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2016 NFL predictions

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I’m always terrible at this. Don’t listen to me.

Full game predictions here

AFC East
1. Patriots (12-4)
2. Bills (10-6)
3. Jets (7-9)
4. Dolphins (5-11)

Tom Brady starts the season suspended but even though every single one of his back-ups has gone on to be terrible at every other team, there’s no reason to think they will totally sink. The worst that can happen is that they lose all those games he’s missing for, but even then, knowing the Patriots, they’ll just win every other game he’s there for instead. We aren’t getting rid of them any time soon, no matter how many daft trades Bill Belichick makes.

Meanwhile, they finally do it! I’m tipping Sexy Rexy Ryan and his walking gif of a brother to guide the Bills back to the play-offs for the first time since 1999 and to end the longest play-off drought in the NFL. The title would be handed over to the Browns, obviously.

The Jets…went 10-6 last year? Really? That’s not happening again any time soon. I’d say 8-8 is the ceiling. I can’t see there not being a drop-off in Todd Bowles’ second season, especially as (I think) they’re still holding about 18 quarterbacks on their roster at the moment. Or something like that. None of them are actually any good.

The Dolphins are crap and will continue to be so for a while yet. The frustrating thing for them is they continue to be not crap enough for good draft picks, although that’s probably a blessing in disguise as they would waste them anyway. It says a lot about how bad the NFL is at the moment that this Dolphins team continues to win more than a couple of games a season.

AFC North
1. Steelers (12-4)
2. Bengals (11-5)
3. Ravens (9-7)
4. Browns (2-14)

The Steelers have an annoyingly good team at the moment and I don’t see them losing the division. As long as Roethlisberger doesn’t get mashed into a million pieces (and to be fair, that’s not exactly out of the question), they should go deep into the play-offs, as you’ll see later.

The Bengals have a toughish opening which may affect them through the rest of the season as they could be playing catch-up in the division – away to the Jets, away to the Steelers, home to the Broncos, home to the Dolphins (OK, that should be easy), and away to the Cowboys. Given how good the Steelers are now, that puts them in the prime position for their annual Wild Card Round defeat. The Bengals are the Arsenal of the NFL – the yearly “this is the year the Bengals push on to the Super Bowl” routine followed by the standard loss in their first play-off game never gets old.

The Ravens can’t possibly be as bad as last year, but I’m not convinced they can immediately jump back to being the Ravens of old – I mean in terms of performance, rather than pure evil, which they will no doubt continue to be. Joe Possibly Elite Flacco should be a steady enough hand to guide them to at least .500.

I feel like I might have been generous to the Browns giving them 2 wins. Or any wins at all. They are baaaaaaaaaad. The rotting remains of RG3 can’t save this team. I’ve predicted the unfortunate victims of this dross to be the Giants and the Chargers, both in Cleveland. Even that is optimistic.

AFC South
1. Colts (11-5)
2. Texans (8-8)
3. Jaguars (7-9)
4. Titans (3-13)

There are massive question marks over the Colts after last year but I still think they will be passable enough in what is a desperately mediocre division. A functioning Andrew Luck is still comfortably the best QB here, possibly even the best QB in the AFC. They still should make the play-offs.

There’s a certain amount of “the Texans are improving” stuff going around but their QB is Brock Osweiler, who lost his spot in the Broncos team to a man who couldn’t feel his arm and was hobbling around on one leg. Lamar Miller is an improvement at running back on the basis that he’s healthy. JJ Watt is coming back from injury. Clowney’s a bust. It’s all on the defence and Hopkins. I don’t see them making the play-offs.

The Jaguars also have a bit of hype about them, but this is the Jags that we’re talking about. The moment they look vaguely decent, their best players will spontaneously combust on the field and they will return to being 2-14 terrible. I don’t see this team getting above .500 before the inevitable move to London.

The Titans are coached by Mike Mularkey. They will still be terrible. I find it hard to give a shit.

AFC West
1. Chiefs (11-5)
2. Broncos (8-8)
3. Raiders (8-8)
4. Chargers (4-12)

In the current AFC, the Chiefs have enough good players, a good enough QB and a good enough coach to do reasonably well. The problem is they will forever be stuck at “OK-to-mildly-good”. Even when they got the first pick of the draft, they spent it on a mediocre offensive lineman. They are Vimto – nice enough as a one-off but I could never drink it on a regular basis.

The Broncos have Mark Sanchez at quarterback. They will not be good.

The Raiders are upwardly mobile but I’m not sure they’re ready to make the next leap, even with the Broncos in decline and a bang average AFC in general. They might scrape the last wild card spot but I really doubt it. Amari Cooper will be really good, though.

The Chargers are treading water until Spanos gets the stadium he wants, be it in San Diego, Vegas, San Antonio or some other gullible metropolis willing to sell its soul to the devil for an NFL presence for about 15 years. The same goes for the Raiders to a point, but at least the Raiders have some vaguely promising prospects. The Chargers are still relying on Christianity’s Philip Rivers. Once Rivers is gone, this team will nosedive.

NFC East
1. Cowboys (9-7)
2. Washington (7-9)
3. Eagles (6-10)
4. Giants (6-10)

The Cowboys are an easy candidate for bouncing back now that Romo and Dez are healthy again. The problem is Romo and Dez usually aren’t healthy for very long. Dez is a walking questionable status. He may already have past his peak at 27. I have him in fantasy. This is not good. Meanwhile, Romo’s body continues to fall apart. Once his sternum gives way in week 4, rookie Dak Prescott will be thrust in and, err, that’s a risk. But this is a crap division which they should still win.

The Washington football team is still bang average. Kirk Cousins is yet to be traded. They got rid of Alf Morris and Matt Jones is now injured. Dan Snyder is vile and also chasing a new stadium. And yet – AND YET – it’s still very plausible that they could win the division. Fuck the NFC East. It’s terrible.

Chip Kelly’s finally gone. So is DeMarco Murray (why did they do that thing again? That was dumb). Doug Pederson was a really unconvincing appointment. Sam Bradford is a really unconvincing QB. OL Lane Johnson is suspended. This team has very little going for it, without being as abysmal as several other teams. But at least Kelly’s gone.

Tom Coughlin is also gone, removing the final traces of sanity from the Giants. This may be the year they finally plunge off the deep end. Ryan Nassib is now entering his fourth year as Eli Manning’s back-up, and not once has another team looked to trade for him, which is not a good sign. Behind him is Logan Thomas, who the Cardinals couldn’t even trust ahead of Ryan Lindley when they lost Carson and Stanton two years ago. JPP has half a hand and can’t tackle any more, and they lost their leader in sacks. They are very reliant on Manning and Beckham. Far too reliant.

NFC North
1. Packers (14-2)
2. Vikings (10-6)
3. Bears (7-9)
4. Lions (4-12)

Disclaimer: I am a Packers fan. But then I’m normally pessimistic about my team’s chances (in any sport), so this is essentially a prediction for us to 16-0 and win the whole thing. With Jordy Nelson coming back, we should be stronger. At the very least, I can’t see us losing the division. We do seem all set for another heartbreaking loss in the latter stages of the play-offs.

But for Blair Walsh, the Vikings could have eliminated the Seahawks last year. Could have. But they didn’t (and anyway it was a weird game in freezing conditions). They have some good parts to this team and should still get a wild card spot but I can’t see them finishing ahead of the Packers this time. I like Teddy Bridgewater and I wish he could throw the ball.

When Jay Cutler has his annual injury which keeps him out of 2-3 games, the Bears will have to turn to Brian Hoyer or Connor Shaw – not one shit ex-Browns QB but two. Did they come as a buy one get one free deal? Also they got rid of Matt Forte. It’s all on Alshon now, guys? D’you think the other teams might pick up on that? Not sure, myself.

RIP Megatron. RIP any need to be interested in the Lions.

NFC South
1. Panthers (13-3)
2. Falcons (7-9)
3. Saints (7-9)
4. Buccaneers (3-13)

The Panthers will regress, no doubt, but they are still by far the best team in a terrible division. I’ve got them going 5-1 in the division but that could so easily be 6-0. Cam is still Cam, one of the best QBs in the NFL. And they have Kelvin Benjamin coming back. I don’t see them not being good again

The Falcons are such a non-entity. 7-9 just seems the right final outcome for them. I don’t see them winning 9 games. I don’t see them being terrible. Matt Ryan is alright. Julio Jones is still there. Devonta Freeman is still there. And they still lack talent in every other area. Meh.

The same goes for the Saints, although I think they may be more prone to a complete collapse. With Sean Payton and Drew Brees they still should prove to be a difficult opponent, especially at home. But if Brees hits the cliff (it’s the final year of his contract and he’s now 37), the back-up plan is Luke McCown. Ugh.

