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England’s World Cup Opponents | What’s in store?

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Belgium, Tunisia and Panama: England’s World Cup Opponents Reviewed
With the World Cup draw having been made, England fans will be relatively happy with the group they have been given. The pot one heavyweights in the form of Argentina, Brazil, France and Germany were all avoided, whilst Tunisia are one of the weakest teams in pot three. World Cup debutants Panama are another side the majority of teams would have been happy to face. Here we review all three of England’s opponents ahead of football’s greatest showpiece kicking off in Russia next summer.

Belgium


Belgium will be by far the most familiar of England’s opponents. The majority of The Red Devils’ squad play or have played in England’s top flight with 21 of the 34 players to have appeared in Belgium squads since September having Premier League experience. In addition, Mats Sels played for Newcastle in the Championship last season whilst Thorgan Hazard was on Chelsea’s books despite not making a single appearance for them.


In terms of key players, Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne is arguably the pick of the bunch with many regarding him the Premier League’s best player this season. Chelsea duo Thibaut Courtois and Eden Hazard, Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku and Tottenham defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld will also be high-quality opposition for Kane, Alli and co. to test themselves against.
Outside the Premier League, PSG defender Thomas Meunier, Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco are all big players, but arguably the most dangerous threat will come from Napoli’s Dries Mertens who has ten Serie A goals already this season.
In recent years, the so-called “golden generation” has not yet lived up to expectations. In 2014 they reached the World Cup, their first major tournament in 14 years. After one-goal victories against Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stages, they beat the USA 2-1 after extra time in the last 16. Their run was halted by Argentina in the quarter finals when an early Gonzalo Higuain goal gave the South American giants a 1-0 victory.


It was Euro 2016 however in which they really disappointed. Despite losing 2-0 to Italy in their opening group match, 3-0 and 1-0 wins over Republic of Ireland and Sweden respectively were enough to see them progress to the knockout rounds as group E runners-up. A 4-0 win over Hungary set up a quarter final match with Wales and when Radja Nainggolan’s long distance strike gave Marc Wilmots’ side an early lead, hopes were high of a semi-final clash with Portugal. But Wales came back to claim a shock 3-1 victory which knocked Belgium out.
Wilmots was sacked after this result and replaced with another name familiar to Premier League fans in the form of Roberto Martinez. The ex-Swansea, Wigan and Everton boss led Belgium to become the first European team to qualify for Russia 2018. Only a 1-1 draw with Greece denied them a 100% qualifying record in a campaign which saw 6-0 and 9-0 wins over Gibraltar and an 8-1 victory over Estonia. This helped secure their status (joint with Germany) as the highest-scoring team in the history of a single World Cup qualifying campaign with 43 goals.
Belgium are currently sixth-favourites to lift the trophy in July ahead of former winners England and Uruguay, and European Championship holders Portugal. England have played them 21 times picking up 15 victories and just a solitary defeat which came back in 1936.

Tunisia

©Pic Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

The other two teams in Group G will be a lot less familiar to England fans.
Tunisia are making their fifth appearance at the World Cup finals having failed to progress beyond the group stages in all four of their previous campaigns, most recently in 2006. They began their campaign in the second round of African qualifiers with a 4-2 aggregate victory over Mauritania before topping a group including Guinea, Libya and closest rivals Congo DR in the third round. A 0-0 draw at home to Libya in the final group game was enough to book their ticket to Russia despite Congo DR defeating Guinea 3-1.


The Premier League has seen five Tunisian players in its history. The first to arrive was defender Radhi Jaidi. Jaidi played for Esperance Sportive de Tunis, Tunisia’s most successful club before joining Bolton Wanderers in July 2004. He then went on to play for Birmingham before joining League One Southampton in 2009. The ex-national team captain is now coaching the Saints’ U23 team. He played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups and was a part of Tunisia’s African Cup of Nations-winning side in 2004. Birmingham signed Mehdi Nafti just a few months after Jaidi’s arrival in England.

