Euro 2016: R16 – England v Iceland

I would do an analysis, but honestly, what’s the point?  Everything that could be said will be said in the mainstream media, and no doubt for many months to come.

I predicted England would go out in the last 16 in a BBC Sport poll done before the tournament stated.  I wish I had put money on it to compensate for the hours spent watching England’s toothless performances that I will never get back.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I had long ago given up an emotional connection with England.  They can disappoint you only so many times before you stop having expectations.  Nowadays, I wish them well and hope they do justice to themselves.  And when they don’t – it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t surprise.  I can discuss their travails with detachment.

So, the only thing that interests me is curiosity about the preparation and decision making.  All I have are questions.  Because I am truly baffled by how the England set-up works – or rather doesn’t work.  So here goes:

  1. How can England go into a major tournament not knowing their best team?
  2. How can England go into a major tournament not knowing their best formation?
  3. Why after previous bad experiences do we persist in taking unfit/injured players?
  4. Why after previous bad experiences do we persist in taking out of form players?
  5. Why after previous bad experiences do we persist in playing players who play in the same position in the same team?
  6. Why do we persist in playing players out of position?
  7. Why do we persist in playing unfit players when it becomes obvious they are unfit?
  8. Why do we persist in playing out of form players when it becomes obvious they are out of form?
  9. Why do we persist in selecting players who have played poorly in previous matches?
  10. Why do we keep pacy centre forwards on the bench unused when playing opponents whose defenders are slow and ageing?
  11. Why do we never have a Plan B?
  12. Why did we make 6 changes before our final group game when the group wasn’t won?
  13. Why do we persist in selecting players who have played poorly in previous matches? (Yes, it’s an annoyingly repetitive habit.)
  14. Why did we wait until the 85th minute to bring on Marcus Rashford, when we were 2-1 down and on the verge of going out of the tournament against Iceland?  What exactly did Roy think a precocious teenager, let alone an experienced and proven match winner, could do in 5 minutes?  Or had Roy’s watch stopped half an hour earlier?

When the FA conduct their latest post-mortem, they may wish to consider these questions and find some answers for a change, otherwise it will be Groundhog Day all over again at the next major tournament.

Euro 2016: R16 – Croatia v Portugal

Why is it that when it comes to the knockout stages of major tournaments, skillful, swashbuckling, breathtakingly creative players brimming with talent become timorous mice?  What is so scary about trying to win by playing actual football that they would rather subject themselves to the arbitrary lottery of a penalty shootout than choose to take charge of their own destiny?  How to explain two teams with players possessed of the footballing gifts of Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Ricardo Quaresma, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic didn’t manage a single shot on target until the 117th minute, which turned out to be the Portuguese winner?

After their exciting showing in the group stages, culminating in an unexpected and thrilling victory against Spain, Croatia had gone from dark horses to one of the favourites for the tournament.  The onus was on Croatia to take the game by the scruff of the neck against opponents who had barely scraped through the group stages.  Yet, just at the moment when they should have stepped up a gear and shown intent and drive, they retreated into their shell and seemed content to meander through the match until its seemingly inevitable conclusion of a penalty shootout.

It was only in the final minutes of extra time that Croatia ventured forward with any intent; and they nearly got their reward.  Ivan Perisic finally found space and made a run down the left and squared a dangerous ball into the 6 yard box that skimmed agonisingly past an on-rushing Kalinic.  Moments later, Perisic hit the post from a header and it seemed that, belatedly, Croatia were in the ascendancy.  But then they made a fatal mistake.  Perisic’s header rebounded off the post to Brozovic in the 18 yard box, but instead of moving the ball forward he passed it back to Strinic on the left sideline, who was instantly pressured by two Portugal players, yet not a single teammate came to help him.  Inevitably, Strinic lost the ball to the two pressing Portuguese players, one of whom was a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who proceeded to play a perfect pass into the middle to up and coming young player Renato Sanches.

With the Croatians committed up front, Sanches was free to drive the ball forward unhindered towards the penalty area and passed it to Nani on the left.  Nani’s shot/cross bypassed Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, and who happened to be behind him?  Yes, that certain Cristiano Ronaldo.  He had barely touched the ball in the penalty area all game, but like all great, talismanic players, he has a tendency to be there when it matters most.  It was he who hit the first shot on target in the match.  A scuffed shot saved by the Croatian keeper, but alas for him his save rebounded straight to Ricardo Quaresma (the other player who had helped win the ball from Croatia), who was handily standing right in front of the goal.  The players may not have known how to hit the target for nigh on 117 minutes, but even Quaresma couldn’t miss from 2 yards out.

Portugal had scored on the counter attack, but not because Croatia had finally dared to try and win the match and got caught out, but because at the crucial moment, they didn’t have each other’s backs.  When Croatia were attacking and the player with the ball was being pressured, no teammate helped him out, and the team paid the price.

