Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Ultimate glory slipping away from Ronaldo

Has Cristiano Ronaldo's insatiable ego blown his chance of tournament glory?

It is impossible to deny he is one of the best players in the world right now, if not ever.

And he has certainly come close - runner-up at Euro 2004 and semi-finals at 2012 - not to mention the last four of the 2006 World Cup.

But as his late penalty against Austria - to seal three points and a knockout slot - whacked the post and bounced away, you could not help feel it is all slipping away from him. 

And you would have struggled to find anyone to sympathise.

It says everything that a man who holds scoring records by the bucketload planted his head in his hands and looked totally, totally alone.

Built like a brick outhouse, with slick hair and a bronze perma-tan, the man with the impenetrable ego suddenly looked at breaking point. 

His cocksure arrogance and bravado may have given him the platform to steamroller scoring charts all over Europe and rewrite the record books.

But his "me, me, me" attitude is not a recipe for success in international football.

Look at some of the sides to win the Euros down the years... Holland 1988, Denmark 1992, Greece 2004, Spain 2008 & 2012. 

Some have had big individual stars, some have not - but the thing they all have in common is a solid team ethic that makes them greater than the sum of their parts. 

England's golden generation had a team full of stars: Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry etc

But they always lacked an overall identity and never came close to international glory.

The same is happening now with Belgium's current crop of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, Alex Witsel. 

Lots of great individuals that seem destined never to realise their potential as a unit. 

When you have an all-time great in your team, it is expected that the team is built around them. 

Argentina with Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, Brazil with Pele and Holland with Johan Cruyff.

But the Portuguese tactics are not so much built around Ronaldo, as reliant on him. 

They push the ball to him and see what he can do. If he loses it, he blames someone else, if someone else loses it, he erupts. 

For a national captain, the 31-year-old does not so much inspire his team-mates as scare the living daylights out of them.

If a team can stop Ronaldo, they can stop Portugal.

And when it goes wrong, once again he's the centre of attention.

In their opening 1-1 draw with Iceland, the Real Madrid ace had to have a whinge that the Scandinavians celebrated a draw. 

They had every right to celebrate - nobody gave them any hope. 

But to Ronaldo, winning is everything. 

This is a man who is so determined to take the glory that he always wants last penalty - that backfired in 2012, as Portugal lost their semi-final shootout to Spain before their best penalty taker even stepped up.

This is a man who stands on tip toes in team photos just to appear taller than the others.

Portugal are not without their quality... Joao Moutinho, William Carvalho, Fabio Coentrao, Nani.

But in Ronaldo they have someone who saps the team of enthusiasm and creativity, such is his own desire to be the hero. 

Messi, his rival at the top of world football, happily shares the ball, the plaudits and the glory with team-mates.

Ronaldo's desperate quest for personal glory gives him no inclination to share anything and is one reason Portugal are on the brink of crashing out of Euro 2016.

It is also the reason Ronaldo’s international trophy cabinet looks set to remain empty.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Hodgson's tactical mystery tour

What a difference an attacking substitution makes, eh Roy?

England survived a bump in the road to see off Wales and Hodgson learned a precious lesson in positivity.

When Daniel Sturridge poked home the 93nd-minute winner, it took the Three Lions boss as much by surprise as the rest of us.

He leapt out of the dugout, wide-eyed and arms aloft, realising seconds later he did not have a clue how to celebrate it.

The puzzled look on his face said: "Can it really be? This attacking lark really works."

Yes Roy, it does. And what’s more players, fans, media and, well, everyone enjoys it a lot more.

With the Three Lions 1-0 down at half-time to Gareth Bale's tame long-range free-kick the fans could not help but fear the worst.

As the England players trudged in at the break, pundits and commentators called for a "big team talk" from Roy.

Nobody really believed he had it in him.

This was, after all, the man who brought three of his "old faves" to France who have barely played all season due to injury.

This was the man who replaced Raheem Sterling with James Milner at 1-0 up against a dreadful Russia side - when it was crying out for Jamie Vardy – only to see us concede at the death.

Never in their history had England overturned a half-time deficit to win a major tournament match. That's a ridiculous stat.

None of us were sure Roy was really the man to break that incredible run.

With the nation crying out for him to send on a striker, we all debated “Will he do it? And should it be Sturridge? Should it be Vardy? 

The players emerged for the second half and there was Sturridge - followed by Vardy.

Harry Kane and Sterling off. Finally some ruthlessness.

To England fans, this was not just a substitution, it was an unprecedented statement of intent: “This game is not done yet."

