International Football

World Cup Qualifiers, Home Nations

Russia v Northern Ireland, 16:00

Fabio Capello has continued to display his class and great judgement ahead of this game by saying it matters not whether Russia are down to their last two forwards, as it is ‘only Northern Ireland’. Were my record as an international manager as thoroughly underwhelming as that of Capello, I might consider being polite until I’d achieved something at this level, but clearly he’s learned nothing from his time in England except how to get the biggest paycheck. Sadly for the Irish, he may have a point, with NI currently the weakest of the home nations, but there is no reason the away team can’t at least make this uncomfortable for the Russians. A nervy 1-goal win for Russia is 3/1 with VictorChandler, and Capello teams tend to stutter.

Northern Ireland and Celtic midfielder Paddy McCourt is ruled out of the game in Moscow as well as the home encounter against Luxembourg because of a groin injury, while Shane Ferguson and Martin Paterson will miss the game against the Russians and are doubtful for Luxembourg.


Moldova v England, 19:45

The absence of Wayne Rooney and Andy Carroll should give an opportunity to some of the supporting cast in the England squad, but there were some telling comments from the Moldovan camp that suggest the back-up strikers are not held in the same regard are our slightly chubbier, crocked pairing. Jermaine Defoe and Daniel Sturridge may have their merits, but without the sort of ‘special’ factors Rooney and Carroll bring to the team they won’t worry the opposition defence as much, or distract them from what is happening in midfield where Steven Gerrard will be hoping for some improved form. BoyleSports have 12/1 on a 3-1 away, and I think that or the 17/2 on a 2-1 will do well.

Adam Johnson will miss England’s World Cup qualifying match in Moldova on Friday because of a thigh problem, as will Ashley Cole who is ruled out of the game with an ankle injury, although Cole’s injury is described as “minor” and the left-back will be assessed on Sunday to see if he can play against Ukraine.


Wales v Belgium, 19:45

Looking at the European football scene you’d have to say Spain are clear and present dangers to the idea that every tournament is up for grabs and the game is full of shocks, but beyond that are a bunch of sides looking to usurp Spanish dominance. In the next three to five years, Belgium could easily go from their current position as have some potential to being a major force for the first time in a long time, with a squad full of young, talented players. The likes of Fellaini, Hazard and Kompany are already playing at the highest level, and ready to be joined by the younger Lukaku, Cortois and a few others. Everton’s Kevin Miralles is 13/2 with BetFred to score the opener, and has the class to trouble better teams than Wales.

Wales, on the other hand, are in danger of looking like a one-man show when Bale plays well, but injuries have forced a reshuffle. Jazz Richards replaces Huddersfield’s Joel Lynch, who has an Achilles injury. Ben Davies, 19, is in for left-back Neil Taylor, who is set to miss the rest of the season after his injury last Saturday, and Andrew Crofts and Craig Bellamy are also out of both matches.


England v Italy tips

After all the controversy over who was and was not available for the Olympics team this summer it seems the FA has rather shot itself in the foot by arranging a game so close to the beginning of the Premier League season, but the relationship between those two bodies is never been comfortable at the best of times. Roy Hodgson has selected a squad of many youngsters and could well learn more in this match than in his entire England tenure to date, having come in fairly close to the start of the European Championship and therefore being forced to essentially pick the squad that his predecessor had groomed.

You wouldn’t say Italy made light work of the English in the European Championships, but they were certainly the more sophisticated and intelligent outfit and played as such for a lot of that game, but Prandelli is picking from a slightly diminished pool of players now and will have to make do without the heart of his team, the rejuvenated Andrea Pirlo. Fortunately for him he is unlikely to face an established and well-oiled unit in the centre of the English team, and can also view this game as a learning experienced going forward, especially considering a couple of key men are nearing their twilight years.

