As another tournament ends, I'd first just like to thank Soccernet for giving me the opportunity to lumber their pages with my amateurish - but well intentioned - prattle. Secondly, many thanks to all those of you who took the time to read the Blagg column and send in comments and emails.
For those with an interest in the domestic English Premier League, I hope to be back next season as West Ham United correspondent and - who knows? God, Soccernet editors and Lady Blagg willing - I may even be back here for Brazil 2014.
Now, I'm outta here... someone turn off the lights, eh?
Italy 0 Spain 4
A masterclass of football. I've always said the 1970 Brazilian team was the best I'd ever seen but I'm starting to think this Spanish side could actually give them a game. From front to back and onto the bench, Spain were superior in every department to an Italian team that wasn't that bad in itself, just outplayed by a squad that is likely to become legendary in international football.
Spain looked stronger from the off and immediately it became apparent that Italy's playmaker Andrea Pirlo would not be dictating play as he did against England and Germany. Pushed back deep in his own half and harried by three or four Spanish players, it sometimes seemed as if there were more men in red shirts on the pitch than those in blue.
It was no surprise when Spain went ahead after 14 minutes, Andres Iniesta finding Fabregas superbly running into the area, taking on the full-back and cutting the ball back for Silva to head home from an angle.
Italy went on the offensive after and had a spell of pressure but it was not much more than that as, unlike the 1970 Brazilians, this Spanish team is as effective at the back as they are everywhere else. Even when breached, Casillas is able to deal with everything.
On 41 minutes, Xavi threaded a fine through-ball to left-back Jordi Alba who had put in a sprint that would likely find him a place at the Olympics - the new Barcelona player outdistanced the Italian defence and slotted home past Buffon. In between the goals, Spain had put on a thrilling sideshow of intricate passing that took the breath away; no longer passing for its own sake as they seemed to do earlier in the tournament, each move seemed to open up the Italians leaving them chasing shadows. It really was quite exquisite.
In all honesty, Italy looked out of it and although the introduction of Di Natale for Cassano did give the team a brief respite just after half-time, chances were no more than brave efforts in a tide of red passing. On the hour, with the Italians visibly wilting, Thiago Motta was introduced for Riccardo Montolivo. As the injured Giorgio Chiellini had been replaced by Federico Balzaretti early in the game, this was Italy's last throw off the dice - a move that signalled the end of the game when Motta pulled up clutching his hamstring and had to be carried off.
With Italy down to ten men, Spain threw on Torres who promptly helped himself to the Golden Boot, scoring on 84 minutes, flicking the ball round Casillas when played through and then gaining an 'assist' by selflessly slipping the ball for Mata - who'd only been on the field for two minutes - to strike home Spain's fourth.
As the final whistle blew, the Italians generously applauded their opponents realising that they had been dismantled by probably one of the best passing sides ever witnessed in world football. Balotelli stormed off for a while but returned later to get his runners-up medal. As the impressive fireworks exploded around the ground, you couldn't help but consider the fireworks that had been seen on the pitch. Spain are the only side to have retained the European trophy and the only team to have done the Euro - World Cup - Euro treble. It may be a while before we see another name on an international trophy.
This was an excellent tournament, played in an impressive spirit with little unsporting play and surprisingly few red cards; the right team won and - more importantly - so did football.
The End of the line
I always find the end of tournaments to be a bittersweet time.
It's sad the competition is over for another four years, but that sadness is always tinged with a bit of relief from the intensity of daily matches for three weeks. More importantly though, at the conclusion, you can sit back without favour and predjudice and, stripped of all the expectation, bombast, criticism and disappointment, just see things for the way that they really are. Sometimes that way is to be expected, others not. I'd opine that Euro2012 is a little of both.
A final between Italy and Spain provides us with an interesting counterpoint. In Spain, we have the reigning European and World Champions who, though they seem to have lost a bit in attack due to injury and - perhaps (it's arguable) - loss of form, are still pretty much the same team they were four years ago. They know what to do, how to win and, more importantly, forgotten how to lose. They are virtually a goal up psychologically before the match starts and this is unlikely to change until this squad of players reach the end and slowing of their careers.
It's true some of their play has been ponderous at times and shows that, however beautifully you pass the ball, without shots and saves the game can become tedious. But that shouldn't disguise that Spain are in the final because they pretty much have the best players, all playing to the peak of their considerable skills. In retrospect, it's difficult to see any way they couldn't have reached the final.
In Italy though we have an interesting alternative. Without a doubt Pirlo is one of the best players in the world, but it's the emergence of Balotelli that has lifted the Italians beyond the point most of us thought they were at. Perhaps quarter finals or semi's seemed the limit of their expectations at the beginning...but was that fair? After all, I can't remember many tournaments where Italy were a team you wanted to play, always a threat over the decades, the Azzuri seem to do whatever is required to get out of the group before stepping up a gear. Italy have done it for as long as I can remember, and we really should be expecting it by now, almost to the extent that If I wanted England to emulate another country it would be Italy not Spain, Germany or France.
It may seem harsh but I take some comfort from the fact that Germany just weren't as good as we thought they were. I, for one, got tired of the constant pant-wetting that accompanied their every mention. I wasn't entirely convinced anyway, but again, with final day hindsight, it's easy to see that, for all their strengths and even with the probable exception of Ozil, the Germans are a Pirlo, Balotelli or an Iniesta or Fabregas away from a final.