Nafti now manages Merida in the Spanish third division. Hatem Trabelsi had a brief spell at Manchester City in the 2006/07 season before Yohan Benalouane signed for Leicester in 2015. The defender played in four games during Leicester’s title-winning 2015/16 season but missed out on a winners’ medal as a minimum of five appearances were required. Wahbi Khazri makes up the Premier Leagues’ Tunisian contingent having joined Sunderland in January 2016. His highlight in the North-East was a goal and assist in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United. He now plays on loan for Rennes in the French Ligue 1.

Tunisia’s biggest-name player at the moment is defender Aymen Abdennour who currently plays for Marseille on loan from Valencia. Abdennour was once a reported Chelsea target and Watford were said to be interested in signing him this summer before he returned to France where he had previously played with Toulouse and Monaco. Another key player is captain Aymen Mathlouthi. The goalkeeper has spent his entire career in Tunisia. He has spent fourteen years at Etoile du Sahel and won the CAF Champions League in 2007. Mathlouthi is known as a ball-playing goalkeeper and lifted the African Nations Championship (not to be confused with the African Cup of Nations) in 2011. Other names that may be familiar to avid fans of European football are Ligue 1 trio Oussama Haddadi, Naim Sliti (both Dijon) and Nice youngster Bassem Srarfi. Doncaster Rovers fans will be familiar with midfielder Issam Ben Khemis, although with just one cap to his name (in October 2016), he looks likely to miss out on a trip to Russia.
Nabil Maaloul is the Tunisia head coach. He played in Europe briefly for German side Hannover and is currently in his fifth spell as either Tunisia manager or assistant manager (including managing the Olympic side in 2004). He had a three-year spell as Kuwait boss before returning to the Carthage Eagles in April 2017, just in time to mastermind his nation’s progression to the World Cup finals.
In two appearances against Tunisia, England are unbeaten. They drew 1-1 in a 1990 friendly before winning 2-0 in the 1998 World Cup group stages.

Panama


If England fans are unfamiliar with Tunisia, then Panama are even more of an unknown quantity. The Central American side began their campaign in the fourth round of qualifiers for teams in CONCACAF, the equivalent of UEFA for teams in North and Central America (plus Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana). They finished second in a group featuring Haiti, Jamaica and group winners Costa Rica to progress to the fifth and final qualifying round.
In the fifth round they had to finish in the top three to qualify for the World Cup or fourth to enter into a play-off. After nine of the ten games had been played they found themselves fourth with Mexico and Costa Rica having already qualified and Trinidad and Tobago knocked out. After 87 minutes of their final match with Costa Rica, they were level at 1-1 but heading out with Honduras and the USA both above them. Having gone 1-0 down, a controversial equaliser was given to Gabriel Torres despite having not crossed the line. On 88 minutes, defender Roman Torres wrote his name into Panamanian history when he smashed the winner past goalkeeper Patrick Pemberton sending his country into third place and booking a ticket to Russia.
Five of the Panama team called up for recent friendlies against Wales and Iran currently ply their trade in Europe. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who has 128 caps, plays in Romania with Dinamo Bucuresti. Defender Erick Davis is at Slovakian top flight side Dunajska Streda. Midfielder Ricardo Avila is with the reserves of Belgian side KAA Gent. Attacker Ismael Diaz is in the Spanish third tier with Deportivo Fabril, the reserve side of Deportivo la Coruna, whilst Gabriel Torres, a former Manchester United trialist, is in Switzerland with Lausanne-Sport. Panama’s top scorers with 43 goals are Peru-based Luis Tejada and Blas Perez of Guatemalan side Municipal.
Head coach Hernan Dario Gomez is one Panamanian who has faced England before at a World Cup. He was manager of the Columbia side that finished third in their group at France 1998, behind second-placed England, but ahead of Tunisia. He also took Ecuador to the tournament in Japan and South Korea back in 2002.


The June 24th clash in Novgorod will be the first time England have ever played Panama.
Whilst defeat to Belgium would not be a disaster (assuming things have gone to plan in the other two games), losing to Tunisia would be a massive blow, whilst picking up no points against Panama would prove to be a disaster of Icelandic proportions. San Marino have managed to dispel the old cliché “there are no easy games in football”, but truly poor teams do not qualify for World Cups meaning Gareth Southgate’s side will have to stay professional to ensure there are no early upsets. A top two finish will set up a last 16 tie against Poland, Japan, Colombia or Senegal. The minimum that should be expected from this tournament.

