Thai Politics in Premier League

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Barclays Premier League has unknowingly become the playing field of Thailand politics. A definite sign that the election battles are heating up is the plan by the Democrat Party for Everton to coach young Thai players. The announcement follows hotly on the heels of Sven Erikkson’s recent signings of three Thai players. Suree, a 25-year-old attacking fullback, who earns just $300 a week in the domestic league, will become the first Thai to sign for a top-flight European club. Along with fellow countrymen Kiatprawut Saiwaeo and Teerasil Dangda, they made up a strong Thai presence and certainly made the recent debate about foreign players irrelevant.

Is it a soccer decision? We have to ask Sven. In an interview, Sven Eriksson had a diplomatic answer to whether the club would have chosen to sign on Thai players had the club’s chairman not been a Thai. He said: “Before he became chairman, we wanted to acquire so many players from different countries but we didn’t have the money.”

“Now with Mr Thaksin’s support, we can together work to achieve his dream of developing football in Asia and especially in Thailand, and also to make Manchester City a global brand.” That is saying nothing, a nice parry to the sharp question. In case you have not followed the estrangement of Thaksin from his homeland, here is a bit of the political intrigue. Toppled by the military in a bloodless coup last year, and despite the army’s efforts to prevent media coverage of him, his takeover of Man City for 81 million pounds while living in exile in London has kept him in the headlines. Thaksin had also made plans to open academies across Thailand which is going to the polls on December 23.

The Bangkok Post accused Thaksin of deliberately timing the Man City signings ahead of next month’s elections to generate support for candidates seen as proxies of his now disbanded Thai Rak Thai party. His critics have dismissed the City takeover and the club’s interest in Thai players as publicity stunts aimed at helping the tycoon return to politics after his ouster.In a tit-for-tat response to Thaksin, the Democrat party decided to get some air-time in the Premier League too. Bangkok governor and deputy Democrat leader Apirak Kosayodhin last week signed an agreement with Everton for its players and coaches to help with training at the Bangkok Football Academy.

They have taken great pains to insist that the Democrat Party was not trying to score political points against Thaksin with the Everton deal. “This isn’t about counter-attack. Our bid to build ties with the City of Liverpool coincided with the Man City deal,” he told the Nation newspaper.It is convenient too that Everton are sponsored by Chang Beer, a product of Thailand’s largest brewer Thai Bev. Former Thai playmaker Kiatisuk Senamuang, head of the Bangkok Football Academy, will train up to 40 young teenagers in April to prepare them for Everton’s grooming.

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As voting day approaches , we can expect more manners from the politicians in this soccer-mad country. Whether they will be viewed with support or disdain among the voters is anybody’s guess.Sven had made it clear that the new additions have to show their worth to get into his lineup but under the pressure of Thaksin and political reality in his homeland, he will find excluding the Thai players who are not up to standard, a harder task than anticipated.

FA Cup Upsets For Premier League Clubs

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The giant-killers are back in action and this is what makes the FA Cup extravaganza so enticing for soccer fans the world over – record books are shredded and the underdogs triumph over the Goliath. Without exception, the FA Cup Third Round saw several casualties. Evert on FC was the latest club to suffer an ignominious elimination after losing 1-0 to third division Old ham Athletic. Three other Premier League teams, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers, were also displaced by lower league opposition. Havant & Waterlooville, a minor league club, advanced into the fourth round after snatching a late 1-1 draw at third division leaders Swansea. No doubt the press will have a field day if this minnow clears all obstacles and progress to the FA Cup Finals.

Fortunately, the Big Four are as yet unscathed – an outcome which can determine the glamor and viewership of the competition. FA Cup holders Chelsea scraped through with a 1-0 win against Queens Park Rangers at Stamford Bridge. The Blues struggled to stamp their authority and when QPR gift-wrapped three points for them with an own goal by their keeper Lee Camp, Avram Grant took it with aplomb.His relief is understandable considering how badly Chelsea squad is decimated. The African Nations Cup deprived them of their effervescent Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, his mate Salomon Kalou, Ghana’s Michael Essien and Nigeria’s John Obi Mikel.

