The ogre Capello rings changes to tackle Bale

LONDON – Grumpy, old Capello led out England yesterday for a closed training session at Wembley, as England take on Wales today, eyeing to close in on qualification for EURO2012 in Poland and Ukraine. He intends to change his winning formation in a bid to stop the threat posed by the explosive Gareth Bale.

An encounter between England and Wales often conjures up images of mythical creatures, which once led an observer to suggest that an abject Welsh performance explained why dragons became extinct.

But on a more serious note, Fabio Capello was not in a very upbeat or talkative mood ahead of what may well be his last competitive match at Wembley. The England manager exploded in anger during the training session when his instructions about not throwing-in the ball down the line were not properly followed by his players.

Capello explained: ‘The game against Bulgaria was good, but yesterday I showed the highlights of the mistakes we made against them and my players made the same mistakes today.’ John Terry confirmed that Capello’s eye for detail is very impressive. He is determined to refine and develop his players to bestow them with the ability to play in different circumstances at the highest level – to tackle the daunting task of playing against the cream of Europe next year in Poland and Ukraine.

Capello’s rage with his players portrays him as a tyrant and a dictator. It is an image that has accompanied the Italian throughout his England tenure. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa last summer, the England players were holed up at basecamp, but the rigid regime of Capello backfired when Germany tore England apart in a humbling second-round defeat. A galvanized Germany with Mesut Ozil simply brushed aside a woeful England side, prompting wide-spread calls for Capello to be sacked.

Yet Capello says the situation has changed now. According to him the players are now more relaxed around him: ‘I haven’t changed my style but the players understand me better now.’ Introducing a fictional monster, Capello, seeing the funny side of things, dismissed his reputation of being stiff and inflexible: ‘I am not an ogre.’

The relationship between Capello and his players thus seems to be at an all-time high and therefore the England team knows exactly what the coach expects tonight at Wembley. England will look to get rid of their poor, post-World Cup home record, which has seen them draw on three occasions and lose against France. The idea of ‘fortress Wembley’ may be distant, but England know that a simple victory against Wales will suffice to virtually ensure qualification for the EURO2012 finals.

After the clinical performance against Bulgaria, one may feel Capello would be inclined to adhere to the saying ‘never change a winning team’. Yet Capello feels that the circumstances demand a different approach and has indicated that he will change the shape and the style of the side. ‘We are playing at home and that means it is different game. Visiting teams came here and sit back. It is difficult for us to break the opposing defense down and score goals.’

Aside from the way the visitors respond to being away from home, Capello acknowledges that Gareth Bale is Wales’ biggest threat and much of his planning for tonight’s game centers on countering Wales’ number 11.  The Tottenham winger has 29 caps under his belt for Wales, but didn’t play in Cardiff back in March due to injury. His devastating pace is a worry for Capello: ‘Bale is a fantastic player. It is difficult to stop him. He receives the ball fast, attacks the space and is very fast. He makes a difference and we need to be careful whenever he receives the ball.’

The more defensive minded James Milner will replace Theo Walcott on the right side of the field to provide extra cover for the inexperienced Chris Smalling from Manchester United. There is no doubt that Bale and Wales will try to exploit this potential weakness in England’s rearguard. However with Craig Bellamy missing, Bale may take up a more withdrawn role, which won’t enable him to run at the England defense with his turbo-charges at will.

The inclusion of Milner, lining up next to Barry and Parker, is an indication that Capello will field a 4-3-3 formation, which proved highly effective in Cardiff. In the final third of the field Ashley Young, blossoming as a player under Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, will act in a supporting role for England’s main striker Wayne Rooney. If the Manchester United pair can reproduce their antics from last Friday, they are bound to give the Welsh defense serious trouble and may swing the game England’s way.

The banana skin for England, who are the favorites, in trying to dismantle the Wales defense is a lack of patience quickly turning into frustration and nerviness, which in turn endangers England’s composure. A repeat of England’s World Cup qualifier against Greece back in 2001 springs to mind. The stage is set for an intriguing battle between Capello and Gary Speed, between England and Wales, or in some minds, Ogre v Shrek.

S.O.S. Mano Menezes

LONDON, Craven Cottage – SK. The honeymoon period for Mano Menezes has ended for a  while now, but the pressure is steadily building on Brazil’s coach ahead of Monday’s friendly against Ghana at Craven Cottage. The consensus among the players and the media is the same: Brazil is currently going through a transitional period after the 2010 World Cup, the balance between youngsters and the veterans is difficult to strike, but the question is how much longer the biggest football nation on earth will accept the experimental approach of Mano Menezes with results not going Brazil’s way?

