Capello Excuses Wearing Thin After Draw Against Switzerland

Regular guest blogger Richard Smith doesn’t pull any punches with his appraisal the current state of the senior squad – we’ll have a preview of the Under 21s posted on Saturday morning.

The situation in the England football camp appears to be worsening by the day with manager, Fabio Capello, coming under increasing pressure, more so than he has ever known before.

The Italian’s comments regarding the tiredness of the English players being responsible for their less than lacklustre performance in their 2-2 Euro 2012 Qualifier draw against Switzerland at Wembley at the weekend has invited the wrath of the media. There have been various negative responses including the suggestion that the ‘tiredness excuse’ would have been better applied to the fact that the players were tired of him and the media and fans are tired of his excuses. The draw against the Swiss was also the fourth game running at Wembley that the England team has failed to win.

Certainly to only draw against a Swiss side who they defeated easily in the reverse fixture last year is a potential setback to automatic qualification. However, their next match is in September, against an improving Bulgarian team in Sofia, which if they should lose will put them in deep trouble, particularly so if Montenegro defeat Wales on the same day.

The big problem Capello has when he blames the performance on tiredness is the simple fact that should England qualify for the European Championships, then tiredness will be a huge factor again as that tournament comes at the end of the domestic season like every other major international football tournament. He is paid £6m pounds per year to find remedies for this problem not to provide excuses which is something he appears not to understand.

Understanding of a different kind is another probable reason why England are failing to produce the level of performance that is expected. Capello has simply not picked up the English language as well as others have from his country. He is almost impossible to understand when conducting media interviews; a fact that makes the mind boggle when thought is given to how he actually conveys his match instructions to the players. Leaving the fans to wonder just how much of his strategy is Lost in Translation?

In the wake of this setback, there have been further rumours of squad unrest with yet another player, Peter Crouch, apparently ready to quit international football. This has prompted FA Director of Football Development Sir Trevor Brooking to lambast the players who want to ‘throw in the international towel’ but he must know that there is a big problem within the set up and perhaps he would be better to clarify the reasons before ‘pointing the finger’. Crouch in fact did not even make the substitutes bench against Switzerland!

The real reason why England could only draw against Switzerland was the fact that they played poorly, lost concentration in defence and failed to take their chances. That all adds up to a player/team/manager problem and not one of exhaustion!

Despite the current plight, bookmakers are still confident that the Three Lions will win Group G, making them astonishingly short favourites at 1/7 to qualify for Poland and Ukraine in twelve months time. They sit joint top alongside Montenegro who also have 11 points after five games but with two of the last three qualifiers on the road for Capello’s men, including a trip to Montenegro in the final game the odds of 5/1 about Montenegro topping the group come October make plenty of appeal for those punters happy to allow sense to prevail and overrule their patriotic heart. The odds on England winning Euro 2012 look even less appealing and it would be the most loyal of fans that are happy to take odds of 9/1 about England ending their 46 year wait for glory.

Accusations, Bribes – And There’s A Game On Too

After all this week’s nonsense, it’s time for a competitive game!

The situation at the top of Group G couldn’t be any tighter – we’re top of the group on goal difference from Montenegro, who face Bulgaria at home after we’ve finished against Switzerland.

Let’s start with a sanity warning here. This is not going to be an easy game: Switzerland have only lost two of their last ten ‘true’ away games (I’m deliberately not going to count the games in the 2010 World Cup as they were played at neutral venues) and although they’ve had problems scoring outside Switzerland, they’ve kept clean sheets in half of those matches.

We’ve never lost to Switzerland at home and tomorrow would be a very bad time to start, especially as two of our last three qualifiers are away games in Montenegro and Bulgaria. The Montenegrins also have to travel (to Wales and Switzerland) but the pressure on them isn’t the same way as it is with us – this was a group we were supposed to easily qualify from but all credit goes to Zlatko Kranjčar and his team for not allowing that to happen; a competitive qualifying group also introduces a healthy sense of reality into the procedings for a change.

The one big advantage we have is that there are goals throughout the side – although the Spud Faced Nipper will be missing tomorrow (too many yellow cards), it’s worth pointing out that he hasn’t scored at Wembley since the 5-1 win over Croatia in September 2009. If Peter Crouch can return to the type of form he showed before the World Cup I’d expect him to get on the scoresheet.

