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England given reality check by gutsy Scotland in stalemate
18 June 2021, 11:21 PM

England‘s ambitions to be crowned kings of Europe got a cold dose of reality as they were held to a 0-0 draw by a gutsy Scotland side in a Euro 2020 ‘Battle of Britain’ on Friday.

Victory for Gareth Southgate’s England side in the eagerly-awaited Group D clash at a rain-swept Wembley Stadium would have sealed a place in the last 16 but they produced a nervous performance against the Scots who kept their own hopes alive.

Scotland’s Tartan Army had swept south into London for the first match against the Auld Enemy in a tournament finals since England‘s 2-0 Wembley win at Euro ’96.

They could have headed back across the border savouring an historic victory with Steve Clarke’s side matching their supposed superiors throughout an absorbing contest.

Scotland rode their luck at times with John Stones heading against the woodwork early on for England but almost scored themselves with Stephen O’Donnell and Lyndon Dykes going close before Che Adams spurned a golden opportunity.

It was the Scotland fans in the 22,000 crowd who sang loudest at the end as the draw means their team could still reach the last 16 by beating Croatia in their final group game in Glasgow on Tuesday.

England failed to build on their opening 1-0 win over Croatia and sit second, level on four points with the Czech Republic who they face in their last game on the same day.

PERFECT STAGE

When the heavens opened again shortly before kick off it felt like the perfect stage for Scotland’s ‘Bravehearts’ to upset the odds on the Auld Enemy’s turf and Steve Clarke’s men rose to the occasion.

Che Adams, one of four changes from the side that started in the 2-0 home defeat by the Czech Republic, almost drew first blood for the Scots in the fourth minute when his goalbound shot from O’Donnell’s cut back struck Stones.

England responded with Stones left completely unmarked from a Mason Mount corner to thump a header against the upright with goalkeeper David Marshall a bystander.

The hosts cranked up the pressure and Mount wasted a glorious chance after good work by Raheem Sterling.

England lacked control, however, and back came Scotland with the impressive O’Donnell forcing England keeper Jordan Pickford into the game’s first meaningful save with a back-post volley.

For all England‘s territorial superiority they were crying out for the dribbling skills of Jack Grealish and they failed to land a shot on target in the first half of a match at Wembley for the first time since 2017.

Scotland, on the other hand, reached the interval growing in belief that something special was brewing.

Southgate resisted the temptation to play his cards at halftime and England began the second period in positive fashion with Mount’s fiercely-hit shot forcing Marshall into his first save of the night.

Reece James, one of two changes to the England side that beat Croatia in searing temperatures on Sunday, then lifted a shot over after a patient spell of England possession.

It was all too frantic for the hosts though and England suffered another scare when James headed a Lyndon Dykes effort off the line and shortly afterwards Grealish entered the fray, replacing Phil Foden.

Skipper Harry Kane again lacked sharpness and was replaced by Marcus Rashford with 15 minutes remaining.

England piled on some late pressure but Scotland clung on for a deserved share of the spoils.

Rules are rules, says judge as he thwarts Royal AM’s bid to remain on top of the GladAfrica Championship log
18 June 2021, 10:54 PM

Royal AM has been dealt another blow in their quest to remain at the top of the GladAfrica Championship log to gain automatic promotion into the DSTV Premiership.

On Friday evening, Deputy Judge President of the Gauteng High Court, Judge Sutherland, dismissed the KwaZulu-Natal club’s application for leave to appeal with costs, stating that “rules are rules.”

Reading his judgement, Sutherland, said: “One, the application for leave to appeal is dismissed; two, the costs incurred by the Sekhukhune club in participating in the leave to appeal will be borne by Royal AM; three, the costs incurred by SAFA and the NSL shall be borne by themselves. That disposes of that matter.” 

The past few weeks have seen local football reduced to nothing more than a circus and back-and-forth of legal wrangles between Royal AM, Sekhukhune United, the National Soccer League as well as SAFA. At the crux of the matter has been the awarding of three points and three goals to Sekhukhune United by the SAFA Arbitration. This meant that Sekhukhune United, who were fighting for the top position of the log with Royal AM, would have gone into the final round of matches late in May sitting peak of the log.  

