Tuesday, 27 September 2011

City Learning The Fine Art Of Winning Ugly

Manchester City trudged off the field at Eastlands on Saturday perhaps feeling a tad underwhelmed. After some rather spectacular, free-flowing performances their 2-0 win against Everton didn’t quite match up. They did however get the three points and in these kind of games that can be all that matters.

Everton came to Eastlands with the express intention of not being turned over. Not being thrashed, doing their upmost not to concede. They adopted these tactics to an extreme so that it began to look like they didn’t even want to score themselves. A claim which David Moyes angrily refuted after the game. The evidence in the previous 90 minutes though was somewhat hard to deny.

The Toffees created a solid wall which City strived and eventually succeeded in breaking down. It was not easy though. Everton harried, pestered and jockied for the duration. City though proved they have what it takes to win on an occasion like this. They remained patient yet persistent. Their 2-0 victory will not live in the memory but it does mark a transition. A transition that could be vital in the title race.

The goals scored by City were elegant to watch, albeit via a deflection. David Silva was at his imperious best but this was more a performance of substance than style.

For years Manchester rivals United have been winning ‘ugly’. The red side have given lessons sitting in 4th gear, working hard and grinding out the result. City in previous years have not done this. Despite having powerful utilities such as De Jong, City have too often being found wanting when faced with a physical, resilient force in previous seasons. When things weren’t quite going the Citizens way they did not have the mental steel to create the right result. That now appears to be changing.

There are going to be many occasions now where City are going to face these kind of matches. Their start to the season shows that they are well and truly title contenders. That means that teams will be happy to come to Eastlands and leave with a draw, a 0-0. It’ll be the test of City to break these teams down. If they can pick up the narrow victories in these games you have to think they will be in the final shake-up come May.

The old adage stands true, winning matches when you’re not on top form is the mark of the champions. Over the last 6 years the likes of United and Chelsea have done this whereas Arsenal generally have not. The difference? 7 Premier League trophies between United/Chelsea and absolutely none for the Gunners.  This early start for Manchester City is undoubtedly promising but let’s not forget we have a long way to go this season.

Some may have seen the title of this post and immediately thought of Carlos Tevez. Whilst being no oil painting the Argentine was not intended to be the subject matter of this prose. There is not even much face-time for Carlos at Eastlands recently. If you had said a year ago that City don’t need Tevez you’d of probably been sniggered at. The fact that it seems that they now don’t need him shows how far they’ve come. The signing of Aguero and the resurgence of Dzeko has reduced the Argentinean ‘s influence greatly. Whilst Tevez’s talent remains, City’s reliance on him does not. I think if they get the right deal in January for him then he shall leave. City are no longer a one-man-team and they can now afford to let that one man go.

As I have said it is still very early days in the Premier League race. What I have also said (in previous posts) is do not underestimate the detrimental effect playing in the Champions League can have on Manchester City. City have only dropped league points this season after a fairly unspectatcular Champions League match. As the games start to come thick and fast it will be a real challenge for them to maintain their title push. Especially considering few of the players have solid experience in fighting for both the big trophies week in, week out.

For now though City can be rather satisfied with their early start. Whether it was tearing apart Tottenham or grinding it out against Everton, the rewards are the same. Have they got what it takes to grab the big reward in May 2012? Perhaps they do.  

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Arsene Wenger - Time to change policy or time to change job?

Played 5, won 1, drawn 1 and lost 3. Scored 6 and conceded 14. Sitting 17th in the table. Yes, we are only in September but these stats make quite awful reading for Arsenal followers.

Arsene Wenger arrived at Highbury in 1996 as rather an unknown. He came from Nagoya Grampus Eight looking much like ‘The Demon Headmaster’.  Those who do not remember the school principle that terrorised young audiences in the late 90’s can inspect the image below. In fact, ‘The Demon Headmaster’ first hit our screens 1996 as well. Coincidence? I think not.

