Category Archives: European Football

In defence of the away goals rule

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Look, we’ve all been burned by it or adorded it, so let’s talk about the away goals rule in the Champions League.

For me, I’ll never forget the time Manchester United lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League semi-final on away goals. Having drew 2-2 at Old Trafford, the Germans slipped through our grasps and snuck into the final in a 1-1 that will have me shaking my head for all eternity.

At least Zinedine Zidane scored that blinder in the final.

So many complain about it, while those same voices are eerily quiet when it works in their favour. With that in mind, do we really need the away goals rule? Is it really fair to everyone? Or is it just a way to avoid extra time like it’s the plague for club sides?

In the last six years, eight knockout ties have been settled by the away goals rule with at least one each year. Four of the opening ties were won by the home side, Paris Saint-Germain drew twice to Barcelona in 2012-13 and to Chelsea in 2014/15, while the other two were defeats for Arsenal at the Emirates.

Two of those four that won their opening home fixture secured safe passage to the next round, while both of the Gunners’ initial defeats could not be turned around away from home. PSG’s two draws saw them knocked out at the Camp Nou but qualify in extra time on away goals at Stamford Bridge.

In some, like Marseille’s passage in 2011/12 over Inter Milan and Arsenal’s two losses, the rule looks incredibly harsh. The Ligue 1 side won the tie in the very last second, having held on for 74 minutes before the Italians nabbed two goals only to see it slip on one mistake in the dying embers.

As for the Gunners’ pair of clashes, three goals conceded at home in opening legs killed the ties. On both occasions, they managed to score two away without conceding but alas, the away goals rule states that is not good enough.

Then again, it gives some teams their just rewards. Atletico Madrid were excellent in their semi-final over Bayern Munich last season, with their away goal coming whilst the tie was level at 1-1 and Chelsea’s excellent 2-0 win at home meant the single goal they stole from a drab affair at the Parc des Princes earned them rightful passage to the next round.

In truth, it does tend to hand the advantage to the away side in that first leg. In the 78 games played in the knockout stages in the last six years, the away side has only failed to score in the first game on 27 occasions.

58 of those 78 sides that start away have gone through. However, with seeding affording you that opportunity through qualifying top of your group, it’s not a surprise as you expect a stronger team to be heading on the plane first.

What is extremely interesting is when it comes down to the semi-finals, when the true big teams match up without a seeding advantage. Only one side that went away in the first leg has qualified for the final in the last 10 attempts, Real Madrid being the sole victor over Manchester City last season.

That shows that when it is whittled down to the crème de la crème, the law doesn’t matter. In fact, only one semi-final has required away goals in that span, which was the aforementioned Atletico win, while only one other has gone down to penalties.

In the end, UEFA are forced into a little bit of a corner. The rule is there, on paper at least, to encourage attacking play from the away sides in both legs but more often than not, it causes it in the first leg while the home side sit on anything they’ve gained in the follow-up match.

At the same time, no club wants to play extra time in midweek with a busy domestic schedule that has everyone vying for silverware too. It also tends not to matter in the slightest when it really comes down to the best of the best, so isn’t it a relatively amicable way to thin the herd early doors?

You could tweak it a little, potentially switching the seeding around to test the big teams but with clubs highly unlikely to want to force extra time and the rule needing to be applied fairly irregularly, they will stick to their guns. And so they should, It does encourage exciting ties in the long run and can keep teams in them for longer if they really give it their all.

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UEFA Nations League: An experiment that could go either way

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Yeah, it’s a little complicated. Source: UEFA.com

Something that went a little under the radar this week in the world of football was UEFA’s announcement of a new international tournament, the UEFA Nations League.

The basic principle, try to stick with it as it is a little convoluted, is that 55 teams will be competing in four separate league containing four groups in each starting in September 2018. The winners of the groups will be promoted to the next league, the bottom team in each of those groups are relegated.

The four winners of League A will compete in a knockout round called the Final Four, that will take place in June 2019. It will be replacing friendlies during the autumn period and will happen every two years in between the other two major international competitions.

Did you keep up? It’s a lot to take in.

It is a good move for those that hate irrelevant friendlies as it eliminates most of them other than those before a tournament. With more of the international breaks either devoted to qualifying or to the Nations League, there will be less fluff and more emphasis on building a team that can compete at any occasion.

