Another England Win On The Cards?

After Friday’s stroll over Moldova, it’s Ukraine again tonight for the second time in less than three months. Since May 2000 they’ve played here three times and lost all of those games, scoring only one goal (Andriy Shevchenko’s equaliser in the 2-1 World Cup qualifier win in April 2009) so Roy and the team will be looking to pick up another three points in their quest to reach Brazil in less than two years time.  With Montenegro and Poland having drawn 2-2 on Friday (the Poles took the lead in Podgorica but fell behind at half time: they equalised just before the hour), after one game England are already two points clear at the top of Group H.

Another England win would be very useful indeed – I can’t see Poland losing to Moldova and Montenegro shouldn’t have any problems in San Marino this evening – as an early lead in the group before going into a home game with one of the weakest sides in Europe next month would be an ideal position before arguably the toughest game in the group.

Ukraine’s away over the last year hasn’t been particularly impressive: they’ve beaten Estonia and Israel but lost their other four road trips and seem to be having goalscoring issues, especially now that Shevchenko has retired and chosen to take up a career in the minefield that is Ukrainian politics. One goal in their last five games isn’t particularly inspiring and the two recognised strikers in the current squad have scored a grand total of three times in 27 combined appearances – although Marko Devic would have had another if it hadn’t been for the incompetence of the fourth official back in June. Unusually these days, almost all of the Ukraine team play at home: only reserve goalkeeper Andriy Dikan and captain Anatoliy Timoshchuk play abroad, although only Timoshchuk plays in what we used to call ‘Western Europe’.

We’re missing a few players for tonight’s match: Ashley Cole and John Terry are injured while Theo Walcott has been ‘violently ill’ after picking up a bug…I doubt if it’s the Stella Flu though. Raheem Stirling of Liverpool, Spurs’ Jake Livermore and Adam Lallana of Southampton have been called up but I’d be amazed if any of them got off the bench tonight. I must admit I like the way that Hodgson is not afraid to draft in younger players: even if it’s just for the experience, it shows them that they could be a part of the England setup if they continue to make progress with their clubs. The problem for Southampton is that international recognition for Lallana probably means he’ll be leaving them at some point, but as long as he doesn’t end up at Liverpool he could have a promising international career.

It’s an 8:00pm kick off this evening, although if you’re a masochist Clive Tyldesley and all his chums will be on air on ITV1 at 7:30pm – so that looks like a good time to go to the chip shop to me. Battered sausage for me please.

Insert Headline About Wayne Rooney

We don’t have to compete against other blogs in newsagents, supermarkets and convenience stores, so I’ve not been up all night thinking of a terrible pun about the return of The Messiah.

There are only ten teams left in the tournament: tonight we’ll find out the last of the quarter finalists but as long as England don’t lose we’ll be through to face Spain or Italy at the weekend.

First of all, the game last Friday was the first time for a while that I’ve seen England play in a game that reminded me of domestic football for a long time. On the one hand, that’s a good thing: after a very ropey opening to the second half and having realised what could be at stake, the team dug deep and managed to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory. So far so good: after having had a few ciders at the house of a friend, I walked home feeling very pleased that I’d seen such a spirited fight back.

However, the reality of the situation hit home as I walked past the local stadium. For those of you that don’t know, I am a season ticket holder at an nPower Championship club who haven’t been doing particularly well over the last couple of seasons: and that’s where the reality hit me. What we saw last Friday was a Football League game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: the league system in England is almost unique these days and I’m reasonably certain that the Championship is still one of the best supported competitions in Europe. Andy Carroll’s goal was a classic English centre forward’s header that Dixie Dean, Ted Drake or Tommy Lawton would’ve been proud of.

That being said, the Championship is a second tier competition. At times on Friday, England were extremely poor – the old cliche about ‘poor first touch’ was much in evidence once again – against a team that is amongst the top 20 in the world without having ever really done anything at international level for almost two decades. Of the six teams that have qualified for the quarter finals, only the Czechs are ranked lower by FIFA than the Swedes but only Spain and Germany are ranked higher than us. We’re good…but we’re not that good.

On to tonight’s game. Today’s slightly worrying fact is that England have never beaten the hosts of a European Championship tournament: the last three games saw defeats to Italy (1968) and Sweden (1992) as well as a 2-2 draw with Portugal in 2004 before being beaten on penalties after extra time. The situation is made slightly easier by not having to beat Ukraine to qualify for the knockout rounds: the only other time we’ve played against the Ukrainians away from England was the 1-0 defeat in the World Cup qualifiers when Robert Green was sent off.