However, the Arbitration judgment, which according to the NSL Handbook is final and binding, was not enforced by the league who surprised all and sundry when they, together with Royal AM, instead resorted to seeking a declaratory order from the high court.

Royal AM won their final match finishing at the top of the log, minus Sekhukhune United’s three points that were withheld by the PSL pending the declaratory order.

Last week, Sekhukhune United were confirmed the winners of the first division when Sutherland upheld the ruling by the SAFA Arbitration, sending the PSL promotional saga into a complete whirlwind of confusion. This as the PSL subsequently updated the log, placing Sekhukhune United top of the log and announcing that the PSL Promotional Playoffs would kick off on Tuesday with Royal AM taking part. 

Aggrieved by both Sutherland’s judgment and the league’s decision to go ahead with the playoffs, Royal AM filed an application for leave to appeal the High Court ruling as well as an urgent interdict to thwart the commencement of the playoffs on Tuesday.  

For much of the week, the KwaZulu-Natal side seemed to be in the driving sit of the legal battles as Nyathi granted the interdict on Monday evening and the club also prepared for their application for leave to appeal hearing scheduled for Friday. They also managed to stop the league in its tracks as the NSL made an announcement that they would appeal the interdict and have playoffs begin on Thursday – a move the league was forced to make 360 degrees on, once again postponing the playoffs only hours before the first match was meant to kick off. 

Friday’s proceedings were nothing short of drama when advocate Dali Mpofu sought to convince Sutherland that a different court could arrive at a different conclusion. Mpofu insisted that had made errors in law when he awarded Sekhukhune three points and three goals, likening the award to lotto points.  

According to Mpofu, Judge Hilton Epstein had erred when he did not recognise that a forfeit was not the only conclusion he could arrive to. Mpofu also said that Epstein had not relied on the NSL Handbook and instead rushed to the FIFA rules without merit. 

This was denied by Counsel for the Limpopo side, who argued that reference point in Epstein’s judgment remained the NSL handbook and that the FIFA rules were only additional, arguing that there was no basis for the application for leave to appeal. 

Mpofu argued that it was unfair that Sekhukhune were awarded the three points in the boardroom and not on the field of play.  

“Imagine, my lord, if Brazil wins the World Cup, goes and celebrates and then Epstein comes and says there was a blank space on the team sheet and therefore, you must return that World Cup and, not only return it to FIFA, but actually give it to the team that lost 5-0. That’s just not football,” he charged.

Adovate Norman Arendse, who was representing Sekhukhune, responded: “Let me agree with Mr. Mpofu for a change. The DSTV Premiership football may be played on green pitches but they are played according to the rules and those are rules in the NSL Handbook and all the clubs agree they are bound by those rules.”  

He continued: “You may well end up winning the match 5-0, on his example, but you may well end up losing that match. Not because it’s in the boardroom or court of law but because you transgressed the rules. In other words, your conduct is unfair to the other teams and to other member clubs who play by the rules but you do not play by the rules and you can get penalised for it and that was the case here with Polokwane City.” 

Sparks flew when Mpofu let rip into the NSL accusing them of “chameleonic” conduct, moving from being in support of Royal AM and changing to being in support of Sekhukhune United in a matter of week, calling the behaviour “appalling and quite frankly embarrassing.”

Sutherland would not hear the matter regarding the Nyathi AJ judgment of Monday, saying he had no record whatsoever of the matter. The matter was struck off his roll. 

“If parties want to pursue that application, the urgent court stands open,” concluded Sutherland. 

While it remains to be seen what step Royal AM will take with regard to the interdict on the playoffs, the league is expected to announce the dates for the commencement of the playoffs.

Schick on target as Czechs edge closer with Croatia draw
18 June 2021, 8:24 PM

The Czech Republic closed in on the Euro 2020 knockouts on Friday as Patrik Schick’s first-half penalty helped them secure a 1-1 draw with Croatia, whose own qualification hopes will go down to the wire.