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Chelsea’s skipper John Terry heads the injury list with three broken bones and is now on crutches, while vice captain Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda, Claude Makelele and Andriy Shevchenko are also incapacitated. The absence of Cech and Cudicini has allowed third-choice keeper Henrique Hilario to feature in three consecutive games (conceding two goals) but he did enough to keep Chelsea in the running. The impending swop for Nicolas Anelka, a rumor at this stage, is practically certain. Manchester City may throw a spanner into the works as manager Eriksson needs a free-scoring forward to boost their chances of qualifying for Champions League. Darius Vassel, Emile Mpenza and Rolando Bianchi don’t quite cut it.

Since both clubs have sugar daddies to finance the transfer, Anelka can sit back and let them battle it out. His agent will be laughing all the way to the bank, having secured the seventh astronomical signing-on fee for his representative. As for Manchester United, last year’s runners-up, they had a 2-0 success at Aston Villa, thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and substitute Wayne Rooney in the last nine minutes. The other half of the Premier League Big Four, Arsenal and will see action later tonight, away to Burnley and Luton Town respectively, while struggling Newcastle United face a tough trip to Stoke City. Everton’s loss is baffling considering their excellent form. They have suffered only two defeats in their last 17 games and both at the hands of Manchester United and Arsenal. However, Oldham claimed their scalp with a Gary McDonald’s 25-metre strike at the end of the first half. Everton fought back valiantly but was frustrated by a combination of bad luck and a stubborn Oldham defense. Their best chance came in the last minute but was denied by the post.

“To come to a Premier League ground against a team who are really flying at the moment was a great performance,” Old ham boss John Sheridan told Sky Sports. “I told the players to really enjoy the occasion, because things like this might not happen to them again. I was so pleased and proud of them.” Coventry, also caused a major upset by winning 4-1 at Blackburn with two goals by Michael Mifsud and one each from Elliott Ward and Dele Adebola. Coventry, made a mockery of their precarious position (17th spot) in second division with this lop-sided result. The players went in hard to win the ball and paid little respect to Blackburn’s Premier League standing. Maltese striker Misused said: “Every one of us played with his heart and gave his best to ensure we got the result.”

Third division Huddersfield were also celebrating after a 2-1 home win over Birmingham, while Bolton, having rested Nicolas Anelka and most of the rest of their leading players, lost 1-0 at home to Sheffield United. In other matches, Tottenham Hotspur, who beat Reading 6-4 last week, drew 2-2 with them at White Hart Lane. West Ham United and Manchester City drew 0-0 at Upton Park while Wigan Athletic won 3-0 away to Sunderland, whose performance left manager Roy Keane “ashamed.”

Keane is in a rut-hole at the moment. Sunderland have make it a habit of losing and the commitment to fight for every point is missing. The hairdryer treatment, if Keane has not already done so, is needed to jolt his defense from their slumber. Wigan, also missing a few key players, look slick standing beside them.The FA Cup may not rank highly in Sunderland’s priority but being relegated will be a serious setback. Sunderland’s next three Premier League home games against Birmingham, Portsmouth and Wigan will be the right opportunity to get back to winning ways.

Is Sven-Goran Eriksson Good Enough For Another Season?

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While Manchester United celebrated their progress in the Champions League finals and have one hand on the Premier League title, their derby rival Manchester City are following in Liverpool’s footsteps by snatching headlines on internal conflicts. Rumors of the imminent departure of manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson, gain traction by the day.Ever since owner Thaksin Shinawatra indicated publicly his unhappiness with City’s poor form and wanted change, Sven’s future has become the subject of intense debate. Is Sven a victim of his own early success? After all, City got off to a flying start, and they even manage to ride roughshod over Manchester United twice this season with dominant performances.

Such overwhelming form deserted City since the turn of the year and they have slipped down the rankings due to a series of sputtering displays. Their recent 1-0 loss to Liverpool ensure they are still stuck in ninth spot with one game left.So far, no firm indication has come from Thaksin’s camp as we are told only about his ambitions – City to qualify for Champions League football within the next two years by signing top quality, internationally recognized players. Nevertheless, fans can read between the lines that Sven is deemed only as a half-way house by Thaksin and not the right candidate to lead City into their golden era.

