Football’s Coming… To Europe!

What a tremendous World Cup campaign this has been for the England national team: the comradery, the passion, the belief and enjoyment that this side has produced for the entire nation is phenomenal.Eng-v-Cro-57

Almost immediately, as the devastating chime of the referee’s whistle blew for full time, up pops the yellow of the BBC Sport app:

“Heartbreak all over again. England lose World Cup semi-final.”

Let me be very clear (and a little too honest for my liking), I had tears in my eyes but as the haze of disappointment faded I couldn’t help but be filled with pride and disagreement simultaneously.

This was not the same. This was different. Rather than bowing out with our tails between their legs in shame as we have for far too long, this England side can stand with their heads high knowing they did the nation proud.

While it does not remove the pain of elimination, it certainly softens the blow.

England will leave Russia after their final match on Saturday with their reputation on the highest stage restored after the embarrassment of recent years.

Southgate has grown into the job and has been outstanding here, while players such as Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and Kieran Trippier have acquired new respect for their deeds and enhanced their profile.Eng-Cro-2

England have been given an identity by a group of players who reflect the modest, mature approach of their manager and in a style of play Southgate has developed and insists will serve them well in the future.

Most observers regarded a quarter-final as a respectable outcome in Russia, so to reach the last four is to be lauded.

There can be no disguising that the draw offered England an opportunity to reach a World Cup final that they just didn’t have the power to take – the future, however, is bright and full of hope.

All eyes to the new season- watch this space!

Jamie

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Two Heads Are Better Than One

They’ve only gone and done it! England are in their first World Cup Semi-Final since Italia 90 as Harry Maguire and Dele Alli both headed past Olsen either side of the break to set up a tasty clash against Croatia on Wednesday.

The significance of this victory is monumental. Coming off the back of an emotionally draining and mentally taxing victory over a dirty Colombia side, the team that most had written off for their inexperience and youth pulled off phenomenal result.

Today’s performance proved many of the Three Lions players have come of age and at the perfect time, most notably Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire, 24 and 25 years old respectively. They had cagey starts to this World Cup campaign and there is no doubt that Southgate’s decision to make them integral starters was a controversial one but today they came into their own and cemented their names on Wednesday’s team sheet.

skynews-samara-world-cup-football_4355989Jordan Pickford was simply sublime. There’s no other way to put it. England’s number 1 picked up exactly where he left off against Colombia making sensational one handed stops from close range to keep England ahead on three separate occasions.

This boy deserved nothing less than his first clean sheet for England and in doing so, made himself the youngest ever English keeper to keep a clean sheet at the World Cup. If he is still at Everton next season it will be a complete injustice to his potential and insult on his ability.

Harry Maguire? You couldn’t pick a better time to score your first international goal than in the quarter final of the World Cup. England have now scored 8 of their eleven goals from set pieces and Maguire has been in the thick of each one: head across goal, back into the area and now into the back of the net. Maguire also became the first player to score their first England goal in a World Cup knockout match since Rio Ferdinand in 2002 against Denmark.36726913_10155305786652447_810168193669660672_n

To quote Gary Neville (never thought I would say that!) “the country needed that.” When it mattered most this team stepped up and thrived off the pressure. I could sing Gareth Southgate’s praises but I’ve done that enough already.

Can England Really Bring Football Home?

Why the hell not!

English football has been plagued with criticism and pessimism for far too long: rightly or wrongly that’s a different topic.

There is genuine momentum behind England and every win will only increase the quiet confidence that has built up around this squad. You don’t make it to the semi-finals of the best international football tournament in the world by accident.

The Three Lions have already surpassed expectation- everything from here is an over-achievement so let’s get behind the boys and break the tradition of bad mouthing our own team!

BRING IT HOME BOYS!

WARNING: This is not a joke!

It has finally happened: England have won a World Cup penalty shoot-out for the first time in their history!This was an historic evening as Gareth Southgate’s England side dug in deep to progress in heroic style and the Three Lions now face a well drilled Swedish side on Saturday in their first quarter-final appearance since 2006.It was a gruelling 90 minutes for the English as they faced what John Stones called “the dirtiest side” that he has ever faced. From Wilmar Barrios throwing his head into Henderson’s chin, scuffing up the penalty spot and the constant moaning, Colombia deserved to feel the sting of penalty defeat.It was a mature, dogged fight to the end and a performance that has to have impressed even the harshest of English skeptics. Jordan Pickford was sublime tipping a 30 yard rocket wide right at the death and punching the match saving penalty clear. Rashford, Trippier, and of course, Eric Dier, all slotting penalties past a stranded Ospina to bring football one step closer to coming home.

