Two of England’s World Cup group opponents were in international “action” this weekend. And Mark Murphy was there for 200%. Well, more “there” than BBC Northern Ireland, anyway…
Uruguay 1 Northern Ireland 0
I’d all-but-overlooked this potential humdinger. Northern Ireland are on a two-match South American tour. And before Wednesday’s trip to Chile they were in Montevideo to provide cannon fodder for give “English-style” opposition to Uruguay. If such a far-away trip seemed expensively-grandiose for a normally cash-strapped Irish FA, then the BBC weren’t about to make the same mistake. After co-commentator Chris Morgan let slip that it was “one o’clock in the morning here in Belfast” there was none of the “the conditions are really humid here” claptrap that pervades so much studio-based commentary – such pretences usually exposed by an inability to spot offside flags and off-the-ball incidents.
But during his commentary Michael McNamee blamed mistakes on (1) it being the wee small hours; (2) there being no researchers about as he & Morgan “are the only ones in the building at this time of night”; and (3) the picture quality being poor, suggesting that “if you are watching this on a hi-definition telly you’ve probably got a better picture than “here in the studio,” which can’t have pleased his employers. Still, here’s to not wasting the licence-fee.
For an hour, Uruguay were as poor as the BBC studio’s picture-quality. Manager Oscar Washington Tabarez had only two players to drop from his provisional World Cup squad of 25. Thus was Tabarez’s problem perhaps larger than that of Nigeria’s Stephen Keshi or Italy’s Cesare Prandelli (see below), as there were at least seven candidates for the chop after this monotone display. However, the chop eventually fell on two of the unused substitutes, Sebastian Eguren and Alejandro Silva, who probably feared the worst once Tabarez decided they wouldn’t improve upon the players who did play.
Of course, Uruguay lacked a zippy, imaginative penalty-box presence. “Ponderous” was a word for “star” forward Edinson Cavani…but not the word. That was sh…orter than ponderous. His shirt had either shrunk in the wash…twice…or was part of a Laurel and Hardy wardrobe mix-up. And with his hair in a bun, Cavani could not have looked any dafter if he’d been Stan with Ollie’s bowler hat on. Frankly, he should get his hair cut, get a bigger shirt…or “just sod off altogether you posing underachieving waste of two paragraphs.” He’ll get the winner against England now…you watch…
Too many Uruguayans are familiar faces (and, in the case of Maxi Periera, snarls) from the 2010 World Cup. Diego Forlan, an effective elder-stager in South Africa, took this game at testimonial pace and will surely not start if Suarez recovers full fitness. Elsewhere, Arevalo Rios retains his dubious ability to destroy midfield play like an ageing Nigel de Jong. And centre-back and captain Diego Lugano remains the worst-ever footballer in any “leading” international team – as West Brom fans can surely testify. One header on goal was a real schoolboy effort – eyes shut, ball hitting his shoulder. That IS probably Daniel Sturridge you can hear laughing.
The one bit of Uruguayan class in the first half produced the one bit of world-class in the match, Northern Ireland keeper Roy Carroll’s mercurial double-save on 32 minutes. His first was from Cavani’s only semi-decent effort of the night and his second, almost against the laws of physics, kept out Forlan’s low, well-struck follow-up – for which Carroll stretched so far that he couldn’t avoid sliding speedily into the post. But a fresh perspective arrived with news that there was an “Antel Trophy” up for grabs, with penalties if required after 90 minutes. No amount of dross football could spoil the prospect of a shoot-out. Indeed, the poorer the football, the more eager the anticipation of Northern Ireland’s best chance of a Trophy since the home internationals were killed off. And the odds were beginning to look good before Uruguay finally scored in the 62nd minute, substitute Christian Stuani stabbing the ball in after sharp work by “Southampton’s Gaston Rodriguez,” to give him his full name and, blimey, Cavani.
Uruguay upped their tempo and ambition after the goal but that only brought increased tempo and determination from Northern Ireland’s rearguard. And lanky forward Ryan McLaughlin’s late introduction gave the visitors a threat of sorts late on. But an audibly wilting McNamee noted: “If I see (Northern Ireland captain) Steven Davis waving a trophy around after this, I’ll know I’m hallucinating.” And the game’s drift was neatly summarised by the glimpse of the trophy, guarded by what looked like two executive commuters waiting for a bus that should have been there by now.
Italia 0 Eire 0 (Well, that’s what Fulham’s scoreboard said)
Crikey. Where did that come from? Ireland’s performances in recent home defeats, to Serbia and Turkey, were flatter than the Netherlands after a good ironing. So you couldn’t say this one was evidence of Martin O’Neill’s increasing influence. Only their inability to win reminded you that Giovanni Trapattoni had ever managed these players. It was a tough night for Italy, the sad sight of Riccardo Montolivo being stretchered off with a broken leg casting a shadow over their display. They had opened with a fluency that suggested a long night ahead for Ireland – players and fans. But they never regained it after the lengthy injury stoppage.
