Bring on the Germans and all that Jazz!
June 24, 2010

So it’s confirmed, we will be playing our old adversaries, the Germans, in the last 16 of  2010 World Cup. It just had to be didn’t it?  But I have a feeling that  playing them now, rather than later in the tournament, could be better for us!

The match will be played in Bloemfontein on Sunday afternoon. It promises to be a barbecue weekend here in the UK  so stock up on the bangers, burgers and beer!

Today, the sun is shining  already and I’m about to set off  for an all together more tranquil sporting occasion down by the riverside in Cardiff. England versus the Aussies in a day /night, 50 over cricket international at the SWALEC stadium in Sophia Gardens. Come on England let’s make it 2/2.

It heralds the start of a busy weekend with  friends arriving tomorrow, from the north-east, for the 25th annual Upton-on- Severn Jazz Festival.

So what with cricket, jazz, barbecues, beer and sunday’s big football occasion I’ll be putting the blog on hold until Monday.  By then the nation will be euphoric or wallowing in the depths of another depression.

 

Top tips for Fabio and England:

1. Same starting XI

2. Keep the red shirts

3. Extra practice on penalties

Let’s make Franz ‘the Kaiser’ Beckenbauer eat his words!

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St George’s flag is still flying – what a difference a red shirt makes!
June 23, 2010

St George’s flag can remain flying over the House of Commons for a little while longer. What a difference a win makes. Yes we were on the edge of our seats, because one goal wasn’t enough, but everything that had been missing from the first two games, was there and we started to look a half decent side.

There was pride in this performance, endeavour and considerable skill, particularly after Jermaine Defoe’s goal had settled early nerves. Every player contributed and it was a real team effort.

Fabio Capello was vindicated. He did not bow to player power (or the media) and stuck with the 4-4-2 formation, with Gerrard playing on the left side of midfield and Joe Cole remaining on the bench.  Defoe, the goal scorer, came in for Heskey but that would have happened anyway. James Milner returned on the right, after missing the Algeria game. His workrate, and the quality of his crossing were outstanding.

Despite the alleged discontent within the training camp, things seem to have been sorted out, the players responded to the coach and everyone  pulled together. That’s why they won’t be flying home early, economy class, like the French (ha ha!)

In fairness John Terry, who led the failed coup against Fabio, was a rock at the back, as were attacking fullbacks Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson. Steven Gerrard put in another disciplined captain’s performance. Matthew Upson, who looked shaky to start with, grew into the game and made a wonderful last-ditch tackle at the death.

Rooney is still below par and desperately seeking a goal. He shot twice when he could have played in Milner and when he did have a one on one with the keeper couldn’t get his shot away cleanly.  A goal can’t be far away now and when it comes it will make such a difference to him and the rest of the team.      

Defoe got the goal and his movement up front was a constant threat. His presence, at the exclusion of Heskey, encourages the team to play to feet, rather than opting for the long high ball which was our downfall against Algeria.     

It’s never easy, watching England, but this performance was much better on the eye and they dominated for long periods. A second goal, that never came, would have sealed it and made the last 10 minutes rather more bearable. But we are in the last 16, the first two games can be forgotten, we can draw confidence from this performance and we are still very much in this tournament, well at least until Sunday!      

Ghana, Germany, or Serbia are all possible last 16 opponents. Funnily enough, of the three, I really quite fancy us against the Germans. I trust Fabio will have those disparaging comments from ‘the Kaiser’ pinned up on the dressing room wall – team talk done!

Oh yes, and another thing, what a difference a shirt makes. Stick with the red – there’s a quite a good precedent!

The ugly face of player power
June 21, 2010

Just when we were sitting back having a chuckle at the antics in the French training camp, former England captain, John Terry, spoiled it all by seizing  the moment to assume the role of team spokesperson and alerting the eagerly waiting media to similar disharmony in the England camp.  

More of that later. First let’s start with our friends from across La Manche who, regardless of their walk of life, are never slow at voicing disapproval by taking strike action. This time it’s not students, teachers or farmers but international football players, high on pay but low on motivation.

There is no doubting, French coach, Raymond Domenech’s eccentricities (see post ‘Look to the Stars’ 12/6/10) and it’s been an open secret from the outset that senior members of the squad were not happy with his team selection and tactics. In effect, the French ‘stars’ were never favourably aligned and he had lost the dressing room before a ball was kicked in anger.

Having said that he is the coach and when Nicholas Anelka, who looked totally disinterested during the game against Mexico, refused to apologise for his foul-mouthed half time rant the French Football Federation had no option other than to back ‘star gazer’ Domenech and recall the player to France.