The way that these two teams play doesn’t suggest this will be a high-scoring affair, and having the home side playing in a foreign country will also be a lot of fun for the England fans, I’m sure. There could be caps for the likes of Jake Livermore, Steven Caulker and Jack Butland, who has made a remarkable ascent in the last eighteen months, but I can see the young English side struggling to win this game. At 31/20 with WBX they come in favourite, Italy being rated 85/40 with VictorChandler, so the 11/2 with BlueSquare on a 1-1 may be worth a look.

Arsenal forward Theo Walcott has become the latest player to pull out of the England squad for Wednesday’s friendly against Italy. The 23-year-old withdrew with a thigh injury on Tuesday, joining team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Hart and Daniel Sturridge on the injury list, but Andy Carroll could start, and is on decent form at the moment, so at 8/1 with Coral he’s not a bad shout for first goalscorer. Italy manager Cesere Prandelli cannot pick any players from Juventus or Napoli, effectively depriving him of his first-choice goalkeeper, centre-backs and midfield playmaker, and also faces this match without Mario Balotelli, who continues to be out with an eye infection.

Olympic Football: First Look

He may not be much of an example off the pitch, but when it comes to being a professional role model Ryan Giggs is a brilliant choice. The eighteen-man Olympic squad will be captained by the most decorated player in British football this summer, but hopefully the young age of the squad will mean most players don’t have to keep checking on their wife every fifteen minutes for fear of the Casanova of the Valleys moving in. Anyway, that’s enough outdated Giggs-bashing for me I think, and it must be time to talk football.

Team GB is listed at 8/1 with Ladbrokes to win the competition, but I’m nowhere near patriotic enough to take that risk at that price. Giggs may still be a very decent player, but with only eighteen men in the squad there will be concerns about the fitness of everyone in the squad, and especially those men closer to 40 than 23. Still, the captain hasn’t had a busy season and may come in fresher than the average bear.

BetFred make Brazil 2/1 favourite to win the competition, but there are a few interesting facts about this current Brazilian side. They are now ranked 10th in the world, largely because a string of disappointing results have followed the decision to build exclusively for this tournament, probably with the fact in mind that they don’t have to qualify for the World Cup in 2014, being hosts. They will be well-drilled as unit, and very used to playing together, but I think the odds are a little bit conservative.

Spain are the best side in the world, and their Olympic squad is as good as I’ve seen. Rated at 5/2 with StanJames they start ahead of Brazil in my mind, and there are some excellent options for them to call upon. However, for sheer value alone the 9/1 with BlueSquare you can get on Uruguay is my choice bet of the day. They are third in the world according to FIFA, and a young squad has faced minimum change to accommodate the Olympic restrictions.

A lot will depend on how the players react to the unusual conditions, but Olympic football has been denied to us British fans a fair few times in the past. There are some pretty decent odds on teams like Mexico (16’s, BoyleSports) and South Korea (70/1, BetFair) but I just like the Uruguayans. There are few teams whose players seem to wear the jersey as proudly as the first world champions, and there could be celebrations in Montevideo at the end of the games.

Euro 2012: Spain v Italy Tips

Spain v Italy, 19:45

So, it ends where it all began for these two sides, and the tight 1-1 draw they played out in Gdansk could well prove an excellent blueprint for the final of Euro 2012, to be held in Kiev. In their initial encounter Antonio Di Natale had given Italy the lead before Cesc Fabregas got Spain level amidst a host of misses from Fernando Torres, who had come on as a sub. Before the Chelsea striker entered the field of play Spain had dominated possession, meaning the Italian defence was weakened and tired, theoretically there for the taking.

If the Spanish attempt the same thing in the final you couldn’t blame them, and the critics of their tactics seem genuinely not to understand top-level football. When you are facing a player like Pirlo, or any top passer of the ball you simply do not want to let them have any space in possession, and if you can deny them possession you don’t have to worry about the space. Spain have just found a way to neutralise anyone in world football, by cutting of their supply of the ball, and by extension the attacking threat they pose.

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This rarely makes more sense than against a side like Italy, with some aging men and a man in Pirlo who is one of the few that would get into the Spanish midfield, such is his brilliance. Long recognised as one of the true maestros of the game, his release by Milan last summer was baffling, and proven to be a bad bit of business as he led new side Juventus to the title. An international title would be proof that Pirlo is not just still competitive, but one of the elite in Europe, if further proof is needed.

