If It’s Saturday It Must Be Belgium

The last game before Euro 2012 starts next week looks as if it could turn into pep rally than a competitive game.

It’s probably fair to say that Belgian football has been in the doldrums for the last decade: the Red Devils haven’t qualified for a major tournament for over a decade and are currently one place above Wales in the UEFA Rankings. They missed out on the playoffs by two points, despite managing to score eight more goals than Turkey in their group but they looked up against it when they only drew 1-1 in Azerbaijan a year ago and basically had to beat Germany in Dusseldorf to stand a chance of getting to the playoffs. They were 3-0 down before the hour: that was that.

However – like the Norwegians last week – there are plenty of familiar names in the current Belgian squad. Vincent Kompany was captain of the Manchester City team that won the Premier League last season, Thomas Vermaelen is the heart of Arsenal’s defence and (as I have to explain to various family members when Everton are on telly) Marouane Fellaini is the tall bloke with the big hair.

I’ve deliberately left one name out, because those of us watching tomorrow night may have our lives transformed forever if Eden Hazard plays. Even though he has yet to kick a ball in anger for Chelsea, he’s obviously the best player in the universe right now and fans across the world waited with baited breath last week to see which English club he’d chose to play for. That’s presumably what he’d like us to think, although I’m reserving judgement to see how he does against Stoke at The Britannia Stadium before using any superlatives to describe him.

Regardless of Eden Hazard, history is on our side in this game. Belgium have never beaten us in England: the only time we’ve not beaten them at home in five previous encounters was also the last time they played at Wembley in October 1964. We last played against them at Sunderland in October 1999, when goals from current TV talking heads Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer ensured a 2-1 victory but the game was notable for Kevin Keegan giving Frank Lampard his international debut.

England are favourites to win the game, which kicks off at 5:15pm although ‘coverage’ starts at 4:30pm on ITV. That usually means bland interviews in poorly lit changing rooms, plenty of adverts encouraging you to buy beer/televisions/party food and at least one awful pun from whoever has been rounded up to provide punditry – although I don’t think they’re likely to use ‘the Belgians have surrendered again’, it’ll probably be something based on the EU.

I’ll be back with a quick roundup after the game finishes, but you’re in for a treat next week – a substantial preview piece and something a little different that I think you’ll enjoy.

Have a good long weekend and God Save The Queen.

 

The new England manager is in place, the team has been chosen. At last it’s game on for England and all the other European teams. Click here to check the Betting odds for Euro 2012.

The Sun Shines Over Thrace…

Before moving on to our opponents in Friday night’s game, there are a couple of England stories to mention: Peter Crouch is out of the squad with a back injury and League 2 side Shrewsbury Town will receive a £500,000 windfall ‘if’ Joe Hart plays in goal tomorrow night: not bad at all for a team that had an average attendance last season of about 5500 – that’s about £90 per punter at the Greenhous Meadow Stadium.

So onto Bulgaria. They’ve not qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2004 but having said that, they’ve actually done as well as we have in the World Cup over the last quarter of a century, finishing fourth in the ’94 World Cup in the USA.

Before that, their most successful international era was when they qualified for four straight World Cups (1962-1974) and they’ve had their fair share of decent international players; striker Georgi Asparuhov was the nearest thing they had to George Best in the 60s and at one point Benfica wanted to buy him but the Communist government wouldn’t let him leave Bulgaria. Like George Best, he died far too early: in June 1971 he was killed in a car crash aged 28.

Other Bulgarian players to have achieved international recognition are Hristo Bonev, the shy and retiring Hristo Stoichkov and most recently Dimitar Berbatov, who has now retired from international football so he can spend his weekends disinterestedly wandering around opposition penalty areas for Manchester United. Oh and the bloke who looks like a werewolf and that goalie who was bald when he was in the World Cup but had ‘hair’ when he joined Reading. And if Spartacus was alive now and was any good at football, he’d probably be playing for Bulgaria.

Like a lot of the teams from Eastern Europe that we’ve played recently, the most capped player and leading goalscorer for the Lions is a name that will be familiar – Martin Petrov of Bolton Wanderers and captain Stiliyan Petrov will be well known to Celtic and Aston Villa fans. It also shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that only one of the current squad plays his club football at home (Veselin Minev of Lokomotiv Sofia); most of the rest are spread around the world – Berbatov’s natural replacement and former Manchester City striker Valeri Bojinov now plays in Serie A for Parma.

