Slovenia Preview (World Cup Version)

Difficult to know where to start for this one: I don’t think any of us were expecting the current situation to be this dire. If we don’t win and the States beat Algeria then we’ll have been knocked out in the group stages for the first time since 1958.

We previewed our game with the Slovenes last year (the original article is here) and not a great deal has changed for them: Robert Koren has since been released by WBA and they have not been allowed to replace striker Nejc Pecnik (broken ankle).

Let’s start with the numbers. We won 2-1 at Wembley last September with a penalty from Frank Lampard and a Jermain Defoe goal before Zlatan Ljubijankic got one back for them six minutes before time. Since then they have only lost once (against Russia in the first leg of the qualification playoff in November) in their last nine games. In that respect, they’re actually doing better than us as we’ve lost twice since beating them: the last qualification game against Ukraine and the defeat in the desert friendly against Brazil.

When I have a punt I normally only look at away form for tournament games and this is where things start getting a little worrying. Over the last 20 games our form is better than theirs, but over the last five games Slovenia have outperformed us and have kept three clean sheets to our…ummm…one. And before you ask, that doesn’t include the game against the Platinum Stars, which sounds like some kind of Swedish pop band from the 1970s than a genuine football team.

That stat alone indicates that there won’t be many goals tomorrow. Under 2.5 according to the bookies, although interestingly the spread betting firms seem to think it might be around 2.6 but that might be to attract people who think this game is going to be a walkover (in the same way as Algeria was). Consecutive England clean sheets aren’t out of the question – the one bright spot so far is the defence – but once again it’s our lack of firepower up front that’s a problem.

As for all the other stuff…Fab and JT might be doing a wonderful job papering over the cracks, but there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s something wrong in the camp. So look out for various ‘inside stories’ being flogged to the tabloids after English interest in the tournament ends (but remember not to buy any featured in the Daily M*il) and enjoy the rather wooden declarations of love and peace while you can because if we go out tomorrow the fallout is going to be  absolutely spectacular. The only thing saving us from being a total laughing stock is that France have done that with their usual Gallic flair: in footballing terms we’re playing about as well as Greece, who are currently packing their bags after losing to Argentina.

I’ve had a couple of calls tonight about where I’m going to watch the game and to be honest I don’t know yet…but I’ve not ruled out behind the sofa. I’m also not completely sure if all red is the right choice sartorially (Wales anyone?) and when it comes to making a prediction here I have to be honest and say that I really have no idea what’s going to happen. I know what I’d like to happen, but I’m not prepared to put my money where my mouth is.

The best case scenario is an England win, but realistically speaking – and that takes out recent form into account – we may be looking at a tense game that might not be decided until well into the second half. An early England goal would be nice but wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the right result; it’s possible that an early strike by Slovenia might galvanise England into some kind of action. On the other hand, can we actually play any worse than we already have done?

Still, we’ve been in similar – and worse – situations before and we’ve got out of them. On June 11th 1986 we faced Poland in our last group game needing a win to qualify for the next round. It was a late kick off for those days (kick off was 4pm local time which means about 9pm GMT) and when Gary Lineker scored the third my dad and I made so much noise my mum told us off. Enjoy!

Algeria Preview

You often hear pundits claiming that there’s no such thing as an easy game in the World Cup anymore: while they’re probably correct, it’s difficult to contradict the argument that England’s game with Algeria tomorrow night is potentially our easiest game in Group C.

The Algerians do not travel well; the Desert Foxes also have a very poor recent record against European opposition. As well as losing 1-0 to Slovenia last weekend, they have also recently suffered 3-0 defeats to both Ireland and Serbia. Algeria have won three away games in the past year: 2-0 against the mighty Zambia during World Cup qualification, and wins over Mali and Ivory Coast in the African Nations Cup earlier this year. Algeria were lucky to win the latter: they trailed 2-1 going into stoppage time.

Only three of their squad of 23 play in Algeria including two of the three keepers, one of whom (Faouzi Chaouchi) was to blame for the goal the Slovenians scored on Sunday. The rest of the squad play in Europe and it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that six of them play in France. Closer to home, defender Nadir Belhadj and midfielder Adlene Guedioura play for Portsmouth and Wolves respectively; Madjid Bougherra is a Rangers player, which might explain why he’s not exactly been backwards in coming forwards today.

Compounding their poor record in front of goal, they’ll be without striker Abdelkader Ghezzal, who was sent off for two stupid yellow cards in their first game. Veteran striker Rafik Saifi (who plays in the French 2nd division
for Istres) or the relatively inexperienced Rafik Djebbour of AEK Athens are the only other options at striker: Saifi is the only player in the entire squad who has scored more than ten goals at international level.

