England v Croatia Preview

Brazil qualified at the weekend thanks to a 3-1 win in Argentina, who
are now fourth in the South American group, five points behind Chile and Paraguay and only two points in front of Colombia and Ecuador. If Ecuador win in Bolivia this evening or Colombia win in Uruguay and Argentina fail to pick up a point in Paraguay early on Thursday morning then either or
possibly both of them latter could leapfrog Diego’s boys. Even if Argentina manage to qualify there’s no guarantee that Maradona will be the coach, although I suppose it might be to our advantage if they did and he was!

It’s also still very tight in Central America, where Honduras, the USA,
Mexico and Costa Rica are potential qualifiers – the big game early tomorrow morning British time is when group leaders Honduras travel to Mexico, but the USA could take pole position if they beat Trinidad & Tobago.

Back to Europe and both Spain and ourselves can qualify this evening, although the reigning European Champions may need another game even if they beat Estonia; if Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Turkey they can still mathematically overtake Spain to win the group, although that’s a long shot at best and would need the type of collapse in form the Spanish normally experience once they qualify for a tournament.

So to our game. The mind games (or at least the attempted mind games) started a couple of weeks ago when Luka Modric broke his leg (shades of Eduardo); on Monday Slaven Bilic described the England team as missing ‘Englishness’, which in some ways is actually a backhanded compliment, although he may have meant Brylcreemed hair, pre-match fry ups, injections of monkey glands and the traditional half time fag with a pint of stout with a raw egg chaser.  I’m sure that if they discovered that the Austrian ref who sent off Spurs’ Vedran Corluka on Saturday had an English aunt that would have been brought up as proof of some kind of conspiracy theory…although Herr Plautz does have his own website: www.konradplautz.com

Anyway, we’ve got a mixed record against the Croats – they’ve won two of the last three meetings – and there hasn’t been a draw since the first time we played them, back in April 1996. Their away form is very impressive – their last defeat was a 0-2 reverse in Macedonia in a Euro 2008 qualifier in November 2007 and they’re currently on a ten game undefeated away run.

Six of the team that started against us when we won 4-1 last September played in the 1-0 win against Belarus on Saturday: Simunic, Srna, Pranjic, Rakitic (who scored the winning goal) and Olic. Additionally Pokrivac, Petric and Mandzukic (who scored the Croatian consulation goal in last year’s game) were all on the bench. There are quite are few familiar names there: Kranjcar, Eduardo and Klasnic are all currently plying their trade in England and if Modric had been fit and Corluka hadn’t been suspended then
the majority of the potential starting XI would have been Premiership regulars.

I would imagine that the England line up will be similar to the one  on Saturday, although Fabio Capello may make some minor tweaks to the formation simply because Modric and Corluka are missing – we may be a bit more adventurous through the midfield for example – and because Croatia need the points more than we do. Bilic is an adept enough tactician to be able to pose England problems without Modric (packing the midfield and trying to pick off Glen Johnson might work) but to some extent Croatia without Modric is like England without Wayne Rooney: dangerous but not quite the same threat.

One thing will be obvious though. If we qualify, this is the type of game England need to be prepared for next summer: tough opposition used to playing Premiership players with a capable coach with experience of and respect for British football. Not to mention increased fan expectations, which will go through the roof once qualification is ensured.

ITV and Radio 5 will be covering the game and as we’ll be watching it there’ll probably be some garbled nonsense on twitter or posted here at half time and (depending on the result) either a period of mournful silence or lots of over excited capital letters with far too many exclamation marks when it’s over.

Difficult not to be excited though, isn’t it? Now stop reading this and get on with your work.

Squad Announced For Slovenia/Croatia game

The England squad for the friendly at the weekend against Slovenia and the penultimate home qualifier versus Croatia was announced on Sunday night. The starting eleven will probably look similar to the one that drew with Holland at the start of August with Wes Brown replacing the injured Rio Ferdinand (thigh strain).  Aaron Lennon and Peter Crouch (now both of Spurs after the latter moved from Portsmouth) were the only notable additions while neither Theo Walcott and – perhaps less surprisingly -  Michael Owen were called up. Walcott’s absence means that Arsenal do not have a single player in the current England squad: Joleon Lescott’s rather acrimonious transfer from Everton to Manchester City means that City now have four players involved for the forthcoming games.