For all their talent, when it really mattered, Croatia lacked the gumption to be winners.  And when it mattered, Ronaldo, who had been no more than a peripheral figure throughout the match, was back in his own half helping a teammate put pressure on the Croatian player.  When he had won the ball, it was he who passed it to Sanches in acres of space; it was he who then stormed up to the penalty area in support; it was he who raised his arm and demanded the ball; it was he who hit the first shot on target in the entire match, and it was from his shot that Quaresma scored the winning goal.  Ultimately, it was Ronaldo’s desire and drive that won the match.  It was a fleeting moment of quality in the most dismal and depressing of football matches.

Portugal may have been the winners but it was football and the unfortunate fans in the stadium, who had forked out a fortune, who were the losers.

 

Dustin’s Done, Dusted and Docked

What was astonishing about Dustin Johnson’s US Open victory on Sunday wasn’t that he actually got his hands on a major at last, nor that yet again he was involved in a controversial incident that saw him docked a stroke, nor even that the USGA were utterly incompetent in their administration of the rules; but that nobody – players, pundits, officials and golfing journos – was aware that the golfing rules on moving balls had changed earlier in the year.  Everyone kept blathering on about how Dustin hadn’t ‘addressed the ball’ on the 5th green when his ball started to move, but the new rules state that if the weight of evidence indicates that a player may have caused the ball to move, even if there is an element of doubt, the player will incur a 1 stoke penalty (Rule 18-2).

So the USGA were right in principle to penalise Johnson.  Obviously where they went wrong was to delay doling out the penalty until the end, which inevitably ruined the climax of the event as no one knew what the correct score was.  It soured the atmosphere and clearly affected the players.  Johnson was informed of the possible penalty on the 12th hole, and subsequently seemed to lose his edge for the next few holes, while his rivals went into free fall.  It was very, very fortunate for the USGA that, in the end, Johnson was able to regain his composure and win by a margin of more than 2 shots.

If Shane Lowry needs any consolation for blowing a 4 shot lead and collapsing at the death, he can give himself a generous pat on the back for playing his part in creating an unequivocal margin of victory for Dustin Johnson.  Imagine the pandemonium if Dustin had won by just one shot and then been told in the clubhouse that erm, sorry mate, we have decided to give you a one shot penalty, so erm, you haven’t actually won.  Johnson’s 4 stroke (amended to 3 stroke) win didn’t just let the USGA off the hook; it saved golf’s credibility.

The moral of the story?  Firstly, if you are going to make a decision, be decisive and make it.  If you need to stop play to do so, do it.  Don’t dither.  Secondly, if you are going to change your rules, try to make them less subjective, not more.  Oh, and when you have done so, do try to tell everyone about it.

Euro 2016: Group D – Croatia v Spain

They are dark horses no more.  They have been outed.  It’s official.  Croatia have arrived.  They did what no team had done at the Euros since Portugal in 2004 – they beat Spain.  Not only that, but in doing so, they did themselves a huge favour by winning their group and consigning Spain to second place.  This means it is Spain who will be playing Italy in the last 16, a repeat of the 2012 final, while Croatia as group winners should – in theory – have an easier tie against a so far poor-looking Portugal.

Incredibly, the team Croatia fielded wasn’t even their first team.  The manager, Ante Cacic, made 5 changes, with both key midfielder Luka Modric and striker Mario Mandzukic sidelined through injury.  No surprise perhaps as Croatia only needed a point to secure second place, and with Turkey winning against the Czech Republic, even that wasn’t ultimately necessary.  However, thankfully neither side seemed interested in settling prosaically for a draw and proceeded to serve up a thriller.

When Spain scored after only 8 minutes, it seemed business as usual.  But Croatia showed that they had strength in depth by not capitulating with their second string side, but daring to press the Spanish higher up, and they got their just reward when a cross from their flying left winger Ivan Perisic was converted by Nikola Kalinic just before half time.  Though Croatia were unlucky in the second half to concede a tame penalty, justice was swiftly done when their goalkeeper was allowed to get away with standing 3 yards off his line to save the penalty.  But there was no settling for a draw.  Maybe the Croatians really didn’t fancy playing the Italians so early in knockout stages, or they wanted to redeem themselves for letting slip a 2 goal lead against the Czechs, but Croatia were looking for the kill.  Inevitably, it was Ivan Perisic, who has been the Croatian player who has caught the eye so far, who got on the end of a counter attack in the 87th minute and fired the ball past De Gea’s near post for the winner.  Cue delirious celebrations as Croatia plonked themselves on top of the pile and on the easier side of the R16 draw.

There were also delirious celebrations in Northern Ireland as Turkey’s defeat of the Czech Republic meant Northern Ireland qualified as one of the 3rd placed teams.  Their reward: a R16 match against Wales.  Which guarantees one home nation a place in the quarter final.  And with Spain playing Italy (thank you, Croatia), it guarantees one of the big guns will be on a early flight home.

