Tag Archives: audacity

Chris Foy"s highs and lows of 2012 in rugby union

It's been a funny old year, so here are the highs and lows of an unforgettable 2012

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UPDATED:

00:10 GMT, 28 December 2012

At the end of a year that featured so many remarkable, inspirational sporting feats, this column presents the rugby highlights and lowlights – the good, bad and ugly of 2012.

These are a mixture of the conventional and bizarre, the well-known and obscure. Above all, this is a personal selection of memories, not an exhaustive, comprehensive record of the last 12 months. Here goes:

Player of the Year: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. It has been said here before and it is worth saying again – Argentina's back-row captain is simply without equal.

Stand-out: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is Sportsmail's Chris Foy's Player of 2012

Stand-out: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe is Sportsmail's Chris Foy's Player of 2012

Try of the Year: To jog the memory, Sky provided a useful shortlist. Based on their eye-catching selection, the one that stands out is from New Zealand's ITM Cup; Hawke's Bay wing Gillies Kaka against Bay of Plenty.

Sheer counter-attacking audacity and predatory class.

Performance of the Year (team): It is still vividly fresh in the mind, almost a month on. England beating the seemingly invincible All Blacks with a three-try swagger was the ultimate collective feat.

Performance of the Year (individual): In England's win over France in Paris in March, Tom Croft reached standards even beyond what he delivered for the Lions in 2009.

The Tigers flanker scored a scorching try, dominated the lineout, carried superbly, tackled, hit rucks, the lot. Upsets of the year: Harlequins losing to Connacht in Galway and Edinburgh ambushing the mighty Toulouse at Murrayfield in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

Invincible England hammered New Zealand at Twickenham

Invincible England hammered New Zealand at Twickenham

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VIEW FULL ARCHIVE

Best Test newcomers: Craig Gilroy (Ireland), Eben Etzebeth (South Africa), Michael Hooper (Australia), Joe Launchbury (England), Tim Visser (Scotland).

Best game covered: South Africa v England in Johannesburg. Springbok fervour in the stands and ferocity on the field, England hit to near-oblivion, then reviving to nearly conjure a stunning win.

Best nickname revelations: Dan Cole (Polar Bear) – 'It's a large Arctic creature, fur as white as my skin.'

Toby Flood, during Movember: 'I'm told I look like the lead singer of Metallica.' (He meant Lemmy from Motorhead!)

Worst match conditions: Plenty of contenders, but it has to be Australia v Scotland in June. The visitors prevailed in a monsoon far more reminiscent of a wild night at Murrayfield than the usually balmy surrounds of the New South Wales coast.

Agonising defeat: Ireland deserved a maiden win over New Zealand during their second Test in June but after Jonny Sexton missed a penalty at 19-19 in Christchurch, Dan Carter's last-minute drop goal saw the All Blacks home.

Worst celebration: Seconds after Scotland clinched their famous win that night, the players formed a bouncing huddle, but when Joe Ansbro and Alasdair Strokosch leapt on to it, their clash of heads left Ansbro with blood pouring from an eye wound and he missed his country's next game.

Amusing ambush: Roger Lewis, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, offering to stage the England v Wales World Cup 2015 pool game in Cardiff, just minutes after the draw had pitched the bitter rivals together. The host nation didn't take long to reject his 'kind offer'.

Polar bear: Dan Cole has acquired a nickname because of his size and fair hair

Polar bear: Dan Cole has acquired a nickname because of his size and fair hair

New buzz-phrase: 'Work-ons'. England's new coaching team have wholeheartedly adopted it. Bad day for defences: Heineken Cup – Northampton 36 Munster 51.

Worrying trend: Exodus of Welsh players to French clubs, amid economic turmoil.

Drawn-out farce of the Year No 1: Promotion of London Welsh to the Premiership. Having won the Championship but failed to satisfy the Minimum Standards Criteria, both the Exiles and Newcastle were kept hanging on until the decision was eventually reversed on appeal in July.

Drawn-out farce of the Year No 2: England coach recruitment. While Stuart Lancaster was put in charge without too much fuss after his convincing Six Nations audition, the RFU were slack in pursuing Andy Farrell, then snubbed by Wayne Smith before Farrell's re-think.

