Talking points: England’s World Cup has been a failure, but context is important

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After 180 minutes, England’s knockout round fate is in Italy’s hands, with the Three Lions’ 2-1 loss to Uruguay meaning anything but an Azzurri win on Friday will send the former champions out. Even if the Italians stumble against Costa Rica, there are very few scenarios for Tuesday’s Group D finale that will put England into the knockout round. If bottom lines are your thing, Brazil 2014’s will be an indictment for Roy Hodgson’s squad.

In context, however, the conclusions are so clear. A tough Group D meant one knockout round hopeful was going home early regardless, while two close matches against strong teams meant England’s record only partially reflected its quality on the field. If you’re making a list of things to blame for England’s poor result, put “FIFA ping-pong balls” at the top. Drawn into a number of other groups, England would be going through.

Regardless, after today’s loss, England’s probably down to 90 minutes at this year’s World Cup, and while that will draw the ire of some, there’s no reason to cast too much gloom on mixed if disappointing results. Our three talking points.

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1. Two days, two groups of death … – Maybe we’re going about this Group of Death-thing all wrong. I’ve harped on the U.S. side of this enough, so no use recycling those thoughts, but given what we’ve seen from Group B (Spain: out) and Group D (England: almost out), we should rethink how we go about this label. Whereas we’ve to slap it on the toughest group, we should start playing to what the term actually means.

There are groups which, because of their draw, will provide a renown team a quick, potentially unfair (in light of the other groups) exit; a death, if you will. On Wednesday, we saw it with Spain, and now we’ve seen it with England, a team that has the quality to get out of five other groups. Two ex-champions, among the world’s most popular teams, are probably going home before the knockout round, given a premature departure because of the depth of their groups.

Instead of acknowledging a single Group of Death, maybe we need to be more liberal with the label. With Chile, the Netherlands, and Spain, Group B was a Group of Death, ending the reign of one of international soccer’s most dominant teams. And Group D, featuring three teams that have final eight quality, will likely send England home before the tournament’s first cut.

As much as England’s tournament is about its shortcomings, it’s also about an extremely tough draw.

source: AP
England’s Wayne Rooney scored his first World Cup goal, but for the second straight match, he and his team fell, 2-1. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

2. … so let’s not be too brazen about England’s failings – What have we learned over the Three Lions’ 180 minutes in Brazil? That they’re not as good as Italy? We already suspected that. Italy showed its quality at Euro 2012. To the extent England can compete against Italy, it’s more about matchups (fast attackers against a slow defense) than the overall quality of the squads.

Did we learn that England’s not as good as Uruguay? Before the tournament started, that was less certain, but La Celeste are reigning South American champions. They also made the semifinals on at South Africa 2010, a depth England hasn’t reached in 24 years. If England’s not up to Uruguay’s standard, it’s certainly nothing to worry about.

Alas, England fans will worry, and it’s hard to blame them. The final result just wasn’t good enough, but when you consider the strength of the Three Lions’ group and the stage this team’s at in its development, the result’s nothing to worry about.

Not only was England competitive against good squads, but better days are ahead for a still maturing core.

3. Can’t say enough about Suárez – Rightfully, people are criticizing the English defense. When a team gives up four goals in two games, some post-mortem is required. Maybe Hodgson should have brought John Terry out of retirement, picked Ashley Cole, and sided with cohesion by playing a mostly Chelsea back line?

To the extent England’s defense failed, it was in moments, not spans. Perhaps the familiarity of three Chelsea players would have solved the problem (even though it didn’t seem to help Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines).

There is, however, another way to look at what happened. After all Uruguay only got two shots on target. Italy, for that matter only had four. It’s not like the Three Lions were giving up a slew of chances. Their failings were isolated, made more dangerous by striking talent few teams have in their squads.

For Italy, it was Mario Balotelli, who put himself in a position that was nearly impossible for Cahill to defend. Against Uruguay, it was Suárez, who showed his Liverpool teammates what it’s like to be on the other side of a match-winning kind of performance. While teams like the Netherlands do have similarly talented strikers, most teams at the World Cup don’t. Again, England’s draw came back to haunt them.

Though England could have done better on Uruguay’s first goal, Suárez deserves credit for pulling off a finish that few would have had the sense or technique convert, and while the second goal was a less forgivable failing, players like Suárez make you pay.

