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.

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.

The Transfer Window

It’s the start of the silly season.  For the next month, all of the 20 Premier League clubs will be linked to all and sundry.  Don’t be surprised to see Buzz Lightyear mooted as Cardiff City’s new saviour, or Winnie the Pooh touted as the answer to Manchester United’s defensive frailties.  In January, in the words of Cole Porter, anything goes.  Chairmen, managers and agents are all working overtime in a bid to find the right formula for a final push for the title/to stave off relegation (delete as appropriate).  The January transfer window is rarely a good time for buying clubs.  Inflated prices mean that they often pay over the odds for players that they don’t really need.  Andy Carroll to Liverpool for £35m is a classic transfer window move, as is Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50m the same season.  But there are bargains to be had: Luis Suarez cost a paltry £22m when he moved from Ajax to Liverpool in 2011 and Christophe Dugarry was the first real January transfer bargain when he helped save Birmingham City from relegation in 2003.  So who will make their move?  Expect to see clubs further down the table splashing the cash in a bid to avoid a relegation dogfight.  There may be one or two significant transfers amongst the top eight clubs but I would be surprised if a major signing was made.

 

Arsenal

Top of the league, through to the knock-out stages of the Champions League, and into the 4th round of the FA Cup, life could be worse for the Highbury club, all the more so if you consider the discontent around the Emirates a year ago.  They have turned round their fortunes with basically the same playing squad with two major additions – Mesut Özil and Mathieu Flamini.  However, with Theo Walcott and hairdressing’s Nicklas Bendtner both injured and Olivier Giroud struggling for fitness, Lukas Podolski is Arsene Wenger’s only fit forward (himself having only recently returned from injury) so the Gunners may require extra back-up in that area.  Wenger is loath to do business in January but needs must if he is to secure Arsenal’s first trophy since 2005.

Linked to: Karim Benzema and Alvaro Morata (both Real Madrid), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Pedro (Barcelona)

 

Aston Villa

Villa’s recent form has been poor, culminating in an embarrassing FA Cup loss at home to Sheffield United at the weekend.  They should have enough in reserve to avoid relegation and if they can get Christian Benteke scoring again they will be absolutely fine.  Villa haven’t splashed the cash recently, preferring to promote from within and have assembled an impressive array of home-grown talent.  They could probably do with a bit more quality in the centre of the park to complement Fabian Delph (Tom Huddlestone would be a good fit) and if Joleon Lescott becomes available he would be a good steadying buy for Paul Lambert’s team.  Villa may have to sell before he can buy though.  If that is the case, fringe players like Charles N’Zogbia (whatever happened to him?) and Alan Hutton may be vulnerable.

Linked to: Joleon Lescott (Man City), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)

 

Cardiff City

Fuck knows why Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to be part of Vincent Tan’s Flying Circus of Nutjobbery but who am I to judge.  He seemed to galvanise the team in their 2-1 FA Cup victory at Newcastle at the weekend.  Scoring goals (and letting too many in) has been Cardiff’s achilles heel this season but if they re-discover their home form they might just stay in the division.  A proven goalscorer is a priority but they don’t exactly grow on trees.  Solskjaer is apparently bringing a couple of his countrymen in (midfielders Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Moller Daehli since you ask) and I know shit-all about them so I can’t tell you if they’re any good or not.  I think someone like Darren Bent would be a good shout for the Bluebirds.  He knows where the goal is and can’t get a game for Fulham so he could be available, as might Jermain Defoe.  Equally someone like Jordan Rhodes from Blackburn would be a more long-term fix.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Heerenveen), Mats Moller Daehli (Molde)

 

Chelsea

Despite not playing anywhere near their potential, The Special One’s team are still in the title hunt, the Champions League and the FA Cup.  Their defence has been uncharacteristically porous and I can see Thibaut Courtois (currently on loan at high-flying Atletico Madrid) replacing veteran Petr Cech between the sticks next season.  Tellingly, Chelsea’s leading scorers this season (Edin Hazard and Oscar) are both midfielders.  The Blues do have plenty of striking talent (Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and Andre Schürrle) but they have not been doing the business and if their particularly turd record at signing strikers in the January window is anything to go buy, they would be well advised to keep their cash in the bank.  They need a long-term successor for Ashley Cole, though that will probably wait until the summer unless someone world-class becomes available.  They may also look in to a replacement for Frank Lampard when he finally hangs up his boots.  Both Juan Mata and Kevin de Bruyne have been linked with moves away from Stamford Bridge so another creative midfielder may be on his way to West London.  With Roman Abramovich running the show, expect the unexpected.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Radamel Falcao (Monaco), Jackson Martinez (Porto), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)

 

Crystal Palace

Tony Pulis has certainly improved Palace’s results since his appointment in October.  They proved they really can play in their plucky 1-0 defeat to Manchester City in December.  Their defence has been pretty solid, but any side that regards Danny Gabbidon as a first choice needs to strengthen.  The Eagles also need more inspiration from midfield to ease the burden on Jason Puncheon.  A proven goalscorer wouldn’t go amiss either (they are the lowest scorers in the Premier League).  Dwight Gayle has only impressed in fits and starts, Marouane Chamakh has done OK but Cameron Jerome doesn’t have the goals in him to keep Palace in the Premier League.  On the bright side, they don’t need a new goalkeeper.

