My Premier League Predictions 2013-14

This season looks to be one of the most exciting and most difficult to predict yet.  All three of last year’s top three teams have changed managers and the future of key players such as Wayne Rooney, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez are still up in the air.  Is the Mourinho factor alone enough to help Chelsea challenge for the title?  Will signing Rooney make them title favourites?  Can City’s new manager Manuel Pellegrini settle the squad and integrate new players quickly?  Will Tottenham Hotspur manage to fend off interest from Real Madrid in Gareth Bale?  Will the promoted teams make signings and hit the ground running or will they struggle to adapt to life in the Premier League?  These questions are unlikely to be answered until the close of the transfer window making predicting the league even more difficult.  Nevertheless, here is my attempt at predicting what will happen over the 9 months of the Premier League season.

Champions

This season’s title will not be won anywhere near as easily as last season’s where Manchester United cantered to the title and effectively had it wrapped up by March.  The return of the self-anointed special one Jose Mourinho will certainly galvanise Chelsea who showed glimpses of brilliance last season despite playing over 60 competitive games in all competitions.  The play making trio of Mata, Hazard and Oscar give them a creativity that was lacking under Mourinho’s previous reign but they still need a proven goal scorer as neither Torres or Ba fit that role, and as outstanding as Lukaka was on loan at West Bromich Albion last season, he has yet to be proven at the very highest level.  The rumoured signing of Rooney would certainly tilt the odds of them regaining the Premier League crown they last won in 2010.  Yet with Manchester United repeatedly claiming the striker is not for sale and most of Europe’s other top strikers having already moved it is hard to see Chelsea quite having enough to win the title though they will certainly be challenging until the very end.  Manchester United have yet to make any significant signings although Wilfred Zaha, a January signing from Crystal Palace, has joined up with the club and impressed on their pre-season tour.  This lack of signings and the uncertainty of how David Moyes will settle has seen United written off for the title in most quarters with bookies having them as third favourites behind neighbours Manchester City and Chelsea.  Yet nobody should write this team off as despite regularly being decreed as a weak Manchester United team in recent years they did win the title comfortably and were eliminated from the Champions League in arguably unfortunate circumstances.  Keeping Rooney will be crucial as he contributes far more than goals and rumoured signings of Cesc Fabergas and Luka Modric will provide some creativity that has been lacking in midfield and ease the burden on Michael Carrick.  Despite this I do agree with the bookies and think that a period of transition will see United finish third place in the league as a tough start with games against Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the first six games will leave them playing catch up, although a cup run will ease any restlessness from the fans.

The final contender for the title is Manchester City who moved early in the transfer window to add Jesus Navas, Fernandinho, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for combined transfer fees of almost £100m.  Whilst Negredo and Jovetic are replacements for the departed Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez, Fernandinho will help bolster a midfield over-reliant on the excellent Yaya Toure last season, and Navas will provide some width that was absent under Roberto Mancini.  By selling Balotelli in January and Tevez this summer, whilst shepherding out a manager who was too quick to criticise his players publicly, City are hoping to bring some stability and harmony to the club.  Manuel Pellegrini has been lauded for his man-management skills and he got the best out of Villareal and Malaga who both punched above their weight under his stewardship.  The board and owners will be hoping that both manager and signings settle in quickly and with winnable games against Newcastle, Stoke and promoted clubs Cardiff and Hull all up before the Manchester derby they will have the chance to get points on the board early.  Less of a circus and more strength in depth will see them win the title this year for me.

Prediction: Manchester City

 

Champions League Places

If the title is to be fought out between the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea this leaves North London duo Arsenal and Spurs once again set to fight it out for the all-important final Champions League position.  Spurs manager Andre Villas Boas last season bemoaned the lack of transfer activity early in the window, leading to a slow start whereby Spurs only secured two points from their first three games against Newcastle, West Bromich Albion and Norwich, all winnable games (they won two and drew the other in the return matches).  This has been avoided this season with Chairman Daniel Levy backing his manager with the impressive additions of Paulinho and record signing Roberto Soldado, whilst Etienne Capoue will allow Mousa Dembele to push further up the pitch and control the game more.  The return to fitness of Sandro will also seem like a new signing.  Yet much continues to reside on whether Gareth Bale remains at the club.  If he does Spurs are firm favourites to secure the fourth Champions League place and perhaps even challenge further up the league.  Losing him does not automatically mean the club will fail the secure Champions League football, but it will be more difficult despite their strengthening.  Neighbours Arsenal have got rid of much of the dead wood from their squad but have yet to strengthen at all bar the free signing of 20 year old Yaya Sanogo from Auxerre on a free transfer, hardly a signing to appease the fans or worry their rivals.  Yet both the board and manager Arsene Wenger insist that a marquee signing will arrive – the club have a rumoured £80m war chest for transfers – with an almost £50m bid lodged for Liverpool troublemaker Luiz Suarez.  Despite missing the first eight games of the season as he serves his ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovich the signing of Suarez will show real ambition for a team too often accused of being a selling club in recent seasons, and will make Arsenal’s challenge for fourth place easier, although Suarez alone will not lead to a title push.  If Spurs lose Bale and Arsenal gain Suarez it is very difficult to see past the Gunners spoiling their neighbours Champions League aspirations once again.  If Bale stays and Arsenal sign Suarez then the battle will be captivating.  Much will depend on the final fortnight of the transfer window for both these teams but after writing of Arsenal’s chances again last season I am not prepared to do so again and think Arsene Wenger will continue his North London dominance.

Prediction: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal

 

Relegated

Last season I predicted one of the relegated teams successfully (Wigan) whilst one of my other predictions finish in eighth (West Bromich Albion) and never once looked like being in trouble.  This year is no easier to predict and once again it is the promoted teams that will be favourites to go down.  Of the three that have come up Cardiff look the most equipped to remain in the division.  Recent trips to Wembley in both the FA Cup and League Cup finals, where they held their own against Premiership opposition both times, have given Cardiff a taste of the quality needed to play in the Premier League.  They have already broken their record transfer fee three times this summer with the signings of striker Andrew Cornelius, impressive centre back Steven Caulker and defensive midfielder Gary Medel from Sevilla.  Adding top flight experience was vital and along with Craig Bellamy they should have enough to trouble many of the teams in the league and stave off relegation.  It won’t be easy and 17th will be the target but I expect them to secure a second season of Premier League football.  Crystal Palace have recognised the need to score goals in order to stay in the division but aging striker Kevin Phillips and Arsenal flop Marouane Chamakh are hardly the most inspiring whilst Dwight Gale, an arrival from League One Peterborough, is unproven at this level.  Palace limped over the line in the Championship last season winning only one of their last 10 games yet saw off fancied teams Brighton and Watford in the play-off semi-final, and final, respectively.  The loss of Zaha to Manchester United will hit them hard yet they have some impressive players in Yannick Bolasie, Mile Jedinal and young Welshman Jonathan Williams.  But the lack of top flight experience is likely to count against them and it is hard to see Crystal Palace remaining in the league and breaking their hoodoo of an immediate return after promotion.  It will be good to have Ian Holloway back though!  Hull City are a team with a manager who has a point to prove after feeling he was unfairly dismissed at Sunderland during his last stint in the division.  Steve Bruce has experience of fighting off relegation following spells with both Birmingham City and Wigan, the latter of which finished 11th in his last season.  The free signings of Steve Harper, Curtis Davies and Maynor Figueroa, the loan signings of Jake Livermoe and Danny Graham, and £5m signing Tom Huddlestone add a lot of Premier League experience to the team, although Bruce will be hoping that Graham can recreate his form from Swansea rather than his disappointing six month spell at Sunderland which yielded no goals.  Another striker looks like it is necessary but Bruce has signed well and Hull will be confident they can avoid relegation, as am I.

Of the other clubs in the Premier League Aston Villa look most likely to face relegation from the Premier League for the first time.  Darren Bent, a peripheral player under Paul Lambert, has left for Fulham and whilst the club has brought in replacements, none with Premier League experience have arrived.  The signs are that Christian Benteke will remain with the club after interest from elsewhere but whilst his goals kept Villa from falling through the Premier League trap door last season it is difficult seeing this being enough again as a young and inexperienced squad will continue to struggle, despite assertions that last season’s relegation dogfight will have provided valuable experience.  I expect the final relegation place to be decided between Stoke and Newcastle.  Stoke have enjoyed a relatively comfortable stay in the Premier League since they were promoted under Tony Pulis but it seems results and survival are no longer enough for most fans, who also want to play attractive football.  This led to the summer departure of Pulis and Mark Hughes being signed as his replacement.  Although his last job at QPR did not go well, Hughes is a good manager with an impressive record with Wales, Blackburn and Fulham, and he will have a point to prove after the disappointment at QPR.  However, trying to change the playing style of the team is going to take time and if results don’t go Stoke’s way initially I expect them to revert to the long ball game that was successful under his predecessor.  After an impressive season in 2011-12 Newcastle struggled last season, with a lack of goals being their main problem after Papiss Cisse failed to replicate his form, and Demba Ba departed in January.  The signing of Loric Remy – unlikely to be popular with the fans after he agreed a move in January only to end up at QPR for more money – will ease the burden, but rumoured target Darren Bent has signed for Fulham and the deal for Bafetimbi Gomis seems to have hit an impasse, leaving Newcastle short of options.  They do not have European commitments this season, meaning they can concentrate on the league, but the real issue is likely to come from the management structure and the ticking time bomb that is Joe Kinnear.  Kinnear’s last stint at Newcastle was acrimonious to say the least, and his re-appointment began with a number of unsubstantiated claims about his achievements and signings as a manager.  So far Newcastle have only recruited the aforementioned Remy since Kinnear was appointed Director of Football and tasked with signings, and it will not be long before he undermines manager Alan Pardew.  After bringing some stability to the club and seemingly getting the fans onside owner Mike Ashley’s appointment of Kinnear seems like undoing his good work, and it only seems a matter of time until it blows up in his face, leaving fans to once again deal with the consequences.

