England v Italy suggestions

England play Italy in the last of the quarter-finals tomorrow. It’s hard to say who are the favourites; England have done better, but in an overall worse group. It is I think certainly far to say that England will need to come up with a far better performance than they did against Ukraine in the last group match.

In that match England sat back for long periods of time and whilst they did do a good job of soaking up the pressure, they never looked particularly comfortable. They looked weak in the midfield and very weak in attack. The one goal came rather fortuitously and even more fortuitously for Rooney who had been sub-par. He was not helped, however, by the midfielders putting balls into the box that were much better suited for someone like Carroll. I wanted Carroll to start before the match and he probably would have buried a couple of chances that Rooney did not, but the other players on the pitch should have known who was up front and adjusted accordingly. England were also a bit fortunate with a goal not being given against them, but it was a case of two wrongs making a right: the striker had been offside anyway. It was a victory, and ultimately more than they needed with France losing 2-0, but not convincing and it seems unlikely that such a performance will be enough for a win over Italy.

For that match, I think England need to start Carroll alongside Rooney. Rooney looked like he should have come off the bench against Ukraine, but hopefully now he has shaken off some of that rust. He and Carroll offer contrasting options in attack and I think the combination of them will suit England well. The obvious person to leave out would be Milner who has not done much so far, but our midfield looked weak anyway against Ukraine and a 4-3-3 might not help matters. That said, I think part of the reason for the midfield being weak was that they had little desire to attack. The strategy was to sit back and let Ukraine have the ball. A 4-3-3 might give some encouragement to the midfielders to get the ball and go forward. In the end, I would leave out Milner and play Walcott in his stead with Welbeck the unlucky man. (Though a probable sub.) There is a good argument to be made that Walcott’s pace is best used in reserve against tiring defenders, but I think England will need to play at a higher tempo against Italy from the word go and Walcott is a good way to do that.

If England play well, they can certainly win; Italy did not look terribly convincing in their group matches. I would put England slight favourites and am guessing a 2-1 scoreline.

Euro 2012 group permutations

The last round of group fixtures in Euro 2012 start today. Happily there is still quite a lot for which to play as the tournament has been a very good one so far. Here are the current permutations for all the groups, (assuming I worked everything out correctly):

Group A
No one is safe yet and all four teams can guarantee a place in the quarter-finals with a win tomorrow. Draws can see things get a bit hairy, however. For Russia, a draw is all they need to go through (and will send Greece out) and a win will see them top the group. If Greece can win and the Czech Republic draw with Poland, however, all three of Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic will finish on four points and the de facto tiebreaker will be goal difference*. This would rule the Czech Republic out unless Greece slaughter Russia by six goals or more. More practically, Greece would need to win by three goals or more to top the group in this scenario and cannot top the group if there is a positive result in the Poland v Czech Republic match. If Greece win and one of Poland of the Czech Republic win, that winner will top the group with the loser and Russia going out. In summary:
Russia – Win: top the group. Draw: advance and top the group if Poland draw or win by three goals or fewer. Lose: advance only if Poland and the Czech Republic draw with each other.
Czech Republic – Win: advance and top the group if Russia lose or draw. Draw: advance if Greece lose or draw. Lose: eliminated.
Poland – Win: advance and top the group if Russia lose. Draw: Eliminated. Lose: eliminated.
Greece – Win: advance and top the group if by more than three goals and Poland and Czech Republic draw with each other. Draw: eliminated. Lose: eliminated

Group B
Holland’s poor form has thrown this group open. The situation is similar to that of Group A: no one is yet safe, but Germany are the closest and can go through even with a loss. The only way for them to be eliminated is to lose by at least two goals and for Portugal to win. In such a scenario, Denmark would top the table with Portugal second and Germany third on goal difference. At the other side of the table, the only way for Holland to progress is to win by no fewer than two goals and for Germany to beat Denmark. Denmark can advance if they better Portugal’s result or if they beat Germany by two or more goals. If Portugal match or better the Danes’ result (or Germany are eliminated as above), it will be the Portuguese who will go through. In summary:
Germany – Win: top the group. Draw: top the group. Lose: advance if loss is by fewer than two goals or Portugal lose or draw.
Portugal – Win: advance and top the group if Denmark win, but by fewer goals. Draw: advance if Denmark draw or lose. Lose: advance only if loss is by one goal and Denmark lose by at least a goal†. (See additional footnote.)
Denmark – Win: advance and top group if by two or more goals and by more goals than Portugal or if Portugal do not win. Draw: advance if Portugal lose. Lose: advance if loss is by one goal and Portugal lose by one goal without scoring.
Holland – Win: Advance if by two or more goals and Denmark lose. Draw: eliminated. Loss: eliminated.