Portugal are a good side, but I'm not sure they have a squad of good-enough players that can complement the team around star man Ronaldo enough to really take an extra step. One man can make a team - Maradona in '86 for Argentina and Zidane for France in '98 - proved that, but I don't sense the rest of the Portugese team can elevate themselves to just below the level of greatness required.
Of course, England were poor against Italy and many people expressed the view that we'd actually stopped ourselves from a humbling experience against Germany, but I think I'd rather have played Germany than Italy. Also, it's all very well saying England are a quarter-final team - after all last eight seems about right, in all honesty - but I'd have still fancied Roy Hodgson's side against the Czech Republic or Greece so I think a better draw might have helped our progress. On such narrow things are issues decided.
France still have some players you might cast envious eyes at - if you're English anyway - as do Holland, but if England really want to berate ourselves as a second-rate football nation we do really need to consider that - in this tournament, at least - we certainly bested France and Holland. To add to that, England have gone out to the finalists , maybe even the winners, and could probably have expected to beat at least two of the others joining us in the quarter finals.
In fact, I find myself doing something that I do at virtually every tournament and that's casting an eye round at the 'usual suspects' and just making sure England are not dropping below that mark. Critics weren't best pleased at the style or manner of England's play, but I reckon the group games showed significant improvement, even if only in terms of results. We've at last found a way to beat Sweden and a home nation and certainly played France when they were at their best and come out with a draw. With respect to the host nations, Greece, the Czech's and Russians etc. I'm not seeing nations that are likely to trouble the trophy engravers before England.
I'm not suggesting things are better than they look but I certainly don't think we're the laughing stock of Europe either, despite the way we like to paint ourselves. It goes without saying that we don't hold the ball well and lack those extra special players who win tournaments, but I do think we need to be reasonable too. We're a generation at least away from Spain but only a player or two short of an Italy.
It's a miss - and it's as good as a mile too (or at least an Ashley Young penalty) - but the hard facts suggest, if not something entirely encouraging, that at least there is something to aim for that is not completely beyond capabilities either. It may be all that's left to latch onto because Brazil 2014 is up next; we'll be playing in someone else's back yard and they sure as hell won't be lending us their ball!
What They Say No: 3
David Beckham: "I'm disappointed to have not been picked for the 2012 Olympic team but I hope to have a role at the Olympics somewhere"
Blagg: "I'm on site there at the moment David, and there's a really good concession down by the side of the Orbit that do a really tasty cheese and pickle one"
It’s an odd feeling sometimes writing for ESPN Soccernet. I’m always aware that readers worldwide can call up the page at any time and read articles by seasoned, professional journalists, ex-players, managers and governing body administrators, and then click on an adjoining link to see the sudden ramblings of an amateur fan whose sole contribution to football was a season in charge of Mooro’s FC. It sometimes makes me feel humble and inadequate. Then suddenly, I read an article by someone like Glen Hoddle and I wonder what particular turn of the wheel of fate left me with a career in I.T.
I’m afraid Glenn Hoddle’s article only proved to me that not only is his skewed ‘out of the box’ tactical thinking - I'll leave his personal beliefs out of this - the reason why he wasn’t successful as an England manager, it’s also why he should really consider whether he should be writing about the game as well. What on earth is the man talking about when he suggests having a penalty competition before extra time? Has he taken leave of his senses?
The argument that England, to use Sunday's match as an example, assumingly having lost the pre-ET penalty competition the same as they always lose the post, would have to chase the game is sound, I suppose. But then why would Italy bother to play attacking football in the final 30 minutes? Surely the side leading would just shut up shop? Apart from the fact the game as a spectacle would be severely hamstrung by having what might be a pointless penalty competition to start (i.e. you beat the Germans on penalties so they then come out in extra time and score four) why stop there and not have the competition before the game? Hey, why not have it sometime the previous month? After all, I hear Ashley Young was playing quite well then!
Apart from the fact that an exciting penalty shoot-out at the end of a gruelling extra time seems an eminently sensible way to decide a tied competition, if it is deemed that the 30 minutes overtime is usually a poor spectacle – and to be fair it usually is - surely there is a much better way to try and gain a result, and in view of how some of the players looked on Sunday night it would make much more sense than Mr Hoddle’s bizarre strategy.
That is, in extra time, remove the restriction on substitutes to allow one, two, three – perhaps the whole team, who knows? – to be taken off to be replaced by fresh legs and ideas. There’s even a good footballing reason for this as well. It’s not as unfair as the current system which punishes the team that played extra time when they come to the next match – Italy, for example, will surely be more tired than Germany tomorrow having played a day later and having played longer – and, realistically, it’s also better for players who won’t suffer cramps, strained muscles and other injuries.
When you consider the tragedies of Piermario Morosini and Marc-Vivien Foé and the lucky escape of Fabrice Muamba, perhaps we should not be treating prize sportsman like a whipped racehorse, particularly when you consider how much a professional footballer is worth to his club. Non-restriction of substitutes would be better for the game as a spectacle, fairer to tired players and more likely to produce a result.
Of course, England would still lose anyway but if we could point to this article then at least we could claim we gave the idea to the world. But as for the pre-penalty competition, please, Glenn – no more ideas, eh?
Spain 0 - Portugal 0 (AET Spain win 4-2 on penalties)
Another penalty shoot-out and the right winner again, as Spain triumphed at the death with Fabregas scoring the winning spot kick. Portugese talisman Ronaldo - who had a quiet game - was left looking red-faced at the end as he wasn't even used, after electing to take the last unrequired kick. The Spanish go on to yet another final with omnious signs at the end that they have just found their rhythym again.