The Bucs are so nondescript I accidentally left them out of this originally. Says it all really.

NFC West
1. Seahawks (13-3)
2. Cardinals (13-3)
3. Rams (7-9)
4. 49ers (2-14)

The Seahawks will never go away now. Their nauseating tedious bluster which supposedly passes for “character” is here to stay. This is the image the team will maintain, regardless of however they build their team from now on. If there was any karma, Russell Wilson would fall off the pitch straight into Richard Sherman’s lap, ending both their seasons. But that won’t happen. They’ll stay good.

Apparently the Cardinals got to the NFC Championship Game last year. The Cardinals are good again now? Really? Carson Palmer won’t allow that to stay that way for long. Don’t worry – he’ll either return to mediocrity or lose a leg in time for them to lose in the play-offs again, so we won’t have to consider the prospect that they might actually win the Super Bowl, which will never happen. (Fate tempted sufficiently there, I think – I’d actually quite like them to win it, or at least get to the Super Bowl, because that would be infinitely preferable to the Seahawks AGAIN)

So the Rams are in Los Anguluss now, yeah? Good, it won’t make any difference. Jeff Fisher is still the head coach. He’s been head coach since 2012. Nothing has changed. No forward progress. Nada. Same old. It’s Case Keenum or a rookie at QB, so they’ll be relying on hurly burly from Gurley then. Another great player wasted on a bang average team.

And finally we come to the Santa Clara 49ers, who have come down faster than the walls of Candlestick Park. Colin Kaepernick is now no longer preferable to Blaine Gabbert, who lost his starting job in Jacksonville to Chad Henne. By that extension, Chad Henne would be starting QB here. Maybe new signing Christian Ponder does have a shot here…nah, that’s probably a bit too far. Either way, this team is still terrible and it will be a lot of fun watching them be terrible, because this is an awful organisation and Chip Kelly is a fraud.

Play-offs

Wild Card Round
Chiefs beat Bengals
Colts beat Bills
Cardinals beat Cowboys
Panthers beat Vikings

Divisional Round
Steelers beat Chiefs
Patriots beat Colts
Seahawks beat Cardinals
Packers beat Panthers

Championship Games
Steelers beat Patriots
Seahawks beat Packers

Super Bowl LI
Seahawks beat Steelers

Ugh, that’s depressing.

Written by James Bennett

August 25, 2016 at 23:14

Posted in NFL

24-Team Euros: success or failure?

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Poland v Portugal - EURO 2016 - Quarter Final

So Euro 2016 is over, and the narratives are already forming about how good a tournament it was, particularly with reflection on the expansion of the Euros to a 24-team format. It seems a lot of people are disappointed and are blaming the expansion for diluting the quality of the tournament and the lack of entertaining matches.

Except…this is a narrative that’s been in place for years – since the announcement of the expansion was made, in fact. There have been “concerns” it would dilute the quality, compared to the great 16-team tournaments of the past, particularly Euro 2000. This never really went away.

In the circumstances, it feels very much like confirmation bias to blame the extra teams for this. They were not the problem with Euro 2016. The fact that we had some new teams, often from smaller countries, freshened up the scene and provided some great stories. By and large, they weren’t all that defensive anyway – Hungary, Wales and Iceland all shouldn’t be regarded as defensive teams as they scored plenty of goals and were involved in several entertaining matches. The subtle blame from the likes of the English seems misplaced – although hardly surprising considering they lost to one of those new teams, eh?

The main problems were twofold. Firstly, the format of qualifying for the last 16 which meant teams could afford to play it safe – this was the format the 24-team World Cup settled on because the alternative, two group stages, was trialled for several World Cups and failed. There is no satisfactory format with 24 teams that could work better without having more games for each team, which seems to be something most countries would want to avoid.

Secondly, if anyone stunk up the tournament with mediocre football, it was the regular qualifiers, none of whom seemed to be more than a sum of their parts. England, Russia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Sweden were probably the five most disappointing teams in the tournament, all of whom looking disorganised and uninspiring – none of them could be described as minnows.

Even the giants of European football were ultimately underwhelming – Spain limped through the group and it wasn’t particularly surprising to see them dumped out shortly after that, while Germany and France progressed deep into the tournament without ever looking like very good teams and there is a sense of justice that neither of them won it in the end. Only Italy of the traditional elite looked like a handy team, and even then this was considered to be a weak Italian squad due to a lack of quality strikers and the injuries to Claudio Marchisio and Marco Verratti, their two best central midfielders.

However, I don’t see anyone blaming these teams for being the problem at this Euros. For my money, it was not the depth of quality of the tournament that was the issue – the celebrated 2014 World Cup had an overall lower standard of defending, which is what made it so entertaining. It was the best teams just not being that much more incisive than the rest, which harks back to Euro 2004, ultimately leading to Greece’s victory. Similarly, a lot of blame can be put on the managers of these teams – Del Bosque, Deschamps, Low and Hodgson all made poor decisions and stuck to players that didn’t deserve to be in their squads or starting XIs.

Even then, the evidence that this was a “boring” tournament when compared to two years ago or previous Euros doesn’t hold up beyond the group stages. The knockout stages saw more goals than the 2014 knockout matches, while the total number of goals across the quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals was higher than that of 2012. While goals aren’t everything, it’s clear that the perceived lack of entertainment isn’t unique to Euro 2016 – knockout matches in international tournaments have rarely been particularly attacking games due to the high stakes. The problem is by that point the narrative that this was a “bad” tournament was already set in motion by that point, as in 2010, so it’s hard to undo that later on.

What this comes down to is that international football has been primarily based around defensive organisation for decades, at the very least since the 1970s as demonstrated by the great West Germany team of that period (though even the fabled 1966 England team was seen as unattractive at the time). As club football has seen increasingly intricate tactical systems, it has become harder to organise international teams and thus it’s so much easier to just play defensively. Greece’s Euro 2004 win epitomised how it’s possible to win tournaments just by getting limited players well-drilled.

Additionally, everyone takes different memories away from a tournament. England fans are typically nostalgic about the 1990 World Cup despite it being a very dull tournament and England’s performances being dour and unspectacular. Moreover, they probably won’t take away great memories of this tournament, as the dour, unspectacular football they played didn’t bring results on this occasion. Meanwhile, Wales fans will no doubt remember this tournament fondly for their team’s success. I’m not saying it always comes down to whichever team you support, but you’d be a fool to not consider how it plays into people’s perceptions.

The fact is international football is generally not as entertaining as Premier League football – that’s always been the case and is unlikely to change any time soon. The 2014 World Cup was a one-off and will be rose-tinted about for decades – people remember the high points, such as the high-scoring matches, but will conveniently forget the dull final and the Argentina-Netherlands semi-final that ended goalless after 120 minutes. It was always going to be hard to live up to an inaccurate nostalgic depiction of the previous tournament.

The format clearly has to be worked on, but it’s only one factor of several. But compare this to Euro 96, the first Euros with 16 teams. It was far worse than Euro 2016 – of the 7 knockout matches, 5 went to extra-time, 4 went to penalties (including both semi-fnals), and 3 of those were goalless. Of the 2 matches that finished in 90 minutes (both being quarter-finals), one finished 1-0 and one finished 2-1. And yet four years later, in Euro 2000 we had the tournament regarded as one of the finest of the modern era. It clearly wasn’t the format that was to blame.

As such, it’s worth giving this 24-team format another go. Certainly it would be a terrible, regressive idea to go back to 16 teams, because the benefits of having extra teams that wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for major tournaments have now been demonstrated. As a result, the only solution beyond that is to expand further, which I don’t believe would dilute the quality much further – the gap between the 24th-best team and the 32nd-best team in Europe is far smaller than the perceived gap between the 16th- and 24th-best teams.

