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Germany 2-3 England: Three Observations (Spurs-Tinted)

Admittedly only a friendly, but nevertheless one of those jamborees to have you climbing a rooftop and ringing a bally great big bell. A performance and comeback with an almighty amount of biff, and against no lesser opponents than the world champions, this felt like one to get the rowdier members of the parish council standing up and paying heed.

1. Tottenham Core

During an international break it takes a particular breed of toothsome fruitiness to stir AANP from the wine cellar, but the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that the quill has indeed been applied to parchment. At the nub of the thing is a sentiment that cannot have escaped every beady eye – namely that the best England performance in a month of Sundays was founded upon a core of players that had a distinct lilywhite gloss to them.

The high pressing, high-tempo approach to life, which just about throttled the life out of the Germans, will have looked mighty familiar to anyone who has pootled along the roads of N17 in recent months. This, oddly enough, was an England team playing the image of Tottenham. Every time they lost the ball they swarmed as one to win it back, looking every inch like a team of excitable beasts let off the leash, and having served Spurs to the point of a Title-pop this season, the same recipe dashed well appeared to put the World Cup winners to the sword.

As if to add a pinch of subtlety to the comparison, this England team was fashioned from a backbone of Dier, Alli and Kane, who pretty much set the standard for things by putting into effect a meaty combo of ball-winning, harassment and some gloriously slick interplay. This Spurs core, right down the centre of the pitch, set the tone, and while it struck me that Henderson, Lallana, Welbeck and chums were not quite charging their glasses with quite the same gusto, they certainly got the gist of things.

2.  Back Four (And In Particular The Centre-Backs)

So when piling forwards our heroes certainly seemed braced for matters, cane in hand and hat tipped just so, but at the back one could not help feeling a less enthused by matters. The first goal was to a large extent just the way the cookie crumbles, what with poor old Butland having to alternate between broken ankle and unbroken ankle for an unfortunate minute or so. A black mark against young Dier, it should be noted, in failing to prevent the Kroos shot, but in the grand scheme of things this was not one to bring civilisation to its knees.

The second goal, however, was a different kettle of fish, not least because it was of the ilk that England seem to concede so dashed regularly. Against Balotelli and Suarez in the World Cup I seem to recall relatively straightforward balls into the area causing no end of bedlam within our back four. And as sure as night follows day, on Saturday night the England centre-backs again paraded around like toddlers in blindfolds, befuddled to within an inch of their lives by the combination of leather orb and lurking top-notch attacker. Not an easy task for them, granted, but progress in an international tournament will require a somewhat tighter padlock around the rear entrance, because Europe’s finest do not hang around for a snifter and cigar when presented with half a sight of the England net.

3. The Rooney Conundrum

Pop into your video box a flashback to Euro 2004 and its qualifiers, and I dare say you will rub your eyes in a heightened state of wonder, near enough agog at the sight of a young Wayne Rooney tearing through various European defences like a young bull doing his best to destroy a china shop in double-quick time. Fast forward a few birthdays, and Rooney’s performances tend to veer a little closer to ridiculous than sublime. The occasional eye-goggling volley does certainly ping into the top corner with the sweetness of a ripened nut, but as often as not the chap’s first touch seems to have packed its travel bag and wandered off for an extended sabbatical.

Given the general aplomb with which the England front five (or so) swagger this way and that as they go about their lawful business, one spots the issue at a pretty nifty rate of knots. This England attack is dashed well primed, with Alli behind Kane, pacy options in the wider areas and substitutes offering various combinations of speed and trickery. Barrelling Rooney into the midst of this is rather like attempting one of those awkward long-division sums as a child, that ends up with an answer of 17 but with a calamitous remainder of 13 or so, that just causes headaches whichever way one stares at the paper.

All eyes then on wise old Corporal Hodgson, who on the one hand has pledged understandable allegiance to his captain – who did after all make a habit of finding the net during the 100% qualifying campaign – but on the other hand will not be oblivious to the strengths of this new-look, all-singing, all-dancing England.