Predictions: Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Newcastle

 

Top Scorer

It is difficult to look past Robin van Persie to win this award again next season, particularly if Wayne Rooney, who was provider to a number of RVP’s goals, stays.  He has enjoyed a couple of seasons relatively injury free and if he continues to remain fit then it is hard to see the Dutchman failing to retain the Premier League Golden Boot.  He is helped by the fact that his main competitor, Luis Suarez, is missing for around a quarter of the season, with few clubs having strikers that could be considered world class.  Gareth Bale might push him if he remains with Spurs, and new arrivals could hit the ground running, but with the likes of Falcao and Cavani having already moved this transfer window, RVP looks to have little competition.

Prediction: Robin Van Persie

 

Surprise Package of the Season

A team I expect to do well this year is West Ham.  The permanent signing of Andy Carroll for £15m is a good bit of business, though more reflective of his true value than the £35m Liverpool paid for him.  The signing of Stuart Downing, also from Liverpool, is also an astute bit of business.  Whilst manager Sam Allardyce has said he wants Downing to replicate his form when he was playing for Aston Villa, and score more goals than he did at Liverpool, this can be taken with a pinch of salt.  Though some goals from Downing wouldn’t be unwelcome, his signing seems to complement the Allardyce style of play where Downing will be deployed to do what Matt Jarvis does on the other flank, and get balls into the box for Carroll to score from or knock down to midfielder Kevin Nolan who thrives on them.  Nevertheless, whilst West Ham’s game plan may be quite obvious they do have a number of good players with Joe Cole, Carroll and Downing all used to challenging for Europe.  I expect West Ham to improve on their tenth place finish from last season and be in the mix for the Europa League come May.

Prediction: West Ham United

My Review of the 2012-13 Premier League Season

After the excitement of last year’s Premier League where the title was won with virtually the last kick of the season this year has been relatively dull.  Manchester United more or less had the title wrapped up months ago and on the last day of the season all the relegation places had been settled with only the ‘trophy’ for fourth place to be decided, Arsenal pipping Spurs in two also rather dull games.  But there have still been moments to savour throughout and here is my review of the 2012-2013 Premier League season.

Team of the season: Manchester United

United won the title at a canter this year, finishing 11 points clear of second place Manchester City despite more or less switching off once the title had been won against Villa on April 22nd.  They won it so easily because of their incredible consistency; after losing to Norwich in November their next loss in the Premier League came 5 months later at home to Manchester City.  There were some exiting games such as the 4-3 wins at home against Newcastle and away against Reading coupled with uninspiring but crucial 1-0 results such as those recorded against West Ham and Sunderland, but what characterised United’s season once again was their ability to get results.  After losing the title on goal difference last year Ferguson made sure the same mistake would not happen again and his team put sides to the sword this season where they were afforded the opportunity, their goal difference finishing at an impressive 43.  Ferguson appears to have been building his legacy as well with young players such as Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Phil Jones, David De Gea, and Rafael all playing important roles in winning the title, although whether all of those will stay in Manchester long term remains to be seen.  Notable mentions must go to Swansea and Wigan who won the League Cup and FA Cup respectively, although the latter were also relegated, and to Arsenal who finished ahead of Spurs despite having a supposedly weaker team and being seven points behind after losing to their North London rivals at the beginning of March.  However, they say the table never lies and Manchester United finished well clear of the chasing pack, won the most games and lost the fewest.

Most disappointing team of the season: QPR

With Mark Hughes in place and some impressive looking signings – on paper at least – I tipped QPR to do well and perhaps even challenge for the Europa League places at the beginning of the season.  Well nine months on and I couldn’t have been further off.  QPR finished dead last, 14 points away from safety and with a team who looked like they just didn’t care.  Owner Tony Fernandes acted decisively in removing Mark Hughes and replacing him with Harry Redknapp, backing him with funds to further strengthen in January.  But past an initial upturn in fortune where they beat Chelsea and drew with Spurs and Manchester City, their poor form continued under Redknapp and they finally went out with a whimper, drawing 0-0 with Reading in a game both teams had to win to have any chance of staving off relegation.  In the immediate aftermath Clint Hill questioned why the players who had got QPR promoted had never really been given a chance to play whilst expensive signings who only seemed to care about the money were allowed to continue playing poorly.  Redknapp has says the squad needs a serious overhaul to push for promotion back to the Premier League next season and nobody is seeking to contradict him.

Manager of the season: Steve Clark

Andre Villas Boas and Rafael Benetiz, and Arsene Wenger, for different reasons, each have good claims for being manager of the season, as of course does Sir Alex Ferguson.  Although ultimately falling short of fourth place AVB managed Spurs to their highest ever points total in the Premier League and has been credited with improving the already exceptional Gareth Bale.  Wenger once again proved that his faith in his team was not unfounded as they clinched fourth place from under Spurs’ nose whilst  Benetiz, undermined immediately upon his appointment at Chelsea by being given the title ‘Interim Manager’, showed himself to be a man of exceptional integrity by ignoring the boos from the fans and guiding Chelsea to a third place finish and lifting the Europa League trophy.  Ferguson, of course, led Manchester United to their 20th league title.  However, for me Steve Clark has been the stand-out manager of the season, continuing the stability at West Bromich Albion established by Roberto Di Matteo and Roy Hodgson whilst also improving the attacking flare of the team.  Traditionally seen as a yo-yo club West Brom have established themselves in the Premier League over recent seasons and finished eighth this season – the ‘best of the rest’ after the big clubs of Manchester, Liverpool, and London.  Romelu Lukaka was instrumental in West Brom’s success, scoring 17 goals in 35 appearances, and Clark will be desperate to have him return next season.  The team also displayed a never say die attitude and a willingness to play for their manager throughout the season, as typified by their final game against Champions Manchester United where they came from 3-0 down to eventually draw 5-5, a first in the Premier League, and despite losing three on the bounce before that, including a heavy 4-0 loss away to Norwich, they will be confident going into next season.

Goal of the season: Draw: Robin Van Persie and Luis Suarez

Choosing the best goal of an entire season is always difficult, not least because it is hard to agree on what actually makes a good goal.  Is it a fantastic bit of skill such as Suarez demonstrated against Newcastle United?  Or a team goal such as that scored by Kevin Mirallas for Everton against West Ham?  Or is it a screamer like pretty much every goal scored by Gareth Bale this season?  For me it can be any of these things but the two goals that stood out the most this season were the aforementioned sublime skill shown by Luis Suarez when bringing the ball down after it had come over his head then taking it around Newcastle keeper Tim Krul with one touch before slotting in, and Van Persie’s volley against Aston Villa, a goal that combined skill and power to send the ball flying past keeper Brad Guzan following a pinpoint pass from Wayne Rooney.  A notable mention should also go to Theo Walcott whose hat-trick goal against Newcastle showed great footwork and determination to score when he could have easily gone down for a penalty, as many other players may have.

Game of the season: Manchester City 2 – 3 Manchester United

On paper this game had everything – a local derby between two teams fighting for supremacy at the top of the league and Manchester United trying to wrestle the Premier League trophy back from the club Sir Alex Ferguson has labelled noisy neighbours – and it did not disappoint. It was a back-and-forth game with United controlling the first half to lead 2-0 at half time thanks to two goals from Wayne Rooney before City fought their way back into it to level 2-2 in the 86th minute courtesy of Pablo Zabaleta. But the tale was not done there as Van Persie stepped up to take a free-kick from an acute angle in the second minute of injury time and scored, via a deflection, to hand victory to Manchester United.  There were also seven yellow cards and an unsavoury incident where a coin thrown from the crowd and hit Rio Ferdinand in a game that had plenty of talking points.  Not only was this a good game to watch but the ramifications were important, had United lost they would have dropped into second place, behind City on goal difference; as it was they went six points clear and never looked back on the way to their 20th league title.

Player of the season: Luis Suarez

Despite having a rather unsavoury side to him (see below) there is no doubting the exceptional talent of Luis Suarez who is a joy to behold on the football field – when he’s playing football.  The other main contenders are Robin Van Persie whose goals helped catapult Manchester United to the title and Gareth Bale – PFA Player and Young Player of the Year and FWA Footballer of the Year – who was central to Tottenham’s record points tally and ultimately unsuccessful push for fourth place.  Whilst both these players are up there with the best in the world Suarez was involved in almost everything good about Liverpool this season and pushing for the Golden Boot until he missed the last four games of the season for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovich, putting aside any doubts that he was not a good goal scorer in the Premier League as some were questioning last season.  Accusations of diving – sometimes rightly and sometimes not so – and that Ivanovich incident leave a sour taste when thinking of Suarez but on pure footballing ability he has been one of the few players who have been consistently good all season and is a pleasure to watch.