Even so,  I can’t imagine it’d be popular with fans of big nations like, say, England – after all, that’s another 8 teams they could be knocked out by…

Written by James Bennett

July 11, 2016 at 17:17

The 2006 FIFA World Cup revisited, part 1

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We’re approaching 10 years since the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a tournament remembered for entertaining matches, absurd goals, and Wayne Rooney stamping on a man’s bollocks. Given that the anniversary itself is being overshadowed both by anniversary nostalgia for another great tournament (Euro 96) and by an actual tournament happening, I thought I’d do a retrospective team-by-team guide to the World Cup, to see how much/little has changed in the decade since:

Group A

1. Germany – 9 (+6)
2. Ecuador – 6 (+2)
3. Poland – 3 (-2)
4. Costa Rica – 0 (-6)

Germany

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Squad:

1. Jens Lehmann (Arsenal)
12. Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich)
23. Timo Hildebrand (Stuttgart)

2. Marcell Jansen (Borussia Monchengladbach)
3. Arne Friedrich (Hertha BSC)
4. Robert Huth (Chelsea)
6. Jens Nowotny (Bayer Leverkusen)
16. Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)
17. Per Mertesacker (Hannover 96)
21. Christoph Metzelder (Borussia Dortmund)

5. Sebastian Kehl (Borussia Dortmund)
7. Bastian Schweinsteiger (Bayern Munich)
8. Torsten Frings (Werder Bremen)
13. Michael Ballack (Bayern Munich)
15. Thomas Hitzlsperger (Stuttgart)
18. Tim Borowski (Werder Bremen)
19. Bernd Schneider (Bayer Leverkusen)
22. David Odonkor (Borussia Dortmund)

9. Mike Hanke (Wolfsburg)
10. Oliver Neuville (Borussia Monchengladbach)
11. Miroslav Klose (Werder Bremen)
14. Gerald Asamoah (Schalke 04)
20. Lukas Podolski (Cologne)

Captain: Michael Ballack
Head Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann

Never count out the Germans, etc. Germany entered their World Cup as many major tournaments hosts often do – in poor form, under enormous pressure and with expectations dropping. This reached the point where Jurgen Klinsmann, who had taken over as head coach following a disastrous showing at Euro 2004 under Rudi Voller, had seemingly already decided he was off at the end of the tournament regardless – maybe he realised that he would be found out as the massive fraud he is had he stayed on for another two years.

And yet you look at this side and think “not much was expected of THIS team?” I suppose hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s true that numerous players here had been underestimated – probably due to the typical lack of knowledge English pundits have for players who don’t play in England. But even so, surely it was obvious there was some ability in this team.

The team was fairly stable throughout the tournament. The goalkeeping situation that provoked the most controversy. Lehmann and Kahn’s relationship had reportedly reached Dutch levels of animosity when the former was given the starting job and the latter was left to bench-warm with Timo Hildebrand, although it cooled as the tournament progressed and Lehmann had an outstanding tournament. Kahn got a farewell appearance in the third place play-off; Hildebrand didn’t. See what being a miserable bastard gets you?

As with numerous German teams past and present, the weakness is at full-back, since Philipp Lahm was and still is yet to be cloned. Lahm played on the left in 2006 (hence cutting inside onto his right foot for his wonder goal against Costa Rica), with Friedrich (typically a centre-back) filling in on the right. Metzelder was the stand-out centre-back, while the 21-year-old Mertesacker blossomed enough alongside him to earn a move to Werder Bremen after the tournament.

The experienced Schneider and inexperienced Schweinsteiger operated on the flanks, with Ballack and Frings inside. Odonkor, a surprise call-up whose career would be ruined by injuries, was a regular off the bench. Klose finished as the tournament’s top scorer doing what Klose did best: score lots of scrappy goals from close range. Strike partner Podolski was as inconsistent as ever.

The truth is, though Germany did actually play very well, they were a bit fortunate with their draw. They weren’t given a particularly tough group, and were lucky Sweden capitulated in the second round without offering much of a threat. Argentina should have beaten them; Italy eventually did. At no point did they ever look like the best team in the tournament, but they were the hosts which did count for something. And this was at least a fun team to watch.

Ecuador

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Squad:

1. Edwin Villafuerte (Deportivo Quito)
12. Cristian Mora (LDU Quito)
22. Damian Lanza (Aucas)

2. Jorge Guagua (El Nacional)
3. Ivan Hurtado (Al-Arabi)
4. Ulises de la Cruz (Aston Villa)
5. Jose Luis Perlaza (Olmedo)
13. Paul Ambrosi (LDU Quito)
16. Giovanny Espinoza (LDU Quito)
18. Neicer Reasco (LDU Quito)

6. Patricio Urrutia (LDU Quito)
7. Christian Lara (El Nacional)
8. Edison Mendez (LDU Quito)
14. Segundo Castillo (El Nacional)
15. Marlon Ayovi (Deportivo Quito)
16. Luis Antonio Valencia (Villarreal, on loan to Recreativo Huelva)
19. Luis Saritama (Deportivo Quito)
20. Edwin Tenorio (Barcelona SC)

9. Felix Borja (El Nacional)
10. Ivan Kaviedes (Argentinos Juniors)
11. Agustin Delgado (LDU Quito)
21. Carlos Tenorio (Al-Sadd)
23. Christian Benitez (El Nacional)

Captain: Ivan Hurtado
Head Coach: Luis Fernando Suarez

Ecuador were kind of a surprise, except they shouldn’t have been, given that this was such a weak group. Their progression was essentially sealed when they beat Poland, the only team likely to challenge them for second place in the group, in their first game. Suarez, later manager of Honduras in the 2014 World Cup, got them well-organised enough to concede few goals (2 clean sheets out of 4 is reasonable), and they were good enough going forward to score some goals.

At the heart of the defence was Hurtado, who by the start of the tournament had accumulated 130 of his eventual 168 caps and was playing in Qatar (only another seven transfers to come, Ivan). He is now a left-wing politician. Alongside him at right-back was English-based De la Cruz, who is also now a left-wing politician. He is one of six of this squad to have played in England, the others being Kaviedes, Delgado, Castillo, Valencia and the late Chucho Benitez. As you can see, there were varying degrees of success.

The wingers Valencia and Mendez were perhaps the most talented attackers in the team, the latter being one of the most underrated South American players of the decade and the only player to feature in all three of Ecuador’s World Cup squads (thanks to Walter Ayovi’s omission here). Carlos Tenorio and former Southampton striker Delgado grabbed two goals apiece, while former Crystal Palace striker Kaviedes celebrated his late goal against Costa Rica with a Spiderman mask, a tribute to his late team mate Otilino Tenorio who had died in a car crash a year before.

Their eventual exit was rather predictable; they were taken apart by Germany in the final group game which set them against England in the second round, and not even Sven could fuck that one up. They probably weren’t in the top 16 best teams in the tournament, but the record books show they were. A feel-good story, which Germany and England killed.

Poland

2006-06-20-poland2-in

Squad:

1. Artur Boruc (Celtic)
12. Tomasz Kuszczak (West Bromwich Albion)
22. Lukasz Fabianski (Legia Warszawa)

2. Mariusz Jop (FC Moscow)
3. Seweryn Gancarczyk (Metalist Kharkiv)
4. Marcin Baszczynski (Wisla Krakow)
6. Jacek Bak (Al-Rayyan)
14. Michal Zewlakow (Anderlecht)
18. Mariusz Lewandowski (Shakhtar Donetsk)
19. Bartosz Bosacki (Lech Poznan)

5. Kamil Kosowski (Kaiserslautern, on loan to Southampton)
7. Radoslaw Sobolewski (Wisla Krakow)
8. Jacek Krzynowek (Bayer Leverkusen)
10. Miroslaw Szymkowiak (Trabzonspor)
13. Sebastian Mila (Austria Vienna)
16. Arkadiusz Radomski (Austria Vienna)
17. Dariusz Dudka (Wisla Krakow)
20. Piotr Giza (Cracovia)

9. Maciej Zurawski (Celtic)
11. Grzegorz Rasiak (Tottenham Hotspur, on loan to Southampton)
15. Euzebiusz Smolarek (Borussia Dortmund)
21. Ireneusz Jelen (Wisla Plock)
23. Pawel Brozek (Wisla Krakow)

Captain: Jacek Bak
Head Coach: Pawel Janas

Well, it was nice of Poland to turn up eventually – 2 games, 0 goals, 2 defeats, eliminated already, 1-0 down to Costa Rica, and then they suddenly realise they are a half-decent World Cup team and find 2 goals from a centre-back to win a game, to avoid the humiliation of finishing bottom of a group they were expected to qualify from. It wasn’t quite rescuing a bad situation but it was at least damage limitation – an upgrade from being pelted with rotten vegetables to just having a few bad headlines.

Poland had qualified as the best runners-up in UEFA, finishing only a point behind England after the English had decided to somehow lose to Northern Ireland and make it look closer than it actually was. It’s a strange one because the other teams in the group shouldn’t have been terrible – a Wales team that nearly qualified for Euro 2004, a Northern Ireland team that would nearly qualify for Euro 2008, and a solid Austria team that did OK at Euro 2008. The squad is theoretically alright too.

