Six down, two to go. In our penultimate preview, we turn our attention to a tricky-looking Group G. A former legend of one nation coaching the team of another, the surprise package four years ago, and one team that nearly suffered a shock exit in qualifying.
This has been an unusual build-up to the World Cup for Germany. Much of the focus has been on the growing injury crisis surrounding the team. Phillipp Lahm, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil all have doubts over their fitness, Marco Reus has had to be sent home, and keeper Manuel Neuer is still recovering from a shoulder injury – the absence of fully-fit ter Steigen seems careless, while coach Joachim Low opted not to wait on Mario Gomez’s fitness as he has with others in the squad.
Low himself is downplaying his squad’s chances, but Germany remain one of the bookies’ favourites. Miroslav Klose has an opportunity to equal or better Ronaldo’s record number of goals at the World Cup finals, having recently become the all-time German top goalscorer at Germany thumped Armenia 6-1. There may be plenty of questions, but having come so close in the last three tournaments perhaps this is the time they can go one stage further.
Prediction: Just enough to see them through in 1st
Portugal, 4th in the 2006 finals, were so very nearly watching this World Cup at home. By their own standards they were poor in the qualifiers, drawing at home to Israel and Northern Ireland while scraping a victory at Luxembourg. That led to finishing behind Russia in the group, and for moments of their resultant playoff against Sweden they looked in serious danger of heading out.
Cristiano Ronaldo has had another ridiculous year, scoring 51 games in 47games – that’s now an incredible 252 in 246 in his Real career. But there are limits to how much he can affect Portugal’s fate this tournament, and at times Paulo Bento’s team have been overly reliant on him for success. When Ronaldo was poor in the qualifiers, the players around him struggled to compensate. When he was on form, he single-handedly changed the game – as he did in the 2nd leg of the playoff. Fans will be concerned at reports he’s suffering from tendonitis in his left knee. Terrible timing, though he came through this week’s friendly with Ireland unscathed.
Prediction: More disappointment as they finish 3rd.
Four years ago Ghana reached the quarter-finals with an impressive display, and would have faced the Netherlands in the semi-finals were it not for the agile goalkeeping of Luis Suarez in injury time to keep the scores level. Many of the stars from that team are still key parts of the current one – Sulley Muntari, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Kwadwo Asamoah and in particular Asamoah Gyan. Michael Essien, who missed the 2010 finals through injury, is back in midfield.
The Black Stars were enjoyable to watch in South Africa, and with the nucleus of that side intact, they will be looking to repeat their success by negotiating this tricky group. Their recent 4-0 win over South Korea this month shows that they may pick up where they left off.
Prediction: An impressive 2nd.
The US exceeded expectations at the last finals, winning their group ahead of England before falling to Ghana in the Round of 16. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has freshened up the squad, with the likes of Bocanegra, DeMerit, and Spector from the last campaign not involved. He’s also taken the arguably-controversial move of leaving Landon Donovan at home, though in truth even the occasional MLS watcher will have noticed a decline in his performances this year compared to the Donovan of old.
What Klinsmann has assembled is a hard-working and united group with fewer big names – Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley the main stars. Despite losses at Costa Rica and Honduras in the qualifiers, Klinsmann’s new-look US side eased through to the finals. In Donovan’s absence, much rests on whether their new-look back 4 can gel, and whether Dempsey and Sunderland nuisance Jozy Altidore can get the goals to get them through the group.
Prediction: It’s really a toss-up between the US, Portugal and Ghana for that 2nd spot, but the US will prop up the group, perhaps harshly.
Written by @josephclift
Group F gives us one of the World Cup favourites alongside a team making their first appearance in the finals. Outside of Argentina, it looks quite even – who will progress?
This is perhaps Argentina’s best chance in recent memory to win their first tournament since the Copa America 21 years ago. A 4-3-3 with Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Lionel Messi looks a frightening prospect, and in contrast to past tournaments they appear to be strong in virtually all areas this time round.
