Group C sees (!) yet another South American country and one who I initially fancied to go far when the draw was made last December. However, since then they have lost not only a man who is their talismanic striker but one of the world’s great goalscorers.
On paper, this looks like a fearsome threesome; Australia being the odd-ones out. We have the winners of their last three competitive international tournaments, including this tournament four years ago in South Africa, the side they beat in the final there – the Netherlands – and Chile, darkhorses on their own continent and thrust into the limelight following their 2-0 triumph at Wembley in November.
Not long to go until the renewal of the greatest football tournament on Earth, the World Cup. The pre-tournament warm-up matches are coming to a close and the final preparations by each country are being made. This is my guide to those competing in Brazil this summer, with predictions.
This was supposed to be a season of transition. The best we could hope for was a top 10 finish, some ‘experts’ even predicted that Everton would do well to avoid relegation. What more could we expect after replacing the ‘chosen one’ with a manager who had just been relegated? He can’t organise a defence was cited as the main reason Martinez would be unable to replicate the success of David Moyes. Everton this season had the third best defence in the league, keeping 15 clean sheets. I should also add that we at the same time managed a club record number of goals in a premier league season, 61. European football is also set to return to Goodison Park after securing our highest preimer league points tally, 72. It is fair to say Roberto Martinez has surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic fans.
We may well have just fallen short of our Champions League target, again, but this time it is different. This time there is a belief that next season we will be more than capable of claiming a top four finish.
And that perhaps demonstrates the success Martinez has had more so than any record – he has raised the expectations of an entire fan base. Although many people will be reluctant to say it out loud, I can guarantee that a title challenge under Roberto Martinez will have crossed most fans’ minds this season. And why shouldn’t it? That is not to say we can challenge for the title next season, or even the season after that, but it is certainly a long term aim. Roberto Martinez has embraced Everton’s history, and you sense that he strives for his name to be mentioned alongside that of Will Cuff, Harry Carterick, Howard Kendall and alike.
For many fans, the performances of McCarthy, Barry and Barkley in midfield this season has evoked memories of the holy trinity, synonymous with the school of science approach Everton was famed for. Unfortunately that was before my time and I have become more accustomed to the ‘underdogs’ tag we have developed and which Moyes seemed keen to embrace. Thankfully that label has been shaken off this year.
Perhaps my only disappointment this season is that our success hasn’t been appropriately recognised in the media. To a certain extent, I believe the transition has been so smooth that it has largely gone unnoticed, three disappointing draws was the extent of our transitional period. Of course we were praised for our performance at the Emirates as well as the victories against United, Arsenal and Chelsea at home but a negative undertone remained.
If not lamenting our use of the loan system, the media have reminded us on several occasions that most of our players were in fact signed by David Moyes and demanded we be more respectful of our former manager. In response I would suggest giving greater credit to the man they had mostly written off at the start of the season and in fact mocked when he suggested getting Everton into the Champions League.
Next season we can once again expect to be largely written off by the media. An early look at the betting suggests a 7th place finish. We can expect former players and ‘experts’ to question how Everton will replace Lukaku, Barry and Deulofeu and of course a summer transfer window would not be complete if the future of Everton’s best players was not questioned. Barkley to Liverpool, Coleman to Arsenal and Stones to Chelsea have all still got legs and apparently Martinez may see a move to fellow Europa League qualifiers Tottenham as a step-up. In previous seasons, I would have shared those fears. This time however, it seems that the progress Martinez has so far made and the expectation that there is scope for further improvement should be enough to keep these players at the club.
For those reasons, I think the permanent signing of Lukaku, regardless of the fee, has to be a priority this summer. Aside from his obvious ability, it will act as a statement of intent to the rest of the league and signify our continued challenge against those our finances would suggest we have no right to compete with. I know many fans will question some of his performances this season but we have to remember that he is still only 20 and we should accept the same inconsistencies as have been evident in some of Ross Barkley’s performances. It would also complete a spine of players that could be central to Everton’s success for several seasons to come: Stones, McCarthy, Barkley and Lukaku.