But there’s no magic there – aside from Magic Zurawski, anyway. It’s not at all inspiring. The only Lewandowski there is a defender. The only good performance was a defensive one: the stand against Germany, eventually with 10 men, that was cracked in stoppage time by Oliver Neuville.

I’d have hated to have been Polish watching this team, with memories of 1974 and 1982, of Deyna, Lato and Boniek. Why didn’t they beat Ecuador? Because Ecuador presumably interesting-ed them to death. Good on them. Shame Costa Rica didn’t hang on too.

Costa Rica

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Squad:

1. Alvaro Mesen (Herediano)
18. Jose Porras (Saprissa)
23. Wardy Alfaro (Alajuelense)

2. Jervis Drummond (Saprissa)
3. Luis Marin (Alajuelense)
4. Michael Umana (Brujas)
5. Gilberto Martinez (Brescia)
12. Leonardo Gonzalez (Herediano)
15. Harold Wallace (Alajuelense)
22. Michael Rodriguez (Alajuelense)

6. Danny Fonseca (Cartagines)
7. Christian Bolanos (Saprissa)
8. Mauricio Solis (CSD Comunicaciones)
10. Walter Centeno (Saprissa)
14. Randall Azofeifa (Saprissa)
17. Carlos Hernandez (Alajuelense)
20. Douglas Sequeira (Real Salt Lake)

9. Paulo Wanchope (Herediano)
11. Ronald Gomez (Saprissa)
13. Kurt Bernard (Puntarenas)
19. Alvaro Saborio (Saprissa)
21. Victor Nunez (Cartagines)

Captain: Luis Marin
Head Coach: Alexandre Guimaraes

The first game was a false dawn: in scoring two against Germany, they had given them and the rest of us false hope that this Costa Rica team, spearheaded by a Premier League hero of the past back for one final flourish, could win one or two thrillers and somehow progress by sheer will power.

Unfortunately they just weren’t very good. It probably says more about Germany (and their hilariously bad defending that day) that they were able to score 2 in that first match. Granted, a couple of these guys were a part of the true giant-killers of 2006, and Wanchope and Solis had been good enough to work their way into the Premier League in the 1990s, but this wasn’t a particularly talented team. The three players who played outside Costa Rica in 2006 played in Italian Serie B, Guatemala, and MLS. Only Saborio made a name for himself after this.

Maybe it’s just me being judgemental towards Central American teams that aren’t Mexico, which I know little about and never really do much at World Cups, but this was a pretty shit team by World Cup standards. They had at least won a game in 2002, when they beat China, then held Turkey to a draw, and even put 2 past Brazil (albeit conceding 5). But four years on, they had regressed somewhat – their best players were the wrong side of 30 and it probably made the difference. It was a real shame after that first game.

Group B

1. England – 7 (+3)
2. Sweden – 5 (+1)
3. Paraguay – 3 (0)
4. Trinidad and Tobago – 1 (-4)

England

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Squad:

1. Paul Robinson (Tottenham Hotspur)
13. David James (Manchester City)
22. Scott Carson (Liverpool, on loan to Sheffield Wednesday)

2. Gary Neville (Manchester United)
3. Ashley Cole (Arsenal)
5. Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)
6. John Terry (Chelsea)
12. Sol Campbell (Arsenal)
14. Wayne Bridge (Chelsea, on loan to Fulham)
15. Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)

4. Steven Gerrard (Liverpool)
7. David Beckham (Real Madrid)
8. Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
11. Joe Cole (Chelsea)
16. Owen Hargreaves (Bayern Munich)
17. Jermaine Jenas (Tottenham Hotspur)
18. Michael Carrick (Tottenham Hotspur)
19. Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur)
20. Stewart Downing (Middlesbrough)

9. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
10. Michael Owen (Newcastle United)
21. Peter Crouch (Liverpool)
23. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Captain: David Beckham
Head Coach: Sven-Goran Eriksson

Ah England. Specialists in failure, as Jose might say. This was supposed to be the Big One. “Our Moment”. In the last World Cup, England had scraped out of the groups primarily because of a smash-and-grab win over a vastly superior Argentina side, before getting dumped out by Brazil. That being said, this was an England team which had lost two key players (Gary Neville and Steven Gerrard) to injury, so we’ll let them off; it was an overachievement to get as far as they did. By Euro 2004, things were looking a bit brighter: they should have beaten France, they did beat Switzerland and Croatia, and were unfortunate to lose to Portugal on penalties.

However, in hindsight, it’s at this point that things start to unravel. This was already an unbalanced team, stacked in some positions, but with a reluctance to compromise: yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am of course referring to Lampard and Gerrard. It’s impossible to avoid this when talking about mid-2000s England. At this point, we’re talking Beckham and Scholes too, and then Joe Cole as well after Scholes decided he wanted no further part of this rabble, allowing him to retreat with his reputation in tact. It was utterly daft to play them all together. But of course it made sense too: they were high profile players with large personal/club followings and large sponsorship deals. There would have been massive uproar if either Gerrard or Lampard had been dropped for Owen Hargreaves, who should have been key, but he was laughed off until the end of the tournament, when everyone collectively realised he was actually good. Of course, after that his knee, sensing it was a part of the England setup, realised that it needed to give in, and England lost perhaps its most vital midfield cog of that generation of players.

The line-up for 2006 that always springs to mind is Robinson; Neville, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole; Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Joe Cole; Rooney, Owen. But actually that XI never played in the tournament. Rooney of course started the tournament on the sidelines injured, so Crouch got the nod for the first two games; Wayne came on after an hour for Owen against Trinidad and Tobago. Then Neville got injured and missed the next three games, with Carragher starting the next two and Hargreaves against Ecuador. Hargreaves also started the Sweden game in place of Gerrard, which was the only game where Owen and Rooney started together; as we all know, Owen then busted his knee after four minutes, being replaced by Crouch. After this, England played 4-5-1 in the remaining games with Rooney as the lone striker, Carrick as the holding midfielder against Ecuador, and Hargreaves in that role against Portugal.

Herein lies the problem: even with this supposedly more progressive formation, while they kept two clean sheets, England scored only one goal, from a Beckham free kick; in fact, Beckham also supplied the only goal against Paraguay, and the crucial first goal against Trinidad and Tobago too, while the rest came from moments of magic from Gerrard and Joe Cole. For all the attacking talent, Sven had somehow managed to neuter all the creativity. While playing Rooney and Owen together didn’t work (which often gets overlooked), Rooney was young and unfit, so it was stupid to play him up front alone. Even if England had won the shootout, he’d have been suspended for the semi-final, meaning it would have been Crouch up front alone, given that Sven had seemingly decided he wasn’t going to risk Walcott. It was never going to work out. This one is all on the manager.

Hindsight is 20/20. What England should have done is play 4-2-3-1, with Gerrard in behind Rooney, and Hargreaves and AN Other (Carrick maybe, or even Jenas; Scholes in an ideal world) sitting deep. This would have accommodated Gerrard and Beckham (who was always under-utilised by Eriksson) far better and given the side a stronger core. But that would have meant dropping Owen (fans’ favourite) and Lampard (in form for Chelsea, even if he never showed it for his country), which demonstrates that you couldn’t have pleased everyone. And obviously Defoe should have been taken ahead of Walcott. Obviously.

Also a reminder at this point that Aaron Lennon was frequently used off the bench and impressed with his pacy running and those other things he does/did. Stewart Downing also appeared in the first two games, then disappeared, which seems like an apt summary of his career. Jenas, Bridge and Walcott were the only outfield players who didn’t play.

Paraguay

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Squad:

1. Justo Villar (Newell’s Old Boys)
12. Derlis Gomez (Sportivo Luqueno)
22. Aldo Bobadilla (Libertad)

2. Jorge Nunez (Estudiantes LP)
3. Delio Toledo (Real Zaragoza)
4. Carlos Gamarra (Palmeiras)
5. Julio Cesar Caceres (River Plate)
14. Paulo da Silva (Toluca)
15. Julio Cesar Manzur (Santos)
21. Denis Caniza (Cruz Azul)

6. Carlos Bonet (Libertad)
8. Edgar Barreto (NEC)
10. Roberto Acuna (Deportivo La Coruna)
11. Diego Gavilan (Newell’s Old Boys)
13. Carlos Paredes (Reggina)
16. Cristian Riveros (Libertad)
17. Jose Montiel (Olimpia)
19. Julio dos Santos (Bayern Munich)

7. Salvador Cabanas (Jaguares)
9. Roque Santa Cruz (Bayern Munich)
18. Nelson Haedo Valdez (Werder Bremen)
20. Dante Lopez (Genoa)
23. Nelson Cuevas (Pachuca)

Captain: Carlos Gamarra
Head Coach: Anibal Ruiz

After second-round berths in the previous two World Cups, Paraguay were perhaps a bit unfortunate to get such a tough draw, and certainly unlucky in the manner of their departure. But this was perhaps a balancing out of the luck they had had in the previous two tournaments. It was also representative of a midfield that was devoid of top-level creativity, but it wouldn’t be a Paraguay side if it was solid, unspectacular and pretty dull.

