En France

France 2016

Euro 2016, France. Photo by Brigitte Djajasasmita, http://www.flickr.com

My favourite scene of all in Only Fools and Horses has the two Trotter brothers in their trusty van, driving through the French countryside. Del professes his love for duck a l’orange and asks Rodney: “how do you say duck in French bruv?” Rodney pauses then replies: “it’s canard Del.” Try saying it out loud if you don’t get it.

And so it is with predicting the winner of the European Championships which commence later tonight in France with the hosts taking on Romania. The French are many people’s favourites and that’s understandable given their strong and balanced squad plus home advantage.

Since hosts don’t have to qualify it’s always difficult to assess their form ahead of a tournament. The ease with which they beat Scotland last week told us more about our travails than French prospects of triumph.

We Scots have been looking on with envy as the rest of the home nations have crossed the Channel to do battle against Europe’s best. And Albania.

Indeed, the last time we made it to a major tournament was in France, the World Cup of ’98. I was still a teenager, with a Kurt Cobain poster on my wall, and had recently moved to England. The Scotland team did as usual: almost beat Brazil then exited meekly.

We had a tough qualifying group for France ’16 but we still should have edged out the Irish for a play-off spot. I expect most of the home nations to return home pretty quickly with the exception of England.

I don’t think they’ll win it (they don’t look like a squad who could handle the pressure of going all the way) but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them in the semi finals. England are suspect at the back, which is true of most teams in the competition, but they have considerable talent and options up front. Personally I wouldn’t start Rooney but Hodgson will and the balance of the side will be disrupted as a consequence.

I see some of the England fans have already been making friends and influencing people. They’ve been on the receiving end of some tear gas and more tears will surely follow when the inevitable defeat on penalties comes to pass.

Elsewhere, the Spanish and the Italians both arrive somewhat uncertain and potentially underestimated. Conte will squeeze every ounce of sweat out of his side but he lacks a really menacing goal scorer. The Spanish are trying to evolve their tiki-taka style in the absence of Xavi, the man around whom the whole system once revolved at both club and national level.

Belgium are ranked highly but I’m not convinced they’re ready to breakthrough and actually claim a title. My tip then is the Germans. Betting against Germany rarely pays dividends and I don’t recommend it on this occasion. They were poor against Scotland twice in qualifying but they have quality throughout the spine of their side and, more importantly, they know how to win.

It promises to be an exciting month and for those of us watching from afar, a tiring one. Many of the games kick-off at 3am Malaysian time. I’m much older than a teenager now, so I’ll have to pace myself.

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Can England win Euro 2016?

England v France

England v France at Wembley. Photo by Ben Sutherland, http://www.flickr.com

If England were to be crowned European champions in France this summer it would come as something of a surprise to me. By then of course, Leicester may already be Premier League champions and an English triumph at the Euros wouldn’t be as big a shock as that. Still, England have never previously won the tournament nor, remarkably, ever even made the final.

Recent friendly matches were an opportunity to assess the form of Hodgson’s squad and their prospects when they cross the Channel in June. A 3-2 victory away in Germany was a significant statement of intent, subsequently tempered slightly by a 2-1 loss at home to the Netherlands a few days later.

What struck me most about these recent matches is the extent to which the England side has changed from the last major international tournament, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Let’s compare the starting line-ups from England’s crucial group game against Uruguay in 2014 with the team that took the field in Berlin last month.

Uruguay v England (19/06/14)

Hart, Johnson, Baines, Cahill, Jagielka, Sterling, Henderson, Gerrard, Sturridge, Rooney, Welbeck.

Germany v England (26/03/16)

Butland, Clyne, Rose, Cahill, Smalling, Dier, Henderson, Lallana, Alli, Welbeck, Kane.

Only three players – Cahill, Henderson, and Welbeck – appear in both line-ups. Several others who played against Uruguay may also start England’s first match in Euro 2016 against Russia with Hart, Rooney, and Sturridge probably the most likely among them.