It could be the remnants of mediocrity from the England stint that I have little sympathy for Sven. When we consider the highly successful reign of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea can be undone by a rocky relationship with the owner, what is there to stop Thaksin from removing Eriksson whose title winning record in the Premier League is as yet unproven. By the way, Abramovich will be having the last laugh if his chum, Avram Grant defies all odds and clinch the prestigious double.Eriksson conceded that Manchester City fans’ mass show of support for him in the 1-0 defeat at Liverpool will not be enough to prevent owner Thaksin Shinawatra from sacking him. The fans are desperate to cling on to their most successful manager in recent years, evident from their loud slogans and banners of “Hey Thaksin, Leave our Sven alone,” in the stadium. Similar scenes can be seen at Anfield where the fans are simmering with hostility towards the American owners.

Losing to Liverpool was expected but Eriksson did himself no favors when he lost to relegation-bound Fulham 2-3 last week. A victory will have secured an European spot and strengthened his hand in negotiations with Thaksin over transfer budget, new signings, as well as his own future.Asked if the Swede would still be at the helm next season, Eriksson’s agent Athole Still said: “It’s looking odds against. If Dr Shinawatra was going to give a ringing message of support, I think we would have heard it.” Still added Eriksson was unhappy that Thaksin had aired his displeasure with the team’s performance so publicly before communicating with each other first.

Currently, the major factor in Eriksson’s favor is his popularity as most of the supporters feel this season has already been excellent. It is only phase 1 of the makeover and key targets have already been met – a commendable effort as nobody expected them to be champions. Indeed, a win next week at Middlesbrough would give City its highest Premier League points tally. When Sven was appointed after the England debacle and his indiscreet romances, it was assumed that his magic touch has vaporized and he does not have the panache to mold a championship team.I believe Eriksson should be given another season before hanging him out to dry. Consistency does not happen by coincidence, money and patience are needed to lay a solid foundation. Blackburn, Aston Villa, Everton or Portsmouth are starting to see results by placing faith in their managers.

However, there are questions regarding Eriksson’s desire to extricate the team out of its slump. City has declined into a clueless and nervy team and the cumulative effects from insipid displays against Everton, Wigan, Reading, Derby and in the FA Cup elimination by Sheffield United have killed a promising season. In fact, City will be in the relegation zone if they started off on this form.Moving on to Eriksson’s purchases, it is not reassuring as there are more misses than hits. Rolando Bianchi came for the price tag of £8.8m, a club record signing. Those who have watched him at Portsmouth will agree he is a decent striker; before his arrival at City, he took over a season before hitting a purple patch for Portsmouth. His brilliant form must have caught the eyes of City’s scouts and an aggressive bid was mounted.

I am sure Recapped is laughing all the way to the bank as players like Bianchi are a dozen a dime for a shrewd recruiter like him. Eriksson prefers a cautious style of play and launching counter-attacks so it is not surprising that Bianchi finds it even harder to excel in such an environment. Spending so much money but lacking the confidence to keep faith in Bianchi smacks of bad management. Eriksson must make extra efforts to help Bianchi achieve success instead of hoping for miracles from a bench-warmer. Elano and Martin Petrov have shown their talents in flashes but they should be shouldering carrying more of the club’s expectations given their sublime skills. City received lots of plaudits when Elano was creating and scoring goals freely. His loss in form is a major reason for City’s poor poor play in 2008. Eriksson also needs to examine if dead wood like Dickov, Corradi, Samaras, Danny Mills and Mpenza can be better utilized.

Sadly, the foundation of City’s success belongs to players whom Eriksson inherited, such as Richard Dunne and Micah Richards. Castillo and Caicedo are worth keeping but they are a long way off from being world-class players, that is if they even develop under Eriksson. The silver lining is Eriksson’s latest pursuit of Jo may indicate that he finally realizes what a quality striker looks like.Sven has made a mistake by signing too many new players in such a short time frame. I know the money is free-flowing and he does not feel the pinch but the influx of players can disrupt the stability of a team and gives the manager more headaches. Established players take months to assimilate into the system or club culture while young talents take even longer to blossom.

