Yes, It Was A Fantastic Goal. But That’s Not The Point.

First of all, I’m not really that interested in friendlies. I didn’t watch the game last night: my mother in law did and she sent me a text saying ‘what a goal’ because she was watching it. I turned over, thinking Sweden had equalised (I imagined the score was still 2-1) but I had to watch the end of the game to see Zlatan Ibrahimovic score his wonder goal…and surely I’m not the only person who thought that Joe Hart was to blame for it.

The real story last night happened in Montenegro. Two goals from Andrija Delibasic and one from Elsad Zverotic gave the hosts a 3-0 win over San Marino and sent Montengro back to the top of World Cup Qualifying Group H: having played the same amount of games, the Montenegrins have two more points and exactly the same goal difference. We play them in Podgorica at the end of March 2013 in a game that will go a long to way to determining who wins the group and who has to face the playoffs – and at the moment, that could mean a potential tie with France, Croatia or Sweden.

So although it was good to see three young debutants in Stockholm last night – and not forgetting that Steven Gerrard reached a genuine milestone, for which he deserves congratulations – the result is a little worrying. England have only kept four clean sheets in the last ten games and only one of those teams (Italy) is what you’d describe as a world footballing power. As much as I don’t want to sound like a grumpy git, I think the remaining World Cup qualifiers may be not as straightforward as we’d all like to think. We’ll see: the next game is against Brazil in February but if Neymar or Hulk (another player who ‘doesn’t do well against English teams’) are on form then it might not be pleasant viewing.

A Look At ‘New’ England

Guest blogger Lee Clarke runs the rule over Wednesday night’s friendly victory over an experimental Italian side.

England 2 Italy 1 – If only this was a result from a certain major tournament two months ago.

The Three Lions defeat to The Azzuri in Kiev back in June was still fresh in the memory as England took to the pitch to face the team that had caused national heartbreak only 52 days ago.

Even if you are more interested in Premier League betting, you would have noticed that the two sides looked completely different from the Euro 2012 quarter-final in which England were denied a last four berth thanks to a penalty shootout.

Roy Hodgson handed debuts to no fewer than five players in Berne, with the stand out performance of the debutants being second half substitute John Ruddy. The Norwich custodian looked like a 50 cap player when he took to the stage for the second half.

What was really refreshing about Wednesday night’s game was that Hodgson was not afraid to try youth. Albeit mixed with some experience, but we can cope with that.

Jack Butland began in goal becoming the youngest goalkeeper to play for England by some margin. What a summer the young Birmingham goalkeeper has had. League Two with Cheltenham, to third choice England keeper, Olympics and now this. Talk about Roy of the Rovers stuff!

Everyone following Manchester united news will agree that Michael Carrick was a pleasing addition to the starting line-up for the strangely timed friendly in Berne. Carrick played in the position so often occupied for England by the much over-rated Gareth Barry.

Barry is, for me, not fit to lace Carrick’s boots, certainly on the last season and a halves form anyway.

The former West Ham and Spurs man was incredibly easy on the eye during Wednesday night’s game and rarely looks like losing possession when in control of the ball.

Indeed England certainly look to be getting to grips with the new three man midfield which Hodgson likes to employ. Tom Cleverley was the man sitting just behind Andy Carroll against Italy and with more game time at Manchester United he will only continue to improve. You half expect this season could be make or break for the youngster however.

Kyle Walker was a cert for the right-back berth at the Euros before injury ruled out the Tottenham star, he again proved his worth with a solid display, so too did Phil Jagielka. Always a steady performer it was nice to see him step up to the plate on the international stage and cap a fine performance with a first half goal.

One thing is certain about England under Roy Hodgson is that we are now much more difficult to beat and opponents are no longer easily able to grasp our bland style which was so blatantly obvious under Fabio Capello.

With more game time for the Three Lions mix of youthful exuberance and experienced steel we will only continue to get better. Only time will tell just how far the ‘new’ England can go.