Euro 2016: Group B – Russia v Wales

Wales showed England how to do it.  England drew 0-0 against Slovakia; Wales beat them 2-1.  England drew 1-1 against Russia; Wales destroyed them 3-0.  Slovakia had also showed up the Russians for the poor team they were, with a dominant 2-1 win over them.  Only England struggled to put an ageing and insipid Russian team away.

Wales are of course fortunate to be blessed by one truly world class player in Gareth Bale, but they also have another quality England appear to lack: team spirit.  Wales are not a one man team.  Every player has played his part in helping Wales to top the group.  As a result, Wales are deservedly in the slightly favourable side of the last 16 draw, which is populated by dark horses such as Croatia and Belgium, with the big guns in England’s half of the draw.  Wales now have a great chance to progress to the quarter-finals.  Is the Welsh dragon ready to breath fire on these Euros?

Euro 2016: Group B – England v Slovakia

England never learn, do they?  How many times must they botch up the group stage before they realise there is an advantage to be gained from finishing top of your group, especially if that group isn’t particularly strong.  Was the final group game, when England needed a win to finish top of their group, really the time to make 4 changes – 6, if you include scoring super subs Vardy and Sturridge starting the match this time?  Would it not have made more sense to maintain momentum through continuity by starting with the same just-about-victorious team against Wales and then testing the subs and resting key players where necessary?

But then Roy has made something of a habit of making baffling selection decisions, from leaving fleet footed Vardy sat on the bench against Russia when the team was crying out for pace to scare the bejesus out of the ageing opposition defenders, to not starting Vardy and Sturridge against Wales when it was clear to everyone and their dog that Sterling and Kane needed to be replaced.  To be fair to the England manager, the team started well against Slovakia and created some good chances against a Slovakian team who were happy to play Hadrian’s Wall in their own area, and how different things might have been had Vardy taken his chance when put through by a over the top ball rather than shoot straight at the keeper.  A Lallana shot in the first half was also parried by the keeper and later on, Dele Alli was unlucky to have a shot blocked on the line.

Yet there was no disguising England’s often ponderous build up play which enabled the retreating Slovakians to get back in ample time to block England’s attack, nor the lack of width and penetrative movement necessary to unlock such a stalwart defence.  As the match wore on, England became increasingly ragged and disjointed, and seemed to be playing futile ‘knocking heads against brick walls’ football.  So not much of a surprise that the score ended 0-0.  For a team that have created an astonishing 65 chances over the 3 group games, ironically England have lacked a cutting edge, playing more like toothless tigers than marauding lions.

So now, as a result of coming second, England find themselves in the tougher side of the draw with the might of France, Spain, Italy and Germany.  And Portugal may yet join the ‘Side of Death’.  There is only one way this usually ends – heroic effort marred by some unlucky, unfair, controversial incident and/or penalties.  Is it really going to be any different this time?  Why, oh why, do we do it to ourselves?

Euro 2016: Group D – Czech Rep v Croatia

Two subs, two goals.  Another late late show.  A dramatic finale.  No, it’s not another match report on the England v Wales game.  This time it was the Czech Republic manager making the prescient substitutions to help his team gain an improbable and not entirely deserved draw.  Croatia had dominated the match, storming to a 2-0 lead, and were in cruise control.  They looked for all the world like they were going to become the first team at this tournament to score three goals, yet by the end they were hanging on for dear life to salvage a draw.

The extraordinary turnaround started when Croatia’s talisman and star playmaker Luka Modric trudged off with an injury in the 62nd minute.  13 minutes later Czech super sub No 1 Milan Skoda scored with a super header to make it 2-1.  But Croatia were holding on comfortably, until their own fans decided to shoot their team in the foot right at the end.  First, they threw flares onto the pitch, one of which exploded in the face of their own player and goal scorer Ivan Perisic, who had gone over with his teammates to try and placate the fans.  Then they started fighting amongst themselves, ignoring the desperate pleas from their own players.  The unsavoury scenes seemed to spook the Croatian players.  From the restart, they were under pressure and one of their defenders suddenly had a brain freeze moment in the 93rd minute, doing a Diego Maradona and punching the ball rather than trying to head it away from the Czech attacker in the penalty area.  Unfortunately for him, the eagle eyes of English referee Mark Clattenburg spotted the infringement and awarded a penalty.  Step up super sub No 2 Tomas Necid, who hit the penalty with aplomb to earn the Czech Republic an unlikely point.

Croatia will be ruing all the chances they missed as they will now probably need to get a result against Spain to be certain of qualification.  To add to their woes, UEFA will be investigating the crowd trouble and could hand Croatia the same suspended disqualification as Russia.  To further compound Croatia’s misery, Luka Modric is reportedly out of the Spain game.  In the space of 20 minutes, Croatia went from the team most likely to a team teetering on the brink of expulsion.  Such are the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.