This is the way it works for England.
They come into a tournament, well, “strong” would be the wrong word, but feeling as if they are on the cusp of something.
This is a nation forever on the edge of its great football awakening. This (insert year here) version of England could be a new Spain – if only they were Spanish. And good.
Usually, it has something to do with Wayne Rooney – and probably will continue to be so years after he retires to manage a carwash in Liverpool.
Awash in high spirits ahead of a tournament, England then settles in for a long slog of unwatchable football, forehead-slapping errors, fluke goals and predictable, but still crushing, disappointment.
The good news is that we’re well ahead of schedule. Euro 2016 is only a week old, and we’re already three-quarters of the way there.
England beat Wales 2-1 on Thursday. Some wins feel like losses. Some losses feel like wins. This was the rare win that felt like an incredibly fortunate draw.
For huge stretches, the quality on offer was horrific. The UEFA European Championship is meant to be a sumptuous buffet of creativity. This was a little like taking your seat at a five-star eatery and having the chef throw eggs at you from the kitchen.
Balls hoofed up to nowhere. Opponents rugby tackling each other at midfield. The sort of mindless running that’s often confused with effort. It might fairly be said that England’s greatest offensive threat in the first half was escaped Easter Island statue Chris Smalling.
There is a sort of comfort in watching this, knowing we come here every four years and nothing really changes. Spain paints, Italy finds a way, Germany wins in the end, and England plays like they’ve had their ankles bound together with zip ties.
You knew the hideous gaffe was coming – and you probably could have guessed where from.
Ahead of the game, cameras picked up England goalkeeper Joe Hart shrieking like a madman in the tunnel. It was reminiscent of his unhinged, cage-rattling outburst just before Italy put his team out on penalties at Euro 2012.
“GET THAT BALL,” Hart screamed at no one in particular. “MOVE THAT (expletive) BALL.”
Perhaps the goalkeeper should be worrying more about stopping the ball than he is about moving it. Just a thought.
Because when it came time to perform that rather crucial function, Hart was all aflutter. It began with a foolish Rooney foul in the no man’s land just inside England’s final third. That left Wales’ only real weapon, Gareth Bale, with time to calibrate his sights.
Bale launched a hard screwball from miles away. Hart had completely misjudged his positioning. He was forced to come streaking across the face of the goal like a man lunging for a subway car that’s already halfway out of the station. He only managed to tap the sinking shot into his own net.
That moment was peak (always peaking in the wrong direction, these guys) England. Hart was going to join a line of England No. 1s – David Seaman, Robert Green, et al – who’ve singlehandedly blown a major tournament.
In that moment, England had also gotten their manager, Roy Hodgson, fired. You could see the poor man over there on the bench, thinking about all that free time he’d now have to fill at home, drawing up ambitious new redecorating schemes before deciding he still likes the old velvet wallpaper better.
It is to Hodgson’s credit that in the second half he did what he never does: He changed something.
England brought on Jamie Vardy, the 57-year-old who only six months ago was working the leaf blower at a horse crematorium (or something like that – the story has been somewhat exaggerated by this point).
You knew at that point.
You knew that nothing would change, that England would lose, that they’d pooch it against Slovakia on Monday, that tears would be shed at pitchside, that knives would be taken out at the executive level, that this would all somehow be Arsène Wenger’s fault, and that we could repeat the whole mess in Russia two years from now.
Then a hero emerged. I give you the greatest saviour in modern English football: Germany’s Stefan Lupp.
Lupp was one of two linesmen working the game. In the 56th minute, a ball was hoofed into the Welsh goalmouth. Vardy ran well past the play so he could take up a position three yards offside – which is not optimal. The ball ping-ponged through to him. He scored at point-blank distance. Lupp’s flag did not go up.
At first, it looked like the worst non-call ever made. Not even close. The champion officiating screw-up by acclamation.
Only in slow-motion replay could one see that the ball had been mistakenly headed by a Welsh player amidst a forest of English heads. Thus, Vardy had been played onside.
Lupp was standing 40 or so metres away, looking through a thicket of bodies moving chaotically at speed and trying to keep his eye on a ricocheting ball. That he was able to correctly see what had happened in real time puts him one miracle away from canonization.
Vardy will get the headlines back home, but never forget that it was a German who saved England in Europe.
Wales understandably flagged at that point. The remainder of the match was one-way traffic. England added another just near the end. The result flattered the winners and paid not enough credit to the losers.
The question is whether that turn of fortune, running as it did against so many years of history, has put England right. Are they now an Italy or Germany – the sort of team that gets the benefit of luck?
Probably not. It’d be too jarring for the rest of us. We have our expectations, and it’s not healthy to have too many of them upended in a short span. One might lose one’s sense of proportion and begin mortgaging the house to buy lottery tickets.
We’d all be wise to wait until England has managed this sort of thing in a knockout game before we begin rethinking our core beliefs. Until then, be on the lookout for further signs of the end of days.
Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020
Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.
Theo Bair (MLS)
This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)
Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.
Connor McDavid (NHL)
McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.
Chuba Hubbard (College Football)
The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.
2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo
Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.
The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.
Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.
Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”
Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.
Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.
Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.
“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”
Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.
“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”
Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.
Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.
“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”
After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.
“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”
None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.
Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.
“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.
“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.
Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month
NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.
The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.
Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.
“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.
“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”
It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.
For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.
Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.
A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.
It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.
Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.
“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.
“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.
“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.
“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”
And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.
“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”
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