England End Their ‘Annus Horribilis’

Only a couple of weeks until Christmas: then we’ll be celebrating the arrival of 2011 and hoping that – in football terms at least – England’s performances will be better than they were in 2010. Guest blogger Richard Smith looks back at 2010 – a memorable year for all the wrong reasons.

There will be plenty of England fans happy to see the end of 2010, which really has been an ‘annus horribilis’ for them, for manager, Fabio Capello and his England squad, who of course ended their year with a Wembley defeat against a rejuvenated and possibly resurgent France.

That defeat followed the goalless draw against Montenegro, who now tops the Euro 2012 Group G table ahead of England and could seriously jeopardise the England chances of automatic qualification in the Autumn of 2011.

The year started of course on a much more optimistic note with the England team having already safely negotiated their qualifying group to qualify for the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa. An excellent 3-1 win over Egypt in March, who had just been crowned African Nations Champions, saw the team in great form, despite going a goal down in the first half. Two second half goals from Peter Crouch and one from Shaun Wright-Phillips, rescued the situation and England looked good value for their win.

They followed that up with another 3-1 victory, this time over fellow World Cup hopefuls, Mexico, in May with Crouch getting on the scoresheet once again with further goals coming from defenders, Ledley King and Glen Johnson. Confidence clearly ran high with the World Cup just over two weeks or so away.

A trip to Austria was the next stop, where they played an exhibition/friendly against Japan, winning narrowly by just 2-1, thanks to two own goals. It was a poor performance overall and extremely untimely being their last match before coming up against the USA in their opening World Cup fixture.

We all of course know what happened in that match, England skipper Steven Gerrard scored ‘early doors’ but things went downhill rapidly from thereon. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, but worse followed as they were also held 0-0 by rank World Cup outsiders, Algeria which left them needing to win their final match against Slovenia in order to qualify for the Knock Out stages.

In one of the tensest games in the World Cup, England hung on by a thread to win 1-0 after going into an early lead with a goal scored by the lively Jermaine Defoe. It was a mind numbing performance, which met with a scathing media and fan reaction, with many calling for the head of Capello even at that stage. The fact that England failed to win the group meant that they would face old rivals, Germany in the last 16, who were already proving their World Cup pedigree by winning their group.

The match of course was a disaster for England, losing 1-4 being forced home from the tournament early to huge derision and for many of the players as well as the manager uncertain futures in international football.

The back of a bus

The World Cup campaign was not helped by the John Terry scandal earlier in the season, which eventually cost him the captaincy and worsened when a last minute injury to replacement captain, Rio Ferdinand ruled him out of the tournament altogether. Steven Gerrard was then given the armband, somewhat onerously as Terry had kept his place in the team and who, on more than one occasion, became the team’s spokesman. This led to speculation concerning team morale which Capello did his utmost to deny.

Whatever the reason, the World Cup dream turned into the nightmare many had feared it would, but for reasons of financial prudence, Capello kept his job and began to rebuild the team ahead of the Euro 2012 qualifiers.

After defeating Hungary by 2-1 in a friendly at Wembley, the England team, put on one of their best ever performances under Capello to defeat Bulgaria by 4-0 in their opening qualifier, with Defoe superb, scoring his first England hat trick. Newcomer, Adam Johnson of Manchester City also made the score sheet.

A follow up qualifying win was efficiently earned against Switzerland in Basel by 3-1, goals this time being scored by Wayne Rooney, Adam Johnson and Darren Bent. England looked a very solid team again and looked at this point certain to win the group. However, then came the Montenegro debacle, followed by the friendly defeat by France and now England must wait until March to redeem the situation in what could be an explosive match at the Millennium Stadium against Wales.

Wales will be the first opponents of 2011 and will be no pushovers on home soil but if England are to silence their critics after a nothing short of disastrous past 12 months then a win together with a good performance is essential as the next 12 months could well prove pivotal for the future of the England football team.

UPDATE: First England fixture of 2011 will be against Denmark in Copenhagen on Wednesday 9th February 2011.

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!

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.

Ferdinand Out, Dawson In…

I’d originally meant to publish this article on Wednesday: although I began it I was unable to get it finished due to a family emergency. Interesting looking back on what I’d written though, so here it is:

‘Nothing more need be said about the Japan game at the weekend. So here’s some very quick thoughts about the final squad that I scribbled at my desk this afternoon:

David James

Got relegated with Pompey, still a bit mistake prone. Last World Cup as a player, next one will be as a pundit.

Robert Green

Hammers got away with being poor last season, like David James he got a lot of practice last season.

