Pearce Ready For Battle

Thomas Rooney takes a look at England’s prospects in the UEFA U21 tournament, which started yesterday.

The domestic football season may well be over, but the serious stuff for England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce is just getting underway.

The former Manchester City boss leads England’s young guns in the European Under-21 Championships this month, starting with a game against tournament favourites Spain today.

Looking ahead positively to what the tournament can achieve for his players, Pearce has been discussing how his entire squad can get ‘better and better’ as the two weeks progress.

The former England international said: “The team that starts the tournament might not be as good as the team that finishes the tournament for us. I think they can get better and better as a group.”

This is of course the main objective of the Under-21 side – to prepare players for senior international football and major tournaments.

Two years ago for example, football betting pundits note how Joe Hart, James Milner, Adam Johnson and Theo Walcott were all involved in this Under-21 tournament and are not all set to be heavily involved in Fabio Capello’s plans for Euro 2012 next year.

Of the current squad, there are players with Premier League experience too and in comparing the two teams (2009 and 2011) Pearce can see the similarities when it comes to positive attributes.

He said: “The preparation’s probably been nigh on identical (to 2009), to be honest with you. The camaraderie with this group’s been fantastic. there have been a lot of players come to the party. I’m very buoyed up by it.”

Pearce is clearly enjoying his role within the England set-up right now and so he should. He gets the chance to help the most talented young footballers in the country progress their game. He is also involved in a position where results probably come second to progression of players.

This doesn’t mean England won’t want to win the tournament though. They lost in the final two years ago and Pearce in particular will want to put this right.

The winning mentality is a key factor to succeeding at international level and it would be beneficial if a group of young England players have a tournament victory under their belts.

In terms of England’s chances, they do go into the tournament as the No.1 ranked team in Europe and many people will place football bets on them being the team to beat. However, with Spain, Czech Republic and Ukraine to face in the group stages, they have a difficult path to the semi-finals.

However, if Pearce’s confidence in this team proves true, they have a very good chance of lifting a European trophy for England. Something the senior team will be aiming to do next summer.

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.

England remain cautiously optimistic ahead of Euros

Guest blogger Callum Dent takes a look at the England situation almost a year after the debacle in South Africa.

After the 4-1 defeat to Germany in South Africa which knocked England out of the World Cup, changes had to be made if the national team are to be a success at future major tournaments.

The Germans did Fabio Capello a favour. They showed him what happens when managers adopt players in form, use attacking and versatile formations and give youngsters to opportunity to shine on the big stage.
England were flat in SA and lacked everything that was needed to win a World Cup. Togetherness, flair, confidence and freedom were all absent and it showed as England scraped through to the knockout stages despite draws with Algeria and USA.

Since the World Cup, Capello has taken a leaf out of Joachim Low’s book and changed the approach to the England team. The Italian has selected players that are playing well for their domestic clubs and has used strategies that have made England look a more attractive prospect.

Despite Capello’s lack of commitment and communication, England have been improved following their nightmare World Cup, although they remain someway off free bet favourites Spain in terms of quality, and look like a team heading in the right direction once again.

The qualifier against Wales was a very good performance even if they were playing an out-of-depth and inexperienced Welsh side. The players picked adapted well to the situation and played like a team with confidence and freedom, which were non-existent in South Africa.

Capello chose Jack Wilshere and Scott Parker to form a new look midfield with Frank Lampard and it worked as England outmuscled, outthought and outplayed their Welsh counterparts. Aston Villa striker Darren Bent was given a chance and he took it, scoring a first half goal to set England on their way to a 2-0 victory at the Millennium Stadium.

England adopted a 4-3-3 setup and looked comfortable with Ashley Young proving to be an inspired selection on the wing. Capello has a young side that can be winners in the future and could be worth placing free bets on.

Younger players like Joe Hart, Andy Carroll, Wilshere, Gary Cahill, Young and Adam Johnson are all likely to play a huge part in the future of English football. With big players such as Steven Gerrard, Lampard and John Terry all close to coming to the end of their international careers, England look in capable hands.

Barry Handed England Captaincy

Pete South takes a look at some of tonight’s possible team changes before our first ever meeting with Ghana.

Manchester City’s Gareth Barry has been handed the England captaincy for the Friendly game against Ghana on Tuesday.

John Terry was controversially re-named as captain for the comfortable 2-0 victory over Wales on Saturday, but was released from his duties along with four other players involved in the upcoming Champions League quarter finals.

Barry was dropped for that game, with his replacement Scott Parker impressing in his absence, but the former Aston Villa midfielder will return to a much changed England side. England boss Fabio Capello believes he has made the right choice, despite coming in for some criticism for changing captain once more.

“Barry is a really good player, a good captain and he’s also the player with the most England caps in the squad now.” He commented.

Capello insists he is keen to avoid overkill as some of his squad potentially faced playing four games in ten days, but climbed down from his claim after the Wales match that he would make 11 changes for the Ghana game.

Some of the players have played a lot,” he said. “They should only play three games in eight days – I think four games in 10 days is too much. I respect the clubs and the players.”