One notable addendum to this is the fact that despite his appearance as a kindly grandfather with no particular clue about how to operate the remote control, Hodgson does actually have a history of turning his baseball cap back to front and making some eye-catching calls. Cast your minds back to the last World Cup, and when James Milner appeared to offer the safety-first option in our opener against Italy, Hodgson inked himself a tattoo on his arm, moodily answered back to his parents and threw Raheem Sterling into the thick of the thing. The chap, it seems, moves in mysterious ways his team selections to perform.

Ukraine 1-0 England: Silver Linings

Do excuse me while I momentarily don my England hat: this missive, from one of the souls frequently to be found loitering around AANP Towers, appeared on football365.com earlier today:

Whatever the rights and wrongs of Rio’s concentration lapse, the curious manner in which Green was sent off, the withdrawal of Lennon and the fact that we lost, it strikes me as far more useful than if we’d played with 11 and coasted to a comfy victory. We’ve had it all our own way so far in this campaign – and deservedly so by and large, we’ve earned it – so with qualification in the bag a more testing scenario ought to have been of much greater benefit in preparing for the World Cup. Playing almost the whole game with ten men, and chasing the game for a good hour, will hopefully have been vaguely educational for the players, who can expect far sterner tests throughout the World Cup Finals than they’ve received in the Qualifiers.

In particular, I was glad that the less proven and less experienced international players, like Johnson and Carrick, got to experience a tricky game away from home, in a testing atmosphere and against a team who desperately wanted a win. I would hope they’ll learn a lot more from that than they would have done in another 4-1 romp at Wembley. Knowing what strategy we adopt with ten men could also prove a handy lesson come South Africa.

For the same reason, I see a silver lining in Rooney’s withdrawal for the Belarus game. Admittedly they’re not the toughest opponents so we should be able to beat them even without our top players, but just in terms of preparation for the World Cup, playing a competitive game without Rooney is necessary for the team to know how to adapt. We struggled without him in crunch games in previous tournaments, and while he’s a dead cert to start when available, we need to have at least some semblance of a plan to cope without him. In both 2004 and 2006 we were knocked out when he exited, and there’s always a possibility he’ll be injured/suspended for a crucial game or two in 2010. Blessings in disguise, I tell ye.

Barca – Man Utd Champions League Final Preview: All Action, Please

Ah The Champions League. That inescapable anthem. The meaningless group games. The same teams each year – some of whom actually are indeed national champions. And money, everywhere. Advertising money. TV money. Salaries. Transfer fees.The All-Action Way

With this thick layer of cynicism building up around the Champions League I find it genuinely refreshing to look forward to tonight’s game. Two teams who generally play the right way. The all-action way, full of movement, interchanging and technique that has grown men drooling.

It’s all action for sure, but, at least in Man Utd’s case, there is a darned good idea of plot too, in the form of Rio and the Serbian psycho, protected by the beaverish midfield three. The excellent Radio 5 Live preview last night made an interesting point, namely that in the absence of their suspended, ridiculously over-attacking full-backs – Abidal and Alves – Barca will be forced to field a couple of understudies at right and left-back, and therefore might be more cautious, and consequently a darned sight tighter at the back than they usually are. Interesting point.

Other sub-plots of note: Van der Saar has gone all Obi Wan Kenobi – an old man, whose powers are waning. His flaps and fumbles are increasing in frequency. I’m not convinced that Giggs is an adequate understudy to Fletcher in the role of midfield hustler-and-harrier. Barca’s insistence on passing to death outside the area rather than have a pop from distance (an affliction which curiously hampered Spurs in the spring months) has generally proved detrimental to their cause against English opposition. Pretty to watch though.

Early Goal, Please

Naturally, there is the worry that after all the anticipation, this game degenerates into a dour, disappointing affair. However, an early goal ought to do the trick, and really open up the game. Although last year’s final was watched through an increasingly hazy cloud of alcohol, I do recall it being a generally entertaining affair – thanks, in no small part, to the early-ish opening goal. A pleasant contrast to the FA Cup Final between the same two teams the previous year.

Rooting For Man Utd. Sort Of.

I won’t particularly mind who wins, as it doesn’t concern Spurs, but I suppose I’ll be edging towards Man Utd. As with many of the greatest arguments of mankind, my reasons are threefold:

1) The patriot in me always likes to see English teams win European trophies. (Unless it’s l’Arse. Or Chelski).