Signing of the season: Michu

Signed for £2m from Rayo Vallencano, Michu was instrumental to Swansea City’s success this season as the South Wales club finished in the top half of the table and won their first major honour, the League Cup, beating Bradford by a competition record 5-0 in the final.  A return of 18 goals in 35 games, just more than one goal in every two in his first season in the Premier League combined with an undoubted level of skill has already seen Michu linked with the bigger Premier League clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea, though Swansea fans will be hoping a new four year contract signed in January will keep him at the club beyond this season.  In Premier League terms £2m is peanuts, especially if you consider that the top two scorers in the Premier League – Robin Van Persia and Luis Suarez – cost more than £25m each and third place Gareth Bale has been estimated to be worth more than £50m.  The only other person to finish above Michu in the goal scoring charts this season is Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke, a player that cost more than three times the transfer fee.  Whilst Benteke’s importance cannot be overlooked – Villa would most certainly have dropped through the Premier League’s trapdoor without his goals – Michu finished the season with a trophy and in terms of pure value has no peers.

Keeper of the season: David De Gea

De Gea faced a lot of criticism last season following his high profile and expensive acquisition from Athletic Madrid.  Although well regarded as a shot stopper his lack of physical presence and his indecisiveness in the box led to a number of errors and rumours that Manchester United were thinking of selling him after just one season.  Whilst initially jostling with Anders Lindegaard for the first team jersey at the beginning of this season De Gea’s impressive form saw him cement his place from the beginning of December and start every game for United until the 1-0 loss to Chelsea in May when the title had already been won.  He kept 11 clean sheets in the 28 games he played, including eight in his last 11, and is starting to show why he was rated so highly when being brought to Old Trafford.  New manager David Moyes will be hoping that he continues to improve as he matures, and that he becomes an ever more commanding presence in the United team.

Villain of the season: Luis Suarez

Last season Suarez shared this award with Joey Barton but as the latter has gone off to France he gets it all to himself this year.  Diving has caused controversy once again this season with Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez being the prime culprits; each collecting several bookings for diving throughout the season, sometimes not always correctly it must be said.  However, the incident that earns Suarez the ‘award’ for villain of the year is his biting of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic in the 2-2 drawn at Anfield in April.  There can be no doubting that the 10 game ban for the incident is out of proportion with the act itself; it is two games more than Ben Thatcher got for knocking Pedro Mendes unconscious in 2006 and six games more than the ban handed out to John Terry for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand, an incident that occurred the previous season.  Nevertheless, biting an opponent is completely unacceptable as well as being petulant, and Suarez should have received a ban.  Whether they like it or not footballers are role models and this sort of behaviour can influence others so should be discouraged from occurring.  It is a shame that Suarez hits the headlines for the wrong reasons so often because despite it all he is a very gifted football player.

Goodbye and thanks for the memories:

This season will for years be remembered as the year Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in British history, finally retired.  But this season has seen the end of the careers of other notable members of the footballing fraternity too.  Although it’s not clear yet whether he’ll hang up his boots for good Steve Harper left after 20 years at Newcastle United.  In an age where players always seem to be haggling for moves, and in the case of Peter Odemwingie just turn up at other clubs uninvited, Harper is one of those who has been happy with his lot.  He has warmed the Newcastle bench for many years and never complained, at least not publicly.  When the crowd applauded on the 37 minutes to coincide with his shirt number he was visibly moved and clearly emotional to be calling it a day at a club he’s called home for most of his life.  Sir Alex Ferguson was not the only person bowing out of Old Trafford either as Paul Scholes also hung up his boots, this time for good it seems.  In typical Paul Scholes fashion he went under the radar in the wake of his boss’ announcement and the news of Wayne Rooney’s transfer request.  I’m sure he wouldn’t want it any other way and even as his number was held up to be substituted in his last home game the crowd got little more than a cursory wave.  Scholes has been one of, if not the, best players to play in the Premier League with players such as Zidane, Xavi and Figo regularly proclaiming him to be the best player they have played against.  In an age of big transfer fees and celebrity footballers Scholes was a rarity, one who shied away from the limelight and a one club player.  But he was not the only rarity hanging up his boots as just down the M62 at rivals Liverpool another legend of the game, Jamie Carragher, also hung up his.  Carragher has been one of the outstanding defenders in the Premier League and even in recent seasons when he wasn’t guaranteed to start he was always fully committed to Liverpool.  In an interview together, Steven Gerrard once joked that a team of Carragher’s could beat anybody although Carragher suggested it might be a dull game, so focused would he be on keeping a clean sheet.  He almost signed off in the perfect way with a thunderbolt of a shot just ricocheting of the bar in the final game of his career against QPR; perhaps a team of Carragher’s could win if some were given license to go forward, it’s certainly not a prospect that would please any Premier League rivals that is for sure.

A player linking both Manchester and Merseyside is Phil Neville who after 10 years at Manchester United – winning six Premier League titles, three FA Cups and the Champions League – and eight years at Everton has also announced his retirement.  Neville has been a model professional throughout his football career, coaching England youth teams and being on the committee of the Professional Footballers’ Association.  Able to cover a number of positions his versatility allowed him to play over 500 games for United and Everton as well as earning 59 England caps, although being unable to nail down a position at Manchester United arguably led to his exit.  Another whose commitment has never been questioned Neville was club captain at Everton for six years and will be missed by football fans in general and Everton fans in particular, although having put himself in the frame to be David Moyes’ successor we may be seeing more of him yet.  These players, along with one manager, have helped define the Premier League and provided us all with far too many memories to list.  Some will be fondly missed whilst many opponents will be only too glad to see the back of them, but each has given much to us all.  The final word however must go to Stiliyan Petrov, a player who was unable to retire on his own terms, eventually announcing his retirement from football this season after successfully battling leukaemia.  He has taken up a coaching role at Aston Villa and although he perhaps cannot be held in the same regard as the others mentioned here his impact may be even greater as he gives hope to those struck down by life threatening illnesses.  At every Aston Villa game both home and away fans applaud from the 19th minute, long may it continue.

Unlucky Lions?

With the announcement of Warren Gatland’s 37 man – 15 Welsh, 10 English, 9 Irish, and 3 Scots – British and Irish Lions squad there has been much debate on who should have been included.  Here I look at some of those who have missed out.  The most glaring omission is England’s captain Chris Robshaw.  Robshaw is a very good player and his commitment is second to none; in the Wales v England Six Nations decider Robshaw was tackling and ball carrying with the same ferocity in the final 10 minutes as he was in the first 10, even when half his colleagues seem to have given up.  But the fact is that whilst he is a very good player he is not a world class openside in the same vain as David Pocock and Richie McCaw and the three players that have been chosen ahead of him – Sam Warbuton, Justin Tupiric and Sean O’Brien – are all better at the breakdown and more creative in the loose.  Being an international captain does not automatically guarantee you a place on the plane and unfortunately for Robshaw, whilst he is an important cog in England’s engine room he is not as good as those players who are going ahead of him and so it is not possible to agree with Stuart Barnes’ assessment that he is the unluckiest person in Britain and Ireland.

Another international captain to have missed out is Kelly Brown who faces the same problem as Robshaw; whilst he is an important player for his national team he is not of the same quality as those chosen ahead of him.  Only three Scots have made the Lions team which may seem a little low given their third place finish in the Six Nations but the fact is that while their results were good their performances were not.  They were gifted victory against Italy by a poor performance and they could re-play their game against Ireland 100 times and would end up as the losers on every other occasion; the two games they played against teams that showed some genuine quality – England and Wales – were lost.  Tim Visser may be considered somewhat unlucky to miss out considering his try scoring record of six in just 10 games but he does not possess the ability to beat players in the same way that George North, Alex Cuthbert and Tommy Bowe and his defence, likely to be crucial against Australia, also needs work.

One England player that can be considered particularly unlucky to miss out is Joe Launchbury who played very well during the Six Nations and I picked in my starting 15 prediction.  Troubling injury concerns seem to have hit at the same time that Richie Gray’s went away.  There is an argument that Launchbury would have time to get fit before the Lions play their first game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong so he would be no more a risk than taking Gray who has only recently returned.  However, the hard grounds in Australia suit Gray’s marauding runs more than Launchbury and with competition for the second row just as fierce as the back row with Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connel, Ian Evans and Geoff Parling all vying for position Launchberry has been the one to lose out; nevertheless he certainly holds the claim to be England’s most unlucky player for me.

With only two fly-halves named both Ronan O’Gara and Dan Biggar may also be considered unlucky to have not been named in the squad.  Johnny Sexton is certain to start as first choice for the Lions with Farrell closing out the games with his steely goal kicking, but not taking a third fly-half or at least somebody like Billy Twelvetrees or James Hook – more on him below – who could cover the position is a risk.  It has been mooted that Stuart Hogg could be used but he has not played fly-half for years and is unlikely to force his way into the test team so this is doubtful.  As such a third fly-half should have gone to provide cover, with O’Gara and Biggar being the most obvious.  Of the two Biggar is the better player and can be considered most unlucky to miss out as he performed well during the Six Nations and is known to Gatland.  His omission serves only to fuel rumours that a place is being kept for Jonny Wilkinson to join up later in the tour once the Top 14 Final has been played and inevitable injuries create a place.

Perhaps the most unlucky player to have missed out is James Hook.  Hook has been playing outstandingly for Perpignan and is the third highest points scorer in the French Top 14 this season.  Aged 27 and with 70 Welsh caps to his name already Hook is entering the prime of his career and should easily have the time to become another centurion for Wales.  Not only would he provide competition at fly-half but his skills and versatility means that he can fill in anywhere along the back line and in my opinion would be a genuine challenger for a place in the centre partnership.  By his own admission he does not have the physicality that Gatland wants from his players but Sexton is hardly a brute of a number 10 and as such Hook is very unlucky to have not been named in the squad.  His omission from the Wales touring squad to Japan implies that he is not even on the standby list in a decision which is quite simply baffling.

