England out of the World Cup, but the sun still shines

Hope grew on this country like a tumour, and for all the goodwill of a desperate nation, it didn’t come home.

In the end, we’re all just grateful that it wasn’t a loss on penalties.

In the words of the brilliant Peter Jones: the sun shines now.

For the extra-time defeat to Croatia, my girlfriend and I inadvertently found ourselves in a London pub surrounded by a bunch snarky, hipster students.

It was a crowd which had no idea that Three Lions had two separate outings in both 1996 and 1998. They weren’t even born yet.

Football, like fashion, runs a cyclical path. The crowd brimmed with baggy jeans, ironic caps, too much hair gel and fluorescent Le Coq Sportif polo shirts. And that was just the girls. So it goes.

The boys squealed for when football, for all its wonderful HD quality viewing, was better in their father’s era when a World Cup was remembered almost exclusively for one missed header by Kevin Keegan. This isn’t verbatim, but you cut my drift.

Early into the match one young lad in the crowd shouted, “Get it in the goal hole!” I asked him where he was from. Wales, but he wanted England to win. It was all starting to make sense now, and it was enough to wish us out of a World Cup on pure spite.

Everyone knows how the game panned out. England’s first half brought with it the best chance in a human lifetime of making it into a World Cup final. And for all your sugary sentiment, we blew it.

Yet it’s almost impossible to play the blame game on Gareth Southgate’s brilliant coaching staff and a wonderful set of young players.

With seconds left of extra time, a young student shouted “Fuck you, Alli! You’re shit!”

It was the sort of comment which could only come from an Arsenal fan burdened by an unsure future after they’d successfully yet reluctantly hounded out their bespectacled godfather.

Meanwhile, those in the crowd old enough to remember had the dying embers of ‘Nessun Dorma’ tickling in their ears. It was almost impossible to shake the sight of Gazza crying when Kieran Trippier was carried off late into the match.

Try not to politicise this loss though. Despite the convenient timing of a cabinet implosion, dare not to remember this time in tandem with a disenfranchised Tory government. Christ, there’s too many to form any sort of meaningful correlation anyway.

Football is far more significant, and obviously far more insignificant, than politics.

Just remember a tournament where, if only for a few minutes in the skull of almost every man and woman in England, hope became expectation. And it wasn’t unfounded.

With the heatwave and one of the most controversial World Cups in recent memory came the curtains on a redemptive, fist-pumping summer in the life of a waistcoat-wearing, spot-kick anti-hero.

Glorious failure. It’s what we do best.

After all, it’s human nature to turn the volume up on a heartbreaking song rather than to put your foot through the speaker.

And the sun shines now.

 

Chris Henderson

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England vs Columbia: One sentence player ratings

 

Jordan Pickford

The penalty hero and a cool head when it matters most, exemplified by a breathtaking save in the final minute

Kieran Trippier

Yet again one of England’s best performers and excellent from set pieces but the Columbia goal was undoubtedly his fault.

Harry Maguire

Maturing with every passing game – a solid, domineering presence in the air.

John Stones

Made an unbelievable ten clearances and marshalled the defence with astuteness

Kyle Walker

Still settling into his role but occasionally guilty of being complacent in possession in dangerous areas.

Ashley Young

An unspectacular performance but he’s one of the few England players with the maturity to deal with Columbia’s shithouse tactics.

Jordan Henderson

His importance to the team was highlighted by the struggles of Eric Dier but he owes Pickford a debt of gratitude for not becoming the next player on Pizza Hut’s books.

Jesse Lingard

Typically busy and hardworking but lacked composure when in promising positions in the final third.

Dele Alli

Clearly not fully fit and really ought to have been brought off much sooner.

Raheem Sterling

Showed a cool head in the face of unforgivable provocation but desperately needs a goal for his confidence.

Harry Kane

Influential in a deeper role and showed an almost inhuman level of composure to slot his penalty after Columbia’s stalling tactics.

