The first steps on the road to France and Euro 2016 have been taken, and there was no shortage of surprises across the three days of qualifier action. Some of the European teams who featured at the World Cup this summer returned to competitive action in the worst possible manner, while others may just dare to believe that the scalps they took could be the springboard for an unlikely charge on the increased number of qualification places available. Who were the big winners and losers from matchday(s) one of European qualification?
Group A: Turkey stuffed and Dutch downed
Two of the three games in Group A fitted the description of ‘coupon buster’, with many people’s tips for first and second crashing to surprise defeats. The most eye-catching result was Turkey’s 3-0 hammering away to Iceland, who appear to have continued their impressive form from the World Cup qualifiers into this campaign. Perhaps we should not be hugely surprised by an Icelandic victory after their run to the play-offs for Brazil 2014, but the three-goal margin will have raised a few eyebrows. Swansea’s Gylfi Sigurdsson was on target in Reykjavik, as was the impressive Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who will be well marshaled by opposition defenders in future games.
World Cup bronze medalists Netherlands made a disastrous start, losing 2-1 in the Czech Republic after Vaclav Pilar’s stoppage time winner. Newcastle’s Daryl Janmaat erred when his weak header was pounced upon by the Czech forward for the winning goal, while the hosts’ midfielder Borek Dockal stood out with a performance that also brought a first half goal. Plenty to ponder for Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, but the Czechs are off to a flier and their cause may also be helped by Turkey’s defeat.
The other encounter in the Euro 2016 qualifying group was a dismal 0-0 draw between Kazakhstan and Latvia, neither of whom will even threaten for a play-off position and could ship a heavy beating or two as the group goes on.
Star men: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson (Iceland), Borek Dockal (Czech Republic)
Group B: Wales Baled out and Bosnia beaten
It just had to be him, didn’t it? Staring a humiliating night against a team comprised almost entirely of amateurs on an artificial surface that your local five-a-side players would be ashamed of, the world’s most expensive footballer was bound to have a telling impact on proceedings. In the end, Wales really needed Gareth Bale to dig them out of a hole against Andorra, ranked by FIFA among the 10 worst teams in international football. The Real Madrid maestro was given special treatment by the home side’s combative/thuggish defenders, but ultimately he made his class tell and spared Chris Coleman’s team from embarrassment.
The Welsh did enough to stave off a poor result, something that could not be said for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Fresh from their first ever appearance at a major tournament, the Bosnians crashed to an unexpected 2-1 home defeat by Cyprus, even after taking an early lead through Vedad Ibisevic. Cypriot striker Dimitris Christofi took the plaudits in Sarajevo with his two-goal salvo and the home side also managed to squander the perfect chance for late salvation as Miralem Pjanic missed a penalty.
It is the first time that Bosnia go into a qualification campaign with expectations to get through, something that they haven’t dealt with thus far, while Wales will realise that substantial improvement is needed. The fixture between Israel and Belgium was scheduled to take place on Tuesday but was postponed and will instead be played in March.
Star men: Gareth Bale (Wales), Dimitris Christofi (Cyprus)
Group C: Holders get back in business after Brazilian fiasco
After the meek surrender of their world title in June, it is easy to forget that Spain are going for a third consecutive European crown, which would be an unprecedented feat in the tournament’s 54-year history. A Spanish side bearing quite a few changes from the team that imploded in Brazil had little trouble in sweeping past Macedonia by five goals to one, even if the visitors did cause a scare when scoring at 2-0. The experienced Sergio Ramos and David Silva were on target for Spain, as was the emerging Paco Alcacer.
Ukraine’s footballers missed their chance to bring some much-needed good news to the troubled nation as they went down 0-1 at home to Slovakia, Robert Mak with a first half winner. The hosts thought they had equalised in spectacular fashion in stoppage time when goalkeeper Olexander Pyatov bundled the ball into Slovakia’s net, only for the goal to be disallowed.
Luxembourg were one of several teams across Europe to spring a surprise after holding a promising Belarus team to a 1-1 draw. The underdogs even took the lead through Lars Gerson and had the upper hand until 12 minutes from time, Stanislav Dragun denying the home side a famous victory.
While Spain seem to be getting back on track after their woeful World Cup and Slovakia laid down a marker of their intent, things just don’t seem to be getting any better for beleaguered Ukraine.
