Going in…

Going in, who are/were favourites? Surely England, after a staggering-in-a-good-way performance against Ireland and an efficient one against France. (Wales have been okaaay, yes?)

But don’t we all love how history churns up the facts and the feelings about This One in Particular? How the stats befuddle, contradict, re-inforce, tease or spear-tackle what actually happened or will happen?

I just read something about England’s strong record in Cardiff. Then waded through my twitter feeds – apparently sponsored by Scott Gibbs Multinational. Then heard the following through some dreamily duplicitous channel or other; ‘it’s 14 degrees and no wind; the roof will be open; Barry John’s a late change, for Wales – Brian Moore, for England’. What, my friends, to believe in? It’s joyously-slanted carnage, before we start.

Carnage but fab-yoo-lussly so. Opinion, wise and otherwise, flooding the senses (and nonsenses?) like marauding hordes lusting for glory or a pint.

My hunch is England have found an extra, critical gear that may prove too much. But Wales have their strongest squad for years – a squad that has manifestly underachieved, performance-wise, so far, in the tournament – and it would therefore be plain daft not to accept that at home, vee Ingerland, they might *find something*. Wonderful questions remain.

The roles of Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have received particular attention: the former because of both his electrifyingly brave attacking game and the recent English penchant for probing kicks ‘in behind’. Williams has been somehow less dynamic, for Wales, of late but clearly might win them the match, either in attack or defence. He is Proper Welsh in the fearless, lungbursting, ball-carrying tradition. My other Hunch of the Day is that he may find something bloody irresistible at some stage, this afternoon.

Davies is a player. If he had not suffered significant injury, he may already be being described as one if the game’s greatest ever centres. He has that silky-mercurial thing, the capacity to see things invisible to the mere mortals around him, plus a solid and sometimes inspired kicking game. Add in the elite-level non-negotiables (engine, courage, goodish pace, consistency) and you have a serial Lion. My Hope of the Day is that ‘Foxy’ relentlessly oozes class… then scores.

England have been so good, alround, that singling out either their stars or weaknesses feels weirdly inapplicable. Jonny May’s rightly been grabbing those headlines but it’s surely been the powerful performance-levels from 1-15 that have told.  Ireland were smashed and ransacked – Ireland! – France were largely dismissed. The despised Red Rose has to be respected, in rugby terms at least, for epitomising something so impregnably, communally awesome.

This latter phenomenon of course will merely serve to heighten desire amongst the Welsh. The arrival on their patch of a brilliant, ‘all-powerful’ England is tailor-made for the next instalment of this most tribal of fables. Going in…

Poor decision from the ref offers first chance to England. A kick from 40-odd metres. Suits left-footer more than right (despite being within Farrell’s range) but Daley pushes it slightly nervously wide.

Wales have good field position but their lineout again proves vulnerable – to a fine leap from Kruis. Noisy, frenetic, as expected, early-doors. Quite a number of England fans in the stadium: “Swing Low” gets whistled down.

Kick tennis. England in the Wales 22. Important defensive lineout for Wales. Again England make trouble – winning a free-kick. Wasted, by Farrell, with an obvious forward pass. “Ferocious start”, says Jiffy on the telly. He’s right. No score after 15.

Finally some points. Penalty almost in front of the posts – contentiously given, usual issue, scrum failure – Farrell accepts the gift. 0-3.

Couple of flashes, from Liam Williams but no significant line-breaks from either side. Wales penalty; again kickable but Anscombe aims for the corner. Wales secure the lineout then gain a penalty; should be a formality – is. Anscombe from 18 metres. 3-3.

From nowhere – well, almost – Curry runs through unopposed from ten yards out. All of us thinking “how the hell?” Farrell converts, to make it 3-10.

Immediately afterwards, Curry robs possession again, as England gather control. Wales must raise it – the crowd sense that and try to lift them. It is Wales who are under more pressure.

Finally, Wales find touch deep in the England half. But…

Lineout is clean but knocked forward from the tip-down. Frustrating for the home side – and crowd.

Feels like a big moment as May breaks out, chasing his own kick, deep. Parkes gathers but May, visibly pumped, hoiks him easily, bodily into touch, before bawling into the crowd. Wales hold out – just – and the half finishes with the visitors deservingly ahead. 3-10.

Consensus among pro pundits is that Wales must be more expansive – but clearly there are dangers around this. Slade, May and co can be pret-ty tasty in an open game.

Second half. Pacy, lively start. Eng, to their credit, look at least as likely as Wales to throw it wide. Nowell and Slade both prominent. They force another Wales lineout inside the 22.

England look to have pinched it again but they’re penalised for using the arm. So Wales escape but England better – dominating. *Bit of feeling* between the players, now.

Messy period follows; happily for Wales this results in May being penalised for holding on, after gathering just outside his 22. Anscombe nails the penalty.