Southgate Sets Sights on Sweden

Victory against Sweden on Saturday would see England in the semi-final of a major tournament for the first time since 1990 but should we start celebrating an easy win? You would be a fool to!England have only beaten Sweden twice in their last 15 meetings and Zlatan tore England a new one back in 2012 scoring four goals, including a lucrative bicycle kick, in Stockholm.Sweden finished ahead of the Netherlands in qualifying, beat Italy in the play-offs to book their flights to Russia and topped a group that looked to spell a very short stay in Russia but this Sweden side is well drilled and has vats of experience.Gareth Southgate’s “one game at a time” mentality is commendable (I have written before of his impact on the success of this England team.)”We have huge respect for Sweden. They are a team that I think in the past have been underestimated – we won’t make that mistake.””Our players come from the same background as their players. We shouldn’t get carried away with ourselves being better than Sweden. They are older, more experienced, and have a better tournament record than us.”Words of wisdom right there. You don’t find yourself in the quarterfinals of the biggest competition in football by accident. Both teams deserve to be where they are- regardless of what Maradona has to say on it.There is no doubt that both teams have a deep desire and belief that they can progress to the next round. Sweden are a rigid team and they will be giving nothing away. England may be forced to play the long game, an approach that manager Southgate has instilled in this England side.I am biased. There is no hiding it (my apologies Swedes) but I really believe that the Three Lions can do it! Their youth, although used as a criticism, could be their biggest strength this weekend and they will rely on runs from Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Raheem Sterling to pull the Swedish defence out and free up golden boot contender Harry Kane.Let’s go boys! Bring football home!Jamie

From “Super Saturday” to Sensational Saturday!

WHAT. JUST. HAPPENED.

There is no denying that the teams that went through, went through because they deserved to! The French were fabulous, Uruguay were top drawer and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous.

This was the France side that we have been waiting for. They looked fearless. Like a lion let loose and they did not hold back putting four goals past Sampaoli’s shambolic Argentina.

Uruguay made it clear that they didn’t make it here by accident. Pepe’s somewhat irrelevant equaliser was the first goal they have conceded this far and Edison Cavani? My goodness. Two phenomenal strikes that had me with my hands on my head in disbelief.

If you read yesterday’s blog you’ll know I was WAY off with my predictions and how glad I am that I was. It made for such a good round of fixtures.

Croatia vs Denmark

This is my one of my favourite games of the round of 16! Croatia are clear favourites after making Argentina look like schoolboys, collecting maximum points and seeing off Iceland after making 8 changes to their team. Don’t write the Danes off just yet.

The Danes are currently of a national record run of 18 games undefeated in all competitions. They have kept six clean sheets in their last 7 games and, just like Croatia, have not conceded in open play this World Cup!

It is going to be a good one but I think the Croats have pipped this one.

Prediction: 3-1

Spain vs Russia

Spain, who are unbeaten in 23 games since losing to Italy at Euro 2016, have yet to hit the heady heights with which they are usually associated, but Russia may be a team against whom they can cut loose. They will certainly attempt to dominate the ball.

La Roja led the tournament for passes attempted (2,294) and completed (2,089) in the group stage, making nearly 300 more of each than any other nation. Spain have also had 41 shots from open play, 15 more than their opponents, and have created 42 goal scoring chances, 24 more than the Russians.

The home team, however, have worked like Trojans and have been clinical when opportunities have come knocking. Russia are ranked bottom at this tournament for chances created, with 18, but have still managed to score eight goals, while in terms of distance covered in the group stage (331km) they ranked third. Being roared on by an 80,000 capacity-crowd may add yet more miles to their legs.

I wouldn’t write off an upset after today but I can’t see anything other than a Spain win.

Prediction: 2-1

Jamie

Super Saturday: Predictions

If this is where things are meant to really get going then we are in for a treat!

After just two full rounds of fixtures, this campaign had already treated us to more goals than that of Brazil 2014 but this is crunch time. It’s simple: win, you go through. Lose, you pack your bags. Tie? We play until someone wins.