Whilst researching this piece I was a bit surprised to find out that we’ve only actually played them four times at home since 1968: they’ve never beaten us (either home or away) and have only scored once in their games at Wembley – not surprisingly, the scorer was Asparuhov and it wasn’t a bad goal either:

Not sure who the defender he beat was; Geoff Hurst equalised four minutes later and the game finished 1-1.

I know I’m tempting fate, but I think we stand a pretty good chance of getting our qualifying campaign off to a winning start – thirteen games unbeaten at Wembley with only one draw isn’t to be dismissed lightly – but Bulgaria won’t be pushovers despite having only won once in their last ten away games (a win in Malta last November) and will be looking to nick a point if possible.
As it’s a home game ITV will be showing it (the inane waffle featuring Andy Townsend referring to ‘the goals’ when he means ‘the goal’ starts at 7:30pm, kick off at 8.00pm), which means that if you can find a noisy pub that has a telly with the sound turned off you won’t be able to hear whoever is talking about the new kit.

Algeria Preview

You often hear pundits claiming that there’s no such thing as an easy game in the World Cup anymore: while they’re probably correct, it’s difficult to contradict the argument that England’s game with Algeria tomorrow night is potentially our easiest game in Group C.

The Algerians do not travel well; the Desert Foxes also have a very poor recent record against European opposition. As well as losing 1-0 to Slovenia last weekend, they have also recently suffered 3-0 defeats to both Ireland and Serbia. Algeria have won three away games in the past year: 2-0 against the mighty Zambia during World Cup qualification, and wins over Mali and Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup earlier this year. Algeria were lucky to win the latter: they trailed 2-1 going into stoppage time.

Only three of their squad of 23 play in Algeria including two of the three keepers, one of whom (Faouzi Chaouchi) was to blame for the goal the Slovenians scored on Sunday. The rest of the squad play in Europe and it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that six of them play in France. Closer to home, defender Nadir Belhadj and midfielder Adlene Guedioura play for Portsmouth and Wolves respectively; Madjid Bougherra is a Rangers player, which might explain why he’s not exactly been backwards in coming forwards today.

Compounding their poor record in front of goal, they’ll be without striker Abdelkader Ghezzal, who was sent off for two stupid yellow cards in their first game. Veteran striker Rafik Saifi (who plays in the French 2nd division
for Istres) or the relatively inexperienced Rafik Djebbour of AEK Athens are the only other options at striker: Saifi is the only player in the entire squad who has scored more than ten goals at international level.

If you fancy a punt, it’s possible that we could keep a clean sheet (only Brazil in 1970 and Romania in 1998 have scored against us in corresponding group games since 1966), but in case you hadn’t noticed we’ve got a few issues of our own. Apart from the inclusion of Gareth Barry, the team for tomorrow is still a mystery and – perhaps more worryingly – Stevie G’s goal against the USA last Saturday was the first time an England player had scored in an ‘away’ game since Jermain Defoe scored twice against the Dutch before the start of last season: we don’t have any Japanese defenders up our sleeve for this game. Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey haven’t scored in an away game since the 4-0 win over Kazakhstan just over a year ago – although I agree with John Motson that Rooney is due a goal for England.

It’s possible that there won’t be that many goals in this game: one of the less appealing scenarios (other than an Algeria win or another draw) would be something similar to the win over Trinidad & Tobago in the last World Cup. That game was going nowhere until two late goals settled it. The last time we failed to score in the second group game was in 1990 (a dreadful goalless draw with the Dutch) and we haven’t scored three since beating Argentina in 1962.

For anoraks and train spotters, here’s the list of the second group games England have played in:

England 0-1 USA (1)
England 2-0 Switzerland (2)
England 0-0 Brazil (0)
England 3-1 Argentina (4)
England 2-0 Mexico (2)
England 0-1 Brazil (1)
England 2-0 CSSR (2)
England 0-0 Morocco (0)
England 0-0 Netherlands (0)
England 1-2 Romania (3)
England 1-0 Argentina (1)
England 2-0 Trinidad (2)
P12 w6 D3 L3 F13 A5

1950: England 0-1 USA (yes, that game)

1954: England 2-0 Switzerland (we beat the hosts!)

1958: England 0-0 Brazil

1962: England 3-1 Argentina

1966: England 2-0 Mexico (Bobby Charlton scores from just outside Wembley station)

1970: England 0-1 Brazil (the Gordon Banks save, the Bobby Moore tackle and a thin…well, thin-ish…Francis Lee)

1982: England 2-0 Czechoslovakia

1986: England 0-0 Morocco (Ray Wilkins gets sent off)

1990: England 0-0 Netherlands

1998: England 1-2 Romania

2002: England 1-0 Argentina (the Beckham penalty)

2006: England 2-0 Trinidad & Tobago

Overall: P12 w6 D3 L3 F13 A5 (so that’s less than a goal a game)

11 Lions expects (and really, really wants!) an England win, although it may not be the landslide that some fans seem to be expecting. Having said that, a convincing win would be just what the doctor ordered and would set us up nicely for the last group game next Wednesday.

