Don’t Panic, It’s Only Bulgaria and Wales…

Over the next five days England have two very important games that will go a long way to resolving what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be doing it next Summer. The answer we’re all hoping for is ‘watching England playing in Euro 2012’ regardless of whether that’s in the Ukraine and Poland, in an Irish pub somewhere in the Med or (in my case) the biennial ritual hiding behind the sofa with the curtains drawn whilst swearing your head off and trying not to scare the neighbours.

We’re not in a bad position in the Euro 2012 qualifiers – equal top with Montenegro but with a superior goal difference – but Bulgaria will have to beat us tomorrow night to stand any chance of even qualifying for the play offs and that could be where the fun starts.

There are no real outfield surprises in the squad which was announced at the beginning of the week: ten players from the Manchester clubs, seven players from London teams (including Scott Parker, now of Spurs) and two each from Everton and Liverpool. The big issue is the reserve goalkeepers – Frank Fielding of Derby and David Stockdale of Ipswich are both playing in the Championship – but before anyone starts moaning about that, it’s only fair to point out that Birmingham City have reached the group stages of the Europa League. We should be proud of the standard of football in the Championship rather than moaning about the lack of decent goalkeepers in the Premier League, as some ‘journalists’ have been doing.

The good news is that England have never lost in Bulgaria and we’ve won two of the three games we’ve played there – the last victory was a 3-0 win in a qualifier for the 1980 European Championships, goals coming from Kevin Keegan of SV Hamburg and Peter Barnes and Dave Watson of Manchester City. Those of us with long memories will remember that despite Barnes being voted Young Player of The Year in 1979/80, not long after the game he was sold by Malcolm Allison to WBA; it’s hard to imagine Roberto Mancini doing that with either Adam Johnson or James Milner.

Wales can do us a massive favour before our meeting next Tuesday by beating Montenegro but I’ll be surprised if they do – the Red Dragons have only won four of their last ten home games – but it’s important to point out that the Montenegrins have only won once in their last ten away games (the win in Bulgaria last September) and lost in Albania last month. If the bookies are right, there won’t be any changes at the top of the group as England are currently best price 4/7 for the win in Sofia, while Montenegro are 6/4 to win at the Millennium Stadium.

Both our game and Wales v Montenegro are live on Sky Sports, but because of the difference in time zones and kick off times, instead of watching adverts and listening to expert analysis from Bulgaria at half time, you’ll be able to turn over and experience that sinking feeling familiar to football fans on the other side of the Bridge when you see that Wales have conceded an early goal…

Premiership Preview

Has to be a quick one this weekend due to the imminent arrival of most of wife’s family for lunch, then I’m straight off to a game in the Championship. Last weekend I managed to watch no football whatsoever due to a family gathering and a wedding (‘Likely Lads’ moment: I was the guest with the mobile phone looking at score updates from Liverpool/Man U during the speeches), so I’m looking forward to this weekend, especially Ajax v Feyenoord tomorrow lunchtime (ESPN)

It’s about an hour or so to go before the lunchtime game: Arsenal v Spurs (12:45pm, Sky Sports 1) looks a tasty one, Arsenal have won all four of their home league games this season and Spurs have a decent away record; the rest of today’s slate is notable for the players that are missing. Johnson and Gerrard won’t feature in Liverpool’s game at Fulham and Rio Ferdinand is doubtful for the Manchester United v Blackburn game (5:15pm ESPN).

Couple of random thoughts to finish with: Fabio Cappello called Michael Owen his ‘tormentor’ during the week and he’s right as Owen presents a particular problem. He can still score important goals but occasionally his overall contribution is negligible; scoring a goal against Barnsley in the Carling Cup is not the same as delivering the goods in the World Cup finals but I wouldn’t bet against Owen getting a place if one of the strikers higher up the England pecking order gets an injury that rules them out of the tournament.

Ashley Cole won’t be in the Chelsea team at the Reebok; this means he could stay at home and watch his omnipresent wife on that talent show she’s on…but how terrible/hilarious would it be if John & Edward  – and it may not matter that they are Irish – ended up doing the official World Cup song? Perhaps Peter Crouch could be persuaded to adapt their ‘hairstyle’ and maybe do a John Barnes style rap. Let’s get that rumour started on Twitter and Facebook immediately.

So there we go: a truly horrifying thought on Hallowe’en weekend.