Monday, 25 June 2012

England: Looking to the future

Hodgson has a lot of thinking to do as he aims to mastermind England's revival 

We've seen it all before. It's the same old story. England eliminated from a major tournament once again. In golfing terms, an exit at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2012 was very much a par performance. When you consider the four semi-finalists - Portugal, Germany, Spain and Italy - there's no doubting that they're all operating at a far superior level in terms of quality. England are exactly what their sixth-placed world ranking suggests, a solid outfit but rank outsiders when it really matters.

Roy Hodgson has got through one of the most difficult honeymoon periods for any England manager and can hold his head high after successfully guiding his team through the group stage. Victory at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil may seem like an unfathomable dream, but what can be done by the boss over the next two years to maximise our chances? Here I focus on five key areas.

1. Implement possession football
An average of 39% possession across the four Euro 2012 matches says it all. We quite simply don't know how to keep hold of the ball and ware teams down like they do us. If the growing perception of England as a defensively-minded side is to reverse, this has to change. Yes, they can get away with it against the so called lesser teams but the top nations will ultimately punish them. I'm not suggesting that they need to reach the heights of Spain who consistently dominate possession regardless of the opposition, but they need to at least match their counterparts toe to toe. The old saying goes that 'you can't score a goal without the ball'. On that simplistic basis, England were 26% less likely to score a goal in Kiev's Olympic Stadium and their shot tally, eight to Italy's 31, was a true reflection of that. England have to learn to become more patient on the ball and not be afraid to pass sideways or backwards if that's the better option. Perhaps it's embedded in our football culture to always think about going forward but the game has changed and the Spanish especially have shown how probing football, which essentially forces teams into a physical and mental submission, is the key to success.

2. Think ahead and act now
John Terry, Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole were arguably three of England's best performers over the course of the tournament and although they have the capability to play an integral part in qualifying for the World Cup, Hodgson has to decide now whether he envisages them in his starting line-up when the summer of 2014 arrives. Terry and Cole will both be 33 years of age by that time while Gerrard will be 34. Other key players to ponder over are Scott Parker and Gareth Barry who will both be 33 and Frank Lampard who will be 35. A sense of continuity and stability needs to be established throughout the qualifying campaign and it may be beneficial to use these older players sparingly and let the younger generation flourish as a team. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere appears to be the main focal point of England's future centre-midfield and even though Jordan Henderson has had his critics on the back of a disappointing season with Liverpool, he is still extremely young having only just turned 22. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling have the makings of a superb centre-back partnership and this is further enhanced by the fact that they're both playing together at Manchester United under the nurtureship of Sir Alex Ferguson. Leighton Baines may feel his time has come to fill Cole's shoes at left-back and Kieran Gibbs provides a promising youthful option. The more caps these players get between now and the World Cup, the stronger England's squad will be.

My predicted future England line-up: Hart, Walker, Jones, Smalling, Gibbs, Lennon, Henderson, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Rooney.

3. Keep the fans on his side
England supporters won't have been particularly excited by their team's performance at Euro 2012 but they will certainly be encouraged. There's something to build on. The foundations are there. Hodgson's come out of a major tournament with a considerable amount of credibility to his name but he will need to mould together a more expansive style of play to keep it that way. As with any England manager, results will define Hodgson's reign. If he can add a bit finesse to the way they go about achieveing them, then that can only benefit his cause.

4. Make proper use of friendlies
Pick the best team available everytime and give the budding stars their chance from the bench. It's as straightforward as that. International friendlies will only ever be taken seriously if the fans can see that they're being used effectively. There's no point in making an ambundance of changes throughout the ninety minutes. They all need to be treated as though they're competitive matches and Hodgson must make that clear to any Premier League managers that have an issue with that policy.

5. Be ruthless
The phrase 'England have done enough' is banded about too much. We don't do more than enough, often enough. It's about time that we start putting games to bed and give ourselves a chance to implement a pattern of play under less pressured circumstances. Montenegro, Ukraine, Poland, Moldova and San Marino all await us in the World Cup qualifiers. We needn't fear any of those nations and need to take full advantage of the freedom that should give us.

Monday, 18 June 2012

There's a Major sense of unpredictability surrounding golf

Another major championship over, another first-time winner. Webb Simpson's US Open triumph at the Olympic Club in San Francisco stretched the incredible sequence to nine events as he followed in the footsteps of Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Keegan Bradley and Bubba Watson in clinching their maiden major victory.  
Will Simpson's success prove to be more than just a flash in the pan?