There are other players who could also be considered unlucky to not be going on tour with the Lions such as Rory Best but for me the unluckiest ones are the ones I have discussed here.  Some of them will likely end up on the tour as a result of injuries, both Robshaw and Launchbury are probably top of the standby list, but others such as O’Gara and Hook seem to have no chance, a particular shame when the latter could arguably be a starter.

My Lions Predictions

Speculation about who will coach, captain, and play, for the Lions has been rife since last years Six Nations but with this years show-piece just finished all eyes are now looking towards the four yearly tour to the Southern Hemisphere and this year’s opponents Australia.  Picking a squad is hard enough but picking a starting team is almost impossible, with each person likely to have a different opinion to the next.  Does Wales’ stunning performance against England propel their players to the top of pile?  What about England’s early Championship performances against Scotland and Ireland; very different but both equally impressive?  And does Ireland’s poor performance after their first half demolition of Wales in the first match mean their players drop out of the reckoning?  Despite knowing that the first person to read this will disagree (as will the second, third, fourth….) here are my choices for who should start for the Lions Down Under.

15 – Leigh Halfpenny

I’m not sure there can be any debate about this one.  Before the tournament it seemed to be a straight fight between Rob Kearney and Halfpenny although Stuart Hogg’s performances also put him into consideration.  Nevertheless I think Halfpenny is an absolute certainty to start an Full Back.  He was the outstanding player of the Six Nations and should win the RBS player of the tournament.  He may not join the line as much as Kearney does but his game management is excellent and his last ditch defence – which may be essential against an impressive Australian back line – could be crucial.  He also provides another goal-kicking option with his three missed kicks against Scotland the only real blips in an otherwise spectacular Championship.

14 – Alex Cuthbert

Unlike the other wing where George North is a sure starter this is the hardest position to choose.  Chris Ashton has played himself out of starting with a consistent run of poor form but Cuthbert, Tim Visser, Simon Zebo or even Tommy Bowe if he recovers from injury could all be contenders and I’d also like to see an outsider like Christian Wade considered.  Cuthbert’s defensive game still needs improvement but his finishing is absolutely outstanding and he excels on the big occasion as he showed again against England.  Visser and Zebo are also outstanding finishers but Cuthbert gets the nod on the back of finishing with a winners medal.

13 – Manu Tuilangi

Tuilangi had his first poor game in an England shirt against Wales, knocking on what looked like it would surely be a try and being shut down completely by Jamie Roberts.  But he is a young player of incredible talent and one poor game does not make a bad player.  I fully expect him to bounce back from this and the Australian back line will not relish this power house running at them.  He has an eye for space, incredible acceleration and also a good eye for the pass making him much more than a crash bang wallop player.  Along with Chris Robshaw he was England’s outstanding player of the tournament.

12 – Jamie Roberts

Before the England game my choice would have been Jonathan Davies but Roberts played himself back into contention by consistently getting over the gain line and being phenomenal in defence.  His one downside is that he can be accused of being a one-trick pony who just smashes his way through defenders and doesn’t off-load enough.  But what he offers in both attack and defence means that opposition players are often focused on him and double or even triple up on tacklers, this will leave room for the more creative Tuilangi who I fancy in a one on one with almost anybody.

11 – George North

Like Halfpenny, North is a certain starter.  At only 20 it is frightening to think just how good he may become and Wales may well have their own Jonah Lomu on their hands.  Excellent in defence and an absolute monster going forward he also shows fantastic footwork and ball handling skills, his take from Dan Biggar’s grubber kick against France was simply phenomenal.  What is also impressive is that he rarely makes the wrong decisions, knowing exactly when to go to ground, pass etc.

10 – Johnny Wilkinson

Every Lions team seems to have it’s wild-card pick and this is mine.  Rhys Priestland has played himself out of a starting position and although his deputy Dan Biggar has shown good form I doubt he will start.  This seemingly leaves a battle between Johnny Sexton – who has wilted under the big occasions for Ireland – and Owen Farrell, who had his own Priestland moment when he failed to perform when it was expected of him.  Of these Farrell would be my choice as his goal-kicking is excellent.  But for all the talk of Brian O’Driscoll having a Lions tour for his swansong what about Johnny Wilkinson?  Lions head coach Warren Gatland has expressed concerns about the fitness level of players based in France with the intensity focused in the forwards but I do not think there has ever been a more committed rugby player than Wilkinson and I am sure he is doing his own fitness work.  The real issue against him may be Toulon’s involvement in the Top 14 final which would delay him joining up with the squad but Wilkinson has been playing fantastically well in France, has the goal kicking to match Farrell, and better distribution to get the back-line moving.  What better way to say goodbye to one of rugby’s greatest?

9 – Mike Phillips

Phillips is another one who played himself into contention throughout the tournament as he just got better and better, culminating in a fantastic performance against England where his desire to take quick tap and go penalties and distribute quickly meant England’s defence could never settle.  Phillips was fantastic on the last Lions tour and he seems to be playing himself into top form once again.

8 – Jamie Heaslip

Ireland’s poor performance meant Jamie Heaslip never really got to stamp his authority on a Lions place.  But he is still a fantastic number 8 who has been an ever present in the Ireland team since he bounced back from the disappointment of missing out on RWC 2007 to cement his place in the 2008 Six Nations.  Leinster crashing out of the group stage of the Heineken Cup means that he cannot showcase himself in the top cup competition but this disappointment should spur him on and he is still good enough to start for the Lions.  He will also be given far more ball from the rest of the back row I have chosen to play with him.

7 – Justin Tupiric

Sam Warburton’s injury against Ireland means that Rob Howley did not need to make a decision on whether to drop him for Tupiric but the latter seized his opportunity with both hands and was rewarded for his performance against France by retaining his place against Italy.  He was perhaps unlucky to lose his place against Scotland but Warburton’s man of the match performance justified Howley’s decision.  Injury to Ryan Jones meant Tupiric was back in against England, with Warburton moving to 6 to make way for him.  And it seemed an inspired decision as Wales were constantly threatening at the breakdown and Tupiric secured his own man of the match reward.  His work-rate, tacking and ball skills are all outstanding and he could comfortably play in the back-line.  The decision of who to play at 7 got easier with news of David Pocock’s injury but Michael Hooper is an excellent replacement and Tupiric is the man to play against him for me.

6 – Sam Warburton

Perhaps the most controversial decision in my list as it means that Chris Robshaw loses out on a place.  Whilst Warburton is normally an openside he shunts across to blindside to make room for Tupiric in my team.  He excelled there against England and working in tandem with Tupiric they never let England settle and constantly challenged at the breakdown.  Playing two opensides may be the best way to stop Australia playing quick ball and Warburton has played himself back into the team on the back of excellent performances against Scotland and England.  Every player has dips in form but Warburton has shown true character to come back through and put on impressive displays at the end of the tournament.  He doesn’t get the captaincy though as it seemed a weight lifted off his shoulders when Ryan Jones retained the Welsh captaincy against Scotland and I think he should concentrate on playing his game.  He will have other opportunities to captain the Lions.

5 – Alun Wyn Jones

Alun Wyn only played half the tournament for Wales but he was absolutely superb and instrumental in the victories against Scotland and England.  He looked like he hadn’t missed a beat and he offers power in the scrum and gains important yardage with ball in hand.  Very much an unsung hero but a certainty to be starting for the Lions.

4 – Joe Launchberry

It looks as if Richie Gray will be out for two months meaning competition for the second place at Lock is between Launchberry and Ian Evans.  Both played well throughout the tournament so both have decent claims to go but Launchberry gets the nod, just.

3 – Adam Jones (c)

Another absolute certainty to go and captains my team.  A three time Grand Slam winner with Wales, part of an all-Welsh front row during the previous Lions tour and widely regarded as the best Tighthead prop in the game there is little left to say about Jones.  Absolutely outstanding against both Joe Marlar and Mako Vunipola in Wales’ final game of the championship he will absolutely relish going against an unfancied, if improved, Austrian scrum.  A fantastic professional who leads by example so gets my nod as captain.

2 – Richard Hibbard

Hibbard played fantastically well throughout the tournament and is cementing his place as Wales’ first choice Hooker ahead of Matthew Rees and Ken Owens, neither of whom are bad players themselves.  His line-out throwing was decent and his work around the park was exceptional, all topped off with some crunching tackles where he refused to let absolutely anybody get past him.  Doesn’t like to pass enough but his work in other areas makes up for this as he rarely loses the ball when he goes into contact.

1 – Cian Healy

Healy needs to work on his temperament and should have been banned for far more than three weeks that he got for stamping on Dan Cole which only ended up costing him one match because of a technicality.  This is an ugly side to his game that the Lions coaches will need to discuss with him but there can be no doubt that he is a fantastic scrummager who will put the Australians under pressure and the breakdown as well.

There are my choices.  Dominated by the Welsh after retaining their title and some players, most notably Chris Robshaw, unfortunate to miss out.  The list if of course subject to injuries and changes of form over the coming months and only covers who I think should start but these would be my choices if the team were to fly today.

