Extracts of Blagg's football blogs as he follows West Ham United and England through the usual series of near disasters.

Featuring links to the Annual Billy Blagg Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs.

Also featuring guest appearances by 'Captain Olympic'.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Day 18 England go out backwards

England 0 Italy 0 (AET Italy win 4 - 2 on Penalties)

A 50/50 game I think I suggested on Sunday...oh dear, oh dear, how wrong can you be?

© PA Photos

Well, at least I said that Andrea Pirlo would be influential and I think we can certainly say he ran the show. In fact this was a game dominated by Italy for long periods and it's hard to deny that the right team won the penalty shootout. The ESPN stats say Italy struck an astonishing 35 shots on goal with 20 on target; It didn't exactly feel like that - England have so mastered the body thrown in front of the shot tactic that I'm not even sure that counts - but, in terms of possession and domination, there can be no argument as to who bossed the game.

If France didn't look as if they wanted a semi-final place on Saturday, then England can at least claim, perhaps, that they wanted one but just didn't have the skill, ability or nous to achieve it. At least I am assuming that is what we can glean from England's performance on Sunday night, although they spent so long with their back to the wall defending it is quite difficult to know.

England gave the ball away - on the rare occasions they had it, that is - chased shadows and generally looked as if they were playing for penalties from half-time. That they failed and went out again on spot kicks, just produced a rueful smile from this end of the keyboard. This is nowhere near as painful as Italia 90 or Euro 96 and, to be honest, if England had won this on penalties then I think it might have been ever so slightly embarrassing. As it was the miss by Ashley Young at least underlined what a poor tournament he has had, although Ashley Cole perhaps deserved better than to have his crucial last kick easily saved.

Of further interest is the surprising statistic that seems to suggest that the team that misses the first penalty often goes on to win and also that you can talk about the practice you have put in until you are blue in the face but, ultimately, if you're not confident or assured as you step up then you will be found out. Neither Young, Cole or Riccardo Montolivo, who missed Italy's second penalty, looked like they were convinced they would score - play the penalty competition back on the TV and look at their eyes - but ex-West Ham player Allessandro Diamanti looked certain as he came up to slot away the winning kick. (If there was any doubt I saw Diamanti change feet as he took a penalty at Upton Park once).

But back to the game proper, where it all looked so promising in the first ten minutes or so when, first, Claudio Marchisio found Daniele de Rossi to allow the Italian to strike from 25 yards, the ball curving away from Joe Hart's dive, striking the post and flying off to safety. Moments later, England hit back when the excellent Glen Johnson - he had an impressive night - went on a mazy run before laying a pass off to Ashley Young. Young found James Milner who slipped the ball back to Johnson in front of the goal. Unfortunately, the ball seemed to stick under Johnson's feet but he managed to shovel in rather than shoot and Gianluigi Buffon made an excellent save, slightly going back due to the surprise of the shot.

It all looked promising, if not just in terms of match-play but also England hopes, but suddenly after 20 minutes or so Pirlo started to become more influential, the Italian playmaker sending Mario Balotelli through, John Terry making an excellent saving tackle. Even though Wayne Rooney sent a header over, there was an ominous feeling that this was going to become a war of attrition as England fell back in defence and the Italians played it along the line if front of them.

If watching fans thought the half-time whistle would enable England to re-group and take some of the possession back from Italy, then we were sadly mistaken as the second half soon became a game of Italian flair and pressure and England obstinacy and never-say-die attitude.

As I expressed earlier in the tournament, I have no trouble with watching excellent defending - and England might possibly be the best team I've ever seen at it - but there has to be some point in funnelling backwards all the time, and watching England hoof the ball up in the hope that someone would hold it, only to see it flying back in from the wings, was becoming a depressing sight.

Riccardo Montolivo sent a pass over the England defence and it dropped for Balotelli, but he could only volley straight to Hart. Then at the other end, Danny Welbeck had a good opportunity from a Rooney pass but hit it over when he should have done better. Balotelli kicked a post after missing an opportunity involving Pirlo and Antonio Cassano but at least he was involved while England's front man Rooney was having a miserable night - if he'd kicked a post it would have been the closest he came to the goal all night!

In the second half, England were almost behind straight after the interval when Marchisio's pass to De Rossi in the penalty area only saw the Italian midfielder volley wide from short distance when he had more time than he obviously realised. With Pirlo now at the back virtually dictating where play would go next, it was desperate defending as John Terry denied Balotelli at the far-post before Hart did well to stop De Rossi's long-range effort and also Balotelli's follow-up. Montolivo picked up the loose ball after Hart's second save but his shot was scorched over.

In midfield, Steven Gerrard was involved in some dangerous looking free-kicks, but otherwise the England captain was forced to chase back and harass the Italians - a self-defeating exercise that saw him collapse with cramp with another 20 minutes of the second half still to play. In front of him, Rooney and Young were virtually non-existent as an attacking force, although it was Welbeck who came off to be replaced by Carroll on the hour and Milner who was substituted by Walcott a minute later. Neither substitution provided much respite for England although at least Carroll won some headers, although much good it did him and the rest of the team.