A draw would be good enough, but we have our less than secret weapon available for tonight’s game. Wayne Rooney returns, although it’s never a good idea to change a winning team, as both my wife and my mother have pointed out over the last couple of days. I wouldn’t want to do Roy Hodgson’s job so I’m going to keep away from having an opinion, but let’s just say that I can see the arguments for and against changing the starting eleven to incorporate Rooney. If selecting him means a major change of tactics – and I don’t think it does – then there’s a case to be made for him to start on the bench.

Overall, so far the tournament has been a good one with the Dutch being a major disappointment whilst the Germans look the pick of the bunch – and before you start wondering, I have put my money where my mouth is. I’m not going to wax lyrical about the Spanish: they were kept in check by the Italians and Croatians but had a field day against an Irish side who were described as a ‘pub team’ by a friend of mine who has Irish ancestry and as a typical British team by commentators in both Belgium and Hungary. The biggest surprise is that Russia were knocked out – although to be fair they didn’t have to go far to get home – and how ridiculously fussy UEFA have been about non-issues like German fans throwing screwed up bits of paper and Nicholas Bendtner’s sponsored underpants.

The most predictable aspect of the tournament: Clive Tyldesley and Mark Lawrenson – although I must admit that ITV’s coverage has been far more entertaining with the tableaux of Polish street life going on behind them. So far we’ve had a balloon seller smoking a fag, a man with a ferret on a lead and some drunken Polish teenagers being cleared out of the square by the riot squad. As far as I know, there aren’t any charity muggers operating there…yet.

Didn’t He Write Music For Westerns?

We’ve got a big game tonight, against the undefeated group leaders. So what do we know about Montenegro?

It’s another one of those places that used to be part of a country that no longer exists – it’s been independent a number of times but always seems to be swallowed up by bigger neighbours: Venice, the Ottoman Empire and finally Yugoslavia – the reason that we call the country Montenegro is because that’s what the Venetians named it, although the locals use ‘Crna Gora’ which also means ‘Black Mountain’.

It’s a tiny place – 2/3rds the size of Wales with a slightly bigger population than Leeds – and finally became independent in May 2006; the following month Serbia & Montenegro took part in the World Cup in Germany but lost all three first round games. The Montenegrin national team has only been active since March 2007 and is currently managed by Niko Krancjar’s dadZlatko.

So basically we’re playing one of those countries that are capable of producing decent players, but to think of them as some kind of emerging power would be completely wrong. Their recent win in Bulgaria was only their second victory outside Montenegro since October 2007 and they’ve lost five of their last ten away games – in the last year they’ve drawn in Dublin and lost to Macedonia and Norway which seems to me to be a far better indicator of what sort of a team they are. Apart from Italy, they’ve not faced any heavyweight international opponents…stop giggling at the back please. We are international heavyweights – we regularly get beaten in the final stages of tournaments, not in the group stages. So there.

The team that beat Switzerland in Podgorica on Friday is what you might expect. None of the starting eleven play in Montenegro; with the exception of Branko Boskovic (who plays for DC United in the USA) the rest of the players are spread around Europe: only Simon Vukcevic (Sporting Lisbon) and captain Mirko Vucinic (Roma) play for Champions League/Europa League standard teams.

Apart from John Terry and Darren Bent having to sit out, Fab has a pretty much full strength squad to call on. Rio Ferdinand’s return from the injury that kept him out of the World Cup is good news, although you don’t always know if he’s going to be thinking about fast cars, record companies and lifestyle magazines when he should be thinking about defending. Ferdinand’s presence might be able to inspire Wayne Rooney, who still looks out of sorts – although his circumstances are purely his own fault and I’ve got no sympathy for him at all.

Now it’s prediction time: we’ve got an 11 game winning streak going at Wembley (undefeated in the last fourteen), so it’s going to be tough for Montenegro. It sounds bleedin’ obvious, but the Montenegrins have done well away from home when they’ve stopped the opposition scoring but as we’ve scored an average of 2.9 goals per game at Wembley in recent games, we probably playing them at the right time. I can see them getting at least one goal though (we’ve not kept consecutive clean sheets at home for three years) but England ought to win this one.

If Vucinic scores, he’s promised to repeat his goal celebration that got him a booking last week: I think if I’d scored a goal against England I’d run around with my shorts on my head as well! I’m sure that the ITV commentators have been scraping the bottom of  their cliche barrels in order to come up with dreadful puns: my money’s on ‘that REALLY WAS pants defending from England!’

Or if it’s a tight game with a late England goal from Rooney: ‘He’s the man who broke the back of Montenegro!’

That’ll do.

Before We All Get Carried Away…

…about how we’re going to win the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, here are some stats to consider:

* Howard Webb is English and he’s a policeman. From Rotherham.