Surreal news day: Wasps had just staged a press conference in a pub by Ealing Common when the TV rights war erupted in September. It was nearly closing time when the last words had been filed.

Best new overseas imports: Kahn Fotuali'i (Ospreys), Vereniki Goneva (Leicester).

Dead ringer: Toby Flood was told he looked like the lead singer of Motorhead when sporting his 'Movember' facial hair

Dead ringer: Toby Flood was told he looked like the lead singer of Motorhead when sporting his 'Movember' facial hair

Most difficult phone call: Warren Gatland ringing his long-time sidekick Shaun Edwards to tell him that he would not be part of the Lions coaching staff next summer.

Favourite fans: Clermont, Munster and Ulster.

Grounds for complaint No 1: When there was a rare burst of snow in Rome prior to England's Six Nations encounter with Italy, ground-staff made a feeble attempt to clear the surface at the Stadio Olimpico and only in the half occupied by the Azzurri.

Grounds for complaint No 2: Saracens' use of the PA system at Vicarage Road to relentlessly play 'Stand up for the Saracens' in an attempt to drown out Munster's magnificent fans.

My prediction howlers: England to beat Australia. Wrong. England 'surely can't win' against New Zealand. Wrong. Leinster to retain the Heineken Cup. Almost certainly wrong.

The last word…

Danny Cipriani has been recalled by Sale for Friday's clash with Worcester at Salford City Stadium as the Premiership's bottom club attempt to close the five-point gap to 11th-placed London Irish.

The former England fly-half was dropped from the squad last week and heavily criticised by the Sharks' hierarchy following the 62-0 defeat against Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol on December 16 in the group stage of the Heineken Cup.

Recall: Danny Cipriani is set to play against Worcester for Sale

Recall: Danny Cipriani is set to play against Worcester for Sale

Having settled into the Premiership with more conviction than anyone imagined, London Welsh have signalled their commitment to long-term growth and development by recruiting Tony Copsey as their chief executive.

The former Wales and Scarlets lock will take up his new post from New Year's Day alongside former Llanelli team-mate Lyn Jones, now coach.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic"s best goals

Reckon the propeller kick is special It might not even be Ibrahimovic's best goal… check out his greatest hits

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UPDATED:

09:52 GMT, 15 November 2012

It was immediately dubbed the ‘greatest goal ever’ and why not

A quite sublime piece of audacity from Zlatan Ibrahimovic set the seal on an outstanding four-goal performance as Sweden beat England 4-2 in Stockholm last night.

It was the perfect riposte to those who have called him ‘overrated’ and those cheeky England fans who thought him inferior to Andy Carroll.

For Zlatan, though, it was also the latest masterpiece to add to an impressive collection of breath-taking goals. Enjoy some of his best here.

Watch Ibrahimovic's goals from last night here

Special: Ibrahimovic soaks up the acclaim of his home crowd after yet another spectacular goal against England last night

Special: Ibrahimovic soaks up the acclaim of his home crowd after yet another spectacular goal against England last night

Tying opposition defences in knots for Ajax

Ibrahimovic was a long way short of the finished product we see today when at Ajax, but his stock was rising with each of his 48 goals in 110 appearances.

The pick came in his final season with the Dutch club, against NAC Breda in 2004, when he tied the opposition in knots with a mazy run, beating the same players two or three times each.

At the time, Zlatan was in a feud with Rafael Van Der Vaart, who claimed that Ibra deliberately injured him in training. After the wondergoal, the camera cuts to an ashen-faced VVD in the stands. Ibra didn’t care, he signed for Juventus the following day.

A flick in the knick of time for Sweden

Euro 2004 and things are looking bleak for Sweden, trailing Italy in their second group match with the clock ticking down. A corner sparks pandemonium in the Italian defence and, with a moment of sheer improvisation, Ibra comes up with a kind of looping back heel which has just enough elevation and dip to evade the Christian Vieri on the post.

Paying back his transfer fee for Juve

Ibrahimovic had plenty to prove after making the 16m euro (12.8m) switch to Juventus and started to repay his transfer fee with strikes like this against Benfica.