With their World Cup existence hanging by a thread, the French players then pathetically refused to train yesterday (for one day only)  to protest at the FFF’s handling of the situation, claiming they had not given Anelka a fair chance to explain his actions and because they “ did not at any point try to protect the squad.”

With the lunatics well and truly taking over the asylum and the whole situation, having degenerated into a French farce, the FFF has now issued a statement apologising to the nation for the team’s behaviour.

A state of national emergency has been declared and even President Sarkozy, never one to miss out on a bit of free publicity (seen showing Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger his nifty footwork), is getting involved.

Let’s hope Bafana Bafana, who do play as if they care, can raise their game enough tomorrow to put our Gallic friends out of their misery. I bet the Irish have been enjoying it all, and perhaps it does go to show that cheats never prosper!   

Meanwhile back in Rustenburg, following the debacle against Algeria, John Terry took it upon himself to set up a ‘clear the air’ meeting between the players and Fabio. In itself there is absolutely nothing wrong with that but it should have been kept behind closed doors.

What did he expect to gain from going public? Is it all about revenge for being stripped of the captaincy following his off the field fling with ex Chelsea and England ‘best mate’ Wayne Bridge’s former partner, or was it genuinely intended to make the coach sit up and take note of the squad’s opinions?

Whatever the motivation, thankfully the rest of the squad have now distanced themselves from Terry’s actions. He is considered to have gone too far by publically backing Joe Cole’s inclusion in the starting line up and suggesting a change of formation, many in the media have been clambering for, that would see Gerrard play a more advanced midfield role behind lone striker Wayne Rooney.

Terry ‘coming out’ in this way, showed a total disregard for the team captain, Steven Gerrard. Surely, if anyone should be representing the players’ views to the coach or making public statements it should be him .

Another alternative might have been to enlist the services of  David Beckham who could then have justified his place of favour in the dressing room, apparently some kind of ‘team mascot’, by stepping into any breach between the players and coaching staff and acting as a mediator.   

I must say the FA has also been less than supportive of Capello by suggesting that if England don’t make the last 16, they would expect him to resign. Well they can’t afford to sack him can they!

Capello may be everything he’s accused of:  authoritarian, single-minded, a disciplinarian, inflexible, unwilling to listen and unable to change his ways (which, incidentally, have proved successful for every other team he has worked with), but he was being lauded as some kind of footballing ‘Messiah’ by the FA, the team and the media just a few short weeks ago.

He is a proud individual with a proven track record and quite rightly will not succumb to player power. It is about time this ‘golden generation’ of pampered ‘England stars’ took a long hard look in the mirror and shouldered the responsibility for two under par performances.      

In the matches against the USA and Algeria, the same players that had qualified for the World Cup finals, playing a measured and successful brand of football instilled in them by Capello, looked a team devoid of technique, creativity, and commitment to the cause.

Capello may not be without fault, but neither are the players. In short, whether John Terry likes it or not, the team have bottled it. There is one more chance to put things right, and rather than following the example of ‘Les Bleus’, the England team would do better to draw on the team and work ethic of the lowly New Zealand ‘All Whites’ who yesterday pulled off the result of the tournament, to date, 1-1 against world champions Italy.

Pride, passion, effort and endeavour from a team where all its members are working for one another and the coach, within a well drilled playing system can bring about surprising results.

Slovenia will no doubt have a similar mentality plus added quality but nothing that our players, if they are as good as they think they are, should be worried about. Throw off the shackles, have a go and let’s see proper player power, on the pitch. Let the football do the talking!

Strangers in the Night!
June 19, 2010

On Friday, ‘ol blue eyes’ and ‘Strangers in the Night’ came to mind! England played like a scratch pub team, who had met up for the first time five minutes before the kick-off, as pass after pass went astray. Then there was the episode of the phantom intruder who waltzed into the England dressing room intent on giving our bereft team the benefit of his opinion.

Given that the anonymous interloper had made such short work of the FIFA security my curiosity was roused. Was it an undercover visit from Franz ‘the Kaiser’ Beckenbauer, popping in to reaffirm his earlier claim that, “What I saw from the English had very little to do with football.”  After last night’s sorry performance I think a few more might be with him on that one now!   

It was a huge disappointment for ‘birthday boy’ Fabio, not the sort of celebratory performance he had in mind, I’m sure. He seemed genuinely at a loss that the England players we see playing like world beaters, week in  week out, for their clubs and strutting their stuff on the training ground didn’t turn up for such a big game.

To be honest the rest of us could have tipped him the wink:  “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before, they just know, they’re so sure that England’s  gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away” etc.  (Badiel & Skinner) 

Of course, no team sets out to play badly, get booed off the pitch and castigated in the national press. They’re not the first team to disappoint at this year’s tournament but what made last night so unpalatable was the apparent lack of pride and passion. Too many players seemed weighed down by the occasion, the ball was like a hot potato and nobody appeared to want to take responsibility. This was Algeria after all, a 3rd world nation in football terms!