In Gago, di Maria, and Mascherano they have a great mix in the midfield, and while the full-backs were slightly exposed in some of their more competitive games recently (see Peru and Ecuador) they will hope their attacking flair more than makes up for any frailties at the back. Ex Sheffield United star Alex Sabella appears to have settled on a side and style that works and had the luxury of continuing Carlos Tevez’s exile from the squad. With the options at his disposal, it hardly makes a dent on their chances.
Prediction: Comfortably 1st as Argentina power through – the scorelines could get messy for the rest of the group.
Bosnia and Hercegovina
In what was an impressive and perhaps unexpected display in the qualifying stages, Bosnia and Hercegovina topped their group, winning 8 of their 10 games. Paris Saint-Germain legend Safet Susic has made his side exciting to watch, albeit with a slightly sluggish defence – Emir Spahic and Ermin Bicakcic reliant on the excellent Asmir Begovic behind them.
In Edin Dzeko with Miralem Pjanic just behind they can land a serious punch up front – the team scored 30 goals in their qualifiers, including an 8-1 demolition at Liechtenstein. However, this goal spree was at a time Susic used two strikers – the recent switch to a lone striker, dropping Vedad Ibisevic, may see add a bit more steel replacing some of the firepower.
Prediction: they could get destroyed in the opener against Argentina, but a rapid recovery in their remaining games will see them 2nd.
While it’s easy to right off a team with a traditionally poor World Cup record, this is a team that may surprise. Absent from the finals 4 years ago, Iran under the guidance of ex Man United coach Carlos Queiroz had a fantastic set of results to qualify for Brazil, beating South Korea home and away to top their group.
Queiroz’s key contribution has been to secure the services of players that were eligible to play for other nations. These include keeper Daniel Davari, Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, Charlton forward Reza Ghoochannejhad, and Vancouver Whitecaps right-back Steven Beitashour.
Prediction: Perhaps not the walkover they’ve been in the past, but it’s tough to see them get the results to avoid a 4th place finish.
After impressive displays at USA ’94 and France ’98, Nigeria’s been stuck In a rut for a while. Bottom of their group in 2002 and 2010, absent in 2006, with no wins since the finals in France, Nigeria has an opportunity to restore some pride. They arrive in Brazil as the reigning Cup of Nations winners and were unbeaten in the qualifiers.
With decent pace throughout the side, they have a reasonable chance of reaching the knockout stages, though their inability to beat Mexico and Scotland in recent friendlies will be a concern. Nigeria will rely on the likes of Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and Emmanuel Emenike to see them through – the experienced Joseph Yobo at the back. Free agent Shola Ameobi is in the squad, available after ending 14 years at St James’s Park.
Prediction: 3rd, though it’ll be a close call with Bosnia and Hercegovina.
Written by @josephclift
With A to D out the way, it’s time for the second half of our previews – Group E sees what looks like a dream lineup for any of the big teams, but will it be a bit too easy for France?
The Swiss will hopefully have recovered from their cruel exit from South Africa, beating winners Spain in the group stages but somehow getting to the knockout stages. But while that team had limitations, this time round they look a much stronger outfit that has a solid defence and thrives on a counterattacking style.
Utilising the pace of the promising Josip Drmic and Xherdan Shaqiri (if fit) will be key for Switzerland, and in Valentin Stocker they have an impressive winger that can cause problems down the left. Last summer they upset Brazil 1-0 in a friendly, and having kicked on from 4 years ago are more than capable of an upset this time up. They’re also a youthful bunch – more than half of the squad are 25 and under, with just 3 in their 30s.
Prediction: 2nd, and banishing the Boring Switzerland label to the history books.
In the iconic anthem by Sash! you see a bald eagle soaring overhead what appears to be the Ecuador countryside. What seemed like tourist advertising for Ecuador was actually filmed in Tenerife, with the bald eagle native to neither.
Like the bald eagle in ‘Ecuador!’ you wonder how the Ecuador team is malong an appearance. They had some dire results away from home in the qualifiers with just two points against the bottom 4 of the group, and have had some chaotic warmup games – winning 4-3 against a terrible Aussie side and losing 3-1 to a poor Mexican side. Don’t let the draws against the experimental Dutch and England teams trick you, this team which is captained by Antonio Valencia won’t cause too many problems.