In what might have been a cruel twist of fate for the Italians, a Rooney bicycle kick shortly before the end of normal time could have proved disastrous for the men in blue but the Manchester United player's touch was slightly too early and the ball sailed over the bar. England's paucity of ideas was highlighted when, with seconds on the clock, a throw-in was given back to the Italians to launch a last-minute attack. It seemed to underline just how poor England were at retaining the ball, not just with feet but by hands!

So it went into extra time and, as is so often the way with the extra 30 minutes, the game lost shape and purpose with Italy battering the wall of the English defence and Terry and Co booting it away wherever it would go. However, Antonio Nocerino thought he had won the game six minutes from the end but his header was correctly ruled out for offside, although it was a close thing.

When the whistle went for full-time and the inevitable penalties arrived, there was an odd atmosphere in the Wine Lodge (ha!) where I watched the game. Of all England's players, it is Hart who has looked to gain the most from this tournament - surely on the edge of becoming a real world-class keeper - and the confidence of the talk emanating from the England camp really gave hope that the penalties would all be OK this time out. But it wasn't to be, ensuring that the hoodoo will haunt England for many more tournaments to come but also starkly emphasising that, even when kicking the ball in a line from 12 yards away, England are still not as good as their chief opponents.

The major conclusion - although it's not really something we didn't know before - is that England lack the class of player who can do to a game what Pirlo did for Italy. And it's difficult to see anyone around who might change that.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Euro 2102 - Day 13 England: On my radio

England 1 Ukraine 0

I should admit first off that, for the first time since 1970 *gulp* I missed watching an England tournament match on TV.

The reason, involving Ascot races, three drunken women and a traffic queue in which I travelled ¾‘s of a mile in 100 minutes, is something I’d rather not recount here, but take it that if you look up ‘Mad’ in an online dictionary, the picture of a wet hen will probably have been replaced by a photo of me at 9pm last night.

Still, from adversity comes opportunity, and I gained a useful insight on how a match comes across on radio when compared to a later highlights package, and also how damnably pessimistic BBC Radio Five Lives’ commentators are. If I’d been able to get to a phone I would have even considered ringing 606 (For non-UK readers: This is a live football phone-in show for the terminally stupid) and this, believe me, would have marked a nadir in my life from which I may never have recovered.

The upshot of all this though is that, remarkably, England’s 1-0 win over Ukraine and the surprising 2-0 capitulation of France to Sweden means England top Group D and face a quarter-final match-up with Italy. Common opinion is that we ‘dodged’ Spain – an opportunity now afforded Group runners-up France – but I’m of the opinion that the Champions are looking off-colour and due a defeat, although I’m not sure if les bleus can deliver it on last night’s form.

Ukraine and Sweden go home, although the Swedes in particular will look at the two leads they held against Ukraine and, more importantly, England and wonder if things might have been so different.
Onto the match though, where England beat a host nation for the first time in a generation with a Wayne Rooney header from a foot out. A cross from – who else? – the excellent man of the Match Steven Gerrard, that eluded everyone including the Ukrainian keeper Pyatov, who merely tipped the ball on to the waiting head of England’s returning hero.

That goal, just three minutes after half-time, settled England, who had looked vulnerable to excellent play in the first half from a spirited Ukraine intent on taking a home nation to the quarter-finals. Nevertheless, listening to the play on the radio and seeing it in highlight form later on, only served to emphasise that, whatever the limitations of England’s play are, they actually looked more likely to score than the hosts. Such is Joe Hart’s growing stature as a goal-keeper, you can virtually eliminate any speculative shot from outside the area as a chance, even if it is on-target, and in front of him Lescott and Terry formed a formidable barrier.

Sure Ukraine attacked on both flanks and looked comfortable taking the English defence on and, as in previous games, white shirted defenders were forced to throw their bodies in front of shots occasionally but, for all their invention and pressure, Ukraine could only point to one or two half chances and while BBC commentators continue to bemoan the fact that we don’t retain the ball for long enough, the fact remains that England are extremely good at soaking up pressure and taking the few chances presented to them. Play to your strengths, I say.

True the situation may have been different had the injured Shevchenko been able to make more than the late token appearance he actually made, but the fact remains the best opportunity of the first half fell to a ring rusty Wayne Rooney on 27 minutes, when the Manchester United striker only had to make a clean contact with Ashley Young’s cross to score. But Rooney seemed to misjudge the cross and his far-post header – more of a hair weave graze really – sailed wide of keeper Andriy Pyatov’s goal.

At the other end Devic was behind most Ukraine attacks and Scott Parker had to block a goal-bound sho,t while Devic again started the move that ended with Andriy Yarmolenko forcing a low save out of Joe Hart. Ashley Young gave the ball away just before half-time but Oleh Gusev could only shoot over, while Yarmolenko’s dribble was stopped at the last by the impressive Joleon Lescott.