2) Rooney. The man’s a genius, and I’d love to see him boss the game of games.

3) Generally a fan of the Man Utd style of play. Liquid football. In last year’s Champs League Final they produced one of my favourite pieces of football ever – Rooney picked up the ball at right-back (!), motored forward 40 yards, then pinged a diagonal cross-field peach of a ball to Ronaldo, who pulled it back for Tevez (I think) to diving head, saved by Cech, before Carrick blasted the rebound goalwards, where it was headed clear by a defender. Or something like that (alcoholic haze, remember). Absolutely awesome football. I just stood there ogling, as if it were a svelte brunette tying knots in a cherry stalk with her tongue.

Then in the semi vs l’Arse there was something similarly mesmeric in Ronaldo’s second goal – the backheel, Park’s burst, Rooney’s perfect pass, and Ronaldo again, sixty yards from his starting-point, finishing it.

More of the same tonight please.

England 2-1 Ukraine: If It Ain’t Broke…

It wasn’t particularly broke, it didn’t need fixing. Curious then that Fabio suddenly came over all Norman Bates, picked up an axe and started swinging wildly until something was indeed broken.Lennon was doing a decent job on the right. He had not set the world alight, but there was always a threat, a bit of a buzz, whenever he got the ball and ran at his man. “Menacing” might be the word I’m after. That part in a horror film where the delectable and scantily clad young jezebel finds herself on her own in a dark house – you get the feeling something worth watching is about to happen, even though it might be a red herring.

Lennon on the right offered a genuine attacking threat, balancing (albeit asymmetrically) the Cole-Barry-Gerrard-Rooney combo from the left. At least, that’s how it was in the first half. The withdrawal of Lennon ten mins into the second half robbed England of their only pacy outlet, and coincided with the drop from “urgent” to “perfunctory”.

The introduction of Beckham ought to imply a general shoring up of things, with the game in the bag and 15 mins to go. Instead he was brought on with only a one-goal lead and 35 mins to play. Beckham didn’t get within 30 yards of the Ukraine by-line.

However, Beckham did provide the cross for the winner, which is basically his raison d’être in the team these days, and is something Lennon generally can’t do (certainly not from deep). So was Fabio right after all to withdraw Lennon? The case in his defence – Beckham’s assist – has been made; the prosecution argues that his introduction of Wright-Phillips once Ukraine had equalised indicates that Capello recognised the need for pace missing since Lennon’s withdrawal.

I guess the conclusion is that the whole bally lot of them rather lost urgency in the second half, and the replacement of Lennon with Beckham was a contributory factor – but, when it was needed, Beckham offered an attacking threat, albeit in a vastly different way from Lennon.

The Rest of Them

Elsewhere, it’s broken-record time, as Gerrard’s performance for country was again patently less impressive than his typical displays for club (which is the cue for all Liverpool fans to create life-size models of All-Action-No-Plot Towers and then burn them down in incandescence). Gerrard remains a square peg in a round hole for England. He is most effective behind the front man; but this would negate Rooney, who in a different sort of way is also most effective behind the front man. The bar ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Gerrard on the left is fine against Slovakia, but one wonders if he’ll be quite as effective on the left in the latter stages of a World Cup. Personally I’d go with J. Cole left, and Gerrard-Barry in the centre, with Gerrard having more licence to attack than Lampard currently does. The whole business of Lampard playing a more “disciplined” – i.e. defensive – role had me flailing my arms and muttering in frustration all night.

My man-crush on Rooney continues, but that darned red mist enveloped him once again.

James – calamity.

Ashley Cole – strangely beset by an identity crisis that had him thoroughly clueless as to his nationality, with the result that he spent most of the game passing to Ukrainians. Someone dig out the boy’s passport and talk him through it.

Terry – good assist, and smartly-taken goal, but reckless in conceding the free-kick for their goal. Oh that Ledley’s knee was healthy.

Crouch’s goal was also smartly-taken, but the celebrations for both goals were rubbish. Crouch at least had the decency to look thoroughly embarrassed by whatever the hell he was doing. The Terry-Rooney routine was as appalling as it was perplexing.

