Wait until next year

Putting off what could be done tomorrow, today

Tag: football

Why being in the World Cup Group of Death need not be a bad thing

Incredibly out-of-date post shocker! Last Friday saw the draw for next summer’s World Cup. I won’t go into a group-by-group preview just yet, although I will say England got off with an awfully easy draw. No disrespect to the USA, Algeria and Slovenia, but if England fail to qualify for the second phase I’ll eat my hat.

However, not every nation got off so likely. As in every major international football tournament draw, talk inevitably fell to that old reliable subject, “What group is the Group of Death?”. What was the toughest group, with the strongest sides and the best chance to see a contender knocked out in the first round?

This World Cup we have two contenders. Group D pits Germany against Australia, Ghana and Serbia, while Group G sees Brazil face Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea. Whatever way you look at it, those groups are tough. But is it the end of world? Far from it.

I’d like to say that I’ve undertaken a rigorous statistical exercise, but I can’t lie to you folks. I just looked up Group of Death on Wikipedia (since edited, sadly), and unearthed (or is that over-egging the pudding?) something interesting. Should a country survive the so-called Group of Death, they stand a pretty good chance of progressing well in the competition, if not winning it all.

In 2006 Italy had to get past Ghana, the Czech Republic and the United States. That they did, and then they went on to win the World Cup. In years gone by Argentina in 1978, Brazil in 1970, England in 1966 and Brazil in 1958 all negotiated incredibly difficult groups on their way to winning the World Cup. So, for every major side that has failed to survive (Argentina in 2002, Spain in 1998), there is a side that has gone on and prospered.

I’d suggest that this is perhaps the footballing equivalent of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. If a team qualifies from a tough group it is already primed and ready for truly competitive football. Playing against other strong sides is a much better preparation for knock-out football than playing a minnow. What better way to build momentum?

And so, and boy am I going out on a limb here, don’t be surprised if Brazil do well next summer. And Germany too. Hah! You don’t get insight like that anywhere else, eh?

When is it a good time to sack a manager?

Two months into the football season and there have already been several managerial casualties.

Perhaps the strangest, and least expected, is the most recent, Gareth Southgate. Southgate has been Middlesbrough boss since 2006, and took them to two mid-table Premiership finishes before last year’s relegation into the Championship. If he was going to get the sack, you would have thought it would have happened this summer. But instead, Chairman Steve Gibson took the advice of Tammy Wynette to heart and stood my his man.

Until now, that is. It is well-documented that many clubs have struggled in the Championship after dropping down. Middlesbrough, however, have held their own. They currently lie fourth, only one point off the top, and last night beat Derby County 2-0. So, Southgate was dismissed after a win, and with Middlesbrough in a very strong position to build on.

There have certainly been bad results this season, including a 5-0 home defeat to West Bromwich Albion, but the league table doesn’t lie. Middlesbrough could easily push on for promotion.

So why remove Southgate now? Has Gibson got someone lined up who he thinks will give Middlesbrough an extra edge? Has Southgate lost the confidence of players? Or has there been a grand falling-out behind the scenes? It will be interesting to see how this story develops.

Meanwhile, Liverpool lost their fourth consecutive game last night, with Lyon snatching a last-minute goal in a 2-1 at Anfield. To add insult to injury, Steven Gerrard left the pitch barely a quarter of the way into the game, injured. Liverpool are now on their worst run of results for 22 years. And the ever-patient Liverpool supporters are getting increasingly restless with manager Rafa Benitez.

Last night highlighted his managerial failings, certainly. The faults were manifold. There is clearly no quality replacement for Torres when he is injured. The substitutions were baffling. Gerrard goes off and is replaced by Auerlio, a defender. Benayoun, the most creative presence for Liverpool, is taken off with five minutes to go. Liverpool were set up to defend a 1-0 lead, rather than push for a bigger win, and almost inevitably came unstuck.

It’s a good job I was suitably satiated in a prime pub spot with a plate of scampi and chips, a pint of good beer, and my ever-understanding Significant Other (that is not my order of preference, by the way). Otherwise, my blood pressure would have been going through the roof at such a frustrating performance. Or maybe I’m just getting worringly used to Liverpool losing?

