Saturday, July 14, 2018

Southgate under the lens

AS THE TEARS DRY AND THE ELATION COOLS, QUESTIONS ARISE OVER ENGLAND'S EXIT IN RUSSIA

It has been a summer of love in England for England.

The football team that is.

Gareth Southgate playing for England
Image copyright © Offside


Gareth Southgate's comments about his side truly representing and uniting the country struck a resonant chord, a zeitgeist moment the history books will recall in the future.

His words were a gently veiled criticism of the homogenous look of the ruling party and its Brexit fiasco which has riven the nation in two, a schism which remains painfully unresolved.

In a week in which a brittle and embattled Prime Minister of a party without a majority saw two of her top team quit, the England manager by contrast came across as an intelligent, measured and sensitive man whose team had cruised into a World Cup semi final proving the virtues of loyalty and unity.

Unlike the government, the national team made the nation happy, if only for a short while.

For the month of June, the contrast could not have been starker and the calls for Southgate to become Prime Minister were neither unexpected nor wholly in jest. His national leadership outshone Teresa May's.

No man and no waistcoat are more popular in England right now. The Football Association has said it has no plans for an open top bus parade but they are painfully out of touch with the nation, once more.

Yet honeymoons never last forever and now, three days after England were eliminated by Croatia, the feeling of national togetherness and shared ecstasy which only the World Cup can generate has started to seep out of the building.

After a couple of days of emotional come-down, a time for tears to dry, beer to lose its taste and tension to dissipate, more focused analysis has been brought to bear on Southgate the football coach.

Perhaps inevitably, the aura surrounding England's best-dressed and most-liked man has begun to wane a little.

Talk of pride and gratitude is fading and some accusations are now being levelled at Saint Southgate regarding his side's surrendering of a lead in Moscow and their spurning of probably England's best chance of winning a second World Cup.

The charge sheet is accumulating thus:

  • While a back three remains part of his creed, should he have picked the experienced and natural centre back Gary Cahill over converted full back Kyle Walker, who was beaten to the ball for Croatia's equaliser, or John Stones, who let Mario Mandzukic ghost in behind him for Croatia's winner?
  • In addition, why did Southgate not introduce Eric Dier as an additional reducer alongside Jordan Henderson when it was clear our featherweight midfield of Delle Ali and Jesse Lingard were being overrun? 
  • Was skipper Harry Kane too big a name to withdraw when he was clearly having an off night, missing a key chance to put England 2-0 up and chugging around on his own up front?
  • Why were England thumping long balls forward in the second half instead of keeping to their principles of playing out from the back? Why did they lose mental discipline in that way?
  • Could Southgate have brought on Ruben Loftus-Cheek to combat the lack of midfield creativity? Croatia benefited from a golden playmaker which England did not have. Should the manager have picked a man with innovative boots - Adam Lallana, Jonjo Shelvey or Jack Wilshere in other words? Or should Ross Barkley be hauled back into the set-up? England are not exactly overflowing with inventive midfield generals.
  • Were England so wedded to 3-5-2 they could not reshape themselves once it was clear Croatia had learnt how to find space on the flanks in front of the wing backs? 
  • Could England seriously have hoped to have won the World Cup through set pieces alone? 75% of their goals came from corners, free kicks and penalties. 
  • Southgate's team was halfway down the table of 32 finalists for shots on target and 27th for shots on target from open play. Their other stats do not imply World Cup winners either: 11th for completed passes, 16th for dribbles, 17th for successful passes into the last third and 24th for crosses.
Et cetera. Hindsight is 20-20 and the fact one team must lose a knockout game engenders a library of reactions and theories.

All of the above might be factors in England's loss, but the biggest was probably that experience was the key factor in the Luzhniki. 

Zlatko Dalic's men came to Moscow with more than double the caps of Southgate's - 660 versus 294 and more than twice the Champions League experience too.

The gap in game management experience was clear by the end.

Croatia changed their tack and turned the screw at just the right times to unsettle their greener foes. The way their two goalscorers Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic darted in behind sleeping England defenders to strike epitomised their superior nous and game-savviness.

Those men, skilled in piercing the notoriously tough defences of Serie A with Juventus and Inter respectively, were two ruthless winners the likes of which England did not possess and we certainly had no-one in the class of Luka Modric, probably the player of the tournament so far.

