Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Why Aren't We That Disappointed?

And so, after two weeks of increasingly disappointing performances somehow produced an increasing level of logic-defying but futile hope, the inevitable finally came on Sunday evening

England were very much as England were expected to be; relatively solid and disciplined, fairly uncreative and generally hard-working. They also profited from good fortune on a number of occasions - the Swedish goalie choosing to fall over rather than save Walcott's shot, the byline referee proving himself utterly redundant in failing to achieve the specific role for which he exists against Ukraine, and Italy apparently having watched an 'Art of Finishing' video by the offspring of Emile Heskey and Andy Carroll. 

Despite the temporary and somewhat diluted joy of winning the group, the whole tournament had a decidedly resigned feel to it for an English fan. Admittedly, there will be some of you reading this who should hang their heads in shame because, despite my best warnings, you allowed yourselves to believe. One such regular reader (an assumption grounded on absolutely zero evidence), Sir Bobby Charlton, appears to have allowed the inhalation of some Olympic fumes to cloud his rational judgement.

But I trust the majority of you did not succumb so easily to such a moment of weakness, instead holding fast to a steely and negative resolve, thoroughly founded in both reality and experience. I do not pretend to be any kind of national sentiment thermometer but the pervading attitude seems to be more of melancholy acceptance rather than outrage or bitter disappointment. Of course there might be a number of reasons for us generally taking something of an 'oh well' attitude:

1) Losing to Italy saved ourselves the embarrassment of what would surely have been Bloemfontain Part 2. Personally I couldn't see Gomez, Klose et al. replicating the same profligacy as Balotelli and Cassano. 31 shots and 0 goals isn't exactly a devastating return.
2) We are truly taken in by the frankly absurd positivity coming out from both media and management, after all, we didn't even want to win, we were just there for the learning opportunities and as character building for the young players (by the way, Welbeck is the only player under 25 who started the match, and 4 players were over 30, but let's not mention that).
3) We just didn't expect that much. We recognised that the reality was that we were outplayed in 3 of the 4 games, and pretty unconvincing in the other one, so although we were miraculously unbeaten, we didn't deserve to go any further, and can just be satisfied that we had a go. But even that doesn't really hold up to scrutiny...

Heading home -
probably a good idea
As I looked at before, England were never going to win with glorious passing or attractive attacking moves, we just don't have the technical ability. What was so disappointing to watch then on Sunday was that we seemed so slow and tired as well. Where was the pace, power and stamina that the English Premiership is renowned for? Instead, the slow and not exactly attractive Italian build-up wore us down and by the end we were too weary to even chase after them having given the ball away (one thing we proved experts at).

Yes it was penalties, and yes, things could have been so different. Of course I would much rather be supporting England than Italy on Thursday night but the truth is we were pretty dismal all tournament and I think we can all agree that it's not the end of the world that it ended when it did.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Wimbledon 2012: Those Four Again?

Here we find ourselves again, twelve Novak & Nadal dominated months later. As the annual fortnight of tennis-mania sweeps the country and particularly the south-west corner of its capital, not much has changed.

Will we be seeing this again soon?
Naturally, there have been sporting shocks: England's ODI team is performing as well as its Test team, England's football team are (at the time of writing at least) still residing in Eastern Europe and the southern hemisphere teams are only narrowly beating the best of Europe's rugby giants (the shock being that it's not more convincing of course).

But in the strawberries and Pimms world of SW19, there's very little different from where we were 12 months ago, with the same old four leading the way. Assuming there are no injuries by the time the first serve is struck, Novak starts top seed and favourite, with Nadal a close second, Federer slightly further back, Murray a bit off the pace in 4, and then a significant jump to the third row of the grid with Tsonga and Berdych (sorry Ferrer, you just ain't cut out for the lawns), and any other contender realistically just aiming for the Quarters.

Djokovic has well and truly demonstrated that the sensational run which kicked off 2011 was no freak occurrence. Although he's not maintained quite the same utterly indestructible form this year, he has proven again and again that he is the best there is at the moment. Make no mistake, Rafa is the unquestionable King of Clay but all round consistency and dominance state that the Serb deserves the Number 1 ranking he claimed in reaching the Wimbledon final last year.

And yet, because he's been defending so many ranking points, there is the remarkably a three way showdown for the number 1 spot. Refer to the ATP article for more detailed permutations, but unless Novak gets to the final he's in serious danger of relinquishing the ranking he's fought so hard to gain.