Subs:

Danny Rose

Came close to a winner late on and looks closer to full fitness with each match.

Eric Dier

Wretched performance and bringing on Vardy sooner would have been a more effective tool of seeing the game out.

Jamie Vardy

Yet to truly flourish in this tournament so far but had very little service to feed off.

Marcus Rashford

Basically brought on to score a penalty and did so with emphatic conviction.

 

Chris Henderson

England 6-1 Panama: One sentence player ratings

Jordan Pickford

Understandably furious with his defence after conceding the goal, but looked nervy on the ball despite very little to do.

John Stones

Yet again a real threat from set-pieces but still question marks over his sluggish and unconvincing build-up play from the back.

Harry Maguire

Starting to build a sound relationship with Walker and Stones but his hesitancy on the ball may be exposed to better opposition with more energetic pressing.

Kyle Walker

Comfortable on the ball and offers a very effective sweeping option with his electric pace, but still concerns about facing stronger opposition while still settling into a new role.

Ashley Young

Calm in possession but England’s worst culprit for complacency despite half-time instructions from his manager about the importance of goal difference.

Kieran Trippier

Not as influential as in the victory over Tunisia but involved in two goals and his increasing importance to the side was demonstrated by the rest he was given for the final half an hour.

Jordan Henderson

Typically hard-working and metronomic display and the highest pass conversion rate of any player on the pitch.

Jesse Lingard

Caused problems throughout the first half with energetic running and deserved his wonderful goal having been the main target of Panama’s early roughhouse tactics.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

A domineering, physical presence going forward but plenty more to come from him; only showed glimpses of his true potential.

Raheem Sterling

Should have had a much-needed goal from England’s well-worked free-kick routine but some promising interplay with Lingard and Kane.

Harry Kane

Two fantastic spot-kick conversions and so good that even when being hit with the ball it still went in to complete his hat-trick.

Subs:

Jamie Vardy (63’)

A very quiet performance from the Leicester man, who was no doubt disappointed by his teammates’ complacency in the final half an hour.

Fabien Delph (63’)

Sloppy in possession and did little to suggest it would be anything other than a disaster if he was played in central midfield in a crucial match.

Danny Rose (70’)

Sluggish and short on confidence, demonstrating exactly why Southgate is playing Young as a makeshift left-sided wing-back.

 

Chris Henderson

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Last night’s dramatic late win over Tunisia brought with it some key statistics:

  • Harry Kane’s first ever goals in a major tournament
  • The first time an England player scored two goals in a World Cup match since Gary Lineker against Cameroon in 1990
  • Raheem Sterling has now failed to score in his last 21 international matches, scoring only two goals in a total of 39 caps.

Following a hugely successful season with Manchester City in which he won his first Premier League trophy and scored a personal best 23 goals, his international form is of real concern for England’s tournament hopes.

A press vendetta

It’s been a strange summer for Sterling. Getting a tattoo on his leg, after the shameful way he spent money on his loving mother, has turned him into the poster boy for the supposed excesses of the modern young footballer.

Sterling has been the victim of a strange, mean-spirited campaign from certain quarters of the press – an operation with alarming racist undertones. That sickening little hack crusade could have de-railed even the most hardened of characters.

As it stands though, Sterling seems like, if you cut through the commotion, a perfectly normal and level-headed young man. And what a ridiculous overreaction for a story which essentially should have read, ‘man gets tattoo’.

Even so, all of this bluster threatens to miss the main point at issue here – his form for England is wreaking the place out.

Attacking intent against Tunisia

Last night, Sterling had to wait only four minutes of the Tunisia match for a chance to prove his doubters wrong, but he made a real mess of his finish.

The linesman flagged for offside but he was unaware. Sterling could only gamely laugh off what was a bizarre finish.

He was not the only one wasteful in front of goal, but this was a golden chance to kick-start his tournament in style. Lingard and Alli had chances and also looked worryingly short of composure.

