Saturday, June 03, 2006

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I'm unsure of what to make over this Peter Crouch business. Obviously, this sort of thing is all very amusing, but I can't help but be concerned that he's just giving people another stick to hit him over the head with if it all goes wrong for him this summer. At least he has almost certainly done something that will land himself a very lucrative advertising contract once the finals are over. Without wishing to come over all Mystic Meg or anything, I'm already having visions of a Pizza Hut advert with him dancing like a robot in it. Possibly while Rio Ferdinand wees into a specimen bottle in the background.

At the moment, it's all going very well for him. When he was thrown on against Argentina in December, you could almost visibly see their defenders looking at each other as if to say, "what... the... FUCK... is that?", but he had the required effect, providing sufficient confusion to give Michael Owen the space to score the two late goals to win the match. He has visibly grown in confidence since then, and has seen off many of his detractors with solid displays for both Liverpool and England since then. I'm still not completely sold on him - £7m is a lot of money for a striker that only managed ten goals last season, but several things strike me about him that are making him grow on me. The aforementioned strength of character is one. Being booed onto the pitch must be one of the more humiliating things that a professional footballer can experience, but his performances since then have justified him being in the England team. He also strikes me, when interviewed, as being an articulate and intelligent young player, and intelligence is a much under-rated commodity in modern football. Most of, though, he is winning around his detractors with his game. It's almost a cliche now to comment on the atrociousness of his aerial ability for somebody 6'7" tall, but on the ground he is turning into something rather special. He appears almost impossible to get the ball off on the ground, and acts as an ideal foil for Michael Owen. Obviously, you would trade a fit Wayne Rooney for him but, as replacements go, he's not a bad one.

Every once in a while, when watching football, a thought strikes you - "how the hell was this allowed to happen?". For example: how the hell did Peter Shilton win well over a hundred caps for England? It says something for the paucity of English goalkeeping since the car crash that robbed Gordon Banks of the remainder of his England career. Four years ago, and this still surprises me, Danny Mills was the natural choice to play at left-back for England. Then, of course, he was found against Sweden and his international career was in a downward spiral from then on. The current favourite in this respect is this: "how the hell has Owen Hargreaves secured himself a place in the current England squad?". Like most people, I was enthused when it became apparent that there was a young player in the Bayern Munich squad that was qualified to play for England. I wanted him to do well. A few years down the line, though, and I can't help but wonder if this is all a confidence trick dreamt up by the DFB (the German FA) and Bayern. Have they cooked up Owen Hargreaves in the expectation of playing England in the second round this summer? I can almost imagine some Herr Flick-esque DFB official cackling with Jurgen Klinsmann and saying, "the stupid English have fallen for it - they won't be able to resist playing him against us if we're drawn against each other. And then VICTORY IS ASSURED".

Hargreaves seems to have neither the first touch nor the spacial awareness required for international football. His entrance onto the field of play is usually a sign that something is going terribly wrong on the pitch. Yet still Ericsson keeps faith in him. In an ideal world, Rooney or Crouch would be partnering Michael Owen up front, but knowing Ericsson's cautious mind-set (the tactical up-shot of which was a singular inability to take the game to Brazil at 2-1 down four years ago, even though Ronaldinho had been sent off. Why do people forget that Ronaldinho was sent off? Because it didn't look as if Brazil were playing with ten men), I wouldn't be surprised to see Owen starting up front on his own, with Hargreaves sitting in front of the back four. It depressing, but it's likely. The newspapers this week have been widely reporting that Hargreaves is to start against Jamaica this afternoon at Old Trafford. It's not often that you pray for a mediocre performance by an England player, but this may be one such occasion.

This is my biggest concern for England this summer. I think that they can win the World Cup, even with out Rooney, but... two years ago, England took an early lead against Portugal and tried to defend it. Four years ago, when Ronaldinho looped in that free-kick, there was no Plan B. This summer, England have to play to their attacking strengths. They have four midfielders and one striker that are proven international goalscorers. I am just slightly concerned that Ericsson sometimes forgets a fundamental philosophy: to win football matches, you have to score more goals than the opposition, not concede fewer.


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