Schick, who took his tally for the tournament to three, picked himself off the turf and wiped blood from his nose before burying a 37th minute spot kick, awarded after Dejan Lovren’s flailing elbow clattered into the striker’s face.

That was not enough to secure victory, however, as Ivan Perisic’s superb leveller shortly after the break gave Croatia renewed hope of making it through.

The result left the Czechs with four points from their two games and a giant step closer to booking their spot in the last 16. They face England in their final game at Wembley on Tuesday knowing victory would see them top the group while defeat would probably not be fatal.

For Croatia, who have one point, the situation is more pressing. They face Scotland at Hampden Park in their final outing knowing defeat would end their campaign, while victory would put them in a good position to reach the knockouts.

Zlatko Dalic’s side showed little against the Czechs to strike fear into Scotland however.

They are clearly not as potent a force as when they reached the World Cup final in Russia in 2018 with a team bursting with ingenuity and armed with the weapons to turn their passing game into goals and chances.

The current side, who have claimed just two wins in their last 11 games, now seem to lack the inherent self-confidence they had three years ago and lack bite up front.

PENALTY DEBATE

The same cannot be said for the Czechs, who in Schick possess a marksman fuelled on the self belief that comes from putting the ball in the back of the net.

After his double against Scotland, including an astonishing effort from near the halfway line, he netted a ninth goal in his last 12 international appearances to go top of the Euro 2020 scoring charts.

Schick should have opened his account after 17 minutes but failed to connect properly with Vladimir Coufal’s cross from the right, but he did not have to wait long to find the net.

The penalty award will no doubt spark debate, but Lovren’s elbow was raised high above his shoulder when he caught Schick square in the face, even if the contact was entirely accidental, and the referee had little doubt after reviewing the incident on the pitchside monitor.

Schick stepped up to take the kick, wiping away the blood still dripping from his nose, and slammed the ball left-footed into the bottom corner.

Croatia should have immediately struck back when Ante Rebic went through at the other end, but the winger, deployed for the second game running in an unfamiliar “false nine” role, lacks Schick’s killer instinct and sliced wildly wide off target.

His game lasted only 45 minutes, as he was taken off at halftime and Croatia came out renewed after the break.

Perisic, restored to the left flank, was played in down the channel and cut in on his right foot, curling a powerful effort into the far corner, becoming the first Croatian to score at four major tournaments after goals at the last two World Cups and at Euro 2016.

There were few good chances after that although Schick should perhaps have done better with a header from a corner and substitute Adam Hlozek also volleyed wildly over for the Czechs.

Forsberg fires Sweden to 1-0 victory over Slovakia
18 June 2021, 6:43 PM

Emil Forsberg scored Sweden‘s first goal of the Euro 2020 from the penalty spot as they edged out Slovakia 1-0 to boost their qualification hopes from Group E on Friday.

In a game which was short of clear-cut chances, Slovakia goalkeeper Martin Dubravka conceded a penalty in the second half when he tripped up Robin Quaison and RB Leipzig winger Forsberg made no mistake in beating him from the spot.

Sweden top the group with four points from two games, one ahead of Slovakia. Spain (one point) play bottom side Poland on Saturday while the final round of fixtures – Sweden v Poland and Slovakia v Spain – will be played on Wednesday.

Both teams threatened to score from set pieces early in the first half but Slovakia’s Juraj Kucka and Sweden‘s Mikael Lustig saw their headers sail over the bar.

Sweden were compact at the back, as they were against Spain in their goalless opener, and it was centre back Victor Lindelof who was initiating their attacks with his distribution from a high defensive line, which was at times camped in Slovakia’s half.

Slovakia switched to a five-man defence when they were out of possession, frustrating the Swedes who were unable to string passes in the final third while Slovakia’s defence easily won the aerial duels.

Slovakia eventually made inroads into the final third towards the end of the first half as Sweden retreated but they lacked the creativity to make the final pass count and the first 45 minutes ended with neither goalkeeper tested.