Either way, they were still unlucky. They went behind after just three minutes of their opener against England after captain Gamarra accidentally diverted a Beckham free kick into his own net. They then lost first-choice goalkeeper Villar (later responsible for Copa America penalty shootout heroics) five minutes later with an injury that would keep him out of the rest of the tournament, though Bobadilla hardly disgraced himself in the remaining games, conceding only one goal. And then in the next game, they succumbed to an 89th minute Ljungberg winner that knocked them out of the competition, albeit after being totally dominated by the Swedes. They were out having done little wrong at the back, but little right going forward. They did at least get a consolation victory over Trinidad and Tobago, but even then one of their two goals was a Brent Sancho own goal. Nelson Cuevas, also a scorer in 2002, was the only Paraguayan to score at the right end.

Paraguay had finished 4th in South American qualification, three points above Uruguay who went into, and lost, a play-off against Australia. It’s not hard to think that a Uruguay team with Recoba, Forlan, Montero, Zalayeta et al might have been a more interesting participant in the main tournament than this Paraguay team, even if not a more effective one. However, we should also bear in mind that it was missing Jose Cardozo, the team’s top scorer in qualifying with seven goals, who was forced out with a late injury. It’s a shame a very good collection of strikers and a solid defence was playing with such an average midfield.

Sweden

99

Squad:

1. Andreas Isaksson (Stade Rennais)
12. John Alvbage (Viborg)
23. Rami Shaaban (Fredrikstad)

2. Mikael Nilsson (Panathinaikos)
3. Olof Mellberg (Aston Villa)
4. Teddy Lucic (Hacken)
5. Erik Edman (Stade Rennais)
13. Petter Hansson (Heerenveen)
14. Frerik Stenman (Bayer Leverkusen)
15. Karl Svensson (Goteborg)

6. Tobias Linderoth (Copenhagen)
7. Niclas Alexandersson (Goteborg)
8. Anders Svensson (Elfsborg)
9. Fredrik Ljungberg (Arsenal)
16. Kim Kallstrom (Stade Rennais)
18. Mattias Jonsson (Djurgardens)
19. Daniel Andersson (Malmo)
21. Christian Wilhelmsson (Anderlecht)

10. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Juventus)
11. Henrik Larsson (Barcelona)
17. Johan Elmander (Brondby)
20. Marcus Allback (Copenhagen)
22. Markus Rosenberg (Ajax)

Captain: Olof Mellberg
Head Coach: Lars Lagerback

Sweden continued their run of good-but-not-quite-good-enough tournaments here, a run which would eventually stretch from 2000 to 2008. As in 2002, they had enough quality progress, but rolled over far too easily when the going got tough in the second round; while losing to the Germans in Germany probably isn’t the most humiliating result, this one would have to go down as a disappointment.

The balance of the squad is quite nice: a good goalkeeper in Isaksson (though former Arsenal backup Shaaban played in the first game), a solid defence, a midfield with a mix of defensive and attacking individuals, two absolute stars in Ljungberg and Zlatan, and the vastly experienced Larsson in his final major tournament. And yet after the first round of games, they were perhaps the most embarrassed team in Germany, after failing to break down Trinidad and Tobago and slumping to a 0-0 draw. They struggled against Paraguay too, being rescued by a late goal from Ljungberg. With the under-performing Ibrahimovic dropped for the England game, they actually scored two, with Aston Villa flop Marcus Allback, who had been lively throughout the tournament, and Larsson getting the goals.

Then, in their final game, they left themselves with too much to do by going 2-0 down after 12 minutes, and this was compounded by Lucic’s harsh sending off (famed for referee Carlos Simon’s…unprofessional reaction) and Larsson blazing a second-half penalty into the crowd. For the third tournament in a row, this talented Sweden side had made it through the group stage, but no further. On the face of it, a shame. But I’m not sure they really deserved to go any further. It’s not overachievement or underachievement.

Trinidad and Tobago

Dwight Yorke,  Steve Gerrard

Squad:

1. Shaka Hislop (West Ham United)
21. Kelvin Jack (Dundee)
22. Clayton Ince (Coventry City)

2. Ian Cox (Gillingham)
3. Avery John (New England Revolution)
4. Marvin Andrews (Dundee)
5. Brent Sancho (Gillingham)
6. Dennis Lawrence (Wrexham)
8. Cyd Gray (San Juan Jabloteh)
17. David Atiba Charles (W Connection)

7. Chris Birchall (Port Vale)
9. Aurtis Whitley (San Juan Jabloteh)
10. Russell Latapy (Falkirk)
11. Carlos Edwards (Luton Town)
16. Evans Wise (Waldhof Mannheim)
18. Densill Theobald (Falkirk)
23. Anthony Wolfe (San Juan Jabloteh)

12. Collin Samuel (Dundee United)
13. Cornell Glen (Los Angeles Galaxy)
14. Stern John (Coventry City)
15. Kenwyne Jones (Southampton)
19. Dwight Yorke (Sydney FC)
20. Jason Scotland (St Johnstone)

Head Coach: Leo Beenhakker
Captain: Dwight Yorke

The Soca Warriors were the Caribbean’s encore after 1998’s Reggae Boyz. They were everyone’s second favourite team in this competition. They even came with their own fun song. It may be slightly disrespectful to compare them first and foremost to that great Jamaica team, but the parallels are there, particularly the many players from the English lower leagues. However, we should discuss the squad on its own merits. They, like Jamaica eight years before, were more than “the fun team”.

In goal, the squad had three goalkeepers who were well-known to fans of the English lower leagues. Kelvin Jack was initially meant to start the first game against Sweden, but was injured in the warm-up. Shaka Hislop, who had been called up by England for their friendly against Chile in 1998, was drafted in and produced a wonderful performance. He kept the starting spot for the game against the land of his birth, where he was again beaten from distance by Steven Gerrard, as he had been in the legendary FA Cup Final between Liverpool and West Ham a few weeks before. Jack started the third game against Paraguay.

Hislop, who had retired from international duty in 2004 but returned on hint of success, was one of several notable faces to come out of retirement for this time, which was largely welcomed. The other major additions were former Rangers midfielder Russell Latapy and his good friend Dwight Yorke, who had both quit in 2001 but returned in qualifying at the behest of Jack Warner (yes, that one). Yorke, who was quickly made captain of the team, was 34 and fresh from winning the very first A-League; to prepare for the World Cup, he had been training with his former club Manchester United. However, as is evident from the squad list, Trinidad and Tobago weren’t short of striking talent, and in the event, Yorke was moved back into central midfield, where he partnered Aurtis Whitley. He was so effective that Sunderland manager (and Yorke’s former team mate) Roy Keane hired him to perform this role for another three seasons. Both Yorke and Latapy, whose careers with the national side had begun in the late 1980s, played on for their country for another three years.

There were plenty of other English and Scottish Football League regulars. Dennis Lawrence, scorer of the winning goal in the play-off against Bahrain that qualified the Soca Warriors for the World Cup, had made over 200 appearances for Wrexham and soon moved to South Wales to join Swansea. Carlos Edwards had also made his name at Wrexham from 2000, and today plays for Millwall, his sixth English/Welsh club. Stern John had stints at nine English clubs in the Premier League or Championship. Ian Cox was born in Croydon and began his career at local club Crystal Palace, before long stints at Bournemouth, Burnley and Gillingham. Marvin Andrews, like Latapy, was a mainstay of the Scottish leagues including a stint at Rangers. Jason Scotland followed Lawrence to Swansea for a successful stint, later moving to Ipswich and Barnsley; today he plays for Stenhousemuir back in the country of his name. Kenwyne Jones would go on to be a well-known figure in the Premier League and Championship in the years to come, and is now Trinidad and Tobago captain, the only survivor of this team.

And then there’s Chris Birchall. In one of the most fascinating little stories of the 2006 World Cup, the Port Vale midfielder, born in Stafford, was eligible due to his mother’s birth in Port of Spain, and was asked to play for the team by Lawrence in the middle of a match. Birchall became the first white player to play for Trinidad and Tobago for sixty years; indeed, a BBC behind-the-scenes video suggested his nickname in the team was “Whitey”. Impressive performances led to a move to Coventry City, and eventually to MLS with Los Angeles Galaxy, playing with one of his more prestigious opponents from the World Cup. After a brief stint at Columbus Crew, he returned to Port Vale in 2013, the same year he retired from international duty.

