The squeals pierced the dusk skyline, rubber scorching the tarmac. Perched precariously on the door, window not fully wound down causing the discomfort that could be the only possible excuse for the reckless aim as the shots were loosed off toward their quarry, a staccato symphony dancing with pock-marked picket fences providing a percussive accompaniment to the surge for freedom.
The escaped prisoner ran up the drive toward the fence, hemmed in by suburbia’s detachment either sided of his broad-shouldered strides. Vaulting to safety, Michael Madsen – for it was he – made good his escape to the bewilderment of his pursuers.
Roy Hodgson is Michael Madsen. Neil Ashton manfully and skilfully playing his hapless pursuer.
Sticks and stones in these circumstances are as ineffectual as media bullets today, even defeat tonight against Costa Rica will see Roy Hodgson impervious to the pain of The Heil’s bullets. It’s what England need, respite from knees that jerk with such ferocity that St Vitus and his dance are considered more too tranquil. Unsurprisingly Hodgson has made wholesale changes to the side for tonight’s game against Costa Rica where despite underwhelming in the two previous games, England remain most tipsters favourites to win.
If they do so, it will be without the services of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who never recovered from the knee injury he suffered shortly before the tournament began and whose energy was sorely missed by England in the two previous games. Like Theo Walcott in 2010, has he ‘dodged the bullet’ on the recriminations with his reputation enhanced by not playing any part in England’s exit? Certainly Capello did Walcott a favour by taking Aaron Lennon whose shortcomings were exposed before a watching world. A mythology is building around Ox with Hodgson’s efforts to have the player fit for the matches that mattered a testament to the manager’s unfettered belief in the player. Whether he would have made a difference is entirely irrelevant; the narrative is already set that he would.
Were he fit, you suspect that James Milner wouldn’t be anywhere near the starting line-up. As it is, the future of England looks duller than Alan Shearer’s fence after it has been creosoted. Until you cast your eyes on the midfield which includes Barkley, Lallana and Wilshere. The latter certainly will be keyed up for his chance, due the performance we know he is capable of having seen the tail-end of a season which promised much, cruelly interrupted by injury. Not quite as cruelly as Oxlade-Chamberlain’s but nonetheless deprived of a starting line-up place at Wembley.
England expects that Jack will do his duty and a big performance would go a long way to silencing his critics at international and club level. In a side which has often been derided as too nice, Wilshere takes a lot of flak for being the snarky side of Arsenal. He can’t win, it seems, with some whichever way he conducts himself. But he is the sort of player the game needs, some personality even petulance, in a sanitised Premier League which wants nothing more for caricatures of well-mannered English gentlemen to entertain the well-mannered English gentlemen in the crowd. A lifeless product in a monochrome world; one where the likes of Wilshere bring a touch of devilment to proceedings, good and bad. He is part of England’s framework for the future and one around whom a team can form without being depending on one individual. More than anything else, he can bring a smile back to faces furrowed brows which having written off England’s chances beforehand, are vexed by the failure to clear a group which will see either Uruguay or Italy join them at the airport tomorrow, a point all too often overlooked. Misery loves company and in this instance, it’s quite good company to have.
All the while England were preparing, teams with points to prove and prizes to pursue played out their final group matches. Chile succumbed to van Gaal’s Dutch side eventually as the ludicrous complaints of the manager about the staggering of these games across the groups were aired. It gives us a warning about the season to come where the Premier League and all its officials in whatever guise, will be plotting to destroy the biggest brand they possess. This from a man whose celebrations from the bench appear to be the result of 30,000 volts being charged through his body.
They will face Mexico, perhaps Brazil were so scared of the Dutch that they decided to take the cowards way out and win their group by gaining the most points and scoring more goals than anyone else. What a bunch of scaredy-cats. Neymar lived up to the hype, a pleasant change in this World Cup where the highly-rated have given way to surprise packages for the most part. So hapless were Cameroon that even Fred got it right. Mexico set themselves fearlessly on course to meet the Dutch in the second round and probably should have won by more than the 3 – 1 margin against Croatia. It will be an interesting battle but it is still hard to see the Mexicans winning no matter how hard I try.
And what of Spain? Reports this morning have reached these shores of a “bust-up” between Fabregas Soler and Vincente Del Bosque, held as the reason for the Catalan’s exclusion from the former World Champions starting XI in this World Cup. Certainly having secured his future before a ball was kicked, he went against the traditional narrative of his career and of many colleagues. It then means either the coach did not rate him – unlikely given his inclusion in the squad – or that attitude has once more blighted his chances of living up to the hype which surrounded him when he was simply known as Cesc. It isn’t unusual, Wenger and Martino have both previously observed there was a problem in this area which makes him the perfect match for Chelsea.
Arsenal meanwhile haven’t been offered enough to prise the replaceable Mario Balotelli, no doubt a side-effect of Manchester United’s failure to offer enough to release Thomas Vermaelen from his Hell, their £6m bid exactly half Arsenal’s valuation. Tellingly, stories emerge this morning that Arsenal are to offer the centre back a new deal. There’s nothing like a bit of transfer speculation to move things along – make a wage offer a couple of percentage points higher – is there? Mr van Gaal? Please allow me to open the gate for you. Yes, that is a long garden path that you are going to walk down.
For Wenger, it is a deal which makes sense right now. He has to sign a replacement for Sagna and has other issues in the squad to resolve without losing his only credible back-up centre back.When it comes to depth, the centre of defence vexes more than most with the expectation Arsenal will have international replacements for the first choice pairing. When we have that depth, it’s not good enough which begs the question, what exactly do you want? For me, there is little sense in selling to a domestic rival, even in the global game it seems more sensible to sell abroad and let United struggle through for a replacement elsewhere, maybe get held to ransom or take their eye off other balls in the process.
And if Balotelli doesn’t want to come to Arsenal, there are more players than you can shake a stick at plastered across the back pages as wanting to come to the club. No wonder we move slowly, it must be difficult for Dick Law and co to wade through all the messages from agents wanting to strike a deal with Arsenal…