Giggs

Just how good is Ryan Giggs? I could keep this piece brief and very straightforward and merely say: “Very!”

999 games and counting...

999 games and counting…

That though wouldn’t do justice to the man who arguably has the right to think of himself as the greatest footballer of his generation, that is if you can actually work out which generation of footballers is his seeing as he has seemingly played so consistently brilliantly throughout endless ‘generations’ of footballers.

To put things in perspective, the player who most people rate as the world’s best player at the moment and perhaps of all time is Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.

Messi is a man who is constantly compared with his compatriot Diego Maradona who, before the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo came along, was thought by most to have been the greatest player ever to have graced a football field.

However, a common sticking point in the ‘best player of all time’ debate is that you cannot compare the likes of Maradona and Messi because they never played in the same ‘era’ and things were ‘so different back then…’

Maradona though was still playing top-flight professional football up until the late nineties and by then Ryan Giggs (getting back to the point finally, I appreciate how convoluted this may have seemed!) had already been playing top flight football for almost a decade himself with Manchester United. 16 years on from Maradona’s retirement Ryan Giggs remains a regular in one of the world’s greatest club sides.

The point of raking up the past and mentioning such greats as Maradona and Messi was to demonstrate just how long Ryan Giggs has been around for, and more to the point just how long he has been around at the very pinnacle of football for.

From the moment Giggs broke into the first team at Manchester United under the early guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson, who lest we forget was only a fledgling name himself on the global footballing agenda at the time, he looked an enormous talent and he quickly became a key player in a developing and hugely successful side.

It is hard to believe now that United had before the early nineties endured a lengthy baron spell in terms of wining major trophies, but if their return to winning ways and worldwide prominence in the early nineties is mainly attributable to the brilliance of Sir Alex Ferguson, then surely the next greatest reason for this still ongoing golden era for the club has been the constant presence and genius of a certain Mr. Giggs.

In his club career Giggs has remained loyal to the club that gave him his big break and boy has he been rewarded for doing so.

His career to date has lasted longer than two decades which has brought us up to this point in time where he stands on the verge of his 1000th match, which is likely to take place on Saturday the 2nd March with Norwich City his likely opponents for this landmark outing.

Giggs' Manchester United yearbook photo

Giggs’ Manchester United yearbook photo

Remarkably though, in spite of his advancing years and the toll of having appeared in 999 top class football games for club and country, Giggs is continuing to demonstrate his genuine world-class ability and huge worth to the club that have served him so well.

He may be set to turn 40 in the near future but the past six weeks have served as a timely reminder of just why Giggs is still considered a major asset to his club.

His recent form has been logic defying and it has seen him continue his phenomenal run of having scored a league goal for United in each and every season since the Premier League’s inception. His form has been so good in fact that few of his peers, including the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie, have matched up to him over the past few games and now the great man has signed on the dotted line on yet another contract extension.

This new deal will see Giggs continue his playing time with United at the very least until the end of next season and almost up until his 41st Birthday.

People will of course continue to consign him to the scrapheap as they have done for a decade now, but I have no doubt that he will again feature heavily next season for the Premier League champions-elect and I wouldn’t even rule out the possibility of bagging himself another contract come this time next year.

Though there is an awful lot for Giggs to celebrate there have of course been a few blotches on his record along the way, perhaps most famously his farcical public humiliation following the airing of the dirty laundry in his personal life, but also regarding his records and achievements on the football field.

The major source of disappointment for him in this sense must surely be that he has never once had the opportunity to play in a major international tournament. It is staggering that a talent such as he who has been such a force in the game and for such a long time has never been blessed with the opportunity to play in a World Cup or even just in a European Championship with his native country, Wales.

As sad as this is though it does little to dampen the huge impression that the Welsh wizard has left on the English and global game.

Ryan Giggs has always been my footballing hero and has been my favourite player for as long as I can remember. Plenty of geniuses have come along during his time at the top such as Maradona, Figo, Zidane, Beckham, Scholes, Gerrard, Ronaldo, Henry, Ronaldinho, Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to name a few, but most have of them have also disappeared while he has still remained.

Ryan Giggs, you are an inspiration and to this day still a wonderful player.

I know you’re not reading this but I can’t help gushing. You’ve been that good.

After today it will be 1,000 games and counting, the mind boggles…

Premier League 2012/2013: Team by Team Preview

Arsenal

Key Player: For me, Alex Song was second only to Robin Van Persie in terms of Arsenal’s best players last season and I think that they must do absolutely everything in their power to keep him at the club amidst rumours that Barcelona are on the verge of a securing a move for the dynamic midfield player. I think that losing Song would represent a greater loss to Arsenal than losing Van Persie as the Dutchman’s departure was always expected and therefore planned for whereas Song’s departure would leave Arsenal requiring some quick-fire work in the latter stages of the transfer window.

Alex Song Barcelona

Signings: Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud

What they still need: If Arsenal are planning on offloading either Marouane Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner then I think they need to invest in another striker but Arsene Wenger seems to think otherwise. They will also need to line up a very decent replacement for Alex Song if he is to be lured to the Nou Camp.