And he did not stop there – fearless 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford followed later as Hodgson really tore up his textbook.

Roy’s attacking changes may have raised the tempo but they also raised the spirit of England the fans and the hopes of the nation. 

Suddenly Wales were on the back foot, defending in their own box rather than the half way line and starting to make mistakes as the Three Lions prowled the final third.

As soon as Vardy grabbed his opportunistic leveller on 56 minutes, the psychological battle - started by Bale earlier in the week - was won. 

Chris Coleman’s Dragons no longer felt like plucky underdogs landing blows on a fancied opponent. Now they were the hunted, sitting deeper and deeper as they desperately looked to hold on for a point.

In truth, they showed England far too much respect. Attacking substitutions had not turned Wayne Rooney and Co into a footballing force in the space of half-time.

England still struggled to carve out clear chances, were still wasting final ball after final ball and still have a suspect defence.

This 24-team tournament has been swelled by second-rate European sides, whose only option to survive is to defend like their lives depend on it.

Wales need not stoop to that level. They can mix it as an attacking force too. But, what the game in Lens proved was that without the belief they come unstuck.

Fingers crossed they find it again and they can test themselves in the knockout stage. The more home nations who progress, the better.

Careful, considered Hodgson has never had a reputation for rolling the dice. But, to all our shock and surprise, roll them he did.

And he didn't just roll them, he launched them bouncing and tumbling across the table, smashing glasses along the way.

Let’s hope he does the same against Slovakia on Monday and into the latter stages. 

But let’s hope, if it works out, then next time he knows how to celebrate.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Robust policing tells fans: 'Not in our city'

Violence has already wrecked the start of Euro 2016 - it is about time law enforcement steals the show.

Not in a scattergun approach of pepper spray and batons but in a robust and organised fashion to restore faith that security forces can keep fans safe in France.

Trouble flared in parts of Lille last night - mainly involving England fans - as hundreds of riot police charged in to clear the city centre just before midnight.

Most revellers got the hell out of the way, aware their night of chanting and tribalism was at an end. They’ll have sore heads this morning.

Others stood defiantly, raising their hoods and spreading their arms wide as clouds of tear gas filled the air around them. A minority of thugs. They will have sore eyes this morning.

Some, regrettably, did try to pick fights. They will hopefully wake up in a police cell.

Elsewhere, social networks were awash with videos of England fans left to enjoy themselves and getting on fine - that is the rule, not the exception.

Still, the media went into meltdown claiming that “large-scale clashes” in central Lille could be the end for England or Russia. The pictures do not look good. But they never do. And pictures are easier to come by than ever before.

It actually seemed the sort of tactical show of strength the French authorities had failed to demonstrate until now. 

Armoured officers systematically swept through large groups, claiming territory gradually and clearing the city bit by bit. 

England fans may not have started it, they may not have liked it. 

But it was late, locals were tired and fed up of flares and bravado. And, in a city gripped by fear of large-scale ultra-violent clashes, the police had decided the fun was over.

After the three-day festival of violence that turned Marseilles into Tear Gas Central, the police needed to reassess their strategy to prevent a repeat and protect well-meaning fans.

Officers in Lille were accused of over-reacting. That is beside the point. 

What they did was send a message ahead of an England v Wales match that many fear could again attract Russian gangs. That message was clear: Not in our city.

UEFA’s recent disqualification threats mean nothing to the hooligans that are in town purely to cause havoc.  

It is not enough just to wait for it to happen again. The problem needs prevention rather than reaction or people are going to end up getting killed.

Pubs, bars, squares, walkways and a stadium were turned into war zones last week and it is unacceptable that thousands of innocent fans are getting caught up in it and put at risk.

It simply could not continue in that manner.

You can just about understand why hooliganism took France by surprise - since November the country's police have been training to deal with a far more dangerous threat.

But UEFA have no excuse. They have been caught napping amid a misplaced assumption that football could be the unifying force that held up two fingers to terrorism.

How wrong they were. And now it is too late for them to do anything about it.

Disqualification will not stop these guys travelling, their tickets are already booked. It will not stop them fighting, their minds are already made up.

Until the late-night police charges in Lille, French ministers' claims that the area and neighbouring Lens would be in "lockdown" were unfounded. 

Lockdown need not mean curfews, alcohol bans and empty streets. But it should mean strong police lines, total segregation where possible and no tolerance on confrontations.

Yesterday afternoon, given widespread reports and videos, it looked like none of that was in effect.

Police should not be using tear gas as a first option, scattering fans down backstreets and moving the trouble further down the road.