The Swiss squad contains a few familiar faces – Johan Djourou, Phillipe Senderos and Valon Behrami (now at Fiorentina) should be well known to fans of Premier League clubs – but coach Ottmar Hitzfeld doesn’t have any issues when it comes to including younger players in the senior side. Midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka (both FC Basel) are still in their teens, while the three recognised strikers are all under 23 years old – despite being only 22, Bayer Leverkusen’s Eren Derdiyok already has 31 caps.

Verdict: I honestly can’t see Switzerland winning tomorrow, but it’s important to remember that we’ve not beaten anyone at Wembley since the win over Bulgaria last September and the Swiss have only lost once (in Macedonia) in their four aways since the World Cup. I also can’t see Switzerland being able achieve a third consecutive away goalless draw but I think it’ll be closer than most people think. If I was a gambling man (stop laughing at the back please) I’d go for an England win in a low scoring game.

TV details are as follows: England v Switzerland is on ITV1 (so it might be an idea to dig out a radio just in case) but even though Montenegro’s game kicks off after ours, it’s only being broadcast ‘as live’ on ESPN in the UK at 11:45pm. However, if you can’t wait, there are some excellent online resources for live football scores that are an awful lot easier to use than waiting for Teletext updates used to be.

Result: England 2, Switzerland 2. Coming back from two goals down at home is better than nothing, but getting to that stage in the first place is an indictment of some very sloppy end of season defending. Fortunately Ivelin Popov equalised for Bulgaria in Montenegro, so we’re still top of the group. Next competitive game is in Bulgaria on Friday 2nd September.

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.

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!

Eight Wayne Rooney Themed Halloween Costumes

Got your attention, didn’t it!

To do list:
* Make a list of replacements for Capello
* Speculate on the latest sex scandals
* Write brief history of Montenegrin football
* Insert England squad for next game…I’ll do that first. So cut and pasted from

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster (Birmingham City), Robert Green (West Ham United), Joe Hart (Manchester City)

Defenders: Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), John Terry (Chelsea), Stephen Warnock (Aston Villa)

Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Joe Cole (Liverpool), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham Hotspur), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Peter Crouch (Tottenham Hotspur), Kevin Davies (Bolton Wanderers), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United

Instant reactions:

Seven of the 24 players in the squad come from clubs in the bottom half of the Premiership, four of them come from clubs currently in the bottom three.

The only team in the Premiership with a worse defensive record than West Ham is Blackpool. David James has let in fewer goals per league game this season than Robert Green – and believe me, that’s saying something.

Based on the current Premiership goalscoring chart, Kevin Davies and Darren Bent should start.

Harry Redknapp is still the favourite to replace Fab as England manager, but Ian Holloway could be worth a punt at 16/1 with William Hill. Best priced ‘foreigner’ is Martin O’Neill at 10/1 with Victor Chandler, they’re also offering odds for Steve Coppell and Gary Neville – but strangely enough not Alf Ramsay, Walter Winterbottom, Joe Mercer or Cheryl Cole.

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.

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.

Back To Business

OK, two proper games coming up – unusually, our opening game with Bulgaria is being played on a Friday night, presumably because the England squad don’t want to miss MK Dons v Hartlepool in League 1 on Saturday lunchtime. Let’s start with the squad:

Goalkeepers: Scott Carson (West Brom), Ben Foster (Birmingham), Joe Hart (Manchester City).

Defenders: Gary Cahill (Bolton), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Michael Dawson (Tottenham), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City), Matthew Upson (West Ham)

Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), James Milner (Manchester City), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Ashley Young (Aston Villa)

Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Carlton Cole (West Ham), Peter Crouch (Tottenham), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United).

* The goalkeeper situation for the next decade is basically Joe Hart and anyone who’s ever played goalkeeper before. Fab’s sudden realisation that Hart is the best keeper we’ve got is arguably six months too late and is a tacit admission that he made a mistake with his choices at the the World Cup. I’ll be amazed if either David James or Robert Green ever play for England again: Joe Hart could end up rivalling Peter Shilton in terms of talent and longevity.