Linked to: Demba Ba (Chelsea), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn), Joe Ledley (Celtic), Tom Ince (Blackpool), Nikica Jelavic (Everton)

 

Everton

Roberto Martinez’s appointment has been an absolute masterstroke.  Everton are playing with confidence and flair – something that was lacking under David Moyes.  This transfer window will be focussed on holding on to their prize assets such as Ross Barkley and Leighton Baines, rather than bringing new ones in.  Nevertheless, a new striker would be nice given the injury to Arouna Kone and the fall from grace of Nikica Jelavic.  They could also do with a bit more cover all over the pitch.  However that goes against their policy of promoting from within so whoever comes in will have to be a good fit.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow), Shane Long (West Brom)

 

Fulham

The Cottagers (interesting choice of nickname) have been well below par this season.  Their defence has been leakier than a leaky tap aided in no small part by the ever (un)reliable Philippe Senderos.  New goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg hasn’t covered himself in glory since his move from Ajax – for me, the number two keeper David Stockdale is a safer pair of hands.  Another big problem has been Fulham’s home form.  Craven Cottage has not been as much of a fortress as it usually is.  Confidence isn’t exactly sky high though after their 6-0 humiliation against Hull.  The return of Clint Dempsey should help.  Rene Meulensteen has an important month ahead of him, even if it is simply instilling belief into his players.

Linked to: Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United)

 

Hull City

The Tigers have been a revelation this season, basing their success on a solid defence and strong home form.  Apart from the Fulham thumping, goals have been hard to come by but they do have a strong midfield lead by the rejuvenated Tom Huddlestone.  Again, like most teams in the relegation zone, a proven Premier League goalscorer is top of their wish-list.

Linked to: Shola Ameobi (Newcastle United), Shane Long (West Brom), Steven Fletcher (Sunderland)

 

Liverpool

Brendan Rodgers has transformed Liverpool’s fortunes since they were languishing in mid-table at this point last season.  I think the Premier League title is beyond them this year but a Champions League spot is definitely within their grasp.  Maybe another young striker is required as back-up for Daniel Sturridge and Suarez.  Simon Mignolet in goal has not exactly convinced and the defence has been a little suspect recently after starting the season with three clean sheets, but with the free-scoring Suarez in their ranks, that hardly matters.  Perhaps their most important signing was tying the Uruguayan down to another long-term contract.

Linked to: Mohamed Salah (Basel), Arda Turan (Atletico Madrid), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Danny Ings (Burnley)

 

Manchester City

The richest team in the Premier League don’t exactly need much in the transfer window.  City’s attack is purring like a contented cat and when all their squad is fit, they could play two world class teams and beat almost anyone in the world.  Their central defence isn’t completely watertight however, and the continued absence of Vincent Kompany has not helped matters so another centre-back would be ideal but is not compulsory.  Joleon Lescott may have to leave to make space for a new arrival.  Joe Hart seems to have got over his bout of poor form so the goalkeeper position seems tied up.  The title is theirs to lose.

Linked to: Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Nemanja Matic (Benfica), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Douglas Costa (Atletico Madrid)

 

Manchester United

Nothing has gone to plan for David Moyes in his a debut season as Manchester United manager.  Their big problem was the lack of world-class re-enforcements in the summer.  Instead they splurged £27m on Marouane Fellaini and £12m on Wilfried Zaha.  The injury to last season’s top scorer Robin van Persie has not helped matters and consequently the team has been relying too heavily on Wayne Rooney who is currently struggling for fitness.  The return of Nemanja Vidic to central defence should sure up the defence.  The main area that needs strengthening for me is the midfield.  Wesley Sneijder is always mentioned at this point every season but he is pushing 30 now.  Ross Barkley is the ideal signing but I doubt Everton will sell another one of their prized players to the Old Trafford club.  United are still sniffing around Leighton Baines like a randy dog and Fabio Coentrao is still on their radar but I would be very surprised if either of them were to move.  They have a real job on their hands getting into the Champions League next season.

Linked to: Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid), Leighton Baines (Everton), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray), Marco Reus (Borussia Dortmund), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid), Ross Barkley (Everton), Luke Shaw (Southampton), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Ilkay Gundogan (Borussia Dortmund), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto)

 

Newcastle United

The Magpies have had a promising season so far after a slow start.  On-loan striker Loic Remy has started banging in the goals and he has been ably backed up by Yohan Cabayé and Yoan Gouffran.  The ever-reliable Tim Krul has been solid between the posts and when Fabricio Coloccini is fit, the defence becomes a lot stingier.  Newcastle do not have any desperate need for re-enforcements but another reliable centre-back to partner Coloccini would be a welcome addition.  Cabaye seems to no longer be on Arsene Wenger’s radar anymore which will please manager Alan Pardew.  If they do buy someone, it’s a safe bet that they will be French.  Comfortable in mid-table and pushing for Europe.

Linked to: Luuk de Jong (Borussia Monchengladbach), Bafetimbi Gomis (Lyon), Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven)

 

Norwich City

Chris Hughton’s men have had a strange season.  They play attractive football yet the results have not matched the performances and they find themselves just three points above the relegation zone.  Their midfield is very strong and Gary Hooper has been a fine acquisition from Celtic.  Like most teams in the relegation zone, Norwich can’t stop conceding goals.  Goalkeeper John Ruddy hasn’t been in his finest form and the central defensive partnership of Sebastien Bassong and Michael Turner currently isn’t cutting the mustard.  A centre-half is a priority because they need to find a tough backbone if they are to remain in the Premier League.

