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SPORTS STORY

Things can only get better

Alan Dudman is still reeling from the World Cup. But England must raise themselves for crunch Euro 2012 qualifiers early this month. Can they do it?

On the eve of taking the manager’s job at Hartlepool United, Brian Clough remarked: “To call this place a tip would be a bonus to a tip.” Fast forward some 45 years and he could have been describing the refuse heap that is the England national team following their pathetic efforts during the 2010 World Cup. “Clueless” just about sums up the performance of Fabio Capello’s men in South Africa, and I wonder what Old Big ‘Ead would have made of the defending of John Terry and Matthew Upson?

The players were not solely to blame of course, Capello’s rigid 4-4-2 seems outdated and light years away from the brilliant formations utilised by Mexico and Chile. And with the haphazard squad selection, England’s ability to keep the ball in this wretched system seems virtually impossible. Incidentally for my own index, Capello scored ‘1: Must do better’.

Qualification for the 2012 UEFA European Championships offers a chance for redemption, the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past decade, the chance to play some decent stuff perhaps? However, with Bobby Zamora labelled as one of the great hopes, I very much doubt it.

England (9/1 Paddy Power) are fanciful odds to win the tournament in 2012, and more realistically priced (4/11 various) to win their qualifying group. Qualification starts in September, with Capello’s men entertaining Bulgaria at Wembley (Friday 3 September), followed by a trip to Switzerland (Tuesday 7 September).

The Bulgaria game represents a tricky opener. England will feel pressure (as will Capello), and the odds (2/5 Stan James) for England to win look risky. The eastern Europeans however are sliding down the rankings, and are not the force of old. Bulgaria are minus striker Dimitar Berbatov – who has decided to quit international football. Negative.

Bulgaria (8/1 Stan James) to beat England looks a non-starter too, despite the possibility of a young and inexperienced Three Lions unit. Bulgaria have plenty of experience, but a nervy and scrappy game looks more likely with the home team of interest to win 1-0 (11/2 Coral).

Four days later, Capello’s (hopefully) new-look side, travel to the home of clocks, chocolate and Caran D’Ache pencils to tackle Switzerland. England’s price could depend on what sort of display they show against Bulgaria, and could tempt a few with win odds at 6/4 (various). I wouldn’t be tempted with that, but the draw (2/1 various) appeals more.

Switzerland had a mixed 2010 World Cup. Having beaten Spain in their group opener, the tournament fizzled out tamely with defeat against Chile, and a rancid display against Honduras. The Swiss were arguably one of the most boring sides in South Africa, with manager Ottmar Hitzfield’s reluctance to commit men forward at times rather tedious.

The Swiss do have some decent players, and will be hard to break down on home soil. I am not sure England can, therefore the 0-0 (11/2 various) is perhaps more exciting. Unless of course Emile Heskey comes out of international retirement, then we can expect loads of goals (seven in 62 appearances).

A LOOK BACK AT THE WORLD CUP

During our recent World Cup Special, six pundits came together to make a series of predictions for the tournament in South Africa. Gambling’s Chris Lines and Duncan Wilkie were joined by tipsters Ross White and Angus Loughran, the BBC’s Alan Hansen and 1966 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks.

So who did the best? In truth, it was quite a poor showing from everyone. We all thought England would do better than they did. Maybe we’ll learn next time. Chris, Alan and Gordon all correctly predicted than Spain would win, but for overall tipping success, we’d have to award it to Duncan by a nose. He correctly predicted that Germany and Spain would reach the semi-final stage and was right in his hunch that Ghana would be the Top African Side. Nobody correctly predicted the winners of the Golden Ball (Diego Forlan), Golden Boot (Thomas Mueller) and Best Young Player (Mueller again). Well done to Duncan for being the best of a bad bunch!

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