Joe Hart

The future. Also takes penalties.

Glen Johnson

Sort of our version of Roberto Carlos.

Stephen ‘not Neil’ Warnock

Wouldn’t expect him to feature much but provides strength in depth.

Rio Ferdinand

You know that Nike advert everyone loves that’s got a Simpson’s version of Ronaldo in it? Should have been Rio. Needs to remember he’s in a tournament, not just a few friendlies.

John Terry

Shouty man. About time we had a defender sent off in the knock out round.

Jamie Carragher

Unexpected selection but should do well.

Matt Upson

Might make an appearance in the 3rd/4th place game. See Tony Dorigo in 1990.

Ledley King

Doesn’t seem that long ago that everyone was saying wouldn’t it be great if he was fit, he’d be a shoo in etc. Will be useful if Rio Ferdinand switches off at any point.

Ashley Cole

Defines ‘unsettled’; hope he doesn’t carry any baggage into the finals. Most likely to be the first to get picked on if everything starts going wrong.’

The midfielders and strikers will be posted soon, but yesterday’s news that Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the tournament after being injured during training may not be as worrying as it first appears. Steven Gerrard will take over as captain and Michael Dawson has replaced Ferdinand in the final 23.

On Wednesday I wrote that  ‘we shouldn’t really doubt the fire in his (Gerrard’s) belly, but recently he seems to have mistaken effort for quality – and he can’t do that in the World Cup’. This refers primarily to a reasonable season for a mediocre Liverpool team and I’m sure that he’ll do a fine job replacing Rio. My thoughts on Michael Dawson are that I’m sure he’s got a really promising international career ahead of him, but that on reflection Capello was right to leave him out of the initial selection because Dawson needs another good season with Spurs (especially in the Champions League) before he can be considered a regular. I would expect Dawson to benefit enormously from the experience but would be surprised to see him play.

Before anyone starts panicking about Rio, it’s worth remembering that he played the second fewest league games of his career last season due to a groin injury: I’ve got to be honest and say that I’d rather he was ruled out sooner rather than later as I wasn’t entirely convinced that his fitness was all that it should be. Not only that, we’re not in the same position as Germany are with Michael Ballack, Nigeria are with Jon Obi Mikel and Michael Essien and Ivory Coast may be with Didier Drogba (and yes, they are all Chelsea players); Rio is an important member of the squad, but his replacements are just as good and - unlike the other nations I’ve just mentioned - our chances will not be diminished due to his injury.

Fab Announces Provisional Squad

OK, pay attention at the back, here’s the provisional 30 man England squad:

Goalkeepers: Robert Green (West Ham), Joe Hart (Manchester City), David James (Portsmouth)

Defenders: Leighton Baines (Everton), Jamie Carragher (Liverpool), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Michael Dawson (Spurs), Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), Ledley King (Spurs), John Terry (Chelsea), Matt Upson (West Ham), Steven Warnock (Aston Villa)

Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Michael Carrick (Manchester United), Joe Cole (Chelsea), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Tom Huddlestone (Spurs), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), Aaron Lennon (Spurs), James Millner (Aston Villa), Scott Parker (West Ham), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Shaun Wright-Phillips (Manchester City)

Strikers: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Peter Crouch (Spurs), Jermain Defoe (Spurs), Emile Heskey (Aston Villa), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

Before we go any further, the following players who have been in England squads over the past year or so are missing: Gabriel Agbonglahor, Wayne Bridge, Wes Brown, Gary Cahill, Carlton Cole, Stewart Downing, Ben Foster, Jermaine Jenas, Joeleon Lescott, Gary Neville, Paul Robinson, Ryan Shawcross and Ashley Young.

The main surprise is the inclusion of Jamie Carragher (no, not the bloke from Shameless), who hasn’t played for England for three years after falling out with Steve McClaren. Obviously Rio Ferdinand’s fitness and John Terry’s ‘interesting’ form since his misdemeanours entered the public domain mean that we need cover in defence and Carragher’s inclusion makes sense; he’ll battle it out with Michael Dawson and Ledley King, but to be honest Dawson is the best long term prospect we have in central defence and I’ll be amazed if Dawson doesn’t make the final 23.

Dawson and Manchester City midfielder Adam Johnson are the only uncapped players named in the squad; quite a few of names above have been through this before. Interestingly, Capello also tried to talk Paul Scholes out of his self imposed international exile: he was having none of it.

Our next opponents – Mexico – were in action last night, beating Senegal 1-0 at Soldier Field, Chicago (home of Da Bears!):  the winning goal was scored by Guadalajara’s Alberto Medina.

