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.

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Ronaldo d’Or Messi?

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton www.flickr.com

Cristiano Ronaldo. Photo by: Nathan Congleton
http://www.flickr.com

Last night I watched Getafe v Real Madrid including the recent recipient of Fifa’s Ballon d’Or award Cristiano Ronaldo. Real won 3-0 and Ronaldo helped himself to a couple of goals bringing his tally to 36 already for the 2014-15 season. A few hours later Messi scored a hat-trick (incredibly, the 30th of his Barcelona career) as Barcelona won 4-0 at Deportivo La Coruna.

Separating these two great players is generally not very easy but the Ballon d’Or voters seemed to find it quite straightforward as Ronaldo won with a convincing 37.66% of the vote compared to Messi’s 15.76% (putting him just a tiny margin ahead of Neuer who polled 15.72%).

I think Ronaldo was a worthy winner but I’ve no doubt that Messi would have triumphed if Argentina had won the World Cup. Ronaldo’s World Cup was a very disappointing one but there’s no doubting how brightly he’s lit up the world stage with Real Madrid – almost as bright in fact as the suit that Messi wore to the award ceremony, the choice of which merits some considerable doubting.

Perhaps shaken by Messi’s sartorial selection, Ronaldo emitted a very strange screech towards the end of his acceptance speech. Quizzed about it later, he said: “The scream? The players know I always do that shout when I score a goal or when we win – it’s our team shout.” It may have a place as part of a goal celebration (although personally I’ve always favoured more understated approaches) but in the acceptance speech context it was quite ridiculous.

It was of course very Ronaldo – a man that’s already built a museum dedicated to himself and someone who removes his shirt almost as readily as Matthew McConaughey. Yes, Cristiano, you have a six-pack and rippling muscular physique but then you’re one of the world’s highest paid athletes, surrounded by trainers and dieticians, so maybe that’s what should reasonably be expected.

As Balotelli (another of football’s vain brigade) once asked: “when a postman delivers letters, does he celebrate?” Next time you score or win an award Cristiano, try just smiling and raising your hand in the way that Alan Shearer used to.

Accepting his award, Ronaldo said: “It has been an unforgettable year. To win this trophy at the end of it is something incredibly unique.” Well, not that unique in all honesty since he won the same trophy last year.

There were a few other interesting things to emerge out of the Ballon d’Or voting. Roy Hodgson opted for Mascherano, Lahm and Neuer, somehow overlooking both Ronaldo and Messi. Perhaps this was part of some new FA diversity scheme to promote inclusion for midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. Jamie Carragher tweeted: ‘love Roy Hodgson going for a clean sheet with his Ballon D’or picks.’

Scotland boss Gordon Strachan, a former winger, opted for Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Arjen Robben while Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill’s picks (Ronaldo, Lahm, and Muller) weren’t counted after his football association failed to submit the documents on time.

The Fifa team of the year for 2014 was also announced and there weren’t too many surprises other than the inclusion of David Luiz at centre half. Luiz is actually quite a decent footballer; the problem is that he plays in defence despite displaying little aptitude for defending. In my first blog post I crowned him the ‘defender who absolutely refuses to accept that he’s not a striker’ and I suspect that being picked in defence for the Fifa XI will not prompt him to think differently.

There’s no World Cup this year so the 2015 winner is likely to be judged almost solely on domestic performances. Just two and half weeks into the new year, who would bet against it being a two horse race again? Perhaps only Roy Hodgson.

Rooney – more respected, less feared

Photo by: Brent Flanders www.flickr.com

Photo by: Brent Flanders
http://www.flickr.com

Wayne Rooney is set to win his 100th England cap next weekend in the European Championship qualifier against Slovenia at Wembley. He will do so as captain. He was handed the armband following Steven Gerrard’s retirement from international football after the World Cup in Brazil.

Rooney is a player who divides opinion. For some he remains one of England’s few genuinely world class players and the most natural leader of the current England side. For others he’s a shadow of his former self who scarcely deserves a place in the England starting line-up.

I certainly think it’s true that he hasn’t fully fulfilled the promise that he showed when he burst on to the scene as a precocious teenager. With the exception of the European Championships in 2004, he has generally disappointed somewhat on the biggest stage at the very highest level.

There seems to be something a bit less swashbuckling about him these days which is not entirely explicable by the passing of years. The look on the faces of the defenders he faces has changed a little: a respectful wariness has replaced fear.

On his day he can still command a game but when he receives the ball these days there doesn’t seem to be quite that same anticipatory shift forward in the seat among the crowd. Di Maria is the one more likely to induce that movement at Old Trafford now. With England, Sterling is a more likely candidate.

Rooney has matured though. On and off the field he no longer embarrasses himself in the way that he once did. He appears more in control of himself, maybe a little bit too much in control sometimes. The leash has been shortened and he’s more disciplined but less dangerous.

Sir Bobby Charlton will present Rooney’s 100th cap (I’m not entirely sure of its origins but a cap has always struck me as a slightly odd thing to reward people with for international appearances). Rooney is a mere six goals behind Sir Bobby’s England record of 49 and there’s a very good chance that he will have overtaken Charlton’s haul by the end of the qualification campaign.

Rooney is also now captain of both club and country. He’s become an elder statesman of the game; entrusted by managers to lead by example and instruction.

Roy Hodgson is quoted today however as saying: “I worry that the responsibility is going to weigh him down.” It’s a strange thing for the England manager to say just a few months after appointing Rooney captain.

How much extra responsibility does the role really entail? The biggest decision that the captain has to make is heads or tails. Most of the other responsibilities (guiding young players, offering leadership on the pitch, communicating with the manager) would all be expected of a senior player anyway and there’s nothing to suggest that Rooney would shirk them if he wasn’t wearing the armband.

British football tends to inflate the role and importance of captain. I get the impression that it’s seen a bit more ceremoniously elsewhere. The fact that Rooney was seen as such an obvious choice for both Manchester United and England says more about his teammates at club and international level than it does about him.

Rooney will probably become England’s all time leading goal scorer. England will definitely qualify for the European Championships in France. Once there, Rooney and England will be respected but not feared by their opponents.

If Rooney does appear weighed down, I don’t think it’s the burden of captaincy that’s the cause. I think it’s much more likely to be the fact that he knows that considerably more of his career is now behind than in front of him and the heights he’s reached, impressive though they are, have fallen short of those that he hoped for and expected.