Tag: Football

Shakespeare sacking no surprise

Imagine my annoyance on Tuesday afternoon when I was finishing off an article on the Premier League sack race and before publishing it Leicester City beat me to the punch, incidentally I had Craig Shakespeare in the silver medal position behind Ronald Koeman.

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Shakespeare did well as interim manager but things never looked like working out when he got the job on a permanent basis. As first team coach under Claudio Ranieri, Shakespeare shared in Leicester’s remarkable title triumph of 2016. It also placed him in the perfect position to asses what was going wrong in Ranieri’s second season and after the Italian was fired Shakespeare quickly rectified the problems, stopped the tinkering and reverted to what made Leicester such a success in the first place- it worked as he pulled Leicester clear of trouble and into mid table safety.

But it’s becoming increasingly rare for interim managers promoted from the coaching staff to become successful managers. Liverpool’s boot room system worked brilliantly in the 70s and 80s as they moved from Shankly to Paisley to Fagan and finally Dalglish. More recent successful examples are hard to find- Harry Redknapp was promoted at West Ham after Billy Bonds was fired in the 90s and David O’Leary successfully stepped up at Leeds after George Graham left for Tottenham.

The difficulty of moving from interim to permanent boss is you need a plan to move forward not just the means to fix the old problems, Shakespeare never looked like having that in his locker. Leicester bought good players in the summer but the pieces didn’t seem to fit together- Iheanacho looked too similar to Jamie Vardy, Vincent Iborra wasn’t fit with only Harry Maguire seamlessly fitting into the team by replacing the ageing Robert Huth. Shakespeare was of course unlucky that Adrien Silva signed 13 seconds too late to play for the club until January, he and Iborra will make an intriguing midfield duo for the next manager.

The fixture list didn’t do Shakespeare any favours either, they started at Arsenal a game they deserved to win but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory- a game that turned on substitutions and Shakespeare got his wrong. The early fixtures then gifted them a trip to Old Trafford and home games against Liverpool & Chelsea. After coming through those difficult games with narrow defeats home matches against Bournemouth and West Brom became must win- Leicester drew both and the club’s Chinese owners pulled the plug.

It was ruthless but justified, Leicester still have the attraction of being recent Premier League Champions and have a squad with greater talent than two thirds of the Premier League, yet they are in the bottom 3.

The talent at their disposal and willingness to spend big (Slimani, Silva, Maguire, Iheanacho) should attract a big name to the club- I was aghast that Sam Allardyce was the first name in the frame, a move that would show a stunning lack of imagination and hand them a manager who would simply pull towards a 40 point survival target, mercifully that report appears wide of the mark.

Sean Dyche has got Burnley punching well above their weight and his growing reputation merits consideration for a next level Premier League club like Leicester. Marco Silva would have been a great appointment back in the summer but he’s now off the market. Chris Coleman will inevitably come into consideration after his successful stint with Wales, Coleman has proved he can handle big names (Bale & Ramsey) and successfully mould a team around them. He’s currently considering his future after Wales failed to make the World Cup and may opt to stay in post but he’s another Leicester will surely sound out.

Further afield former Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel has been mentioned, but he has a reputation as a spikey figure who might not fit with the club although there’s no denying he is a high calibre coach. One word of advice for Leicester’s board is steer clear of ex Premier League manager’s looking to get back in- the likes of Alan Pardew and Ian Holloway. Leicester are unlikely to hit the heights of 2016 again but they should be in a position to push for cups and European football, it’ll be interesting to see who they believe will be the man to take them there.

As for Shakespeare he joins that long list of very good coaches who couldn’t quite cut it as a manager. He may get another shot in a hot seat but it’ll likely be at a high end Championship club- Sheffield Wednesday might be a good fit. Otherwise a first team coach position will come along sooner or later, maybe even a position in Gareth Southgate’s backroom staff, he did previously have a seat during Allardyce’s brief stay at St George’s Park, but when it comes to Premier League hot seats most only get one chance and Shakespeare has had his.

 

 

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Russia 2018- global extravaganza or disaster waiting to happen?

I’d really love to be Gianni Infantino or at least I’d like his job. He gets to run a globally powerful organisation whose credibility is so low that literally anything you do is an improvement on your predecessor (as long as you don’t stick your fingers in the till).