The major talking point in terms of Ukraine chances though will undoubtedly be the ‘goal’ scored by Devic just after the hour, after Hart superbly parried the player’s shot only for the ball to bounce towards England’s unguarded goal. John Terry running back hooked the ball of the line. That is, the line that wasn’t painted a yard into the goalmouth… instant replays showing the ball had more than crossed the generally accepted goal line.

Naturally, this brought forth a stream of invective from the radio pundits asking exactly what the extra referees introduced to stand on the line were actually doing. Now, most fans know, of course, that the job of the extra ref’s is to imitate the three wise monkeys and see, hear and speak of nothing at all. But, as not seeing the incident brought up pictures of the ball bouncing in clean ground as Frank Lampard’s ‘goal’ did in Bloemfontein against Germany, two years ago, I was quite interested to see the incident later on TV.

Now I’m not in mind to defend the extra ref – standing as he was six feet away and facing the goal post on his right. But as Terry hooked the ball while in mid-air, it’s my feeling that, with the netting in view and the speed of the ball followed by the human eye, it may just prove too difficult to ascertain if the ball has really crossed or not. It would be interesting to actually ask the official what he thought he saw or didn’t.

Cue the clamour for goal-line technology but, once again, I have to ask the obvious question. If the BBC knew the ball crossed due to VT / TV play-back’s within 10 seconds of the incident, why are we trialling some gizmo software when we have the technology already in place?

“UEFA – FIFA meet John Logie Baird,”
“Mr Baird? These dumb executives dressed as Ostriches represent 21st Century football… by the way Sir, did you think it was over?”

As Devic’s ‘goal’ came minutes after Artem Milevskiy had sent a header wide when he should have done better, the cumulative effect was to suggest that this England team were having a tad more luck than some of those sent from these shores. Certainly there was more of a sense now that England had done enough, and when news travelled through that elsewhere, the Swedes had doubled their earlier lead over France, the air of acceptance seemed to transmit itself from pitch to grandstand and, though they continued to press and Shevchenko was introduced, Ukraine sensed their opportunity had been lost.

As before, it was England who came closest again when Ashley Cole nearly marked his 97th cap with a goal, Pyatov recovering from a poor attempt to deal with a cross.

When the whistle blew and England had confirmed their continuance as group leaders, players, coaching staff and fans celebrated on a job well done. Of course, over at the BBC, experts confirmed that we shouldn’t, in fact, have taken any points at all from any of our games but, other than that, it was a good evening to be an England supporter…. even if you were trapped in a car with snoring women and the smell of stale champagne and vomit.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Day 8 England win thriller

England 3 Sweden 2

...and then there are the good nights...

In a storming game in Kiev, England took the lead, lost it, drew level and eventually ran out winners in an absorbing contest that shredded nerves but, ultimately, brought a warm glow of satisfaction. Not in a 'we're going all the way now' type way but just a feeling that some of England's younger players have what it takes, particularly up-front and in wide positions where Welbeck, Carroll and, later, Walcott showed maturity, skill and a fair turn of pace too.

It's just a shame that returning home after every England game, it's so difficult to stop yourself listening to the inane prattling taking place on the radio phone-in shows where opinions veer from the wildly optimistic to the tediously negative with seemingly no appreciation of things starting from small places. For this was an encouraging performance, not without fault - for once England's solid defence looked anything but - but in belief and determination being allied to a little bit of skill.

Bearing in mind that we seldom beat Sweden at all and most games with the men in yellow and blue are often dull, this game came as something of a surprise. After an initial bit of Swedish possession and English probing, the first real chance fell to Scott Parker who lashed a shot from just outside the area which was tipped away by goal-keeper Isaksson.

Larsson shot from distance soon after but Hart was untroubled, gathering the ball to him as it landed on his chest. Most of Sweden's attacks seemed to be coming through Ibramhimovich but much of the threat fizzled out when it reached England's penalty area. At the other end however, Milner saw a solid cross glance off Welbeck in a good position before England went ahead in some style after 23 minutes.

A superb ball from Gerrard from just inside his own half was met by Andy Carroll who tensed his neck muscles and sent a glorious header into the Swedish net. Wild scenes erupted in 'Pat Malloy's' in Colchester (what's happened to the 'Wig & Pen' now renamed 'The Princess'? Is nothing sacred?) and England looked good for the lead. Everything I suggested might happen with Carroll (see my pre-tournament review) was now looking a good call as the Liverpool man started to harass the Swedish defence with his strong running and aerial ability. At the other end Hart gathered another Ibramhimovich shot that took a deflection as two players threw themselves in front of his shot but, as happened with France earlier this week, there was a feeling that England's defence wasn't going to easily beaten. How wrong that turned out to be...

Young wasted a good chance when an excellent Cole pass saw the Manchester United man race clear of the defence, his shot turned away at the near post when there were better options. Kallstrom then shot narrowly over before Hart had to come smartly off his line to gather a through ball as Elmander got close, repeating the action on the stroke of half-time at the feet of Svensson.

