Manchester United’s win at Juventus shows Jose Mourinho is getting back to his best beneath the ‘classless’ persona

“It’s Mourinho time,” proclaimed the Daily Telegraph. “Second miracle in Turin,” announced the iPaper in reference to that comeback from Fergie’s boys who partied in 1999. A more functional “United pass Turin test,” runs the headline across the back of the Daily Express.

But it was The Times who captured the essence of this thrilling final eight minutes including stoppage time, complete with the image that has been unavoidable on social media ever since.

“The Special comeback”. And this performance, both before, during and after from Jose Mourinho, bore all the hallmarks of a man many had thought lost touch with the game several years ago.

The Portuguese cupped his right ear to the Curva Sud. ‘Where’s the abuse now?’, signified the gesture. There were no expletives, no need for dangling a little finger to his dissenters. Paul Scholes was asked for his thoughts on Mourinho by BT Sport presenter Gary Lineker.

You could see across his face he didn’t thank Lineker for the question, knowing that even his rather low-key response would become an instant overnight banner for online media outlets.

Scholes, never forgotten as being a fans’ favourite of 700-plus appearances placed in the awkward position of needing to praise a United performance, provided only a brief response, seemingly not wanted to become the headline.

“This is everywhere he goes,” said Scholes. “You need to win with a bit of class sometimes, shake the manager’s hand. I don’t think there’s any need for it but that’s the way he is.”

5905224-6365111-image-m-173_1541629914961.jpg

That was it, but The Sun grabbed it. “No Class,” became the splash, and instantly Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Juventus, their finest result in Europe since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, was ‘tainted’.

Should Mourinho’s antics overshadow United’s win?

Another United performance was instantly bookended by one man again. Not Ashley Young for his role in making Wojciech Szczesny take a step the wrong way before Juan Mata’s unerring free-kick or for his inviting cross which led to Alex Sandro’s own goal.

Not Mata himself and not Marouane Fellaini, a man who in many ways shares traits with Mourinho for his much-maligned displays. No, it was all about Jose, again.

Mauricio Pochettino spoke last week of wanting to ‘bring the glory’ back to Tottenham Hotspur, and this was Mourinho providing his club with another glorious night, a back-from-the-dead, milestone victory.

On the eve of a Manchester derby, their city rivals were putting six past Shakhtar Donetsk at the Etihad, but there was little intrigue in that beyond Raheem Sterling kicking his foot into the ground to win a penalty. Even a 6-0 win felt a hollow victory following the fresh leaks being serialised by German outlet Der Speigel.

You run out of superlatives for Pep Guardiola’s side, but the intrigue remains constant surrounding Mourinho.

You can imagine the immediate delight that the night’s pantomime villain felt as he was escorted away down the tunnel. This is his happiest habitat, but the United boss conceded afterwards that he had perhaps acted a little irresponsibly.

GettyImages-1059035326.jpg

He said: “I didn’t offend anyone at the end, I just made a gesture that I wanted to hear them louder.

“I probably shouldn’t have done it, and with a cool head I wouldn’t have done it. But with my family insulted, including my Inter family, I reacted like this.”

Mourinho had vowed before the game that he would not respond to the Juventus fans again after brandishing three fingers at them during United’s defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago – representing the Treble he won with Inter Milan in 2010.

“Before I said that I would not do it, but then I did,” he added. “You remember what they did to me, but that sign is not an offence.”

I promise I won’t point three fingers, but I’ll use another signal. In the heat of battle, it was peak Mourinho.

It’s easy to point the finger at this ego-maniac and grimace a little at his calls for an encore from the supporters who’d been abusing him for 90 minutes. He came out fighting with members of the media who dared to suggest it had been a show of disrespect, a lack of class.

“Do you understand Italian?” he asked one female reporter who reflected on how Mourinho’s action had irked home supporters. She responded she didn’t, to which the manager gleefully replied, “Ask the FA, they will translate for you!”

He didn’t end there. In the post-match press conference, when asked by a Spanish journalist, “Do you think your celebration lacked respect?” Mourinho replied: “You understand Italian, so you know what they were calling me for 94 minutes, and you think it’s offensive to cup my ear?

“It was offensive what they did to me. That was offensive! It wasn’t offensive me asking for more [after the game]. It was not offensive asking for a little bit more now.”

“Did they say they would kill your family [in cold blood]?” asked the journalist.

“No, if they did I would go straight home,” replied Mourinho.

He had been an animated observer, frantically flapping his hands on the sidelines shortly before Cristiano Ronaldo’s glorious opening strike.

He knew then that, after an hour of putting the hard yards in, the thighs of his players were beginning to burn. He emerged from the dugout and sought to cajole Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez into one final high press before being replaced by fresher legs.

Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof had ridden their luck a little, losing the deep run of Sami Khedira as he struck the outside of David de Gea’s post, while Paul Dybala had come even closer, thudding the crossbar after cutting inside unopposed.

Then, with the game appearing to have hit a slight lull, a trademark lofted pass from Leonardo Bonucci found Ronaldo peel off the shoulder of Lindelof with the ball leaving his foot like a fireball that flashed past De Gea.

GettyImages-1058893648.jpg

But half an hour later, the small pocket of vociferous United fans were left breathless on a night which evoked memories of the club’s most celebrated European triumphs under Ferguson.

This would turn into Juventus’ first defeat of the season, a result which seemed impossible in the 10 minutes after Ronaldo’s first Champions League goal since his summer move from Real Madrid.

Miralem Pjanic twice came close to doubling the lead, but Mourinho had the last laugh, tilting the spotlight in one arm raise away from the hapless Szczesny – culpable for both United goals – onto him.

Rodrigo Bentancur and Bonucci both approached the offender before Young intervened. It didn’t matter, it seemed, what the offended had been chanting throughout this match, which throws qualification from Group H into a three-horse race.

It was nothing Mourinho hadn’t heard before. Nothing overly personal, just generic tit for tat. Showering down from all directions came the words “Figlio di puttana”, which translates to “son of a bi***”. Then in unison, “il triplete mettilo nel culo”, which roughly translates to “the treble, put it in the a**”.

GettyImages-1058174796.jpg

Revisiting Mourinho’s relationship with Juventus

Mourinho’s two seasons in Serie A – between 2008 and 2010 – were dominated by success.

Juventus were still reeling from the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal and their relegation to Serie B when Mourinho arrived in the country, so they weren’t seen as direct rivals to the title, but what he achieved in his second season truly got to the heart of a rivalry that remains to this day.