For Spain the historical side of this has been dealt with, and the challenge of retaining their European title and winning three international competitions in a row is undoubtedly a daunting one, but this is a special group of players. They are 5/4 favourites for a reason, and that is their record in big tournaments. If Pirlo is proving himself one of the greats this summer then Xavi and Iniesta are simply hammering home yet more evidence in the case for potentially being the best midfield ever to be seen on a football pitch, and their manager hasn’t a bad CV either.

If, is expected the 4-6-0 formation is used by Spain then Cesc Fabregas is favourite to start in the central position. Italy’s Ignazio Abate should be fit after a hamstring injury, as should Antonio Cassano (twisted knee), Mario Balotelli (cramp) and Daniele De Rossi (sciatic nerve problem). This frees up some defensive options for Cesare Prandelli, and if his side score first it will be hard for Spain. Balotelli is 15/2 favourites with StanJames to get the first goal, although I quite like the 6’s with VictorChandler on a 1-1. Penalties would be hell for fans of the two teams, but as an Englishman I don’t think I’d object.

Euro 2012: Germany v Italy

Germany v Italy, 19:45

With Spain waiting in the final, as everyone thought they would be and having taken penalties to defeat Portugal, we’ll now get to see the defending champions defend their crown, and it’s down to Italy and Germany to decide who gets the honour of challenging them. Pre-tournament, you’d undoubtedly have picked the Germans to win through and meet the Spanish, but alongside the class and technique Italy displayed in beating England there was a good deal of resolve and determination, so Germany can take nothing for granted.

The German system requires high energy and commitment, and throughout the tournament the biggest threat to their progress has appeared to be fatigue. Italy will certainly make the Germans run, but if Schweinsteiger can get on the ball early and find the frontmen, in particular Mesut Ozil, then Italy will be in trouble. It is not unfair to say the Germany have not always produced the greatest flair players, specialising in excellent technique and tactical acumen, but the Turkish-German attacker has really grown as a player at Real Madrid, and can count himself amongst the best in the world.

Italian playmaker Adrea Pirlo was pictured training with an oxygen mask after 120 gruelling minutes against England, although he had that game by the scruff of the neck for long periods. The extra rest Germany have enjoyed will be of some benefit, but the Italy squad contains enough old pros that they won’t be overawed at the challenge ahead, and will know how to dig deep when the time comes. Cesere Prandelli is still waiting for Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to fire, and there could be no better time for his talented strikers to hit their straps than the semi-final of the European Championships.

Bastian Schweinsteiger has been declared fit despite having treatment on an ankle injury, and Germany manager Joachim Loew could recall Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski and Thomas Mueller after making changes against the Greeks. Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi and Ignazio Abate are all injury doubts for coach Cesare Prandelli, and if they don’t recover it could force him to adopt a three-man backline. The dreaded 0-0 is on at 15/2 with WilliamHill, and that’s been a good bet for the last few games, but if you like a goal Coral have 11/2 on Mario Gomez scoring first.

Euro 2012: Portugal v Spain

Portugal v Spain, 19:45

Iberia will hold its breath as the two best sides produced by that region in recent memory meet in a European Championship semi-final, which is a pretty big deal for Portugal at least. The Spanish superstars may have forgotten what it’s like to be nervous, but you can bet there will be a fair few men in maroon (?) wondering if they may need a change of shorts before the game is up. History also waits to be made, with Spain looking to become the first side ever to win three consecutive international tournaments.

For Portugal this game could be a tactical challenge due to the fact they’ve been very effective on the break, and catching Spain on the break is not easy. Rarely do you get the ball with enough space to engineer a situation when playing the Spanish side, and if you manage to make it past the first line of defence you’ll be chasing back with some very quick players on your tail. Add to that the main Portuguese weapon is club-mates with Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas and you realise this could be a long evening for Paulo Bento’s men.