Within four minutes of the restart though, Sweden were level. There were probably many reasons for the defensive mess that opened up in front of Hart but I blamed myself, having moved from 'Pat Malloy's' where an Oasis tribute band had struck up, to 'Yates' Wine Lodge' (has there even been a bigger misnomer than 'Wine Lodge'?) for a better view and atmosphere. Carroll was booked for catching the heels of Svensson, and from the free-kick Imrahimovitch's shot cannoned off the wall but fell back to him to try and scissor-kick goalwards. The ball somehow found the feet of Mellberg whose shot was palmed by Hart onto Johnson, the defender getting back to stop the ball on the line only to see it ricochet off the post onto the player and into the net. Mellberg claimed the goal as Sweden celebrated.

Johnson couldn't be blamed for the goal but, in any case, made amends shortly after tackling Kellstrom with the goal at his mercy. It was a superb interception and stopped the Swede from getting a shot away. It proved crucial as England went behind just under the hour when Milner was booked for another unnecessary tackle and from the resulting free-kick an unmarked Mellberg headed in as all, defence and fans, stood open-mouthed in disbelief. It was appalling defending and utterly unlike England. Where would England go from here and, more importantly, should I go back to 'Pat Malloy's'?

Chasing the game, on the hour Hodgson now made a tactical masterstroke, putting on Walcott for the frustrating Milner just as John Terry saw his point blank header superbly tipped over by Isaksson. From the resulting corner, the ball found its way out to Walcott standing 10 yards outside the area and the Arsenal man looked up and drilled the ball past the whole Swedish team and into the net. Walcott grinned ruefully, he's not been on the pitch three minutes, the ball didn't even take a deflection and I'd suggest Theo could try that 100 times a day and never get the same result!

The game now become an end to end affair with Kallstrom blazing over when he should have done better and Ibrahimovic forcing a smart save from Hart but the whole match turned again when Walcott got past the back of a static defence and crossed low for Welbeck to spin and hit home with a back-heel on 78 minutes. Cue chaos in the ground and in pubs around the country as the fans went wild.

England visibly grew while Sweden looked stunned and, although they pressed never looked like scoring again, England on the other hand broke away and Gerrard could easily have made it four but for a fine stop by the keeper. The whistle blew moments later and England went second in the group while Sweden found themselves out. This result could go a long way to deciding how this England team develops from this tournament regardless of what happens later this month.

A little earlier in the day, the France v Croatia match was halted during a fierce electrical storm but, inclement weather or no, France reigned - ha! See what I did there? - on this one and scored two second-half goals from Menez and Cabeye to top the group.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Day 5 Blagg rants!

I was going to start this rant by saying 'There's more than one way to skin a cat' but then I noticed my own feline friend, Paolo Di Cattio (below), watching me balefully from my office chair, claws poised on the leather, and decided to go another route. (I'm having to type this standing up! What strange hold does that cat have over me that stops me from throwing it off?).

How about 'Football's a funny old game' then? A cliché certainly, but in truth, it's not really 'funny' is it? I mean, it's about as simple as you can get: 22 men, 11 in a team with the task of getting one ball in the opposing net and only the goal-keeper can touch the ball with his hands.

If it goes off the side then you throw it back on, if it comes off the end you kick it back in from the corner. That's it, isn't it? OK I'll accept the third phase of an offside player who wasn't when he started the move, may require the use of a Quantum Physicist but that aside, what else is there to keep the entire world so fascinated?

Well of course, what is so beautifully exhibited at every tournament, in every league, in any cup competition on any given Saturday, Sunday or whenever is that, in football, nothing is really certain. You can have the greatest forwards in the world but if they come up against the greatest defenders then there's always the possibility that a lucky hoof down the field may result in your team winning even though they've barely crossed the half-way line all game.

Some may find this annoying, but anyone with any soul will find it life-affirming. After all, if sport is to have any meaning then it musn't always be decided before a whistle has been blown, gun fired, toss decided or whatever. In sport as life, if we can decide the outcome before we start then there is absolutely no point in starting. Uncertainty is not just a fact, it's a neccessity!

Now essentially I understand in football that an attacking player or midfielder is viewed as a creator, an artist or artisan. A defender on the other hand is often referred to as a stopper and stopping something is seen as a negative. But is this right? Some of the most stylish and technically gifted players I've seen have been defenders and why should it be that if an intricate fifteen pass move from a group of gifted forwards finds its way onto the head of a brutal, 15 stone lump who dumps it in Row Z, the defender is seen as some sort of spoilsport? I mean, couldn't it be argued those gifted forwards should try and avoid that head if they are any good?

I, for one, am tired, oh so tired, of coaches and even fans bemoaning teams who don't 'play the game'. No lesser light that Laurent Blanc, former World Cup and European Championship winner, said something to this effect this week. "You hope that the team playing football wins but this is not always the case". It's the 'playing football' bit that gets me. It's as if two different games are being played; one by the 'pretty boys' and the other by those clueless oiks who spoil it for the rest. What a load of tosh.