Star men: Paco Alcacer (Spain), Robert Mak (Slovakia)
Group D: Irish eyes smiling but brave Scots unrewarded
The extent of Scotland’s improvement under Gordon Strachan would be laid bare by how they coped with the challenge of travelling to newly-crowned world champions Germany. Despite the home side missing key players through injury in Dortmund, the Scots proved to be a far bigger thorn in their side than many would have expected. They certainly didn’t have an inferiority complex, boldly taking the game to Germany and getting their reward through Ikeichi Anya’s second half goal. Ultimately, though, they didn’t have an answer to the prolific Thomas Muller, but the Tartan Army can take huge confidence going into the rest of the qualifiers.
However, they will have been disappointed that Georgia couldn’t quite hold out for a draw against Republic of Ireland in Tbilisi. All the more galling was that Ireland’s hero on the night was Aiden McGeady, a Glaswegian by birth. The Everton winger has been dogged by criticism over his lack of end product in a green shirt, but he put those accusations to bed with an exquisite 90th-minute winner. It wasn’t the only spectacular goal either; Tornike Okriashvili left David Forde stranded with a sumptuous first half strike.
The other Group D game ran along expected lines as Gibraltar were taught a harsh lesson by Poland on their competitive international debut. The Poles only had one goal on the board by half-time in Faro-Loule but added six more after the interval, with Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski on target four times in a facile victory.
So Germany got their win in unconvincing fashion, Ireland summoned enough spirit to avoid being tripped up and Scotland will be encouraged by their courageous showing. As for Gibraltar, they’ll do well to keep their eventual goals conceded figure under 70.
Star men: Thomas Muller (Germany), Ikeichi Anya (Scotland), Aiden McGeady (Ireland)
Group E: England overcome stiffest test
England had a score to settle after a familiarly disappointing performance on the world stage in Brazil and their opening qualifier against Switzerland looked fraught with danger. St Jakob Park in Basel has often seen English clubs come unstuck, but Roy Hodgson’s national team wouldn’t suffer the same fate. The much-maligned Danny Welbeck did his confidence plenty of good as he came up with both goals in a slow-burning match, but for the Three Lions, the result is everything.
Even better for England is that it seems hard to envisage where the competition for an automatic qualification place is going to come from. Estonia did cause a minor upset when beating Slovenia, although neither side can realistically expect to finish ahead of the English. Lithuania also got off to a winning start, but they were fully expected to beat San Marino and a final score of 2-0 will not strike fear into their Group E rivals.
It is incredibly early days yet but already England look well on course for a routine passage to the finals. Switzerland away was meant to be their toughest challenge, but the World Cup second round fallers never got going in Basel.
Star men: Danny Welbeck (England), Ats Purje (Estonia), Arvidas Novikovas (Lithuania)
Group F: Kyle has the last Laff for Ulstermen
Kyle Lafferty’s career hasn’t always passed off smoothly, an unconventional stint in Serie B with Palermo part of his life story, but he was the toast of Northern Ireland on Sunday night after his late winner in the 2-1 away win over Hungary, all three goals coming in a frenetic last 15 minutes. It was a hugely encouraging win for Michael O’Neill and his troops, one which may just be the start of a tilt at the play-offs in what promises to be a wide open group.
Greece only exited the World Cup after a last 16 penalty shoot-out defeat to Costa Rica, but they were rocked by Romania on Sunday, losing 1-0 in front of their own fans. Ciprian Marica’s early penalty was enough to secure the points for Romania, although their captain later blotted his copybook by getting himself sent off and leaving his team a man light for most of the second half. Alexandru Chipciu was the standout performer in the Euro 2016 qualifying game in Piraeus.
Finland survived a scare away to the Faroe Islands, coming from behind to win 3-1. Riku Riski showed that he is a safe choice for future games after his double in Torshavn, with Roman Eremenko also on target for the Finns. Captain Niklas Moisander of Ajax will be disappointed with his evening, though, after a rare mistake led to the Faroes’ opener.
Star men: Kyle Lafferty (Northern Ireland), Riku Riski (Finland)
Group G: Russia take early command
The pressure was on for Russia to produce a big performance in front of their disgruntled fans after an awful World Cup, and even though Liechtenstein didn’t exactly provide stiff opposition, Fabio Capello’s men got the job done in comfortable fashion with a 4-0 home win. It would be remiss to suggest that all is sweetness and light again, though – the visitors twice put through their own net and another of the goals was a penalty. It was simply a case of getting a substantial win on board and erasing the cobwebs from Brazil.