Even better- said organisation’s big event has already been handed out until 2022 so it’s not your fault if it’s a disaster!

Sepp Blatter’s regime handed the 2018 & 2022 World Cup to Russia & Qatar back in 2010 in dubious circumstances, and inadvertently triggered the downfall of their house of cards.

Qatar is another matter 5 years away with a desert sized list of issues attached. But what of 2018 in Russia.

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Whilst the decision to award Russia the tournament has aroused suspicion (although no proof of wrong doing has ever been confirmed), it has always seemed less controversial than handing out 2022 to a small nation with no football history an impractical climate, dubious human rights record but masses of cash.

Aside from Holland, Russia is probably the most storied football nation never to host its biggest event. They’ve won the European Championships and have made numerous long runs in tournaments (admittedly all but one as the Soviet Union) and qualified frequently for World Cups. So why the controversy and what are the prospects?

Mixing Politics & Sport

The obvious place to start is with Putin. The Russian President had long been mistrusted in The West and the tensions have been consistently cranked up in recent years over Russia’s involvement in the Syria and the Ukraine crisis’.

But even Blatter can’t be blamed for not predicting what would happen in those parts of the world back in 2010. In the same period the more respected IOC happily awarded Sochi the 2014 Winter Olympics and FIFA will point out it’s a global organisation not just a Western one.

But it’s hard not to compare awarding this World Cup to Russia to the IOC’s controversial awarding of the 2008 Olympics to Beijing. Laughably at the time some claimed China’s hosting the Olympics would encourage them to adopt more progressive human rights policies- presumably said observers also thought South Africa should have been awarded a major tournament in the 1980s to encourage them to abolish apartheid.

The awarding of 2008 to Beijing looked commercially motivated and aside from the Torch relay fiasco eventually showcased a positive view of China, but it hasn’t altered China’s stance on Tibet.

With Russia Blatter’s FIFA probably saw money and unlike the western bidders a compliant media that wouldn’t raise questions about FIFA’s shady financial dealings or complete lack of transparency.

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Of course a controversial host doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a bad World Cup. Many fans of a certain age quote Argentina ‘78 as their favourite World Cup, the abiding image of that tournament is the ticker-tape eruption in the Stadia whilst people wax lyrical 40 years on about Kempes, the Dutch hitting the post in the dying minutes of the final and Archie Gemmill.

Yet at the time Argentina was controlled by a military Junta under who thousands were murdered and the tournament itself was dogged by the outright corruption of referees and match officials.

And on the subject of dodgy bidding processes it now appears there may have been skullduggery in the awarding of both Brazil and South Africa the tournament, Russia played by the rules of the bidding- it’s not there fault the rules were absurd.

Trouble on the terraces and in the drug testing labs

Russia’s sporting status sank to a new low before the 2016 Olympics. Scores of Russian athletes were banned from the games after the World anti doping agency (WADA) uncovered a widespread doping program.

Since that scandal erupted the Fancy Bears website based in Russia has launched a counterattack by hacking WADA in an attempt to discredit the organisation. Football has remained largely clear of doping issues but it remains a huge concern in Russian sport- not helped by its most famous sportsperson being given a 2 year ban for failing a drugs test. Admittedly Maria Sharapova has never been part of any Russian sporting program and is US based but it reinforces the image of a nation with a doping problem.

But the biggest worry about Russia 2018 comes from inside the Stadia: the threat of crowd violence and racist chants. Last month in the Champions League under 19s Liverpool reported Spartan Moscow for racial abuse one of their players suffered from the Moscow crowd. It was the latest in a long line of racial slurs visiting players have suffered in Russia. Even more worryingly the 2018 anti racism chief previously claimed the problem didn’t exist in Russia.

The other major crowd problem is hooliganism. The ugly scenes in Marseille during Euro 2016 were bad enough and yet shockingly one Russian MP claimed it was job well done because they beat up some English hooligans in the town and stormed the barriers in the ground after the game- never mind the fact that some of those caught up in the melee were children. All of this would seem to make Russia an unappealing destination for the Greatest Show on Earth.

Will crowd trouble erupt next June?

I don’t expect hooliganism to be a factor at World Cup venues this summer. The main reasons being the high levels of security we’ll be seeing at the grounds and the difficulty in obtaining tickets mean World Cup crowds are all together different from club crowds. Usually that’s a criticism of World Cup ticketing- this time it’s a plus, with crowds likely to be a mix of supporters clubs, school kids, families, Middle class fans and corporate guests.