Nevertheless, it’s a significant overhaul of his side that Hodgson has undertaken. No bad thing that in all likelihood given the fact that the ‘golden generation’ scarcely got anywhere near bronze.  So is the 2016 vintage better?

Defensively I don’t think it is. England are a team that leak goals against decent opposition and there’s quite a lot of inexperience at the back. Clyne is average in my view and Rose has a lot to learn before he can consider himself a master of international football. Smalling is a link in the chain that opposition sides will regard as vulnerable.

The emergence of Alli provides some real dynamism and vigour in midfield, of the sort that Sterling briefly promised at the World Cup but has failed to deliver this season at Manchester City. Lallana, after failing to convince me in his early days at Liverpool, seems to be growing in confidence and influence. Henderson is no Steven Gerrard, for club or country (I suspect Klopp may be inclined to let him leave in the summer).

Up front things get particularly interesting and, as has been the case for rather a while now, the biggest dilemma concerns Rooney. The Manchester United striker is more often found splitting opinion than splitting defences these days.

One school of thought maintains that Rooney is still England’s most important player and should be the first name added to the team sheet. A dissenting school contends that peak Rooney was reached quite a long time ago and while he might retain a place in the squad, he should not feature in the starting eleven.

Hodgson is a cautious manager by nature and thus I suspect that Rooney (if he’s fit) will start in the game against Russia. Personally, I would pair Kane and Sturridge up front although Vardy certainly deserves consideration for the extraordinary season that he’s having.

There are goals in the current England side and they look like a much more threatening proposition than the team that limped so meekly out of the World Cup with just two goals in three games.

The recent round of friendly fixtures point to an open championship coming up and England are far from alone in carrying defensive frailties into the tournament. It should make for entertaining viewing.

Scotland, sadly, won’t be in France this summer but will be facing England in World Cup qualifying later in the year. After our recent friendly in Prague, Gordon Strachan observed: “we are not a great side but we can turn ourselves into a decent side by working hard.” That’s a fair summary of our current state and I think it also describes where England are at the moment as well (although they undoubtedly have a lot more quality).

Roy Hodgson justifiably claimed that the win in Berlin was his best night as England boss but went on to acknowledge that: “we have got an awful long way to go before we can claim to be anything like Germany with all they have achieved.”

Hodgson has been a master of expectations management since taking charge. The hype and hysteria that used to carry England teams into tournament battle has largely dissipated with more sober assessments being made of a squad that is good but lacking in greatness.

How much greatness is there elsewhere though? The Germans looked quite ordinary in qualifying (Scotland were unlucky to lose to them twice); the Spanish have lost more than a little swagger of late; the Italians are hardworking but not exactly inspired under Chelsea-bound Conte; the French face the pressure of playing at home (something that worked for them in 1998 but could easily go against them); while the Belgians will rightly travel in hope but I’m not convinced they yet have the expectation of victory.

The UK referendum on leaving the EU falls between the end of the group stages and the start of the knockout phase. England have a favourable group so there shouldn’t be any Engxit before a potential Brexit.

So, can England win it?  Yes, given how open it looks to be and the shortcomings elsewhere. But I don’t think they will. Hodgson is a realist and his assessment is correct: it’s only a short journey to France, but his squad still has a long way to go.

A cameo and a Classico

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon www.flickr.com

Photo by Ana Belen Ramon
http://www.flickr.com

Domestic football returns in Europe this weekend following the break for international fixtures. In the last round of games we got to assess two of the continent’s greatest leagues, and four of the biggest clubs in the world with plenty at stake – it truly was a Super Sunday (or Super Sunday/Mega Monday combo for those of us watching in the Far East) as Liverpool took on Manchester United before Barcelona squared off against Real Madrid.

El Classico is not only the biggest game in Spain but also the biggest game in the world these days and, in my view, Liverpool v Manchester United is the biggest game in England such is the stature, history and rivalry of the two clubs. Having both games played on the same day offered an interesting opportunity to compare two very different football cultures.

