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Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Rant Before the Storm

Warning: This article contains themes and images some readers may find upsetting.

There is a genuine panic engulfing England’s tree surgeons right now. They are shitting themselves by all accounts. As if one root and branch overview wasn’t enough to drive them to distraction, the latest one that threatens to be unleashed could be the final straw. Former chief executive of the FA Brian Barwick made sure, two years ago, that his big fat salary wasn’t wasted by creating a shortlist of managers for the England managerial position. Showing the kind of footballing insight that makes the FA the envy of the world, Barwick left no branch or root unturned in identifying the best possible candidates. Sir Alex Ferguson? He’s good isn’t he. Arsene Wenger? Arsenal play nice stuff. Jose Mourinho? Bit of an attitude but he seems to be doing well. Fabio Capello? I think I heard him mentioned on Sky Sports News once. Fresh from completing his rocket science degree, Barwick painstakingly whittled down the shortlist to one. “A winner with a capital W,” he purred back in December 2007.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hold Honda Your Hats

Japan are in danger of becoming the World Cup’s surprise package. A sterner test than those that preceded their progress to the last 16 awaits in the form of Paraguay this afternoon, but after a team performance against Denmark that had all and sundry salivating, Japan are right to feel fearless.

Japan have become fixtures at FIFA’s four-yearly showpiece since they first qualified for the competition in 1998, before which the team’s only achievements of note were an Asian Cup triumph in 1992 and an Olympic bronze medal in 1968.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

England's IncongRoonety

While Fabio Capello’s much-vaunted changes to his starting line up had the desired effect, they still made for a fitful, frustrating evening for Wayne Rooney, who has so far struggled to profit from the formation that bore so much fruit in qualifying. England have coped without him in squeezing out of a fairly weak World Cup group, but they will need him to fire as they go deeper into the tournament. So far though, England have not embraced Rooney’s strengths, while the man himself seems short on dynamism.

Playing alongside Emile Heskey, Rooney attempts to profit from his link play with runners from midfield. It gives him opportunities to play on the last defender, but England – particularly in their first two matches – become obsessed with Heskey as a lynchpin. This requires Rooney to drop deeper to get the ball as the Villa man continually, while holding it up well enough, plays sideways or backwards. While it worked in the qualifiers, Heskey was some way off the Villa first team for most of the season and is not the player he used to be. Meanwhile, as a dynamic counter-attacker, the directness Rooney can provide needs to be presaged by direct service to him, not through a proxy.

With Jermaine Defoe starting alongside Rooney last night, he was forced to relinquish even a theoretical position on the shoulders of the defenders as Defoe naturally occupies this space. Rooney should thrive here, with a pacy forward to complement him, but the problem with Defoe is you don’t link with him, you play him in on goal. Rooney plays a much more traditional number 10 role alongside the Spurs striker and while he had one chance last night, brilliantly saved, his scoring opportunities have been few and far between. The pressure is on him to find goals, meanwhile, is immense.

It’s not as if Rooney can’t manufacture his own chances, but he hasn’t looked like scoring in three games. Which begs the question: Is all right with England’s talisman? It is hard to spearhead a team playing so poorly, but even before Capello withdrew him last night, he looked short on fitness, form and confidence. These aren’t the traits we expected him to be sharing with Fernando Torres before the tournament began.

Gone is the 17-year old who stunned Europe in 2004. Rooney no longer exudes that carefree and exuberant fearlessness in matches and while his efforts remain at 110%, he has not looked happy at this tournament. Talked up before every game by team mates and opposition alike, the burden of his nation’s expectations appear to be sitting slightly heavier on Rooney’s shoulders than they have in previous years and combined with a lengthy season of responsibility and a recent injury, he does not look the striker of six months ago. He looks a man preoccupied with his own form and his own ankle.

The knockout stages may yet invigorate him, should he convince himself he is fully fit. Where spontaneity and submission blows are required, there are few better to have in your side. I fully expect the belief to come flooding back when needed most and from here Rooney can only make grander impressions with each passing game. However, England’s formation doesn’t seem to favour him and it remains to be seen if Capello has any plans to help liberate his best player. Rob MacDonald

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

South America Steals World Cup

South Africa 2010 so far has actually been the World Cup of South America. In a tournament of bus, aeroplane and small country parking, they have found attacking football the pathway to serene progress; five apples among a plethora of onions.

While it might be said that qualifying from a group containing this current France side would be easier than Paris Hilton after a shot of Cointreau, Uruguay’s performance against South Africa was ruthlessly efficient and they have now qualified from Group A as winners. Argentina have too, from Group B, with Greece getting exactly what they deserved given they are apparently coached by Nigel Negative these days.

Less was probably expected from Paraguay, especially with the shocking incapacitation of Salvador Cabañas, but a battling draw against Italy, during which they defended manfully (read: dealt out a bit of a shoeing) and another fine and robust performance against Slovakia (read: dealt out a bit of a shoeing) resulted in four points and top spot in group F.

Despite Chile only mustering two 1-0 wins as a reward for their commitment to attacking, Marcelo Bielsa is at least staying true to form. Chile are wonderful to watch. And then Brazil, one bit of basketball from Luis Fabiano aside, have scored exclusively great goals in industriously notching up six points from six.

But why is this domain, in which barn door and banjo routinely come together so gloriously, solely the domain of the South Americans? The Dutch and Spanish have great attacking players and Germany started well but suffered a hiccup. The less said about the rest of Western Europe's representatives, though, the better.

Part of it certainly appears to be belief. On this blog in the past we have mentioned the apparent disparity between England's technical abilities and those of other nations. Look at the South American body language – they know they are technically adept and can keep the ball. It inspires confidence. They are also energetic and fiercely fit. If you get the ball off them you are hounded, whether by the Uruguay and Paraguay front three or by Brazil's two holding midfielders until you give it back. Shoulders rarely sag.

This belief serves them well in the face of obduracy. When North Korea kept Brazil out for 55 minutes in Johannesburg, they didn’t panic. They just kept knocking the ball around. When the goals came it was hard to see what all the fuss had been about at half time. Argentina too, even in a game against Greece they didn’t need to win, stuck to the task, none more so than the incredible Lionel Messi.

Should we even be surprised? With the exception of those players based in Europe, we didn't even really know who was coming. Hands up if you knew who Alexis Sánchez was before the Chile-Honduras match? Hands up if you’d really like your club to sign him? The majority of South American leagues hardly get a mention in our Europe-heavy coverage. Meanwhile, European leagues are exported around the word and at the same time, Europe remains blissfully ignorant of everyone else. This startling lack of insight has been more evident than ever in England press conferences, where media attention has centred on the EBJT soap opera and not on asking Capello, the players, or each other what they know about Slovenia. ‘Typically hard to break down’ would be about the most insightful thing you would get from the England camp.

The freshness around the now-famous five could well be literal. Those that ply their trade in South America have had the benefit of a winter break and, the argument goes, this will leave them more refreshed than their World Cup peers. All well and good, I suppose, until you look at Messi or Maicon or Forlan, all of whom (and Messi in particular against Greece) have had long seasons but continue to put in monumental shifts. Conspicuously few South Americans, funnily enough, play in the Premier League, meaning England’s top tier is either taxing the life out of good players from other nations, or it is crap.