Prediction: This is a team that hasn’t won a competitive game outside of Ecuador since 2009 – that run will continue, with a 4th place finish.
Is this a return to form for France, after a wretched display in South Africa? It’s a fresh-looking squad, devoid of many of the past established names, with only 4 of the 23 are above the age of 30. They suffered a scare against the Ukraine in the qualifying playoffs, but Les Bleus have been scoring for fun in the warm-up friendlies, hitting 4 past Norway and double that past Jamaica.
Franck Ribery is a late withdrawal due to injury, but France has a number of decent players on-hand, with Lloris, Cabaye, Giroud, Benzema, and the exciting Antoine Griezmann likely to entertain. Didier Deschamps could even afford to leave Samir Nasri out altogether, such is his faith in this youthful French side. It’s the perfect chance to bounce back.
Prediction: Comfortably 1st. Viva la revolution.
This is just their third appearance at a World Cup after a qualification that saw them surprise predictions and finish above Mexico. Along the way they beat the USA, Costa Rice, and a crucial game at Mexico that led to de la Torre’s dismissal as coach.
Against a strong England side in their recent friendly, they were able to hold their own, with a physicality that should serve them well in their group games. In Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Roger Espinoza they have three players with decent experience in the Premier League, and in Carlo Costly a player that all headline writers will hope gets a decisive goal or red card.
Prediction: With possibly their first win at a World Cup finals in their match against Ecuador, a respectable 3rd place finish beckons.
Written by @josephclift
The original winners, a recent winner, and the perennial disappointment. Will we see success for Suarez, brilliance from Balotelli, or moderate effectiveness from Milner? It’s time for us to cast an eye on the eagerly-anticipated Group D.
The last time Uruguay won the World Cup was in 1950, in a tournament hosted in Brazil, where they beat the hosts in the final. They enter this as the reigning Copa America champions, and have arguably the most explosive striker at the tournament. 31 goals in the Premier League last season, but there are serious question marks over whether Luis Suarez will have recovered fully from his recent knee surgery.
Uruguay even with a fully-fit Suarez probably aren’t as deadly as they were 4 years ago when they reached the semi-finals, the likes of Forlan, Lugano, Perez heading to their mid-30s, and in qualifying they struggled. In Edinson Cavani they do have another world-class striker to hand – he comes to Brazil having scored 16 in 30 games following his £56.7m move to Paris Saint-Germain.
Prediction: a fully-firing Suarez may have helped them progress, but with him half-fit they’ll finish 3rd.
Costa Rica’s presence at this year’s tournament may surprise some, but this plucky team is certainly here on merit – and if their recent friendly with the Republic of Ireland is anything to go by, could be a bit of a nuisance. They fought back for a draw despite playing the 2nd half with ten men – former Columbia coach Jorge Luis Pinto has made a habit of getting the most out of this set of players. Think Trinidad and Tobago in 2006.
With a large number of the squad drawn from the MLS, PSV’s Bryan Ruiz is their standout player up front. But keep an eye out for Joel Campbell – the youngster is yet to make his Arsenal debut, but has had productive spells on loan at FC Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos. Assistant coach and ex-Derby legend Paulo Wanchope will be hoping the team emulates his own typical unpredictability.
Prediction: There will be a scare or two, but it’ll be a 4th place finish.
This is certainly an England team that looks more exciting and more talented than 4 years ago, and given the ages of many that will feature there’s much to be encouraged by for future tournaments right at the outset. And while they may not progress far in the knockout stages, the ingredients are there for a decent showing in the group stages.
Lallana, Sturridge, and Barkley all look as though they could have great tournaments, but the main question mark is over the defence – perhaps the one area that’s weaker than in South Africa. Had Kyle Walker been fit, Glen Johnson almost certainly wouldn’t have played, while in the middle the shaky performances of Jones and Smalling in the recent friendlies puts a lot of pressure on Cahill and Jagielka to stay fit and avoid any suspensions – Jagielka himself is only recently back from injury. In past tournaments fans and pundits have tended to overestimate England’s chances – this time round, the opposite seems true, as it’s a better team than many perhaps give it credit for.