It felt vital that  Wales troubled the scoreboard next: England seem simply a tad better, thus far and therefore unlikely to concede many points. Now the deficit for Wales is back to 4 points, at 6-10. Can the crowd change the mood? They’re certainly trying, now.

England may be a tad rattled. A high tackle by Sinckler (whom Gatland had baited, remember?) offers Anscombe another straightforward pen: accepted. 9-10 and game on. Wales have barely threatened but they are absolutely in this.

England, through Tuilagi and Vinipola, respond. Biggar enters, to a roar. Who has the nerve for this, now?

Earlyish Man-of-the-Match contender Curry strips Parkes again, to offer Farrell a 35 metre kick, in front. Slotted. 9-13.

Possibly the first sustained onslaught from Wales. Through at least one penalty advantage, via seemingly endless crash-bangs from the forwards, they finally score, through Hill! Predictably, Biggar succeeds with a truly testing conversion. The crowd is now a real factor. Wales lead 16-13.

72 minutes. England must produce… but suddenly Wales are bossing it, with Biggar already influential. Williams follows the stand-off with an inspirational kick-and-chase. Both players catching balls they had little right to claim. The crowd love it: the players are visibly lifted. Fabulous turnaround – England look done, Wales irresistible.

Hymns and arias.

The Finale. Biggar, with a ‘free play’, hoists one laser-like crossfield. Again, the Welsh player is second-favourite. Again – this time through Adams – it’s the Welsh that come out on top. Adams scores in the corner!

Huge, huge win. Wales were second best, by a distance for 50 minutes. They turned it round. At the end, they were undeniable – wonderfully so. They ran all over Jones’s men, who looked shell-shocked and muddled when they had to be focused, ambitious and bold.

The England camp will be furious and distraught. If it was The Plan to stay with a kick-based game and out-biff Wales, that plan was deservedly (and some would say righteously) exposed. Gatland’s lot were too tough, too organised and ultimately too hearty to capitulate to that. Wales endured… and then they roared.

*Mild cough*. Man of the Match? Liam Williams.

 

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Marker.

Wow. A wonderful and possibly intimidating few anthem minutes, as the mythic ‘whole of Ireland’ stands tall, is followed promptly by a remarkably assured and attacking two minutes from the visitors. Farrell fires one riskily wide but flat; a further sharp exchange and May is in. The skipper caps off a stunning start with a crisp conversion. 7-0.

The try scorer then hurries a clearance kick to enter touch on the full: the subsequent phases end with mark being called by the same player, under some pressure. Play goes back, though, for a penalty and Sexton pots an easy one. Game on, inital nerves shed.

Playing conditions are significantly better than in Paris but it’s already clear that Proper International Rugby has broken out, here. The only notable error in the first 13 minutes is from the England flanker Curry, who misjudges a hit on Earls and is binned. Marginal but nonetheless infuriating for Eddie Jones, after an impressively solid start from his side. Ten demanding minutes to come.

They survive it, manfully throwing a blanket across the park – even breaking out, at times. It’s tense but the players look watchful and engaged.

Ironically, 45 seconds after Curry’s return, Ireland batter a way over in the corner. The combination of forward power and relentless baying from an impassioned crowd enough to make that score inevitable. Sexton drills a beauty through for the extra points. 10-7 after 26.

England respond. Farrell and Daley dink a couple of probing kicks to test out the new fullback’s mettle. Henshaw is quality, for me but the second of these does create some angst – to the point that Daley drops onto the resulting spillage, in Stockdale and Ireland’s ‘Huget moment’. Farrell dismisses the conversion through the sticks, magnificently. 10-14 now, to England.

It may not be exhilirating but this is engrossing – raw competitive in the extreme but disciplined, largely and fluent enough. England look close to their powerful, all-court best, as the half approaches. Best throws a skewed one, close to his own line and England have the scrum five yards out.

The melée delivers nothing conclusive. Neither does the review; Vunipola is denied, reaching and diving for the score. Penalty given, mind, and again Farrell smashes it through nervelessly. 10-17 does not flatter England as the ref blows.

Cat and mouse for ten minutes. Then England surge through the phases, left and right. They seem destined to grab more, possibly decisive points. They don’t.

Instead their attack breaks down and Ireland hoof ahead. Again the ball on the ground proves murderous. From nowhere, Ireland have pressure: ultimately that counts. Sexton penalty, 13-17.

As expected, defence from both teams is both organised and brutal. Everybody appears to be tackling like Tuilagi. England lose Itoge, injured and the changes start. Almost shockingly, the flawless Farrell misses a presentable penalty and the tension ratchetts up yet further, despite the measure of control exercised by the men in white.

