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England struck by poor club form in qualifying blip

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What do you do as a national team manager when the best players in your group are struggling at the club level?

That’s the issue currently facing Gareth Southgate, and it’s spilled over into Euro 2020 qualification as England fell to the Czech Republic 2-1 on Friday, its first Euro qualifying defeat in ten years.

While its obvious England has a massive talent imbalance between offense and defense, the poor form plague has also struck, leaving Southgate with a host of difficult choices both up front and at the back. It has become such a pestilence that Southgate was left with no choice but to admit it after the match.

“In terms of the players, I think there are players who are not playing well for their clubs, but that is the situation we are in at the moment, certainly in a couple of positions,” admitted Southgate in the post-match press conference. “We collectively have to accept the result, but of course, as the manager, then I have got to accept that as well, absolutely.”

The England boss has some serious pondering to do up and down the pitch. Marcus Rashford has become a problem for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the suddenly stagnant Manchester United attack, and he gave way in the England starting lineup to young Jadon Sancho, who was unable to lift England on the day. In midfield, a now-broken Dele Alli was a guaranteed starter at the World Cup two years ago but was left out entirely this international break as Tottenham continues to flounder, while fellow Spur Harry Winks was relegated to the bench. Harry Maguire in defense has begun his Red Devils career well, but beside him was Michael Keane who has been downright poor at Everton thus far. Ross Barkley has lost his place at Chelsea and was left among the substitutes in Prague as well in favor of the in-form teammate Mason Mount, but with England misfiring Barkley was unable to change the tide off the bench.

The problem for Southgate is two-fold, and he’s damned no matter what. In the case of players like Alli, Rashford, and Winks, the England boss chose to replace them with less experienced players, which clearly upset the balance and cohesion within the squad. Yet he chose to stick with Keane, who has started every Euro qualifier thus far, in favor of a younger Joe Gomez and that backfired as well, as Keane toiled ineffectively in Prague. Gomez himself has lost his place at Liverpool to Joel Matip, and would have been another questionable option.

Injuries also played their part no doubt. Key players in Aaron Wan-Bissaka, John Stones, and James Maddison were axed due to injuries or illness, while Callum Hudson-Odoi was not selected as he recently returned from a long-term problem himself. Still, Wan-Bissaka’s absence left Southgate with no choice but to select a replacement, choosing Kieran Trippier on the edge of the back line, who has seen an up-and-down start to his Atletico Madrid career. Even Stones had dipped in form at Manchester City, falling completely out of the matchday squad in favor of Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi before succumbing to an unspecified muscle injury.

These problems caused issues tactically for a squad that suddenly had to deal with a deviation from the norm. Southgate deployed a 4-2-3-1 with Mount in the central creative role, but according to Yahoo’s Kieran Canning, the national team has not played in such a formation in two years. Southgate mentioned multiple times in his post-match press conference how displeased he was with England’s off-ball structure and movement, a direct product of mixing and matching. “We tried something [in the second half] to make ourselves a bit more solid without the ball, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “We didn’t look any more solid, and we were poor at using the ball in the first half. That said, at 1-1, at half time, we were able to change that. I think we were better in the second half and we created chances to win the game.”

To make matters worse, the few players in good club form didn’t live up to standards on the international stage. Declan Rice, maybe West Ham’s best player so far this season, was miserable in a pivot with Jordan Henderson and hauled off in the second half. The Mirror says between the midfield pair, they made just one successful tackle through the entire match and completed just 11 passes in the opening 20 minutes of the game. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has been one of many fantastic Liverpool players this season, was bafflingly left on the bench in favor of Trippier.

The issues facing Southgate are a stark reminder how long two years truly is. This England squad felt far more solid and secure with depth as it reached the semifinals of the World Cup just two year ago. Now, there are glaring holes and numerous questions at a host of different positions. With the starters floundering in Prague, Southgate’s choices off the bench have thinned considerably, and Rashford’s injection of quality off the bench two years ago in Russia 2018 is no longer to be found as he came on with 17 minutes to go on Friday. The rock solid World Cup back-three of Stones, Maguire, and Kyle Walker is nowhere to be found despite the presence of all three in the setup.

Little has changed personnel wise for England, and yet two years on after a promising World Cup run with a host of players in their prime, the squad now feels in flux again as key individuals are forced to fight for their places. Gareth Southgate does not sit in an envious position, looking for answers while keeping faith in some key squad members while making necessary changes elsewhere hoping not to upset the squad chemistry. A visit to Bulgaria on Monday represents a quick turnaround between two road matches, an opportunity to right the ship amid the necessary distraction of travel. Anything less than a convincing performance will allow lingering questions to fester for another month, plenty of time for the sudden dysfunction to become even more chronic.

EURO qualifying wrap: FC Dallas striker sinks England

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Well, well, well, England can lose a EURO qualifier.

[ MORE: Ranieri finds new job ]

For the first time in a decade, the Three Lions came up short in a qualifier, while France needed a bit of tomfoolery to win its match and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo moved closer to 700 career goals in an easy win.

No one joined Belgium as officially in the tournament, but Ukraine is very close.

Czech Republic 2-1 England

Maybe it was a bit too young, or maybe the club form was a bit too off from some his stars, but England’s long unbeaten EURO qualifying run is over at 43 matches.