The match was sometimes more like a chess game than a football contest, but extra time suddenly showed the Spanish at their best and Portugal were hanging on at the end. During the rest of the match, a promising first half was edged by Portugal who looked quicker into the tackle and brighter in attack. Spain were better in the second half though and the game developed into a dull stalemate until Fabregas was brought on for Álvaro Negredo just after the hour with the departing No: 11 having barely contributed to the game at all.
Spain have the odd air of a team that just doesn't know how to lose anymore and some of their passing out of defence was quite sublime. Their confidence and compact play eventually seemed to wear Portugal down and when extra time started there looked like there could only be one winner. Iniesta had the best chance of the game, but the excellent Rui Patricio made a superb stop and Spain just couldn't finish it off, so the game went down to spot-kicks.
Alonso missed the first kick - and as we noted previously, the team that misses the first kick always seems to go on and win - actually superbly saved by Rui Patricio, but Portugal couldn't hang onto the advantage for long, João Moutinho being denied by an equally impressive stop by Casillas. Iniesta, Pique and Pepe scored for their respective sides before the telling moment of the night occured. Bruno Alves walked up to the penalty area but was chased by Nani who sent him back. The Manchester United player scored confortably but the returning Alves had the look we saw the other night on the faces of the Ashley's and he subsequently struck the bar. Fabregas was up next and his shot struck the inside of the post and flew in to send the Spanish team, quite rightly, to their place in Sunday's final.
The right result, the righ team and talk of Germany's trophy has one almighty hurdle to overcome; the team that has forgotten how to lose.
As we wait on the two semi-finals, just a few musings on England's exit that I will update here during the day. If you want to discuss something then feel free to post below - just sign up with EPSN (they won't bother you after, honestly!) and type away or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Firstly, to those advocating that Paul Scholes should be England's Pirlo, is this the same Paul Scholes who quit international football in 2004 because he didn't like where he was asked to play? The same Scholes who retired from Premier League football but then come back? Even if we ignore the fact that the man gave up on something that most of us have dreamt of doing - representing our country I mean, not going backwards - this still smacks of a player not quite at ease with himself. Personally, even if he wasn't at the end of his career, I wouldn't trust him. In any case do we really need to look back to go forward?
I throw open this email from 'Jake'.
...England is a victim of its own success at the domestic level. The EPL is one of the most successful
leagues in the world and have recorded one of the highest number of successes in the European championships.
The techniques used to play the game in the EPL is, unfortunately, working against England. It's a tough game and
promotes almost raw bullish skills. The tackles come fast and furious and the domestic game doesn't promote ball
holding skills. In fact, the players with the greater ball control skills are often hacked down. When I watch the La Liga
or other leagues, I have noticed that referees are more inclined to punish such tackles and hence players can
concentrate on actually playing the game, that is, honing their skills. It's almost an entire different culture.
The English game is strong and tough and yet it lacks the finesse of, say, the Germans or the precision of the Spanish
or the dare of the Italians. Precision, when it happens, it takes too long and the passes are easily read and intercepted.
I feel the entire game plan has to change at the domestic level. If you don't believe me, watch how many reckless
tackles go unpunished and you will see what I mean. True football skills need to be protected. Otherwise, England will
always be quarter-finalist, at best.
An interesting argument and one I've heard before, but it does make you wonder how we have been able to accommodate French, Italian, French and Spanish players in the Prem and how it doesn't seem to affect them when they return to International duty with their home countries. I mean you have only to look at Balotelli to see that a full season in England hasn't made him into a leaden footed, cramped, non-passer and, while I appreciate that the club name enscribed on the Champions League trophy is, essentially, a signal of the nationality of the side, it isn't a sign of the make-up of that side. Let's not forget that Chelsea's team of europeans and south Americans just managed to overcome Bayern Munich's bunch of the same. This isn't Liverpool 1977 or Nottingham Forest 1980 (even then there were rather a large number of Scots and Irish in there).
However, one thing I do find interesting is most fan's preference for club football over International. I think I can state with some certainty that given the option between England winning another Word Cup and their own club claiming the title most fans would opt for the latter. In various polls I've seen on the subject, most English supporters find the international arena to be too slow and the lack of physical contact restricting and annnoying. I've long thought that England never look entirely comfortable at international level and it's certainly true that the requirements on that stage don't sit well with the English mentality. But is that a cart before the horse argument? Perhaps if we had the players then the mentality would simply follow?
I keep coming back to the lack of really world class players; the flair player that can change a game with a half-chance taken or something plucked from nowhere, a creative footballer who can see gaps and explot weaknesses. I've not seen a player like that since Gascoigne and, over the many tournaments I've witnessed, very few at all. The question for me, as always (I remember having this debate on Soccernet after Japan '02, Germany 06' and South Africa '10) is do we produce those type of players but lose them somewhere or, is there something inherently wrong in our coaching or genetic make-up that means they simply don't exist?
Over to you!
Italy 0 England 0 (A.E.T. Italy win 4-2 on penalties)
A 50/50 game I think I suggested on Sunday...oh dear, oh dear, how wrong can you be?
Well, at least I said that Andrea Pirlo would be influential and I think we can certainly say he ran the show. In fact this was a game dominated by Italy for long periods and it's hard to deny that the right team won the penalty shootout. The ESPN stats say Italy struck an astonishing 35 shots on goal with 20 on target; It didn't exactly feel like that - England have so mastered the body thrown in front of the shot tactic that I'm not even sure that counts - but, in terms of possession and domination, there can be no argument as to who bossed the game.