When this process is interrupted and discontent boils over, the manager ends up with more on his plate than he can handle. Another of Sven’s flaw, as with England, is his dependence on the best players for his first XI, cast them in their preferred roles and allow them to weave the magic. With several injuries down the road, the missing key players spoiled his plan A and he doesn’t know what to do without a feasible plan B.In truth, the investments City have made on new players is paltry compared to the other Premier League clubs, especially when seen in the context of a 3-5 year plan to conquer Europe and the Premier League. City will probably need another half a dozen first team players to stand a chance of competing with the Big Four.

Despite spending more than 40 million pounds, Thaksin is aware of the buying spree needed when he said: “We have to sell some players and buy some new ones. We need some defenders, midfielders… midfielders are the key.” This statement is certainly debatable as strikers should be the main priority, unless he is talking about attacking midfielders in the mold of Cristiano Ronaldo or Kaka.It is not surprising that City experience fatigue after Christmas as the hectic schedule exposes their lack of depth. In addition, teams are able to grasp and counter Eriksson’s inflexible tactics after the first round. But City should not recklessly loosen the purse strings and implement a comprehensive overhaul of the rank and file. If Thaksin suddenly gives up on the club or disappears tomorrow, the fans will have another Leeds United ready to implode on the back of deep deficits.

Thaksin is right to expect returns in the long run, after forking out the initial investments. This is the only way for the club to be self-sufficient and less dependent on a sugar daddy’s money for survival.I believe getting rid of Sven may set City back as the appointment of a new manager spells a new regime and the players have to adjust all over again. However, if Thaksin has made the decision to sack Sven, I can only hope that the post is filled by another experienced manager, not the likes of say, Steve McClaren.

Arsene Wenger Lost Tactically To Avram Grant?

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A few days of exuberance later, I still believe Avram Grant is a man blessed with extraordinary luck. Even with his famous 2-1 victory over Arsenal at Stamford Bridge last week, his tactics and decision making still doesn’t inspire confidence… that is until the day he adds to the trophy cabinet. So near and yet so far doesn’t make the cut.In the wake of this defeat, Arsenal are dumped into third spot and are left reflecting on their sputtering title challenge – the loss in momentum since that fateful 4-0 loss to Manchester United in the FA Cup is staggering. Meanwhile, Chelsea kept pace with league leader Manchester United on 68 points.

Chelsea’s amazing run of 78 unbeaten home matches was nearly destroyed by Bacary Sagna’s first goal for Arsenal. It was the Gunners who appeared more lively in the first half, their usual pretty passing football giving them a slight upper hand. Gallas and van Persie had excellent opportunities to kill off the match. For his second start since a long spell in the treatment room, van Persie showed promising signs of recovering his scintillating form.However, both teams maintained the uneasy stalemate till the hour mark. In the 59th minute, Arsenal finally took the lead they deserved as Sagna scored with a near-post header from a Cesc Fabregas corner. Chelsea floundered for about ten minutes but they managed to equalize on a bout of renewed vigor and inspiration. The situation was also helped by the untimely loss of Sagna to an injured ankle as he made a clearance. Eboue was switched to right back, Diaby came on and the equilibrium of Arsenal squad was affected.

In the 70th minute, Avram Grant were jeered by fans who chanted “You don’t know what you’re doing” as he made a double substitution of Claude Makelele and Michael Ballack with Juliano Belleti and Nicolas Anelka. It almost caused an embarrassing players’ revolt right there on the pitch as Makelele and Terry reacted indignantly. Fortunately, the Chelsea players have the basic manners to obey orders and the tactical changes paid off.In the 73rd minute, William Gallas failed to clear a long ball from John Terry which ran loose to Didier Drogba and he gladly fired a scorcher past Manuel Almunia. Replays showed an offside as Drogba was interfering with play and had touched the ball as the first person. Too bad, the referee decided otherwise and this ends up as just another statistic on the subjectivity of implementing offside rule.

Gallas was again beaten in the air, in the 82nd minute, this time by Nicolas Anelka who flicked the ball onwards. Kolo was in the right place to intercept but he made an uncharacteristic error by missing it completely with a kick in the air and the ball fell nicely to Drogba. He hit it into the ground and Alumnia misjudged the wicked bounce. In the closing minutes, Drogba could have a hat-trick if Almunia had not denied his effort at the near post. Arsene Wenger was disappointed but he remained defiant, saying: “I feel the spirit in the team is fantastic. Today the players will be very disappointed because they gave everything. We have first to win our next game before we talk about the title. I do not believe that we had any confidence problem today.”

