To be honest, I am angry right now, and thus, should probably not be writing up this match right now. The flip side to that is that it will be brutally honest.

We were not good enough. The lack of creativity and composure in the final third of the pitch has been a weakness in every game of the tournament thus far, and our delivery from set pieces has been woeful. England fans were booing their team tonight, and with good reason – mad, overhit crosses were never going to cut it against a side that had already demonstrated they could shut teams out.

The tempo was nothing at all like what was seen against Russia and Wales. The verve and style on show in the first two games was lost, replaced by some (yet more) strange decisions from manager Roy Hodgson. Why did Sterling, who had failed to offer anything in the first two games, start? Why was Lallana, who had played well, dropped? Why was Kane brought back in, when he had played poorly against Russia and Wales?

Yet it wasn’t simply a lack of punch that cost England against Iceland. Despite some early promise that brought a penalty and a goal within the first five minutes (Rooney slotting home), the slightest hint of danger and England were in a panic. Iceland equalised within two minutes, when poor awareness and concentration allowed Sigurdsson to tap in from point-blank range.

Rather than keeping focused, England blanched. Expectations of England have never been lower (no one seriously believed they would win the tournament), but surely Iceland would not prevent progress to the quarter-finals? Surely, the players who earn so much and play so well for their clubs would overcome the plucky team from a nation of just 330,000 people?

Nope. On 18 minutes England’s defence reacted far too slowly, failing to close down a swift set of passes, and Sigthorsson, whose shot was nevertheless fairly tame. Somehow, Hart conspired to let it through, despite getting a hand to it, watching as it crossed the line, almost in slow motion.

From the moment Iceland took the lead England ran out of ideas. There was huff, and puff, and plenty of running, but the final ball was lacking in any quality. Try as they might, England could not muster up the invention to unlock Iceland’s stubborn defence (though credit must go to Iceland for their spirit and workrate). Once again Kane was taking set pieces (why Roy, why?), and even the arrival of Vardy could not help England find a way through. Rashford’s late arrival brought a bit of extra energy to proceedings but it was too little, too late. Iceland claimed a huge scalp, whilst England limped out of Euro 2016, tails firmly between legs.

 

image

I include England as the first possible dark horse, albeit speaking as an Englishman I am not confident we even qualify as that.

Speaking of qualifying, this went quite well for England, with the side winning all ten of their matches, though the group wasn’t exactly formidable. Has this given rise to unfettered optimism? Not for me it hasn’t. England’s record in major tournaments since 2002 is:

2002 World Cup quarter-finalists, Euro 2004 quarter-finalists, 2006 quarter-finalists, 2008 did not qualify, 2010 2nd round, 2012 quarter-finalists, 2014 group stage. Not exactly formidable or awe-inspiring.

Can Roy Hodgson turn England’s fortunes around in France, and who will be his key players?

Wayne Rooney is often presented as crucial to England but injuries have left him devoid of the pace he once had. He is England’s all-time top scorer but most of these goals have come against minnows, and he hasn’t exactly been in sparkling form of late. To cap things off, he is currently injured – he’ll be fit in time for the Euros but what sort of form will he be in? The trouble is, Hodgson will probably pick him regardless.

Harry Kane burst onto the scene last season and has continued to score goals for Spurs. He is, in my view, a must, as is his Tottenham colleague Dele Alli. The two of them have struck up a good working relationship and barring injury, both need to be in the squad. Another player who may yet be in the squad is Leicester forward Jamie Vardy, who has been in good form for the table toppers. His Leicester colleague Danny Drinkwater could yet also be in contention, and given his form, deserves to be considered.

All in all though, it’s difficult to work England out for sure. I couldn’t begin to work out who truly deserves to go, and even if I could, it doesn’t mean they will go. After a miserable World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals would be progress.

Back to Euro 2016

image

This summer the European Championships return, four years on from Spain triumphing in the competition and two years on from Germany being crowned world champions. France are the hosts in an expanded championship that sees 24 teams contest the title.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at the key contenders to win the tournament, as well as evaluating the chances of a few dark horses as well. I hope you enjoy!