Joy for Slade as he combines with May before winning the foot-race to the line. It’s reviewed (for possible offside) but the try counts. In the 67th minute the visitors’ lead has stretched to nine points and their combination of composure and guts looks like it will tell.

When Farrell makes a huge penalty – right at his limit – the lead is 12 points. Given that Ireland have very rarely threatened, this is now a relative cruise. Slade – looking strong and gifted on this most demanding of occasions – somehow intercepts, juggles and scores. Farrell converts.

13-32. Bonus point. We’re looking at an awesome win, a special marker, now.

Fair play, Ireland respond. An opportunistic try, with Sexton drop-kicking the conversion as we enter stoppage time. It ends 20-32.

If Wales’s win yesterday was extraordinary for its deliriously scruffy drama, this was different level. Ireland are a fine side: today they were well, well beaten. Of course it’s merely the start but this was such a complete performance that England will justifiably be favourites for this tournament… and seriously competitive *beyond*.

 

 

 

My life’s the disease.

Friday 14th December. From a caff in a retail park. Enough.

Mourinho moaning at a presser. God what a yawn! His joylessness, his deathly narcissism. That ever-present, insulting hostility.

He’s been magnificent, of course – back then. When his energy felt irresistible and young. When his players loved him. When he really was a coach and mentor supreme.

Now he just moans. At an ungrateful universe, at fans, at the media. His contempt for everyone, for their lack of appreciation, is extraordinary. It swirls around him – around those pressers – like a virus. More than anything else, these days, it defines him.

It’s a given that contemporary journo’s are pretty much unable to ask Proper Questions of our elite managers but Mourinho’s brutishness marks a depressing low, on this. He’s out to bully all of us – those who dissent, those who query, those who recognise his tapering, diminishing powers. It’s both fascinatingly pathological and appalling.

Once he had a real, positive presence. He could motivate, in those critical, private moments; pitchside at the training-ground; pre-match. He was coruscating and undeniable – the most proactive coach on the planet. Scorching and soaring; at half-time, re-invigorating, re-ordering if need be.

Now the sense is of something – someone – utterly uncoupled from the will and the heft of those days: a man cruelly, manifestly unable to shape outcomes. Yes, he’ll make those subs; yes he’ll mull darkly and tinker… but nobody’s listening. Or worse – nobody believes. United are drifting and flailing and falling in front of the world.

Distantly, some bathos.

It may be that Jose always secretly wanted to lead United; there may be a touch of melancholy around that? He knew, he felt the weight of all that history.

What if he got to them eight years or so, ago? When he was a great. When the club were ripe for another round of their trademark, lungbursting, emoting glory. When he could have shaped it.

Now, he just can’t. Look at Rashford. Look at Pogba. Look at Mata. Lost, in their different ways. Painfully short. Crying out for skilled, sensitive, inspirational man-management. Lost.

We’re drawn into something inescapably moral, here: riled, provoked. Because United-era Mourinho makes many of us strike out towards something freer, better, more generous. (He’s a symbol, after all). You don’t have to be old-school to want football to break out – philosophically and in practice.

Who cares if we sound like romantic old fools? Imagine Rashford under Redknapp, or Klopp, or anyone with the heart, the soul, the essence, the interests of football coursing through their veins. Imagine being unwilling or unable to unweight that fabulous bundle of talent!

Mourinho appears to be both – appears both reluctant and professionally incapable, now, of both. If things were different, we might be sorry for him. But no. His loss – that descent into irrelevance, impotence – feels directly related to his own, sullen withdrawal. In a cruel universe, Jose is suddenly deservedly feeble.

The coach can’t play but he – she – builds the environment,   makes the whole bigger and the individual better. Mourinho’s blunted bravado kids no more: he’s a coach who can’t or doesn’t want to coach, preferring instead to count down the days to salvation – to the next ‘window’.

Things are brutal. United are beyond flawed, beyond what is acceptable. It’s gone.

The manager may get yet another major job – who knows? But this club (and arguably football) don’t need him; not anymore. He should have gone some time ago.

Strange ghosts.

Juventus United; as big as they get?

Yes and no. Yes Juve have a certain megastar and some authentic *players* but United, United are strange, or estranged, or something. There’s a consensus – remarkably, perhaps – that this team has some quality (of course) but few of the qualities we might associate with proper Red Devils.

Go through the side and see how many settle into the kind of glorious-amorphous, universal United of the Ages. Or even the Plainly Fit to Wear the Shirt Eleven.

De Gea, certainly, Pogba potentially. Otherwise, I like the case for Mata as the kind of player United should pick and – strangely? – Luke Shaw for his ambition, his vital surges.

Beyond that, who? Rashford and Lingard plainly not yet. Martial? Good currently but not for me. Young, almost, but like Valencia, more a committed Pro than a truly high-level player. Matic a tremendous foil to theoretically enable the full-on rampant unleashingment of a brilliant attacking midfielder – but merely  a goodish international water-carrier, in himself.

