Zamora v Zoltan

While a lot of the focus on tonight’s game between England and Hungary has been about how much booing the World Cup flops will receive, more should perhaps be on the new faces in the squad.

Of course the main interest for Fulham fans will be whether Zamora gets to come on from the bench, after having been on the edge of contention at the end of a brilliant season but having to rule himself out of contention for South Africa in order to have surgery over the summer.

And in the international game since… err.. the USA-Ghana tie in the World Cup… there’ll be a Fulham player on each side. Zoltan Gera getting his first start for Hungary in months and the captain’s armband. So, I kind of want a high scoring game (with England’s goals coming in the second half thanks to a canny substitution). And of course no crunching tackles, what with the Premiership opener at Bolton on Saturday.

Who to blame?

Obviously the game from yesterday was more than just disappointing. It’s certainly proof (as if English supporters didn’t already have enough evidence from the past few decades) that mere patriotic fervour and an unwillingness to brook dissent over our prospects is enough to win things.

Sure, grit and determination count, and so do pride and passion. But you need more than that – clearly.

I’ll start off with the disallowed goal. Sure, it should have been given. Maybe the use of video replay would have been better (although I personally don’t like it, and am not going to change my mind simply because it’s us who lose out this tim). But it happened and the team should have taken it as a sign that we can score again – the German keeper was not that good and could have been beaten by more of the same. Also, by the time of that debateable decision, we were losing because of two soft goals, and it’s those (and the two from the second half) that exposed England’s frailties.

The basic problem for all of the goals was the positioning and pace of the defenders. Primarily of the centre-backs Terry and Upson. For every goal at least one of them was in the wrong place and both of them were unable to make up the ground lost. The third goal was the most stupid of all. Sure, we were chasing, but we all know that Lampard was going to go for a shot, not a chip into the area, so there’s no point in having so many players all the way upfield. When the ball hit the wall, it was simple for the Germans to break.

Not that the defence was the only problem. The midfield seemed to be unable to create anything, and were too easily sucked into the centre of the pitch, leaving the wings free. At the start they were quite good at keeping possession, but as time wore on they became more ragged. Lampard had the best of the attacking play, and Barry wasn’t too bad at hanging back. Milner was under-used on his wing, but Gerrard was simply headless all through the game.

As for the forward line, Rooney has had a very poor tournament and yet has been kept in the starting line-up for every game. Defoe was closed down and didn’t have enough support.

The annoying thing is that the game was there for the taking. Germany could have been contained with decent defensive tactics, and there were certainly vulnerabilities exposed from their group games.

But why were we so awful? Was the manager to blame? Well, we’ve had three managers recently all with different styles and each time the same results. I’m not sure that a new man will make any difference. Not that Capello didn’t make mistakes, but he also had problems with the hand he was dealt.

The players, generally, are not all good enough. I think Terry is overrated, and Gerrard is past his prime. Indeed, too many were on the wrong side of 30, and some prone to injury that made them a liability (does King have any cartilige left?). Still most of them are able to play for top Premiership sides and in the Champions League, so it’s not like they are all muppets. However, too few have any experience of playing for clubs outside England. I think that’s more of a problem than having a lot of foreign players here. It’s not as if these guys are being kept out of their club sides, or that it can hurt to play alongside and against some of the players who will be representing their countries in major competitions. But if we had players who were among the other top European clubs, they would have more knowledge of different styles of play.

Is having a larger top division (20 clubs, as opposed to 16 or 18 as in most major countries), with two domestic cups alongside causing more fatigue? Is a lack of a break halfway through the season a factor? Do the players in contention for the national side spend enough time training and practicing together? Do we encourage players with tactical nous or just select the ‘stars’ from the top domestic sides and hope that there’s a brain between them?

I don’t think just getting a new manager in would solve the problems England have. Roy Hodgson has been discussed as a possible candidate, but there’s one thing that would make it hard for him: he did well at Fulham, and the various European clubs and national sides, because he had the time to build a system and drill players into it. That’s what Capello was trying to do, and it may be that his system wasn’t right, or the wrong players were picked, but I doubt he had the opportunity to really impose his views and instil them.

Anyway, at least we did better than France. :-(

Now it starts

Now that the groups are settled, and half of the teams are going home, the World Cup will start to come into its own. We’ve seen some of the usual favourites failing miserably, and as result there are some teams through that were not expected to stay in.

Europe as a continent did not do well, with only six nations getting through out of twelve – all to face another European side, though. In context, in every World Cup since 1986, the last 16 has included at least nine European squads. Africa only has one representative in Ghana, while North America and Asia each saw two sides progress. It’s the South Americans who have dominated so far, with every single representative country coming through, four as group winners with only Chile having lost one game.