After 13 games at the helm of the Selecao Mano’s Brazil have lost 3 games against France, Argentina and Germany, were eliminated from the Copa America by Paraguay and conceded 7 goals. The new whiff, which accompanied Menezes when appointed, is gone. The new coach vowed to do away with Dunga’s counterattacking game and emphasized the need to strengthen the midfield with offensive players. Quality in the axe of the field as a foundation for Brazil’s resurrection.

A poor Ganso struggled and the passing through the midfield was not sufficiently slick at the Copa America. The performance in Argentina pointed to the conclusion that Brazil are very much a work in progress. In August Germany, with Gotze as protagonist, totally dismantled the team of Menezes. Menezes had no other choice but to graciously accept defeat: ‘We are still finding it hard to organize an attacking move. We are depending on individual skills from our strikers. We are not able to put together combinations as mechanically as the Germans are doing.’

The result of a friendly is obviously not the most important aspect, but the lack of belief in his own ideas by Menezes was astounding. His formation was conservative and only when the game was lost, did Ganso appear. Rodrigo Paiva, the flamboyant press officer of Brazil, was quick to inform the gathered media that the CBF would continue putting its faith in the hands of Menezes, but critical voices are growing ever louder. Milton Neves, an outspoken journalist, did not hide his dismay: ‘Mano, you are the pilot of a small plane, but the Selecao is a boeing!'

Menezes had to act and opted to select Ronaldinho for the game against Ghana. The latter has found his 'joie de vivre' at Flamengo, where the shrewd Vanderlei Luxemburgo plays Ronaldinho closer to goal to mask the loss of his burning acceleration. Ronaldinho will be wearing the yellow jersey as he needs to help bridge the gap between the different generations within the team. It is a task he humbly accepts:  'I am happy to return to the team. I have the duty to help the team with all the experience that I have acquired.’

Up front Menezes is ringing another change: Alexandre Pato from AC Milan, who turned 22 last week, has to make way for Leandro Damiao. The former has just scored 6 goals in 17 games and has been given ample time by Menezes to prove his worth. Menezes' patience with Pato has run out and so he turns his attention to Damiao in a bid to give Brazil more physical presence in the box. The tall striker from Internacional can be described as a classic number 9. Damiao made his debut for Brazil in March against Scotland. 

The Brazilian coach has hence made several changes in his team that will face Ghana tonight, but the time to experiment is over. Ronaldinho may offer temporary relief for Menezes, but his selection will not solve Brazil’s structural problems. Mano is a coach under intense pressure. The Olympic Games in London are approaching rapidly and it offers Menezes another chance to further develop his philosophy and build his team. In the squad for the game tonight, Ganso, Neymar, Lucas, Damiao, Danilo and Pato can all be identified as having an Olympic passport. But whether the CBF and the Brazilian public are willing to tolerate Mano’s experimental approach for another year remains to be seen.

Brazil line-up v Ghana: J. Cesar, D. Alves, T. Silva, Lucio, Marcelo; Ganso, Fernandinho, Lucas Leiva; Ronaldinho, Neymar, Damiao

Mano Menezes banks on Ronaldinho renaissance

LONDON, Craven Cottage – SK.  After a disappointing Copa America and defeat in Germany, Mano Menezes has recalled Ronaldinho Gaucho to the Brazil squad ahead of the friendly international against Ghana at Craven Cottage. Menezes believes that a reinvigorated Ronaldinho can help to get his Brazil back on the right track.

Ronaldinho’s recent, excellent performances with Flamengo have caught the eye of Mano Menezes. At moments Ronaldinho has shown glimpses of his former best. The shrewd Vanderlei Luxemburgo positions Ronaldinho closer to goal to mask his ageing legs. It has enabled Ronaldinho with his vast array of tricks and nose for goal to be the driving force behind Flamengo’s title bid. His genius unmistaken, there is no doubt however that Menezes wants to use the experience that Ronaldinho has acquired to help and build the Brazilian team.

Menezes needs to fil up a vacuum. After the 2010 World Cup Menezes took the pressure seat with the massive task of constructing a Brazil ready to win the World Cup on home soil in 2014. But the transitional phase initiated by the dismissal of Dunga has not been easy. Menezes’ experimental approach came crashing down at the Copa America, where it was proved that his team is very much a work in progress. The new generation of Neymar, Ganso and Pato have been unable to fill the boots of their illustrious predecessors. 