Prediction: 1st, but expect some typical heartbreak in the knockout stages.
If Uruguay have the striker of the tournament on paper, the Azzuri surely have the best of those fully-fit in the form of Super Mario. 14 goals in 30 games for Milan in Serie A last season, Balotelli’s coming to Brazil in great form and this could be his big moment on the international stage. Donut-lover Antonio Cassano arrives for what’s surprisingly his first World Cup, with Cesare Prandelli opting not to recall the experienced Luca Toni, currently enjoying something of a renaissance at Verona. At the back
Prandelli’s 4-1-3-1-1 set-up looks as though it may confuse a few teams, but he’s got the flexibility in the squad to change systems easily when needed. A midfield of De Rossi, Verratti, and Pirlo looks particularly attractive. Juventus duo Chiellini and Barzagli aren’t the most mobile centre-backs, but in Buffon they continue to have one of the goalkeeping greats behind them. Their warm-up game against Luxembourg highlighted concerns over their general firepower – drawing 1-1 against a team that’s won just 8 times in the last 18 years. Their fate this tournament is difficult to call – certainly good enough to get through the group stages with ease, but how far can they progress?
Prediction: 2nd, with England’s pace proving too much in the group opener. But arguably may progress further than England overall.
Written by @josephclift
From two groups with perhaps clearer outcomes, we turn next in our previews of Brazil to Group C, AKA Group of Chaos. This looks like being a cracker.
It would be entirely easy to look at Columbia and assume they’ll be at an advantage due to being a South American team playing in South America. But you have to turn back to France ’98 in the midst of the Faustino Asprilla era for their last World Cup appearance, and Italia ’90 for the last time they got past the group stages.
That said, there’s something about this Columbian team. An impressive qualifying campaign saw them finish 2nd to Argentina, with Radamel Falcao scoring 9 in 13. He will be a huge loss, but in Ramos, Bacca and Martinez they do still have goals in the side.
Prediction: 1st, as a result reaching the Round of 16 for the first time in 24 years.
A resigned sigh is quite often the reaction you get from many to news Greece will be at a major footballing tournament. Dull to watch, destroyers of the beautiful game, they know all the labels people have thrown at them over the years. But credit where credit’s due – they’ve achieved success in the past with limited talent. Were Greece a Premier League manager they’d be Tony Pulis – you may disagree with their methods but you can’t disagree with their results.
And they’re at it again. They are somehow at the World Cup despite scoring just 12 in 10 games. To put that in context, that’s 1 more goal than Wales managed, having played 2 more qualifying games. The Greeks conceded just 4 in qualifying, the Italy-based Vangelis Moras and Vasilis Torosidis playing a large part. The Giorgoses Karagounis and Samaras add the experience further afield.
Prediction: A 2nd place finish that will frustrate the neutral the same way the Greeks frustrate their opponents.
In Yaya Toure, the Ivory Coast undoubtedly have the star player of the group, and arguably one of the best midfielders at the tournament – at the peak of his game, joining them after a fine season. Him aside, the Elephants also have Wilfried Bony fresh from an excellent first season with Swansea, and the seasoned Didier Drogba comes into the tournament with a reasonable year at Galatasaray.
On paper there are goals in this side. But you can’t paper over the cracks of the Ivorian defence, which as ever looks like being their Achilles Heel. They could be in for some high-scoring games in the group, Greece apart. If they’re on their game, they could win the group – overly shaky at the back and they could finish last. Fine margins, and difficult to predict.
Prediction: 3rd, with a critical clanger or two from their defence which the Elephants will never forget.
In a group too close to call, Japan also represent a genuine contender for first. Quarter finalists 4 years ago, they come into the tournament after a qualifying campaign they flew through with ease – the first team to qualify for Brazil. Yet they failed to get out of the group stage at the Confederations Cup last year and are again another very unpredictable outfit.
The Shinjis Okazaki and Kagawa offer goal threat up front, despite the latter Shinji’s rather lacklustre season at Old Trafford (though he’s certainly not alone there). Milan’s Keisuke Honda will as ever be central to any success.
