Saturday, 31 January 2015

Football - A Man's Game?

I haven't had the urge (or time) to do a blog in a little while, but this week something stirred me to such an extent, I had to get my opinion down in writing.

And that subject was the faux anger at Diego Costa's 'stamp(s)' in the League Cup semi final on Tuesday.
Firstly, there is no way of knowing for certain that he did either on purpose, in which case I don't truly understand how he can be punished? I'd be inclined to think that he meant the first, albeit he did well to be so precise given that he was looking in the other direction.
Secondly, it was hardly a 'stamp'! At worst he trod on him. I don't believe it would have even hurt at all, particularly during such an adrenaline fueled match. The furor that followed, and Brendan Rodgers reaction to the incident, suggested that he'd snapped Can's leg in half. Why must everything that happens in modern life be amplified to such an extent?
Thirdly, so what if he did mean it? It wasn't the most vicious thing anyone has ever done, and quite frankly, man up.

In the aftermath I've seen many people calling for a lengthy a ban and proclaiming Costa some sort of pariah (even comparisons with Suarez, who let's not forget bit an opponent on three separate occasions).
I'd argue that not only is it harsh to ban him given it can't be proven, but we could do with more players like Costa about.
Modern football is very much a game for pampered pussies. As soon as someone puts it about a bit, the majority cry like little kids. It's all so biege.
We've become used to watching boring (but admittedly technically fantastic) sides like Barcelona and Spain pass the ball to death with no penetration. Give me the cut and thrust of Bayern (pre Pep) or the directness of Madrid, with Pepe and Ramos kicking lumps out of the opposition any time.
Last year we saw Atletico (of course containing Costa) lauded for their fantastic achievements, but anyone who watched them can't have failed to notice their ability to push the boundaries of what was acceptable. Their game indeed personified by their street fighter of a coach, Diego Someone, a thoroughly dislikeable man, but a born winner.
Nice guys don't finish first. Winners will do whatever it takes (within reason of course), and quite right too.

The best and most entertaining players play close to the edge and blur the lines.
Two of the Premier League most decorated and appreciated midfielders, Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane (not to mention Paul Scholes) would completely dominate their opponents, try and wind up opposition and have sneaky digs wherever they could. And the, in my opinion, greatest player we've seen in the division, Alan Shearer, would have thought nothing of treading on an opponent, or leaving a stray boot or elbow in if he felt he could get away with it.

Interestingly I've seen quite a few ex players come to his defence (including surprisingly Thierry Henry), whilst 'top' journalists bay for blood. This comes as no surprise, as we see a little sense from those who know the game best, and what it takes to win, whilst those on the outside attempt to stir up publicity to make sales/increase internet hits.
Certainly the best article I read was Gary Neville in the Telegraph (read here: ), and I genuinely couldn't agree with him any more.
Indeed his brother got into hot water this week for saying that he'd have 'smashed' an opponent if they were having a great game. Sorry, but what is so bad about this?! Honestly, get a grip everyone. Footballer kicks another footballer to stop him playing so well. Well, hold the front page!!
If only we'd have had such individuals playing for England in that ill fated loss to Uruguay at the World Cup last summer. One individual, the aforementioned Suarez ripped us apart single handedly. Surely anyone with any sense could have seen that as he returned from a knee injury, an early reducer would have been the obvious way to go. But no, everyone is just too nice.
There's no place for niceties once you cross that line. I'm not advocating killing anyone, simply saying that the best players will do what's required to win.

Look at teams like Arsenal (and Spurs too) - they will never win the Premier League whilst they are such a push over. Their players are scared of certain opposition, and games can be won against them before the first whistle is even blown.

And don't give me anything about footballers being role models. If your child's role model is a thick millionaire footballer with likely dubious morals, maybe you ought to look elsewhere for someone to blame?

Why must we all be so sensitive and continually offended by everything? It's a man's game, stop acting like little kids.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

