On Saturday, we were gifted a welcome, if brief reminder of the treats which awaits us at this summer’s World Cup. In addition to the Republic of Ireland’s play-off against France, all the home nations were involved in friendly matches including England who faced Brazil in their final fixture before the World Cup draw.
Hampered by injuries, Fabio Capello handed some of England’s less established players the opportunity to show why they should travel to South Africa. England started brightly but ultimately struggled to cope with the searing heat in Qatar and were beaten 1-0 by the talented Brazilians. Although the scoreline might suggest otherwise, there are positives to be taken out of this match. England stuck to their task and were at times able to make Brazil look slightly uncomfortable at the back. Aside from the goal and a couple of uncertain moments from Wes Brown, a new look defence which included Matthew Upson, Joleon Lescott and Wayne Bridge, coped relatively well with the daunting class of their opponents. It was a match which should not be looked upon as a sign of England’s impending doom at the World Cup but rather a reminder that if Capello is to have any chance of succeeding at the tournament, it is imperative he has a full strength squad at his disposal.
Elsewhere, the Republic of Ireland took on France in the first leg of their play-off at Croke Park. The game ended in an unfortunate 1-0 defeat leaving the Irish with an uphill struggle to qualify for the World Cup. Giovanni Trapattoni’s men worked tirelessly and put in a performance which would have earned them at least a point but for a fortuitously deflected goal from Nicolas Anelka in the second half. Ireland had chances to score, most notably when Liam Lawrence missed an excellent opportunity, but they must now beat the French by two clear goals in the second leg in order to be assured of qualification.
Predictably, the Sunday Papers’ main topic of interest is England and the team’s loss to Brazil. In The Observer, the main headline reads “England struggle to banish Brazilian ghosts of the past”, and Paul Hayward argues that England have a “deep-seated fear” of Brazil created by a history of defeat to the South Americans. In The Times, Jonathan Northcroft suggests Capello will not have learned anything new from a largely predictable game: “What did this game show? That the world’s most historically successful side can outclass England’s reserves, that Capello’s attack struggles when Rooney is crowded out and that Wes Brown, like a cheap electrical item, is prone to sudden malfunction.” The Sun somewhat harshly dubs England’s fringe players ‘Blunderstudies’ but adds that Capello will be unfazed by the result and in The Independent, Duncan White agrees that the defeat is not of any real significance: “Little should be read into the result – if these two sides meet again in the summer in South Africa it will be an entirely different proposition.”
The consensus appears to be that this game was little more than an entertaining exhibition match and of no real importance. Barring tremendous bad luck, England will field a stronger team than this in South Africa, although it is worth mentioning that the English have suffered such misfortune in the past. In 2002 key players David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville, Ashley Cole and Paul Scholes were all injured for the tournament and should such a situation repeat itself England would struggle against world class opponents. What this match did highlight is that England lack the strength in depth that some of their rivals possess. Whilst England fans will be praying for the wellbeing of their best footballers, Spain will not be losing much sleep over injuries to their key players in the run up to the World Cup, simply because they have more than sufficient cover. In spite of his calm exterior, this is an issue which Capello will be all too aware of.
The Republic of Ireland’s match against France has not gone unnoticed with Ciaran Cronin expressing sympathy for Trapattoni and his men in The Independent: “What a pity. This was arguably Ireland’s best performance under Giovanni Trapattoni but it earned them absolutely nothing bar an incredibly steep hill to climb in Paris on Wednesday.” In The Observer Amy Lawrence stresses how fortunate the French are to have won the game: “it took a stroke of outrageous fortune to claim their away goal”, adding that “It was hardly the first time the Republic of Ireland have been dealt a bad hand in this play-off scenario.” After such a strong campaign, it would be tragic for the Irish not to qualify for the World Cup finals. If they are to do so, the Irish luck which has deserted them of late must return in full force.
In other news an injury to Arsenal striker Robin van Persie in Holland’s friendly match against Italy has dealt a blow to Arsene Wenger’s title ambitions. Van Persie has been in prolific goalscoring form this season but a serious ankle injury will keep the Dutch player out for at least three months according to The Mail on Sunday. The report claims that “Van Persie is expected to be examined in Amsterdam today by renowned ankle specialist Professor Niek van Dijk…if further examination reveals the ankle is broken, the star could miss the rest of the season.” Arsene Wenger will be especially concerned as Theo Walcott, Nicolas Bendtner and Gael Clichy have already picked up injuries and the Arsenal manager will want to see his team continue the kind of form which has caused some pundits to tip them for the title this season.