Familiar England failings exposed again

It is an all-too-familiar tale for England in the One-Day arena.  Conservative batting, unimaginative bowling, a general lack of pragmatism and inventiveness – I could go on.  Time and again they are getting schooled by teams who are playing a brand of cricket which is light-years ahead.  Against an India team that were comprehensively outclassed in the Test series, England are finding that revenge is a dish served pretty chilly.  Losses by 6 wickets, 9 wickets and 133 runs are not close encounters; they are absolute thrashings.  So why is it that a team which triumphed 3-1 in the Test series be so totally outplayed not three weeks later?

            England have historically been ambivalent at best towards One-Day cricket.  Players are rightly brought-up to view Test cricket as the ultimate goal, and pyjama cricket as an added extra.  In this country especially, One-Day internationals are usually tagged on the end of an intense Test Series where interest is waning from both players and spectators alike.  I am yet to meet any serious fan who prefers the shorter form of the game.  Overseas however the One-Day arena is treasured, not least on the subcontinent where crowds are much larger than for Test cricket.  Nevertheless, England should be commended for preserving the popularity of the 5-day game over the crash-bang-wallop of limited-overs cricket.

            Yet it is the lack of any crash-bang-wallopesque cricket which is currently hindering the national side.  No one loves orthodox cricket shots more than me, but there is a time and a place for them – the test arena.  One-Day cricket has moved on.  No longer can one patiently build an innings at a leisurely strike-rate.  The requirement is that batsmen attack the bowling from ball one.  As scores of 300 become commonplace at a rate of one run per ball, a conservative approach is doomed to failure.  Yes there are situations where a pragmatic approach is prudent, but the time when pottering along to set a target of 250 has passed.

            So how do England escape the mire and become realistic challengers for the World Cup in just 6 month’s time?  With great difficulty.  As long as Alastair Cook is at the top of the order England will continue to struggle.  Get off to a fast start and the middle-order can relax and play their shots knowing that a competitive total is almost guaranteed – and this puts pressure on the bowling team.  If, like England, the openers do not take advantage of the fielding restrictions in the first 10 overs, the team is always playing catch-up.  It is not a recipe for long-term success.

            I don’t necessarily think there needs to be wholesale personnel changes to the team.  The basic spine of Root, Buttler, Tredwell, Bell, Anderson and Broad (if fit) is strong.  I like the introduction of Alex Hales at the top of the order who, if he stays in for 20-30 overs, can take the game away from the opposition.  Steven Finn is another who I rate very highly and who causes batsmen real problems whatever form of the game he plays.  He is key to England’s prospects of success in the future.

            Two selections baffle me.  Eoin Morgan must have some very incriminating photos of James Whittaker because his continued presence in the England side is perplexing.  He has not played an innings of substance or significance for at least two years and often wastes valuable balls scratching around for form.  Gary Ballance would be a much better alternative in the middle order.

Equally, Ben Stokes has never convinced me as player of international class.  With bat in hand his recent form has made Chris Martin look like Sachin Tendulkar – he has also been expensive with the ball.  The team’s all-rounder should be able to contribute in at least one facet of the game but Stokes is doing neither and is currently a waste of a position in the team.  I feel he is still living off his exploits over the winter in Australia.  Ravi Bopara’s international experience of almost 10 years has been bizzarely jettisoned and I would like to see him back in the fold as soon as possible.  His batting is far superior to Stokes’ and he can also bowl troublesome cutters that opposition batsmen find oddly difficult to hit.

In an ideal world England would have a player like Surrey’s Jason Roy or Nottinghamshire’s James Taylor in the side.  Both have been selected for the one-off T20 international and, after his exploits in the Natwest T20 Blast, it will be interesting to see how Roy fares on the international stage – he will certainly improve the strike-rate.  Taylor has merited his place in the squad through sheer weight of runs in the domestic 50-over competition and he is certainly knocking on the door of both the One-Day and Test squads.  After bursting on the scene so spectacularly earlier this year, Chris Jordan’s star has waned slightly.  His bowling is still too erratic but he remains a useful lower-order batsman and I think he is worth persevering with.

Not even the most optimistic England fan could envisage Alastair Cook’s men lifting the World Cup trophy in Australia in March.  Even though the team has some class operators, they don’t produce the goods often enough when it matters.  If one were to look at the best teams in the world, they all have a plethora of match-winners and usually at least one player steps up to the plate and performs.  England currently lack this (apart from possibly Anderson), and consequently, although it pains me to say it, they won’t win the World Cup.

World Cup Awards 2014

It’s all over. Finished. After 31 days of blanket media coverage, tense and exciting and football and the frankly disturbing sight of Gordon Strachan in shorts, the 2014 World Cup is at an end. Up and down the country bleary-eyed blokes are re-acquainting themselves with their partners, desperately trying to remember what they used to do with their evenings (I speak from personal experience), while football hipsters take a moment off from deciding whether to go for crimson, salmon or magenta trousers today to wonder if spending £10 million on Divock Origi on the basis of a reasonable 15 minutes against Russia is a good idea and how to justify the purchase of a season ticket to Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Lots of the recent rhetoric over the tournament has been over whether this has been THE BEST WORLD CUP EVER. After the group stage, the general consensus was ‘yes,’ at the end of the quarter-finals the answer had changed to ‘no, definitely not,’ and the current trend of thought is ‘yes, but…’ In comparison to recent World Cups, and in particular the turgid snooze-fest that occurred in South Africa, this tournament has been a breath of fresh air. Even the goal-light knockout stages were big on tension and drama (penalty shoot-outs always help); most teams continued to commit to attacking play, and even those that didn’t were admirable in their defensive organisation and stubbornness.
Yet, despite all the entertainment there still persists the feeling that the tournament as a whole lacked a certain what the Germans would call Ich weiβ nicht was. Great tournaments of the past have been illuminated by great teams and great individuals (Hungary 1954, Holland and West Germany 1974, Brazil 1982, Maradona 1986, Ronaldo 1998). History may yet inform us that this Germany team will go on to be great – the average age of the starting XI was 27 years 271 days and, with the exception of Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm and possibly Bastian Schweinsteiger, you would expect them all to be around for 2018 at least – but at the moment they are merely extraordinarily promising.
There were, however, two epoch-defining matches, matches which will, in years to come, still be discussed in the awed tones with which people of a certain generation talk about Italy v Brazil in 1982, or even Hungary v Uruguay in 1954. I am referring, of course, to Spain 1 Holland 5 and Germany 7 Brazil 1. Neither game can be described as a classic, given the result was obvious long before the end, but in the dethroning of one of the most successful international teams of all time, and the brutal destruction of the fragile Brazilian dream of a sixth World Cup victory, on home soil to boot, we witnessed two great World Cup stories.
Anyway, enough chat – it’s now time for some awards. For non-German recipients, hopefully the knowledge that they have aroused the admiration of two such discerning football watchers as us will be consolation for not winning the actual tournament itself.

Best Player: Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
RDW: I know the Adidas –sponsored Lionel Messi won the Adidas-sponsored FIFA Golden Ball (otherwise known as the FIFA Award for the Highest-Profile Player to have had a Half-Decent Tournament), but there can’t be too many who seriously believe he deserved the award. James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado were outstanding in an aesthetically-pleasing Colombia team, while Neymar coped with the extreme pressure of being the hosts’ poster-boy admirably. Further back, Javier Mascherano raised his game to almost obscene levels in the semi-final and final, while Phillip Lahm is, without wishing to conform too much to national stereotypes, probably the most efficient footballer in the world – he just never does anything wrong. However, in every game he played Robben looked by far and away the most dangerous player on the pitch. He has the rare ability to run as fast with the ball as without it, and the way he toyed with Spain’s defenders prior to his second goal was mesmeric. If only he passed the ball occasionally.
Best Player: Philipp Lahm (Germany)
DDW: I have run out of superlatives to describe this most underrated of players. Lahm started off in central midfield but was moved by Joachim Löw to his favoured right-back position and what an inspired move it turned out to be. There are other more flashy full-backs in world football, but none more effective. Yes Götze, Kroos and Müller may have grabbed the headlines for Deutschland but they would not have been the assured footballing machine without their captain marvel Lahm. He does the donkey work behind the scenes – selflessly overlapping, brilliantly tackling, confidently passing. A World Cup that was full of goals and attacking football and still a defender wins our best player award (no FIFA/Adidas Messi love-in here). That’s how good Lahm is.

Best Goal: Tim Cahill v Holland
There were some pretty fruity goals in Brazil – Lionel Messi v Iran and Xherdan Shaqiri v Honduras both floated inside from the right before curling a delightful left-footer inside the far corner, Andre Schürrle v Algeria and David Villa v Australia treated us to a couple of lovely backheel flicks, and James Rodriguez’s delicate finish against Japan was delicious, but I’m not being particularly controversial when I say there are three goals that really stood out. Robin van Persie’s diving header lob against Spain was a triumph of innovation, while the aforementioned Rodriguez brilliantly found space against Uruguay before chesting the ball down and nonchalantly stroking the ball in on the volley off the underside of the crossbar. As everyone knows, any goal that goes in via the crossbar is scientifically proven to be 72% more enjoyable than one that does not, so this is a very strong candidate, but Cahill’s effort during Australia’s thrilling yet ultimately futile display against the Dutch is, in my opinion, marginally better, mainly because he hit it first time, so technically it was trickier to pull off. Given the respective talent of Rodriguez and Cahill, you would say that maybe the Australian was a little lucky, but the sheer brutality and exhilaration of his shot gives it the edge.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/25285148

Best Team: Germany
No contest here really. They were the best, end-of. FIFA could have named the entire German side as the Team of the Tournament and no-one could have complained. They even managed to accommodate the pedestrian Mesut Özil. In goal, Manuel Neuer is a commanding presence, even if he does give his defenders the willies with his marauding runs out of his area. The defence of Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Per Mertesacker, Benedikt Höwedes and the aforementioned Lahm were solid as a rock. The tigerish Bastian Schweinsteiger harassed the opposition constantly, allowing the creative Sami Khedeira and Toni Kroos to wreak havoc. At 36, Miroslav Klose looked a bit off the pace but he still managed two fox-in-box style finishes (as many as the entire England team). And the piece de resistance was the tireless Thomas Müller who, despite his questionable on-field behaviour, found the net with regularity. If that wasn’t enough, Andre Schurrle and Mario Götze could be called upon from the bench. An embarrassment of riches.

