Can Walcott Finally Be England’s Main Man?

With a little over three weeks to go until a rare local derby, guest blogger Pete South wonders if Theo Walcott can shine in Cardiff – and identifies one of Walcott’s biggest fans.

Those studying the online sportsbook will note that being selected for a World Cup isn’t always necessarily a good thing, while being dropped can also have its benefits.

Wayne Bridge, caught up in the eye of a storm as tabloids exposed the comings and goings of ex-team mate John Terry and his former girlfriend Vanessa Perroncel, decided to rule himself out of Fabio Capello’s squad for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Lampooned as he was lamented for his decision, sports betting pundits note how Bridge had the last laugh as he stood back and watch England burn to the ground.

Conversely Theo Walcott’s selection for the 2006 tournament has gone down in history alongside a despairing Rob Greene fumble or  a  Wayne Rooney stamp as one of the biggest aberrations in English football in recent years.

Sven Goran Eriksson took the young winger with him to Germany at the expense of Jermaine Defoe and promptly left him out of every single game. To add to his World Cup woes, Fabio Capello didn’t include him in his squad for South Africa as his form deteriorated towards the end of last season.

Both decisions involving Walcott affected the young winger, his club boss Arsene Wenger concurs, and as yet he has been unable to showcase his undoubted talent at international level

Is he ready to finally leave his mark on England as they look to recover the aura that slipped so badly during the farce in South Africa? The upcoming qualifier against Wales could provide the perfect opportunity for the former Southampton man.

He has impressed sporadically for England, most notably his hat-trick against Croatia in the World Cup qualifying campaign, but his omission from the world Cup squad in 2010 began a series of hurtful insights into his ability.

TV pundit Alan Hansen was ruthless in his assessment of Walcott, suggesting he lacked a “footballing brain”, and was more akin to a sprinter than a footballer.

It is the curse of the modern English winger that pace and dribbling ability cannot be married with a decent final ball – Aaron Lennon and Adam Johnson suffer as Walcott does – but Walcott is the only one of the three who has been marked as the next big thing for England since a young age, the emphasis is on him.

His performance against Barcelona in Arsenal’s first leg Champions League tie was fairly typical. Some malice, some dangerous running, but he cut inside too often, refused to take his man on and most frustratingly of all, failed to put in a final ball against a side that Lionel Messi admitted they were worried about.

“Barcelona players are not scared easily but I can tell you that when we played Arsenal last season he truly worried us” the current Ballon D’Or holder said and it is a source of constant frustration that he is unable to replicate the form that saw him terrorise the Catalan club at the same stage last year.

But he has matured this season and looks to be learning his craft – something which can be said of the entire Arsenal team as they look for their first trophy since 2005. His seven goals so far is a good return for a wide-man, and with Arsenal still in with a chance of winning four trophies this year, big things are expected of him.

If England can find the best way to utilise him and extract all the talent from his right foot then they will have a very dangerous prospect on their hands. He is still young and learning, but sooner rather than later he must prove he is the man for England or face getting left behind. He is good enough, players of Lionel Messi’s calibre do not dish out praise at will, but now is the time, when England need him most, to show he is a world class talent.

England Face Tough Task At Sold-Out Millennium Stadium

Guest blogger Pete South takes a look at the forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifier with our local rivals…

Online sports betting pundits will be aware that England’s goal of qualifying for the European Championships in 2012 will get under way in earnest next month as they come up against their toughest challenge.

The Welsh, in another stage of transition, won’t offer the same resistance as Montenegro did in their last qualifier on the pitch, where a 1-1 draw was all they could muster, but their secret weapon is loaded and ready to fire.

Those studying sportsbook online note how  a packed Millennium Stadium will be an intimidating obstacle for Fabio Capello’s men to overcome as they look to finally put their failed World Cup campaign behind them.  Martin Johnson’s rugby team recently experienced the full force of the Welsh crowd, and Capello could do worse than making a quick phone call to find out what to expect.

“Being an Englishman this weekend in Cardiff means you aren’t the most popular” Johnson said after the game, and it is something their footballing counterparts will have to contend with.

But, England not only need to overcome the partisan Welsh crowd, but excel on the pitch.

The Italian will know a successful won’t be enough this time around to convince the nation that they are a side ready to win the competition, fingers have been burned from last time around. No, they must offer more than just winning if they are to win over English supporters.