Group C
A slightly simpler group than the first two; here Ireland are already eliminated. Spain and Croatia are both on four points and the winner of their head to head matchup is guaranteed to top the group. Italy could advance with a win and and a positive result in the Croatia v Spain match. If that match is drawn, however, we could see another scenario in which three teams finish level on points if Italy beat Ireland. Here, all three teams would have drawn against the other and goals scored in their matches would be the first tiebreaker. Spain would be guaranteed to go through as they would finish level with Croatia and have a better overall goal difference (the next tiebreaker, see first footnote). A 1-1 draw would put all three teams level on goals and make overall goal difference the sole tiebreaker. This would mean that Italy would need to win by at least three goals against Ireland to advance and at least five goals to top the group. In summary:
Spain – Win: top the group. Draw: advance and top the group if Italy do not win or the score is 2-2 or higher (see above). Lose: advance if Italy do not win.
Croatia – Win: top the group. Draw: advance if Italy do not win or the score is 2-2 or higher. Lose: advance if Italy do not win.
Italy – Win: advance if either Spain or Croatia lose, top the group if Spain and Croatia draw 0-0. Draw: eliminated. Lose: eliminated.
Ireland – Already eliminated.

Group D
Similar to Group C in that there are two teams level on four points at the top, England and France, but for the bottom placed team, Sweden, the game is already up. The situation is much simpler, however, with France all but guaranteed already to go through and England guaranteed to go through with a win or a draw. England can advance with a loss and it is the only scenario in which France will miss out: if France and England both lose and France lose by a greater margin than England then Ukraine will top the group and England will be runner-up on overall goals scored. For Ukraine it is simple: they must win, but if they do they are guaranteed to progress. Both England and Ukraine can top the group if they win and France do not, whilst for England a draw and a French loss will also be enough. England can even top the group if France do win, but they will have to win by a greater margin than France. In summary:
France – Win: advance and top the group if England do not win or win by the same or a smaller margin. Draw: advance and top the group if England and Ukraine also draw. Lose: advance unless England also lose but by a smaller margin.
England – Win: advance and top the group if France do not win or win by a smaller margin. Draw: advance and top the group if France lose. Lose: Advance if France also lose and by a greater margin.
Ukraine – Win: Advance and top the group if France do not win. Draw: eliminated. Lose: eliminated.
Sweden – Already eliminated.

*The first tiebreaker in this tournament is not goal difference, but head-to-head result. However in this case all three teams would have the one win and one loss against the other two and thus the tiebreaker becomes goal difference in the matches between the teams. Since in this scenario all the teams will have drawn with Poland, the goal difference between them will be identical to the overall difference. The full tiebreaker criteria are in section VI, 8.07 here.

Portugal can advance if they and Denmark both lose by one goal. They and Holland will all three be level with three points and a goal difference against each other of nought and the tiebreaker would then go to goals scored against the other teams. Portugal and Denmark each go into the match with three, but only Portugal have the ability to add to it in their match. Thus if they can score at least one goal in their loss, they will still advance in this case.

Euro 2012 preview

Euro 2012 starts this Friday. England go into the tournament with almost no expectation; even the new coach Roy Hodgson has tried to play down England’s chances. And having watched (most of, until I started to fall asleep) England’s recent friendlies I am inclined to agree. England won both of them, yes, but never looked better than scrappy. That’s okay if one can scrape out a win against an equal or better side, but a tough 1-0 victory against Norway is not really a credit. England’s squad, whilst not ridiculous, is far from inspiring. The only good move was to make Gerrard captain; apart from that the squad is made up of good players but only a few one would consider to be true international quality. (And I say that knowing full well the number of Liverpool players in the squad.)