* There have been seven World Cup tournaments held in North, Central and South America. All seven have been won by teams from South America – but  worryingly for Brazil, the hosts have won only two of them (Uruguay in 1930, Argentina in 1978)

* Howard Webb is will be 43 in 2014, so he probably won’t be refereeing in Brazil.

* England have never got past the quarter finals in the four ‘American’ tournaments we qualified for. Our best performance in South America was the quarter finals in Chile in 1962, which was the last time we played in a South American World Cup. The last World Cup game we played in North, Central or South America was the ‘Hand Of God’ game…which is a almost a quarter of a century ago anyway!

* Howard Webb is from Rotherham, which is nearly 6000 miles from Johannesburg. It’ll probably be warmer in Rotherham today…but let’s see how Howard Webb (the English referee who’s a policeman from Rotherham) handles the heat of the World Cup final! We’ll be back after an annoying Hyundai advert about cars playing football.

Not sure who’s going to win tonight, but Holland’s price is probably far too big – however, the stat I like is that the country which eliminates Germany from the competition is far more likely to win it than the one that eliminates Brazil; it should probably be Spain in that case, but there have been a couple of times when Brazil were knocked out by countries that went on to win for the first time – Argentina in 1978 and France in 1998 – but both of them were hosts, which seems to count against Holland.

Let’s just hope the game is a good one. Unlike any of ours.

Update: my wife has just berated me for not knowing that Howard Webb’s wife is called Kay. Good job the BBC made up for this omission.

England 3-1 Egypt (FT)

Before the game started the lineup looked a bit second string to me. Leighton Baines made his England debut, but Egypt fielded the same side that won the African Cup of Nations in January; confusingly both sides were wearing their change colours, although the words ‘cynical marketing ploy’ spring to mind as England’s new ‘away’ kit was only launched yesterday and tonight’s game was presumably supposed to inspire us all to go out and buy it at the first opportunity.

John Terry was booed during the introductions, when he first touched the ball (less than ten seconds into the game) and throughout the first half; it was comparatively mild and seemed to die out in the second half.

The game started brightly and it was soon obvious that Egypt were a good test for England; the visitors looked comfortable with the ball, knocked it around nicely and were not really under stress defensively despite some early England pressure, but yet again English passes seemed to be going astray.

Anyone expecting a 6-0 win would have been disappointed; when Egypt took the lead after 23 minutes with a goal from Mohammed Zidan, it could hardly be described as ‘against the run of play’ although Matt Upson’s slip made Zidan’s job a lot easier. It was tough to find a word that adequately summed up England’s defence at that point but ponderous and unconcerned spring to mind. If the defence is not considerably tighter then anything beyond the second round this summer is going to be a bonus; anyone who saw Brazil’s second goal against Ireland on Tuesday night will appreciate that. On the other hand, we were without the services of a few of our first choice defenders tonight.

Zidan’s goal ought to have woken England up: the slow motion close ups of Wayne Rooney showed exactly how frustrated the Manchester United striker was. To their credit, the Egyptians were showing other teams how to defend against England: pack the midfield and cut off service to Rooney, who really is the only genuine world class player we have.

Half time arrived with England losing 0-1 and it felt a little like some of the World Cup tournaments of the past: losing to a decent team that may have been underestimated before the game, no real sign of any breakthrough and players beginning to become frustrated.

Yet what followed was a validation of why Fabio Capello is paid so much money by the FA. He made four second half substitutions, each of which contributed to the final result. Carrick and Crouch replaced Defoe and Lampard at half time and made an instant impact: Carrick started the move that resulted in Crouch’s equaliser. Then Shaun Wright-Phillips replaced Theo Walcott and James Milner came on for Steven Gerrard who – it has to be said – did not do a great deal other than to pass the captain’s armband to Wayne Rooney when he was substituted.

Twenty minutes after coming on, Wright-Phillips scored and England had taken the lead. Milner’s shot was parried into Wright-Phillips’ path by Essam El Hadari, who flapped at the Manchester City winger’s snap shot. Crouch made it 3-1 five minutes later; the Spurs striker was awarded the Man  Of The Match award despite having played for exactly half of it.

So summing up,  from our point of view it wasa game of two halves: the first half was as lacklustre and the second half was encouraging. Gerrard and Lampard will no doubt probably start against the USA in June, but if they’re going to be as anonymous as they were this evening they might find themselves on the bench at half time; Defoe – and particularly Walcott – are in danger of not going to South Africa at all and that despite some of the dark mutterings on Radio 5 before the game, Robert Green should be our number one goalkeeper.

A few random observations before it’s time for bed:

* Does anyone else find it odd that a Danish brewer is the official beer of English football?

