• Saturday, 26 June 2010

    Spain highlight English failures

    After France and Italy tumbled out of the World Cup at the first hurdle, Spain avoided the ignominy of joining them with a battling win over a very talented Chilean side. The opening, and probably decisive, goal came after a brain failure from Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo who went a-wandering outside of his area and played a half-assed clearance straight to the feet of David Villa who played a lovely little 9-iron over the stranded keeper and into the net. Andres Iniesta made it two and, with Marco Estrada sent off for a foul in the build-up, that was that.

    The Villa goal remains the talking point. On ITV's trademark lamentable coverage, anchor Matt Smith was drooling. "When a predominantly right-footed player can do that with his left. Wow". What an utterly ridiculous statement which pretty well highlights a big problem the English have never got to grips with. Villa may be a right-footer, Lionel Messi a lefty, but you'd not know. They developed skills at an early age and learned how to use their less-favoured foot to the point at which they are comfortable on either side. In England, kids just play games. The more physically developed prevail in the kick-and-rush environment to the point at which there's a national team of right-footers who are utterly incapable of playing it off the left. This is a systemic failure that stretches back for as long as life itself and England will not be a world power while it remains.

    Thursday, 24 June 2010

    And still the Europeans tumble

    The reigning champions, Italy, are the latest big European name to bite the dust at the World Cup. Slovakia stunned them in taking a two-goal lead thanks to Robert Vittek and some curiously lax defending. It was only when Vittek's second went in with around ten minutes to go that Italy came out of their shells. They'd been poor, but suddenly looked up for it. Antonio Di Natale drew them level after Slovak keeper Jan Mucha couldn't hold a shot from range and an ever-so-tight offside call - different camera angles tell different stories - denied Fabio Quagliarella. Instead, Slovakia went up the other end and made it three.

    A horrible backpass did Federico Marchetti no favours and he was forced to hoof it out for a throw rather than concede the corner. In hindsight, he might have been better leaving it. His defenders stood and watched as Kamil Kopunek jogged past them, latched onto the throw and chipped Marchetti for what was surely the decisive goal. But no. The one thing Italy will go home with is a contender for goal of the tournament, Quagliarella flighting an absolute peach of a shot out of Mucha's reach and into the top corner. That came with two minutes of stoppages remaining, but Slovakia held firm. The final whistle saw Marcello Lippi disappear down the tunnel - no handshakes with his opposite number.

    With the other game, New Zealand and Paraguay, remaining goalless, all Italy needed was a score draw, but only for about five minutes did it look remotely possible that they'd get it. Impossibly negative in the opening two games and eighty minutes, they've ended up with what they deserved: nothing. Lippi got the old band back together, but it's never the same. It's like seeing the Four Tops. You know they were great, but there's not many of the original line-up left and even those aren't as good as they were four years ago. Fabio Cannavaro, so imperious in Germany, looked two years too old throughout. Gianluigi Buffon only lasted 45 minutes and Andrea Pirlo only came in as a last throw of the dice by Lippi. There was no spark, no pace and no ideas. As a result, they finish bottom, below New Zealand who bow out despite remaining unbeaten. On the flip side, Vladimir Weiss was brave. Having seen his side disappoint in the opening two games, he dropped his own son, also Vladimir, and went more attacking with Miroslav Stoch getting his first World Cup start. It paid off in an inversely proportional way to Italy's steadfast refusal to change.

    It's often been said that Italian teams returning in disgrace can expect to be pelted with tomatoes. Let's hope for the players sake that the tifosi that greet them this time have taken them out of the tins.

    Wednesday, 23 June 2010

    France's next move

    It could scarcely have gone worse for France at the World Cup. Internal disputes saw the side pulled apart as it has threatened to do since the extension to Raymond Domenech's contract was announced after the dismal European Championships of two years ago. Many commentators have compared this implosion to those of the Dutch sides of the 80s and 90s, but this is on a different scale. Star players verbally abusing and physically threatening the coach, a strike (how very Gallic), a horrible official statement relating to the strike, players sent home, the captain dropped for his part in the revolt and the old man of the side assuming control of team affairs for the last game - hey, you've read it all elsewhere. That makes the Dutch of twenty years ago look like mere amateurs. Spain and Belgium too - they were merely dipping their toes in the shallow end while this crop of Frenchmen took a running jump off the ten-metre board.

    Needless to say, results on the pitch were about as predictably awful as can be expected in the circumstances and they are on their way home - flying economy - barely ten days after the tournament began. The names Evra, Anelka and Henry are all mud, but there are a few players whose reputations have been enhanced by the fiasco, namely Patrick Vieira, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri. All four were omitted, surpringly so, by Domenech and while missing out on a World Cup wasn't in the script for any of them, they may be pleased they sat this one out.