This is not to single out Sterling as the only misfiring England attacker, simply that the longer this barren spell goes on, the more difficult it will become for him.

Southgate’s formation suggested Sterling would play in a fluid front two with Kane, although in reality it meant he was the most advanced of England’s attacking midfielders lying just behind the Tottenham striker.

Sterling bravely continued running in behind the Tunisian backline but to no avail.

Whichever way you cut it, if Sterling is to play in such an advanced position, he needs a goal, and quickly.

Criticism from Carragher

On the Telegraph’s World Cup podcast Jamie Carragher was typically forthright about Sterling’s hopes for a starting berth, instead claiming we could play two up front.

“I don’t think there’s a great goalscoring record from the players supporting Harry Kane – Sterling, Dele Alli, Lingard.

You may as well actually play with a striker, rather than Sterling playing there and dropping deep because there’s enough players there already”

The point Carragher makes is a fair one – that having Sterling play alongside Kane is basically just mimicking a traditional ‘two up front’, so you may as well start with a more natural goalscorer in Vardy.

It all feels too knee-jerky and simplistic though, as Sterling is a key component of England’s pressing early into matches as the attacking trio behind Kane look to hunt in packs.

The notion of having less defensively-minded players against Belgium is definitely not a comfortable one.

Raheem in Rio

It’s easy to forget that heading into the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, Sterling was our number one hope. Every major tournament in this country tends to have one player who we simply cannot afford to get injured (think 2002 Beckham, 2010 Rooney, 2018 Kane etc.). In 2014, Sterling was that man.

He nearly started the tournament in perfect fashion, although what appeared to be an early goal against Italy actually only hit the side netting. Ask most England fans, and they’ll remember that scenario like a JFK moment.

The pub I was in celebrated for a solid 5-10 minutes before realising there was a problem, the scoreboard was broken and it still read ‘0-0’.

In the end, neither Sterling nor his teammates proved themselves in what was a wash-out tournament for England. The hype around Sterling on the international stage simply disappeared with that tournament.

Stick with him for the Panama match

In my ratings of the England players’ performances last night, I wrote that Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford deserve a place in the starting line-up against Panama.

While they showed real promise and a renewed sense of urgency from the bench, I now think that keeping Sterling in the team to get on the scoresheet against a very weak Panama side would be the best option.

Gareth Southgate has shown consistent bravery in selecting his England squad in the face of widespread criticism.

Now is the time for the boss to continue his patience with Sterling and get his tally up and running if we have real aspirations of heading into the final stages of the tournament.

 

Chris Henderson

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England 2-1 Tunisia: One sentence player ratings

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Jordan Pickford

Resolute enough performance and rarely tested but having guessed the right way for Sassi’s penalty, he really ought to have saved it.

Kyle Walker

Solid enough despite a clumsy foul for the penalty, although he should provide more impetus and urgency in possession given that he’s the most technically gifted of the back three.

Jon Stones

Settled into the game, and a stunning header which led to Kane’s first goal made up for some nervy misplaced passes when under little pressure from Tunisian forwards.

Harry Maguire

Similar to Stones, showed an admirable spirit and dominance in the air, but the odd loose pass was a concern and would be easily punished by better opposition.

Kieran Trippier

England’s best performer on the night as he looked comfortable on the ball and dangerous higher up the flank, particularly following the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford.

Ashley Young

Worryingly petulant at times and, as is often the case, England’s attacks slowed down when he had to check back onto his favoured right foot when in advanced wide positions.

Jordan Henderson

A mature performance from one of England’s few real leaders, epitomised by a much underrated range of passing and an endless desire to be on the ball.

Jesse Lingard

A typically reliable source of energy and pressing when not in possession, but he coupled this with a hugely frustrating lack of composure in front of goal.

Dele Alli

Looked worryingly short of fitness and confidence and his casual demeanour will hopefully now lead to Rashford replacing him in the starting line-up against Panama.

