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.

Advertisements

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.

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.