The best news for England was probably the draw, which was relatively favourable. England are in Group D, which appears to be the second easiest after Group A. England will still have some difficulty actually topping the group, however, and it is by no means assumed that they will make it to the knockout rounds. The main opponent will be France and whilst les Bleus are unlikely to strike fear into any team until they can redeem themselves for the last World Cup, I would still be surprised to see England win. (Though I was not expecting the England rugby team to win in France during the Six Nations either.) England are also in the same group as Sweden, who England have not beat in a competitive match in some large number of years. There is also Ukraine. England should beat them, but they are good enough that if England don’t play well there is every chance that they could be held to a draw or even lose. Whilst one could see England finishing anywhere in the top three, my guess is that they will scrape to second. My second guess would be a third-place finish with topping the group a possibility, but an unlikely one.

The most interesting group should be Group B. A competitive Holland v Germany match is always a good thing, but this time it will possibly shape the entire tournament. With respect to Portugal and Denmark, the other two teams in Group B and certainly no pushovers, Holland and Germany are the strong favourites to make it out of the group and the set up of the knockout stages means that they will both have relatively easy quarter-final matches. Whoever finishes as runner up in the group, however, are likely to face Spain in the semi-finals whilst the group winners will have a much easier match against either the winner of Group D or the runner up in Group C. The winner of Group B should thus have as easy a path to the final as for which could be reasonably hoped and there is a good chance that the winner of the Holland v Germany match on the 13th will be that winner.

My prediction for the entire tournament is summarised in this bracket:

In more detail: Holland win their match against Germany and top Group B. Greece top Group A with Russia coming second, but neither provide significant opposition in the quarter-finals. Spain win Group C with the Republic of Ireland upsetting Italy to take the runner up spot. England play sloppily against Spain and lose, but give the impression that they would have had a chance if they had been more precise. Ireland have a chance to get some measure of revenge on France from 2010, but lose a fairly low quality match. Holland beat France relatively easily in one semi-final, whilst Germany and Spain dig in for a good match that Germany eventually win. The final is then an absolute cracker, but the Dutch reprise their group stage victory.

There’s still football?

Liverpool played QPR yesterday. Perhaps you heard about the match, we had a 2-0 lead in the 76th minute and blew it, losing 2-3. It was pretty galling, and at the time I was very cross. And I stayed very cross for about ten minutes. In that time I stepped outside. It’s been raining, but it was still quite warm and the flowers are blooming. I then went over to the Lancashire website and read about Luke Procter’s century in the pre-season match in the UAE. And then the football result didn’t really matter. This sort of thing happens every year. It’s usually a few weeks later, but I cannot remember a year in which I’ve really still cared about football after mid-April at the latest.

There are many reasons for this. One of them is because Liverpool don’t have a lot for which to play right now, at least not in the league. (I expect I’ll still care about the FA Cup matches.) It’s no coincidence that I never care after the baseball season and County Championship start though. For me football is a winter sport. Football is great when it’s dark and cold, it is something about which I can care and follow in the middle of winter. But it isn’t the same as cricket. Football is a very divisive, vitriolic sport and although it is so much fun to watch it can be very painful to follow between matches. It interests me, and I can’t really disengage from it, but I don’t enjoy it. But now there is something else. The weather has got warm unusually early and happily the County Championship is starting unusually early too. It is time, or nearly so, to leave the dark and cold of football in favour of the warmth and light of cricket. England’s match against Sri Lanka starts on Monday (late Sunday night here) and Lancashire start the County Championship curtain raiser the day after that. Football has been a lovely diversion since October, but it is no longer needed.

Of course, the season isn’t actually over. No, that will drag on for another two months almost. I’ll still watch. I’ll still enjoy the matches as they take place and I’ll still cheer on Liverpool with all my heart. But any joy or pain from the match will likely end with the broadcast. It just doesn’t matter anymore. The season should be ending. Football is so lucrative that it’s probably lucky that there’s an offseason at all (and even so there only barely is one) but the season is really at least two months too long. It should start a month later than it does and it should end no later than the second week of April. For those who love that sport above all others, some more time off should make the season all the sweeter. For the rest of us, a few months in which to enjoy summer and cricket without the interruption of winter’s sport should not be too much to ask.

