37. Thomas Müller’s Day Off

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22. The Silence of the Lahms

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13. The Mertesacker Diaries

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England v Hungary – the same old story

Just over one month ago, England showed plenty of attacking intent and a worrying amount of defensive ineptitude as they crashed out of the World Cup to Germany. Last night against Hungary it was a similar story, but thankfully for under-pressure manager Fabio Capello the opponents at Wembley were not clinical enough to capitalise on his own team’s shortcomings.

It is crazy to overlook obvious failings based on the result of a single game, but that did not stop the chorus of half-time boos disappearing when the curtain fell on an unconvincing victory. Similarly, captain Steven Gerrard, uninvolved and uninspiring in the first half, was hailed as a hero after his match-winning brace.

Personally, I am not one to boo my team, especially when I have paid good money to watch them play. But for those who are so inclined, England’s first-half display provided a decent excuse for expressing dissatisfaction in such a way. Shaky in defence, bland in midfield and toothless in attack, the only bright spark for Capello’s team was the energy of a rejuvenated Theo Walcott.

Walcott was one of England's best performers

The Arsenal wide-man is at his best when given space to run at defences, and he looked free from the hesitation which plagued Aaron Lennon’s displays in South Africa and Walcott’s own disappointing World Cup warm up. There are those who say his impact will be limited against the top teams when he has less space with which to work, but in 45 minutes against Hungary the former Southampton player demonstrated what England lacked against mediocre opposition in the group stage.

Walcott was among several players absent from the World Cup squad who were given a chance to impress last night, but few grasped the opportunity. His club team-mate Kieran Gibbs showed some good touches after replacing Ashley Cole at the interval, while Bobby Zamora’s creative movement and well-saved long-range effort were about as much as we can expect from a striker who has plenty of willing but little in the way of international class.

During England’s World Cup campaign, much was made of the lack of pace and conviction at centre-back. While improving somewhat on Terry and Upson’s lack of mobility, both Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka looked uncomfortable at the back, culminating in the comedy of errors which led to the opener for Hungary. One might expect the duo, both established first-team players at their respective clubs, not to be overawed by the situation, but that was not the case.

Among the other new (or new-ish) faces, only Adam Johnson was given the full 90 minutes to impress. The Manchester City winger cannot be accused of shying away from the opportunity, but those watching will have got the impression he was striving too hard to impress after being left out of the World Cup 23. A criminal miss in the first half, the like of which would have seen more established team mates panned, summed up Johnson’s over-eagerness to impress.

Cahill is still waiting for his full England debut

While Capello was more open to change than some of his predecessors have been, many players will feel disappointed not to have been given a chance to take to the field. Gary Cahill and Carlton Cole, the only outfield players to remain on the bench, must be wondering what they need to do to get an extended run-out for the national team. And while others retained their place in spite of a poor World Cup, Peter Crouch was not given the opportunity to add to the 15-or-so minutes he played in South Africa.

At least it was not all doom and gloom, though. Joe Hart put in an assured performance in goal, giving the impression he may be able to fill the position for years to come. That is, providing fans do not jump on any mistake he makes, as has been the case with Green and Robinson before him. A rare glimmer of promise on a night which showed a lot of work needs to be done.

***

Before I leave you for this week, I would like to take a minute to remember Adam Stansfield, the Exeter City striker who lost his battle with cancer at the age of just 31.

Stansfield was a rare commodity, a footballer who no one had a bad word to say about, and he will be sorely missed. For those who want to know a little more about him, I recommend you read this sensitive tribute from Gary Andrews.

A world cup to forget?

I hope you haven’t forgotten about the World Cup just yet – I know I haven’t. Last week I presented my team of the tournament, and now I will bring you a team of players who disappointed during the tournament.

While my team of the tournament used the much-lauded 4-2-3-1 formation, the nature of this team leads me to use the 4-4-2 which many(perhaps prematurely) now feel has had its day.

Goalkeeper – Robert Green (England)

Club: West Ham United. 11 caps (0 goals)

It may seem unduly harsh to select a goalkeeper who only made one mistake, but Green’s error is thought by many to have set the tone for England’s poor World Cup performance.