Hodgson Names Puzzling Squad for Italy Friendly

It’s still very disconcerting to have to play friendlies before the domestic season has begun, especially when the game is against a team that knocked us out of Euro 2012 and when some of the squad have just returned from Olympic Games duty with Team GB. Nonetheless, the campaign to qualify for the next World Cup in Brazil is underway: guest blogger Richard Smith of takes a look at what might best be described as a developmental squad.

With two 2014 World Cup qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine coming up next month, England manager, Roy Hodgson, has named a rather puzzling squad to face Italy in a friendly in Switzerland this week that would appear to be more about players proving their England futures rather than a group of new and young players becoming the nucleus of the team that will form the team’s future and World Cup aspirations.

Hodgson has recalled both Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick and both look like starting in central midfield againstItaly, despite both being in their 30s. Lampard in fact has been named as captain, which would appear to confirm the long standing fear of most England fans that the manager finds it almost impossible to select a side that does not include both Lampard and the officially appointed captain Steven Gerrard.

It seemed that Hodgson, now having got Euro 2012 out of the way, would set his stall out with a squad that had a youthful bias, interspersed with experienced players such as Gerrard who remain at an age to make it all the way through to the World Cup of 2014. However, the inclusion of Lampard and Carrick suggests that the “old guard” still feature prominently in current thinking although he has left out, somewhat mysteriously, John Terry.

Also included in Hodgson’s squad are Jermaine Defoe and Andy Carroll, neither of whom look likely to be playing first team football this season as it stands. Carroll is clearly out of favour at Anfield after the club accepted an approach from West Ham to loan the striker only for the player to turn down the move and Defoe is being linked with a move away from White Hart Lane. It is interesting to note that Daniel Sturridge is included after missing Euro 2012, yet Danny Welbeck, one of his Euro 2012 preferred front men as been ignored.

There is no Rio Ferdinand and Scott Parker is out due to injury. Stewart Downing and Joleon Lescott are also missing .

On the positive side,  Hodgson has included Tom Cleverley, has recalled Adam Johnson of Manchester City, Kyle Walker of Spurs and has kept the faith with young Arsenal pair Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott. He also found a place for Ashley Young who disappointed at the Euros.

In fairness to Hodgson, the last game he would have wanted would have been a “friendly” againstItaly, who of course knocked Englandout of Euro 2012 via the penalty shoot-out just a matter of weeks ago.

However, World Cup qualification comes around very quickly and for Hodgson and England, a good start to the campaign is essential. Moldova and Ukraine should be a six point start, however, England fans witnessed what Ukraine almost did to England at Euro 2012. We all know that they were cheated out of an equaliser in Kiev and as such, will come to Wembley on September 11th looking for some sort of retribution. Moldova of course are somewhat of an unknown entity although Holland struggled to beat them in a Euro 2012 qualifier in Moldova last year winning only 1-0.

It will be very interesting to see how England perform against Italy but it will be even more interesting to see what squad Hodgson opts for come the World Cup qualifiers? The real test for Hodgson begins now…


If It’s Saturday It Must Be Belgium

The last game before Euro 2012 starts next week looks as if it could turn into pep rally than a competitive game.

It’s probably fair to say that Belgian football has been in the doldrums for the last decade: the Red Devils haven’t qualified for a major tournament for over a decade and are currently one place above Wales in the UEFA Rankings. They missed out on the playoffs by two points, despite managing to score eight more goals than Turkey in their group but they looked up against it when they only drew 1-1 in Azerbaijan a year ago and basically had to beat Germany in Dusseldorf to stand a chance of getting to the playoffs. They were 3-0 down before the hour: that was that.

However – like the Norwegians last week – there are plenty of familiar names in the current Belgian squad. Vincent Kompany was captain of the Manchester City team that won the Premier League last season, Thomas Vermaelen is the heart of Arsenal’s defence and (as I have to explain to various family members when Everton are on telly) Marouane Fellaini is the tall bloke with the big hair.

I’ve deliberately left one name out, because those of us watching tomorrow night may have our lives transformed forever if Eden Hazard plays. Even though he has yet to kick a ball in anger for Chelsea, he’s obviously the best player in the universe right now and fans across the world waited with baited breath last week to see which English club he’d chose to play for. That’s presumably what he’d like us to think, although I’m reserving judgement to see how he does against Stoke at The Britannia Stadium before using any superlatives to describe him.