The Croats, who kept us out of Euro 2008 a decade ago, were wise, battle-hardened warriors who took an hour to recover from Kieran Trippier's early strike but then found their stride, took the game by the scruff of the neck and bossed it. 

England's early optimism had evaporated by the time of Croatia's second and playing from the back had turned into hopeful punts forward to Marcus Rashford.

There are no complaints. Nobody in England is blaming the referee, outrageous fortune or dirty tricks. We all know the better team won that night.

Happily, off-field there were no riots or widespread violence like there was when England lost semi finals in 1990 and '96. Everyone felt pride that for once the Three Lions had done better than anyone had thought.

Those facts alone speak of a significant change in English football. The gap between expectation and performance has been shortened. A new England has been born, a team without egos or over-burdened by unrealistic expectation, without a shirt which weighs too heavily on young shoulders and most notably, without fear of losing matches on spot-kicks.

The nine yard jinx has been lifted at long last. English players now approach penalty shootouts confident of winning them.

The national training centre St George's Park and the England DNA project is blooming across the board: U17 & U20 World Champions, U19 European Champions and men's and women's senior teams reaching World Cup semi-finals.

The bigger picture is therefore that an evolution is in progress in football's homeland. A truly golden generation could be on its way. This appearance was the first in the World Cup for this new England.

If the crops are to fruit in the next decade, the young stars from the already successful youth sides must get domestic playing time and European experience.

With barely a third of Premier League players English, and the domestic league commercial and international in its focus, the F.A. has its work cut out if it wants to lift the trophy in Qatar or the USA.

2026 would be sixty years of hurt and nobody English wants that.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Purging the Ghosts of Italia '90

ENGLAND RETURN TO THE WORLD CUP SEMI FINAL

ENGLAND RETURN TO THE WORLD CUP SEMI FINAL


England are in the World Cup semi-final again, a joyfully new experience for those too young to remember the last time.

For my generation though, it brings back memories of the greatest and saddest day in England's football history.

Italia '90. Turin. Penalties.

Those words are burned into my heart and soul.

I was a boy becoming a man at the time and my emotions were at their height. Football had been my boyhood - scarves, shirts, shorts and socks, Panini stickers, Match of the Day and Radio 2's Saturday afternoon. Brian Clough and Trevor Francis. Come on you reds.

My love for Nottingham Forest had become obsessional, buying membership and travelling to games in the East Midlands from down in the South of England.

When Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Neil Webb became integral parts of the England team en route to the final I was doubly behind England in Italy. Never mind the expense or inconvenience, I was getting on a plane to Rome.

That World Cup was the culmination of my childhood fandom, the players I had grown up with reaching their pinnacle at the highest level.

So when Pearce, Forest's buccaneering captain missed England's fateful penalty in the semi-final with Germany, my world fell in. I cried, my friends cried and my father, who never shows his emotions, was clearly upset.

I think I was holding my mother's hand by the fourth penalty.

I did not understand it at the time but football always gives you another bite at the cherry, Germany were a better team and all but one set of fans leaves the World Cup in tears or regret at missed chances.

For days and weeks and probably months and years I reran that match in my head, frustrated there was no way of making England win.

The injustice of Gazza's booking, of Chris Waddle's shot off the post and the annoyance at what were two poor England spot-kicks reverberated.

It was for Englishmen of my generation, a trauma of sorts, but one we look back with pride. As C.S. Lewis said explaining the purpose of pain, when a stone is broken and chipped away at by the stonemason it becomes perfect.

Is it time for purging that injustice now, righting that ancient wrong? The cycle of football affords endless opportunities for redemption.

Italia '90 was a purging for English football, although we did not know it at the time. After a decade of Bradford, Heysel, Hillsborough and hooliganism, a new football culture was born. English society accepted its greatest sport again.

With time, the pain of that night in Turin has seeped away, replaced by a conundrum that England seem incapable of reaching the final of the European Championship or the World Cup.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, England can again.

Russia 2018 has been an exceptionally commodious passage for England to the last four than was Italia '90.

There the Three Lions began with a lower-league clash with Eire (1-1), a creditable 0-0 draw with a troubled Netherlands and a smooth 1-0 win over Egypt.

The knockout stages were pure attrition for Bobby Robson's side however. A fraught game with Belgium, who hit the post twice and trouble goalie Peter Shilton many times, ended with a last-gasp David Platt winner, seconds before the end of extra-time.

Then England were 2-1 down and heading for the exit against Cameroon in the quarters before a brace of Gary Lineker penalties saved the day.