They should not be steaming into bars with shields and riot gear just because some clown has scaled a lamppost in his undies.

In Britain, away fans are frogmarched from stations to stadiums by acutely planned police operations. They use barriers and kettling tactics to calm crowds and keep them away from rivals and key locations.

Why on earth Russia and England fans had been allowed to come together in Lille the last few days was beyond belief. 

Stories of English waiting for Russians at the station and pictures of police littered among groups of rival supporters with no clear strategy all added to a sense of lawlessness creeping back in.

But last night the police finally looked like they had a strategy.

It might not have been perfect, it may even have been heavy handed but English fans must accept that- in the battle to seize back control of Euro 2016 - it was a step in the right direction.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Top 4 on Friday - England and the Dark Arts

Roy Hodgson claimed in the press this week that he would never encourage his players to cheat or bend the rules to their advantage. 

Yet countless times England seem to find themselves on the wrong end of those tricks of the trade that nations more streetwise than ourselves roll out to gain an extra edge.

Ahead of the Three Lions’ EURO 2016 opener against Russia tomorrow, the Top 4 on Friday looks at those occasions England came a cropper to the “dark arts”...

4. Wayne Rooney v Portugal, World Cup 2006

Rooney ultimately paid the price for his refusal to go to ground and take a cheap free-kick in this World Cup quarter-final against Portugal in Germany.

And to rub salt in the wounds it was his Manchester United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo that made it happen.

The Three Lions striker, 20 at the time, was attempting to keep possession just after the hour mark as Portugal players mercilessly hounded and kicked him.

As he lost the ball, and his balance, Rooney’s studs came down close to Ricardo Carvalho's legs and the Portuguese rolled around as if his life depended on it. 

But ref Hector Elizondo was not about to produce a card until Ronaldo pleaded with him and Rooney reacted with a shove. 

That brought a swift change of heart from the official and, as Roo trudged off, Ronaldo’s wink to his team-mates said everything… “Got him!.”

3. David Beckham v Argentina, World Cup 1998

Glenn Hoddle guided England to the last 16 at the 1998 World Cup, ultimately won by hosts France, but our journey was to end here.

We lost, as usual, on penalties but The killer blow was landed long before that.

Locked at 2-2 with Argentina after an end-to-end first half, the second 45 minutes promised to be a corker - until Diego Simeone went in hard through the back of David Beckham.

It was a rough challenge on England's young midfield star and it was compounded by the way he leant on the 23-year-old's back to push himself up.

That was the final straw for Becks, who had taken a few other kicks and shoves, and he aimed a petulant kick at the midfielder's legs.

Job done for the Argies. The force of the kick wouldn't have been enough to hold a door open, but down went Simeone and off went Beckham. 

2. Paul Gascoigne v West Germany, World Cup 1990

This semi-final flashpoint in Turin only brought a yellow card but the ramifications were massive and sent shockwaves through English football, wrecking the chance of a first major final since 1966.

Further still, whereas Diego’s handball was picked up immediately on TV cameras, this one has remained largely hidden even 26 years on, so wily and sly was its execution.

The score was locked at 1-1 in the first half of extra-time and a young Gazza, the unexpected star of the tournament in Italy, showed a little too much of the ball to West Germany’s Thomas Berthold.

Stretching to keep possession, it looked like Gazza had felled the German. But ,if you look closely at a replay from the right angle, you can see he does not touch him. 

That, of course, did not stop Berthed hitting the deck like a sack of spuds and rolling once, twice, three times.

The yellow card meant the end Gascoigne’s tournament regardless of the result and, if the tears and the torment were not bad enough, the penalty shootout sparked a fear of spot-kicks from which England have simply never recovered.

1. Peter Shilton v Argentina, World Cup 1986

This needs no introduction. Diego Maradona’s Hand of God was the ultimate in dark art skullduggery as Argentina saw off England on their way to a second world crown.

With this Mexico quarter-final deadlocked at 0-0 after half-time in front of 114,000 fans and under sweltering conditions, Maradona set off on one of his mazy runs.

Selling Terry Fenwick a dummy and walking past Glenn Hoddle, he tried a one-two on the edge of the box only for Steve Hodge to loop the ball back up towards the keeper. 

And as Shilton raced off his line, Maradona disguised a deft punch to lift the ball over him and into the net. 

Four minutes later, the same man scored one of the greatest goals ever scored but it will be forever overshadowed by the Hand of God four minutes beforehand.

Please follow on Twitter @Taxi_For_Maicon

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Arsenal bid puts Vardy's Euro 2016 fairytale at risk

Just what are Arsenal playing at with this Jamie Vardy shambles?