Semantics are very much to the fore here. Ironic really, as the exotically romantic Laurent Blanc would be plain old Larry White if he'd been born here. I notice Patrice Evra (Patty Evra?) joined in after yesterday's honourable draw between France and England too; "England played like Chelsea," said the Manchester United defender. Really? I bloody hope so as it means I'll see England lift a trophy before I shuffle off this mortal coil. But, of course, that wasn't what Evra meant. What he was alluding too is that England annoyingly didn't lay down when the shimmering skills of the French bore down on them.

Now, I'm no supporter of Chelsea, but I get really annoyed by people who seem to resent the fact that the west london club had the audacity to win the Champions League by scoring more goals than they conceded. Terrible of them! How dare they defend to a man and sneak a last minute goal against Barcelona and all their wonderful artists! And what's this nonsense where you score more penalties than the other side? Many people said that 'Football didn't win that night'  but I'd say, whatever else you thought about Chelsea's matches against Barcelona and Bayern, football in all it's glorious uncertainty won those nights.

Yes, I'm happy to see skilful play by gifted players and if that results in the team I support winning then so much the better. But you also have to applaud the other side to that particular situation and accept that there is a place for stoical, hard-tackling workers who give it their all and are content to drive on all day and stop - fairly, it has to be stressed - those tasked with doing the creating. And if we want to play 'football' (inverted commas intended) and don't think it's being done correctly the right way at the moment, why not look at the standard of refereeing or find some other way of cutting out the petty ankle taps, shirt tugging and rolling on the floor as if shot when lightly touched antics?

And, yea, I'll don my red and white (possibly blue too) bowler here and claim that in that area, if in no other, others would do well to learn from the British. Interesting that no-one suggests you're not 'playing football' when your players crumple in a heap at the merest suggestion of bodily contact.

Now lest I'm accused of xenophobia - and I will be - I should point out that this 'there's only on of us trying to play football properly' mentality applies to our own nation and leagues as well and I recently experienced it when my own team, West Ham United, won the Play-off final to Blackpool and the Tangerines' central defender complained that the Hammer's were populated by tall lumps who did nothing but try and stop Blackpool's admittedly attractive short passing game. I've had enough!

Football is a wonderful, multi-faceted game and we should embrace all aspects and this arrivisite view - and it has to be said its primarily promoted by exponents of the beautiful game who don't always get to take the trophy home - should be consigned to history as quickly as possible. We're all playing football so stop suggesting otherwise.

Greece v Czech Republic - Poland v Russia
Due to work commitments and the monthly Blagg pub quiz in Colchester tonight - pop along why don't you? (email me) - there's not likely to be much football watching today. But don't let that stop you enjoying yourself, will you?

Euro 2012 - Day 4 England 1 France 1 / Ukraine 2 Sweden 1

England 1 France 1 / Ukraine 2 Sweden 1

England fought their way to an honourable draw against France in Donetsk, taking the lead through Joeleon Lescott after half-an-hour but being pegged back by a Nasri strike ten minutes later.

It was difficult to comprehend the searing heat watching in chilly, wet England but it wasn't hard to see how drained some of the players were towards the end and it will be interesting to see how the teams cope in this group if the heatwave continues; one BBC radio pundit saying he'd never experienced anything like it outside of Spain or Brazil.

Roy Hodgson surprised everyone by including Arsenal's Oxlade-Chamberlain to start - he was apparently told just a few hours before kick-off - and going with Manchester United's Danny Wellbeck up front. Neither player disgraced themselves with the Arsenal winger looking like he should have a good international future, his speed sure to cause problems to a lot of defences even if it wasn't used to great effect in this game due to the Manager's game plan.

Much will be made of the obvious differences in style - of which more tomorrow, by the way! - but, for the most part, the French passing and patient build-up foundered on a solid England back-four. Well, quelle surprise! The men in white had chances of their own however and, of all the opportunities that Les Bleus will point too, none was better than the one squandered by James Milner after he had been played beyond the square French defence by an excellent through ball from Ashley Young. Milner rounded the keeper but shot wide with the goal gaping and replays showing the English wide man had enough time to steady himself and shoot with either foot. I didn't feel much was made of it on TV but at international level, chances like this really need to be taken.

England didn't need to wait too much longer to go ahead though. Captain Gerrard curled in an excellent free-kick that had to be retaken as the referee wasn't ready, and Lescott got beyond the defence to head home. Cue wild scenes in most pubs across the UK - for reasons I won't explain I ended up in the Bell and Gate in Collier Row, Romford - echoed shortly after when Joe Hart made a brilliant point-blank save from Diarra.

It looked like it might be England's night but France promptly burst the balloon on 39 minutes when Nasri scored low to Hart's near post following intricate passing involving Evra and Ribery on the edge of the penalty box. It looked as if the small area beyond Hart's hand should really have been covered by the Manchester City stopper but he explained after he didn't see the shot through the bodies, something indicating England's propensity for defending too deep sometimes and certainly at this stage of the match where they needed to consolidate their lead.

The goal livened up France though and England spent pretty much the next 15 minutes defending while the men in blue shirts passed back and forth amongst themselves in front of them. Benezema looked dangerous with a couple of attempts but the blocks and headers out came thick and fast and France didn't really create any clear-cut openings, the half ending with England looking solid but seemingly needing to re-adjust if they weren't too spend the second half defending.