Six Nations Predictions

Trying to predict leagues or tournaments is always a risky business as your predictions will inevitably come back and bite you in the backside at some point.  Nevertheless, here are my predictions for how each of the countries will fare in this year Six Nations Championship.

Wales

After such a successful World Cup in 2011 Wales went into last year’s Six Nations as favourites and were expected not only to win but to complete a Grand Slam, a feat they duly achieved.  But the 12 months since have not been kind to Wales and they have failed to win a single game, unless you count the victory against the Barbarians which was little more than an exhibition match.  Their performances against Australia during the summer were good although they showed a naivety and an inability to shut out close games against Southern Hemisphere opposition once again.  The Autumn Series on the other hand was nothing short of shocking for the men in red.  Whilst people may blame injuries in key positions these are poor excuses, the truth is simply that Wales were not good enough.  Whilst the Argentinian team have improved in recent years they came to these shores after a long and gruelling Rugby Championship where they had faced the world’s top teams; Wales should have had the quality to beat them, a fact only demonstrated by Ireland’s demolition of Argentina just a few weeks later.  The following week a poor performance against Samoa culminated in yet another defeat before improved performances against Australia and New Zealand earned the team some plaudits but no victories and a slide to ninth in the world rankings.  This is a false position for a team of Wales’ ability and I am sure that it will improve over the Championship, but Wales are no longer the favourites, and this may suit them as it is not a tag they have worn comfortably.  Wales are a confidence team however, and games against Ireland and France is not the way they would choose to begin their campaign.  Fortunately they do begin at home and if they get a victory against Ireland this will allow them to build some momentum but if they do not improve dramatically then Ireland will sense an opportunity to catch them cold.  Win or lose against Ireland I do not see them winning in France on current form which will hurt their chances of winning the Championship.  After France they face consecutive away games against Italy and Scotland where I do expect them to win; with the greatest respect to these teams you would rather play them away and face Ireland and England at home than the other way around.  If they are successful in these games this will allow them to build momentum for their finale against England at the Millennium Stadium.  With this momentum and the passionate Welsh fans behind them I expect them to win against England to dent their old enemies own chances of winning the Championship, but possibly not by enough.

Prediction: Second

England

England’s fortunes have contrasted with Wales’ over the past year.  They finished a commendable second in last year’s Six Nations and were one decision away from completing the clean sleep that Wales eventually achieved.  They similarly came away without a win from their summer tour but were within a score in their first loss against the Springboks and finished with a credible draw.  Their summer started off with a hammering of Fiji before close losses against South Africa and Australia.  However, it is their last game, the record win against the world’s number one team New Zealand, which has given them a platform to win the Six Nations for the second time in three years.  Though the fixture list is not kind with games against two of their three main rivals being played away (sorry to fans of Italy and Scotland but I discount them both as genuine title contenders) I think England are favourites for the title this year, not France, and I think they will fulfil this tag.  They begin against Scotland at Twickenham which I expect them to win although I think it will be close as games between these two teams tend to be.  The following weekend they go to the Aviva Stadium to play an Ireland team who will be desperate for revenge after the humiliating defeat at the hands of England on the last weekend of last year’s Six Nations.  Ireland’s record at their new home is not good, as they will readily admit themselves, and I think England will go their confident of causing an upset.  A win against Ireland, which I think they will achieve, will give them the confidence to beat France at home in their next game before what I see being a comfortable win against Italy, which may give them the points they need to be crowned Champions should they finish the Championship on equal points with any of their rivals.  As discussed above, England finish their campaign against Wales at the Millennium Stadium.  If England head down the M4 with the four victories that I expect them to have this game could decide the Championship.  But just like Ireland spoilt the Grand Slam party for England two years ago I expect Wales to do the same this year.  Nevertheless, I still expect England to be crowned champions at the conclusion of the game.

Prediction: First

France

Predicting how France will fare in rugby tournaments is nigh on impossible.  An un-fancied team made it to the RWC final 18 months ago where arguably some harsh decision cost them the chance to be crowned World Champions, before finishing fourth in last year’s Six Nations, a disappointing result for a team that dominated the Six Nations in the middle of the last decade.  The return of Frederic Michalak since Phillippe Saint-Andre’s appointment as coach seems like a stroke of genius, the mercurial number 10 having improved his physicality and decision making considerably following several years playing in South Africa before a return to France with big spending Toulon.  Whilst France have always had the power up front Michalak and scrum half Dimitri Yachvili have the skills to get an increasingly impressive back line, containing the likes of Wesley Fofana, Vincent Clerc and Maxime Mermoz, on the front foot.  Their domestic teams are going well in the Heineken Cup with three of them through to the quarter finals (though Toulon’s success has been achieved with high profile overseas signings) and this should give some confidence to the national team who begin their campaign against Italy and although the game is away this is still the team that most countries would pick to start the tournament against.  Despite losing to Italy on their last visit I don’t expect them to be shocked again and I do expect them to record a comfortable victory before going on to beat Wales in their second game.  Nevertheless, despite an impressive autumn where they were the only Northern hemisphere team to go undefeated, France still seem liable to crack under pressure and consecutive away games against England and Ireland are going to make or break their Championship.  As a result I think they may struggle in both these fixtures, especially if Ireland lose to England as I predict as they will not want to lose both their homes games in the tournament.  Their final game is at home against Scotland where I do not expect them to have any issues in securing victory but do expect it to be too little too late.  I see France finishing mid-table with Ireland and the places being decided on score difference where I think France will just edge it.

Prediction: Third

Ireland

Since winning the Grand Slam in 2009 Ireland seem to have been in transition ever since with stalwarts like Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll coming to the end of their careers and players such as Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip, the latter retaining the captaincy despite the return to fitness of O’Driscoll, becoming the new leaders of the team.  Both Ulster and Munster made it through to the Heineken Cup quarter finals but Leinster’s fall at the group stage will be a massive blow for a lot of the Irish players and may spur them on to success in the Six Nations.  However, the loss of Paul O’Connell for most of the Championship and with Stephen Ferris’ involvement also in doubt they are missing two thirds of a back row that has been impressive over recent years.  Unlike most of their rivals, Ireland have not blooded enough new youngsters in recent seasons despite impressive performances by Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy during the autumn.  Johnny Sexton is arguably the best number 10 in the world at the moment with his reported move to Racing Metro making the best paid number 10 as well, and he undoubtedly has the skills to keep Ireland on the front foot and the scoreboard ticking over; nevertheless the loss of Tommy Bowe, last years’ top try scorer, will be a massive blow to the Irish.  The fixture list is also not kind to Ireland; they begin by playing a Welsh team in Cardiff who will be desperate to get back to winning ways and put in a performance for the passionate fans in the Millennium Stadium before playing England at the Aviva Stadium.  These are both games that I expect them to lose which will mean a miserable start for the Irish who will spend the rest of the campaign playing catch up.  I do expect them to secure victories in their away games against Scotland and Italy and the home game against France but as with my predictions for the French I expect it to be too little too late with a difficult start derailing Ireland’s hopes of winning the Championship.

Prediction: Fourth

Scotland

Scotland are turning into the new France with consistency being something they have not been able to achieve in recent seasons; if only they had the talent pool of the French.  A disappointing Wooden Spoon in last year’s Six Nations, capped off with a poor performance in the final game in Italy, was followed by a successful tour in the summer, including a historic defeat of Australia.  In the autumn they suffered a whitewash with a hammering by World Champions New Zealand beginning their campaign and a 15-21 defeat by Tonga ending it and leading to Andy Robinson finally falling on his sword.  Scott Johnson has been appointed as interim coach and Stuart Lancaster demonstrated last year how quickly an interim coach can get a team playing well, the latter going on to secure the England manager’s job on a permanent basis.  However, despite being part of the coaching team that secured a Grand Slam with Wales in 2005, Johnson’s international pedigree is not great, being released as part of the Australian coaching team after a poor performance at RWC 2007 before leaving his job as head coach of the USA team after just over a year in charge to take over at the Ospreys in Wales.  His three years as Ospreys coach were also unsuccessful before he became Scotland assistant coach and now finds himself as interim head coach.  It is a big ask to turn Scotland’s fortunes around quickly and I doubt that Johnson is the man to do this, I feel Scotland need to persuade Nick Mallet to come out of retirement if they wish to challenge more consistently.   The quality of the Scottish pack is not in question with players like Al Kellock, Euan Murray and Richie Gray, the latter will almost certainly be a Lions tourist come the summer.  It is in the backs where Scotland have lacked the creativity and finishing power of their rivals.  However with the recent emergence of Stuart Hogg and Tim Visser finally qualifying for residency, something that Scotland seems to have been waiting an age for, they do have the potential quality to threaten, but possibly not enough.  They will put in a gutsy performance against England, as the Scottish always do, but I do not think they have enough to beat an England team buoyed by their victory over New Zealand in the autumn.  It is their second game against Italy that is crucial.  Although early on in the tournament I see this as a Wooden Spoon decider and as Scotland’s first home game they will need to put in a good performance.  I do expect them to do this however; whilst they lost in Italy last year at the end of a disappointing campaign, I think they will have enough to beat Italy this time around.  This is however the only game I think they will win despite playing at home to Ireland and Wales.