Montenegro also got off to a winning start, defeating Moldova 2-0 in Podgorica. Mirko Vucinic and Zarko Tomasevic provided the goals for the home side, for whom midfielder Nemanja Nikolic played a starring role. Meanwhile, Austria and Sweden shared the spoils in Vienna, David Alaba’s early penalty quickly cancelled out by Erkan Zengin. The mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic wasn’t on the scoresheet but nonetheless illustrated his importance to the cause, working tirelessly for the team throughout.
On an opening matchday of surprises, Group G bucked the trend by failing to produce any eye-catching results. Montenegro will probably be happiest with proceedings at this early stage.
Star men: Nemanja Nikolic (Montenegro), Denis Glushakov (Russia)
Group H: Azzurri begin with a win
Italy were among several high-profile early casualties at the World Cup and sought to quickly put Brazil out of their system as they traveled to Norway. It was a fixture that had tended to trip up the Azzurri in previous years, but Antonio Conte’s side showed an impressive focus and desire to win 2-0. There were a few unfamiliar names in the Italy line-up, although the performance of Simone Zaza suggested that we may hear plenty more of him in the coming months. He netted the opener in Oslo.
Croatia were also hoping to arise from a World Cup hangover and despite beating Malta 2-0 in Zagreb, the nature of the performance won’t have their Group H opponents trembling with fear. Luka Modric struck the opening goal from distance and young Andrej Kramaric was also on target for Niko Kovac’s men.
Bulgaria faced a tricky opener away to Azerbaijan, coming out the right side of a 2-1 scoreline. Ventsislav Hristov came up with a late winner for the Bulgarians, for whom the celebrations spoke more of relief than jubilation. Still, the value of beginning a qualifying campaign with three points can never be understated, particularly in a fixture like this.
Italy’s young guns impressed and can only improve with the considerable experience of Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo alongside them for guidance. Croatia will need to show more if they are to qualify automatically.
Star men: Simone Zaza (Italy), Andrej Kramaric (Croatia)
Group I: Sidelined Ronaldo witnesses more pain for poor Portuguese
Portugal were horrendous at the World Cup and had to make do without Cristiano Ronaldo for what ought to have been a straightforward opening tie at home to Albania. With Ronaldo’s former Man United team-mate Nani taking the captain’s armband, the Portuguese fell victim to perhaps the shock of the opening week of qualifiers. Bekim Balaj sparked scenes of joy for Albania, while the jeers and whistles rang out at full-time for Paulo Bento and his misfiring team.
Denmark were also staring down the barrel of an unexpected home defeat, but unlike Portugal they found a way to survive a very stiff test from Armenia, who won 4-0 on their last visit to the Scandinavian country. Thomas Kahlenberg’s late winner ensured a 2-1 win in a match that saw the teams’ respective talismans Christian Eriksen and Henrikh Mkhitaryan show their worth.
The Danes can be happy with the win in the knowledge that they will have plenty to work on for their upcoming qualifiers. Serbia’s prospects may have been boosted without kicking a ball (well, they did have a friendly against France) after Portugal’s defeat, one which already leaves Ronaldo and co with very little margin for error.
Star men: Lorik Cana (Albania), Bekim Balaj (Albania)
Should Ben Foster be in the England World Cup squad?
With Joe Hart out of form could Foster head to Russia despite Baggies struggles.
England are heading to the World Cup this summer with one very significant problem position – goalkeeper.
The current number one is Joe Hart. His loan spell at West Ham United has been a disaster. His poor form saw him dropped for Adrian. England do have good young options. Everton’s Jordan Pickford and Stoke City’s Jack Butland look likely to be on the plane. In terms of experience however, England are lacking. Tom Heaton of Burnley has spent much of the season on the sidelines with a shoulder injury. His deputy Nick Pope has been brilliant, but has no England experience.
Gareth Southgate should therefore try and convince a West Brom player out of retirement.
Whilst most of the Baggies players this season certainly don’t deserve a place at the World Cup this summer, one that might is goalkeeper Ben Foster.
The 34-year-old has been in his usual consistent form for West Brom this season. If England decide that Joe Hart should be left behind then experience will be necessary. Based on form, that should be the case. Hart has been poor this term and his confidence appears to be shot.