That, in turn, may improve the quality of international football during the season. With more games meaning something, teams are more likely to play strong starting line-ups and that consistency will also help managers in building a proper squad rather than piling up those that did well for their clubs.

UEFA do say in their reveal piece that it will not increase their workload, which is true during the season, but for the bigger teams in the Final Four of the tournament it surely would. While it may take the place of some summer friendlies that would usually occur, it will be much more competitive and for those in nations like Spain or Germany that may get to the finals regularly, it could tire out their players in an already hectic schedule.

It will also be an unwelcome addition to the season for club sides, who will not be happy that their players are playing more competitive fixtures. That opens them up to potentially more injuries during the season and potential to need extra time off after the summer finals.

Whether it is a tournament that really catches fire remains to be seen. It’s not the best idea but it’s also not the worst, with the incentive of performing well in the lower divisions giving you a real chance of making the European Championships rather than the convoluted third-place system for Euro 2016.

However, it will be the competitive nature at the top that will be the real factor. Competing against teams of a similar level will help show a measuring stick ahead of a big championship but will those teams also clamour for the title or will it be a glorified friendly tournament.

Again, only time will tell. The best case scenario is it makes international football a little more exciting overall as it improves competitiveness or it implodes with the extra work load and potential lack of enthusiasm for another tournament.

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Is expanding the World Cup a good idea?

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The World Cup is changing, but for the better? Source: CNN

This morning, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that from 2026, the World Cup will be expanding to a 48-team format.

Sixteen groups of three teams will duke it out for two qualifying spots before the final 32 face off in knockout rounds. There will be a decision made two years before the finals whether ties in the group stages will be settled by penalty shootouts.

So, the real question out of this is, have they gone absolutely bloomin’ bonkers?

Well FIFA certainly don’t think so, as they can’t see any of the anger towards them through the shower of money raining in front of them. With the extra 16 games comes only more need for fans to fill stadiums, more games for television companies to cast and more heavy-duty wallets for the bigwigs.

That’s not to say that any positive is because of greed. The four additional spots for Asia and Africa to qualify are great for two developing continents within the world of football to gain exposure on what is the largest stage.

It’s also another well for FIFA to drain should it take of as well.

However, there are also legitimate arguments against the idea of a big expansion like this, starting with it diluting the competition element of the tournament. With the most recent European Championships a prime example, adding more teams means that some that missed out because they weren’t good enough then will slip through the cracks, bringing the overall football on show down a peg.

That also, unfortunately, includes those extra teams coming from nations like Asia and Africa. When current rankings are taken into consideration, teams like Sweden, Denmark, Scotland and Austria would not make it whereas powerful footballing sides like China, UAE and Curacao would.

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Infantino has wanted to expand the tournament for a long time and he finally has his wish. Source: Sportzwiki.com

 

But then, those heart-warming stories about the plucky underdog can become more likely. With some bigger nations maybe taking it easy or tired from a long season, some small nation may get the chance to stun us like Iceland or Wales did in Euro 2016.

Then again, there’s just as much chance of drubbings that require the score prompter to spell out the number because it’s got that high.

There will also be a big backlash from a number of the big European clubs, filled with international players, who already have to give some a longer rest if they go far in the tournament. With it likely to last longer or attempt to pack more matches into a shorter timeframe, especially with plans to move kick off times for big markets, it will only exacerbate an already strong issue for club football.

It also boggles the mind of the football purists, who can’t even fathom trying to cover that many games in a short space of time. That fatigue will also eventually hit the regular fan too, exhausted from a long club season and a myriad of pointless qualifiers that have even less significance now that when it does come to the summer, they would rather take a few weeks off.

Lost in some of this is the dream machine it will hopefully make for some of the youngsters around the world in some of the most impoverished areas. That may be true and that’s a beautiful idealism to root for but is that FIFA’s forward thinking or a by-product of them trying to expand their grip into new markets?

This is sure to be a debate that will roll on until the tournament, wherever it may be held, rolls around in nine years’ time. While some will be shaking their heads, some like those in FIFA will simply be blue-balling themselves with dollar signs in their eyes until then.

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RB Leipzig are the blueprint of how to make a football club

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Keita has been terrific and the win against Dortmund lit the fir under the RB machine. Source: ESPN

Germany doesn’t particularly like it but there’s no denying that RasenBallsport Leipzig have nailed exactly how to create a football club.