An example of this came at Euro 2012 when the build up was dominated by worries of crowd trouble and racist chanting in Ukraine, particularly after a Panorama expose featuring Sol Campbell advised fans to stay at home. In the event English fans were neither targeted nor visiting players subjected to racist idiots, with England fans tweeting what a great time they were having. The organisers will be hoping for similar next summer, it remains to be seen if they practice the zero tolerance to racism they’ve promised- but at least FIFA is no longer run by a man who thinks you combat racism by shaking hands at the final whistle.

So what are the positives?

Part of the mystique of World Cup’s is holding them in far away places most travelling fans and those watching from home have never visited and know little about. Joey Barton recently claimed Brazil can’t win the World Cup in Russia because of the cold climate, actually Joey June in Russia is quite hot (much warmer than the UK or South Africa) around World Cup time. OK Joey Barton doesn’t represent a scientific sample of the public, but it is an illustration of how staggeringly ignorant most are of Russia with their understanding of the country based on Putin, The Cold War and Dr Zhivago. It’s the equivalent of someone’s understanding of America being restricted to Trump, Watergate & John Wayne. As someone who’s visited Russia frequently in recent years I can say Russia has plenty to offer and those heading there next summer will find plenty of none football related things to see and do. Whilst those watching from the living room will also learn more about this largely unknown land.

In football terms the biggest match hosted in Russia to date was the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United & Chelsea, despite fears of a catastrophe the handling of the game and both sets of fans went off without a hitch.

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More recently Manchester United’s Europa League tie with Rostov saw the town of Rostov treat the arrival of United’s superstar squad like a Royal visit; not that it stopped Jose whinging about the state of the pitch. Away from Moscow & St Petersburg in the Russian interior teams are likely to find a similar welcome from the local population.

World Cup’s like Olympics needs to leave a legacy- the infrastructure projects this World Cup has brought about will undeniably make life better in parts of the country that desperately need it.

Host nation bounce?

This summers Confederations Cup went off without a hitch in terms of infrastructure (if not FIFA’s inspired decision to use VAR). But the performance of the home team didn’t suggest a run the World Cup semifinals is on. Russia failed to get out of the group, only managing to beat New Zealand. Guus Hiddink’s stylish side characterised by Andrei Arshavin is long gone, Russia’s current side appear only marginally better than their awful Euro 2016- their lack of options summed up by the inclusion in the first 11 of Yuri Zhirkov (yes the one who played for Chelsea about 7 years ago) although they do possess a potential match winer in Alan Dzagoev. They will be favoured by the draw seeding but it’s hard to see them progressing beyond the last 16 and carrying their nations hopes to the later stages, something that usually boosts a tournament.

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Ultimately this World Cup has plenty of red flags (no pun intended) but past tournaments have shown our worst fears are rarely met as countries pull out all the stops to show their nation in a positive light, let’s hope the Russian organisers and public take up this once in a lifetime opportunity.

 

England fans should get behind Southgate…for now

Two sluggish 1 nil wins and England made it to the World Cup to a chorus of apathy and disapproval. In the media scrum that followed everyone had their say and sadly that meant a ‘speak your brains’ phone in on Five Live. Depressingly someone called in to say sack Southgate and replace him with Harry Redknapp or Carlo Ancelotti apparently because Ancelotti speaks better English than ‘That other Italian they had.’ A word of advice for anyone who feels like phoning in live on air- know the names of the people you’re taking about!

No Instant Fix

Quite a few people have suggested the newly out of work Ancelotti, but I wouldn’t agree on the grounds that when England went foreign in the past it was to get the best out of a highly gifted generation of players so you could understand the FA seeking out the best first team manager available. Now the aim is to bring through the youngsters, set a template for the junior sides to come into in years to come and improve on the awful tournament performances of 2014 & 2016.  With the emphasis on bringing through the players and coaches parachuting in a high price overseas manager isn’t a fit.

