Countdowns…

It’s only two days before the new Premiership season starts, and hopefully Fulham have had time to get over the turmoil of not having a permanent manager for several weeks. Mark Hughes will be pleased that the last friendly game went so well – a 5-1 win over Werder Bremen, meaning a third German team has been defeated by the Whites in a few months.

Zamora did get a run out for the second half of last night’s international, and while he didn’t score he was certainly a threat for England and contributed to a more pressing team. Kiraly, the Hungarian ‘keeper, was busy anyway.

Gera also had a good game, being involved in the play that led to Hungary’s opening goal (even if it the ball wasn’t actually over the line when Dawson hit the deflection from Jagielka clear). Now Zoltan and Bobby can work together and really create panic among defences.

There hasn’t been much in the way of transfer activity, with Steve Sidwell’s move from Villa being cancelled by Hughes. The only buy over the summer was Philip Senderos, who is out for at least 6 months following an injury and surgery. Still, there are a few weeks left and it was this time last year I was worried that we didn’t have the squad to carry a league and European campaign.

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.

Sparky!

It’s been a frustrating summer for Fulham. Even before Rafa Benitez got the elbow from Liverpool, there were rumours that they were seeking to take Roy Hodgson to Anfield. Bizarrely, the Reds sacked Benitez and had to pay him off just before he took an offer elsewhere, which seems like a waste of a few million quid.

Anyway, it was sad to see Hodgson go (and had England not kept faith with Fabio Capello, it’s likely that he’d have been up for the national job), but in a way it was fairly heartening to see that it was with Fulham that he restored his reputation in England. He’s also promised not to be poaching players from the Cottage over the summer, which shows that he is still a decent bloke. He certainly likes a challenge, and Liverpool are going to present one. At least they know he can marshall a good run in the Europa Cup.

Of all the names that were being bandied about as a replacement, that of Mark Hughes did pique my interest. He got a raw deal at Man City, being shoved out by new owners to make way for Mancini despite doing pretty well with a team in transition. I also remember him from one of the best games of football I ever saw on TV: Chelsea v Liverpool in the FA Cup – (YouTube highlights) in which he came on as a sub for Chelsea with the score at 0-2, and inspired his team to win 4-2. Hughes scored the first of the comeback goals, and was on absolutely top form.

I don’t have much time for Sven Goran Ericksson. Alan Curbishley may have done well for Charlton, but he was part of the ruination of West Ham and didn’t rate players like Konchesky, Zamora or Painstil much. We have some ex-players who are managing lower league teams and could be ones to watch for the future, like Lee Clarke and Sean O’Driscoll, but it’s perhaps too big a step up. Martin Jol would have been a good choice, but alas, Ajax would not let him go.

So, I’m happy that we have found a decent manager. He won’t be the same as Hodgson, and I hope that supporters give him some time. I also hope that the players rally behind their new boss. With no European distractions, this is a season to make a big statement in the league, if we play it right.

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 :-)

Down to the wire

The groups are reaching their climax now, and so far it’s not good for the Fulham-related nations.

A Dikgacoi-less South Africa managed to secure a victory against France – the first game that the hosts have won in the World Cup Finals – but goal difference meant that Mexico took second place. Despite my prejudices, Uruguay have turned out not to be the negative team that I’ve seen in previous years and were deserved winners of group A. Mexico are exciting to watch as well, but it is a shame that the home team are out so early. France’s utter failure (not quite as bad as failing to score in 2002 when they were defending champions) has several upsides though. As well as it being fun to watch France fall to pieces, it does at least mean England’s current problems aren’t as bad. And South Africa ended up above them in the table too

The other group was much closer though. Argentina were always certs to top the table, but any of the other three teams could have made it to second place. Greece certainly have the defensive play when they get it right, but I don’t think they deserved to go through on the basis of not really attacking. I had hoped Nigeria could get through, but as much as they try to score they’ve wasted many chances on their games, and the defence has not been solid. South Korea are all over the place, but they did shade it.

So now the first two set fixtures for round 2 are known. Uruguay will play South Korea, which should go to the South Americans fairly comfortably given the way both teams play. Argentina will play Mexico, and I would think that Mexico will follow the pattern of being knocked out at that stage, but that looks like it could be one hell of a game to watch.

Tomorrow it’s a big day for four of the teams I’m following. England need to win against Slovenia to get through. The USA could scrape through with a draw, but it would depend on goal difference or goals scored, so a win is the only way to guarantee a second round place. Of course, while the USA only need to keep up their good form (and deal with the way they start a game), England need to actually put a team out.

Australia are unlikely to get much against Serbia, but a draw would be a very good result for them. Ghana only need to draw against Germany, but their opponents will be out to prove that their loss to the Serbs was only a one-off. I’d love to see John Pantsil grinning his way into round 2 though.

(oh, and the other major news of the day, the ‘Emergency’ budget? Pah! It’s almost as if the Tories want the country to go back into recession, and the Lib Dems have forgotten everything they were saying six weeks ago. Idiots)

Diego Forlan shoots puppies

Well, no, he doesn’t. He does kill off football dreams though:

An all-England Europa League final? Nope – Forlan scores twice against Liverpool to see Atletico Madrid to Hamburg.

Fulham lifting their first major trophy ever? Nope, Forlan scores twice, with the winner coming at the end of extra time in the Final.

South Africa overcoming the odds and getting into the knockout rounds of the World Cup? Nope, a long range poke and a penalty put the game beyond the hosts. Bafana Bafana would need to win against France with a fair number of goals and hope that other results go their way.

He’s just annoyingly good, that lad Forlan.

Dikgacoi managed to get booked again, so he will miss the next game. But I did learn how to pronounce his surname: “Di-Kashwe”.

Today was actually the day that the tournament came alive. With only a few teams scoring more than twice, and even Brazil managing to look pedestrian against North Korea things were looking bleak. But Chile actually played really well and were unfortunate to only beat Honduras 1-0. Then Switzerland caused the biggest upset so far when they nicked a goal against the wasteful Spanish favourites. As much as I hate to admit it, Uruguay looked in great form tonight, with less of that negative play that they are renowned for.

Officially the best World Cup mascot ever!

The first World Cup that I can remember anything about was Spain ’82, when I was eight years old. That blistering goal against France in the first game, Keegan’s return from injury only to fluff the best chance against Spain, a German called Schumacher putting out the French opposition with extreme prejudice, Italy being actually good at football and winning…

But the most memorable thing for me about those games was the mascot, Naranjito, and the book that came out featuring him: World Cup Final in danger. God bless that heroic little orange!

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