Prediction: Fifth

Italy

Whilst Italy have secured some memorable victories since the Five Nations became Six, most notably two years ago against France, they have failed to consistently deliver match winning performances, winning just nine out of their 65 matches to date.  Up front they have a pack that can match anybody and in veteran Sergio Parisse they have one of the outstanding Number Eight’s in world rugby.  But unfortunately for the Italian’s they have little else to offer, with try-scoring being a particular problem; they scored just four in last year’s Championship, and just 77 in total since their entry in 2000.  Fitness would also appear to be a problem, of the 121 points they scored in the Six Nations last year just three came after the 50th minute.  This means they spend a lot of time on the back foot and opponents can put pressure on them, inevitably leading to them conceding penalties.  The world rankings show Italy to be a higher ranked team than Scotland and just one behind last year’s Grand Slam Champions Wales, but I do not think this is a true reflection of their standing in this tournament and though they sometimes manage a result I think they will end this year’s Championship without a win.  Despite having three home games, against Wales, Ireland and France, their battle to avoid the wooden spoon will invariably come down to their game against Scotland on the second weekend of the tournament.  They play this game in Edinburgh and despite the Scots disappointing performance in Rome last year I do not think we will see a repeat with Scotland gaining some measure of revenge.  Odds of 1000-1 on Italy securing a Grand Slam and 500-1 on the Championship appear generous.

Prediction: Wooden Spoon

Love him or hate him, Suarez is good for the premier league.

Luis Suarez has made the headlines again this week for the wrong reasons after his handball against Macclesfield is brought up constantly during the build up for the Manchester United v Liverpool game on Sunday.  He is certainly a player that divides opinion and if you are Uruguayan or a Liverpool fan then you worship him and if you are seemingly anybody else you hate him.  But love him or hate him Luis Suarez is undoubtedly good for the Premier League.  I want to look at some of the incidents that have brought the ire of journalists and fans before pointing out why having this player in the Premier League only enriches it.  First up is Suarez’s latest handball, whereby he appeared to control the ball with his hand before putting it into the net with his foot.  Firstly there is no doubt that he did handle it, and he knew that he’d handled it because after scoring the goal he clearly did not expect it to be awarded and celebrated somewhat sheepishly after it was.  People have been quick to brandish him a cheat but the onus is not on him to admit that he had handled the ball; it should have been the referee or linesman who spotted the infringement and dealt with it appropriately by disallowing the goal.  Some of Macclesfield’s own players admitted they would not have admitted it if they had scored in a similar way and had one of their defenders stopped a goal with their hand which was missed by the referee then they would not likely admit it should be given.  It is not the first time that Suarez has been guilty of using his hands after stopping a goal bound shot by Dominic Adiyiah in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  This was a more blatant infringement and Suarez was sent off, subsequently missing his teams’ semi-final appearance after Asamoah Gyan missed the resulting penalty and Ghana lost in the penalty shootout.  There was less furore about the incident in this country as Suarez had yet to sign for Liverpool so was less in the spotlight but accusations of being a cheat may more clearly be levelled at him in this instance.  But did he really do anything that any other player wouldn’t do in his position?  Had it been Rio Ferdinand or John Terry doing the same and England subsequently appearing in a World Cup semi-final then I’m sure there would have been much less fuss about it.  I don’t say this to excuse Suarez but he was a hero in his own country and I’m sure his vilification by the rest of the world did not really matter to him; the right or wrongs of the situation depend on one’s perspective.

The incident that has brought the most attention is Suarez’s supposed racial abuse of Patrice Evra.  I have always maintained that Suarez was treated harshly over the incident.  Media reports suggest that he used the word ‘negrito’ throughout the game, a phrase that is supposedly inoffensive in Uruguay.  Yet it essentially came down to Evra’s word against Suarez’s and the latter seems to have been found guilty by his own admission that he used the word and that the intended meaning was misunderstood.  I will not get into the rights and wrongs of the case and whether Suarez should have shown more awareness of the offensive nature of the term within the culture he now resides – this has been done elsewhere.  But Suarez’s 8 game ban seems to be a result of the F.A. trying to show that they were making a stand against racism and whilst I do not wish to paint him as some sort of victim in the incident the F.A. certainly used him to make a point.   Where Suarez can most certainly be criticised is in his refusal to shake Evra’s hand when Liverpool v Manchester United ironically ended up being his return game.  Rather than drawing a line under the incident he stoked up an already volatile situation and showed a great deal of disrespect towards not only Evra, but towards his own club who had backed him throughout the incident.

The final issue which Suarez regularly receives criticism for is that of diving.  This is far less an issue of perspective, a dive is a dive after all and Suarez has been guilty of diving on many occasions.  His dive against Stoke this season for example was nothing short of disgraceful.  This does sometimes work against him though, he was clearly fouled by Leon Barnett when Liverpool played Norwich and should have been awarded a penalty yet the referee waved appeals away.  Though some may think that this is karma, decisions should not be made on a player’s reputation; Gareth Bale, another player regularly accused of diving, incorrectly received a yellow card recently when he was fouled inside the box by Sunderland’s Craig Gardner, a card that was arguably only given because of Bale’s reputation for going to ground easily.  Nevertheless, the argument that Suarez is a diver is not easy to defend and it is a reputation that he is going to find difficult to rid himself of.  Having poured over and debated the bad as concerns Luis Suarez I still want to suggest that he is good for the Premier League.  In the first instance he is newsworthy; the media and individuals writing blogs such as myself have plenty to discuss when it comes to Suarez, both good and bad.  And there is a lot of good.  For all his faults Suarez is an exceptional player who lights up the Premier League.  He is the second highest scorer in the Premier League at the time of writing and there is no doubt of his skill; his goal in the 1-1 draw with Newcastle at Anfield showed the most sublime control and skill whilst he almost single handily destroyed QPR in the 3-0 win at Loftus Road.  The Premier League attracts the best players in the world and Suarez definitely fits into that category, he is a player that people love to watch.  This does not excuse his behaviour, yet I would rather have him here where I can watch him play regularly than anywhere else.

Premier League Predictions

It has been three long months since the end of the most dramatic Premier League season yet.  This weekend marks the beginning of the new season and nine months of ecstasy, agony, and everything in between.  Predicting what will happen in the coming season is incredibly difficult and even if some predictions are accurate others are likely to be thrown back in the authors face come the close of the season.  Nevertheless, here are my predictions for the Premier League season 2012-13.

 

Champions
For me this is a two-horse race between the two Manchester clubs.  Manchester City have not been on their now familiar spending spree this summer, the only addition being Jack Rodwell, who with the greatest respect is not exactly setting the world alight for fans who have seen the likes of Aguero, Toure(s), Nasri, Silva, Balotelli and Tevez arrive over recent years.  Yet they already have arguably the strongest squad in the Premier League and with Tevez seemingly having overcome his dispute with the club this will feel like a new signing.  Balotelli was one of the stand out performers at Euro 2012 and if this continues, along with the growing maturity he showed at the same tournament, this will also be significant for City.  Finally, they have the experience of having won the title this year and if they open up a significant gap like the one they did last year I don’t expect them to squander it again.

Manchester United apparently played their worst football in years last season yet they still managed to push City until the very final seconds of the season.  Injuries to Tom Cleverley, who had been proving himself to be a very good midfielder, Nemanja Vidic, and Darren Fletcher, always a mainstain of Ferguson teams, were badly felt.  The good news for United is that all three of these players are fit at the moment (although doubts remain as to whether Fletcher will ever fully recover) and the signings of Nick Powell and Shinji Kawaga add to the midfield, the area United have arguably struggled most with in recent seasons.  Paul Scholes is also signed up for another season and his influence in the second half of last season cannot be underestimated.  Despite this they still need a creative midfielder in my opinion and should spend big to secure the signature of Modric, Sneijder or Moutinho.  The rumoured arrival of Robin Van Persie would also significantly strengthen United’s team, and if it stops him going to Manchester City this would be a massive bonus too.

The battle to be champions will be very closely fought, and I expect there to be no more than a point or two in it this season.  Winning the title is very hard but retaining it is even harder as the champions are always the team that everybody wants to beat.  Nevertheless I expect Manchester City to retain the Premier League title this season.  They have acquired a winning mentality and Mancini looks to have gelled them into a team despite all the big egos.

Prediction: Manchester City

 

Champions League Places

If the top two places will be contested between the Manchester clubs then who will secure the important third and fourth places and qualification for the Champions League?  Having won the FA Cup and the Champions League, Chelsea quite rightly gave Roberto Di Matteo the manager’s job on a permanent basis.  He will still need to jettison older players but he will not attempt the wholesale changes that Andre Villas Boas attempted to implement.  It may be that this will clear the deck ready for the arrival of Pep Guardiola but RDM has nothing to lose and can be confident (as confident as anybody can be with Abramovich looming ) he will be given at least the whole season.  Chelsea have spent big so far this summer with the arrivals of Marko Marin, Eden Hazard (who apparently chose Chelsea over both Manchester Clubs) and Oscar.  With Drogba having moved on Torres also looks refreshed.  Despite not playing much in the European Cup for Spain he still finished with the golden boot and he looked sharp against Manchester City in the Community Shield, his chip over Pantilimon reminiscent of the Torres that terrified defences in his Liverpool days.  Having still been mainly a bench player when RDM took over last season, including not starting both major finals, Torres will feel he has a point to prove.  Chelsea may well finalize their long running interest in Brazilian striker Hulk although it looks like a deal for Victor Moses will be pushed through which will suit Torres as Moses is surely a back up.  Chelsea stuttered under positional experimentations by AVB last season and although RDM’s Premier League record was not that impressive (5 wins in 11 games) I expect Chelsea to push for the title but finish third.

