Good international break for Marco Asensio, but a bad one for Mario Balotelli

Matt Jones 13/09/2018
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The first international break of the 2018/19 season is in the bag, with various international stars heading back to their clubs either with reputations enhanced or diminished.

With the likes of Brazil, France, Argentina and Spain all in action over the last 10 days, there were plenty of chances to impress and get more minutes in the legs as some still struggle for form and fitness with the new season only a few weeks old.

Here we pick out four players who shone on international duty and four who need to improve.

HOT

MARCO ASENSIO

Long been earmarked as the man to take Spain into the new era yet he couldn’t fully break into Real Madrid’s team last year and barely featured at the World Cup.

It’s taken that debacle in Russia for the winds of change to sweep through La Roja and the Los Blancos forward certainly soared in the international break – scoring one and having a hand in another four as the home side inflicted a 6-0 hammering on World Cup finalists Croatia in their Nations League clash.

RICHARLISON

Started the season at new club Everton with a weighty £40m price tag hanging around his neck. Silenced the doubters with a brace on debut in a pulsating 2-2 draw with Wolves, but was then sent off against Bournemouth.

Got a call-up to the Brazil squad. Surely too big a leap? No way. After making his Canarinho debut in the 2-0 win over the USA, the 21-year-old won the penalty for Neymar to make it 1-0 before scoring two as El Salvador were put to the sword in a 5-0 triumph. Drew praise from the mighty Neymar for his goals and pigeon dance that followed. Another Samba star in the making?

FRENKIE DE JONG

The 21-year-old Dutch midfielder/center-back is one of world football’s hottest commodities, in part because he plays the position like an attacker, drawing comparisons to legendary German defender Franz Beckenbauer.

Manchester City, Tottenham and Spanish duo Real and Barcelona are all believed to be interested in a player who made his Oranje bow in the double header with Peru and France.

TYLER ADAMS

The 19-year-old, who made his United States debut last November, scored the winner when he swept home Antonee Robinson’s cross to earn his nation a 1-0 win in a feisty encounter with rivals Mexico.

“He’s a winner this kid. We know that he can run and cover ground and win tackles and compete. But at the next level now can you do the next part? And that’s have a presence with the ball and picking your spots so it just keeps getting better,” US interim coach Dave Sarachan said of a player expected to play a huge part in the shaping of a new era for US football.

12 09 HOT AND COLD

COLD

LUKA MODRIC

Croatia couldn’t back up their stunning showing in Russia as they were thrashed 6-0 by Spain. It was a Vatreni side that contained just four of those who started the World Cup final against France, and Madrid magician Modric didn’t actually play badly.

But for a man being talked about as a possible Ballon d’Or winner this year – with genuine hope of the Lionel Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly being broken – this scoreline might well be remembered.

DIEGO COSTA

The Spanish Football Federation said Costa requested to be dropped from La Roja’s first squad since the World Cup disaster for personal reasons, which will surely cast doubts on his international future.

It wasn’t necessarily a damaging decision from Costa who will have been concerned perhaps to see Valencia forward Rodrigo net against England and Croatia. Although if Alvaro Morata remains one of his biggest worries, he probably won’t lose too much sleep.

MARIO BALOTELLI

Balotelli is still some way off his prime, as was seen by his woeful performance in Italy’s draw with Poland last week, which prompted Azzurri boss Roberto Mancini to leave him out of their second Nations League game with Portugal on Monday.

The former Man City ace was jeered off the field after being subbed on the hour mark, with L’Equipe subsequently claiming the 28-year-old turned up for the first day of pre-season training at Nice 15kg heavier than his optimal weight of 85kg.

MAURO ICARDI

“I missed the goal only by a few centimeters, but I’m happy and I know that sooner or later it will go in,” Argentina striker Iccardi said after the dismal 0-0 friendly draw with Colombia in New Jersey.

With Messi absent from La Albiceleste during the international break, this was a chance for the Inter Milan skipper to lay the foundations for the future, but he failed to rise to the challenge.

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Gareth Southgate knows pressure will be on against Spain and Croatia

Matt Jones 12/09/2018
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Gareth Southgate welcomed victory over Switzerland as an important milestone in his England reign but knows the pressure will be on in a daunting double header next month.

Marcus Rashford’s close-range volley was enough to seal a 1-0 friendly win at the King Power Stadium, ending a three-game losing streak and also handing the manager the highest-ranked scalp of his tenure.

Switzerland may seem generously rated at eighth in the world, two behind the Three Lions, but still provided tricky opposition for a team showing nine changes and several players on the fringes at Premier League level.