The Soca Warriors acquitted themselves very well in their three matches, with a draw and two narrow defeats, albeit with no goals scored. As you might expect, they were defensively solid but limited. But they remain one of the more remarkable teams of recent major tournaments. With the retirements of their best players and their Central American rivals having improved in the years since, it’s unlikely we will see them in a World Cup again any time soon.

Written by James Bennett

June 7, 2016 at 12:00

1998-99, Aston Villa’s forgotten title challenge

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aston-villa-paul-merson-dion-dublin-stan-collymore_3383510

With Aston Villa seemingly doomed to relegation after several seasons of struggle, it’s hard to imagine them as potential Premier League title challengers, let alone past winners of the European Cup. And yet in the first decade of the Premier League, they finished in the top 10 in nine seasons, and in five of those, they finished in the top 6, the best finish being as runners-up in the first Premier League season, 1992-93.

However, their last actual title challenge was 1998-99, and it has become somewhat overlooked in the annals of recent football history, mainly because of the incredible circumstances of what was a classic season for English football. Everyone remembers it as the year where Manchester United completed the first Treble, narrowly edging Arsenal in the Premier League by 1 goal, winning the FA Cup after beating the Gunners in the famous semi-final replay, and That Night in Barcelona. But it was perhaps the greatest season of Premier League action beyond that.

People talk about how wonderful the 2011-12 season was – and there’s no doubt it was a great year. But dubbing it the greatest Premier League season is undoubtedly recency bias. Even you exclude pre-1992 seasons, 1998-99 was far more competitive and had a higher overall standard relative to the time. Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea finished just 3 points behind United and Arsenal, while Leeds, who had lost George Graham to Tottenham during the season, were 11 points off the pace by the end. And then a bit of a chasm.

This is perhaps why we forget Villa’s role in this season. If you look at the final table, there’s no clue as to why one might include them as title challengers, and they become easily swept away in the grand narrative. But the fact is they were top of the table at Christmas, and still 2nd when February arrived.

Some context: Villa were coming off the back of finishing 7th in 1997-98. However, they might have finished higher but for a dreadful first half of the season which saw them lie 15th in February. Brian Little resigned and was surprisingly replaced by former Villa player and coach John Gregory, then the manager of Division Two side Wycombe Wanderers. Under Gregory, the team won 10 of their last 14 to surge up the table into a UEFA Cup spot, with star striker Dwight Yorke proving to be particularly influential.

The new season dawned in August with intense interest in Yorke from United, who were looking to strengthen their front line after losing the title to Arsenal the previous season. Eventually he would be sold for £12.6 million, seemingly ending any hopes Villa had of building on their promising form. For now, they would have to lean heavily on Julian Joachim and youngster Darius Vassell.

Even so, things started pretty well. Villa were unbeaten in their first 12 games, breaking the club record; this included wins over Newcastle, local rivals Coventry and Tottenham. Their first defeat came on 21st November, a 4-2 loss at home to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool in which Robbie Fowler scored a hat-trick and Stan Collymore was sent off against his former club. However, United and Arsenal lost the same weekend, so they retained their lead

By this point, Villa had strengthened significantly. The money from Yorke’s sale was put towards the purchase of Paul Merson from Middlesbrough and Dion Dublin from Coventry, and this new attack had begun to produce plenty of goals, even if defensively they were a little shaky.

The loss to Liverpool was the start of a four-game winless streak, which saw a 2-2 draw with struggling Nottingham Forest, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, and a dramatic 2-1 loss to Chelsea, with Tore Andre Flo scoring the winner in stoppage time in what seemed to be a key result in the title fight. United drew with Spurs to briefly go top, but Villa overtook them again by coming from 2 goals down to beat Arsenal 3-2 at Villa Park on 13th December, with Dublin grabbing a late winner in one of the most sensational games of the season.

A draw between United and Chelsea on 16th December, and a win at Charlton on 21st gave them Villa top spot on Christmas Day, though they would drop to 2nd behind Chelsea on Boxing Day after Tim Sherwood (of all people) scored an 88th-minute winner for relegation-battling Blackburn; goalkeeper Michael Oakes had earlier been controversially sent off for handling outside the area, with the officials’ decision described as by Gregory “a monumental error”. Sherwood would score another 88th-minute winner against Villa later in the season, this time for Tottenham at White Hart Lane in March.

Nonetheless, they were back top again soon after a further win over Sheffield Wednesday and another draw between Chelsea and United, leaving them two points clear at the end of 1998. But a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough on 9th January saw them lose their grip on the lead for the last time this season.

The 3-0 win over Everton on 18th January saw them seemingly maintain positive momentum: it was their 22nd league game of the season, with a record of 12 wins, 7 draws and 3 defeats so far. In his first full season as manager, Gregory was looking like a minor miracle worker, and probably a contender for the England job which was soon to become available.

The week after, they crashed out of the FA Cup at home to Kevin Keegan’s Fulham (en route to winning the Division Two title), sparking one of the most spectacular collapses in recent English football history. They promptly failed to win their next 10 league games, losing 7 of their next 8. In this period, they dropped from 2nd to 6th and any hope of sticking with United, Arsenal and Chelsea vanished. Their record over the last 16 games of the season was 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats. Ouch.

Nowadays, that sort of run would spell the end of a manager, but Gregory retained his job, lasting until January 2002. But never again would he look capable of masterminding a Premier League title challenge; instead, history probably judges him the same way we’ll be judging Brendan Rodgers in ten years’ time.

Similarly, this was probably the peak for Dublin, an Indian summer for Merson, and the best it got for several other players in the squad. Though they would again finish 6th in 1999-2000, this would be 33 points behind Manchester United. It soon became clear that 1998-99 had been their big chance.

But if there are lessons to be learned from this, it’s that a) history is written by the winners, and Aston Villa, not being winners (in 1998-99 and in general), have been erased from the narrative because they didn’t win, and b) it’s still possible for a team to totally unravel in January and February, even if they have spent the last six months looking like a team capable of winning the Premier League.

So for those of you still banking on Leicester falling apart for your team to win the Premier League or even make the top four, there’s still plenty of time.

Aston Villa Overall XI, 1998-99 (based on most appearances)

Goalkeeper: Michael Oakes
Sold to Wolves in October 1999 for £500,000 after David James was brought in to replace Manchester United-bound Mark Bosnich. Only played half a season in the Premier League with them in 2003-04. Retired after a season with Cardiff in 2008.

Right-Back: Steve Watson
Premier League stalwart Watson would later join Everton in 2000, for whom he would make 125 league appearances. Retired in 2009 after stints with West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday.

Centre-Back: Gareth Southgate
Club captain and a 57-time England international. Left Villa in 2001 after earlier submitting a transfer request in expectation of signing for a bigger club; he ended up at Middlesbrough, where he would finish his playing career and start his managerial career. Now England U21s manager.

Centre-Back: Ugo Ehiogu
Also left for Middlesbrough in 2000 after 237 league appearances over 9 years for Villa. Later stints for Leeds, Rangers and Sheffield United before retiring in 2009. Now Tottenham U21s manager.

Centre-Back: Gareth Barry
Started his career as a defender but eventually moved into midfield to become one of England’s best defensive midfielders. Left Villa for Manchester City in 2009 after 441 competitive appearances. Now at Everton. 53 caps for England over 12 years. The only member of this team still playing professionally.

Left-Back: Alan Wright
One of the shortest players in Premier League history at 5-foot-4. Made 260 league appearances for Villa until 2003, when he also left for Middlesbrough. Later career disrupted by injury but still found his way around several Championship clubs before finishing his career at Fleetwood Town in 2011.

Centre Midfielder: Ian Taylor
Made 235 league appearances for Villa and became a cult hero for the club before leaving for Derby in 2003. Finished his career in 2007 in League One with Northampton. 

Centre Midfielder: Lee Hendrie
A one-time England international in 1998, he spent over a decade at Villa before leaving in 2007 after 308 competitive appearances. He then headed to a succession of Championship and lower league clubs and briefly to Indonesia before retiring from pro football in 2013, although he continued play part-time. Famously declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Attacking Midfielder: Paul Merson
After joining Villa at 30, Merson made over 100 appearances before leaving for Portsmouth in 2002 where he helped lead the club back to the Premier League. He later joined Walsall where he became player-manager until being sacked in 2006. Now a well-known face on Sky Sports.