Not only are they unsettling an England player in the run-up to a major tournament but they risk wrecking their top transfer target’s chance of a lifetime.

Arsenal bid £20million for the Leicester striker on on Friday June 6 and he is clearly considering what would be a massive move for him.

Now he approaches Saturday's Euro 2016 clash against Russia with his head in a spin and that probably counts him out of Roy Hodgson's starting plans - for the opener at least.

Stories like Vardy's come along once in a generation.

He has come from playing in the non-league with Fleetwood to winning the Premier League in the space of four years. 

He now has the opportunity to put the icing on the cake with a memorable display in France but it is under threat if this Arsenal saga continues.

Why on earth did Arsene Wenger and Co find it an acceptable move while he is on England duty?

They might have been looking to get their business done before the Euros - fearing that Vardy might attract even bigger suitors if he shines in France.

But the 24-goal Foxes forward has hardly sidled into view in the last few weeks - he broke Ruud van Nistelrooy's Prem scoring record of 11 straight games back in November. 

A host of big clubs will have been tracking him since then at least and, when it became clear his new deal at the KP contained a get-out clause, that interest will have gone into overdrive. 

Could the Gunners not have made their move the day after the Premier League finished? 

The Emirates club will argue that they expected an answer before England boarded the plane and that it should all have been neatly tied up before the Euros.

That's nonsense. How can you expect a newly married guy to make such a life changing decision in a matter of days? 

Especially when he is about to complete his fairytale season by pulling on the England jersey at a summer finals.

What the whole situation demonstrates is just how desperate Wenger is.

He has been ruthlessly panned by his own fans for lacking in attack and dithering over deals that never come off but in rushing this one, it could backfire big-time.

Ironically in trying to move quickly and be decisive, he will look even more stupid - Arsenal will not come up smelling of roses if they get snubbed by a Leicester striker. 

And they'll look even worse if the front man they are all complaining about, Olivier Giroud, goes on to win the golden boot at the Euros - get your money on it folks.

You have to ask if it is really a sensible move for Vardy anyway. 

The 29-year-old may have hit eight more goals than Giroud, also 29, last season but he is not exactly in the Arsenal blueprint.

Vardy has thrived in a counter-attacking side, getting in behind defences and enjoying enough time to pick his spot while running at pace. 

In Arsenal's fast flowing possession-based system he will be expected to press, drag players out of position and link up closely with team-mates in well-practiced training ground moves. 

Or, more likely, he will be used as an impact sub when Arsenal need to kill off a game on the counter.

That means he goes from main man under Ranieri, playing week in week out, to a handful of minutes each month under Wenger.

It takes him from possible England starter to fringe player and has to be seen as a step backwards for a guy who has been moving forwards at pace for four years. 

That may be something Vardy has thought of and that he is ready for. Fair enough. Or it could be a dilemma he will spend the Euros wrestling over.

But for Arsenal, surely putting his England dream under threat is not the way to seal the deal. And you cannot imagine Hodgson being too impressed either.

At least if the Three Lions do flop in France, in Wenger we have an early contender for a scapegoat.

Please follow on Twitter @Taxi_For_Maicon

Monday, 6 June 2016

England must channel spirit of Euro 96 to succeed in France

TALK of the Euros has been at fever pitch for the last week. 

Euro 96 that is. 

Television, the Press and social media all went into nostalgia overdrive as we all looked back fondly on the tournament that brought the fun factor back to supporting England.

As we all know, England hosted it and were cruelly halted by Germany on penalties at the semi-final stage.

Those clips of Paul Gascoigne’s goal, Stuart Pearce celebrating, Gareth Southgate’s penalty and Baddiel & Skinner’s song still set off the butterflies in the stomach as a national reputation for hooliganism and violence was blown away.

But the biggest thing you notice looking back is just how far a little bit of character can take you.

Terry Venables' Three Lions were panned by the media going into the tournament for a wild night out during their Far East tour.

It featured a number of star players, booze-soaked clothes, a dentist’s chair and a set of debauched photos that set the red-top press on fire.

Alan Shearer had not scored an international goal in two years and England made a rubbish start - but they came through it and took the tournament by storm as our big stars stepped up when it mattered most.

Goal-shy Shearer ended his drought and banged in five to win the Golden Boot.

Gazza silenced his critics with a wonder goal against Scotland before picking apart Holland’s defence in a 4-1 win that saw us top our group. 

And Pearce banished his World Cup Italia ’90 spot-kick miss by hammering in two shootout pens, roaring to the crowd and releasing six years of pent-up frustration.