We will, though, have to lose some South American sides at some point and the likelihood is that at least some of the knockout blows will be delivered by others from the same continent. At the moment, no one else looks like being able to stop them. Rob MacDonald

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Terry Putsches Above His Weight

It’s unclear whether or not John Terry has ever read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, but if he were to, perhaps he could superimpose the concept of himself as Our Glorious Leader over the notion of a supernatural creator and realise he is in fact a delusion himself and not in fact the saviour of English football. Please listen to me John: you are NOT England captain anymore.

Let me recap. England’s Brave John Terry turns up to a press conference with something clearly on his mind, betrayed by the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead. As if his life depended on it, Terry then blurts out that all is far from well in the camp. That Fabio Capello is so bloody-mindedly sticking to a flawed formula that England’s place in the World Cup is in severe jeopardy. Publicly calling for Joe Cole’s inclusion and stressing that if his words upset the manager, ”so what”, Terry went further, by some considerable margin, than any English player has ever gone in criticising life under Capello. Something had clearly come to a head for the FORMER England captain. Shame he couldn’t have used his before voicing his dismay in the media before even going to his manager’s door.

Quite what prompted Terry to go public with his concerns, only he knows. If it was an exercise in appeasing a disaffected public in the wake of the abysmal stalemate with Algeria, it was at best ill-conceived and at worst sheer bloody stupid. He has gone into the press room juggling apples and ended up with onions all over his face. To Terry apologists, once again, the bravest man to come out of England since Terry Butcher has once more bounded into the breach, dear friends. He shall never surrender.

Well, someone needs to remind him that he is not captain anymore. That he doesn’t speak for the players. His vanity has been his downfall in that he has spectacularly misjudged the level of support he has in the dressing room – only long-suffering mate Frank Lampard offered any sympathy and even then it was distanced. And first and foremost, someone needs to remind him that you don’t go running to the media to criticise your manager. Not when your manager is Fabio Capello anyway.

Capello, for his part, has played the whole situation as expertly as one would expect. He has isolated the ringleader and treated him for the entire world to see as a petulant little schoolboy who has made a “big mistake”. Capello asserted: “The mistake is you have to speak with the players, with me, with the dressing room.” And so, what could feasibly have been a minor revolt passed off as a non-event triggered by the passion, yes, but also the vanity of one man. As far as rebellions go it was less blood and thunder and more mouse fart. The Italian left no one under any illusions who is boss, as was the only way he could have successfully dealt with Terry’s display of dissent. You are not in Cobham now, John.

Terry has form with this ‘heart on sleeve’ bollocks as we all well know. Hearsay this may be, though I doubt it, JT also fell out with the best manager in the worldTM, Jose Mourinho, up until then his loyal right-hand man, back in 2007. When Mourinho sought to discover if there was a physical reason for Terry’s sub-standard performances, the brave one was furious. He has always been able to dish out criticism but has rarely been able to take it. This much is true when he, not in so many words, says that Emile Heskey is crap (by calling for Cole’s inclusion). Yet, if memory serves, was it not JT’s wretchedly lazy backpass that meant we almost lost to Algeria on Friday night? If he was indispensible to England, I could just about stomach his outburst. But he isn’t. Perhaps more so now with injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King, alongside the suspension of Jamie Carragher, but certainly through lack of viable options rather than his own form. Capello has laid down the gauntlet, JT needs to rid himself of this ludicrous God complex and pick it up. Adam Bushby

Friday, 18 June 2010

Mexican Waves Floor France

Raymond Domenech reflects on France's defeat

Clearly, Mexico were the more delighted team when the referee’s full-time whistle went at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane last night, but deep down, most of the French side were probably just as glad that the ordeal is nearly over.

Defeat for France puts them on the brink of World Cup expulsion without the power to do anything about it. If they do somehow qualify, it will be on goal difference and scarcely deserved. The final Group A fixture against South Africa will be one for those with the stomach for a fight. On their performances in the tournament so far, the only fights the French are interested in are those within the ranks. They were as limp as a limpet shopping for Viagra on Dale Winton’s wrist.

The paucity of heart is surprising, regardless of national stereotype. One story from Argentina, on the brink of missing out on the tournament altogether, tells how Javier Zanetti rallied the troops on the field before kick off in their final qualifier, superseding a manager who – at the time – was inspiring anything but confidence. No one in the French side appeared willing to stand up in such a manner, in words or deeds. Perhaps the Domenech farce has just been rumbling on for too long – what once were French apples are looking increasingly like total onions.

The French clearly have the players to inspire though. Ribery, Malouda, Diaby, Toulalan, Clichy, Sagna, Lloris, Gallas. All play at a level above most of their World Cup Group A peers, especially the scorer of Mexico’s second, Blanco, who now plies his trade in Mexico’s second division. Most of the French are of Premier or Champions’ League pedigree.

They have always been a team that needs leading from the front. France were utterly crap in 2006 – a goalless draw with the Swiss was followed by a 1-1 draw with South Korea and Les Blues only progressed thanks to a 2-0 win over Togo in their final group game. From there, Zinedine Zidane ignited the side and single-handedly dragged them to the final. It seems natural, then to look at France’s forward line. Nicolas Anelka stands out. For being completely anonymous.

But what has become of Anelka? He is the world's second most expensive player in cumulative transfers. He has played at Arsenal and Real Madrid. He should be a focal point. When France got the ball, Ribery, Malouda and Diaby in particular, they needed a target – a centre forward. Anelka’s best position, most would say. A striker who for years has burned brightly – though sporadically – failed to deliver for his country when they needed him most. He was hauled off at half time, though his replacement was so equally unremarkable I’ve had to look up who it was (Andre-Pierre Gignac, if you didn’t notice either). All this as Thierry Henry sat on the bench, smug as a bug in a rug.

Despite sharing the limelight with Didier Drogba at Chelsea, Anelka’s goal record at Stamford Bridge isn’t bad. He scored 15 in all competitions this season and 25, securing the Premier League golden boot into the bargain, in 2008-09. Anelka’s reputation is still that of a striker who knows how to finish. However, no shots on target in 384 consecutive minutes for the French side before kick-off tell a totally different story. At least the English can be reassured that it doesn’t just happen to Emile Heskey.

It’s unfair to lump all the blame on Anelka, of course. Almost all the French were equally poor after half time and having conceded one, the likelihood was they would concede again, rather than troubling the Mexican defence. Evra barely moved as Barrero went past him and Abidal’s attempt to win the ball was as vague and non-committal as the entire French performance. The era of Laurent Blanc cannot come soon enough. Rob MacDonald

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Brazil Spoil Korea-best Performance

People say England’s Brave John Terry (EBJT) is patriotic. For me though, patriotism in its purest form is bawling your eyes out during the national anthem. EBJT only cries when he loses, not before the game has even begun. But while tears preceded the Brazil v North Korea match, it was a smile that ended it. Finally, the World Cup became fun. Ever since the impossibly named Siphiwe Tshabalala’s beautiful strike in the opening game – despite a convincing German victory against the Aussies – the tournament has yet to lift off. But last night, the World Cup threw up a seeming mismatch that only the World Cup can. That it finished just 2-1 to the Brazilians should not result in denigration for the samba boys but high praise for the North Koreans. Most of us were wholly ignorant of them going into the tie and few will have greeted Ji Yun-nam’s composed finish with anything other than a massive grin.