Worst Team: Honduras
England did their utmost to claim this prize but were just pipped to the post by the Hondurans. Football was an added extra as far as Honduras were concerned because they spent most of the time assaulting, kicking and fouling any member of the opposition unfortunate enough to be in the vague vicinity of the ball. Wilson Palacios stamped his authority (literally) on Paul Pogba in Honduras’ opening match against France, eventually getting himself sent-off after a series of ill-timed challenges, and as captain, set an example to his teammates that they admirably followed. Their saving grace was having possibly the best-named player at the World Cup in striker Carlo (insert relevant pun) Costly.

Best Defence: Costa Rica
Even if Costa Rica’s games weren’t the most exciting to watch, particularly once they’d qualified for the knockout stage, their defensive organisation and determination was admirable, showing that good coaching, discipline and trust in your teammates’ ability to adhere to a plan can be the springboard for success. Having the seemingly unbeatable Keylor Navas in goal was obviously a bit of a help – the Levante keeper with apparently 3 arms and 4 legs displayed positional excellence and startling reflexes – but the 5 players in front of him knew their job inside out, with central defensive duo Giancarlo Gonzalez and Oscar Duarte particularly impressive. Gonzalez gave probably the defensive performance of the tournament against Holland (tied with Jerome Boateng in the final), and I’d be staggered if he’s still at Columbus Crew come the end of the summer.

Best Save: Rais M’Bohli from Phillip Lahm, Algeria v Germany
RDW: The ball is laid back for Lahm, 22 yards from goal. The German skipper shoots powerfully first time, right-footed, the ball accurately curling away from the keeper, homing in on the top right-hand corner. M’Bohli, just behind the six-yard line reacts immediately and springs to his right, stretching for all his worth. It looks as though the ball has beaten him, but he just manages to get the merest touch, deflecting the ball inches wide. An astonishing save, slightly better in my opinion than any of Guillermo Ochoa’s reflex saves against Brazil or Holland, Tim Howard’s stretch to deny Portugal’s Eder and Keylor Navas’ making himself as big as possible to stop Kostas Mitroglu snatching victory for Greece against Costa Rica.
Here are M’Bohli’s best bits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZrS6UCTel8E

Best Save: Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico v Holland)
DDW: There were a plethora of top goalkeeping performances in Brazil (Tim Howard v Belgium springs to mind) but the best save must go to Mexico’s stopper, Guillermo Ochoa, who from point-blank range somehow managed to deflect Daley Blind’s volley from Arjen Robben’s corner onto a post. A phenomenal effort.
Here are some of Ochoa’s highlights made by one of those youtube goons who have far too much time on their hands: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pax9GQny7tE

Best Pass: Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Get your Kleenex at the ready because this pass is technically pornography. Daley Blind’s 60-yarder for Robin Van Persie’s infamous header against Spain set the benchmark but Messi’s effort blew it out of the water. The vision to see Angel Di Maria’s run and the perfect weight of pass so Di Maria didn’t have to break stride, get me a bit hot under the collar. It’s a shame Di Maria couldn’t give the pass the fitting finish it so richly deserved.

Worst Miss: Sergio Busquets (Spain v Chile)
A category teeming with potential, Sergio Busquets is the winner of possibly the most coveted award of the tournament. With the goal literally at his mercy, Busquets decides that this is his time in the spotlight – a goal for his nation at the World Cup. But he sees an even greater prize, the opportunity to feature in Worst Misses compilation videos for years to come, and he doesn’t disappoint – sidefooting wide when it would have been easier to score. The phrase ‘my mum could have scored that’ is widely overused but in this case it is wholeheartedly applicable.
Those kind chaps at FIFA have even compiled a little video: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/videos/y=2014/m=7/video=fifa-com-s-choice-some-of-the-biggest-misses-of-the-2014-fifa-world-cu-2405478.html

Biggest Disappointment: Belgium
There were a few candidates for this unwanted gong – England obviously, although little was expected of them, and (I know I’m in the minority here) I didn’t think they were that bad, definitely better than in 2010; Lionel Messi’s performance in the final was particularly disappointing, especially that last-second free-kick, but in mitigation he didn’t look fully fit, clutching his hamstring throughout the second half, and even on one leg made the hitherto excellent Mats Hummels look a bit ordinary. For me, however, Belgium’s failure to live up to all the pre-tournament hype was most disappointing of all. They seem to be the natural successors to England under Sven Goran Eriksson – a team full of players who do very well in the Premier League and so therefore, according to media logic (an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one), are among the greatest players in the world, but who under-perform on the international stage. I know that I’m being hyper-critical here – nowadays in England we’d kill for an underwhelming quarter-final exit – but, 60 minutes against the USA aside, they brought little to the tournament, and their big players – Hazard, Lukaku, Fellaini, even Vincent Kompany – were below their best.

Best Game: Brazil 1-7 Germany
Yes, it wasn’t exactly a classic and not necessarily an even contest, but the manner in which Germany dismantled the Brazilians in their backyard was one of the most awesome displays of sporting dominance I have ever seen. Aided by some very accommodating Brazilian defending (if you can even call it that), the Germans demonstrated their complete supremacy over the footballing world on the biggest stage of all. Apparently they took it easy in the second half so as to spare the Brazilian team further humiliation. How very charitable of them.

Worst Game: Iran 0-0 Nigeria
Apparently England v Costa Rica was duller than watching grass grow but I actually watched this dire bore fest and its 90 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back anytime soon. The main issue was the complete dearth of talent on either side which made creating goalscoring opportunities slightly problematic. In an effort to find a winner, Nigeria threw on that renowned goal-machine, Shola Ameobi. Says it all really. After the match Iran coach Carlos Queiroz mused, “the fans didn’t see any goals but sometimes intensity, togetherness, focus and team-spirit can make for an interesting spectacle.” No it can’t.

Luckiest Player to Avoid a Red Card: Sergio Aguero v Germany
One of the most noticeable aspects of the tournament was the consistent leniency of the referees, meaning the card count was far below that of recent World Cups. Whether this was because of a directive from FIFA, or down to the officials putting their heads together and deciding to use something known as common sense, I’m not sure, but it was decidedly A Good Thing. Only the Brazil v Colombia game degenerated into a foul-fest, and the players seemed to respect the officials more than usual (though still not all that much). This reluctance to brandish cards, however, led to several instances where players were probably lucky to stay on the field. Off the top of my head, I can think of: Neymar clouting Luka Modric with a stray arm, Paul Pogba kicking out at Wilson Palacios, Diego Godin elbowing Daniel Sturridge in the throat yet avoiding a second yellow card, likewise Junior Diaz after scything down Arjen Robben in the quarter-final, Thiago Silva bringing down Robben (again) as the last man and Javier Mascherano fouling his way through extra-time in the final. The most obvious red card offence, though, must be that committed by Sergio Aguero when he jumped for a header with Bastian Schweinsteiger (who took quite a lot of punishment from Argentina) and swung his fist into the German’s face, felling him, and causing a nasty cut below the eye. Considering Aguero was already on a yellow card, the only logical explanation for his avoiding a red was that he had possession of a number of incriminating text messages from the Italian referee.

Biggest Commentating Blunder
I tried, as much as possible, to avoid watching any build-up, halt-time analysis or post-match debrief, so I can’t really comment on the punditry at this World Cup. What I did see taught me that, even if Fabio Cannavaro is best defender of the last 20 years, and a decent man to boot, he’s not going to add much insightful analysis to an English-watching public if his grasp of English is sketchy. Otherwise, I hear Robbie Savage was self-congratulatory, Ian Wright was Tigger-esque, Thierry Henry was smoother than a glass of port served in a velvet glass and Chris Waddle spoke a lot of sense. As for the commentators, I was in no way offended by Phil Neville, and anyone who actually took the time to officially complain about him needs to have a long hard look at themselves, but found Danny Murphy too talkative, Clarke Carlisle too much of a try-hard (the reason Jackson Martinez struggles to get into the Ecuador starting XI is that he’s Colombian, obviously) and Mark Lawrenson just plain irritating. We all had a good chuckle though at Jonathan Pearce as he displayed righteous indignation over the goal-line technology which worked perfectly. When Martin Keown is acting as the voice of reason, you know things aren’t going well. Special mention must be made to all those cretinous tabloid journalists who thought vanishing spray could make things vanish.

Most Obvious Case of History Repeating Itself: Manuel Neuer v Gonzalo Higuain
I reckon I know the rules of football fairly well; I can explain the offside rule without the use of condiments; I’ve read many editions of You are the Ref in The Observer. But it seems I have overlooked a small subsection of the rule on fouls. Apparently, if you are a German goalkeeper and you are forced to dash from your goal to try and foil an opposition player who has broken clear, then the usual rules don’t apply – you can do what you want. For Harald Schumacher’s foul on Patrick Battiston in the 1982 semi-final, read Manuel Neuer taking out Gonzalo Higuain in this year’s final. Thankfully the consequences weren’t as severe for Higuain as they were for the unconscious Battiston, but Neuer did recklessly catch the Argentinian striker a potentially serious blow on the side of the head with his knee as he punched the ball away. The upshot of this collision? A free-kick to Germany, against Higuain for viciously not getting out of the way of a flying German.

Best National Anthem: Argentina
The Argentinian national anthem is actually about four minutes long but they only allow the introduction to be played at football matches, hence the lack of singing, but what a piece of music it is. It’s like listening to an opera overture – full of life and hope – not like England’s dreary effort which, along with having the world’s most unimaginative lyrics, is possibly the dullest tune I have ever had the misfortune of singing. No wonder the national team play so uninspiringly, having to listen to that emotionless turd of an anthem before a match.