I thought England looked better organised in the second half and although the statistics suggest that England's goal was peppered with shots there was little to worry the solid centre-back pairing bar watching the build up play in front of them. England had possession of their own but too often gave the ball away to put themselves under pressure again and, this really being a fairly new outfit under Hodgson, you have to wonder if the English ability to give the ball away isn't inbred somehow. There was a period just after half-time when the ball was passed backwards across the defence and into the midfield area for about twenty passes, but you could almost feel the English tension rise as little opened up before them. As inevitably as rain and a penchant for Fish 'n' Chips, the English desire won again and Lescott lofted the ball forward, saw it lost to a blue shirt and started to defend again. I actually think sometimes we're happier defending as it gives us an opportunity to be resolute and determined (although I know some are uncomfortable with my blanket assessment of national characteristics).

England complained about several poor decisions from referee Nicola Rizzoli who waved away countless appeals for what seemed clear fouls by the French and Hodgson alluded to this post-match when talking about several build-up plays that produced nothing due to the fact the whistle wasn't blown. It certainly did nothing to help England who often had to funnel back in the oppressive heat when the ball switched play.

With poor Scott Parker obviously flagging, Jordan Henderson was bought on - something which, for me anyway, only underlines the paucity of the available players following injuries - with Defoe replacing Wellbeck to little effect and Walcott entering late on. I thought the Arsenal man should have been given an opportunity earlier as it was obvious some of the French players were suffering in the heat too and Walcott's pace might have eased the nerves as England defended stoutly, seemingly happy with the draw as the game came to a close.

Manager, players and most fans seemed happy with the draw and, as it's difficult to imagine any way that England could have eased a win out of this, this can only be viewed in terms of group qualification. England will need to be more pro-active in terms of chasing a game when they come up against Sweden and Ukraine but I'm satisfied with this result and the overall performance.

The later game involving Sweden and the host nation ended with the Ukraine running out winners thanks to two goals from national hero Shevchenko after Ibrahimovic had put the Swedes ahead. It looked a good game - indeed there hasn't really been a poor match all tournament yet - but, sadly, a combination of a lot of travelling and a pint or two of John Smiths meant I dozed off and missed most of the action. Hey! At least I'm honest...!

Ukraine now top the group and England may find them a difficult proposition if they need to win in their last game, however on this showing, Hodgson's men should be looking to get something from Sweden although it all looks too close to call currently.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Day 2

"You going to be doing the whole drink and food thing again?" asked the good Lady Blagg this morning.
"I don't think so," I replied, "Euro food isn't as challenging as dishes from around the world and you've got a lot of other stuff to do - that front hedge needs trimming and I've got a ton of ironing that will take you hours..."

"Shame," she said, "I've bought you a couple of bottles of beer for this weekend's games. I saw them in the Supermarket and they instantly made me think of you"

"Well, if you've already bought them, it seems a pity to waste the money. I'll have them" I gallantly offered.

So it is that I sat watching today's games with a couple of bottles of 'Miserable Bastard' Hmmmm...

Anyway, is anyone else disconcerted by the way the Euro 2012 TV team end the showing of match replays by making the tournament logo appear out of the middle of the screen so that the ball / flower replaces the head of the player? For just a few seconds, European football's finest all look like Frank Sidebottom.

Meanwhile, Roy Hodgson has been speaking about the situation with regard to Rio Ferdinand and, although its difficult to argue with his basic tenant that he had, effectively, already decided not to take Ferdinand and now that others are injured he should just turn to those who he had already looked at, there is, unfortunately, a niggling sense that his comments don't exactly stack up.

His comment that he wouldn't take Rio as a back-up to sit on the bench, simply don't make sense and I hope this doesn't set a precedent for future tournaments. Taking Hodgson's comments at face value could mean we take the main team to, for example, Brazil and populate the rest of the squad with players who might make the grade later on.

If Martin Kelly had already been named as part of the squad but then left out, then I could see some cohesion in the argument but if a key member of the named squad drops out through injury then surely all the available players are there to be looked at again regardless of any percieved pecking order. Of course, none of this would matter a jot if John Terry wasn't due to answer a charge of racist behaviour towards Rio's little brother but, as it is, it seems once again another England boss has got caught up in something that goes beyond the basic football question of who is better at passing a ball and become embroiled in some political machinations that leave a sour taste in the mouth.

Hodgson must be hoping that Terry and Lescott don't get banned or injured. If he gets through the tournament without resorting to the bench then he might just see this through, if he needs to turn beyond Jagielka though things may rumble on for years.

Netherlands 0 Denmark 1 - Germany 1 Portugal 0

Twenty-eight attempts on goal, so BBC Commentator Jonathan Pearce tells me, but the Dutch had absolutely nothing to show for it and lost their opening game to a smartly taken goal from Michael Krohn-Dehli after 24 minutes. The goal came against the run of play and Van Persie - like Kerhazkov last night - was responsible for some profligate shooting. Denmark looked compact and made things difficult for the men in orange but the Netherlands created enough openings to win several matches and they may well rue this result.