As for Redknapp he should have got the job in 2012, but let’s be clear in 2017 he’d be a disaster. He was fired from his last successful job in 2012 and since then made a disastrous mess of QPR and more recently Birmingham due to overspending on veteran players. If ‘arry got the England job his first move would be to recall John Terry, Peter Crouch & Michael Carrick- anyone who doubts that should look back at his comments last season that Terry was the answer for every Premier League side struggling at the back, he then offered Terry a truckload of cash to join Birmingham. If the focus is on bringing through youngsters it would be like appointing Mario Andretti to run a speed awareness course. And thats before we get to the due diligence required to check into any skeletons in his closet.

Ultimately changing the manager won’t fix the problems and England need a manager who is bought into their long term plan.

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The next man in

When The FA appointed Gareth Southgate the cupboard was bare, one year on the candidates for the England job are there but all have questions to answer and missions to complete at club level first;

Brendan Rodgers has long been established as a good coach and provided a standard of play at Liverpool not seen since the late 80s (admittedly helped by having Luis Suarez in the side). After things went pear shaped at Anfield but he’s enhanced his reputation with Celtic, where the job he’s done should be measured in improved performances rather than domestic silverware, it’s also been long rumoured Rodgers coverts the England job.

The elephant in the room with Rodgers is he isn’t English, could the man from Northern Ireland manage England? Many have pointed out that with every other coach at St Georges Park having to be English the program could be undermined by having an Ulsterman at the top of the tree. Of course Rodgers isn’t comparable with Fabio Capello, he has come through the ranks in England and clearly there isn’t a cultural problem.  The other issue with Rodgers is his goal of making Celtic a credible european force is only partially completed- they have improved but need a run (more likely in the Europa League) after Christmas to complete what he started. And then there’s his tendency to turn into David Brent.

Sean Dyche has done a great job at Burnley taking them to 2 promotions and looks like securing a third straight season in the Premier League. The problem with Dyche is he really needs to do it with a bigger club first, his ideal next step would either be given greater resources at Burnley or move on to one to next level premier league club (West Ham, Everton or Newcastle all spring to mind) before considering a move to international football. There’s also his tendency to come out of with stone age comments in press conferences- comparing English managers to own brand supermarket jeans isn’t a good look.

Eddie Howe- An easier fit for the FA than Dyche, Eddie Howe has achieved a lot with Bournemouth and his sides no play nice football. But he currently needs to fight his way out of a relegation fight and like Dyche may need a higher profile and better resourced club job first, he also failed to get a tune out of Jack Wilshere and has struggled with big signings. All that being said if the job came up tomorrow Howe would be favourite.

Paul Clement- Clearly a world class coach from his time with Real Madrid, Clement made a big impact on arriving at Swansea and kept a relegation threatened side in the Premier League. Clement’s sides play possession based football and he clearly has a lot to offer. The negative is like Howe he’s in a relegation battle right now and not only needs to win that, he has to progress Swansea up the Premier League table to prove he has the management nouse to match his coaching chops.

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I’m not saying Southgate is a better manager than any of these fellas, what I think is important is they need more time in club football to hone their craft and if the aim is for 2020 and 2022 it’s better to wait and see if they can progress the way we hope rather than throwing them in at the deep end. And we should remember that Southgate didn’t want the job, his preference was to gain more experience with the under 21s and have a go at the U21 Euros of 2017 before being ready to go for the senior job, unfortunately Sam Allardyce walked into a bar with some undercover reporters and that was that.

The Pros and Cons of Gareth

Nobody should make an argument for Southgate being a top class manager, there’s no evidence of that. He’s at best a work in progress manager who’s had to step in and learn on the job. The style has been none existent but Southgate is a studious man who has successfully avoided the pitfall of experimenting in qualifiers- which ultimately did for Steve McClaren.

Southgate’s best work appears to have been behind the scenes with the players clearly bought into his program and working to make improvements in grassroots football. He’s also promoted youngsters, shown a tactical flexibility that Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Erikkson lacked, steering clear of 4-4-2 and using a safe 4-2-3-1 for qualifying and experimenting with 3-4-3 in friendlies. He speaks well, is promoting youngsters and isn’t going to do something stupid and embarrass his employers (unlike the last bloke).

