’ll see.