We’ll have some kind of reaction either late tomorrow night or on Saturday morning, although after a hellish work week Saturday lunchtime might be a more realistic option. Enjoy the game…and spare a thought for the French.

Only joking!

Premiership Preview: Steven Gerrard’s Mystery Injury

It’s early November and we’re still another seventh months until the tournament starts but I must admit that the injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Steven Gerrard are beginning to worry me. According to Radio 5, Gerrard hasn’t trained for two weeks and Ferdinand’s overall fitness this season may have contributed to some of his indifferent performances when he has appeared for Manchester United. Still, it’s probably better to be injured now and we’re not the only country with a problem: I strongly suspect that Fernando Torres’ injury is probably more serious than either of theirs.

No doubt about the game of the weekend: Chelsea v Manchester United on Sunday (Sky Sports 1), which – for a change - has been comfortably overtaken in the hype stakes by the Hay/Valuev fight this evening. Both teams go into this meeting having drawn in their respective Champions League games this week: United had to come back from two goals down at home to CSKA Moscow, whilst Chelsea drew 2-2 at Athletico Madrid. Both of them are through to the knockout stages.

In other news…Sir David Beckham will be rejoining Milan when the MLS season finishes, probably just as well for Milan who are currently nine points behind leaders Juventus…’loveable rogue’ Austin ‘Jack’  Warner is playing up about a handbag…and I’m going to post this before IE decides to hang again.

Finally, we’re going to be trying something different next Saturday – if you click on the 11lionslive link above, you’ll be taken to our live blog page where we’ll be attempting to cover the England v Brazil friendly as well as the UEFA playoffs. Should be another post up early next week with squad details, so for now enjoy the rest of the weekend and thanks for reading.

Premiership Preview

Has to be a quick one this weekend due to the imminent arrival of most of wife’s family for lunch, then I’m straight off to a game in the Championship. Last weekend I managed to watch no football whatsoever due to a family gathering and a wedding (‘Likely Lads’ moment: I was the guest with the mobile phone looking at score updates from Liverpool/Man U during the speeches), so I’m looking forward to this weekend, especially Ajax v Feyenoord tomorrow lunchtime (ESPN)

It’s about an hour or so to go before the lunchtime game: Arsenal v Spurs (12:45pm, Sky Sports 1) looks a tasty one, Arsenal have won all four of their home league games this season and Spurs have a decent away record; the rest of today’s slate is notable for the players that are missing. Johnson and Gerrard won’t feature in Liverpool’s game at Fulham and Rio Ferdinand is doubtful for the Manchester United v Blackburn game (5:15pm ESPN).

Couple of random thoughts to finish with: Fabio Cappello called Michael Owen his ‘tormentor’ during the week and he’s right as Owen presents a particular problem. He can still score important goals but occasionally his overall contribution is negligible; scoring a goal against Barnsley in the Carling Cup is not the same as delivering the goods in the World Cup finals but I wouldn’t bet against Owen getting a place if one of the strikers higher up the England pecking order gets an injury that rules them out of the tournament.

Ashley Cole won’t be in the Chelsea team at the Reebok; this means he could stay at home and watch his omnipresent wife on that talent show she’s on…but how terrible/hilarious would it be if John & Edward  – and it may not matter that they are Irish – ended up doing the official World Cup song? Perhaps Peter Crouch could be persuaded to adapt their ‘hairstyle’ and maybe do a John Barnes style rap. Let’s get that rumour started on Twitter and Facebook immediately.

So there we go: a truly horrifying thought on Hallowe’en weekend.

Premiership Preview: The Clocks Go BACK

After a hectic weekend in European competition which didn’t go particularly well for some of the Premiership teams, we’re back to the bread and butter (or should that be the champagne and caviar) stuff. No doubt about this weekend’s biggest game: Liverpool v Manchester United on Sunday. Anyone tuning in to Sky Sports on Sunday afternoon wanting to watch some sort of epoch defining clash of the titans between Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney might be disappointed though: Gerrard limped off during Liverpool’s home defeat in the Champions League against Lyonand Rooney didn’t feature at all in United’s win in Moscow over CSKA.