If you fancy a punt, it’s possible that we could keep a clean sheet (only Brazil in 1970 and Romania in 1998 have scored against us in corresponding group games since 1966), but in case you hadn’t noticed we’ve got a few issues of our own. Apart from the inclusion of Gareth Barry, the team for tomorrow is still a mystery and – perhaps more worryingly – Stevie G’s goal against the USA last Saturday was the first time an England player had scored in an ‘away’ game since Jermain Defoe scored twice against the Dutch before the start of last season: we don’t have any Japanese defenders up our sleeve for this game. Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey haven’t scored in an away game since the 4-0 win over Kazakhstan just over a year ago – although I agree with John Motson that Rooney is due a goal for England.

It’s possible that there won’t be that many goals in this game: one of the less appealing scenarios (other than an Algeria win or another draw) would be something similar to the win over Trinidad & Tobago in the last World Cup. That game was going nowhere until two late goals settled it. The last time we failed to score in the second group game was in 1990 (a dreadful goalless draw with the Dutch) and we haven’t scored three since beating Argentina in 1962.

For anoraks and train spotters, here’s the list of the second group games England have played in:

England 0-1 USA (1)
England 2-0 Switzerland (2)
England 0-0 Brazil (0)
England 3-1 Argentina (4)
England 2-0 Mexico (2)
England 0-1 Brazil (1)
England 2-0 CSSR (2)
England 0-0 Morocco (0)
England 0-0 Netherlands (0)
England 1-2 Romania (3)
England 1-0 Argentina (1)
England 2-0 Trinidad (2)
P12 w6 D3 L3 F13 A5

1950: England 0-1 USA (yes, that game)

1954: England 2-0 Switzerland (we beat the hosts!)

1958: England 0-0 Brazil

1962: England 3-1 Argentina

1966: England 2-0 Mexico (Bobby Charlton scores from just outside Wembley station)

1970: England 0-1 Brazil (the Gordon Banks save, the Bobby Moore tackle and a thin…well, thin-ish…Francis Lee)

1982: England 2-0 Czechoslovakia

1986: England 0-0 Morocco (Ray Wilkins gets sent off)

1990: England 0-0 Netherlands

1998: England 1-2 Romania

2002: England 1-0 Argentina (the Beckham penalty)

2006: England 2-0 Trinidad & Tobago

Overall: P12 w6 D3 L3 F13 A5 (so that’s less than a goal a game)

11 Lions expects (and really, really wants!) an England win, although it may not be the landslide that some fans seem to be expecting. Having said that, a convincing win would be just what the doctor ordered and would set us up nicely for the last group game next Wednesday.

We’ll have some kind of reaction either late tomorrow night or on Saturday morning, although after a hellish work week Saturday lunchtime might be a more realistic option. Enjoy the game…and spare a thought for the French.

Only joking!

Robert Koren Does Robert Green A Favour

Slovenia have just beaten Algeria 1-0 thanks to a Robert Koren goal, which means we’re now in second place behind the Slovenes; our next opponents (Algeria) are bottom and their performance this afternoon was very reminiscent of their African Cup Of Nations effort; substitute Abdelkader Ghezzal of Siena was sent off for two silly yellow cards (shirt pulling and deliberate handball) and keeper Faouzi Chaouchi did his best Robert Green impression. The bookies are currently quoting England at roughly around 1/4 to beat the Algerians but our outright win odds have drifted since yesterday: average price is 8/1 with best odds being 17/2, which is roughly the same as Holland.

Our potential ’round of sixteen’ opponents start their campaigns today: Serbia are about to kick off against Ghana and later on Germany take on Australia.

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves…

It could have been better: it could have been a lot, lot worse. Robert Green knew he made a mistake but he more than made up for it with the save from Jozy Altidore in the second half, so there’s no reason for the red tops to go mental on Sunday morning, even though they will.

If I’d been able to publish a preview before the game, it would have been along these lines: do not underestimate the United States, this one of the first round games that is likely to be far closer than most people think and that it’s highly likely that the USA will score. If you would have agreed with those sentences, keep reading the blog. If you are one of the flag toting dreamers who think England only had to book into the hotel and hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the bedroom doorknob and tick the continental breakfast option to win the World Cup, then you probably need to read something else.

England can still win the World Cup; if England want to win the World Cup then a victory over Algeria on Friday is vital. You know that and the team know that; we’ve been in far worse positions before.