Will the Three Lions roar?
I think the warning signs were there for Holland in the days leading up to their game against Denmark on Saturday. Klaas Jan Huntelaar appears to have been the catalyst for the appearance of some of the old cracks that have dogged the Dutch squad over many years. They seem incapable to playing in a tournament without some kind of row developing. I have to say that Huntelaar's behaviour lacks total respect for the rest of his team, and particularly for Robin Van Persie. That his case seems to have ever growing support says a lot about the fact that Robin seems to be still quite an unpopular character in his homeland.
I watched the whole of the Holland game and it's fair to say they missed some chances. Having said that I thought Denmark were well worth their win. The Danes worked extremely hard, and Nicklas Bendtner was far too strong for the Dutch central defenders. His hold-up play was excellent and it showed that there is more to his game than missing chances. What it also showed, in a more serious comment, is that he is far more effective as a centre-forward than as a right-winger. Those who would seek to defend Arshavin on the grounds of mistreatment by Arsene Wenger would do well, I think, to consider the impact of the Manager on Bendtner's Arsenal career.
Robin Van Persie had chances for the Dutch but seemed to be constantly falling over, not least when he hit an air-shot when one-on-one with the goalkeeper. His best chance in the first-half was wasted because of his refusal to try and control the ball with his right foot. A lot of my Liverpool supporting friends were raving about how Agger had negated Van Persie's threat. The fact is that, on any other day, RVP would have scored at least two goals. The late introduction of the aforementioned Huntelaar merely served to underline the reason he doesn't get in from the start - he is the Dutch Jermain Defoe, whose only intention is to shoot at goal. Huntelaar can not, and will not, link the play. He is incapable of playing a five yard pass, and I fully expect RVP to stay in the side for the next game.
The biggest problem for Holland, as far as I could see, was Arjen Robben. I don't understand why any team would pick this guy. Have you ever seen a more greedy footballer? Robben seems to want his own ball to play with all the time and reminds me of the annoying kid in the playground who would never pass because he thought he was better than everyone else. I'm not surprised that Franck Ribery chinned him at Bayern Munich training a few months back. If I was a Dutch supporter I would want Dirk Kuyt in the team ahead of Robben. Give me a hard working team player over a show-pony like Robben any day.
England get their campaign under way tonight, and it looks as though the two Arsenal players in the squad will start from the bench. It's interesting that the press seem to be fully aware of every move the England Manager makes with his line-ups. I believe it's no coincidence that the inside track on people being dropped by Arsenal has been lost to the newspapers since a certain medical person went to work full-time with the FA. Since then the England team has been known well in advance of its match day announcement.
If the suspected England team is proved to be correct than I have to say I am surprised. Having watched their last two friendlies it has struck me that pace is required out wide in order to hit teams on the break. Defensive organisation has seen the attacking side become more pedestrian than ever for England, so the need to break quickly must surely be more important. Therefore, I can't begin to understand how James Milner is getting a game ahead of Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The only consideration is that Milner will defend better against a marauding Evra/Clichy than Walcott can. Then, of course, is the fact that Stewart Downing is also going to play. I don't know what anyone sees in Downing as, for me, he makes Theo look genuinely top-class, such is the paucity of his play. I'll probably get proved wrong this evening, but Downing is among the very worst players I've ever seen play for England.
If I was picking the England team tonight it would be a genuine 4-4-2 with Young and Walcott/Chamberlain out wide, and Carroll and Welbeck through the centre. I don't believe Young has sufficient quality as a footballer to play behind the main striker. By the same token, I don't believe Welbeck has the physical strength to play as the main man himself. His best performances for Man Utd have come when Wayne Rooney has been the focal point of the attack. There will be a lot of onus on Steven Gerrard to create from deep in this team, as none of the other attacking players have the ability to provide a killer ball.
France have defensive problems that England must try to exploit. Evra's star is very much on the wane with the national team, while Sagna is a big miss for them at right-back. It's the centre of defence, though, that provides the biggest weakness. Laurent Blanc seems reluctant to put Laurent Koscielny in the side, but Mexes and Rami simply aren't good enough as a pair. I have never rated Mexes, and Welbeck's movement might cause him problems. That weakness in the middle is another reason I would have picked Carroll to play - Mexes fancies himself as a tough-guy, but England's big number nine would have been too powerful for him. If England are to get something from the game they must take advantage of the French centre-backs.
In attack it's a different story for France. England will need to keep their discipline in defence, and remain organised, if they are to shut out the French attack. Karim Benzema is among the very best, and he will be too quick for John Terry. Joleon Lescott can be error-prone at times, and if he makes mistakes tonight the French striker will be there to punish him. Ribery's presence (though I think his pace is not what it was) will mean Glen Johnson needing to curb his attacking instincts, all of which will mean Ashley Cole needing to be at his most alert to cover for everyone else at the back. Arsenal have been strongly linked to Olivier Giroud in the past twenty-four hours, so I'll be interested to get a look at him if he gets a game for France.
I don't really see England winning this game, though France's weakness at the back could be exploited with the right kind of play. There is a chance that the two Arsenal men in the England squad will provide an explosive option from the bench in the final twenty-five minutes. Chamberlain is unknown to the European sides, while Walcott remains genuinely feared by them for his hat-trick in Croatia and his performances against AC Milan and Barcelona. Personally, I can see it being the first 0-0 of the tournament as both teams will be keen not to lose before playing the weaker sides in the group. I hope I'm wrong and that it's an exciting game.