“Joe Hart will play in goal, we will have Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka at centre-back and Leighton Baines will play at left-back. Barry will be the captain and Carroll will play up front.” He added.

Overall, Capello will make “about seven changes” to the line-up the helped England move back to the top of their European Championships qualifying group over the weekend, with only the services of Jack Wilshere, Joe Hart, Ashley Young and Scott Parker likely to be retained.
The Italian manager came in for criticism for his botched handling of the captaincy issue, and is still yet to speak to Rio Ferdinand about his decision to take the captain’s arm band from the Manchester United Shirt wearer and give it to Terry, who was initially stripped of the job because of accusations over an affair with a team-mate’s ex-fiancée.

Capello then faced a further grilling after vice-captain Stephen Gerrard revealed the former Real Madrid coach had spoken to him by phone over the captaincy issue, while insisting it would be inappropriate to contact Ferdinand in the same way.

“Rio was captain, so I must meet him. Steve is only vice-captain,” he said. I hope I will speak with Rio next week.”

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.

Chelsea v Man Utd: Looking Back

Tonight’s game is the 68th meeting between the two clubs in the league at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea’s first meeting with Manchester United game was during the Blues’ first season in the football league and took place in April 1906, finishing as a 1-1 draw.

Chelsea fans had to wait almost fourteen years before the first home win over United, thanks to a single goal from World War I veteran Jack Cock in January 1920. Chelsea’s record against United at Stamford Bridge before World War II wasn’t spectacular – three wins in thirteen games -but one of those victories was a memorable 6-2 thrashing in September 1930 that featured a hat-trick by Alec Cheyne and two goals from fellow Scottish international Hughie Gallagher.

Amazingly, almost twenty years passed before Chelsea beat Manchester United at home again – Hugh Billington was the only goalscorer in November 1950 – and although the Blues won the League Championship in 1954/55, the 6-5 home defeat by United in October 1954 was Ted Drake’s side’s third home defeat that season. Seamus O’Connell –who despite his name was an England amateur international  – emulated Cheyne’s feat by scoring a hat-trick.

Although it’s highly unlikely that tonight’s game will finish 6-5, it’s noticeable that the 5-0 win over United in October 1999 seems to have heralded an era of Chelsea dominance over United in recent seasons. Since then, Chelsea have only lost once at Stamford Bridge in the Premiership to their northern rivals and have kept six clean sheets in their last ten meetings against United in West London: although goals have been at a premium recently, tonight’s game should be another fascinating chapter in a rivalry that’s been established for over a century.

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.

Predictable Drop-outs For Ill-timed Friendly

Guest blogger Thomas Rooney takes a look at tomorrow’s friendly against Denmark – if we’d opted into the Nations Cup, at least it would have been competitive.

The difficulties in juggling club management and international management are once again in the spotlight this week with England set to play a pretty pointless friendly in Denmark.

Coming as it is between two sets of Premier League games and a week before the resumption of the Champions League it is little surprise there has been a flurry of drop outs.

Steven Gerrard, Peter Crouch and Ben Foster have all been released from the squad because of injuries, with Rio Ferdinand already out. In total 24 players from the four England age-group sides have been released this week.

For Fabio Capello he somehow has to get his message across the remaining players in a matter of days, before playing the friendly and waving the squad back off to their respective squads once more.

It must be terribly difficult for an international manager to try and build any team spirit or plan any tactics in such a short space of time. I agree they need these games to experiment, but to shoehorn them in almost as an afterthought benefits no-one. It doesn’t appeal to fans either. Obviously people will be keeping an eye on the live match score , but they won’t be getting overly excited about it.

He must also be fielding several calls from Premier League managers asking that their players don’t play more than 45 minutes of the friendly in order to keep them fit for future domestic games. And god forbid one of them get injured as a demand for compensation will soon arrive at the doors of the FA from the player’s Premier League club.

International football at the moment is being treated like an irritable distraction. In order for it to work it needs to be given the space and time it deserves. I agree with the idea that two dedicated international windows should be set in the season, where the squad can gather for two, even three weeks and play all their qualifiers or friendly games. England will play nine games in total this season, that surely can be split into two windows of five and four matches? It would make things much more exciting for those following the football live scores .

It will give Capello vital time to work with his players and perhaps avoid the awkward club v country tussle that we are seeing now.

It seems like common sense to me – but that is exactly why I can’t see it being implemented any time soon.

2010: Annus Mediocris

After the World Cup we had, it’s not too difficult to feel at least a twinge of sympathy with our near neighbours, although on the other hand it’s also quite difficult to suppress any giggling.

In some respects the French campaign in South Africa was so wonderfully dysfunctional that it’s hard to imagine any other team self destructing with such panache; at least Italy nearly made it to the second round although at least they have some previous when it comes to underperfoming in Africa.

