Wednesday, November 21, 2007

France draws with Ukraine ... much to do about nothing .... oh and England fall 13 minutes short

How anticlimactic for Les Bleus, they travel to Kiev to face the Ukraine in the final match of their Euro qualifying campaign and as much as Domenech wanted this to be a "serious"match it was clear the French were going through the motions.

Overall the Ukrainians looked the hungrier side, with the Liverpool man Voronin looking very dangerous every time he came within striking distance of the ball. Even the Chelsea benchwarmer Sheva was dangerous, both over free kicks and making wide runs. It did not help that the French defense appeared utterly bored and disinterested in making any tackles. The Ukrainians justly got the opening goal on a screamer by Voronin that gave Frey, getting his first French cap. This finally appeared to wake up the French and more importantly the midfield and attackers who started to string together some good combinations. Henry made a wonderful turn to free himself and strike home from 18 with a beautiful left footed shot. A few minutes later Sidney Govou, with a simple yet deadly 1-2 with Lyon teammate Benezema found himself alone versus the keeper and calmly left footed his shot into the goal. At this point it was clear which team was the class on the pitch, the French were passing the ball around the park moving with ease around the Ukrainian defenders and truly controlling the midfield. But this momentum came to an abrupt end at the start of the second half.

Moments after the opening whistle Sheva attempted a cheeky lobbed header that Frey butchered into his goal. It appeared that Frey was caught between trying to make a spectacular one handed catch or deflect the shot into a corner kick...although watching the replay I will say that the shot was so "soft" that Frey might have felt the ball did not have enough power for him to simply guide it over the cross bar. He might have needed to either catch or literally throw the ball out of the corner, tougher than it may at first appear. This would turn out to be the last action of the match, although the Ukrainians came close on a few more occasions to go up 3-2. Which leads me to my main criticism of this team - lack of concentration, especially on defense.

Watching players of the likes of Thuram, granted not the youngest but with TONS of experience, making school yard errors was frustrating. The Euros are 6 months away...actually 198 days 16 hours as of this writing, so there is some time to work things out, but the bulk of the team is what we have been seeing over the past year of qualifiers. France will need to figure out what they are doing defensively and do so quickly. Sagnol will be back, so the right side should be all set, Abidal is set on the left (he did have a spectacular long ball that Henry almost one timed for a great goal in the first half), Gallas in the middle with Thuram....but Lilian will be 6 months older. While he has a world of experience, it is clear his legs are not what they were 4 years ago, I can never criticize what he has done for Les Bleus....his only two goals, both coming in one game - against Croatia in the '98 semi finals - give him a life time "get out of jail free" card from me. He also showed me real heart and determination in the World Cup where I think he was the man of the match against Portugal in the semi finals. What I fear is that we are seeing a Desailly situation from Euro 2004 all over again, a great warrior who went one battle too far. Now I do not think that will be the case, but Thuram will have to manage his next 6 months at the club level to ensure he is still effective in Austria/Switzerland next year.

My other concern is at holding midfield. With Makelele and Vieira getting on with age, I think they will need to do the same. I am not worried about keke, his engine never seems to slow down. And I think that he is extra motivated, this will be his last major international tournament and he missed on the glories of France in 98 and 2000 so will want to do what ever he can to ensure he goes out on top. From a pure skill level I am not worried about Vieira, I am not a pundit who thinks he is a shell of his old self. I think the main issue with Big Pat is his ability to stay healthy, when he is fit, he remains a box to box midfielder of the highest quality....when he is fit. I think it is up to Domenech to figure out who he has for cover - Toulalan, Diarra, Diaby, Mavouba, Flamini....

I am not concerned for offensive midfielders or strikers, the big question will be what kind of system will Domenech prefer? Two strikers with a pairing of Anelka - Henry, Henry - Benzema, Anelka - Benzema? I would assume the strikers on the bench will start with Saha and the third man out from the above pairings, but then it becomes interesting. With Cisse's form taking a serious dip, can you really blame him after two horrific broken legs? And with Trezegol apparently having called Domenech's baby ugly and therefore having banned to "non selectable" land, it will be interesting who Domenech looks to, I guess Ben Arfa would be the choice but I see him more as a wide midfielder. As for midfield, you will have some good competition to see who plays with Ribery and Malouda most likely the offensive options, but Nasri and Rothen could make good cases for being selected.