Marauding down the left channel, there didn’t seem a lot on but utilising the element of surprise to devastating effect, Ibra launched a powerful, dipping shot inside the near post.

A chance from nothing against Roma

Another excellent illustration of Ibra’s ability to create something out of nothing. Surrounded by Roma defenders, and near the half-way line, he looked very isolated when the ball comes across.

But a flick of genius sends him spinning away from the defender, his pace carries him clear and a clinical finish doubles Juve’s lead.

67mph free-kick against Fiorentina

After Juventus came a 24.8m euro (20m) switch to Internazionale and a flurry of spectacular goals. The pick may well be this one – a stunning 32-metre free-kick at the San Siro against Fiorentina in 2009 which reached 67mph as it flew past the goalkeeper and crashed in off the bar.

More set-piece magic for Barcelona

Another outstanding free-kick, this time in the colours of Barcelona, whom Ibra joined in a megabucks move in 2009. Things didn’t transpire too well in Catalonia but he did grab 22 goals in 46 matches – including this marvellous Nou Camp set-piece against Real Zaragoza.

Loopy goal against Lecce

After spending the 2010-2011 season on loan at AC Milan, the move was soon made permanent. More comfortable to be playing back in Italy, it wasn’t long before Ibra was indulging in the spectacular again.

In this goal against Lecce, lashed in from a good 30 yards, it looks as though the Swede isn’t even looking at where the goal is.

Acrobatics for Milan against Fiorentina

In all, Ibra scored 56 goals in 85 games for Milan, an impressive tally, and he clearly revelled in inflicting pain on Fiorentina. Not a free-kick this time, but a piece of acrobatic trickery in the penalty area.

He pinches the ball from between the legs of the defender, a keepie uppie and then, while falling backwards, a scissor kick.

Grigor Dimitrov"s trick shot stuns Viktor Troicki in Basle

Take a bow! Dimitrov leaves Troicki stunned with cheeky trick shot in Basle

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UPDATED:

11:51 GMT, 26 October 2012

There may be a big four that dominate the tennis grand slams, but stars like Andy Murray have their work cut out if they want to better Grigor Dimitrov in the trick shot department.

During an indoor ATP tour match in Basle, the Bulgarian stunned the crowd by playing a crafty trick shot behind his legs that even had opponent Viktor Troicki acknowledging he was being wound up.

Dimitrov was one set up and a break up in the second when he pulled off the most casual of shots, which has received over one million views on Youtube.

It was entirely unnecessarily and disrespectful to Troicki but you have to admire not just the skill but the confidence to attempt such a shot.

The 21-year-old, who is ranked 62 in the world, went on to take the match 6-3 6-2 against the eighth seed and won in the following round against Julien Benneteau 4-6 6-3 6-2.

Dimitrov now faces wildcard Paul Henri-Mathieu in a quarter-final on Friday with the winner likely to face Roger Federer in the next round.

We can’t imagine the Bulgarian having the audacity to perform a similar trick against the world No. 1.

World Championship 2012: Luca Brecel youngest Crucible debutant v Stephen Maguire

Youngest Crucible debutant Brecel makes bad start before showing his talent against Maguire

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UPDATED:

16:11 GMT, 22 April 2012

Luca Brecel served up compelling evidence of his rich talent on Sunday as he became the youngest ever Crucible debutant.

The Belgian is destined to win many matches in the Betfred.com World Championship, but at 6-3 behind against Stephen Maguire following their first session he was clinging to faint hope of becoming the first 17-year-old to taste victory at the Sheffield theatre.

The outcome could have been a lot worse for the teenager though, as he trailed 4-0 and then 6-1, with Maguire pouncing on a series of unforced errors to take charge of the match.

Record breaker: Luca Brecel is the youngest ever Crucible debutant

Record breaker: Luca Brecel is the youngest ever Crucible debutant

Brecel showed audacity verging on folly at times, not least when he lost position on an intended red in frame seven and attempted a difficult plant, sending the ball he was looking to pot leaping off the table.

But once Brecel had the wild play out of his system, he found impressive fluency. Breaks of 96, 63, 116 and 62 showed just why the young man from Dilsen-Stokkem has been tipped by Ronnie O'Sullivan as a multiple world champion of the future.