So, should Rafa go? I’m extremely wary of managers being sacked mid-season. While there then might be an initial surge with a new manager, does it really help in the long-term? And how many top-class managers are available right now?

Liverpool face Manchester United on Sunday, and things don’t get any easier for Rafa. A win would certainly be a reprieve. But if they lose in the manner of the past few games, or worse, more and more questions will be asked.

For the benefit of Mr Crouch

Last night England completed their World Cup qualifying campaign at home to Belarus. With a variety of players either suspended or injured, Fabio Capello was forced into testing out a possible Plan B. However, with qualification in the bag, this wasn’t really a problem, more an opportunity.

Lucky is the team that doesn’t suffer from suspensions or injuries at some point in a major tournament. This was the perfect chance to test out some players on the fringes. While in reality there was nothing to play for, for either side, it was good to see some new faces in a ‘competitive’ environment, and Capello must now have a much better idea of who might figure in any back-up plan.

A 3-0 victory, with so many regulars missing, is encouraging. As for the manner of the performance, it’s an age-old problem, but England players need to learn how to keep the ball. Especially in a spell before half-time, they failed. Belarus are a far more limited team, yet looked far happier playing the ball out from defence, and far less likely to waste possession with long, expectant balls. England’s possession issues might become a bigger problem against a better team.

One player did stake a strong claim last night. Peter Crouch scored two, to bring his tally to 18 goals in 35 international appearances – a great strike-rate for a second-string striker. Crouch definitely offers a tangible alternative option for Capello.

His mere presence is capable of creating confusion in an opposition’s defence, he is an obvious aerial threat and he has a knack for pinching goals. He adds another dimension to the England side, and I hope he gets a run-out in South Africa next summer. He could well make the difference as a substitute in a tight game, and can certainly make life easier against a ‘smaller’ nation in the group stages.

Meanwhile, I’ll gloss over David Beckham’s strange new beard and Steve Bruce’s even stranger decision to name him man of the match…

Sports pages I’ve enjoyed this week

Hi folks. Talking of sports pages, does anyone remember “Sportspages”, the sports book shop on Charing Cross Road, London? I really miss that place. It went out of business, sadly, but this site sprung up, so the name, if not the company, lives on. I miss having a whole bookshop full of sports books and magazines to browse through, though.

CORRECTION: Sportspages does live on, as Word of Sport. It’s well worth a look. See comments for more details.

Just a few bits and pieces from me this week:

Faith and Fear in Flushing is falling in loathe again with the Yankees. It’s funny how disliking rivals is as much a part of sport as loving your own team.

Tonight’s England game against Ukraine is only on the internet. Pitch Invasion and Twohundredpercent share their thoughts on it. I think it’s an interesting development, but I’m not yet convinced it will be a success. I doubt I’ll order it…I’m planning on going to a match today, and doubt I’ll be back in time. I’m sure many people are in the same boat. And with England already qualified for the World Cup this is far from a ‘must watch’ game. Bet365’s deal seems the best bet (excuse the horrible pun) for ordering it. Start an account with them and once you’ve deposited some cash you can watch the game for free.

What sports stuff have you enjoyed on the web this week? Will you be ordering the England game?

This week’s sporting links

Quite a week for the blog – comments and people actually reading it and everything! Thanks in particular to Steven and Nathan for their comments. Do check out their sites.

Now onwards and upwards with sports stuff I’ve enjoyed this week…


Faith and Fear in Flushing write the letter the New York Mets should have sent to their fans after a very disappointing season.

Wezen-Ball looks forward to the play-offs with a Simpsons clip and some choice dialogue.

Ninety Percent Scar Tissue considers a simple way to improve baseball.

Football (soccer, for our American friends!)

The ever reliable Twohundredpercent praises floodlit football.

Pitch Invasion looks at FIFA and potential bias towards larger countries.

A bit of a two-sport week, then, links-wise.

So, what have you enjoyed reading this week, in whatever sport? Has there been any decent commentary on Rio’s successful Olympic bid?

I’d love to hear about more of the good stuff out there…