I was mostly right

In a way, I did a pretty good job of predicting the weekend’s matches. I correctly called one win out of two for England’s women, a win for Wales and a win for Liverpool. The only things I got wrong were a washout in the other women’s match (I predicted a Kiwi win) and the England men winning their T20 (by quite a lot, as it transpired). So on the face of it, I did okay. It was the details that went a bit awry though.

First off, an English victory in the T20. We are the World Champions and world number one in that format, but I never feel comfortable saying that we will win. I know I’ve said it before, but there is a huge element of luck in T20s and I think England have been almost more fortunate than good in the past. Yesterday though saw a very skilful performance by young Jonny Bairstow who hit an unbeaten 60 to propel us to 150-7 after a slow start. Once again though, it was the bowlers who really won the match for us. The captain led from the front with 2-12 from 3.2 overs and was ably backed up by Finn (as usual), Swann (2-17) and Dernbach (1-13 from three overs). Pakistan were 33-4 after the powerplay and all but out of the match at 50-5. Afridi and Hammad Azam had a go near the end, but it was already too late and when Azam was out Pakistan capitulated. Afridi started turning down singles and looked like he was going to just bat out the 20 overs, before getting impatient and skewing a catch. One of the biggest factors in the run chase was England’s outstanding fielding. Of the ten wickets to fall, nine of them were caught (with the other run out) and at least eight of the catches were difficult ones. If England had dropped even a few of those the match would have been a lot closer, but as it was Pakistan never had a chance.

That was going on at the same time as the Six Nations match between England and Wales. Whilst I correctly predicted the outcome, I didn’t expect England to make their match so close. England actually led until fairly late at Twickenham, coming back well after a dismal first 20 minutes. It is a mark of how well they did that the loss was still gutting, with Wales getting a very late try and England not quite being able to match it at the death. Still, England can take a lot of positives from that match. After a horror start to the match that saw Wales completely dominate possession England turned it around and dominated the next 20 minutes to almost the same extent, playing a surprisingly fluent passing game. They had good width and were able to force Wales back well. The one thing they could not do, however, was get over the tryline, though it took an incredible tackle from, as I recall, Sam Warburton to deny Manu Tuilangi at one point. What England will particularly rue though is the ten minute man advantage that they wasted. After kicking the penalty to go 12-6 in front, they did not get possession for the next five minutes as Wales held on to the ball and gradually worked it down the pitch. England did eventually manage to get a lineout on the Welsh 22, but made an absolute hash of it despite being a man up. By the time Wales were back to 15 they had scored a penalty and had the momentum, which they didn’t really relinquish until England’s last ditch effort to bring the scores level. It was, as I said, a very disappointing result in the end but there is at least more cause for optimism ahead of the last two matches. Wales, meantime, having won the Triple Crown have a great chance for a Grand Slam. Effectively, they only need to beat France at the Millennium Stadium.

The big result was the League Cup though. I said that I thought Cardiff would score a goal, but Liverpool would score at least two. I was half right: Cardiff did go in front in the first half, but Liverpool equalised in the second. Cardiff’s goal came against the run of play, and although they did have other chances (including a heart-stopping moment a few minutes before the second half ended) Liverpool were always the more positive side. We had what seemed like dozens of corners (I lost count), hit the woodwork a couple of times and it seemed like we were almost constantly threatening. Whilst there was some of the profligacy in front of goal that has plagued us all season, Cardiff were also very good. They never seemed to tire in defence and kept charging down shots and attempts to pass the ball in the box. The effort looked like it had worn them down in the end though, as after all the chances we had had it was a relatively meek one by Kuyt that put us in front 2-1 in extra time. After that was where Cardiff really deserve credit though, they did not drop their heads, they did not give up. They came back, put us under pressure and got the last gasp equaliser. I’m sure the adrenaline of a big match helped, but how many teams could go behind after 108 minutes and still have the energy to come back in the 118th? It was a phenomenal show of fight from them and they deserve no end of praise for it. I thought that it would be enough to win them the match, myself. We have been very poor at normal penalties this season and apart from Gerrard and Kuyt I did not know on whom we could rely to take them. Fortunately Suarez, after his howler last week, was not amongst the five. I had been pessimistic to start, so when Gerrard had his saved and Charlie Adam followed up with an attempt that looked like he was aiming for the net at Anfield instead of Wembley, I was despairing. Kuyt was as reliable as ever though, and some hope appeared when the Cardiff players missed badly too. In the end it was Downing and Johnson who scored the vital last two penalties, much to my astonishment and delight, before poor Anthony Gerrard, Stevie’s cousin, missed for Cardiff.