Prediction: 5th

Aston Villa

Key Player: Villa had a pretty dire season last year in almost every way but they certainly had their reasons. I can remember very few Premier League sides ever having endured such a terrible season of injury woe than Villa last year and the major loss of the bunch was Darren Bent who missed the most crucial part of the season as they were sucked into the relegation dogfight. With Bent back on the field they will stand a far greater chance of avoiding relegation worries this season as he remains their only major goal threat.

Bent Villa

Signings: Karim El Ahmadi, Brett Holman, Ron Vlaar, Matthew Lowton

What they still need: Villa could do with someone to help Bent out on the goal scoring front as Gabriel Agbonlahor’s contributions have never been consistent enough. Last season Villa also looked desperately short of creative sparks in their midfield and they would benefit from adding a creative player out wide. Someone like Matt Jarvis of Wolves or Gabriel Obertan of Newcastle would prove a decent addition to their squad and they are prbably both available at the right price.

Prediction: 13th

Chelsea

Key Player: Fernando Torres has struggled for form and fitness over the past few seasons but towards the end of last season there seemed to be a bit of an upturn in form for the once prolific Spaniard and this form followed him unto Spain’s successful Euro 2012 campaign where he won the Golden Boot. In the wake of Chelsea hero Didier Drogba’s departure Torres will need to step up to the plate and take on the bulk of their goal scoring burden and I think we will see something more like his old self in this campaign.

Torres Chelsea

Signings: Oscar, Marko Marin, Eden Hazard, Thorgan Hazard

What they still need: Chelsea need a right back to compete with Branislav Ivanovic and perhaps they could also do with another holding midfield player as Michael Essien seemed to struggle to reach his former heights last season. Don’t rule out a move for a striker either as they aren’t exactly over-stocked in that department.

Prediction: 3rd

Everton

Key Player: Everton are always brilliantly drilled and organised by their fantastic manager David Moyes but the only area in which they have truly struggled during his time at the club is in the goal-scoring department. Never before have they had a striker with such an eye for goal as Nikica Jelavic and if his first half season at the club is anything to go by then they may well have finally found themselves a 20 goal a season man.

Jelavic Everton

Signings: Steven Pienaar, Steven Naismith

What they still need: They were surprisingly active in the January transfer market and have already brought Steven Pienaar back to the club this summer so expect little more movement from Everton. Having said that though, I think a rumoured move for Michael Owen would represent the sort of low-risk move which might take David Moyes’ fancy and he could prove a decent addition if he can keep fit.

Prediction: 8th

Fulham

Key Player: Fulham’s star man is Clint Dempsey. He is far and away their best player and his ability to score a huge haul of goals from midfield has been the difference between them being a mid-table club rather than a side battling to avoid relegation in recent times and it is of paramount importance that they hold on to him if they are to have any chance of progressing. It does however sound like he is at the top of Liverpool’s wanted list and one would have to think that the move will probably go through.

Dempsey Fulham

Signings: Mladen Petric, Hugo Rodallega, Sascha Reither, George Williams

What they still need: If Dempsey decides to move to Liverpool then Fulham will need to either invest in a striker who can take on the task of replacing the void left by Dempsey’s departure in their goals tally or alternatively a midfielder in the Dempsey mould who can score and create goals on a regular basis.

Prediction: 12th

Liverpool

Key Player: He may well be the most, or at very least one of the most, maligned players in the league but Luis Suarez is undoubtedly Liverpool’s best offensive player and they will rely heavily upon him to try and re-assert themselves as a real Premier League force this season. In terms of his contribution in purely football terms Suarez has enjoyed a very decent first season and a half in English football but he needs to score a greater bulk of goals than he has done so far if he is to be truly regarded as one of the most highly revered strikers in world football.

Suarez Liverpool

Signings: Joe Allen, Fabio Borini

What they still need: If Daniel Agger moves to City then Liverpool will definitely have to replace him with someone like Steven Caulker and they could also do with adding more bite to their midfield. It sounds as if they are keen to secure a deal to sign Clint Dempsey and I don’t think there are many sides in the league who wouldn’t benefit from adding him to their squad. Christian Tello and Nuri Sahin are both very firmly on their radar also…

Prediction: 6th

Manchester City

Key Player: Yaya Toure had a sublime season last year and was  arguably the key component of their first ever Premier League winning side. He has adapted his game so easily since joining the club and he has transformed himself into one of the most dynamic roaming midfielders in world football. If City are to make it back-to-back titles then they will need Toure to keep fit and to reach the same levels as last season.

Toure Man City

Signings: Jack Rodwell

What they still need: Do City really need anyone? They could perhaps do with some more competition in central defence as replacement centre half Stefan Savic didn’t look up to the task last season and Daniel Agger would be a great signing if they could pull it off.

Prediction: 1st

Manchester United

Key Player: He may not seem the obvious choice but I think Michael Carrick could and should have a huge part to play in United’s season. At his best he is one of the Premier League’s finest distributors of the ball and he possesses the ability to relieve his defence of an enormous amount of pressure with his very efficient positioning and shielding of the back four. When he is high on confidence he is a totally different player than when he is in and out of the starting lineup and I think it is of little coincidence that United are at their best when Carrick is thriving in the heart of their midfield.

