Tour de France 2013

The 100th edition of the most famous cycle race in the world begins this weekend in Corsica.  If your idea of fun is watching a couple of hundred lycra-clad men riding for 6 hours per day then this is the sport for you.  The grand tours are a bit like Test Cricket; long periods of apparent boredom followed by moments of intense drama.  Yet it makes compelling viewing.  If watching skinny blokes riding around the French countryside understandably doesn’t float your boat, then watch out for the nutters in the crowd.  You can always trust a Frenchman to look like an absolute buffoon and there are plenty of cycling-mad head cases who line the route day after day.  Spotting them is a sport in itself.  Anyway, after this blog’s abysmal recent attempts to predict the winner of major sporting events, it is clear that our talents lie elsewhere.  Instead I will run down the movers and shakers who may or may not possibly potentially be contenders for this year’s prize.

            This year’s Tour de France will feature no less than 11 mountainous stages (two more than last year) and only two time-trials (one fewer than last year) meaning the maillot jaune will probably be worn by a climber in Paris.  Of these, Britain’s Chris Froome has been mooted as the favourite.  He has won all but one of the races he has entered, and that was a 2nd place in the Tirenno-Adriatico.  The Tour of Oman, the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium de Dauphiné and the Critérium International have all seen Froome gracing the top step of the podium and rather like Bradley Wiggins last year he has raced sparingly but successfully to ensure he is in top shape for Le Tour.  Froome probably could have won last year but he was obliged to help team leader Wiggins up the climbs rather than go for glory himself.  Wiggins however is injured so Froome is top dog at Team Sky and they will be putting all their resources into winning consecutive Tours for British riders.

            Alberto Contador is another who is tailor-made for this year’s course.  Weighing less than a leaf he has the perfect physique for tackling the brutal Alpine climbs.  Of course the Spaniard has twice won the Tour in 2007 and 2009 but was stripped of his 2010 title for a positive drugs test and received a two year ban.  There is significant evidence that Contador was doping years before he was caught as he has links to the disgraced blood-doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes – the man who powered Lance Armstrong to his drug-induced Tour victories in the early 2000’s.  For a man who won the Tour de France during its dark days of systematic doping, I find it hard to believe Contador was riding clean.  Nevertheless he announced his comeback by winning the Vuelta a Espana last year but Froome has had the measure of him this season, finishing above him at the Critérium de Dauphiné, the Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Oman.

            Another Spaniard, Joquim Rodriguez has been showing great form in the past four seasons.  He finished last year as the top-ranked cyclist in the world (ahead of Wiggins) with podium finishes in both Giro d’Italia (where he won the points race) and the Vuelta.  This will only be his second Tour de France, his only other appearance coming in 2010 when he finished a very creditable 7th.  He has had some solid top-10 performances this season in Oman and the Tirenno-Adriatico and two second places in both the Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Volta a Catalunya.  Rodriguez is a very solid rider with no real weakness – he will no doubt be featuring in the top-10 at some point during the Tour.

            Australian Cadel Evans has serious history in this event.  Winner in 2011 he also has two second place finishes to his name.  At the age of 36 his best days may be behind him but he showed he still as the ability to tough it out with the best by finishing 3rd at this year’s Giro.  He got found out a bit on the climbs last year and with this year’s edition featuring more mountain stages he has his work cut out.  Indeed he may have to share the BMC team leader responsibilities with up-and-coming American sensation Tejay van Garderen.  In only his second Tour de France he finished 5th overall and won the young-rider classification at the tender age of 23.  Now one year older and wiser, the man from Tacoma, Washington has already won the Tour of California this season and followed it up with a string of impressive results (3rd in Critérium International and 4th in Paris-Nice).  Equally strong on the climbs and the time-trials, the American has the tools to mount a real challenge this year.