Loathed for not being a traditional Deutschland club, having been born by drinks company Red Bull in 2009, they lead the Bundesliga having been unbeaten so far this season. They invested in a young, exciting squad with the potential to grow, either as part of the team or to sell on, and have also ploughed money into state-of-the-art facilities themselves to grow as a club themselves.

If you want to learn a little more, check out this great piece by Ross Dunbar on Fox Sports Asia here.

However, what they have done in the past is not what I wanted to focus on. Having watched them on TV once or twice, finally seeing them against Bayer Leverkusen live a few weeks ago just confirmed it: Ralph Hasenhuttl, along with sporting director Ralf Rangnick, have created a side that are genuine title contenders at the time of writing.

A team doesn’t remain this long unbeaten by just luck alone. Wins at home to Borussia Dortmund and away at the aforementioned Leverkusen only confirms it and when you look into how they have succeed, it becomes much clearer.

They’ve scored as many goals as BvB, they have only conceded more than Bayern Munich and another surprise package in Cologne and they have created entertainment wherever they go. They are fast, they are creative, they are strong and when on song, they can be electric.

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Forsberg has been stellar and has been the best player in the Bundesliga this season. Source: BBC

The real engine of the Leipzig machine is Swedish international Emil Forsberg. A relative unknown on the European scene with his former club Malmo, the 25-year-old has exploded this season as the main man for RB with five goals and seven assists.

Those statlines are impressive enough but when you watch Forsberg play, you understand his influence. He’s an incredibly clever player always looking for avenues to bring the abundance of quick, dangerous attacking players that are around him into areas that hurt the opposition.

The Swede always plays with his head up, eyes wandering to find an avenue to attack an opponent. He has wonderful close ball control, a surprising burst that allows him to seemingly drift past tackles and a wand for a foot that can either pick a locked defence or waft a set piece into the goal.

It’s not hard to say without him, it’s unlikely that Leipzig would still be unbeaten. He is the real heartbeat, piecing together their stern defence and their frightening attack to create a real behemoth that no one has worked out how to stop.

That’s not to say he’s the only one firing on all cylinders. Naby Keita has been superb in a box-to-box role, seemingly popping up all over the pitch to break up play and occasionally break into the final third, where he has picked up four goals so far.

Their defence is marshalled by Willy Orban, who has organised them well with his power and positioning into the joint-second best defence in the Bundesliga. They have a scary front that includes top scorer Timo Werner, Austrian winger Marcel Sabitzer, Danish striker Yussuf Poulsen, former Werder Bremen man Davie Selke and Scottish international Oliver Burke.

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Hasenhuttl has established a style and a solidity to Leipzig that has worked to perfection. Source: T-online.de

The amount of options they have in those attacking areas are staggering, especially when you then look at the stats. Each has scored and assisted at least once, with Werner excelling with seven goals and two assists. That’s not to diminish Sabitzer’s contribution of four goals and three assists or Burke’s goal and two assists from predominantly substitute appearances.

With that said, they could do with more from either Poulsen or Selke in terms of hitting the back of the net but their size and power really compliment the speed and creativity around them. It’s genuinely scary that the main strikers aren’t quite firing and yet they still lead the standings.

Hastenhuttl has also established an exciting style build on a collective strength based on restricting the opponent. They constrict the opponent when they have the ball, boxing them into a small area without easy options and can restrict them to the point of them giving them the ball, allowing them to use Forsberg and their pace to counter.

Where they need to improve in that regard is to work on being countered themselves and stopping teams playing quickly against them. When they are not allowed to settle into their structure, they can be opened up a little too easily and quick play has seen teams get in behind their defence too often.

That still feels like nit-picking on a fantastic start to the season that was built upon solid foundations that should help grow success in the future. While the next stage of their success will be in the air for a while, producing talent of your own in any club changing its culture can take five-to-ten years to bear fruit but they have started on the right track.

They have a real project that is attracting young players wishing to create their own history and if they can keep them on-board to maintain this start, we could have a new name near the head of the Bundesliga table for years to come.

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Euro 2016 proves the gap is closer than ever before

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Portugal were never spectacular but they worked hard to get all the way to the title. Source: The Star

After a bustling four-and-a-bit weeks in France, the European Championships are over and Portugal outlasted everyone to lift the Henri Delaunay Trophy. Full of tactical football, defensive football and the ever so fleeting flicker of genius, it has been a tournament that flattered to deceive and revealed that the gap to the top is not as wide as many perceived it to be.