There are five other games featuring multiple England stars: no surprise that all of them apart from Manchester City v Fulham are being televised. Coverage kicks off on Saturday lunchtime when Aston Villa travel to Wolves (12.45pm GMT Sky Sports 1), then ESPN has Chelsea v Blackburn at 5.30pm. On Sunday Liverpool/Man U is followed by West Ham v Arsenal but make sure you check the kick off times on Sunday as the clocks go back one hour in Britain.

That’s about it for this week, apart from a couple of updates: it’s probably fair to say that what Diego Maradona said to the press after the victory in Montevideo was pretty rude for live TV and probably sounded worse in vernacular Spanish than it did in translation. It’s also looking extremely likely that David Beckham will rejoin Milan after the MLS season finishes: Brian Glanville  (the elder statesman of British football writers) has some interesting things to say about Beckham’s position in the England team in November’s issue of World Soccer.

Thanks for reading, enjoy your weekend…and remember to re-set anything that tells you what time it is!

A Big Day Around The World

By the end of the weekend, we’ll probably have a much better idea of who will joining the countries who have already qualified for South Africa, who will be in the play offs and which (if any) of the major footballing powers will be watching England on TV. Here’s a quick guide to the various scenarios that will be played out around the world today:

EUROPE

Group 1: wide open. Denmark have a three point lead at the time of writing this, but they play second place Sweden this evening; Portugal
play Hungary so this situation is very fluid could all change by tomorrow morning.

Group 2: See Group 1. Leaders Switzerland have an easy looking game in Luxembourg, but the key game today is probably Greece v Latvia. If that finishes in a draw and Israel beat bottom place Moldova then there’s a three way tie for second place going into Wednesday’s games.

Group 3: Slovakia have a five point lead, if they draw today they go through but their game is against second place Slovenia, who will be desperate to hang on for a point. Northern Ireland don’t have
a game today but will be keeping a close eye on the Czech Republic v Poland game.

Group 4: either Germany or Russia, they play each other today in Moscow. In an ideal world this one would be the one I’d be watching.

Group 5: Spain are already through, so this is a race for second between Bosnia & Turkey. Bosnia – away in Estonia –  have a four point advantage going into the last two games; Turkey have a tricky looking game in Belgium.

Group 6: Croatia look likely to go to the Play offs as Ukraine must beat England to stand any chance of coming second

Group 7: Serbia are guaranteed a play off place and will win the group if they beat Romania; France could still theoretically win the group,
they’ve got the Faroe Islands this evening in one of those games that France will probably win 1-0 with a goal in the tenth minute of injury time!

Group 8: Italy are already guaranteed a play off place, so Ireland need a
win to stand any chance of autoqualification. If Ireland lose in Dublin and Bulgaria beat Cyprusthen the battle for second place would go to Wednesday night. Breaking news yesterday was Fabio Cannavaro failing a drugs test having taken some kind of cortisone shot for a bee sting; he’s travelled to Dublin with the Italian squad but won’t be allowed to play tonight.

SOUTH AMERICA

Two automatic places and a play off place left. Chile and Ecuador are currently in the automatic places with Argentina in the play off spot. That’s the simple part: Chile should be able to tie up one of the automatic places although they may have to wait until next week (they play
in Colombia this evening), but there are only three points difference between Ecuador (currently fourth) and Colombia (currently eighth), which means that the Colombia/Chile and Ecuador/Uruguay games are likely to have a bigger impact on the remaining automatic places than Argentina v Peru, which is a game that Argentina must (and probably will) win.

Outside Europe and South America…

The Ivory Coast can qualify with a win in Malawi …the first leg of Bahrain/New Zealand qualifier takes place today…if El Salvador beat Mexico tonight and the United States win in Honduras tomorrow morning, the USA will qualify.

In case you’re having trouble keeping track of the important stuff, here’s the timeline we’ll be following so we can attempt (and ‘attempt’ is a very important concept!) to bring you updates on Twitter – all times GMT:

13:00 Malawi v Ivory Coast
15:45 Switzerland v Luxembourg
16:00 Russia v Germany
17:00 Estonia v Bosnia & Herzegovina
17:15 Ukraine v England
18:00 Bulgaria v Cyprus
19:00 Denmark v Sweden
19:30 Serbia v Romania
19:45 Belgium v Turkey
20:00 Israel v Moldova, France v Faroe Islands, Ireland v Italy
20:45 Portugal v Hungary
23:00 Colombia v Chile, Ecuador v Uruguay, Argentina v Brazil, El Salvador v Mexico

It’s a shame that not everyone will be able to watch our game today, but it’s a chance to appreciate our early qualification, to enjoy an exciting day of international football and to look forward to the prospect of South Africa 2010.

Evening All!

