Anyone who will be cheering England on at this summer’s World Cup must have been wincing at the sight of Wayne Rooney limping his way out of Old Trafford on Sunday.
After playing another starring role in United’s win over Liverpool it appeared Rooney’s knee was once again troubling him.
The former Everton striker suffered an inflamed tendon is his knee while on England duty a few weeks ago and angered his manager Sir Alex Ferguson by still playing 86 minutes of the friendly.
But such is his form a club level Ferguson hasn’t afforded him a rest in the league either. The Liverpool match was Rooney’s 41st club game of the season, but the fact he has scored 32 goals means he is the first name on the team sheet. Anyone with a football bet on him to be top scorer in the Premier League will no doubt be happy as well.
In a season that has lurched from one crisis to another, a brief recovery was yet again stalled at the DW Stadium the other night.
Wigan’s first ever victory over Liverpool has checked the Reds’ recent revival and brought the critics, who had begun to retreat, back to the fore once again.
Liverpool remain in sixth place but have played a game more than Spurs in fourth, two games more than Man City in fifth and three more than Aston Villa who are just three points behind them in seventh.
Some fans are now fear the side could finish out of the European places completely, not just the Champions League spot.
The World Cup’s European participants did not enjoy a good start to their final preparations for the tournament. England looked nervous in beating Egypt 3-1, but at least the Three Lions had a win to build on, unlike many of their continental rivals.
Denmark lost 2-1 in Austria, a worrying defeat for a team that performed so well in qualifying. Nicklas Bendtner’s return to goalscoring form was perhaps the only positive for Morten Olsen. Greece did not even have the consolation of a goal, losing 2-0 at home to Senegal.
Slovakia also lost at home, 1-0 to Norway, which represents a stark warning for one of the surprise UEFA qualifiers The World Cup odds aren’t exactly expecting them to do to well. They need to improve rapidly, although they have a good chance of reaching the second round in South Africa.
Another team who got a reality check with a home defeat was France, comprehensively outplayed in losing 2-0 to Spain. David Villa and Sergio Ramos got the first half goals for the tournament favourites, whose main problem in preparation might be complacency, such was their dominance against a supposed rival for the trophy.
Portugal also flexed their muscles in beating China 2-0, with goals from Hugo Almeida and, in injury time, Liedson. Cristiano Ronaldo showed some of his best from in national colours for some time and Carlos Queiroz’s outfit certainly need their talisman at their best in the summer.
There were comfortable wins for Slovenia, 4-1 against Qatar, and, more impressively for Serbia, 3-0 winners in Algeria. Marko Pantelic, Zdravko Kuzmanovic and Zoran Tosic got the goals for a team that continue to show why they could be a strong candidate for World Cup bets in South Africa.
Sven Goran Erikson came in for a lot of stick during his time as England manager. He took a largely unspectacular bunch of players and moulded them into a solid last eight team.
Although this was below the over-inflated expectations of fans and the media it’s fair to say the Swede did a decent job with the talent he had at his disposal – if you want an example of a bad England manager look at what Steve McLaren did with largely the same team.
However, Erikson’s biggest failure was perhaps the way in which he courted the media and let his players follow suit. When the results disappointed this attitude it provided plenty of ammunition for those looking to criticise the team and their manager.
He is not their manager anymore, but Chelsea can once again be grateful for Jose Mourinho in the build up to their clash with his Inter side at the San Siro this week.
Always one to provide the journalists with humorous sound bites, the self-styled special one has been making the headlines, giving the Londoners welcome relief from the sleazy stories regarding the behaviour of John Terry and Ashley Cole.
First off Mourinho was fined £35,000 for a handcuff gesture made during last Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Sampdoria. The gesture was meant to represent how his side are apparently victimised by Serie A officials, after Walter Samuel and Ivan Cordoba where shown red cards in the match. The paranoia also extends to rival managers, with Mourinho claiming a “clan” of Italian bosses have conspired against him since his arrival in 2008.
South American and European nations have been alternate winners of the World Cup since 1962. Italy’s win in 2006 means Brazilian and Argentinean fans looking for an omen are in luck, although the dominance of European teams last time around, combined with the improving strength of African and Asian teams, suggest the South American big guns have their work cut out maintain this pattern.
Group E is the most likely group of the 2010 Football World Cup to produce two European qualifiers. Netherlands and Denmark have been as impressive recently as Japan and Cameroon have been inconsistent and it would be a shock if the two European nations did not advance to the last 16.
They just can’t leave it alone can they?
Not content with selling foreign TV rights for more than £1 billion, the Premier League are now considering a play-off system for the final Champions League place for the sides finishing 4th to 7th.
The one thing they have got right in the whole idea is the recognition that something needs to be done about the increasing income gap between the Big Four and the rest.
Only Everton have broken the strangle hold in the past seven years, meaning those at the top have got richer and the rest more desperate to catch up.
But in true Premier League style instead of looking to even out the distribution of TV money to increase competition, or maybe even losing a couple of Champions League spots, they have turned to greed to bail them out.
The fact a definite England starter faces a battle to be fit ahead of a World Cup should come as no surprise. Ashley Cole might not be as important a figure as Bryan Robson was in 1990, David Beckham was in 2002 or Wayne Rooney was in 2006, but his prospective absence is exacerbated by the unusual circumstances that might prevent his understudy from taking his place in South Africa.
Wayne Bridge is thought to be considering his international future, apparently uncomfortable in sharing a dressing room with John Terry. Even without this complication, Bridge’s selection should be doubtful, as his form and fitness has been a worry over the last 18 months.
So who is next in line to play 2010 World Cup Football for England? Stephen Warnock was in the squad to face Brazil in November and as an important part of the Premier League’s tightest defence deserves serious consideration. He is defensively sound and although he lacks Cole’s marauding attacking instincts, he is the most reliable option.
A well worn statistic that is trotted out ahead of every Merseyside derby is the fact that there have been more red cards in this fixture than any other Premier League clash.
The fixture duly obliged on Saturday lunchtime as the metamorphosis from the “friendly derby” to footballing war was confirmed with at least four X-rated challenges and two red cards.
Jamie Carragher struck the first blow within the opening seconds with a full-blooded challenge on Steven Pienaar – the tone had clearly been set. Pienaar himself got into the action with a nasty lunge that scraped down Javier Mascherano’s shins. Only a yellow was produced by referee Martin Atkinson, with Pienaar’s favourable reputation in the disciplinary stakes perhaps saving him.
There are six African nations participating in this summer’s World Cup, so it is an endorsement of the continent’s footballing strength that Egypt, a team who will not be present when the big one kicks off, won the recent Africa Cup of Nations.
It was the Pharaohs’ third consecutive victory in that competition – a period of dominance that goes some way to compensate for their absence from the forthcoming World Cup that was painfully enforced by a bitter play-off defeat by rivals Algeria.
Algeria endured a tough Cup of Nations campaign that started with a 3-0 defeat by a weak Malawi outfit and ended with a 4-0 revenge hammering by Egypt in the semi-finals. Their presence in the last four flattered them and they must improve drastically if they are to be competitive in a World Cup group that contains England, USA and Slovenia.