Carrick Man Utd

Signings: Robin Van Persie, Nick Powell, Shinji Kagawa

What they still need: Signing Van Persie has given their chances of gaining revenge on City a huge boost. They could however still do with some more defensive cover and perhaps a holding midfielder.

Prediction: 2nd

Newcastle

Key Player: Since joining Newcastle Cheik Tiote has become one of the most sought after midfield players in English football as his destructive and combative talents have proved completely vital to Newcastle’s successful return to top-flight football. It seems as though Newcastle have done a fantastic job of keeping him happy at the club as I’m sure there would be a whole host of suitors for one of the Premier League’s best holding midfield players if he was ever to declare anything other than his enormous affection for the club.

Tiote Newcastle

Signings: Curtis Good, Romain Amalfitano, Vurnon Anita, Gael Bigrimana

What they still need: Newcastle still need some defensive cover having looked threadbare at the back throughout the second half of last season, other than that though their squad is looking pretty well set for a challenge at securing European qualification for the second season running.

Prediction: 7th

Norwich

Key Player: Last season Grant Holt not only realised his dream of playing Premier League football but he also became perhaps the surprise success story of the entire Premier League season as he banged in the goals which kept Norwich clear of danger. If Norwich are to avoid danger again then Holt will surely again have to reach a similarly decent goals tally.

Holt Norwich

Signings: Michael Turner, Robert Snodgrass, Jacob Butterfield, Javier Garrido, Steven Whittaker

What they still need: Norwich need to bring someone in who can share the goal scoring burden with Grant Holt and they would benefit from investing in a quality centre half.

Prediction: 20th

QPR

Key Player: One of the more interesting transfer deals of the summer has seen Park Ji-Sung leave Manchester United for Queens Park Rangers. Not satisfied anymore with life on the periphery of the United side Park decided to ‘up sticks’ and he signed for Rangers in what could prove to be a great bit of business for the West-Londoners. He became well renowned for his tremendous attitude and work ethic at United but when he was at his best he was more than just a dedicated squad member. He has terrific off the ball movement and if he can just make more of his uncanny ability to pop up in great areas then I’m sure he’ll prove to be a big hit at Loftus Road.

Signings: Park Ji-Sung, Fabio, Ryan Nelsen, Samba Diakite, Andy Johnson, Rob Green, Junior Hoilett

What they still need: QPR need to make improvements in defence having looked very leaky at the back last season and they would be wise to add further defensive recruits as they have the potential to become a top-ten side if only they can find a bit more stability throughout their squad.

Prediction: 10th

Reading

Key Player: Any new Premier League sides desperately need a striker who can reach at least double figures on the goals front and in signing Pavel Pogrebnyak Reading way well have found themselves one. Pogrebnyak’s arrival at the club appears to be a real coup as a couple of more established Premier League and European Clubs were after his services and if he can re-create his start whilst on loan at Fulham last season then he will prove to be a crucial part of Reading’s bid for survival.

Pogrebnyak Reading

Signings: Chris Gunter, Pavel Pogrebnyak, Danny Guthrie, Adrian Mariappa, Nicky Shorey, Gareth McCleary

What they still need: Reading have done pretty well in the transfer market so far having beaten more established sides to the signatures of Pogrebnyak and Guthrie but they could still do with adding some Premier League experience to their squad right across the board. Many are tipping them for the drop but I think they could have a pretty good season.

Prediction:15th

Southampton

Key Player: Rickie Lambert has proven himself to be a lethal marksman at football league and championship level but it remains to be seen whether he can emulate the likes of Grant Holt and make a success of himself in the Premier League. Southampton haven’t invested much in new signings so far this summer so if they are to re-establish themselves as a top-flight side then they will be reliant once again on Lambert finding the back of the net on a regular basis.

Lambert Southampton

Signings: Jay Rodriguez, Steven Davis, Nathaniel Clyne, Paolo Gazzaniga

What they still need: Southampton must add greater numbers and a greater amount of experience to their squad as they look a little lightweight in every department at the minute. The signings they have made so far have actually been pretty good but they definitely need to invest more if they are to have any hope of staying up.

Prediction:18th

Stoke

Key Player: Tony Pulis put a lot of faith in Peter Crouch last summer when he splashed over £10m on the ageing England international but his faith was repaid as Crouch led the line admirably for the Potters. Hopes will be high again for Crouch to deliver and if he scores ten to fifteen goals then Stoke should be in decent shape to avoid being lured into a relegation battle.

Crouch Stoke City

Signings: Michael Kightly, Geoff Cameron, Jamie Ness

What they still need: Stoke have done a great job establishing themselves as a Premier League club and now they need to ensure that this remains the case. If they are to steer clear of any flirtations with trouble then I think they need to sign a creative central midfield player as they are short of genuine playmakers.

Prediction: 14th

Sunderland

Key Player: Last season Stephane Sessegnon was far and away Sunderland’s best player. The diminutive midfielder is an elusive off the ball runner and he has the ability to unlock doors in any opposition’s defences so he will always be a major threat. If they can keep him sweet and team him up with a new front man then he could well continue to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s finest playmakers.

