World Cup Blog #4 – It’s all over

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The ‘Brothers Terrace’ were left devastated by Thursday’s events…

England…Oh, England. The four-yearly cries of agony have come much earlier this time around with the World Cup now offering just a consolation game against Costa Rica for England to run through before boarding the plane home. The team once again gave us brief, glorious hope when Wayne Rooney broke his World Cup duck on Thursday evening by equalising Luis Suarez’s opener and for a few minutes breathed fresh life into the campaign.

But that man Suarez wasn’t finished yet and the goal that we’ll see over and over again – alongside Beckham’s kick, Ronaldo’s wink and Ronaldinho’s free kick that baffled David Seaman – was the bullet heard around the country. Uruguay had come back from a threat that looked like we may even nick a win and to send us into despair.

England were not close to the standard of the Italy defeat with a nervy start leading to Suarez’s first goal and not enough going forward to suggest that we could break down their stubborn resistence. You once again got the feeling that we were susceptible to the incredible talents of the man who is so much more than a pantomime villain on these shores. Suarez’s gifting sets him apart on the football pitch…if only it stretched to a grounded personality that complemented it. Had Lionel Messi been the one to use his extra yard of pace and thought to beat us there I wouldn’t have thought there would be half as much frustration come Friday morning.

As it is, though, we are left to lick our considerable wounds. No matter how many people have played with or against Suarez you just can’t plan completely for dealing with him and the England defence were simply not good enough to handle him for ninety minutes. At the back is where many of our problems remain and this system needs a little adjustment to ensure that we go into (hopefully!) the next major competition with practiced and competent shielding for our biggest Achilles heel.

Costa Rica becomes a game where we could really do with giving “the kids” a fair crack of the whip. There’s nothing to play for and nothing at stake for us and this is surely as good a time as any to unleash a Ross Barkley or to blood a Luke Shaw at the top level. If any good can come from a game like this then setting ground work for the upcoming qualifying campaign for France 2016 is it.

Keeping Roy Hodgson in the top job is best for all parties despite this exit. We’ve been placed in a treacherous group and had we been lucky enough to be slotted into the type of group that we’ve had before I’m almost certain we’d all be sat here singing the praises of our vibrant national side. Roy deserves a chance to bring these young lads through the next qualifying campaign and the European Championships themselves.

Standing in our way in that respect are Switzerland, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino. With more teams qualifying this time it means that the first, second and some third placed finished qualify direct to the finals and the next best eight teams go to the playoffs so if we don’t end up doing this all again in France then something has gone horribly wrong!

I didn’t think I’d be looking towards that so soon and before we’d even played our third group game but that’s how we stand with plenty of questions to be answered in the coming months. Now all we can do is enjoy this magnificent competition which is throwing up results that we can only be envious of.

After that, we can start to worry about the Cobblers again…whisper is quietly but we play our first friendly even before the World Cup Final takes place…

World Cup Blog #3 – Reflections on a very different defeat…

sterlingLosing the first game in a World Cup is generally considered to be terminal when it comes to bids to qualify from the group stages and England’s defeat to Italy last night may well be the first stamp on a return trip home but the weird thing is that I’ve seen England teams win group games before and felt much more negative about the overall outlook.

How refreshing too is it that, on first glance anyway, the Sunday papers and match reports aren’t photo shopping vegetables in place of players and managers’ heads but instead bringing up plenty of positives from a showing that was enough to soften the blow of defeat. This England side has a fantastic vibrancy about it and actually looking forward to games is in itself a welcome detour from the usual dread that fills the veins of World Cups and European Championships.

I’m sure there’s plenty out there who don’t agree and think that only wins matter but, as this excellent article on the evolution of the Belgian side, sometimes you just have to accept that results may not go our way when we’re blooding these exciting youngsters.

Raheem Sterling was the shining star on this occasion – he simply has no fear of reputation, he gets his head down and he just runs at defences. That’s all we’ve asked of others who have come through in the last few years and failed to carry through club form into the national side partly thanks to this dreadful complex our media sometimes has that it’s either win or we’re failures. The general outlook this morning is as refreshing as last night’s efforts were and perhaps we are on the cusp of re-evaluating our position in world football.

Italy were a lot stronger than I’d envisaged and were clever in possession. It was so crucial that we got back into the game thanks to Daniel Sturridge’s well taken equaliser – the Italians are brought up on possession football and making the opposition work for it and that was key to their eventual victory here. The heat was playing its part by the later stages and after a maturing Mario Balotelli header put Italy back in front just after the break they made no more mistakes in letting us back in.

That meant chasing the game and with substitutions having to be made Sterling’s influence diminished as his energy sapped following a rejig that pushed him wider late in the game. Contrary to past England teams, though, we actually looked threatening and capable of breaking down the stubborn resistence of the Italian wall. They were more interested in keeping what they had the tactic was a testament to England’s attacking threat.

A few misplaced crosses and corners made up the final throws of our dice late on but we were at least getting into those positions. All of this sounds like a hard luck story and like a misunderstanding non-football fan saying “ah well, it’s just a game” but I’m genuinely excited about our national side again and if we come out of the competition all feeling that way then surely that’s actually better than scraping through the group playing poorly and crashing out as soon as we meet a big nation in Round Two?

The few negatives this morning all centre around Wayne Rooney and his showing on the left side of the attacking three that sat behind Sturridge. I’m torn on his involvement – on the one hand it’s clearly not his strongest position and Italy caused us problems time after time on that side of the pitch but on the other he’s still a clearly talented individual. I don’t think his performance was as bad as some are making out – many look for a scapegoat no matter what – but Roy Hodgson does have a headache going into the huge game with Uruguay on Thursday evening as to what to do with him.

That game could ultimately decide whether we make it to the Second Round but Costa Rica’s victory opens things up a little bit more. Even a draw with Uruguay keeps us in the mix so long as the Costa Ricans don’t pull another surprise on Italy earlier in the day. That being a 5pm kick off means we’ll know exactly what we’re heading into stakes wise come 8pm in our game. Should Costa Rica lose then a draw would mean that we could yet go into the final game knowing that a big win would still take us through.

All of those permutations are likely to come second to practicality and experience this time out but if we can have both progress AND some exciting play that would be very nice too!