Prediction: an unlucky 4th, with fine margins denying them success this time out.
Written by @josephclift
Our look at the World Cup switches to Group B, which sees the finalists in South Africa reunited straight away. Dreadful bad luck on the other two, but is there a surprise on the cards?
Despite their disastrous final against Brazil in the Confederations Cup, Spain remain in an strong position to become only the third nation to retain the World Cup trophy – the first since Brazil in 1962. But no European team has ever won the tournament on South American soil.
Iniesta remains key, and both David Villa and Diego Costa will want to carry their good form with Atletico through to this tournament. A slight question mark has got to hover over Casillas in goal given his bit-part role at Real last season and his clear rustiness in the Champions League final.
Louis van Gaal has nothing to lose, the Man United job safe and secure regardless of how the Dutch perform, but he’ll want to leave on a high. It’s tough to see them replicating their performance in South Africa, but a team with van Persie, Sneijder, and Robben will always have a decent chance of progressing.
Though they were frustrated for large parts by a Baleless and Ramsey-free Wales side recently, Spain apart they should clearly have the beating of the rest of the group. And the world can’t wait to see de Jong have another go at the Spanish midfield.
The possible surprise package of the group, Chile raised a few eyebrows in their friendly with England. The ever-busy Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal comes to Brazil in fine form, while Alexis Sanchez did well at the Nou Camp last season and scored both goals in that win over England.
Chile have the misfortune of being in a group with the previous finalists. They reached the knockout stages last time out, and in 1998, but you have to go back to their 3rd place finish in 1962 for any spell past the Round of 16. Pleasing on the eye, unpredictable, with stars in good form, there’s definite shock potential here.
Prediction: 3rd, just missing out narrowly. But they will have three decent games.
If Chile represent the one uncertainty of the group, Australia represents the cast iron guarantee of a bottom place finish. 8 years ago in Germany, they matched an Italian side that went on to win the tournament, losing only to the dodgiest of dodgy penalties. But that golden team of Viduka, Kewell, Schwarzer, and Craig Moore, is no more.
Tim Cahill and an unfit Mark Bresciano represent the experienced heads in an otherwise youthful Socceroos squad, which is captained by Palace’s Mile Jedinak. But this is very much a developing team, and it’s tough to see them mustering any sort of challenge to the group.
Prediction: Cannon fodder for the other three, 4th all the way.
Written by @josephclift
In the run-up to Rio, it’s time for our preview of the group stages of the World Cup. First up, it’s Group A, aka the ‘Brazil and one other’ group.
A weight of expectation on the shoulders of this team and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. The one-time Chelsea flop has made some tough decisions on this squad, with Coutinho, Kaka, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Moura all enjoying the tournament with a caipirinha in hand as they watch from their living room.
Their absence reflects an abundance of exciting talent in Scolari’s squad, which stormed through last year’s Confederations Cup. Neymar ran the show in their recent friendly, scoring his 32 in 49 games for Brazil. He and Fred should have excellent tournaments, with Sideshow Bob at the back providing the unpredictable entertainment.
Prediction: comfortably 1st
Disappointed not to qualify for South Africa, Croatia come into the tournament with low expectations. With the Kovac brothers at the helm, they could be the surprise team of the group stages, with an attractive-looking midfield in Modric, Rakitic and young hopeful Kovacic potentially causing a few problems.
At the back, they have in Southampton’s Lovren a player in fine form, while up from they will miss Mandzukic through suspension for their opener in Brazil. It’s 6 years since the horror tackle on Eduardo, who with 29 goals for Croatia is 2nd only to Davor Suker. When people think of great Croatian moments in tournaments, his chip over Schmeichel remains the main notable one. It’s time for them to add to it.
Prediction: 2nd, and their first knockout stages since their excellent France ’98 showing.
With a qualification run that seemed more turbulent than busting a Mexican drug cartel, Mexico will need to really rise to the occasion to avoid an early trip home. Firing de la Torre, Tena, Vucetich all in 2013, and winning just two of ten qualifiers, they ultimately arrive in Brazil due to the fortune of having faced New Zealand in a playoff.