Sessegnon Sunderland

Signings: Louis Saha, Carlos Cuellar

What they still need: They may have added Saha to their ranks but they still desperately need another striker and it sounds as if they are trying their utmost to land Steven Fletcher from Wolves. They could also do with more cover across all positions at the back.

Prediction: 9th

Swansea

Key Player: In the wake of Joe Allen’s departure from the club, Swansea are left without arguably their best player from last season but up until now at least they have managed to hold on to Scott Sinclair who has also been fantastic for them over the past couple of seasons. In his attacking midfield role Michael Laudrup will need Sinclair, his star man, to contribute heavily both in terms of goals scored and assists made otherwise the Swans could struggle to remain a Premier League club come the end of the season.

Sinclair Swansea City

Signings: Michu, Jose Manuel Flores, Jonathan De Guzman, Itay Shechter

What they still need: Swansea could do with replacing the playmaking talents of the departed Joe Allen and it wouldn’t hurt them to try and sign a new striker to compete for a place with Danny Graham as well. If Scott Sinclair is tempted away in the coming weeks by Manchester City then it would also be of paramount importance that they find a suitable replacement.

Prediction: 17th

Tottenham

Key Player: New signing Jan Vertonghen has impressed greatly in his time at former club Ajax and Spurs will need to him to settle very quickly in London if they are seriously challenge for the top few places in the league. Now that their defensive rock Ledley King has finally had to call it a day for his injury-plagued career there is a huge void left in Tottenham’s defence which creaked at times last year and Vertonghen will be required to fill it.

Vertonghen Spurs

Signings: Jan Vertonghen, Gylfi Sigurdsson

What they still need: A replacement for Luka Modric is a must and they could do with a couple of strikers also. They will still be hoping they can make a deal for Emmannuel Adebayor work and they may also try to land either one of Loic Remy or Leandro Damaio who have both been on their radar for quite a while. Andy Carroll could also be an option…

Prediction: 4th

West Brom

Key Player: Ben Foster has proven himself to be a very decent Premier League goalkeeper at a few different clubs now and though he is a keeper with an error-prone streak in him he is also a keeper capable of match-winning performances. Sometimes there seems to be absolutely no way past Foster and West Brom will need him to have several of these days in the forthcoming season if they are to avoid a post-Roy Hodgson era hangover under new manager Steve Clarke.

Foster West Brom

Signings: Markus Rosenberg, Ben Foster, Yassine El Ghanassy, Claudio Yacob

What they still need: West Brom’s squad could do with the addition of a striker who could bag them 15-20 goals a season and a midfielder capable of providing the service necessary to make this possible. Matt Jarvis might be a good option as he is a proven creator and scorer of Premier League goals from wide positions.

Prediction: 19th

West Ham

Key Player: James Tomkins has already had a taste of Premier League action having featured regularly in West Ham’s relegation season but this time he will be hoping to prove that he has developed his game sufficiently to help West Ham avoid the drop this time around. He has been the recipient of a lot of praise since West Ham found themselves back in the Championship and he will be desperate to continue his strong rate of development at the highest level this season.

Tomkins West Ham

Signings: Modibo Maiga, James Collins, Alou Diarra, Mohamed Diame, Stephen Henderson, Jussi Jaaskelainen, George McCartney

What they still need: The Hammers have recruited very well so far this summer but if they have aspirations of doing more than just staying up then they could do with one or two more faces. Their midfield now looks packed with strength and combative players but they still look slightly lightweight in terms of creative forces.

Prediction: 11th

Wigan

Key Player: New signing Arouna Kone notched an impressive 17 goals in 34 appearances for former club Levante last season and if Wigan are to steer clear of their now annual relegation battle then he will need to be similarly potent for his new club. Wigan have always struggled to find a consistent goal scorer in their years as a Premier League club but in Kone they may finally have found one. We’ll have to wait and see…

Kone Wigan

Signings: Arouna Kone, Fraser Fyvie, Ivan Ramis

What they still need: They could do with strengthening their defence and adding toughness to their midfield, they ideally would like to add players who already have Premier League experience. Another must for Wigan is either holding onto Victor Moses or alternatively spending the money made from any deal involving Moses wisely on a player or a couple of players who are capable of replacing his considerable talents.

Prediction: 16th

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 4

England Vs. Italy:

The last of the quarter-finals at the Euros pits England against an Italian side that have been trying their utmost to gain the upper hand in the psychological battle going into Sunday night’s game with their suggestions that ‘England are the new Italy’.

Rooney Pirlo

In a game which is set to be a battle of two organised outfits, Rooney and Pirlo will carry the heavy burden of being the ‘difference makers’

These remarks and suggestions of copycat tactics on one hand send out the message that the Italians are flattered by England’s ‘aspirations’ to take on board their style of play and that to have ‘followers’ of their methods is empowering and on the other hand attempts to belittle England by suggesting that they needed to copy the Italians in order to further themselves.