Federer's consistency in the 1000 series tournaments since August, alongside victory in the World Tour Finals means that matching Nadal's performance will see him overtake his Spanish rival, and winning the title could see him return to the top of the tree for the first time since June 2010. As well as being an incredible achievement in itself, it would also ensure that he breaks Sampras' record for number of weeks as the (officially ranked) best player in the world. Sadly perhaps, the tame way he subsided to Djokovic in Paris, as well as his surprising defeat to Haas in Halle last week, means that victory at his beloved Wimbledon just seems beyond him. Let's not forget he's not won here with Nadal present since 2007 (also the last time he defeated Rafa in a Slam).

It wouldn't be a pre-Wimbledon blog by a Brit without a mention of Murray. Much like the England team in the lead up to Euro 2012, he goes in with less expectation than many years before, with disappointing performances at Roland Garros, Queens and even the exhibition matches at Boodles. It's been a lean year thus far, and he has slipped closer to number 5 than number 3, and the fear must already be developing that he will be remembered as a perennial number 4, sadly not too dissimilar to Tim "semi-final" Henman.

But, he maintains the record of always having matched or bettered his performance at Wimbledon each year and knows he can beat any of the top 3 on any given day. The question remains whether the 1st of July will be that Any Given Sunday.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Reasons to be Fearful

As English football fans, we (this weekend I suppose that's some form of Royal 'We') seem to be stuck in some form of sadistic biennial cycle, which we can observe and discuss but ultimately do absolutely nothing about. Every other autumn, we forget the summer that's just passed, and start again with fresh belief. New players, often a new manager, new qualification campaign, new hope that this time things will be different. Generally speaking we qualify convincingly (Steve McLaren aside) and often pick up narrow victories in thoroughly irrelevant friendly matches.

Consequently, we normally have reason to be relatively optimistic about our chances heading into major tournaments. Despite history not being in our favour, we do have one of the strongest domestic leagues and genuinely world-class players (and theoretically managers).

It's all very promising until we actually play, at which point a mixture of ill-discipline, goalkeeping blunders, refereeing errors, penalties and just poor performance combine to ensure the return of that sickening anticlimactic dismay and disappointment with which we're all so familiar. And thus the cycle is completed again, with cries of "the same old story", "there we go again" and "I knew it" echoing out in pubs and lounges across the country.

And yet, 2 years later, against our better judgement and logical reasoning, we believe again that this could be our year, and maybe football will come home after all. Then the tournament goes down we all knew it would and the players have an extra week or two of summer holidays. The same old story.

Well this year, leading up to Euro 2012, it's different. Maybe I'm faithless but I can't see any reasons to be cheerful. More like a few reasons to be fearful.

The main one is our squad. When announced it made most of the country grimace and want to close the web page or turn off your phone. It was like when you're watching a match and it becomes increasingly obvious the team you're supporting is going to lose, all you want to do is leave the stadium or turn the TV off and forget about it.

The originally named squad was bad enough, complete with the inexplicable omission of Micah Richards and Aaron Lennon, alongside the equally inexplicable inclusion of Stuart "I bring absolutely nothing to the team" Downing and Andy "I played a bit better in May so that's good enough to start for England." CarrollBut now that the physio's room is like a scene from Saving Private Ryan, we're calling on pretty much anyone who can even count the Lions on our shirts. In all honesty I'm nearly ready to check I've got my passport handy in case the barrel-scraping gets out of hand.

Welbeck demonstrates to Carroll
the general idea behind being a striker
Make no mistake, wins over Norway and Belgium are not sufficient to convince us that maybe there is a shred of hope after all. All this talk of being the new Greece '04 and taking the title with tactical defensive displays is absurd. Yes, we did contain the opposition well and keep two clean sheets, but we weren't exactly playing Spain or Germany were we? If we can do the same against France next Monday, maybe then we can discuss it. I am glad that endless cycle of hope and despair is broken, even if it is by having zero hope and zero expectation. So much so that even that well-known nation of "soccer" analysts, the USA, has picked up on our dismal chances this summer.

I'm a fan of Hodgson, I think he's an astute guy and should ensure we don't embarrass ourselves, but I doubt he's ever going to have the nation on its feet in elation. That said, I don't subscribe to the view that we only want to win if we win well. Look at Spain's results from the World Cup:
Spain 0-1 Switzerland (Groups)
Spain 2-0 Honduras (Groups)
Spain 2-1 Chile (Groups)
Spain 1-0 Portugal (Last 16)
Spain 1-0 Paraguay (QF)
Spain 1-0 Germany (SF)
Spain 1-0 Holland (Final - AET)

If we come away with a semi-final appearance, and only a few goals scored, it'll be our most successful performance since '96 and no-one should complain at that (we will though)