Team Profiles: Germany

Team Profiles: Spain

Team Profiles: France

Team Profiles: England

Team Profiles: Italy

image

What is there to say about the Germans that hasn’t already been said? The world champions conquered the world last time out in Brazil because they were the best team, and their football is incisive, quick and deadly. The manner in which they dispatched hosts Brazil in the semi-final remains one of the most remarkable displays of ruthless football I have ever seen.

Will they be at the sharp end of Euro 2016? History would suggest it – Germany’s record in the past few major tournaments is impressive and consistent – World Cup finalists in 2002,  semi-finalists in 2006, Euro 2008 finalists, World Cup semi-finalists in 2010 and Euro 2012 semi-finalists (and of course, World Cup winners in 2014), is a formidable record, so expect the Germans to be there or thereabouts this time as well.

That being said, their qualification campaign for the Euros wasn’t quite as plain sailing as it might have been. Defeats to Poland and Republic of Ireland (and a draw at home to Republic of Ireland) meant they didn’t secure their place till late in the day – but ultimately it was never in doubt that Germany would make it.

Key Players

It’s hard to single out any one German player, given their cohesion as a team, but there are a few that could prove the difference between victory and defeat when the heat is on.

Sami Khedira is a strong presence in Germany’s midfield, someone who can dictate the pace of the game, along with Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Marco Reus and Lukas Podolski (it feels like I’m listing the entire team here). The collective experience of their midfield is frightening – those six players have 410 caps between them – and we need to add Andre Schurrle’s 50 to that.

Podolski and Mario Gomez have scored nearly 150 goals between them. As you can see, singling out any one key player for Germany is hard.

They’re my personal tip to win the competition. The strength that they have is astounding.

Back to Euro 2016

image

I don’t usually get too excited about England’s prospects at a major football tournament. I’m currently preparing a series of pages on the upcoming European Championships (held in France later this year), and I’m not exactly waxing lyrical about England. That being said, last night’s performance against world champions Germany was encouraging.

For one thing, we didn’t sit back and let the Germans dictate the tempo of the match. England pressed, constantly getting into the faces of the German players and denying them time on the ball. This pleasing (and uncharacteristic) approach from Roy Hodgson’s side saw us win the ball in dangerous positions and threaten more often.

The overall pace and energy of the team was much improved. Youngsters Dele Alli and Harry Kane both gave good accounts of themselves, as did Eric Dier, Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Rose. Their workrate was impressive and they weren’t phased by the occasion.

There are some caveats to all this. Germany fielded an experienced side but one that nonetheless isn’t necessarily their first choice team. They also didn’t play especially well, yet still took a two goal lead. They typically don’t perform brilliantly in friendlies – but even so, for England to come back from two nil down to win showed character and determination that has only been fleetingly witnessed across the past couple of decades. There was no Joe Hart, no Raheem Sterling, no Wayne Rooney, or Leighton Baines, whilst James Milner and Daniel Sturridge were in the squad but didn’t play – on the strength of the performance, are any of those players guaranteed a spot for the Euros?

There was also no Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott or Oxlade-Chamberlain – all good players who unfortunately struggle with injuries – and no Luke Shaw either, but the one player whose usually automatic place in the squad needs to be questioned is Wayne Rooney. He no longer possesses the explosive pace he once had and his form for Man Utd this season hasn’t exactly been stellar. Yes, he is England’s all-time top scorer, but most of his goals have come against minnows, and surely a player who is not in form should not go (or at the very least, not be in the starting line-up)?

Compare him to Kane and Jamie Vardy. Kane has been in sparkling form for Spurs and his goal last night was pure quality. His Cruyff-esque turn (an appropriate tribute to the late and legendary Johann Cruyff) on the edge of Germany’s penalty area, followed by a crisp finish into the far corner, was a moment of magic, whilst Vardy’s cheeky flick beyond Neuer’s grasp to equalise was the mark of a striker full of confidence. It’s hard to imagine England playing with that sort of pace with a slow Rooney in the side.