At 17 years and 45 days, Brecel beat one of Stephen Hendry's many records, Hendry having been 17 and three months when he first appeared at the Crucible in 1986.

Since Hendry, Ronnie O'Sullivan, Judd Trump and Liu Chuang have all qualified as 17-year-olds, and all have lost their opening matches.

More of the break-building and less of the reckless abandon when they resume tomorrow could make for a close finish, but Brecel cannot afford to start again in the manner he did today.

Lead: Stephen Maguire took advantage of wild early play by Brecel

Lead: Stephen Maguire took advantage of wild early play by Brecel

It was a big day out for Belgium, with Olivier Marteel appointed to referee his young countryman's history-making appearance.

Brecel did not trouble the scorers in the opening frame, and in the second he led 55-1 before missing chances to put the frame away. Maguire picked him off, moving closer to Brecel before firing in a break of 46, taking the frame on the black.

If world No 7 Maguire had any pre-match nerves, that would have soothed them.

Brecel gave away six fouls in frame three after being put in a difficult snooker behind the yellow on the top cushion, and a 54 break from Maguire made it 3-0.

Bad luck was to blame for Brecel falling further behind, when a missed yellow from the youngster turned into an even worse shot when the loose-running ball clipped in the blue. Worse still, Maguire had a free ball and the frame was soon his.

Talent: Brecel fought back as the session went on

Talent: Brecel fought back as the session went on

It was becoming a rout, but Maguire's run was interrupted as Brecel made a mesmerising break of 96 in the next frame.

As comfortable playing left-handed, seemingly, as with his natural right-handed stance, he switched when required and midway through the break fired in a stunning long red to keep the run going.

With a first Crucible century just two pots away, he smashed a red almost off the table and the break was over.

Brecel was well on the way to a hundred in the next frame but broke down on 63 when he over-cut a tight black. Maguire replied with 37 before Brecel missed and left him the yellow, and the Scot cleared the colours to take the frame by one point.

Another went Maguire's way before Brecel finished the session in grand style, first with his maiden century and then with a cool 62.

If the mission was to achieve respectability, Brecel at least managed that.

On the other table Tamworth's David Gilbert won his first World Championship match beating London's Martin Gould 10-8 to set up a second round clash with Neil Robertson or Ken Doherty.

Best goal you"ve ever seen?

What is the best goal you have witnessed Sportsmail experts recall their favourites

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UPDATED:

21:38 GMT, 30 March 2012

In the wake of Peter Crouch's astonishing strike against Stoke, Sportsmail experts select the best goals they have ever witnessed. Why not comment below with suggestions of your own

Jamie Carragher

Steven Gerrard, Liverpool 3-3 West Ham (3-1p) 2006 FA Cup final

I’ve got to be honest, when the ball dropped to Stevie my first thought was, ‘Don’t shoot!’ Thank God he did!

I was actually standing on the edge of the West Ham box, as I had gone up for what I thought would be our last attack and can remember watching the ball speed past me before flying into the net.

It was the sweetest strike I have ever seen and it perfectly illustrated Steven’s talent. The best goals, I feel, are the ones that make a difference to the biggest games and that ticked every box.

Martin Keown

Marco van Basten, Soviet Union 0-2 Holland, Euro 1988 final

An unbelievable goal. Even having the audacity to try it from that angle is incredible. As a defender, you just have to admit there is nothing you can do.

I saw Dennis Bergkamp hit goals like that in training. The fact it was at a major championship makes it even better. Van Basten’s goal was the sort that makes you think: ‘Wow, how can I play against that’

Matt Barlow

Lionel Messi, Real Madrid 0-2 Barcelona, 2011 Champions League semi-final, first leg

Johnny Metgod’s thunderbolt free-kick for Nottingham Forest against West Ham lodged in my memory for many years. For some reason, I was behind the goal as it crashed into the roof of the net and had never seen a football travel so fast.

Then last year I witnessed Lionel Messi’s snake-hipped slalom in the Bernabeu, dripping in technical brilliance yet delivered in the most intense atmosphere imaginable. It has displaced Hotshot Johnny at the top of my list.