The signs are good however. Their 2-1 friendly win against Denmark earlier this month represented a shift in attitude towards the much maligned friendly. Despite the constant switch of captains and a steady flow of substitutions, England achieved what most thought impossible – they managed to take some positives away from the game.

Denmark were a genuine test. If not the most technically gifted they pressured England and put together some fluent attacks, mostly through the gifted Christian Erikson. But the emergence of Jack Wilshere and Ashley Young’s success in a central role means Capello has genuine variation in his attack for the remainder of the qualification games, something which was lacking previously. If the form of Wayne Rooney is still a worry for the former Juventus boss, then the goal scoring prowess of Darren Bent and his connection with Villa team-mate Young will appease him somewhat.

New Welsh manager Gary Speed faces his first home match in charge against possibly the toughest task he will face as Welsh manager. Three losses from their first three matches, which spelt the end for previous manager John Toshack, mean their chances of qualification are all but over. England will have to be mindful of a Welsh side with only one thing to play for, one thing they care most about. Beating the English.

England End Their ‘Annus Horribilis’

Only a couple of weeks until Christmas: then we’ll be celebrating the arrival of 2011 and hoping that – in football terms at least – England’s performances will be better than they were in 2010. Guest blogger Richard Smith looks back at 2010 – a memorable year for all the wrong reasons.

There will be plenty of England fans happy to see the end of 2010, which really has been an ‘annus horribilis’ for them, for manager, Fabio Capello and his England squad, who of course ended their year with a Wembley defeat against a rejuvenated and possibly resurgent France.

That defeat followed the goalless draw against Montenegro, who now tops the Euro 2012 Group G table ahead of England and could seriously jeopardise the England chances of automatic qualification in the Autumn of 2011.

The year started of course on a much more optimistic note with the England team having already safely negotiated their qualifying group to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa. An excellent 3-1 win over Egypt in March, who had just been crowned African Nations Champions, saw the team in great form, despite going a goal down in the first half. Two second half goals from Peter Crouch and one from Shaun Wright-Phillips, rescued the situation and England looked good value for their win.

They followed that up with another 3-1 victory, this time over fellow World Cup hopefuls, Mexico, in May with Crouch getting on the scoresheet once again with further goals coming from defenders, Ledley King and Glen Johnson. Confidence clearly ran high with the World Cup just over two weeks or so away.

A trip to Austria was the next stop, where they played an exhibition/friendly against Japan, winning narrowly by just 2-1, thanks to two own goals. It was a poor performance overall and extremely untimely being their last match before coming up against the USA in their opening World Cup fixture.

We all of course know what happened in that match, England skipper Steven Gerrard scored ‘early doors’ but things went downhill rapidly from thereon. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but worse followed as they were also held 0-0 by rank World Cup outsiders, Algeria which left them needing to win their final match against Slovenia in order to qualify for the Knock Out stages.

In one of the tensest games in the World Cup, England hung on by a thread to win 1-0 after going into an early lead with a goal scored by the lively Jermaine Defoe. It was a mind numbing performance, which met with a scathing media and fan reaction, with many calling for the head of Capello even at that stage. The fact that England failed to win the group meant that they would face old rivals, Germany in the last 16, who were already proving their World Cup pedigree by winning their group.

The match of course was a disaster for England, losing 1-4 being forced home from the tournament early to huge derision and for many of the players as well as the manager uncertain futures in international football.

The back of a bus

The World Cup campaign was not helped by the John Terry scandal earlier in the season, which eventually cost him the captaincy and worsened when a last minute injury to replacement captain, Rio Ferdinand ruled him out of the tournament altogether. Steven Gerrard was then given the armband, somewhat onerously as Terry had kept his place in the team and who, on more than one occasion, became the team’s spokesman. This led to speculation concerning team morale which Capello did his utmost to deny.

Whatever the reason, the World Cup dream turned into the nightmare many had feared it would, but for reasons of financial prudence, Capello kept his job and began to rebuild the team ahead of the Euro 2012 qualifiers.

After defeating Hungary by 2-1 in a friendly at Wembley, the England team, put on one of their best ever performances under Capello to defeat Bulgaria by 4-0 in their opening qualifier, with Defoe superb, scoring his first England hat trick. Newcomer, Adam Johnson of Manchester City also made the score sheet.

A follow up qualifying win was efficiently earned against Switzerland in Basel by 3-1, goals this time being scored by Wayne Rooney, Adam Johnson and Darren Bent. England looked a very solid team again and looked at this point certain to win the group. However, then came the Montenegro debacle, followed by the friendly defeat by France and now England must wait until March to redeem the situation in what could be an explosive match at the Millennium Stadium against Wales.

