Reservations about reserves

Hmm… hardly convincing was it?

England beat Belarus 3-0 last night – without Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole, David James and Emile Heskey – who have played in most of England’s matches under Fabio Capello.

The team are already taking a shoe-ing in other quarters for not setting the world alight in a dead rubber.  Personally, I feel that many of the players should have had more than enough motivation to put in a stellar performance:  a full-house at Wembley; the last competitive game before the World Cup; and those World Cup places up for grabs.

Mostly, they didn’t seize the chance to push their claim for a place in the World Cup squad – demonstrating England’s reliance on the fitness of a few key players.

Peter Crouch rose (no pun intended) to the challenge.  Two goals for the 6’7″ target-man about all you can ask of a striker.

It gives me no pleasure to report that Glen Johnson did not excel as I had hoped he might in a previous blog.

In just the first 20 minutes I counted two occasions where he gave the ball away cheaply which ended in an attacking chance for the opposition.  Fortunately for him Belarus lacked the attacking power to fully punish those errors.  I fear World Cup qualified teams may not be so generous.

Ben Foster made one excellent eye-catching save – another dent to Rob Green’s World Cup hopes and his relationship with Rio Ferdinand.

But England have qualified.  Mission accomplished – in some style too.  Next blog I’ll pick my England squad for South Africa – and I’ll predict Capello’s too.

There’s something about Johnson…

For a while now Glen Johnson (featured in the lovely video below) has been bothering me.

Not in a prank calls, sending pizzas I didn’t order, hanging around outside my house way – more a slight nagging feeling.  A memory of something in the darker recesses of my mind (a scary place) that wanted to come out into the light.

Then, whilst watching the Ukraine v England match it came to me.  It came to me when Andriy Shevchenko (that fine example of why managers and not chairman should buy players) beat Ashley Cole for pace.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Shevchenko – beat Ashley Cole for pace.

The same Shevchenko who looked incapable for beating an egg during those wallet-lining years and months at Stamford Bridge.

It was then I saw it.  Glen Johnson is Ashley Cole.  Albeit a right-footed one – but also the Ashley Cole circa 2001.

This Cole was such a poor defender people toyed with the idea of playing both him and Wayne Bridge in the same team – so as to accomodate his defensive inadequacies whilst not missing out on his rampaging runs forwards.

Ashley Cole 2009 is no Franco Baresi (nor even a Paulo Maldini) but his defending has improved immeasurably since then.

Chicken & egg

With Johnson we are stuck in the chicken and egg situation.  Should England invest more experience/caps in him in the hope that he will improve as Cole has?   He has, after all, four years on his Chelsea counterpart.

I like Johnson, I want him to do well – same as I do any player in an England shirt – even the easily unlikable Cole.  However, his defensive naivety is glaring even to the most casual viewer.

At one point in the match against Ukraine, after one of his many fruitless-forward-forays (rolls off the tongue nicely that) he was caught out of position as Ukraine counter-attacked.

Johnson had jinked inside onto his weaker left foot and lost the ball in the centre of the pitch.  His team-mates are obviously ready for this and the defence all stepped across the pitch one place – which left England with Ashley Cole effectively playing centre-half and Johnson at left-back.  Bizzare.

The result?  A tame cross which would have been dealt with easily caused massed panic with everyone in unfamiliar territory.  It ended with two defenders leaving it to one another and the ball bouncing just wide of the goal.  In the World Cup a mistake like that could be the difference between progress and an early flight home.

Learning curve

I sincerely hope Johnson will improve his defending – that is after all why he is in the team.  England do not need another candidate to be right-winger – there are already numerous candidates for the role.

At Liverpool, playing in the Champions League and fighting for the title he will find himself on a steep learning curve.

All that said, he will probably play a blinder tonight (against Belarus) and all his defensive mistakes will be glossed over again.

As it happens the best thing to ever happen to Johnson’s career could well be out of his hands.  If France, Argentina and Portugal all fail to make the World Cup (as is a distinct possibility) he will be spared the task of facing Franck Ribery, Simão Sabrosa or the great Lionel Messi.

I know… the mere thought fills me with dread too.

P.S. I noted with interest that David James looks likely to miss the Belarus game through injury.  Another opportunity missed for Robert Green.  Thanks a bunch Rio.