More than this lack of quality, United lack direction, sustained energy – lack soul.

This feels like a betrayal and is understood that way by many – inside and out of the club support. The manager’s Trumpian darknesses – utter self-obsession, cynicism – have robbed the Mighty Reds of their romance and, frankly, much of their enduring appeal.

That Mourinho doesn’t, when it comes to it, give a toss about energy and style, is self-evident. That he really is past his sell-by-date, as well as past the moment where he deserves our respect, may be more a matter of opinion – but one I am untroubled by sharing. His team have sunk generally into the muddle of dourness and bad faith – or faithlessness – characteristic, apparently of the man. They are not United.

So this enormous occasion is strangely haunted, before we start, rather than brimful of evocation and memory.

Bung on the telly, half seven. Maybe half-hoping to see Roy Keane or Giggs or something which might light up that hope, that symbol, that reflex. Something lungbursty or flying-forwardy.

Nope. It may come, I suppose but BT, ludicrously, have Rio, Scholesy and Hargreaves on the settee; i.e wall-to-wall Proper United Blokes talking *realistic* shop. United ‘aren’t seeing the pictures’. There’s ‘no pattern’. We’re counting down to Juve v MU and it’s sounding quite dispiriting. Understandably.

Then The Mourinho Tunnel Interview. He’s not actually hostile on this occasion – merely typically ungiving. Hey but things could happen. Let’s watch.

De Gea’s birthday. 28. Won’t be here for his 29th, you’d think. Mata and Fred dropped, Lingard back, Herrera starts.

Moral victory for United as Szczesny flares a shockingly nervy strike out, about ten yards up the park. Pogba may be playing an advanced, central midfield role.

Lingard breaks out but the counter fizzles out. Cuadrado – right up there, for me as an over-rated player – gifts the ball to United in midfield but again no joy. However, after ten minutes, the visitors are looking decent.

First whiff of a chance falls to Juve, as Betancur is allowed a yard or two in the box – the shot deflected wide. Juventus now have a period of possession and some thrust, high up the pitch. Notable that the arch-stopper Bonucci ventures deep into the United box in open play.

United have predictably gone with Matic and Herrera central and deepish; 18 minutes gone and it’s working. The team shape seems good: Pogba freer. Positive energy around the pitch.

Dybala creates some minor fluttering at the heart of the United defence, following a beautiful first touch. In the aftermath Chiellini clunks Sanchez to offer the respite of a free-kick, thirty yards in front of De Gea. It’s alarm-less, in a good way, for MU.

I’m just thinking United look like a stronger side than they have done for months – a quality side – but then Matic swings a shockingly lazy pass to nobody, whilst trying to be the Cool Maestro in midfield. Embarrassing and possibly revealing in the moment, but no damage done.

Mourinho (if he does thrilled) will be quietly thrilled, on the half-hour. 0-0.

Out of nothing, Cuadrado beats Shaw too easily and his shot – deflected across Matic – is pawed into the six yard box by De Gea. Cleared.

First really poor moment from United follows. Smalling and Lindelof go missing as Khedira has time to turn and manufacture something, twelve yards out. His shot is scuffed, weakish, against the outside of the right-hand post. An escape – the first.

38 minutes. United beat away a series of corners and medium-threatening attacks. Dybala a central influence for Juve; Ronaldo peripheral, as is Pogba. (In fact Ronaldo is positive but peripheral, whereas Pogba is poor and the same. A concern).

As is the ease with which a further cross comes in from Shaw’s left flank. The young defender a tad befuddled, this time by some typically extravagant trickery from Ronaldo. Must apply himself – will get an earful during the break, I suspect.

The half closes with a corner for Juve, who have latterly been on top, without really opening up the opposition. The ball curls in but two clearing headers bring relief and the whistle.

Still no score; a good but not sparkling performance from Mourinho’s side. He will want more of that effective defensive shape, plus more involvement and more effect from the attacking midfielders in particular, second half. Juve are clearly strong but have not looked yaknow, *immortal*.

Dybala (not Ronaldo) looks to be their star. Early after the break he finds space in the box before arcing, turning and  swirling a shot. De Gea has no chance. It doinks against the top of the bar. It’s both a) the night’s finest moment so far b) the harbinger of a barrage from the United bench, aimed (I think) at Lindelof. Criminal to be ‘on it’ all over the field then sloppy in your own box.

58 minutes. The first sequence of play (or ‘plays’) for United for some time. Lingard and Martial involved – after a period of drift. Matic again flips a weird, lazy pass wide to no-one. No chance is fashioned but good.

Juve respond, Ronaldo curling in a cross from the left which Shaws attacks courageously before Cuadrado can strike.