If France didn't look as if they wanted a semi-final place on Saturday, then England can at least claim, perhaps, that they wanted one but just didn't have the skill, ability or nous to achieve it. At least I am assuming that is what we can glean from England's performance on Sunday night, although they spent so long with their back to the wall defending it is quite difficult to know.
England gave the ball away - on the rare occasions they had it, that is - chased shadows and generally looked as if they were playing for penalties from half-time. That they failed and went out again on spot kicks, just produced a rueful smile from this end of the keyboard. This is nowhere near as painful as Italia 90 or Euro 96 and, to be honest, if England had won this on penalties then I think it might have been ever so slightly embarrassing. As it was the miss by Ashley Young at least underlined what a poor tournament he has had, although Ashley Cole perhaps deserved better than to have his crucial last kick easily saved.
Of further interest is the surprising statistic that seems to suggest that the team that misses the first penalty often goes on to win and also that you can talk about the practice you have put in until you are blue in the face but, ultimately, if you're not confident or assured as you step up then you will be found out. Neither Young, Cole or Riccardo Montolivo, who missed Italy's second penalty, looked like they were convinced they would score - play the penalty competition back on the TV and look at their eyes - but ex-West Ham player Allessandro Diamanti looked certain as he came up to slot away the winning kick. (If there was any doubt I saw Diamanti change feet as he took a penalty at Upton Park once).
But back to the game proper, where it all looked so promising in the first ten minutes or so when, first, Claudio Marchisio found Daniele de Rossi to allow the Italian to strike from 25 yards, the ball curving away from Joe Hart's dive, striking the post and flying off to safety. Moments later, England hit back when the excellent Glen Johnson - he had an impressive night - went on a mazy run before laying a pass off to Ashley Young. Young found James Milner who slipped the ball back to Johnson in front of the goal. Unfortunately, the ball seemed to stick under Johnson's feet but he managed to shovel in rather than shoot and Gianluigi Buffon made an excellent save, slightly going back due to the surprise of the shot.
It all looked promising, if not just in terms of match-play but also England hopes, but suddenly after 20 minutes or so Pirlo started to become more influential, the Italian playmaker sending Mario Balotelli through, John Terry making an excellent saving tackle. Even though Wayne Rooney sent a header over, there was an ominous feeling that this was going to become a war of attrition as England fell back in defence and the Italians played it along the line if front of them.
If watching fans thought the half-time whistle would enable England to re-group and take some of the possession back from Italy, then we were sadly mistaken as the second half soon became a game of Italian flair and pressure and England obstinacy and never-say-die attitude.
As I expressed earlier in the tournament, I have no trouble with watching excellent defending - and England might possibly be the best team I've ever seen at it - but there has to be some point in funnelling backwards all the time, and watching England hoof the ball up in the hope that someone would hold it, only to see it flying back in from the wings, was becoming a depressing sight.
Riccardo Montolivo sent a pass over the England defence and it dropped for Balotelli, but he could only volley straight to Hart. Then at the other end, Danny Welbeck had a good opportunity from a Rooney pass but hit it over when he should have done better. Balotelli kicked a post after missing an opportunity involving Pirlo and Antonio Cassano but at least he was involved while England's front man Rooney was having a miserable night - if he'd kicked a post it would have been the closest he came to the goal all night!
In the second half, England were almost behind straight after the interval when Marchisio's pass to De Rossi in the penalty area only saw the Italian midfielder volley wide from short distance when he had more time than he obviously realised. With Pirlo now at the back virtually dictating where play would go next, it was desperate defending as John Terry denied Balotelli at the far-post before Hart did well to stop De Rossi's long-range effort and also Balotelli's follow-up. Montolivo picked up the loose ball after Hart's second save but his shot was scorched over.
In midfield, Steven Gerrard was involved in some dangerous looking free-kicks, but otherwise the England captain was forced to chase back and harass the Italians - a self-defeating exercise that saw him collapse with cramp with another 20 minutes of the second half still to play. In front of him, Rooney and Young were virtually non-existent as an attacking force, although it was Welbeck who came off to be replaced by Carroll on the hour and Milner who was substituted by Walcott a minute later. Neither substitution provided much respite for England although at least Carroll won some headers, although much good it did him and the rest of the team.
In what might have been a cruel twist of fate for the Italians, a Rooney bicycle kick shortly before the end of normal time could have proved disastrous for the men in blue but the Manchester United player's touch was slightly too early and the ball sailed over the bar. England's paucity of ideas was highlighted when, with seconds on the clock, a throw-in was given back to the Italians to launch a last-minute attack. It seemed to underline just how poor England were at retaining the ball, not just with feet but by hands!
So it went into extra time and, as is so often the way with the extra 30 minutes, the game lost shape and purpose with Italy battering the wall of the English defence and Terry and Co booting it away wherever it would go. However, Antonio Nocerino thought he had won the game six minutes from the end but his header was correctly ruled out for offside, although it was a close thing.
When the whistle went for full-time and the inevitable penalties arrived, there was an odd atmosphere in the Wine Lodge (ha!) where I watched the game. Of all England's players, it is Hart who has looked to gain the most from this tournament - surely on the edge of becoming a real world-class keeper - and the confidence of the talk emanating from the England camp really gave hope that the penalties would all be OK this time out. But it wasn't to be, ensuring that the hoodoo will haunt England for many more tournaments to come but also starkly emphasising that, even when kicking the ball in a line from 12 yards away, England are still not as good as their chief opponents.
