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 email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Wayne Rooney is back from suspension and certain to start in Tuesday night’s crucial Group D match in the Donbass Arena, Ukraine.
A lot of weight appears to be heaped on his shoulders - 'Rooney can be our Pele', Eh? - but talk of how England will fare against Spain or Italy are premature as this match on host turf will not be easy and Rooney's contribution will be vital. Defensively, England will need to be better than they were against Sweden otherwise national hero Shevchenko will end the twilight of his football years with at least a quarter final place in this tournament. Doubts about Shevchenko's fitness refuse to go away however, and it could be that, even if he plays, he is unlikely to manage the full 90 minutes.
Previous match-winner Theo Walcott has been declared fit but his hamstring injury has to be a worry and I wonder if Roy Hodgson will risk him at the start, possibly preferring to hold the Arsenal man back and only introduce him if England need to chase the game. Surely though, the England manager will not persevere with Young, so disappointing against Sweden, and my views on Milner remain unchanged even if Roy sees something.
As ever though, this is likely to be an evening of tension, nail-biting and shouting at the TV and we can only hope that Hodgson's apparently improved regime change will continue to deliver results.
Talking of TV, today is Lady B's Ascot Day, meaning that I don my cap and become designated chauffeur for the day. Those of you who immediately think of the Duran Duran song and accompanying video of the same name please stay behind after class for further discussion. Consequently, I write this in Starbuck's in Windsor - can I recommend the Chocolate Cookie Crumble Frappuccino? (other Coffee shops are available... unless Mr Starbuck wants to convince me otherwise ;) ) - while the good little woman gets snapped by paparazzi and fashion gurus alike a few miles away. Quite where I'll be at 7:45 this evening is anyone's guess but I doubt I'll make it much beyond this area so I'll use the rest day 13 to discuss the match and the outcome.
In the meantime then, feel free to email me at email@example.com or leave a comment here, if you have views on how England fare this evening. Elsewhere, I also got embroiled in a web discussion on Monday regarding the new head-to-head rule on group qualification with many dismissing it as unfair, primarily because of Russia's exclusion to the Greek team despite having dispatched four goals past the Czech's in the opening game. My view is that - despite apparent unfairness - it actually makes the football more exciting and means virtually every game is important, almost eliminating 'dead' games.
In view of the heated discussion last week about defending and the value of entertainment, I'd be interested to hear what others think. Look forward to hearing from you.
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...
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?
England 1 France 1 - Sweden 1 Ukraine 2
England fought their way to an honourable draw against France in Donetsk, taking the lead through Joeleon Lescott after half-an-hour but being pegged back by a Nasri strike ten minutes later.
It was difficult to comprehend the searing heat watching in chilly, wet England but it wasn't hard to see how drained some of the players were towards the end and it will be interesting to see how the teams cope in this group if the heatwave continues; one BBC radio pundit saying he'd never experienced anything like it outside of Spain or Brazil.
Roy Hodgson surprised everyone by including Arsenal's Oxlade-Chamberlain to start - he was apparently told just a few hours before kick-off - and going with Manchester United's Danny Wellbeck up front. Neither player disgraced themselves with the Arsenal winger looking like he should have a good international future, his speed sure to cause problems to a lot of defences even if it wasn't used to great effect in this game due to the Manager's game plan.
Much will be made of the obvious differences in style - of which more tomorrow, by the way! - but, for the most part, the French passing and patient build-up foundered on a solid England back-four. Well, quelle surprise! The men in white had chances of their own however and, of all the opportunities that Les Bleus will point too, none was better than the one squandered by James Milner after he had been played beyond the square French defence by an excellent through ball from Ashley Young. Milner rounded the keeper but shot wide with the goal gaping and replays showing the English wide man had enough time to steady himself and shoot with either foot. I didn't feel much was made of it on TV but at international level, chances like this really need to be taken.
England didn't need to wait too much longer to go ahead though. Captain Gerrard curled in an excellent free-kick that had to be retaken as the referee wasn't ready, and Lescott got beyond the defence to head home. Cue wild scenes in most pubs across the UK - for reasons I won't explain I ended up in the Bell and Gate in Collier Row, Romford - echoed shortly after when Joe Hart made a brilliant point-blank save from Diarra.