The main worry for Vicente Del Bosque is probably focus, with the Real Madrid v Barcelona rivalry having the potential to cause friction on the pitch, which is not conducive to good football. If Spain can maintain their focus, and more importantly the ball they will have huge advantage, although it may be equally as important to keep the best attackers away from Pepe. The Real and Portugal defender has a tendency to just kick people if he can’t beat them at football, and Spain would hate an injury for Xavi or Iniesta to ruin their tournament.

Portugal striker Helder Postiga is ruled out with a thigh injury, which could be a blessing in disguise given his poor performances, and he’ll probably be replaced by Hugo Almeida. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque reported no new injury problems following victory against France, but may make changes following claims the Spanish camp are “drained”. I quite like the look of PaddyPower’s 9/1 on a 2-1 Spain win, but anything can happen, as we know.

Euro 2012: England v Italy Tips

England v Italy, 19:45

That legend of Italian football and all-around top man Paolo di Canio (0 caps for his country) has described this England side as being like an ‘Italian team from the 1980’s’, and when a distinguished, intelligent fascist (his words, not mine) like the Swindon boss speaks about international football the average writer is normally listening to someone more worthwhile. For a start, the vast majority of Italian coaches in the 80’s would have been incandescent with rage at the number of chances and goals Sweden, France and the Ukraine were able to fashion against England.

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From an English point of view this is a pretty good draw, as there are similarities between the French and Italian sides that mean we should be a bit prepared for this one. Add to that the teams have similar amounts of talent, ability and players at the peak of their powers and you realise this is pretty much an even-money affair. The media will enjoy looking ahead to the Germany game, but the English public are well aware what the challenge is now, and won’t be fooled by the tools in the red-tops.

It’s tough to judge, but I don’t think the Italian public are very convinced about their side either, especially as tournament winners. The scandals of the last few years hit the game fairly hard, even affecting the likes of Gigi Buffon, and when Mario Balotelli moved abroad there was a worry that the league could not hold onto the best players. Juve have gone some way to restoring some pride, but with a fresh inquiry hanging over that old lady the public seem to have become a little guarded about trusting the men in blue.

Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini will miss Sunday’s game with a thigh injury, which will come as a massive blow to the management team. Chiellini and his club-mate Barzagli had been so good for Juventus this season that the two were taken despite both carring injurues, and now that Barzagli has returned the other half of this supposed dream team is crocked. There are no new injury concerns for England at this stage, but once again the fitness levels of Steven Gerrard and Scot Parker will need to be monitored carefully.

You can get 19/10 on both sides to win, and 6/1 with WilliamHill that Rooney will score the first goal. I’m hoping we can scrape a 1-0, another 6/1, this time with Coral.

Euro 2012: Spain v France Tips

Spain v France, 19:45

As loudly as the French management protest that it is entirely normal for a squad to fight within itself, especially after a loss, the evidence would seem to suggest that this is not true of all squads, and the Spanish have spoken in the past about their own problems in overcoming the Real v Barca rivalry in their midst. Now they have done this, their football is all the more fluid and spectacular for the mutual appreciation of skill they have the vast majority of the time.

It is hard to judge much about this Spain line-up from the group games, as the draw with Italy seemed almost to be accepted as a necessary evil given that the last two matches seemed to be fairly straightforward. As a result this game is possibly the first real test for the World and European Champions, and it seems likely that the 4-6-0 formation adopted in the Italy game is gone for good, with a striker in place and more of a threat in behind the opposition.

France started out with a lot resting on the shoulders of their main man up front, Karim Benzema, and the Real Madrid forward is yet to excite the fans in the way they were hoping. There is a similar level of quality throughout the French squad as in the Spanish, and Laurent Blanc’s side do have a very good shot at turning over a team not currently playing their absolute best, but it will require les blues to focus much more sharply than they did against England, let alone Sweden.

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Spanish boss Vicente Del Bosque again looks set to start two-goal Fernando Torres in an unchanged side, which will mean two-goal midfielder Cesc Fabregas on the substitutes bench once more. France will miss Philippe Mexes through suspension, so Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny will deputise for him. Yohan Cabaye, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery are all expected to be fit for the game after overcoming minor niggles.