The 26-year-old American, who finished a shot clear of McDowell and fellow countryman Michael Thompson on one over par after shooting a final round of 68, had only previously won two PGA Tour events (2011 Wyndham Championship and 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship) and arrived at the tournament having missed the cuts at the Players Championship and the Memorial tournament. Not exactly the form of a prospective winner.
So is the incredible sense of unpredictability surrounding golf a good or bad thing for the game? There's the obvious argument that the sheer excitement of any sport is defined by the element of surprise. The possibility of an underdog overcoming the odds keeps us coming back for more and provides the paying public with talking points day after day. Sport wouldn't be what it is if the favourites won all the time but then again, you can't underestimate the value of them. The big guns are those that attract the most attention at the end of the day.

Last fifteen major championship winners
2008 PGA Championship: Padraig Harrington (3/3)
2009 Masters: Angel Cabrera (2/2)
2009 US Open: Lucas Glover
2009 British Open: Stewart Cink
2009 PGA Championship: Yang Yong-eun
2010 Masters: Phil Mickelson (4/4) 
2010 US Open: Graeme McDowell
2010 British Open: Louis Oosthuizen
2010 PGA Championship: Martin Kaymer
2011 Masters: Charl Schwartzel
2011 US Open: Rory McIlroy
2011 British Open: Darren Clarke
2011 PGA Championship: Keegan Bradley
2012 Masters: Bubba Watson
2012 US Open: Webb Simpson

*First-time winners in bold

Placing a bet on the winner of a major championship has become somewhat of a lottery nowadays. Player's odds are determined by history and prestige as oppose to recent form. Despite a steady resurgence, how much longer will Tiger Woods' former glories be taken into account when the bookies draw up their prices? Players of his class don't come around every day but golf needs someone to emerge from the crowd and at the very least threaten to match his major championship haul.

Golf is craving a new focal point. A name that immediately springs to mind when the sport is mentioned. Someone who carries an aura with him wherever he goes. Such is the overall standard of the game nowadays, the question is when this type of player will be unleashed, not if. The even more pertinent question is who?  

McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, both aged 23, are widely regarded as the game's brightest prospects with four PGA Tour wins between them to date. Crucially, the former has already broken his major championship duck and showed all the hallmarks of a sensational player in doing so. Simpson, Watson, Kaymer, Schwartzel and Ooisthuizen are all currently ranked in the world's top 20 and aged under 30 but whether any of them have the ability to take their game to another level remains to be seen.

Whoever it is that pulls away from the pack and grabs the initiative could have a very long and successful career ahead of them at the very top of the game. The key for these potential stars is consistency when it really matters. They all know that they have the ability to win major championships and the more they do it, the better they will be able to deal with the intense pressure which they inevitably conjure up.

The British Open takes place at Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club between 19th and 22nd July. Could that be the tournament that signals the fruition of a player on the brink of true stardom? 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Portugal vs Netherlands (Euro 2012 Group B): Match report

Cristiano Ronaldo brought Portugal from a goal behind to secure a 2-1 victory against Netherlands and book his side's place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2012.

The Real Madrid hitman struck either side of half-time to cancel out Rafael Van Der Vaart's early opener and ensure a well-deserved three points.

Denmark's 2-1 loss to Germany in the other final group match means that Portugal finish three points clear of the 1992 champions and will face Group A winners Czech Republic in the last eight.

Van Der Vaart gave Netherlands the lead in the eleventh minute with a curling left-footed shot from just outside the penalty area, but Portugal dominated the first half from then onwards.

Ronaldo hit the outside of the post with a scuffed effort and forced a decent save out of Martin Stekelenburg with a close-range header while Helder Postiga fluffed a great opportunity having benefited from Gregory Van Der Wiel's loose pass backwards.

Portugal's pressure finally told in the 28th minute when Joao Pereira neatly poked the ball through to Ronaldo who took it into his stride with his first touch and placed it into the back of the net with his second.

The former World Player of the Year tested Stekelenburg five minutes later with a speculative 35-yard drive and threatened once more when he headed Joao Moutinho's corner past the post.

Netherlands' centre-back Ron Vlaar missed the target with a free header early in the second half but another promising moment for the Dutch signalled a further period of Portuguese domination.

Postiga had a goal correctly ruled out for offside on the hour-mark and both Fabio Coentrao and Nani brought the best out of Stekelenburg.

A second goal seemed inevitable and there were no suprises when Ronaldo got it. The 27-year-old started a free-flowing counter-attack and ended it by latching onto Nani's crossfield pass and confidently smashing the ball home.