Current coach Manuel Herrera has not had a great lead-up to the tournament, losing to Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 in a recent friendly and seeing players like Javier Hernandez coming to Brazil off the back of a poor season domestically. It’s tough to see how they get out the group
Prediction: 4th, and adios.
Ever unpredictable, Cameroon also arrive in Brazil with very low expectations. And we’re not going to raise them here. Two dire qualification rounds for the Cup of Nations that saw them fail to meet the finals, and off the field there has been all sorts of turmoil.
They do of course have Samuel Eto’o as an option up front and the promising Vincent Aboubakar, but it’s tough to see where the creativity will come from as much rests on the shoulders of Alex Song. Stephane Mbia has had a great season Sevilla, putting to rest that disastrous season at Loftus Road.
Written by @josephclift
A PR gesture, or a change of tact?
Hopefully the latter. In my opinion we’ve picked the best man for the job, considering the options. LVG would have been an interesting choice, but did he ever want it?
It’s easy to see why Spurs have gone for Poch. He managed the media well at Southampton – using an interpreter to act almost like a shield at times, as everyone knows he speaks English. But he was canny in how he managed his communication. Spurs are nothing if not PR-sensitive, that would not have gone unnoticed. He will also be a young face for the Spurs brand to sell to marketing departments of brands around the world, in the US and China especially.
He was dropped into a civil war it seems with some players and fans unhappy at Adkins’s departure and the British press even more happy to jump on him at any opportunity. But he won them round. He did that by playing fantastic football, putting youth at the centre and adding smart signings like Lovren at the back.
Similarly, we can look at Espanyol, his only other job. He had 3 years there, bringing them from the bottom to a respectful place in La Liga, with Pep even saying: “There are teams that wait for you and teams that look for you: Espanyol look for you. I feel very close to their style of football.”
But Poch is no pushover, “He makes you work like a dog,” said Osvaldo in a fantastic piece by Sid Lowe on Poch’s time at Espanyol, “But it works.”
The Spurs squad is a funny mix. Less English than before and with players who have seen a lot of managers in their time. It will be key to see how some of those players, Lennon (if he stays) and Dawson (ditto) in particular, respond to it. Attitude is an interesting facet of that squad and of modern football, will our players respond?
The newer players, especially those from the continent – and I am guessing this is the hope – will be looking forward to it. So will, one would especially hope, Eric Lamela. You do not make a £30 million investment without trying to bring out the best in him, or indeed Soldado. Both are players we want to see the best of, both the Club and the fans will be hoping Poch will be able to.
On to youth. We have the best training complex in the Premier League, bar none, if not the best in Europe. We will, and are, producing better players in the younger age groups. Bentaleb was subject to some awful abuse at times, for simply being appreciated by Sherwood. That reaction was unfair – we should want our young players to be tested. If they fail, then we learn fast, but we should be mixing youth and experienced talent. We’re not going to compete with City and Chelsea for big players, we need to be smart in purchasing the best young players and developing our own. More Dortmund than Bayern.
I am excited for Poch’s arrival. It is a risk, but I hope that the players respond. I also hope that the management and fans give him time. He may just be the right one.
In the Spurs lifecycle, we’re at the ‘Hope Stage’, it’s pre-season, the best time to be a Spurs fan and we have another new Head Coach. Let’s hope we don’t repeat the last 2 years and become another Tottenham statistic.
As ever. We hope. Because with hope, everything is beautiful, right?
Written by @rktweets
As Mauricio Pochettino is confirmed as the new boss at White Hart Lane, and with Lallana and Shaw linked with big money moves away from St Mary’s this summer, we ask @louisekyme to put aside the panic and anger and look back at another excellent season on the pitch for Southampton.
Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
It won’t be a surprise for anyone to hear a Saints FC supporter say what a phenomenal season it has been. This was the season when even the most patronising ‘top 6′ fan got scared to play us. There have been peaks and troughs – from beating Liverpool at Anfield, sitting pretty in 3rd place 11 games in, followed by a tough Christmas period, then regaining form in the New Year, before finally finishing with the highest points tally the club has ever experienced. We stated we were aiming for the Champions League, and we weren’t far off. From day one to the last, following this team and their efforts has left every resident of Southampton bursting with pride. And it’s not just the results, it’s the way they did it – sublime, dominant football. With a team full of home grown talent. And proper nice guys. That has been the Southampton Way.