This is the World Cup, anything can happen (just ask the Germans!) and by the end of tomorrow we could see two GOATs and some competition favourites heading home so here’s my 2 cents on what we can expect!

France vs Argentina

Two of football’s international Goliaths yet not two teams often paired together. In fact, this is their first ever meeting in the knockout stages of a World Cup and only the second time in 32 years they have met.

The South Americans hold the upper hand with six wins to two, keeping a clean sheet in eight of their previous 11 encounters. However, it is hard to imagine Les Bleus not striking this fractured Argentine side while the iron is hot.

Nigeria v Argentina: Group D - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

There is no comparing their group stage performances. While France are yet to concede a goal from open play (with their only goal conceded a penalty kick), Argentina scraped through by the skin of their teeth.

llorisMoreover, the French only conceded 5 shots on target in their 3 group games which certainly does not spell a great day for Lionel Messi who has never scored in a World Cup knockout game.

With both managers struggling to tap into their abundance of potential, this fixture could go either way. Unfortunately, Les Bleus are out to make a statement having lost to Portugal in the final of Euro 2016 and with the South Americans in a state of chaos, France look the more likely team to advance.

Prediction: 2-0

Uruguay vs Portugal

While Portugal are clear favourites to advance, this Uruguay side should not be written off so quickly. They are only one of 3 teams to achieve maximum points in the group stages and are yet to concede a single goal! All five of their goals have come from set pieces and they will look to exploit that against the Portuguese.world-cup-group-arabia-uruguay-vs-saudi_c472efa6-74a1-11e8-bebf-140e718967a9

Main-man Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 4 times this World Cup with only England’s Harry Kane scoring more but, just like Messi, Ronaldo has never scored in the knockout stages of a World Cup.DgkBIn1X4AIYTTr

Portugal are awfully one dimensional in attack and Uruguay have not exactly blazed a trail this campaign. With both teams desperate to prove they belong at this stage of the tournament, I could see this going to extra time.

Prediction: 0-1 (AET)

We have seen Germany sent home and Sweden top the group. We’ve seen a GOAT made to look like a lamb and heroics from international minnows. No team is safe and there is nowhere to hide. May the best men win!

Jamie

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

As Group G favourites, Belgium, set out their statement of intent with the 5-2 thumping of Tunisia on Saturday, hushed whispers turned to bold statements: “this is the team to beat.”

Then comes the morning after the night before. The Three Lions went up against an undisciplined Panama side who had been swept aside by Belgium just days before. It took the Englishmen 8 minutes to score and they cruised into the break 5-0, all but victors.3246.jpg

It was simply exquisite from Gareth Southgate’s men. The win smashing records left right and center: it was England’s biggest ever victory at a World Cup. After 2 games, this is already their joint second-highest goalscoring World Cup campaign- the only time they scored more was when they lifted the trophy in 1966!

Moreover, they are only the fifth team in World Cup history to score 5 goals before half time and this is England’s joint best start to a World Cup along with their appearances at Spain 1982 and Germany 2006.

Something’s Different

There is a wind in the sails and an unprecedented excitement about this England side. From inflatable unicorn races in the team pool at their training facility to Jesse Lingard juggling on the sideline as the game drew to an end, there is just something different this year.3824

Let’s not forget that this is a team under immense scrutiny, a side that has the sizeable task of winning the hearts of a nation back after a downward spiral over the course of the last 8 years.

South Africa 2010 marked the beginning of the descent, crashing out 4-1 to Germany in the round of 16. Four year later, the Three Lions were kept firmly in their cages as they failed to get out of their group at Brazil 2014 followed just two years later by a disastrous night in France as the Englishmen were sent back across the Channel by Iceland.

What has brought such a noticeable shift in the attitudes and performances of an underachieving England side? My answer: Gareth Southgate.

I have written before of my skepticism of his appointment. I wasn’t convinced he had it in him. “Great.” I jeered, “more of the same.” But I cannot attribute such a drastic change to anyone, or anything, other than the Gaffer.garethsouthgate240618c

He has instilled an unprecedented confidence and belief in his players and given them a freedom to perform at the level we are so used to seeing week in, week out. More than the players he has around him, he is turning disillusioned hearts into passionate believers.

With many countrymen still hurting from a past of heartbreak and disappointment, Gareth Southgate has provided what no English manager has been able to in over a decade: belief.