Foster would be a perfect replacement. He is a no-nonsense option whose eight caps for England do not represent his talent. He is excellent at claiming crosses and quick off his line. His injury record goes some way to highlighting that bravery is one of his best attributes. When it comes to shot-stopping he can’t quite rival Butland or Pickford, but he is no slouch.
He has previously made himself unavailable for the England team, after a series of injury troubles. This summer England boss Southgate must consider asking him to re-enter the fold once again. He could be the guiding stopper for Pickford and Butland in Russia whilst Hart takes some much needed time away from the national team.
Bringing in Foster to the England fold again might be the best option for all parties this summer.
Steph Houghton on leading, going unbeaten with Manchester City and FA developments
Manchester City and England captain Steph Houghton has grown into her leadership role for both club and country. We caught up with the 29-year-old as she chases a fourth FA Women’s Super League career title…
Captain of club and country. Not many players can claim to have achieved that feat during their careers.
For Manchester City Women’s Football Club defender Steph Houghton this was a dream realised at just 25 years of age, when then-head coach Mark Sampson handed her the England Women’s National Team armband on a full-time basis.
“I have had to work hard to become the leader that I am”, she told The Boot Room, in an exclusive interview. “I was quite a young captain getting the armband for both City and England at the same time. In this environment, I feel like I’ve been able to be myself and really grow as a leader.
“There is more responsibility in terms of ensuring everyone is maintaining high standards and sometimes that can be challenging, but ultimately it’s the proudest honour you could have in the game to captain both Manchester City and England.”
Leadership may not have come naturally to the now-29-year-old but, with over 200 clubs appearances and 100 international caps to her name, it is a trait she has acquired through gaining experience and realising new levels of achievement outside of her comfort zone.
This success has seen Houghton discover unchartered territory with England and Manchester City, leading the Lionesses to a third-place finish in the 2014 World Cup finals and the Blues to the club’s first ever Women’s Super League (WSL) title in 2016/17.
The Lionesses, who have become the pride of the nation, came agonisingly close to the World Cup final in Canada, with only a devastating injury-time own goal preventing them from a shot at the most prestigious prize in the women’s game.
Aside from the exemplary team spirit that the squad possesses, Houghton believes that the improved level of England performances over the years comes down to a tactical awareness that has set them aside from their opponents.
“Over the last four years, we’ve been adaptable in the way we play. We are very competitive. We want to win and we’ve found ways to win.
“When I think back to the World Cup in 2015, we played so many different formations that teams didn’t know what we were doing. That is a credit to the coaching staff and all the players who adapted to those different scenarios to outwit an opponent and most importantly win.”
After reaching a landmark 100 appearances for the Lionesses, Houghton celebrated a City milestone earlier this season, marking her club century against former club Sunderland Ladies.
Her 100th game came with a 3-0 triumph against her hometown side, with whom she spent five years at the beginning of her career before enjoying spells with Leeds United and Arsenal Ladies.
Houghton led Arsenal to an FA Cup and Continental Cup double in 2013 and was twice a Women’s Super League winner with the Gunners prior to joining Manchester City in 2014.
“I loved my time at Arsenal, it was a fantastic club and still is, but on a personal level, I wasn’t flourishing as much as I wanted to,” she said.
“Then Manchester City came in, a brand new team that was giving me the chance to play full time, compete in a fantastic stadium and also be closer to home. It really wasn’t an opportunity I could turn down.
The first few months were difficult, but I think in your career you have to go through those moments to come out even better.
“I know I made the right decision and I’m as happy as I could ever be here at City.”
Since making the move from London to Manchester in 2014, the Lionesses’ skipper has earned a number of titles and accolades, not least of which being awarded an MBE in recognition for her personal achievements and contributions to the game.
The Blues skipper is a respected figure both on and off the pitch and has become a huge inspiration to sportswomen everywhere.
Undoubtedly, reaching 100 games with City was a hugely proud moment for the 29-year-old, who has experienced a number of incredible moments throughout her time with the Manchester outfit.
However, she says the club’s domestic success throughout the 2016/2017 campaign remains the personal highlight among all her achievements.
“It was a massive honour and I never thought when I joined the club that I’d be able to play 100 games, but I was fortunate enough to be able to do so.
“There have been some amazing memories, our first Continental Cup final win, we were the underdogs and the feeling that night was unbelievable.
“But, I think winning the double in 2016 and then the FA Cup in 2017, capturing all three domestic trophies, has to up there because of the way we played.
“We went unbeaten and we only conceded four goals and that was a credit to every player and all the staff.”