* 16 players made the provisional 30 strong squad that was named before the World Cup; Darren Bent, Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott are back in contention after having missed the cut for the final 23 for South Africa. Personally I thought that either Johnson or Walcott should have gone to the World Cup and that Darren Bent didn’t really get a realistic chance to impress in the friendly against Japan – in retrospect, a game where the alarm bells really should have started ringing very loudly indeed.

* Of the players that didn’t decide to either retire or declare their permanent ineligibility after the World Cup, Joe Cole, Robert Green, Ledley King and Steven Warnock were all in the final World Cup squad but are missing this time. John Terry, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand (again) and Bobby Zamora are all missing for injury reasons, although rumours that Lampard is having psychological treatment aimed at persuading him never to take a penalty again are unfounded. Cole (J) is going to find it hard going to get back into the squad – his decision to move to a Liverpool team that already looks even more lacklustre than last season may have an adverse affect on his England chances.

* Why is anyone from West Ham still involved in the England team? Bottom of the Premiership already having scored one goal in three games and with a goal difference of -9. If Matt Upson and Carlton Cole were truly international standard players then they would have at least been linked to moves to Manchester City. The Hammers are worse than Wigan right now; perhaps Fab should give Chris Kirkland and Victor Moses a look before he announces the next squad.

Our record at home against Bulgaria is OK: they’ve never beaten us (home or away) but in our four games with them at Wembley we’ve won two. Our last win came in March 1996 – when Les Ferdinand scored the only goal – but the last time we played them competitively was in a 0-0 draw in October 1998 in a Euro 2000 qualifer.

I’ll take a look at Bulgaria later in the week but for those of you that can’t wait to find out some interesting facts about them, neither that bloke who looks like a werewolf or Dimitar Berbatov play for them any longer.

That bloke who looks like a werewolf.

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Are You Hungary For More?

Excuse the inevitable pun…the good news is that we’re still pretty formidable at home: nine straight wins, unbeaten since that game against Croatia in November 2007 and playing a country that hasn’t beaten us since the 1962 World Cup and hasn’t beaten us in England since that game in November 1953.

The bad news? This is a game we should win. Just like the game against Algeria during the World Cup, although to be fair to the Algerians the current FIFA rankings have the Desert Foxes thirty places above the current crop of slightly less than magical Magyars, but after this summer’s dismal failure anything might happen.

Having said that, the contrite atmosphere that has permeated the press conferences given by Fabio Capello and Steven Gerrard this week have been encouraging yet slightly depressing. Admitting that there were various problems with both the preparation and execution of the World Cup campaign is refreshing, but the comments that were coming from the England camp before the World Cup contradicted those statements. Attempting to put those things right in one game won’t work and – like most fans – I’ll be extremely wary if the expected romp through the Euro 2012 qualification group materialises. It shouldn’t be forgotten that half of the World Cup semi finalists had to qualify via the playoffs.

Then there are the withdrawals. I’ve already commented on Robinson and Brown and to some extent I sympathise with their points of view, but although it’s encouraging to see that Capello has called up Scott Loach and Frankie Fielding from the Under 21 squad as replacements, he didn’t really have much choice in the matter and I seriously doubt that they’ll get any playing time tomorrow.

Spare a thought for Hungary though. Despite their 1954 squad being widely acknowledged as one of the best teams never to have won the World Cup, they haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986, although the under 20s finished third in the 2009 World Cup for that age group. That team was coached by Sandor Egervari, who replaced Erwin Koeman as senior team manager at the end of July. Although there are several well known names amongst the Hungarians – four of the squad play in England and keeper Gabor Kiraly played for Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Burnley – the Hungarian league isn’t particularly good and it’s significant that only five of the twenty man squad play for domestic clubs. Kiraly is the most capped player in the current squad and any goals will come from either Zoltan Gera of Fulham or Tamas Priskin, who scored at the weekend for Ipswich Town.

Prediction: England to win and keep a clean sheet. Immediate post-match reaction tomorrow but it won’t be either an instant classic or have the same long term implications this game did, although after this summer’s shambles it could be argued we still haven’t learned the lessons from that foggy Wednesday afternoon in November 1953…