Striker: Julian Joachim
Lasted at Villa until 2001 when he was part-traded to Coventry City for Mustapha El Hadji after the Sky Blues’ relegation. After a largely unsuccessful stint there, he joined Leeds, followed by stints in the lower leagues with Walsall, Boston and Darlington. Still playing in the semi-pro leagues until fairly recently.

Striker: Dion Dublin
Was reportedly on the verge of being sold in late 1999 but suffered a serious neck injury which could have easily ended his career. He fought back and eventually left in the summer of 2004 after nearly six years at Villa Park, joining Leicester, Celtic and Norwich, where he won the Player of the Year Award in 2008 after his last season. Often appeared as a centre-back in later years. Now a TV presenter and inventor of a musical instrument, the Dube.

Written by James Bennett

February 6, 2016 at 22:57

Posted in Club Football, Football

Euros with 32 teams

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We’d have seen even more of Jari Litmanen in a Finland shirt with 32 teams at the Euros

It’s now over eight months since I completed the 24-Team Euros series. Mulling over it recently, it was quite a useful venture, although it’s usefulness in predicting who was going to qualify for Euro 2016 seems to be pretty limited. Even so, it’s good to dream about Lithuania at Euro 96 or Armenia in Euro 2012.

Nonetheless, it’s left me pondering what if…what if it was taken further? Of course 32 teams in the Euros is a pretty stupid idea – if, as some would argue, 24 teams is arguably oversaturation point, including over half the continent’s teams in a major tournament is ridiculous. And yet…I can’t help but wonder what it would be like.

So let’s just ignore the practicalities for a moment. Following the same format as before, with the Euros and World Cup qualification expanded, I’ve worked through from Euro 96 on to see who would have qualified, including a reminder of the 24-team expansion qualifiers.

Euro 96
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey

17-24: Belgium, Greece, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Sweden

25-32: Austria, Belarus, Finland, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine

1998 World Cup
Actual: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Scotland, Spain, Yugoslavia

16-24: Greece, Hungary, Israel, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine

25-32: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland

Euro 2000
Actual: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Yugoslavia

17-24: Croatia, Israel, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Scotland, Switzerland, Ukraine

25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Latvia, Slovakia

2002 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey

16-24: Austria, Belarus, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Romania, Scotland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

25-32: Bulgaria, Finland, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Norway

Euro 2004
Actual: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

17-24: Belgium, Norway, Poland, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Turkey, Wales

25-32: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Iceland, Israel, Republic of Ireland, Serbia & Montenegro, Slovakia, Ukraine

2006 World Cup
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Serbia & Montenegro, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine

15-24: Austria, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Denmark, Israel, Norway, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey

25-32: Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Slovenia

Euro 2008
Actual: Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey

17-24: Bulgaria, England, Israel, Northern Ireland, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Serbia

25-32: Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Wales

2010 World Cup
Actual: Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland

14-24: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Latvia, Norway, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Sweden, Ukraine

25-32: Austria, Belarus, Hungary, Israel, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Turkey

Euro 2012
Actual: Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine

17-24: Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Hungary, Montenegro, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey

25-32: Belarus, Belgium, Israel, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Slovakia, Wales

2014 World Cup
Actual: Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland

14-24: Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine

25-32: Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Finland, Israel, Montenegro, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Turkey


The mighty Azerbaijan would have made a 32-team ‘European Cup of Nations’ in 2014

The headlines

– Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Georgia and Moldova are the additions to the list of teams who would have made a major tournament. Azerbaijan (2014 WC) and Moldova (Euro 96) join Armenia on the one-hit-wonders list, while Cyprus (1998 WC and Euro 2000) would have qualified for 2 and Georgia (Euro 96, 1998 WC and 2002 WC) for 3

– At the other end of the scale, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Turkey and Ukraine would be added to the list of teams who would have qualified for every tournament, while Yugoslavia/Serbia qualified for every one they were eligible for (after being banned for Euro 96). This is particularly impressive/galling for Slovakia as they have only qualified for one actual tournament

– Just missing out on a full set are Austria (Euro 2012), Israel (Euro 96), Norway (2014 WC), Poland, Romania (both 2010 WC), Scotland (2014 WC) and Switzerland (2002 WC), who all made 9 of the 10 tournaments

– This leaves a core of about 25 regular teams, 10 of which would have qualified for every tournament even with only 24 teams (Croatia, England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden). This essentially leaves between 7 and 12 spots free for others

– The team that made the most 32-team tournaments without making an actual one is Israel with 9. Next up is Finland with 8 (though only 1 24-team tournament), followed by Hungary with 7 and Lithuania and Iceland with 4.

– Wales and Northern Ireland would have both qualified for 3 tournaments, including both for Euro 2008, making it the only 32-team tournament of the last 10 with all of the Home Nations qualifying

I think the conclusion that we can draw from this is that if you’re Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Azeri, Cypriot, Georgian, Hungarian or Finnish, this would be brilliant, but if you’re a fan of high-quality football, it’s iffy at best. So obviously I’m massively in favour of it. Bring it on, Michel.


Gareth Bale would have represented Wales at a 32-team Euro 2012, but does Euro 2016 beckon?

All images used in the spirit of fair use. This is definitely the end of it – there will be no 48-team Euros article. That would just be silly

Written by James Bennett

April 2, 2015 at 17:55

FIFA 99 Premiership squad lists and ratings

with 2 comments

I searched for these on the internet and couldn’t find them, so thought it would be interesting to stick them up myself.

It’s clear to see just by glancing at the squads that football video game research has come a long way – there are various inaccuracies and there’s a general feel that certain squads are a season out of date. I’m not going to list every single one as there are too many. It’s just a brief overview. As it is I’ve had to type all of these figures out from the game as the only PC I have it on doesn’t have the internet.

Just to explain, FIFA 99’s ratings were based on eleven parameters: speed, shot power, shot accuracy, acceleration, tackling, header accuracy, ball control, agility, fitness, creativity and aggression. According to the in-game editor, the first ten of these added up to a limited total – aggression was controlled separately and didn’t count towards the overall total, but I’ve included it in the lists for completeness. They are all ranked out of 16. As a result, I’ve created a points average based on the main ten to work out who the best players are.

In the game, when on team management mode, you could only see the player’s number, name, position and the first four ratings. When I first played this game as a kid, I generally picked teams based on the first two – not exactly the worst way to pick a team considering at the time FIFA was mostly about running around and shooting. However, judging by the overall ratings, it seems that some of this may have been a bit misguided. Either way, that’s what you see. The first eleven players before the line are the default starters, while the next five are the default substitutes.

The other notable thing is that unlike future editions, it subtly avoids the issue of not having rights for certain players. Until recently, the only example I was aware of was Ronaldo – as he was the most famous player in the world at the time, it was a bit curious that he was absent and that some guy called “G. Silva” was listed in his place at Inter and Brazil. But looking through, there are other notable absentees and a couple of inclusions that don’t show up on the records even in the Premiership.

– Arsenal were just coming off the back of a Double under Arsene Wenger so it’s no surprise to see that they have one of the strongest squads in the league. Surprisingly, though, it’s not rated as the strongest

– Marc Overmars pips cover star Dennis Bergkamp to be the best player in the team

– Chris Kiwomya (usually a striker, incidentally) had left Arsenal in August 1998

– This proves that Fabio Capello wasn’t the first person to overrate Matthew Upson.

– Christopher Wreh’s ratings seem a bit high in hindsight, but then he was quite highly-rated at this point, before his career went from strength to strength with big money moves to Bournemouth, St Mirren, Bishop’s Stortford and Buckingham Town. German midfield Alberto Mendez’s career took a similar trajectory.

– Aston Villa actually made a surprising title challenge during the first half of the season under John Gregory before collapsing in spectacular fashion in the second half of the season. This had been with the assistance of Dion Dublin, who remains at Coventry in the game, but even so, I think some of these players are underrated.

– Adam Rachel is a goalkeeper. Not sure how they got that one wrong. Also “G. Byfield” is almost certainly Darren Byfield. Not sure if “Ferrerasi” is a typo by me or the game.

– I have no idea who “D. West” is supposed to be as I can’t find any Villa players with this name, but one forward who did make a few substitute appearances at this time was Darius Vassell. Possible alias? Other alternatives include Richard Walker and Alan Lee, who were also hanging around the senior squad at this time.

– Apparently Scott Murray left Villa in December 1997. He wasn’t really a defender either – he was a winger.

– Despite various mistakes with positions in this game, it’s worth remembering that Gareth Barry was actually a defender at this point, albeit more of a left-back.

– Back when Roy Hodgson was just another average English manager, he got sacked as Blackburn manager after a poor start to the season. Brian Kidd did no better and they were relegated, just four years after winning the title.