Later on, Germany claimed a narrow victory over Portugal with Mario Gomes scoring the only goal in the 72nd minute just as he was about to be substituted. Up to that point the game was pretty sterile but, inevitably, once behind Portugal started to play and we had an exciting 20 minutes or so during which the Portugese had several good opportunities.

In a dull first half the only point of interest arrived just before half-time when Portugal's Pepe controlled the ball superbly and struck the underside of the crossbar with his shot. The ball bounced down on the line and for a tantalising moment we thought it would be another goal-line controversy to frustrate UEFA and the World governing body but, sadly, replays showed the ball clearly bounced on the line, not over, and the extra referee - who appeared to be static throughout the incident - was proved correct. If, indeed, he made any decision at all!

The second half was a little better but not much of note occured until Gomes' goal. The strike was an excellent header from a cross by Sami Khedira in a match that produced little else. Main point of interest for the neutral was the BBC pundits' attempts to get Harry Redknapp to comment on every observation one of them made.

Hansen: "Ronaldo gest wide on the right here...Harry?" and "A great tackle there by the German centre-back...Harry?". I fully expect the after-show Green room to be a fascinating place as each member of the BBC team tries to get Harry involved in the decision on what pub to go to and what restaurant to visit later.

"Where you going Alan?"

"I'm off to the toilet, Gary..... Harry?"

"Well, Alan - if you've gotta go then there's not much you can do...."

Euro 2012 - Day 1

Poland 1 Greece 1 - Russia 4 Czech Republic 1

Sadly, I missed the opening ceremony although I'm certain it contained plenty of papier mache heads, little girls twirling ribbons and an impressive display of street furniture throwing by the massed racists of eastern Europe. It must surely have been thrown into the shadows though by the fare available on the field, as both matches produced plenty of excitement and entertaining football.

First up was one of the host nation teams fighting out the inevitable opening game draw in some style, aided by the lunatic decisions of the Spanish referee. With a vociferous crowd under a closed roof, you could almost taste the atmosphere wherever you were watching the game and Poland responded as you'd expect putting a pedestrian Greece side under early pressure, and it was no surprise when Lewandowski put the home side ahead in the 17th minute when Chalkias flapped at an excellent cross from Blaszczykowski. Indeed the Poles could have already have been ahead from a similar move just minutes earlier. Poland wasted several other half-chances but the main talking point of the first half was, first a booking for Papastathopoulos for quite fairly heading the ball in a tussle with a Polish forward and later a second yellow and a red for an innocuous tackle on Murawski.

Quite what Spanish referee Carlos Velasco Carballo saw is difficult to imagine but if he books and sends players off like this all the time then we can only assume that most Spanish games end up with just the two goal-keepers on the field like a gigantic version of blow football.

The feeling at half-time was that the Greeks had offered too little and, down to ten men, the game was there for the taking by Poland but, surprisingly, exactly the opposite occurred. Greece emerged fired up and took the game to the home side eventually drawing level mainly thanks to another goal-keeping error, this time by Arsenal man Szczesny who misjudged Vassilis Torosidis' right-wing cross , allowing substitute Salpigidis to hit home from just inside the penalty area.

It was no more than Greece deserved, but they could have turned the game inside out after 70 minutes when Szczesny stuck out a leg to trip Salpigidis in the penalty area after the substitute neatly avoided the off-side to find himself clean through. With the Greeks rather bizarrely celebrating the winning of a penalty, Szczesny was sent off and PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper Tyton came off the bench to replace Maciej Rybus and promptly saved the Karagounis spot kick with his first touch.

The game ended 1-1 with both teams looking to win it and probably, in an odd way, both grateful for the point.

Later, Russia poured on the attacking football in a demolition of the Czech Republic that could have been much more embarrassing had Kerzhakov not been wearing someone else's boots; at least that's the only explanation I can think of for a host of chances that were sliced, mis-hit or mis-directed by the Russian forward. As it was we were treated to an excellent performance from young Alan Dzagoev, who at 21, scored two goals, apparently the second youngest player to do so since an 18-year-old Wayne Rooney did it. Dzagoev's performance underpinned by another two goals, one a superb solo effort from substitute Pavlyuchenko late in the game and the other from Sirokov after 24 minutes, a goal that followed on from Dzagoev' opener nine minutes earlier, reflected the performance of the Russian team although Pilar's 52nd minute goal to make the score 2-1 had seemed to make the match closer than it actually was for a time.

So two excellent games to open and a poser for Soccernet's fraternity. A Russian called Alan? Can someone please explain!

Euro 2012 - The Weight of non-expectation

As John Lennon once had it; strange days indeed.

As unofficial England blogger, I’ve covered a few World Cups and Euro tournaments for Soccernet now, and I’ve seen many more before that I’d not care to recount; some good, some forgettable and some I only see in nightmares. But to a one, all of them have been surrounded by the over-hyped hoopla that always follows England, their fans and the resulting expectations of the national team.

