Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Seeking skippers for sinking ships

by Alastair Pusinelli.

With Steven Gerrard retiring from international football and Alastair Cook’s continuous poor run of form, England's football and cricket sides both need fresh starts.

Both sides have been embarrassed on the biggest stage of all in recent months. The cricket team had the public humiliation in The Ashes last winter, and despite a mini re-vamp are still struggling.

The footballers obviously just had a World Cup to forget in Brazil, coming home with just one point from their three group games.

For the England football team, all the signs suggest Wayne Rooney will be the man to lead the side until at least the next World Cup in Russia in 2018. He has the experience, he’s won countless trophies at Manchester United and scored goals for club and country.

However, there were questions of whether Rooney should have even been in the side for the Brazil World Cup after the emergence of Ross Barkley, Adam Lallana and Raheem Sterling.

Wayne has captained England before on two occasions, against Brazil in 2009 and San Marino in 2012, but he has rarely led out club side Manchester United.

Ex-England captain Bryan Robson feels Rooney, Joe Hart and Gary Cahill are the contenders for the captaincy.

Robson told the BBC: “As a captain I don't think we have a standout candidate. Wayne has captained Manchester United and England. He knows what it’s about.”

He added: “You have to go to the experienced ones who will play each game, especially with the European Championship coming up. Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and Wayne Rooney look like the contenders."

England could look to the Argentina-theorem when looking for a solution to their captaincy dilemma. Lionel Messi continuously delivered in his Barcelona shirt but never transferred his club form onto the International field.

Coach Alejandro Sabella decided to make Messi captain and build the team around him, much like Carlos Bilardo did for Diego Maradona.

Messi has gone from strength-to-strength for La Albiceleste, culminating in the Golden Ball award at the World Cup. England could do the same and make their supposed star-man Rooney captain and hope the leadership will up his performances.

Zoom in to view table

The cricket side have a more difficult decision to make. A new coach has come in and the ‘untrustworthy’ Kevin Pietersen was dropped, so the ECB feel the side needs to rebuild before making any more big decisions.

But time is beginning to run out for skipper Alastair Cook. He oversaw the humiliation Down Under, and there has been little to shout about since.

To make matters worse, Cook’s form with the bat has deserted him, having not hit a Test century in over 14 months. Matt Prior’s withdrawal from the squad adds even more pressure on Cook as he is now the only man in the side to be consistently struggling.

However, if the ECB were to make a decision and drop Cook, who would be the man to take his place? Stuart Broad is perhaps the most likely man to take over as he is the vice-captain and T20 captain, but could he still make the right decisions after bowling twenty overs? Only time will tell.

Other than Broad there are few contenders. Ian Bell is the most experienced man in the side, and the only player remaining from the iconic 2005 Ashes series. But he is someone who is very keen to stay out of the headlines and get on with his business quietly, and the ECB would have already handed him some responsibility if they thought he was captaincy material.

Ex-Captain Michael Vaughan has called for the ECB to ‘roll the dice’ and pick Eoin Morgan as captain. He said in his Telegraph column that Morgan ‘has a nice manner, a lot of tactical awareness and a strong personality.’

Vaughan suggests that Morgan should be handed the captaincy for the rest of the series against India to prove his credentials for the one-day captaincy in Australia and New Zealand.

For me this raises countless issues. Firstly, many fans would question an Irishman leading out the England side.

Secondly, bringing in Morgan would lead to a substantial re-jig in the batting order. Morgan has only batted at six in Test Cricket, which would mean the in-form Joe Root would have to go back up the order and open, where he was criticised last summer.

Thirdly, the ECB have usually used the one-day formats to blood players and captains into the test side. This would be hugely counter-intuitive and show a complete lack of trust in Stuart Broad, the current vice-captain.

And, most importantly, Eoin Morgan had his chance in an England Test shirt, averaging 30 in 16 matches, so to bring him back as captain seems laughable.
Other options would be James Anderson, who has been around the side for a decade. But this would be asking a lot from our star-bowler.