Before it started, many had hoped that we would see an exciting young French team, which we saw in spurts, or the resurgence of the world champions but Germany were poor without Mario Gomez in the side, which is a statement within itself. Others thought Spain could roll back the years but they only managed it for one evening, or England to end the hurt but they instead decided to inflict more of it.

There have been a lot of criticism for the lack of high-level coaching in international football and that’s entirely justified. The difference between someone like Antonio Conte of Italy, who took a underwhelming side on paper and made them look like a powerhouse that could even switch formations at a whim without losing much, to Marc Wilmots of Belgium, who turned a superstar team into a disheveled bunch of Sunday footballers, was incredibly stark.

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Spain disappointed and were outclassed by two more tactically aware sides. Source: ESPN

What also stood out was the difficulty of the bigger sides with prominent talents struggling to break down an organised defence. Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and England were all lacking ideas against teams that set up shop to stop them from scoring and the lack of ideas were startling at times, with some getting lucky and some bombarding the opponent until they finally allowed one to trickle home.

That’s also being a little unkind to some of the smaller nations in Europe that showed exactly why they qualified and that they can go with the best of them. Iceland were so well drilled, Wales’ counter-attacks were often so efficient, Hungary were not afraid to have a go at anyone, they all showed off that they have much more than people gave them credit for.

Attacking prowess was really at an all-time low in this tournament, with even star number nines struggling to have a big impact. A lot of teams leading up to the tournament looked short of strikers but even the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane, who have had fantastic seasons at club level, failed to make a huge impact.

In fact, only four strikers made the top 10 goalscorers list, which would include Antoine Griezmann, Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud and Mario Gomez. Others like Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were used as forwards but aren’t natural central players that we have seen in years gone by.

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Wales epitomised this tournament with their hard work and can-do attitude. Source: indianexpress.com

Instead, it was defences that reigned supreme and some of the real standouts of the tournament were centre backs. Leonardo Bonucci was sensational as both a custodian at the back as well as a creative force, Jerome Boateng showed how much he’s grown in the past year as a frighteningly athletic defender and Pepe reminded everyone that even though he picks up the bad reputation as a diver, he is also a world class centre back.

Overall, it was entertaining and had its moments but Euro 2016 never really burst into life the way many hoped it would. There were some standout games and some heroically memorable performances but it never quite pushed itself over the average barrier it set itself from the off.

Shamefully, this tournament will also be marred by fan unrest at the start of the tournament and the scenes we saw at the end of the England and Russia game in Marseille. On the other side of the coin, many won’t forget the scenes of both Republic of Ireland fans and Northern Ireland fans gave, especially the latter rocking stadiums about a striker that never saw a minute of play.

It will be remembered for a long time though, reminding everyone again what you can achieve in football. Even with a lower standard of player to choose from, even against some of the best in the world and even when your star man is out for the count, you can still pull something a little special out of the bag.

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Three issues England need to fix for the knockout stages of EURO 2016

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Hodgson is close but he’s got no cigar so far. Source: The Guardian

England are through, by the skin of their teeth but nevertheless, they are in the knockout stages. So what did we learn from the first three games of the tournament? And what needs to be done to stand any chance of progressing through a tough draw? Here’s three points of emphasis for their upcoming games.

 

Domination needs to turn into penetration

While that might sound like an innuendo, England have struggled to turn their possession advantage into significant chances at goal.

So far in the tournament, the Three Lions have averaged more shots per game than any team with 21.3. However, only five have been on target per game and 53% of their strikes have been from outside the 18-yard box.

It’s clear from those stats alone, without adding that they have scored only three goals with one from a free-kick, that they need to work the ball into the box more often. They are settling for pot shots at goal and aren’t carving out opportunities that are testing the opposition goalkeeper.

And when they do get into the right areas, they need to be more accurate with their shots. Too many half chances in the box have gone wide or straight at the goalkeeper and against the better sides, they will need to start scoring.

 

Change the pace of passing to break teams down

A regular problem for England has been breaking teams down that are sitting deep and denying them space in the box.

In the three group games, 86% of England’s passes were short while only 5% (27 in total) of them were crosses into the box. It’s good that the team is keeping possesion well and not simply lumping the ball forward but more of a mixture will dirsupt teams.

It’s also consistently too slow, playing along the lines and not creating penatrating balls that worry defences. A quick succession of play can pull a defence out of shape if it rushes to meet the challenge but England never seemed to try and use one-touch passing to speed up their play.