Brazil did not thrash the North Koreans, so they must have been shit? Wrong. Kim Jong-Hun had his team militaristically organised. They were obdurate in the extreme, providing tireless running and throwing themselves into tackles and blocks. As far as bus parking goes, this was Mourinhoesque, with at least seven men behind the ball for the duration. But at the same time, as evidenced by their late goal, the Koreans were also dangerous on the counter. Rather than treading water, Brazil were made to work very hard for victory and should be happy with the result rather than despondent. They kept the ball moving across the pitch with panache and their ball retention was fantastic.

Criticism of Dunga’s style baffles me because 1970 and 1982 aside, when have Brazil ever played this ‘beach football’ for which they are so famous for 90 minutes? Four years ago, the defence was shielded by Emerson and Ze Roberto. Previous to that it was Edmilson and Gilberto Silva in Japan. And before then Dunga himself partnered first Mauro Silva in ‘94 and then Cesar Sampaio in ’98. Joga bonito has always come in glimpses as it did last night with a flurry of tricks from the boots of Robinho. Three lovely goals from open play were also welcomed, Maicon’s sublime finish being the pick of the bunch and the goal of the World Cup so far (yes I think he meant it). Oh and how good was it to see a side line up with a sweeper? North Korea might just be my favourite side right now.

Team ITV would have had you believe it was going to be double figures before the match started. I’m starting to get really pissed off with this laziness on behalf of the so-called pundits who are trotting out the same tired crap every game. Which is why I have decided to set up the League Against Unnecessary Gargantuan Hubris (aka LAUGH). If you would like to join me, simply chuck an apple or onion – doesn’t really matter which – at Adrian Child, Clive Titsley or Andy Bellend (yes, I am childish) every time they make an obnoxious or patronising comment about a side they know nothing about. Expect more of the same when the ‘plucky’ Hondurans take the field against Chile today. Last night’s game was a breath of fresh air. More of the same please. Adam Bushby

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Lazy Bloggers Watch Football, Compile List

A German man watches football, yesterday

With the World Cup in full swing, there’s barely time to take a break from watching all the games to do any writing about them. So we haven’t bothered. Instead, we’ve argued a bit and made a list about some stuff that we’ve noticed in a so-far quite listless World Cup.

1. Slow starts should be expected

‘Right lads, let’s go out all guns blazing in our first group game’, is advice pouring from the mouths of precisely no international managers this week. The first few days of the tournament has widely been earmarked as fairly boring, but opening fixtures – tight, won by the odd goal mainly – were always going to seem tedious. This has happened for two reasons. The first of these is that no one wants to find themselves three points adrift of the top of a group with only two games – against teams that are all increasingly in with a shout – to catch up. That is uncomfortable.

The second is that not all 32 teams in the World Cup are that good. There’s absolutely no point expecting the World Cup to be even better in quality than the Champions League just because it is a step up to international rather than club sides. Most of the best players in the world are at the tournament, sure. But so are some of the more average. And when mostly average players play against each other, you get mostly average matches.

This foundation results in a sort of horrible football purgatory where, so paralysed are mediocre teams by the fear of losing to other mediocre teams, they totally fail to remember to try and win and we never find out if they were good enough to do so or not. Fear not though. This catatonic approach will give way to the whirling dervishes of desperation after round one. Hopefully.

2. Germany are better without professional fouler but highly-regarded international footballer Michael Ballack

We sort of knew this anyway, given that without Ballack, Chelsea actually manage to move forwards on something resembling a counter-attack and not a steamroller going up an icy hill. But Germany were still good in their opener. Very good. The emergence of Mesut Özil in Ballack’s place suggested he could have a significant influence on their midfield and Löw must have been delighted that all the strikers he could reasonably have expected to score (i.e. not Mario Gomez) duly delivered. That said, Germany were assisted by the least aggressive Australian performance since Harold Bishop in Neighbours.

It could be a good World Cup for German football in general as the Bundesliga looks to have provided some of the tournament’s potential stars. What with Cacau’s goalscoring appearance as a substitute, Özil’s star turn and Eljero Elia’s decent cameo for the Dutch, the German top flight’s status as one Europe’s most powerful leagues is enhanced further. Plus, just imagine how good Franck Ribery is going to have to be if the French are going to go anywhere.

3. Lionel Messi will be class whenever and wherever he plays

Messi is the only one so far who has really looked able to manipulate the ball as he would so desire (more on that below). Any worries that he might be a bit of a flop under the stewardship of Diego Maradona looked a bit wayward as he caused the Nigerians all sorts of problems. His finishing was not quite as lethal as we have come to expect, but he seemed to have got the hang of at least making shots look like they were going in, rather than ballooning them over the bar like most.

Argentina, though, were not perfect. Deploying Gutierrez at right back made them look extremely vulnerable and his relative lack of defensive nous had them on the back foot a few times, most notably when he faced the Nigerian substitute Peter Odemwingie. Veron was relatively effortless, but it was a shame Mikel wasn’t fit for Nigeria. You can’t help but feel Veron’s tournament will depend on how efficiently he can be protected by Javier Mascherano – I can’t see him enjoying being harried like the Italians were by Paraguay on Monday night. Up front, profligacy reigned supreme as none of Argentina’s cooks spared a single solitary thought for the broth.

4. There is nothing wrong with the ball

I’ve heard that this ball is, in some hi-tech capacity, the roundest ever. Why, then, is it expected to dip and swerve and behave like an aggravated parrot? Surely a perfect sphere should equal truer and more predictable flight? I have seen no particularly late dips or awkward swerves; in fact if there really is a problem with the ball it is that it seems very hard and very light. It bounces very high and almost everyone is over-hitting free kicks, corners, crosses, shots and so on. Bad ball? No. Careless players.

The only problems goalkeepers are having are those age-old ones. Flapping at corners and crosses (Justo Villar, Paraguay), ludicrous own goals (Simon Poulsen and Daniel Agger, Denmark) or just not being very good at football (Faouzi Chaouchi, Algeria; Rob Green, England). We can’t really analyse the ball until the first 30-yarder screams in having horribly wrongfooted the ‘keeper. If we feel it is necessary to analyse a FOOTBALL at all.

There would be more of course, but Ivory Coast-Portugal is just about to start. And this one should be good.

Monday, 14 June 2010

ITV Ruins Football; Dave resists World Cup


Aside from Rob Green amusingly spilling the ball into his own goal as the advertising hoardings beseeched him to ‘stay alert’, there was little to smile about in terms of the insight and opinion we were treated to this weekend. Unless, that is, upon experiencing frustration and bewilderment, you grin maniacally. The quantity of football on the telly was enough to have most of us wallowing like a pig in the proverbial, but sadly for ITV, its coverage of said football wasn’t.