Given his recent inclusion in the first team squad, Ryan Ledson could soon be considered in similar regard and I would struggle to find a team in the league with such promising young players. Under Roberto Martinez I would expect them all to fulfil their potential. Further to that I expect them to fulfil their potential at Everton.
The song suggests the school of science is on its way back. I say it’s already back and expect the trophies to follow sooner than anticipated.
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Star Player: Aaron Ramsey
The early season form had Arsenal dreaming of a first league title in ten years and Arsene Wenger’s first trophy at the club since the 2005 FA Cup final triumph. However, at the turn of the year they were stifled by injuries to the likes of record signing Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott on a long-term basis and the likes of Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski. However, the niggling thigh injuries of Welsh midfielder, Aaron Ramsey, punctured the biggest hole in the side for Wenger, as Ramsey, who only rarely scored from the middle of the park netted thirteen times prior to being crocked, and was getting a nose bleed he was so far in the goalscoring charts.
David Moyes became the shortest serving post-war Manchester United manager as they sacked their first manager in little under twenty-years a year exactly to the day they claimed their 20th Premier League crown against Aston Villa with a Robin van Persie hat-trick.
Good Friday delivered yet another stunning afternoon of fixtures, particularly at the top of the League One ladder as Brentford confirmed their return to the second tier of English football for the first time in twenty-one years.
The games at Griffin Park and the thriller between promoted club, Wolves and Rotherham who are hoping to follow in their footsteps proved that even outside of the Premier League, English football can serve up dramatic circumstances.
After the top of the table clash in the Premier League between Liverpool and Manchester City and all of the underlying Hillsborough tributes that the week would inevitably bring, it set the bar drastically high for the Football League to top. However, right from the ten-minute delay at Molineux, there was a sense that a special day was about to transpire in the third tier of English football.
Brentford, for all of their shortcomings in the past couple of years via the play-off system, were looking to join Wolverhampton Wanderers in party mode as Wolves secured an immediate return to the Championship last week.
After Doncaster Rovers delivered a crushing blow last season and replacing them on the final day in the final automatic promotion place with a winning goal via a counter attack from a Brentford penalty, which was missed from Marcello Trotta.
The penalty spot was even hit and miss for The Bees on Friday, with Alan Judge opening the scoring on the half hour mark against Simon Grayson’s Preston North End who are also vying for a return after a three-year absence from the second tier of English football. Judge was stumped by the greasy Griffin Park turf in the second half which heaped a degree of pressure on the London club.
Meanwhile, Wolves and Rotherham were playing out an instant classic at Molineux. Wolves, on 93 points going into the game were already assured of a return to the Championship and were in party mode. In a ten-goal game, 21-year old Nouha Dicko and Kieran Agard exchanged hat-tricks for the two clubs.
That left Rotherham level with two minutes left on the clock, needing one more goal to halt Brentford’s promotion party which was ongoing some two hours down the road in a pitch invasion at Griffin Park following Brentford’s 1-0 home victory against Preston.
The celebrations were almost premature after Brentford had secured one of three permutations themselves. Crawley Town also aided The Bees’ promotion bid by toppling the early league leaders Leyton Orient with a second half winner courtesy of Andrew Drury in a 2-1 win for Crawley over the Orient who could’ve fallen to fourth place had Rotherham snatched a late winner.
However, Rotherham suffered a capitulation in injury time at the death, conceding through Sam Ricketts and Kevin McDonald goals in the six added minutes at the home of the presumed incumbent League One champions.
Looking towards the tables in the Football League, whilst the automatic promotion places may be segregated from the play-offs in the top two divisions, the last remaining play-off places and especially the relegation zone could hardly be closer with seven clubs in the hunt for safety in the Championship.
With the likes of Birmingham, Doncaster, Charlton and Blackpool plummeting in terms of their form it gives a free-for-all sense in terms of the three unenviable slots which demote clubs to the third tier of English football. Speaking of free-for-all, though, the bottom eight in League One have seemingly been interchangeable in the past month or so.