Then there was boss Venables, an East London wide-boy, respected and loved in equal measure by the group for his ability to have fun but knuckle down when necessary.

You only have to look at the attendance figures for Wembley friendlies to see the difference the 1996 tournament made and how the effect is still lasting, two decades on.

The six leading up to Euro 96 drew an average gate of just 29,341. In the six after, it was 54,201. Now that same statistic is up to a staggering 71,481.

We might not have won the tournament but, that summer, football definitely came home.

Going into Euro 2016 we have none of the controversy of 20 years ago - yet are we really any better off for it?

Yes, we have an exciting core of uninhibited rookies but some of the more established players are failing to step up and share the burden of responsibility.

This side definitely can turn on the style, we saw it in the second half of the 3-2 comeback win in Germany in March.

But lacklustre wins over Turkey, Australia and Portugal have seen turgid and predictable football that is failing to win over the Press and is increasingly worrying the fans.

In Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney, England have the attacking talent to be a real threat in France. We know that. 

What we don't know is who can unlock the ball and chain weighing them all down.

Talk is turning to injury risks and failing formations as we once again start drifting towards a major tournament, desperately devoid of the fun factor that defined 1996.

Who can lift the group and release the pressure valve to bring them all out of their shells?

It might only take a moment - a flash of skill, a moment of genius, or even just a well-placed wisecrack.

But it can prove to be the platform for a whole tournament and, as we have seen, it can last a generation.

Follow on Twitter @Taxi_For_Maicon

Friday, 3 June 2016

Top 4 on Friday - White Hart Lane European nights

Tottenham last week reached a deal to play European home games at Wembley from next season - ahead of a year-long switch to the national stadium. 

White Hart Lane has played an integral part in the club’s European adventures over the years and here we pay tribute with its Top 4 cameos in continental football...

4. Spurs 8 - 1 Gornik Zabrze - September 20, 1961

The first ever European Cup game played at White Hart Lane was a preliminary round the season after winning the double. 

Bill Nicholson’s side lost the away leg 4-2 and looked in danger of an early exit. But we hit back against accusations of being dirty in the away leg and blew the Polish side off the park - a Cliff Jones hat-trick amongst the eight goals.

This narrowly pipped the quarter-final home leg against Dukla Prague, a 4-1 victory in snowy conditions, where Dave Mackay and Bobby Smith helped themselves to two goals each - but Gornik was the game that started it all.

3. Spurs 3-1 Inter Milan - November 2, 2010

Gareth Bale just had to be in there! This was the night our Champions League debut hit top gear as Spurs proved they could mix it with the big names on our way to the quarter-final. 

Bale tore Brazilian full-back Maicon apart for the second time in a fortnight - after his late hat-trick in the 4-3 defeat at the San Siro - and attacking football won the day. 

White Hart Lane singing "When the Spurs go marching in" after Roman Pavlyuchenko got the third will live long in the memory.

2. Spurs 2-1 Benfica - April 5, 1962

This was the closest Tottenham have come to the ultimate prize - and a crowd of 65,000 were rammed into White Hart Lane to see us fall agonisingly short of the European Cup final.

Having lost the semi-final first leg 3-1 in Lisbon, a 2-0 win would have done it but an early goal from Jose Aguas left us needing three. 

Spurs were back in the tie ten minutes before the break when Bobby Smith chested down Cliff Jones’ looped ball into the box and turned to hammer a shot into the top corner. 

Three minutes after half-time we nicked another through Danny Blanchflower’s penalty but Dave Mackay’s header clipped the crossbar as Benfica held out and went on to win the final 5-3 against Real Madrid.

1. Spurs 1-1 Anderlecht - May 23, 1984

Not many teams get to win a European final in front of their own fans - Tottenham have done it twice! We also beat Wolves in the inaugural UEFA Cup final in 1972 but 1984 against Anderlecht was as dramatic as they come. Spurs won on penalties.

An English team winning a shootout? Surely not. Yes, it really happened. Spurs drew the first match 1-1 (when Euro finals were still two legs) and brought the Belgians back to White Hart Lane for the ultimate “glory glory” night. 

Tottenham conceded after 60 minutes and looked headed for defeat until Graham Roberts popped up six minutes from time with an equaliser.

The game headed towards pens and Spurs converted the first four kicks but a Danny Thomas miss had the fans' hearts in their mouths - until keeper Tony Parks saved the next one to win Spurs the UEFA Cup and give boss Keith Burkinshaw the perfect send-off.