Isak runs the show

Sweden started the second half on the front foot, with Alexander Isak and Forsberg having shots blocked in the first two minutes.

At the other end, Ondrej Duda found space to pull the trigger at the edge of the box but saw his shot fly inches over the crossbar.

Sweden‘s Ludwig Augustinsson brought the crowd to life at the hour mark when he directed a powerful header on target but he was denied by a fine reflex save from Dubravka, who tipped it over the bar.

Isak turned things up a notch, leaping high to win a header which drifted agonisingly over before his nifty footwork allowed him to make solo run from his own half past three defenders to curl an effort that was parried away by Dubravka.

The 21-year-old Isak then turned provider which proved fruitful when he released substitute Quaison, who drew a foul from Dubravka in the box and Forsberg stepped up to convert the penalty and seal the three points.

Match Preview: Czechs bank on in-form Schick and Vaclik for Croatia test
18 June 2021, 2:26 PM

The Czech Republic will look to attack Croatia and hope forward Patrik Schick and goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik can repeat their stellar performances in the team’s opening Euro 2020 win over Scotland, coach Jaroslav Silhavy said.

Schick netted a superb brace in Monday’s 2-0 victory over Scotland, including a stunning long-range effort, while Vaclik made several last-ditch saves.

“I believe we can keep up with them, mark them well and not give up space,” Silhavy told reporters on Thursday. “That is the only way.”

“If Tomas Vaclik and Patrik Schick repeat their performances and if they are in form again then we could have a good result coming out of the game.”

Croatia, the 2018 World Cup runners-up, are under pressure to deliver on Friday after a 1-0 defeat by England while the Czechs are riding high at the top of Group D.

But Silhavy said the team would not be complacent against a dangerous Croatian side featuring Luka Modric who won the Golden Ball as the best player at the last World Cup.

“They have great individual players who play in top European clubs,” Silhavy said. “They are very strong, especially in the attack and on a good day they are unstoppable.”

“We have to be on our toes and we can’t just defend but we also have to attack.”

Silhavy is considering one change to the line-up and he has a full squad available for the match at Hampden Park.

The teams met at the Euro 2016 group stage where they drew 2-2 after Croatia threw away a two-goal lead.

Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic suggested he would make wholesale changes in the starting line-up for Friday’s Euro 2020 Group D match against the Czech Republic after suffering a tame 1-0 defeat by England in the opening game.

The Croatians went down at Wembley without creating any chances and Dalic acknowledged they needed to move two gears up against the Czechs, who made a perfect start with a 2-0 win over Scotland at Hampden Park.

“There will be changes as we have to show much more intent and purpose up front if we are to stand any chance of beating the Czechs,” Dalic told a news conference on Thursday.

“We need to rediscover our attacking threat. The Czechs are great at breaking out of defence with six or seven players but that will also allow us to counter-attack.

“They are in a comfortable position having won their opening game and we are not, but we always got going when the going got tough in the past and I am optimistic because our fate is still in our own hands.”

The Croatians enjoyed a stunning 2018 World Cup campaign and finished as runners-up as they came from behind to beat England 2-1 in the semis before losing the final 4-2 to France.

But the present side seems to lack that kind of guile and bite as they were subdued by England this time and fortunate not to have lost by a bigger margin.

Dalic is likely to throw attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic into the fray to take some of the workload off 35-year-old captain Luka Modric, while striker Bruno Petkovic could get the nod ahead of Andrej Kramaric.

That would see winger Ante Rebic return to either flank after his deployment as a ‘false nine’ against England backfired, with the pacy Josip Brekalo a possible starter at the expense of defensive midfielder Marcelo Brozovic.

Dalic suggested Croatia would try to pile the pressure on the Czechs from the start in order to take control of the game.

“We need to put them on the back foot with raids down the flanks and more direct passes through the middle, as we lacked all that against England,” he said.

“The players also need to make runs into the box in numbers from deeper positions because only a win will do. Otherwise we’ll be left hoping that other results go our way and we don’t want to be in that situation.”

In the group’s other match on Friday, England play Scotland at Wembley.

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