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How good is your FA Cup Knowledge?

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LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 27: The FA Cup Trophy is seen prior to The Emirates FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on May 27, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

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Is the FA Cup losing it’s magic ?

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Having just seen the conclusion of the 3rd round of this seasons’ FA Cup we can’t help but think that much like the Premier League, trophy is Man City’s to lose, but is the magic of the FA Cup still alive?
The 4th round draw has hardly produced any must watch ties and we’ll probably see the top level teams progress further into the competition as expected, however…
The question remains is the gap decreasing or do the higher level players just care that bit less?
Shrewsbury deserved to beat West Ham, Fleetwood held Leicester, Wigan were pegged back late on by Bournemouth and these are all before Forest blew Arsenal away and Coventry City ended a managerial reign.
With the notable exception of Wengers’ men, we feel it only fair to say that the PL clubs sent out strong sides with a small number of changes that you would deem acceptable based on past seasons and a relatively busy recent schedule.
Dropping out of the big time you’d find an array of other “shocks.” Villa, Brentford and QPR all crashed out at home to lower league opposition whilst Mansfield and Carlisle held Championship opposition in 0-0 stalemates.
Yes, there will be the inevitable increase in performance from lower level players, especially when the TV cameras are in presence but is there more too it?
We genuinely believe the gap is closing between the 4 professional leagues in the English game. We are seeing bang average players be transferred for 10’s of millions and on some occasions it’s nothing more than footballing snobbery. Look at the lads at Bristol City, did many of us know of them? Why have they not been linked with bigger clubs? Are scouts just being sent abroad?
Prime example – 2 of the best performing left backs in the country are Barry Douglas (Wolves) & Andy Robertson (Liverpool) they have both plied their trade for Queens Park and Dundee United but it has taken needless additional years before having their talent recognised, they both transferred in the summer for a combined £11m, 1/3 of the fee for Luke Shaw or 1/5 of that for Benjamin Mendy.
The clubs without the guaranteed revenue streams which are provided to the top table teams are working harder, becoming more technically able and appear to just want it more.
The Prem does provide excitement but it is becoming far too much about the money and not about the football, it’s about not losing and only in the league. For many the FA Cup is nothing more than a distraction and you wouldn’t be surprised if the players were told “it’s all about next week and three points.”
With the top 4 virtually an exclusive club surely many of these managers need to finally realise that their best chance of recognition is a cup run with an “unfashionable club.” It would once again be refreshing to see a winner in the mould of a Wigan Athletic.
What this does mean, is that lower level clubs need to be taken a lot more seriously and the coming rounds treated just like a league game.
With only 4 PL sides guaranteed to progress could we be on for an all non PL final?
MK Dons vs Sheffield United anyone?
The FA Cup will continue to divide opinion amongst the purists, but for now it is still one of Europe’s premier competitions. We just need to hope that it is continued to be taken seriously by the majority and it creates similar magic and stories to those it has in the past.

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Has the January transfer window lost it’s purpose?

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 Like most things in football these days, or at least in the top leagues across the world, everything is done for the purpose of money. The clubs sing to the hymn sheets created by the constant search for financial gain. But, has it become such a way that the January transfer window has become another way to spin money and highlight the World elite to even more sponsors and the such like?

The Background

When the January transfer window was brought to the attention, as a concept, to Europe’s elite football associations it was initially frowned upon by most. That was in 1992/93, eventually in 1999 most of Europe had agreed to a transfer window commencing in mid-December through to the end of January. The Premier League, however, were relying on a final vote to determine whether or not the league and its clubs would be in or out.

Terry Venables. Godfarther of the 1992 Transfer window decision

In that vote 3-4 of the smaller clubs voted against the impending new transfer window in fear of their club collapsing if they couldn’t do business through other months of the year when profits could potentially be higher. The rest of the league voted in favour.
Then, in 2000, with FIFA under enormous pressure from the European Commission to wind up its whole transfer system, due to accusations being made that the system was breaching the Treaty of Rome. FIFA got an almighty kick up the rear and almost immediately came up with a compromise.
The compromise was to include compulsory transfer windows across its leagues, to prevent the issues that the Bosman debacle had created in 1995.