All jokes aside, not many would have predicted the successes that Wenger would bring to North London. The Gunners have won the Premier League thrice since 1996 and the first two of these successes included an FA Cup double. Arsene’s finest moment though came in 2004 when his ‘Invincibles’ went the entire season without losing a league match. Something Sir Alex amongst others cannot match.

In terms of trophies won Arsene Wenger is Arsenal’s most successful manager. So why now are some pundits and fans asking (perhaps demanding) for the Frenchman to move on? The reasons I am afraid are plentiful.

Since the Gunners amazing triumph in 2004 things have somewhat gone downhill. Apart from an FA Cup the following year Arsenal have won exactly ZERO trophies. Is this really the product of a team that went an entire league season unbeaten? Yes they have come close, there has been a Champions League final as well as two League Cup finals. Arsenal fans though have become used to getting more than just “close” to trophies.

For the years since their last trophy Mr. Wenger has invested heavily in youngsters that have come and gone. Seasons have come and gone as well without adding to the trophy cabinet. By having a young team the manager and fans alike have been able to comfort themselves in their failure. The philosophy that it will all come good “next season”. It’s been six barren years now and it hasn’t come good on the trophy front. Patience has well and truly wore thin.

This blog has attacked Mr. Wenger’s transfer policy on numerous occasions. Whether it is his or the board’s fear of spending money that dictates this policy I do not know. Whoever it is to blame though may regret their decisions come the end of the season.

Arsenal lost arguably their best two players in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri this summer. They did rather well out of it as well financially, garnering over £50 million from the pair. Why though did they leave it so late in the transfer window to let them go? Especially as it would appear they didn’t exactly have concrete replacements lined up. Mikel Arteta and Yossi Benayoun were brought in on deadline day and I am afraid they don’t quite fill the shoes of the players that have departed from the Emirates. Why not give yourself the whole summer to find replacements for players that you know are going to leave?

Why also, do they refuse to spend big amounts of money? A want for bringing through youth talent rather than spending tens of millions of pounds is an admirable stance by Wenger. Unfortunately it is also an outdated one. After Andrei Arshavin, Arsenal’s 2nd most expensive signing is....(drum roll) Sylvain Wiltord. Wasn’t worth the drum roll was it? The Frenchman signed for £13 million over 11 years ago.  Unfortunately the world of football that we now live in means that money has to be spent to be successful. Manchester United have long had a formula of spending whilst blooding in young starlets and this has obviously been successful. After 6 years without a trophy perhaps Alan Hansen was right after all, just not about the right manager  -“you’ll never win anything with kids.”

Opposition teams do not fear Arsenal anymore. Since Patrick Vieira left in 2005 Arsenal have had no player of any steel. No midfield general to command his troops. Arsenal have always played fantastic football but at the same time it has always been felt that they can be physically dominated. Or at least it has been felt that since 2005. It is somewhat baffling to see how much good a tough midfielder could do for Arsenal and yet they let the likes of Scott Parker go to White Hart Lane for £5 million. Mr. Wenger needs to accept the best teams have both silk and steel at their disposal.

The disarray in which Arsenal stood after such a chaotic transfer window has obviously affected their start to the season. The Gunners have had a high turnover of first team players with much of it going on once the season had started. Players will obviously settle in and performances will improve. Will it be enough to make the top 4? I am not so sure. I think too many times this season their defence will be opened up. Tottenham and Liverpool are both going for that 4th spot and neither have the distraction of the Champions League.

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis has come out today and reassured all concerned that Mr. Wenger will not be sacked.  “He didn't suddenly become a bad manager” says Gazidis. Of course not. Perhaps a bit stuck in his ways though, a tad misguided? I think so.

Is it not more of a worry that Wenger will leave on his own accord? If it comes to December/ January time and Arsenal are sitting in 8th having criticism thrown from all quarters? The Gunners have never finished outside the top 4 in the 15 years since Wenger joined. If they are failing to achieve that this season is Wenger going to go down with his ship? Perhaps his pride is too strong.

Wenger's team building policies in recent years have been flawed that is a fact. He has 3 options available really: stick, twist or leave the table. I am not sure whether he knows which one to take right now. 