Wow. A stunner. Bonucci drives an innocous but decently-weighted ball beyond United’s defenders. Ronaldo reads the path of the ball as it drops from over his shoulder. He volleys it, majestically, past the keeper. It’s godlike.

Drawing breath (and watching the re-run) we can certainly criticise the United defence – it was too easy. But bollocks to that. It was magnificent, it was Roy-of-the-Rocers, it was Top, Top Level.

Within two minutes the score might be two, as United shake off the shock unconvincingly. Juve, you sense, might blow most teams away after that; why would United be any different?

Sure enough, Ronaldo puts one on a plate for Cuadrado… who hoiks over from ten yards, max. It’s opened up and there is real danger, here: Lindelof not alone now, looking lost in space.

Rashford is in for Lingard. There looks no way back, for Mourinho’s men, despite an improved performance. Mata and Fellaini on – somehow the reds need to get from likely losers to unlikely winners. A second for Juve seems more likely.

It really does… but United hang in there… and Mata curls in a beauty to make it 1-1!

Ridiculous, but resulting from some sharp, skilful play by Martial, who had played wall pass ping-pong to create the opportunity.

88 minutes and Young lifts and curls another free-kick from out wide on the left. The keeper flaps, Bonucci fumbles and the ball is in the home net again. Unreal.

Gets more so. Two minutes later and Rashford is absolutely in but blazes against the keeper. Poor miss, in truth.

Doesn’t matter. As the ‘surefire cruise’ to a Juventus victory from woah, fifteen minutes ago doesn’t matter. United have only gone and won it.

Almost hilariously (but not quite) Mourinho stokes the anger of the home crowd, provocatively posturing on the pitch. Predictable perhaps, that even this fabulous finale is not simply a moment for joy for him – that it needs to be about him.

He will and should take some credit, mind. Despite a ver-ry mixed performance from Pogba and lightweight or perhaps more exactly uninfluential contributions from the likes of Lingard and Sanchez, United scored a famous and important win, built on good team shape and application.

They were competitive, they defended well as a team and when United’s central defenders were exposed, they scurried around and recovered. Juve deserved to be 2-up after about 75 minutes but United pegged them back: then they nicked it.

As a purist and sucker for that romance we talked of earlier, I’m chuffed for Mata. His free-kick was a waving of the wand, a delight. He can do this *from nowhere* – he can twinkle. ‘Course he can; he’s United.

United.

Unscientific poll. How many of us wondered about watching United on telly but were then partly entrapped by Football Focus… and partly repelled by how poor and under-charged Mourinho’s Listless Posse were, in the first half hour, at Bournemouth?

In scooting past, let me say I really did enjoy FF: it felt engaging and bright and kinda warm; unlike United. Nice features and Alex Scott and Dion Dublin – okaaay, despite not being strikingly inventive or original, maybe – were again genuinely good company. Unlike, we may be tempted to add, United… or Mourinho.

Okay, as I write MU have replied to Bournemouth’s deserved but nonetheless shockingly poorly-defended strike, making it 1-1at half-time. So they’re ‘in it’. In fact they could be metaphorically buried, already, and possibly their manager too, had the entirely possible scoreline of Bournemouth 3 Manchester United 0 been realised.

The fascinatingly authentic, raw and yet intuitively smack-on pairing of Redknapp Snr and Scholesy are currently unpicking United’s performance – presumably before an irate Gary Neville bursts into the studio, wielding a meat-cleaver.

Second Half. A whiff of urgency, following (surely?) another tirade from Jose the Furious. Luke Shaw bursts forward, collecting a decent return from Martial – should score but for a slightly heavy touch. But, as both Fred (who had pitifully thrown himself, earlier, feeling hands on his back) and Mata are unceremoniously hoiked around 55 minutes, the game has utterly changed.

Logic twists around this. It’s plainly true that United are suddenly a force – meaning Mourinho’s roasting has worked. Yet it’s also self-evident that there should have been no need. Young’s fabulous, bar-rattling free-kick and Herrera’s curler, plus the general, stirring re-boot, simply should not have been necessary. Not at Manchester United. Not at any team which manifestly needs to show some affirming, nay validating grit.

So why the bore and then the bollocking?

We find ourselves – inevitably(?) – with Mourinho. What’s the quality of his work, his influence, these days? Should he stay or go?

I think he should go. His influence, from Press Room to touchline, is somewhere between sour and outright malignant. His squad is certainly dispiritingly ordinary – go look, I just did – but the bloke has had years and extravagant funding towards improving it. The Coach sets the culture and mixes the chemicals: both are currently baleful.

88 minutes done. Might I be saying something else, had either Rashford or Lingard converted reasonably straight-forward chances? Absolutely not. Rashford’s disappearing presence speaks volumes around Mourinho’s exhausted capacity to inspire… but hang on.