It looked like it might be England's night but France promptly burst the balloon on 39 minutes when Nasri scored low to Hart's near post following intricate passing involving Evra and Ribery on the edge of the penalty box. It looked as if the small area beyond Hart's hand should really have been covered by the Manchester City stopper but he explained after he didn't see the shot through the bodies, something indicating England's propensity for defending too deep sometimes and certainly at this stage of the match where they needed to consolidate their lead.
The goal livened up France though and England spent pretty much the next 15 minutes defending while the men in blue shirts passed back and forth amongst themselves in front of them. Benezema looked dangerous with a couple of attempts but the blocks and headers out came thick and fast and France didn't really create any clear-cut openings, the half ending with England looking solid but seemingly needing to re-adjust if they weren't too spend the second half defending.
I thought England looked better organised in the second half and although the statistics suggest that England's goal was peppered with shots there was little to worry the solid centre-back pairing bar watching the build up play in front of them. England had possession of their own but too often gave the ball away to put themselves under pressure again and, this really being a fairly new outfit under Hodgson, you have to wonder if the English ability to give the ball away isn't inbred somehow. There was a period just after half-time when the ball was passed backwards across the defence and into the midfield area for about twenty passes, but you could almost feel the English tension rise as little opened up before them. As inevitably as rain and a penchant for Fish 'n' Chips, the English desire won again and Lescott lofted the ball forward, saw it lost to a blue shirt and started to defend again. I actually think sometimes we're happier defending as it gives us an opportunity to be resolute and determined (although I know some are uncomfortable with my blanket assessment of national characteristics).
England complained about several poor decisions from referee Nicola Rizzoli who waved away countless appeals for what seemed clear fouls by the French and Hodgson alluded to this post-match when talking about several build-up plays that produced nothing due to the fact the whistle wasn't blown. It certainly did nothing to help England who often had to funnel back in the oppressive heat when the ball switched play.
With poor Scott Parker obviously flagging, Jordan Henderson was bought on - something which, for me anyway, only underlines the paucity of the available players following injuries - with Defoe replacing Wellbeck to little effect and Walcott entering late on. I thought the Arsenal man should have been given an opportunity earlier as it was obvious some of the French players were suffering in the heat too and Walcott's pace might have eased the nerves as England defended stoutly, seemingly happy with the draw as the game came to a close.
Manager, players and most fans seemed happy with the draw and, as it's difficult to imagine any way that England could have eased a win out of this, this can only be viewed in terms of group qualification. England will need to be more pro-active in terms of chasing a game when they come up against Sweden and Ukraine but I'm satisfied with this result and the overall performance.
The later game involving Sweden and the host nation ended with the Ukraine running out winners thanks to two goals from national hero Shevchenko after Ibrahimovic had put the Swedes ahead. It looked a good game - indeed there hasn't really been a poor match all tournament yet - but, sadly, a combination of a lot of travelling and a pint or two of John Smiths meant I dozed off and missed most of the action. Hey! At least I'm honest...!
Ukraine now top the group and England may find them a difficult proposition if they need to win in their last game, however on this showing, Hodgson's men should be looking to get something from Sweden although it all looks too close to call currently.
As John Lennon once had it; strange days indeed.
As unofficial England blogger, I’ve covered a few World Cups and Euro tournaments for Soccernet now, and I’ve seen many more before that I’d not care to recount; some good, some forgettable and some I only see in nightmares. But to a one, all of them have been surrounded by the over-hyped hoopla that always follows England, their fans and the resulting expectations of the national team.
This summer though, all is different. I don’t know if it’s the long Jubilee weekend and celebrations, the fact everyone is spent from the unbridled excitement of the climax of one of the best seasons football many of us can recall or, perhaps more sensibly, that we’re all saving ourselves for the forthcoming excitement of the world’s greatest sporting event on our doorsteps (or, in my case, my parent’s doorstep!) later this year.
What is undeniable though is that Euro 2012 starts off later this week with barely a nod towards any expectation towards England at all. Is it because we are shorn of the usual ‘Golden Generation’ of over-paid, over-tabloid and ‘Moi? Over here on me ‘ead son’ sensationalism we’ve come to expect from our three-lion’ed heroes? Or is it just me? I mean, I haven’t seen a single picture of Gary Cahill chasing Cheryl Cole down Chelsea High Road with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot clutched in his hand. (Other Champagnes are available, of course – unless the good people at VC want to provide me with a case…). In fact, hand on heart here, If the good Mr Cahill – who I am sure is happily married, by the way – were to knock on the oak-panelled door of Blagg Acres and offer me tickets to Poland I wouldn’t have a clue who he was.