Regardless of Eden Hazard, history is on our side in this game. Belgium have never beaten us in England: the only time we’ve not beaten them at home in five previous encounters was also the last time they played at Wembley in October 1964. We last played against them at Sunderland in October 1999, when goals from current TV talking heads Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer ensured a 2-1 victory but the game was notable for Kevin Keegan giving Frank Lampard his international debut.

England are favourites to win the game, which kicks off at 5:15pm although ‘coverage’ starts at 4:30pm on ITV. That usually means bland interviews in poorly lit changing rooms, plenty of adverts encouraging you to buy beer/televisions/party food and at least one awful pun from whoever has been rounded up to provide punditry – although I don’t think they’re likely to use ‘the Belgians have surrendered again’, it’ll probably be something based on the EU.

I’ll be back with a quick roundup after the game finishes, but you’re in for a treat next week – a substantial preview piece and something a little different that I think you’ll enjoy.

Have a good long weekend and God Save The Queen.


The new England manager is in place, the team has been chosen. At last it’s game on for England and all the other European teams. Click here to check the Betting odds for Euro 2012.

Shock, Horror: England’s Victory Underplayed By Media

Norway’s Brede Hangeland thinks England are running on empty after a long season. Gary Lineker had a moan about the tactics on twitter. But an Ashley Young goal nine minutes into the game gave England a 1-0 win over Norway in Oslo on Saturday night. Lost in all the comments about how the second half was dull was the fact that Norway haven’t lost at home since June 2010 and have beaten both France and Portugal in Oslo since then. Isn’t winning while not playing particularly well something that we’ve always respected other countries for?

The other issue is that the outbreak of pessimism seems to be hiding another agenda: if England over perform this summer then all the pundits can slap each other on the back and spout nonsense about how they secretly felt that ‘the lads’ would do well all along. I’m sure a few people are convinced that England can repeat the unexpected triumph of the Danes in 1992, but the last time I looked there weren’t any civil wars in Europe we could exploit.

From my point of view, it was hardly an ideal start for Roy Hodgson. I was visiting my sister in law in a ‘nearby country’ and although we watched the first half live, we couldn’t watch the second half until we’d watched the Eurovision Song Contest, which featured a musical recreation of the England team from the mid 1970s by Englebert Humperdinck: on paper it probably seemed as if it was a good idea, but it was off key, not as good as many European rivals and ultimately a bit embarrassing. By the time we watched the recording of the second half of the game I’d had three pints of cider and knew what the final score was.

Moving on and the details of the final squad were handed in earlier today with two alterations from the original list. Jack Butland replaces John Ruddy who is getting married broke his finger and Phil Jagielka replaces Gareth Barry who picked up a groin injury in Oslo on Saturday night. While he was playing football, I hasten to add – I know he’s a Man Citteh player but I don’t think he’s visited any strip clubs recently.

Incidentally, Jagielka’s biography on Wikipedia is as interesting as it is confusing: his father was born in Zagreb, but later on it says that he has Polish and Scottish ancestry. In a parallel universe he’d be playing for the Republic of Ireland.

Last week we received a copy of the Foreign Office guidelines for travel to the Ukraine and without putting too finer point on it, the message was basically don’t travel if you’re black, Asian or obviously gay. I haven’t seen last night’s ‘Panorama’ about the racism in Poland and the Ukraine, but having some experience of watching football in Eastern Europe I can see how the issue could easily be sensationalised.  However, to claim that ‘Nazi symbols…can be seen at any any game in England’ as Ukrainian foreign minister Oleh Voloshyn has is a load of ****ocks and sounds like a statement from a man who clearly has been rattled.

On a lighter note, I also have some experience of watching football in the middle of a group of Polish fans – at a beach football tournament in Spain a few years ago. About ten minutes before Poland’s games were due to kick off, a group of about fifty or more Poles appeared from nowhere: decked out in replica shirts, waving flags and singing songs they kept going throughout the entire game before disappearing immediately afterwards – although some of them must have been on holiday, I think others must’ve been working in bars and hotels. That leads me on to a story about ordering drinks in Spanish only to find out that the barman was Bulgarian…but that’s got nothing to do with football.