Wales will be the first opponents of 2011 and will be no pushovers on home soil but if England are to silence their critics after a nothing short of disastrous past 12 months then a win together with a good performance is essential as the next 12 months could well prove pivotal for the future of the England football team.

UPDATE: First England fixture of 2011 will be against Denmark in Copenhagen on Wednesday 9th February 2011.

Capello Keen To Give Youth A Chance

After allowing the slow and uncharacteristically wasteful Gareth Barry to embarrass himself for 90 minutes rather than introducing the exciting and talented youngster Jack Wilshere to kick start a stagnant game, Fabio Capello should have expected some criticism to be fired in his direction this week after the Montenegro game. Anyone who’d placed a football bet on England to win would have been frustrated by the decision.

Having said that, it’s important to look on the optimistic side of the situation, and Capello’s decision to use upcoming friendlies to provide England’s youngsters with the chance to shine is an obvious positive. The manager keen to find out which players need more time to develop their game domestically before they are going to be fully ready to compete in the international fold.

With the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand already creaking, and seasoned veterans Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard unable to play on forever, Capello is well positioned to blood young talent and shape the next generation of the side. After all, the Betfair Football betting  makes the side strong favourites to qualify for Euro 2012, so why not give some upcoming stars a chance?

Given that players such as Kieran Gibbs, Andy Carroll, and Joe Hart are already playing on a regular basis for their club sides, the future of English football is beginning to look brighter than some thought possible after a World Cup that saw the England team return home in disgrace after failing to live up to the high hopes that fans and pundits had for them.

However, with the British press always looking at the here and now, Wilshere and co will know that, despite their tender age, they will be expected to jump in at the deep end successfully.

England – Thinking the Unthinkable about Euro 2012

Guest blogger Richard Smith takes a look at the aftermath of England’s goalless draw with Montenegro, which was a return to the depressing ‘form’ displayed in South Africa.

Fabio Capello was appointed head coach of the England football team on a salary that would dwarf even those paid to BBC TV presenters and which is aligned to a contract that rewards failure and success with a breathtaking equality, has surely been kept awake following England’s dismal display against Montenegroin their Group F qualifier at Wembley this week.

A sleepless night mixing both his English and Italian thoughts would have been all he had deserved for overseeing such an inept display from his team, who seemed not to have the first idea of how to get the better of a Montenegro team, cobbled together from a population of just 700,000 people.

The dire 0-0 scoreline means that Montenegro will head the group into the New Year and provide them with the confidence needed to, dare I say, win the group, something that will do if they carry on winning their remaining matches.

For England on the other hand, they must now, no doubt with some trepidation, face an away match in Podgorica on October 7th 2011 for the final qualifying game! This should provide an opportunity for Capello’s side to redress the situation, knowing that anything other than a win should, if everything in life was fair, disallow them from re-entry back into England.

England fans will be hoping that the Three Lions will have already booked their place in Poland and Ukraine for the European Championship by the time the time the team travel to Montenegro but nothing is that predictable with England. The same was said ahead of Croatia’s visit to Wembley prior to the final group game of qualification for Euro 2008 and we know what happened there…

Of course it is unthinkable that England will not qualify for Euro 2012, but it was also unthinkable about any other team topping the England Group in the recent World Cup. England fans are becoming used to the unthinkable and Fabio Capello is beginning to realise why.

Montenegro, who has only been a recognised football nation since 2007, play a tidy game of football, at a pace that was slow at its fastest and almost still at it’s slowest. Their players all know how to pass the ball and know that creating options for those passes are the key to denying the opposition possession – nothing complicated about that at all. However, it became frustratingly obvious as the match went on, that England were baffled by both the pace of the match coupled with the Montenegrin passing game, so much so that when they were in possession themselves, they seemed to forget that they usually play their Premier League games at breakneck speed, which is the traditional hallmark of England’s football culture.

It would be easy to blame the result on the lack of a full squad, but England’s team was made up from some of the most expensive players in the world. They all play for teams in the higher echelon of the Premier League, less maybe Kevin Davies, who came on as substitute for Peter Crouch, who had possibly his worse performance to date in an England shirt. There is simply no excuse at all. They visit Wales for their next qualifier in March next year, a team who have virtually been eliminated from the competition losing badly to Switzerland. However, if England thinks that they are going to have an easy time of it at the Millennium Stadium, then they should quickly rethink – or could it be that the unthinkable will happen again!