In reality there can be no denying Arsene Wenger’s previous triumphs. This season however I think is his biggest test. He needs to secure his defence and he needs to secure his team’s self-belief. A big 8 months is ahead for the Frenchman and things needs to improve drastically for him and his team. I think he will definitely need to strengthen further in the transfer window in January as well. Whether or not he does this though will be up to him. The time to spend money is now and if he does not do not be surprised to see Arsenal outside the top 4 come next May.

And who knows, Mr. Wenger may not be there come next May either.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Brits Abroad: The Champions League Beckons

Andy Townsend and Gareth Southgate have dusted off their average-looking suits and punditry shoes. The summer is over and the world’s biggest club competition is back, the Uefa Champions League.  It won’t be long until we are serenaded with Tony Britten’s adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Confused? As was I until a quick Wikipedia check 5 minutes ago. I am of course referring to the Champions League anthem played at the start of all Champs League matches. Check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgomX3qD-iA if you are still confuzzled.

The 1990’s were generally a barren period for English clubs in the European Cup / Champions League. After the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 fans were killed, English clubs were banned from European club football for 5 years. Whether this was fair or not, English clubs definitely suffered because of the ban. They could no longer attract the better players in Europe and many of their own went abroad for European competition, Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker for example. After a long spell of not being able to compete against Europe’s elite teams initially struggled after being introduced back to the European Cup. In fact in the first 14 years after the ban was lifted an English team reached the Champions League final ONCE, Man United’s unbelievable win in 1999.

Even United’s win was somewhat of a false dawn. It was then a further 6 years until we saw a team from Blighty in the final again, Liverpool with again another outrageous victory in 2005. Since then English teams have flourished with one of our clubs making the final every year apart from 2010. That is a fantastic record and one I hope we can continue. After an interesting transfer window I look ahead to what our 4 teams can do this year. Here goes, in alphabetical order:


After a quite traumatic transfer window, Arsenal currently sit 11th with 4 points from 4 games and a goal difference of -7. No, -7 is not a typing error. More than ever in his 15 year reign, Arsene Wenger is being questioned and this is a huge season for the Frenchman and his team. Arsenal lost Fabregas and Nasri in the transfer window and they needed to make several signings even before these two massive departures. After a deadline day spree can Arsenal be challenging for the big trophy at the end of the season?

Well Per Mertersacker is fairly proven and even if he performs poorly he is still big enough to at least scare some of Europe’s top strikers. The jury is out on left-back Andre Santos but he does have 22 Brazil caps to his name so does come with some pedigree. His influence however (good or bad) is unlikely to be season defining. Mikel Arteta? Cesc’s replacement? A decent player, no doubt about it. But minimal Champs League experience and no senior international caps? Hardly going make the Arsenal fans forget about Fabregas in a hurry. Nor is Yossi Benayoun I am afraid. Again he is certainly a player of quality but the ease in which Liverpool and then Chelsea let him move onto rival teams surely shows he’s not the most dangerous of players. Unfortunately BenTeta does not match up to NasRegas.

Arsene Wenger has a proven record of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League. Since 2003/04 when the tournament was expanded to have a last 16 phase, Arsenal have featured every year since in the latter stages. They have also been unfortunate to have come up against Barcelona for the last 2 years. With a not-so-easy but not-so-tough group of Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund I would expect Arsenal to once again be reaching the last 16 this season. However I wouldn’t look too much beyond that. If the draw doesn’t go right for them then I would think Arsenal will struggle. They are also in real danger of not finishing in the top 4 in the Premier League this year so the Champions League could be an unwanted distraction at times. I think the league will have to be their main focus this season, if they miss out on qualifiying for Europe’s major tournament then we could see a few more players and perhaps a manager saying “Au Revoir” next summer.