Already holders of the WSL title and Continental Tyres (League) Cup, after a season without losing during 2016/17, the Blues claimed the full set with an FA Cup final victory over Birmingham City Ladies in May 2017.
For Manchester City Women’s this marked quite an achievement, having turned fully professional only three years earlier – on the back of the creation of the WSL.
After going full-time, City set about the same dominance their men’s side had enjoyed in the transfer market and the league, the outcome of which saw Houghton appear on the club’s radar, with manager Nick Cushing keen to add strong leaders to his ranks.
Houghton credits Cushing, who was named the club’s full-time head coach just a month before she signed for the Etihad outfit, for the significant role he has played in her development, both as a player and a person.
“He is the best coach I’ve ever played under and for me, and for the rest of the players, he’s really developed us into a team that knows a lot more about the game and are much more tactically aware.
“On a personal level, he has helped my game so much over the last four years. We work every day on the finer details, it’s about being good with the ball and without it.
“I owe a lot to him over the last four years, not only on the coaching side but also managing me as a person, really allowing me to be myself and develop as a leader.”
Cushing’s City side remain in an excellent position to challenge for a second league championship this term, just one point behind current leaders Chelsea Ladies, last season’s runners-up, after 11 games.
Success in the Women’s Super League would have been the main target for the Blues prior to the season, defending the title they worked tirelessly to claim last term. However, the quadruple remains a possibility, with the club still competing on all fronts.
“As a club, we are so far meeting all the objectives we set at the beginning of the season.”
“We’re still competing in the Champions League with the quarterfinals coming up in March. We’re still in the FA Cup and have the Continental Cup final to look forward to, and we’re also challenging for the Women’s Super League.
“Ultimately, we want to keep winning football games and competing in all competitions, so we’re really happy with how the season is going.”
The fabric of a title-winning team comes in its ability to become resolute when the going gets tough and that is exactly what Manchester City showed in their last WSL fixture, against the league leaders.
City’s league hopes looked to be in a perilous position at half-time of their pivotal top-of-the-table clash against the Blues, with the Manchester outfit trailing 2-0 at the break, courtesy of strikes from Millie Bright and Ji So-Yun.
Nonetheless, an excellent second half City performance ensured the points were shared at the Academy Stadium, with goals from Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway pegging back Chelsea’s first-half advantage.
Defeat would have been a devastating three points lost in the race for the title and, therefore, the eventual draw will be considered a valuable point gained. This game-by-game approach is one that Houghton knows will serve the club well during the run-in.
“This season, we need to take each game as it comes, we know it’s possible and we should be proud of what we’ve achieved, but we’ve still got a long way to go so we’ve got to remain focused if we’re going to achieve success.”
On the continent, City remain unbeaten in the Champions League and will play Swedish champions Linkopings in the quarter-finals in March after reaching the semi-finals of the competition last season.
Houghton and co. were knocked out of Europe by Lyon in 2016/17, and could face the four-time Women’s Champions League winners in the last four if both sides progress from the current round.
“We’ve got to believe. I think we performed well in the Champions League in our debut season, to make it to the semi-finals was an achievement, but we want to build on that.”
Away from the pitch, Houghton acts as an Ambassador for UEFA – a women’s football development role – the purpose of which is to provide models to young females wishing to participate in the sport.
As a leading English female footballer, the City captain holds a strong commitment to accelerating the progress of the women’s game – an objective that has been catalysed by the establishment of the FA WSL in 2010.
Finally committed to developing women’s football, the FA believed creating a viable elite league, which would initially be semi-professional, was to prove vital for the sport’s credibility. This was a decision backed by Houghton.
“The best idea we had was to introduce the FA WSL and having it as a summer league at first allowed clubs to focus on making their teams full time, providing more coaching hours for their players and ultimately drawing in as many crowds as possible, as well as allowing for more tv coverage.”
Initially running over the summer, in July 2016 it was agreed that a calendar shift would take place. This moved the WSL to the winter months, to be played between September and May, in line with other divisions across Europe.
In September 2017 it was announced that the top tier of English women’s football will be only for full-time clubs from 2018-19 after proposed changes to Women’s Super League licences were approved by the FA.
This means that all clubs must re-apply for their places in the division, while new teams could earn licences to join the top tier that will have between eight and 14 teams. In addition, top-flight clubs will be required to run an academy under the new criteria.