Maximum points from Switzerland’s visit to Wembley, followed by a trip to Bulgaria before the final home game against Wales should be enough to secure qualification before the final game, with the addition that Montenegro drop points at some stage. However, a winner takes all scenario cannot be ruled out.

With the other three teams in Group G trailing behind, it now appears a two horse race for the one place in the finals and bookmakers still hold the opinion that it’s England’s to lose, offering odds of 1/6 about them winning the group still – the price unaffected by this week’s result. The same confidence is not evident in the latest Euro 2012 odds for which England have been eased out to 10/1 to win their first European Championship and based on Tuesday’s performance; would-be punters are probably best waiting to have a few patriotic pounds on the unthinkable happening in June 2012 with the price of victory only likely to head in one direction based on recent evidence!

If you’re interested in becoming a guest blogger for 11 Lions, please contact either Jerry (at) 11lions (dot) co (dot) uk or Mike (at) 11lions (dot) co (dot) uk. Please send some links to other posts you’ve had published and a brief outline of the type of article you’d like to submit – our only request is that it should be about England players/managers/games. For more details see our About page.

Didn’t He Write Music For Westerns?

We’ve got a big game tonight, against the undefeated group leaders. So what do we know about Montenegro?

It’s another one of those places that used to be part of a country that no longer exists – it’s been independent a number of times but always seems to be swallowed up by bigger neighbours: Venice, the Ottoman Empire and finally Yugoslavia – the reason that we call the country Montenegro is because that’s what the Venetians named it, although the locals use ‘Crna Gora’ which also means ‘Black Mountain’.

It’s a tiny place – 2/3rds the size of Wales with a slightly bigger population than Leeds – and finally became independent in May 2006; the following month Serbia & Montenegro took part in the World Cup in Germany but lost all three first round games. The Montenegrin national team has only been active since March 2007 and is currently managed by Niko Krancjar’s dadZlatko.

So basically we’re playing one of those countries that are capable of producing decent players, but to think of them as some kind of emerging power would be completely wrong. Their recent win in Bulgaria was only their second victory outside Montenegro since October 2007 and they’ve lost five of their last ten away games – in the last year they’ve drawn in Dublin and lost to Macedonia and Norway which seems to me to be a far better indicator of what sort of a team they are. Apart from Italy, they’ve not faced any heavyweight international opponents…stop giggling at the back please. We are international heavyweights – we regularly get beaten in the final stages of tournaments, not in the group stages. So there.

The team that beat Switzerland in Podgorica on Friday is what you might expect. None of the starting eleven play in Montenegro; with the exception of Branko Boskovic (who plays for DC United in the USA) the rest of the players are spread around Europe: only Simon Vukcevic (Sporting Lisbon) and captain Mirko Vucinic (Roma) play for Champions League/Europa League standard teams.

Apart from John Terry and Darren Bent having to sit out, Fab has a pretty much full strength squad to call on. Rio Ferdinand’s return from the injury that kept him out of the World Cup is good news, although you don’t always know if he’s going to be thinking about fast cars, record companies and lifestyle magazines when he should be thinking about defending. Ferdinand’s presence might be able to inspire Wayne Rooney, who still looks out of sorts – although his circumstances are purely his own fault and I’ve got no sympathy for him at all.

Now it’s prediction time: we’ve got an 11 game winning streak going at Wembley (undefeated in the last fourteen), so it’s going to be tough for Montenegro. It sounds bleedin’ obvious, but the Montenegrins have done well away from home when they’ve stopped the opposition scoring but as we’ve scored an average of 2.9 goals per game at Wembley in recent games, we probably playing them at the right time. I can see them getting at least one goal though (we’ve not kept consecutive clean sheets at home for three years) but England ought to win this one.

If Vucinic scores, he’s promised to repeat his goal celebration that got him a booking last week: I think if I’d scored a goal against England I’d run around with my shorts on my head as well! I’m sure that the ITV commentators have been scraping the bottom of  their cliche barrels in order to come up with dreadful puns: my money’s on ‘that REALLY WAS pants defending from England!’

Or if it’s a tight game with a late England goal from Rooney: ‘He’s the man who broke the back of Montenegro!’

That’ll do.

Should Darren Bent start at Wembley?

Thanks to guest blogger Thomas Rooney for this thought provoking article – which we completely agree with!