But the style or lack of it is England’s biggest problem and there’s been little on display over the last 12 months, notably in the last 6 games (Scotland, France, Malta, Slovakia, Slovenia & Lithuania). Part of that is down to the lack of central midfield options (what he would’t give for a Gerrard, Scholes, Lampard or even Jenas.) But he hasn’t shown much sign of crafting a solution around that weakness- perhaps the switch to 3-4-3 will be the best way of doing that. And although England haven’t conceded many goals in qualifying (3 and 2 of those were direct free kicks)  we’ve yet to see if Southgate can forge a tight defensive plan.

One coach Southgate unfortunately reminds me of is former England Rugby Union Head Coach Stuart Lancaster. The parallels are obvious, Lancaster came from the RFU backroom after doing well with the junior levels and got the big job on the basis of a successful stint as interim manager. Lancaster jettisoned the veterans and brought through the young players but couldn’t quite blend them into a winning team and ultimately failed at the Rugby World Cup, his successor Eddie Jones has since made the same team into a ruthless winning machine. Of course Lancaster made some enormous selection blunders (Sam Burgess, dropping Mike Ford) and there’s no sign of Southgate doing that thus far.

Another major issue with Lancaster was his players were clearly not ready for tournament rugby at the World Cup with many overwhelmed by the experience. And that’s probably Southgate’s strongest card. As a veterans of 4 tournaments under 4 different managers as a player Southgate should have a better feel of what will and won’t work in the pressure cooker of tournament football, indeed he’s already adopting some of Terry Venables ideas.

There’s also one area in which Southgate’s side have shown tangible signs of improvement- mental toughness. England’s mental fragility has been their biggest problem at recent tournaments. Southgate was quick to point out his side didn’t drop to their knees when 2-1 down at Hampden Park instead they kept their cool and equalised. There was more of the same when Slovakia got an early goal at Wembley. Will they do that in a tournament? We’ll have to wait and see but for now England fans need to stick by their manager and hope he knows what he’s doing, and no more talk of ‘arry.

 

 

 

 

 

Destination Russia

So it’s official- England will be at the 2018 World Cup finals. The next question is who will make the squad. Using the tabloids favourite cliche of airport terminology to illustrate who gets in the squad (or as they say who makes the plane) here’s a quick guide to who’s in, out and maybe

Boarding Pass for Moscow Domodedovo:

If you’re here then barring injury or a dramatic loss of form you will go to the World Cup with England;

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Jack Butland

Fullbacks: Kyle Walker

Centre backs: Gary Cahill, Phil Jones, John Stones

Central midfielders: Eric Dier

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Dele Alli, Adam Lallana,

Forwards: Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy

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Sat in the Terminal 5 Departure Lounge:

If you’re here you’re close to going- maybe one good appearance from boarding the plane or perhaps in a 50/50 battle with another player for your place- nobody wants to be 24th man for England- somebody on this list will be;

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Goalkeepers: Jordan Pickford, Fraser Forster, Tom Heaton

Fullbacks: Nathaniel Clyne, Kieran Trippier, Danny Rose, Ryan Bertrand, Luke Shaw

Centre backs: Michael Keane, Chris Smalling, Harry Maguire

Central midfielders: Nathaniel Chalobah, Jake Livermore, Fabian Delph, Harry Winks, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jesse Lingard, Ross Barkley

Forwards: Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Jermain Defoe

Rushing for the Heathrow Express:

If you’re here you might go but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Maybe you’re a young player trying to break through or you’re settling at a new club or returning from injury- it’s a long time until the manager names his 23- at this point in the build up to Euro 2016 Marcus Rashford was still in the Man Utd youth team!

Goalkeepers: Freddie Woodman

Fullbacks: Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Aaron Cresswell, Ryan Sessegnon, Ben Chilwell

Centre backs: Jamaal Lascelles, Alfie Mawson

Central midfielders: James Ward-Prowse, Danny Drinkwater, Tom Davies, Ruben Loftus-Cheek

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Theo Walcott, Nathan Redmond, Jadon Sancho, Phil Foden, Demarai Gray

Forwards: Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Dominic Solanke

Boarding the flight to Maui:

If you’re here you ain’t going to the World Cup (this time at least) perhaps you went before on those brief trips to Brazil or South Africa or you’re still young and may spend Christmas 2022 in Qatar. OK the vast majority of English footballers won’t be representing their country next summer in Russia. But if you’re like stars here you are a highly paid well known (and maybe even liked) footballer and Hawaii is lovely in June.