This is a significant milestone in the progression of the women’s game and is likely to transform key elements, including the quality of resources and the level of performance on the pitch. Houghton explained the positive impact of such a decision.
“I think it’s the right step now, after making it a winter league, to continue this growth and increase our competitiveness on the international stage.
“There are a lot of big clubs pushing to make it more professional and from an international perspective, that is what you want, everyone training full-time and to be as fit as they possibly can be.
As a club, I think Manchester City have set the standards in terms of the professionalism and ensuring we have access to the same resources as the men’s team, both on and off the pitch.”
A leading figure in the English game, both on the pitch for Manchester City and the Three Lionesses, and as an ambassador for UEFA, Houghton recognises the progress of the women’s game. However, she says there still remains room for improvement.
“I’m happy with how far the game has come.
“To be able to live my dream of being a professional football player and to be at a club like this is unbelievable and I think the games are now more competitive than they ever were, which makes it all that much better.
“The stadium we play in, the pitches we train on, the crowds that we draw in are incredible too, it’s really grown. It’s important that we keep pushing in all those areas.
“You’d like to see regular TV matches every week, which we’re starting to do. I’m optimistic about what the future holds.”
Decisions made regarding the development of the women’s game may largely sit outside of her influence, but on the pitch, Houghton will be hoping to galvanise City’s pursuit of Chelsea at the top of the WSL, while next year’s World Cup in France will be at the forefront of preparations with the Three Lionesses.
England youngsters begin to repay Gareth Southgate’s faith
It has not been a vintage few years for England’s national team. Many have tried to find the root of the problem but perhaps the man most qualified is the head coach of the reigning World Champions, Joachim Low.
Speaking a year after Germany’s success in Brazil (where England were dumped out after finishing bottom of their group), he claimed that England must “face up to the fact [that] their young players don’t get the minutes for their clubs”.
It is widely acknowledged that any green shoots of talent which emerge are trampled down by the Premier League and its preoccupation with expensive foreign signings. This, he added cheerfully, also meant that “in the last few years £100 million has been put back into [German] youth development”.
However, failure in Rio was by no means the peak of English embarrassment, emphatically beaten to that title by the defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016. It was this result that led to Chris Waddle’s memorable complaint that the products of England’s development system are “all pampered, they’re all headphones and you can’t get anything out of them”.
Waddle did it most colourfully, but he was one of many to attribute the defeat to a failure to deal with adversity, an inability to adapt in tough times.
After witnessing another leisurely stroll through qualifying for 2018, this time under Gareth Southgate, England fans will be searching for evidence that the next tournament could be different. Friday night’s match against Germany showed that Southgate is beginning to address the problems.
He introduced five debutants at Wembley, the most notable of which were Chelsea starlets Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who have finally received some top flight game time following loan moves to Swansea City and Crystal Palace, respectively.
Now at less illustrious clubs, their inclusion shows Southgate’s willingness to select players from any team, a stark change in selection policy.
Loftus-Cheek and Abraham will benefit not only from the playing time, but also from the unique experience of playing for a struggling team.
The former, just seven appearances into his first proper season in the league, has managed to impress in a Palace team infamous for suffering the worst ever start to a Premier League campaign and changing their manager after just four games. It appears that Loftus-Cheek is not a player who shrinks in adversity, but one who thrives.
Abraham, similarly, has been thrust into a Swansea side who are current favourites for relegation and his four strikes this season represent over half of the Swans’ league goals. He is raw, but is clearly a player able to perform for a struggling team, something which may well come in handy during his England career.
Gareth Southgate has recognised that the many who fail to break into top teams can still become top players. This is not an issue specific to English players, prospects from overseas have also been spun out by the revolving door transfer policies of moneyed clubs.
In the first of his few appearances for Chelsea, Loftus-Cheek took the place in the squad of a young Egyptian who was subsequently loaned out before being discarded. However, despite failing to cement a first-team place at Chelsea, Mohamed Salah is doing brilliantly at Liverpool. His reaction to that setback is an example to all English youngsters.
The England manager will continue to put his faith in players from ‘unfashionable’ clubs and has called up Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook for Tuesday’s game against Brazil. This should encourage the next generation to step out of their academy comfort zone and seek real footballing experience.
If the precocious talents of England’s all-conquering development sides are encouraged to broaden their footballing horizons, we may finally produce players capable of dealing with the glare of an expectant nation. Rounded professionals not ‘pampered headphones’; music to the ears of England fans.
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