In a squad, where only Julio Cesar and captain Lucio can be considered veterans, Ronaldinho has now been given the task of providing some much needed guidance to the new generation. Yet Menezes’ choice to recall Ronaldinho is an odd move. Succumbing to the increasing pressure in the wake of recent results Mano had to act, but Ronaldinho can hardly be considered part of the plans for the 2014 World Cup. In the long term Ronaldinho won’t solve Brazil’s structural problems. In a bold statement Menezes disagrees with this view: ‘His selection is not a temporary solution. It is important for Brazil to have experience. He is a world champion and alongside with the younger players we try to build the team. I do not exclude the possibility of selecting him for the 2014 World Cup. It is still far away and it is about Ronaldinho playing well. I do believe he has what it takes to play at the World Cup.’

In a sense, Menezes believes that the call up of Ronaldinho was only a matter of time. Repeating that the form of a player is the decisive criterion to select a player, Mano continued by stressing that Ronaldinho is valuable to the Selecao: ‘Ronaldinho contributes a lot to the game. He is a leader with great technical ability. You can rely on him to help the younger players, who are on their way to a permanent spot in the team. When he returned to Brazil from AC Milan he had to adapt again. I waited for the moment that Ronaldinho started to enjoy playing again.’

Ronaldinho himself seems pleased with his return to the elite of Brazilian football. With the spotlight firmly turned on him, the former Ballon D’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year hasn’t been very talkative about his second call up by Menezes, but in a scarce comment to the Brazilian press, he expressed his sincere joy: ‘I am very happy to play for Brazil again. Every call up is different and emotional. My task now is to help the team with my experience.’

Whereas player and coach seem to think along the same line, the media and public scrutiny beg the question that this is not the right option to rebuild the Brazilian team. Brazil may have won the U-20 World Cup in Colombia, but another injection of youthful talent may at this stage given the circumstances be fatal for Menezes. Thus, with Kaka totally out of form, Menezes has little choice but to include Ronaldinho in his team. Menezes does confirm that Kaka is not completely out of the picture. Kaka wearing the yellow shirt, boasting five stars, shouldn’t be ruled out in the future: ‘You can’t compare Kaka with Ronaldinho at this moment. The former is not playing very well. You have to give him time. When he gets back to his best, I may include him. I am waiting.’

The overall equation leaves Menezes with a near impossible assignment, keeping in mind the upcoming 2012 Londen Olympics. The current situation Brazil find themselves in is not Menezes’ fault, but at the same time it, as a coach, is his fault. He knows that he can’t afford a slip up against Ghana, whatever support the CBF may be showing.  It is now up to Ronaldinho to answer Mano’s faith with a convincing performance.


Brazil crash out of the Copa America

Defending champions Brazil have been knocked out of the Copa America. Paraguay proved too strong for the powerhouse of South American football after a penalty shout-out.

Thiago Silva featured in the first XI despite worries over a thigh injury. Ganso was once more entrusted with the task of dictating the play at the midfield, with Alexandre Pato operating as the lone striker. 

Brazil started brightly whereas Paraguay tried to pressurise Brazil high up the pitch. Neymar got Brazil's first big chance but squandered it by shooting it across the face of goal. Just before the break Neymar missed another clear-cut opportunity.

The second half saw a change in the game pattern with the eleven of Gerardo Martino sitting back deep,  but again the Brazilian strikers were unable to find the net. Pato, who until then hadn't contribute a lot, missed two excellent goalscoring opportunities.

The ET was marred by a confrontation between both sides after a dispute between Lucio and Estigarribia near the side line. Lucas Leiva and Alcarez were consequently sent off for misconduct. 

Elano, Thiago Silva, André Santos and Fred all missed from the spot to grant Paraguay the most of unlikely victories possible. It is the first time in 28 years that Paraguay reach the semi-finals of the Copa America.

Questions now remain for Brazil: Ganso underachieved throughout the tournament, Neymar and Pato were mixed bags. Full backs Maicon and André Santos hardly threatened going forward and defensively Brazil looked very fragile.

The World’s end

Britain's biggest tabloid newspaper the News of the World will be published one last time this sunday after Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News Corporation, decided that enough was enough after a series of recent scandals. 