I’ll be back on Friday with a preview of the game against the Belgians. Enjoy the weather while you can, in a couple of weeks many of us will be parked in front of the telly all day.

England To Play Against Another Team

At last. A game of football.

Over the past few months – well, most of this year and probably a bit beyond as well – the stories have all been about Capello leaving, ‘Arry being the people’s choice, whether John Terry will continue to be John Terry and all the other unbelievably tiresome speculation about nearly every single aspect of the England team.

Apart from what’s actually happening on the field. In a bizarre turn of events, it seems that England are going to be playing several games of football over the next month or so, an exciting development for fans and pundits alike. The trouble is that the first game is against a team that we’ve had some problems with over the years: we’ve not beaten Norway at Wembley since 1980 but even more worrying is the last time we beat them in Norway was in a friendly before the 1966 World Cup.

The Norwegians haven’t qualified for any of the major tournaments for over a decade, but they were unlucky not to reach the playoffs for Euro 2012, having an inferior goal difference to Portugal – who they beat in Oslo during the qualifiers thanks to a goal from Portsmouth’s Erik Huseklepp. Their current FIFA ranking is higher than both of the hosts in the upcoming tournament as well as the Czech Republic so they aren’t a bad choice for a friendly game – with five English based players in the squad they’ll be familiar with our team and if there’s such a thing as a Scandinavian ‘style’ then I suppose this game is good practice in playing against it.

One thing that could be an advantage for the Norwegians is that the majority of their players are based at home and play in the top tier of the domestic competition, which kicked off in March: the reigning champions are Molde FK, who are managed by former Manchester United striker Ole-Gunnar Solksjaer. He was strongly linked with the Aston Villa job last week but saw sense and turned it down 😉

The danger men for the Norwegians are familiar names to England fans: Jon-Arne Riise, Morten Gamst Pederson and the aforementioned Erik Huseklepp but keep an eye out for Moa Abdellaoue (Hannover 96), the latest of a number of Norwegian players who have chosen to move to the Bundesliga. He’s got a decent strike rate in Germany (26 goals in 68 appearances) for a team that’s not exactly a powerhouse over there and could cause the back four some problems.

Apart from Robert Green and Andy Carroll, it’s not clear who will be in Roy Hodgson’s first England team, but with call ups for Martin Kelly (who won’t be travelling on to Eastern Europe) and Jack Butland (who will – John Ruddy’s broken finger will keep him out of the tournament) we might be seeing an experimental side. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a friendly but hardly ideal a few weeks before a major tournament – so this is a classic wait and see game: a victory would be a bonus, but not losing would be just as good.

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Friendlies? Meh.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but I’m not a big fan of friendlies. Tonight’s game against the Dutch is basically an excuse to sell the new replica shirts that both teams will be wearing. Stuart Pearce may or may not be the next England manager, I doubt that many of the squad will actually make the final 23 for the European Championships and for that reason I’m determined to write less than 100 words about the game.

Looks like I managed that with a few to spare!

It’s Beginning To Look Like The End Of An Era

Well, it’s two weeks since Fab resigned 19 months later than he should have done and it’s finally time for me to pick up my virtual pen and appraise the current situation.

Personally, I think Capello should have gone after the shambles of the World Cup in South Africa. If you’d said in July 2010 that he wouldn’t have been in charge for Euro 2012, I don’ t think many people would have disagreed with you: arguably the bigger surprise is that he was still in charge less than six months before the tournament started.

The big problem the FA faces with his abrupt departure is whether the process of finding a new manager should be begun immediately or after the European Championships.  Stuart Pearce will be in charge for the friendly against the Netherlands next week but the bookies make the loveable but dysgraphic Cockney dog walker Harry Redknapp the favourite for the job – in fact, if Redknapp’s odds were any shorter it’d be worth betting against him getting the job.

However, despite being the people’s choice there are some issues surrounding Redknapp. He’s only won one major domestic honour (the FA Cup with Portsmouth four years ago – and they beat a Championship side to do it) and – if as seems likely – he has to fulfill his obligations to Spurs before he leaves them, there’s the prospect that he might only have twelve days in which to familiarise himself with the job. Spurs’ last game is scheduled for May 13th: England’s first warm up for the Euros is against Norway on May 25th.