            Leading the French charge will be the precocious Thibaut Pinot who, despite being the youngest rider in the tour in 2012, managed to finish 10th in the GC.  He also infamously won Stage 8, in the process negotiating seven categorised climbs crossed the line with a 26 second advantage.  He will be joined by Thomas Voeckler, a favourite with the home crowd who won the polka-dot jersey at last year’s Tour for the best climber and also finished fourth in the GC in 2011.  The course set-up this year will most definitely play into his hands and he will feature strongly.

            In terms of the sprinters it will be a three-way fight between Britain’s Mark Cavendish, André Greipel of Germany and the Slovakian Peter Sagan.  Cavendish will have the whole of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team working for him throughout the tour, a luxury he most definitely didn’t have whilst riding for Sky and Bradley Wiggins last year.  Fresh from his victory at the National Road Race Championships last week in Glasgow, Cavendish has been in sparkling form this season, winning the points jersey at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Qatar.  Attempting to hang on to the lycra-tails of the Manx Missile will be André Greipel, winner of the points classification at the Vuelta a Espana in 2009.  Greipel won three times at the 2012 tour so he is certainly no slouch in the saddle.  His 2013 results so far have also been pretty impressive: three stage victories in the Tour Down Under and two victories in the Tour of Turkey.  Defending the points jersey will be Peter Sagan who has a pretty impressive CV for a man of 23 years: three consecutive points victories in the Tour of California, the points jersey in the Tour of Oman last year, and also the points jersey in the Tour de Suisse this year.  Further 2013 results include stage victories in the Tirenno-Adriatico and the Tour of Oman.  It will be interesting to see how he copes with fully-prepared Mark Cavendish in Le Tour given that he won the points jersey last year at a bit of a canter.

Rather surprisingly, last year’s 3rd place finisher and the winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, Vincenzo Nibali has decided not to race.  He is a formidable climber who would have had a good chance of at least a podium, but his absence throws the race wide-open and will definitely increase Chris Froome’s chances.  Whoever has the honour of standing on the top step of the podium on the Champs-Elysées in three weeks’ time will most definitely have earned it.  Let’s just salute the 200 or so nutjobs crazy enough to ride 200km every day for the next 21 days.  Rather them than me.

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Wimbledon 2013

It’s time for Wimbledon.  Over the next two weeks (or possibly more if the weather decides to play silly buggers) SW19 will be echoing with the sound of Pimm’s bottles being opened, strawberries being de-stalked and the retractable roof clanking its way shut.  Given the area, with the exception of the roof that’s not so different from any other time of the year.  To be honest, previewing the winners of this year’s tournament isn’t really that difficult – Serena Williams is invincible at the moment, and will walk the women’s tournament on a surface that suits her game down to the ground (pun intended).  As for the men, one of the big four will be victorious, probably, in my opinion, Rafael Nadal.

Speaking of Nadal, the main talking point pre-tournament has been the decision of the Wimbledon Committee (taking a few minutes out from spreading Stilton on a Jacob’s cracker, whilst simultaneously sniffing a glass of vintage tawny and pushing a poor person in the face) to seed the Majorcan at number 5, below the man he trounced in the French Open final last month, David Ferrer.  This is a tricky issue.  Quite frankly it is ludicrous that Nadal should be seeded lower than Ferrer (and some, including me, might argue lower than number 2), and anyone who thinks otherwise is certifiable, but the Committee, who in the past were permitted a certain amount of licence in the seeding, have since 2002 used a complicated system, involving ATP ranking, current form, phases of the moon and, crucially, performances at previous Wimbledons.  Given Nadal reached the final every year from 2006 until 2011, this particular criterion should, you would think, not present a problem.  However, apparently largest weighting is given to the most recent tournament (naturally), so Nadal’s injury-affected defeat to Lukas Rosol last year comes into play, and once all the calculations have been done, it turns out he’s only the fifth-most likely player to win.