Despite not being rich enough to afford an HD TV just yet, we feel a certain amount of sympathy with those viewers who were treated to a Hyundai advert instead of Steven Gerrard’s opener. Despite ITV’s previous on this though, there’s no point getting upset – relying on technology occasionally produces mistakes or glitches, as we have been finding out with Microsoft since the 90s and will continue to find out years from now, when the machines have taken over and humans are forced to live in their sock drawers as punishment for wrecking the planet and not all being as brave and humble as England’s John Terry.

Of course, it’s not easy to be spot on every time – especially not in live commentary. However, Andy Townsend’s and Clive Tyldesley’s assertion that James Milner – ill all week remember – had been hauled off against the USA after half an hour because he had been booked was absurd. It may have played a role, but why had he been booked? Because he’d been totally scorched for pace by Steven Cherundolo. Twice. So why was he substituted for the quicker Shaun Wright-Phillips? Because he’d been totally scorched for pace by Steven Cherundolo. Twice. And without defensive cover, Ashley Cole was penned in trying to deal with Cherundolo AND Landon Donovan and was definitely not getting forward. Not an encouraging scenario when the only passes your midfielders seem capable of playing is rolling it out to your full backs or lumping it forwards, either towards Emile Heskey or out of play altogether.

Tyldesley wasn’t finished either. He later went on to refer to Jose Mourinho ‘sniffing around the Manchester United striker’. This would have had some credence had he been referring to the only Manchester United striker at the tournament, Wayne Rooney, but he wasn’t. He was referring to Nemanja Vidic. Who is not a striker.

At least Tyldesley is just about able to tell you what’s going on. The English obsession with former players as pundits though, needs a better explanation, which, given the level of their contributions, it would be pointless asking any of them to provide. While the BBC wins the battle of the regal Dutch forenames (Clarence trumps Edgar every time), their presence is mystifying. More so when ITV deemed it appropriate to have Davids in the studio for the Germany match. A Dutchman being asked about the Germans? They HATE each other. You might as well get an apple in to comment on some onions. Or have given Davids a boomerang. Adrian Chiles struggled manfully but uncomfortably, folding his arms and leaning over the arm of his chair like a man in a pub who is worried the girl he’s with will be thinking about his ‘body language’.

Also, I have never seen so much slo-mo as in the England-USA game. They LOVED it. We must have watched about 60 minutes of actual football and half an hour of slow motion replays of Capello reacting to every incident in the same way – arms out, face creased like a ballbag after a bath. And we’ve seen that much of David Beckham sat on a bench in a kit for the last three years, that we really don’t really need more of him doing exactly the same thing in an M&S suit instead. PUT THE FOOTBALL ON.

ITV aren’t alone, of course. On a rare excursion to Sky Sports News in between matches we were delighted to find that they were saying the Serbia-Ghana game had finished 1-0 to Serbia, despite describing a Ghana penalty beneath. At least, over on the BBC, Mark Bright had the fortitude to sum up the Algeria-Slovenia match in a single word: ‘Boredom’.

Not every channel has become as obsessed with crowbarring the World Cup and James Corden into every single programme though (the BBC somehow managed a Doctor Who episode with football AND Corden on Saturday night). Top Gear archive and occasional TV channel Dave are running a mostly-fictional-but-with-real-life-resonances football comedy on their website.

What it basically consists of is a no-mark five-a-side team, representing Dave, but coached by a man who appears to take all the content of his conversation from The Sun’s Little Book of Football Adjectives and Phrasings. The team itself is a bit like The Sun too, in that it consists of very little information or back-story, but does contain a few tits to keep us entertained.

A pretty boy with a high opinion of himself, some fairly average no-hopers and a goalkeeper so embarrassed about being in goal he’s asked for his face to be pixellated throughout; it’s possible Dave are using their own football team’s travails as a metaphor for England themselves. Oh, and David Baddiel’s in it, as the head of Dave, who quite clearly can’t be arsed – one of his better moments on telly since Fantasy Football was scrapped.

At ten minutes per episode, as we found this weekend, it at least means you can get some light relief from the tedium of matches like Algeria-Slovenia, rather than listening to messrs Lineker and Shearer confessing to knowing absolutely nothing about either team and commenting only on how boring it’s been. Or Keegan looking like he wants to curl up somewhere dark and die.

You can watch it here: www.joindave.co.uk/fcdave. Dave are also running a competition through which, following the inevitable failure of FC Dave to win anything, your side could win a season at Powerleague and give Dave a better name. They’ll give you a sponsorship package and entrance to a Powerleague 5-aside league of your choice. The winning team will be featured on the Dave website, which hopefully is amazing exposure and will get you lots of fans, credibility and popularity in the blogosphere and beyond. Hopefully.

USA 1 - English Arrogance 0

The Sun ran the headline ‘England Algeria Slovenia Yanks’ the day after the World Cup draw had been made. England Algeria Slovenia Yanks, vertically down the page. EASY. My fury at the time at this show of preposterous arrogance was replaced by self indulgence on Saturday night when I basked in a spot of ‘I told you so’ arrogance myself. The Americans are NOT a bad side. Not a bad side at all. They are the last side to beat Spain. We haven’t beaten Spain since 2001. Last summer at the Confederations Cup where the Americans secured their famous win, they also very nearly beat Brazil in the final, contriving to throw away a two-goal lead.

As the pages of this blog warned only last week, England’s opener would not be the foregone conclusion many implausibly ignorant observers would have you believe. And it was so. Anecdotally at least, however, I still feel that the consensus of opinion is still overwhelmingly that England will walk the group by thrashing the whipping boys, before strolling past Serbia or more than likely, Ghana in the last 16, before thumping a sad French side seemingly wracked by infighting to set up a face-off against an actual team, Brazil, in the semis. Let me just hammer that home. ENGLAND ARE GOING TO STROLL INTO THE SEMI FINALS OF THE WORLD CUP. What planet do people live on?

Because I now run the very real risk of giving myself an ulcer, all I can do as a humble blogger is lay down a few facts. In the last four World Cups, England have beaten Colombia, Tunisia, Denmark, Ecuador, Trinidad & Tobago and Argentina. We have drawn with Nigeria, Sweden twice and the USA. We have lost to Argentina, Portugal (both on penalties), Brazil and Romania. We haven’t beaten Holland since Euro ’96, which was the last time we had a genuine chance of winning a major tournament. England have lost their past three friendlies to Spain, all in the noughties. You have to look even further back to find when England last beat the Brazilians – a friendly in 1990. A victory against the French last came 13 years ago in La Tournoi in 1997. It is also at that same warm up tournament that England last beat the holders, Italy.

Before yesterday’s hugely impressive pasting of the Aussies, the Germans had been written off wholesale by the English. We are talking about a side that has got to a final and a semi in the last two tournaments and hasn’t dropped out of a World Cup before the quarter final stage since 1938. Our so-called ‘Golden Generation’ (and if I had bigger apostrophes I would use them) would kill for a record like that. England’s last two competitive tournaments featuring ‘Golden Generation’ cast: quarter finals and didn’t qualify.