The sanctions the French FA imposed on their squad in the aftermath of both the performance on the pitch and the histrionics off it look like a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

Tonight’s friendly can be seen from two contradictory angles. On the optimistic side, it’s an opportunity for both sides to field players with minimal international experience who wouldn’t normally make a contribution in the hope that a couple of them will make a breakthrough. From a negative point of view, the game will feature ‘experimental’  (ie under strength) sides and concludes a year that arguably could and should have been more successful for both sides. That’s certainly the way French manager Laurent Blanc seems to see it (some knowledge of French required).

The problem we’ve got – again – is goals. Montenegro’s clean sheet was the first time that we’ve failed to score at home since February 2007, when a goal from Andres Iniesta was enough for a Spanish win at Old Trafford. Fab’s hands have been tied with the usual crop of withdrawals and injuries, which is why the (ahem) ‘troubled but talented’ Andy Carroll of Newcastle will probably start up front; presumably he got the nod before Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd because Cardiff aren’t in the Premiership…yet.

The only other confirmed starters are Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson and Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs – when there’s some kind of news about what the team actually is, we’ll have it here.

With just under two weeks to go before the announcement of the host nation for the 2018 World Cup, it’s fair to say that – for whatever reason – our chances of winning the bid are slightly worse than they were at the beginning of the year.

The incident concerning Lord Triesman was regrettable even if there may have been something to it; the perception of the Sunday Times enquiry into vote buying may have damaged the bid even though it seems public perception refuses to blame the journalists, who were right to investigate what was happening.

So the decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia will be made by a discredited body that won’t even have enough time to investigate itself before announcing where the next two competitions will be held.

Don’t hold your breath and be prepared for more disappointment. However, if by some miracle we actually win the bid, then mine’s several pints of Bombardier.

Update: starting line up against France:

Foster, Jagielka, Ferdinand, Lescott, Gibbs, Walcott, Henderson, Barry, Milner, Gerrard, Carroll.

Didn’t Ferdinand Lescott-Gibbs discover the Zambezi?

Will Capello Bring in ‘New Blood’ for Friendly with France?

Thanks to guest blogger Richard Smith for his thoughts about next week’s international – with the possible exception of Italy, France were probably the worst of the major European nations taking part in South Africa last summer…

England take on France next week at Wembley in what will be their last international of what has been an almost forgettable year. Almost forgettable in the sense that at least they seem to have picked up from where they left off before their woeful World Cup performances in South Africa.

Although unable to beat Montenegro at Wembley last month, England still look the best team in their Euro 2012 qualifying group, securing three wins from their four matches played thus far. They will go into 2011 in second place in the group, with a potentially feisty encounter against Wales their next group game at the end of March.

With the issue of who will be captain now decided in favour of Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard and John Terry can both concentrate on what they do best, by returning to their best form and confirming in the process, that they are both vital links in the England set up.

The match against France presents manager, Fabio Capello, the opportunity to include one or two youngsters, most notably perhaps, Jack Wilshere of Arsenal, who has been impressing plaudits since forcing himself into the Arsenal team. Wilshere made his debut of course against Hungary as a late substitute and has been in sparkling form for Arsenal since and could be given a start ahead of Gareth Barry, who has been well out of touch.

In the absence of first choice strikers, Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe, Capello might even be persuaded to select Newcastle’s Andy Carroll, who looks like he has far more about him than regular England pick, Peter Crouch; Carroll’s off the pitch behaviour might just put Capello off however.
Kevin Davies has continued to impress up front for Bolton, with his boss, Owen Coyle, calling him unplayable at the moment. Capello is a known admirer and gave him his debut as a substitute against Montenegro which strongly suggests that he, like Carroll, might get the nod over Crouch.

Another striker who has been receiving rave reviews all season is Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd, who has scored ten goals from 12 appearances for the ‘Bluebirds’ so far this season. Bothroyd was once upon a time on Arsenal’s books but was released by Arsene Wenger in 2000. He had spells at Coventry, Perugia in Italy, Blackburn, Charlton, Wolves, before finally settling at Cardiff, where he has a huge following. Whether Capello would dip into the The Championship though remains to be seen with David Nugent the last player outside of the Premier League to be capped in his only appearance under Steve McClaren in 2007.

Gary Cahill, team mate of Davies at Bolton could also get another chance, particularly after his fine display against Spurs last weekend. If Ferdinand and Terry are both fit then Cahill might have to content himself with a place on the bench, but he is certainly one for the future.

France who had an even worse time of it than England in South Africa have also picked up since Laurent Blanc took over the reins from Raymond Domenech in August. As is well known several of their players even went on strike in South Africa, unhappy with the way Domenech managed the team, players such as Nicolas Anelka of Chelsea and Patrick Evra of Manchester United received suspensions for their actions from the French FA.
France however come into the game against England having won their last three games and sitting on top of Euro 2012 qualification Group D with nine points from four games played. In those last three games they did not concede a goal. However, the England odds of 6/5 to win this game suggest that France’s change of form will come to a halt at Wembley; however, at 2/1 about the visitors, you know which of the two team’s odds make most appeal!

Hopefully, Capello will use this friendly against France to offer some new faces a chance to impress and at least finish what has been a disastrous year for the national team on a positive note.