It may be the biggest game in England but this was no title decider. Both clubs are focused on a top four finish and qualification for the Champions League. United’s victory was a huge one in this particular race and Liverpool, despite excellent form in 2015, may have left their charge a little too late.

Van Gaal and his expensive acquisitions have found themselves under pressure all season with their stuttering and inconsistent form. The Dutchman speaks often of ‘philosophy’ and his team has mostly employed the Socratic method: posing many questions but providing precious few answers.

Things change rather quicker in football than philosophy however and victory at Anfield would prove to be a second assured display in a row from United following their convincing win over Spurs a week earlier.

Liverpool started the match as slight favourites but quickly found out how little that matters when Mata calmly stroked in the opening goal. Van Gaal was jubilant on the touchline but Giggs’ reaction to being embraced by the manager – stonier of face than Michelangelo’s David – did not exactly dispel rumours of a rift between the two.

Liverpool tried to counter but looked unusually flat and threatened only rarely in the first half. Sturridge briefly got confused and thought he was Marco Van Basten, attempting a volley from an audacious angle. De Gea wasn’t troubled by it but some supporters high up in the stand behind him may well have been.

Manchester United were dominating the game with Mata and Herrera pulling the strings in midfield and Rooney looking lively in his preferred position up front. Liverpool needed some inspiration: enter Steven Gerrard as a half time substitute.

38 seconds later Gerrard exited, rightly sent off for a stamp on Herrera. Captain marvel hadn’t even lasted a marvellous minute. It was an atrocious loss of control from a player of such experience. His subsequent apologies were swift and well made but the incident will leave a longer lasting mark on the end of Gerrard’s Liverpool career than it did on Herrera.

The remaining Liverpool players appeared to still be in shock when Mata scored his second of the game with an acrobatically elegant volley. It looked like game over at that point but Liverpool deserve a lot of credit for forcing their way back into the match. Sturridge scored with twenty minutes remaining but the unequal numbers were a factor in an equaliser remaining beyond them.

Rooney had the chance to wrap up a more comfortable win for his side when Manchester United were awarded a late penalty after Can clumsily tangled with Blind in the box. It summed up a rather clumsy Liverpool performance overall. Rooney’s penalty was in the category marked tame and Mignolet was able to make a relatively straightforward save.

Liverpool quickly ran out of time to save themselves but there was still time for another expensive stamp as Skrtel left his foot in on De Gea. The referee took no action but Skrtel subsequently received a retrospective three match ban.

Manchester United left town with three precious points. I went to bed for about three hours sleep before the Classico kicked-off.

When it did, the two best forward lines in the world were lined up against each other: Neymar, Suarez, and Messi versus Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo. This potentially packed more of a punch than Mayweather versus Pacquiao next month. As the players lined up, it was Bale who looked by far the most apprehensive even though he was playing away from the Bernabeu where the Madrid fans have given him such an unnecessarily hard time of late.

Modric was back in the Real midfield to set-up an interesting Croatian confrontation with his fellow countryman Rakitic. I’m not yet fully convinced of Luis Enrique’s managerial abilities but he has at least been smart enough to restore Mascherano to a midfield position. The Argentinean had a superb game, snapping Real’s midfield out of their stride and using the ball intelligently in possession. The only black mark against him was some pitiful playacting on more than one occasion.

The opening exchanges were cagey, there was more dancing around the ring than direct engagement. Then Messi decided enough was enough and whipped in a free-kick that invited Mathieu to nod it in to the net, an invitation he duly accepted. The two best strike forces in the world come together and the first goal is scored by a centre half.

It didn’t take long for Real to respond though. Modric found Benzema inside the box and his brilliant back-heel bemused the Barca defence and allowed Ronaldo to find a sliver of space to score. Ronaldo is apparently refusing to talk to the press until the end of the season; his bizarre outburst at the Ballon d’Or awards suggests that we’re perhaps not missing much.