This summer though, all is different. I don’t know if it’s the long Jubilee weekend and celebrations, the fact everyone is spent from the unbridled excitement of the climax of one of the best seasons football many of us can recall or, perhaps more sensibly, that we’re all saving ourselves for the forthcoming excitement of the world’s greatest sporting event on our doorsteps (or, in my case, my parent’s doorstep!) later this year.

What is undeniable though is that Euro 2012 starts off later this week with barely a nod towards any expectation towards England at all. Is it because we are shorn of the usual ‘Golden Generation’ of over-paid, over-tabloid and ‘Moi? Over here on me ‘ead son’ sensationalism we’ve come to expect from our three-lion’ed heroes? Or is it just me? I mean, I haven’t seen a single picture of Gary Cahill chasing Cheryl Cole down Chelsea High Road with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot clutched in his hand. (Other Champagnes are available, of course – unless the good people at VC want to provide me with a case…). In fact, hand on heart here, If the good Mr Cahill – who I am sure is happily married, by the way – were to knock on the oak-panelled door of Blagg Acres and offer me tickets to Poland I wouldn’t have a clue who he was.

Even the appointment of the venerable Mr Roy Hodgson – something I have advocated would be a good thing for a long time, by the way – has barely caused a ripple barring some odd TV debates about a speech impediment. Considering Harry Redknapp seemed destined to be borne to Lancaster Gate on the back of a winged beast strewn with rose petals from adoring fans and the fact he was by-passed with nary a interview would, you’d have thought, caused a bit of a furore. As it is though, everyone seems…well, kinda underwhelmed about everything.

The result of all this though is that we approach Euro 2012 with no expectations and no real knowledge what is going to be happening. As I write this, Frank Lampard has pulled out denying us, perhaps for the last time – the chance to debate if he can play in the same team as Steven Gerrard (that should cut my mail inbox down by a half!) – but I’ve learned just seconds ago that the excellent Scott Parker is likely to follow suit. With Gareth Barry also out with a lower abdomen tear, it is entirely possible that England’s midfield will be populated with a bunch of players only those who collect football stickers will recognise.

Now I’m not sure it would be entirely fair to say that this will be a good thing – it’s usually recognised that experience counts for a lot in these tournaments – but also, for once, I find I’m not actually bothered that we seem to be without some of our match-winners. Is it because usually our ‘match-winners’ never actually win a match? Is it because for years our usual post-tournament cry is ‘give the others a chance’? Or is because, to return to my original point, we’re not really expecting much so don’t care either way?

Because the fact is that players like Lescott, Cahill, Henderson and Carroll – all good players but not those most of us would put on the top of our ‘pick up list’ – have all had the experience of holding aloft trophies, winning losing battles, kissing medals and, generally, coming out on top this season. Many of them did it when expectations weren’t great and when, just possibly, had others been available then they wouldn’t even have been given an opportunity. But they’ve proved themselves winners and, with the excellent tactical brain of Hodgson looking after things, perhaps that – along with the disappointments many will have suffered along the way – will give them the chance to grow and even shine.

Andy Carroll is a prime example, looking every bit the essential English centre-forward when he broke into Newcastle’s team back in 2007 but looking like an over-hyped expensive flop just a few years later when he joined Liverpool. But Dalglish saw something in the player late this season and Carroll responded accordingly. Hodgson has now done the same, handing the Geordie the coveted No: 9 shirt and effectively telling the young player that he can make it his own for years to come if he fulfils his potential.

It’s in the English way to sniff at this and suggest Andy Carroll is just the latest in another over-hyped assembly line who’ll never achieve on the international stage, but it’s surely not unreasonable to suggest we used to produce world-class players who actually produced this form for their country so why shouldn’t we start again – particularly at a time when no-one is really expecting anything. I’m actually quite excited at the prospect of seeing Carroll muscle his way through a few euro defences – and let’s be clear about this – if he’s going to do this before anyone actually knows who he is, then this is the tournament to do it in.

It seems likely, at the very least, that expectation won’t hold heavily on the shoulders as it seems to have done for other squads in the past. Perhaps England may even play with a bit of freedom and not worry so much about what the opposition may do, feeling free to express themselves and impose their own attributes on the game. It may be that none of this is possible, of course, perhaps all English teams are doomed to follow the sins of their predecessors, but I’d like to think that Euro2012 gives some players the opportunity to grasp an opening and within that, the chance to make a difference.

I’m not saying that England can win this tournament; my local supermarket aren’t producing player’s medals and there are no cut-outs of Joe Cole advertising washing powder, so I know that’s not likely. But I do think there is just an outside possibility that, for once, England may do a bit more than we’re expecting. After all, we’re really not expecting very much at all. They may remind us of why supporting England used to be a good thing and – whisper this – restore a bit of pride in the Three Lions again.

Let’s just hope we don’t end up losing in the quarter-finals on penalties with the press advising us that we’ve now found the next ‘Golden Generation’. That would be too much to take.