There is certainly more than a hint of a dig in the messages coming out of the Italian camp about England but when it comes down to it they will know that they are up against a team who are not merely an organised unit but rather a team on the up, a team that are as settled and as happy as they have been in quite some time and ultimately a team that can carry a significant threat.

England are unlikely to have taken too much heed of the Italian’s efforts to ruffle their feathers given their recent run of results and they too will go into this quarter-final match with real hope as well as a great deal of respect for their opponents.

Respect aside though, England will realise that this Italian side isn’t the strongest that they have ever brought into a major tournament and that they have nothing to fear going into the match, plenty to take care of and much to plan for but ultimately this Italian squad don’t possess the defensive qualities or midfield tenacity of many of their previous squads for major tournaments and England should go into this match believing that they can hurt the Italians.

If you look at each individual position across the field, in all honesty it would be hard to identify many Italian players that would make it into England’s starting line-up and this in itself should motivate England to prove they aren’t the ‘new Italy’ but perhaps that they can be a better version.

To pick between Gianluigi Buffon or Joe Hart in goal would be a tough call, you would probably have to find a place in England’s line-up for Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio would have a chance of making it in but the only other player who would almost certainly make it into England’s team is Mario Balotelli who would get the nod ahead of Danny Welbeck.

So, England should go into this match confident that they can get a result and I have a feeling that they will whether it be by hook or by crook. I think that the game will end 1-1 after ninety minutes and that England will take the game either in extra time or in a penalty shoot-out and if this were to happen then England would face-off against Germany in what would be an epic semi-final clash that would stir memories of England’s shoot-out heartbreak from Euro 96 at Wembley.

Euro 2012: Day 12 Predictions

France Vs. Sweden:

The simple equation for France is that they will not only qualify for the quarter-finals but will also top the group and receive a ‘preferential’ draw for the next round if they better England’s result against the Ukraine.

Benzema and Menez France

If France are to top the group and become a real threat at the Euros Karim Benzema will have to back up his decent performances with some goals

One might be forgiven for thinking that this should be a simple task given the fact the Sweden are already guaranteed to go no further in the competition and that they have lost both of their opening two games of the tournament. However, on numerous occasions we have seen sides in similar positions in major tournament football produce courageous performances in their final game when the pressure has been lifted from their shoulders.

In fact, last night’s performance from Ireland is a very good example as they played with tremendous heart and at times looked like getting something out of their game against an Italian side that needed all three points to have a a chance of progressing to the quarters.

Ireland may ultimately have lost the match as they had their first two games of the tournament but Sweden will surely be determined to produce a similar level of performance and to avoid going out with a wimper when things could have been so different had they not relinquished leads against both the Ukraine and then England.

I think France will win the game but I think Sweden will make them work for it. I think the final score will be 2-1 to the French with Karim Benzema to open his goal scoring account for the tournament.

 

Ukraine Vs. England:

For England’s third and final group game they know that they must avoid defeat to confirm their qualification to the quarter-finals and that they have to better France’s result against Sweden if they want to top the group and play Italy rather than Spain in the next round.

Rooney and Walcott Euro 2012

Rooney and Walcott look set for their first starts of the tournament

Standing in England’s way is a Ukranian side who they will be well advised not to under-estimate as they too could also go through to the quarters if they get a result and they could even top the group against all the odds if both results went their way on the final day of Group D.

Up to this point England have managed to get two very decent results and have placed themselves in a strong position going into the Ukraine game but neither of their two performances have inspired a great deal of confidence. They have shown great heart and resilience in both games but against France they were pinned right back onto the back foot for the bulk of the game and against Sweden they may have demonstrated more offensive ambition and ultimately have found the necessary killer instinct, but where they had done so well at the back against France they switched off to give Olof Mellberg two free headers for his brace which momentarily had England trailing.

Having struggled to find the right balance in their opening two matches, England will be delighted to have come out of these two opening games with four points to their name and they will today be welcoming their best player back into the fold as Wayne Rooney returns from his two match suspension.

As well as Rooney being included most are expecting Roy Hodgson to opt for Theo Walcott on the right wing after his match-winning performance having come off of the substitutes bench against the Swedes. With these two restored to the starting line-up England will have a much more naturally offensive look about their team and I think this is the right way to go against the Ukraine who have looked a little frail at the back and when taking into account that they need to outdo whatever the French manage against Sweden in order to win the group.

I think that  Rooney will come charging out of the blocks and will make up for lost time by scoring at least one goal in an England victory. I think the final score will be something like 3-1 but as it is England expect there to be a few twists and turns thrown in to put us fans right through the full spectrum of emotions.

Euro 2012 Group D: How will Roy’s boys fare in their testing group?

England:

The past five years have been very tough for the English national side in the wake of their failure to qualify for the Euros in 2008 and their dismal showing at the 2010 World Cup when handed a very favourable looking group draw but with a new man at the helm England will be hoping for greater success, stability and continuity.

Hodgson and Gerrard England

New manager Hodgson and new captain Steven Gerrard are hoping to lead by example

Given the disappointments of recent times, their performances and results throughout the qualification for Euro 2012 must have gone some way towards restoring some lost confidence and were deserving of a fair amount of credit. It was of course Fabio Capello who lead England throughout this process but perhaps his departure was for the best for England and for Capello himself as the English public, media and even some of the national team players never really warmed to the Italian.