* Clive Tyldesley’s observation that ‘Zidan’ is not spelled the same way as ‘Zidane’ is about as fatuous as saying that ‘Pillao’ is not spelled the same way as ‘Pullao’  in different Indian restaurants or ‘Sechwan’ is not spelled the same way as ‘Szechuan’ in different Chinese ones.

* Beating Egypt does not make England champions of Africa, although it’s a nice thought.

* Latin American and Meditteranean referees will almost always blow for foot up regardless of the circumstances and also tend to do so if a sliding tackle comes in from the side. Looking confused or bewildered will not stop them.

* Michael Carrick is arguably a better all round midfield player than Frank Lampard at the moment.

* Wayne Rooney should be England captain.

Squad For Brazil Game Announced, As Are More Injuries…

Here’s the squad for the game on Saturday (ITV, 4:15pm):

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster, Robert Green & Joe Hart

Defenders: Wayne Bridge, Wes Brown, Gary Cahill, Glen Johnson, Joeleon Lescott, John Terry, Matt Upson & Steven Warnock

Midfielders: Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Tom Huddlestone, Jermaine Jenas, Frank Lampard, James Milner, Shaun-Wright Philips & Ashley Young

Forwards: Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe & Wayne Rooney

Missing: Ashley Cole (fractured leg, will apparently miss a few weeks),  Carlton Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard (who – despite being supposedly injured - started on the bench at Anfield before being used as a sub v Birmingham this evening), Emile Heskey, David James and Aaron Lennon. David Beckham will be missing due to LA Galaxy’s playoff game against the CIA’s team in Texas, Houston Dynamo.

A point worth making here: despite currently being placed second in the Premiership, there are no players from Arsenal.

Dunga announced the Brazil squad last week and contains no domestic players because Serie A (the Brazilian version) is coming to a climax; with four games left, there are only six points between the top six clubs.

The Brazilian squad:

Goalkeepers: Julio Cesar (Milan), Doni (Roma)

Defenders: Dani Alves (Barcelona), Fabio Aurelio (Liverpool), Juan (Roma), Maicon (Inter), Michel Bastos (Lyon), Lucio (Inter), Luisao (Benfica) & Naldo (Werder Bremen)

Midfielders: Alex (CSKA Moscow), Julio Baptista (Roma), Elano (Galatasary), Josue (Wolfsburg), Lucas (Liverpool), Kaka (Real Madrid), Felipe Melo (Juventus), Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos) & Fabio Simplicio (Palermo)

Forwards: Carlos Eduardo (Hoffenheim), Luis Fabiano (Sevilla), Nilmar (Villareal), Robinho (Manchester City) and Clive Tyldesley’s favourite Givanildo Vieira de Souza (aka ‘Hulk’) of FC Porto.

More later in the week, but before anyone gets carried away, our record against Brazil is pretty ropey. Since we first met in 1956, we’ve won three times in 22 games, the last victory was almost 20 years ago when ‘Match Of The Day’ anchorman Gary Lineker scored the only goal of the game and Dunga was a player rather than the manager; we’ve lost three of the last five against them.

Lastly, on a sad note, it looks very much as if Dean Ashton of West Ham United and England will have to retire at the ridiculously young age of 25; he sustained an ankle injury at an England training camp in 2007 which he’s never fully recovered from.

Quick Round Up For This Weekend

The list of confirmed qualifiers for next year is as follows:

Australia, Brazil, England, Ghana, Holland, Japan, North Korea, Paraguay, South Korea and Spain. Possibly the only surprise there is North Korea (making their second appearance in the finals) but all of these countries have qualified before. The play off situation is still wide open so we’ll take a look at that nearer the time; the other story that we’re monitoring is when (rather than if) Diego Maradona and Argentina part company. The last time Argentina failed to qualify was in 1970 but there’s a real chance they may be missing next year.

Back to the Premiership this weekend for all but one of the England squad: game of the day has to be Manchester United v Spurs (ESPN 5:15pm GMT) as it’s second v third and should feature a lot of England players. Arsenal v Manchester City should also be worth keeping an eye on.

Clive Tyledesley was on form on Wednesday, wasn’t he? Croatia are our ‘skeleton in blue’ (perhaps not any more), he mentioned France but obviously hadn’t been fed the information that not only were they losing but their goalkeeper had been sent off, Steven Gerrard is only a inch and a half taller than Dario Srna and Croatia is an old country (it became a kingdom in 924) but after union with Hungary in 1102 it eventually became part of the Hapsburg Empire and only became truly independent again in 1991.

Finally, did anyone else notice the pitchside advert informing us that beer is available in pubs? Thank goodness for that…I’d been wondering where I could get some for next year. Imagine if you could watch football in pubs, that’d be great!

Enjoy the weekend.