England - Weak at the Core

Could this England midfield be the weakest since the Graham Taylor years of the early 90's? I think it'd be hard to make a case against it.
During the ill fated USA '94 qualifying campaign (and even Euro '92 before that) we were reliant on stellar talents such as Carlton Palmer, Andy Sinton and Geoff Thomas (admittedly with the excellent David Platt). Hardly surprising we failed so poorly.
In the interim, we've been fortunate enough to be able to call on the likes of Gerrard, Lampard, Ince, Scholes, Beckham, Hargreaves, a rejuvenated and fit/sober Gazza, and even the likes of Redknapp.
That Jordan Henderson is a nailed on starter for the national team shows just how far we've fallen from the 'Golden Generation' (who in 2002 should have won the World Cup), a team we could only wish for now. Henderson is as honest a player as you will find, but his limitations are clear. Blessed with a formidable engine, allowing him to harry and hassle until the final whistle, yet not a great passer, not someone who drives forward with the ball, can't/won't dribble, doesn't appear to have much of a shot, and offers absolutely no goal threat (other than at the wrong end). He had a very good campaign last season, riding on the crest of a wave of, and indeed central to, a swashbuckling Liverpool team high on confidence, in which his role would be to win the ball and give it to Sterling or Gerrard. Unquestionably there is nothing wrong with this role, in fact an important and often unrecognised position in the modern game. However, at international level, it's not enough. I don't understand his role in the current England line up? He isn't playing deep, he doesn't offer width or penetration, he gives us nothing in the attacking third. He was virtually anonymous during the disastrous World Cup in Brazil and has been poor in every performance since, for club and country.
Adam Lallana, following a good season with Southampton, playing in a system that brought the best out of him, got his move to a big club. He was unfortunate to pick up an injury ruling him out the first 6 weeks, but has yet to find any form since his return. Rarely has there been a more overrated player for England, the epitome of average. In 12 appearances for England (zero goals), the only memorable thing he's provided is the twist and cross-shot that led to Welbeck's first versus Slovenia. He's not that young at 26, so I don't see him suddenly improving and becoming a staple of this side, but he's likely to be in the squad for years to come, giving us a short return. Compare his influence to the likes of Anderton or McManaman at their best and you quickly see how little he does.
Elsewhere we have Jack Wilshere, a player who hasn't improved since he burst on to the scene at 17, 4 or 5 years ago. Easily our best passer of the ball, and does have the ability to run with it, driving at the heart of opposition defences. Unfortunately, too often (ie. every time), he gets the slightest contact, he goes to ground, where he'll lie, protesting a free kick whilst the other team breakaway. We've all seen it a thousand times. For a few years, he's been our big hope, but it's just not happening (in fairness he's being deployed incorrectly at the base of a diamond, which doesn't utilise him effectively). Maybe a move to a team who has a winning mentality, or possibly abroad, would get him to the requisite level? However, I get the impression that he's happy playing within his comfort zone and would not be willing to test himself. Definitely not a lost cause, but needs to give us so much more.
These three players have played a combined 55 matches, returning a solitary goal between them!
James Milner continues to be an ever present in the squad, and it is easy to see why given his versatility. Although he has rarely let us down, he has never once set anyone's pulse racing. That he is a half centurion is quite frankly mind boggling. A 6 out of 10 player if ever there was one.
As back up we've recently seen Fabian Delph impress after a good couple of seasons with Villa, Jonjo Shelvey rewarded for an excellent start to the season, as well as Jack Colback. None of these are, or ever will, be world beaters. Added to this we have Ashley Young, Andros Townsend and a recalled Stewart Downing.
Where among the players mentioned above are the goals coming from? Where previously we had plenty of goals from Gerrard and Lampard, and Beckham to a lesser degree, now the team seems totally dependent on the strikers.
Of course, there are encouraging signs in the shape of Raheem Sterling and the mercurial Ross Barkley (as well as Alex Oxlade Chamberlain). On the one hand, yes we mustn't be hasty in expecting too much of them given their tender years, but on the other, they are so exciting (particularly in comparison to the aforementioned) that it's hard not to want to see them start every game. I for one called for both to start during the World Cup, and whilst Sterling was one of our better performers, Barkley didn't get much opportunity. Their time will come, and they both should be what we build around for the next decade, but I believe Hodgson has been too protective of the latter thus far. From what I can see, Barkley is certainly ready for the national team (injuries permitting).
From the Under 21's there are further seeds of hope. Will Hughes in particular looks a fantastic prospect, always able to find space and time to manoeuvre the ball. A move to the Premier League, or indeed promotion with Derby, should see him get the experience he needs. Tom Carroll too looks very useful, if a little lightweight, and a season starting at Swansea will do him the world of good. It does beg the question why Spurs, with such a limited midfield, aren't giving him a chance? More fool them.
Whilst there are positive signs in the coming years, our current options look extremely poor and we cannot possibly challenge the top teams in the world with the players starting at the moment, in my view the weakest in 20 years.

Do you agree? Disagree? Leave your comments below or contact me @russellheaps

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

England - A frank and honest assessment

NB. Apologies for any profanities below. This is a subject which is very close to my heart and I have very strong opinions on it.

Being an England fan is difficult. We very rarely have anything to cheer about despite being the country that invented the beautiful game and introduced it to the world.
It's an unconditional love. It doesn't matter how shit they are, how many times they mess us about, how badly they treat us, we'll always come crawling back. You only have to look at those hardy souls who applauded the team off the pitch last night against Costa Rica.

England players given standing ovation after lacklustre display
Every tournament that comes and goes we have thousand of loyal fans who spend a fortune and put every other thing in their life on hold to travel the breadth of the planet to roar our boys on. You just know that they'll be doing it again in France '16 and Russia '18, should we qualify (definitely not a given).
And they do it because we believe. We always believe. Every single tournament, deep down we fool ourselves into thinking 'whatif...?'
This time around expectation was lower than normal (which we were told would work in our favour), but surely I wasn't alone in thinking we were going to get out of the group, and then who knows what will happen? I'm fairly confident we'd have had enough to get past Greece, but Colombia would have ripped us a new arsehole.

I really like Roy Hodgson, as I've made clear previously. He is a proper gentleman, in the Bobby Robson mould. He conducts himself well, and the players both like him and respect him. He knows the game and has a proven track record of getting the most out of average players (which should be a prefect fit for this job).
Results aside, it looked like he got the preparation for the World Cup spot on from an outsiders point of view. Even his squad selection was basically what most others wanted to see (leaving out Ashley Cole for Leighton Baines was still his biggest mistake). Out with the old, in with the new. We were all relatively happy going into the tournament.
However, I have to admit I'm starting to run out of patience after the displays this World Cup.

Great performance Roy!
The display last night was a disgrace akin to the Algeria match in South Africa 4 years ago in my opinion. There was no fight or desire from the players, very little skill, some dreadful finishing and some quite laughable play from a number of individuals. These were players who were supposed to want to make an impression! And once again all we're hearing from Roy and his coaching staff is how positive it was!