Colombia minus their star and Sweden have been much easier navigations. Croatia in 2018, with the greatest of respect, are also not in the same class as West Germany's World Cup winning side of 28 years ago.

Back home, talk of 1990 has just given way to that of 1966, with the nine survivors of England's greatest 11 ready to fly out for the final on Sunday.

This euphoria risks becoming hysteria. First there is the wily midfield of Croatia to overcome and then the awesome firepower of either Belgium or France.

Still, every generation must carve its own football memories.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Brazil head for the airport again



The day Brazil are knocked out a World Cup always feels like a big event.

Despite the fact the Seleção have not won it since 2002 and were utterly humiliated by Germany four years ago, one still feels the green and gold belong at the core of this competition.

Growing up Brazil were still the wonder team we all aspired to be like. To be Brazilian meant to be endowed with innately divine feet in control of the sphere, to be born into a rich tradition of highly-skilled football.

Never mind that for more than 20 years of my youth Brazil were not world champions, there were always 'the best'.

In this wide-open World Cup of falling favourites, Tite's team are only the latest casualty but that means another 20 year gap between Brazilian World Cup wins will have opened up by 2022. What will it take for the world to stop considering Brazilians the best at football?

The iconography of Pele, Zico, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, that goal by Carlos Alberto and the production line of talented ball-players is just so vivid that the legend of Brazil goes on.


Recent history has facts to counter this mythology. They ran aground in the quarter-final in 2006 (beaten by France) and in 2010 (by the Netherlands) before their 7-1 humiliation in 2014.

This year's elimination was far more honourable but since it came at an earlier stage of the competition should go down as a regression.

Finishing top of the CONMEBOL qualifiers and entering the 2018 World Cup as one of the favourites (FIFA ranked 2nd behind Germany) showed an encouraging recovery from the nightmare of Belo Horizonte four years ago, but once more Brazil's dreams are in ruins.

To be fair, last night in Kazan they enjoyed no luck.

They had 27 shots to Belgium's nine yet Fernandinho scored an own goal. Thiago Silva hit the post, Gabriel Jesus had a strong penalty call dismissed and the rebounds just did not fall for them.

Philippe Coutinho missed two chances and Neymar had two shots saved by Belgium's elongated and  in-form goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

Brazil dominated the second half and in substitute Douglas Costa had a rip-roaring right-winger: It could well have been a different outcome.

Yet Belgium were a formidable opponent, finally confirming their squad of stars can cut it against the best opposition. Roberto Martinez had plenty of domestic criticism going into this tournament but is shutting up his naysayers in Russia.

His switch to a 4-4-2 last night paid off as did his team's compact shape with Marouane Fellaini the apex of the resistance. There was no way they were going to let Brazil's ball wizards play in their box.

In attack, their trident of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, surely the finest in the tournament, were red hot. Lukaku switched from the wing to the middle and charged like a Pamplona bull all night, almost impossible to stop.

Marcelo might be guilty of having stood off De Bruyne as he shaped to unleash his 31st minute rocket, when any Premier League defender would have known the Manchester City star's habits.

Brazil also let Belgium exploit their right side, concentrating their plays on the left-sided triangle of Marcelo, Neymar and Coutinho. Would defensive midfield rock Casemiro have made the difference?

Like England they lacked a playmaker. Only when Coutinho chipped over the back four for Renato Augusto to score as Lionel Messi does for Luis Suarez at Barcelona, did we see true creativity. But otherwise Coutinho was awry with his shots and jaded by his box to box tasks.

Oh for a Luka Modric or Christian Eriksen in midfield.

Belgium steam on and gain revenge for being eliminated by Brazil in 2002 in a game they might have won.

The top two sides left in the cup now meet in the semi-final: France play Belgium on Tuesday evening in St Petersburg. The Red Devils could be writing one of international football's greatest stories.

But when will we see Brazil win the World Cup again?

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Things I miss about Russia

First impressions upon arriving back.

1. You think that is underground!
2. Since when did they do mini escalators.
3. Fast food just sped up again.
4. High fives are out of fashion.
5. Where are the rest of the train carriages/ the free trains/ the four day journeys.
6. Fan ID doesn’t work.
7. Why is no one checking my bag when I go into the station?
8. I can go out the station and come straight back in.
9. No one is collecting plastic cups anymore.