Linked to: Ola Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven), Chris Samba (Dinamo Moscow)

 

Southampton

The Saints’ bright start to the season has been tempered somewhat recently amid a run of tough fixtures.  However they continue to play a wonderfully slick brand of football and Mauricio Pochettino’s men have been a breath of fresh air in the top flight.  Their footballing philosophy requires a certain type of player, technically gifted and intelligent, and I am not sure that player is available to them at the moment with the budget they have.  Their biggest fight in this transfer window will be keeping hold of Mark Clattenburg’s favourite man, Adam Lallana, hotshot forward Jay Rodriguez, and two of the country’s most promising full-backs, Luke Shaw and Nathaniel Clyne.  The defence has not recently been as mean as previously but given where they were last season, most Saints fans would bite your hand off for their current league position.  An added bonus would be to get summer signing Dani Osvaldo scoring regularly.

Linked to: Ever Banega (Valencia), Diego (Wolfsburg)

 

Stoke City

Everyone’s least favourite team are doing a frustratingly competent job of staying in the Premier League.  I was hoping that the departure of Tony Pulis in the summer would lead to an inevitable slide into the Championship but so far my hopes have been dashed.  The Potters haven’t exactly been impressive this season (save for the 3-2 defeat of Chelsea) but Liverpool loanee Oussama Assaidi has been a bright light, as has the evergreen Peter Crouch.  Asmir Begovic continues to excel in goal but Stoke have not quite been as solid defensively as under Pulis.  They have a good spine to their team but not too much back-up if one of Robert Huth or Ryan Shawcross gets injured.  A forward or attacking midfielder is also a priority if they are to improve on their rather meagre tally of 19 goals so far this season.

Linked to: Michael Mancienne (Hamburg), Ivica Olic (Wolfsburg), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Joleon Lescott (Manchester City)

 

Sunderland

I don’t know what Paolo Di Canio was doing during the summer because he seems to have worsened Sunderland’s squad, rather than strengthening it.  They have an OK midfield – slightly light on creativity but with plenty of fight – but it is up front where they have the real problem.  Leading striker Steven Fletcher has been injured for part of the season, and has not been firing since his return.  The back-up options are simply not good enough for this level.  Jozy Altidore has only scored two goals this season and their joint leading scorer is their right-back David Bardsley with three which tells the whole story.  Also, when injury-prone pair John O’Shea and Wes Brown don’t play, the central defence looks like an accident waiting to happen.  Furthermore, they have the hindrance of having to sell before they can buy.  Marcos Alonso has been brought in on-loan but they need high-quality first-team players, not fringe players.  Gus Poyet has done a good job in galvanising the Black Cats but it may be too late for them to save themselves from relegation.

Linked to:  Darren Bent (Fulham), Wayne Bridge (Reading),

 

Swansea City

Michael Laudrup’s team have endured a trickier second season in the top flight.  They still play attractive pass-and-move football but teams seemed to have worked out how to beat them.  Michu is not the force of last season and I think their squad has been stretched by their European jaunts.  Another striker to relieve the burden on Wilfried Bony and the injured Michu would not go amiss as would a top centre-back.  The Swans have been a bit leaky at the back and this has not been helped by the absence of Dutch stopper Michel Vorm.  Replacement keeper Gerrard Tremmel just isn’t in the same league.  Not totally out of the relegation scrap but should have enough quality to survive with comfort, as shown by their win at Old Trafford on Sunday.

Linked to: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Tom Ince (Blackpool)

 

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs, rather unwisely, decided to spend all the proceeds from the sale of Gareth Bale on every midfielder ever.  Consequently left back and up front are looking a bit bare.  Danny Rose has recently looked a bit suspect at defending (rather important for a left-back) so that is a priority.  In the striking department, the return from exile of Emmanuel Adebayor has been a godsend and Tim Sherwood has found Tottenham’s attacking mojo again.  Still, if one of Soldado or Adebayor gets injured then an uncharacteristically lacklustre Jermain Defoe and not-all-that-talented Harry Kane wait in the wings.  It will remain to be seen just how much money the notoriously frugal Daniel Levy makes available for transfers.  He may have to dig into his pockets if Spurs are to get into Europe next season.

Linked to: Luke Shaw (Southampton), Mohamed Salah (Basel), Alex Buttner (Manchester United), Ezequiel Lavezzi (PSG), Paul-Georges Ntep (Auxerre)

 

West Bromwich Albion

The Baggies are pretty comfortable in mid-table although whoever takes up the reigns at the Hawthorns will not have a lot of money to play with.  To be honest he won’t need it because West Brom have a good squad and plenty of cover for all positions.  They arguably could do with another right-back as cover for the injury-prone Steven Reid.  The Midlands club have a jewel in Saido Berahino and they will have a job keeping hold of him in the coming months.  They should also use the transfer window to buy Nicolas Anelka a brain.