Mason Mount, Declan Rice, and Jadon Sancho started for the Three Lions, who went ahead after five minutes when Harry Kane converted a Raheem Sterling-won penalty.

But the Czechs drew level within four minutes and the hosts dominated the rest of the first half. It felt like a winner was coming for Jaroslav Silhavy’s men, and it came in the somewhat unlikely form of a 30-year-old debutant from FC Dallas.

Zdenek “The Cobra” Ondrasek scored off a Lukas Masopust cut back to give the Czechs a 84th minute lead and the hosts on to go level on points with group-leading England, who has played one fewer match.

Gareth Southgate was not pleased:

“We conceded too many poor chances and we gave the ball away too many times. We knew we’d have to be at full tilt to deal with the Czech Republic but we should have been strong enough to deal with them.”

Also not pleased? A certain prince.

Portugal 3-0 Luxembourg

Cristiano Ronaldo is one goal away from 700 in his career for club and country after bagging a second half goal in Portugal’s easy-enough win over visiting Luxembourg.

Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes also scored for the reigning EURO champions.

Iceland 0-1 France

You would’ve though Antoine Griezmann was dead as he limped out of the box after drawing a penalty, and you’d be fair to imagine he had a severe pain-delay problem considering how long it took him to hit the turf, but don’t worry he was fine and back in the fray moments after Olivier Giroud‘s penalty sealed a win for Les Bleus.

Elsewhere

Andorra 1-0 Moldova
Montenegro 0-0 Bulgaria
Turkey 1-0 Albania
Ukraine 2-0 Lithuania

England supporters involved in police clash in Prague

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According to reports, traveling England supporters have been involved in clashes with police ahead of the match against Czech Republic in Prague.

The report states that clashes began when an England supporter threw a bottle at a police officer in riot gear, who then advanced on the crew while playing a recorded warning message. The police resorted to using stun grenades while fans continued to hail them with bottles.

It is unclear if any arrests were made, but the report states a group was seen being pinned down by police officers in a corner lying face down.

The game has a late kick of 8:45pm local time, leaving officials worried about potential security issues around the city. England asked for the game to be moved up, but the request was denied by UEFA. This led England’s lead for football policing Mark Roberts to plead with fans “stay clear of the drunken minority.”

Around 3,800 tickets were sold to traveling England fans for the match, but it is thought that around 6,000 have traveled.

USMNT drops six more spots in latest FIFA rankings

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The United States men’s national team has dropped to No. 30 in the world ahead of the 2019 Gold Cup, though we can all admit that feels a bit generous right now.

[ MORE: Gold Cup predictions ]

The Yanks fell six spots in the latest FIFA Rankings, 12 below Mexico and nine ahead of Costa Rica. It’s the biggest drop of any nation in the Top 50, though Greece dropped nine spots to sit 52nd.

The 30 marker is six spots higher than its lowest ranking since the system began in 1993. The Yanks are 39th overall in Elo Ratings.

Belgium remains world No. 1, with France, Brazil, and England next. Portugal climbs into fifth.

Austria (26th) is up 8 spots, Czech Republic (41st) goes up 7 places, and Hungary (42nd) is up 9.

England kicks off Euro 2020 qualification in style

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It’s been nine months since the 2018 World Cup, but England looked as if it picked up where it left off in Russia.

The Three Lions opened their Euro 2020 qualification on the right foot with a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic on Friday at Wembley Stadium. Raheem Sterling carried his terrific form in front of goal into the international game, finishing with a hat trick. Meanwhile, Harry Kane scored once and picked up a hockey assist on England’s opener as he set the play in motion.

[READ: USMNT ratings vs. Ecuador]

It was the kind of performance England fans have longed to see against Europe’s weaker sides, though in the past England had been unable to break those opponents down. On Friday, just about everything went to plan.

In the opening minutes, England set the tone with their attacking 4-3-3 approach, especially with fullbacks Kyle Walker and Ben Chillwell getting up into the attack. Kane unlocked the Czech Republic defense in the 24th minute with a terrific pass to find Jadon Sancho in space in the box, which you can see in the graphic below. Sancho quickly slid a ball across the face of goal that Sterling slid home to put England up 1-0.

Just before halftime, Sterling was involved again as he was bundled down in the penalty box, leading to a penalty kick. Kane stepped up and cooly dispatches the ball in for England’s second.

In the second half, as the Czech Republic tried to push forward, that left space open in behind. Dele Alli slid a ball into the box for Sterling, who’s initial attempt was blocked. However, the ball popped out to his left and Sterling curled a strike home with terrrific poise. Sterling put a bow on his terrific performance with a strike that took a heavy deflection off Ondrej Celustka and found the net.

Less than two years after winning the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Callum Hudson-Odoi made his England debut replacing Sterling. The debut is significant, as Hudson-Odom hasn’t started a league match yet.

In the 84th minute, a Chelsea connection led to England’s fifth goal. Sancho dribbled through the middle of the field diagonally before finding Hudson-Odoi out left. The youngster cut inside and fired a strike on goal that was saved by Czech goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka. But the rebound off Pavlenka’s save was somehow put into his own goal by Czech defender and former Chelsea signing Tomas Kalas.