‘Chelski’ are a team in transition. They have a young, dynamic manager but unfortunately quite an ageing squad. Drogba, Lampard, Terry, Malouda, Anelka and A. Cole are all in their 30’s now. It will be a strain for these players to be at the top of their game in both the league and in Europe every week. ‘AVB’ has brought in younger players but you cannot transform a squad overnight. I think the signing of Juan Mata is very shrewd though, he’s a talented player and will add a creative spark that Chelsea have lacked in recent years.

Chelsea are a powerful team and I think they have rather an average group to face, compiled of Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen and Genk. Valencia are the main danger and they have been forced in recent years to sell off their main talents, Villa, Silva, Mata etc. Despite having ex-Blue Michael Ballack to bring back to the Bridge, Leverkusen also pose a modest threat. So I would expect Chelsea to top this group with relative ease. Like Arsenal though, I am not sure how they will cope against a European giant in the knockout stages.

Chelsea were found lacking last season against Man United in the quarters last year. I don’t think they have made the kind of signings to suggest this wouldn’t happen again. They could also do with locating the form of the striker formally known as Fernando Torres, who may have labelled his team mates old and slow recently (investigation pending). The Champs League is an obsession for Mr. Abramovich and in AVB he may have a manager who could deliver it  - but not this season. Roman will have to be patient and allow AVB to build his team. One thing I think we may have learned from Roman though is that patience is not one of his finer qualities.

Manchester City:

Well there is always a ‘group of death’ and this year Manchester City are supposedly in it. They are however one of the main reasons it is the group of death along with Bayern Munich. City always spend big in the summer but this year they have spent very well. Samir Nasri has undoubted quality but Sergio Aguero has been worryingly good since his arrival. With a resurgent Dzeko and the likes of Silva, Tevez and Yaya Toure in support, City are an obvious threat for any team in Europe.

This is a big step-up from the Europa League however. City have a large, talented squad but unlike the Champs League’s little brother, they will not be able to get away with fielding a second-string in Europe anymore. In fact, it didn’t work for them last year when they crashed out against Dynamo Kiev in the Europa League’s last 16. They do have players with European experience. However as a team they have never been challenging for the league and the European Cup at the same time. They are a title threat now and will be expected by their fans to push for both trophies, playing their biggest stars in both competitions.

Manchester City are always surprising and I definitely expect them to qualify if not win their group. They may reach the last 8, perhaps the last 4 but the final is a stretch too far, at least for the moment. Roberto Mancini has done well at Eastlands and let’s not forget this is a man who transformed Inter into what is now Italy’s dominant team. He won 3 Scudettos in a row but was sacked, why you all ask? He did naff all in the Champions League. So this is as big a test for Mancini as it is for his players. Due to challenging on both domestic and European fronts I don’t think City will be in the final Champions League shake-up, it’s a little too soon. As I say though, they are always surprising and I am sure they will be entertaining whatever happens.

Manchester United:

United did their transfer business earlier in the summer and will of course be looking to make it 4 finals in 5 seasons next May. The signings of Ashley Young and Phil Jones have been somewhat inspired so far, David De Gea less so. He is still just 20 years old though so he will be afforded time. Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley have both impressed since their return from loan and all in all United have looked somewhat formidable so far. 

The Red Devils have immense Champions League pedigree and a hardly fear-inspiring group of Benfica, Basel and er...Otelul Galati? Romania’s finest apparently. So it would be somewhat ludicrous for them not to reach the latter stages. United have played more and won more games than any other team in the Champions League so do not be surprised to see them in the last 4 at least. This though, or perhaps earlier, is where they may enter trouble.

United’s season was tainted last year by the absolute demolition they suffered from Barcelona. Since then Barca have welcomed home Cesc Fabregas into midfield. Who did United replace Paul Scholes with? Well apart from Cleverley’s return, no one. Despite Fergie apparently learning from his team’s dismantling and the fluid manner with which they have so far played, the gap between United and Barca remains. United’s early form suggests it is going to have be a colossal effort from their rivals to stop Nemanja Vidic lifting the league trophy in 2012. And I fully expect them to be in contention for this Champions League, only though if Barcelona can be disposed of by someone else. The lack of midfield signings and the psychological hold that Barca have on United implies that United will not be the ones to knock Guardiola’s men out this season. Barca were unbelievable and at times unplayable last year. If anyone else is to win the Champions League this time then you would have to think that they will have to slay the Catalan dragon along the way.