If they can have moments in the game where they change up their tempo to create gaps in the defence, they’ll create more moves into dangerous areas. An opposition is at its weakest when you are in behind them and Roy Hodgson’s side simply aren’t getting into those kinds of areas consistently enough.

 

Do not fear dribbling past a player in the final third

In what seems to be an epidemic in the entire championship, Hodgson’s men seem to fear taking on players one-on-one in the final third.

It might be a strange thing to say, given that England average 19.7 successful dribbles a game, but when eight have come from both the right backs, it’s simply not good enough. Too often, players look for a pass first while out wide instead of taking on the full-back, which also shows why there have been so few crosses as well.

Especially towards the end of the Slovakia game, when they would have been tiring from holding on for so long, the wide players needed to exploit the full-backs. Late on, players should look to at least take someone on if they are in a one-on-one to simply force another player out of position to deal with the situation.

Combining that idea with the one above creates a much more fluent and dangerous attacking style. Both force defences to move out of their shape when successful as players start to find room and when they do shift, they can take advantage of the holes created.

 

Even after all that, there are positives to take. England are playing better football than in the previous few tournaments and with plenty of young talent, they have a chance to evolve together over the next few years. If they can just add the above to their repertoire to get more goals when in the ascendancy, they will be a team no one would like to face in the knockout stages of the European Championships.

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The minnows are showing Europe how to play football

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Wales are the architects of this resurgence, they have been terrific so far. Source: The Mirror

Back when it was announced that the European Championships would be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, many people denounced the decision by UEFA and claimed that it would dilute the competition. However, some of the so-called minnows of the competition have thrived under the chance given to them and are even showing some of the bigger nations how it is done.

Some of them began in qualifying, with teams being a little more adventurous in the hopes that extra spots gave them a great chance of making the finals. In fact, many of the smaller sides like Wales, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Albania would have made it even in the older format, showing that it wasn’t just that more places were offered to them, they simply exceed initial expectations.

That form has continued into the group stages, with Wales being the standard bearer for bringing the heat. They have been resolute in defence, allowing just 22 of the 45 shots on their goal from inside the box, restricting teams to taking pot-shots at distance rather than crafting a better chance that has a greater risk to their goalkeeper.

They also lead the entire competition in interceptions with 20.7 per game, which just pinpoints how they are working hard at closing the lanes between players and disrupting their opponent’s passing flow.

But they aren’t just defending, Wales also have scored more goals than anyone so far with a tally of six. While some have come from set pieces, it was clear from their stand-out performance against Russia that they can be just as dangerous when given the space to attack than they can be on the counter.

Chris Coleman has done a fantastic job in finding a formation that suits the players at his disposal, namely the 3-5-2 that has kept them solid yet dangerous when attacking. They have forward-thinking full backs that can be pulled in if needed, a solid three-man wall in the defence and add the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale in attacking areas and it’s difficult to see why this team is a one-man machine.

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Hungary have also been a great surprise and they’ve provided entertainment in the best game so far against Portugal. Source: stuff.co.nz

Hungary managed to finish at the top of their group thanks to a solid opening win against Austria, a game that they ended up taking by the scruff of the neck. By taking their initial onslaught, Hungary found gaps and eventually got a goal they deserved before crafting a wonderful winner with a counter attack in added time.

It was they who went for the glory against Iceland after their opponents got a suspect penalty but they could only manage a late draw. Their most impressive performance, however, may have come against Portugal in the final game when they stood toe-to-toe with Ronaldo’s boys, trading haymakers in a super 3-3 draw.

Unlike many had thought,  men were not boring and despite being a tad lucky to make the finals, that has not meant they would sit on their laurels and hope for the best. They have gone for the win, caused all the teams they’ve faced issues and would not be an easy side that Belgium can simply walk over.

Iceland have come through a group that contained the Netherlands in qualifying, beating them home and away, before being a stubborn force in the finals. They maybe got a tad lucky against Portugal, they couldn’t quite cling on against Hungary but when it mattered against Austria, they were clinical.

It was never really pretty but having 0.05% of your entire population in your squad can limit your options. Sometimes you need a little fairy dust to take you that extra mile and from a small nation with a big heart, they had the passion and desire to push past more desirable teams with smaller mindsets.

Even with that luck, they have scored more goals in the competition than Germany, France, England and Italy so far, so Iceland can’t be that poor at creating goals for themselves.