However, the bright and breezy take on the game is that we were excellent in the first half, patient and dangerous; and when we absolutely had to raise our game in the second half we did. Three points is all-important in qualifying. If/when we make the World Cup Finals, no-one will care about that dodgy half 30 mins in the second half vs Ukraine in April.

England – Ukraine Preview: JT, Rooney and Darren Bent’s Confidence

For all the well-deserved plaudits, we didn’t learn much about England on Saturday. Rather reminded me of a wedding rehearsal – polite, happy, didn’t count for anything. Slovakia played like footballing eunuchs and were duly thrashed at a canter.Ukraine, and their occasionally-preceding definite article, ought to prove a slightly different kettle of fish – but only slightly. Fifa’s curious ranking system has Ukraine within the top 20, and it is worth noting that, like England, they made the World Cup quarter finals in 2006. Shevchenko and chums are no mugs then – but this is the sort of straight-faced diplomacy trotted out by the players, in those excruciatingly bland pre-match press conferences sprinkled with phrases like “We won’t be underestimating them… No easy games at international level…”

Cutting through the blandness, and Fabio’s England, on the back of some perky form and with a team brimming full of Champions League connoisseurs, certainly ought to beat Ukraine at home. It’s unlikely to be quite as merry a cakewalk as on Saturday, but we still ought to win. While our position five points clear of Croatia gives us some margin for error, it would be better to have that in hand for the trip to Kiev, or visit of Croatia to Wembley. Ukraine at home is not really the time to slip up.

John Terry

After the maternal members of the Terry family tried their hands at shoplifiting last week, there seemed grounds to suggest that at the weekend the family brain cell was being used by the England captain. This argument was promptly shot down at Wembley when JT ensured that a certain Crouch goal was disallowed for offside, by tapping in from one yard, when the ball was already past the ‘keeper and heading for the net. Better it happens in a friendly, I guess, but hardly the most impressive display of tactical acumen. Looks like Rio will be back to partner him on Wednesday.

Roooo-ney, Roooo-ney 

A propos Rooney, the news that Crouch has recovered from injury suggests that Wednesday will see the beanpole up top, with the human gargoyle in that scrumptious position just off the main striker. Nods of approval at AANP Towers. Presumably Gerrard will continue on the left, where he did a good job on Saturday. The link-up play between him and Rooney has inevitably attracted plenty of praise, but he’s nevertheless a square peg in a round hole out there, and a better team then Slovakia (a fairly wide-ranging criterion admittedly) could expose both his right-footedness and defensive lapses. However, it seems this is his home for now, so he might as well bed in and make himself comfy.

The injuries to Heskey, Carlton Cole and Crouch led to some speculation over who would be called up. Michael Owen and Kevin Davies were the names being bandied around. In those kits I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Terry Thomas make an appearance. As it happened our very own Darren Bent got the nod.

The Darren Bent Confidence-O-Meter 

Sat 7 March – Recalled to the Spurs starting XI against Sunderland, the dial on Bent’s Confidence-O-Meter stirs into life and hits 4 out of 10. However, a trademark Bent miss high into the north-east sky, sees the dial return to rock bottom, with our hero considering packing it all in.

Sun 15 March – Bent keeps his place in the starting XI for Villa, and the dial pings upwards again. His sensational two-inch tap-in sees the dial go right off the scale. Winning goal! Victory at Villa! The man is a hero – at least inside his own head – and his confidence has never been so high!

Weds 18March – Forgets to take the bin out for collection. Confidence begins to slump.

Sat 21 March – Retains his place in the starting XI, for visit of Chelski, and all is right with the world again. To his credit he worked his hoopy socks off, and contributed worthily to another fine win. These happy thoughts have the Confidence-O-Meter right up at level 10. However, every time he remembers that he didn’t actually score, it drops down several levels – such is the brittle existence of a “confidence player”. Just stay positive Dazza!

Sunday 29 March – The Bent Confidence-O-Meter explodes irreparably after Fabio calls him up for international duty, following injuries to the first 18 strikers on the list.

So it’s a good day to be Darren Bent. Or at least it was until he did his knee in training and Fabio called up Agbonlahor. Crouch and Rooney will start up front for England, and if things are going to plan I’d imagine Fabio will replace a striker with a midfielder in the closing stages, which will mean precious little action for either Bent of Agbonlahor.

