Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Just how well DID we qualify?"

The last thing I ever want to do is sound like Rafa Benitez, but let’s look at the facts.

England made it to the finals comfortably and impressively enough from a group containing an awkward closet skeleton in Croatia, but how many times did we play well enough for Fabio to now cite qualification form as a standard for doing well at this tournament?

A. Andorra (w) 2-0: Truly dreadful first-half display rescued by a half-time substitute named Joe Cole.

A. Croatia (w) 4-1: Memorable night garnished by Theo’s searing pace – the night this team took shape not least because Heskey also had his best night – BUT the night Cole got injured, creating the gap to usher the injured Gerrard back into the team (fatally) on the left.

H. Kazakhstan (w) 5-1: Flattering scoreline, poor display against a team of rookies. Booed off at half-time. 0-0 after 52 mins, 2-1 after 68 thanks to a bog-standard header from a corner and an own goal - Ashley getting dog’s abuse – 2 goals in last 4 mins.

A. Belarus (w) 3-1: Really good win, but earned after Gerrard switched from left at half-time to an advanced midfield role to occupy the Belarus playmaker Kulchy – remember his 1-2 with Rooney for his 2nd goal from a central role? Heskey’s last good game (Oct ’08!)

H. Ukraine (w) 2-1: The night Steve Bruce made Beckham man of the match for lifting a faltering display in the last half-hour (replacing a predictable Lennon). 1-1 with 5 minutes to go after James had saved one with his shoulder. JT’s late goal squeezed us home.

A. Kazakhstan (w) 4-0: Kaz could have been 2 up before we got started. We got two goals in the last 5m of first-half (the 1st of those from an amusing goalkeeping error) eased us clear of modest opponents.

H Andorra (w) 6-0: Crouch preferred to Heskey, Theo’s last contribution to qualification, Gerrard and Rooney rested in the second-half. Mismatch.

H. Croatia (w) 5-1: Qualification confirmed with the performance that became the justification for keeping faith with the team and shape Fabio brought to South Africa. Our last good first-half! Terrific display, but did Capello make best use of the 9 months between that night and Rustenburg to explore alternatives?

Perhaps, you need one approach to getting to the finals, and a different one towards winning the thing.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Mental straitjackets and missed opportunity

I have no spy in the England camp, so I don’t know whether the John Terry mutiny was real or not. But I hope it was, and I hope the other senior players are now asking themselves why they didn’t have the balls to join him.

I’ve been depressing friends with my reservations about Fabio Capello for months and months. I am not saying I was right and that it was all his fault. Maybe this group of players are not as good as I thought, but they are better than this.

I saw Thomas Muller play in the Champions League on half-a-dozen occasions last season and rated him no more than promising. I refuse to believe that if you take the shackles off Steven Gerrard he cannot do anything that Muller did in Bloemfontein.

We played in mental straitjackets tighter than those stupid waistcoats. Tactically, we played football from the same era as those waistcoats. Look back and see how many times England really played well in qualification with that system.

The most depressing thing is that I have been here before - exactly here – somehow relieved that it’s all over and I can concentrate on Brazil v Chile tonight. A football match. Remember them?

All those rainforests flattened to preview the event that was England versus Germany. And hardly a word written or said about how fresh and fearless Jogi Loew’s team were looking.

It was all about penalties and spirit and shutting Beckenbauer up. Well, the Kaiser was right. Burnt out straight line football.

The missed opportunity is huge. This morning my 15-year old son would rather be Stuart Broad than Wayne Rooney. If the players weren’t good enough, English football is in a bigger mess than I thought.

If they are, and they simply didn’t get the chance to give it a go, they’ve only got themselves to blame.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

It’s time for another palace revolution.

I am not as convinced as I was before the tournament, but I remain pretty sure that the strength of this England squad lies with the quality of the players.

I never subscribed to the view that Fabio Capello was going to make all the difference. Footballers win and lose football matches.

The task of forging a group of proven club players into a successful international team is partly a coaching puzzle. Capello is a renowned strategist but his tactics rarely stray far from bog standard British 4-4-2.

His failure to master the English language must inevitably restrict his ability to garnish the basic model with too many variations.

My biggest concern about Friday night’s constipated display in Cape Town was that the players looked lost and hamstrung. Either they are simply not as good as I thought they were or they don’t enjoy or understand life under Capello.

His management style is to put a professional distance between himself and the players. That distance currently looks unbridgeable from where I’m standing.

Either Capello asks them what is on their minds, or they pluck up the courage to knock on his door and tell him. Player power helped change Sir Bobby Robson’s mind in mid-tournament in both 1986 and 1990.

It’s time for another palace revolution. They may need to take an interpreter with them, but the senior members of the squad have got to get the chance to be themselves.

They are unrecognisable at the moment.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

It's the results that matter

Imagine completing your GCSE maths exam without too many wrong answers, then finding that someone at your school forgot to send the paper off for marking.

Imagine compiling a long and detailed report for your boss, only for your computer to inexplicably crash and propel your work into the ether. It has been a bruising week at ITV.

Official apologies don't really wash, but whether you thought our coverage of England's opening game was good, bad or indifferent, I can confirm it did leave us in Rustenburg in one piece.

Learning that the most important ten seconds of it never arrived on the nation's HD sets left post-match morale among our team in South Africa at Rob Green levels.

Unlike Fabio Capello, ITV's management didn't select the individual who made the costly error. But, like the England manager, we can now only do everything within our powers to come up with a better result on Friday.

Capello and co's performance against USA divided opinions like most television programmes do. Football and telly are largely matters of opinion. A dozen different informed radio and tv pundits described a dozen different games in the media centre after the USA match.

But when you have got three games to qualify to take on the world, results are all that really matter, and Algeria have the capacity to frustrate the life out of all us this evening with their pretty possession patterns.

Adrian Chiles' wry observations about the torments of following England may be repeated before the night is out. Those of you don't have HD may recall I hit the rapture button after England's flying start last Saturday.

On all counts, I may wait a little longer before I get too excited on Friday

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

England expects...

I never get this idea that England fans are guilty of piling too much expectation onto the team's shoulders in the lead-up to a World Cup. What on earth is wrong with expectation?

Don't we think there is public expectation in Spain and Brazil and Italy? The World Cup has never been won by an outsider. The eventual champions have always carried the high hopes of their nation to the finals. Patriotic optimism never lost a World Cup.

If I had been an England player flying out of Heathrow last night I would have been buoyed and lifted by the numbers of cars and shop windows and apartment blocks already flying St.George's flags. Even as a commentator preparing to help relay some of the action to the millions that can't be here in South Africa, I got a bit of a lump in the throat at the enormity of the interest and fervour for this tournament.

England's Rugby World Cup win and two recent Ashes victories were lavishly celebrated, but imagine the reception for a returning world champion football team.

Yes, there will be pressure in the Rustenburg air come Saturday night, but there will also be opportunity knocking. It's not an opportunity that many of the England squad are likely to get again.

Somebody should tell them just before they leave the dressing-room exactly how much England wants them to succeed. Anybody frightened by that prospect should stay where he is. Anyone inspired by it, go and play as your country expects you to.