Darren Bent is one man who certainly doesn’t let criticism or controversy affect him easily, which is good because he’s had a fair amount of it sent in his direction during his career. Remember Harry Redknapp’s jibe when Bent missed a sitter whilst at Spurs? Remember Fabio Capello overlooking him for the World Cup squad despite a successful season with Sunderland? Luckily for fans of the Black Cats, Bent seems to take each setback in his stride and appears to have a burning desire to prove his critics wrong.

The latest snub was fired in his direction by Capello this week, when the England boss stated that Bent is a player for “the future”. At the age of 26, with many years of Premier League experience under his belt, the player could be forgiven for reacting with anger or contempt towards the England boss. However, the player has reacted in his usual manner, laughing off the comment and simply hoping that perhaps it means he will now be given an extended chance in the England set-up.

With this in mind, should he start at Wembley next week? His goal scoring tally at domestic level speaks for itself and he has five league goals to his name already this season. His achievements are even more remarkable because no one would make Sunderland betting tipsto win the league. He also scored his first goal for England in their victory over Switzerland last month. Surely what the player needs now is an extended run in the England side, to see how he can fit in alongside players such as Wayne Rooney, who is one individual with a lot to prove this week in front of an expectant Wembley crowd. After all, England are most people’s football tips to win the game comfortably, so someone will need to provide the goals.

With Peter Crouch seemingly distracted by off-field issues similar to those affecting Rooney, now could be the time for Bent to prove that he boasts the consistency and reliability that could make him a mainstay in the England set-up for many years to come.

So come on Capello, give Bent a chance!

When The Morning Skies Grow Red…

Right, we’ve got the usual tabloid nonsense out the way for this week (presumably Wayne will be taking  some chocolate back to Coleen in Manchester to make amends for his ‘indiscretion’ although it’s probably just as well that duty free cigarettes have been abolished) so on with the football.

Group G is already looking good (we won and Wales shot themselves in the foot yet again) and although the reporter on the BBC lunchtime news thinks this is our toughest group game, I’m going to be a bit controversial and suggest otherwise – Switzerland haven’t been doing particularly well at home and their World Cup win over eventual champions Spain was a fluke (check the stats at the bottom of the page) rather than an exhibition of how good they are at football. In fact, they featured in arguably the worst game of the entire tournament: the 0-0 draw with Honduras was far worse than our game against Algeria.

In fact, Switzerland haven’t won at home since last September when they beat Greece 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier. In the six games since then they’ve lost three and although one of those defeats was a 1-3 loss to Uruguay in March, they’ve not exactly been up against the best teams in Europe.

Making matters worse for them is the fact that we’ve won six our seven games in Switzerland since World War II and our only defeat was almost 30 years ago in a World Cup qualifier; the strange thing is, on paper the Swiss team ought to be much better. Eleven of the current squad play in the domestic Super League, although it may be significant that none of them play for current leaders Luzern. The rest play in Germany, Italy and France – which isn’t a bad mixture, but they don’t have a particularly good tournament record and they may have to go through the playoffs if we pick up three points tomorrow, which is what I’m expecting.

Man Underperforms But Keeps Job (Part 1)

The only real alternative was Roy Hodgson, who…ummm… got ‘lucky’ when he was appointed Liverpool manager yesterday. Despite dropping hints here, there and everywhere while working as a media pundit during the World Cup, Harry Redknapp isn’t the right person for the job at all – let’s see how he gets on in the Champions League before going in that direction. So Fab continues as England manager, probably because he’s too expensive to get rid of. I believe the expression is ‘Golden Handcuffs’.

We’ve got three Euro 2012 qualifiers before the middle of October: Bulgaria at home on September 3rd, Switzerland away the following Tuesday and then Montenegro at home on October 12th. The first of those games comes three games into the Premiership season; the friendly against Hungary is three days before the Premiership kicks off, so the week following the Community Shield between Man U and Chelsea. So it’s anyone’s guess who is going to be in the squad for that game. I’d volunteer but it’s my mum’s birthday the week before, I’m far too old and I’m also eligible for another international team from the British Isles I want to keep my options open 😉

Last thing today: Jerry and I had discussed who we’d like to win the World Cup. Needless to say – and I’m writing this just after the second half of Ghana v Uruguay has begun – my choice is already out. Jerry’s choice is still in the competition, but I’m only going to tell you who he likes if they win. Unless he wants to tell you himself of course…