Please print off this article and hand it to any England fan you know who thinks we are going to stroll into the semis. I know I sound like Kevin Killjoy, but I like to think of myself more as a Roy of the Realists. A solitary World Cup win on home soil 44 years ago a footballing superpower does not make. Imagine going out on the piss with some Uruguayans and after their third pint they are banging on about winning one more World Cup than you and you get the gist of the interminable hype that surrounds England every time there is a major tournament. Unsurprisingly, none of the facts mentioned above were dwelt upon over the weekend by the ITV or BBC teams. But one DID keep cropping up. England drew their first game against Uruguay in 1966. So obviously, if you put two and two together you come up with 2010, in which case a draw against the States means a World Cup win. Incredible analysis from our boys there. The amount of crap fed to the English public by the bullshit brigade is astounding. Headed most audibly by Adrian Chiles and Kevin Keegan, the latter predicted a 4-1 England win on Saturday. And he packed in his job in 2000 why? This is a man who goes into a grocers to buy a pound of apples and come out with a bag full of onions.

As it stands now, the focus needs to be on the next game. Not Ghana in the next round. Or France. Or Brazil. Or Spain in the final. But Algeria. On Friday, England need to win. Then, and only then, they can look to the Slovenia game. As clichés go, ‘taking each game as it comes’ could not be more apt right now. House in order first, knockout stages later, if only for my own sanity. Adam Bushby

Friday, 11 June 2010

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

'Who the fuck is staying?!'
Vicente Del Bosque is sat at a desk in his hotel room, his face a picture of concentration as he surveys his options ahead of Spain’s opening game against the Swiss in Durban. Next to him is a waste paper bin full of screwed up pieces of paper. “Mierda,” he mutters under his breath. He continues to thumb his moustache and stare into space. And then he sits up, arresting the slouch of the past hour and his expression begins to change. He bends forward and begins scribbling away furiously. He knows he’s finally cracked it. He’s found the secret to World Cup success and he can scarcely believe how simple it was. “Uno va. Uno no va.” Simple. Del Bosque then leaves his hotel room to meet with Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. To tell them his masterplan. To tell them it is simple. “Uno va. Uno no va.”

Would this scenario ever occur? No it would not. Why not? Because Spain are the best side in the world at keeping the ball. Therefore they do not, like the English, have an overpowering preoccupation with employing a defensive midfielder to shield the defence. England are vulnerable because they don't keep the ball well. And in the absence of the one truly very good English defensive midfielder, Owen Hargreaves, everyone is extremely keen on having a midfielder holding so the back four aren't exposed by the inevitable breakdown in play just inside the opposition half.

But then, what is there to worry about? Fabio Capello has Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard at his disposal. Two of the most highly acclaimed central midfielders in the world. As Terry Butcher will tell you: “They are intelligent. They know when one goes, one sits.” With that attitude and depth of ability is it any wonder England are the best team in the world and set to sweep all before them… oh hang on.

The “one stays, one goes” argument is as futile and irrelevant now as it ever was. In the frenetic world at the top of the Premier League, it is ok to lose the ball following the raking diagonal ball so favoured by English players because in 30 seconds time, it will be retained. In international football, however, once England give the ball away to the likes of Spain or Holland, they may not see it again for a couple of minutes. That is why Gerrard and Lampard are so effective domestically but still struggle when paired together for England. Added to this is the fact that both enjoy the luxury of being backed up by two of the best defensive midfielders in the world at club level – Javier Mascherano and Michael Essien.

More often than not, Gerrard and Lampard are employed in the most attacking role in the midfields of Liverpool and Chelsea respectively and so the whole “you stay, I’ll go” debate is redundant, as they both always ‘go’. As crushingly negative as it sounds, until the technical skills of the English match up to those of Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, France and Italy, an exclusively defensive midfielder will always be needed.

Which makes it such a shame that the one player who can truly measure up technically to the world’s best midfielders has decided not to travel to South Africa, spurning Fabio Capello’s advances. Paul Scholes would have been incredibly useful at the World Cup. He just does not give the ball away and is fantastic with both feet, a trait not usually associated with the English. He can also dictate tempo and with possession being nine-tenths of the law at World Cup level, his cool head (with the ball, not in the tackle) would have been invaluable as he sat as a deep-lying playmaker akin to Xabi Alonso. As it is, the talk of Capello opting for a 4-4-2 is rife, which means Gerrard once more making the acquaintance of Lampard in the centre. Let’s hope they are not as indecisive as the ponderous Joe Strummer when deciding who stays and who goes. Adam Bushby

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

USA Have Weapons For Strong World Soccerball Series Campaign

If the ‘special relationship’ appears frosty now, just wait until June 12th. The opening game of the World Cup’s group C is already eagerly anticipated. Its contestants, England and the USA, are both expected to qualify from the group, occupied as it is by relative international minnows. From this opening fixture, the victor can expect safe passage to the knockout stages. For the loser, the margins will become tighter and the bums squeakier. And, in case anyone was wondering, there should be no doubts the USA have designs on top spot in the group.

It has been a while since the two countries have met on what appears quite a level playing field. Low expectations continue to surround England despite FIFA’s world rankings, for what they’re worth, placing them eighth and the USA 14th. Previous meetings, one famous 1-0 defeat in 1950 aside, have also tended to favour the English. Previous tournament form, though, gives one cause for thought.

The USA’s pedigree is frequently measured by last summer’s vuvuzela-introducing, curtain-raising Confederations Cup exploits – the last time they faced any side with real international clout. As most are fairly aware, they became the first team to inflict defeat on Vincent del Bosque’s Spain in 35 matches, ending their run of 15 straight victories. They ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of famous victory – a 3-2 loss after being 2-0 up inside 27 minutes – against Brazil in the tournament’s final.

Their group stage campaign in the tournament could have secured them quite a different reputation. They were humbled 3-1 by Italy and then 3-0 by Brazil, before sneaking through with a 3-0 victory over Egypt, having scored one goal more than the imploding Italians. The power and mobility displayed against Spain and Brazil took a while to come to fore and England will hope to catch the American side – and their defence in particular – similarly cold. Strong starts, though, are certainly not England’s strong suit.

Inconsistent though they can be, the USA do have the weapons to be incisive from the outset. England will be emboldened by a defence flakier than a crushed Cadbury’s Flake (and just as hard to get off your shirt), but concerned by attacks that, when they get it right, have the potential to cut through defences at speed. Landon Donovan’s excellent loan spell at Goodison Park and the performances of Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley (with only nine caps between them) and the tireless Clint Dempsey up front in the build-up to the finals offer the USA plenty of confidence, as well as hinting that their traditional lack of flair and goals may not be as evident this time. Jozy Altidore, maligned at Hull, has scored nine international goals in 25 caps – of which Donovan has assisted five. It could be a formidable front line. Rangers’ DaMarcus Beasley, should he feature, is certainly no slouch, despite carrying the significant weight of the world’s most unnecessary prefix.