None of the ties in Round 2 are easy to call, and there are some that have the potential to be classics:

Argentina – Mexico
Both are strong on the attack, and while Mexico are weaker at the back they don’t seem to be the kind of team to give up.

England – Germany
The old rivalry and both teams having not quite reached their usual level of strength means that this will be a showdown. I’ve no malice towards Germany, and hope that this will be a cracking game, whoever wins

Spain – Portugal
Normally these would be very tight games, but local rivalry and an early goal could open it right up

Brazil – Chile
Brazil aren’t the pretty side of previous tournaments – perhaps more like the 1994 team that won in the States – and Chile look dangerous on the attack.

All of the other games look like they could be interesting. What’s more with the US and Ghana meeting we are guaranteed to see a Fulham player into the Quarter Finals.

So, it’s the Germans then…

The last three groups to be decided have been fascinating to watch. With the Serbs making a comeback against Australia  and the Ghanaians making Germany work for a 1-0 win, Group D was finely balanced all through.

Mind you, as much as it would be funny to have seen Ghana get an equaliser (or even a winner) against the Germany, the end result has set up a mouth-watering encounter for England. It’s one of those games that neither side would be too disappointed to lose due to the status of the opponent, but would really relish winning. Germany are a young and fit side, so will be hard to defend against. On the other hand the keeper and defence are there to be breached and if Milner and Gerrard can put decent balls into the box there are chances to force an error.

In Group F, Italy slumped to defeat against the Slovaks, making them the second defending champions to be knocked out in the first round (after France in 2002). Paraguay ground out a draw with New Zealand to top the group (while the All Whites finished unbeaten and a place above Italy to round off a very successful campaign). Yet again, England’s poor start is certainly being put into perspective by some of the big teams.

Holland strode to the top of group E, and Cameroon were another African team that ended up disappointing the home fans. Before the game I thought Denmark would be able to take on Japan and win through, but they were totally outclassed this evening. Inamoto didn’t really make much difference (coming on for the last few minutes when the game was already won), but there’s another Fulham connection still into the second round, to join John Pantsil of Ghana and the Americans Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra.

Tomorrow Brazil face the old colonial masters of Portugal to decide who tops that group – chances are that Brazil will win that one, but in this World Cup there are no certainties. Ivory Coast can only qualify if they beat North Korea and Brazil win with the combined margins of the games being over 11 goals. Barring a miracle, it will only be Ghana left as the hope for the African continent. Spain need to win to ensure that they won’t be the next high-profile European casualty. I’d like to see Chile ge through, as they have played good football so far and are not coming across as complacent. A 2-0 win by the Swiss over Honduras could put them to the top of the group, and Group H is really one that could see an odd goal drastically change the final table.

Phew!

While it sounds like the play was impressive, a 1-0 scoreline isn’t exactly safe. I’m glad that Defoe was the scorer – I thought he should have been played more in the other two games – and Milner’s cross to set him up was classy. Milner was chastised after the first game, when he was taken off early, but I think he was just unfit and it was probably the wrong decision to start with him.

Joe Cole, the alleged hero of the hour, didn’t do a lot with his late stint, which presumably will put the kibosh on any more listening to Terry’s advice.

The USA had, like England, the better of their game, and finally managed to get their winner in the death. Dempsey had several chances to score, and Altidore punted an easy chance over the bar. But overall, the USA did enough to top the group, and given that they had a goal unfairly disallowed in each of their last games they deserved to end up clearly ahead rather than just beating England on goals scored.

Indeed, for all England’s apparent dominance today, the failure to get a second goal means that they will face the winner of group D (Germany would be most likely) rather than the runner up. Looking further ahead, if England get past the next opposition, they’d face the winner of the Argentina-Mexico game. Urk!

Hopefully though, Ghana will beat Germany and Australia will pound Serbia into submission :-)

Not a complete disaster

I thought I was doing well on my predictions. France and Uruguay ended up goalless and a Uruguayan saw red, Greece lost to South Korea… and then Argentina were annoyingly good against Nigeria. From what I saw Etuhu and his teammates did pretty well, but unfortunately Argentina somehow managed to keep them at bay. Dickson did put a ball in that could well have resulted in a goal though.

Of course the real disappointment was England failing to beat the Americans. There were plenty of chances, and certainly when Lennon and Johnson got behind the defence the US looked vulnerable, but the luck just wasn’t there at times. Of course at the other end Rob Green had no when he fumbled Dempsey’s speculative shot into the goal. So I got one thing right, dammit.

Still, Gerrard’s goal was classy, and England did look very good going forward. The midfield did track back when needed, and for most of the game the possession play was pretty solid. I don’t think we need to worry too much about the other two in the group on that basis, and as long as Green maintains his confidence I reckon England can too.

Anyway, at the risk of getting these horribly wrong..