– A notable absentee here is Swedish striker Martin Dahlin, who did play five games during the season before picking up the injury that would eventually end his career. No Nathan Blake either, who joined four days after Oumar Konde in October 1998. And I don’t even know who Oumar Konde is.

– Alan Curbishley guided Charlton into the top flight via the most legendary of play-off finals in 1998 and they started the Premiership season well, before the inevitable slide to relegation.

– First thing to note is that Charlton’s home kit in this game is white with black shorts…nope, I have no idea either.

– The squad’s accurate, though, except the misspelling of Neil Redfearn’s surname (a geniune game mistake).

– This is the worst squad in the league.

– Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea have the highest-rated squad in the league, but it is worth noting that this includes Pierluigi Casiraghi, who suffered a career-ending knee injury early in the season, and Brian Laudrup, who left the club after making only seven appearances.

– Since when does Graeme Le Saux play on the right?

– Equally, Flo and Zola as wingers surely can’t be correct.

– This was Gianluca Vialli’s last season as a player. He seems quite highly-rated for a 34-year-old who was concentrating on management, but I guess he was good originally. Michael Duberry, though…

– Coventry were perennially on the brink under Gordon Strachan and it’s not hard to see with this bunch. But having said that, it does seem slightly out of date – Brian Borrows left Coventry for Swindon in September 1997. It’s more like the 97-98 squad.

– I’m surprised how bad Huckerby is. Mainly because he is a legend

– Derby, under the always-ancient Jim Smith, weren’t that bad at this point and the squad is actually rated as the seventh-best on average. But again, it does feel slightly out of date.

– Notable absentees are midfielders Darryl Powell and Rory Delap (who back then was just plain old Rory Delap, rather than the long throw machine he became).

– Everton were under Walter Smith at this point, and the glory days seemed a long time ago. They had actually spent some money this year, though (Dacourt, Collins, Bakayoko and, yes, Marco Materazzi).

– Note the erroneous ‘n’ in what is supposed to be Hutchison.

– Full-backs Michael Ball and Craig Short are notable by their absence despite playing plenty of games.

– This was the season where George Graham left Leeds for Tottenham. He was replaced by David O’Leary. I think we can see who benefited from this.

– Again, it’s more of a 97-98 squad, particularly looking at the reserves. Nuno Santos, Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, Jason Blunt, Derek Lilley – a stellar supporting cast.

– Also Wijnhard nearly being rated as high as Hasselbaink? What the fuck?

– Martin O’Neill did what only he could do at this point and kept Leicester respectable, even taking them to a League Cup Final, which they lost to Tottenham.

– Why is Spencer Prior missing? And why is Colin Hill still there after leaving Leicester in May 1997? I’m guessing the two are linked…

– I once simulated a season using the Generate Matches tool and Robbie Savage ended it as the league’s top scorer. Kinda sums this game up really.

– Christ this is a really average bunch of players. Heskey looks excellent in comparison. But only one man here has captained his side to European Championship glory.

– This was the year of the Roy Evans/Gerard Houllier job-share. That went well.

– I used to start Sean Dundee ahead of Robbie Fowler. Just look at that pace.

– Michael Owen is the highest-rated player in the Premiership. He was still only 18 when this game was released.

– Treble Season United has a familiar look given how much we’ve been exposed to it over the years.

– In addition to Dundee, I also used to pick Jordi Cruyff. I scored from the halfway line with him too. Not sure why he’s rated higher than Sheringham, though. Henning Berg is surprisingly crap, only just better than David May, and Nicky Butt is rated higher than Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. I’m pretty sure that if this game was remade today, none of these would survive. At least they got Roy Keane’s aggression right, though.

– Bryan Robson kept Boro up without Juninho this time. In fact, he didn’t need Marco Branca either, after the Italian striker busted his knee and ended up leaving, causing a long-running legal dispute between him and the club.

– There are probably going to be people reading this who have little/no conception of what a game would be like if Gazza was included. Well, here’s your answer – he’s alright, but he’s no David Batty.

– Ruud Gullit took this team to the FA Cup Final, although by then they had added Didier Domi, Duncan Ferguson and Silvio Maric to the squad, which obviously made all the difference.

– Stephane Guivarc’h. It speaks for itself.

– Warren Barton. It speaks for itself.

– This Forest team won just seven games all season, but did have Dave Bassett and then Ron Atkinson as manager, so their demise was at least entertaining.

– The big problem for me here is this “R. Irvine” guy. I’ve no idea who it is – searching brings up a forward called Robert Irving, who left in the summer of 1997 after making one appearance in 1995. But it is worth noting that Andy Johnson and Chris Bart-Williams, both regulars in midfield, are both missing here.

– The worst default starting XI in the league, which was proven to be correct.

– Danny Wilson’s Wednesday side features plenty of domestic players, none of whom were any good, so it’s not particularly surprising that they got relegated in 1999-2000.

– No Niclas Alexandersson, who made 33 league appearances and was definitely there the season before too.

– Well, what were you expecting? It’s Southampton under Dave Jones in the 1990s. Obviously they’re going to be shit.

– Richard Dryden ties with Adam Reed of Blackburn as the lowest-rated player in the league, while Paul Jones ties with Forest’s Nigel Quashie as the lowest-rated player in a default starting XI.

– Carlton Palmer.

– This is a squad largely built by Christian Gross, but it is actually surprisingly decent.

– Noted striker Darren Anderton there. Even more absurd than having Ginola as a central midfielder.

– No, I don’t know who Michael Ferrante is either, but he did exist. Frank Lampard made 33 starts in 98-99, though, and yet is curiously absent.

– Marc Keller was a France international. I don’t know if he was as crap as the ratings make out, but I doubt it.

– Ian Wright is rated as their best player but bombed there. Another example of Harry Redknapp’s astuteness in the transfer market…

– Stale Solbakken left Wimbledon in March 1998 after falling out with Joe Kinnear, and yet somehow this isn’t the most bizarre error in this game.

– Look at how terrible some of those reserves are, and then look at Carl Leaburn’s rating. Four goals in 58 appearances for Wimbledon. As a striker.

– Stewart Castledine played in 28 league games for Wimbledon. This would sound reasonable if it wasn’t spread over nine seasons.

————-

So there we have it. I’m surprised anyone over the age of 10 took this game seriously, but I suppose that just shows how far these games have come since. With current FIFAs, people may quibble over the odd rating here or there, but at least Premier League goalkeepers aren’t being listed as defenders any more, at least squads are actually up to date, and at least notable players aren’t strangely missing.

I was just seven years old when I got this for Christmas in 1998 so I didn’t care. Was a fuss kicked up about the errors at the time? If anyone has any more info, it would be really interesting to hear.

Written by James Bennett

August 3, 2014 at 23:35

Posted in Club Football, Football

Euro 2016 qualifying predictions

with 2 comments

No reasoning, as it’s mainly off the top of my head.

Group A
1. Netherlands
2. Turkey
3. Czech Republic
4. Iceland
5. Latvia
6. Kazakhstan

Group B
1. Belgium
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina
3. Wales
4. Israel
5. Cyprus
6. Andorra

(we’re doomed now, aren’t we?)

Group C
1. Spain
2. Ukraine
3. Belarus
4. Slovakia
5. Macedonia
6. Luxembourg

Group D
1. Germany
2. Poland
3. Republic of Ireland
4. Scotland
5. Georgia
6. Gibraltar

Group E
1. Switzerland
2. England
3. Slovenia
4. Estonia
5. Lithuania
6. San Marino

Group F
1. Greece
2. Romania
3. Hungary
4. Finland
5. Northern Ireland
6. Faroe Islands

Group G
1. Russia
2. Sweden
3. Montenegro
4. Austria
5. Moldova
6. Liechtenstein

Group H
1. Italy
2. Croatia
3. Norway
4. Bulgaria
5. Azerbaijan
6. Malta

Group I
1. Portugal
2. Serbia
3. Denmark
4. Armenia
5. Albania

Qualified teams
France
Netherlands
Turkey
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Spain
Ukraine
Greece
Romania
Germany
Poland
Switzerland
England
Russia
Sweden
Italy
Croatia
Portugal
Serbia
Belarus
Republic of Ireland
Montenegro
Norway
Denmark

Play-off losers
Czech Republic
Wales
Slovenia
Hungary

Thing I’m most looking forward to – (Hopefully) some new/different teams qualifying

Thing I’m least looking forward to – Tedious technocratic debates over whether or not minnows should have to pre-qualify after England thump San Marino 16-0

Written by James Bennett

July 16, 2014 at 18:39

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