I’m still, of course, ecstatic about having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and finally getting some silverware. King Kenny is also now the first person to win a career treble as both a player and manager, though he’s helped by having done some of them at the same time, of course! And I could be wrong, but I think the win also guarantees European football at Anfield next year. Whilst we still need to push hard for a top four finish, it’s nice to know that we have the Europa League on which to fall back should that not go our way. We’ll be able to help ourselves in that respect soon too, as our next Premiership match is at home to Arsenal who rather annoyingly won today.

Ultimately, it’s been a pretty good weekend.

Should be a fun weekend

Including tonight, there are three cricket matches, two rugby matches and a football match that I’m planning to follow closely this weekend. England’s women have their last two (dead rubber) T20 matches tonight and Sunday night, whilst the men play tomorrow morning looking to level the series. At the same time as the men’s match, however, there is rugby on as England play Wales at Twickenham and when that ends Bath will play away to Exeter in the Premiership. Finally, Sunday morning is the League Cup final with the Reds favourites to win a first bit of silverware for a while.

As far as predictions go, I’m still sticking with my original 4-1 prediction for the England women. They very nearly (and arguably ought to have) lost the third match, and whilst winning that will give them a mental edge for the last two it could be negated by the fact that they are now dead rubbers. T20 is an inherently unpredictable format and I still think the Kiwis will sneak a win this weekend. That said, I would not be surprised if England got the whitewash.

As far as the men go, the loss on the first T20 was, whilst not entirely unexpected, quite disappointing given that England probably should have won after the start to which we got off chasing. (It seems that we simply cannot chase 145 in the UAE.) Although the batting mostly let us down, we did drop a couple of catches, which may have cost us. The turning point was probably Bopara’s wicket, but I think KP’s was actually more important. He had picked up right where he left off in the ODIs and looked like he might have been able to knock off at least half of the target by himslef, but he was well caught on the boundary for 33. The catch also cost us six runs, as the ball was on course to clear the rope, the important of which should not be underestimated. (We only lost by eight runs.) For the next match I’m tipping Pakistan to win again, and not merely because the first two series were both whitewashes. England, despite being champions and world number one in this format, still don’t tend to look terribly convincing. I suspect a large part of England’s strong T20 record is actually down to luck, (the rest being very good bowling) though that’s to be expected in this format.

In the rugby, I did not see anything in the second round to persuade me that my initial assessment of Wales and England was incorrect. England will have home field advantage, but I think that is about it. Whilst we looked composed and competent for the last half an hour or so against Italy, there were still a lot of mistakes in that match as there were against Scotland. I expect Wales to punish those mistakes a lot more efficiently than Scotland or Italy did, as well as to make fewer themselves. If England can play very error-free rugby then they will have a chance with the crowd behind them, however I don’t think they will be quite up to the level required to beat a strong looking Wales, even at Twickenham.

Finally, the League Cup final on Sunday. Liverpool are strong favourites (2-5, according the Guardian), of course, playing 5th in the Championship Cardiff. That said, we have had problems forcing victories over lower placed side this year (though more at Anfield than anywhere else). Cardiff also have a very good record against us, and we saw Arsenal upset just last year. That said, I do think we will win, though it will probably be nervy for a considerable portion of the match. As good as Reina et al are, I expect we will ship probably one goal, but with Andy starting to find a bit of form up front and Suarez looking to make up for lost time I think we will score two or three to take home the trophy.

MUFC v LFC etc

It’s into that part of the football season where I will spend hours at a time looking at the league table and fixture list and working out the various permutations of who needs to win against whom for me to get the results I want. (Specifically: Champions League qualification and for neither of the Manchester clubs, but especially not United to win the title.) This year, it’s also an opportunity to look back at all the points we’ve dropped against clubs trying to avoid relegation and think what might have been. (If we’d beaten Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton in the past six weeks we would be pretty comfortable in fourth right now.)