Before half-time there was still time for Ronaldo to get booked for diving (I wish he would give that up, even just for lent), for Bale to have a ‘goal’ ruled out for offside and then miss a glorious chance from just six yards out. Ancelotti will have headed down the tunnel the happier of the two bosses.

Ten minutes into the second half though, Enrique was enlivened and leaping with delight as Suarez scored a goal of pure composure to put Barca back ahead. If anybody needed reminding, this game was no Messi versus Ronaldo. It was probably the best collection of football talent you are likely to see on a pitch anywhere in the world this year (consider the fact that Xavi was on the bench).

Real Madrid had the world club cup winner’s crest on their jerseys but there’s no doubt that this is the game that determines the world’s best. In the last Classico back in October, Real looked very much the best in the world with an utterly convincing 3-1 win.

Barcelona looked disjointed and uncertain in that game. This time round they were full of confidence and conviction. It was a bit like the Barcelona of a couple of seasons ago under Guardiola but with ‘quicker ball’ as they would say in rugby. The midfield three used to be the basis of Barcelona’s game, now it’s the front three.

And with that front three it’s hardly surprising. Tactics don’t have to be very complicated when you have the option to give the ball to Neymar, Suarez, and Messi, all of whom are very willing to constantly show for it.

At the final whistle Barcelona had three points to show for their efforts and a four point lead at the top of the league.

Two great games, four great teams, six great goals. If the four teams played in a mini league the two Spanish sides would finish at the top. They are the best two teams in the world with Bayern Munich not far behind. Liverpool and Manchester United are striving to close the gap but given that the former didn’t make it out of the Champions League group stage and the latter weren’t even in Europe this season, they still have a long way to go.

The English sides return this weekend to their battle to qualify for the Champions League. They know that if they get there they’ll find the world’s best waiting. Gerrard won’t be there, he’ll be in L.A. But like the rest of the world, he’ll be watching.

England expects … very little

 

england-fans

England fans in Brazil. Photo by Rob, http://www.flickr.com

Greg Dyke set the tone. With the draw for Group D of the World Cup concluded, the FA Chairman promptly drew his finger across his throat: a group of death. Of course, back in December it was Costa Rica who were expected to end up in an early World Cup grave but they went on to outlive all of the group’s more celebrated sides.

England got rumbled in the jungle by Italy (or more precisely by Pirlo, again), suckered by Suarez (a less painful experience than the Italians had of him), and the match against the Costa Ricans was essentially pointless in every sense bar the literal one.

How much more should have been expected of England? Consistently laborious performances in qualifying were enough to suppress the expectations of all but the most optimistic of their fans. Last year Gary Linker lamented a return to the tactical “dark ages” following a draw at home to the Republic of Ireland. The World Cup offered little indication of renaissance.

Pre-tournament expectations were low but not all hope had been renounced. There was some hope that Rooney would demonstrate beyond doubt at an international tournament that he is world class; there was perhaps greater hope that an emerging young talent such as Sterling or Barkley would take the tournament by storm in the manner of Gazza at Italia 90; and there was just enough hope that the blend of those youngsters with tournament veterans such as Gerrard and Rooney would produce a side that was both attack-minded and competitive.

Rooney did manage to score his first World Cup goal and provided an excellent assist for Sturridge against Italy but overall his limitations were more apparent than his strengths. Played out of position in the opening game, he frequently left Baines exposed and the Italians were savvy enough to take full advantage. There’s no question that Rooney is a very talented footballer but he did not answer the doubts that linger about him at the very highest level. He’s certainly not able to carry a team in the way that Messi or Neymar can, or indeed Robben or Colombia’s Rodriguez.

Barkley didn’t have much too much opportunity to prove himself in Brazil but he’s a player that, for all his qualities, has an awful lot to learn. The most important lesson that has escaped him so far is that genius is more often to be found in simplicity than complexity.