Spain are 17/20 (PaddyPower) while France are 17/4 (VictorChandler) to win the game, which gives you an idea of the size of the task ahead of the French tonight. Fabregas could come off the bench if it is 0-0, and he is 8/1 with BoyleSports as first goalscorer in what would probably be a 1-0 Spain win, best priced 11/2 with Ladbrokes.

Euro 2012: Germany v Greece

Germany v Greece, 19:45

If you wanted to bet on one of the quarter-finals this is most likely the one you’d pick for a safe result. Greece may be a recent winner of this competition, but Germany are pretty much favourites to win Euro 2012 after picking up maximum points in their group, and the draw has been kind to them. Given that Germany could have faced Russia or the Czech Republic they will be secretly pleased to be playing Greece, without shirking one minute of preparation, I’m sure.

Many of the papers have been keen to make Eurozone-based puns relating to bail-outs, and other such financial chicanery but I don’t really know a lot about that, so I’ll stick to the players. Mario Gomez has been a touch hit-and-miss, scoring well one moment and looking like a German Cameron Jerome the next, but this is the time big players deliver, and he’ll want to prove he can do so. Lahm and Schweinsteiger are used to this sort of level, and the squad seems to be growing into its ability at last.

Greece will take a lot of heart from their win over Russia, and in a tournament like this a single goal from a set-piece can easily win a match. I’ve no doubt the Greek management will have seen enough in the German defence to make them think they can get a goal if they try hard, but for that sort of plan to be effective the Greece defence and midfield will have to concentrate for ninety minutes, and the strikers take any sniff of a chance that could come their way.

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Greece captain Giorgios Karagounis is banned after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament against Russia, and could be replaced by Grigoris Makos or Giorgos Fotakis. Germany right-back Jerome Boateng is available after missing the win against Denmark through suspension, but having deputised and scored, Lars Bender will hope to keep his place at Boateng’s expense.

Germany are 4/11 favourites with the Greeks around and about 10/1 in most places. Ladbrokes offer 13/2 on a 1-0 German win, and that result seems to be in fashion for nervous sides struggling to make the next stage.

Euro 2012: Czech Republic v Portugal

Czech Republic v Portugal, 19:45

The Czech Republic have a great tournament pedigree, especially when it comes to memorable moments in the European Championships, but this generation would probably admit things aren’t quite as good as they were. With that in mind, a team that no longer boasts the genius of a Nedved or Smicer has still won their group, putting the Russians out, and in some respects been given an easier draw than they could have predicted.

That is because Portugal occupy a spot everyone thought was Holland’s, and their side is certainly not as good as the Dutch man-for-man. On the other hand, the Portuguese are probably looking at this tie as a bonus, as finishing second in your group is supposed to precede a difficult game against a better team. The fact both sides will fancy a win is also normally good news for the spectators, although a nuance of Portuguese play may cause a problem.

With the attacking skill of Nani and Ronaldo to call on, a lot of the difficulty for Paulo Bento was going to be finding space for them on the pitch, but he has neatly circumnavigated the issue by playing predominantly on the break. If the Czech Republic management realise this they’ll most like set their team up not to commit too heavily in attack early on, which could lead to a stalemate, but with the number of quality attackers on the pitch we should get a goal at some stage.

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Czech Republic captain Tomas Rosicky is doubtful with an Achilles injury picked up against Greece, so Daniel Kolar is on standby to deputise, as he did against Poland. Portuguese duo Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles both appear to have overcome the knocks picked up against the Dutch, and Paolo Bento has no other fitness concerns meaning he’ll most likely name an unchanged side.

The Czech Republic are 47/10 with BetDaq as winners, while PaddyPower make Portugal 4/5 favourites to progress to the semi-final. Ronaldo is 4/1 favourite with StanJames to be the first goalscorer, although I quite like the look of the 20/1 with BetFair on the Czechs to win it 2-1.