The astonishing news will come as  a big shock to the faithful readers of the News of the World, who over the years had become accustomed to celebrity gossip and spicy sex stories. A source close to dedicated reader David Camberbom said: 'David is f*****g appaled by the news. He loved his newspaper and believes he will now fall into a black hole.'  Another loyal reader Sebacca Rooks couldn't hide her dismay either: 'Where is the freedom of speech? Where is the freedom of press? This country is going downhill.'

The News of the World was first published in 1843 and sold daily about 3 million copies throughout the years. Loved across the UK, many will be left in disbelief and dispair.  Allow us to say: RIP NOTW ! 

Dravid silences his critics

Rahul Dravid has reminded his critics why he remains instrumental to India: with his 32nd Test century he has put India firmly in charge of the first test against the West Indies in Jamaica. Dravid had came under pressure after his barren South African Tour with rumurs circulating that his position within the India test team might no longer be ensured.

But Dravid did what he does best – reply to his critics with the bat: as wickets were tumbling at the other end, the Wall produced another masterclass on a challenging Sabina Park track with a lot of turn and unpredictable bounce. Dravid was at his unyielding best – patient and gritty in grinding down the opposition.  His approach of slow and steady cricket left West Indies a mammoth total of 326 to chase.

The West Indies got their improbable chase of to a positive start reaching 58 without loss after 10 overs, but it was not long before the Windies fell victim to a mini-collapse caused by inexperience and poor shot selection: Barath went fishing for a wide outswinger from Kumar, Sarwan's horror match continued when he poked at a wide delivery from Sharma and Simmons played all around a fullish delivery from Sharma that held its line perfectly.

At stumps on day 3 West Indies were 131/3 with Chanderpaul and Bravo at the crease. India are now favourites to wrap up the Test Match.

Sangakkara secures draw for Sri Lanka

England have won the Npower Test series against Sri Lanka, as the third and final test at the Rose Bowl ended in a draw. The tourists though end on a high as their stand-in captain Kumar Sangakarra scored his maiden Test century in England ensuring a draw for his team.

After Sri Lanka had resumed on 112-3 on the final day, 81 behind, Sangakkara (119) shared 65 with nightwatchman Rangana Herath (35). The visitors also showed impressive resilience in the person of Thilan Samaraweera, who guided them with  unbeaten  87 to tea. As rain began to fall, England had no choice but to settle for a draw.

Meanwhile, at Sabina Park the West Indies were 34-1 at stumps on day 1 after having bowled out India for 246. The tourists were in trouble at 85-6, but an impressive seventh wicket stand  between Harbhajan Singh and Suresh Raina for 146 runs ensured India got a defendable first innings total. In reply Simmons fell cheaply for 3 to Ishant Sharma. 

Qualifying for 2014 World Cup gets underway

It may not be as glamorous as Soccer City, there may not be 84490 fans in attendance and the reward is not the ultimate prize in world football, but today world cup qualifying for 2014 gets underway as Montserrat host Belize in Couva, Trinidad. This encounter kicks off the lengthiest football tournament in the world, with no fewer than 832 matches expected to be played across the six confederations to determine which 31 of the 203 participating countries will be battling for Planet Football’s most coveted crown alongside automatically qualified hosts Brazil in June/July 2014.

Montserrat are ranked 202nd in the FIFA rankings and have never won a match in world cup qualifying. Coach Kenny Dyer: "We've got players who work in McDonald's, accountants, a few full-time professionals, policemen. Some players are seeing each other for the first time. It's about team spirit and camaraderie. It's a big ask, but it's about 90 minutes and we can play well."

James Anderson returns for England

James Anderson has been recalled by England for the third and final test against Sri Lanka, which starts this Thursday at the Rose Bowl. The England seamer picked up a side strain injury in the first Test, which England went on to win in dramatic style.

Anderson was due to prove his fitness during Lancashire's Twenty20 match against Worcestershire at New Road on Sunday but the game was  abandoned without a ball bowled because of  persistent rain. His England return means that Stuart Broad, Steve Finn or Chris Tremlett will be dropped.

India veto use of DRS

India's forthcoming tour of England will take place without the use of the Decision Review System (DRS). The BCCI has decided to veto the use of technology after concerns from senior India players. MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar are among those players who oppose the DRS system. The news comes as a blow to England, who have become quite astute in the use of the review system.

India are ranked the number one Test team and begin their four-match series against England at Lord's on 21 July. That match is scheduled to be the 2,000th Test in the history of the sport and the 100th between England and India.