The main issue that seems to have finally exhausted Capello’s patience is the decision by the FA to strip John Terry of the captaincy of the England team. Regardless of what you think of the decision or why it was made, it seems to have been the catalyst for Capello’s resignation – presumably because he thought he was the only authority who could remove the honour from Terry. It looked likely that the former captain would travel to the Euros in some capacity (although probably not in the seat next to Rio Ferdinand), but following today’s news that the Chelsea defender will be out for two months it looks as if Terry might miss what looks increasingly like his international swansong: he’ll be 32 in December.

It seems unlikely, but with Capello gone, Terry a possible doubt and Rooney missing the first two games this summer due to that bloody stupid red card he picked up in Macedonia, fan expectations could be more realistic for this tournament than they have been for previous ones. England are currently fourth favourites behind Spain, Germany and Holland which looks about right – until you remember that the previous winners have never successfully defended the trophy and neither ourselves nor the Dutch have ever won it.

So if ‘Arry is as canny as most people seem to think he is, I’d not be surprised if the following scenario occurs:

He stays at Spurs until the end of the season, with a big Cockney farewell knees up at White Hart Lane (the last game of the season is against Fulham). Harry then goes straight into the England job and manages to get through the group stages before the customary knock out by the eventual winners – at which point he’s largely absolved for any blame because he’s hardly had any time in the position. So his first real task will be qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil: Redknapp may be secretly hoping that John Terry may have announced his international retirement at that point.

We’ll see…

Results Show England Can Become European Champions – Even Without Rooney!

Well, I’ve got to admit that I wasn’t expecting England to beat Spain – earlier on today my brother in law sent me a text saying ‘Xabi Alonso 132 passes, Scott Parker 37 passes’ which made me laugh but before I replied with ‘Frank Lampard 1, Spain 0’ I decided to be a bit more magnanimous.

The Spanish press seemed to think we’d turned into the Italians (if that’s the case, it’s taken Fab nearly four years to complete his mission) which considering the Italian record over the last four decades isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Although the win came in a friendly, it’s the first time that we’ve beaten Spain at Wembley for years and is definitely a morale booster even though it’s hard to assess what victory might mean in the long term.

One of the more positive things that has been overlooked in the aftermath of the win over the reigning world champions is that we seem to have worked out how to keep clean sheets again – both Spain and Gary Speed’s resurgent Wales side failed to score at Wembley (thanks to Rob Earnshaw there) – and it’ll be a positive note to end the year on if we can stop Sweden scoring. It’s unlikely, but I’ll come to why that might be the case in a minute.

Sweden are a different kettle of herrings to Spain: the last time we beat them in England was in May 1968 (a month after we last beat Spain at Wembley and a week before Manchester United beat Benfica in the European Cup Final) and since then we’ve drawn all four games played here. So although it’s probably fair to say that we won’t lose, a win isn’t exactly a foregone conclusion. Our all time home record against Sweden is 2-4-1 which means another stalemate is a real possibility: that outcome looks even more likely when you remember that we’ve not managed to keep three clean sheets at home for four years and tomorrow’s opponents have scored in five of their seven visits to England.

Additionally, it’s not that hard to see why we’ve had so much trouble beating them over the years – Sweden has produced some outstanding players who have had success in the UK over the last two decades, although for every Anders Limpar, Freddy Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson there’s a Thomas Brolin. Four of the current squad are playing in Britain, although only Jonas Olsson of West Brom and Sebastian Larsson of Sunderland played in Friday’s 2-0 defeat in Denmark: Olaf Mellberg and Johan Elmander will also be familiar to most fans. And then there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic: another reason why a clean sheet might be a challenge.