Had Nadal and Ferrer been drawn in the same quarter, then we could reasonably expect the usual suspects to make up the semi-finals.  Instead we have a lop-sided draw, with the bottom half in particular absolutely loaded – the probable quarter-final line-up being Nadal v Roger Federer and Andy Murray v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  Despite the Swiss maestro’s waning powers (and no matter what anyone might tell you, his is the most aesthetically-pleasing backhand in the game) no Federer v Nadal match should take place before the semi-finals.  The opposite side’s projected line-up of Djokovic v Berdych and Ferrer v Del Potro doesn’t have the same allure.

Let’s then look at some other matches and potential matches that could produce some fireworks.  In the bottom half, the potential fourth round clash between Nadal and Stan Wawrinka could be a classic.  Wawrinka always looks like he should do better than he does – he has all the talent, and when he gets it right he can be almost unplayable, such as the famous match against Murray in 2009, the first ever match played under the roof.  Yet he still lost that game, which has been the difference between the top four and the rest over the last few years – the ability to somehow grind out a win even when your opponent is playing inspired tennis.  Further down there is a potential second round meeting between another extravagantly-gifted but slightly wayward player in the opinionated Latvian Ernests Gulbis and Tsonga.  Again it is highly unlikely that Gulbis will be able to beat the Frenchman, but if he plays to his best, he will certainly make it an entertaining game.

Up in the top half, there is a projected meeting in the third round between Juan Martin Del Potro and Grigor Dimitrov (or to give him his official title, Mr M Sharapova).  Dimitrov, winner of Junior Wimbledon in 2008, has been compared to Federer with his single-handed backhand and the apparent ease with which he plays the game, and is a young player on the up.  If he can move the big-hitting, but sometimes ponderous Argentinean around the court, as Ferrer did to such great effect last year, then he could provide an upset.  Another player to watch out for is Milos Raonic, the big-serving Canadian whose game is seemingly perfectly suited to grass.  He has been described as promising for some time now, and with a favourable draw (he is in the same eighth as Ferrer, and could meet him in round 4), it is conceivable he will reach his first Grand Slam quarter-final, possibly even a semi-final.

Now to discuss the winner.  There are two schools of thought here.  For Nadal or Federer to win, they will have to beat each other, followed by Murray/Tsonga and then Djokovic, all of which could well go to 5 sets and will presumably take it out of their legs, notwithstanding their quite astonishing fitness levels.  Murray would have to beat Tsonga, Nadal/Federer and Djokovic, whereas the Serb should stroll into the final with relative ease (his first round match against Florian Mayer could be his trickiest, although Tommy Haas in the fourth round won’t be easy), but won’t have been properly tested and, as such, won’t be as match-sharp as his opponent.  Given Nadal’s form since his comeback, and the fact that he has had the measure of both Federer and Murray over the last few years, I am going to put the de Winter chemise on him, and hope that he retains enough in the tank to squeeze past Djokovic in the final.

The Lions – 1st Test

With just one more warm-up match to go, the likely starting XV for the Lions’ first test against Australia is starting to take shape.  Much has been said about the lack of high-quality opposition that the Lions have faced during their tour matches so far, but I’m not so sure. True, the Western Force and the Combined Country XV were pretty feeble, but last Saturday, the Queensland Reds played at a very high tempo, and asked all sorts of questions defensively, while this Saturday, the NSW Waratahs, while possibly a little low on quality, certainly gave the Lions a thorough physical examination.  Based on the first 5 matches, this is the team I would select for the opening test.

Full Back: Leigh Halfpenny

Not even a decision to make on this one.  Halfpenny is playing out of his skin.  Obviously his goalkicking is a factor (hopefully he can have as much of an influence as the last Welshman to wear number 15 for the Lions, Neil Jenkins), but his tackling is immense, he hardly ever drops the ball, and runs superb angles when entering the attacking line, rather as Lee Byrne used to do.  Stuart Hogg hasn’t played badly, and was impressive at stand-off in midweek, while Rob Kearney has only played the last 20 minutes against the Waratahs, where he looked a little off the pace.