Having seen his first-choice XI beaten 2-1 by by Spain in the first round of Nations League fixtures four days earlier, it was also a pleasing way to end the squad’s first reunion since their run to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia.

“It’s important as a group to get a win against a top 10 team. That’s a pleasing fact,” said Southgate.

“We know the performance could have been better. But the players have given everything through a really difficult period.

England v Switzerland - International Friendly

“It was going to be tough mentally to switch back from the World Cup to these games, physically for all the players, and with two tough games to play. It’s not been a perfect week by any means, but it’s a win.”

That feeling of satisfaction will soon give way to preparation and planning, with the October international break bringing a pair of testing road trips.

England’s semi-final conquerors Croatia are first up in a behind-closed-doors fixture in Rijeka, followed by a second chance against Spain in Seville.

Southgate will expect both sides to be strong but the eye-catching scale of the Spaniards’ 6-0 victory over Croatia in Elche on Tuesday has marked them out as front-runners in UEFA’s new competition.

Success over Switzerland may have averted an unwanted national record of four successive losses but Southgate does not expect the scrutiny to relent as a result.

“I have a feeling we might be sitting here next month talking about a fourth competitive defeat before the next match,” he said with a dry smile.

As for events at Estadio Martinez Valero, he ahead: “I’m not surprised in terms of Spain’s quality.

“I would imagine Croatia have been through a similar experience to us: players with very little chance for pre-season and matches. I don’t know their line-up.

“Of the teams that got to the last four, Roberto (Martinez, Belgium boss) has the Harlem Globetrotters and (champions) France have strength in depth, but we don’t have that.

“Our players were out on their feet by the end against Switzerland. I can imagine Croatia have experienced something similar and Spain are capable of tearing you apart if they’re on song.”

Leicester’s Ben Chilwell became the 19th player to make his debut under the 48-year-old with an appearance off the bench at his home ground and earned a warm tribute.

“He had good presence, good confidence,” said Southgate.

“I like what he did at the end of last season and beginning of this one. We looked to get him in to train with us before the World Cup but couldn’t. He’s progressing really well.”

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Jack Butland and England players "believe in" playing out from the back

Simon Peach 12/09/2018
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Jack Butland’s belief that England should keep playing out from the back remains unwavering, despite enduring some hairy moments in the unconvincing win against Switzerland.

The World Cup semi-finalists avoided a record fourth successive defeat on Tuesday evening as Marcus Rashford capped an improved second-half display by securing a narrow 1-0 win in Leicester.

While Gareth Southgate’s men did well after the break, the first half made for uncomfortable viewing.

Overrun in midfield and shaky in defence, the determination to play out from the back almost cost them in the opening stages.

Xherdan Shaqiri hit a post after Butland played James Tarkowski into trouble shortly after the Stoke goalkeeper nearly rolled a pass into his own net.

“It was scruffy at times, but we kept doing it,” England shot-stopper Butland said.

“We kept plugging away and ultimately we played from end-to-end a fair few times and got ourselves some chances and some good possession as a result of it.

“It’s something that we believe in. We believe we’ve got the players to do it, so we’re not just going to turn away from it if we don’t feel like it’s right.

“Yes, we still need to make the right decisions – there are times when you can overplay and times when the ball needs to go longer and a bit safer – but it’s about making those decisions and I thought we did that as a whole pretty well.”

Butland spoke with confidence at the King Power Stadium, where England eventually “got to grips” with things on a night when the goalkeeper did well not to be thrown off kilter.

“It’s not particularly difficult if you’re comfortable doing it,” he said of playing out from the back.

“We’ve done it all week in training, so for me, I enjoy it, I like the challenge, I like the experience of being able to do it, so it’s nice to have that opportunity to do it with England.”

Jordan Pickford’s superior ability on the ball will surely see him return to the number one jersey in next month’s UEFA Nations League double-header with Croatia and Spain.

Butland was understandably proud to pick up his ninth cap on Tuesday, but it is now back to the grind of Championship football as relegated Stoke head to Sheffield Wednesday this weekend.

Southgate’s keenness for his players to be competing at the top level is clear, with the 25-year-old the only member of the squad currently playing outside the Premier League.

“You can argue that the standard is different, but it’s still a very demanding league and I still have to be at the top of my game,” Butland said.

“I still have to be fit, strong, train well and play well. If I can do that, I’d like to think I can stay in the squad.

“The manager’s reassured me of that. We’ve had a lot of conversations.

“If I’m in the Championship beyond this season, then obviously things start to get a bit trickier, but certainly for this year he’s reassured me that if I can keep my standards high, I can be a part of the team.”

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