"I take positives - this was a banana skin. To get that display was great since for many it was new. I am pleased at least to have given the fans something to cheer about in terms of our performance."

I am completely fed up of hearing this bullshit. We're not fucking stupid, you can't just tell us it was encouraging and expect us to believe it! We all saw it with our own eyes, it was truly painful to watch.
Even Glenn Hoddle (a man who's views I respect) was saying at half time what a good performance it had been. Sorry, but we must have been watching an entirely different match!?
The past two weeks have just been shit chat about how great everything is. Gary Neville told us in the aftermath of the opening game defeat to Italy that it was the best an England side had played in 15 years. Firstly, where is this 15 years coming from? Secondly, I'd disagree. What about hammering Denmark in Japorea '02? Or beating Argentina in the same tournament? What about Croatia away in qualifying for Euro '08 under the much maligned Steve McClaren? Admittedly there haven't been loads of great performances, but give me a break. We bloody well lost, it doesn't matter how heroic you think we were in the process!

The last really good England team - we could have won it in 2002!
After every tournament we get the same old bollocks about how we're building for X number of years time!! Hodgson has now said that it's going to take this squad six years to fulfil any potential. Where's the fucking progress?! Do we just keep pushing the bar on a few years and turn a blind eye? It's just accepting failure over and over again.

All this tournament has done is made me realise just how shit we actually are and how depressing the situation is. There are literally no positives to take from it in my eyes (Sterling at a push). One point from a possible nine, against the team expected to be the whipping boys of the group.
Yes, Shaw, Sterling, the Ox and Barkley look extremely exciting prospects, and there is still time for Wilshere (though he's got to improve massively!), plus I seriously rate Flanagan and especially Stones (both of whom should have been in the squad at the expense of Jones and Smalling - see my pre World Cup blog), but the rest (Cahill, Rooney, Walcott and Hart aside) are just not up to it!

I'm bored sick of hearing how good Adam Lallana is - I want some fucking proof! He's now played 9 times for England, and I can't remember a single thing he's done? Yes, he had a great season for Southampton, but it just hasn't happened at international level yet.
Hoddle keeps banging on at every given opportunity about what a talent he is and that the rest of the team aren't on his wavelength. Just get a room Glenn.

Lallana - I'm not convinced
And how fucking poor was Sturridge?! Last night in particular, but throughout the tournament if the truth be told. Really disappointing!! He missed so many chances it wasn't funny. I don't remember their keeper ever having to even make a save out of him? Would Suarez or Van Persie kept missing those chances?
The penalty he should have had - a better player would have controlled the ball into the space on his right side, away from the defender and buried it! And then there was a piece of control I'd have been embarrassed to watch on the local park on a Sunday morning in the second half when the ball ricochet to him. He is nowhere near world class as things stand and must improve on his finishing.

Jageilka should be nowhere near another squad, Baines should be back up at best, Henderson (who I thought would be good) might just be a willing runner, I don't know? Johnson should be dropped until he gets his act together. As I said pre tournament, he has been coasting for ages, and his attitude stinks.

As much as I think having Gerrard and/or Lampard around is useful, their time is up now. They have to retire (that said, the game was crying out Frank against Uruguay in my opinion).
Gerrard had a particularly poor tournament, going missing/being over run in both of his matches and making the crucial mistake that led to the knock out blow.

Thanks for everything lads but time's up
Until we as a country become more cynical in our play I genuinely don't think we can compete. The margins are so fine at the top level, every little thing counts, and we need to give ourselves the biggest chance possible. Uruguay are the best possible example of country who will do absolutely anything required to win (as we've seen countless times). And we are far, far too nice.
As the ball broke to the Uruguayan midfielder in the middle of the pitch in the lead up to their first goal, someone should have just chopped him down, both Gerrard and Henderson had the opportunity. Danger evaded, simple as that. Take a booking. Watch any other team, and you'll see them do it, but not us.
Go back to that game against Brazil in 2002. 1-0 up and looking good. Ronaldinho picks the ball up deep into his half and runs half the pitch without being taken out. First Beckham and then Scholes are guilty of feeble challenges that don't end the run. You know the rest.
The Maradona goal (the non cheating one) in Mexico '86 was the same. How many people did he get passed?
I can assure you that every single other country would not allow that to happen, but we are too fair, too honest. Until that changes, these things will continue to happen.
My blood has only just stopped boiling at the sheer naivety of not kicking Suarez out of the game last Thursday. Let's just say if I was on the coaching staff I'd have had certain instructions as to how to deal with him.
Yes, it's not nice, and yes it's probably beyond the edges of the laws of the game. It might not even be in keeping with the Corinthian spirit, but I guarantee you it's only us who see it this way.

I am feeling completely deflated today. What a shit couple of weeks after all the build up, and four years of waiting. I never thought I'd say this, but the rest of the tournament just isn't appealing to me like I thought it would. Gutted isn't the word.
But, despite all this, I love England with all my heart. It doesn't matter what they do to me, I always will.

Can you find any positives? Is there any glimmer of light? Did that really happen?!

Leave your comments below and please follow me on Twitter: @russellheaps

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Match Day 5 - Review - Powerful Germans make their mark

On day 5 we saw in my opinion the best team we have seen at the World Cup thus far. A ruthless Germany swept aside a poor, ill disciplined Portuguese team in baking conditions, laying down their marker in the process.

