Gareth Southgate is no Sir Winston Churchill, but he stands apart as an England manager with a plan

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Gareth Southgate celebrates with his England players after they defeated the Netherlands.

Gareth Southgate is not a man to set pulses racing.

As a player, he dealt in understated excellence.

Beyond his defining semi-final penalty miss on home soil at Euro 1996 and subsequent pizza advert, the casual observer would fail to recall anything of note from a respectable 57-cap England career.

The versatile centre-back’s acerbic putdown of Sven-Goran Eriksson – the manager who wasted a ‘Golden Generation’ – and a member of the British ruling class in the wake of World Cup 2002’s quarter-final surrender to Brazil currently stands as his enduring gift to the game. Few political hacks ever scribe a killer line to match: “We were expecting Winston Churchill and instead we got Iain Duncan-Smith.”

It is no great surprise to learn that Southgate has been in the Swede’s shoes for more than a year and we’ve not heard anything that matches the greatest orator his nation has ever known.

In defence, landlocked Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod at Russia’s World Cup 2018 do not provide the same opportunities for a “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech as the previous edition in Brazil’s tropical paradise.

And yet, the now 47-year-old who relegated Middlesbrough in 2008/09 and led England’s Under-21 to last place in their group at the 2015 European Championships has done something his celebrated ex-boss comprehensively failed to do during the previous decade.

Through a frank assessment of England’s few strengths and many weaknesses, he appears to have constructed a lucid tactical plan. This is a rare gift for men in his position – as contemporaries such as Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson can all attest.

For once this summer, the national side should exceed expectations set at record lows rather than shrink under unrealistic ones.

The 3-5-2 formation utilised once again on Friday night earned a deserved first victory in the Netherlands since 1969. Manchester United bolter Jesse Lingard’s precise finish from the edge of the penalty box extended England’s unbeaten run to seven games and made it five-consecutive clean sheets for the first time since October 2014.

Southgate is aware his centre midfield cannot match the shimmering quality of the globe’s grandees. For all that Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson acquitted himself well at Amsterdam ArenA, he is no Toni Kroos, N’Golo Kante, Thiago Alcantara or Casemiro.

Neither would two centre-backs selected from a middling bunch that contains – if all available – the likes of Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Joe Gomez and the out-of-form John Stones provide adequate protection when faced with Belgium’s galaxy of shimmering attackers in Group G this June. An extra body is a necessity.

What they do have – when fit – is arguably the sport’s standout striker in Harry Kane, his partner-in-crime from Tottenham of Dele Alli plus fleet-footed forwards such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford who can wound any side on the counter-attack.

Pace seems to be a key facet for Southgate. Kyle Walker has a claim to be among the top-three right-backs on the planet, but he found himself as one of three centre-backs against the sorry Dutch.

Starts were also granted to Tottenham full-backs Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain buzzed around Liverpool club-mate Henderson in midfield and further legs were supplied by the effervescent Lingard.

England's Jesse Lingard scores the solitary goal against the Netherlands.

England’s Jesse Lingard scores the solitary goal against the Netherlands.

The days seem over of simply cramming all your best players onto the pitch with no regard for a coherent system.

In this regard, the Netherlands were apt opponents. Severe injury to Roma centre midfielder Kevin Strootman – who looked a shadow of the animal he once was this weekend – and worries about a porous rearguard forced Louis van Gaal to forgo decades of adherence to Johan Cruyff’s 4-3-3 ‘totaalvoetbal’ principles and select a 3-5-2 four years ago.

His reward was an evisceration of holders Spain and an unlikely run to the semi-finals.

And let’s not forget Sir Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’ eschewed the predatory Jimmy Greaves and delivered ultimate glory at World Cup 1966.

The Three Lions don’t have their roar back. Perhaps, they never will.

But under Southgate, they can proceed with quiet confidence that better days lie ahead after miserable returns at the last three tournaments.

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Usain Bolt, Diego Maradona, Jose Mourinho star in Hublot's 'Match of Friendship' as part of World Cup promotion

Maradona, Mourinho, and Bolt were the star attractions at the exhibition.

Famed Swiss luxury watch maker Hublot brought together its brand ambassadors for a special football match on Wednesday as part of its role as an official sponsor of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho and footballing legend Diego Maradona led two teams on the sidelines of Baselworld 2018, the renowned watch and jewelry exhibition, in a specially-built indoor football arena that played host to some of football’s star names.

Tino Asprilla, Roberto Carlos, Hernan Crespo, Marco Materazzi, David Trezeguet, Marcel Desailly, Robbie Keane, and Patrick Kluivert were among the big names taking part in the match, along with FIFA boss Gianni Infantino and sprinting superstar Usain Bolt.

The match also featured the official watch for the World Cup, the Big Bang Referee 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, worn on Wednesday by famous ex-referee Nicola Rizolli.

This year’s World Cup kicks off on June 14, with hosts Russia playing the first match of the tournament against Saudi Arabia.

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Germany's Manuel Neuer in race to be fit for World Cup 2018

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The clock is ticking down for Manuel Neuer to return from a fractured foot, but the Germany camp is hopeful he will be ready for their World Cup defence.

Germany host Spain on Friday in Duesseldorf and Brazil in Berlin next Tuesday in high-profile friendlies, but will again be without their captain and goalkeeper.

In the 31-year-old’s absence, Barcelona‘s Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Kevin Trapp of Paris Saint-Germain and Bayer Leverkusen’s Bernd Leno will be vying for Germany’s number one shirt.

Neuer has not played since fracturing his foot last September – the second time he suffered the same injury in 2017.

His club Bayern Munich have not set a date for his return, but the countdown is on before Germany announce their World Cup squad on May 15.

“There is no pressure from our side, it’s a decision for him and the doctors,” said Germany team manager Oliver Bierhoff on Wednesday.

“Of course, we hope he will be 100 percent ready and fit by the time we nominate (the World Cup squad).”

Neuer has not played for Germany since October 2016, and the defending world champions are desperate for him to be ready for their opening World Cup match against Mexico in Moscow on June 17.

Neuer was voted the world’s best goalkeeper for four years running up until 2016.

Manuel Neuer 2

His six-month absence and lack of match practice is a cause for worry in football-mad Germany.

Thomas Mueller understands the concern but is backing his Germany and Bayern team-mate to get fit.

“I see ‘Manu’ a bit more than most and he always give the impression that everything is okay,” said Mueller.

“I am not privy to what the medical situation is, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest things aren’t going to plan.

“He’ll take the necessary time, and from what I know of ‘Manu’, you can never write him off.

“The discussion as to whether Neuer will be fit for the World Cup is understandable, but I think he’ll manage it.”

The Spain and Brazil games are Germany’s final friendlies before the World Cup squad is picked, but warm-up matches are planned against Austria and Saudi Arabia on June 2 and 8 respectively.

Four years ago, a shoulder injury also hampered Neuer’s preparation before the last World Cup.

But Bierhoff admits the long absence this time around is new territory for Neuer.

“I don’t see it as a problem, the work-load on his foot will be gradually built up,” said Bierhoff.

“What is different from 2014, of course, is a lack of match practice.

“But I still think that during intense training sessions, a world-class goalkeeper comes relatively quickly back into his rhythm.”

Provided by AFP Sport

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