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster

Fullbacks: Glenn Johnson, Leighton Baines, Mason Holgate

Centre backs: Ben Mee, Rob Holding, Callum Chambers

Central midfielders: Lewis Cook, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Jonjo Shelvey, Tom Carroll

Attacking midfield/ wingers: Marc Albrighton, Ademola Lookman, Josh Onamah, Andros Townsend, Scott Sinclair

Forwards: Andy Carroll, Jay Rodriguez, Andre Gray. Saido Berahino

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World Cup qualifying- final round

Qualifying is almost done bar the playoffs. By Wednesday at least 22 teams will have secured their passage to Russia with only 6 playoff matches and a final round of games in Africa to play on November.

Who’s made it?- Russia, Belgium, Germany, England, Spain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Nigeria

What’s left to play for?

Europe:

Group A

France held their nerve to claim a vital win in Bulgaria and stay top with only a home win over Belarus required to go through. The big story however is Holland are almost out- after Sweden romped to an 8-0 win over Luxembourg and the Dutch narrowly won 3-1 in Belarus , they now need to beat Sweden by 6 goals to make the playoffs.

Group B

Switzerland and Portugal will square off for top spot in Portugal on Tuesday night. Saturday night saw the European Champions needing to bring Ronaldo off the bench to beat the mighty Andorra whilst the Swiss rolled Hungary 5-2. His royal CR7ness will need to come up with the goods on Tuesday if Portugal are to secure the win they need with Switzerland only needing a draw. Whoever loses out is guaranteed a play off spot,

Group C

Germany are through after their convincing win in Belfast and whilst Northern Ireland are guaranteed second place they require a result in Norway tonight to ensure they avoid the dreaded lowest placed runner up spot and miss the playoffs- a draw should be enough for Micheal O’Neill’s men.

Group D

It may be a fixture more famous for rugby than football but Ireland visit the Principality Stadium for the winner takes all (well more likely a playoff spot) game with Wales. Wales currently hold the edge but both need to win as a draw may see the Welsh finish as the lowest placed runner up. Serbia missed the chance to secure the group by losing in Austria this week but have a second chance at home to lowly Georgia on Monday night.

Group E

Poland will secure qualification with a draw at home this afternoon against third placed Montenegro, meanwhile resurgent Denmark will guarantee themselves a playoff berth with a home win over Romania.

Group F

Given England have scored 4 goals in injury time and Scotland 5 after the 84th minute we should have expected Harry Kane’s 93rd minute winner and Chris Martin (not the one from Coldplay) forcing an 87th minute Slovakian own goal. It all means England have qualified and Scotland will make the playoffs if they win in Slovenia tonight. A draw almost certainly won’t be enough for the Scots given third place Slovakia fave the open goal of a home game with Malta.

Group G

It’s done and dusted- Spain are there after Italy laughably failed to beat Macedonia at home. Italy have to make do with a playoff spot- needless to say they’ll be the team to avoid.

Group H

Belgium had already qualified but still provided some fun (Gareth Southgate take note) with a 4-3 win over Bosnia. Greece will finish second with a home win over Gibraltar but may need to top up their goal difference to avoid the lowest placed runner up spot and elimination.

Group I

Iceland will make their World Cup debut with a home win over last placed Kosovo on Monday night. Meanwhile Croatia travel to Kiev needing a point to secure second place- a win for Ukraine will see them leapfrog Croatia and claim a possible playoff.

South America

Argentina are in deep trouble- they lie sixth in the group and will be out if they don’t make it to at least fifth. The good news is they have their destiny in their own hands- a win and they will finish at least fifth, the bad news is the game is Ecuador away (at altitude) where they often struggle. Elsewhere Brazil qualified years ago and Uruguay are practically there due to their strong goal difference. Colombia face Peru with the winner guaranteed qualification meanwhile Chile need a result away to Brazil to make sure of a top 5 finish. Finally Paraguay’s late goals against Colombia gives them a shout of a playoff spot.

Africa

Congratulations to Nigeria who’ve secured qualification with a game to spare. Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal all look good to join them but will have to wait until November to make sure. The real intrigue is in Group C where the tradition African powerhouse Ivory Coast are a point behind Morocco with 1 game to play, and the last game is: Ivory Coast hosting Morocco. Watch this space.