The battle for fourth place has been one of the most intriguing for the past few seasons, often fought out between North London rivals Tottenhom Hotspur and Arsenal.  This year I expect it to be a two-way battle again, but I do not expect Arsenal to feature.  Despite their miraculous powers of recovery last season to ultimately finish third, Arsenal are a club currently in a downward spiral.  I expect Robin Van Persie to leave as the board will not allow him to leave as a free agent next year when they can make £20m+ now.  Previous high-profile players including Henry, Nasri and Fabergas have shown that they will leave if they want to and the latter two along with RVP’s likely departure show worrying times for Arsenal.  They need to spend big to attract high-profile players if they want to challenge for top honours again, and they likely need to lose Arsene Wenger for this to happen.

I do expect Tottenham Hotspur to challenge for the Champions League again though.  AVB was not succesful at Chelsea where there is too much player power.  The fact that he had been Mourinho’s assistant there and many of the players knew him from that time also undermined his authority.  He will have no such problems at Tottenham where there is a young hungry team.  Tellingly, very few of the players complained about Harry Redknapp’s unforseen departure and all have been very positive about the appointment of Villas Boas.  It may seem easy to dismiss these positive statements from players  who obviously want to be in the managers good books but Gareth Bale has put his money where his mouth is by signing a new long-term contract which is a significant boost to the clubs prospects and a glowing endorsement of the new manager.  Tottenham will more than likely lose Luka Modric but they will get the maximum possible value for him as Daniel Levy has proven himself to be an astute chairman by tying players down to long-term contracts (Arsenal may want to take note).  They have shown themselves as willing to invest in players too so expect the arrival of two or three others to strengthen the team before the close of the transfer window, quite possibly João Moutinho from AVB’s old club Porto.

Challenging Tottenham for fourth place will be Newcastle United.  In my review of last season I named Newcastle my team of the season with Alan Pardew my manager of the season, and Papiss Cisse taking goal and January transfer of the season.  Newcastle were expected to struggle last year but defied all expectation to push for a Champions League spot and I expect them to do the same this season.  The expected fire sale of their best places has not taken place and so far not one first team player has left with Demba Ba’s £7m buyout clause having expired at the end of July.  The transfer window has yet to shut but many players have come out and stated they want to stay and if they keep hold of Ba, Cisse, Ben Arfa and Cabaye they will push again.  Many clubs suffer from ‘second season syndrome’ but I do not expect this to happen with the quality of players at Newcastle.  With the club competing in Europe they will also attract some higher quality players to the club which will help when the games start to mount.

I do expect Tottenham to win this battle though.  They have competed in one of the European cups for the past few seasons so have the experience of juggling the demands of multiple tournaments and their squad also looks better able to cope with the fixture schedule.  They should resolve the Modric situation quickly so it is not hanging over them during the first few games of the seasons and get a replacement in sharpish but I expect them to have enough to qualify for next seasons Champions League.

Predictions: Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur

 

Relegated

Which clubs will fall through the Premier League trap door is probably the most difficult to predict in a league that is so competitive.  Last season all three promoted clubs escaped relegation and none of them ever looked in danger of dropping straight back down.  I do not expect the same to happen this year.  I expect West Ham to stay up relatively comfortably; they managed to keep most the team that were relegated and have a proven Premier League manager in Sam Allardyce.  They have already made some astute signings in Alou Diarra, Jussi Jaaskelainen and the re-signings of George McCartney and James Collins, as well as showing themselves willing to spend big after agreeing a deal for Andy Carroll which the player rejected.  Both Reading and Southampton have signed proven strikers, the former with the free signing of Pavel Pogrebnyak and the latter with Jay Rodriguez for £7m.  Reading have shored up their defence with Adrian Mariappa and Chris Gunter as well as signing Danny Guthrie on a free.  Southampton have also recruited defensively with Nathaniel Clyne and goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga arriving for £2.5m each.  The lack of top flight experience is concerning for Southampton though and I feel as if back to back promotions will be too much for them, even if Norwich managed it so admirably last season.
Accompanying Southampton I expect to be Wigan.  They have managed to avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth just one too many times now and having lost Hugo Rodallega, and likely Victor Moses too, it is difficult to see how they will score enough goals to remain in the Premier League for another year, despite the £7.5m signing of Argentinian striker Mauro Boselli.  I expect the final relegation spot to be contested by West Bromich Albion and Norwich.  West Brom have traditionally been a yo-yo club but maintained some stability under Roberto Di Matteo and subsequently Roy Hodgson.  However, with the quality of sides in the Premier League I think they will struggle this year under Steve Clark who has no experience as a manager at this level.  Paul Lambert leaving Norwich seemed surprising having been so succesful at the club but they acted quickly in replacing him with Chris Hughton, which was a very astute piece of business.  Transfers for Michael Turner and Robert Snodgrass will improve the team but I do expect them to be found out and struggle more this season than last.  Despite this I do expect them to have enough to stay up even if they do finish much nearer the bottom this season than they did last.

Predictions: Southampton, Wigan, West Bromich Albion

 

Top Scorer

The usual suspects will contend for top scorer with Sergio Aguero, Wayne Rooney, and Robin Van Persie all in the mix, although the latter will need to stay fit for the whole season to become the first player to retain the golden boot since Thierry Henry.  I also expect Papiss Cisse to be near the top of the scoring charts along with Nikica Jelavić at Everton.  But my prediction for top scorer is Carlos Tevez.  He finished joint top scorer with Dimitar Berbatoz the season before last although unlike Berbatov who scored 11 of his goals in three games Tevez demonstrated the ability to score goals consistently.  Last season was marred by off field controversy following his refusal to warm up against Bayern Munich in the Champions League and he should consider himself fortunate to still be playing for Manchester City.  Yet these problems seem to have been buried and Tevez looked keen to play for the team at the end of last season and was impressive in the Community Shield.  His record for Manchester City is incredibly good having scored 48 goals in just 79 appearances.  His link up with Agureo is impressive and I expect Balotelli and Silva to have more consistent seasons this year meaning Tevez having more opportunities to score.  If off field problems don’t re-occur and Tevez is focused then I expect him to collect the golden boot at the end of the season.

Prediction: Carlos Tevez

 

Surprise Package of the Season

Each year there is always one team that is labelled the surprise package.  Two seasons ago it was Blackpool even if they were ultimately relegated and last season any one of the promoted teams could lay claim to the moniker.  This season I expect Queens Park Rangers to claim it.  They struggled last season, initially under Neil Warnock before being replaced by Mark Hughes.  But the latter is a very good manager who has been succesful with Wales, Blackburn, Manchester City (where he was unfairly dismissed) and Fulham.  He is tactically astute and has signed proven Premier League players in Ryan Nelsen, Andrew Johnson, Robert Green and Park Ji-Sung.  Samba Diakité also looks like a good signing and if Hughes can keep Djibriel Cisse on the pitch rather than serving suspensions and get the best out of Shaun Wright-Phillips and Bobby Zamora then I expect QPR to do very well.  I do not think they will have any of the struggles they had last season and expect them to finish in the top half, maybe even pushing for a Europa League position.

Prediction: Queens Park Rangers

 

There are my predictions for the season.  How will I fare?  We’ll find out in 9 months.

Getting into the Olympic Spirit

In the build up to the Olympics you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world (or Britain at least) was full of pessimists.  Constant media reporting of the budget being far above that originally envisaged; potential terrorist threats; the failures of G4S; doping; Twitter; and the draconian sponsorship rules have all being given page upon page of printed media and hour upon hour of TV coverage.  I have sympathy with some of this; the fact that Coke, McDonalds and Cadburys are the main sponsors of an event that showcases the trim fit bodies of modern athletes and whose legacy is supposed to encourage young people to get involved in sport quite frankly beggars belief.  But it is not these issues that meant I wasn’t all that interested in the Olympics, it was more of a general indifference.  I enjoy Football, although never really felt Team GB was sold to me, and I’d always planned to watch the Tennis, another sport that I enjoy anyway.  But I have never really been that interested in Track & Field (I prefer my racing in cars), Cycling, Rowing etc.  As such my attitude has generally been ‘meh’ as other people got excited about the Olympics coming to London.

But it’s been almost impossible to escape with the news naturally dominated by Olympic reporting and the BBC putting on an extra 24 channels devoted solely to Olympic events.  I have found myself flicking through the TV guide and putting on one of these many channels since the Olympics started and cannot help but be hooked.  I have watched Cycling, Rowing, Boxing, Gymnastics, Football, Basketball, Trampolining, Tennis and of course the Track and Field events.  Sports that I would never even contemplate watching at any other time of year suddenly have me on the edge of my seat as I quickly become an ‘expert’ in whichever event I happen to be watching.  When British athletes are involved it’s hard not to feel moved by the support they are getting and the atmosphere being generated; it makes me wish that I’d made more of an effort to get tickets for something, anything.  This weekend has seen a slew of medal for team GB including Golds for Jessica Ennis; Mo Farah; Greg Rutherford; Ben Ainslee; Andy Murray (so happy about this one); and Joanna Rowsell, Laura Trott and Dani King among others.  We have also picked up a multitude of silver and bronze medals including for Andy Murray and Laura Robson; Louis Smith and Max Whitlock; Ed Clancy, and Rebecca Adlington.  There has been such a glut that there are just too many to name.  But through it all I’ve found myself riveted and cheering on the British athletes.  Maybe I do care….

Is the Gap Between the Nothern and Southern Hemisphere Closing?