As I write this the lanky, recently gawky-looking number 9 – previously a thrillingly energetic and directly protagonistic ‘handful’, remember – bundles a winner. Six yards out, having chested down rather unconvincingly, Rashford converts… and charges to the corner-flag to bury himself in the love (and relief) of the fans. There is the love of ‘one of our own’ in the air.

So extraordinary. United were useless then ‘in it’ then on top: somewhat crudely or gracelessly on top. Then they won.

That this wasn’t the kind of win that great teams manufacture through temporary blips goes without saying. Mourinho’s United are joy-sappingly ordinary. For me – he goes.

 

 

The Man Who Missed That Pen.

I will be updating this post live. Foolishly. Ghoulishly, perhaps.

 

Call it pre-match nerves but I feel a preamble coming on. No – worse. A pre-ramble.

I think it’s a fact that most of us with any interest in Ingerland were a little disappointed when Southgate was appointed; we feared that traditional lack of bite, spark, genius amongst England Managers would go on. Simple. The bloke’s another Fairly Bland One, reassuringly measured, non-controversial, after the boorish moron Allardyce. That’s what we thought.

Today at fourish, interviewed by the accomplished Gabby nee Yorath of the Beeb, he again piled up the evidence of our chronic underestimation. Not just eloquent but witty. Not just calm and responsible and shrewd but streetwise and persuasive. Clever but humble in a particularly good way.

I still harbour concerns but in the rough and tumble of things – if, specifically Colombia duff up his Young Lions later – I will be writing to my MP to express furious injustice and note to the universe that ‘Southgate has holistically transformed the way of things around the national team: that indeed may be his signal achievement, whatever happens, results-wise’.

England, under Southgate’s direction, are simply way more intelligent. Or are they?

In the sense that Southgate is palpably operating at a high level of sensitivity and awareness in respect of man-management – yes. With regard to playing style – yes (probably).

The Gaffer absolutely gets that the massaging or manouvering of egos or frailties is as central here as anywhere. By that I mean in any team the leader must understand the blend, the chemistry… but then be able to intuit (or rally, or bully) towards effective action or choice beyond.

Some people get that, some don’t. Southgate is strong in this – stronger than noisier, more obviously ‘inspirational’ managers, perhaps? Increasingly, it seems possible that his apparently quiet way is a way to create something surprisingly mercurial; players playing beyond expectation.

So a positive view really might suggest that largely because of the exercise of these soft skills (and of course essentially good tactical knowledge) the Man Who Missed That Pen has steered a refreshingly enlightened course. This doesn’t change, if England lose tonight: neither do my concerns.

Despite Southgate’s excellence, I wonder if too many of his players might feel the heat, if not literally, then via that fearful blowtorch conjured through brutally-heightened exposure and (that word again) expectation. I have been both supportive and critical of Sterling and remain concerned about his capacity to drift or disengage from Big Challenges. Let’s start with him.

I understand the guy’s a talent but would I be offering him that lynchpin/unpicker/punisher number ten role? Probably not. He’s been too anaemic too often and despite his goals for City his finishing is often dispiritingly poor. If you were twisted enough to bet on somebody ‘disappearing’ then maybe it would be him.  (I hope I’m wrong on this and if so then this will be another triumph for Southgate-as-Quiet-Wizard).

Elsewhere, Lingard’s progress feels patchy and like Rashford’s his talent appears inconsistently expressed. Hope he and his United colleague (who we imagine will start as sub, yes?) can get their incisive, threatening heads on rather than those wasteful ones.

The main threat to England, though seems likely to be from carelessness or overplaying at the back. Stones, Maguire and Walker can look fabulous and imperious but all have an error in them. With that in mind, I’ll be kindof expecting Colombia to press crazy-high and hard, early on, to try to force a clanger. If England do concede – especially through a goalkeeping or defensive howler, then that enlightened culture is going to be tested… which is as it should be, eh?

Enough, for now. It’s 17.57 so I better start my own, intensive warm-up.

18.50. Southgate on ITV, now. Cool. Emphasises ‘mental resilience’. Prob’ly read the blog? Then bloody adverts.

18.55. Glenda as Chief Pundit? Na. Get him to chip the keeper,  or hitch his shorts up… but talk? Nah.

18.58. Anthems.  An away game, then, for England.

Time for a ridiculous prediction? I think England are 4-1 better than Colombia. But that’s ridiculous!

Last thought, pre-kick-off, looking at the team. Not great quality but the blend… hmmm.

19.02. Neither team pressing really high.

19.05 Chance for England. Free-kick in danger zone, followed by threatening cross but disappointing corner.

19.08. Early signs that Lingard looking brisk and sharp. But Alli may be doing that too-cool-for-his-own-good thing. Maybe.