Who’s been this season’s hero?
Adam Lallana – captain, player of the season, he took his play to the next level this season. He’s always been the most talented Saints player on this pitch, but under The Manager’s influence he got more ruthless, more direct, less lightweight. The Manager compares him to Messi, and while some might mock, the fact he’s being discussed as England’s big hope in Brazil shows how much we need him to be that great. And I think he will be – the thing about Lallana is he’s always involved – there’s never the Rooney-style risk of loss of form or ‘disappearing’ from the game. Lallana has been on form from start to end of season, and his workrate is as good as any defensive midfielder. Get ready for something special this summer.
And the villain?
Dani Osvaldo. Headbutting team mate Jose Fonte. The less said the better!
I could write so much about him, but news today is he’s left for Spurs, and right now I’m struggling to write his name. Hopefully I’ll be in a better place next week, because he deserves to be written about as a Saints legend. But right now, that’s what makes it all the more sickening.
Lovren. Taught our defense how to communicate. Classy player.
Osvaldo. Needs no explanation!
Tough to pick as so many rising stars at Southampton. But I’ll go for Sam Gallagher – an 18 year old who made his debut against Arsenal and pulled them apart. He hasn’t quite hit his stride yet, but I don’t think it will take long. His movement just needs a visionary to spot. Maybe Gaston Ramirez is the one to provide that. If he stays…
Highlight of the season
Too many highlights to choose from. But in order:
- Rickie Lambert scoring for England on his debut with his first touch.
- Sitting at 3rd in the table 11 games in.
- Lallana, Shaw and Lambert selected for World Cup.
- Beating Liverpool.
Low point of the season
Right this moment. The picking apart of the most talented team in the League. A team that were proving you can challenge the depressing inevitability of the English Premier League.
And Cortese leaving – because we all know what is happening now wouldn’t have happened under him. But, by god, what a five year journey it was under Cortese. I feel privileged to have experienced it. Thank you Nicola.
It’s now up to the Southampton board to show their hand. Are they aiming for Champions League? Or are they satisfied with lower/mid-table results? We’ll understand more once we see how ambitious their managerial choice is…
I’ll remember this season for…
The most exciting, raw, talent-filled sporting experience to have witnessed. I can’t overstate how much fun it’s been. Even if it’s now disintegrating.
While most neutrals will have seen the cup exploits of their Steel City neighbours this season, events at Hillsborough have largely gone under the radar other than Dave Jones’s removal. Wednesdayite Neil Piper gives his take on what exactly has happened to Sheffield Wednesday this season.
Pleasure to watch or utter disaster?
‘Poor, good, average.’ Those were the words Head Coach (not Manager) Stuart Gray used when asked to describe the season in three words at a recent Hillsborough fan event. It is hard to disagree with this honest assessment. The start of the season was perhaps a little more than poor, given that it took until 2nd November for Wednesday to register their first win. To put this stat in even starker terms, the game was the Owls’ fourteenth of the season in all competitions. Most Wednesday fans hoped that a similar pattern to last season would follow; that the 5-2 thrashing of playoff contenders Reading, delivering the first victory, would be a springboard to greater things. However the result was merely a ray of sunshine in a rainy autumn as three consecutive defeats followed – a run that resulted in the removal of Dave Jones on 1st December.
Under Gray, the Owls secured safety with three games to spare, which considering they were six points adrift and bereft of confidence on his appointment is quite an achievement. In terms of the quality of football on display, Gray’s three words above are perhaps the best assessment I can give. There have been some excellent performances, such as the 4-1 home defeat of Birmingham and the 3-0 win over ‘Arry’s QPR. These have been interspersed with some shockers – the 2-1 home defeat to Charlton in the FA Cup with a quarter final date against Sheffield United beckoning, was particularly tough to take. Overall, we finished two places higher than last season but with less points gleaned. Average seems about right then.