Some say Joe Root as he is one of the few playing with confidence but handing him the captaincy too soon could ruin him.

Or, England could choose to take a massive U-turn and bring back Kevin Pietersen, but this seems far-fetched.

My opinion would be to give Alastair Cook the rest of the series to save his England future. He then needs to carry on this work in county cricket to prove his ability.

Stuart Broad (far left) already has the Cook pose nailed

If Cook fails to deliver, then the winter series in the West Indies is Stuart Broad’s chance to take the captaincy. Hopefully by then, the cloud hanging over English cricket will have disappeared.  

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

World Cup legacy: Germany conquer at Brasil 2014

by Alastair Pusinelli.

The month long football fiesta came to a close with Germany the much deserved winners over a below par Argentina side. Mario Gotze's extra time volley was a fitting end to a memorable tournament and gave the Germans their fourth World Cup, their first as a reunified Germany (West Germany won the trophy three times between 1954 and 1990).

Den Maanschaft went into the Final as hot favourites despite no European side ever lifting the trophy in the Americas. But when you hit seven past the hosts and pre-tournament favourites Brazil, people take notice. What's more, Argentina had limped their way to the Final, having not scored in over three hours of football, relying on penalties to defeat a resilient Dutch side.

But maybe the likes of Higuain, di Maria, Aguero and four-time player of the year Lionel Messi were waiting for the biggest stage of them all to make their mark. The first chance of the match fell to Gonzalo Higuain; a misplaced headed from Christoph Kramer handed the Argentinean striker a one-on-one with Manuel Neuer, but he snatched at the shot and scuffed the ball wide.

This was a huge wake-up call for the Germans, and they began to settle when Andre Schurrle came on for Kramer who was struggling afer a blow to the head. This moved Toni Kroos into a holding midfielder role, allowing him to dictate play but still break forward into goal-scoring positions.

The men in white then went close when Kroos' corner was headed onto the post by Benedikt Howedes, who really should have made the net bulge. Alejandro Sabella's Argentina looked the stronger after the break, with captain Messi through on goal but somehow putting the ball inches wide.

The Germans regained control but none of their efforts on goal tested goalkeeper Sergio Romero, sending the Final into extra-time.The tie looked destined for the dreaded penalty shootout but both teams had the chance to reach immortality. Argentinean left back Marcos Rojo sent a superb ball over the German defence straight to the feet of the rat-tailed Rodrigo Palacio. But the Inter Milan man couldn't convert, a miss that would prove costly.

With seven minutes remaining, Andre Schurrle broke down the left wing and clipped the ball towards the front post. Substitute Mario Gotze took the ball on his chest and knocked it past a despondent Romero in the Argentine goal. A strike worthy of winning any final.

La Albiceleste could not create that chance to force penalties to hand Germany their first World Cup in 24 years.

I'd like to thank Brazil for hosting a simply spectacular tournament, despite all the concerns about the infrastructure and the Brazillian economy. With the next two tournaments in Russia and Qatar, it is unlikely we will witness the scenes of celebration like those in Brazil, with the tournament delivered by a country that breathes football.

For England, it was another tournament to forget, but there remains a hope that these new young Lions will produce something special in years to come. With England being knocked out early,  it gave us fans the opportunity to appreciate what the other nations had to offer.

Costa Rica showed great tenacity, proving the whole is greater than the individual,  topping a group where they were supposedly the whipping boys and reaching the quarter finals for the first time.

Colombia played with a smile on their face, which passed on to whoever saw them play. Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez deserves a mention after that breathtaking goal against Uruguay, and was somehow not awarded the Golden Ball for best player, with the panel going for someone more their cup of tea - Lionel Messi.