Netherlands needed a miracle by this point if they were to qualify for the knockout stages but to their credit they came close to an equaliser on two occasions as Van Der Vaart rattled the post with a right-footed equivalent of his goal and Robin Van Persie fired a shot wide having broke free in the penalty area.

Ronaldo nearly sealed a hat-trick in the final minute of normal time, but even though the width of a post denied him, there's no doubt that the tournament's most revered player has finally arrived.

Team line-ups
Portugal: Rui Patricio, Alves, Pepe, Coentrao, Joao Pereira, Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Meireles (Custodio 72), Nani (Rolando 87), Ronaldo, Postiga (Oliveira 64). Subs: Eduardo, Beto, Costa, Rolando, Miguel Lopes, Custodio, Ruben Micael, Viana, Almeida, Quaresma, Oliveira, Varela.

Goals: Ronaldo (28) and (74).
Bookings: Joao Pereira (90 + 2).
Red cards: N/A
Netherlands: Stekelenburg, Van Der Wiel, Mathijsen, Vlaar, Willems (Afellay 67), De Jong, Sneijder, Van der Vaart, Huntelaar, Robben, Van Persie. Subs: Vorm, Krul, Heitinga, Bouma, Boulahrouz, Van Bommel, Schaars, Strootman, Kuyt, De Jong, Narsingh, Afellay. 

Goals: Van der Vaart (11).  
Bookings: Willems (51) and Van Persie (69).
Red cards: N/A 

Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rafa reigns supreme

Rafael Nadal's victory over world number one Novak Djokovic in the French Open final meant so much more than an eleventh Grand Slam title. It also meant so much more than surpassing the record he shared with Bjorn Borg as a six-time champion at Roland Garros. For Nadal, the victory will give him the belief that he can go forward and officially establish himself as the greatest player to have ever lived.

Nadal is chomping at the bit to overhaul the greats of the game
Djokovic's incredible emergence last year, coupled with his three successive Grand Slam final wins over Nadal prior to the most recent instalment (Wimbledon 2011, US Open 2011 and Australian Open 2012), will have certainly put doubt into the Spaniard's mind whether the target was still within his reach. With six slams separating himself and the sixteen-time winner Roger Federer, Nadal could simply not afford to relinquish his dominance of the clay courts in Paris if he harboured realistic ambitions of eclipsing the benchmark set by his Swiss counterpart.

Such is the psychological edge that Djokovic has gained over his rival in the last year, a win for the super Serb against the aptly named 'King of Clay' would have unequivocally announced himself as the greatest player on the planet. It would have propelled him to the pinnacle of his career and left Nadal at his lowest point since establishing himself amongst the game's elite. How would have he been able to pick himself up again from such a shattering blow?

As it is, Nadal's four-set win (6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5) has ended his Grand Slam voodoo against Djokovic and moved him one step closer to his ultimate dream. Wimbledon is on the horizon, where he has twice been crowned champion and lost out in the final on three occasions, and he will be looking to repeat his feat of 2008 and 2010 when he did the highly regarded 'clay-grass double'.

Most Grand Slam singles titles
Roger Federer 16 (Australian Open (4), French Open (1), Wimbledon (6) and US Open (5))
Pete Sampras 14 (Australian Open (2), Wimbledon (7) and US Open (5))
Bjorn Borg 11 (French Open (6) and Wimbledon (5))
Rafael Nadal 11 (Australian Open (1), French Open (7), Wimbledon (2) and US Open (1))

If he does just that on 8th July, he will claim his twelfth slam aged 26 years, one month and five days. Interestingly, Federer claimed his twelfth title aged 26 years, one month and one day. The similarity is uncanny and clearly suggests that Nadal is on course to at least equal Federer's current haul. Federer may still even add to his tally but having hit the dreaded age barrier of 30 and only appeared in one of the last nine Grand Slam finals, it would seem as though his time at the very top of the sport is slowly coming to an end.

SW19 will undoubtedly pose a number of questions. Is Nadal physchologically back on a level playing field with Djokovic or was his victory in the French Open final simply a reflection of his superior ability on clay? Will Djokovic accept his inferiority on clay and maintain the belief that he has the beating of Nadal on grass? Can the six-time champion Federer flourish on his favourite surface and claim his first Grand Slam title since the Australian Open in 2010?

The answers to these will tell us a lot about Nadal's credentials in his pursuit of unrivalled greatness. Federer, Pete Sampras and Borg better watch out.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Russia vs Czech Republic (Euro 2012 Group A): Match report

Russia took charge of Euro 2012's Group A thanks to an emphatic 4-1 victory against Czech Republic on Friday.

