28 June 2016

England hit rock bottom

Euro 2016: Shock loss to Iceland provokes soul searching

Article by me in MARCA

The mood in England following their defeat to Iceland is one of sheer despondence and anger, with the tabloid press and former players queuing up to express their outrage at a loss against a country with the population of Coventry.

"It's the worst defeat in our history, we've lost to a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers", was Gary Lineker's take on Twitter.

England arrived full of optimism having won every game in qualifying, and that sense of expectation was inflated further by March's friendly win over Germany in Berlin.

Much was made of the attacking options at their disposal; Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy struck 49 goals between them last season.

They went with the youngest squad at the tournament with an average age of just 25 years and 293 days.

But, once again, the tale was a sorry and all-too-familiar one.

Roy Hodgson, reading from an evidently pre-prepared statement as he announced his resignation after the defeat, tried to put a brave face on matters.

"I'm really disappointed to be knocked out," he spoke, "the time has come for someone else to carry this talented generation of players forwards.”

Hodgson got a pass for England's abysmal 2014 World Cup campaign with the feeling in England being that he'd blooded some exciting players and done the best with the group he had available.

There was little such sympathy on show this time round; after once again sailing through qualification, their tournament performance was in keeping with their wretched return over the last two decades.

All in all under Hodgson, England have played eleven games in finals tournaments; in that time they've only won three matches and failed to win a single knock-out tie.

Of course, this run stretches back much further; Sven-Goran Eriksson was much-maligned towards the end of his time with the national team, but his reign represents the only ray of hope in the time since England reached the semi-finals of the European Championship they hosted in 1996.

In 20 years, the only teams they've defeated in the knockout rounds have been Denmark in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006.

The only time they've recently advanced beyond the last eight in a tournament away from their own shores came in the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

There has been a lack of any clear strategy throughout Hodgson's reign with the coach only deciding on their 4-3-3 formation as late as May.

Even then, after changing things around to include players whose form had made the clamouring for their inclusion irresistible, the former Inter manager persisted in shoe-horning in big-name players out of position, or those who through fitness or performances had done little to merit their place.

Alan Shearer, a man hardly noted for his cutting insights, was extremely animated.

"It's the worst performance I've ever seen from an England side", the former striker said on BBC One.

"We were tactically flawed and showed no fight, no spirit.”

Those of an optimistic bent had tried to point to the numbers to dress up England's performances during the group phase.

Much was made of their possession average (63%, the fourth-highest in the competition) and the fact that they had more shots than anyone else (82), but sharper minds saw through these raw figures, pointing out that their possession has been largely sterile and the number of quality chances created distinctly underwhelming.

Their only win came late on against a Wales team who showed them far too much respect on the day.

The emergence of a glut of exciting, technically adept players over the last few years raised hopes that this team it could be different but all too often in France they resembled a side with talented footballers but little real idea of what they were doing.

Rio Ferdinand summed this up neatly.

”We need an identity. They say 'you can't play 4-4-2', but that would have been the best solution.”

Joe Hart, much hyped back home, endured a nightmare tournament; Wayne Rooney surpassed the modest expectations of him in his midfield position, but England's all-time top goalscorer has been slammed for his lack of leadership.

Indeed, the lack of leaders throughout the team was alluded to by an irate Chris Waddle on BBC radio after the game, with the former international slamming the players for preferring to have their headphones on rather than communicate with each other.

"I think this group of players still has success ahead of them, they can improve and meet expectations in the future", Hodgson remarked.

The FA executive David Gill spoke also of what lies ahead.

"We will be looking for the best manager possible for the job, and he doesn't necessarily have to be English."


26 June 2016

Argentina desperate to end final hoodoo

Copa America: Only a win will do for Martino

My article for MARCA

Gerardo Martino faced the media ahead Argentina's Copa America Centenario final against Chile making it clear that his side have only one priority going into the game: victory.

The clash is a rematch of last year's final where, just as a year before at the World Cup against Germany, the result was heartbreak for a nation that has now gone 23 years without claiming a major title.