Match of the day: Germany v Portugal

This big match up of the day perhaps didn't live up to the pre match billing, but only because it turned out to be so one sided. As I suggested in my run through of the groups prior to the tournament, Portugal are a team completely reliant on their star player. That Ronaldo started despite a reported knee injury said it all. The only surprise was that he was stuck out on the left, on the periphery of the action, when he clearly needed to be playing through the middle.
As it was, Portugal had the early running in this one, with the first two chances of the game falling their way. First Almeida (a man with only one goal in 3 months, a little like Andy Carroll being our lead striker) had a weak effort easily claimed by Neur after good play by Ronaldo, and then the latter blazed wildly over from distance. Ronaldo again had a chance after an uncharacteristic mistake by Lahm, caught dwelling on the ball was robbed by Veloso. As the angle narrowed, he could only side foot his effort into the advancing Neur who smothered well.
Almost immediately Germany had a gilt edged opportunity to take the lead at the other end, the awful Patricio in goal for Portugal clearing under little pressure whilst outside his goal to Sami Khedira. The German midfielder, playing after a miraculous recovery from a serious knee injury, should have scored, but with the goal at his mercy, could only watch as the ball rolled agonisingly wide.
They didn't have to wait long before they did break the deadlock. In the 10th minute, following the best move of the match, Goetze spun passed Joao Pereira and bore down on goal. The Portuguese defender clumsily hauled him down, and the referee pointed to the spot. It could quite easily have been a red card, but the ref decided on yellow. The terrific Muller, with socks around his ankles as if from a bygone age, made no mistake with a typically clinical finish into the corner.
Ten minutes later Portugal through the otherwise wasteful Nani had a good effort from the edge of the area, the ball swerving narrowly over the bar. This came against the run of play however, Portugal standing off and showing the Germans far too much respect.
On the half hour, a great cross field pass released Mesut Ozil in behind the defence. He in turn laid it off to Goetze who's shot was blocked for a corner. And it was from the resulting set play that Germany doubled their lead. A perfect delivery from Kroos, met emphatically by Mats Hummels with a thunderous header ripped into the net.

Hummels powers home
At the other end Coentrao had an opportunity to shoot but opted to try and square to an offside Ronaldo, and then Eder, on for the injured Almeida, headed over from a corner.
The games big talking point came when Pepe, almost playing himself into trouble at the back, caught Muller in the face with a flailing arm. It certainly wouldn't have hurt the big German, but he went down as if he'd been shot, trying to get the defender sent off. Pepe, understandably annoyed by such antics, confronted Muller, but inexplicably pushed his head into the German as he sat on the ground, leaving the ref with little choice but to brandish the red.
To compound the misery for the Portuguese, Muller grabbed his second on the stroke of half time, closing down an attempted clearance by Alves, before turning and smashing the ball past Patricio. Arguably the keeper may have done better?
It would have seemed sensible at 3-0 down for Portugal to take off their star man, Ronaldo, who hadn't been in the game, saving him for their remaining matches, but he did re-appear, and was deployed in a more central role to little effect.
In truth the second half never really got going, the Germans happy to keep possession and understandably preserve energy in sapping conditions.
Muller did grab his hat-trick with ten minutes remaining, a cross by sub Andre Schurlle was spilled by the hapless keeper, laying the chance on a plate for the German to gobble up.

The fantastic Muller completes his hat-trick
There was some bad news for Germany on an otherwise perfect day, their fantastic centre half Hummels hobbling off with what appeared a nasty knee twist.
Despite potentially losing one of their first choice half centre halves, Germany look like the strongest squad in the competition, and this display will have sent a message across the world. Portugal looked anything but a threat. With injuries to Coentrao and Almeida, coupled with a ban for Pepe, they will struggle to even beat their next opponents USA.

In the days other matches, a dull affair between Nigeria and Iran was to finish goalless, the first draw of the competition. Neither team will have worried Bosnia or Argentina, and it is difficult to see them causing many upsets in Group F.
And a far more lively match between USA and Ghana was the day's late kick off. The US started at breakneck speed, taking the lead after only 30 seconds through Clint Dempsey, turning inside his marker and expertly guiding past Kwarasey in the Ghanaian goal. The large American contingent in the stands went wild.

US fans enjoying the goal on Copacabana beach
They could have doubled their lead when the worst player in the Premier League, Jozy Altidore, opted to shoot when a lay off to Jones would have been the better option. Altidore was soon to see his World Cup cruelly finish as he was forced off with a pulled hamstring. I breathed a sigh of relief in the knowledge my promise to never watch football again if he were to score at the tournament was no longer under threat.
For large portions of the remainder of the match, Ghana had most of the possession and chances, but poor decisions and terrible final balls meant USA with Tim Howard having a great game in goal never looked like they would make the breakthrough. However, with ten minutes left they did just that. A superb back heel by ex Sunderland man Asamoah Gyan found Andre Ayew who collected and slotted past the American at his near post with the outside of his boot.
There only looked one winner from here, but in a rare attack, the US forced a corner, and from a good delivery, half time substitute John Brooks rose highest to power in an unstoppable header to seal all three points against the odds.

Hero of the day: Thomas Muller - a measure in Teutonic efficiency. The man who finished top scorer in the World Cup 4 years ago has put his marker down early with a ruthlessly taken hat-trick this time around. Equally comfortable in midfield to leading the line, Muller is a player of the highest quality.