At the back, the USA are not quite as blessed. While all three goalkeepers in the squad ply their trade in the Premier League – some more frequently than others – the defence could be a conspicuous weak spot. Star centre back and the country’s tallest-ever outfield player, Oguchi Onyewu, currently in the employ of AC Milan, has appeared only twice for the Rossoneri this season having torn the patellar tendon in his knee while on international duty in October last year. Carlos Bocanegra isn’t getting any younger and Jon Spector shares a ‘reason to be critiqued’ with Matthew Upson, namely that he has spent a season (albeit successfully) battling relegation with West Ham. Another British-based player, Watford’s Jay DeMerit, is also no stranger to the bottom of the Premier League, weighted down as he presumably is by the world’s second most unnecessary prefix.

In conclusion then, the side are a bit like a Midwest mullet – short and sharp up front, straggly and all over the place at the back. In their pre-tournament friendlies, a 3-1 victory over Australia followed a 2-1 victory over Turkey and not only gave weight to this argument, but also inspired confidence in the ranks. A 2-1 defeat away in the Netherlands and a worrying 4-2 reality Czech at the hands of the fading Republic on home soil are rapidly being forgotten about, as is another friendly defeat in Honduras, and Bob Bradley – a coach with a reputation for competence rather than ingenuity, but nevertheless a man who knows his apples from his onions – has built a physical, competitive and imposing team.

Naturally, there is a chance that the game with England will all kick off. By virtue of being a country on the planet that isn’t England, the Americans feel an element of needle with their first opponents. There is unease in both directions, whether it be over chronic bastardisation of an entire language or appalling dental hygiene. The USA won’t be afraid to get stuck into England. It might even suit them. In fact, this could be a fairly ugly game in what might turn out to be a fairly ugly group.

There are, of course, games beyond this opening fixture, though it will still rank as an upset if the USA win. Qualification through the group stages should, however, be reasonably serene for the Americans, though much depends on the obduracy of the Slovenians, who could make the final group game, if the USA need to win it, quite uncomfortable. Should similar momentum to their Confederations Cup campaign build up, it could easily take the USA as far as the quarter finals. Bradley and his players appear confident, accomplished and desperate to avoid a repeat of 2006 when they crashed out in the group stages with barely a whimper. Last summer’s experience of the Highveld and proper tournament football, however, should mean they know exactly what to expect this time round. Rob MacDonald

Monday, 7 June 2010

Africa unlikely to blow their own trumpets

“Oh Africa” indeed. Akon may well have been bemoaning the bad luck that has cursed the continent in the lead up to the World Cup. And Didier Drogba may just be wishing that the fanciful idea of a pitch being made up of spectators in that shite Pepsi advert were true. It is sad to say the least that the first World Cup on African soil sees the continent in perhaps its worst shape for years coming into the tournament. High hopes have been dented by injuries to Africa’s two best players – Michael Essien and Drogba (who may just recover from a fractured arm in time for the Portugal game next week). Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel is also going to be missing from the finals. These great expectations were already spoilt by the tough draws facing the African nations, with the most talented side, Ivory Coast, pitted yet again in a group of death, this time with Brazil and Portugal when four years ago it was Argentina and Holland blocking their hopes of progress. Indeed, Africa’s official best team, Egypt, didn’t even qualify. Hugely impressive in the African Nations back at the start of 2010, had Egypt qualified and been handed a place in, say, Groups C, F or H, it doesn’t take such a leap of imagination to picture them reaching the knockouts. Then there is the man in the pram, Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o, who seems more preoccupied with throwing his toys at Roger Milla than adding to his phenomenal international goals tally of 44.

The scenario of no African sides making the last 16 is a very real possibility. Here’s why: as mentioned, the Ivory Coast are in an incredibly tough group. They meet a Brazil side which is built in its manager’s image. Dunga has fashioned a ruthlessly efficient outfit which is built on a solid defence featuring world-class performers Julio Cesar and Inter teammates Lucio and Maicon. But nevertheless, its proficiency on the counter attack will be more than a worry to a relatively dodgy Ivorian defence and goalkeeper. Kolo Toure will need to step up. That said, Arthur Boka and Emmanuel Eboue will be looking to attack at the earliest opportunity and are real threats going forward. Yaya Toure and Didier Zakora will provide an impressive safety net and an on song (and hopefully fit) Didier Drogba is one of the best strikers in the world. Supported by Salomon Kalou and Lille’s Gervinho, the attack is potentially lethal. If the Ivory Coast are to progress, the Portugal game is absolutely crucial. The Portuguese yet again ride in on their impressive dark steed, with a squad brimming with talent. The margin for error will be slight, as the Elephants found out to their cost four years ago, being on the wrong end of 2-1 scorelines against first the Argentines and then the Dutch. On the back of a phenomenal golden boot winning season, the importance therefore of Drogba cannot be overstated. On the plus side, manager Sven Goran Eriksson has a history of getting sides to the quarter finals.

Cameroon’s hopes rest more so on the shoulders of their talismanic front man. Now, Samuel Eto’o’s pedigree as a thoroughbred is best backed up by stats: a return of 108 goals in 145 games for Barcelona. Jose Mourinho did a great impression of a cat burglar when he shipped off Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Catalonia and received Eto’o and a staggering €46m. At the San Siro, Eto’o learned the art of altruism from his Portuguese boss as he laboured unlike he had ever had to do before. But a reversion to type will be needed for the 29-year-old if his country is to have any hope of reaching the knockouts. Alex Song and Stephane Mbia will form a very effective defensive shield in front of a defence that boasts Spurs defenders Sebastien Bassong and Benoît Assou-Ekotto, as well as the best African keeper, Idriss Carlos Kameni. Achille Emana is the wild card. The Real Betis midfielder is electrifying on his day, but has just spent a season in the Spanish second flight. Fighting off the attentions of Denmark and Japan to follow the Dutch through to last 16 will be difficult but is doable. It is a fairly favourable draw but the Lions will have to live up to their indomitable nickname.

Perhaps the biggest slice of the bad luck cake was chewed off by the Ghanaians when Michael Essien was finally ruled out of the World Cup after months fighting to get fit. Essien’s loss is huge and Ghana are certainly no Chelsea. His more attacking role with the national team will mean that the onus to provide thrust will fall to lesser mortals such as Sulley Muntari and Kevin Prince Boateng. And those remembering the big strapping battering ram Stephen Appiah’s former glory may be a little disappointed with the 2010 model, wracked as he is by injuries. Goals are going to be hard to come by – Rennes striker Asamoah Gyan will need a big tournament – and edging past Germany, Serbia and Australia is probably going to be a step too far for the Black Stars. That said, Germany are sufficiently weakened by the injury that rules out Micheal ‘professional fouler and very good international footballer lest we forget’ Ballack, while the Serbs, promising in qualifying, contrived to lose to New Zealand a few weeks ago.