Biggest Muppet(s): Players who cry
Lots of candidates for this award. Luis Suarez made an early bid by chewing on the Italian defence. Jonathan Pearce didn’t exactly cover himself in glory by not knowing the difference between ‘a goal’ and ‘not a goal.’ However football has reached a new nadir with its latest fad – crying. After a calamitous defeat, what better way to divert your nation’s vitriol than turning on the waterworks? David Luiz expertly showed the world his teary-eyed skills after a particularly generous performance against the Germans. Similarly, the Argentinians must have been chopping onions just after the full time whistle in the final because they immediately fell to the ground with tears welling-up in their eyes. It’s not just the footballers though. Football fans are just as bad, blubbing away like four year-olds as their team heads for an early exit (Brazil were notable culprits here). A grown adult crying because his team hasn’t won a football match? Shameful.

The Open 2014

Well, the English sporting summer has been a bit of a disaster so far. The football team have, some claim, surpassed expectations by managing to gain a point against the powerhouse that is Costa Rica at the World Cup. Nevertheless, surely the England Rugby Union team could salvage some pride? Three defeats to New Zealand later and the nation was still waiting. What about the cricket team? On home soil against a Sri Lanka and Indian alien to the English swinging conditions, clearly an easy home victory was on the cards. One defeat and two draws is not what the doctor ordered. Even our favourite tennis playing grumpy Scotsman couldn’t lift the nation’s mood. But Chris Froome, of course he’ll win the Tour de France? Unfortunately non. So, rather perversely, it falls to that infamous game of the people, golf of course, to restore the nation’s pride.

The world’s in form golfer, Justin Rose, with two victories in his last two appearances, is possibly the bookies’ favourite for the Claret Jug. The South African-born Englishman has moved up to number three in the World Rankings, and with his U.S Open victory at Merion last year, he knows what it takes to win a major title. If you believe that kind of thing, history is on his side because Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Scottish Open and then the next week, the Open Championship (despite some idiot blogger predicting otherwise), and the nature of Rose’s victory on the links of Castle Stuart suggests he has the requisite game to counter all the challenges of Hoylake. However it is highly unprecedented to win three tournaments in a row so I have Rose down for a top ten finish, just not outright victory.

The American challenge, and a man I have constantly decreed will win a major, is Mr Consistent, Matt Kuchar. The lanky Yank has nine top-10 finishes already this season, including a fifth place finish at the Masters. His best placed finish at The Open is 9th so he is not necessarily the most comfortable around seaside links but in golf there is no substitute for confidence and Kuchar is absolutely brimming with it. I expect him to trouble the leaderboard without ever topping it.

One man who could finally break his major duck is my second favourite golfer (behind Angel Cabrera of course), Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard has been in slightly erratic form recently, missing the cut at the Masters and finishing a lowly 35th at the U.S Open, whilst recording top-3 placings at the Player’s Championship, the Shell Houston Open and the Travelers Championship. If Garcia turns up in the right frame of mind and with a vaguely decent putter he could wreak havoc round the Hoylake course. Fingers crossed that he does.

Matrimonial fidelity’s Tiger Woods has come out with the boldest of statements that, despite back surgery, his only aim is to win at Royal Liverpool this week. I find that a rather fanciful notion. It’s frankly crazy that the media are even considering for victory a man who has not even recorded a top-10 finish this season, and last won a major way back in 2008. Six years have passed since that U.S Open triumph and despite protestations from the man himself, Tiger has lost his aura. There are better, more consistent players out there on the tour and for me Woods is a man of yesteryear.

So what of the defending champion? Phil Mickelson stunned everyone last year by hitting a 66 round Muirfield to clinch The Open Championship. Many observers thought that he didn’t have the game to win on the toughest links courses. But with experience comes knowledge, and ‘Lefty’ has every shot in the book and played to the conditions perfectly. This current season has been a lean one for the likeable Californian but he hit form last week at the Scottish Open with an 11th placed finish and seems to have taken a shine to seaside golf. If anyone has the game to tame Hoylake then Mickelson can. Like Garcia though, he needs an accurate putter and, more importantly and accurate driver. As likely to win the thing as to hit ten over par.

The best of the rest? My dark horse for the tournament is the evergreen, cigar-smoking, Rioja-quaffing Spaniard, Miguel Angel Jiminez. In an era of gym-bunnies and protein-shakes, the 50 year-old is refreshingly old-school. His warm-up routine has become the stuff of legend (always done with cigar in mouth), and despite his rather paunchy physique, Jiminez is in tidy form this term, having broken his own record for the oldest European Tour winner at the Spanish Open. He managed fourth at The Masters and although not wholly comfortable on the links, he is consistently there or thereabouts at The Open. His would be a victory for the maverick over professionalism.

Of the other contenders, current Players Champion and U.S Open Champion Martin Kaymer looks very good on paper. The German doesn’t have a stellar record on the links courses of Britain, but he is at the top of his game right now so he could certainly be troubling the leaderboard. Other Europeans who could be in the mix include the big-hitting World Number two, Henrik Stenson, who has four top 10 finishes in his last four events, and current European Order of Merit leader, Thomas Bjorn.

Elsewhere, Danish tennis-star heartbreaker Rory McIloy is usually one to be mentioned at the majors but apart from a third place finish at a placid St Andrew’s in 2010, links does not suit his style of play, which is surprising for a man who knocked it round Royal Portrush in 61 strokes as a 16 year-old. His high, right to left ball flight is perfect for inland courses on the PGA but not for windy links of the Open Championship. McIlroy has been known to make some negative comments in the past about the links, and with that attitude, the Northern Irishman’s name doesn’t deserve to be on the famous Claret Jug anytime soon.

What I can say with certainty is that The Open is a great way to spend your day watching mindless fools wandering round a field, attempting to hit a ball into a cup in the fewest shots possible. And what a brilliant concept it is. Thank god my licence fee is funding something worthwhile for a change. Marvel in the fact one can watch the world’s finest golfers for twelve hours a day at the touch of a button. And you won’t feel jealous that you’re not there because it’s being held in Liverpool. Everyone’s a winner.

World Cup so far

  • So far, the football’s been rather good

According to most experts, there hasn’t been a decent World Cup in terms of the quality of football since 1986 (in other words in my football-watching lifetime).  This is a little unfair, as I think the 1998 tournament was pretty exciting, while 2006, in particular the group stages, had its moments, but it does mean that people of my generation have been deprived of the chance to go misty-eyed over the footballing nirvana that occurred in say 1970 or 1982.  With the gradual homogenisation of playing styles, what should be a month long feast of football often turns into a damp picnic where everyone’s only brought crisps and dips.

This year, however, the quality of play has been almost unremittingly excellent.  Most teams have attacked with the clear purpose of trying to score, rather than trying to kill a few minutes while the other team chases the ball.  The sheer speed and incisiveness of counter-attacks means that some matches have resembled a basketball match in the way play has fluctuated from end to end (in particular the last 10 minutes of both Switzerland v Ecuador and Colombia v Ivory Coast), and, although as any football purist knows a lack of goals doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of entertainment, there have been an average of 2.93 goals per game, which, if such a scoring rate continues, would be the highest average since 1970.  Dud games have been very few and far between – Iran v Nigeria, Russia v South Korea, England v Costa Rica – and serve almost as a palate cleanser within some rich Heston Blumenthal taster menu.

  • The big name players haven’t disappointed

The pressure to perform well must be greater at the World Cup than at any other stage in a player’s career.  The status of the tournament means that a good performance is likely to enhance your reputation in perpetuity (Toto Schillaci is still fondly remembered despite doing nothing of note in his international career outside Italia ’90), while the fact it occurs only every four years means that you only have very few chances to make your mark.

Lionel Messi has, over the last 6 years, been the best footballer in the world.  His performances for Barcelona have been ludicrously good – at times it has seemed unfair on the opposition.  Yet he was merely adequate in 2010, and some have said he can’t be considered a true all-time great until he shines at a World Cup.  This time round he has scored four goals, including a sumptuous last minute curler against Iran and an insouciant free-kick against Nigeria, embarked on a couple of improbable dribbles, and looked like the player we have drooled over at club level.

Arjen Robben has been mesmeric, almost impossible to shake off the ball; Neymar, with the added pressure of being the poster boy for the host nation, has dragged an otherwise mediocre Brazil team to a higher lever; James Rodriguez, Colombia’s main man after Radmael Falcao’s injury, has lit up the tournament with his wand-like left foot;  Karim Benzema has led France’s attack beautifully;  Luis Suarez (penchant for biting aside) won Uruguay’s match against England with two deadly pieces of finishing.  The only two high-profile players who arguably haven’t shone are Cristiano Ronaldo, who is suffering with a knee injury and his teammates’ fear of passing to anyone else but him, and Wayne Rooney, who has been perfectly decent, but now surely cannot be called a world-class player ever again.  As exciting as it is to find some hitherto unheard of gem who plays blindingly well before fading into obscurity, there’s nothing like watching the best in the world play to their potential.

  • The defending’s been a little bit crap

Having praised the exciting football we’ve seen, it must be said that the standard of defending hasn’t been particularly high.  Each of the potential winners has a defensive weakness.  Brazil?  David Luiz is a blunder-in-waiting, whilst whenever Dani Alves and Marcelo bomb forward from full-back, there is a huge amount of unattended space behind them.  Colombia?  They looked very vulnerable against the Ivory Coast, and there is alarming lack of pace at centre back, although the 38-year-old Mario Yepes has so far been probably the best defender of the tournament.  Holland?  Their defence struggled against Australia.  Argentina?  Both Iran and Nigeria created several clear chances against them, and Marcos Rojo doesn’t instil much confidence.  Germany?  They don’t have any proper full-backs, and were cumbersome against Ghana.  France?  They have looked the strongest defensively so far, with Raphael Varane in particular strolling through matches, but neither Mahamadou Sakho nor Laurent Koscielny alongside him are particularly reliable.  There just don’t seem to be many calm dominating centre-backs a la Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta or Rio Ferdinand in 2002 around any more.