Before Wales’ third test with Australia Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach, claimed the gap between the northern and southern hemisphere teams was closing.  Edwards attributed this to a change in the scheduling which allowed the northern hemisphere teams more time to prepare.  Conversely, the southern hemisphere teams had very little time to prepare as the three test tours were held in the middle of the Super 15 season.  Scheduling issues aside, I want to consider whether Shaun Edwards comment that the gap between the northern and southern hemisphere teams is closing is true, and if it is, to what extent.  In order to answer this I will be focusing on Wales, England and Ireland, and their three test tours with Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand, the southern hemisphere heavyweights against who the rest are measured.

Ireland were within touching distance of their first win against the All Blacks in the second test and should have closed out the game but the rest of the tour they will want to forget soon.  Brian O’Driscoll claimed the final test to be an embarrassment and I do not wish to argue with him.  Ireland knew they would be facing a backlash after the criticism the New Zealand team faced following their narrow victory the previous week, but I do not think they quite expected what came.  New Zealand were rampant and Ireland collectively looked like rabbits in the headlights who had all but given up after about 20 minutes.  O’Driscoll himself was the only Irish player who looked like he had any fight in him and wanted to do something to help the team impose themselves on that test, something they never achieved.  The first test was similarly one-sided.  Although Ireland started brightly New Zealand found it far too easy to find holes in their defence.  Ireland are something of an enigma, they are almost the new France in that you do not know what team is going to turn up.  This season they beat Australia at the World Cup before being comfortably dispatched in the quarter finals by Wales.  Wales again beat them, somewhat fortunately, in the opening game of the Six Nations before a plucky draw with France in Paris, a game they could have won.  They followed this with an excellent performance against Scotland but ended the six nations on the receiving end of a hammering by England.  Ireland lack the consistency to truly challenge regularly, particularly against the southern hemisphere teams.

Wales went to Australia with genuine hopes of securing a series win and a minimum expectation of at least a test win.  They will be making the long journey home with neither of these although across all three tests they were the closest of the home nations.  This will come as little comfort though.  In the final test they were on the receiving end of a number of questionable calls by referee Craig Joubert yet throughout the series they made far too many unforced errors, their decision-making was poor, and they gave away too many penalties.  These last two aspects cost them dearly in the second game when ahead with less than two minutes on the clock and a man advantage, they chose to kick the ball away and then conceded two penalties to hand Australia the opportunity to win the game.  In the final test Australia demonstrated exactly what Wales should have done by getting the forwards to take the ball into contact and going through the phases, denying Wales the ball before kicking it out of touch when the clock turned 80 to hold on to a slender one point lead.  Wales’ kick chase, so good during the Six Nations, was also poor througout and this allowed Australia the chance to counter-attack from deep, something they excel at and Wales should have been looking to stop at all costs.  Wales showed considerable courage to bounce back from two defeats and perform the next week but they failed to turn performances into victories and until they learn to do this they will not be considered a world-class team outside of the northern hemisphere.

England impressed during the Six Nations showing some great attacking threat, particularly against France and Ireland.  Stuart Lancaster was rightly given the head coach role on a permanent basis and their summer tour to South Africa was his chance to prove that more progress had been made.  South Africa do not have the attacking fluidity of Australia or New Zealand and so England knew they would need to front up and take on South Africa head to head, particularly up front.  They did this admirably although they did lose some of the attacking fluency they had displayed during the six nations.  Like Wales, England’s penalty count was too high and their decision-making could also be improved, particularly during the final test when Farrell’s drop goal got nowhere near to giving England a hard-fought, and probably deserved, win.  They should have continued allowing the forward to drive the ball on, trusting in themselves to keep their composure and the ball, and draw the penalty.  Nevertheless, England avoided a white-wash by drawing the final test and were within a score of winning the first.  They would also have been a lot closer in the second test as well after mounting a great comeback to get within touching distance of the Springboks, only to part like the red sea and allow JP Pietersen to score and stop their momentum.  Perhaps most importantly for this England team who viewed this series as very much a development series, a number of players who will form the team for many years to come gained considerable experience.

The gap between the southern and northern hemisphere teams certainly seems to be closing, at least in the case of Wales and England who demonstrated in patches that they could challenge Australia and South Africa respectively.  Despite Ireland coming close to victory in the second test they put all their effort into this and had nothing left.  They are in the process of rebuilding and there are some promising signs, Donncha Ryan looks like he will be a more than adequate replacement for Paul O’Connell, so much so that the latter was barely missed during the tour.  But they still seem unsure on who is going to replace the great Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll.  However, whilst all three teams got close to winning tests on their tours in the southern hemisphere they all lacked the ability to close games out like Australia etc. as well as the belief.  Even when level on points and a man down against Ireland, New Zealand looked like they were going to get a chance to win the game and they would take it, which they did.  The northern hemisphere teams need to develop this winning mentality.

Finally, I want to address Scotland.  They managed to lift some of the doom and gloom surrounding Scottish rugby by winning all three of their tests.  They played an under-strength Australia in appalling conditions but you can only play what’s in front of you and they held their nerve at the end to get the win.  Against Samoa they also showed considerable courage to fight back from 16-10 down in the closing minutes to win by a single point.  They did not have the quality of opposition that Wales, England and Ireland faced but three moral boosting victories in difficult circumstances will provide them some momentum that they need to carry into the November tests and then into next years Six Nations.  Richie Gray is growing in stature and becoming a very important player for Scotland and another season of competitive rugby will see Stuart Hogg come on leaps and bounds.  Tim Visser has finally qualified on residency and provided Scotland with some much-needed threat from the wings, as demonstrated by his two try debut haul against Fiji.  The rebuilding is still going on for Scotland but Andy Robinson has picked the team, and himself, up from the disappointment of the Six Nations, and the future could be bright.

As a closing comment Scotland should be congratulated for playing tests in Fiji and Samoa.  Far too few teams tour these countries along with their Pacific neighbours Tonga and the IRB should do something to address to this.  In the money driven world of professional rugby too many countries focus on touring Australia and the like and so the smaller Pacific islands lack real competition.  Why not make it compulsory for teams taking summer tours in Australia or New Zealand to also play at least one test in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga?  The IRB could easily afford to compensate them financially if necessary.  If touring South Africa teams should be obliged to play developing countries like Nambia.

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Did England Miss an Opportunity?

England went out of the European Championships last night, once again at the quarter-final stage and once again on penalties.  There was almost an inevitability about it and English fans and media have seemingly accepted that the quarter finals represented a good return for England and that getting out of the group was an achievement.  But is this true and have England missed an opportunity?  England’s group was not that difficult.  France have shown very good form since their World Cup debacle in 2010 but they represented the only real competition in a group in which two teams would qualify.  England may not have beaten Sweden in a competitive game before but they are the better team and Ukraine should not have provided any real competition either despite England being saved by some luck when a goal was wrongly ruled to have not crossed the line.  Therefore England should have been expected to get out of their group and the quarter finals should have been seen as a minimum.

At half time yesterday I was looking forward to a competitive second half and the first properly competitive quarter-final after the first three proved to be so one-sided.  Italy had just shaded the first half but England had been competitive and created some good chances, particularly in the opening exchanges.  But within minutes of the restart it seemed as if England wanted penalties and were just holding on, they lost any attacking momentum and put eleven players behind the ball.  Like Czech Republic, Greece and France before them, England looked as if they expected to be beaten.  If Italy had not been so wasteful with their chances they would’ve won the game within the 90 minutes.  There is no doubt that the correct team went through.   But could it have been different, not only for last nights game but for a possible semi-final and maybe even a final?  Playing as they did last night, if England had made the semi-final against Germany they would not have won, Germany’s attacking threat is far more potent that Italy’s and they could not have held off for so long, they would have had to score.

But an opportunity has been missed.  The expectations of England were lower than they have been for many years and this was Hodgson’s chance to try to play some new combinations and some more attacking players.  England have not been helped by injuries; losing Gareth Barry, assured all season for Manchester City, was a blow and losing Frank Lampard, similarly excellent for Chelsea, was also a major loss.  Elsewhere I have addressed what I think of Ferdinand being left behind but I think Carrick should have been convinced he would be an integral player for England and persuaded to reverse his international retirement.  As good as Scott Parker has been, injuries have caught up with him and he was not in the game after half time yesterday, Carrick could have provided the exceptional passes he provides for Rooney, Young, and Welbeck at Manchester United.  Oxlaide-Chamberlain should also have started last night to provide some impetus to the England attack.  He makes mistakes, as is only natural for such a young player, but he has grown in stature during his first season at Arsenal and is not afraid of trying things in an England shirt, importantly continuing to attempt things even if they have not come off earlier.  He brings a freshness that England desperately needed.

If Oxlaide-Chamberlain should have played in place of Milner then Ashley Young should have been given a free rein to attack and cut inside as he does for Manchester United.  His role with England always seems restricted and he fails to produce the form that he does for his club.  He was poor against Italy, as were so many of the England team, but if he had been given more license to play then who knows if this would have changed the game.  If the quarter finals represented a good return for England then they should have at least continued to attack and attempt to score, as they had in the first half.  A loss is still a loss after all, but the way England limped to the end was disappointing.  There can be no doubt that they have missed an opportunity to give players such as Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Walcott and Kyle Walker – though Glen Johnson was excellent – some much-needed game time.   They are the future of England and with the expectation so low they should have been given a chance to impress and gain some much-needed experience ahead of the next World Cup where there will be the inevitable unrealistic expectations on the team.  This is the biggest opportunity that England have missed.