Even the appointment of the venerable Mr Roy Hodgson – something I have advocated would be a good thing for a long time, by the way – has barely caused a ripple barring some odd TV debates about a speech impediment. Considering Harry Redknapp seemed destined to be borne to Lancaster Gate on the back of a winged beast strewn with rose petals from adoring fans and the fact he was by-passed with nary a interview would, you’d have thought, caused a bit of a furore. As it is though, everyone seems…well, kinda underwhelmed about everything.
The result of all this though is that we approach Euro 2012 with no expectations and no real knowledge what is going to be happening. As I write this, Frank Lampard has pulled out denying us, perhaps for the last time – the chance to debate if he can play in the same team as Steven Gerrard (that should cut my mail inbox down by a half!) – but I’ve learned just seconds ago that the excellent Scott Parker is likely to follow suit. With Gareth Barry also out with a lower abdomen tear, it is entirely possible that England’s midfield will be populated with a bunch of players only those who collect football stickers will recognise.
Now I’m not sure it would be entirely fair to say that this will be a good thing – it’s usually recognised that experience counts for a lot in these tournaments – but also, for once, I find I’m not actually bothered that we seem to be without some of our match-winners. Is it because usually our ‘match-winners’ never actually win a match? Is it because for years our usual post-tournament cry is ‘give the others a chance’? Or is because, to return to my original point, we’re not really expecting much so don’t care either way?
Because the fact is that players like Lescott, Cahill, Henderson and Carroll – all good players but not those most of us would put on the top of our ‘pick up list’ – have all had the experience of holding aloft trophies, winning losing battles, kissing medals and, generally, coming out on top this season. Many of them did it when expectations weren’t great and when, just possibly, had others been available then they wouldn’t even have been given an opportunity. But they’ve proved themselves winners and, with the excellent tactical brain of Hodgson looking after things, perhaps that – along with the disappointments many will have suffered along the way – will give them the chance to grow and even shine.
Andy Carroll is a prime example, looking every bit the essential English centre-forward when he broke into Newcastle’s team back in 2007 but looking like an over-hyped expensive flop just a few years later when he joined Liverpool. But Dalglish saw something in the player late this season and Carroll responded accordingly. Hodgson has now done the same, handing the Geordie the coveted No: 9 shirt and effectively telling the young player that he can make it his own for years to come if he fulfils his potential.
It’s in the English way to sniff at this and suggest Andy Carroll is just the latest in another over-hyped assembly line who’ll never achieve on the international stage, but it’s surely not unreasonable to suggest we used to produce world-class players who actually produced this form for their country so why shouldn’t we start again – particularly at a time when no-one is really expecting anything. I’m actually quite excited at the prospect of seeing Carroll muscle his way through a few euro defences – and let’s be clear about this – if he’s going to do this before anyone actually knows who he is, then this is the tournament to do it in.
It seems likely, at the very least, that expectation won’t hold heavily on the shoulders as it seems to have done for other squads in the past. Perhaps England may even play with a bit of freedom and not worry so much about what the opposition may do, feeling free to express themselves and impose their own attributes on the game. It may be that none of this is possible, of course, perhaps all English teams are doomed to follow the sins of their predecessors, but I’d like to think that Euro2012 gives some players the opportunity to grasp an opening and within that, the chance to make a difference.
I’m not saying that England can win this tournament; my local supermarket aren’t producing player’s medals and there are no cut-outs of Joe Cole advertising washing powder, so I know that’s not likely. But I do think there is just an outside possibility that, for once, England may do a bit more than we’re expecting. After all, we’re really not expecting very much at all. They may remind us of why supporting England used to be a good thing and – whisper this – restore a bit of pride in the Three Lions again.
Let’s just hope we don’t end up losing in the quarter-finals on penalties with the press advising us that we’ve now found the next ‘Golden Generation’. That would be too much to take.
Got any expectations on England in Euro2012? Answer Yes, No or ‘there’s a tournament on?’ to Billy here at Soccernet and keep returning every day for the latest updates.