Jean-Marc Bosman – The game changer. Won a ruling in the European high court which banned restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues and allowed players in the EU to move to another club at the end of a contract without a transfer fee being paid.

It got to 2001 and the Premier league had still not agreed to the proposals put forward by FIFA, however the rest of Europe had and even the European Commission were now on board with FIFA’s plans.
Finally, in 2002/03 the Premier League and its teams succumbed to mounting pressure and accepted the proposals.

As it stands…

You could probably ask all the managers in the Premier league for their opinions on the January window and the old fashioned managers (the likes of Pardew, Moyes & Allardyce) will tell you it causes unnecessary problems and disruption midway through a season.
The new managers, however, have almost been brought up on the reality of the format being here to stay. They almost certainly utilise it better and often, because of that, get more support and backing financially from the board above them at their respective clubs.
Ultimately, the idea of this current window wasn’t really something the Premier League wanted. That was before the enormous amounts of television money were poured into clubs and subsequently meant the Premier League was the biggest financial money churner the world over.

The windows current image

Put simply, it’s no longer about clubs strengthening their squads. Gone is the ideology of clubs selling players to buy players, because they just don’t need to do that anymore. There’s now enough money at each Premier league club to buy a player within their means without worrying about the cost.
The January transfer window is now purely a luxury for the bigger clubs to have another opportunity to flex their muscles and bring in the big names. Some might say that’s a cynical way of looking at it, but there’s no plausible way or reasonable fact to prove it’s any different. Rarely do the clubs below the bottom half of the league go out and buy 2-3 players like they might in the summer, because they don’t have the funds like they would in the summer from things such as TV deals and kit sponsors.
The only benefit this current period in the season has for clubs not in a financial position to buy players, is the option to loan them until the end of the season – usually to try and stave off the threat of relegation – often a temporary measure that will wind up with the club following the same process the following year.

Further afield…

When you look away from the Premier League you start to see that it’s a common theme that other leagues don’t spend much in the January window and instead opt for loan deals;
 
Bundesliga 16/17 season (January): £92,124,000.
Bundesliga 16/17 season (Summer): £498,944,250.
Loan deals – Departures in Jan: 62
Loan deals – Arrivals in Jan: 40
La Liga 16/17 season (January): £25,425,000.
La Liga 16/17 season (Summer): £439,051,500.
Loan deals – Departures in Jan: 59
Loan deals – Arrivals in Jan: 54
Serie A season 16/17 (January): £88,231,007.
Serie A season 16/17 (Summer): £662,917,461.
Loan deals – Departures in Jan: 217
Loan deals – Arrivals in Jan: 184
The best example that the loan option is being exploited because of the constraints of the transfer window, much against its intention, is that of Serie A. Of the 184 arrivals to clubs in Italy in January last season, on a loan basis, 54% of those were players returning to the club they were originally contracted at. Proving once more that so often players leave in January for 12 months and then return to their former clubs. That holds no benefit for the players involved in most cases.
Another case in point and more recently is ‘Barkley-gate’ between Everton and Chelsea. Between August 2017 and January 2018, a fee of £35 million was agreed on 31st August for the injured midfielder who’d been at Everton for 13 years. The player and his agent conspired to turn down that move. Just 4 months on and while he was still injured, a new fee was agreed between the clubs meaning the selling club (Everton in this case) gets £20 million less for the lad in whom they’d invested so much. Evidently, that deal would have been agreed between the clubs and then quietly between the player, his agent and Chelsea with the latter always focused on a deal in January.

To summarise

The January transfer was not something that the elite leagues and football associations all over Europe wanted. The window was formed by FIFA to appease the mounting pressure they were under from the European Commission. Surely it’s finally time to level the playing field by abandoning the January window and hand the Premier League’s struggling clubs and managers a greater degree of stability for a whole season at a time. Ultimately becoming a way to level up the money/no money situation thats obviously apparent every season across Europe.

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