More Than A One Trick Pony

In addition, I would argue that there is a sincere belief that a goal can come from anywhere.3500

We have seen how the likes of Messi, Neymar and even Ronaldo have been hunted in packs and taken out of a game completely and with Harry Kane becoming only the third England player to score a hat trick at a World Cup and the first player since 1974 to score more than once in the opening two games, the same just doesn’t look likely for England.

Kane has scored 5 goals in 2 games but two goals from centre back John Stones, a worldy from Jesse Lingard not to mention the chaos runs around the back and balls over the top have caused. You take one player out and another takes his place. They are somewhat unmarkable.

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I add a word of caution: the same is also true of Belgium. The fluidity of that Lukaku/Hazard/Mertens trio is scary proven by their collective 7 goals in 2 games. The two sides are almost identical in ability and belief.

The real test of both sides will be on Thursday when they meet each other for the group decider. We have no need to be convinced of either side’s attacking ability scoring a combined 16 goals but neither side has faced any real defensive threat and how each side handles the challenge will give a significant look into either the frailty or ability of their all-roundedness.

This Three Lions side is the first to live up to its name playing with a passion, belief and enjoyment that has not been seen since Germany ‘06 and I have every faith that they are going to bring it home!

Jamie

What’s Gone Wrong for Argentina’s No. 10?

There are no points for saying that Lionel Messi has had a World Cup to forget.

I want one thing to be very clear: I am a huge admirer of both Messi and Ronaldo and I am not attempting to convince you that one is better than the other. Too many people have handed out the GOAT card based on 2 games and, well, it’s simply ridiculous.

Let’s not forget who we are talking about. This is a man who has lifted every trophy available to him at club level with Barcelona. A legend of the game who has 616 career goals and 250 career assists.

He is the only player in history to score 40+ club goals in 9 consecutive seasons and the only player to ever score 60+ goals in all competitions in two consecutive seasons.messi.jpg

Lionel Messi is no teenage flop or a player past his sell by date. He is one of the greatest players to ever grace the beautiful game and deserves the respect of anybody with an ounce of interest in the game.

You want to talk about international statistics? Okay. In 126 international appearances, Messi has 64 goals and 38 assists.

I cannot stress this enough: I don’t care who you think is the “GOAT” but it is absurd to throw a man of Lionel Messi’s stature to the dogs off two performances.

A Woeful World Cup

Has this World Cup been one of Lionel Messi’s most glowing appearances? Absolutely not.

By the way, I am a huge stat guy. They cannot lie. Take today’s game for example: Messi had 49 touches come fulltime, only 2 of which were inside Croatia’s penalty area and he did not have his first (and only) shot of the game until the 64th minute.

Against Iceland, not only did he miss what could have been a game winning penalty but in 11 shots on goal he still failed to score. He now has the highest amount of shots [12] in the opening two games, the most of any player who has not scored at the World Cup.

_102151614_messi2If a picture can tell a thousand words, the sheer agony on the guy’s face as he lined up for his national anthem says it all. He knows he’s under-performing. In fact, reports this week suggested that the No. 10 was so upset over last Saturday’s 1-1 draw that he refused to attend a barbecue organised by Argentine staff, instead staying alone in his hotel room.

You’re Only As Good As The Company You Keep

The fact that after defeat to Germany in the final of World Cup 2014 and two final defeats in the Copa America, I have to argue that Lionel Messi is not the issue!

lionel-messi-argentina-croatia-world-cup-2018-210618_48kh9pqwxam81rspxp932sdqjWith such exceptional talent such as Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Di Maria and Pablo Dybala (not to mention Mauro Icardi who was joint top-scorer in the Serie A last season who didn’t even make the final cut) Argentina should not be shy for goals.

But it was Messi who scored more than a third of Argentina’s goals in qualifying (19 goals in 18 games) with no other player scoring more than twice. Angel di Maria scored two, Gonzalo Higuaín just one and Sergio Aguero did not score at all.

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This Argentina team are shambolic in defense and weak as water in midfield.

Telling Messi to score without any supply is like telling a fisherman to fish in a forest and come back with a great catch- it just can’t happen!

Regardless of his performance at this World Cup, Lionel Messi will still be remembered as one of the all-time legends of the game and hailed as one of football’s greatest ever. I expect the No. 10 will retire [again] following this World Cup but the man some may consider the GOAT cannot, and must not, be turned into the scapegoat.

Jamie