We’re seen plenty of other players blow those types of chances. Suárez did not. As a result, England’s on the brink of going out.

‘Nothing is impossible’: Bonucci brings hope to AC Milan

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MILAN (AP) Nothing is impossible. That’s AC Milan’s new unofficial slogan following Leonardo Bonucci’s surprise transfer from defending six-time Serie A champion Juventus.

[ MORE: Neymar reportedly tells Barca teammates he’s off to PSG ]

Presenting fans to Bonucci via Weibo on Friday, Milan CEO Marco Fassone recounted how Italy’s top defender moved to a rival club.

“It started by chance and it seemed impossible but Leo interrupted me right away and said, `Nothing is impossible. When there’s desire to do things you can get them done.”‘

Milan has been on a spending spree following the club’s sale to a Chinese-led consortium for $800 million in April, and Bonucci is the top acquisition, so far.

“Leo doesn’t require introductions,” Fassone said. “It’s an extraordinary reinforcement for us. … He completes a mosaic sought after by (Milan chief sport officer Massimiliano) Mirabelli – a mix of younger players and experienced leaders who will make the road ahead easier.”

Other recent signings by Milan included forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Bonucci thanked Kessie for letting him wear his preferred No. 19 shirt, and pointed to Milan’s seven European Cups and Champions League titles as a reference point for a club that did not even qualify for continental play the last three years and hasn’t won Serie A since 2011.

“Milan deserves to be among the elite again in Italy and Europe,” Bonucci said. “When you are united you win. The strength has to be that of the squad whereas singular players alone can do nothing. We can get back to the top and that’s what this club deserves.”

Bonucci’s transfer fee reportedly topped the 40 million euro ($45 million) mark, and the center back was signed to a five-year contract worth up to 10 million euros ($11 million) per season, including bonuses – making him the highest-paid player in Italy.

Meanwhile, Juventus is reportedly near to signing prized winger Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a reported fee of 40 million euros ($45 million). The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Juventus will sign the 23-year-old Bernardeschi to five-year contract worth 4 million euros ($4.6 million) per season.

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Zouma signs new Chelsea contract, is immediately loaned to Stoke City

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Kurt Zouma‘s long-term future is secure at Chelsea, but his short-term future will be away from Stamford Bridge.

The France international centerback signed a new six-year contract with Chelsea and was promptly sent out on a season-long loan to Stoke City. Zouma made just three starts and nine total appearances last season as he came back from a torn ACL suffered in February 2016.

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“It is fantastic Kurt has chosen to commit his future to Chelsea,” Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo said in a statement. “He has shown his talent since joining us three years ago, and has returned from a serious injury with a fantastic attitude.

“Now he has the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League and we will be monitoring his progress closely while he is at Stoke.”

The move to Stoke will give Zouma a new experience, playing for a mid-table side in the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in at centerback, battling with American Geoff Cameron and Englishman Ryan Shawcross.

Even with John Terry leaving the club, Zouma was likely to be second-choice in the back three for Chelsea and if he wants to make France’s squad for the 2018 World Cup, he’ll have to play regularly.

Morata signs five-year contract at Chelsea

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Chelsea FC will have another Spanish international leading the front line, with Diego Costa likely on his way out of town.

The club announced that Alvaro Morata has completed a transfer from Real Madrid, signing a five-year contract at Stamford Bridge. The BBC reports the transfer fee at nearly $78 million.

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“I am so happy to be here,” Morata said in a statement. “It’s an incredible emotion to be part of this big club. I am looking to work hard, score as many goals as I can and to win as many trophies as possible.”

Morata emerged as an option to replace Costa after Romelu Lukaku decided on joining Manchester United over his former club Chelsea. Morata, who was a Manchester United target at first, then turned his sights on London after becoming disillusioned in Madrid, playing second-fiddle to Karim Benzema.

Despite not being first-choice up top, Morata scored 15 goals in 26 La Liga games and another three in the UEFA Champions League, which Real Madrid went on to win over Morata’s former club Juventus. Morata started for Juventus the last time the club had been in the Champions League final.

Despite being just 24, Morata is emerging as one of the world’s top forwards. He has nine goals in 19 games for the Spanish National Team and now is the right time for him to experience the challenge of the Premier League, where the games come thick and fast and the pace of the game is a step up from what he’s experienced in Spain and Italy.

However, the tactical knowledge he’s learned in both places should help him in England, where he can position himself between the opposing centerbacks.