The honeymoon period with the media is clearly over for Fabio but I don’t go along with the criticism currently being levelled at him.  It’s little use turning on the coach and questioning his methods at this late stage. Let’s be honest, under Sven Goran-Ericksson, we qualified with some style for the 2006 World Cup but once at the finals the players under performed and we stuttered and spluttered our way to a quarter-final exit. We were told it was down to Sven not showing enough passion on the touch-line, being too loyal to certain favoured players, allowing an overly free and easy attitude in the training camp, and of course he never had a plan B when things weren’t going well.    

This time around, Fabio Capello undoubtedly shows passion from the dug out. He’s not been afraid to leave out players with big reputations, has a more austere and remote persona with the team, clearly runs a tight ship and has experimented with different formations, but seems to prefer 4-4-2 . Once again the team have under performed (so far at least) and now it’s being suggested that this is  because Capello’s style  inhibits the team and they are afraid of expressing themselves for fear of making mistakes.  

The media can’t play it both ways. We have seen two distinctly different approaches from two very different coaches but, both in 2006 and currently in 2010, our ‘top players’ have frozen on the big stage. Is it a mental attitude born of an unrealistic national expectation after years of  under achievement, or do we merely over-estimate their abilities? Are our England stars as good as we think or do they just look good at club level where they are in teams along side genuine world-class players who have the technique and creativity to provide them with the extra time and space they don’t get when playing with the national side?

Fabio isn’t one to panic or to pander to calls from the media.  I think he’ll get the team up for the do or die game against Slovenia and we will squeeze through. We might even, depending on the opposition, briefly flatter to deceive by winning our quarter-final and fleetingly raise national hopes once more before the inevitable anti-climax in the semis, probably going out on penalties; “Everyone seems to know the score ” etc!  I guess that would be judged a relative success.  

However it turns out there’s one sure thing, ‘ol blue eyes’ will spring to mind again with visions of Capello singing, “I did it my way!”

The Kaiser, the Jabulani and the Vuvuzela!
June 15, 2010

The football on display must be pretty poor if the column inches are taken up with complaints about the match ball, the decibel levels achieved by the Zulu horn and the snide ramblings of Franz Beckenbauer!

Given that a reliable ball, which the players feel comfortable with, is fairly fundamental to a decent game, why oh why do we have these ‘quality’ issues at every international tournament?  

When Adidas launched the Jabulani ball, back in February, we were told its new technology would “enhance the thrill and excitement of the game.” Well there is no sign of that so far and in fact it might be argued that the players are so distrustful of it that they are playing with extra caution, therefore detracting from the game as spectacle. Yesterday, one match commentator rather disparagingly likened the Jabulani to, “those plastic balls you get free with petrol!”   

Arguably, the Germans are the only team, to date, to play with any degree of confidence and flair and they have been using this ball in their domestic Bundesliga for the last four months. The English Premier League is contractually bound to Nike and the England team to Umbro, so our boys haven’t been able to use it until four weeks ago.  Questions about competing on an even playing field spring to mind!

It’s marvellous what one good result has done to restore German confidence. The German coach, and fashion guru, Joachim Loew had come under considerable pressure back home, following his squad selection,  and we were told it was the weakest in years. Four goals later, all be it against the Aussies, and football supremo Franz Beckenbauer feels confident enough to pop his, not unsubstantial,  head above the parapet and have a pop at Capello and England’s style of play: “What I saw from the English had very little to do with football.”

Frankly, Beckenbauer, ‘the Kaiser’, an iconic figure of German football has never got over 1966 and never passes up an opportunity to criticise the old enemy. If I were Capello, I’d thank him for providing a ready-made team talk for when the two countries, almost inevitably, meet later in the tournament.

I’d also be having a quiet word with Jamie Carragher, who is whingeing a tad too much and was quoted today as saying the Jubulani ball is giving the Germans an unfair advantage. That’s exactly the sort of ‘fear’ they thrive on. It’s rather disconcerting that we already appear to be stock-piling excuses!

Finally, the controversial droning vuvuzelas continue to split public opinion.  If it is such an import aspect of South African football culture, which it appears to be, then clearly it has to be accepted and should not be banned at this late stage.

Anyway it’s not just Africans who are using them. They have caught on with supporters of every country. For FIFA to ban them would be the equivalent of banning chanting in England or the Mexican wave in South America!  Surely, professional players are trained to focus and are able shut out much of the noise and as for TV viewers; I’d be surprised if  technicians aren’t able to reduce the background noise level, which I’m sure will happen as the tournament progresses.

