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!

Parping

It started with the World Cup, and has become incessant and annoying as time goes by. I thought that after the opening match that the protagonists would get it out of their systems and it would die down, but if anything it’s growing worse and worse with each game it seems to. People simply don’t seem to be able to stop themselves from making this awful noise and reducing the fun for everyone else. It’s time a stop was put to it!

I’m not talking about the vuvuzelas, I’m talking about the moaning about the vuvuzelas. Yes, it’s a buzzing sound all the way through the games. Yes, it’s not what we are used to when watching football. And yes, it may be dulling the atmosphere a bit. But on the other hand it is how South Africans watch their games, it is certainly unique to this World Cup, and after a short while you get used to it.

I’ve seen claims that it drowns out other crowd noises. Not for me it doesn’t. I could hear the England fans’ band, I’ve heard cheers and jeers in other games, and on the radio you get used to it as a background, similar to the hiss of a bad reception. In fact, I seem to recall most of Mexico ’86 tv coverage being accompanied by buzzing due to poor transmission, and the picture quality then was awful when you see the old footage.

Like Anton of Enemies of Reason, I also noticed that there are a lot of people angrily calling for a ban on vuvuzelas from England. The same place where many people were angrily denouncing a (largely fictitious) ban on England flags or shirts on the basis that people in their own country should not be stopped from supporting football as they wish, even if it may offend others (not that I think the flag or the shirts do, it’s the behaviour that sometimes comes along with it that’s offensive). Well, just as it would be wrong for a blanket ban on English people flying their flags or wearing their shirts, I think it’s equally arrogant to call for a ban on South Africans in South Africa doing what they do for football.

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?)

Picking a winner

This week two things started properly. One was the Labour Leadership elections, with five candidate qualifying for the final round. Alas, John McDonnell didn’t make it, but at least people stopped nominating Millibands for the other two to get in. I’ve yet to decide who to support. I would put Diane Abbott in as my no1, but my girlfriend has told me I’m not allowed to (so much for sistahood, eh?). All I know is that Balls is no5 in my book and nothing’s likely to change that unless it turns out that Andy Burnham is even worse.

But for now we have the really important competition down in South Africa. This time I will be backing seven teams in the World Cup:

England
USA (Clint Dempsey & Carlos Bocanegra)
South Africa (Kagisho Dikgacoi)
Nigeria (Dickson Etuhu)
Ghana (John Paintsil)
Australia (Mark Schwarzer)
Japan (Junichi Inamoto)

Obviously England are the main team I’ll be supporting. Not with silly flags or by wearing the shirt, let alone with face paint, but in the time-honoured tradition of watching them on the telly with beers in hand. But all of the others have current or past Fulham players in their squads, so I’d want to see them progress. Besides, Ghana and Australia doing well means Germany doing badly, Nigeria are up against Argentina and South Africa are in a group with France so that’s the main rivals covered. None of those teams are ones that I wouldn’t want to see do well anyway, they are all reasonable footballing sides, with a fair amount of underdog status.

If Fulham had a Uruguayan or Italian international I’d have been mightily torn between backing a Whites player and my loathing of negative sides that cheat their way through. When England play the USA tomorrow I certainly want England to win, if for nothing else other than to shut the Yanks up about 1950. But as long as England look good to get through the group, I will want the Americans to do well against Slovenia and Algeria before shockingly putting the Germans out in Round 2.

I’ll be keeping an eye on the games where Whites players feature. I was at work for the opening game of the tournament, which saw Dikgacoi in action against Mexico, so I am reliant on the highlights and web-reports. 1-1 is a good result for the hosts, and while they were lucky not to concede in the first half they could have nicked the game at the end. The Mexicans are usually a very good side, and are often underestimated at the World Cup. They’ve have made it to the knockout rounds in the last four tournaments, and each time fallen at the first hurdle.

Our lad Kagisho made his mark on the game: booked midway through the first half for fouling the rampant Giovani, failing to convert a headed corner at the end of the first half, and then being involved in the build up play for the South Africa goal in the second half.

I’ll be making with more frequent posts (‘onest!) on how my favoured seven teams and the Fulham contingent are getting on. In the meantime, here’s how I hope the next few games go:

Tonight
Uruguay 0-0 France (with several players sent off and loads of bookings. Any Uruguayan who commits a foul to be injured as a result)

Tomorrow
S Korea 1-0 Greece (The Greeks beaten when their offside trap fails)
Nigeria 2-0 Argentina (Maradona turns purple as Etuhu gets an assist)
England 3-1 USA (Rooney and Defoe goals win the game after Dempsey opens the scoring)

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