Liverpool and Tottenham can help each other tomorrow by winning. We play United (as everyone knows and more on which below) who are five points in front of Tottenham and they play Newcastle who are four points in front of us. Obviously three points will be very, very hard to get at Old Trafford, but we beat them at home in the FA Cup and we have a bit of momentum against teams from Manchester recently. If we can get those three points then if Arsenal even draw at Sunderland we will go into sixth. It’s not a huge improvement, but every bit helps and we need to start moving up the table.

The match itself starts at a more than a little bit irritating 06.45 CST, which is really far too early to be getting up on a Saturday, but I would not think of missing it. I do think we have a chance of pulling off an upset. United’s defence looks shaky and we will have an extra motivated Suarez and probably an in-form Bellamy. We have occasionally looked a bit shoddy at the back too, despite how good Agger and Skrtel have been overall, and it will be very difficult against a United who have scored twice the number of goals this year that we have. I think we have a great chance of getting a goal or two, however, (though we will need to be less wasteful in front of goal, that seems like it has been more of a problem at home) and if we can hold firm at the back I think we will have a very good chance of winning.

The match is also notable for being the first time Suarez and Evra have come face to face since the FA hearing. There has been some speculation about whether Evra will shake Suarez’s hand before the match. I’m sure I’ve heard something more pointless, but I’m hard pressed to think of what. There is no point in any of them shaking hands, ever. It is an entirely meaningless display of ritual sportsmanship, a cursory glance at cricket and football will show that it has no effect on the game. The battle between Evra and Suarez will be much, much more interesting than whether or not they shake hands. Hopefully Evra will repeat the performance he put in at Anfield.

Capello out…

Fabio Capello has fairly surprisingly resigned as the England manager after meeting with the FA today. I had nothing against Capello’s tactics (the problem was that the players weren’t performing) and I prefer to see a manager given ample time to get settled before deciding he is not the right fit. That said, I am glad that he is gone, because I think his backing of Terry made him untenable. I strongly dislike Terry. Regardless of whether or not it’s true that he racially abused Ferdinand, Terry is a very sleazy character. For him to be the public face of the England football team speaks very poorly of the sport. (Though there are quite a few other things that do so more effectively.) I don’t think someone like Terry would ever have been allowed to captain the England cricket team. (Compare Terry to Strauss for a moment.) It is the fact that Capello could still support Terry as captain that made him unsuitable for the job as manager, and hopefully he would have been sacked if he had tried to stay on.

It does bring up the question of who will replace him. Redknapp is the odds-on favourite as he meets the main requirement of being English at a time immediately after a foreigner was in charge. He’s also done a very good job at Spurs, and I think he would do well for England. It would be a blow for Spurs, however and honestly I think Redknapp has a much better chance of success at White Hart Lane than Wembley. The second favourite is Stuart Pearce, who is managing the U-21 side and will apparently manage the friendly against Holland. I think I would prefer Pearce to Redknapp for the long term. Partly because Tottenham are the only team I like left in the title race, but also because Pearce will have seen quite a few of the players already and have some experience in getting them to play together as a unit, which is one of the things that seems to have been problematic England in the past.

Suarez verdict

Luis Suarez has been given an eight match ban and a fine today in the racism case with Patrice Evra. Not being privy to all the details I don’t know if that is a reasonable result or not, though the Liverpool statement suggests that it was harsh. If it is true that the only evidence against Suarez was the word of Evra then it certainly is, but I am not certain that is the case. I do think that Suarez is often treated harshly by the media, fans and sometimes by referees but it is worth remembering that he did blatantly cheat during the last World Cup. I would be very surprised if the Independent Regulatory Commission found the charge proven on the basis only of Evra’s statement. It is a travesty if they did, but I suspect there is some other hard evidence. The eight match ban does seem reasonable if he is guilty though. There should not be any tolerance for racist remarks.

I would not be surprised to see Suarez appeal the decision, but even if he doesn’t do so it isn’t clear how much time he will miss. For one thing, the ban will not take effect until after the 14 days given for Suarez to appeal expires and I do not know if that includes the match against City in exactly a fortnight or not. either way, however, the ban includes no fewer than three cup ties and will include a fourth if Liverpool beat Oldham. Even if Suarez does not appeal he should be available to face United in February.