Things I miss about Russia


10. People here speak different languages but don’t use google translate.
11. Can’t find caviar on the menu anymore.
12. Reading signs phonetically no longer works.
13. People have stopped chanting my name... Ross... i...ya.

Ross Clegg

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Pickford spikes the coffee

AN ILL-TEMPERED MATCH-UP IN MOSCOW SAW ENGLAND EDGE IT ON PENALTIES

In the end it came down to penalties and for once England had done their homework.

In winning their first World Cup shootout, the Three Lions proved the edge that analytical and intelligent preparation gives.

Gareth Southgate had spoken a week earlier about getting his squad to study the psychology of shootouts, analysing why England kept tripping up at that particular hurdle.

Individual kickers were assigned with taking their time, entering a calm mental space and delivering with aplomb what had been planned, in contrast to the hurried and nervous kicks which have knocked England out so many times, including one missed by Southgate himself at Euro '96.

His players looked calm on the approach and at the moment of delivery last night, with the exception of Jordan Henderson, who was bouncing the ball with his head down as he stepped up to the kick, which was saved by David Ospina, diving quickly to his left.

The Arsenal goalkeeper read Eric Dier's winning kick correctly too but was less rapid in leaping down to his right, only managing to get fingertips on the ball.

Colombia missed two penalties by contrast, which let Henderson off the hook. Mateus Uribe's showed the danger of going high and hard as his effort cannoned off the crossbar, while Carlos Bacca's fateful kick was too close to the middle.

Hit low, hard and into the corner remains the best recipe for success from nine yards, although cleverer players will fire down the middle when they are sure the keeper will dive, or even do a Panenka.

Jordan Pickford, England's green but agile custodian, confirmed afterwards he had studied each kicker's modus operandi and only Falcao had failed to revert to type. Preparation paid off.

1-1 was a fair finish to a match with few real chances. Colombia began handicapped by James Rodriguez's calf strain. Their three goals against Poland were all down to him and to have taken England through 120 minutes unbeaten without his arsenal of talents to deploy must rate as some achievement.

Indeed, given England's lack of dominance, with the Bayern playmaker fit, one suspects the result would have gone the other way.

Probably to keep England on their toes, the Colombian camp had given out the message that James' injury was nothing serious, but insiders revealed he had not trained since their win over Senegal and there was no way he was going to start in Moscow.

For 2014's Golden Boot winner and the golden boy of Colombian football, it was another cruel way to exit the World Cup, exiled to the stands, where he slumped alone in tears following the shootout.

Los Cafeteros had periods of domination and the pace of Juan Cuadrado and physicality of Falcao were constant threats in the last third. When full backs Santiago Arias and Johan Mohica flew up the wings, for a while it looked like England might wilt.

But not quite. Juan Quintero had been billed as exploding onto the world stage with big clubs holding their attention, much like what happened to James in 2014, but for all his flashes of neat control and clever positioning, too often ruined the moment with an overhit final ball.

Like Marouane Fellaini the night before, Yerry Mina proved the value of a tall and awkward customer at crosses and set pieces and ended up his nation's unlikely top scorer in the tournament with three.

Yet Carlos Sanchez, sent off in one minute versus Japan, again let his side down by hugging and then rugby-tackling Harry Kane smack in front of the referee to give away a penalty. Some Colombians, and Diego Maradona, insisted Kane had fouled him first but the abundance of physical contact was too much for the referee to realistically ignore.

Post-match, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman urged for clarification on contact in the box, adding to comments from Falcao and others that some English players went to ground too easily, and that the American referee Mark Geiger had been less than even-handed, showing six yellow cards to Colombia but only two to England.

Pekerman must have been rattled as four years ago following rotation Brazilian fouling on James in the quarter final and slack refereeing, he refused to blame either Brazil or the officials in his post-match conference.

Yet since his team briefly looked like losing their heads and earning red cards, the manager must shoulder some blame for not calming them down immediately. It was hard to believe this same team won FIFA's Fair Play Award at Brazil 2014.

With the score at 0-0, the game briefly threatened to descend into another Battle of Santiago, the infamous Chile v Italy clash from the 1962 finals. Geiger might have followed the rules but lacked the presence to reduce the tension while it was boiling over.

Colombia are not known as a dirty team, which made their behaviour curious. Perhaps it was an inferiority complex appearing, as if they felt bending the rules was the only way to derail a more talented opponent. They need not have gone down that route as they still had the talent without James to take England on.