Wings: Alex Cuthbert and Simon Zebo

This selection is obviously assuming that George North is unfit; otherwise the giant Welshman would be in instead of Zebo.  The Lions aren’t blessed with outstanding wingers on this tour.  Sean Maitland rather played himself out of contention with an anonymous performance against the Waratahs, where his main contribution was to miss a tackle in the build-up to the first try.  Cuthbert is shaky defensively (not in terms of tackling, but more his positioning and the discipline to hold the defensive line), but is an excellent finisher and of course a hard man to stop once he gets going.  I wasn’t quite as overwhelmed by Zebo’s performance against the Waratahs as many others, but he is a livewire going forward, and has the ability to create something out of nothing.  A strong performance from Christian Wade, should he play against the Brumbies, would put him right into the mix.

Centres: Jonathan Davies and Brian O’Driscoll

After a slow start, Jamie Roberts looked like he was coming into some form against the Waratahs, so his injury has come at an unfortunate time.  Without him, the Lions will obviously lack a huge ball-carrying presence, but they will also lose his defensive organisation and ferocious tackling.  However, Davies has been highly impressive all tour, with even his previously suspect distribution looking good, and O’Driscoll has done what O’Driscoll has done all his career – find space with his quick feet, distribute the ball quickly, offload intelligently, win turnovers, and bring some class to the midfield.  Even though his level of performance has dropped steadily probably over the last 4 years, he is still a staggeringly good player.  Manu Tuilagi may miss out through injury, but even if fit, I think he would be better as an impact player.

Fly-half: Jonny Sexton

Ever since his mediocre performance against the Barbarians, Owen Farrell has been playing catch-up.  Since then he has played well, and kicked excellently, but his distribution isn’t as smooth as Sexton’s, he always seems to take that split-second longer to get his pass away, and his short fuse may get the Lions into trouble.  Despite being targeted by the opposition, Sexton has looked a class apart throughout the tour.

Scrum-half: Mike Phillips

Phillips has been the test number 9-in-waiting since the very start of the tour, and his performances have lived up to that billing.  He has been combative, swift in his passing, and strong in defence (witness his try-saving hit on giant lock Will Skelton against the Waratahs).  Perhaps we haven’t seen him dart around the fringes as much as usual, but that may be down to the Lions’ game-plan, which seems to be to get the ball wide as much as possible.  Much as I don’t rate Ben Youngs, he has performed well so far, grabbing a crucial opportunist try against the Reds, but he’ll have to make do with a place on the bench.

Loose-Head: Mako Vunipola

Tricky one this; had Gethin Jenkins or Cian Healy avoided injury, then I don’t think Vunipola would have been near the starting XV.  However, he has been consistently prominent in the loose, been an invaluable ball-carrier, and looked solid in the scrum (his supposed weakness, although in Australia you’re never going to get really tested there).  Ideally, he would be an impact player, but with Alex Corbisiero starting the tour slowly, and Ryan Grant being even more of a specialist scrummager than Adam Jones, I would give the Tongan-born bruiser the nod.

Hooker: Tom Youngs

One of the positions where the Lions are not blessed with an outstanding candidate, Youngs gets my vote as hooker because so far he has been the most reliable throwing in at the lineout.  The worry is that during the Six Nations, this looked to be the weakest part of his game, and the opposition haven’t really targeted the Lions lineout yet.  Richard Hibbard has made some hard yards with the ball in hand but his throwing has been ropey, while Rory Best hasn’t shown up enough in the loose.

Tight-Head: Adam Jones

A very close call this between Jones and Dan Cole.  Cole is an animal at the breakdown, and a famously gritty scrummager, but the Lions’ scrum has looked more solid with Jones at the helm, while his tackling is immense, and he has shown some deft hands in the loose, even popping up at scrum-half on occasions.