England let it slip but no need for panic!
June 13, 2010

Get over it – I’m sure Fabio and the boys will! Despite the harbingers of gloom in this morning’s media castigating Robert Green for his costly goalkeeping slip, we did negotiate a potential banana skin and showed enough to suggest we can grow into this tournament.

As far as England World Cup openers go, and I’ve seen a few, believe me this wasn’t too bad and I still remain confident that we will top the group and be there or there about in the final shake up!

In 1966 we hardly got off to a flyer, with a goalless draw against Uruguay at Wembley and remember, last time around, the eventual 2006 winners , Italy (not the best team in the tournament, in my book) drew 1-1 in their group game against a USA side which was arguably not as strong as the one we saw last night.     

Yes, I was surprised that Green started in the keeper’s jersey, but clearly Fabio must have got wind of my Fantasy Football team selection and the posting I made earlier this week,  suggesting ‘Calamity James’ might eventually come good for England in this tournament. I need to transfer in a replacement now! Any suggestions – the Nigerian keeper, Enyeama, looked pretty handy yesterday?

What is it with England goalkeeping? For years it was the only position in which we had strength in depth but recently it has become a bit of an Achilles heel – Seaman, Robinson, Carson and of course ‘Calamity’ all producing howlers in big games. However, eternally the optimist, I would love to see Fabio give Green the chance to redeem himself and it’s a funny enough game for him to turn national hero in that penalty shoot-out that’s bound to come our way later in the competition (you heard it here first!).

If the glass is half full: there were fine performances from Gerrard, who really stepped up to the mark as captain, Heskey, whose ability to hold up the ball and link up play,  more than justified his selection, and Glen Johnson as an attacking full back.

If the glass is half empty: Rooney worked hard as usual but never got into a clear-cut scoring position, Lennon and Wright-Phillips still need to put in better quality crosses and  King (due to fitness) and Carragher (due to lack of mobility) are not the answer at centre back. For me, the latter is more of a worry than the goalkeeping position.

Is Fabio brave enough to throw in a rookie, Forest old-boy, Michael Dawson? I guess Matthew Upson will get his chance first, in the Algeria game, next Friday, when I expect us to win comfortably!       

Incidentally my Fantasy Football jinx also seems to have put the kiss of death on Lionel Messi’s chances of winning the Golden Boot – he created and missed at least five goal scoring opportunities as Argentina had to settle for 1-0 against Nigeria.

 Mind you, in true football parlance it’s ‘early doors’!

Look to the stars!
June 12, 2010

Bafana Bafana momentarily reached for the stars while France looked anxiously to the stars in their opening World Cup matches yesterday. And lest we forget, England take on the stars and stripes of the USA this afternoon!   

The pride and emotion emanating from the Soccer City Stadium in Soweto yesterday was tangible, to say nothing of the incessant buzz of vuvuzelas! For 45 minutes Bafana Bafana  were clearly overawed by the situation and could have gone 3-0 down to a Mexican team who, sadly for them, had been cast as party poopers!

The second half was different. Bafana Bafana began to play the flowing football of which they are capable and the tournament was up and running after being set alight by a slick passing team move and stunning finish from Tshabalala that set the standard for goal of the tournament!

However, the reality check came when  Bafana Bafana, always prone to lapses of concentration at the back, were found ‘ball watching’ and  Rafa Marquez  ‘shinned’ the equalizer. South Africa came back gamely and might have clinched victory late on as Teko Modise rolled the ball, past one of the dodgiest international keepers I’ve seen for a while, against the post!

The sense of euphoria that greeted the final whistle was tempered by the reality that this is going to be a tough group for Bafana Bafana to climb out of, and all eyes turned to the up-and-coming France v Uruguay game.

The notion that cheats should never prosper  is hanging like a big black cloud over Les Bleus, given their fortuitous qualification courtesy of the hand of Thierry Henry. There is also the issue of the impending departure of their eccentric coach Raymond Domenech, a keen amateur astrologist who looks to the stars for guidance in his team selection, or as Alan Hansen described him in BBC’s pre-match build up  ‘a bit of a nutter’!       

Well as it turned out the stars weren’t  shining on either side and this potentially fascinating struggle between two decent teams  suffered from ‘after the lord mayor’s show’ syndrome, finishing goal-less.

Attention now turns to the big one in Rustenburg this evening and let’s hope there’s no reality check for Capello and the boys and that 1950 doesn’t repeat itself, 60 years on, when the three lions take on the bald eagles! You just know it’s going to be an edge-of-the-seat job so everything crossed and  vuvuzelas at the ready!