  • The referees have been lenient

At the time of writing (20 minutes from the end of the Portugal v Ghana game) there have been an average 2.59 yellow cards per game, compared with an average of 3.77 per game four years ago.  This suggests one of two things – either the players are committing fewer caution-worthy fouls or the referees are being more lenient.  I would suggest it is the latter.  In previous tournaments there have been several unjust red cards – Zola for Italy v Nigeria in 1994, Lucic for Sweden v Germany in 2006 and Cahill for Australia v Germany (again) in 2010 spring to mind – but other than Claudio Marchisio against Uruguay, none of the 8 red cards shown this time round could be deemed unjust by any stretch of the imagination.  On the contrary, there are several occasions when a player has been rather lucky to escape a sending off, such as Paul Pogba against Honduras or Neymar in the opening game against Croatia.

It’s not as if the players have been any less robust in their tackling – Honduras’ brutal battering of France was hilarious to watch (if not to be on the receiving end of presumably), while Ghana are giving the Portuguese players a bit of a kicking at the time of writing, and the leniency of the referees seems to have led to less diving.  Other than Thomas Muller’s playacting that led to Pepe’s red card (although Pepe’s brainless idiocy was a factor), and Luis Suarez, who is a special case, I can’t think of any obvious examples of a player feigning injury to get an opponent into trouble.

  • The knockout stages have a lot to live up to

There are many more reasons why this World Cup has been particularly enjoyable – Greece’s last minute penalty winner to qualify for the second round was a moment of high drama, Robin van Persie’s diving header was the high point in Holland’s astonishing and empire-toppling thrashing of Spain, Tim Cahill gave two outstanding performances for Australia, culminating in his crashing volley against Holland, France’s squad contains some of the worst haircuts ever seen this side of Shoreditch (Sakho, Pogba, Griezmann and Sagna being particularly objectionable), Costa Rica have proved that solid teamwork will always beat a collection of seemingly more talented individuals, Mexico and Holland have resuscitated the 5-3-2 formation, and Igor Akinfeev has proved that Fabio Capello is incapable of selecting a goalkeeper that can catch the ball.  In the last few tournaments, the high stakes nature of the knockout rounds has meant they have been less enjoyable than the group stages, with far more cagey football being played.  Let’s hope that isn’t the case this time.

World Cup 2014

The FIFA World Cup kicks-off today and what better way to enjoy the next month of summer than cooped up in your sitting room glued to your TV for six hours a day?  Nope can’t think of one either.  The nation has been gripped by World Cup fever.  Will Wayne Rooney play?  Should Raheem Sterling start?  Can Joe Hart fit in another commercial before the opening ceremony?  All these questions and more will be answered in thealternativesportsblog’s comprehensive guide to the world’s greatest football tournament.

 

Group A (Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon, Mexico)

I am going to put my non-existent mortgage, my as yet unborn child, and basically everything I own on Brazil winning the group.  The question is who will come second?  Croatia, Cameroon and Mexico will all feel that they have a good opportunity to progress to the round of 16 and they are all capable of beating each other on their day.  I’m plumping for Croatia however.  They have a genuinely world-class playmaker in Luka Modric, a formidable striker in the shape of Mario Mandzukic and an experienced defence featuring the one-time Tottenham and Manchester City full-back Vedran Corluka.  Cameroon have an experienced squad too featuring such talent as Samuel Eto’o (playing in his fourth World Cup), Barcelona’s Alex Song, hairdressing’s Benoit Assou-Ekotto and last, and definitely least, Aston Villa flop Jean Makoun.  An all-to-familiar disagreement between the Cameroonian FA and the players has disrupted their preparations somewhat.  Could spring a surprise but I doubt it.  Mexico’s golden generation of Gerrado Torrado, Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco (who apparently retired from football yesterday at the grand old age of 41 – the World Cup will be a lesser tournament without him) has passed and in their place is a team with no real stand-out individuals, save for Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez.  Rafael Marquez, 74, is still knocking around but his best days are well and truly behind him.  Expect professional flatter-to-deceiver Giovanni Dos Santos will do a few step-overs and then give the ball away a lot.  Fallers at the first hurdle I’m afraid.

 

Group B (Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia)

On paper, the Spain squad looks formidable and it is no different in real life.  They could probably have named three squads and still be a pretty good bet for the Jules Rimet trophy.  Their only area of concern is up front where one would expect monkey lookalike and new Chelsea signing Diego Costa to start, but he has hardly any international experience and is coming back from a hamstring injury that curtailed his appearance in the Champions League final.  Fernando Torres is still finding a banjo with which to attempt to hit a cow’s backside and Pedro has featured sporadically for Barcelona this season.  Nevertheless Spain won Euro 2012 without a recognised forward (instead they employed a false 9) so they should progress without breaking sweat (incidentally they have my kiss of death to win the tournament).  The Netherlands are the logical choice to qualify as runners-up but I don’t particularly like the look of their defence or midfield.  Star midfielder Wesley Sneijder hasn’t had a stellar season for Galatasary and any nation that selects a Norwich City player (Leroy Fer since you ask) must be lacking in quality personnel.  They will be relying on Robin Van Persie to fire them into the second round, but it might not be enough.  Chile are my tip to spring a surprise and pip the Dutch to 2nd place.  They have real quality throughout the team in Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez and Juventus duo, Arturo Vidal Mauricio Isla.  Let’s gloss over the fact that recently relegated Cardiff City defender Gary Medel and Championship stalwart Gonzalo Jara of Nottingham Forest make up their defence.  They deservedly beat England 2-0 at Wembley last November and are lethal on the counter-attack.  I am delighted to announce that the whipping boys of Group B will be Australia.  With such infamous luminaries as, for example, Ryan McGowan of ‘Shandong Luneng Taishan’ and Bailey Wright of Preston North End, they will be totally out of their depth and may be on the end of some heavy tonkings.  Fingers crossed.

 

Group C (Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan)

This is possibly the most wide-open group of the entire tournament.  Colombia were the favourites to progress until mercurial striker Rademel Falcao was ruled out through injury.  His goals will be a huge loss to Los Cafeteros (which means ‘The Coffee Growers’ apparently).  Nevertheless Porto’s Jackson Martinez has been banging them in for fun and with Monaco’s James Rodriguez and Inter Milan’s Freddy Guarin pulling the strings in midfield, he should have a plentiful supply-line.  Experienced duo Cristian Zapata and Mario Yepes will be marshalling operations in defence so Colombia could be stingy too.  In goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, they have the tournament’s oldest player who will turn 43 during the tournament.

What of the others?  Ivory Coast have a handy attacking threat in the shape of the evergreen Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure, Gervinho and Wilfried Bony.  However in defence they have the lethal own-goal expert Kolo Toure on duty who, if own goals counted, would be a solid bet for top goalscorer.  Greece are one of those teams who really are more than the sum of their parts.  They seem to turn it on in major tournaments and don’t count them out from pulling a few rabbits out of the hat (and surprise results too) this time around.  Fulham’s new Steve Marlet, Konstantinos Mitroglu will be hoping to prove his doubters wrong alongside veteran poacher Theofanis Gekas, who will put away anything given the slightest sniff.  Led by the effervescent gorgeous Giorgos Karagounis and organised by the try-and-say-that-after-a-few-pints Sokratis Papastathopoulos they are always very difficult to beat.  Hellas may not be pretty but you can bet your bottom drachma they will be effective.  Which leaves Japan.  Traditionally a disciplined and hard-working side, the Samurai Blues have a smattering of creative talent in AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda and Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa which makes them somewhat of a dark horse.  A tough group to call.

 

Group D (Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica)

Ah, England’s group.  I’m sure the Italian and Uruguayan squads are having sleepless nights at the prospect of facing a team, who, in their most recent internationals, gallantly drew to two powerhouses of the international game in Honduras and Ecuador.  Unfortunately my patriotic side has completely deserted me and, although it pains me to say it, England will do very well to (and probably not) progress to the knockout stage.  The turgid, slow, predictable attacks will be cannon-fodder to Luis Suarez and co. against Uruguay.  Likewise the Italians will use their superior technical skill to pass England to death just like in Euro 2012.  A solitary win against Costa Rica and two unlikely draws against Uruguay and Italy are the best The Three Lions can hope for.  I expect the Italians to be at their usual miserly selves at the back – this will be captain Gianluigi Buffon’s fifth World Cup – a remarkable achievement.  Going forward my favourite player Andrea Pirlo will be pulling the strings in midfield allowing the likes of Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti to roam forward.  Maverick duo Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli will lead the line (thealternativesportsblog guarantees that one of these two will get sent off at some point).  They can even afford the luxury of naming Liverpool legend Alberto Aquilani in their squad.  Uruguay of course rely heavily on Luis Suarez and if he can return to full fitness, they have a real chance of progressing from the group.  Los Charruas are by no means a one-man team though.  La Liga, Serie A and Primeira Liga winners Diego Godin, Martin Caceres and Maxi Pereira respectively are certainly no mugs at the back.  Uruguay do play a counter-attacking game and with the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Cristian Rodriguez and PSG’s Edison Cavani joining Suarez going forward, they will be a danger to all and sundry.  Costa Rica’s chances of qualification are slim but at 34 in the FIFA rankings, they are not to be taken lightly.  Playing for Olympiakos, on-loan Arsenal forward Joel Campbell scored a cracker against United in the Champions League this season and on his day, Fulham’s Bryan Ruiz can dictate play at will.  Their defence does seem slightly suspect and if they aren’t organised at the back, they could be on the end of a few cricket scores.  Uruguay and Italy to qualify.