Locks: Paul O’Connell and Alun Wyn Jones

This is where selection starts to get tricky.  All 5 of the second rowers on tour have made a case for inclusion; Ian Evans gets through an enormous amount of work on the floor; Richie Gray is an athletic runner, and useful in the breakdown; Geoff Parling is a master at the lineout, decoding the Queensland Reds’ calls and stealing numerous balls.  However, the two most experienced players have been outstanding so far.  Wyn Jones always makes yards with the ball in hand, tackles like a lumberjack, and is solid at the lineout, while O’Connell has shown his full range of skills, stealing at the breakdown, offloading, and shuffling the ball on quickly twice against the Waratahs to create attacking positions.  He is also a born leader, and his experience could be vital.

Back Row: Tom Croft, Justin Tipuric and Toby Faletau

I really don’t envy Warren Gatland the job of deciding who to start at back row.  I am aware that in all probability he will play Sam Warburton at 7, but to me he has looked a little undercooked, despite playing the full 80 against the Waratahs.  Apart from maybe Dan Lydiate, every single back-rower has made an extremely strong case to be picked in the test team.  Tipuric edges out Warburton because in every game he plays, he is one of the best players on the park, and because he has been lightning quick at the breakdown.  I think Faletau should play rather than Jamie Heaslip, because I feel the Lions will need his ball-carrying abilities, and Heaslip, while outstanding against the Western Force, was less prominent against the more physical Waratahs.  The toughest choice was leaving out Sean O’Brien.  He is a monster ball carrier, has form against the Wallabies, having destroyed them in the 2011 World Cup, and plays with so much heart.  However, I think Croft’s extra pace, ability in the lineout, and work at the breakdown will prove more useful.

So there we are.  For the record, my replacements would be: Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Sean O’Brien, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi (if fit, Stuart Hogg if not).  In all probability my opinion will change after the game against the Brumbies on Tuesday, and who knows, there may be more injury problems to contend with, but I can’t wait for what will probably be an incredibly tense series.

U.S Open Preview

On Thursday the U.S Open will get underway at the Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania.  This charming gem of a course is the shortest U.S Open set-up for nearly a decade.  It has a wonderful mix of tricky short holes and testing long ones.  Of the four par threes, one is a miniscule 115 yards, the other three measure over 230 yards.  There are two par fours at over 500 yards, yet four that are under 400, and, in a refreshing twist, only two par fives (one over 600 yards).  This course is not just breeze for the longer hitters; far from it.  In fact it requires all the shots in the book (and possibly some that aren’t) to conquer its various challenges.  Here are some of the players who will be looking to lift the famous old trophy on Sunday evening.

 

Matt Kuchar (United States)

World Ranking: 4

Best U.S Open finish: T6th (2010)

 

Yes, I know I tipped him at the Masters and he didn’t really feature strongly but he has been on fire this season.  He hasn’t missed a cut all year and won on his most recent outing, The Memorial Tournament on the 2nd of June.  The week before that he was 2nd at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at the Colonial Country Club with all four rounds under 70.  The man is Mr Consistent and with his almost faultless short game (12th in the putting stats and 6th on sand saves) he is a real danger man this week.  One worry would be his driving which has not been exactly pinpoint (57% of fairways hit puts him 134th on the PGA tour) and with the fairways exceedingly narrow at the Merion Golf Club and the rough penal, he will need his long stick to be on top form to keep the ball in the short stuff.  Nevertheless, my tip to win.

 

Tiger Woods (United States)

World Ranking: 1

Best U.S Open finish: 1st (2000, ‘02, ’08)

 

8 starts this season, four victories, need I say more?  He made up for his (relatively) disappointing 4th place at the Masters by winning the Players Championship last month and the manner of his victory was like the Tiger of old; players (namely Sergio Garcia) wilting under the relentless pressure of the great man.  His most recent outing at the Memorial Tournament was an unmitigated disaster (he finished at +8 in 65th place) so all has not been going totally to plan.  He is still without a major since last his last victory in this tournament five years ago and that will be playing on his mind.  This is not necessarily the sort of course that will suit him.  His best chance of victory will be if he takes mostly irons off the tee for position (like he did at The Open at Hoylake in 2006).  If he can get it onto the green in regulation then he is nigh on unstoppable this season on the dancefloor (1st in the putting stats).  He will be hard to stop if he can get on a roll.