Notts County, for instance, have bobbed above the relegation zone for air at points but keep being dragged down by the likes of Crewe, Carlisle and Shrewsbury whilst Stevenage seems the only club in the division condemned to relegation. Meanwhile, in League Two, Northampton continue to fight tooth and nail to remain safe.
Realistically, any team from 16th down to 23rd could be the unfortunate team to join Torquay who are seemingly destined for the drop back down into the ignominy of non-league football.
These tight divisions only serve to magnify the clashes between Wycombe and Northampton which was played out to a desperate 1-1 draw on Good Friday, whether they’re at the bottom of League Two or the top of the Championship.
In recent years, aside from the aforementioned promotion battle in League One last year which pitted Doncaster Rovers and Brentford on the final day, Watford’s semi-final second leg clash with Leicester City at Vicarage Road was almost a mirror image of Brentford’s disappointment.
After missing a penalty in the final minute which would’ve effectively sent Leicester into the play-off final with Crystal Palace, Anthony Knockaert’s Leicester fell foul to a swift breakaway as Troy Deeney turned the tie on its head as Watford won the game 3-2 on aggregate with the 97th minute goal. This was also coupled with Watford’s woes as they were replaced with Hull City on the final day in the same season’s automatic promotion places.
Needing to match Hull’s result against already-champions Cardiff City, Watford hosted Leeds United. Almen Abdi levelled the tie up at half-time at home to the Yorkshire club and were left in second place as Hull were being held at home to Cardiff 0-0.
Fraizer Campbell soon increased Watford’s chances of promotion, scoring for Cardiff against Hull, his former club, as the Humberside club looked down and out in terms of automatic promotion. However, as Watford pushed desperately for a second goal which would all but confirm their automatic Premier League status for the following season, Nick Proschwitz and Paul McShane overturned the game on its head at the KC Stadium which left Watford in desperate need for a goal to gain promotion.
Stand-in teenage goalkeeper Jack Bonham, at the age of 19, was at fault for Leeds’ 90th minute goal courtesy of Ross McCormack. Watford either needed to instantly hit back or hope Cardiff did them a favour, with Nicky Maynard levelling the Welsh side with Hull with a 95th minute penalty.
As Hull players such as Alex Bruce stood watching the television, they saw Watford throw the kitchen sink at Leeds United at Vicarage Road. They couldn’t find a goal and the rest is history as Hull were promoted, alongside Cardiff City and Crystal Palace, who beat a deflated Watford in the play-off final at Wembley.
Conversely, the Premier League as had its moments of drama too. From the great escapes of West Ham in 2007 and Fulham in 2008—the 2004/05 relegation battle was the most dramatic to date as the likes of Norwich, Crystal Palace, West Brom and Southampton battled for the final safety spot in the division.
West Brom started the day at the bottom of the table, two points adrift of Norwich whilst Southampton and Palace were just a point off safety. However, West Brom’s 2-0 win over Portsmouth combined with Norwich’s despairing 6-0 thrashing at Craven Cottage, Southampton’s loss at home to Manchester United and Crystal Palace’s inability to beat Charlton saw West Brom escape relegation, becoming the only club to survive relegation after being bottom on Christmas Day.
Of course, the Premier League saved their most dramatic moment to crown Manchester City the Premier League champions in May 2012 through Sergio Aguero’s last minute winner which helped Manchester City overcome their successful neighbours, beating QPR 3-2 and in the process matching fellow title chasers Manchester United’s 1-0 win away at Sunderland.
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There was a bit of stench at Goodison on Wednesday night. No I’m not talking about the smell of an over priced pie on which someone had spilt a bit of warm Chang, I’m not even talking about the old girl’s drainage system which probably hasn’t seen a plumber this century. It wasn’t a strong smell that would make you hold your nose and look around suspiciously. It was just that hint of something that once lingered and made your nostrils tingle but had been recently cleaned up, only to leave a slight reminder that it used to be there as its roots used to entwine the very foundations of the ground.