Sterling meanwhile has emerged as the most promising young English footballer at present. This is somewhat surprising in my view, as for at least a season at Liverpool he demonstrated little more than searing pace. He had a mystifying tendency to take the ball down dead ends, and his final delivery (on those rare occasions when he either avoided or reversed out of cul-de-sacs) was generally abysmal.

In the last 12 months however he has grown in strength, tactical appreciation and technical ability and now offers a real threat beyond his speed. His fast start to the tournament was not sustained and while he returns home with his reputation enhanced, a lot of work remains to be done if he is to prove himself worthy of being the player that England’s immediate future is constructed around.

On paper, the blend of youth and experience in the England side did appear quite positive. Much of the build up to the tournament focused on whether or not Hodgson would be able to overcome his customary caution in team selections. Starting Sterling in the opening game was overwhelmingly interpreted as praiseworthy boldness on the manager’s part but looked to me to be a rather more straightforward decision to pick arguably the most in form player in the squad.

In fact there was very little drama about the starting 11. Most of the debate, as ever, revolved around Rooney. Hodgson certainly erred in not playing him in his best position against Italy but otherwise most of his selections required little justification. Personally I’m far from convinced by Wellbeck, he’s a player that does nothing badly but nothing particularly well either. Left back also became an area of scrutiny as Baines failed to play anywhere near his best but his initial selection was absolutely understandable.

Tactically, Hodgson has more to answer for. It still seemed as though England were generally set-up to nullify the strengths of the opposition rather than impose their own. With so many Liverpool players in the team, Hodgson could have opted to play closer to the style of Brendan Rodgers’ side with a quicker tempo and more emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch. In his selection, the England boss recognised that his side was stronger in attack than defence but he failed to reflect that in his tactics.

England’s tactics were apparently shared with the world before they even started their first game. Gary Neville was photographed with his training notes on display and thus, in the typically understated language of the English press, he ‘unwittingly revealed England’s master plan.’

The notes read: “When the ball goes into control zone – team must make at least 3 passes before hitting the CF. Once the ball is played into the end zone – 2 MFs try to get in and support for a 3v2. However, if the defending team win the ball back they counter straight away.” I can imagine the England squad listening to Oasis on the team bus and singing, “we’re all part of a master plan.” Neville’s tactics gaff was about as revelatory as his brother’s attempts at co-commentary.

It would have been great if a photographer had captured a similar piece of paper in the Argentinean camp: “just pass the ball to Messi lads.”

Hodgson developed an increasingly pink complexion over the course of his side’s short stay in the tournament. It is unclear how much was attributable to embarrassment and how much to neglecting to take a strong enough sun cream. He didn’t have a strong enough defence either.

Uruguay’s winner was a particularly shocking example of what’s come to be universally known as ‘schoolboy defending.’ I can remember being lambasted for that type of defending – and that exact phrase being used – when I was a schoolboy. It struck me as rather harsh at the time but it cannot be considered harsh when applied to the ineptitude of some of England’s defensive displays.

England’s world cup campaign was probably best encapsulated by an incident in the aftermath of the equaliser against Italy when team physio Gary Lewin dislocated his ankle amidst the exuberance of the celebrations. He went home early but the rest of the squad were not far behind.

The best sides at the World Cup either had an exceptional individual (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Holland) or a very well developed but still flexible style of play (Germany and the Dutch again warrant inclusion here). England had neither. Rooney is good but he’s not exceptional and it remains to be seen just how good Sterling will become. In terms of style of play, England may have progressed a little from the dark ages but not nearly far enough.

Greg Dyke has set England the target of winning the World Cup in 2022. That’s just 8 years away. 8 years ago, England lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Germany. Since then, they’ve gone backwards. In 2010, the Germans humbled Capello’s calamitous side 4-1 in the last 16 and in 2014 Hodgson’s men failed to make it out of the group stage.

Unable to survive a group of death (I don’t use the term the group of death as there were other groups just as tough), it seems likely that it will take longer than 8 years to breathe life back into England’s World Cup prospects.