 

Adam Scott (Australia)

World Ranking: 3

Best U.S Open finish: T15th (2012)

 

The likeable Australian finally broke his major duck (in the golfing sense) by winning this year’s Masters in spectacular fashion by beating ‘The Duck,’ Angel Cabrera, in a play-off.  This should give Scott the confidence to challenge regularly in the big tournaments.  Two top-20 finishes after his triumph in April is a solid enough return.  I can’t see him winning this week because he doesn’t quite have the requisite short-game, although a top-10 finish is not beyond him.  He may have to win another major fairly sharpish seeing as the anchor putter, which Scott uses, will be outlawed at the beginning of 2016.

 

Sergio Garcia (Spain)

World Ranking: 15

Best U.S Open finish: T3rd (2005)

 

The Spaniard has been up to his usual mercurial tricks this season.  He tore up Augusta on the first day of the Masters before making it look like a minefield not 24 hours later for his second round.  His mental fallibility then reared its ugly head last month at the Players Championship firstly in his public spat with Tiger Woods, secondly by squandering the lead with two holes to play, scoring quadruple bogey and double bogey to leave him languishing down in 8th place.  Garcia’s talent has never been in doubt.  It is his mental strength (or lack of) which has prevented him from winning major championships.  He himself has said he will never win a major because of his mental weakness which is also almost certainly the reason for his inconsistent putting which has blighted his career (although this season he has improved significantly).  He has had more top-10’s than Cliff Richard, yet the number one spot continues to elude him.  Garcia’s results this season have not been as spectacular as his golf but if he can string four rounds together (a big IF), he could be a serious contender.

 

Graeme McDowell (Northern Ireland)

World Ranking: 8

Best U.S Open finish: 1st (2010)

 

The Northern Irishman has been in great form this season, winning twice and grabbing a further three top-10 finishes.  He has previous too in the U.S Open, memorably triumphing at Pebble Beach in 2010 and a 2nd place last year at the Olympic Club.  His recent form has declined slightly – two missed cuts in his last two outings.  Let’s hope he raises his game for the Merion Club because he’s the only British player with a realistic chance of victory.

 

Matteo Manassero (Italy)

World Ranking: 25

Best U.S Open finish: T46th (2012)

 

The Italian is the form player in the European game right now.  His victory at the PGA Championship at Wentworth last month was followed by a 4th place at the Nordea Masters – proving that he is ready for the big time.  He already has 4 career wins to his name but it is easy to forget he is only 20 years of age.  The youthful Manassero is yet to translate his European form across the Atlantic – his highest finish in any tournament across the pond is 23rd so victory may be beyond him this week.  However with the Merion course set up as it is this week he may have a chance of a top-10 finish.  He also comes into the tournament a little under the radar and under little pressure.  Leads the European challenge.

 

So those are some of the contenders.  I can’t see Phil Mickelson in the frame (despite his 2nd place finish at the weekend) because he’s too erratic off the tee and his putting is about as consistent as Oasis’s drummer.  Rory McIlroy is in pretty ropey form too – like Garcia he can’t seem to string four solid rounds together.  Luke Donald has the short game to do well round Merion but he needs to improve on his PGA Tour Green in Regulation position of 149th.  Lee Westwood has the opposite problem – a brilliant long game but an infamously average short game.  However he may be in with a shout because of the rather inclement weather in Pennsylvania this week which has softened up the greens, making scoring infinitely more attractive.  Whatever the weather, the golf should provide enough thrills and spills (or birdies and eagles) to stop you dozing off to sleep on Sunday night.

England not a force to be reckoned with

If England learned anything from their two friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil, it is that they are certainly no longer a major force in world football.  The manner in which they were outplayed for large swathes of the match against the Selecao was alarming – they lacked the ability to put even the most simplest of moves together – and indicative of their standing in international football, hanging on for dear life.  It does not bode well for the World Cup qualifiers where England can’t afford any slip-ups in their remaining four matches if they want to be back in Brazil this time next year.