Linked to: Aaron Cresswell (Ipswich), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Craig Gardner (Sunderland)

 

West Ham

The Hammers have some serious problems.  I watched their 5-0 drubbing to Nottingham Forest at the weekend and it was embarrassing.  Forest could have easily scored 10.  I know West Ham have some defensive injuries but to lose in such a fashion to team from a lower tier is inexcusable.  They need Andy Carroll fit and playing (and scoring) to have any hope of arresting their current slide.  They have been unfortunate to have so many injuries to key players (Collins, Tomkins and Reid) and actually, overall, at the back, they have been fairly solid.  It’s in the final 3rd that they’ve been pretty pathetic.  If Big Sam can do a bit of wheeling and dealing, if he doesn’t play Stewart Downing, if they get their defenders back in time and some decent service to Carroll, and some magic dust, they might just avoid relegation.

Linked to: Asamoah Gyan (Al Ain), Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United), Demba Ba (Chelsea), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Marseille), Chris Samba (Blackburn), Jermain Defoe (Tottenham Hotspur), Nikica Jelavic (Everton).

Drugs in Sport

The IAAF recently announced that they are doubling the suspension for a failed drugs test from two years to four years.  It is a welcome move.  But will other sports follow Athletics’ lead?  Recent high profile drugs revelations have lead me and millions of other sport lovers to question the integrity of competitive sport.  The public have been deceived so many times by cheats and cover-ups that patience is wearing thin.  Sports across the board need to get their act together and tackle this cancer head-on and with zero tolerance.

            The reality is that almost every major sport is tainted by drugs to some extent; to think otherwise would be highly naïve (motor-racing is the only sport in my mind that is relatively drug-free).  In disciplines such as Athletics, Boxing and Cycling, drugs have been prevalent for almost a century (the following Wikipedia article makes for depressing reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doping_at_the_Tour_de_France) but in other sports it is only becoming more widely understood.  Cricket and Football have historically had relatively drug free existences but with the rewards so great in both sports these days, drugs are a real concern.  Where there is money to be made, the temptation to use drugs, and the people willing to supply them, will always be there.

            The sport with the largest connection to drugs is Cycling.  Since 1969, only seven winners of the great race have never been tainted or connected to drugs in their careers.  That means, on average, one in every six winners of the Tour did so riding clean.  It is a horrifying statistic but it is not all doom and gloom. The last three winners, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans have never failed a drugs test.  Cycling needed to go through the dark time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to get where it is today.  In a way, the fact that so many cyclists returned positive tests meant that the cheats were getting caught and the wider public started to take notice.  The sport had to clear up its act otherwise it faced fading into anonymity.  However damaging the past scandals may have been and after years of sweeping cases under the carpet, it has helped shaped a healthier and hopefully drugs-free future for cycling.  (For those interested in cycling’s shady past, read Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography The Secret Race)

            The same cannot be said for Athletics.  The two positive drugs tests recently returned by star sprinters Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay were a real blow to a sport which has been plagued for years by such scandals.  During the Cold War, communist countries, such as the U.S.S.R and East Germany, systematically doped a large majority of their athletes (especially women) to win major sporting titles.  This was seen as an attempt to legitimise their totalitarian regimes not only to the outside world but also to their own people.  Ironically, Russia has over 40 high profile athletes suspended for positive drug tests today.  The sport was particularly shady in the 80’s and 90’s and not only in the Eastern-bloc.  There has always been doubt cast over Carl Lewis, with strong rumours that a positive drugs test was covered up by the authorities.  Florence Griffith Joyner, still the holder of both the women’s 100m and 200m world records, mysteriously lowered her personal bests in both events by half a second in 1988.  And lest we forget, our very own Linford Christie failed a drugs test in both 1988 and 1999.  More recently, American sprinter Justin Gatlin (who has failed two drugs tests in his career, yet mysteriously is still allowed to compete) and 400m runner Lashawn Merritt (who claimed his performance-enhancing drug was for use in the bedroom) have successfully returned to the sport after their respective suspensions.  This riles me a lot given that clean athletes are being denied their just deserts (earnings and medals) because of a cheat.  A convicted drug-taker should not be allowed to continue to earn a living from sport after making a decision to defame that same sport in such a shameful manner.

            The Balco scandal was probably the most infamous in all Athletics history.  It came to light that its founder, Victor Conte, had been supplying steroids and growth hormone to athletes across numerous sports, the most high profile of which were sprinters Tim Montgomery (at the time the 100m world record holder), Marion Jones and Dwain Chambers, baseball legend Barry Bonds, and boxer Shane Mosley.  The worrying thing about the Gay-Powell saga is that they had no excuses.  Tyson Gay effectively admitted that he had taken drugs by stating ‘I don’t have a sabotage story… I basically put my trust in someone and was let down.  I know exactly what went on, but I can’t discuss it right now.’  If athletes don’t know themselves precisely what they are putting into their bodies then they can have no excuse.  Putting your trust in another person is a risk that in this case backfired spectacularly.  I don’t think Tyson Gay is the type of man to wilfully gain an advantage through illegal means, but he has been naïve in his choice of advisors.  Knowing or unknowing, a positive drugs is still cheating and Gay and Powell deserve the sanctions they receive.