Disappointment of the day: Portugal - it'd have been harsh to single out their star man Ronaldo, simply because his team mates were so poor. I had predicted as much, so maybe they weren't a disappointment as such, but with players from some of the top sides in Europe, you could have expected more than what they delivered? In reality they were blown away by a rampant German side, and offered no resistance at all. Surely they will worry for their chances of qualifying for the second phase now.

Villain of the day: Pepe - the Portuguese centre back is no stranger to controversy, often cited as one of the most dirty players at the top level of football. However, here he showed shear stupidity to get sent off, letting his team down badly. The man has got a screw loose. Muller should himself take plenty of criticism after his play acting antics led to the Portuguese's dismissal.

Pepe: Lost his head (again)
Wanker of the day: Robbie Savage - co-commentating on the USA v Ghana match for the BBC, Savage gave one of the most critical displays I've ever heard. Does he actually like football? He certainly appears to see little joy in the game. Anyone would have thought that he was the second coming of Pele, and not a journey man clogger who was known for his energy and winding opposition players up, rather than his scintillating skill or ability to open up a defence.

Robbie Savage: hates football
Moment of the day: USA's winning goal - John Brooks' reaction to his winning header was one of the highlights of the tournament so far. I know little of his back ground, but it was great to see a player who clearly cared so much, and couldn't quite believe what he'd just done. A great moment that will live long in the US's football history.

John Brooks in dream land
Are Germany now the team to beat? Can they become the first European nation to succeed in South America? Were Portugal the worst of the 'big' nations we've seen so far? Did you manage to sit through all of the Iran v Nigeria snooze-fest? Can USA now qualify for the second round?

Leave your comments below and please follow me on Twitter: @russellheaps

Monday, 16 June 2014

Match Day 4 - Review - Messi Arrives (Eventually)

The high scoring, free flowing football continued on yet another entertaining day at World Cup 2014. We have been spoiled so far, with there being only one match where there has been less than 3 goals, and there has still not been a draw in the competition.
Day 4 was our first glimpse at many people's tips for the title, Argentina, and whilst they edged passed an unsurprisingly strong Bosnian side, they won't have been causing many nightmares on that one performance alone. We also got a look at a young and inexperienced French team as well as the efficient Swiss.

Match of the Day: Argentina v Bosnia

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the lead up to this match was that manager Alejandro Sabella opted to start with only two of his triumvirate of Messi, Ageuro and Higuain, the latter dropping to the bench. This was clearly designed to counter a physical and stubborn Bosnian side with their five man midfield. expect to see him revert to three up top in an effort to blow away their weaker Group F opponents Iran and Nigeria.
The match got off to the worst possible start for the Bosnian's with an extremely unfortunate own goal by Kolasinac after only 2 minutes. A good free kick from wide was flicked on by an Argentina head, and simply hit the defender on the knee, giving Begovic in goal no chance.

Terrible start for Bosnia
Rather than spur the South Americans on, they took their foot well off the pedal, happy to play at walking pace, trying to draw the Bosnians out with high possession in deep areas.
Bosnia's first chance arrived with a delicious chipped ball from the excellent Pjanic into the stretching Lulic, who just about managed to bring it down, before keeper Romero smothered. As the ball broke loose Dzeko was on his heels and the defence managed to clear it away.
Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero were struggling to impose themselves on the game, marshalled well by a strong Bosnia rearguard. Their physical game, coupled with their larger size mean they were dominating the two diminutive forwards.
It was the size difference that seemed to be Bosnia's best way back into the game, with corners and set plays causing problems with the shaky looking Argentina back line. Romero in goal making a superb save down low at his post to turn away a bullet header from Lulic from a corner.
If the Argentina performance on the pitch hadn't quite taken off, their fans were certainly doing their best to raise them. Their continued chanting and wild noise as impressive from any set of fans we've seen yet at the tournament.
By half time, Argentina only had one shot on target, a long range effort from Mascherano, no trouble for Begovic. It had been a disappointing showing from the favourites by this stage.
There was a noticeable change in pace from the Argentines at the beginning of the second period, their passing at a much higher tempo, plus they were pushing more player forward. Messi was seeing more of the ball, and it was he who fed Aguero, but the Manchester City hot shot ballooned high and wide.
Messi then had a free kick 30 yards out which he put well over the bar, but moments later he provided the moment we'd all been waiting for. Picking up the ball deep in midfield, he surged forward, playing a one-two with Aguero, slalomed across the edge of the area before curling the ball in off the inside of the post. It was a typically Messi-esque goal, one we've seemingly seen a thousand times, but one that no defence is able to stop.

Messi lights the blue touch paper
The goal was to breathe new life into Argentina, and as they pushed for a third, it looked like the game was over. Bosnia responded by bringing another forward on to supplement the isolated Dzeko. It was the sub, Ibisevic, who gave them hope when he scored against the run of play on 84 minutes, slipping in under Romero, the ball just having enough on it to take it over the line.
Disappointingly, the Bosnian's didn't push for the equaliser, nor did they raise the pace of their play, something which they will need to do going forward should they want to progress. They'd been a little underwhelming, as despite their individual quality, it just didn't feel that they could change things when they needed to.
The final action of the match saw the game stretched, and Messi broke away, but could only hit the side netting when it looked likely that he'd wrap up the win in style.
Overall, Argentina won't have persuaded many that they are going to go all the way in this tournament, although you feel there is more to come from them, and you can't rest a moment with the likes of Messi around.