Raheem Sterling

He may join Alli on the bench next Sunday as he showed an admirable desire to make runs in behind the Tunisian back line but too often his composure and finishing were left wanting.

Harry Kane

The best striker in world football showed both brilliant poaching instincts and a cool head in the face of constant Tunisian provocation.

Subs:

Marcus Rashford (68’)

Provided much-needed impetus to a lethargic-looking side with his persistence and willingness to run at defenders to make things happen.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek (80’)

A refreshing presence who offered more attacking prowess in 10 minutes than many of his counterparts in the previous 80.

Eric Dier (90+3’)

I can’t remember him touching the ball.

 

Chris Henderson

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3 conclusions from Brazil vs Switzerland

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1. Brazil’s lone striker role up for grabs

Gabriel Jesus was chosen to lead the line by Brazil coach Tite, although he struggled to make an impact on the night. This Brazil starting line-up rarely changes with minimal tweaks to personnel and formation.

Roberto Firmino’s arrival on 79 minutes brought a more dangerous edge to Brazil’s attack, the Liverpool strike skewing a presentable chance late on.

In fairness to Jesus, he should have had a penalty midway through the second half but he looked worrying short of sharpness (not least when I’ve backed him for each way on the Golden Boot). This team is clearly built around the mercurial Neymar and offering a supportive, subservient role to their key man may be more suited to Firmino.

Don’t be surprised to see Firmino leading the line against Costa Rica on Friday.

2. Neymar’s fitness the elephant in the room

It feels like we’ve been here before. Only two days ago, Neymar’s national coach Tite, said:

“He is still not 100 per cent, but he is very privileged physically. He still has something to gain. It should happen sooner rather than later, hopefully”

If those words weren’t entirely convincing, then Neymar’s performance this evening added fuel to the speculation that the injury is more serious than we’re being told. He is set to miss training tomorrow with a ‘knock’.

He blustered through the early stages and showed some immaculate touches but fell into a common trap – trying to beat the opposition on his own. Despite meaning it as a compliment, Clive Tyldesley summed up the problem quite neatly:

“He almost passes as a last resort”

The Brazilian’s rope-a-dope style of play led to consistent petty fouls from Switzerland and his desire to embarrass defenders obviously doesn’t help his drive towards full fitness. He simply showboated too much here.

Four years ago Neymar tried and succeeded in carrying his country through the early stages of the tournament. The first match he missed through injury was obviously the 7-1 humiliation by Germany.

With some alarming signs of injury so far, Brazil had better hope he stays fit this time around.

3. Don’t underestimate the Swiss

Sitting in sixth place in the FIFA World Rankings, Swizerland were never going to be a pushover for the tournament favourites.

They have now lost only one of the last 23 international matches. Despite the dubious ranking system, that is some feat.

Haris Seferovic led the line resolutely as the Swiss inevitably had less of the possession. His side may lack the firepower to enter the final stages of the tournament, but qualification out of a tricky group also featuring Serbia and Costa Rica would be no great surprise.

It’s very early days but the second round match may well end up being Brazil vs Germany – massive incentive for the countries in their respective groups.

 

Chris Henderson

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England will win the 2018 FIFA World Cup

England

I’d like to think that I’m a level-headed person. You know, able not to fall too easily for tabloid bluster and sugary sentiment. I’d like to think that.

Recently though, I’m starting to question the very notion of logic and sound judgement. The phenomenon feels familiar – it hits these shores every four years.

Before a ball has been kicked in anger (most likely by Jordan Henderson), I firmly believe that England will win the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I need help.

If you’d asked the average fan on the street a year ago whether England had a chance of lifting the trophy in Russia, you’d have been told, not so politely, to f*ck off and up the medication.

Despite countless reasons to the contrary, as we step ever closer to the big kick off on Monday, I really believe we can do it.

Worrying signs of delusion

In the friendly against Brazil at Wembley in November, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Neymar casually toyed with our midfield like a cackling puppeteer.