In a tournament where many ‘keepers were remembered for their impressive stops, individual mistakes stand out more than ever. This is especially true when – as was the case with Green – the individual in question is not given time to atone for his mistake.

With David James moving ever closer to retirement, both England and West Ham will hope the former Norwich shot-stopper recovers from the media scapegoating to reassert himself as first choice for club and country.

Right-back – Jonas Gutierrez (Argentina)

Club: Newcastle United. 19 caps (1 goal)

Just as fans of West Ham United gasped in shock when their right-back Lionel Scaloni kept former Argentina captain Javier Zanetti out of his country’s World Cup squad in 2006, Newcastle fans will have been surprised to see Gutierrez take Zanetti’s place this time around.

This is not merely because Newcastle had played the previous season in English football’s second tier – Gutierrez was signed with the club in the Premier League and was clearly too good for the division below. Rather the surprised glances came because the player known as ‘Spiderman’ had made his name as a winger, not a right-back.

The supposedly versatile 27-year-old was found out in the opener against Nigeria, and by the time his country’s final group game came around he had been replaced by the lumbering and one-dimensional Nicolas Otamendi. Given the way in which Otamendi himself was destroyed by a fluid German attack, Diego Maradona will surely be ruing the decision not to include a natural right-back in his squad.

Left-back – Patrice Evra (France)

Club: Manchester United. 32 caps (0 goals)

While France may have made hard work of qualifying for the tournament, they were still expected to cruise through a relatively easy group.

It is common knowledge that a lack of leadership – rather than a paucity of talent – is often responsible for Les Bleus struggles, but the quiet and understated Evra was supposed to provide a calming influence as captain.

Few could have predicted what would follow. Two games and one much-publicised clash with a fitness coach later, and Evra was stripped of both the captaincy and his place in the team. There have since been suggestions that the defeat against Mexico will prove to be Evra’s last game for his country, with former stars including 1998 World Cup Winner Lilian Thuram calling for him to be dropped indefinitely.

Centre-back – Fabio Cannavaro (Italy)

Club: Al-Ahli. 136 caps (2 goals)

Yes, the clues were there before the tournament began. Cannavaro’s decision to move to the United Arab Emirates suggested – at the age of 36 – the former Juventus captain felt he was no longer up to playing in Europe’s top leagues.

But few could have predicted the ignominy of his, and Italy’s campaign. Despite being more than matched in the opener against Paraguay, fans still expected the Azzurri to bounce back, as they have done many times before.

An embarrassing draw with New Zealand, during which Cannavaro was hopelessly exposed for Shane Smeltz’s goal, was the antipasti. What followed put to shame the defensive solidity on which the country’s success has been founded. The 3-2 defeat against an uninspiring Slovakian outfit may well go down as the moment at which Cannavaro – and the class of ’06 in general – were forced to give way to a younger and hungrier breed.

Centre-back – Simon Kjær (Denmark)

Club: Wolfsburg. 11 caps (0 goals)

How do you go from being one of the hottest defensive properties in world football to making an uninspiring move to a Europa League side? Well, why don’t you ask Simon Kjær – he should have the answer.

Just months after being sweet-talked by Sir Alex Ferguson in advance of a potential move to Manchester, the Danish defender is packing his bags for Wolfsburg.

The former Palermo man was hardly helped by an error-prone Danish defence, but he did nothing to suggest he had the solidity or leadership qualities required to succeed at the highest level, although – as you and I well know – one tournament rarely tells the whole story.

Right-midfield – Franck Ribéry (France)

Club: Bayern Munich. 48 caps (7 goals)

At this World Cup, the stage was set for Franck Ribéry to finish a disappointing season on the highest of high notes. Not disappointing on the pitch, although Bayern’s domestic double was achieved largely in spite of the French winger, but disappointing in a personal sense.

His achievements at club and international level were first blighted by a knee injury, and then by a prostitution scandal which rocked the French football scene.

International team-mate Karim Benzema had a similarly frustrating 12 months, but while the Real Madrid striker was left out of the World Cup squad – allowing him to take time out to confront his troubles – Ribéry had no escape. His abject performances in South Africa suggested one or more of these issues were still playing on his mind, and questions still remain as to whether he will ever be able to recapture his previous form on the pitch.