In charge of England now is Roy Hodgson who has already been the target of some pretty unfair criticism just for being appointed as boss but the fact of the matter is that Hodgson is a wily old fox and will have been prepared for the glare of the media and some of the negative criticism that has come his way. Roy is a man who lives and breathes football and being a proud Englishman will realise that English fans are amongst the most passionate in the world and that sometimes this passion will spill into the realms of harshness and irrationality.

In spite of Hodgson’s critics and the slightly stand-off-ish nature of their two performances under his guidance to date, England have won both of their games since Hodgson took charge of the side and Roy will head into the Euros pleased with the fact that he has a 100% record as England manager. Probably the major concern for Hodgson heading into the tournament is the late losses of the experienced Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard and the talented Gary Cahill to injury, all of whom had a genuine chance of making Roy’s starting line-up against France next week.

One to watch… Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: Since Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger opted to give ‘The Ox’ a run in their first team the winger-come-attacking-central-midfielder has developed at a frightening pace. The really impressive thing about him as a young player taking his first major steps into top level professional football is that he seems not only to be un-phased by the big occasion but that he appears inspired by such scenarios. If given the chance to impress I could see him having a similar impact to Wayne Rooney in Euro 2004.

Euros nostalgia: In 1996 England hosted the European Championships and they were denied a place in the final and quite possibly their first major tournament victory since 1966 by Germany who out-witted and out-nerved them in a penalty shoot-out. Gareth Southgate’s failed attempt to score from the spot will live painfully long in the memory for all England fans. Cue the following classic Pizza Hut advert…

Tournament prospects: Given the difficulty of their group some might argue that England would do well to make it into the last eight. If they were to progress through the group via a second placed finish then an intimidating tie against Spain could lie in wait in the quarters…

France:

The past fifteen or so years have seen the French become arguably one of the most maverick and most frustrating sides in international football game. Having won the World Cup in 1998 and the Euros in 2000 France looked set for an era of dominance but since then their major tournament success has been horribly inconsistent.

Benzema and Ribery

Benzema and Ribery are both magnificent players but have both struggled with inconsistency

In 2002 France made an embarrassing first-round exit when defending the World Cup, in 2004 they lost out in the quarter-finals when defending their European crown, in 2006 they defied most people’s expectations of them in reaching the final only to lose out on penalties, in 2008 they were again left embarrassed as they failed to get out of their group and worst of all in 2010 they collapsed into a state of mutiny and were again eliminated in the group stage.

This time around though some peace seems to have been brought to proceedings in the French camp and their squad is packed full of young and precocious talents and it is in attack where they look most exciting. They are likely to opt for Karim Benzema up front with the likes of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa likely to provide the support on the flanks. Each of the aforementioned players have on occasion failed to live up to the hype that has preceded them in both domestic and international football and each of them will be keen to prove their doubters wrong.

One to watch… Frank Ribery: There are several very exciting players in the French squad going into the Euros including many players in their infancy as international footballers but my ‘one to watch’ is Ribery who is arguably their greatest example of a player who has struggled to live up to his own billing on the biggest stages in world football. At times Ribery can look like the most threatening and technically able wide-man in world football but up until now he has too often had his threat negated by teams who have put thought into how to stop him and he, his club sides and the French national side have paid the price.

Euros nostalgia: France have twice won the tournament, their first triumph was in 1984 where UEFA President Michel Platini was their captain and then their second European Championship win came in 2000 courtesy of an extra-time winner from David Trezeguet.

Tournament prospects: As ever it is almost impossible to know how this tournament will go for the French. If their inexperienced players grasp their opportunities and adapt quickly to the requirements of major international football then they could well be set for a long run this summer but if not then another embarrassment could be on the cards. I think they will at very least get through the group and progress to the knock-out stages.

Sweden:

Sweden may not appear to have quite as good a squad as England or France heading into the Euros but it does contain some very experienced players. One of these veterans is Zlatan Ibrahimovic who as well as providing leadership and inspiration will also try and provide the flair, imagination and world-class conviction needed to mount a challenge towards progression from the group stages.

Ibrahimovic Sweden

Zlatan has become well renowned for epitomising the term ‘mercurial talent’

Other players who could have a big impact for Sweden this summer include Kim Kallstrom of Lyon, Sebastien Larsson of Sunderland, Johan Elmander of Galatasaray and Ola Toivonen of PSV each of whom have impressed in some of Europe’s top domestic leagues over the past few seasons whilst having featured regularly with the national side.

It isn’t only in the experience department where Sweden are looking strong either as they have named the likes of Rasmus Elm and Emir Bajrami in their squad, both of whom have impressed in the infancy of their club and international careers.

One to watch… Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Ibrahimovic is one of football’s more interesting characters as well as being one of the most talented players on the planet. He has enjoyed great success throughout his club career but he continues to be thought of by many as being overrated. The only way for him to prove his doubters wrong is for him to perform in a huge tournament in which the whole world will see him and appreciate him and the Euros provides him with a great opportunity to do so.