            It is perhaps easy to see how performance-enhancing drugs directly benefit stamina and power-based sports.  However, can such a skilled sport such as football profit from banned substanes?  The very successful Juventus team of the mid-90’s was systematically doped (without the players knowledge apparently) with the blood-boosting hormone EPO (common amongst cyclists at the time as it allowed one to ride at a higher intensity for longer).  Dutch players Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Frank De Boer all tested positive for nandrolone (which promotes artificial muscle growth and red blood-cell stimulation) in 2001.  The most heralded football coach in the world, Pep Guardiola, failed a drugs test for nandrolone in that same year.  New Liverpool signing Kolo Toure tested positive for a slimming aid in 2011 and Rio Ferdinand was suspended for 8 months in 2004 for missing a drugs test, although that was more dopey than doping.  In his compelling autobiography, Tony Cascarino revealed that he was injected with what club doctors called ‘vitamins’ and ‘minerals’ in his spell at Marseille in the early 90’s (Marseille weren’t exactly strangers to controversy after the match-fixing scandal in 1993).  I am slightly worried that football doesn’t currently do blood tests.  Urine samples have to be given by randomly selected players after every game but blood samples are not mandatory.  A blood test is a much more thorough way of detecting illicit substances in an athletes’ body.  Sports like Cycling and Athletics have gone so far as to set up a blood passport system (anti-doping agencies can check samples against each other to spot irregularities).  Football needs to act fast otherwise the situation risks getting out of hand.  A drug such as EPO can increase stamina and intensity by up to 20%, so not only can players play for longer, they can train harder too.  Yes it could result in some embarrassing findings but for the sake of the game, it is imperative.

            Even more worrying for football is the links it has to the Operation Puerto scandal in Spain.  Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes provided numerous athletes, mainly cyclists but also footballers with performance-enhancing drugs (including testosterone pills) and blood doping.  There are rumours that he supplied seasonal plans for Real Madrid and Barcelona, and also assisted Real Sociedad in systemised blood doping.  If this isn’t evidence enough that blood testing is required then I don’t know what is.  What is most ridiculous of all is that the judge presiding over the whole Fuentes case ruled that the blood bags should be destroyed.  This is evidence that could be vital in catching not only dopers of the past but drug cheats of the future.  It seems the Spanish authorities are desperate to cover up this humiliation.  They obviously have something to hide.

            Another sport that was named in Operation Puerto was tennis.  It is rumoured that Fuentes worked with many tennis players, including the Spanish Davis Cup team, bafflingly the most successful nation during the 2000’s in the competition.  Tennis, like football, requires high levels of not only skill but also fitness.  That small advantage that blood-doping can give you makes a sizeable difference at a professional level.  With tennis becoming so athletic it is no wonder stories of doping are abound.  Remember the likes of Boris Becker, Tim Henman, Andre Agassi?  All very fit guys in their own right, but compare their physique to modern day players like Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych.  I’m not saying these players are doping, it’s just the physicality of the sport has got that much more intense that you have to be in top shape to even compete with the top players.  Agassi had his own well-documented troubles with recreational drugs but recently top-100 ranked player (not for long) Victor Troicki has been slapped with an 18-month ban for failing to provide a blood sample.  A week after that, world number 15, Maran Cilic, was banned for a positive test.  Richard Gasquet has also been nabbed but this was for cocaine use, which he claimed was via kissing a girl who had just taken some.  Encouragingly, tennis is pressing ahead with plans to introduce blood passports which should help catch potential drug cheats.

            Cricket is a sport that one wouldn’t usually connect with performance-enhancing drugs.  It has had its problems in the past with recreational drugs.  Ian Botham, Keith Piper, Ed Giddins, Dermot Reeve, Phil Tufnell, Graham Wagg and tragically, Tom Maynard have all been found to have taken recreational substances at some point in their careers.  But taking drugs to improve say one’s strength to hit the ball further wouldn’t necessarily be an advantage in cricket.  Timing is much more important than brute strength, though I dare say it couldn’t do any harm.  However, players have been known to take drugs to aid injury recovery.  The injury-prone Pakistani fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif both failed tests for nandrolone in 2006 and were handed bans which were later overturned on appeal.  Asif claimed his was due to a faulty nutritional supplement.  He later failed a test in the IPL for steroids in 2008 and also was detained at Dubai airport that same year for possessing illegal substances – all apparently linked to injury recovery.  Sri Lankan batsman Upul Tharanga was handed a three-month ban in 2011 for a banned steroid which he claimed it was an herbal remedy for a shoulder injury.  The legendary rotund Australian text messager Shane Warne infamously missed the 2003 World Cup for taking a banned diuretic (allegedly one of his mother’s slimming pills – a believable argument).  With the increasing riches on offer to players, cricket needs to be more vigilant in its approach to drug-testing.  The rewards are so great and the sanctions relatively minor that one or two players are going to be tempted to take short-cuts.  The IPL is especially vulnerable in this respect.  Indeed, young Indian fast bowler Pradeep Sangwan returned a positive drugs test for steroids in this year’s IPL.

            Golf is another sport which has links to drugs and injury recovery.  Fijian Vijay Singh admitted using deer-antler spray, a banned growth-hormone on the World Anit-Doping Agency’s (WADA) list, but was acquitted after it was revealed that it wasn’t taken in sufficient enough quantities to enhance performance.  Tiger Woods was linked to controversial doctor Tony Galea during his recovery from knee-ligament surgery in 2008-9.  Galea had links to the Balco scandal and Victor Conte having been involved in both Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.  Galea’s method involved taking blood from Woods, placing it in a centrifuge to increase red platelets (don’t ask), and injecting it back into the affected ligament, thus speeding up the healing process.  To me, this is no different from blood doping that cyclists used – surely artificially increasing the body’s red platelets is the same as artificially increasing the body’s red blood cells and oxygen capability.  The rules have tightened since 2010 on the procedure but I believe it still remains legal.  Now I’m not suggesting that Woods is a drugs cheat, but having links to a man who is known to be involved with Conte and human-growth hormone is a bit fishy.