Eric Dier was so confused by the swarm of yellow shirts that night that he was not so much on the infamous Barca ‘carousel’, more sent on a lengthy acid trip at Rio Carnival. It was painful to watch.

Brazil monkeyed around with us all evening long, although the match finished a promising 0-0. And so the delusions of grandeur continued full steam ahead.

Four years ago, we were out after two matches, eventually picking up one point and finishing fourth in the group stage behind Costa Rica. But let’s not get bogged down in pesky statistics. After all, Mark Twain once said:

“Some people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost; more for support than illumination”

And so it goes.

Perhaps such a disjointed view of our hopes stems from the public no longer watching England qualifying matches in the same numbers or with the same gusto as years gone by.

During international breaks, people are now more concerned with missing a week of tinkering with their fantasy football teams than cheering on their national heroes.

And who can blame them? Hell, in qualifying, we required a last-ditch goal just to snatch a late draw against Scotland.

Hit the road, Jack

In spite of the ever-increasing optimism leading into the tournament, there was an outcry from large swathes of the English public following the omission of Jack Wilshere from the final squad.

Poor old Jack hadn’t played for England since we lost to You-Know-Who at Euro 2016. He started this season in the Arsenal U-23s (being sent off in the process) after Lewis Cook kept him out of the Bournemouth side last term.

For all the man’s genius, it would be fair to argue that Wenger lacked the gonads to get rid of Wilshere when he was clearly no longer up to scratch. A loan deal was merely a cop out.

It’s another string to the bow of Gareth Southgate. He made the right call despite widespread criticism.

Those crying about Wilshere simply haven’t been paying attention. Alas, in international football, all roads lead to self-deception.

Signs of potential 

But still. Still. You assess our options, and the pace of our attack looks unequalled. No other squad in world football can boast the raw speed of Vardy, Lingard, Rashford, Sterling, Alli and Loftus-Cheek. And most of them are young enough not to have been hollowed out by the ghosts of World Cups past.

Ahead of those speedy little urchins stands the best number nine striker in world football. The hurricane – a goal scorer so ruthless that only two months ago he swore on his child’s life that he’d flicked the ball with his head just to force through an appeal to the Dubious Goals Panel.

Crackers, but that’s the attitude that’ll bag the Golden Boot and fire us to World Cup glory in the process. Maybe.

Now that Southgate has shown a bit of tactical nous in converting Kyle Walker into a central defender in a back three format, you may as well start engraving Ol’ Blighty on the trophy right now.

Hope versus experience

David Baddiel once said that the reason Three Lions resonated with the public was that it echoed exactly what it means to be an England fan:

‘It’s not that we think we’re going to win, or that we’re going to lose either. It’s somewhere in between. It’s hope versus experience’

Our experience obviously shows us horrors so grave we dare not speak its name. Handballs and tears and sh*tting on the pitch and mullets and metatarsals and winkers and, of course, the Germans, on penalties.

Similar to how the will of the boxer is the final thing to go, so too is the hope of the England fan.

But don’t burden yourself with odds, statistics and sound logic, just say:

‘England will win the World Cup’

Sir Alf Ramsey said it, and for that he was labelled a pipe-dreaming loon.

Build it and they will come

Picture the statue of Sir Harry alongside Sir Bobby over at Wembley Park.

Play Three Lions, World in Motion and Vindaloo full blast and on a continuous loop between now and kick off on Monday.

Envisage the documentary of Sir Gareth in 2038 – the former boss piping on a Vype ePen12, chuckling about how nobody gave us a chance and that nice guys don’t always finish last after all.

It only sounds foolish until it’s done.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup. Maybe, just maybe.

 

Chris Henderson

 

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The wait is finally over. With baited breath, the world has yearned for the chance to watch Stanislav Cherchesov’s Russia team take on Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabian outfit.

Expect a wholesome football feast…and Robbie Williams singing Angels in front of a baffled, packed-out Luzhniki Stadium.