Sunday 13 June

Algeria 1-1 Slovenia (a tight game with rubbish defending exposed, please)
Germany 1-0 Australia (Germany very lucky to nick one from a wicked rebound after Schwarzer locks them out for most of the game)
Serbia 2-3 Ghana (a proper knockabout end-to-end game at last?)

Fourth day at the Oval – and England win the Ashes!

It’s been a long hard day trying to keep tabs on the fifth test.

After the first two wickets early in the morning, I had hoped that the end would come fairly quickly. As it went, the Australians dug in, especially Michael Hussey who took a well-earned century.

The wicket seemed to have become more solid, and it took run-outs to start to really take the toll on Australia, with Ponting and then M Clarke stretching just a little too far.

After that, it really was a matter of time, and yet that time dragged on. I have spent the last two hours flicking between the Fulham v Chelsea game and the cricket, and managing to miss the best action in both. Harmison, who had been neglected in the test so far, was the bowler who took some vital wickets, and along with Swann they finally broke the lower order down.

Flintoff and Cook were in the right place for some important catches, and in the end the Australians just could not reach the total.

A superb end to a tight series, and of course I’m happy to see England win back the Ashes. The Aussies put up a strong challenge, and at times in the last 24 hours it really did look like they could mount a record-breaking fourth innings challenge.

First day at the Oval

England ended the first day at 307-8, which is probably not a great score on a good pitch for batsmen. We’ll see tomorrow how good it is for the Aussies.

Strauss and Bell both had a reasonable innings, and Trott scored a creditable 41 on his debut. Flintoff disappointed in the first part of his ‘farewell’ Test – caught out on 7 after wafting at one too many wayward balls.

The real question is how well the England attack will do against the Australian batsmen

England can’t get the habit, then

After the Second Test at Lord’s, I stupidly asked if England could continue to do well in the Ashes Series. The rain-soaked draw at Edgbaston had looked like a good game for the home side, apart from letting the Aussies take control of the bat on the last day.

But the Fourth Test at Headingly was a disaster. None of the top six batsmen could beat 37 runs in an innings, with Prior and Cook was the only consistent men at the crease (and then they only averaged 30 runs an innings). It was bad enough to see England all out for 102 by tea on the first day, but then to see them let Australia get to 445 on essentially the same wicket was galling. All the momentum of the previous two games had gone, and the visitors had the game firmly under control.

There seems to be a campaign to bring Mark Ramprakash in for the last test, and to champion some of the younger players for a slot, but I think both would be a mistake. The team itself has to pull together, and bringing in new players to the squad could be risky. I’m also disappointed at the suggestion that the absence of Flintoff is a major factor. It should not be that important in a team game. He has been patchy with both bat and ball so far in the series, and clearly his injury problems have been affecting him. He’s been declared fit for the last test at the Oval, and hopefully he will return in strength. But England has a problem – if they can’t cope without Flintoff, what will they do after this Series when he retires from Test cricket?

The problem with reliance on a key player is that if they are off their game or can’t play, the rest of the team is rudderless. I was concerned last season when Fulham seemed to be over reliant on Jimmy Bullard. The game I saw before he left was away at West Bromwich Albion, and he did not do well. Fulham lost 1-0. When he was sold to Hull City, it seems to have actually improved the way that the rest of the team played, and also allowed other midfielders like Clint Dempsey and Dickson Etuhu to develop.

Yes, if you have a good player, you do need to use them where you can, and to try and capitalise on their abilities. But it’s dangerous to rely on them too much, because they won’t be there forever, and even when they are, they may even end up being counter-productive.

Vectra 0 – 3 Fulham

I didn’t even get to listen to the game, as I had to work late and it wasn’t on any radio stations I could get in the Midlands.

I did get the updates from TalkSport as they gave them, and was relieved to hear that the end result was a convincing win for the Whites. Zamora opened the scoring before half-time. Danny Murphy converted a penalty and Seol Kyi-Heong scored the last shortly after coming on as a substitute.

The game at the Cottage next week will probably be fairly lucklustre – as long as the defence don’t mess up, they should be able to hold Vectra, and there’s no point pushing players too hard just before the season starts.

Turns out that when I wondered why Zamora was still starting games, I’d missed that while Hull’s offer of £5M has been accepted, the player has not agreed terms, and may well want to stay. Roy Hodgson does want to keep Zamora, even though he only scored two league goals last season.

Also today, the England Under-19 team got to the final of the European Championships after beating France 3-1 after extra time. Defender  Matthew Briggs of Fulham has started every game and scored in the 7-1 demolition of Slovenia on Monday. He did come on as a sub for Fulham in a game against Middlesborough in 2007, and set a record as the youngest Premiership player. He’s still got another year in which to play for the U19s, and hopefully we have a real talent on our hands for the future.

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