The major conclusion - although it's not really something we didn't know before - is that England lack the class of player who can do to a game what Pirlo did for Italy. And it's difficult to see anyone around who might change that.
Let's hear your thoughts on England. Post here or email me at email@example.com
Quarter-final day for England and Roy Hodgson is expected to name an unchanged side against Italy for Sunday night's game in Kiev.
Obviously the spotlight is on Mario Balotelli making an appearance against his Manchester City team-mates but, for me, the main difference between the two sides is Andrea Pirlo: the type of player England really don't have. I'm not going to go the usual route of suggesting 'keep Pirlo quiet and we can win' because, at this level, keeping the best players quiet is almost an impossibility, but I agree with Jamie Carragher's assessment that this is very much a 50-50 game with not much to choose between the two sides.
What They Say No: 2
Paolo Di Canio "England are similar to an Italian side of the 1980s."
What we think: "Great we're now only forty years behind the rest of Europe!"
If I'm honest, Italy have the slight edge as they can create better openings than England, but there is a feeling that the English have the extra confidence required to make up for that. Roy Hodgson does seem to have instilled some belief and determination in the English side that has been lacking for...errr...the best part of 40 years and, whatever happens, there is a feeling that we can push on from here. It's no way to judge the result of a football match, I know, but I just think we're owed one for once.
I'm not going to allow this blog to become the ramblings of a man repeating what you can read elsewhere, so I'm going to keep this short and admit I'd not put my mortgage on a result either way in this one but I at least hope England make a game of it - you listening France? - and come out with our heads held high either way.
The main issue for me is where to watch the game. My Italian friend has suggested we go to Little Italy but he's broken off radio contact since Friday and I'm wondering if he's now decided that might not be such a good idea after all. Any offers anyone? There are two days rest after the game anyway so expect a match review on Monday, hopefully I'll be too delirious for typing on Sunday night!
Come on England!
What They Say No: 1
What you heard Sepp Blatter say: "After last night’s match Goal Line Technology is no longer an alternative but a necessity.'
What Sepp Blatter meant: "Bloody hell! now England have benefited from a dubious goal. I better do something about it..."
Portugal 1 Czech Republic 0
The first of the quarter-finals saw Portugal go through thanks to a superlative display from Ronaldo who tormented the Czech's all night and eventually scored superbly with a header struck so firmly that Cech could do nothing about it. In fact, despite the low scoring, this game was completely dominated by the Portugese who had chance after chance, Ronaldo alone striking the post twice and seeing his opponents keeper make some fine stops. The only question was if the Czech Republic might somehow frustrate Portugal and hit them on the break but, in truth, even that seemed unlikely.
In an interesting, rather than spectacular first half, and it was Ronaldo who showed his class just before half-time, bringing the ball down on his chest, swivelling and hitting a thunderous shot that smacked the post. This was the second time Ronaldo was to curse the woodwork as, after 50 minutes, he saw his 30-yard free-kick clip the outside of the far post with Cech beaten.
Portugal had started the second half well, Almeida heading over from 12 yards after being picked out by Raul Meireles' cross and later Cech was forced to parry away a 25-yard strike from Nani. After 57 minutes, the offside flag denied Portugal the lead as Almeida glanced in Nani's cross and then Moutinho's 25-yard effort was tipped over.
A Portugese goal had to come and when it did it was no surprise it fell to Ronaldo. From Moutinho's right-wing cross, the determined Real Madrid player got inside his full-back and headed downwards so the flight beat Cech's despairing arms. Portugal continued to attack with Cech again, beating away an angled 25-yard effort from full-back Joao Pereira.
There really wasn't anything else Portugal could have asked from a quarter-final and the only black spot for them was the injury to striker Helder Postiga six minutes before half-time. The player pulled up with what appeared to be a hamstring problem, and was stretchered off. It looked like a tournament ending injury and his replacement, Besiktas frontman Hugo Almeida, can probably look forward to a semi-final and, on this Ronaldo showing, possibly a final as well.
I should admit first off that, for the first time since 1970 *gulp* I missed watching an England tournament match on TV.
The reason, involving Ascot races, three drunken women and a traffic queue in which I travelled ¾‘s of a mile in 100 minutes, is something I’d rather not recount here, but take it that if you look up ‘Mad’ in an online dictionary, the picture of a wet hen will probably have been replaced by a photo of me at 9pm last night.
Still, from adversity comes opportunity, and I gained a useful insight on how a match comes across on radio when compared to a later highlights package, and also how damnably pessimistic BBC Radio Five Lives’ commentators are. If I’d been able to get to a phone I would have even considered ringing 606 (For non-UK readers: This is a live football phone-in show for the terminally stupid) and this, believe me, would have marked a nadir in my life from which I may never have recovered.
The upshot of all this though is that, remarkably, England’s 1-0 win over Ukraine and the surprising 2-0 capitulation of France to Sweden means England top Group D and face a quarter-final match-up with Italy. Common opinion is that we ‘dodged’ Spain – an opportunity now afforded Group runners-up France – but I’m of the opinion that the Champions are looking off-colour and due a defeat, although I’m not sure if les bleus can deliver it on last night’s form.