Concaaf

The USA finally got going with a 4-1 home win over Panama which puts them on course to join Mexico and Costa Rica in the finals- a draw away to Trinidad & Tobago will be enough. Panama and Honduras meanwhile are level points for the playoff spot with Panama holding a stronger goal difference, they host Mexico and costs respectively on Wednesday when the group concludes.

Asia

Syria scraped a 1-1 Home draw (played in Malaysia) against Australia with the return leg in Sydney on Tuesday. The Socceroos will be hit favourites to progress and face the 4th place Concaaf team.

Oceania

This week New Zealand will finally discover which South American will knock them out, sorry lads.

England 1-0 Slovenia: Kane sends England stumbling to St Petersburg.

This was supposed to be a party- the moment Gareth Southgate’s England would play some flowing football and storm to Russia. But England qualifying games are rarely that simple. For those who’ve been living on Mars since Sunday night a win would take England through and a draw would be enough if Slovakia failed to beat Scotland.

England started confidently with Sterling in his revised number 10 role causing the Slovenians problems as England dominated possession without creating a clear cut chance. Then in the 8th minute Sterling gave the ball away in midfield and Slovenian danger man Ilicic broke into the England box and was clipped by Hart- fortunately for England the referee saw it as a collision rather than a foul- a let off.

The spanner it through in the works knocked England out of their stride and a loose period of play saw England continuously give the ball away and snuggle to regain their early composure.

As was the case last month against Slovakia it was Rashford who got England going again, a darting run down the left jangled Slovenian nerves and a neat cross almost put Cahill in. Then in the 20th minute the temperature raised after some agricultural defending from the Slovenians and England started to move up the gears. England’s first clear sight of goal came from Henderson in the 25th minute who broke into the box and hit an angled shot that drew a good save from Oblak.

By now Rashford was enjoying himself and playing with the impudence of a schoolboy but the defensive problems continued as Slovenia consistently found gaps between England’s midfield and defence. in the 34th minute Sterling drew a poor challenge from holding midfielder Krhin just outside the box, bit despite the promising central position of the ensuing free kick England opted for the less than prolific Walker to take it, needless to say he blazed it over the bar. Before long Krhin was booked as Slovenia’s defending grew ever more clumsy, but England continued to labour. The last action of the first half inevitably centre on Rashford whose trickery drew a foul and he forced a smart save from Oblak with the ensuing free kick and then a flick on from Cahill with the ensuing corner but with no reward 0-0 at half time

Slovenia started the second half the sharper and Ilicic swung in a cross that left back Jokic headed tamely at Hart. But the game settled back into the pattern of the first half with Slovenia looking tidy with their limited possession and England slow and ponderous whilst keeping it for longer spells. The crowd became firstly bored and then restless as Walker gave away a needless chance and Slovenia again grew in ambition.

Finally on 62 minutes England showed some pace when a quick break from a Slovenia corner saw Sterling feed Rashford who tried to chip the keeper but didn’t get enough on the ball, minutes later another quick move down the left saw Sterling shoot from the centre of the box and force a desperate clearance from Cesar.

The introduction of Lingard for the ineffective Oxlade-Chamberlain gave England the impetus as he linked well with Sterling and Rashford to unsettle Slovenia’s defence and again down the left Rashford created a chance for Kane who’s angled shot flew wide.

But the drab shapeless look soon returned and on 82 minutes some awful officiating saw a foul on Lingard go unpunished then from the ensuing break an offside missed forcing Hart into an excellent double save.

The most entertainment in the closing stages looked like being provided by a paper aeroplane and a (fully clothed) pitch invader, until the 4th official weirdly found 6 minutes of injury time that initially sounded like a punishment for the crowd for laughing at the pitch invasion. But suddenly England found some thrust and the otherwise awful Walker pounced on a poor clearance and whipped in a cross which Kane toe-poked home 1-0 on 93 minutes, 5 minutes later England’s qualification was confirmed.

This game was like a visit to the dentist: awkward painful but with the necceasary work completed. Clearly there’s plenty to work on and the media bullsh$t started in earnest when Ian Wright pointed out how much harder Northern Ireland’s group is (that’s because England are ranked higher than Northern Ireland, Ian!) But the bare minimum requirement has been met and for the next 8 months that will have to do.

Player Ratings

Hart 7- Lucky not to concede a penalty in the early stages and had little to do until his brilliant double save.