Left-midfield – Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Club: Barcelona. 49 caps (13 goals)

All things considered, Messi didn’t play that badly in the World Cup. He lit up proceedings against South Korea as Diego Maradona’s side destroyed their Asian opponents, and showed some good touches against Mexico in the last 16.

But fans and pundits have come to expect more of the enigmatic Argentine. He netted 47 goals in 53 games for Barcelona this season, including splendid hat-tricks against Arsenal and Valencia.

Yet when the world was watching, he failed to reproduce the same goalscoring form, culminating in his nation’s 4-0 loss at the hands of Germany – a loss which he could do nothing about.

Central midfield – Frank Lampard (England)

Club: Chelsea. 82 caps (20 goals)

Frank Lampard should count himself lucky referee Jorge Larrionda failed to notice his shot crossing the line in England’s loss to Germany. Why? Because now fans will remember his campaign in a more positive light.

Now when asked about Lampard’s performance in years to come, people will mention his disallowed ‘goal’ and not his complete absence in his country’s first three games.

This is not the first time the midfielder – almost untouchable at club level – has failed to perform on the world stage. It seems he is so used to being the focal point of the side at Chelsea that he has forgotten how to work for his team-mates.

No doubt he will become a world-beater again when he returns to Chelsea for the new season, free from the shackles of significant responsibility.

Central midfield – Steven Pienaar (South Africa)

Club: Everton. 51 caps (2 goals)

If the host nation South Africa had any hope of reaching the last 16, they would need their most famous footballing expert to pull the strings right from the get-go.

Sadly for them, Pienaar never really got out of first gear, and as a result South Africa lacked the creative spark needed to separate them from the other teams in group A.

While the opening draw with Mexico and the narrow victory against a French side in total disarray gave fans of the Bafana Bafana something to shout about, hard graft and enthusiasm will only get you so far. With Pienaar unable to impose his nous and footballing intelligence on the game, Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side got about as far as they could.

Striker – Wayne Rooney (England)

Club: Manchester United. 64 caps (25 goals)

Those making excuses for England’s poor performance at the World Cup have blamed the arduous Premier League season. However that is only part of the story as far as Wayne Rooney is concerned.

Rooney’s injury problems have been well documented, and many England supporters were relieved when he picked up a knock a few months before the start of the tournament.

Unfortunately, far from getting the much-needed rest enjoyed by the likes of Arjen Robben, Rooney was forced back into action far sooner than Fabio Capello would have liked. Still, with his team-mates offering little in the way of service, there is no guarantee that a fully-fit Rooney could have done any better.

Striker – Fernando Torres (Spain)

Club: Liverpool. 80 caps (24 goals)

Never before can I remember a striker featuring in every game for a World Cup winning country and having less of an impact.

Torres looked out of his depth, failing to score and failing to complete a full 90 minutes at any stage of the tournament. While his team-mates brushed aside their opposition en route to winning the World Cup, the Liverpool man was barely an afterthought in discussions of their success.

And just to cap it all, he picked up an injury in the closing stages of the final which will put a dent in his preparations for the new campaign.

Substitutes:

Fawzi Chaouchi (Algeria, goalkeeper) – Gaffe in opener against Slovenia effectively sealed his country’s fate

Glen Johnson (England, right-back) – Horribly exposed in defeat against Germany, ordinary going forward and absent at the back

Nemanja Vidic (Serbia, centre-back) – Far from his normal imposing self, gifted Germany a penalty in Serbia’s only win

Jean Makoun (Cameroon, central midfield) – Failed to impose himself after an impressive season for Lyon

Kaka (Brazil, attacking midfield) – Allowed himself to be bullied by opponents too easily, although his red card against Cote d’Ivoire was harsh

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, winger) – Victim of an overly-defensive set-up from manager Carlos Queiroz

Vincenzo Iaquinta (Italy, striker) – Static and lumbering, should have been replaced by Fabio Quagliarella far sooner.