These are my humble forecasts for the impending Uefa Champions League 2011/12. As we have learnt too often in football, predictions can stand for nothing once the first whistle is blown. Or in this case when Tony Britten’s adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is played.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Delicate Ingredients Needed For The Perfect Tournament

England expect to all but secure Euro 2012 qualification this evening by brushing Wales aside with the ease in which they took apart the Bulgarians last week. The planning for Ukraine and Poland will probably begin next month as Capello’s men board their plane out of Montenegro – assuming they have been successful. So, England in a major tournament. Always cause for excitement yes? Well that’s what I used to think. South Africa 2010 however, has a lot to answer for.

From both an English and a neutral point-of-view, the last World Cup was for the most part a disappointment. Actually from an English perspective, we had an absolute shitter. Apologies for the language but if you’re failing to score past Algeria then profanities are required.

So I have compiled a collection of ingredients. A group of dynamics that I feel are required for Euro 2012 or any future tournament to be successful in the eyes of the fans. I can remember about nine major tournaments but I feel I have seen enough archival footage to know what is required to get the pulses racing – both for England supporters and for the neutral.

The Song:

What have been England’s best results since Sir Alf’s men lifted the World Cup in ’66? Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 when they reached the semi-finals. The common denominator in these near misses? A great tournament song. ‘World In Motion’ and ‘Three Lions’ are still belted out by the England faithful down the pub and rightfully so, they are fantastic tunes. And 2010? The FA banned an official song so that the team could be “fully focused on the football.” They didn’t seem too “focused” when Thomas Müller banged in Germany’s fourth in Bloemfontein.

A good tournament song excites the fans. It unites England’s followers when they sing it together in the pub or the stands. Remember the effect ‘Three Lions’ had in 1996. It should be fun! Think John Barnes spitting rhymes with New Order. Even watching Ant’n’Dec running around in 2002 dressed as SGE and Tord Grip was more than entertaining. Although unlikely I pray The FA would bring back a tournament song for next summer – one that involves the players. It’s an easy-to-follow formula, you need a good English group performing a song written by a comedian. Perhaps with a player rapping at some point. I foresee Arctic Monkeys performing a Noel Fielding-penned hit whilst Andy Carroll freestyles lyrics in the background. Perhaps I’ll start a petition.

The standout player:

Ronaldo ’02. Zidane ’98. Baggio ’94. Maradona ’86. Cruyff ’74. See what I mean? Not all of these were awarded the FIFA Golden Ball for being voted the tournament's best player. They didn’t need to be. These players aren’t loved for their efficiency or resilience. They’re loved because they excite, because they are artists. They make the beautiful game beautiful. When September comes and kids return to school these are the players they pretend to be, I myself was a Baggio/Romario. All of these players mentioned could carry their teams at times and they all made the final. When you look back and think of tournaments you remember the best matches and the players that you made you say “WOW”.

Whilst Spain as a collective were something to be marvelled at, 2010 never really had this kind of player. Nor did Euro 2008 or World Cup 2006.  Can Euro 2012 produce a standout superstar? I sure hope so. It’d be nice to tell the grandkids that I once saw Joe Bloggs round 8 players and chip the keeper with his ear in the final of the Euro Championships. Worryingly though I can’t think of the player that will do this next summer. C. Ronaldo and Ribery would have to be frontrunners. May have to start waiting for Messi in 2014.

Nothing to complain about:

As a nation we like a good moan, we’re quite talented at finding things to complain about.  We don’t need to be handed gift-wrapped grievances to wax lyrical about. Enter SA 2010 with its dodgy ball and the vuvuzela. Vuvuzela being Afrikaans for ‘Pain-In-The-Arse’. Whilst this last statement isn’t strictly true, players and fans alike agreed that the dreaded horns had a significantly detrimental effect on the atmosphere at last year’s tournament. Whether there was a goal scored, a sending off or actually nothing going on at all, the same annoying monotone drone reigned supreme.