            The ultimate skill sport, snooker is not exempt from drugs.  Bill Werbenuik took beta blockers in the 1980’s to slow his heart rate when at the table and Neal Foulds also admitted to having taken a similar substance.  It is doubtful whether this would have a positive effect on performance but if a player suffers from nerves, it could be beneficial.  Recreational substances have long been associated with snooker: Kirk Stevens was known to have taken cocaine and Ronnie O’Sullivan was disqualified from a tournament in the 90’s for testing positive for cannabis.  Jimmy White and Alex Higgins were also no strangers to drug scandals during their careers.

Rugby League recently found itself at the centre of a drugs scandal in Australia where six clubs have been implicated in doping thought to include AFL too.  There has been little information since the report in February but rumours are surfacing that supplements (mainly muscle growth-hormone) were administered by the clubs, not by the odd rogue player himself, which is more worrying.  AFL player Jobe Watson has admitted that he took a banned anti-obesity drug but only after signing a consent form provided by his club. (http://theconversation.com/essendon-scandal-a-symptom-of-australias-sporting-woes-12085).  This whole affair draws parallels with the Festina affair during the Tour de France in 1998, where drugs were found in the Festina team car, and subsequently numerous teams were under suspicion of providing illegal substances for their riders.  Closer to home, Bradford Bulls star Terry Newton was banned for two years for taking Human Growth Hormone.  Martin Gleeson also received a ban for a failed drugs test in 2011.  One can see the benefits of taking these sorts of drugs in sports like rugby where power and size are central factors.  Recreational drugs are also not uncommon – Australian Rugby League Star Wendell Sailor tested positive for cocaine in 2006, as did new Salford Red Devils forward Gareth Hock in 2009 whilst playing for Wigan Warriors.

Rugby Union is no stranger to drug scandals either.  2009 was a dark year for Bath Rugby Club in particular as their England prop Matt Stevens received a two year ban after failing a drugs test.  He later admitted to having taken cocaine on more than one occasion and confessed that he found it almost a relief that he had been caught.  Later that year, after an end-of-season party, four Bath players were embroiled in a scandal after allegations of cocaine abuse.  (http://www.rugbydump.com/2009/07/1023/the-ins-and-outs-of-the-bath-drugs-scandal).  Their Australian lock, Justin Harrison confessed and was handed an 8 month ban whilst the other three, co-captains Michael Lipman and Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins all resigned after refusing to give samples.  However it is very rare that a Rugby Union player is found to have taken performance enhancing drugs which for the sport is a saving grace (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/rugby-union/24626491).

            Boxing is a shady sport that has had all manner of problems in the past and drugs are just one of the many issues facing it today.  It has a fairly lackadaisical attitude towards drug testing which it needs to rectify pretty quickly if it is to retain any credibility.  Recent scandals have included Lamont Peterson’s positive test for synthetic testosterone in 2011 which he failed in the lead up to his victory against Amir Khan.  Wrangling over drug testing scuppered plans for a ‘super-fight’ between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr in 2010 after negotiations over blood-testing failed to reach a conclusion.  Boxing doesn’t have a fixed set of anti-doping criteria which immediately sets the alarm bells ringing.  The drug-testing is not determined by a central body but is instead agreed between the two fighters themselves.  Legendary Mexican Juan-Manuel Marquez, before his sixth-round knockout of Manny Pacquiao last year, started to work with a less than reputable ‘conditioning coach’ Angel Hernandez, who has links to BALCO and Victor Conte (http://globalnation.inquirer.net/62195/did-drugs-nearly-kill-pacquiao).  Marquez’s physique was visibly more chiselled than at any point in his career and in his previous three meetings with Pacquiao, he had failed to knock down the Filipino.  Yet he put him on the canvas in round 3 and knocked him out cold in round 6 to record his first victory against his nemesis.  Worryingly, no drug testing of any sort was done pre-fight to either boxer.  In his most recent fight (which he lost to Timothy Bradley) Marquez caused controversy again by reneging on a pre-fight drug-testing deal (http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/boxing/2013/10/08/drug-testing-rift-tim-bradley-juan-manuel-marquez-fight-is-on/2948991/).

            With the rewards on offer and the relatively minor sanctions, performance-enhancing drugs are an attractive proposition to sportsmen and women.  The only logical conclusion is to introduce a zero-tolerance policy of life bans for any convicted drugs cheat.  In the case of recreational drugs, a less hard-line approach would suffice given that often there are deep-set emotional reasons for such substance abuse.  There is a worrying trend in certain countries of drug-taking getting out of control.  During and after the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Indian athletes returned a disproportionate amount of positive drugs tests; similarly, Russia has over 40 suspended Athletes at the present time.  Chinese, Turkish and Greek authorities all have major problems with doping.  China in particular seems to have a particular problem with Swimming and Weightlifting.  There is a disturbing situation arising in Jamaican athletics where alongside Powell, two other high profile female sprinters, Sherone Simpson and double 200m Olympic Gold medallist Veronica Campbell-Brown, have returned positive drugs results amid claims that testing has been few and far between (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/athletics/24517780).  The worry is that the testers are always playing catch-up with the takers.  The introduction of blood passports is a big step in the right direction but until all governing bodies across all sports make it a top priority, the situation is not going to improve.