Germany were undoubtedly the best side, but they didn't start playing anywhere near their best fooball until the Semis. Therefore I issue a warning ahead of Russia 2018. Even if you are reigning World Champions, fail to deliver from game one and you could head home early. Spain lifting the trophy in Johannesburg seems a long, long time ago.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Holland barged out - again

by Tom Irving.

Another tournament goes by with Holland continuing their role as International football’s bridesmaid with no luck, having to endure other’s happiness over their own time and again.

Against Argentina, Maxi Rodriguez’ penalty condemned Louis Van Gaal’s men to board the next plane home, as 90 minutes and an extra 30 saw no goals in a tense match that needed the dreaded penalty shootout to decide the winner in Sao Paulo.

Doomed to wait another four years, Holland’s strange relationship with the biggest footballing tournament goes on, a team synonymous with the world cup, giving the tournament some of its greatest moments and players, and rarely putting in a poor performance at any of them, yet still, the trophy cabinet lays bare.

Truly, it is a love-hate relationship.

The assured and confident displays from this year’s Dutch squad counted for nothing as Jasper Cillessen’s feeble attempt to stop the deciding penalty brought all too evident memories of recent and not so recent failures back to the fore.

Set up to stifle the strengths of the Argentinian attack, this new Holland team play in a style different to that of yesteryear, less flair, more fight, less tricks, more tactics, less speed, more strength.

The football may be different, but the results stay the same, another night to forget for the Oranje.

Gone is the chance to take on the old foe, Germany, in the spiritual home of football, for the greatest prize the sport has to offer.

Football, though unpredictable at times, is rarely a romantic sport, Holland continue to know this only too well.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Decline and ball: the routing of Brazil

by Thomas Davies.

Last night in Belo Horizonte, something happened that no one privileged enough to watch it will ever forget.

It was a sporting performance of sheer skill, astounding precision and utter ruthlessness. It was the exquisite execution of a technical masterplan years in the making. It was the effortless extinguishing of the dreams of 200 million Brazilian souls.

Germany’s merciless 7-1 rout of their beleaguered hosts broke all sorts of records, was completely unexpected and was breathless to behold.

From minute one, Joachim Löw’s charges asserted a control and dominance more befitting an FA Cup tie between a Premier League outfit and non-league no-hopers than a FIFA World Cup semi-final between two of international football’s most successful sides.

Despite a bright start, the fragility of Brazil’s defence and the bluntness of an insipid attack - shorn of suspended defensive talisman Thiago Silva and the wonderful but injured Neymar – was plain for everyone but the most die-hard Seleção supporter to see.

When Thomas Müller, taking advantage of the acres of space afforded him by the meandering David Luiz, pounced to open Germany’s account a nation was stunned into silence; and the rest of the world began to make out the writing on the wall.

What happened next was humiliation on a scale that Brazil as a footballing powerhouse has never and probably will never experience again.

Within moments, Miroslav Klose had slotted the second – in-so-doing becoming the top scorer in World Cup finals history. But this was a secondary by-line to what was unfolding on the pitch.

In the time it would take for Marcelo and Julio Cesar to belt out their national anthem, the Germans had added two more - a delightful double from the nerveless Toni Kroos that sent the majority inside the stadium into utter despair.

All sorts of wounds were opened for a bewildered and disoriented home side and when Sami Khedira, the outstanding holding midfielder, applied the salt with a fifth inside half an hour, all knew Brazil’s quest for glory on home soil was over.

A second-half brace from substitute Andre Schürrle piled further embarrassment on coach Luis Felipe Scolari who must now surely fall on his sword before it is forced upon him.

The Deutscher Fußball-Bund stranglehold abated finally, with a frustrated finish in stoppage time from Oscar that couldn’t even be classed as consolation.

For Germany, an inexorable and daunting march to the final brings them within touching distance of a first world title in 24 years.

For Brazil, despite a marvellous tournament that has embraced and illustrated the very best of the sport, a footballing dynasty, legacy and reputation stretching a century lies in tatters.