Who’s been this season’s hero?
It would be difficult to lay this accolade at one player’s door, so I’m going to go with Stuart Gray. At the time of his appointment he was considered a placeholder for a bigger name and I believe he has done as well as, if not better, than any of the names (Ian Holloway, Steve Evans, even Neil Warnock) bandied around at the time would have done.
And the villain?
It’s probably too easy to give this one to Dave Jones, although I’m sure a large number of Wednesday fans would. In recent games, the error-prone ‘defending’ of Miguel Llera has been reason for a number of goals conceded so sadly, as great a servant and fan favourite as he has been, I’m going to have to give it to the departing Spaniard.
After a difficult start to the season, it was always going to be an uphill battle for Dave Jones. Jones is very much a manager in the true sense of the word, leaving the majority of the training ground work to his coaches and seeing himself as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ in the transfer market. Results on the pitch were awful and other than a couple of exceptions, the performances even worse. It does make you wonder exactly what he spent his time doing considering the turnaround his successor achieved in such a short space of time. Where Jones can be given some credit is in the development of the football side of the club off the field. The introduction of the development squad and the expansion of our previously threadbare scouting staff were areas of progress that the Liverpudlian played a hand in. It’s just a shame that he didn’t spend more time focusing on the primary objective of any football team – winning first-team football matches.
As above, I think Stuart Gray has done an excellent job with limited resources. He has played our most intelligent footballers and brought in some useful loan players. After announcing the release of eight players earlier this week, it will be interesting to see how the career-assistant /interim manager will handle building his own squad.
There were a number of players who joined on loan or short-term deals that contributed to the Wednesday cause over the season: Connor Wickham, Matty Fryatt, Leon Best, Glenn Loovens to name a few. But I’m actually going to cheat a little here and say our best signing was Chris Maguire. Although signed under Dave Jones in the summer of 2012, Maguire saw little to no playing time in his first season at Hillsborough and under Gray he has been arguably like a new player and our best performer, chipping in with vital goals and finishing top of the scoring charts with ten goals from an unfamiliar midfield position. If he continues to develop next season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him earn a place in the Scotland squad.
If you’d have polled Wednesday fans on this question at the turn of the year, it would have been Atdhe Nuhiu. The 6ft 6inch striker struggled to adapt in the early stages of the season but he has gradually won fans over and at the age of twenty-four, he could play a big role next season. So, perhaps by default, I will have to go with Kamil Zayatte. The ex-Hull defender showed promise in pre-season to earn a two year deal but was at the heart of a leaky defence in the early stages of the season before spending the final few months injured.
Liam Palmer won the Owls Player of the Year award and his versatility and maturity beyond his years, should be valuable assets for years to come. But I’m going to go with Caolan Lavery. An early-season loan to Plymouth gave the young striker the opportunity to play league football and his goal-scoring and general play were highly praised. He returned to Hillsborough, scored twice in the 6-0 drubbing of Leeds and hasn’t looked back.
Highlight of the season
I hate to mention that win over Leeds again and whilst that was particularly enjoyable, it wasn’t my personal highlight. Chris Maguire’s 97th minute winner over local rivals Barnsley brings back great memories not least for the celebrations that followed. The sight of the afore-mentioned Nuhiu sprinting from the substitutes bench (he had been taken off earlier having missed numerous chances) down the Hillsborough side line to slide in celebration in front of the Kop was both fantastic and hilarious to watch.
Low point of the season
The one nil defeat to Doncaster Rovers at home in late September. We had dominated the game and a quick break away led to the only goal of the match. After that result, it was hard to see where our first win of the season was going to come from, or if it ever would.
I’ll remember this season for…
…being eerily similar to last season, with a little more breathing room at the end. There are some encouraging signs at Hillsborough. Milan Mandaric’s investment at academy level is starting to prove beneficial and the cull of out-of-contract players raises optimism that one year stop-gap solutions won’t be sought as readily as they were last season. With three or four quality-over-quantity signings, we could be challenging for a top half finish, but it wouldn’t surprise me if history repeated itself for a third season in a row.