Roman Shirokov and substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko added to Alan Dzagoev's double to give Dick Advocaat's side a well-deserved three points. Vaclav Pilar pulled a goal back for the Czechs to make it 2-1 early in the second half but it ultimately proved to be nothing more than a consolation.

The win for Russia takes them to the top of the group after Poland and Greece drew 1-1 in the earlier kick-off.

The Czechs were surprisingly the more lively of the two teams in the opening exchanges but once the opening goal arrived in the 15th minute, they completely imploded and couldn't deal with their opponents' counter-attacking threat.

Zenit St. Petersburg's Alexander Kerzhakov headed Konstantin Zyryanov's floated cross against the inside of the far post and 21-year-old Dzagoev arrived on cue to smash home the rebound.

The goalscorer should have doubled his tally moments later but having latched onto Kerzhakov's crossfield pass he sliced his shot wide.

Shirokov atoned for his teammate's glaring miss to justify Russia's dominance and fire them into a 2-0 lead. Andrei Arshavin's defence-splitting pass was intended for Kerzhakov but although the striker failed to get his foot to the ball, it conveniently rolled into the path of Shirokov who expertly lifted the ball over the onrushing Petr Cech.

The final genuine goal scoring opportunity of the half fell to Kerzhakov but he blazed Zyryanov's deflected pull back over the crossbar.

Kerzhakov's wastefulness continued after the restart and it seemed that it could be costly when Pilar brought the Czechs back into the game.

Jaroslav Plasil slid the ball into the frontman who rounded goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev and slotted the ball into the back of the net.

Despite conceding, Russia continued to control the game and they would have been out of sight had it not been for their poor finishing.

There were no surprises when Roman Pavlyuchenko was called from the bench in the 73rd minute to replace Kerzhakov and it didn't take long for the former Tottenham man to make his mark.

He firstly played the role of provider by playing in Dzagoev for his second goal, before getting his own name on the scoresheet with a thunderous strike from the edge of the area.

The Russians' performance clearly marks them out as favourites to top the group and suggests that they could cause some problems for the tournament's frontrunners in the knockout stages.

Team line-ups
Russia: Malafeev, Anyukov, Ignashevich, Zhirkov, Berezutsky, Shirokov, Denisov, Zyryanov, Dzagoev (Kokorin 85), Arshavin, Kerzhakov (Pavlyuchenko 73). Subs: Akinfeev, Shunin, Sharonov, Granat, Nababkin, Izmailov, Kombarov, Glushakov, Semshov, Pavlyuchenko, Kokorin, Pogrebniak. 

Goals: Dzagoev (15 and 79), Shirokov (24) and Pavlyuchenko (82).
Bookings: N/A 
Red cards: N/A
Czech Republic: Cech, Gebre Selassie, Kadlec, Hubnik, Sivok, Rezek (Hubschman 46), Rosicky, Plasil, Pilar, Jiracek (Petrzela 76), Baros (Lafata 85). Subs: Lastuvka, Drobny, Suchy, Limbersky, Rajtoral, Petrzela, Hubschman, Kolar, Darida, Necid, Pekhart, Lafata. 

Goals: Pilar (52).  
Bookings: N/A 
Red cards: N/A

Referee: Howard Webb (England)

Monday, 4 June 2012

Euro 2012 preview

Group A
Arguably the most difficult section to call, Group A features three previous champions (Czech Republic, Greece and Russia) alongside co-hosts Poland whose only other appearance in the finals was in 2008. World rankings would suggest that Russia and Greece are favourites to advance into the quarter-finals but such is the quality of Group B, don't bank on any of these sides featuring in the last four of the competition.

1. Russia
2. Greece
3. Czech Republic
4. Poland

Czech Republic
World ranking: 26
Manager: Michal Bilek (Czech Republic)
Danger man: Tomáš Rosický
Route to the finals: Runners-up in Group I (Beat Montenegro 3-0 on aggregate in the play-offs)
Previous best: 1976 (Winners)
2008 performance: Group stage
Prediction: Group stage

World ranking: 14
Manager: Fernando Santos (Portugal)
Danger man: Sotiris Ninis
Route to the finals: Winners of Group F  
Previous best: 2004 (Winners)
2008 performance: Group stage 
Prediction: Quarter-finals

World ranking: 65 
Manager: Franciszek Smuda (Poland)
Danger man: Robert Lewandowski
Route to the finals: Co-hosts
Previous best: 2008 (Group stage)
2008 performance: Group stage
Prediction: Group stage

World ranking: 11 
Manager: Dick Advocaat (Netherlands)
Danger man: Aleksandr Kerzhakov
Route to the finals: Winners of Group B
Previous best: 1960 (Winners)
2008 performance: Semi-finals 
Prediction: Quarter-finals

Group B
Aptly known as the 'group of death', Group B promises to be an intriguing battle between four teams with plenty of pedigree. 1992 champions Denmark will generally be perceived as the rank outsiders, however, they did top their qualifying group which included Portugal. Germany and the Netherlands are amongst the favourites to go all the way but don't count out the Portuguese who have the formidable figure of Cristiano Ronaldo at their disposal.