Elsewhere, an impressive looking France brushed aside a physical Honduras 3-0. After 15 minutes Matuidi headed towards goal, the keeper making a great save onto the bar. Griezmann too was soon thwarted by the woodwork after good work down the left from the impressive Evra.
The first flashpoint of the match came just before the half hour when Paul Pogba was knocked to the floor by Stoke's Wilson Palacios, who then trampled all over the Frenchman. Pogba understandably took umbrage to this, kicking out at the Honduran, who made the most of minimal contact. By the letter of the law, the ref should have dismissed Pogba, but he was very fortunate when both were shown a yellow.

Pogba can count himself very fortunate after lashing out
The same duo were then involved in the incident that gave France the lead. Palacios needlessly pushing Pogba in the back inside the area, and seeing red for his troubles. Benzema made no mistake from the spot, wrong footing the keeper and smashing high into the net.
The lead was doubled early in the second half, as a diagonal ball over the top found Benzema, who met it first time, crashing a sumptuous volley off the far post. As the ball came back across the goal, keeper Valladares fumbled the ball, but seemed to clasp it back just before it crossed the line. The goal line technology was called upon for the first time this competition, a farcical turn of events seeing the goal at first ruled out before then being awarded. I still have my doubts, as camera angles proved inconclusive.
There was no such debate about the third goal, Benzema again, hammering high into the net from a tight angle.
France had been quietly impressive against the worst side we've seen yet in Brazil. They should negotiate their weak group with ease, and it'll be interesting to see how they compare against other top nations.
In the other Group E fixture, Switzerland overcame Ecuador with a 2-1 victory, scoring their winner with the last kick of the match, a sickener for the Ecuadorian's who deserved a point from the match.

Hero of the day: Lionel Messi - despite a quiet first half (at which point he was looking like featuring as my disappointment of the day), the little genius burst in to life in the second period, scoring the conclusive goal that saw off Bosnia. A lot is expected of the Argentine, but if anyone can deliver, Messi can. He'll need to find his best form to carry this team to the final, something his predecessor Maradona did back in '86.

Disappointment of the day: Eden Dzeko - Offered very little, with no movement or work rate. Admittedly isolated in a lone striker role, but did not do his bit for the team, and had only one shot in the match, a shot he put well over the bar when arguably he should have been passing to a team mate.

The most movement we saw from Dzeko all night
Villain of the day: Wilson Palacios - The Stoke midfielder was sent off for two bookable offences, but could have been dismissed even earlier. Summed up a poor Honduran side who's only chance of matching France was to kick them off the park.

Wanker of the day: Clarke Carlisle - In the commentary box, ITV treated us to a man best known for his appearance on Countdown. His appointment is one of the least inspired from the channel, and I'd go so far to say I'd rather listen to Andy O'Townsend than this smug, self indulgent man. And that is saying a lot.

Moment of the day: Messi's goal. Not only a great solo effort, but a brilliant reaction from the Argentine fans in the stadium.

How impressed were you by Argentina? Are they really good enough to win the cup? Are France dark horses here or will they come unstuck against better opposition? Is my bet for Honduras to get the most yellow cards in the group stages nailed on?

Leave your comments below and please follow me on Twitter: @russellheaps

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Match Day 2 - Review - The Future's Oranje?

We were treated to a feast of football on day 2 of the World Cup. Undoubtedly the highlight was the thrilling performance of the Dutch as they dismantled the reigning champions in emphatic style akin to the Bayern Munich performances against Barcelona just over a year ago. Central to those performances was one man, Arjen Robben, a player who is consistently, and criminally overlooked when it comes to handing out the awards at the end of each season. His pace and direct play coupled with his unbelievable close control were too much for a leaden footed Spanish defence, and he punished them mercilessly. An individual performance as good as that has not been seen in some time. Truly sensational.
Elsewhere we saw more goals, lots of attacking play, and unfortunately further poor officiating.

Rio Ferdinand , as expected, brought nothing to the party. How a man who can barely string two sentences together has been employed as an analyst by the BBC is beyond me? His comparing of Busquets with Carrick summed up his ineptitude, and I for one shall be avoiding him at all costs going forward. the BBC have two of the most erudite and knowledgeable men, in Pat Nevin and Danny Murphy, available to them, yet they go with this muppet.
And, as for Mark 'Lawro' Lawrenson, well, you'd think he'd be delighted to be at the World Cup in Brazil, but no, it would appear that he'd rather be anywhere but. Cheer up you miserable old sod!

Rio Ferdinand. No thanks.
Match of the Day: Spain v Holland

Arguably the most anticipated of the first round of matches, pitting the two finalists from 4 years ago against one another. One hoped that there would be unfinished business from that tempestuous affair, but the game panned out in a much different fashion, in a way that no one would have predicted.
Following a slow start in which Spain maintained possession without creating anything (sound familiar?), the first chance fell to Sneijder, who went one on one with Casillas after a slide rule pass by Robben cut through the heart of the Spanish midfield. His shot was weak, and easily smothered by the Spaniard.
Aston Villa's Ron Vlaar was marshalling the ineffective Costa (being booed by the home fans) well, and made a great block to stop a goalbound effort.
David Silva's influence was growing, and he looked the man most likely to unlock the solid Dutch rearguard. He himself was found for a great chance, but opted to pass when a shot was on. Not for the first time would his decision making prove wasteful.
The opening goal came when Costa got the ball inside the area, and as he cut inside, he was caught by the trailing leg of the defender. Replays showed that he was definitely looking for it, and had conned the referee.
The magnificently hirsute Alonso made no mistake from the spot to give Spain the lead. After 27 minutes, this the first shot on goal from the Spanish.