Nigeria are evidently weakened by Mikel’s departure from the squad. Argentina aside, they are in a group they should realistically hope to get out of, pitting their wits against South Korea and Greece. On their day, Yakubu Ayegbeni and Obafemi Martins could be a lethal combination. But for ‘on their day’, read ‘probably not going to happen but…’ With Mikel you’d have fancied them. Without, it will be a struggle. The squad is littered with average players at every turn. The heady heights of France ’98 and that beautiful victory against Spain seems too long ago.

Which leads me to another African squad full of average players but this time, more than the sum of their parts, certainly. It was Algeria that put out Africa’s Best TeamTM Egypt in a play off. Come January this year, that victory looked more and more like a watershed moment for the Algerians as Egypt gained their revenge with a brutal 4-0 thrashing in the African Nations semi finals. With England and the US in their group, Algeria’s fate undoubtedly hinges on getting off to a flying start against Slovenia in their first game. Madjid Bougherra will need to be at his inspirational best but the omens don’t look too good.

And then we come to the hosts. It would be cruel – but perhaps true – to suggest that in football terms, they are in fact the worst World Cup hosts ever. No host nation has never not made it to the round of 16. This year, that is in danger of becoming a redundant fact. However, if last year’s Confederations Cup is a marker, the incessant, mind-numbing buzz of the vuvuzela may just propel them along to the knockouts. Everton’s much-admired Steven Pienaar is the star man, while an unorthodox goal threat is offered by the gigantic figure of the exotically-named centre back Matthew Booth. While a group containing France, Mexico and Uruguay is not remarkable, it also poses its fair share of problems. France, as pedestrian (read: appalling) as their recent form may be, do boast a very talented squad, while the Mexicans play a fluent attacking brand of football and were unlucky to lose to England recently. Uruguay too will be hard to overcome, with Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez combining to offer a potent threat.

While it might seem a little unfair to tar an entire continent with the ‘too many injuries, no chance’ brush, this does unfortunately appear to be the African nations’ destiny. Their losses are akin to Europe turning up without Rooney, Ronaldo and Spain, or South America turning up without Messi and Lucio. What they will need, to stand any chance of progression beyond their respective groups, is for all their players, not just the superstars to come to play. The fervent support is there, as is the grandest stage of all. No one wants to wake up after this vuvuzela-fuelled party with only a blinding headache and lots of plastic to recycle. Adam Bushby

Friday, 4 June 2010

Holland’s Holy Trinity

Genius is seldom anything but neurotic. This is particularly the case when it comes to the Dutch. Problems with Paul G eh, Vincent? Time to get the razor blade out son. Of course, the Netherlands is not inhabited by a troupe of bleeding, one-eared, lovelorn artists, but it is a neat analogy of the Dutch propensity for self-inflicted harm. In 1974, Holland swept all before them on the way to the World Cup final with a vision of football so sophisticated, so clinical in its beauty, so sure of itself, that the side deemed it appropriate to not only set out to beat West Germany in the final, but to humiliate them into the bargain. The vision of Total Football was unleashed with a vengeance, Holland going one up before the Germans had touched the ball. Cue the decadent, swaggering hipsters – Cruyff, Rep, Krol, Neeskens – taking the piss until the inevitable collapse. Four years later there was no Cruyff – due to a failed kidnap attempt on his family – and again, the side stuttered in the final, succumbing to Argentina in extra time.

It is the match in Munich in ’74 that perhaps best encapsulates the Dutch. It is a self-fulfiling prophecy every four years that they turn up, play everyone off the park and then implode so spectacularly they don’t know their apples from their onions. That Bergkamp goal at France ’98 was worthy to win any match. But again, a great side in orange bottled it, that time against the Brazilians in the semis.

Every four years we hear the overused term ‘dark horses’ precede the name ’Holland’. This year is no different. On paper, we are in typical Holland territory. Quite a shit defence; fantastic attack. Celtic’s Edson Braafheid is in the squad, for crying out loud (no, me either). Looking at the squad list though, the eyes are drawn to three players in particular. They are Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie. Three players that you feel would walk into any other side in the tournament.

Of course, however, another Dutch holy trinity failed on the world stage. Rather than a blaze of glory, the Italia ’90 vintage went out in a haze of Frank Rijkaard’s gob as the pre-tournament favourites, featuring the triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten, fell to the old enemy Germany.

Could this trio be different? Robben has had a barnstorming season. Spectacular goals in the Champions League against Fiorentina and Manchester United proved the icing on the cake as Robben shrugged off his perennial injury worries to show the undoubted talent that implored Jose Mourinho to clinch his signature at Stamford Bridge. On the ball and bearing down on the full back, there are few better wingers in the game. Greedy he may be, but dangerous, always. Alongside him, Sneijder will be expected to pull the strings with the gusto he has shown all season at Inter. Proving Real Madrid so wrong to let him go last summer, the midfielder has shone in almost a quarterback role where he is expected to orchestrate counter attacks with quickness of mind and fleet of foot. It is from Sneijder’s string pulling that the fit-again van Persie will be hoping to be the biggest beneficiary. With talent in abundance, the Arsenal man has seen his season wrecked through injury. The cameo at White Hart Lane on his return from the physio’s table was absolutely top drawer and reinforced the belief at the Emirates that a fit RVP could have propelled Arsenal to the title.

In South Africa, Holland will not be among the favourites. Those roles are taken by Spain, Brazil and in England at least, England. But looking past the quite obviously dodgy defence (78-year-old Giovanni van Bronckhorst is there once more), the midfield and attack brims with options; very good ones as it happens. Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel are two destroyers that would provide more than adequate cover for Sneijder to get behind enemy lines. Dirk Kuyt, for all his faults, is tireless and always seems to come up with valuable goals when necessary. Rafael van der Vaart is an outstandingly talented playmaker on his day. Eljero Elia could be something of a wildcard after the skillful young winger earned plaudits aplenty for his displays in the Bundesliga with Hamburg. And the front three of Robben, van Persie and Jan Huntelaar has goals in it.

Quite whether Holland will get their act together is something only the 23 in orange know. Two years ago they thrashed France 4-1 in the Euros in a scintillating display of attacking football. Then, true to form, they stumbled against a very impressive Russia in the quarters. In qualifying for South Africa, the Dutch had a 100% record, winning eight on the bounce. Add this to the recent 4-1 thrashing of Ghana courtesy of goals from Kuyt, van der Vaart, Sneijder and van Persie and you are looking at a team threatening to peak at the right time. This year it could be different for Holland. I doubt it will be, but given the choice between watching the Dutch, the Italians, the Germans or the English for that matter, I know who wins every time. Adam Bushby

Holland Squad

Goalkeepers: Sander Boschker (FC Twente), Maarten Stekelenburg (Ajax), Michel Vorm (FC Utrecht)
Defenders: Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart), Edson Braafheid (Celtic), John Heitinga (Everton), Joris Mathijsen (Hamburg), Andre Ooijer (PSV Eindhoven), Giovanni van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord), Gregory van der Wiel (Ajax)
Midfielders: Ibrahim Afellay (PSV Eindhoven), Nigel de Jong (Manchester City), Demy de Zeeuw (Ajax), Stijn Schaars (AZ Alkmaar), Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Mark van Bommel (Bayern Munich), Rafael van der Vaart (Real Madrid)
Strikers: Ryan Babel (Liverpool), Eljero Elia (Hamburg), Klaas Jan Huntelaar (AC Milan), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Robin van Persie (Arsenal)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Lennon Reaps Rewards As Capello Picks Progress

As the exclusion of Theo Walcott from the England squad grabs most of the headlines, one call-up in the Arsenal winger’s position – having initially been the focus of Sky Sports dreaded yellow breaking news doom bar of peril – was largely considered unremarkable. Aaron Lennon, coming back from a persistent groin injury, was included as arguably Fabio Capello’s first-choice wide man to almost no surprise.