Both sets of supporters had gripes about Geiger: Many English fans were angry that he only showed a yellow card to Wilmar Barrios for headbutting Jordan Henderson and ignored the scuffing of the penalty spot, while their Colombian counterparts have been piling into the American on social media for apparent bias towards the Three Lions.

Things thankfully cooled down after the break, not least because Colombia's substitutions refocused their team and they had the better of extra-time, though failed to make Pickford work much, Uribe's speculative rocket in the 93rd minute notwithstanding.

Colombia leave the World Cup sad at their failure to repeat their last eight achievement of 2014, cursing their bad luck in losing their best player but proud their side went down fighting, although England would say quite literally.

England were second best towards the end of normal time and for the first period of extra time, which could bode ill for future matches in the tournament.

Southgate's team has a solid shape but all teams need to morph according to game events and for the first time last night, against quality opposition, they were forced to rethink.

In Pickford they have a young custodian brimming with confidence who leaps like a salmon and flies like a bird.

The real stars are both defenders who before the tournament were virtually fringe players. Harry McGuire still has only nine caps but plays like an old hand, commanding in the air, dominant in the box and assured on the ground.

Kieran Trippier meanwhile is a natural wing back who is fast, has good positional play and supplies more dangerous crosses than any other player.

Up front, Harry Kane is netting reliably whether from penalties or open play but his lieutenants Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling still have question marks hanging over them after yet another next to invisible pair of performances.

The team is so reliant on Kane that if a canny defence can shut him down, one wonders where England's goals will come from. The lack of a playmaker in the squad could yet come back to haunt Southgate.

England did not score in open play in Moscow and have now gone over four hours without finding the net without winning a penalty, a salient point which should temper the growing euphoria back home.

But having flown in under the radar, English enthusiasm and self-confidence are now on the march, conscious of how on paper the Three Lions have their best chance of returning to the final since their annus mirabilis of 1966.

Colombia at least won the noise battle at the Spartak Stadium. They heavily outnumbered English supporters, leading Southgate to label it "almost an away match" for his side.

The 40,000-strong Cafetero fan base in Russia brought some exotic colour to unaccustomed surroundings. Now they are packing up and making the long journey home with melancholy but also memories to treasure.

There is no match trip like experiencing a World Cup in person. England are still there.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Pravda The Truth

правда

So my two weeks in Russia are over. Having now visited eight cities and 13 games I feel that this has been one of the best ever competitions.

The cities have embraced the competition and the locals have come out in force to add to the occasion.

Obrigado Russia

I have heard the Egyptians singing спасибо Россия (Thank you Russia) to the tune of Seven Nation Army. I saw three Tunisians come into a bar inviting everyone to come and visit them in Tunisia as they were leaving. They left to a round of applause.

Despite the vast distances travelled, there have been no logistical problems. I took advantage of the free long distance trains four times. Loved the fact that in each city free transport was laid on to get you to the stadium easily.

Free Transport

Yes, there were queues and you had to wait to get through security, but I have no complaints about this, as it is the time we live in. Also I am led to believe that the security is no where no near as tight as the Russian football league games, where fans have been known to smuggle flares in, encased in plaster casts which are broken off inside the stadium.

Now at home you may think the language barrier would be a major difficulty. How would we cope if lots of people came to our country and we didn't speak their language. Well here they have grasped technology and with the use of their smart phones are using google translate to relay any messages they need to get across. From the old woman in the shop, to the young man sat at the back of his English class at school not paying attention, they have quickly learnt there are no barriers.

Language


The policing has been well done. Yes, they are there, but you would hardly know it. Occasionally I saw them observing from a distance, Laurel and Hardyesque peeking round a corner to watch going's on, but every time they stayed calm.

The people have been friendly and curious, eager to have a small interaction with anyone from a different country. You can see the happiness they feel as they ask: "What do you think about Russia?" And you reply positively. In normal everyday life Russians have kept themselves to themselves, now they are curious and want to engage with people from all these different countries that have descended upon them.

Ok, there is some frustration with the way things are done here, as I have described petty bureaucracy, but by being part of the system they have made things work.

I saw no evidence of any racism at all. Indeed one person I was talking to said. "White, yellow, black doesn't matter we love them all. In this country, we have 200 countries how can we be racist?" All this he came out with and I didn't even ask the question.

As I look at life at home by reading the latest news, hearing about shootings and stabbings. I would rather have the police I saw at every junction in Kazan at 2 am in the morning than the situation at home. 