 

Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, Honduras, France)

One of the weakest groups this one – France are obviously favourites to win the group, with an inexperienced, but very talented squad.  Franck Ribery’s absence through injury is a blow, as is Didier Deschamps’ refusal to call-up Samir Nasri, but in Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba they have two stars of the future.  As much as the rest of the world loves nothing more than a hilarious Gallic implosion, as in 2010, there is sadly no Raymond Domenech or Nicolas Anelka to spread discord, and I rather fancy them to make at least the quarter-finals.  Switzerland are the seeded team in this group, but I don’t think they’ll qualify here.  The Swiss have an established solid team, with the odd sprinkling of star quality in the X-Men Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, but may struggle with the conditions, and I feel Ecuador will grab second place.  Yes they were embarrassingly held to a 2-2 draw by England’s second-string, and their defence is weak, but they have some exhilarating dribblers, such as Jefferson Montero and Enner Valencia, and such ability will be crucial in breaking down stubborn defences.  Honduras, as they showed against England, are tough but limited, and will struggle to get more than one point.

 

Group F (Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria)

Another weak group, once you look beyond Argentina.  The attacking potential within the Argentina squad is simply frightening – they could well play a front five of Messi, Higuain, Di Maria, Aguero and Lavezzi.  However, further back they look vulnerable.  Pablo Zabaleta has been the most consistent full-back in the Premier League over the past few seasons, but Martin Demichelis and Ezequiel Garay are both prone to brainfades, and Fernando Gago, whose calming presence in the centre of midfield is crucial to the way the (wanky show-off football term alert) albiceleste play, has been struggling for fitness.  Nevertheless if they don’t win this group I’ll eat my hat*.  As for who will join them, none of the other teams make a particularly convincing case.  Nigeria, the African Champions, are probably the most obvious candidates – they have in Vincent Enyeama a world-class keeper, and a pacy attack – but they are in poor form, and needed a last minute goal to draw with Scotland.  Bosnia have several outstanding attackers – Edin Dzeko will be their main man, ably supported by Roma’s little gem of a playmaker Miralem Pjanic, the Bundesliga star Vedad Ibisevic and potentially the strolling Zvjezdan Misimovic (think Tom Huddlestone without the dynamism) – but their defence is at best weak, and at worst a complete liability, with the captain Emir Spahic coming off a horror season at Bayer Leverkusen.  Iran are defensively solid, but have no experienced goalkeeper, and very little in creative talent, although, to be honest, my knowledge of the Iranian league is a little shaky, so there may be a potential star in there somewhere.  It seems their most potent creative force is Fulham’s Ashkan ‘moves like’ Dejagah, which isn’t a ringing endorsement.

 

Group G (Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA)

This is definitely the tournament’s obligatory ‘Group of Death’, containing 4 teams with realistic ambitions of going deep into the knockout stages.  Many Germans aren’t feeling particularly confident about their chances, pointing out that Bastian Schweinsteiger is in poor form, Sami Khedira is recovering from a serious knee injury, Marco Reus is missing entirely and there is no striking option other than the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, who hasn’t exactly been pulling up trees at Lazio this season.  Rubbish.  First of all they’re Germany, they always qualify.  Secondly they’ve been lining up like a Jonathan Wilson wet dream, playing a strikerless formation featuring Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze as a false nine (yes I have read Inverting the Pyramid), so Klose may not even feature that often.  Finally, they play with the confidence of a team that know each other inside-out, with many of the players having featured in the victorious European U-21 side of 2009.  Portugal aren’t quite a one man team, but Cristiano Ronaldo effectively won the play-off against Sweden on his own, and he often plays for Portugal as if he doesn’t trust any of his teammates not to screw up if he loans them the ball.  This sometimes works as he is the best player in the world and, if on song, unstoppable, but he is recovering from a slight knee injury, and the rest of the squad are nothing more than reasonable, although good things are said of Sporting Lisbon’s William Carvalho.  Ghana were famously unlucky in 2010, and bring a similar squad to Brazil, supplemented by the usual collection of talented youngsters.  Asamoah Gyan has been banging them in over the past season and a half, albeit in the UAE, while Andre Ayew (son of Pele – Abedi Pele that is) and Christian Atsu are both quick and skilful.  The USA have been beaten by Ghana at the last two tournaments, and Jurgen Klinsmann has made a bold call by omitting probably the highest-profile American player in Landon Donovan, but those in the know say this will aid team spirit, and Klinsmann isn’t convinced of the commitment of a player who took a few months of football to find himself in Cambodia in 2012.  German-raised winger Julian Green is an intriguing choice (he has been earning rave reviews for Bayern Munich’s B team), but any side that has Jozy Altidore as its main goal threat is going to struggle, and I’ll be very surprised if they make it out of the group.

 

Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea)

I find this group one of the toughest to call.  There has been a lot of hype over this Belgian squad, with so many people tipping them as dark horses that they can now no longer be considered as such (in the same way that so many people asserted that Paul Scholes was underrated that he eventually became overrated).  I’m not entirely convinced that they’ll even get out of the group.  I would love them to do so, as they play exhilarating attacking football, and are the most exciting group of talent to emerge unexpectedly from a country since the Denmark team of the mid 80s (incidentally look out for the Armenia team over the next few years – you heard it here first), but I worry about their lack of tournament experience and, more particularly, their lack of proper attacking full-backs.  Jan Vertonghen, as any Spurs fan will tell you, is nobody’s idea of a decent left-back, but he is first choice for the Red Devils.  However, with the attacking verve of, among others, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Defour, they will in all probability prove me wrong, and look rather good whilst doing so.  The question is, if Belgium don’t go through, who will?  Russia are a workmanlike side, with few stars, but qualified comfortably  ahead of Portugal, and in Fabio Capello have a manager with a proven track record at translating an impressive qualifying campaign into a successful tournament (hang on a minute…).  In all seriousness though, I expect Russia to grind out 3 drab wins, with any flair being provided by the impish Alan Dzagoev.  South Korea normally stroll through the Asian qualifying campaign without breaking sweat, but this time only edged out Uzbekistan by one goal.  However, they have an experienced but relatively youthful squad, full of smart technically-adept players, boosted by the presence of Yun Suk-young, the first QPR player to go to a World Cup since Paul Parker in 1990.  I think they will surprise a few people and make the second round.  Algeria are probably the weakest of the African nations and will perform rather like they did 4 years ago.  They will be disciplined, niggly and almost entirely ambition-free, although look out for El Arbi Soudani, the slippery Dinamo Zagreb centre-forward.

 

So there you have it.  We’ve provided you with all the information you could wish for, now to let the football do the talking.  Delight in spending the next month feasting on a banquet of the world’s finest players with a side order of controversy and, in England’s case, a huge dollop of disappointment.  We can’t wait.

The Premier League Awards 2014

The red carpet has been swept.  The orchestra is tuning up.  The MC is nervously checking cue cards and sucking cough sweets.  Yes, ladies and gentleman, it is time for the inaugural annual alternativesportsblog Premier League Awards for outstanding achievement or underachievement for achievements achieved during the 2013/14 Premier League season (snappy title I think you’ll agree).  Sadly the winners of these prestigious awards haven’t as yet got back to us to confirm which date would be best for them to hold the actual ceremony (for England’s players, obviously any date from the start of the World Cup 2nd round), so while we await their responses (probably a problem at the sorting office or something) here are the winners.

Player of the Year: Luis Suarez

An extremely close call this one – the two outstanding players this season have been Suarez and Yaya Toure.  Toure is an outstanding talent, probably the most complete player in the world (I can’t think of anyone else who could hold his own so well in every outfield position), and I agree with him that he doesn’t have the status in world football he deserves.  His passing is immaculate, his energy relentless, his penalty taking nerveless, his free-kicks Beckham-esque, and the precision of his long range curler against Fulham was beautiful (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdMC8nAG_Qk).  However, Suarez has that magical ability to make crowds gasp in amazement at some of his play.  This quality doesn’t necessarily make a great player (Adel Taarabt is by far the most talented player I’ve ever seen, and no-one thinks he should be player of the year), but this season Suarez has allied it to deadly finishing and some bewitching link-up play.  Yes he’s a bit of a prat, but, similar to Dennis Bergkamp at Arsenal, his vision and style has lifted the performance of those around him, leading to some dazzling football from Liverpool’s front five this season.

Goal of the Year:

RDW: Jack Wilshere (Arsenal v Norwich)  There have been quite a few crackers this season –Wayne Rooney v West Ham and Jonjo Shelvey v Aston Villa both showcased quickness of thought and superb technique, while Alexander Tettey’s volley for Norwich v Sunderland was the sort of shot that ends of knocking over someone’s Bovril 99 times out of 100.  Pajtim Kasami’s homage a Van Basten against Crystal Palace was wonderfully controlled as was Morgan Amaltifano’s effort v Cardiff, and I’ve got a soft spot for Tomas Rosicky’s goal against Sunderland, a brilliant finish to a lovely move.  My favourite, though, is another Arsenal team goal, a bewildering move featuring Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere.  The speed of thought is astonishing as before you know it Wilshere is tapping a deceptively cute volley past John Ruddy following an evisceration rarely seen this side of a post mortem.  Even in slow motion, you can’t quite believe that Wilshere’s flick with the back of the heel to Giroud actually happened.