Milestones for Terry and Beckham 

On a final and belated note, AANP Towers politely and sincerely applauds Terry on winning his 50th cap, and similarly lauds Beckham on his 109th. One suspects that this newly-set record for outfield appearances will itself be surpassed soon enough – the modern-day international calendar seeing to it that the Ukraine game is Rooney’s 50th for England, at age 23. Nevertheless, while subtly steering clear of any sort of debate over his selection, I suggest that, whatever his off-pitch shenanigans, Beckham’s attitude in an England shirt always seems to be one of fierce and honest commitment. If all goes to plan more applause will be ringing out on Wednesday night.

England 4-0 Slovakia: On-Pitch Fluffiness, Off-Pitch Soap Opera

A virulent strain of man-flu left me stuck in AANP Towers, and unable to venture out in search of the curious GCSE Media project that is Setanta. 5Live and ITV highlights for me – the extended exposure to 5Live’s Alan Green robbing me of much of the will to live – so my take on the game, tactically wanting at the best of times, is about as meaty as a vegan’s lunch-box today.I had hoped for the challenge of a decent period of parity, to give England a bit of a test of patience and creativity. The early goal duly robbed the game of much purpose, although it’s one for the Wembley crowd to tell disbelieving grandchildren several decades hence, having been netted by Heskey. The eventual 4-0 scoreline suggests that the Slovaks obediently fulfilled their roles of sacrificial lambs without demur.

Some fluffy and inane thoughts to pass the time, based purely on the noises that came from my radio:

 

·         There is a concern that the Upson-Terry central defensive pairing has a lack of pace that would be punished by better teams (a penny for Ledley’s thoughts).

·         A bizarre, Darren Anderton-themed game of musical chairs amongst the strikers saw about twenty of them trot on, get injured and trot straight off. I’m cleaning my boots in anticipation of a call-up to the squad for Wednesday. As is Kevin Davies, according to the good folk of the BBC. Distressingly, only one of these statements is made in jest. (Hot off the press –  well, luke-warm – is the news that big bad Dazza Bent is to transfer that hurt, confused, hands-half-raised-to-head look from club to country, having been summoned by the Don. Cripes. Another penny please, this time for Michael Owen’s thoughts.)

·         The question of whether to build the team around Gerrard or Rooney seems to have replaced the question of whether to pick Gerrard or Lampard.

·         Lennon, apparently, was ok (and, mercifully, withdrawn without injury). However, there was something approaching consensus on the view that Beckham’s crossing gives him the edge, even if Lennon gets the nod on Wednesday.

Fairly bland, satisfactory and meaningless then, as anticipated by all and sundry. More entertainingly, away from the lumpy Wembley turf there had been an increasingly farcical air about the England soap opera over the last day or two, conjuring up images of poorly-scripted day-time TV soap operas.

·         Bewilderingly, both the mother and mother-in-law of John Terry found themselves in trouble with Her Majesty’s finest, for shop-lifting. The mind boggles. It’s like a caption competition without a picture.

·         After much fanfare the new, £50(!) England shirt was unveiled. Presumably intended to hark back to the days of Lofthouse et al, it looks rather like the design brief was assigned to an eight year-old, who quickly became distracted and forgot to complete it. It certainly evokes memories of Tottenham – both Spurs’ plain white shirt of last season, and the PE uniform I wore as a nipper in the playground on the High Road, just opposite White Hart Lane. Neither here nor there I guess, but it does aggrieve me to think that someone somewhere is minted on the back of designing that.

·         The tête-a-tête between Fabio and ‘Arry simmers on, although now less Rocky vs Apollo Creed, and more schoolgirls spreading gossip about each other. Fabio raised the point that there was no objection to the call-up of Alan Hutton to the Scotland squad, after several months out, as there had reportedly been to Ledley’s selection. Possibly a mistake on the Italian’s part, as the circumstances are different. The Ledley objection revolves around his recovery time, as a strictly once-a-week player; Hutton is more straightforwardly just back from a one-off, non-recurrent injury.


So all a bit surreal, but pleasing enough. Things should at least pick up as the more serious business of the qualifier vs Ukraine approaches, followed by the Premiership programme next weekend. Bon weekend, one and all.

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