Yes, here the people are frightened to think for themselves. As we have witnessed by their need to follow processes rigidly. At times this can be sad to see.

The woman on my first day who was frightened to let me sleep for a few hours because she could not register me.

In a restaurant, a plate of vegetables was forgotten about. It arrived 30 minutes after the meal. Due to the delay my friend refused to accept it. The waitress was visibly upset as she explained she would have to pay for it - I helped eat them and they were delicious.

The accusations made by various governments made against each other maybe tell us something if we stop taking sides.

The ordinary citizens here understand their place and see through all the political posturing. I think it is time we start to see our own way through our own media which had painted a picture that put many people off coming to this county and missing the time of their life.

From Russia with Ross

Colombia sweats on James' fitness

ENGLAND V COLOMBIA HINGES ON JAMES, BUT THE CAFETERO STAR IS RUNNING OUT OF TIME TO GET FIT

This World Cup threatens at times to explode into the most enjoyable ever - think Portugal v Spain, Nigeria v Argentina and Germany derailing against Mexico and South Korea in the first round.

The knockout stages though have been a mixed bag: France v Argentina and Belgium v Japan were bona fide classics, but does anyone want to buy the DVD of any of the other four Round of 16 matches played so far, unless you are Russian?

Sunday served up a couple of duds which both went to penalties, although Kaspar Schmeichel's spot-kick-saving prowess made the Croatia v Denmark shootout briefly exciting.

So now to Sweden v Switzerland, a clash between well-organised, moderately talented yet very hard-working units. It is unlikely to be a passing-fest tomorrow. Expect vertical play, piling in at corners and set pieces and hard running upfield on the break.

The Swedes are without key midfielder Sebastian Larsson but should otherwise be unchanged, while the Swiss have lost two of their back four to yellow cards - Stephane Lichtsteiner and Fabiane Schar.

While too close to call with any confidence, the Swiss perhaps have the edge through their sharp counter-attacking and the mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri.

England v Colombia is the main dish on the menu however, an intriguing meeting between European and South American teams both slightly behind their continent's finest but with a golden opportunity to write a famous World Cup story.

Colombia, unlike England have lost a match and won their group in Russia. Los Cafeteros began their finals with a depressing 2-1 loss to Japan and a double whammy of James Rodriguez failing a fitness test and Carlos Sanchez getting sent off in the first minute.

In their second game however, a fit again James inspired his colleagues to register a 3-0 win over Poland, absurdly seeded in Group H (they finished bottom), Colombia's best performance since 2014.

Then at half-time against Senegal, Colombia looked on their way out having been outmuscled and outplayed by an African team with apparently more thirst for victory.

When James limped off it all looked bleak for Jose Pekerman's team, but in a rejuvenated second half they scored and were worth the three points.

In other words, Colombia are very inconsistent and it is hard to know which team will turn up before each half begins.

Perhaps Bayern Munich's No.10 holds the key. When fit Rodriguez is clearly their best orchestrator. His pass to release Juan Cuadrado to score against Poland was perhaps the best assist of the tournament.

In 2014 he was goalscoring until he took the Golden Boot but this time Falcao is playing so James is playing further back.

His 2018 injuries have been surprising and frustrating for Colombia; calf strains in both legs which have limited him to only one full match so far.

James slammed the ground in exasperation as he realised he needed to leave the field against Senegal after half an hour while 49 million Colombian hearts sank.

An MRI scan showed nothing serious we are told but insider sources say he has sat out training for four days leaving his participation doubtful. Even if he plays, will he be match sharp enough for a gruelling 90 or an attritional further 30 and penalties?

If James is absent, River Plate's Juan Quintero will assume a greater role pulling the strings. His grasscutter free kick goal against Japan was also one of the best set pieces seen in Russia.

Quintero has been Colombia's break out player in Russia. He is fairly short and not particularly quick but is creative, which has led many to connect his presence in the side to that of Juan Riquelme in Pekerman's Argentina side of 2006.

Colombia are an offensive team, who are irresistible when their three attackers - Cuadrado, Quintero and Rodriguez are in free flow.

Cuadrado free-wheeling up the right wing and Falcao prowling the opposition penalty box are two dangers England must nullify. In substitutes Carlos Bacca and Luis Muriel they have more dangerous forward options as well as lively Brighton winger Jose Izquierdo.