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They may have squeaked through but Northern Ireland have shown great determination despite lacking quality footballers. Source: Sky Sports

Northern Ireland should be seen as a little lucky to get through but given their tough group, it’s an enormous achievement. They allowed the fewest strikes in the box with 16 and while they rode their luck to not lose by more against both Germany and Poland, who were wasteful, they showed that they have the grit to dig out a result.

In the game they needed to win to stand any chance of making the knockout stages, they showed everyone exactly why they qualified in the first place. They were resolute but rarely under serious danger, they were a threat at set pieces and managed to seal the deal late on.

While no team has broken out with real quality yet, the tournament has been entertaining because it’s much more competitive than people thought it would be. Some might be holding out to defend but other teams aren’t rising to that challenge, forcing their opponents to come out and try something.

The fact is that these teams did not dilute the mixture, far from it, they gave it much more rounded taste that asks others to step their game up at the business end of the competition. Now that it’s do or die, the big teams could learn a thing or two from their smaller neighbours in being a well-rounded team rather than a combination of individuals.

England Analysis: Hodgson’s negative substitutes stunted solid display

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Rooney worked well in the midfield and was the impressive heartbeat of the team. Source: Daily Star

As usual in tournament football, supporting your team can be a bit of a rollercoaster ride and yet again, England did not fail in getting the heart pumping. It was a bitter pill to swallow in the end but not one England cannot come back from and while there were plenty of good moments, there are issues that need to be fixed.

Starting with the positives, England overall put in a strong performance. They controlled the game and possession, limiting Russia to scraps for long periods of the game and even though there was not enough clear cut opportunities, they did create some chances at goal.

Wayne Rooney was great in the midfield, controlling the pace of the game and creating the big diagonals that spread the Russians thin, putting them under great pressure. Both Danny Rose and Kyle Walker were excellent too, working down the flanks to support the forward play as well as earning their keep by tracking back.

Eric Dier also showed his importance to the team with the man of the match display. He stopped any attacks coming from the Russians, breaking down play and keeping possession well, with his goal being the icing on the cake.

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The system also worked for long periods, especially for the likes of Adam Lallana, who impressed in the first half. In the second period, Harry Kane became too isolated and Raheem Sterling was often running into avenues without much support, so mixing it into a 4-2-3-1 going forward might give the team a better balance.

The big problem arose after 70 minutes, when Roy Hodgson finally made some substitutions. They were a little late in the game to affect much and they were very negative, especially given England’s position in the game and that he would have not made them if the team were still searching for a goal.

Taking Rooney off seemed suspect even if he was slowing in the game and his replacement, Jack Wilshire, was like-for-like and he did his best. Bringing James Milner on for Sterling showed everything you needed to know, England wanted to sit on the one-nil lead they had and take the three points home.

It’s right that they were still unlucky to concede at the end to an opposition that had not turned up for the other 90 minutes but in football you create your own luck. With them likely to push on, bringing on any of the forwards on the bench would have kept them on the backfoot and susceptible to the counter attack.

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Milner coming on was too negative and it cost England. Source: Yahoo

What was more worrying is the fact that there wasn’t just one option to put in that role either. Jamie Vardy, Daniel Sturridge and Marcus Rashford would have pressured the aging Russian defence as they tired and pushed for an equaliser. They all could fill a role out wide too if needed, so he did not even need to switch tactics to bring them on.

That negative attitude to hold on cost England dear, with Milner ever rushing out too far that allowed the cross in to the box and the biggest lesson they should learn is that their positivity was what got them into a winning position in the first place. Hodgson needs to trust his attackers and in a key derby game against Wales, England need to make a statement of intent or face more embarrassment from a team that are just as desperate to win.

In fact, this game could be do or die for Hodgson. Win and he can hopefully see the light to set course for greater victories down the road but if he fails to, he could be heading for disaster which would mean his head would be on the chopping block.

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The slow growth of the Europa League

It's great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition.  Source: YouTube

It’s great to see the competition finally get a little more recognition. Source: YouTube

Lambasted for years as being a punishment for teams who dropped out of the Champions League and a burden for those who had to play on a Thursday night but in the last year or so, the Europa League has really grown into an interesting and stronger competition.

The real change has been the reward for winning, with the victors gaining an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League. It’s an added incentive not just to those who qualify for the Europa League but to those who fall out of the main competition too, knowing that winning isn’t just a trophy but a place back at the big table for next season.