What was wrong with the ball? It was perfectly spherical and immensely technologically advanced. So why could most people not play with it then?! Players struggled to pass/shoot with it and ‘keepers didn’t know what the hell was going on. Why fix something that isn’t broken? You get the best players in the world together for a few weeks every 2 years. Just give them something that is kinda round and bounces. Don’t ruin it. I hope it’s just football doing the talking in 2012.

The underdog and the upset:

Seeing a footballing giant crumble at the hands of relative minnows is always somewhat enjoyable. Reigning champions France being humbled by ‘The ‘Wardrobe’ Papa Diop in Seoul, Italy falling to hosts South Korea later in the same tournament. We enjoy seeing the underdogs progress, particularly if they are from Africa for some reason. Cameroon, Senegal and Ghana have all had the neutral support over the years as they reached the last 8.

Whilst we appreciate an Italy or a France going out in the first round there is a fine line to be considered though. The draw of a major tournament is to see the best teams competing against each other – not to see a group of underdogs fighting for the trophy. At Euro 2004 Spain, Italy and Germany all exited in the group stage, in 2002 the same fate fell for France, Portugal and Argentina. The 2004 tournament was won by Greece and in 2002 South Korea and Turkey made the semis. Whilst people appreciated Greece’s achievement it wasn’t exactly enjoyable to watch. We want to see great football and like it or not that generally comes from the best teams. So whilst a successful tournament run from an underdog would of course be welcomed next year, let’s see the best players and teams flourish.

The moment of English glory:

I think we should have a reality check. England first played in a major tournament 61 years ago. In that time we have reached one final so we need to grab hold of whatever bit of fantastic elation that is sent our way. Can you think of one of these moments in 2010? I sure as hell can’t. Remember Rooney tearing Croatia apart in ’04? Beating Argentina and Germany at the start of the millennium? Michael Owen announcing his talent in unbelievable fashion at France ‘98? In my lifetime these are the moments that I cherish of the national team. The moments that endear the Three Lions to myself. As England fans we are usually optimistic, at least at the start of a tournament. The bitter truth is though we haven’t come close to a trophy in a long time now. When these moments of glory happen we need to embrace them, they makes us feel like our country can beat the best the world has to offer.

I don’t expect England to be lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy in July 2012. To be brutally and depressingly honest I don’t expect England to even be in contention. When (hopefully if) we go out I will, like all others, be somewhat drunk and somewhat inconsolable. When I reflect though I would be happy enough just to know that England were knocked out gracefully. Perhaps after Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick against Ze Germans in the previous round. I did say I was optimistic.

That’s my super-tournament recipe. It is not an exhaustive list and I would welcome any suggestions. If Poland and Ukraine could follow my recipe we may have some spectacle next year. If Euro 2012 does not meet expectations though, we can still be exceptionally happy. Knowing there will be no vuvuzelas in attendance will always keep me happy.       

Saturday, 3 September 2011

England Shine - But How bright?

England strolled off the field in Sofia yesterday evening and had the right to feel pleasantly smug with themselves. From start to finish England controlled a lacklustre Bulgaria who offered little threat. Rooney shone with two goals and an increasingly more prosperous hairline whilst others also impressed. Despite all this it would be almost ludicrous to get carried away with this victory which some England followers are almost guaranteed to do.

Firstly let me address the potentially gargantuan issue of the evening – the new kit. Oliver Holt (The Mirror) and Matt Dickinson (The Times) were quick to criticise the electric blue/navy ensemble. Apparently it just isn’t England. Yeah? Well fan-bloody-tastic. Perhaps if it isn’t ‘England’ then they may actually get to a semi-final in it. Or at least go out of a tournament gracefully. The top itself looks good (I think) so who cares? England have had blue, grey and even yellow away tops over the years so it’s not exactly a complete change of tradition. And judging on last night’s performance the team seem to get on quite well with it so let’s just move on shall we. Kit = thumbs up.