World Cup top 5

Every World Cup, punters make their predictions about which team will win, who will finish top scorer, which teams will be the ‘dark horses’ (has there ever been a more backhanded compliment?) and which young players are the ‘ones to watch.’ In lieu of this, I decided to make some more obvious predictions about the goings-on in South Africa this summer:

1. An unfancied (probably African) team will perform admirably and then get knocked out in unfortunate fashion.

From Gary Lineker ‘earning’ two penalties against Cameroon in 1990, through Ilhan Mansiz’s golden goal to knock out Senegal in 2002, up to Dida’s fortuitous save from John Mensah four years ago, the story always seems to be the same for African sides in the World Cup.

Hoffenheim striker Chinedu Obasi

Commentators too lazy to watch the Africa Cup of Nations (well it is only every two years) will marvel at and patronise the ‘natural athleticism’ of players they have never seen before – players who have been household names in France or Germany for years but unknown quantities in England because Arsenal are yet to express an interest.

My prediction: Nigeria will qualify for the second round, with Chinedu Obasi starring as they give Argentina a run for their money, before a Thierry Henry handball denies them against France.

2. A young Eastern European player will have one good game, be hailed as a star, join Tottenham and see his career take a dive.

The World Cup is renowned as a shop window for Premier League clubs, with Premier League clubs rarely afraid to take a punt on someone on the basis of one or two good games. West Ham famously forgot about Gary Breen’s years of mediocrity when they signed him after his performance against Germany in 2002, while Daniel Amokachi’s form for Everton did not quite match the high standards he set for himself in 1994.

Gary Breen: Master of mediocrity

Of course, of all the managers in England’s top flight, no one likes taking a punt on an unknown quantity more than Harry Redknapp. While perhaps not as frivolous as when he was at West Ham or even at Portsmouth, ‘Arry still isn’t afraid to pay over the odds, shelling out £14million on hit-and-miss striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and £3million on past-his-best right-back Pascal Chimbonda to name but two.

My prediction: Redknapp will plump for Slovenia’s Mišo Brečko after he puts in a couple of good crosses against England and nutmegs Landon Donovan in the game against the USA. After all, you can never have too many right-backs.

3. Holland will look unbeatable in the early rounds before being found out by a wily older manager in the knockout stages

Two years ago, at Euro 2008, Marco van Basten’s Dutch side were unplayable in the group stages, destroying France and Italy without breaking sweat. But then they came undone in the semi-final, outwitted by Guus Hiddink’s Russia.

Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder

Fans of the Oranje will hope new coach Bert van Marwijk has instilled a greater sense of belief and solidity in his troops, and it is certainly true that a number of them – including Internazionale midfielder Wesley Sneijder and Arsenal’s Robin van Persie – have developed as players since that defeat to Russia in Basel two years ago.

My prediction: Holland will win all three group games, before Spain edge past them in the quarter-finals. Pundits will say how much they miss the presence of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

4. A foreign player will become ‘public enemy number one’ in England, probably for something innocuous.

The mild-mannered Diego Simeone, destroyer of hopes and dreams in 1998

Ever since Antonio Rattin threw a wobbly in 1966, England fans have found a foreigner to despise in the aftermath of any World Cup. However, rather than sensibly using Rattin as a benchmark and deciding – actually – some of the more recent offences pale in comparison, many decide the cheek of irking a nation with a minor foul or a wink is worse than murder.

Now don’t get me wrong, Maradona’s handball in 1986 was despicable, and Ronaldo’s wink in 2006 was deplorable, but we don’t half hold a grudge. Such an attitude unfairly draws attention away from the often abysmal performances of our own players, turning us into victims when we should really be blaming ourselves for not doing the job asked of us.

My prediction: The lovable scamp Tim Cahill will nudge Ledley King as a corner is coming over before scoring the goal to knock England out in the second round. Bricks through windows and mildly-racist newspaper headlines will follow.

5. An average player will score a brilliant goal, and proceed to live off it for the rest of his career

This is the one World Cup certainty which I have no problem with. Everyone loves to see a cracking goal, and even an average one is enough if it is the difference between your country making it through their group and them falling at the first hurdle.

Salif Diao has struggled to live up to his early promise

And it is ever so often a journeyman pro or a player who has come out of nowhere who steals the plaudits. Go to any pub in Stoke and you will probably find Salif Diao talking about his goal against Denmark in 2002, while Eder no doubt still roams the beaches of Brazil telling anyone who will listen about the high-point of his uneventful career.