Ukraine and Sweden go home, although the Swedes in particular will look at the two leads they held against Ukraine and, more importantly, England and wonder if things might have been so different.
Onto the match though, where England beat a host nation for the first time in a generation with a Wayne Rooney header from a foot out. A cross from – who else? – the excellent man of the Match Steven Gerrard, that eluded everyone including the Ukrainian keeper Pyatov, who merely tipped the ball on to the waiting head of England's returning hero.
That goal, just three minutes after half-time, settled England, who had looked vulnerable to excellent play in the first half from a spirited Ukraine intent on taking a home nation to the quarter-finals. Nevertheless, listening to the play on the radio and seeing it in highlight form later on, only served to emphasise that, whatever the limitations of England’s play are, they actually looked more likely to score than the hosts. Such is Joe Hart’s growing stature as a goal-keeper, you can virtually eliminate any speculative shot from outside the area as a chance, even if it is on-target, and in front of him Lescott and Terry formed a formidable barrier.
Sure Ukraine attacked on both flanks and looked comfortable taking the English defence on and, as in previous games, white shirted defenders were forced to throw their bodies in front of shots occasionally but, for all their invention and pressure, Ukraine could only point to one or two half chances and while BBC commentators continue to bemoan the fact that we don’t retain the ball for long enough, the fact remains that England are extremely good at soaking up pressure and taking the few chances presented to them. Play to your strengths, I say.
True the situation may have been different had the injured Shevchenko been able to make more than the late token appearance he actually made, but the fact remains the best opportunity of the first half fell to a ring rusty Wayne Rooney on 27 minutes, when the Manchester United striker only had to make a clean contact with Ashley Young's cross to score. But Rooney seemed to misjudge the cross and his far-post header – more of a hair weave graze really - sailed wide of keeper Andriy Pyatov's goal.
At the other end Devic was behind most Ukraine attacks and Scott Parker had to block a goal-bound sho,t while Devic again started the move that ended with Andriy Yarmolenko forcing a low save out of Joe Hart. Ashley Young gave the ball away just before half-time but Oleh Gusev could only shoot over, while Yarmolenko’s dribble was stopped at the last by the impressive Joleon Lescott. The major talking point in terms of Ukraine chances though will undoubtedly be the ‘goal’ scored by Devic just after the hour, after Hart superbly parried the player’s shot only for the ball to bounce towards England’s unguarded goal. John Terry running back hooked the ball of the line. That is, the line that wasn’t painted a yard into the goalmouth... instant replays showing the ball had more than crossed the generally accepted goal line.
Naturally, this brought forth a stream of invective from the radio pundits asking exactly what the extra referees introduced to stand on the line were actually doing. Now, most fans know, of course, that the job of the extra ref’s is to imitate the three wise monkeys and see, hear and speak of nothing at all. But, as not seeing the incident brought up pictures of the ball bouncing in clean ground as Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ did in Bloemfontein against Germany, two years ago, I was quite interested to see the incident later on TV.
Now I’m not in mind to defend the extra ref - standing as he was six feet away and facing the goal post on his right. But as Terry hooked the ball while in mid-air, it’s my feeling that, with the netting in view and the speed of the ball followed by the human eye, it may just prove too difficult to ascertain if the ball has really crossed or not. It would be interesting to actually ask the official what he thought he saw or didn’t.
Cue the clamour for goal-line technology but, once again, I have to ask the obvious question. If the BBC knew the ball crossed due to VT / TV play-back’s within 10 seconds of the incident, why are we trialling some gizmo software when we have the technology already in place?
“UEFA – FIFA meet John Logie Baird,”
“Mr Baird? These dumb executives dressed as Ostriches represent 21st Century football... by the way Sir, did you think it was over?”
As Devic’s ‘goal’ came minutes after Artem Milevskiy had sent a header wide when he should have done better, the cumulative effect was to suggest that this England team were having a tad more luck than some of those sent from these shores. Certainly there was more of a sense now that England had done enough, and when news travelled through that elsewhere, the Swedes had doubled their earlier lead over France, the air of acceptance seemed to transmit itself from pitch to grandstand and, though they continued to press and Shevchenko was introduced, Ukraine sensed their opportunity had been lost.
As before, it was England who came closest again when Ashley Cole nearly marked his 97th cap with a goal, Pyatov recovering from a poor attempt to deal with a cross.
When the whistle blew and England had confirmed their continuance as group leaders, players, coaching staff and fans celebrated on a job well done. Of course, over at the BBC, experts confirmed that we shouldn’t, in fact, have taken any points at all from any of our games but, other than that, it was a good evening to be an England supporter.... even if you were trapped in a car with snoring women and the smell of stale champagne and vomit.
Some random thoughts on England's performance last night:
Andy Carroll caused the Swedish defence massive problems and his partnership with Welbeck looks promising, not only in terms of options this tournament, but also with an eye on the future.
How well might England have fared in recent past tournaments if previous Managers had appreciated the skills of Scott Parker? Lady Blagg hails from the North-east and my in-laws are all Geordies who still bemoan the loss of Parker from Newcastle's team, while I know Charlton and Spurs fans who eulogised his contribution to every game. At every club he has played, the fans have loved Parker and appreciated his worth. Why have previous England coaches not seen this?
A superb reaction to going behind. This type of resilience is what we expect from England and will be a major asset if it we can harness it in other areas.
A masterful tactical substitution by Roy Hodgson - how often do we get to say that? - Walcott changed the game.
James Milner? Eh? I can't see it: can someone please explain?