1. Germany
2. Holland
3. Portugal
4. Denmark

World ranking: 10 
Manager: Morten Per Olsen (Denmark)
Danger man: Christian Eriksen
Route to the finals: Winners of Group H
Previous best: 1992 (Winners)
2008 performance: Did not qualify
Prediction: Group stage

World ranking: 4
Manager: Bert van Marwijk (Netherlands) 
Danger man: Arjen Robben
Route to the finals: Winners of Group E
Previous best: 1988 (Winners)
2008 performance: Quarter-finals
Prediction: Semi-finals

World ranking: 2 
Manager: Joachim Löw (Germany)
Danger man: Mesut Özil
Route to the finals: Winners of Group A
Previous best: 1972, 1980 and 1996 (Winners)
2008 performance: Final
Prediction: Winners

World ranking: 5 
Manager: Paulo Bento (Portugal) 
Danger man: Cristiano Ronaldo
Route to the finals: Runners-up in Group H (Beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 6-2 on aggregate in the play-offs)
Previous best: 2004 (Finalists)
2008 performance: Quarter-finals
Prediction: Group stage

Group C
World and European champions Spain stand out from the crowd in Group C but the second qualification spot is there for the taking. Italy face the unenviable task of going up against the holders in the group's opening match and both the Republic of Ireland and Croatia will be desperate to steel a march on the Azzurri when they meet later the same night.

1. Spain
2. Croatia
3. Italy
4. Republic of Ireland

World ranking: 8 
Manager: Slaven Bilić (Croatia)
Danger man: Luka Modric
Route to the finals: Runners-up in Group F (Beat Turkey 3-0 on aggregate in the play-offs)
Previous best: 1996 and 2008 (Quarter-finalists)
2008 performance: Quarter-finals
Prediction: Quarter-finals

World ranking: 12
Manager: Cesare Prandelli (Italy)
Danger man: Antonio Cassano
Route to the finals: Winners of Group C
Previous best: 1968 (Winners)
2008 performance: Quarter-finals 
Prediction: Group stage

Republic of Ireland
World ranking: 18 
Manager: Giovanni Trapattoni (Italy)
Danger man: Robbie Keane
Route to the finals: Runners-up in Group B (Beat Estonia 5-1 on aggregate in the play-offs)
Previous best: 1964 (Quarter-finalists)
2008 performance: Did not qualify
Prediction: Group stage 

World ranking: 1
Manager: Vicente del Bosque (Spain)
Danger man: Andrés Iniesta
Route to the finals: Winners of Group I
Previous best: 1964 and 2008 (Winners)
2008 performance: Winners
Prediction: Final 

Group D
There is a real sense of unpredictability surrounding Group D. Will England and France live up to their potential or will they flop on the big stage once more? Sweden have the ability to upset the apple cart if either side flatters to deceive and Ukraine will not want to go out on a whim as co-hosts. Anything could happen.

1. France
2. England
3. Sweden
4. Ukraine

World ranking: 7 
Manager: Roy Hodgson (England)
Danger man: Steven Gerrard
Route to the finals: Winners of Group G
Previous best: 1968 and 1996 (Semi-finalists)
2008 performance: Did not qualify
Prediction: Quarter-finals

World ranking: 16 
Manager: Laurent Blanc (France)
Danger man: Karim Benzema
Route to the finals: Winners of Group D
Previous best: 1984 and 2000 (Winners)
2008 performance: Group stage
Prediction: Semi-finals

World ranking: 17
Manager: Erik Hamrén (Sweden)
Danger man: Zlatan Ibrahimović
Route to the finals: Runners-up in Group E (Qualified as the best runners-up with 24 points)
Previous best: 1992 (Semi-finalists)
2008 performance: Group stage
Prediction: Group stage

World ranking: 50
Manager: Oleh Blokhin (Ukraine)
Danger man: Andriy Shevchenko
Route to the finals: Co-hosts
Previous best: First appearance in the finals
2008 performance: Did not qualify
Prediction: Group stage