DDW: Pajtim Kasami (Crystal Palace vs Fulham)  I can’t believe there’s even a debate about this.  The way Kasami controls the ball on his chest and shoots first time without breaking stride beggars belief.  The fact that he had the audacity to even attempt such a shot from such an acute angle is a feat in itself.  Obvious comparisons will be made to Marco Van Basten’s goal in the 1988 European Championship final.  Kasami’s isn’t quite in that league but it more than deserves the incredible honour that is our goal of the season award.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9IkIKpmnVM)

Honourable Mentions:

Jonjo Shelvey Swansea vs Aston Villa (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxAl2PcCigg)

Alexander Tettey Norwich vs Sunderland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ypx2NinTw)

Jack Wilshere Arsenal vs Norwich (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNMKlFkDEKs)

Manager of the Year: Tony Pulis

If Manuel Pellegrini wasn’t such a nice bloke, you’d suspect he might be getting a bit irked at having won two trophies, in some considerable style too, yet being barely mentioned as a potential manager of the year, but the truth is such an achievement was the minimum requirement given the resources at his disposal.  Brendan Rodgers did a magnificent job at Liverpool, encouraging his team to produce some of the most exhilarating football ever seen in the Premier League, but he was either unable or unwilling to adapt his tactics for the crucial home match with Chelsea, where perhaps more patience was required.  Pulis took over a dispirited Crystal Palace side, seemingly lacking in any sort of ability and bereft of last season’s leading scorer (Glenn Murray) and best player (Wilfried Zaha), and turned them into a resilient mid-table outfit.  A bit like Stoke really.  He even managed to turn Damien Delaney (who I watched from behind my hands at QPR) into something resembling a Premier League defender, which is no mean feat.

Tosser of the Year: Jose Mourinho

As always, a hotly contested category, with Vincent Tan’s treatment of Malky Mackay, along with his appointment of the work experience boy Alisher Apsalyamov as head of recruitment, meaning he scores quite high on the tosser-o-meter, but Jose Mourinho has been constantly graceless, classless, hypocritical and generally obnoxious.  For some reason when he first arrived in English football in 2004, the press fawned all over him, lapping up his egotistical schtick.  This time round, however, he’s a little older, a little greyer, and even less likeable, with his post-match press conferences consisting of little more than poisonous barbs aimed at other managers, the FA, and referees.  It is little wonder that members of his Chelsea team (whether on the pitch or off) regularly lose control, if their manager is always behaving like a spoilt 6-year-old.

Best Match: Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City

Obvious, perhaps, but a real feast of attacking football between by far the two most entertaining teams in the league.  Liverpool, as was customary in the second half of the season, started like a train, racing into a two goal lead, before a combination of David Silva’s invention and Liverpool’s defensive clusterfuckery (it’s a real word, honest) allowed City to equalise.  Momentum was with City, but, in what appeared to be a pivotal moment, Vincent Kompany sliced a clearance to allow Philippe Coutinho to score the winner.  Combined with the emotions involved with the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, it was a truly unforgettable game.  Honourable mentions must go to Everton 3-3 Liverpool, Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal and the last 11 minutes of Crystal Palace 3-3 Liverpool.

Best Signing: Wilfried Bony

There have been several shrewd signings this season, but none with the impact of Robin van Persie or Michu from last season.  Everton bought James McCarthy, worth less than half a Marouane Fellaini apparently, who was the model of consistency, while a couple of loan signings, Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku, were their most influential players.  Chelsea have done some marvellous business, re-signing Nemanja Matic (albeit for 7 times more than what they sold him for), while both Andre Schurrle and Willian look like they will have a more prominent part to play next year.  And Jason Puncheon, one penalty aside, has brought pace and creativity to an otherwise prosaic Crystal Palace attack.  Bony, however, has been utterly crucial for Swansea this season, scoring 30% of their Premier League goals, and being frankly a right pain to play against.  In another season, Swansea could have been one of those teams that are ‘too good to go down.’  They were lucky that this year’s league contained plenty of teams that were too shit to stay up.

Worst Signing: Ricky van Wolfswinkel

If there were few candidates for best signing of the season, then the shortlist for worst signing carried on to a second piece of A4.  Pretty much everyone that Liverpool signed in the summer was poor, particularly Iago Aspas and the rarely spotted Luis Alberto, while Cardiff signed Andreas Cornelius for a large fee before selling him back whence he came for a couple of welsh cakes and book of part-songs.  Fulham splurged £11 million on Kostas Mitroglou, who would apparently bang in the goals to keep them up.  He played for a grand total of 153 minutes and looked as likely to score as a spotty teenage chess player at the Miss World afterparty.  Marouane Fellaini cost Manchester United an arm and a leg, and then spent the remainder of the season wandering around the field looking utterly petrified in case he made a mistake.  All these players would be worthy winners, but van Wolfswinkel has been utterly abysmal – he fluked a goal on the first day of the season, and since then failed to contribute at all to a pretty sterile Norwich attack.  For £8.5 million, surely a little more was expected.

Goalkeeping performance of the season: Tim Krul (Tottenham Hotspur vs Newcastle United)

Literally, and I’m not being hyperbolic here, one of the great performances of modern times.  The Dutch stopper has been one of the Toon’s most consistent performers in recent seasons, but this took the biscuit.  Spurs had 20+ shots on goal and 14 on target but still big Tim wouldn’t let them score.  One save from a Christian Eriksen free kick will live long in the memory.  And it all contributed to a smash-and-grab win for Newcastle. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GmULt7_cYI)

Pass of the season: Steven Gerrard (Fulham vs Liverpool)

I was watching this match in a bar in New York and I pretty much had to go and change my pants after seeing this pass.  The outside-of-the-foot technique, the vision to see Daniel Sturridge’s run, the perfect weight of pass so Sturridge didn’t have to break stride.  Even writing about it is getting me strangely aroused.  Thank god Sturridge managed to score otherwise Gerrard and I may have never forgiven him.  If you’re in bed with your partner tonight and the old magic isn’t really happening, forget Viagra.  This is all the aphrodisiac you’ll need. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-STfxqWxKRA)

Own-Goal of the season: Kolo Toure (Fulham vs Liverpool)

Quite a few contenders here.  In terms of volume, own-goal specialist Martin Skrtel did his utmost to get the award.  Vincent Kompany also threw his hat into the ring with a finish of pinpoint accuracy and finesse that most strikers could only dream of, Fulham the beneficiaries again (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nkiry9DQ6Jo).  But it was Kolo Toure, good old trusty Kolo, who wins the year’s most coveted award.  And what a goal it was.  It had everything.  A daisy-cutter of a cross, absolutely no pressure on the defence, the classic comical sliced clearance that seemed beyond the realms of physics leaving the goalkeeper no chance.  Clinical Kolo.  Everything one could want from an own-goal and more.  Toure has the sort of malco-ordination that makes Bambi look like she could take on Torvil & Dean in their pomp, and god bless him for it.  He provides Premier league audiences with hours of entertainment and long may it continue. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w1aiQIFdMg)

Worst decision of the season: Raheem Sterling offside Manchester City vs Liverpool

Not that I’m biased, but as a Liverpool fan, this was an absolutely atrocious decision and obviously completely affected the final outcome of the title.  Had Sterling not been flagged offside when he was clearly two yards onside, Liverpool would have (probably) at worst, drawn the game, Steven Gerrard wouldn’t have slipped against Chelsea, and Liverpool would have won the league at a canter.  All the fault of some poxy linesman. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s2XHIxOGVA)

Worst haircut of the season:  Sergio Aguero

It’s tempting to give the award to Olivier Giroud because, unlike Aguero, he doesn’t have the footballing talent to back up such an outrageous barnet which made him look all the more ridiculous.  But for the short-back-and-sides-comb-over, our winner is the little Argentine striker.  As the season went on, the sides got shorter and the comb-over got more luscious – and given he spent a proportion of the campaign on the sidelines, he had plenty of time to sack his barber.  Alas he didn’t, and it seems Aguero recommended him to Southampton trio Jay Rodriguez, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw.  Oh for the days of Jason Lee and his pineapple.

The England World Cup Squad

It’s now only just over a month until the World Cup kicks-off in Brazil and every football fan up and down the country is (probably) playing Roy Hodgson and naming their 23-man squad for the tournament.  Cole or Shaw?  Lampard or Carrick?  Cleverly or someone with actual talent?  These are the big decisions Roy will have to make in the coming weeks.

It will be a refreshing change for an England team to go into a World Cup unencumbered by unreasonable public expectations of winning the thing.  Remember Sven Goran Eriksson being castigated for merely leading an admittedly superior England team to 3 successive tournament quarter-finals?  Most England fans would bite your hand off if you offered them a quarter-final exit this time round.

Time to select a potential squad to go to Brazil.  Unlike in previous years where the problem has been whittling the squad down to 23, this time it’s not easy to find 23 players who are worthy of going.  There are maybe 14 or 15 English players who are of international class, and the rest of the squad picks itself more by a process of elimination rather than via merit.

To make Hodgson’s job slightly easier, my brother and I pick our 23 players to gallantly fall at the group stage with a solitary laborious victory over Costa Rica to show for their efforts.

 

Goalkeepers (3):

Joe Hart (Manchester City)

Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)

Fraser Forster (Celtic)

 

RDW: Selecting the goalkeepers is probably the easiest task.  Joe Hart, despite his high-profile slump earlier this season is by far and away the best English keeper, and the mind boggles at how much ropier an already ropey England defence would be were he to get injured.  His decision making is occasionally poor, and he often seems to want to play the hero by trying to claim a ball he’s never going to reach, but his positioning and shot-stopping are excellent.  Beyond that, Ben Foster is nothing more than a reasonable Premiership player, while I have never seen Fraser Forster play, but am selecting him based on the fact he reportedly played well in this season’s Champions League, and that I think John Ruddy is a bit crap.

DDW: I agree.  As undisputed number one, Hart picks himself.  Foster has been in good recent form for West Brom and is pretty much guaranteed a place.  The third-choice goalkeeper almost certainly won’t play so I would take Fraser Forster.  He has top-level Champions League experience with Celtic (they shut-out Barcelona last season) and has excelled as they romped to the title.  At 26, he still has a good 8 years in him at the top-level and the general experience would be beneficial.  John Ruddy isn’t an international-class goalkeeper and Scott Carson, although good enough (witness his performance against Arsenal in the FA Cup sem-final), has been playing 2nd tier football all season.