What happened to the defence last night? A rare mess at the back could have cost England dear. Hopefully, a one-off but no more please.
Welbeck's goal: Rest assured other nations are watching that and noting. If Welbeck had been Spanish or Brazilian we'd be asking why our players can't do things like that? Well, they can!
Ashley Young doesn't seem to contribute and, like Milner against France, wasted a good opportunity that we just can't afford at this level. Is he out of position or just not good enough?
England still can't retain the ball. File under 'English'
One Swallow does not a summer make - if they did I'd release a dozen in Essex next week - and opinion will turn if England lose on Tuesday but, regardless, there are signs that Hodgson can fashion a decent squad here and he's shown he is more than capable of making the changes that need making. Rooney is now back and there's a really nice problem of who to leave out. Mark 'Encouraging'.
Greece v Russia - Czech Republic v Poland
The last Group A games to decide who goes through to the quarter finals produced somethimg of a shock as Russia, who'd won their first game against the Czechs 4-1 and drawn with Poland in their second, found themselves out of the competition after losing to Greece 1-0. In this tournament, teams level on points are placed depending on their head-to-head results meaning Greece go through after Giorgos Karagounis scored on the stroke of half-time. Sadly, Karagounis misses out on the glory of a quarter-final appearance having been booked for 'diving' when brought down for an obvious penalty in the second half; Aan injustice that should be allowed to be over-turned when the referee has made such an obvious error.
In the other match, a disappointing host nation Poland wasted a few good first half-chances before, like all their other games, running out of steam in the second period and allowing Petr Jiracek in on 72 minutes to score the only goal of the game. This means the Czechs - and don't forget they lost their first game 4-1 - get to go through to the next phase, although I'd have to say that both they and the Greeks look cannon fodder for whichever team they meet in the next round.
But then Greece will point out we all said that in 2004...
What has happened to this once great country of ours? Even though we've not been able to subjugate a population or win a world cup for years, at least our hooligans were the toast of Europe. All over the world the English were renowned for being oafish, boorish and generally unpleasant: swearing, abusing the locals, being able to sing inappropriate songs and lob street furniture further any any other nation.
Now? It's the Poles and Russians rampaging through the streets, frightening women, children and horses. These are sad days indeed and, of course, I blame the Tories. England = Dogs!
Tell me I'm wrong but did BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce really say the Dutch were thirsting for revenge for "the Nazi occupation of Holland prior to the 1974 World Cup final?" I played it back on Sky rewind six times and I still can't make anything else out.
To compound things the former Capital Radio broadcaster then went on to describe the heat in the stadium being akin to 'the detention room at school' adding 'I'm sure many of you remember what that's like!" Well, actually, NO Jonathan - I went to school in the east end of London and we didn't have detention, you just got hit round the legs with whatever the teacher had to hand (a set square bloody hurt!). Has anyone checked Jonathan's tea? Perhaps UEFA should haul him in for a drug's test?
Denmark 2 v Portugal 3 / Holland 1 v Germany 2
Annoyingly, I only caught snatches of the game between Denmark and Portugal, but it was enough to see the Portugese ease two goals ahead through Pepe (24') and Helder Postiga (36') with Paulo Bento's side appearing to be coasting. But just before half-time Denmark were back in the game when Jakob Poulsen's cross to the far post was picked out by Michael Krohn-Dehli who headed back across goal for Bendtner to head home his 19th international goal in his 50th game.
I had to listen to the second half in the car, not really expecting the Danes to make much more of a game of it, but was delighted when Bendtner again scored, this time after 80 minutes, from a far-post header after Lars Jacobsen crossed. This was just after Ronaldo missed a golden opportunity to wrap the game up when put clean through by Nani. Fortunately for the former Manchester United player, his miss proved not to be too costly as substitute Varela smashed home with his second attempt on 87 minutes when he converted Coentrao's left-wing cross.
It sounded an excellent game and I'm sorry not to have seen it all although there was a benefit from only listening to the match, and that was the reaction by ex-Danish International and former Liverpool star Jan Molby when Denmark equalised. A eulogy to the 'genius' of Nicklas Bendtner, It will undoubtably be promoted on the BBC website and probably go viral as a result. Seek it out if you can, it's hilarious.
In the second match, Germany beat the Dutch 2-1 with two superb first half strikes from Gomes, the first a spin and hit following a pass from Bastian Schweinsteiger on 24 minutes, the second 14 minutes later, was an angled drive after another pass from Schweinsteiger. The Dutch looked deflated and confused at that point but it could all have been so different had Van Persie converted an early through ball. It was the type of thing that would have seen the ball in the back of the net had the Arsenal man been wearing his red and white shirt, as it was it was another frustrating opportunity missed for the men in orange.
With Germany looking sleek and inventive, Holland were just chasing shadows and poor 18 year-old full-back Jetro Willems looked as if he'd just been pulled off the Dutch equivalent of Hackney Marshes as he floundered under the pressure. Bert van Marwijk made two substitutions at half-time replacing the static Van Bommel and the unoticed Ibrahim Afellay with Rafael Van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. The tactic worked and Holland looked much more compact, noticeably moving the ball quicker and taking the game to the Germans. When Van Persie struck home superbly after 73 minutes, it looked as if we'd have a real chase on our hands but, credit to Germany, they simply got back to doing what they do and remained largely unflustered until the final whistle.