Being crowned champions of Europe has eluded Juventus since 1996, and the club have never achieved a treble of trophies as Mourinho did in 2009/10.

While that campaign showcased Mourinho’s brilliance, here he demonstrated his powers of recovery, which have become synonymous with his side during the autumn.

Since trailing Newcastle 2-0 at half-time on October 6, United have recovered from losing positions at Chelsea, Bournemouth and now in Turin.

Mourinho experienced a frosty relationship with the Italian media towards the end of his two-year stay in the country. It reached a new low in December 2009 when he was accused of physically and verbally abusing a journalist after Inter drew with Atalanta.

Juventus v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Group H

Andrea Ramazzotti of Rome-based paper Corriere dello Sport was reportedly pushed and insulted as he approached the Inter team bus – the tension reaching a head in the same week he had criticised the Italian media for suggesting he could be sacked if Inter failed to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stages.

“Last year we won the league and this year we are top. This season in the Champions League we took two more points in qualifying than last season. I thought Italy was a country where all that mattered was results. That seems to apply to everyone but me.”

By February 2010, Mourinho had been fined £35,000 for another gesture following the 0-0 draw with Sampdoria, crossing his hands to imitate being handcuffed towards TV cameras and supporters.

The Italian FA took a dim view of him insulting the referee, who had sent off two of Mourinho’s players during the stalemate, banning him for three matches.

“Well done, well done, remember your family is watching you on TV,” Mourinho told the match official, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica.

Mourinho’s Inter would finish champions come May, while Juventus languished in seventh – some 27 points adrift.

As the Milanese club were enjoying a record-breaking season, becoming the first side to win the Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League – Juve were averaging crowds of 22,924 at home matches.

Ciro Ferrari, the club’s manager who Mourinho had referenced in that December outburst to the Italian media, lasted until late January before he was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni, who would oversee the final four months of the one of the most troubled seasons in Juve’s history.

What’s kept the rivalry fresh in the mind?

As Mourinho was thriving amid the backdrop of his stormy relationship with the media, Juventus were surrendering a 3-1 first-leg lead to Fulham in the Europa League semi-finals.

The club’s fans haven’t forgotten, and their ire towards Mourinho has been kept at a healthy level thanks to his run-ins with Antonio Conte during the Italian’s time at Chelsea.

Conte, a fan favourite as a player at Juventus, brought the glory days back to the bianconeri following Mourinho’s successful stint, upstaging him in many ways with three successive league titles with the final one in 2014 coming with record haul of 102 points.

GettyImages-1058901082.jpg

The sight of the Italian filling the dugout at Stamford Bridge – a place he once called home – led to the inevitable regular feuds which reached a head in February this year when Conte labelled Mourinho a ‘fake’ for showing his support to Claudio Ranieri after his Leicester sacking.

Back in 2008, Mourinho had said of Ranieri, who was the then-Juventus manager: “I studied Italian five hours a day for many months to ensure I could communicate with the players, media and fans.

“Ranieri had been in England for five years [at Chelsea] and still struggled to say ‘good morning’ and ‘good afternoon.’”

Juventus are now in a much healthier position than Inter, having won each of the last seven Scudettos – but Mourinho won’t let them forget the feat that still eludes them.

A fortnight ago, supporters of the Old Lady sung the Italian equivalent of “You’re getting sacked in the morning.” At a time when they’ve been heavily backed as one of the favourites of this year’s competition, Mourinho was never going to miss this opportunity.

Tactical changes, tough love at heart of United resurgence

The back story to Mourinho’s ear-cupping should be known, and revisited, at times when we reflect on his behaviour. It’s not often you get such an open goal to remind critics of your qualities and having been schooled by Juventus only two weeks ago, he didn’t need a second invitation.

But the greater point that shouldn’t be lost at the Allianz Stadium is that Mourinho is more relevant than ever in this time of exposés and frivolous FA appeals.

All we hear is fake outrage from both sides, towards a man who may well refer to a ‘manhunt’ again, after a commission’s decision to dismiss a conduct charge after he swore into a camera in Portuguese.

This has been the year of comebacks already for United, winning on six occasions having trailed – starting against Conte’s Chelsea in a 2-1 home win in February.

Juventus v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Group H

Lingard came off the bench to score the winner, while United were trailing 2-0 at Selhurst Park with 35 minutes remaining in March, only to complete the turnaround in stoppage time.

Fergie Time is back under Mourinho – and the latest tribute was thanks to another inspired substitution, with Mata coming off the bench to score after Fellaini had instilled an air of uncertainty in the Juventus defence.

The resurgence of Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial has been visible amidst all the furore of United being off the pace in seventh place. Mourinho’s tough love may still bring the best out of Alexis Sanchez, who has looked far more engaged since being moved to centre forward in the absence of Romelu Lukaku.

Look a bit deeper, beyond the mild irritation of a middle-aged man goading others and you see bundles of courage, determination, tactical brilliance and hope that this marriage dismissed already as inconvenient might yet bring sustained success.

As they head to the Etihad this weekend, Mourinho has had the better preparation than his counterpart Guardiola. The exertions of Wednesday night may still be felt come Sunday, but confidence is restored.

Few teams can afford to start as sluggishly as United have in recent league games against swashbuckling City, but few have the powers of recovery that Mourinho has been busy building behind his ‘classless’ persona.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tottenham vs Barcelona: Philippe Coutinho and Mauricio Pochettino cross paths again as key men in search to regain stability

It was the 67th minute and the game was already up. Tottenham had snaffled all three points in a contest many now view as a seminal moment in Jurgen Klopp’s time as Liverpool manager.

But Philippe Coutinho was still buzzing around, desperate to leave his mark, forcing Hugo Lloris to produce a save fit to rival those from any Premier League season, flying with his wrong hand to tip his trademark curling shot onto the crossbar.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino leapt from his technical area in appreciation of the immense skill on display, wary of the danger any side trailing by three goals still possess when Coutinho is in such a mood.

Tottenham would see out the match, and while Liverpool have undergone major reconstruction since that defining defeat, Klopp’s ability to turn his side into title contenders this season has largely been thanks to the £146m raised by Coutinho’s sale.

GettyImages-1044475534.jpg

The Brazilian returns to Wembley this Wednesday night a Barcelona player hoping to land a significant blow to Pochettino’s hopes of taking Tottenham beyond the Champions League group stages.

Inter Milan have already shown to Spurs’ cost why they are the dangerous, floating pot four side everyone was desperate to avoid, and it was via the Nerazzurri that Pochettino would first learn of Coutinho’s immense talent.

It was in January 2012 when Inter boss Claudio Ranieri shipped out a 20-year-old Coutinho to Espanyol, then managed by Pochettino. It was an uncertain point in his career, having failed to leave a lasting impression at the Milanese club since his £4.5m move from Vasco da Gama in 2008.

But Coutinho flourished under Pochettino, scoring five goals in 16 games during his loan spell. One eye-catching free-kick struck underneath the wall against Malaga was a brief glimpse into the kind of skills he would produce many years later at Liverpool.

GettyImages-141871163.jpg

Pochettino’s side in fact dipped collectively in the second half of the season with Coutinho in the side, drifting away from the Champions League spots to finish with a mediocre campaign.

But the Argentinian allowed Coutinho to develop character traits that would ultimately lead him to become the game’s second-most expensive player in history.

Pochettino offered Coutinho the chance to revitalise his career, through a steep process of development, despite the side’s free-fall to within five points of relegation.

Espanyol recorded just two victories during the loan spell, but the player will always be grateful to the man he faces again on Wednesday for the role he played in his career.

In December 2015, Coutinho said of his loan spell under Pochettino: “It helped me, the style in Spain when I went to Espanyol.

“And Mauricio Pochettino, who was the manager there at the time, gave me a lot of confidence. He always encouraged me to play and show my skills.

“And he told me to enjoy it. In that sense I have been lucky with all my managers. They have all encouraged me to play my game.”

In the end, it was Coutinho’s goals which kept Espanyol afloat. Learning how to produce the level of off-the-ball intensity required to stay in a Pochettino side would ultimately serve him well for life under Klopp.

But the appreciation between player and manager is mutual given Southampton were scouting Coutinho when they first came across the 46-year-old they would later appoint as Nigel Atkins’ successor at St Mary’s.

Espanyol's Argentinian coach Mauricio Po

By the end of Coutinho’s loan at Espanyol, Liverpool scouts were watching his performances, and it was clear that his future lay on a bigger stage.

In March 2013, two months after the pair had coincidentally arrived at roughly the same time on English shores, Pochettino said of Coutinho: “Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet.

“Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate and that makes us doubt whether he fits the mould of a typical Brazilian player or a European one because his work ethic is outstanding.

“What is important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid – a great, humble person. I do think Coutinho has that same quality that Ronaldinho and Messi have, but he has much to prove yet.

“What is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player – really dedicated and responsible to his own players.”

GettyImages-865054246.jpg

The 26-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and following his successful spell on Merseyside, Coutinho’s has taken his intense work rate with him to Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde.

It has been a torturous week for the Catalans, dropping seven points in seven days for the first time since 2003, two draws and a surprise defeat to bottom club Leganes underlining the difficulties Valverde has had in finding the same spark from last season’s double-winning team.

Coutinho was handed the unenviable challenge of not only shouldering his hugely overinflated transfer fee but also of replacing Andres Iniesta’s guile and game intelligence.

For all of his qualities, that was always going to prove an uphill task, but one of the primary reasons behind Barcelona’s current instability is the absence of a controlling midfielder.

Ivan Rakitic has understandably struggled to get back up to speed after helping Croatia reach the World Cup final, while Arturo Vidal has not been signed to provide the same qualities that Iniesta possessed.

Coutinho is no longer the new signing, especially given his previous stint in Catalonia, and with Tottenham not exactly at their most stable themselves, Wembley’s vast pitch provides the perfect setting for the playmaker to show Pochettino how far he’s come.

 

Season start shows importance of finding a working defensive partnership

Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Just three defensive pairings that have been instrumental to the success of previous Premier League title winners.

But while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have received plenty of plaudits in the opening fortnight of the season, it is the sight of Callum Wilson running through the centre of the London Stadium like on a Boxing Day raid of Westfields that is my takeaway image.

In those seven seconds worth of distance run, the Bournemouth striker provided the perfect example of why finding the right defensive double act is paramount to success at any level of the game.

With Fabián Balbuena dangling a leg, former strikers Ian Wright and Chris Sutton debated on BBC 5Live this week how many goals they would score in the English top flight if they were still playing.

It’s not the first time this has been a subject of conversation among TV pundits in recent seasons, but it has never been more pertinent.

GettyImages-1018769258.jpg

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho lamented the club’s failure to land his primary target of a centre-back with the summer transfer window drawing to an end.

Prior to United’s pre-season friendly defeat at Bayern Munich, he said: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.

“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.

“If we don’t make our team better, it will be a difficult season for us.”

After the unconvincing win over Leicester, the defeat by Brighton served to underline Mourinho’s point, as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof showcased their deficiencies with the 34-year-old Glenn Murray running amok against a defensive partnership worth £60million.

The United manager has tried several different combinations involving Bailly, Lindelof, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but with his third season now underway, the highest proportion of games played by a given partnership is Jones and Smalling on 13.

GettyImages-1019482326.jpg

In a managerial tenure that now stretches to 78 league games, the numbers indicate that Mourinho isn’t convinced by any of the six combinations – and his failure to identify the bedrock of his side has influenced how his team is structured, throughout.

The presence of Toby Alderweireld returning to the Tottenham defence on Monday night against United will be a sore point for Mourinho, even if the Belgian was reportedly overlooked based on his preference to play in a back three.

Conversely, Liverpool look set to thrive this term after solving their defensive issues. From the opening match, the absence of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren has allowed Gomez to form a partnership with Van Dijk.

Gomez is very highly regarded by Gareth Southgate – and would have gone to the World Cup were it not for the need for ankle surgery – but England’s loss is proving to be Liverpool’s gain so far after an encouraging start alongside the world’s most expensive defender and in front of the world’s second most expensive goalkeeper.

For Klopp, it has paid to find a working partnership in defence, and Everton manager Marco Silva had seen enough in a run of five pre-season games without a win to convince his sporting director Marcel Brands that something simply had to be done.

GettyImages-1018725242.jpg

Brands worked tirelessly to bring Yerry Mina to the club, in the face of United being touted as a potential alternative and with his rising cost following his displays at the World Cup with Colombia.

But Mina has thus far had to watch on from the stands, nursing an injury sustained in Russia, while fellow deadline-day arrival Kurt Zouma will also need to bide his time for opportunities.

While both Zouma – on a season-long loan from Chelsea – and Mina will have been penned in as Silva’s first-choice pairing, the Portuguese has been impressed by Mason Holgate’s first start since January in the 2-1 win over Southampton.

Mina has been ruled out until mid-September, meaning Holgate and Zouma will once more be fighting over one spot against Bournemouth alongside Michael Keane, who looks to have reacted well to two new arrivals in his position.

A clean sheet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday would further enhance Holgate’s claims to retain the jersey, even when Mina is fit and raring to go. Van Dijk’s £75m fee is now seen as a bargain but unearthing the best defensive partnership doesn’t always come at a price.

Silva has been careful not to blood all five of his new signings at once, an issue that has been handled differently elsewhere in the Premier League, with contrasting results.

Fulham have lost both their opening games having brought in 12 new faces, while Fabri has faced faced 15 shots already this term – more than any other goalkeeper.

West Ham are also on zero points as Manuel Pellegrini seeks solutions to an early-season injury crisis coupled with the need to blood nine new players. Calls for £24m buy Issa Diop to start at Arsenal could be met after Angelo Ogbonna’s horror-show against Wilson.

GettyImages-1018841266.jpg

Gunners boss Unai Emery and his desire to implement his own style with players who appear incapable of fitting to his set philosophy has filled plenty of column inches this week – but while on another day, more clinical finishing against Chelsea might have brought about a different end result, it was in defence that the same old weaknesses were laid bare.

The absence of Laurent Koscielny coupled with an unkind set of opening fixtures meant that Sokratis Papastathopoulos was always in for a baptism of fire, even before he was partnered alongside Shkodran Mustafi.

Having conceded at least twice in their opening two games, Arsenal’s array of attacking talent face having to score a minimum of three goals to win games at present, and while Chelsea were victorious last Saturday, Maurizio Sarri’s change in formation has left them potentially more exposed at the back.

David Luiz has been reinstated alongside Antonio Rudiger, while Cesar Azpilicueta has been moved to right back. Sarri knows the importance of a strong defensive unit having signed Allan for £10.3m from Udinese to play alongside Jorginho as a protective shield in his first season at Napoli.

But Sarri didn’t seek to sign a centre-back, and in earmarking Jorginho as his primary target and essential to achieving his objectives, the 59-year-old has thus taken a different approach.

Luiz has been identified as the mercurial footballer that he is; ruffle him up the wrong way, and he can be a liability, but he showed he can be a world-beater in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge.

GettyImages-1018842064.jpg

Sarri will hope that the Brazilian forges a relationship with the Portuguese-speaking Jorginho in front of him, while having a point to prove after being cast aside by Conte last season. If Luiz repays the faith instilled in him, the loss of Thibaut Courtois will be significantly minimised as Kepa Arrizabalaga finds his feet in England.

Pep Guardiola is known for rotating but even the Manchester City manager acknowledges the importance of stability in the heart of defence. John Stones – who was victim of his reluctance to tinker during the run-in last season – has been restored after a good summer with England.

His partnership with Aymeric Laporte looks set to flourish as Vincent Kompany is gradually phased out, and the importance of deciding on a first-choice pairing is only more critical beyond the top six.

Huddersfield conceded six goals at the Etihad in the absence of Mathias Jorgensen, while Crystal Palace lost for the first time in 16 games with Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins as their defensive partnership against Liverpool last Monday.

GettyImages-1020174802.jpg

The sale of Van Dijk to Liverpool midway through last season severely compromised Southampton’s chances of survival, achieved on the final day despite the 1-0 loss to City, and Mark Hughes will hope the Dutchman’s replacement Jannik Vestergaard provides greater solidity.

Having made an encouraging start in keeping a clean sheet against Burnley, illness kept Vestergaard out of the defeat at Everton, where the Denmark international’s aerial presence would have been felt as Richarlison rose to head in what proved the decisive second goal.

Van Dijk has seen his stock rise at a time when the art of defending has been lost; Jamie Carragher described him as capable of surpassing Alan Hansen at Liverpool.

Tipping him to become a “legend” is high praise indeed and reflects the influence he has since his arrival at Anfield – but the defender’s performances have been accentuated by the struggles experienced elsewhere throughout the league.

Premier League 2018/19 preview: Liverpool likeliest to push Manchester City in title battle

Manchester City signalled their intentions to continue where they left off in the Community Shield victory over Chelsea, but Pep Guardiola knows a repeat of last season’s exploits will be difficult.

The Catalan failed to win any silverware in his first season in England, while the Premier League has not been retained since Manchester United in 2009, but you get the sense that he is just embarking on his work on these shores.

Competition for places has been boosted by the return to fitness of Benjamin Mendy, while Phil Foden looks ready for this level despite only just turning 18; Aymeric Laporte will be better for his first pre-season at the club, and the only area that City appear slightly light in is cover for Fernandinho at the base of midfield.

Jose Mourinho can only wish for such minor concerns. United were a distant second last season, 19 points adrift, and the Portuguese admits he is relieved a tumultuous summer is coming to an end. He has been unable to strengthen his first-team squad beyond the arrivals of Fred and Diogo Dalot, both of whom will take time to adjust to England.

Liverpool have been hailed by many as the summer’s big winners having kept hold of their star names and added four keys signings to bolster their hopes of a first league title since 1990. The 5-0 dismantling of Napoli in Dublin was further proof of their credentials, and Jurgen Klopp has identified and acted upon areas of weakness.

Tottenham head into a new era at a new stadium having committed Mauricio Pochettino and Harry Kane to long-term contracts, but a failure to bring in new faces in addition to the uncertainty surrounding the future of Toby Alderweireld means supporters are understandably concerned about whether a title challenge is possible in this transitional year.

Manchester City v Chelsea - FA Community Shield

Both Arsenal and Chelsea are under new management and face the prospect of a season dictated by Thursday-Sunday football due to their Europa League commitments; while Unai Emery can reflect upon an unbeaten pre-season within 90 minutes, Maurizio Sarri has swiftly become aware of the difficulties he faces, from choosing his preferred formation to having the right personnel to carry out his tactics.

Chelsea are likely to be without Thibaut Courtois, who has refused to return to training, while Eden Hazard has already set his heart on a move to Real Madrid. Losing both at this stage of the window would be catastrophic to the club’s chances of at least returning to the top four.

With two of the traditional top six at a stage in their cycles that is far from conducive to a title tilt, it does open the door to a possible outsider to break the status quo. Everton had been expected to do so last term, but poor investment left a lopsided squad that did well to recover eighth place. Marco Silva has been streamlining, but defensive weaknesses are yet to be fully addressed, so patience will be needed.

GettyImages-1011028696.jpg

West Ham co-owners David Gold and David Sullivan backed their new manager Mauricio Pellegrini by bringing in seven new recruits, spearheaded by club-record signing Felipe Anderson, while Jack Wilshere will be hoping to have more joy than Joe Hart in relaunching his career in East London. An intriguing season awaits even if the long-term absence of Manuel Lanzini comes as a major blow.

Leicester manager Claude Puel has thus far been frugal in the market since the departure of Riyad Mahrez, and while Jonny Evans’ arrival for £3.5m could prove the snip of the season, a lot rests on whether they can keep Harry Maguire away from the clutches of United. Kelechi Iheanacho has enjoyed a productive pre-season, scoring four goals in three games, and Foxes fans will hope he can fill the void in supporting Jamie Vardy.

Newcastle finished 10th last campaign, but that was largely due to a terrific spike in results after March, and with the players fighting with the club over bonuses, optimism is in short supply on Tyneside. A lot will depend on whether Rafa Benitez stays, but the Spaniard has at least secured striker Salomon Rondon, a player he rates highly and is capable of becoming a cult figure at St. James’ Park.

Another side who finished last season strongly are Crystal Palace under Roy Hodgson. The Eagles have thus far managed to keep hold of Wilfried Zaha despite interest from Chelsea and Tottenham, and the arrival of Max Meyer is somewhat of a coup, offsetting the return of Ruben Loftus-Cheek to Chelsea following his loan spell. If Palace can avoid their annual poor start, a productive campaign awaits.

Crystal Palace v Toulouse - Pre-Season Friendly

Bournemouth have taken their time to quietly go about their business with David Brooks joining from Sheffield United, while Diego Rico and Jefferson Lerma have cost a combined £35m, a year after they joined Levante and Leganes respectively for less than £1m. Eddie Howe will continue to play enterprising football that will win games, and keeping hold of Lewis Cook is a major boost, but the club are yet to strengthen at centre-half having conceded 61 goals last term.

Burnley were the surprise package in 2017/18, set on day one by their 3-2 win at champions Chelsea – but they have only added Ben Gibson and Joe Hart to a squad that will be stretched to the limit if they reach the Europa League group stage. Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes are one of the most underrated partnerships in the league, but clubs will be far more alert to their danger this time around. Sean Dyche will have a dilemma when all three of his goalkeepers are fit.

Watford, Brighton, Huddersfield and Southampton – four teams who ended within five points of each other last time out – will all target consolidation but the strength of two of the promoted sides means another wide-open relegation battle looms. Javi Gracia initially steadied the ship at Watford following the departure of Silva, but a poor end to the season and the sale of Richarlison points to an arduous nine months ahead.

Watford v Sampdoria - Pre-Season Friendly

Brighton have added Alireza Jahanbakhsh for a club-record fee in the region of £17m and his versatility across the forward line will take the burden off Pascal Gross. Goals could again prove hard to come by with just 34 scored last term (the fourth fewest), so Chris Hughton’s search for a central defender in the coming days takes on greater significance.

Southampton moved to appoint Mark Hughes on a permanent basis after he managed to keep the club up at the expense of Swansea City, but the 3-0 home defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach in their final pre-season game underlines fears that were heightened by Hughes’ admission the further business is unlikely to be forthcoming. Stuart Armstrong will be keen to prove a point having made the £7m switch from Celtic.

Huddersfield performed miracles in staying afloat last season, with Jonas Lossl’s heroics in the 1-1 draw at Chelsea epitomising the team ethos under David Wagner. The Terriers have a new badge while there have been eight new arrivals which have included Terence Kongolo and Florent Hadergjonaj’s loans being made permanent. The players now know what to expect, but offloading Tom Ince to Stoke for £12m could come back to haunt them given their dearth of creative options.

Such attacking flair propelled Wolves and Fulham back into the top flight, and both can be confident of avoiding a relegation scrap. Nuno Espirito Santo has become the Pied Piper of the West Midlands in coaxing big names to the Premier League newcomers; it is a project that will either catch fire or spectacularly fail, but the quality and experience of Rui Patricio and Joao Moutinho means a mid-table finish should be the target.

Fulham v Sampdoria - Pre-Season Friendly

Fulham have enjoyed a fruitful pre-season with the surprise addition of Jean Michel Seri, while there was a surprising lack of competition in attracting Alfie Mawson and Aleksandar Mitrovic on a permanent deal. Slavisa Jokanovic is hopeful of adding Calum Chambers on loan from Arsenal with Southampton now reluctant to strengthen a potential rival by selling Matt Targett. A lot will depend on how Ryan Sessegnon adjusts to the step-up in class having scored 16 Championship goals last term.

Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock admits it would be his biggest achievement in football if he manages to keep his odds-on relegation favourites up, but with very little pressure on the Bluebirds, they will take heart from Huddersfield’s maiden Premier League season. Warnock will relish coming up against the likes of Guardiola, Mourinho and Klopp for what could his final time, so expect fireworks if nothing else.

Predicted Premier League table

  1. Manchester City
  2. Liverpool
  3. Tottenham
  4. Arsenal
  5. Manchester United
  6. Chelsea
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Crystal Palace
  10. Leicester City
  11. Wolves
  12. Burnley
  13. Fulham
  14. Bournemouth
  15. Newcastle
  16. Brighton
  17. Southampton
  18. Watford
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Cardiff City

England fall short but open the door for football’s honours to follow them home

From the very modern video reveal of the squad, England’s youngest at a World Cup since 1958, the FA’s message has been to reconnect with the nation. Box parks grew, while the inclusion of a designated YouTube channel, the Lions’ Den, had players speaking daily to their supporters.

We have all had our favourites from this band of brothers, from Jordan Pickford getting the rave on and Telford kitman Pat Frost putting up his flag before matches, to Harry ‘Slab Head’ Maguire telling his girlfriend Fern Hawkins to remember the bins on Monday.

Gareth Southgate’s rallying cries after Colombia and Sweden will live long in the memory for those fans whose journeys from Europe’s backwaters – from Valletta, Vilnius, Ljubljana – wound up here at Moscow’s Luzhniki.

They saw a moment of history in the Battle at Spartak Stadium, the impossible made possible by Pickford’s big left hand clawing away Carlos Bacca’s penalty, a first World Cup shootout win.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSweden were swept aside with such ease never experienced before in a tournament quarter-final. Versions of ‘Three Lions’ designed to be tongue-in-cheek – we’re here for a good time, but not a long time – took on a more visceral meaning. Football had already come home.

A 20-year-old Gary Neville was told by Stuart Pearce in the aftermath of the penalty shootout defeat to Germany at Euro ’96 to ‘enjoy this while you can. It may not happen again.’

The hope is that this is just the beginning, but the likelihood is that they will never get a better opportunity, a better fall of the draw to reach a World Cup final. If it was measured on world rankings, it would have been the fourth easiest route to a final in the tournament’s history.

They will return home heroes, but we will all be thinking of that window in the first half when it looked like England could have blown Croatia away. Ultimately, superior quality told. The brilliant Ivan Perisic punished a flat-footed Kyle Walker and wanted it more than Kieran Trippier in setting up Mario Mandzukic for the hammer-blow.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGIt was England who tired first, and it goes back to naivety and experience. The initial high tempo led to them, not Croatia, looking more fatigued despite not being the side in their third successive period of extra time.

England players covered just under three miles more than Croatia (91.8 to 89), but they covered less when in possession of the ball (28.9 to 33.8), while England covered 38.2 miles without the ball compared to 31.3 miles by Zlato Dalic’s men.

England’s top speed during the match eclipsed that of their opponents (20.7mph from Raheem Sterling compared to 19.9mph) but 530 sprints from Croatian players to England’s 488 again pointed to the fact that one team was far more economical with their use of energy than the other.

Luka Modric began to dictate, 10 minutes into the second-half. Walker’s booking for dissent seemed to affect his game. The average positions for England players showed that both wing-backs played deeper than in previous matches, while Harry Kane was effectively a midfielder come the final 20 minutes.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaCroatia had shown too much respect for England in the first-half, but come the second period, Sime Vrsaljko and Ivan Strinic played in more advanced positions.

England had the chance to be bold and push forward, but they found themselves increasingly pinned back as more and more regains were picked up by those in black and blue shirts. There was a shift in composure.

Kane is set to win the golden ball, but his performances dwindled since the group stages. The abiding memory will be his chance here after 29 minutes, long before Croatia grew into the contest. VAR will have ruled either one of his shots onside had he stroked the ball past Danijel Subasic. It was the double-save of the tournament never officially recorded.

Kane didn’t recover thereafter, and Croatia relied on their team ethic to overcome inexperience. England ultimately lacked the creativity in midfield, where Ivan Rakitic and Modric increasingly looked like they had the game in the palm of their hands as Jordan Henderson, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard ran out of legs.

Possession dropped from 47 to 35 per cent in the second period as Croatia turned the screw, streetwise, targeting space vacated by Young down England’s left side. Eleven shots on goal, half the number managed by Croatia, with just two on target and 25 crosses fewer than their opponents tell you that England fell short.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaLingard and Kane failed to make an impact, while Raheem Sterling was hooked prematurely, making way for an out-of-sorts Marcus Rashford. Too many players just didn’t turn up on Wednesday night for England in an attacking sense.  Croatia deserve their place in the final, despite an improvement from Southgate’s side in extra time.

But the reflections of Walker the morning after the heart-breaking end of the dream encapsulates the overriding mood from this ‘glorious, beer-soaked Russian summer,’ as the Daily Telegraph’s chief football writer Sam Wallace described it in the opening bar to his match report.

Walker wrote: “I’m still heartbroken and never felt so gutted. But there’s something I want to say. This past month, I’ve seen videos going around, photos been sent to me. That felt so good for us here in Russia, and united us more and more, just like it did in our country.”

He continued: “We might live in a time where sometimes it’s easier to be negative than positive, or to divide than to unite, but England: let’s keep this unity alive. I love you.”

England players arrived back at the ForRestMix Hotel at 6.30am on Thursday morning. Exhausted but in the knowledge that psychological barriers had been overcome during the course of the past three weeks.

GettyImages-996390742.jpgBelgium, again, on Saturday could well be a re-run of matchday three. It’s an opportunity for some of the players with fresher legs who have been part of the journey to show their qualities, to even put right their defeat to Roberto Martinez’s reserves in Kaliningrad.

The manner in which England faded in the second period suggests a return to an experimental side is the only way they can hope of achieving bronze, regardless.

The energy of Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold down the flanks, with Fabian Delph alongside Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Eric Dier in midfield behind Rashford and Jamie Vardy up front would make a lot of sense.

Furthermore, the FA will be under pressure from Premier League clubs to allow Southgate’s first-team players to gain rest before the new domestic season starts in less than a month.

Trippier is unlikely to remain in Russia for another four days after hobbling off at the end of extra time, while stalwarts John Stones and Maguire may also step aside, but in shuffling the pack, England wouldn’t be conceding the contest as a dead rubber.

GettyImages-996430268.jpgWe all know what happened after Italia ’90, and the unexpected failures at the following European Championships and no-show at the USA ’94. The success of the junior teams can’t be lost on the senior squad.

The hard fact is that a group-stage exit in 2014 has been followed by a semi-final defeat after extra time, and this cannot become viewed as an isolated, beautiful break from the norm.

Academy coaches should be encouraged to blood players through rather than taking on those from abroad, while managers should look to English youth more in the belief they don’t have to spend big money on foreign imports.

The hope is that the dwindling number of English players in the Premier League – clocked last season at around 30 per cent – now experiences an upward curve, while British managers will also take courage from Southgate’s achievements.

How these brave young men emulated Bobby Robson’s boys of 28 years ago will not be remembered for avoiding one of the world’s great footballing superpowers, but for the camaraderie built in the forests of Repino.

For the inflatable unicorn races and fans bleating out Oasis’ hit Don’t Look Back In Anger behind the goal long after the final whistle, and those up and down the country who dared to dream that football, unexpectedly, was coming home.

TOPSHOT-FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENGSeven of England’s starting XI last night will still be in their 20s when the next World Cup comes around in Qatar 2022, while 12 of Southgate’s 23-man squad could play in the next two tournaments. They now understand the preparation that goes into such a slog.

Small details have cost England at the penultimate hurdle, but optimism remains for the future. The parade has been put on hold, at least four another two years, but the reception at Heathrow next week will resonate more for its spontaneity and raw emotion.

There will be no choreography needed. There’s no stopping fans from flocking to the streets to hail their national treasures. With the final of Euro 2020 scheduled to take place at Wembley, the challenge now is to handle the desire for more.

Silva yet to make a signing but keeping hold of Lookman would be Everton’s shrewdest piece of summer business

The summer of 2017 was like no other in Everton’s recent history. The club had just finished seventh under Ronald Koeman, and while all the talk was of Romelu Lukaku being sold after the bombshell of him not signing a new contract, Everton were on a huge spending spree.

What followed was the creation of a bloated squad, leading to the need for new manager Marco Silva to offload players, ship out deadwood, and start again under a restructured recruitment drive. Everton want to learn from the mistakes of last summer.

Nurturing youth is at the heart of this new transfer policy. The Blues have already sold Wayne Rooney to DC United, released goalkeeper Joel Robles and offloaded Ramiro Funes Mori to Villarreal, while the future of Kevin Mirallas remains uncertain after he returned to pre-season training following his loan spell at Olympiacos.

These players have served Everton well at times, but they won’t be those who take the club onto the next level.

RB Leipzig v VfL Wolfsburg - BundesligaThere are likely to be more departures as Silva shapes the squad in his image but in rejecting RB Leipzig’s starting bid for Ademola Lookman, the Portuguese has given the first indication that he is ready to make use of the talent already at his disposal.

And Lookman has plenty of talent. Quite often under David Moyes, it was said that on leaving Everton, the only way was down. But Lookman can quite reasonably argue that his career has stalled since his £10m move from Charlton in January 2016.

His impact was immediate, coming off the bench to score in the memorable 4-0 win over Manchester City, the highlight of Koeman’s tenure, but he was subsequently mismanaged and under-appreciated at a time when fans were craving the sight of a young Englishman in the side.

Everton were in no real danger of being relegated, out of all three cup competitions, and still licking their wounds from the worst Europa League campaign from an English side ever. Giving Lookman – who had shown his undoubted ability in the 3-0 win over Apollon Limassol in December – half a season to make the left side of midfield his own was denied.

GettyImages-957652064.jpgBut, unlike those who looked elsewhere often under Moyes, the youngster chased down a Champions League berth at RB Leipzig and thrived away from what was known to be a tense environment at Finch Farm.

Silva has belatedly arrived at the club and his first port of call has been to assess his squad, but streamlining was a necessity, freeing up funds with the removal of players beyond their peak from the wage bill.

Everton plunged an inordinate sum of money courtesy of their billionaire owner Farhad Moshiri last summer on players that have yet to provide a return, barring the notable exception of Jordan Pickford.

Davy Klaassen has reiterated his determination to make a success out of his £24m move from Ajax a year ago, while the hope is that Theo Walcott and Gylfi Sigurdsson can build on promising moments last season to produce the level of consistency needed to challenge for the European spots.

Everton v West Bromwich Albion - Premier LeagueNews of Everton’s hands-off message to Leipzig over Lookman comes in the same week that the club have underlined their position on Mason Holgate’s future, with the defender seen as an important member of the first team squad.

The sale of Funes Mori and advancing years of both Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka mean that Holgate is expected to feature more in his preferred position of centre-back, but restructuring the defence is at the forefront of Silva’s plans.

Michael Keane experienced a difficult first season following his £30m move from Burnley, but Pickford’s exploits for England at the World Cup could prove a vital bargaining chip for potential defensive targets this summer.

The signs are that going forward, Everton will need the raw pace and goal threat of Lookman, whose mistreatment from Sam Allardyce was one of the early signs of distrust between fans and their old manager.

Olympique Lyon v Everton FC - UEFA Europa LeagueHis impact off the bench in the FA Cup third-round encounter with Liverpool was one of the few positives to draw from the 2-1 defeat, but after Allardyce had dismissed reports he would be loaned out last January, he insisted on being allowed to sample regular first-team football at Leipzig.

Lookman seemed to be spurred on by Allardyce’s disrespectful comments to the media on the matter, becoming an integral part of Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side that finished sixth in the Bundesliga.

Five goals and three assists in 11 league matches tells its own story, and Silva is keen to see how Lookman reacts to the reported £12m bid being rejected. He should have more opportunities under a manager who relishes attacking football.

The pathway to more minutes is being cleared. Mirallas is likely to be sold while Yannick Bolasie has been linked with a move to Turkish side Fenerbahce after a disappointing return from injury.

The winger made an encouraging start to life at Goodison Park, linking up well with former striker Lukaku, but a serious knee injury has taken away the player’s most valuable asset, and pace is what this Everton side need.

Crystal Palace v Everton - Premier LeagueThere were rumours Silva would look to prise Richarlison from Watford even before he was confirmed as the new Everton boss, but Lookman now deserves his chance to make the left side of the three behind a striker his own.

Director of football Marcel Brands has quietly gone about his work during his first month at the club, and the Dutchman has previously spoken in glowing terms about how much he values Lookman’s technical qualities.

He tried to sign him whilst as sporting director at PSV Eindhoven when Lookman was still a Charlton player. Everton are yet to make a signing under Silva but keeping hold of the 20-year-old could prove to be the shrewdest piece of business this close season.

Having taken his chance at Leipzig, Lookman must now do the same at Everton.

Is Football no longer Coming Home? Have we lost our heads again over England at the World Cup?

“This week on Love Island,” began the narrator. “A twist. Six new girls. Six. New. Boys.”

Only, this happened last year, and will most probably be flogged to death until we’ve long since stopped watching.

“Like Big Brother, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent,” as the country’s future Prime Minister Danny Dyer said last night on Good Evening Great Britain.

Even the contestants knew about Casa Amor. The narrative has been just as predictable from the moment England arrived in Russia: give them what they want. But for how long will journalists following England at a World Cup be relevant?

England Media Access - 2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaFrom the sparsely populated mixed zone following their opening group game win over Tunisia in Volgograd, it was apparent that the rest of the world don’t think much of England’s chances of winning the tournament.

And yet the subsequent 6-1 thrashing of Panama led to a sense of euphoria in the press box not seen since Euro ’96, brought cascading back down to earth by the B team’s 1-0 defeat by Belgium that has created a “sense of anti-climax’ according to the Guardian’s London football correspondent Dominic Fifield.

Speaking on the Sunday Supplement podcast, he said: “There were too many changes, it was too disruptive, and I think it’s exposed the depth of squad quality that we’ve got. It feels a bit of a waste.” But has it really?

Does it merely show what happens when you throw a group of players together without a competitive match between them in over a month?

GettyImages-986404052.jpgThose who steadfastly defend Gareth Southgate for his team selection – which saw eight changes to the side which beat the Panamanians – claim this might prove a masterstroke. The Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel claimed he turned the World Cup into Sports Day.

Make no mistake, the pressure would most certainly still be on if England were facing Japan in the last 16. It would be even greater had the ‘A team’ lost to Belgium’s reserves. That would have been a sack race of a completely different kind.

By risking and ultimately relinquishing England’s position as group winners, Southgate has not only aligned England on the easier side of the draw; he has preserved the confidence of his leading men.

Matt Dickinson, chief sports writer at The Times, chose the word ‘deflating’. “As if the air had gone out”.

Southgate’s strategy was always to win this game, but when he moved Marcus Rashford to right wing-back to make room for Danny Welbeck, the extent to which he was willing to salvage a draw was revealed.

GettyImages-986359798.jpgSouthgate has always been about the long-term, and one defeat with a huge asterisk beside it should not lead to loaded back-page questioning of his tactics.

The ‘build ‘em up to knock ‘em down’ mind-set revisited by Matthew Syed in his Times column this week is now so well known by the public that it’s become a parody of itself.

Did fans truly think they’d win the World Cup after beating Panama and Tunisia? Or are they not just allowed to reminisce about their youth, wearing knock-down Fred Perry polos, singing Fat Les whilst drinking watered-down lager? The criticism of Southgate seems just as disingenuous.

The assumption, of course, is that beating a side incapable of gracing the English third tier had created a sense of momentum. It has been made by those who have travelled and reported on England for decades.

The core group of players who featured in the opening two games have already returned to full-blooded training today without the need for a recovery day ahead of the shorter visit to Moscow to face a Colombia side who were made to fight until the last second by Senegal.

The same Colombia side that is likely to be without James Rodriguez and who indeed were beaten by Japan in their opening game, albeit with 10 men for much of that match.

“The concern is we’ve gone down the same route as 2016,” continued Fifield, referencing the weakened team selected in the final group game against Slovakia. But why do we love so much to stick to this same narrative?

Why do we question when England will ever win a tournament again every two years when we seem to lose our heads at the thought of two similar scenarios being played out in entirely different circumstances?

This, don’t forget, will be like a home game for Colombia. Why? Because there will be thousands more yellow shirts in the stands. They will drown out the few thousand England supporters who have paid lip service to the scaremongering headlines that dissuaded them from visiting this wonderful country.

“The difference with Roy Hodgson’s team at the Euros was that team didn’t have any cohesion already,” reasoned Dickinson. “We were a mess, frankly. It felt like Roy was making it up as he went along in that tournament.

“Now, we know the first team very clearly, but I worry less about the word ‘momentum’. Obviously, all of us are concerned about Colombia, and it’ll be a lot harder than beating Japan. But if I was Harry Kane, or Jesse Lingard, I shouldn’t have lost my momentum.”

But the logic was lost of The Sun’s chief football reporter Neil Ashton, possibly from years of watching England from a privileged position, possibly from being drawn back to that same old narrative that sells.

GettyImages-986397622.jpg“At the full-time whistle against Belgium, I felt flat. Matt talks about tournament momentum and why that should affect Harry Kane, but I definitely felt there was a change of mood when the final whistle went.”

The Belgium defeat has created such a disparity even among those within the media, that being deemed ‘philosophical’ by some is being viewed as ‘using one’s brain’ by others.

Southgate was forced to backtrack on his outspoken belief that the English media should seek to act in the country’s best interest, and by rephrasing his views the following day, his next press conference will be one to monitor with a close eye.

He’ll be asked if he feels the media’s reaction to the Belgium defeat was fair. There’ll be several loaded questions looking backwards rather than forwards. It will be the biggest test of his tenure, getting the likes of the Mirror’s John Cross, who claimed his ‘halo has slipped’ back onside. But should he really be doing this when he has a last 16 match to focus on?

He won’t take kindly to some of the views shared in today’s national newspapers, designed solely to put pressure on him and his players.

Jordan Pickford, who has the potential to become the world’s best goalkeeper, has been grossly victimised in some quarters for the way he made a save in the first half before not keeping out Adnan Januzaj’s fine winner.

GettyImages-986372186.jpg“We have to trust the strategy, but some of it was unnecessary,” continued Fifield.  “I can’t believe Harry Kane will have wanted to sit on that bench last night.” But should we be assuming that had he played, England would have won, Kane would have scored and avoided injury?

What was the greater risk? Where would the momentum be now had England lost their talisman despite beating the Belgians? Southgate has taken what could be his only chance at guiding England at a World Cup to do things his way.

“You’ve got that problem in training.” Again, Ashton is wide of the mark. When you get to the sharp end of the World Cup, ask any player, and you don’t have this problem in training. You’re playing matches and recuperating in between.

When have you heard of a player getting injured in training at this stage of a World Cup? You could probably count them on one hand, in 21 editions. Metatarsal injuries happen in games.

GettyImages-977042740.jpg“He’ll be chomping at the bit on Tuesday,” Fifield said of Kane. “He wants to be two, three goals ahead in this race for the Golden Boot, let alone propelling the team forward.”

He’s right about the first part, but why should Kane’s desire to win an individual trophy come before the prime objective of creating the best potential set of circumstances for the team to win the ultimate prize?

The more astute point being lost is that England, whoever is in defence, have looked suspect at the back. Harry Maguire and John Stones are vulnerable. These are not Rio Ferdinand and John Terry. Both they and Pickford are a work in progress, and we all know this.

If Radamel Falcao is firing, that is why England will go out of the World Cup, not this tedious, phoney war seen in the past 24 hours… between the national team, the media and its favourite narrative.

GettyImages-986407242.jpg

Loading up, Ashton asks, “Do we sometimes see that managers get carried away? That they meddle and start getting too clever, mixing it up, making too many changes and tactics along the way?”

“We just need to place out trust in him,” replied Fifield. “Because if we win the Colombia game –”

“We’ll be back to where we were,” finished Ashton. To where, exactly? To football coming home?

It is the media who shouldn’t be getting carried away. Southgate has kept his head when many appear to have reverted to type in losing theirs.