Their rather pedestrian defensive midfielders - Sanchez and Abel Aguilar or Mateus Uribe, are often bypassed however and wing backs Santiago Arias and the attack-minded Johan Mohica can get isolated.

While centre-backs Davinson Sanchez and Yerry Mina are both strong, tall stoppers, both can go wandering and Mina can look uncomfortable taking the ball out of defence.

Measuring almost two metres, Mina rose to nod home against Senegal, which should alert England's defenders at set pieces. David Ospina in goal perhaps encapsulates Colombia - usually reliable but prone to the odd costly slip.

The South Americans have an experienced coach in Pekerman, a man universally respected for his gentlemanly and respectful conduct and a national hero in Colombia after 2014, which saw the Argentinian awarded Colombian citizenship.

But there are questions about his side's mentality, which too often switches off and lets their opposition boss the game, dominating possession and winning the 50-50 balls.

Losing James will be a blow but the Coffeemen will recall similar prophets of gloom when Falcao was ruled out of 2014 ate their words as they reached the last eight.

One suspects England will dominate the first half before Colombia come out and play after the break. If Harry Kane is given an inch he will score, but Davinson Sanchez knows him well enough from Tottenham Hotspur.

England banged in the goals against lowly Panama, but unlike Colombia have not been tested yet in Russia.

On paper the Europeans should come out on top, but in this World Cup of surprises it would be foolish to tip the Three Lions to win with any certainty.

Gareth Southgate's men want to play offensively with flying wing-backs but that is a danger against a slick passing side like Colombia.

If the FIFA World Rankings are worth anything after so many shocks, the Swiss are ranked 18 places above Sweden, while England are four above Colombia.

One hopes the first match-up will be like a tense UEFA qualifier with high stakes, the second an exciting contrast of continental styles the like of which only the World Cup can provide.

At this stage of the competition, the watching world wants entertaining above all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, July 2, 2018

Kazan to Moscow

I had a difficult choice to get back from Kazan to Moscow, originally when planning this trip a year ago there was no train that would get me here in time for the match at the Luzhnicki here in Moscow, Spain v Russia. So I booked a flight. Several months later the 23.10 became available and so I also booked that.

The flight would arrive at Domodedovo Airport. But then I would have to get to my accommodation. There is an Aeroexpress train ... which was free with the Fan ID, but the express bit obviously does not translate in Russian. It runs every 30 minutes and takes 43 minutes and so realistically I would expect to be in central Moscow by 2 pm.

I chose the train! It is comfortable, it was brand new again, although I was beginning to regret the decision when I boarded as Wagon 1 happened to be at the back of the train - remember how long they are.

However upon arrival in Moscow at 12.35 I was at the front, and in the very train station where I was staying. 12.40 I was in my hotel and was greeted by the same receptionist who had helped me a few days earlier.

The game started off with plenty of Spain possession, and an early own goal had you worried about the Russian team. But they showed that Russian tenacity and stuck to the script working for everything.

When the rain came the locals simply removed their t- shirts to keep them dry.

Topless fans


As the end of the game neared and with the scores now level, you sensed that the Russians were getting more and more confident.

The noise levels increased and they were roared on to victory.

After the match I headed back to the centre of Moscow, there was chaos as thousands of people were swarming into the centre. I tried to access Red Square but they had already closed the entrances.

Bolshoi, Moscow


I watched the celebrations from outside the Bolshoi Ballet, before heading home.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Saransk to Kazan

From Saransk I took the early morning train to Kazan. The station was packed with football fans that had spent the night there. This time I was not on a free FIFA train, it was third class for me today. As it did not depart until 6 am I decided to sit for this 9 hour journey. Everyone else went to bed. On the journey I met a young girl who had lots of souvenirs from the previous nights match between Costa Rica and Panama. She had travelled 4 days by train to get here.

Saransk to Kazan

So far I have highlighted lots of positive things in Russia. The one thing I have not commented in is the service.

Far too many times I have seen Russians deal with a problem, whether it be asking the volunteers for directions, or a query at reception at your hotel. What happens is all the people get together to discuss this. In the meantime someone else may arrive and they are ignored as all four (in this example) staff are busy. This scenario was repeated time and time again in all cities.

Kazan was a pleasant surprise. Once again it has a fortified Kremlin, and inside this were a number of small museums telling the story of the tartars. (In one city earlier I was looking on the menu for something Russian to eat, struggling I opted for the fish and chips because it came with tartare sauce).