            I love sport.  When I was younger I would marvel at the seemingly super-human abilities of professional athletes on TV and wish I could do what they could.  The concept of someone achieving something by artificial means never enters a child’s head.  I suppose the first time I really took interest in a drugs scandal was Dwain Chambers’ positive test in 2003.  I couldn’t believe that an English sprinter would do such a thing.  I mean it is so un-English.  When Chambers pleaded guilty a little bit of me died inside.  I naively assumed that illegal narcotics were consigned to Athletics only.  Then the world of cycling was turned upside down after Floyd Landis’ positive test after his Tour de France ‘victory’ in 2006.  Again, I assumed it was an isolated case limited to a minor sport.  Yet, when the recent Lance Armstrong scandal reared its ugly head, I slowly started to realise that one should not take every amazing performance, every world-record, every breath-taking sporting moment at face value – and that is really sad.  I now have a slightly cynical view of the sporting world thanks to those athletes who decided to take the short-cut, the easy way, the cheater’s route to success.  I still love sport and I still marvel at sporting prowess but now, at the back of my mind, there is always some doubt.

 

This Wikipedia article makes for rather disheartening reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_doping_cases_in_sport#Q

Can England be the Dark Horse?

Phew.  We’ve finally done it.  Qualification achieved; next stop Brazil and the World Cup, in the slightly unfamiliar territory of underdogs.  It’s strange to think that a side with such proven world class talent as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and er, James Milner is not classed as one of the favourites – but the shift in the football paradigm has been so marked in recent years that even the so called lesser teams are all more than technically proficient (witness Montenegro).  True, England did make a bit of a dog’s dinner of qualification from a group that, let’s be honest, was about as tough as a soufflé, and in doing so ruined their chances of being one of the top seeds.  Yet this could be seen as a good thing: the British public no longer has unrealistic expectations of its football team and neither does the rest of the world.  Consequently England can go into the tournament under the radar without so much pressure and attention.  This should release them from their familiar turgid tournament performances of recent times and hopefully result in at least a respectable showing in Brazil.

Reasons to be Cheerful:

  1. The younger generation of England players are really starting to make an impact.  Roy Hodgson’s selection of Andros Townsend was inspired and England finally has someone who can deliver some end product down the right flank (take note Theo Walcott).  Kyle Walker, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge are still relative novices at this level, yet have contributed significantly during this qualifying campaign (Welbeck especially).  With the likes of Jack Wilshere and Ross Barkley waiting in the wings (who seem at home on the international stage and could slot straight into the team), the future looks bright for the England team.
  2. Wayne Rooney has returned to form, and just in the nick of time.  After the Manchester United forward’s turbulent summer, he has settled down under David Moyes and is showing signs of returning to his top performances of three years ago.  I have noted a slight maturity in Rooney’s place.  Gone is the fearless tyro who would chase after everything like a dog on speed and shoot on sight.  He is now more measured in his play and has become a vital link man between the midfield and attack.  Couple this with a timely goal-scoring knack and England has a player who is absolutely crucial to any chance of success next summer.
  3. Leighton Baines.  As much as I rate Ashley Cole (even though he is a deplorable man he happens to be a very good footballer), the Everton man brings more to the table.  The way he overlapped time and again against Montenegro and Poland gave England an extra dimension that they have been crying out for.  People go on about how good Cole is at defending, but they don’t seem to realise that Baines is almost as good, and is also an infinitely more dangerous attacking threat.  He provided the delivery for Rooney’s opener against Poland and together with Gerrard, England have two of the most lethal dead-ball specialists in the world.  If England are to progress in Brazil, Hodgson must be bold – and that means selecting Baines.

Reasons to be fearful:

  1. Central defence.  Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are very good players in their own right, but will the likes of Neymar, Messi et al be losing sleep at the prospect of facing these two?  Almost certainly not.  Admittedly, the pair did manage to keep the Brazilian quiet last season at Wembley but that was only a friendly.  Nevertheless, the manner in which Poland wilfully opened up England like a can of beans was slightly worrying and had Robert Lewandowksi not left his shooting boots at the team hotel, the scoreline could have been very different.  Against better teams than Poland, England will be punished.  If either of the first choices get injured (God forbid) then the next in line are Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Michael Dawson – all unproven at international level.  Oh for the good old days when England had Sol Campbell, John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King and Jamie Carragher at their disposal…
  2. England only just managed to scrape out of a group that included such football powerhouses as Moldova, Ukraine, Montenegro and Poland (and San Marino).  Away from home, England only managed to beat Moldova and San Marino.  Now I know that going through a whole qualifying campaign unbeaten is impressive but when it comes to Brazil next year, plucky draws just won’t cut the mustard – witness England Neanderthal performance against Italy at Euro 2012.  Finding ways to win when you aren’t at your best is the hallmark of a quality team (e.g Spain in the 2010 World Cup Final).  England have beaten some of the world’s best teams in the past few seasons; Brazil, Spain and Sweden all spring to mind.  However England rarely does it when it matters in competitive matches at major tournaments.  Roy Hodgson must find a way to change this before next summer.
  3. Goalkeeper.  A lot of nonsense has been written about Joe Hart in recent weeks, most of which has been totally unjustified.  He had two commanding games against Montenegro and Poland and silenced the critics who had been slamming his recent performances.  He is the best keeper England have had since David Seaman hung up his gloves and hopefully he will remain between the sticks for a good while longer.  There comes a serious problem however if Hart gets injured.  England does not exactly have a wealth of goalkeeping talent at its disposal and below Hart the options are thin on the ground.  John Ruddy, Scott Carson and Jack Butland all have international experience but two of them play in the Championship and the other, Ruddy, plays for a team that are struggling in the Premier League relegation zone.  There has been recent clamour for the inclusion of Celtic’s Fraser Forster and I wholeheartedly agree.  He has played in the Champions League for the past two seasons against some of the world’s best (Barcelona three times in the past year alone) and hence has experience at the top level.  He should at least be given a chance because if, touch wood, something befalls Joe Hart, England needs someone of the requisite ability to step into his rather sizeable shoes.