I don’t want to undersell yesterday’s performance, it was good – very good. The back four looked solid, Cahill and Smalling fitting into their respective roles with ease. Scott Parker and Gareth Barry provided regimented protection and allowed the front four to flourish – which they did. Rooney was always a danger and he was aptly supported by the craft and pace of those behind him.

Bulgaria were however, for want of some better words, bloody awful. England carved them opened far too easily and their attack provided very little to worry Joe Hart’s goal. They are now without the retired Dimitar Berbatov but I don’t think his lethargic presence would really have changed much. But you can only beat what is put in front of you.

England seemed somewhat departed from the static performances that we have become used to in recent years. There was a bright fluidity to their play particularly in midfield. The fact that they still have Jack Wilshere and Steven Gerrard to welcome back is obviously a bonus. For me the fact that Frank Lampard was dropped is also a bonus. Lamps hasn’t played consistently well in an England shirt for over 5 years now. He was very disappointing in the last 2 World Cups and at age 33 his international career is probably on the wind down now. England managers have too often selected players on reputation rather than form and thankfully that looks to have changed here. He has a new career beckoning as a celebrity couple with Miss Bleakley anyway, so every cloud.

Wales’ surprising win against Montenegro last night means that England’s progression from their group is almost in touching distance. What does this all mean for Euro 2012 then? Well, to be honest not much. Whilst we take hope from England’s performance it doesn’t really mean too much when it comes to facing the big teams on the big stage. Keeping the ball against Bulgaria is nothing compared to what it would be like at trying to keep it against a Spain or a Germany. In fact getting hold of the ball would be tough enough. Whilst the promise of the likes of Smalling, Cahill and Wilshere is obviously something to be excited about, it may be too soon to expect them to get the better of Europe’s elite on a regular basis.

But what about the main man? Could he not fire England to Euro 2012 victory? No not Emile Heskey, Wayne Rooney of course. The Sun thinks so. However this is the kind of idiotic optimism that puts immense pressure on the England players. Pressure that they seem to regularly wilt under. Rooney has had a fantastic start to the season but his goals last night were his first for England in just under a year. Not exactly stunning form. Especially when even Capello seems to be somewhat undecided on where to play Rooney. Is he the out-and-out striker or should he be playing in the hole, linking midfield and attack? Whilst he is rather good in both positions, for me he needs to play as England’s main striker. Purely for the fact that there are no better options. He is easily our best choice in terms of scoring goals and should be utilised as such. Goals are hard to come by at major tournaments and I think it must be clear that Rooney is the only potential man who could step forward and get 5 or 6 goals next summer. But I don’t think that A. This will happen and B. It will be enough to see England into the last 4 in Poland/Ukraine.

If anything, Rooney’s sensational early club form this year demonstrates the need for more breaks for the England players. ‘Wazza’ himself has attributed his great start to having a relaxing summer, taking a break and coming back much more refreshed. And of course having a new rug on his forehead. England managers and players alike have often bemoaned the lack of a winter break in the Premier League and the effect that it has on England players in major tournaments. To be fair, they are right. England often looked burnt out when it comes to summer. Other European nations have winter breaks and it must allow for the players to be fresher when the season ends. The problem in this country though is that the Premier League and The FA are two separate identities. It doesn’t matter much to the Prem if England crash out next summer. Unless these two organisations can agree on some common goals, don’t expect a winter break to be gracing our domestic seasons anytime soon.

All in all we should be pleased with England’s performance yesterday eve. Of course we should. But for god sake let’s not get carried away. They dominated the match, Rooney looked very dangerous and we have promising new blood coming through. But Bulgaria aren’t half the team of some of Europe’s elite. Our technique is inferior to Spain et al and that is just a fact. Can I see England going out in the quarters next summer with 20 different excuses and crying that they were too tired? Unfortunately yes. But in some of Kevin Keegan’s famous words, “I would love it, love it” if I was to be proved wrong.