19.15. Great full-back’s tackle from Trippier – comprehensively robs the winger. England on top but no chances so far.

19.15. Brilliant move from England. Trippier flies round on overlap and ver-ry nearly finds Kane at the far post. Can’t get over the header.

19.20. Decent game. England dominating, as expected, Lingard and Kane going well.

19.22. First half-chance (nearly) as the ball squirts across the England box, then wide. Falcao can’t capitalise and his left-midfielder blazes ludicrously over.

Colombia into the game. England happy to drop in to a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 out of possession.

19.28. No sign of Alli in the game. Sterling quietish, too – or unable to make anything happen.

At that, he has his first decent run… but slightly wimps out on the shot or the killer pass.

19,32. Some girlie physicals from Cuadrado, on Maguire. This would be the Cuadrado who was an embarrassing failure in the Premiership – as was his team-mate, Falcao. Falcao at least looks like he wants to be involved, tonight.

19.35. Any momentum England had… now lost.

19.38. Clumsy challenge on Kane offers the England talisman a juicy 23 yarder. Around which, there are handbags.

Henderson, rather crassly provokes some physical contact with the head from from Barrios. The Liverpool man then does a Neymar, the lead commentator talks garbage… and Trippier – not Kane – doesn’t make anything of the opportunity. The game has become feisty and scrappy.

19.40-odd. Now expecting more a tense, messy 1-0 to somebody – or maybe 2-1. Can’t be certain if Dele Alli is still carrying a knock but either way you’d be tempted to hoik him at the half and prepare Rashford for the usual Sterling swap soon after. (Interesting test for Southgate’s positivity, that). The City man’s been unconvincing – ineffectual.

After a good start for England, the game reaches the half goalless and rather ugly. Opt not to listen to the over-hyped discussion about a potential red card. Cobblers; Henderson stoked it then faked it – can’t be more than a yellow for that!

Also… didn’t enjoy Maguire – who was close to the incident and therefore will have seen Henderson’s exaggeration as well as the defender’s lack of discipline – gesturing for VAR. Bit cheap, I thought.

Second Half.

First thought; really hope England don’t chicken out and ‘play patient’, in the expectation of a late goal or extra-time. Think they’re better playing with energy – think that instinctive, hearty stuff is contagious.

20.11. Lingard again lifts the pace and offers a threat. Almost.

20.14. Nice in-curling free-kick from Young nearly offers Maguire a free header… but no.

Then; MOMENT.

20.16. Kane is pretty much shafted by his marker (Sanchez) during yet another embarrassing fracas at a corner. Ref rightly gives a pen. It takes about an hour to placate the outraged Colombians before the England skipper nervelessly clips it home.

Real danger that England could get sucked into the anarchy, here. The Colombians are frankly out of order at almost every moment, early in this period. Henderson is foolishly booked, for responding. Daft.

20.23. With the overwhelmingly pro-Colombian crowd in a fury, their players join in. Falcao is prominent in some shocking and intimidating abuse of the referee. There appears no way that the South Americans can finish the game with eleven on the park..

There is almost no football, now – just spite. The experienced Young, fouled but hardly decapitated, has a long lie down to take the sting out of things.

20.30. Minor moment of casual petulance and frustration gets Lingard – England’s best forward player – booked. Then England gift one or two further, unecessary free-kicks away – but not in defensive positions. Stones, notably, remains staggering composed in possession; Maguire is not far behind on this; he also carries the ball forward with some purpose and offers a threat at the occasional set-piece.

20.36 means only about 15 minutes to see this out – if that’s to be England’s approach.

20.37. Lingard, breaking almost clear, throws away most of his brownie points by patently trying to draw a pen instead of smashing it past the keeper. Cynical and depressingly dumb. Could have won the game right there.

20.42. Dele is finally removed: 20 minutes late. Dier.

Oof. Walker offers Colombia their  best chance of the night. In space and with a decent angle, Cuadrado drives unimpressively over.

Things are urgent, suddenly for and from Colombia. Falcao leaps over Henderson to only head tamely. There is some angst but little in the way of real threat. The disappointing Sterling makes way for Vardy.

20.51 & we have five minutes extra. Feels like England should be okaaay… until Pickford has to pull off a worldie, for a corner.

MEGADRAMA though, as Mina, the centre-back nods it down-but-then-agonisingly-over Trippier… and into the net! 1-1. WOW.

Extra Time.

Firstly, there are now questions. About Lingard’s spurned opportunity; about whether Tripier misjudged the scoring header. Maybe too, about Southgate’s arguably reactive management. Alli was muted at best throughout – could’ve been hoiked way earlier. Sterling did okay but again lacked that killer instinct; I wouldn’t have started him.