Xabi: Knows how to wear a beard (and score a penalty)
The cracks were however starting to show in the Spain defence. Their high line was nearly exposed by Robben a number of times, and you got the feeling that should they beat the offside trap, they would get a chance. It was becoming increasingly clear that Spain are missing their leader Carlos Puyol more than anyone, Ramos and Pique just not in the same class.
The opportunity finally came moments before the break, with a beautiful 50 yard diagonal ball from the impressive Daley Blind (son of former Dutch defender Danny, now a coach with the team), but with a lot still to do, Robin van Persie provided the moment of the tournament so far, with a brilliant diving header from just inside the box, leaving Casillas clutching for air.
The second half would take a very different route. Robben got the first chance of the half, fed by a chipped pass (again by Blind) to the edge of the area. He brought it down expertly, cut inside Pique, before firing home via a deflection from Ramos.

The hapless Sergio Ramos
Another surging Robben run through the middle of the Spanish half saw him get the ball out to Van Persie who crashed a half volley off the bar, nearly snapping the woodwork.
A third was soon to follow though, with a deep free kick into the box fumbled under pressure by Casillas, and de Vrij just about bundled the ball in at the back post.
Substitute Pedro threatened to get Spain back into the game, his good header spilled by Cillessen, but Silva's follow up was correctly ruled off side.
Things were to get much worse for Spain, with veteran keep Casillas dwelling on the ball, and Van Persie robbing him before poking home.
Robben wrapped up the scoring with stunning solo goal, sitting Casillas on his backside before hammering high into the net.
And there was still time for him to be denied the goal of the tournament with a superbly struck volley being saved, before Torres managed to miss an open goal, something which just isn't a surprise any longer.
The match could easily have ended with the Dutch having scored 8 or even 9. A quite formidable effort, and they've turned the group on it's head, and silenced many critics, including myself.

In the other matches, my dark horses Chile overcame Australia in a match which looked like it could be a rout after 15 minutes, with Chile leading 2-0 through goals from the irresistible Alexis Sanchez and Valdivia. Australia to their credit fought back well, led by an inspired Tim Cahill, the former Everton man halving the deficit with a textbook header before the break. Chile completed the scoring through Wigan player Jean Beausejour in injury time at the end of the match.
Doubts will be raised over Chile's defence, with their clear lack of height sure to be an area which is exploited by better teams than Australia.
And you have to wonder how they'd cope should they get an injury to their star player, Sanchez, or less so Vidal? I'd suspect that their reserves would be no match.
Elsewhere, Mexico overcame Cameroon, thanks to a second half strike from the prolific Oribe Peralta, his 7th goal in his last 9 appearances. Eto'o came closest for the Africans, hitting the outside of the post in their only chance of note. Cameroon looked particularly poor, with no attacking players in their midfield at. Mexico will challenge Croatia for second spot in Group A, and the match between the two will no doubt be an interesting watch.

Hero of the day: Arjen Robben - as I've said elsewhere, a truly sensational display, this was Robben at his free flowing best. He might look 40, but he can still run like he's 20. An early contender for player of the tournament if he can keep this form up.

Robben - Magnificent
Disappointment of the day: Diego Costa - one could argue that he wasn't fully fit following a recent recurring hamstring strain (in which case he shouldn't have been playing), but the big Brazilian did not turn up at all. Lawro assured us in the early stages that Costa was offering the Spanish something different, but I wasn't seeing that at all. Leaden footed, short of pace, and the ball kept bouncing off him. His only contribution was to dive/'be clever' to win the penalty.
You have to respect his wonderful record with Atletico Madrid this season, but I have my reservations. I keep hearing that he is perfect for the Premier League, but without any experience of it I can't help but feel he is yet another expensive risk for Chelsea. They already have a player who has proven his ability in the league, in Lukaku, on their books. And if they wanted another player, I'd argue that a player such as Dzeko would be a better bet.

Villain of the day: The lineman in the Mexico v Cameroon match, incorrectly ruling out two Giovani Dos Santos goals. Yet more poor officiating in a tournament which is in danger of getting a reputation after only two days. Fortunately for the Mexicans it did not cost them, or there would have no doubt have been many protestations and accusations.

Wanker of the day: Iker Cssillas - I'd be very surprised if he retains his position in Spain's next match after two poor (one horrendous) errors led to goals against the Dutch. Surely it's time for the excellent David de Gea to be given his opportunity. Casillas we should remember is back up for his club (in everything but the Champions League), so it does seem very strange that he is still employed at international level.

Moment of the day: The slow motion replay of Robin van Persie's goal as he slides across the floor having just connected with the ball. His face was an absolute picture as he realised what he'd just achieved. the less said about the miss high five with his manager, Luois van Gaal, the better!

The flying Dutchman
A quick word on England tonight. Regardless of result, I hope the boys can do us all proud with a performance where they give their all, and have a real go at attacking an Italian side that I believe is not that strong.
From an outsiders point of view, it's unusual to see such a good team spirit in the England camp, and the noises coming from the players suggests that they are ready, and feeling confident.
I think Roy Hodgson deserves a lot of credit, and I for one am proud that he is our national manager. he knows the game, and he comes across like an affable and kind man. the FA, who we often criticise, should be commended on their appointment of Roy, when there was a clamour from the press for other less suitable candidates (the dodgy Harry Redknapp).
Come on England!!

