For years, a win for England over highly rated opposition has resulted in the tabloids spouting hyperbole about how it will result in a World Cup or European Championship win for the “Three Lions”. In recent times, that has been replaced by pundits discussing how such games are no-win situations for the manager as, should they triumph, it will just result in vaulted expectations from the media, lose and it is indicative of a failing team. So when Spain were defeated at Wembley last weekend, very few were discussing the significance, or lack thereof, of such a result for England.
What the game did show, was that the blueprint for beating Spain and Barcelona (the two are synonymous, but for the lack of Argentina’s Lionel Messi in the national team) has been laid out for all to see. In previous matches, Inter Milan (in the 2009/10 Champions League) and Switzerland (2010 World Cup) played in a similar way to how England set up last Saturday – very defensively with an aim to catch the opposition on the break. This requires a lot of patience, discipline and luck – Spain had 21 shots on goal without scoring at Wembley. When a team is so comfortable in possession and able to create so many chances, there is little to be gained in “taking the game to them” and attacking with zeal. England recognised that they were inferior in terms of ability and skill level, and thus adopted appropriate tactics. Last weekend, that resulted in a victory – if Fabregas had not had such a torrid night in front of goal, or Villa’s great attempt not hit the post, the result could have been very different. Should the two teams had played a best of seven series, Spain may have prevailed 4-1 or 4-2 – but that is not how international football tournaments are contested.
Capello showed that he has an idea of how to beat the world’s best team, even if the approach will not always be successful. That pragmatism, though not attractive for a neutral fan, could come in useful next summer at the 2012 European Championships. Should England obtain a draw in the group stages that allows for them to advance without Wayne Rooney, the manager has proven in a one-off game he can obtain results to see them through the knock-out stages. Greece showed, in 2004, that hosting an Olympics gives their country a belief that can carry over to other sporting events – with their national team triumphing unexpectedly in Portugal that summer. With host nations Poland and Ukraine being in the first pot for next summer’s European Championship, second seeds England have a 50% chance of being the highest ranked team in their group. However, should Capello fall for the trap that has beset many England managers in the past and pick players based on name and reputation, rather than form, they could still come unstuck in the early stages of the tournament. The likes of Kyle Walker, Scott Parker (some Spurs bias there I know!), Ashley Young, Jack Wilshere and Gary Cahill – while they may not be ready to defeat the likes of Germany, Spain or the Netherlands – could help England reach the semi-finals, significant progress for a team that did not make the 2008 tournament.
The Premiership returns this weekend, after the break for the international fixtures. One of the highlights of this week’s fixtures is a battle between 1st and 3rd – as Manchester City host Newcastle United. It sounds strange to have these teams making up 2/3rds of the top of the table, yet both are unbeaten this season. City have won all but one of their league games this year, while Newcastle have started strongly, but face Manchester United and Chelsea in their next two games after this one. It is unlikely that Mancini’s men will come unstuck at home against the Geordies – City have won all five of their games at the Etihad Stadium this season, scoring 16 goals and conceding just 2 in the process.
In other games this weekend, the promoted teams from last year all face tough matches: Norwich host Arsenal; Swansea are home to Manchester United; and QPR travel to the Britannia Stadium to face Stoke City. Teams with European aspirations meet as Chelsea and Liverpool square off at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, while Tottenham are at home to Aston Villa in the Monday night fixture. If this round of games were being played towards the end of the season, four games would be described as relegation “six-pointers”, as bottom of the table teams faced each other: the bottom two, Wigan and Blackburn, clash at the DW Stadium; Everton play Wolves at Goodison Park; Sunderland host Fulham; and West Brom and Bolton meet at the Hawthorns.
Last time 6-4, season 44-35
Norwich vs Arsenal – Home win
Everton vs Wolves – Draw
Manchester City vs Newcastle – Home win
Stoke vs QPR – Home win
Sunderland vs Fulham – Draw
West Brom vs Bolton – Away win
Wigan vs Blackburn – Away win
Swansea vs Manchester United – Away win
Chelsea vs Liverpool – Home win
Tottenham vs Aston Villa – Draw