            England do not have a terrible record this season.  In 11 internationals they have only lost once – to Zlatan Ibrahimovic – but they have also played out three 1-1 draws against Poland, Montenegro and Ukraine; not the sort of form that will be the rest of the world sleepless nights.  This apparent ability to make their rather average opponents look like world-beaters is admirable, but also slightly problematic if you’re trying to qualify for a World Cup.  Add to that another lacklustre 1-1 draw against Eire on Wednesday and it’s not been an annus mirabilis for the Three Lions.  On the one hand, after a long season a turgid performance is perhaps understandable – then again the top teams would comfortably dispatch a spirited but limited Ireland side.

            There have been some positives for the national side.  Two friendly victories against Brazil and Italy are not to be sniffed at (both are incidentally ranked lower that England in the official Fifa rankings).  The emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a player of considerable potential is encouraging and Theo Walcott has played marginally less shite than usual this season.  Frank Lampard is enjoying an Indian summer and when Jack Wilshere plays, England have the air of a team that isn’t a steaming pile of manure – which is a positive I suppose.

            My issue with the current England team is that they never dominate supposedly lower-ranked opposition (apart from San Marino and Moldova – which is hardly that commendable).  They always seem to play just about well enough to scrape an undeserved win or to hang on for a draw.  Take, for example, the 1-1 draw in Montenegro in March.  10 of the starting 11 had won the Premier League, the other (Gerrard), everything but.  Not exactly strangers to the idea of winning a crucial match.  In the next 90 minutes, Montenegro (ranked a very respectable 27th in the world) proceeded to dominate all facets of the game, forcing England into hopeful punts up field for most of the second half in the face of heavy Montenegrin bombardment.  Now the initiated football novice would have claimed that the Montenegrins were in fact the 7th best team in the world and England the 27th such was the gulf in class, not the other way round.  In the lead up to conceding the goal, England had to defend a series of corners and the defence just didn’t take control of the situation.  Dare I say it, John Terry would have put his head in where it hurts for the team (about his only redeeming feature).  Instead the defence resembled a confused group of schoolboys who had just been asked to recite the complete works of Shakespeare in Swahili whilst enacting the exact choreography to Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’  It was a performance that would have had Alan Hansen tearing his hair out (or licking his lips with glee at the prospect of saying ‘terrible defending’ in his own indomitable style).

            Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.  England haven’t played well in a major tournament since Euro 2004 and quite frankly, compared with the top European nations, they are light years behind.  Germany proved as such at the World Cup in 2010 and Italy, more recently at last year’s Euros.  One only had to watch the Champions League final to see the difference in playing style.  Dortmund and Bayern Munich were both physically and tactically adept at possession, counter-attacking, direct and tika-taka football whenever they so desired.  I was struck by the speed and incisiveness of the passing and movement.  There was always someone available to pass to, always someone in space or someone willing to make a run.  The forward lines were interchangeable making it difficult for defenders to pick them up.

England have often recently been accused of adopting tactics that are too rigid, that they play in lines instead of in a dynamic formation which operates in between the traditional 4-4-2 formation.  The truth is that the English are not intelligent enough to play such a system.  The top German/Spanish/Italian players have a footballing brain that is all too rare in this country which enables them to act on instinct.  This instinct is almost unteachable (unfortunately) because it relies on the player’s awareness of his teammates, the opposition, available space and the consequent passes he can play armed with all this information – something that takes a lifetime to absorb.  That’s without even considering the ability to actually execute these skills and the physical attributes required to compete for 90 minutes at the highest level.  Jack Wilshere is the only current England player that fits into this category.  In the last 25 years, Paul Gascoigne and Matt Le Tissier are the only players that come to mind.  The FA has recently changed its coaching blueprint, with the emphasis on technique.  This is undoubtedly a forward step because the national psyche needs to adapt and pronto at that.  For now, England may now have to accept that simply qualifying for the World Cup is an achievement in itself.