Prandelli has to pick 23 players from 30. So there was no practical purpose in fielding the definitely Brazil-bound. Hence Andrea Pirlo’s and Mario Balotelli’s three-minute cameos – walking from players tunnel to dug-out and back again, twice – and Italy’s “three to watch” in the programme starting on the bench (mind you, two of Ireland’s “three to watch” stayed there). Thus were the biggest Italian cheers for Pirlo’s and Balotelli’s literal walk-on, walk-off parts, rather than the team’s efforts. Some of their huge, impressive support started the evening headbanging to a thumping rendition of Il Canto degli Italiani (although it’s hard not to rock to such a proper national anthem). But by the end they were reduced to near-silence as “you’ll never beat the Irish” and, gawd, The Fields of Athenry rent the West London air.
Goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu staked the biggest claim to a squad place, as the main reason Italy avoided defeat. And Paris Saint-Germain clubmate Marco Verratti was a “must-be-two-of-them” presence in midfield, and should make the squad too, although the magical PSG influence didn’t stretch to Tiago Motta, who I thought was on the bench until he ran over to sit on it after an hour. And perhaps the only other “positive” for Prandelli was the 70 minutes he got from striker Giuseppe Rossi – whose picture could sit above “injury-prone” in any Thesaurus. But that proved insufficient to get him on the plane alongside strike partner was Ciro Immobile (and here comes the gag) – whose name was a concept familiar to Ireland fans after Tony Cascarino’s 88 caps.
The most remarkable aspect of Ireland’s terrific display – and for all Italy’s woes, Ireland were terrific – was that they created more and clearer chances than Italy even when second-half substitutions kicked in. Ex-Liverpool misfit Albert Aquilani, himself on for Montolivo, departed the stage as his notorious fitness failings struck again. But all other replacements were discernible improvements and likelier starters in Brazil. Antonio Cassano’s and, particularly, Daniele De Rossi’s introductions briefly restored Italy’s fluidity. Steven Quinn and Simon Cox for Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long didn’t have the same ring to it, especially as Hoolahan and Long were Ireland’s stars. But if Ireland could have been ahead at half-time, they should have been well clear by the end.
Anthony Pilkington, John O’Shea…even Aiden McGeady…were a short-head behind Hoolahan and Long (Hoolahan and Pilkington’s displays made Norwich City’s relegation all-the-more puzzling). And Quinn, Cox and James McClean seamlessly slotted into Ireland’s team pattern…possibly grateful that they had a pattern in which to slot after the turgid Trap years. Claudio Marchisio gave Ireland keeper David Forde some considerable stretching exercises with an early right-footer. But no-one imagined that as Forde’s hardest work of the night, despite the considerable disruption of Montolivo’s injury. This included his initial efforts to walk the injury off, which made his eventual collapse particularly disturbing.
Ireland gradually worked themselves free of Italy’s early pressing and gradually began dominating, with Hoolahan playing the midfield-general role we’d been eagerly anticipating/fearing from Pirlo. The luminous-orange Sirigu (shirt, shorts and socks) was doing all the saving and Long was probably blinded by the light when he headed Ireland’s best first-half chance straight at the long streak of Tango. “Keano must have given out to them,” one fan mused, as Ireland swamped forward after half-time – though Ireland hadn’t needed the rocket. Sirigu made a terrific save when Hoolahan sent Long away, moments after Pilkington was denied a clear chance by the first hint that English assistant Peter Kirkup even had an offside flag.
Italy looked like making them pay when Cassano entered the fray to 12,000 Italian fans singing his name at perfect pitch (Ireland’s subs didn’t quite get the same reception, based on musical ability as much as footballing expectations). Then De Rossi moved busily into the midfield gaps left by Hoolahan’s tired closing moments. Immobile’s disallowed goal, Leonardo Banucci’s bullet-header inches over and Marchisio’s weak 65th-minute finish to the move-of-the-match strongly suggested that Italy were asserting control. Yet Quinn and McClean’s introduction re-asserted Ireland’s control. McGeady made a “Lugano” of heading McClean’s fabulous 74th-minute cross. And four minutes later, Quinn’s close-range shot against the bar sparked brief penalty-box pandemonium as Sirigu made a wonder-save from McGeady’s piledriver-rebound and gathered another McGeady effort as Italy’s rearguard vainly searched for composure.
Ireland’s chance had now gone. But Italy couldn’t force a winner, Antonio Cerci nearly ruining his summer employment prospects by snatching at their last chance. And referee Michael Oliver, whose display strongly suggested he’s been fast-tracked to officialdom’s top-flight too fast, blew the final whistle as Ireland fans around me (OK, including me) urged Forde to “go up for” a free-kick. Still, there were smiles all-round throughout the crowd, more big cheers for Pirlo and Balotelli – and Roy Keane, lest anyone thinks that his musings over the Celtic job are yet being held against him – and sympathy and best wishes to Riccardo Montolivio. And, yes, I know this is about Italy and World Cup warming-up. But Ireland were good. And I’m still not sure where that came from.
So. What CAN England expect?
England can expect different and better from Italy. Montolivio is a miss. But Pirlo was missed. And Italy’s defence would probably not be that exposed that often with Giorgio Chiellini in it. Uruguay, without Suarez, looked laboured and old. They’ll need to be…yes…200% better to challenge for World Cup group honours. England themselves, of course, weren’t the life and soul of any worthwhile party until Sturridge’s great strike against a monumentally disinterested Peru. However, the weekend’s friendlies were just a guide to who won’t feature in Brazil, either in starting line-ups or squads. Otherwise Costa Rica might be fancying their chances.
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