Euros nostalgia: Sweden’s best performance in the Euros came when they were the host nation in 1992. They performed strongly in the group stages on home turf and went through to the last four as group winners only to be knocked out by Germany at this stage. Their fellow Scandinavians, Denmark, were the surprise winners of the competition that year.

Tournament prospects: If France and England both perform to their potential then it is hard to see Sweden progressing, particularly as co-hosts Ukraine make up the group. However, both France and England have underachieved at times over the past decade so the Swede’s certainly do have a hope of making it through and into the knock-out stages.

Ukraine:

Co-hosts Ukraine look the weakest side in group D on paper but they will be banking on home advantage to help them spring a surprise and make it through to the last eight of the competition.

 Tymoschuk

The co-hosts will rely heavily on their experienced stalwarts like Tymoschuk

The vast majority of Ukraine’s squad play their football on home soil and as a result they will go into the competition as something of an unknown quantity as most people, including myself, are fairly ill-informed about the Ukranian leagues.

Though much of their squad will be relatively unknown to many, there are a few very familiar names present including legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko, former Liverpool forward Andriy Voronin and Bayern Munich’s hugely experienced holding-midfielder Anatoliy Tymoschuk.

One would assume that Shevchenko in particular could bow out of international football after this tournament on home soil and how he would love to sign off in style with a reminder of the old magic that once made him one of world football’s most celebrated front-men.

One to watch… Andriy Yarmolenko: The young Dynamo Kyiv prospect has already shown great versatility in his fledgling career as he has demonstrated an ability to switch seamlessly between playing as a striker and playing in midfield for both club and country. The 22 year-old already has a very impressive international record having scored eight goals in just twenty appearances.

Euros nostalgia: Since becoming an independent nation and football side Ukraine have never qualified for the European championships so the opportunity to host the tournament has provided them with a huge opportunity given that the hosts have an automatic right to qualification.

Tournament prospects: As I’ve mentioned, Ukraine definitely appear to have the weakest squad on paper but being the host nation can sometimes inspire greatness. Even some of football’s lesser sides have prospered when given such an advantage and Ukraine will hope to join the list but in reality they are more than likely to fall at the first hurdle.

A brief summary of Group D:

If England and France play to their potential then they should both progress to the knock-out stages. However, both Ukraine and Sweden possess a decent threat and the two favourites to move forwards from the group will have to be very watchful in order to avoid an upset.

England France football

England and France look like the favourites to progress from a tricky Group D

I am finding it hard to call who I think will top the group but I will go for France with England qualifying in second place. I think both Sweden and Ukraine will pick up at least a point in the group with Sweden to finish third and co-hosts Ukraine to struggle into last place.


 

The FA’s Captain Crisis: Should Terry be removed and if so then who should replace him?

As the John Terry race-row continues to simmer away the FA have one heck of a dilemma to resolve.

Terry has now been charged and given a court summons that means he will have to defend himself in a legal capacity, but in the mean time his professional situation hangs in the balance. The FA are still in the process of carrying out their enquiries into the alleged events at Loftus Road and they are still yet to have formally punished the England Captain.

If John Terry is found guilty in court come the beginning of February it will make his position as England Captain untenable, and it will even bring into question whether he should be playing football for club and country. To be found guilty by a court of law of having performed racially abusive actions would arguably take Terry’s career and societal standing beyond the point of return.

His current stance of committed denial and his quest to “fight tooth and nail” to prove his innocence would on the surface suggest that he has nothing to hide. However, if he is on the wrong end of the verdict both in court and from the FA then his defiance will simply add to the torrent of abuse that he will be subjected to.

With events rumbling on but still yet to have fully transpired it is unclear exactly what the outcome will be, but it seems increasingly feasible that the FA will have to look into choosing a replacement as the national side’s Captain with just 6 months to go until Euro 2012. Below I will suggest a few different options and their likelihood of landing the role if Terry is deposed.

Leading Candidates:

Steven Gerrard – The Liverpool man makes for the obvious replacement if a short term choice is seen as the responsible move looking ahead to Euro 2012, but there are huge question marks over his fitness. Having returned to action against Manchester United earlier this season after a six month absence, he managed only a couple of appearances before again succumbing to injury and it is unclear just when he will return again and whether this return will be less short-lived.

Scott Parker – Having Captained Newcastle and West Ham in the past, Parker is more than used to leading sides and fighting fires on and off field. Having almost guaranteed his place in England’s starting line-up for the Euro’s after a very successful and very overdue run in the side he seems to be a very strong contender. He would be my choice as a potential replacement.

Frank Lampard – A very willing leader on and off the field, Lampard stands out as a decent choice to take the reigns as a short term option. Whether or not he could be given the role might well be dictated by whether he can even get in England’s first XI. In recent times ‘Super Frank’ has struggled to hold down a place in the starting line up of either his club or national sides, but if he is going to be a crucial member of Capello’s side then I’m sure he would be immensely proud to be at the forefront of it’s leadership.