While it is certainly not a confidence crisis yet, the team has started disbelieving in certain players. The team spirit is weak; not surprising, since you can’t bank on a petulant captain (Gallas) to foster camaraderie. Theo Walcott was ignored by his teammates and Bendtner, coming on as a substitute, saw little of the ball. From the look of it, both are regarded as fringe players and prime chances do not come their way easily.Speaking of Walcott, I am puzzled why Wenger complained about him not developing properly as a footballer, while his selective blindness missed out Eboue. Arsenal are in serious trouble if Wenger believes Eboue has fully “developed.” He was unable to make meaningful contributions and in terms of defensive abilities, he stands out with his discreet handballs and not so discreet shoving and playacting at times.

Arsenal also have this habit of trying to walk the ball into the net. A bit one-dimensional as most of their attacks are broken up before then. The Gunners are loathe to try the long balls, set-pieces, or go wide and swing crosses into the center. Especially set-pieces as Tottenham had exploited this weakness in Chelsea over two victories. Know thy opponent and half the battle is won.In fact, it was Chelsea who capitalized on Arsenal’s weakness. The aerial balls, coupled with a menacing Drogba was the ultimate KO combo. This resulted in Chelsea looking more dangerous in the box even as Arsenal’s link up play is far more superior. Gallas was beaten in the air twice with dire consequences but to be fair to him, the entire Arsenal squad is lacking a defender who possess the right qualities to deal with Drogba.

Adebayor is struggling but considering how he progressed from a rough diamond into a serious contender for the Golden Boot award, Arsenal already owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the team thus far. Adebayor’s effectiveness depends highly on the service from Alex Hleb and Fabregas since he is not talented enough to create chances on his own, like Thierry Henry or Cristiano Ronaldo.Hleb’s form can swing from impressive to mediocre and in recent matches, he appeared jaded but Wenger does not have the luxury of resting him. By awarding Hleb a role just behind the striker while pushing van Persie to the left, Wenger may have erred as Hleb is not Steven Gerrard. Luckily, van Persie gave a good account of himself but I suspect he may have caused greater damage if he returned to his favorite central role and is fully fit.

Arsenal are struggling with a thin squad. Wenger has already done incredibly well (coincided with Adebayor’s unstoppable form) to stay in the hunt despite key injuries, but there was always the possibility that the character he continually emphasized will fail him one day. If Wenger had made better use of the January transfer window to bolster his squad, the last 5 winless league matches may have yielded different results.Though this is only Arsenal’s second defeat of the entire season, chances of winning the Premier League title is diminishing, with only seven matches to play. Chelsea are back with a fighting chance of securing the title for the third time in four seasons and Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge on April 26 will likely to be a title decider.

Tame England Have Plenty To Learn In French Friendly

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If you read all the pre-match reports, the central theme is invariably David Beckham rather than tactical affairs. England’s obsession with Beckham is likely to continue until the day he retires. Just as well that Fabio Capello handed him his 100th cap and a generous ovation for Beckham’s 60 minutes of service brought the curtain down on weeks of pointless speculation. David Beckham, if a little rusty, was eager to impress but it was not a memorable centenary. Yes, his right foot is still able to deliver 50-yard Hollywood passes across the field and he had a great opportunity to add to his tally of 18 international goals. However, over zealousness got the better of him when he was booked for shirt-pulling on Malouda, an unnecessary foul which exposed his lack of pace and defending ineptness.

I doubt if we will be seeing the last of Beckham. He expressed his desire to get more than 100 caps, saying: “Just to get the cap was what I wanted, to start was a bonus. I am very stubborn and things can change but I want to carry on playing for my country for many years. I proved my fitness and felt sharp and fresh.”From the first whistle, France spelled their intent clearly. Nicolas Anelka tested David James in the 10th minute with a firm header from Frank Ribery’s freekick. Minutes later, Malouda cut inside Wes Brown, supplied a pass to Anelka who shot weakly on the turn, and James was visibly relieved.