There are still question marks over the centre of England’s defence. Gary Cahill does reasonably well for Chelsea but was found wanting and in the middle of nowhere for Germany’s second goal and this is not the first time he has been caught out against talented opposition. Phil Jagielka is experienced but does he have what it takes at the highest level? John Stones is full of potential and dare I say it, Chris Smalling hasn’t been too bad. Still, defence is England’s biggest weakness.

So, whilst the win over Germany was a fine one, questions remain.

A busy couple of nights in the Premier League has yielded yet another shift in momentum for various teams all chasing various goals. On Tuesday, Leicester City were held to a draw at home against West Brom, having actually gone behind to begin with, before going 2-1 up at one stage. Their failure to win opened the door for Tottenham to go level on points and ahead on goal difference at the summit – but Spurs fluffed their lines and lost 1-0 to West Ham at Upton Park – a result that keeps the Hammers firmly in the mix for Champions League football (yes, you read that right).

Arsenal meanwhile suffered their second successive Premier League defeat, crashing 2-1 at home to Swansea. Swansea came from behind to beat an Arsenal side that started brightly but were unable to finish their relegation-threatened opponents off. The Gunners are back to being five points behind Leicester, and questions have been asked about their mental strength as the season edges closer to its finale.

Manchester United moved level on points with rivals Manchester City after a 1-o home win over Watford – but United’s ongoing problems were nearly exposed several times, with only ‘keeper De Gea preventing Watford from actually taking what, from the sound of it, would have been a comfortable win.

City meanwhile, went to Anfield on the back of beating Liverpool in the League Cup final at Wembley on Sunday. One has to wonder if they would have traded their cup win for a league win last night – Liverpool eased to victory, running out 3-0 winners to keep their own Champions League hopes alive. It was as sharp and incisive a performance as Liverpool have managed all season, achieved ironically without two key players – Sturridge and Coutinho.

In the midst of the chaotic battles going on at the top, the relegation battle is beginning to narrow down to a small handful of sides. Bournemouth’s 2-0 win over Southampton eased their relegation worries – they are now eight points clear of the drop zone, whilst Swansea’s win over Arsenal moved them six points clear. Norwich were roundly beaten at home by a resurgent Chelsea side (who have been marching steadily up the table and may yet fancy their chances of landing European football), whilst Sunderland ideally needed more than a point against Crystal Palace, but that point did move them above Norwich on goal difference.

Aston Villa look doomed. A resounding 3-1 home defeat against Everton means they are eight points off safety with ten games to go – not a fantastic place to be. They have been struggling for some time and if I were in charge there, I’d have one eye on next season, with a view to preparing for life in the Championship.

Newcastle’s defeat at Stoke leaves them level with Sunderland and Norwich – but behind both on goal difference. Stoke’s win puts them only five points off European football themselves, and with the frankly absurd results going on this season, anything is possible as we approach the final run-in.

At this stage, I wouldn’t dare predict anything!

It’s the big one – just not on the desired or expected stage for either club. Nevertheless, with a spot in the Champions League potentially at stake, this is still going to be huge.

It’s us:

image

Versus them:

image

I feel dirty putting the Utd logo on here.

Our record against the Scum has not been encouraging this season, with defeats in both league fixtures. There is however, optimism to be had in the form of returning players, and Utd’s apathetic performances.

Firstly, we have Daniel Sturridge, who appears to be putting together a bit of a run. Having him fit adds an injection of pace that we’ve needed quite desperately. Coutinho is a little inconsistent but having him back and fit adds some creativity to our attack. Having both Sturridge and Coutinho on the pitch (along with the steady Firmino and the reliable Milner) grants us options denied to us in recent matches.

Utd are there for the taking. Their squad is nothing spectacular and their manager holds them to a pedestrian pace. We can beat them!