Apart from Rio there are no significant injury worries: the same can’t be said for the Croats, who lost Spurs’ Luka Modric for at least six weeks when he broke his leg at the weekend. It’s hard not to have mixed feeling about this: on the one hand Modric’s absense might make our task easier but on the other his undoubted ability might have made the game more exciting and unpredictable.

The current lead in Group 6 might well be cut to four points on Saturday as Croatia have a qualifier on Saturday against Belarus in Zagreb (7:30 GMT, apparently no plans to show it on TV); earlier that afternoon Andorra travel to Ukraine. More to come about those games and the rest weekend’s qualifiers later this week.

In terms of the squad’s performance in Premiership form so far, the situation is very encouraging. Fourteen of the 24 players called up by Fabio Cappello come from the current top four clubs at the time of writing and there have been 18 goals throughout the squad, with Jermain Defoe and Wayne Rooney having scored four each. Surprisingly, defenders currently lead the midfielders by four goals to three, largely due to Glen Johnson’s pair of goals for Liverpool.

11 of the 14 Premiership assists from the England squad have come from the midfield with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Aaron Lennon contributing two each.

Discipline has been reasonably good so far, although both Wayne Rooney
and Ashley Young have both picked up two yellow cards in the Prem this season. However, top of the naughty list is a Mr David Robert Joseph
Beckham of LA Galaxy, who received a straight red card v Seattle on 16th August but scored the winner against Chivas at the weekend: coming so soon after the well reported incidents with the Galaxy fans, this might be a situation that needs to be monitored.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Foster (Manchester United), Green (West Ham), Robinson (Blackburn)

Defenders: Johnson (Liverpool), Brown (Manchester United), Upson (West Ham), Terry (Chelsea, capt), Lescott (Manchester City), A Cole (Chelsea), Bridge (Manchester City)

Midfielders: Wright-Phillips (Manchester City), Lennon (Spurs), Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy), Barry (Manchester City), Lampard (Chelsea), Carrick (Manchester United), Gerrard (Liverpool), A Young (Aston Villa), Milner (Aston Villa)

Strikers:Rooney (Manchester United), Heskey (Aston Villa), Defoe (Spurs), C Cole (West Ham), Crouch (Spurs).

World Cup Qualifier England v Ukraine

England resume their world cup qualifying campaign on April 1st against Ukraine in brand new shirts. Apart from a wild guess that the new home shirt will be mostly white and the change shirt will be mostly red, that’s a topic for another day, so let’s take a quick look at the situation in Group Six.

With a five point lead over both Croatia (who we’ve already beaten) and Ukraine (in third at present having only played three games), there’s a strong possibility England could be the first European team to qualify for South Africa 2010 and despite the recent defeat in Spain I can’t see any reason to disagree. Yet it’s always worth remembering that there are no medals for being the first to qualify

We’ve got a good record against Ukraine (we’ve won both previous games without conceding a goal but we haven’t played them for almost five years), but having said that, they’re currently on a seven game unbeaten run, they’re pretty tight defensively and they’ve got plenty of decent players – some of whom you may have heard of.

The England squad named for this weekend’s friendly against Slovakia and the qualifier next week contained a couple of mild surprises, one of which seems to have backfired. The only new name in the squad is Leighton Banes of Everton, who I would imagine is seen as a potential squad player for next summer; although there’s no doubt that Ledley King is an international quality player he has a debilitating injury that means he can’t train normally from game to game and it’s not totally clear why Fabio Capello bought him into the squad. On Tuesday afternoon it was announced that King had left camp and was considering his international future, which would be a real shame.


England Win or Lose?
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England v Slovakia, Saturday March 28th 4pm GMT on Setanta Sports 1
England v Ukraine, Wednesday April 1st 8pm GMT on ITV1