Firstly, apologies that we’ve missed a couple of weeks on the Premiership front due to obligations elsewhere but as England have their last qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup coming up and it would be missing the point of the entire blog for to ignore them, we’re back for a two part preview of the qualifiers that are taking place all over the world over the next week or so.

Our squad for the games v Ukraine and Belarus and was announced after the last round of Premiership games and – as widely expected – some of the so-called ‘fringe’ players were called up. Rather than just posting a list, we’ll go through the changes position by position.

Robert Green retains his place amongst the keepers, but is joined by David James of Portsmouth and Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who is currently on loan at Birmingham City. Paul Robinson withdrew from the squad with a hip injury, but for want of a better expression, Ben Foster of Manchester United has been dropped. His form has been pretty erratic this season to say the least.

Better news for another United player as Rio Ferdinand has returned to the squad after injury but Joleon Lescott was forced to withdraw with a hip injury and Bolton’s Gary Cahill has been called up once again. We’re not in the business of trying to second guess Fabio Capello here, but it would be a really good idea to give Cahill an opportunity in either or both of the forthcoming games.

In midfield Ashley Young and Theo Walcott have not been selected and up front Gabriel Agbonglahor of Aston Villa replaces Jermain Defoe, who is currently suffering from what sounds like a really painful hand injury. We’ll try to bring you the starting line up when it’s announced.

There are also a couple of bits of controversy to report on, one short term and rather annoying, the one long term and potentially more damaging.

Actually watching the game against Ukraine on Saturday might be problematic as it’s being offered on a subscription basis. From what we’ve read and heard this issue was caused by the collapse of Setanta earlier this year – as it’s an away game, the broadcasting rights belong to the host nation and so any decision regarding those rights is solely that of the Ukrainian FA. On the one hand, it’s a massive inconvenience for England fans and the FA ought to do everything in their power to prevent this situation from happening again, but on the other hand over the past couple of years it’s been possible to watch both baseball and American football on the internet. With the advent of Sky Player, Sky Sports is now available on the web; without wanting to sound like we’re encouraging anyone to give more cash to Rupert Murdoch, live sport online is definitely the way forward, although we think it’s better as an alternative – rather than the only – option. We’re currently unaware of any plans to stream games next year, but it’s something that we’ll investigate.

Lastly, CONCACAF president Austin ‘Jack’ Warner decided to make some less than positive comments about the 2018 bid to bring the World Cup Finals to England; to be honest…well, let’s leave it at that. It goes without saying that we support the bid and that if the real Jack Warner (the one who played PC George Dixon in the classic BBC police drama ‘Dixon Of Dock Green’) was still alive, we’re pretty sure he would support it as well.

Next post will either be tomorrow or early Saturday as we’ll outline some of the scenarios facing some of our traditional international rivals, in particular what may turn out to be the final days of one Diego Armando Maradona as manager of Argentina…

Thanks for reading!

Weekend Preview

It’ll have to be a quick one I’m afraid: Spurs v Man United was a great game, with a goal after 47 seconds and a United comeback. Unfortunately Man City v Arsenal will be remembered for Emmanuel Adebayor’s pathetic behaviour; Togo still have a slim chance of qualifying for South Africa (they have to win in Cameroon on 9th October and hope Morocco win in Gabon) so if you’re a fan of running almost the whole length of the pitch to take the mick out of the fans of your former club and stamping on the head of one of your ex-team mates then you might still be in for a treat.

The Saturday evening game on EPSN is Liverpool v West Ham, which will be of interest to England fans as five of the current squad will be featured, but from an England perspective the one game in the Premiership stands out this weekend: Man United v Man City. Nine current England of the most recent squad should be on show in classic local derby plus quite a few players from other countries that could feature in South Africa, although at the time of writing it’s not clear if Carlos Tevez will be playing for City…just as it’s not clear if he will be playing for Argentina in the World Cup. Lunchtime kick off on Sunday on Sky Sports 1 for that one.

Following the Manchester derby it’s an all London clash with Chelsea v Spurs, that – happily for England fans – should feature both Ashley and Joe Cole(I was going to write both Coles there, but I believe Cheryl has other commitments), the latter of whom made his first appearance in eight months in the Champions League game v FC Porto during the week. Messers Crouch, Defoe, Lampard, Lennon and Terry should also be involved.

We try not to make too many rash predictions here, but with the kind of hype surrounding the Manchester derby that’s been going on this week we wouldn’t be too surprised if a certain Manchester United striker (who had a bit of a strop in Turkey this week when he got subbed)  gets into some kind of trouble tomorrow. We hope not, but if he does, we’ll have the details here.