Whilst the Skybet Championship, League One & League Two teams completed their second fixtures, there were a cluster of final friendlies for most of the Premier League, against sides form Europe for the most part, and Manchester United despatched, now-Championship, Wigan, quite comfortably at Wembley. Then…. a lull, after a frenetic few weeks. The reason? International week.
Whilst the majority of us are still pondering the questions that have arisen from our teams’ early fixtures, and the squads themselves will be training with the next weekend’s fixtures in mind, internationally-selected players will be in another world for a few days.
This particular week seems to have been a part of the fixture list for well over a decade now. It is often derided as a bit of a nuisance, but this year, with it occurring just before the Premier League begins, rather than interrupting it after a couple of fixtures, the protests have been muffled to the point of inaudibility.
The Germans and the French (of the ‘top’ leagues), as well as a number of other European leagues, had already begun last weekend. The Scandinavian leagues run through the summer, so they’re used to such interruptions.
Many other leagues around the world, especially those in the southern hemisphere, who use the spring to autumn season, are well-used to allowing for international summer tournaments, including of course, the World Cup – mainland Europe should please take note, as the argument warms up over the timing of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Premier League squads will have been reduced considerably as they prepare for the weekend’s first fixtures. Many clubs in the Skybet divisions will be missing key individuals for 4 or 5 days. Even some non-league clubs may be missing an individual player, selected perhaps for a smaller African country, or one of the West Indian islands.
It truly is an ‘international’ week these days, with some nations’ squads often flying to other continents for these ‘friendly’ matches.
The debate about these matches’ value is so often clouded by the noise emanating from the indignant Premier League managers. Of course the risk of injury – there at any time, regardless of fixtures – is what prompts the concerns; the concern is heightened by the timing, following the usual meticulous preparation of players and squads for the start of the season.
International football though, is still popular, unarguably, in most parts of the world. If there were only competitive internationals played, there’d be little time for experimentation. It is a simple argument ‘for’. One day, though, who knows, with the financial stakes ever-higher for those controlling the major clubs around the world, perhaps these friendly games will be squeezed from the calendar.
For now, though, we have them, and over 80,000 people watched England’s match at Wembley against Scotland. I wonder how many watched Iraq’s 6-nil defeat over in Chile? Spain also travelled to South America, and beat Ecuador. Serbia lost narrowly in Colombia. Brazil suffered what was, on the face of it, a surprising defeat in Switzerland.
Argentina beat the Italians in Italy. In all probability the majority of the Argentine and Brazilian squads were already based with European clubs anyway, ready for the new season. Paraguay came over to Europe too, and played out what sounds like an exciting 3-all draw with Germany. Less exciting perhaps was the goalless draw between Peru and South Korea, with Peru the travelling team.
Uruguay went to Japan and beat their hosts 4-2. The U.S.A. went to Bosnia-Hercegovina; this was another game full of goals, 4-3 to the Americans. Most African sides chose to play within their own continent, but Ghana drew 2-2 in Turkey.
The majority of fixtures were between nations from the same continent, and you have to assume that each national team manager or coach has learned something useful however far they travelled to find out. Just scanning results in newspapers and on websites cannot tell the story adequately. Friendly internationals offer opportunities for players to impress; equally they can blot their own copybook.
Managers can tinker with systems in relative safety – from excessive criticism at least. How will the Moldovan coach feel about his team’s one-all home draw with Andorra? Will he be sacked? On the face of it, it’s a terrific result for the tiny state, so used must they be to losing each game they play. What was the attendance? Did the Moldovans put out their best side, or experiment with confidence, expecting their own morale-boosting victory? Results on a page – so many questions unanswered without exhaustive internet research, which I don’t feel inclined to undertake. You have to draw the line somewhere.
The game at Wembley was very entertaining. Thanks to ITV’s contract it was there, freely available on my TV. The usual panellists are there, with David Moyes drafted in to speak up for the Scots, but also ready to fend off any speculation about Wayne Rooney’s future. Rooney played for an hour, looking a little rusty, as he hasn’t played very many minutes in Manchester United’s pre-season.
Roy Hodgson, the England manager, answers each question more than thoroughly, in his usual erudite style. Gordon Strachan has that twinkle in his eye, suggesting he’s looking forward to this game, and –as he’s reminded by the interviewer of their surprise one-nil win in Croatia in June- takes the easy opportunity to end the interview on an abrupt upbeat note, suggesting that if they win in Croatia, then they can win here.
After a short while, Scotland are ahead; maybe he’s right. They took the lead once more, but eventually England won the game 3-2. The score-line, and scoring pattern, helped make it an attractive game: a suitable celebration for the FA’s 150th anniversary. The game is a reminder that there are an awful lot of players who could fill quite a few roles, for England; also that there are few players who should definitely be in what might be the ‘best’ starting line-up.
The only new cap awarded was to Ricky Lambert, a strong forward who has prospered, with goals, at lower division football, and shown in the past year, that he can score goals in the Premier League. He was rewarded with this opportunity, partly due to injuries to other candidates.
It is a good story, and of course we’ve heard already a few times, on radio and TV, surrounding this fixture, that not long ago he was supplementing his income as a lower-league forward, by working in a beetroot processing factory.
Lambert scored with his very first touch in international football, eluding his marker at a corner, and placing a firm header into the goal; this is something he has been doing, in all probability, in training sessions for every club that has ever employed him. He missed a couple of other chances late in the game, but this is not enough to stop him revealing a big beaming smile, and the sheer pleasure at playing – and scoring, as in many dreams – for his country. He’s happy to reiterate the beetroot tale, and why not?
It is surely symbolic of the idea that hard work and pursuing ambitions can sometimes bear fruit. He’s 31. Regardless of the value of friendly internationals, it is impossible to deny that this is a great story, and it’s good to witness his obvious pleasure. His ‘type’ of forward play isn’t highly-valued at the top international level – it’s more a Plan C than a Plan B – so it remains to be seen how Lambert’s international career will pan out.
There will be countless column inches concerning England’s performance and their prospects of reaching next year’s World Cup Finals in Brazil. Despite victory, fans and journalists alike will warn Roy Hodgson of the dangers of this, and the weaknesses of that. We surely have to trust that, as the incumbent manager, with a great deal of experience of watching players perform and train, over many years, he’ll have noticed himself, all that we identify.
He took charge of the under-21 side, the previous night, which beat their Scottish counterparts 6-0. England are looking for a new manager to oversee this side, as well as the younger age-group teams. The structure is under review, and everything is about long-term strategies, to enable English representative teams to be the best they can be. In the short term, maybe the country has enough quality amongst the best professionals, to qualify and reach the quarter-finals of next year’s tournament. To my unprofessional eye, anything better will be a major achievement.
International friendly matches weren’t the only football played this week. Some non-league teams are already into their midweek programme, including those of the nation’s 5th tier, now called the Skrill Conference (Skrill is apparently the cheaper way to send and receive money worldwide).
There have been group matches, already, in the European Under-21 Championships. Belarus sent their team to Iceland and lost 4-1; all the other travellers returned with 3 points. Denmark’s under-21’s won 4-1 in Northern Ireland.
The most notable result of this midweek has to be Northern Ireland’s victory in Belfast, with a single goal, against Russia. Fabio Capello, the urbane and experienced Italian manager of the Russians seemed to have his team finally performing to the level that you might think they ought; now they’re slipping behind Portugal in their qualifying group; is his job in danger?
Postscript (I couldn’t resist): “The result is disappointing. We missed several scoring opportunities, and sometimes we were not fully focused. We want to play better in the next matches.” said Moldovan coach Ion Caras. No word on his job yet.
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