Sweden’s qualification record for major tournaments is eerily similar to ours – they’ve qualified for five of the last six European Championships and three of the last five World Cups; they’ve also reached the final of the World Cup that they hosted, although they lost to Brazil. Sweden avoided the Euro 2012 playoffs having qualified for the Euros as best ‘runners up’; they also ended the Dutch record of having been unbeaten in 17 qualifiers for both the World Cup and European Championships. However, the overall the impression is that although the Swedes are formidable at home, they aren’t as impressive on the road: having won all their home qualifiers, they were thrashed 4-1 in Holland and were beaten by a last minute goal in Budapest – which also shows how much the Hungarians have improved recently.

On to the first legs of the Euro play offs and barring unprecedented and monumental disasters for Croatia and Ireland then it looks as if they’ll be joining us in Poland and the Ukraine next summer.

Croatia were a goal up within five minutes on Friday night and had beaten Turkey by half time; having suffered World Cup playoff heartache a couple of years ago, things couldn’t have gone any better for Ireland in Tallinn: two red cards for Estonia, four goals for Ireland and one foot in Poland or the Ukraine next summer. Tomas Sivok’s injury time goal for the Czech Republic looks as if it ended any chance of Montenegro qualifying for the finals and although Portugal drew in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cristiano Ronaldo and company are favourites to qualify.

Enjoy The Playoffs, The Friendlies Will Be Painful

Before we take a look at tomorrow’s friendly against Spain, it’s worth a quick review of tonight’s playoffs for the last four places in Euro 2012.

The first thing that jumps out is the quality of the teams in the playoffs. Since Euro ’96 Croatia, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Turkey have all reached the knockout stages of at least one of the subsequent competitions with Portugal reaching the final in 2004. Or to put it another way: our record in the Euros since 1996 is the same as Croatia’s.

Ireland last qualified for the Euros in 1988 (and possibly the less said about that particular tournament the better) but what really stands out about the playoffs is that Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia and Montenegro deserve a chance to qualify.

This is easily Bosnia and Herzegovina’s best ever team: Edin Dzeko, Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and Rangers defender Sasa Papac are the players best known to British fans but with only one member of the current squad playing in the local league it’s fair to say that the ‘Dragons’ are a cosmopolitan bunch.

Montenegro are a team we’ve covered in the past so we’ll leave them alone for the time except to mention that their progress since 2007 has been frankly astonishing – according to the latest FIFA rankings there’s nothing between them and the Czechs.

As well as being arguably the weakest team currently left in the tournament, the Estonians are probably the least well known – Middlesbrough striker Tarmo Kink is hardly a household name outside Teeside – and although I’ve come across midfielder Sander Puri and striker Jarmo Ahjupera in my parallel career as a football punter, we’re generally looking at the obscure end of anyone’s knowledge of European football.

Good luck to Ireland, although you just know what’s going to happen if they qualify.

On to our game against Spain tomorrow, which has been dominated by alleged racial abuse by John Terry, the usual cretinous behaviour in Zurich (by both FIFA and the EDL) and the usual pointless speculation about Capello’s successor.

I’m not in the mood to dwell on the off field issues, especially as there are so many reasons to be pessimistic about our chances tomorrow.

We’ve lost three of our last four home games against Spain (the only win since April 1968 was in a friendly at Villa Park in February 2001) and we haven’t beaten the reigning World Cup winners at home since a 3-1 win over Argentina in May 1980. The last time we faced a team that had won the World Cup at Wembley was in February 1999 and we lost 2-0 to France: I watched the game in a pub in central Bristol in front a table full of French students who enjoyed it immensely.

Looking back at our last win over Spain, it’s interesting to see how the career paths of the players from both sides have developed. Five of the starting England XI are still playing (David James, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Nicky Barmby), one of the subs (Frank Lampard) will be captain tomorrow and Chris Powell will be taking charge of Charlton Athletic in their FA Cup game at FC Halifax on Sunday lunchtime.

On the other hand, only Iker Casillas remains a Spanish international, even though Manuel Pablo and Raul are still playing. Three starters in the Spanish XI that lost at Villa Park are now managers: Abelardo manages CD Tullia in the fourth tier of Spanish football, Luis Enrique is in charge of Roma and Pep Guardiola…well, if you don’t know what he’s up to these days then you probably shouldn’t be reading this.

All being well, I’ll be back either tomorrow night or on Sunday with a look at what happened this wekeend.