Fifa seeding ‘fix’ another blow for fairness

This blog risks becoming an an anti-Fifa rant – but the football governing body’s latest decision heaps more ridicule on their independence and role as protector of all things football.

In late September they announced that the play-offs for the European section of the World Cup qualifiers would be seeded.  They tried to hush it up as much as possible, hiding amongst debate about the current hot topic of the time – Olympic sports.  Farce-fiddler in chief, Sepp Blatter, wibbling on about ‘soccer’s’ place as an Olympic sport – as talk moved on to rugby sevens and golf as the latest Olympic money-wagons.

The timing was also critical as well.  Left any later the cries of ‘fix’ would have been deafening.  With two fixtures left in most of the World Cup groups they tried to sneak it under the radar.  At the time the list of teams that may have ended up in the play-offs included: France, Germany, Russia, Portugal, Sweden and the Czech Republic – amongst others.

A tournament without the majority of those teams, with the likes of Slovakia and Serbia having the audacity to qualify ahead of the ‘big boys’.  Lille’s Robert Vitek just isn’t as ‘sexy’ as va-va-voom Thierry Henry – and won’t appeal to nearly so many sponsors – sorry, ‘Fifa family’ members.

Teams like the Republic of Ireland, having already battled through their seeded group – bravely overcoming Bulgaria and running World Champions Italy close – face another seeded draw.  It’s just plain unfair.

Put it this way.  How would you feel if one of those many plucky Brits at Wimbledon – someone who’s not Andy Murray – battles their way to the Grand Slam’s semi-finals.  They managed to beat the number three seed early on in the tournament and raced through heroically to the last four.  Then, with dreams of a thrilling final against a Federer or a Nadal in SW18 – the All England Club say: “Ah, hang on old chap – can’t have you wrecking our lovely, planned Rafa v Roger final… we’ll just re-draw things so you face the toughest possible opponent.”

The outcry would be huge – and fully justified.  Fifa are effectively doing the same to the likes of Ireland, Bosnia and England-conquerers Ukraine.

If the groups end up, as expected the eight play-off teams will be: Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Russia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Ukraine, France and the Republic of Ireland.

Fifa will now fix, sorry ‘seed’ the draw according to the Fifa rankings – oops, sorry, the Coca-Cola World Rankings (I kid you not, look).  So: Russia (ranked 6th); France (10th); Greece (12th); and Portugal (17th) cannot be drawn against one another.  Slovenia (54th), Bosnia (46th), Ukraine (25th) and Ireland (38th) will have to take their chances.

The fact that in order to finish second in their group Slovenia have already overcome four teams ranked in Fifa’s top 50 is neither here nor there.  Nor that Ireland battled through a group including two of the top 20 ranked teams.

This is motivated by money, power and greed – pure and simple.  Look at the size of the seeded nations and therefore the size of the wallets of those country’s TV stations.  Look at the heavily sponsored stars in each of those teams.  Fifa run the unthinkable risk of a tournament without the likes of Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Ribery, Andrei Arshavin etc.

Sean St. Ledger and his Ireland team-mates will just have to jump through another hoop to have any chance of qualifying.  And if they don’t?  They miss the tournament and their Fifa ranking is damaged again.  The vicious circle is spun once more and Fifa twiddle their fingers and get hearty slaps on the back from the power-brokers of the Football Associations of the big-hitters.

Football lives for the upsets, the battles of David v Goliath.  Think of the most exciting matches you’ve seen, of the most famous cases of a plucky underdog thrilling a horde of fans.  The sad truth is, David doesn’t pay as well as Goliath so the tournament ‘bouncers’ Fifa put up a “Sorry, no trainers” policy as they usher their ragged and tattered mates in through the side door.

Rio’s blues could cost Green

Rio Ferdinand is currently being hauled over the coals after his chronic lapse in the match against Ukraine.   Many are questioning his place in the team if not the squad – at least until he’s 100% fit, both physically and mentally.

However, Rio’s lapse which resulted in Rob Green’s red card (the first England goalkeeper to be sent off) – and it’s the West Ham man who may end up paying the price for Ferdinand’s all too familiar lapse in concentration.

Green was just starting to establish himself in the England team.  Having been picked ahead of the returning David James, Green lined up against Ukraine for his sixth consecutive England cap.  His run started back in June, away to Kazakhstan and quadrupled Green’s caps – from two to eight.

