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Sunday, July 02, 2006

World Cup Fever Hangover

No, I haven't been engaging in a bout of post-England-penalty kick-washout drinking, although I suspect that English pubs everywhere in ole' Anglia are brimming with soused football fans, soaking their sorrows in pints of bitter, spiced with pub onions and lathered with expetives about overrated Swedish coaches.

No, I'm referring to the actual physical sickness I felt in the pit of my stomach when England went out on penalties. Just for a moment, when the diving and acting troupe known to the world as the Portugese National Football Team missed two straight penalty kicks, I said aloud, "The curse may be broken!" I should have known better. Portugal would have needed to miss another two, just to be safe.

I can understand Frank Lampard missing his penalty. Quite frankly, over the last month Stevie Wonder fresh from a two-week pub crawl would have found the back of the net before Lampard. The Chelsea man, their leading scorer this past year, had plenty of shots in Copa Mundial 2006 and even hit several on goal, but always into the waiting arms of a keeper. His penalty was similarly aimed. Portugese keeper Ricardo, who was very good in the shootout for someone who didn't have to dive more than six inches in either direction, was kind enough not to unwrap the ribbon off of the ball after Lampard's gift of a shot.

Steven Gerrard's penalty though was even worse than Lampard's. Perhaps he was counting on Ricardo to dive one way or another but even so, if you're going to plant one down the middle you might try, oh, say a bit of pace on the ball. This is the midfielder who tormented AC Milan a year ago in the Champions League Final, who had West Ham seeing double in the FA Cup Final, and who came into this match with 2 goals to his credit, one of them a cracker of a shot. Either his legs were completely gone, or his mind had succumbed to the dark vision of "England and penalties," and he was moments away from crouching into a fetal position.

Carragher's shot... oh, the first one was fine. However, you can tell a player's nervous when he shoots before the whistle's even gone. Perhaps he was just sneaking in a warm-up shot, but even that proved worrying. For example, I know that if I make a nice smooth practice swing on the golf course, my actual shot will wind up well to the right and behind me. (Don't ask me to explain how this works. Experience is all I can offer.) The worst of it was that Carragher was brought on precisely for the penalty shoot out. I think Walcott would have been the better choice. He's an actual forward, and he's young enough to where the pressure would soar right over his head. Well, most anything would. The bloke is almost as short as Aaron Lennon.

That would have been too much thinking for Sven-Goran Eriksson though. The England manager's tactics have been just shy of Maginot Line defensiveness. Only instead of getting overrun by Germans, England have thrice been needled to death by a Brazilian named Scolari, whose pre-game needle was to apologise for turning down the England job and suggesting that another offer from the FA might produce better results after his contract with Portugal is over later this summer.

Given that the selection for the next English coach is Steve McClaren, the man who has sat at Eriksson's right hand for the disaster of the past 8 years, my advice to the FA is to make that offer... make it a good one. The worst that can happen is that Scolari is merely teasing. Better though to have him on our side rather than seeing off yet another English side in Euro 2008.

Oh, and so as not to be completely negative, Peter Crouch was quite good in the match. I must confess that when Eriksson sent him on, my first reaction was, "Oh, bloody hell, we're trading pace for a target man, when we've got no one to support him, " but Crouchy did well to get into midfield and hold up the play. He created some chances and even briefly mesmerised the Portugese defence with the sight of a giant stick-insect of a human controlling the ball as though he were Joe Cole.

Also, for every one who said Owen Hargreaves was crap, Owen stuffed it back in their faces with a performance that was abosolutely incredible, not only making superb tackles but seemingly being in every part of the pitch at the same time. I'm not sure he was ever out of camera frame in the last sixity minutes of the match. He was tireless and even hit his penalty with power, pushing it past Ricardo, who actually got a hand on it. He was the official man of the match and now surely has almost every English club wondering whether he'd finally like to play in England for a change. Cheers, Owen! You deserve it.

As for Wayne Rooney...I was as frustrated as anyone when the card came out, as I though Rooney was just shuffling his feet for position. I saw a replay later though that made it clear that "Roo-naldo" had clearly and deliberately left his boot-print on the Portugese player's bollocks.

I know that watching the Portugese kick and push and shove England's players around and then dive to the pitch and flail around like salmon on a boat deck any time someone so much as grazed them with a shirt cuff was sickening, and that there were more than a few England fans wondering if they had any testicles at all. However, to actually use one's boot to find out for sure was, pardon the expression, a step too far. Wayne Rooney is a magnificent player, but someone needs to figure out a way to turn off his testosterone just a bit, and hopefully without having to stamp out a gonad.

All right, that's a find evening's venting. Now to find some black coffee and pour it over my head.

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