21.03 it says on my ipad, as the whistle goes. Controversy immediately as Young (maybe more than his opponent) show the studs a little in a 50-50. Both inevitably roll about a bit.

Random thoughts: Henderson done little. Kane I think pretty ordinary in the second half. An almost complete lack of composure from nearly everybody on the park, now. Except Stones. Probably.

Dier’s come on and done nothing right – almost comically. Some signs maybe that Maguire’s legs have gone. A sense that Colombia are more likely.

Suddenly there’s no core to England. The central defenders can’t thread the ball into midfield – certainly not centrally. Rose is on for Young so England do now have pacy wing-backs but it’s Colombia who are playing with more verve and commitment, now. As the first half of extra time comes to a close, England look… if not gone… then up against it.

The Colombian huddle is characterised by positive energy – belief, maybe?

21.23 and the first chance falls clumsily to Vardy. His left-foot volley wouldn’t have counted – he’s off. Soon after he gets a second chance… but fluffs it, rather, disappointingly.

For some time, Henderson and Lingard have gone missing – or at least ceased to be influential. *Except* Lingard runs on and on, almost profiting after a good move from the right.

Rashford is on. Dier misses a golden chance, heading poorly, wildly over when absolutely unmarked, eight yards out. Ouch.

I had a feeling England might win it 4-1. Because of Lingard and Kane. Now, we have penalties.

Normally I’d wander off, disinterested at this point. So I will… after one more thought.

Southgate’s done well; he just doesn’t have the players. Except that just maybe, he does – the right complement of players. Young’s obduracy for Sterling’s relative frailty? Lingard’s running for Henderson’s one-pacedness? Kane’s killer-striker thing, absent elsewhere. This is Southgate’s team: could it yet be his triumph?

 

 

Three Lions Meltdown… averted!

So England win. Probably Southgate deserved that. But there are *things*…

  • Sterling. We have to take care around Sterling, because the poor lad has had so much flak and much of it has had a racial component. I’m pretty clear that my long-held view that he’s a good player but has serially lacked the presence/confidence/bottle to take on the no. 10 role for England is not partial – it’s simply a football judgement. He was obviously weak again tonight. He will likely stay in the side because of a reasonable(?) level of loyalty from Southgate and because England won: he’s a lucky man in that respect.
  • Henderson was heroic in that workmanlike way that average international players can be. He was available, he nosed the ball around, fair play to him ; that stuff demands courage. But let’s again say the obvious: whilst he is pickable (because any side needs balance) he should not be England’s go to man to break team’s down or create an irresistible surge. He’s not good enough for that.
  • Kane nicked two goals, both half-decent finishes but for me his overall contribution was below par. Not enough physical presence, not enough movement and shocking that he didn’t rip the ball out of Ashley Young’s hands for that free-kick on the edge of the box. That moment was made for a captain, centre-forward and budding icon and Southgate should be having a quiet word about it. Kane should be winning more balls in the air, too – particularly hoofs down the park from Pickford. A) This is part of a centre-forward’s job. B) Given the generally poor standard of international defences, imagine the carnage that the occasional well-directed flick-on (to Lingard or Rashford) might cause.
  • Lingard played in occasional bursts but again missed presentable chances. In that way he resembles Rashford, whom we all like (right?) but who shares that tendency for wastefulness. The two are useful and sometimes electrifying but they are both still playing too fitfully – too much like teenagers – to be in the starting eleven together: unfortunately.
  • Alli may have been crocked from the outset – although this would seem to be an un-Southgatelike possibility – but he started brightly before disappearing, alongside Kane. He is a talent but another one who is burning waaay too sporadically. I quite like his spiteful streak, though not his propensity for raw cheating, which is at a more grubbily cynical level than Sterling’s weirdly childlike tumbles. (Not that Alli cheated tonight; he simply ghosted out of it.)
  • Stones and Maguire were untroubled generally (though not flawless) but it was the Burnley man who was a worthwhile protagonist going forward.
  • The keeper looked settled enough, though he was almost completely untested.
  • At full-back, Young played at his usual predictable pace, delaying throw-ins, setpieces and the flow of England’s game. (He is fortunate indeed to be in the side – presumably this is courtesy of his ’reliability’, experience and physical resilience). Trippier, on the right was excellent – or excellently positive. Keen, sharpish, urgent, bolder than anyone; unfortunately for him, playing at a higher tempo than his comrades seemed prepared to join with. He may destroy feeble Panama on his own.
  • England started hugely encouragingly but did drop into standard tournament mode briefly in the second half; self-pitying, directionless, unwilling or able to raise a response to opponents sniffing a Three Lions Meltdown. Maybe they were even a little lucky to get the win, so late, so simply, from such a defendable dead-ball situation?
  • But Kane’s finish – from Maguire’s lusty header – was both instinctive and skilful… and surely deserved, overall.