England responded with their own brand of attack. Beckham slided in at the far post to meet Ashley Cole’s low cross but was inches away. Gerrard found some space on the edge of the box after Rooney threaded in a pass, unfortunately, he went for the rugby equivalent of a kick when a return pass to Rooney will be a better decision. Gerrard fluffed another chance by heading Wes Brown’s cross over the bar before France pulled ahead. Right-back Francois timed his pass perfectly into the space between England’s centre backs. Anelka, who was lurking, latched on to the ball and was through on goal, the only way James could stop his advance was a late dive to sweep the striker’s legs from under him.

James was spared a red card which is apt since it was only a friendly. A penalty was awarded which Ribery coolly dispatched as James dived in the opposite direction. After the break, Fabio Capello made four substitutions which saw England switch to a conventional 4-4-2 formation spearheaded by Peter Crouch and Michael Owen.However, the changes were ineffective and France strengthened their dominance instead. Ribéry set Anelka on the loose and he turned, with the England captain, Rio Ferdinand in tow, before shooting high. Malouda should have added his name to the score sheet when his left-foot drive grazed the foot of the post with James well beaten.

Ribery nearly doubled his personal tally with quarter of an hour left but dragged his shot wide after a great assist from Anelka on the edge of the area. In the last minute, substitute Djibril Cisse fired into the side netting to cap a frustrating night for Les Blues. But with England failing to create a single clear chance in the second half, any additional cushion was unnecessary.In terms of performance, a tame England had little to cheer as France were firmly in control. The ease of their 1-0 win was a stark reminder to the immense tasks faced by Fabio Capello in elevating his charges to a world-class standard. Capello said: “I am actually quite happy and have seen some improvements. We have played against a top level country and I think we did well. The way we played and the fact we didn’t let them play much was impressive.

”The improvements, if any, are barely visible and not good enough. While Ribery’s first-half penalty separated both sides, it was Nicolas Anelka who provided the sparks for France. The crowd chanted “Ole” whenever he touched the ball and teased England with a series of neat dragbacks and stepovers. A welcome change as he was the subject of jeers instead of cheers not so long ago.It has come full circle for Le Sulk. Nine years after tormenting England’s defense with both goals in France 2-0 win at Wembley, he shone brilliantly again. Anelka is quick, can make deep runs, hold the ball up well and most importantly, is an intelligent footballer.

I believe he is a sure candidate to be included in France’s Euro 08 campaign since Thierry Henry is experiencing a slump in form. Henry is not assured of a starting spot for Barcelona and an extended spell in the treatment room has blunted his abilities.France coach Raymond Domenech declared himself satisfied with the build-up to Euro 2008. Though the second half saw France losing the ball and making stray passes, England were never in a position to take advantage. If they had put more effort into finishing off the chances, this could be an embarrassing night for Capello. Defense wise, there are lots of holes for Capello to plug. The rearguard was constantly a step slower in the face of a rampaging Anelka and the biggest culprit was the ever-reliable John Terry who sprung a faulty offside trap which only embarrassed himself. Anelka easily eluded Terry and James had little choice but to commit the foul.

For the front line, I will not throw out the strategy of employing Steven Gerrard in an advanced position (close to Wayne Rooney) yet, even though this match showed that it was not effective in terms of penetration.It requires some fine-tuning and Rooney has to be the person who ultimately takes the shots while Gerrard’s role should be more of a facilitator, working out the through passes and one-twos, instead of shooting on sight. It was a good test though as Claude Makelele, a man adept in the holding role, gave Capello an inking of what has to be done in this aspect.David Bentley is an able candidate on the right, if Beckham decides to hang up his boots or if Capello decides to impose his exile. The fact that Capello fielded David James, Wes Brown and Stewart Downing showed that he is not immune to the same problem faced by Sven-Goran Eriksson: a depressing shortage of talents, especially in defense.

For those who grumble about Capello’s mistakes, look at it this way, a friendly serves the purpose of experimenting and a victory is hollow if nothing can be gleaned or the opponent is not in the mood to put up a good fight.I will rather Fabio Capello lose all his friendlies while adjusting his strategies all the time and finally put up a strong team for the World Cup qualifiers. I am sure he will be reviewing the video of this match repeatedly and exploring options. So be patient, embarking on a sling campaign will only demoralize the entire team.