    Domenech is gone now and, oh boy, what a legacy the new guy has been left. Laurent Blanc takes over and European qualifiers are just around the corner. One thing Blanc has got in his favour is that he commands respect in a way Domenech never has done, but what personal rifts there are in the squad after all that's gone on in South Africa need identifying and resolving as a matter of urgency. There's a crop of young players who it would be easy to see as being resentful to the older group - the agitators - for ruining their World Cup. Before the French kick another ball in anger, Blanc could do a lot worse than get together with his squad - and players like Nasri et al who weren't there for this one - and bend them to his vision. Draw a line under this episode and regroup. Lingering resentment will hold back the nation for many years. This needs sorting and sorting now.

    Last minute Americans send Slovenia packing

    In truth, that headline should have been written last Friday night when only a bonkers refereeing decision helped Slovenia to a draw with the USA. Instead, the Americans got their revenge in the final group games and it's they that go through and Slovenia who are on their way home.

    It wasn't like that throughout proceedings though. England took a lead midway through the first half, but with the USA being held 0-0 by Algeria, that was still enough for Slovenia to join England in the second phase. England had chances, but couldn't kill the game off. The best chance for an equaliser ended with Valter Birsa shooting wide with the fourth effort of a barrage of shots blocked by England defenders. At the final whistle, it still remained goalless in the other game. Happy days. Well it might have been had there not been a couple more minutes of stoppage time left when Landon Donovan broke, Jozy Altidore's shot wasn't held and Donovan followed in to snatch a dramatic late winner for the States which saw them top the group ahead of England.

    Heartbreak, then, for Matjaz Kek and his team, but let's be realistic. Slovenia is tiny - a nation of two million with only around 450 registered professional footballers to call their own. Man City have about that many. This has forced Kek into forging the side into a fairly rigid starting XI with minimal changes which produces it's own pluses and minuses. On the plus side comes a team harmony many others envy (we mean you, France) with more of a feel of a club side about it. Players know instinctively how their colleagues play and that allows them to play in a way that gets the best out of each other. On the flip side, when it comes to chasing a game like they had to against England, it becomes very difficult to change personnel, let alone the system. The lack of a plan B really counted against them. While the nation has such meagre playing resources, that's unlikely to change and while the disappointment is tangible, it has to be remembered that getting to this point is a major victory. It may take a couple of days and a couple of beers to realise this, but that's the reality of the situation and it's a big feather in Kek's cap.

    Saturday, 19 June 2010

    Blundering ref keeps Slovenia alive

    After a less-than-convincing win over Algeria, could Slovenia carry it on against the USA? On paper, it looked like a far tougher assignment, but a stunning strike from Valter Birsa and a tidy finish from Zlatan Ljubilankic saw them into a comfortable 2-0 half-time lead. USA coach Bob Bradley made a couple of changes during the break and they worked. Landon Donovan scored from a stupidly tight angle - the otherwise exemplary Samir Handanovic at fault on his near post - a couple of minutes after the restart and then it was backs to the wall for Slovenia, hoping to hold off the resurgent Americans.

    They couldn't hold out, the boss's son Michael lashed home from the edge of the box to square it up with five minutes to go, but that was just the start of it. Enter Koman Coulibaly. Donovan curled a free-kick into the box which one of those half-time subs, Maurice Edu, stuck past Handanovic for the apparent winner, but Coulibaly had blown for a foul. Repeated viewings showed none. If anything, it was the Slovenians guilty of pushing, grabbing and wrestling. The irate Americans pressed the ref for a reason why, but they got little change from the Malian who we saw referee in the Africa Cup of Nations earlier in the year where he showed little sign of the erratic display he gave here. It wasn't just that game-turning decision as he'd been - to put it kindly - idiosyncratic throughout.

    Had he called it right, the group would be wide open. Instead, Slovenia lead the way with a game against England remaining. They need to get something out of it to progress and keep the Euroballs pound alive.

    Elsewhere, we had a real collectors item with Germany's first penalty miss in a World Cup finals since 1982. Lukas Podolski had the chance to level from the spot after Miroslav Klose had been sent off and Milan Jovanovic had put Serbia ahead, but a weak effort was relatively simple for Vladimir Stojkovic to push away. The Dutch are two-for-two without impressing in either game. Received wisdom says they're poor at the back, but two clean sheets puts that in question although tougher tests will follow. France are in utter disaaray after losing to Mexico in a display that does the good name of insipid a disservice. Nicolas Anelka is the latest to face being dropped after a fall-out with coach Raymond Domenech. Anelka screamed at him during half-time in that game "screw you, dirty son of a whore" after being berated for drifting out of position. There's only Patrice Evra who looks like he cares.