So there you have it.  England almost certainly won’t win the World Cup but at least they will be at the tournament and these days, that is an achievement in itself.  I would be happy if England simply progressed out of their group and in doing so played some attractive football that made the rest of the world sit up and take note.  Many things aren’t in their favour – the biggest of which is the heat they will have to endure but, if they trust in their ability (maybe don’t trust James Milner’s), they can hopefully achieve something (not being a laughing stock would be a start) especially if they can stay under the radar and out of the spotlight.  At least I have an excuse to spend a whole month in front of the telly and for that England, I thank you.  Roll on next summer.

Arsenal: Club in crisis?

            Just what is going on at Arsenal at the moment?  They’re about as consistent as Massimo Taibi’s goalkeeping.  Saturday’s 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Blackburn was greeted with a chorus of boos from the home fans, with the renowned ‘pundit’ Robbie Savage even suggesting that time is up for Arsene Wenger.  Yet that was their first defeat in six matches – so is there really a crisis at The Emirates, or is this just an overreaction to an embarrassing defeat?

            Many observers of Arsenal over recent seasons have commented on their lack of steel, especially in midfield.  It is true that Wenger prefers ball-players rather than bruisers in the centre of the park.  The likes of Viera, Petit, Parlour, Gilberto, Flamini and Song were all fond of a tackle, but could also play as well.  I, however, don’t think they lack a midfield presence.  Arsenal’s style of play is very fluid and dynamic and a one-dimensional protector in the Mascherano or Mikel mould would hinder the effectiveness and vibrancy of the team as an attacking force.  The two tough back-to-back 1-0 victories against Stoke and Sunderland show that they can still grind out a result against robust opposition when required – reminiscent of the old Arsenal of the 1990s.

            What Wenger actually needs to concentrate on is the attack – or more specifically, its balance.  He indulges in luxury players like Gervinho and Arshavin who all too often flatter to deceive.  Instead he should be promoting players like Oxlade-Chamberlain – good on the ball, yet also direct and – more importantly – hard-working.  Yes, the Ox is young, and yes he is nowhere near the finished article, but it’s worth persisting with these promising talents.  A midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta has all the right ingredients: industry, passing ability, speed, technique and experience.  That said Arsenal do need Giroud to start firing.  He has struggled to fill Van Persie’s sizeable shoes, and for all the French forward’s diligence and industry in leading the line, he is yet to consistently find the target.

            This is not to say the defence is entirely blameless.  Per Mertesacker has never convinced me as a commanding centre-back and the less we say about Andre Santos, the better (he is to defending what Emile Heskey is to lethal finishing).  Added to that, Laurent Koscielny has seemingly been determined to become as lethal in his own box as Frank Sinclair, with finishing skills that Ade Akinbiyi could only dream of.  Stick him up front I say.

            The patience Wenger once enjoyed from the Arsenal faithful is now wearing thin.  The reaction to Saturday’s defeat clearly showed that the fans are no longer content with playing attractive football and scraping qualification for the Champions League.  They demand trophies and rightly so.  Wenger made an error of judgement with his team selection at the weekend and I think fans thought he was devaluing a trophy the Gunners once called their own in the early 2000s.  He may have had one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Bayern Munch, but in that case, play your strongest team for an hour, seal the win and then take off your important players for a rest.  It will be interesting to see how the Arsenal supporters behave on Tuesday night, especially if they go a goal down.

            Saturday’s defeat and the even more embarrassing loss to Bradford in the Capital One Cup mean that Tuesday’s match takes on even greater significance.  But oddly, I think the Blackburn reverse could in fact liberate the team.  No one expects Arsenal to progress against Bayern, and so the players could and possibly should play with a nothing-to-lose attitude that might work in their favour.  On their day, players like Walcott and Wilshere can win games single-handedly, and if the right Arsenal turn-up with the right mind-set and get a victory, anything can happen in the return leg at the Allianz Arena.

            Arsenal in crisis?  Not really.  They’re one of only two English teams still in the Champions League, they’re only four points off 4th place, and their league form is pretty healthy.  The likelihood is that they’ll finish the season off without a trophy for the 8th successive season and at least qualify for Europe, but if the Arsenal board and fans decide that is not good enough then Le Professeur might be in queue for ‘le jobcentre’ come May.

 

David de Winter