Long Shots:

Wayne Rooney – Anyone with as many caps as him should be taken into account, but his fiery temperament may put pay to any aspirations he might have of leading the national side. If he was to be chosen then it would have to be viewed as a long term option, as in the short term how could you choose a replacement that is unable to lead the two games most immediate in England’s competitive future?

Phil Jones – Young, passionate, committed; he might not be a bad option you know… However, it would be an enormous shock if the FA or Capello would consider a 19 year old to lead the national side into a major tournament. His long term hopes of one day being Captain look very strong though, time is definitely on his side in that respect.

Jack Wilshere – If he’s fit and he’s playing well towards the end of the Premier League season then Arsenal’s young gun could feasibly be considered. Though on the face of it he would be less shocking a selection than Phil Jones when considering their age and experience it is still unlikely that he would get the nod. The fact that he has been injured and unavailable all the way through this season certainly doesn’t help his cause in terms of being a realistic option.

Rio Ferdinand – The forgotten man of English football. At present it seems Rio would be doing well to even make the squad for the Euro’s given his recent omissions from England squads, but a a recent run of game time will have brought him back into Capello’s thoughts. If he were to be considered for a return to the Captaincy then it would of couse only be short term move as he is reaching the closing years of his career. It is  even possible that he would decline the role if offered it in the wake of Capello’s controversial handling of the United defender in the past.

Joe Hart – Is there anybody more assured of their place in England’s starting line up than Hart? The answer is ‘probably not’. He is also renowned for his strong character and his likability which could further any hopes he might have of one day landing the job. Other goalkeepers such as Oliver Kahn have led their national side’s effectively in the past so maybe Hart would be worth a shot?

 

The encouraging thing for the FA amidst the current turmoil is that if they have to retire Terry from the Captaincy that they have plenty of willing options. Not only are there many people who could be in the running, but there are also many different types of option, ranging form long to short term potential replacements and this is demonstrative of the mixture of youth and experience in the England side at present. We await the outcome of the John Terry saga with a mixture of sadness, optimism and great anticipation…

 

 

Fabio Capello: ‘Iron Sergeant’ or ‘Corporal Calamity’

The past couple of weeks have yet again done nothing to advertise the poisoned chalice that is the England managers job. However, I can’t help but feel that poor old Fabio the ‘Iron Sergeant’ Capello has brought this one upon himself.

Lost the plot?

It has been another tumultuous little period for the England boss, accused of going behind captain Rio Ferdinand’s back in handing the captaincy back to the much maligned John Terry. Capello of course is the manager and is entitled to make such decisions but his judgement is rightfully coming under question yet again.

Think back to pretty much all major moments in his tenure and there is one beacon of hope there for all to see. Ex and now reinstated skipper John Terry was caught out for his immensely disruptive off-field antics and was relieved of his duties. This decision to highlight and make an example of poor behaviour was met with a very positive media and public backing. Well done Fabio, brave decisions require brave men to implement them.

How ironic it is that the famed ‘Iron Sergeant’ has now reversed this decision then. Football management tends to be a pretty fickle business, but this is an incident which again has been met pretty unanimously by the media and the public. Moral panic is rife regarding the manor in which Rio Ferdinand has had the Captaincy stripped from him.

Will this decision see the end of a world-class defensive partnership?

Sure Ferdinand has injured pretty much ever since taking on the role, but if he is no longer your chosen leader then at least have the respect to let him know in adult fashion. Ferdinand himself has sailed too close to the wind on occasions in his career but has come out the other side a greater player and a better role model, a captain’s captain, a player who demands respect. It must then have come as a major disappointment to realise he was no longer his nation’s leader via the press. The ultimate embarrassment for a skipper who has not put a foot wrong in his brief time in charge.

Popular opinion seems to be that Capello’s latest decision reeks of regret and that it demonstrates a weakening mind-state of an under-pressure manager. But it is undoubtedly the manner of it that has caused greatest concern. Affairs like this, even in such a media-heavy country, should be carried out behind closed doors and only publicised when every one involved knows where they stand.

Capello has yet again been provided a chance to demonstrate authority and innovation. It is OK to have concerns over the welfare of the team when captain Ferdinand was such an liability in terms of fitness. But to hand the captaincy back to Terry after just “a year of punishment” when initially it was described as an “irreversible” decision appears an example of great frailty. Capello like so many England managers before him has not showered himself in glory thus far in his stint and to make such a misguided decision in such a misguided fashion will certainly not have aided public perception of his capabilities. When there are options such as Steven Gerrard available why would you turn to a controversial figure who is bound to divide opinion?

Why has Gerrard been overlooked?

My personal choice would be Scott Parker every time, but I am fully accepting that you can’t name a player captain if they aren’t an established member of the side. Personal agendas aside though Gerrard would appear by far the most popular and sensible decision. He has a proven record as captain of his club, he is passionate and he has captained England.

Terry may possess many skills that make him a very good on-field captain. But how Capello justifies this decision to the fans and players having gone back on his word is hard to fathom. I fear the damage is done already, and the England squad have been placed under unnecessary pressure to demonstrate what could be perceived as an artificial united front. England should and probably will beat Wales this weekend, but even if they do this has certainly been a case of great distraction at an important juncture in England’s qualification campaign.