Such a drought is simply unacceptable for a footballing power of their stature, and it's one that all involved are hoping to end in in New Jersey.

"I want to play well, but above all to win," said the former Barcelona manager.

International success is the only thing that's eluded Lionel Messi in his career to date, and Martino believes that everything is in place to help him achieve this one last goal.

"Messi's been doing his stuff for the national team for some time now, there have been far more good moments than not-so-good moments.

"The important thing is that we can give him what he's always had at Barcelona, a settled group that makes him feel happy.

"Martino confirmed that with the exception of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Augusto Fernandez, who both suffered injuries during the 4-0 semi-final demolition of the USA, he will have a full squad to choose from. 

This should see the reintroduction of Angel Di Maria to the starting eleven.

He praised Chile's continued commitment to pressing the opposition but also added that he feels the Albiceleste have improved since their penalty shootout defeat in Santiago last year.

"This is a new chance, we can't rewrite the record from the last time but we have succeeded in dusting ourselves down to be here once again.

"I'm not interested in how, just as long as we win - we cannot fail again."


14 June 2016

French media question Griezmann and Pogba

Euro 2016: Doubts raised over pair after disappointed opening game

My article for MARCA

France's unconvincing opening victory in the European Championship would appear to have given the French sporting press a dose of the yips, if recent reports are anything to go by.

Such was their performance against Romania that two of their biggest stars, Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba were hauled off by manager Didier Deschamps midway through the second half before Dimitri Payet pulled out the victory with a last minute screamer.

Indeed, some are even asking whether the twin talismans might be omitted from the starting eleven against Albania on Wednesday.

The substitution has not just caused a split in opinion amongst the members of the local media, but also some leading footballing personalities.

Former national team boss Raymond Domenech saw it as a brave move.

"Who would have had the nerve to haul them off like that? 

"From the outside, it looks easy.”

Former Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain coach Paul Le Guen saw the move in a different light.

"It's not good for their confidence. 

"Leaders need to stay on the park as long as possible and a change like that can create doubts.”

Deschamps did, of course rest the two during France's second game at the World Cup. 

But another memory lingers, that of surrendering the top position in the group stage in Euro 2012, leading to a difficult draw and elimination against Spain in the knockouts - and, ultimately, the resignation of then-manager Laurent Blanc.

The doubts Le Guen mentioned are certainly there; in some quarters, at least.

'Griezmann restless' led the front page of L'Equipe, with Maxifoot noting that 'The stars of France are worried.

'Deschamps and Patrice Evra counselled against such over-exuberance, with the Juventus left-back quoted as saying "We're all human beings. 

"Now is the time to keep our heads because there will be more matches”.

The manager name-checked both players. 

"Paul hasn't disappointed me and just like Antoine, he's young and in good shape.”

But questions do remain about their fitness, especially that of Pogba who has had some minor physical issues, limiting his training work with the rest of the group.

With Griezmann, the question centres more around fatigue wth the forward having featured in 54 games for Atletico during a season where he looked to be losing his edge towards the end. 

Griezmann himself, however was keen to bat such ideas away.

"I think I'm in great shape. 

"Sure, I felt a little tired before the Champions League final, but I think I've had enough time to recover”.

Eric Olhats, a fitness adviser writing in L'Equipe, didn't see this as an issue either.

"I don't see a deficit in his fitness levels, nor that he's being put under undue strain. 

"Antoine, in whatever situation, needs a little bit of adaptation time, that's all. 

"We saw this with Real Sociedad, and also at Atletico.”

There is a sense that these worries may just be a reaction to a poor display in the opener, and the gnawing sense of unease that it's provoked.

'Our supposed leader in the attack was very quite against Romania,' said L'Equipe, before going on to ask: 'Should we be worried?’

But of course there's another way of looking at things and the same paper summed that up nicely in saying that back in the previous two tournaments held in France, Euro 84 and the 1998 World Cup, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane were also questioned by some.

And, of course, France went on to emerge as champions on each occasion.