It’s likely to kick-start the tournament for the host nation and hopefully allows the furore around match-fixing and dubious refereeing decisions to fizzle away. Or at least until next Tuesday when Russia take on Egypt.

But the World Cup is finally here!

1. Dubious refereeing in the 2014 opener in Rio

Talking of dubious refereeing, this was a humdinger. Four years ago in Rio, referee Yuichi Nishimura, god bless him, seemed determined for Brazil to beat the plucky Croatians in the tournament opener.

Nishimura gave Brazil a late penalty, because, why not. The host nation eventually triumphed 3-1, much to the delight of a football-mad country, and Nishimura.

That night, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitić were immense but not even they could prevent the refereeing injustice which Dejan Lovren described as ‘scandalous’.

The Brazilians meanwhile seemed to suffocate under the theatrical expectation of the home crowd. Neymar appeared to be playing the tournament on his own. So hell-bent was he on single-handedly leading his nation to glory that he broke his back under the sheer weight of it all. Aha. Quite the burden indeed.

There’s an oft-used term from the 2014 tournament that Germany’s 7-1 defeat of the home nation ‘shook the world’. In truth, anyone who’d even caught a few fleeting glimpses of the group stages knew the whole thing was inevitable.

Alas, the shadiest referee in the world could not prevent Brazil’s quarter-final washing at the hands of Germany.

Neymar sat on the sidelines as his team were dispatched in such cartoon fashion that even some German fans couldn’t watch, as though witnessing the demise of the Krusty Burglar:

“Stop! Stop! He’s already dead”

2. Senegal shock holders France in 2002

In their first ever World Cup match, Senegal shocked the holders France in the opening game of World Cup 2002. Papa Bouba Diop – ‘the Wardrobe’ – announced himself to the world as they deservedly beat a lacklustre French side who looked worryingly short of ideas.

Senegal battled their way through a tricky group stage, eventually being knocked out by a tough Turkish side at the quarter-final stage.

The plucky underdog story was a doozy, although the most disheartening thing about Senegal’s campaign in 2002 was the emergence of El Hadji Diouf on the Premier League radar. Gerard Houllier signed the Senegalese forward prior to the tournament opener, although his performances in Japan and South Korea raised expectations to a disproportionate level.

Diouf played for Liverpool for three full seasons before moving on to a host of clubs across England. It never quite worked out for him at Anfield. Still, at least Jamie Carragher has fond memories of his old Liverpool team-mate:

“He has one of the worst strike rates of any forward in Liverpool history. He’s the only no. 9 ever to go through a whole season without scoring, in fact he’s probably the only no. 9 of any club to do that. And he was always the last one to get picked in training”

3. Brazil narrowly beat Scotland in 1998

In the glorious Paris sunshine, this was an opening match almost laughable in its mismatched nature. At the time of kick off, Brazil had the first and second best players in the world; Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos respectively. In contrast to Brazil’s front three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto, Scotland had Gordon Drurie and Darren Jackson.

Scotland boss Craig Brown phoned his old mate Bobby Robson to ask him how to play against his former player, Ronaldo. Robson said:

“You don’t stop him. He’s the best I have ever dealt with. Cut off the supply, find out where he gets the ball”

Brazil predictably opened the scoring within five minutes through Cesar Sampaio, but Scotland rode the storm and equalised from the spot through John Collins.

The Scots were desperately unlucky not to come away with a point – the game being decided by a late bobbled own-goal by Tom Boyd.

Their manager looks back with great fondness:

“The first thing I think of when I think of France 98 is pride. It was a proud time for the Scottish team because we qualified for two consecutive tournaments. Overall I was very proud of the team”

For all the jesting pre-tournament about the squad being brim full of cloggers, Scotland battled valiantly but tragically lost out in the final match of the group stages in France ’98.

Perhaps more worrying still, they haven’t qualified for a World Cup ever since.

Chris Henderson

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