Next stop, Dec 2nd were we will learn the fate of Les Bleus, which group will they find themselves in....what will be interesting is that the 4 teams in the first "hat" may be the weakest in a major tournament. Mainly due to the two host nations...while Greece is the title holder they may be seen as a weak #1 seed but they did look very dangerous during qualifiers so someone to avoid. I think the 4th #1 seed will be the Czechs. With Italy, German, Holland most likely in the 2nd hat, France or Spain may fall into the third hat....which would make for an interesting "group of death." Regardless, that is what makes the Euros so good is the fact the tournament starts from day 1, there are no easy games, unlike the World Cup...where France had the ability to snack on Togo to go through (although barely).

England FALL!!!
The other huge news of the day is the inability for Steve McLaren to qualify the three lions for the tournament. After having been granted a life line this past weekend with Russia losing in the final minutes to Israel. This meant that all England had to do was hold Croatia, at Wembley to ensure they pass to the Euros next year.

Unfortunately I did not get the Pay Per View so my commentary is from what I was able to gather from web reports....but it sounded like a cracker of a game. With Croatia jumping out to a 2-0 lead early in the game when Scott Carson, making his first meaningful senior start in goal!, made a gaff of the first goal and was beaten cleanly on the second. Questionable decision to insert the young keeper as the #1 for the last qualifier...granted Robinson was not and is not lighting the world on fire with his play either.

The other strange decision was not to have two natural strikers, I realize McLaren was a bit hamstrung in that department, but having a Bent play up front with Crouch might have been what it took to keep the Croatian team a bit more back on its heals, instead England went into half time down 2-0....more amazing was their ability to pull the game back to 2-2! And of course, then they let everyone in Wembley down by allowing a goal with 13 minutes to go in the game.....the horror! I feel the pain of the English fans, remembering that France only had to draw with either Bulgaria or Israel in 1993 to go to World Cup USA and in both cases they lost in the dying moments of the match......ugh the pains of qualifiers. Ironically that is the last time a major tournament had neither France nor England participate....this time France will go but not England.

However for my Newcastle drinking, bangers & mash eating friends, I do not think this is the worst thing that could happen to the Three Lions. The English team has been in disarray since they lost to Brazil in the 2002 world cup....yes they reached the 1/4 finals of both the Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, but in both cases they did so in very unconvincing fashion. I think that England need to completely rethink its system from bottom to top. And I do not want to hear about the Premiership being what is wrong due to all the foreign players in the league...last time I checked the Italian league was he first to become "international" and the Azzurri have won a some titles since 1966!

  • England needs to bring in a manager that will build his team, and stick to it, not someone who feels he has to play the likes of Lampard and Gerrard together just because they "star" for some of the biggest clubs in the world.
  • England needs to start developing some holding midfielders, at least not those that are repatriated from Canada and are always hurt.
  • England needs to figure out who will be their keeper.
  • England definitely needs to figure out where to get its goals when Rooney will find himself injured once again
  • England must determine if Owen is all done...managers fall in love with his goal in 1998 against Argentina....granted it made the hair on my neck stand on end.....but he has become a shadow of himself and has been struck too often by the injury bug
  • England must shore up its development and youth systems....I doubt managers like SAF or Wenger would be poaching Spanish, French and even Australian youth players if England had a better crop available.
These are all tall tasks the next national team manager will need to champion and push...with the brutality of the English press and the fanatically following of the English fans the English FA must bring in a manager of such stature that he can have the time and slack to work his plan. Someone like Scolari (although the luster of his star has been a bit tarnished after his Woody Hayes imitation), someone like Lippi, someone like...gasp the Special One? But the new England manager must have an iron clad 4 year contract, take England through 2010 World Cup and into 2012 Euros, through thick and thin. Otherwise I fear you will see more of the same...granted as a Frenchman gives me the warm and fuzzies, but for football as a whole it is more interesting when England is going well than when it is tripping over itself.

Ahhh and who said qualifiers were boring!

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