My prediction: New Zealand’s Simon Elliott will score a 35-yard screamer against Paraguay, putting his 12 games for Fulham in the shade.

So, all that is left for me to say is I hope you enjoy the World Cup. It will truly be a tournament like no other. Or maybe a tournament like every other, but with a number of differences so subtle you barely notice them.

And in keeping with my final prediction, I leave you with the 50 best goals ever scored on world football’s grandest stage.

Injury Time

The World Cup is less than one week away, and some of the tournament’s potential stars are dropping like flies.

Many of the competing nations are reverting to plan B or even plan C operations, after losing important players to injuries on the eve of the competition.

Emerson

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Who can forget the dislocated shoulder suffered by Brazilian captain Emerson before the 2002 World Cup, or Ledley King’s absence through injury from England’s squad four years ago.

It seems every major tournament is preceded by a spate of injuries, and this year the pre-World Cup curse seems to have hit countries even harder than usual.

In this post I will look at some of the players struck down in recent weeks, and consider how their absence will affect their countries.

England: Rio Ferdinand, Owen Hargreaves and David Beckham

The identity of two of England’s three major absentees comes as no great surprise, and Fabio Capello will surely have been preparing to embark on a World Cup campaign without messrs. Beckham and Hargreaves for some time. Providing Gareth Barry recovers from his own injury problems before Saturday’s opening fixture in Rustenberg, the group C favourites should be able to cope.

Rio Ferdinand

The knee ligament damage suffered by their captain is, however, a far different story.

Fans and players alike hoped Ferdinand had recovered from the various ailments which have plagued him all season, but now they will need to rely on Ledley King, who has himself only played 59 times for his club Tottenham in the last three seasons. Doubts remain over King’s ability to play so many games in such a short space of time, and there is a strong chance England will have to call upon the out-of-form Matthew Upson or the inexperienced Michael Dawson. Ferdinand’s injury is certainly a setback, but it remains to be seen whether England have the ammunition to deal with it.

Germany: Michael Ballack, Simon Rolfes, Heiko Westermann and Rene Adler

While England have players in reserve who may be capable of stepping in for those injured in their World Cup preparations, the same may not be said of their potential second-round opponents Germany.

The ankle ligament damage suffered by Michael Ballack was always going to be significant, but the damage might have been lessened if Simon Rolfes was able to step in. Instead, the absence of the experienced Bayer Leverkusen man leaves the German midfield looking rather thin.

Of the six midfielders remaining, only Bastian Schweinsteiger and Piotr

Mesut Ozil

Trochowski have more than 10 caps to their name. Joachim Low will now be relying on the youthful energy of the likes of Mesut Ozil and Marko Marin to drag his side out of a tough first-round group.

With the squad so lacking in experience, the cool head of Heiko Westermann would have helped calm Low’s troops, but he too is out, suffering a broken foot in a friendly against Hungary. And Adler, enjoying a good season at Leverkusen and becoming his country’s first choice goalkeeper after the tragic suicide of Robert Enke last November, will also miss out with a broken rib. While England may cope without important players, Germany will face an altogether tougher task to see off Serbia, Australia and Ghana and advance to the second round.

And the rest…

Cote d’Ivoire’s hopes of advancing through the so-called ‘Group of Death’ suffered a massive blow after captain Didier Drogba broke his arm against Japan. He faces a race against time to feature, and if he fails to make it then it is difficult to see Sven Goran Eriksson’s squad getting past Brazil and Portugal in group G.

Michael Essien

If Ghana want to repeat their achievements of four years ago, when they fell in the second round, they will have to do so without talisman Michael Essien.

An increasingly-important player for the Black Stars with captain Stephen Appiah’s own injury issues, Essien has failed to recover from a long-standing knee problem which curtailed his Premier League campaign with Chelsea.

Essien’s club team-mate John Obi Mikel will also be watching the tournament from the sidelines, with a knee injury keeping him out of Nigeria’s squad. While perhaps a bit-part player for Chelsea, Mikel is integral to his country’s form, and his calming influence in front of the back four will be missed.

With only five days remaining until the start of the tournament, I leave you with K’naan’s ‘Waving Flag’, the official anthem of the tournament in South Africa.