Noticeable points were Robben's substitution, where the winger elected to leave the field at the far side and walk around the pitch in a petulant manner (although you have to concede Holland look a much better side with him on the field) and Germany's ease at closing the game down after being pegged back. As the final whistle blew and Holland contemplated the possibility that they won't emerge from this group, the only questions were a) who will stop the inexorable march of Germany and, more importantly, b) why the hell has mainland Europe adopted the first few bars of the White Stripes '7 Nation Army'?
Answers on a postcard please.
I was going to start this rant by saying 'There's more than one way to skin a cat' but then I noticed my own feline friend, Paolo Di Cattio, watching me balefully from my office chair, claws poised on the leather, and decided to go another route. (I'm having to type this standing up! What strange hold does that cat have over me that stops me from throwing it off?)
How about 'Football's a funny old game' then? A cliché certainly, but in truth, it's not really 'funny' is it? I mean, it's about as simple as you can get: 22 men, 11 in a team with the task of getting one ball in the opposing net and only the goal-keeper can touch the ball with his hands. If it goes off the side then you throw it back on, if it comes off the end you kick it back in from the corner. That's it, isn't it? OK I'll accept the third phase of an offside player who wasn't when he started the move, may require the use of a Quantum Physicist but that aside, what else is there to keep the entire world so fascinated?
Well of course, what is so beautifully exhibited at every tournament, in every league, in any cup competition on any given Saturday, Sunday or whenever is that, in football, nothing is really certain. You can have the greatest forwards in the world but if they come up against the greatest defenders then there's always the possibility that a lucky hoof down the field may result in your team winning even though they've barely crossed the half-way line all game.
Some may find this annoying, but anyone with any soul will find it life-affirming. After all, if sport is to have any meaning then it musn't always be decided before a whistle has been blown, gun fired, toss decided or whatever. In sport as life, if we can decide the outcome before we start then there is absolutely no point in starting. Uncertainty is not just a fact, it's a neccessity!
Now essentially I understand in football that an attacking player or midfielder is viewed as a creator, an artist or artisan. A defender on the other hand is often referred to as a stopper and stopping something is seen as a negative. But is this right? Some of the most stylish and technically gifted players I've seen have been defenders and why should it be that if an intricate fifteen pass move from a group of gifted forwards finds its way onto the head of a brutal, 15 stone lump who dumps it in Row Z, the defender is seen as some sort of spoilsport? I mean, couldn't it be argued those gifted forwards should try and avoid that head if they are any good?
I, for one, am tired, oh so tired, of coaches and even fans bemoaning teams who don't 'play the game'. No lesser light that Laurent Blanc, former World Cup and European Championship winner, said something to this effect this week. "You hope that the team playing football wins but this is not always the case". It's the 'playing football' bit that gets me. It's as if two different games are being played; one by the 'pretty boys' and the other by those clueless oiks who spoil it for the rest. What a load of tosh.
Semantics are very much to the fore here. Ironic really, as the exotically romantic Laurent Blanc would be plain old Larry White if he'd been born here. I notice Patrice Evra (Patty Evra?) joined in after yesterday's honourable draw between France and England too; "England played like Chelsea," said the Manchester United defender. Really? I bloody hope so as it means I'll see England lift a trophy before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But, of course, that wasn't what Evra meant. What he was alluding too is that England annoyingly didn't lay down when the shimmering skills of the French bore down on them.
Now, I'm no supporter of Chelsea, but I get really annoyed by people who seem to resent the fact that the west london club had the audacity to win the Champions League by scoring more goals than they conceded. Terrible of them! How dare they defend to a man and sneak a last minute goal against Barcelona and all their wonderful artists! And what's this nonsense where you score more penalties than the other side? Many people said that 'Football didn't win that night' but I'd say, whatever else you thought about Chelsea's matches against Barcelona and Bayern, football in all it's glorious uncertainty won those nights.
Yes, I'm happy to see skilful play by gifted players and if that results in the team I support winning then so much the better. But you also have to applaud the other side to that particular situation and accept that there is a place for stoical, hard-tackling workers who give it their all and are content to drive on all day and stop - fairly, it has to be stressed - those tasked with doing the creating. And if we want to play 'football' (inverted commas intended) and don't think it's being done correctly the right way at the moment, why not look at the standard of refereeing or find some other way of cutting out the petty ankle taps, shirt tugging and rolling on the floor as if shot when lightly touched antics? And, yea, I'll don my red and white (possibly blue too) bowler here and claim that in that area, if in no other, others would do well to learn from the British. Interesting that no-one suggests you're not 'playing football' when your players crumple in a heap at the merest suggestion of bodily contact.
Now lest I'm accused of xenophobia - and I will be - I should point out that this 'there's only on of us trying to play football properly' mentality applies to our own nation and leagues as well and I recently experienced it when my own team, West Ham United, won the Play-off final to Blackpool and the Tangerines' central defender complained that the Hammer's were populated by tall lumps who did nothing but try and stop Blackpool's admittedly attractive short passing game. I've had enough!
Football is a wonderful, multi-faceted game and we should embrace all aspects and this arrivisite view - and it has to be said its primarily promoted by exponents of the beautiful game who don't always get to take the trophy home - should be consigned to history as quickly as possible. We're all playing football so stop suggesting otherwise.
Greece v Czech Republic - Poland v Russia
Due to work commitments and the monthly Blagg pub quiz in Colchester tonight - pop along why don't you? (email me) - there's not likely to be much football watching today. But don't let that stop you enjoying yourself, will you?