David Beckham’s injury woes have been documented elsewhere so it’s no surprise that he’s missing: but he’ll be joined by some famous names from our chief rivals: Ronaldinho and Adriano have been left out by Brazil and Francesco Totti (who seems to be single handedly keeping Roma in the race for the Serie A title) won’t be playing for Italy this summer.

Apologies for missing this yesterday – don’t worry Fabio, we’ll be attempting to provide our own player ratings, which will probably appear immediately after each game and may be heavily influenced by one or more of the major breweries.

Oh s***

More later, but Wayne Rooney picked up an ankle injury last night in the Champions League game against Bayern Munich in Germany. Nobody seems to have any real information about how bad the injury is, but it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll play for Manchester United against Chelsea on Saturday lunchtime. What impact the injury will have this summer is also unknown; if it’s serious, we’re in big trouble.

England Call Up For Beachball?

Probably not…which is a shame. It’s got a really good goalscoring record against one of the top teams in the Premiership.

Anyway, here’s the line up for the UEFA playoffs: all of them kick off at 7pm GMT on Saturday November 14th 2009.

Greece v Ukraine

Ireland v France

Portugal v Bosnia & Herzegovina

Russia v Slovenia

It’s also worth noting that on the Saturday the second leg of the New Zealand/Bahrain  (0-0) playoff kicks off at 7am GMT that Saturday and the first leg of Costa Rica v Uruguay kicks off an hour later than the European games.

Returns legs for the UEFA region are the following Wednesday, winners qualify for the finals. Premiership preview should be up on Thursday.

Evening All!

Firstly, apologies that we’ve missed a couple of weeks on the Premiership front due to obligations elsewhere but as England have their last qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup coming up and it would be missing the point of the entire blog for to ignore them, we’re back for a two part preview of the qualifiers that are taking place all over the world over the next week or so.

Our squad for the games v Ukraine and Belarus and was announced after the last round of Premiership games and – as widely expected – some of the so-called ‘fringe’ players were called up. Rather than just posting a list, we’ll go through the changes position by position.

Robert Green retains his place amongst the keepers, but is joined by David James of Portsmouth and Manchester City’s Joe Hart, who is currently on loan at Birmingham City. Paul Robinson withdrew from the squad with a hip injury, but for want of a better expression, Ben Foster of Manchester United has been dropped. His form has been pretty erratic this season to say the least.

Better news for another United player as Rio Ferdinand has returned to the squad after injury but Joleon Lescott was forced to withdraw with a hip injury and Bolton’s Gary Cahill has been called up once again. We’re not in the business of trying to second guess Fabio Capello here, but it would be a really good idea to give Cahill an opportunity in either or both of the forthcoming games.

In midfield Ashley Young and Theo Walcott have not been selected and up front Gabriel Agbonglahor of Aston Villa replaces Jermain Defoe, who is currently suffering from what sounds like a really painful hand injury. We’ll try to bring you the starting line up when it’s announced.

There are also a couple of bits of controversy to report on, one short term and rather annoying, the one long term and potentially more damaging.

Actually watching the game against Ukraine on Saturday might be problematic as it’s being offered on a subscription basis. From what we’ve read and heard this issue was caused by the collapse of Setanta earlier this year – as it’s an away game, the broadcasting rights belong to the host nation and so any decision regarding those rights is solely that of the Ukrainian FA. On the one hand, it’s a massive inconvenience for England fans and the FA ought to do everything in their power to prevent this situation from happening again, but on the other hand over the past couple of years it’s been possible to watch both baseball and American football on the internet. With the advent of Sky Player, Sky Sports is now available on the web; without wanting to sound like we’re encouraging anyone to give more cash to Rupert Murdoch, live sport online is definitely the way forward, although we think it’s better as an alternative – rather than the only – option. We’re currently unaware of any plans to stream games next year, but it’s something that we’ll investigate.

Lastly, CONCACAF president Austin ‘Jack’ Warner decided to make some less than positive comments about the 2018 bid to bring the World Cup Finals to England; to be honest…well, let’s leave it at that. It goes without saying that we support the bid and that if the real Jack Warner (the one who played PC George Dixon in the classic BBC police drama ‘Dixon Of Dock Green’) was still alive, we’re pretty sure he would support it as well.

Next post will either be tomorrow or early Saturday as we’ll outline some of the scenarios facing some of our traditional international rivals, in particular what may turn out to be the final days of one Diego Armando Maradona as manager of Argentina…

Thanks for reading!