In the wake of Saturday’s international action there is no shortage of incident to mull over today. Here we recap on yesterday’s action and discuss the main headlines in the Sunday papers.
Having already booked a place at the World Cup, England’s game against the Ukraine in Dnipropetrovsk was nevertheless played against a backdrop of controversy – the decision to charge customers for streaming the match online proving universally unpopular. Those who were willing to pay witnessed a scrappy game in which Coach Fabio Capello’s perfect competitive record with England was disappointingly ended. A Rio Ferdinand error coupled with Robert Green’s sending off led to a 1-0 defeat leaving both England fans and Capello with much to ponder.
The Republic of Ireland were handed a boost ahead of their late kick-off against Italy when Cyprus’s defeat of Bulgaria ensured the Irish were guaranteed at least second place in their group. A win however, would have put Giovanni Trapattoni’s side just a point behind leaders Italy for automatic qualification, whilst the Italians needed just a point to seal their place in South Africa. With everything to play for, both teams produced scintillating football but the game finished 2-2 after a dramatic last minute equaliser by Gilardino. Italy now qualify as group leaders whilst Ireland will have their fate decided at the play-offs.
With Wales already out of the running, John Toshack’s team were aiming to finish third in their group by beating Finland in Helsinki. With the scores level a second half strike by Romi Porokara sealed a 2-1 win for the Finns ensuring Wales will finish no higher than fourth.
Unsurprisingly, the Sunday papers are dominated by reports of England’s poor showing, with many pundits eager to cast Green and Ferdinand as villains. The Sun pulls no punches with its main headline “Green sees red as unbeaten run goes offline in Dnipro” whilst The Mail on Sunday is quick to point out Ferdinand’s apparent lack of match fitness – “…fitness concerns remain, despite his claim that he is now fully fit” adding “if England repeat this showing, with 10 men or 11 in South Africa next year, they won’t be away from home very long.” The Sunday Times gave Ferdinand an honest score of four out of 10 for his performance concluding: “be it persistent injuries or lack of matches, England’s leading centre-back is worryingly off his best form.” Writing in The Mail on Sunday however, Gary Lineker is keen to rubbish suggestions that Ferdinand is losing it as a top centre-half: “Once he gets games, he will be fine. He rarely makes mistakes in big matches, or lets England down when it comes to the business end of things.” The match ended with England livid at the behaviour of Ukraine fans – today’s headline in The Observer reads “England to make formal complaint to FIFA over flares thrown by Ukraine fans.”
Overall this was a result which will worry Capello. Prior to the game it appeared that England’s defensive worries were behind them and he will be disappointed at the manner in which they have resurfaced. After six straight starts, Green’s red card will add to the England Coach’s goalkeeping headache and the debate about who should be England’s No 1 rages on. Wayne Rooney is the sole England player to have escaped criticism with most pundits agreeing that his spirited performance was perhaps England’s only consolation. The Sunday Times summarised his performance well: “His touch lovely, his energy levels prodigious and his game intelligence overflowing, the striker made openings for colleagues even though opponents outnumbered them.”
In other news, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s belated apology to referee Alan Wiley may prove to be too little to late, with The News of The World reporting Ferguson could end up in the dock over the disagreement: “Fergie ref row could head for court, referees still fuming despite apology.” Ferguson’s rant regarding the fitness levels of Premier League referees appears to be causing him more trouble than he might have expected and his grovelling apology – a rare sight – may not be sufficient to keep the officials at bay. Duncan Castles of The Sunday Times writes that former referee Jeff Winter remains unconvinced Ferguson feels any remorse: “In Winter’s experience, Ferguson systematically intimidates referees by targeting them for abuse during and after games, while using their decisions as excuses for results that have gone against United.” Furthermore Winter adds that Ferguson is an all too powerful figure in football claiming ‘Referees are reluctant to upset Ferguson for fear it will have a negative effect on their career.” Ferguson’s popularity with referees was already in the balance, and this latest episode will have done nothing but harden their hostility towards him. Whether or not it goes to court, with United’s performance in the league to worry about, the Scot will be hoping the situation blows over soon.
Elsewhere The Observer reports Jimmy Bullard has finally recovered from his long term injury: “ Joker Jimmy Bullard ready to give tigers their bite back.” The news will please Hull City fans who have been missing the midfielder since his cruciate ligament operation nine months ago. Bullard is expected to make his return against his old club Fulham, and with Hull currently lying in 18th place, fans will be hoping he can help steer the club clear of the relegation zone.
According to The Independent, Boudewijn Zenden will sign for Sunderland before the end of next week provided he passes a medical. The 33-year-old Dutch winger is a free agent and says he wants to end his career in England, having spent most of it at various Premier League clubs. Zenden has been training with the team for a week and fans will hope he can help an 8th-placed Sunderland push for a Europa League place.