Walker 5- Awful until injury time. Started brightly but quickly faded, gave away 2 good chances when he suffered brain farts both by knocking aimless balls into gaping holes in England’s defence. But made amends with his powerful runs in injury time and finally a great cross which Kane dispatched.

Bertrand 6- Solid in defence (as usual) and linked well with Rashford. Edging ever closer to being first choice left back.

Dier 5- Frankly awful, provided little defence stability and ponderous on the ball.

Cahill 6- Solid against nobody for the most part, occasionally threatening at the over end but little to write home about.

Stones 6- As above but little sign of his ball playing skills- his one forward thrust saw him miscontrol and pick up a booking.

Sterling 6- Some early incision and drew some fouls with his footwork but not comfortable as a number 10. Played far better in the final third of the game when played on the right.

Henderson 5- forced a good save from Oblak but like Dier provided neither defensive stability nor attacking incision, how is he in the running for the captaincy?

Kane 6- Had to feed off scraps as England struggled to create chances. Worked hard and took his chance when it finally arrived.

Rashford 8- Creative, quick and the best player in a white shirt by a long distance. One negative was his dodgy set piece delivery.

Oxlade-Chamberlain 5- Early zip quickly disintegrated. Hooked early in the second half. Will be dropped in Lithuania.

Subs

Lingard 7- Bright and linked well with Sterling and Rashford.

Keane n/a Touched the ball at some stage, I think.

 

 

 

England v Slovenia preview

So here we are England will seal their 6th successive World Cup appearance and 9th in the last 10 with a win at Wembley against Slovenia.

With a 5 point lead in Group F and a big goal difference advantage over the rest a point will almost certainly be enough. But against a side ranked 55th in the world a win at Wembley will be expected and for Gareth Southgate a perfect sign off on a successful qualifying campaign in front of 80,000 Home fans. But mess things up and a frosty night in Lithuania awaits to stumble over the line.

Despite their low ranking Slovenia gave England a rough time in a 0-0 draw in Ljubljana a year ago and sit only a point behind second placed Slovakia so arrive at Wembley with qualifying ambitions of their own. Their brightest star is Athletico Madrid goalkeeper Jan Oblak who’s impressed in Atheltico’s recent run of Champions League campaigns. Going forward the main creative threat will come from Serie A regular Josip Ilicic- who clocked up 100 appearances for Fiorentina before moving on to Atalanta this summer.

History

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The draw Slovenia gained last year was the first time they managed to avoid defeat to England- losing the previous 4 meetings. The most notable being the final group match of the 2010 World Cup when Jermain Defoe stabbed home the only goal of the game and secured England’s only win of a largely awful campaign. More recently the sides met in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. England came from behind to win 3-1 at Wembley and then 3-2 in Slovenia when Jack Wilshere bagged a memorable second half brace.

Team News

Since the squad was announced last Thursday Fabian Delph and Phil Jones have been ruled out with injury whilst Dele Alli will serve his one match ban for flipping the bird in the Slovakia game last month. It’s a particular blow for Delph who was likely to play following his good run of form for Manchester City. But Delph’s injury is short term and he should be back for City when the Premier League resumes, he currently looks a key component to Pep Guardiola’s side so should get his chance in the November internationals.

England Squad Takeaways

The late call up to the squad is Tottenham’s Harry Winks who’ll be hoping to make his debut. Winks has been promoted from the Under 21’s and with Delph joining a lengthy injury list in midfield has been given his chance sooner than expected, but the talented young playmaker looks a confident player who may well grab his opportunity with both hands and it is good to see a young player with potential getting the late call up rather than a veteran with little upside.

There’s been no word yet on team selection but inevitably there’ll be a lot of focus on the goalkeepers. Southgate backed Joe Hart after his error against Scotland in the summer but then was partly to blame for Slovakia’s goal at Wembley. Southgate needs to give his other keepers a chance with at best 7 games remaining before the World Cup (assuming we make it!) I’d like to see Jack Butland given the start but I suspect the manager will stick with Hart.

Elsewhere the absence of Jones means a change in central defence- the favourite must be John Stones after a good start to the season with City and his ball playing skills should be a huge asset against a side likely to sit deep for long spells.

Prediction

Slovenia will come looking for a point and hit on the break when they can. I expect England will score in the first half and should run out comfortable winners 2-0.