The quality of teams entering the competition has also gone up as teams across Europe become a little more competitive. The likes of Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Lazio, Fiorentina, Valencia, Villarreal, Marseille, Monaco, Saint-Etienne, Bordeaux, Schalke, Ajax, Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas and Fenerbahce were all in the first round and some even failed to qualify for the knockout stages.

Then you also look at the sides that failed to make the next round last night. Teams such as Galatasaray, FC Porto and Napoli, who all fell from the Champions League, lost out on a place in the next round along with a number of strong sides.

It’s then highlighted by the good games we shall see in the Last 16. Liverpool against Manchester United, Spurs versus Dortmund, Villarreal facing Bayer Leverkusen, Athletic Bilbao opposite Valencia all showcase the strength that the Europa League has started to boast.

Admittedly, it still doesn’t compete with the might of the Champions League’s teams but at the same time, there are plenty of prestigious clubs that all would like to lift the trophy at the end. Some, like Liverpool or United, could see this as their best opportunity of reaching next season’s Champions League and adding some silverware to that is enough incentive for teams to play stronger teams.

As the competition keeps going, it will hopefully become something a little more than it has been. Less of playing youth products, more a place to use the strength of a good squad or simply to use as momentum like teams had used European competitions in the past.

If anything, it’s great to watch a good competition full of teams that always come up with a little surprise. Seeing a player like Pione Sisto for FC Midtjylland step up against good competition is excellent to see and for any obsessive football fan, the fact they get to see more talent from different corners of Europe is only a good thing.

It will never fully step out of the shadow of the Champions League but at the same time, it doesn’t have to. What is good is that it’s starting to gain more respect, more viewership and probably the most important thing, more teams want to win it.

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The Barcelona penalty – was it disrespectful?

Was it really spectacular or disrespectful?  Source: Sky Sports

Was it really spectacular or disrespectful? Source: Sky Sports

There has been a lot written about the penalty by Barcelona in their 6-1 win against Celta Vigo at the weekend, where Lionel Messi simply passed the ball for Luis Suarez to stride on to and net his hat-trick. It’s caused all manner of furore, from both sides of the debate, so let’s lay out the land.

With the home side winning 3-1 and cruising, many are saying that to score a penalty like that is disrespectful. Others are saying that it’s adding to the entertainment of football, showman being showman and it’s not against the rules to do it.

In an essence, both sides are right, mainly because you have to take all angles into context.

Let’s start with the obvious before the debate, the penalty is an arrogant gesture. Whether you love it or hate it, you aren’t wrong if you are either way inclined, you have to have bundles of confidence in it to perform it as it looks awful to miss it.

On the side of those who find it disrespectful, it’s not hard to see why. If that was against the team you loved, against a side with a vast amount of resources and talent, to add that kind of penalty to an already strong position is a little bit of a slap in the face.

It’s very difficult for the goalkeeper to stop, with many deciding a way to dive rather than worrying about rushing down a shot. Would it happen if they were drawing or losing? It’s highly unlikely and that’s why the accusations started.

These three are real showmen, as are the entire Barcelona team.  Source: ITV

These three are real showmen, as are the entire Barcelona team. Source: ITV

On the side of it being fun, it is quite exiting for someone to do something different. It was a little bit of showmanship and craft, that people love, and it almost personified the players involved with the play.

Messi was being unselfish, even though he could score his 300th La Liga goal to set up Luis Suarez for his hat-trick. Their intricate passing play, along with Neymar, has been a highlight of the Camp Nou this season and will likely be for seasons to come.

There was no outcry from Celta, who accepted it, and it’s a totally viable way of taking a penalty. Like I mentioned previously, if you can pull it off it will tend to yield better results when employed as goalkeepers tend to make a move during a forwards run up to the kick.

The only problem I really personally have with it is the “entertainment” factor and many acting like it was some beautiful piece of genius. It was alright, I’ve seen it before and to me, I just wasn’t overly bothered about it. Then again I’m not really bothered about the classy chipped penalty, they are much like layups to a slam dunk, it’s just not as impressive as they hope for it to be.

In the end, the real annoying thing about this debate will be that it will drag on, because more people will copy it in this new social world. Look at the Panenka penalty, look at the amount of sportsman celebrating with a dab, this will also catch on like a house on fire.

So yeah, get ready for more of this. If only we hadn’t reacted at all.

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