 

Defenders (7):

Glen Johnson (Liverpool)

Leighton Baines (Everton)

Phil Jagielka (Everton)

Gary Cahill (Chelsea)

Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

Phil Jones (Manchester United)

Chris Smalling (Manchester United)

 

RDW: We have only selected seven defenders because we don’t think a specialist reserve right-back is necessary.  All the talk, in these days of congested midfields, is of the modern full-back being the most important attacking outlet, which can be true given the right formation, and a tactically disciplined full-back equally comfortable attacking and defending, but such players are rarely seen this side of Dani Alves and David Alaba.  Kyle Walker is fast, skilful and loves getting forward, but is positionally a liability, and were Glen Johnson to get injured, then either Phil Jones or, potentially, James Milner would be just as good an option.

DDW: The first choice back-four of Johnson, Baines, Jagielka and Cahill looks relatively strong but if any of them are injured, alarm bells start ringing.  Jones and Smalling can cover right-back and centre-back and their inclusion is mainly based on their versatility rather than their current form which has been pretty abysmal.  There are a startling lack of viable alternatives at centre-back.  Michael Dawson has been found wanting too often at the highest level, Ryan Shawcross is just a thug, and John Stones of Everton is very promising, but also very raw and too inexperienced.

RDW: The lack of depth at centre-back is worrying – Cahill has improved vastly this season, but neither Jagielka’s pace nor his anticipation are sharp enough against top-class strikers, while Jones and Smalling, despite their potential, have struggled this season.  The other options aren’t too promising though – the soon-to-be-relegated Steven Caulker, the aforementioned I’ve-got-the-turning-circle-of-an-articulated-lorry Michael Dawson and the one-good-season-in-a-mediocre-Hull-side-makes-me-look-better-than-I-actually-am Curtis Davies.  Left-back however, is a position where England have if not an embarrassment, then at least a mild self-consciousness of riches.  I’ve never been fully convinced by Leighton Baines as a defender, but he seems to be Hodgson’s choice.  Following his impressive debut against Denmark, there has been a clamour for Luke Shaw to be included, but he is still very green, and I would feel much safer with Ashley Cole facing a rampaging Luis Suarez, not to mention an exuberant Joel Campbell. 

DDW:  Cole over Luke Shaw is a sensible choice because even though the Southampton youngster is a prodigious talent and will probably usurp Baines as first-choice after the World Cup, Cole has mountains of experience at international level which will be absolutely priceless in Brazil.  Lest we forget, the Chelsea player has put in two excellent performances recently against arguably the two form teams in Europe: Atletico Madrid and Liverpool.

 

Midfield (9):

Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)

Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)

Jordan Henderson (Liverpool)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)

Adam Lallana (Southampton)

Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)

James Milner (Manchester City)

DDW: Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)

Ross Barkley (Everton)

RDW: Michael Carrick (Manchester United)

Frank Lampard (Chelsea)

 

DDW: The hardest selection for me.  In the heat of South America, the midfield requires a combination of energy and technical prowess.  The only dead certs are Captain Marvel Gerrard and, even though he is a bit crocked at the moment, Jack Wilshere.  On his performances this season, Jordan Henderson gets the nod, as does Ross Barkley.  The Everton man is not in the greatest of form at the moment but he is a fine physical specimen and he is a brilliant technical footballer whose forceful, driving runs from midfield could be important.  Now there is a case for Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick, both of whom offer a wealth of international experience in an otherwise fairly novice midfield, but they are the wrong side of 30 and have not shined for their clubs this season.  I have watched Lampard in Europe this campaign and he has looked sluggish.  The quickness of thought is still there but the body cannot keep up with the mind.  Carrick, who, one assumes, would play the same role as Gerrard, has neither the same athleticism nor the range of passing as the captain, and Manchester United’s dreadful campaign has somewhat ruined his chances.  On the flanks, Raheem Sterling is a must, as are Adam Lallana (who could be England’s star of the tournament) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  I’m even including the much maligned (by myself mostly) James Milner who offers not only versatility, but also a newfound attacking threat this season from midfield.  The final place goes to Aaron Lennon.  The mini winger hasn’t re-produced his stellar level of last season, but as an old-fashioned wide-man, he offers something different.  And, unlike Theo Walcott, he can cross.

RDW: Much as I’d like to be contentious and daring in choosing my midfield, there just aren’t that many good young England players around getting enough game time to force out some of the old guard.  Picking Gerrard is a no-brainer – he’s had one of his most influential seasons for years, and has added positional discipline to his impressive range of passing, while, provided they are fit, Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain must also go.  Sterling and Lallana both impressed against Denmark and have arguably been the two best attacking midfielders in the Premier League over the past two months.  From then on the selection is far less clear-cut.  James Milner has long been derided as your typical English player – long on work-rate and stamina, short on actual talent, but he has been one of Manchester City’s most influential players recently, and his versatility could be invaluable.  Lampard and Carrick are both known quantities, and Carrick’s ball-retaining and underrated ball-winning abilities may well be crucial against Italy.  Lampard makes my squad just ahead of Tom Huddlestone, whose passing is a joy to watch, but is too slow and ponderous for international football, and Gareth Barry, who has been in great form for Everton this year, but doesn’t add anything different to the squad.  The final place goes to Jordan Henderson, who for many people would be an automatic choice given his pivotal role in Liverpool’s season, but I don’t see his energetic bursts being quite so critical, particularly in the heat of Brazil where games may well be played at a lower tempo.  However, for me he’s a better bet than Ross Barkley (out of form and too inconsistent), Aaron Lennon (too much like a headless chicken) and Tom Cleverley (too crap).

 

Forwards (4):

Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool)

Danny Welbeck (Manchester United)

Rickie Lambert (Southampton)

 

RDW: As with the goalkeepers, the strikers select themselves almost by default.  Rooney is a tricky one.  He is clearly a fabulous player, now a regular goalscorer for both club and country, but the feeling remains that he should be so much more.  At Euro 2004, there were three outstanding young players – Rooney, Robben and Ronaldo.  The latter two have gone on to become truly world-class players (in Ronaldo’s case an all-time great) and have proved their talent consistently in subsequent continental and international tournaments.  Rooney hasn’t.  It could be that he’s not strong enough mentally to raise his game for the most crucial matches; it could be that his level of fitness isn’t high enough, meaning he’s just too tired come the end of the season.  I personally think that his technique doesn’t match his vision, leading to frustration on the pitch.  Many times he looks to make a pass, or take a touch that very few other people in world football would have even spotted, let alone dared play, but his technique lets him down.  However, he is, of course, England’s most talented player and most likely source of a goal, and, despite recent poor performances, should never be left out of the team.  Sturridge has had a brilliant season at Liverpool, playing with a swagger, striking up a partnership with Luis Suarez, and scoring plenty of goals.  He is a selfish player, and has gone off the boil in the past few weeks, but always carries a goal threat.

DDW: With Jay Rodriguez’s untimely injury, I agree, the forward line basically picks itself.  Rooney and Sturridge will almost certainly spearhead the attack and Will-Smith-in-Fresh-Prince-of-Bel-Air lookalike, Danny Welbeck, can stretch tiring defences, as well as covering left midfield.  Rickie Lambert sneaks in ahead of Andy Carroll for many reasons, the main one being superior talent.  The Southampton striker offers an aerial threat combined with a sharp footballing brain and great vision.  Carroll offers one of those things and little else.  Yes, if England are losing he could be an option in the last 10 minutes but I’d like to think that they have progressed from the dark days of ‘lump it up to the big man.’  England’s defeat to Italy in Euro 2012 was a microcosm of Andy Carroll.  He scored a great header but when the team needed him to control the ball/pass to a teammate in the second half, he was found wanting.  His selection would certainly be a backwards step for the England team.

RDW: Welbeck is ungainly and looks slightly un-coordinated, but seems to play well for England, looks comfortable down the left, and Jay Rodriguez’s injury means his place is far more secure.  The fourth striker isn’t easy to select.  I would love to pick Liverpool legend Andy Carroll, and have been desperate for him to make an unarguable case for selection in the past couple of months.  Instead, he’s been harshly sent off, set up Kevin Nolan a couple of times, and hit the woodwork a lot.  I worry that like Peter Crouch, who seemed to constantly get penalised at international level merely for being very tall and gangly, he would unwittingly give away too many free-kicks, and wouldn’t be allowed to play his natural, forceful game.  Lambert is in good form, holds the ball up excellently, and, potentially rather importantly, takes penalties with a Le Tissier-like precision.  It is also high time a former Rochdale man played at the World Cup.

 

The two defeats to Germany and Chile in November really highlighted England’s standing in world football; capable but limited.  The team no longer possess the individuals to strike fear into opponents’ hearts.  With a tactically astute Hodgson at the helm, the best England can hope for is a quarter-final, although I would be very surprised if they even make it that far.  Roy, we’ve selected the 23 players who almost certainly won’t be bringing football home.  You’re welcome.  Over to you.

England wrong to jettison Pietersen so soon

England’s dismal display at the recent T20 World Cup re-inforced the view that they have made a massive error in ditching Kevin Pietersen.  With someone of KP’s class and experience in the side one doubts whether England would have suffered that humiliating defeat to the Netherlands.  But it is not even in the crash-bang-wallop of the one-day arena that Pietersen’s absence will be felt most strongly.  With the Surrey man out of the picture, only two of the top 7 are nailed-on certainties for the first Test against Sri Lanka in June.  Pietersen himself has admitted that he still has the hunger and desire for Test cricket, and with England’s top order in disarray, it seems like an absolute no-brainer to keep him.  Even at 33 years-old he still has two to three seasons at the top level left in him.  So why did England feel the need to dispense with his services?

 

All this talk from Alastair Cook, Andy Flower and various ECB bigwigs of the team wanting to move in a new direction seems like a load of dog-turd to me.  The fact is that Pietersen didn’t fit in to the authoritarian atmosphere that Flower had created.  He had the audacity to question certain things and, god-forbid, speak his mind.  Because of this, he created tension within the management and the team too.  My concern is that Flower and co. refused to adapt to Pietersen’s single-minded nature.  You hear talk in football about coaches having great man-managing ability.  Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho are two such examples of managers who could mould a group of superstars into a coherent and ultimately successful team.  Why was this not the case with Pietersen?  I have no doubt that he could sometimes be difficult to manage, but therefore why wasn’t he treated a little differently so as to coax out of him maximum performance and commitment to the cause?  Every team has a maverick who doesn’t necessarily fit-in.  The challenge is to embrace this and enable them to maximise their rare talent, not to try and supress it.

