A pain in the arsenal

Sol Campbell has been one of the Gunner's best performers, but that doesn't excuse his recent disappearing act. Meanwhile, things could finally be looking up for Ireland fans. The Republic have every chance of qualifying for Euro 2008.

Steve Staunton was a little bit coy in his reaction to the draw for the Euro 2008 qualifiers, but I think he’ll have come away from Montreaux delighted that there’s no really outstanding team in Ireland’s group.

The Czech Republic are nowhere near as strong as they were a few years ago when they had Pavel Nedved running things in midfield, and you’ll probably have a few more of their older, experienced players retiring after the World Cup.

It’s also by their standards a very average German side who won’t relish playing in front of a full house at Croke Park. From Ireland’s point of view, though, there’s a definite feelgood factor to be gained from the increased capacity and sense of occasion that’ll come from our home games being in Croker.

Another plus is that there are no long, energy-sapping trips to the Ukraine or Azerbaijan, or ‘Welcome To Hell’ scenarios. All of the teams are known quantities that Steve and Sir Bobby can nip over and see whenever they want.

They’ll also get a good sense of Germany and the Czech Republic’s strengths and weaknesses from how they perform in the World Cup. From what I’ve seen of them, they’re both big, physical teams who could be vulnerable to the likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff running at them at pace.

Most the talk’s been about the Germans and the Czechs, but Slovakia are a very useful side who registered six wins and five draws in their World Cup qualifying group, including a highly credible 1-1 against Portugal. They’re just as liable to nick points off the others as they are us, so you could end up with the Slovaks as power brokers.

As for the rest of the group – Wales don’t have the young players coming through to be a real threat, Cyprus are okay until the first goal goes in and then they crumble, and San Marino are only significant in terms of boosting your goal average.

If Steve goes into the qualifiers confident of who his best 11 players are, there’s no reason why we can’t grab second spot or even win the group.

Elsewhere, Lady Luck was definitely smiling on England who made mincemeat out of their toughest opponents, Croatia, when they met in Portugal last. Russia are in the doldrums at present, and Israel only got those good results against us because we gifted them silly goals.

Add that draw to the terrific squad of players they’ve got, and it’s no wonder that your Big Phils and Guus Hiddinks are happy to be mentioned in connection with the England manager’s job.

I’ve spoken to a couple of the players recently who’ve both said that they want Sven’s successor to be either English or somebody with Premiership experience like Martin O’Neill.

Despite the public displays of support for him, I know of at least one England regular who’s hated playing under Erikson and can’t understand how he got to be in charge at both Sampdoria and Lazio.

His team talks are apparently even less inspiring than you’d imagine, which is not a complaint I’ve ever heard leveled at the two most obvious candidates to replace him, Sam Allardyce and Alan Curbishley.

If you were to pick holes, you could say that Sam’s overly fond of the long-ball game and Alan’s too much of a disciplinarian, but otherwise they’re both ideally suited to the job.

The FA might decide to interview Mrs. Allardyce and Mrs. Curbishley as well to make sure that there are no marital skeletons in the cupboard! They certainly don’t want a repeat of Sven’s bedroom antics.

The other big talking point at the moment is Sol Campbell, who I’m afraid I only have limited sympathy for. If an Arsenal trainee or reserve had done a disappearing act like that at half-time, he’d have been hauled before the manager and fined. Sol has got off scot-free because he is – or maybe was – one of their best players. To me, he looks like somebody who’s fallen out of love with football and therefore isn’t giving his employers value for the £3 million a year they’re paying him. As for reports that he wants to become an actor and has taken on a movie agent, Sol Campbell should be concentrating 100% on Arsenal, not plotting his future career outside the game. A lot of players have personal problems and/or a loss of form, but they don’t go AWOL at halftime and make themselves unavailable for selection during an injury-crisis.

The good news at Highbury is the arrival of young Theo Walcott who aged 16-and-a-bit looks just as impressive as Wayne Rooney did. People keep banging on about Joey Barton, but he’s the one player who with some good performances could play his way into the England squad before Germany.

Finally, I don’t think anybody connected with Newcastle will be shedding tears for Graeme Souness, whose lack of tactical nous was at times breathtaking. He bought badly, had Alan Shearer leading the line when he patently doesn’t have the legs for it, and generally failed to get what he should of out of an expensive squad of players.b

 

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