Two wingers, both alike in attributes; Walcott and Lennon are diminutive and blessed with searing pace. Both have World Cup qualifying man-of-the-match performances against Croatia to their name. But while Walcott scored a smash and grab hat-trick, Lennon made goals for the strikers and midfielders and was a constant nightmare for Croatia at Wembley. Both have three Premier League goals this season. But Walcott has two assists, Lennon ten (and in a game fewer). Ever a man for results, Capello’s pragmatism has continued to point him towards Lennon.

Lennon’s final ball, it is widely agreed, is of a better quality than Walcott’s. Perhaps some caution is warranted here: being ‘better than Walcott’s’ doesn’t make it high quality. There is no doubt it has improved, though, and that could comprise the Spurs man’s crucial asset. Where Lennon, criticised in previous years for his head-down style, has blossomed into an excellent all-round winger, Walcott has stagnated; even regressed. Ironically, his involvement with England in a different guise, at the Under 21s European Championships affected his pre-season and is probably the cause of his part in the other similarity between the two. Both have been disrupted by injury this year, but the behaviour of their respective stock during their spells on the sidelines could not have been more marked.

Lennon’s blistering start to the season with Tottenham had virtually guaranteed his inclusion in this summer’s squad even before he was injured. Everything Walcott did when trying to recover match fitness was scrutinised for an immediate return to form, another devastating impact like in Zagreb; everything Lennon did – unremarkable on his comeback – was hailed as a step in the right direction.

Credit must go to Lennon. Without passing judgement on Walcott, Lennon is a model of listening to his coaches and developing his talent. Not many footballers are blessed with such raw pace. Even fewer are able to combine that with speed of mind. Most ‘intelligent’ footballers are associated with sluggishness: Teddy Sheringham springs to mind quicker than he ever moved on the pitch.

Craft and guile and wingers are an extremely valuable combination. Lennon has sharpened his ability to pick the right ball and deliver it at the right time. He is not perfect – much like another rough diamond, Adam Johnson, he has been known to twist and turn just once too often – but it is getting better all the time and could well be one of England’s most potent weapons. Talk coming out of the England camp suggests that frustration was mounting with Walcott’s lack of positional discipline in matches – perhaps harsh when all expect him to be reprising his Croatian goalscoring exploits – though you can guarantee Lennon is all too keen to keep chalk on his boots for 90 minutes.

Though England appear blessed with options on the flanks, as four wingers competed for places in the 23, none of the candidates have been consistent, whether through injury (Lennon), confidence (Walcott), or the emergence of others (Wright-Phillips). Johnson, the reason for Wright-Phillips’ stint on the bench at Eastlands, is not considered experienced enough to warrant a place. Of the remaining limited options, and with the added bonus of previous World Cup experience, Lennon is the obvious first pick.

While much of Fabio Capello’s squad indicates that the Italian has foregone his pledge to pick on form, Lennon has enjoyed some scintillating moments and has been England’s best winger this season. The lack of surprise at his inclusion, as well as his return to fitness, is a testament to his efforts to improve. Rob MacDonald

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Weary West Country Needs Another Holloway

There is plenty about Ian Holloway which defies the conventions of the modern Premier League football manager. First he actually likes talking to the press. A lot. The sports journalist fraternity can barely conceal their excitement ahead of a season of post-match press conferences peppered, they hope, with such immortal lines as ‘Our performance today would have been not the best looking bird but at least we got her in the taxi.’

Second, Holloway manages Blackpool, a team so unfashionable it makes Hull City look like Kate Moss. Before the Pete Doherty phase. Sure, Stanley Matthews, Jimmy Armfield and Alan Ball all once graced their ranks but today’s team of hardworking journeymen have about as much chance of avoiding relegation as North Korea have of making it out of Group E in South Africa.

It’s not like Holloway is an up-and-coming young manager either. He has done the rounds in the lower divisions, plying his until now unremarkable trade at the likes of Bristol Rovers and Leicester City before making it to the big show at the age of 47.

Unusual as his route to the big time may be, there is one thing that makes him stand out among most other managers and players in the Premier League: his place of birth. For while England’s top division is as multicultural as they come; chock full of Bulgarians, Togolese and Hondurans, how many top flight managers from the South-west of England can you name? Or players for that matter?

The Bristolian is one of a select group of individuals from his native land to have made a name for themselves in professional football in the past few years. The other notables can be counted one hand: former West Ham United hard-man Julian Dicks; ex Southampton captain Jason Dodd; and Cornwallian goalkeeping legend Nigel Martyn immediately spring to mind. After that, and if you really feel like clutching at straws Theo Walcott grew up in the Newbury area, which is quite near Swindon. The above are all decent players, but provide slim pickings for anyone hoping to fill a hall of fame.

Things might have been different if Bristol City had made it to the Premier League two years after reaching the 2008 Championship play-off final. Instead it was Bristol rather than Hull that found itself saddled by The Telegraph with the ignominious title of the UK’s ‘most narcoleptic sporting city’. Indeed, the last West Country team to ply its trade in England’s top division was Swindon Town in 1992-1993. They lasted a single forgettable season before relegation and descent into the lower leagues followed.

As a West Country man myself, the region’s lack of representation in football’s top echelons has long been a source of discomfort. The argument generally wagered is that the South West’s predominance as a rugby-playing territory has condemned football to always playing second fiddle. But if that were true then why has Wales, with a population just over half the size, been able to achieve such success in the beautiful game; if not on an international or club level, than with the production of players of the calibre of Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy and managers such as Johan Toshack and Mark Hughes (both quite handy players themselves too)?

Another explanation is that as a region whose economy was traditionally founded on its agricultural and maritime prowess, the South West lacks the large industrial towns that were the catalyst for the clubs spawned by the ironworks of East London or the cotton mills of the North West. Yet if this historical anomaly has stunted its development then why not that too of East Anglia – a region whose most successful team, Fairs Cup winners Ipswich Town, are nicknamed the Tractor Boys?

For a dedicated football fan, watching the sports bulletins on Points West is depressing fare indeed. This year’s highlight? Swindon’s League One play-off final – and defeat – against Millwall. At least next season I have Holloway’s familiar Bristolian twang to look forward to. And with Blackpool likely to be on the receiving end of a fair few drubbings I can probably expect to hear plenty of it on Match of the Day. Ok, it isn’t much, but it’s worth getting out the cider for. Will Hodges