Kremlin

This time I had the luxury of a day off as it was a rest day from the football as the first round was over. Now the knockout stage would begin with France v Argentina.

Once again the Argentinians were here in large numbers, as all the South American teams I have seen have been.

Argentinian fans


After the match I had time to collect my bag and find somewhere near the train station to eat and watch the next match.

I asked for the menu to eat and was told there was a 40 minute delay with the food ....I had just enough time. So ordered. After I put the order in they came back to tell me that the delay was now an hour. I did not have this much time, so cancelled the food order. They immediately presented me with the bill for my drink and seemed to expect me to leave.

Kremlin across the water


Instead I spoke to the manager and explained that they could have done things differently. Maybe tell customers one hour in the first place, or even offer the option if food which could be served quickly. I did have time for a salad and a cheesecake before leaving the Uruguay v Portugal game with twenty minutes to go to catch my next and final train to Moscow.

I was only across the road from the station and had allowed 40 minutes. To get into any station railway or metro, stadium or shopping mall, you have to go through security. Your bags are x-rayed, they ask you empty your pockets, and that you switch on any electronic equipment. To exit you must use another door, and then if you want to come back in you go through the whole process again.

The only shortcut I had found was that you did not need to empty your pockets every time, as they did not detect anything.

So there was this to get through and then there was the train. All the trains I have been on have been 15 carriages long. I am not sure how long this is but my guess would be a quarter of a mile. I was in Wagon 1, which of course was the far end.

I was on the train with 20 minutes to spare and heading to Moscow for my last game.

Mbappe is dynamite, but the French defence has flaws

FOR ALL THEIR ATTACKING PROWESS, FRANCE'S BACK FOUR IS PREGNABLE

Firstly, Merci France, Gracias Argentina for a rip-roaring match overflowing with goodies yesterday.

That is what we came to Russia or our televisions for. Top-notch entertainment.

And while Lionel Messi raged against the dying of the light, Kylian Mbappe shone like the morning sun.

The symbolism of the young pretender stealing the crown was an open goal for most journalists.

Mbappe's announcement on the world stage yesterday in Kazan, although he has been dazzling in the Champions League for a couple of seasons, was certainly explosive.

But the Leo Messi comparisons are as daft as those which pit Argentina's No.10 against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Mbappe is not the new anyone, but perhaps a blend of Thierry Henry and (the Brazilian) Ronaldo, combining blistering pace with deft feet and a predator's eye for goal.

At 19 he has so far enjoyed a World Cup as wonderful as Pele's in 1958 aged 17, or more recently Michael Owen in 1998 aged 18.

Pele of course went on to play in three more World Cups, winning two of them to finish with three Jules Rimet trophies.

Unlike Pele, Owen peaked as a teenager. He returned in 2002 and scored twice but his afterburners were not as hot after injuries. In 2006 he limped out of the group stage never to return to the World Cup.

Which of these paths will Mbappe take from now?

Messi could play in Qatar aged 34 and a half in 2022, but his chance of winning the big prize has probably passed. He does not seem to be slowing down like CR7 is but having quit the Albiceleste four years ago, it must be a stretch to picture him at the next World Cup.

He lost but had a good game, providing assists for two of his side's goals and dribbling to effect in the hole of the last third, as he does so well. Argentina also exited with honour, a troubled and below-par eleven whipping up an almighty battle with one of the favourites.

The fact France let in three goals yesterday will provide hope for their forthcoming opponents Uruguay, who boast a superior back line and two razor-sharp and telepathic forwards in Edinson Cavani (if fit) and Luis Suarez.

The French conceded three at home to South American opposition in Colombia in Paris in March and those six goals are proof that quality attacks will breach the French resistance.

Full backs Lucas Fernandez and Benjamin Pavard are often found far upfield leaving gaps behind and centre backs Samuel Umtiti and Rafael Varane are far from error-free.

You cannot argue about their hard-running midfield duo of Ngolo Kante and Paul Pogba or the panoply of talent they have up front, and in Hugo Lloris they have one of the world's best goalkeepers.

But their back four do not measure up to the fantastic four of  Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram who won the 1998 World Cup (Frank Leboeuf replaced the suspended Blanc in the final).

Les Bleus' flowing forward play will certainly bring more goals at the other end however, meaning there is a lot more drama to come from their Russian narrative.

France v Uruguay is this Friday in Nizhny Novgorod.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile