A REALLY SUPER SUNDAY?

“We’ll go on getting bad results, getting bad results, getting bad results, getting bad results”. Never could those famous words from Jimmy Hill at the start of 1996-classic Three Lions be more unfitting.

Results are what Team England is all about right now. Five games into Roy Hodgson’s tenure its W4 D1 L0. Performances have not convinced everyone, but there is an outwardly relaxed attitude among the squad, and a spirit not seen since Euro 96.

Coming up is a quarter-final on Sunday against the most unfancied Italian side for decades. The household names of Maldini, Baggio and Baresi are long gone, and standing in the way are Bonucci, Marchisio and Diamanti – the kind of players Alan Shearer wouldn’t know a lot about. Surely it’s time for a bit of optimism.

But hold on. Anyone who has experienced the torturous viewing that is England in a major tournament quarter final will know. One thing is certain – it is most definitely not going to be straight forward.

Look at the history books. At Italia 90, England scraped through to that infamous semi against the Germans by beating Cameroon with a stoppage time goal from Gary Lineker. Euro 96’s quarter final was a tense penalty shootout with Spain in which England prevailed. World Cup 98 against Argentina was a tense penalty shootout in which England didn’t. Brazil at World Cup 2002 was an agonising 2-1 defeat after Ronaldinho’s “deliberate” free kick caught Seaman off guard. At Euro 2004 England went out to Portugal on penalties after Wayne Rooney’s injury and a disallowed goal. In 2006, Portugal again proved the Three Lions’ spot-kick nemesis after Rooney had earlier taken out his frustrations on the groinal area of Ricardo Carvalho.

After a disastrous campaign at World Cup 2010 in South Africa the country is starting to believe again. As we reach the knockout stage, the flags are coming out, prime-spots are getting booked up in pubs with TVs, and slowly the nation’s bandwagon jumpers are preparing to get on board to ride the wave of (potential) national glee.

But this ain’t no disco, and it ain’t no country club either.  This is Ing-er-lund. If history – and the Sweden and Ukraine games – are anything to go by, Sunday night’s game will be an absolute nerve-shredder.

Pubs and living rooms across the country will hear far more “ooohs” “aahhs” “yessess” and “for fuck’s sake Milners” than your average Sunday evening. Friends will fall out over whether Glen Johnson is an attacking asset, or a defensive ass. Or both. Drinks will be spilt. Imaginary yellow cards will be waved. Controversial refereeing decisions are highly likely. Extra-time may well ensue. And fingernails will be chewed – and not just Roy Hodgson’s. And on Monday morning, there’s a fair chance you’ll have a very sore head.

It’s up to Team England to make sure the nation’s hangovers are a result of celebration rather than commiseration.

THL

THL’S EURO 2012 PREVIEW

June can be a tough month for football fans. A season over, and months until August, hell, even six weeks until your team’s pre-season friendly at Dover Athetic, which you wouldn’t normally go to ,but……

What to do with Saturday/Sunday afternoons? Get interested in cricket? Take up DIY? Go for country walks? Take out an ESPN subscription to watch Confederations Cup games that kick off at 1am?

Thankfully, we’re in a year that ends with an even number, meaning that no soon has the domestic season ended, we get the chance to experience the highs (and if you’re English) mostly lows of a major tournament. THL rattles through the runners and riders at this summer’s Euro 2012.

The question on everyone’s lips – can Spain win a third major tournament on the bounce? Or will the Castilians be left choking on their chorizo? La Roja are the bookies favourites, but  the absence through injury of Carles Puyol and David Villa, coupled with a long-hard season for many of the squad suggest retaining the crown of European Champions will not be a straight-forward task. But Spain are far from a fading force. Xavi, Iniesta and Casillas are still very much there with a hunger for success, and the likes of Pedro, Javi Martinez and Sergio Busquets are all still under 25. Victory at this tournament would signal Spanish intent to dominate the global game for many years to come.

Germany possess an exciting and youthful line up. And at the last World Cup this blew the old stereotype of German teams being simply “functional and efficient” clear out of the water like a World War II U-Boat (I know, I know, but when talking about the German football team it’s mandatory to talk about the war…..er…..right?). As well as the change in style on the pitch, the Germans have also ditched the mullets and moustaches of the 80s and 90s and are led by the very snappily dressed Joachim Loew. Germany will be a tough game for anyone at this tournament.

The last World Cup saw the style employed by Holland move from Total Football to Total Carnage, with Nigel de Jong, Mark van Bommel committing the kind of tackles in the Final that would probably be arrestable offences if perpetrated on the street. The Oranje possess Robin Van Persie, a strong candidate to be Euro 2012 top scorer off the back of a 30 goal season with his club Arsenal and Dutch success will depend heavily on what RVP can bring to the party.

Based on previous experience, France will either win the competition with panache and flair (see World Cup 98 or Euro 2000), or collapse to an undignified exit amid public finger-pointing and in-fighting (World Cup 2002, 2010). An apparent calming of squad tensions should avoid the latter occurring again, but in the evenly-matched Group D, even a place in the knock out stage is by no means guaranteed.

Apart from pasta, pizza and Pavarotti, nothing says Italy more than a well-organised defence. However, household names Nesta, Cannavaro and Maldini are long gone and the pre-tournament 3-0 home defeat to Russia did little to inspire confidence. While Italy only conceded two goals in qualifying, Cesare Prandelli’s tactics have given the Azzuri more freedom to play, which could make for the most entertaining Italy side for decades. Whether they can “win pretty” is another matter though, even with the presence of talented individuals like Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.

Under Roy Hodgson, expect England to be well-organised with bags of team-spirit, but these qualities will only get them so far. With injuries depriving England of Jack Wilshere and now Gareth Barry and Frank Lampard, England’s midfield options look wafer thin. Add to that Wayne Rooney’s ban for the first two games and there are few reasons for optimism. Having said that, Roy Hodgson took an unfancied Fulham to a European final. Can he inspire another average team to perform beyond expectations?

Portugal will need Cristiano Ronaldo to be a “team player” this time around, and not the selfish and sulky figure of World Cup 2010, where Portugal scored in only one of their four games. CR7 is one of the world’s best, but he can’t do it all on his own. So Cristiano, if you want success with your country, you may to have to pass the ball to Helder Postiga and Ricardo Quaresma.

Semi-finalists in 2008, Russia are again many people’s dark horses for success in the Euros. Much of the talent from Austria/Switzerland 2008 is still present, including Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavyluchenko. Much of the squad will be used to playing together (7 are from Zenit and 5 from CSKA Moscow) which can only be a good thing.

Host nations Poland and Ukraine will have fanatical support behind them, but Poland have a young squad with little major tournament experience. The fact that Ukraine have had to call upon Andrei Shevchenko and Andrei Voronin again implies a lack of new talent coming through.

There is very little about Sweden to suggest they will do any more than their usual. Like an IKEA desk they’ll be functional and stubbornly difficult to unpick, and might sneak into the knockout stage. But they’ll lack the quality to do more, even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the side.

Much like Stoke City, Ireland might be made up of a mix of unglamorous Premiership and Championship players but the Boys in Green benefit from having one of the most successful managers in the tournament, Giovanni Trappatoni. Trap has won everything in Italy and Germany and introduced the world to the concept of “keeping the cat in the sack” during the qualification play-offs. Under his stewardship, Ireland could prove very difficult to beat and could take advantage of Spanish or Italian complacency.

Croatia and the Czech Republic would normally go into a tournament like this as many people’s dark horses. But both their squads are far removed from the glory years of the past two decades. Croatia no longer possess players of the quality of Boban, Prosinecki, Suker, and the days of Poborksy, Nedved and Berger are long gone for the Czechs. Both will be lucky to escape the Group Stage.

Finally, Greece, winners in 2004, and Denmark, winners in 1992, also come to the tournament with low expectations. But then again, that was the case when they both won it.

Bet on: Germany to win, with Italy a good each way bet.

Robin van Persie to be top scorer, with Andrei Arshavin of Russia (yes, really!) an each way option.

THL

THL’S ENGLAND SQUAD FOR THE EUROS

Roy Hodgson will have a lot on his mind in the next few weeks, so THL makes things easier by picking a 23-man England squad for Euro 2012 for him. And does so without reference to the “Woy”, “Euwos” or “Yuwup”.

GOALKEEPERS:

For the first time since Gordon Banks, in Manchester City’s Joe Hart, England has a truly world-class goalkeeper. Comfortable with the media and without the baggage of others, or any real challenge to his supremacy as England’s Number One, Hart could also be a serious candidate for the captaincy. In May 2011 Ben Foster quit the international scene due to ongoing injury problems, but let’s face it – he could do a job, and as his current club manager at West Brom, Roy Hodgson knows it and has his number. For a third option, Roy could do a lot worse than Paul Robinson. He took a while to rebuild confidence after his infamous air-kick against Croatia in 2006, but has since re-established himself as one of the Premier League’s most assured stoppers. And he’s had to be behind Blackburn’s back four. But if Foster and Robinson decide they would rather swap the subs bench for a sun-lounger then the tournament could be an opportunity for Derby’s Frank Fielding to gain more exposure to the England set up.

FULL BACKS:

When it comes to right backs, despite a late surge from Everton’s Tony Hibbert (no, seriously!) and good seasons for Norwich’s Kyle Naughton and Newcastle’s Danny Simpson, it’s a straight three horse race between Glen Johnson, Micah Richards and Kyle Walker. Although Fabio Capello clearly didn’t fancy him, Micah Richards has to be on the plane. Pundits have said he doesn’t have the “footballing brain” and relies too much on his pace and power to get him out of trouble, but then pundits also said “you don’t win anything with kids” and didn’t know who Hatem Ben Arfa was despite being a French international. With six assists this season from right back Richards is a genuine attacking threat and a tough tackler that the likes of Ribery, Robben and Nani will not relish a 50/50 with. A tough call, but the second right back spot goes to Kyle Walker. After a successful loan spell at Aston Villa the season, the surging right-back has had a brilliant first full season in the Premier League, winning the award of PFA Young Player of the Year, and being part of one of the best Tottenham for a generation. Given the chance, he could establish himself at right back for years to come. Why not Glen Johnson, you ask? Yes, he has 35 caps, but in most of those he’s proved himself to be unconvincing too many times, and a poor league season at Liverpool has not helped his case.

Love him or hate him, snarly-faced love-rat Ashley Cole is one of the best left backs in the world. A winner with Chelsea, with an England career spanning ten years, he is tried, tested, and knows how to deal with the likes of Ronaldo. Just don’t ask him to look after your phone…..When you leave behind the bog-standard Premier League regulars Stephen Warnock and Kieran Richardson, it’s a choice between Kieran Gibbs and Leighton Baines. Neither can be regarded as 100% fit – Gibbs has had an injury-plagued season, and Baines is currently out with a hamstring problem. However if Roy really has one eye on the future at this tournament, he’ll give Kieran Gibbs the nod. Schooled “the Arsenal way” and a real attacking threat, he could be the new Ashley Cole, just more likeable.

CENTRE BACKS:

John Terry and Rio Ferdinand might not be the best of friends right now, but they are by far the most accomplished defenders England possess and could not seriously be left behind this summer. Terry has recently been accused of not just racism, but also immense stupidity after kneeing Alexis Sanchez in a Champions League semi final (it doesn’t matter if he deserved it, John). Ferdinand has had a tough season without Nemanja Vidic alongside him. Both men are determined and proven winners, with razor sharp ability to read the game, but they are not getting any quicker. The solution – don’t play them together. That’s why bringing their club teammates Phil Jones and Gary Cahill is such as good idea. Despite the occasional shaky moment, there is no doubt that the Jones is “the future” and would relish a major tournament. He’s also versatile. Cahill’s move to Chelsea has enabled him to build on the significant Premier League experience he gained at Bolton.  With Cahill ruled out of the FA Cup Final and currently struggling to make the Champions League final, Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka are seriously capable alternatives. Chris Smalling however, probably needs another season.

MIDFIELDERS:

Had Jack Wilshere and Jack Rodwell been fit, this tournament would have been a prime opportunity to build a new midfield with James Milner as the third man, with the vision that one day they could become England’s Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets. But such progressive thinking will have to wait. This time, we are somehow yet again faced with the age old debate about whether Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can play together. They shouldn’t. But both should be in the squad. Lampard is still an effective force, and with 11 goals this season and some sterling displays this season, cannot be ignored. However he’s no longer the box to box midfielder he used to be, so a deeper role in midfield could bring the best out of him. Stevie G has also had a mixed season. Despite a superb hat-trick against Everton it has been a mixed season. But he’s capable of taking games by the scruff of the neck as if they didn’t like Phil Collins. For that reason alone, he’s in.

As for the anchor-man role, everyone’s favourite water-carrier Scott Parker is the best of what is currently a limited bunch. He has performed well in the Spurs midfield this year, minding the shop to allow Modric, Bale and Van der Vaart to surge forward. Elsewhere, he might have retired once already, but Roy needs to get on the phone to Man United’s Paul Scholes and offer him one last hurrah.  Getting the nod just ahead of the criminally under-rated Danny Murphy, Scholes has the ability to help England achieve the holy grail of actually KEEPING POSSESSION. James Milner should also make the trip to Poland and the Ukraine. He is versatile, was one of the best performers at World Cup 2010, and has bags of energy. The latter helped by the fact he’s been rather under-used by Roberto Mancini at Man City this season. These selections inevitably mean no place for the languid and immobile Gareth Barry and Michael Carrick, but would anyone really miss them?

Out wide, England has long had a problem with players who just can’t cross (Shaun Wright-Philips) or are just plain ordinary (Stewart Downing). Ashley Young may just be bucking that trend. Young was a key player in the early part of the season for Man United and if he can recapture that form just in time for the Euros, he could be vital. And not just for winning penalties. The final slot in THL’s England midfield goes to Tottenham’s Aaron Lennon. Ok, his crossing used to be as bad as Wright-Philips, but under Harry Redknapp he’s improved his final ball and overall game and could be a shrewd choice over the erratic Theo Walcott.

FORWARDS:

He might be banned for the first two games, but Roy Hodgson has made it pretty clear that Wayne Rooney is going to the Euros. And as he’s one of England’s few truly world-class players, Roy’s right to take him. With no yellow cards this season (in the league anyway), he seems to have genuinely curbed the petulant streak that cost England so dear in 2006.

Peter Crouch is a must too. And not just for his barnstorming strike against Man City. It might sound a bit Pulis-like to say it, but European defenders will not like dealing with him, and he could be a great foil for a quicker partner up front. His goalscoring ratio of a goal every two games for England is also second to none.

That lightning-quick partner for Crouch? Step forward Danny Welbeck. Provided Nigel de Jong’s cynical tackle in the recent Manchester derby hasn’t ruled him out, Welbeck is a nuisance for defenders and has an eye for goal and has the faith of Sir Alex Ferguson, and he knows what he’s doing.

If Hodgson is considering a lone front-man for the matches with France and Sweden, he’d do no worse than Bobby Zamora. Anyone who thinks he lacks the ability for international football only need look back at what happened when he faced Juventus as a Fulham player in the 2010 Europa Cup.

Darren Bent has been one of the Premier League’s most consistent goal-scorers for a number of years, but the fact he’s been out since February with injury and has never really proved himself at international level (despite many opportunities) raises doubts. However, the fact he knows where the goal is gets him on the plane. Just.

As for other options, Andy Carroll, Gabby Agbonlahor and Jermain Defoe have just not done enough over the season. Grant Holt has had a good league season, but if he really wants to go to the Euros, his best hope lies with tracing the family tree for an Irish grandparent.

FULL SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Hart (Man City); Foster (West Brom); Robinson (Blackburn). Defenders: Richards (Man City); Walker (Tottenham); A Cole, Terry & Cahill (all Chelsea); Gibbs (Arsenal); R Ferdinand, Jones (both Man Utd) Midfielders: Lampard (Chelsea); Gerrard (Liverpool); Scholes, A Young (both Man Utd); Lennon, Parker (both Tottenham); Milner (Man City). Forwards: Rooney, Welbeck (both Man Utd); Crouch (Stoke); Zamora (QPR), Bent (A Villa)

THL

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CAUGHT ‘KNAPPING

Time for 'Arry to start looking over his shoulder? Photo courtesy of James Boyes

Since the events of February 8, Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham have managed just one win in five and slipped to fourth place in the Premier League. This date is significant not because it marked Ivory Coast’s 1-0 win over Mali in the African Cup of Nations semi-final, or because American nutritonists discovered that more salt in the average US diet comes bread and rolls and not from salty snacks like potato chips, pretzels and popcorn. It’s the date Fabio Capello left the England job, fuelling wild speculation about his successor.

That’s why this Saturday’s lunchtime showdown between a rejuvenated Chelsea (well, apart from Wednesday night) and ‘Arry’s fading Spurs has much more significance than just helping settle positions three, four and five.

As the weeks have passed since Fabio’s farewell, the FA has said it will wait to appoint a new boss at “the back end” of the season. But every week that goes past with uncertainty looming large is damaging Spurs’ chances of Champions League football next season, and more importantly for non-Spurs fans, raising serious questions about ‘Arry’s potential at the highest level.

We already know ‘Arry’s teams generally make little impact against the other Big Clubs, that he doesn’t necessary believe in the idea of tactics (perhaps these first two are related?), has only won one major trophy in his almost 30-year career and is unlikely to pop up as a Man Booker Prize winner in the near future. However, his side’s recent poor run of form has raised serious questions about his ability to deal with the kind of pressure the England job brings. Defeat at Chelsea on Saturday would leave Tottenham only two points clear of the West London Blues in fifth, turning what might have been a title-challenging season into a potential battle with Newcastle for Europa League football in 2012/13. The fact that Chelsea are undefeated in their last 14 home matches against Tottenham will not comfort Spurs fans as they approach tomorrow’s game.

Harry Redknapp is still the clear favourite for the England manager’s job, and Tottenham have played some undeniably fantastic football this season. But with Tottenham in poorer form than Blackburn, Norwich and West Brom of late, could failure to halt Spurs’s slide could count against Redknapp in the Job Interview Of His Life? As the back end of the season approaches, will ‘Arry smash it? Or will another Redknapp be involved in a “back end of it” shocker?

THL

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RED LETTER DAY

Yet again, Sir Alex Ferguson played an absolute media blinder this morning.

 After suffering a disappointing 3-2 home beating by Bielsa’s brilliant Bilbao, SAF magnificently managed to deflect journalists’ attention away from this and towards a bizarre letter from the Premier League telling managers not to speak publicly about the vacant England manager job.

 Given it is now a full month since the departure of Fabio Capello, the horse has bolted well out of the stable door and sh*tting all over the wishes of Premier League bigwigs. EPL managers Ferguson, Alan Pardew and Kenny Dalglish have already been out endorsing Harry Redknapp, for example.

 Apparently Paul Lambert and Roberto Martinez have not received a letter yet, and there has been no word of whether, erm, kingmakers Terry Connor or Alex McLeish have either.

 If I was ‘Arry, Psycho or Woy or I’d be encouraging the Premier League to extend the gagging order before Steve McClaren hash his shay with the endorsement that nobody is waiting for. With or without comedy Dutch accent.

 THL

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AVB FOR ENG?

When it comes to the England job, followers of THL on Twitter will have noted a clear endorsement of the “Bring Back Sven” campaign. But perhaps Andre Villas Boas should be considered a front-runner. Here’s why.

He’s available, he has a point to prove and his time at Chelsea shows an unabashed contempt towards John Terry, Ashley Cole (and to a lesser extent Frank Lampard) that would go down brilliantly with vast swathes of the English public. He’d even rival German boss Joachim Loew in the style stakes. AVB also seems like the kind of guy who would undertake the much-needed clear-out of the old guard that made way for the emergence of an exciting England team centred on Wilshere, Cleverley, Jones, Milner, Sturridge, Smalling, Richards, Hart etc.

A quick look at the betting for next England boss from two leading British bookmakers doesn’t even feature AVB as an option. Implying that Steve Bruce and Alan Shearer at 66/1 are better options. THL knows who it would rather have.

THL

FAO ARSENE WENGER

When Arsenal trudged off the San Siro pitch just under three weeks ago after taking a 4-0 beating, Arsene Wenger probably thought the Champions League dream was over. He didn’t count on this simple guide from THL.

1) THINK POSITIVE – it looks like some of the Gunners’ players are already doing this. Kieran Gibbs has this week said “If they can beat us 4-0 then why can’t we do the same? In our last home game, we scored five goals. We have to create a faultless performance.” In fact….

2) GET KIERAN GIBBS TO GIVE THE TEAM TALK – he believes – see above.

3) MAKE THE AWAY TEAM FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE – turn off the heating in the dressing room and pump cold air in to create Antarctic conditions, get legions of your fans to make lots of noise outside the hotel where Milan are staying. Recommend the Marriot Hotel in Canary Wharf for a pre-match lasagne – it’ll be just like Momma used to make. Before she learned about food hygiene. And most importantly…….

4) FIRE UP THE CROWD – Sack off the prawn sandwiches. Invite everyone to the Emirates nice and early – insist they drink copious amounts of free alcohol and tell them they’re locked in unless they sing. Loud. Allow people in with flares (flammable, rather than trouser). Stick a few banners up saying “WELCOME TO THE HELL” – it worked for Galatasaray.

5) GET A MILAN PLAYER SENT OFF EARLY DOORS – Mexes and Nesta (if he plays) are slow – run at them. Mark Van Bommel likes a tackle - make him make one. Zlatan and Kevin Prince Boateng have already been sent off this season in Serie A. And Sulley Muntari gets more bookings in a season than your average Torquay hotel room.

6) AND DON’T CONCEDE EARLY – Or at all. So basically don’t let Sebastian Squillaci or Johann Djourou on the pitch. Not even to warm up before the game.

7) REFEREE – Be nice to him – chat to him about his interests. Tomorrow night’s referee Damir Skomina from Slovenia likes movies, the beach and “all other ball sports”.  So RVP, ask him if he really was impressed by Meryl Streep in the Iron Lady, and offer him a game of beach volleyball sometime. He’ll like that.

8) PRACTICE PENALTIES – There’s no point coming back from the point of no return to a 4-4 aggregate to then lose on penalties. Practice Practice Practice. Or better still get the Zambian national team to teach you. And don’t let any English players take one.

So, there’s eight ways in which Arsene Wenger can turn it around tomorrow night at the Emirates.

If of course Professor Wenger chooses to ignore this advice, then THL recommends switching channels to Benfica v Zenit St Petersburg, which is nicely poised at 2-3 and you can sample the skills of Javier Saviola, Oscar Cardozo and Nico Gaitan for the Lisboetas. Not to mention Danny and Alexander Kerzhakov for the visitors.

THL

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GO FOURTH AND CONQUER

Outside of a game of Russian Roulette where the third player has taken the bullet, it’s a struggle to think of a competition in the world where being fourth is so coveted.

But at lunchtime tomorrow, the focus of the football world will fall on the “battle for fourth place”™ as Liverpool host Arsenal. The bars of Birkenhead, Bangkok and, er, Milton Keynes will be full of Liverpool fans desperate to spend a Tuesday night in August watching their side parking the bus in CSKA Sofia and hoping for an away goal on the break. And Arsenal fans will be hoping they can use the lure of Champions League football to once again attract such global talent as Andre Santos and Park Chu Young.

There is an argument that both sides will be so scared to lose Saturday’s game that it will develop into the kind of Serie A-style bore draw that would have James Richardson salivating into his ice cream, soiling his copy of Gazetto dello Sport. Although Arsenal could be without Robin Van Persie following Wednesday’s internationals, a blank scoresheet here is unlikely. Not least because there have been over 2.5 goals scored in 20 of Arsenal’s last 23 away games in Premier League (ta v much, whoscored.com).

Defensively Arsenal have struggled to keep a clean sheet all season and the lack of Per Mertesacker and doubts over Thomas Vermaelen mean that even the poorest of £35m centre forwards could cash in. If Arsenal’s Little Mozart Tomas Rosicky can continue his revival with another classical (sorry) display and if Theo Walcott resists the urge to fire crosses at the sidenetting or the left back, this could be a veritable goal-fest. Without Steven Gerrard and Lucas (the most important Brazillian holder since Noddy from Slade’s Sao Paulo-born cousin Holdinho), Liverpool also have a marshmallow-like soft centre, but have been flowing in attack in recent games, albeit against Championship opposition.

The game might be missing 2009’s four goal hero Andrei Arshavin – exiled to chilly St Petersburg to regain his confidence – but THL thinks Saturday lunchtime’s clash will be smoking hot.

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BASQUEING IN BILBAO

Athletic worshippers wait outside La Catedral

In 2013, Athletic Bilbao will move in to San Mames Barria, a brand-spanking new stadium hosting 55,000 and costing a reported €160m. This means the clock is ticking to sample the boisterous matchday atmosphere of the 99-year old Estadio San Mames, Athletico’s current home. So THL took a trip to see the Basque region’s leading team play Espanyol on a chilly weekend in February, sitting amongst Athletic’s most vocal supporters in the Preferencia Norte – or North Stand, if you prefer.

The city-centre location of San Mames (aka La Catedral) helps the pre-match ritual of beers and pintxos (a Basque version of tapas) immensely. There is no queuing for the park and ride to an out of town retail park here. Bars are busy, but there are so many of them there’s rarely too long to get served. Tickets for matches can be bought at cashpoints, or on the gate, and usually simple to come by unless Barcelona or Real Madrid are in town.

Pipe players get the atmosphere going as crowds gather

Bilbao is a city that loves football. And it loves its team even more. Most bars in Bilbao will contain some kind of Athletic memorabillia. From a scarf and flag placed above the bar to an entire wall dedicated to pictures of current and former players. Most notably at Eguiluz, where 445 game local hero Joseba Etxeberria seems to be a regular visitor, judging by the number of signed photos of the forward with the bar’s staff. At a weekend during the football season it is almost impossible to go to a bar that is not showing live sport. From La Liga to the English Premier League, to the African Nations Cup and Pelota (a bit like squash, but without the rackets), its all televised. Thankfully minus the “analysis” from Alan Shearer etc.

As for the match itself, it was 3-3 an absolute thriller. End to end. Lots of goals and some superb technique. Athletic coming from 2-1 down to lead 3-2 until a well worked one-two in injury-time and a goal from Espanyol’s Juan Albin spoilt the party for Bilbao. The highlights only go a little way to doing it justice – but all three Espanyol goals oozed class. Quite why a guy a few rows in front needed to chain-smoke joints throughout the game was a mystery. The best drug on offer at La Catedral was quality football, and THL was getting high.

Interestingly, the lack of appreciation shown by the fans when like a backheel or triangle of passes in a tight space was pulled off showed almost an expectation of stylish football. Coupled with serious barracking of any player who gave the ball away, it looked like keeping the ball down – and not hitting the target man early – was the norm here. On numerous occasions both sides’ defensive players brought the ball out of from the back in a way that you just don’t expect from (many of) their English league equivalents. Some very rudimentary research (courtesy of the Sky Sports scorecentre app) showed that pass completion rates for Athletic and Espanyol were 82% and 79% respectively. The closest “equivalent” Premier League game the following day had Newcastle on 71% and Aston Villa on 75%.

Javi Martinez is mobbed after putting Athletic 3-2 up after 65 minutes

Of course Bilbao’s football team is just one of the city’s attractions – the Guggenheim is an amazing feat of architecture and a Saturday night in the Casco Viejo (old town) is a fun experience. But the clear message is – go to Bilbao, and go soon. While near-40,000 crowds are cramming in to La Catedral, and while Bilbao are playing some of the most sumptuous football in Europe.

THL

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WINDOW PAIN

It’s that time of year again, the transfer window shuts and its…..TRANSFER DEADLINE DAY. Where grown men (and women) spend the last day in January sat glued to their laptop or TV (having skipped work), waiting to see if their club has signed that 20 goal a season target man, or that French international midfielder they’ve coveted since September. Only to be disappointed when at 9.55pm no signings have been made, until suddenly…..BREAKING NEWS…..my club has signed……on a three month loan deal……experienced striker…….Rob Hulse. Oh. Swiftly to be followed by a club statement that the signing will be their only activity before the day is out.

The rumour-mill runs rife all day, particularly on BBC live text and club message boards. Colin who works in WH Smith at Newcastle airport texts the Beeb: “OMG. JUST SOLD PETER CROUCH A PACK OF CHEWING GUM. MUST B JOINING THE TOON.” Five minutes later, Dave, a cab driver in West London tweets “@bbcsportsday just dropped Peter Crouch off @ Harrods. He’s joining Fulham. Nailed on.” Until another five minutes later, Mick who works in a supermarket in Stoke puts it to bed with a text: “Crouchy just been into Sainsbury’s after training – brought nachos and dip. Says he’s heading home to watch Sky Sports and see who buys Ricardo Fuller”. Still begs the question of how many Peter Crouch lookalikes there are knocking around though.

Another cliché is the transfer window domino effect. When QPR buy James Collins, then Villa sign up Michael Turner to fill the void, Sunderland snare Sylvain Distin to replace Turner, then Everton bring in, damn, its five past midnight.

Money also seems no object. Last January, £225m was spent during the window. It will be intriguing to see who snaps up Nikica Jelavic for a “bargain” £10m. Whether anyone will test Woy’s wesolve at West Brom with a £12m offer for Odemwingie, who knows? And will Liverpool finally swallow their pride and completed a swap deal involving Andy Carroll (plus £5m) for Leon Best? Ok, maybe not the last one, but it’s going to be an inflated market, in which not all the deals will have been fully thought through.

Amid the speculation, the claims and the counter-claims, spare a thought for those who simply want to see the day through having kept their top players. No doubt Huddersfield fans, Brighton fans and Crystal Palace fans will be happy if they wake up on Wednesday morning with Jordan Rhodes, Liam Bridcutt and Wilfred Zaha still at their respective clubs.

Love it or hate it (and THL is reasonably neutral), transfer deadline day will have talking points, rumour, elation, and disappointment.  So whether you’ve taken the day off to sit in your pants in front of Sky Sports News, sitting in a boring meeting following BBC live text on your smart phone, or simply avoiding the media in the vain hope your disinterest will keep the big clubs from buying your star striker……Happy Transfer Deadline Day.

THL

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