After the much trumpeted Ben Foster has flattered to deceive for both club and country Green found himself in the box seat to be James’ understudy for the World Cup in South Africa.

Indeed, by picking Green ahead of the fit-again James, England boss Fabio Capello had sent a clear message that even the seemingly inked in James’ place wasn’t safe.  James had lost his place through injury and Green, stepping into the breach had performed well – he deserved to keep his place.

It was a smart bit of management by Capello – the message being: “Take your chance when it comes and World Cup places are still up for grabs.”  With the likes of Joe Cole, Michael Owen, Gabriel Agbonlahor and many more setting their sights on South Africa this was a great carrot dangled by the gaffer.

Thirteen minutes into the action in Dnipropetrovsk, Artem Milevskiy was in a heap and Green’s World Cup dreams hang by a thread.   Ferdinand stood, statue-like watching as Milevskiy darted past him, exposing Green horribly.

James was called on from the bench (also denting Aaron Lennon’s World Cup hopes as he was sacrificed) and Green is now suspended for the only remaining competitive match before the World Cup.  The errant Foster has been recalled to the squad for the match against Belarus.

Portsmouth ‘keeper James is still the most likely to start between the posts when England’s World Cup campaign kicks-off.  However, as recent knocks have shown James is becoming more injury prone as he ages – and as we all know only too well every knock seems to take longer to heal with every passing year.

Green position as first alternative looked assured after some steady performances in James’ absence.  However, the Hammers’ stopper still lacks top level experience – not helped by his dismissal and subsequent suspension.  Assuming he makes Capello’s squad he’ll have only eight caps – plus any more he can glean in the meaningless friendlies before the tournament.

Should the worst happen and James pick up a knock during the tournament would you pitch in a relative novice against the likes of Brazil or Germany?  The prospects of the much improved (and 40-capped) Paul Robinson are looking healthier by the day.

England: the hype starts here

That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it?

England spank Croatia 5-1 and once again the monochrome Three Lions support system kicks in.

Everything is either black or white.   Black: the team/manager/formation/kit/boots/captain are terrible and must go or the pendulum swings to the complete opposite and suddenly England are world-beaters and need only turn up in South Africa to walk away with the World Cup trophy.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m as fervent an England fan as the next guy.   I was cheering along with the rest of the pub when footballing karma was repaid in glorious revenge-cash when the Croat ‘keeper air-kicked to gift Rooney the fifth goal.

It also shows was a massive difference a good manager can make.  Compared to Steve McLaren’s team, beaten 3-2 by Croatia the England personnel are not all that different.  Gerrard, Barry, Lampard, Defoe, Ashley Cole – all were part of that team KO’d from the Euro 2008 qualifiers.

That Croatia team were also much stronger.  On Wednesday night, compared to the McLaren-tamers Slaven Bilic was shorn of: both Kovacs (Robert and Nico), Modric, Corluka, Simic and Srna.  England were stronger but Croatia were weaker – both in resources and tactics.

Fabio Capello still has many questions to answer:

Impressive as Glen Johnson looked, galloping down the right last night his defensive inadequacies have already been covered in detail elsewhere.

The thought of him coming up against a decent left winger fills me with dread.  If Lionel Messi and Argentina failing to qualify it could be the most significant factor in Johnson’s impact in South Africa next year.

Speaking of left wingers, Steven Gerrard is many things but not a left winger.  His free role, inter-changing with Rooney is a potent attacking weapon.   Both players revel in the freedom but with Ashley Cole another rampaging full-back England’s left flank is left achingly exposed at times.

Emile Heskey‘s “contribution to the team” is often held up as a defence to his lack of contribution to the ‘Goals For’ tally.  Capello will be all too aware that England cannot afford to carry any passengers if they’re to make the later stages of the tournament.  A striker who carries about as much goal-threat as the physios bag is a passenger, no matter his “contribution”.

Centre back is another problem area.  Rio Ferdinand and John Terry are first-class if liable to the odd lapse in concentration.  Matthew Upson and Joleon Lescott represent a huge gulf in glass from first choice to back-up.

Upson’s distribution is a constant catastrophe waiting to happen and Lescott’s positioning is seriously lacking – and at times he makes Ferdinand look like a studied scholar in terms of concentration.

All these problems will be brushed aside – and well they should be.  Now is the time for the team to bask in the celebration of their efforts.  The really hard work starts in 2010.