 

I have a little theory about this whole saga.  Pietersen was born and raised in South Africa and despite his ‘English’ nationality, has a very ‘South African’ approach to the game.  The culture is highly competitive – aggressive even, and there is a huge will to win at all costs.  Pietersen embodies this culture.  He is a winner, believes he is the best and wants to show everyone he’s the best.  He was often criticised for giving his wicket away to needless attacking shots, but in his world, he wanted to dominate the bowling and grind the fielding side into the ground.  It was not enough to simply occupy the crease and stay in.  It is an approach that, despite the criticism, brought him 23 Test centuries and over 8,000 runs.  Now Pietersen has a very similar record to England captain Alastair Cook, but you don’t hear people chastising Cook for giving his wicket away.  This is because Cook accumulates his runs in a very unassuming fashion.  He rarely plays extravagant shots and likes to score methodically and ‘correctly’ – in short, in a quintessentially English way.  KP by contrast liked to score his runs with authority, taking on the bowling with unorthodox strokeplay and with an air of brashness and arrogance – namely, a more ‘South African’ approach.  I think this insistence on playing his natural game combined with his intense ‘winning’ attitude off-the-field jarred somewhat against England’s more traditional and conservative values.  There has also been a nagging feeling, and I include myself in this, that Pietersen didn’t quite make the most of his extraordinary ability.  The truly great batsmen of the era; Kallis, Ponting, Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Jayawardena, Sangakkara, all average above 50 in Test cricket.  Pietersen’s average of 47, whilst very impressive, does not place him in that exalted category.  There is a frustration that, with the talent at his disposal, he should have achieved slightly more than he did which could have contributed to his eventual downfall.

 

Pietersen’s ‘sacking’ is not a first.  A recent example is the John Terry/Rio Ferdinand saga of 2012, when, despite clearly being good enough, the Manchester United man was not selected by Roy Hodgson for the Euros squad because of the personal differences he had with Terry.  Ironically, a few months later, Terry himself was told he would no longer be selected for England, yet finds himself in a similar situation.  Arguably he is one of the four best centre-backs in England but cannot go to the World Cup in Brazil this summer.  The difference between these cases is that whilst Terry and Ferdinand were good players in their own right, they were not the best in the team.  Pietersen is palpably still the best batsman England have at their disposal, yet they refuse to pick him.  One can’t imagine Steven Gerrard, for example, being dropped just because he isn’t that popular in the dressing-room.  The whole saga has been conducted in a very childish manner.  Someone needs to sit Flower, Cook, the ECB and Pietersen down and just bang their heads together.  I’m still hopeful I will see KP in an England shirt again (as a Surrey fan I will hopefully get to watch him a fair amount), but with all that’s happened, it unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

 

The timing of Pietersen’s removal is made all the more bizarre in that there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.  Obviously, players of Pietersen’s class and style come round once in a generation, but I have high hopes for James Taylor, who has been on England’s radar for a number of years.  He played a few Tests in 2012 against South Africa and looked solid but since then, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have jumped ahead of him in the queue.  If he can overcome his fitness problems, Samit Patel is another who has oodles of talent, but time is running out for the podgy Nottinghamshire player to make a mark in Test cricket.  Eoin Morgan has pulled-out of the IPL in an effort to force his way into the England side but I think he is vastly overrated and will never be a Test regular.  Bairstow is another who has a good county record but doesn’t have the requisite technique to succeed at the highest level.  He has had enough chances to stake his claim and has never really convinced.  Aside from those mentioned, the early county season is a chance for someone to force his way into the selector’s reckoning  given that there are no fewer than four places in the top 7 up for grabs (Jonathan Trott has to earn his re-call to the side à la Graham Thorpe in 2003).  Whoever is picked as Pietersen’s replacement against Sri Lanka in June will have some enormous shoes to fill.

6 Nations Team of the Tournament

Now the dust has settled on an exciting but not vintage tournament, it’s time for me to put my formidable rugby knowledge to the test and choose my team of the tournament.

15. Full Back: Mike Brown (England)

After a pretty horrible 2013 Six Nations, Brown was possibly the player of the tournament this time around.  His support running was a joy to behold and he has the indispensable ability to almost always make the correct decision.  Looks so much more at home as a full-back than on the wing.  Rock solid in defence and also the joint-leading try-scorer.

14. Right Wing: Andrew Trimble (Ireland)

Yoann Huget was a rare bright spark in an otherwise average French side, but for his consistency, the Ulsterman gets my vote.  An unheralded player but someone who does all the basics very well and, like Brown, supports play excellently.  Kept his cool in Paris to score a crucial try.  Has inherited a great finishers instinct.  On this evidence, Tommy Bowe has more chance of replacing Brian O’Driscoll that ousting Trimble.

13. Outside Centre: Brian O’Driscoll (Ireland)

Who else?  While Luther Burrell had a superb debut tournament for England, the retiring veteran showed the world what they will be missing with some all-round displays of class, elegance and ingenuity.  The beauty of O’Driscoll is that he never seems to be rushed on the rugby field.  He has that Henson-like ability to make time stand still and pick a pass no-one else sees, yet the defence hardly lays a finger on him.  Again, he was a rock in defence.  The great man will be sorely missed

12. Inside Centre: Jamie Roberts (Wales)

As much as I do have a rather large man-crush on Wesley Fofana (you’re lying if you claim you don’t), Dr Roberts had an excellent Championships.  As always he broke the gain line and tackled with energy and verve, but he has matured with age into more than just a battering ram.  He runs more intelligent line these days and often pops up as a support runner.  Two tries against Scotland capped an impressive tournament.

11. Left Wing: George North (Wales)

Despite playing at the unfamiliar position of Outside Centre for a couple of games, the giant Welshman looked much more at home on the wing.  Scored three tries and caused general havoc with ball in hand.  He still needs to work on his finishing in my opinion but he has the potential to be one of the game’s greats.

10. Fly-Half: Jonathan Sexton (Ireland)

A quite brilliant tournament for the Racing Metro outside-half.  He was by far the most effective player in his position because he offers and equally potent kicking and running game, highlighted by his four tries.  Kept a cool head in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Championship decider in Paris.  Made Wales’ Rhys Priestland look even more shit that he actually is, which is difficult.

9. Scrum Half: Danny Care (England)

The England number 9 has finally come of age.  His darting runs are reminiscent of Rob Howley and Matt Dawson at their best.  By far the best scrum-half in the northern-hemisphere, his high-tempo delivery set the foundations for England’s impressive attacking displays.  A joy to watch.

1. Loose-Head: Cian Healy (Ireland)

What a player.  An animal in the loose but also a formidable scrummager.  When he carries the ball he resembles a charging rhino and is (probably) almost as difficult to bring down without tranquiliser.  Healy has also curbed his ill-discipline which has blighted his career to date.

2. Hooker: Rory Best (Ireland)

Having originally been overlooked by Warren Gatland for Lions selection supposedly because of his lacklustre throwing, the Ulsterman showed the Welsh coach why he had been wrong to omit him with a brilliant tournament in which he was almost flawless at the line-out.  Edges out Dylan Hartley because of his superior tackling ability and energy in the loose.

3. Tight-Head: Nicolas Mas (France)

There was no outstanding candidate for the number 3 shirt so I chose the Frenchman more for his commitment in that brutal final encounter with Ireland in Paris.  The French scrum was pretty tidy in that game against an Ireland pack that had dominated up front against Wales, Scotland and Italy and that was in no small part due to Mas.  I have no idea what he’s like in the loose but let’s assume he was average-to-good.  Basically, he was less bad than all the other tight-heads.

4. Lock: Paul O’Connell (Ireland)

The Ireland captain is like the postman; he keeps delivering top-class performances year after year.  His display in Paris was one of the great performances.  He seemed to be everywhere: at the breakdown, tackling, ball-carrying, taking line-outs  – all in the face of some ferocious French resistance (there’s a first for everything).  The Emerald Isle will be hoping that he continues for at least a couple more seasons.

5. Lock: Courtney Lawes (England)

Another coming-of-age tournament for an Englishman, this time the giant Northampton second-row.  His all-round brilliance was exemplified by a man-of-the match display against Wales.  Rather like O’Connell, he is an all-action player with the addition of impressive pace.  Always near the top of the tackle count.  Looks a certainty for the World Cup.

6. Blindside Flanker: Peter O’Mahony (Ireland)

This very blog had tipped Ireland to have a disaster tournament precisely because they were without their star flankers in Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris.  Well I am currently eating mountains of humble pie because the Munsterman was an absolute tour-de-force.  He was a permanent fixture at the breakdown and won man-of-the-match in the forward masterclass against Wales.  Excellent.

7. Openside Flanker: Chris Robshaw (England)

By far the outstanding open-side in this year’s tournament.  Not only was he a tireless in defence and excellent at the breakdown, he also showed an impressive fleet-of-hand to release Mike Brown for Danny Care’s try against Ireland.  Deserved his try against Italy and led England flawlessly after much criticism in past years.  Looks to have benefited from a summer’s rest.

8. Number 8: Billy Vunipola (England)

A controversial choice.  I know he only played three games and Jamie Heaslip excelled throughout the tournament, but Vunipola (like his cousin Taulupe Falateau) is a complete rugby-footballer, in the mould of Sergio Parisse, Nick Easter or Bobby Skinstad.  Not only does he always break the gain-line, he has brilliant awareness and is constantly looking to off-load the ball.  This results in a far more dynamic attacking platform which defined England’s matches.  He is vital if the red-rose are to be successful in the World Cup.

 

As regular readers (apparently there’s at least one) will know, thealternativesportsblog is based purely on facts and is almost never wrong, so if you disagree with any of my choices, you are severely misinformed.