Friday, 13 June 2014

Match Day 1 - Review

The World Cup finally got under way on Thursday after a seemingly never ending wait. We were greeted on ITV by a gurning Adrian Chiles, who just gets worse and worse the more I see him. To think that we have to spend the next month in his company puts somewhat of a dampener on proceedings, I just hope he doesn't spoil it completely for us.
In the studio we were treated to a surprise in the form of World Cup legend Fabio Cannavaro, one of the best defenders to have ever played the game. He spoke well, and gave us interesting anecdotes on his triumph in '06, but his knowledge of the England side was lacking somewhat (understandably) when he appeared not to even have heard of Sterling or Welbeck. Hopefully his contemporaries will be equally clueless come Saturday night.

The opening ceremony proved to be a damp squib of the likes we've not seen before, summed up by the frankly pathetic official song, which was mimed badly by J-Lo and Pitbull, a man who's success relative to his talent is surely the biggest mystery in musical history? Thankfully the quality of the sound was so bad that no one could actually hear what was going on.

Anyway, on to matters on the field. Each day I will be summarising the previous days events, taking a lighthearted look at the best and worst things and people.

Match of the Day: Brazil v Croatia

Unsurprisingly I've selected this match as my match of the day. A lot was expected of the home nation in the opening match, a match which has seen many upsets down the years, from Cameroon physically dominating Argentina at Italia '90 to Senegal edging past France in 2002.
In the end it proved a comfortable win for the hosts, but in truth it was anything but. Croatia came roaring out the blocks and could have gone ahead if the impressive veteran Ivica Olic had hit the target as he should with a header.
Moments later they did deservedly take the lead through an unlikely source. Olic was freed down the left by Rakitic, playing in a deeper role than we are accustomed to seeing him, and as he put a great ball into the 'corridor of uncertainty' poor defending by David Luiz allowed his man to get across him, and the ball was unwittingly diverted into his own net by Marcelo.
This seemed to spur the Brazilians into life, and a great ball across the box by Oscar evaded Fred by inches, and then the same man tested Pletikosa with a lovely bending effort.
When the equalising goal did arrive, it was from the boot of pin up boy Neymar, a scuffed shot from distance that bobbled in off the post. Not for the first time, the goalkeeper should have done much better.
The roof nearly came off the stadium, and the relief was clear for all to see.
The second half saw Brazil take the upper hand, with Modric and Rakitic in the centre not having nearly as much influence. The superb Luiz Gustavo, with his wonderful moustache, looking like an Indian restaurant waiter, began dictating the play.

Lamb madras and pilau rice please.
With 20 minutes to play came the pivotal moment of the match, Fred going down in the box under pressure from Lovren. The Japanese ref, out of his depth all night, had no hesitation in pointing to the spot, to the consternation of the Croatians. It really was a dreadful decision and ultimately spoiled the contest. Neymar stepped up and just about got it past the keeper, who once again should have saved it, scoring his second of the night and quite remarkably his 33rd goal in 49 games for Selecao.
Croatia knew it was not to be there night when the ref then disallowed a goal, incorrectly, for a perfectly legitimate challenge by Olic on the shaky Julio Cesar. What can you do when the referee is so clearly biased towards the home side?
Oscar completed the scoring with minutes to go, picking up the ball and driving unchallenged at the Croatian defence before toe poking his shot from fully 25 yards into the corner of the goal, with Pletisoka saving his worst mistake of the night until last.

Hero of the day: Neymar - it couldn't really have been anyone else after the boy wonder lit up the first night with two goals. He'll score better goals in his career, but with the huge pressure weighing on his young shoulders, he certainly answered his critics. Those who followed my tip of him to be the tournament top scorer will be quietly confident with matches against Cameroon and Mexico to follow.
It's worth pointing out that Neymar is contantly dropping deep to pick the ball up, something which we criticise Wayne Rooney for doing, but the difference between them is stark. Neymar's speed and ability to beat a man make him him extremely difficult to stop when he's heading towards goal, and he also doesn't give the ball away cheaply in midfield like Rooney.
His histrionics don't appeal to me. It seems like he's broken his leg every time he goes down, but then he probably only weighs about 9 stone wet though.

The real deal!
Disappointment of the day: Hulk - does anyone actually rate this man? I've not been impressed with him in any of the many matches I've seen him. In his defence, perhaps he'd be better through the middle rather than stuck on the left wing?
I'd argue that he isn't even that big, certainly not enough to warrant his nickname, with Fred noticeably much bigger. And he's also far from scary, I wouldn't be worried if I met him when he's angry.

A better footballer than his Brazilian namesake
Villain of the day: Yuichi Nishimura. he should be stripped from taking charge of another match in this competition after a hapless display that cost Croatia a point.

Wanker of the day: Has to go to Pitbull after fighting off strong competition from Adrian Chiles. How this man sells millions of records worldwide beggars belief.

This man is a global star. We need to take a look at ourselves.
Moment of the day: Definitely my highlight was when we were treated to the Goal Line Technology confirming that the ball for the first goal did cross the line. Thanks for that.

Tonight throws up 3 matches, with Spain v Holland the highlight. I hope that tomorrow I can report on numerous goals and sendings off. And look out for Chile when they get under way, my dark horses.

Did you enjoy the opening match? Did it live up to the hype? Do you own a Pitbull record? Would you dive into Fabio Cannavaro's eyes if you could?

Leave your comments below and please follow me on Twitter: @russellheaps