Having spent last week grinning like Cheshire cats after an easy win against Liverpool, the momentum gathered after eight successive league victories has dropped as we find ourselves halfway through that time-consuming and most frustrating of beasts; the international week when Sven and his attendant media circus hog the headlines.
Clearly tired of reading how the players push him around, the Swede has set about repairing his lightweight and less-than-sparkling reputation. Expressions such as “bullish” and “defiant” have been used to describe football’s wettest blanket recently, which isn’t language one normally associates with the England manager. Quite where this transformation came from we cannot be sure, but images of him holed up with a DVD copy of 90s comedy legend Steve Coogan’s Probe-driving salesman Gareth Cheeseman (“You’re a tiger… grrrrrr!”) keep popping into my mind for some reason. Slightly disturbing, but that’s for me to deal with.
He also appears to have abstained from dipping his pen in the company ink for several months now (or at least hasn’t been caught doing so) which presumably means that he has been concentrating on other things; recent performances suggest that it hasn’t been managing a football team but a new lean, mean “Angry” Sven emerged in front of the media last week with a simple message — non-qualification is not an option. He issued a veiled yet chilling warning to the squad that no-one was undroppable (unless your name is Beckham of course), leaving us all to wonder which player (well, central defender) the axe would fall upon.
Saturday afternoon arrived and lo, Sven made his point by dropping previously permanent fixture Rio Ferdinand to the bench; presumably having seen him wander around looking clueless, raise his arm occasionally and look vacantly at the linesman as the net bulged behind him during the opening weeks of the season. The fact that both Terry and Campbell have been in excellent form made such a decision rather more obvious than difficult, but a welcome step in the right direction nonetheless.
For the game against Austria, England reverted to “4-4-f*cking-2″ after a disastrous flirtation with the infamous Beckham ego-massaging 4-5-1 formation. Some form of electricity pylon minus the mobility previously seen ambling around Anfield not scoring goals was partnered up front by a bloke who looked a bit like Michael Owen without the pace or any visible form of first touch. Captain Fantastic returned to the right side of midfield. For our interest, Terry, Lampard and Joe Cole all started.
Little in the early stages inspired me to not drink myself into a lager-induced coma before half time. Having sporadically drifted in and out of consciousness after the first quarter of an hour or so I was briefly awoken by the cheering that greeted Lampard tucking his penalty away. 1-0, pressure off a little, maybe we’ll start to play now? Obviously not. Speculative balls were hoofed towards the pylon who didn’t do that much with them; our right-sided midfielder wandered around in central midfield pretending he was some sort of playmaker (which translated roughly as him getting in the way of Lampard and Gerrard and leaving the poor unfortunate at right back slightly more exposed than a baby’s backside at changing time). Quite how Mr. Luxemburgo manages to keep the clothes horse in his natural position for Real Madrid (where it should be noted he has excelled recently) we can but guess, but it would be another step forward if Sven picked up the ‘phone and asked him his secret.
Post half time the fun (I use the term loosely) really started. Whilst neither of Beckham’s yellow cards were deserved, his headless chicken reaction to the first made the second and his dismissal the sadly obvious outcome. The first England player to be sent off twice and the first captain to suffer such a fate; a decade plus into his professional career and the childish petulance is still very much in evidence. All this whilst we kept in mind the recent announcement by the England captain that he doesn’t intend to retire from the international game until he’s at least thirty-five — which on the universal “Good News / Bad News” measurement scale was roughly equivalent to hearing your mother-in-law announce that she has decided to stay for an extra week to “help out” whilst you’re decorating. Apparently England hung on to win 1-0, with the equally charisma-free Owen taking over the captain’s armband for a while prior to his own substitution. Not that Sven favours players modeled in his own image, you understand.
But some bright moments were evident amongst the gloom at Old Trafford. Terry looked comfortable without exuding the imperious presence he has when playing in Blue; Joe Cole provided some spark on the left flank and defended well when required (the less said about the rugby tackle that almost saw him decapitated and then booked, the better) but the pick of the bunch was Lampard who grew in stature as the game progressed and scored the winner. A captain’s performance, anyone?
The overriding problem with England internationals is how accomplished Premiership players are often made to look at best average and workmanlike and at worst utterly clueless. It seems more obvious as time passes that the reason (insert the name of player here — there are plenty of them) doesn’t look as good for England as he does for his club isn’t because he is not partnered by X or doesn’t have Y playing in the holding role in front of him; it is down to poor management. And whilst it has been repeated so often it has drifted into the realms of cliché, the complete lack of any visible passion or commitment displayed by Sven is almost painful — he is Roger Moore’s Spitting Image puppet reincarnated and about half as inspirational. Seeing Joseâ„¢ leap from the dugout shaking his fists in a mixture of joy and sheer cathartic release up at Anfield last weekend and the reaction of both sets of players to the result only serves to illustrate what is missing from the national side. I’d go so far as to argue that a good deal of the supposed indifference towards football stems far more from the largely mediocre performances served up under Sven’s guidance than it does from the current situation in the Premiership. Qualification for Germany next summer was secured after the Dutch won in Prague, but on current form the tame surrender to the first decent side that Sven’s men meet is as predictable as the pictures of his face superimposed onto a farmyard animal / vegetable in the tabloids the following day. His reputation remains intact for the time being, but it is undoubtedly fading fast.
However, frustrating as international weekends are they should be viewed by Chelsea fans as a time of joy and thanksgiving, remembering that things could be infinitely worse — Sven could well be our manager now. Surely one of the most disturbing “What If…?” moments in the history of football as far as the average Bridge regular is concerned.
All that remains now is for us to hope that our players on duty arrive back safely and injury-free ready for the visit of Bolton next Saturday (the news that Damien Duff will be out for a number of weeks is disappointing, but it answers those who questioned our purchase of Shaun Wright-Phillips rather succinctly). Joseâ„¢ will be keen to ensure that our perfect start remains intact and that there is no repeat of the comeback made by Sam Allardyce’s team down at the Bridge last November.
And finally, a public service announcement:
Do you support, play for or manage Liverpool FC?
Still believe that that despite being spanked 4-1 at home that your team were the better side?
Spent the last week arguing that the result didn’t accurately reflect the game?
Bad eyesight is a terrible affliction but it can be cured. There are no less than five Specsavers outlets in the city of Liverpool and numerous others in the surrounding area. Go and trade in those out-of-date rose-tinted spectacles for some new ones that will help you to see that your team ISN’T VERY GOOD AT ALL. You’ll be suggesting that Peter Crouch is an international footballer next.
Have faith — real football is less than a week away.
* with sincere apologies to Robert M. Pirsig.