    Thursday, 17 June 2010

    No accident

    Everyone has played once each in the World Cup now and there are just two results that really stand out. First, there was Germany's demolition job on Australia then Switzerland beating pre-tournament favourites Spain. These results have one thing in common.

    The one constant throughout the tournament is the ball. This happens every time, but excuses of this nature are the last resting place of the scoundrel. Goalkeepers can't hold it or read it, outfield players can't control it. Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and company seemed to have little problem. Euroballs favourite Diego Benaglio seemed to have little trouble plucking it out of the air in an inspired display against the Spaniards. All the German side play in the Bundesliga, as do the majority of the Swiss side and the Bundesliga have been using the much-maligned Jabulani ball since January. Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. That's the mantra and it's only used so often because it's true.

    Oh, but the Bundesliga is sponsored by adidas so they've an advantage is the traditional retort. FIFA unveiled the ball back in January. Teams at club and national level have had it available and if they've not used it, that's their issue. If they have exclusive contracts with other ball manufacturers, tough. Why weren't those manufacturers instructed to deliver something similar? Excuses, excuses, excuses. Germany and Switzerland did their homework better than anyone else, hence they've stood out in the first round of fixtures.

    Sunday, 13 June 2010

    Keeping track of investments

    Slovenia, the side we're backing in the World Cup to the tune of one pound lest you forget, got their campaign underway today. And the good news is that the pound is still safe! In a pretty dull game, Slovenia took advantage of Abdelkader Ghezzal's dismissal and some comedy goalkeeping to secure a 1-0 victory, the nation's first ever at the World Cup finals. Ghezzal was a second half substitute and picked up two soft bookings in quick succession, the second, for handball, earning him a red. Seven minutes later, Slovenian skipper Robert Koren hit a tame shot almost right at Algerian keeper Faouzi Chaouchi, but he palmed it into the net with nobody really clear as to what he was actually attempting.

    Goalscoring opportunities were few and far between. Samir Handanovic had to be alert as a lazy clearance from him almost fell to Karim Ziani and he pulled off a smart save early on from Nadir Belhadj. Chaouchi also saved well from Valter Birsa. The goal put a scarcely deserved gloss on the performance for Koren who was unusually slack in midfield. The country relies heavily on his distribution, but he gave the ball away far too often and the performance was disjointed as a result. The win is great, but the performances against England and the USA will have to be much better.

    Elsewhere in the competition, Serbia are going to have to have a look at things following a loss to Ghana. Milos Krasic looked a bit-part player stuck out wide on the right. He constantly came inside searching for the ball and the shape went as a result. Ghana deserved the win, but it only came as a result of an inexplicable handball from Zdravko Kuzmanovic which handed Ghana a penalty. Goals have been in short supply in the opening round of fixtures with most sides seeming more keen not to lose rather than go and press for a win. Hopefully once the opening game nerves are out of the way, it'll open up.

    Saturday, 12 June 2010

    The Belgian question

    They didn't make it to the World Cup finals, but we have high hopes for the future of the Belgian national side. Lots of good young players are coming through the system - Eden Hazard and Toby Alderweireld among many others - Dick Advocaat set some decent structures in place before he moved on which George Leekens can build on. The problem that the side has is reflected in the wider national politic.

    Prime minister Yves Leterme tried to resign about half a dozen times as he struggled to hold together a coalition that was built on shaky ground in the first place. Finally, he got his wish and quit, prompting fresh elections which are due this weekend. The dividing line is a simple one - language. The Flemish north, Dutch speakers, and the Wallonian, Francophone, south are heading for divorce as the New Flemish Alliance looks set for victory. Their leader, Bart de Wever, has built his entire electoral stance on separatism, favouring a Czechoslovakian-style split. The two halves of the country vote for their own parties which then produces the haggling about cabinet positions that Leterme couldn't deal with, the whole thing rumbling on in an ever more annoying circle. Over the last few years, it's been more and more a case of two separate nations living cheek by jowl.

    And so it goes with the football team. A recurring excuse for the side's repeated below-par performances is the language divide. When your captain and vice-captain come from different sides of that barrier, and allegedly don't get on, you have a few issues.

    The outcome of the elections could easily see a separate Flanders nation established. What happens to the Francophone area is less clear. Some thoughts are that it would be re-absorbed back into France. Belgium drew a tough qualifying group for Euro 2012 with Germany and Turkey the fancied runners. It could be the last time we see the side compete on an international level - a last chance for this promising group of young players to pull together before they are pulled apart.

    Friday, 4 June 2010

    In the off season...

    While the leagues we cover are on shutdown, we'll be running a Sunday service. New snippets will continue on our Twitter feed and any stories worthy of further comment will of course be expanded on. We'll also be following the World Cup, with specific reference to our team in the competition, Slovenia.

    If South American football is your bit though, our sister site CONMEBalls will be bringing you all the lastest from Brazil through the summer.