Jeff Powell

Diego Maradona, Argentina 2-1 England, 1986 World Cup quarter-final

The Foot (as opposed to Hand) of God goal by Diego Maradona against England in Mexico 86.

In the context of a big World Cup tie against what was at the time a competitive opponent, this was not only genius beyond belief but a masterpiece delivered under pressure.

All Diego Armando had to do was swerve, sprint and evade most of the players in one of the best defences in the world and then flip the ball past one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament.

Ian Ladyman

Esteban Cambiasso, Argentina 6-0 Serbia and Montenegro, 2006 World Cup first round

There were 23 passes before Hernan Crespo backheeled the ball into the path of Esteban Cambiasso, who drove it high into the net. There is an unwritten rule regarding press-box etiquette. You don’t clap. I broke it that day.

Dominic King

Luis Garcia, Liverpool 2-1 Juventus, 2005 Champions League quarter-final, first leg

Scoring didn’t even appear an option but he unleashed an outrageous 30-yard, left-foot half-volley that raced and dipped past Gianluigi Buffon into the net.

As Andy Townsend said in his ITV commentary: ‘That’s 32million-worth of goalkeeper and he can’t do a thing about it!’

Joey Barton has home taken over by squatters

'Cheeky b*******!' Barton rages after having his home taken over by squatters

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UPDATED:

16:36 GMT, 14 March 2012

Joey Barton has lashed out at squatters who allegedly broke into his house and changed the locks while he was away with his partner.

The Queens Park Rangers midfielder took to Twitter to stick the boot into the people he claims took over the home he shares with Georgia McNeil.

Away: Joey Barton with his partner Georgia McNeil

Away: Joey Barton with his partner Georgia McNeil

He wrote: 'Just heard the news some squatters had broken into my house last night and changed the locks. The cheeky b*******…..

'Didn't think squatters could break in Anyone know the law regarding these creatures Who ever they are, I hope their f****** fast runners…..

'Surely if they break in, that means their burglars House was secured and locked, all correct hoarding up outside as well. They have left already I think. What a set of cheeky f****** though

'For sheer audacity, I have to give them 10/10. Luckily for them, I'm trying to give up violence…..#jammybastards.

'What's with this London place, no one squats up north. U'd just get t****** for even trying that s***. #southernsofties.

'Might
go to nearest pet shop and purchase 20 tarantulas, 20 snakes and as
many rat as I can get my hands on, pop them through letter box. Then
we'll see who the clever one is. Be warned Squatters….ur time is up.'

High-profile: Barton is attempting to help QPR avoid relegation

High-profile: Barton is attempting to help QPR avoid relegation

He then tweeted: 'Re-thought my plan, usually these folk are animals lovers. Just a bar of soap and some deodorant, should be enough. #smellybuggers

'Cause it's a building site now, they have no squatters rights. Thankfully they have gone now, so I've heard. Heroin addicts as well.

'Squatter issue over and fully sorted. What a firm of cheeky, heroin riddled barstewards they were. Thankfully they sh*t it and left #muppets.'

Barton's girlfriend McNeil – with whom he has a young child called Cassius – also vented her anger on Twitter.

She wrote: 'Just learnt squatters had moved into our new house last night and changed locks….outrageous! I'm absolutely fuming . How dare they! #scum.

'What makes these ppl think they can move into someone else's property and change the locks!'

Get Theo Walcott playing like he"s Michael Owen: Martin Samuel

Get Walcott playing like he's Owen

June 30, 1998, 9.16pm, Stade
Geoffroy-Guichard, Saint-Etienne. Michael Owen scores a goal to put
England 2-1 ahead in a World Cup last 16 match with Argentina. He
collects the ball from David Beckham just inside Argentina’s half and
runs, straight, shrugging off the attentions of defender Jose Chamot.

As
Owen approaches the penalty area, Roberto Ayala, at the time regarded
as one of the greatest defenders in the world, is waiting. Owen fades
right to create his angle and strikes his shot across goalkeeper Carlos
Roa.

It remains one of the
most memorable goals of the modern era in English football, drawing
comparisons with Jimmy Greaves in its ferocious, yet simple, perfection.
Owen was 18. Sadly, he would only have three more international
tournaments to fully display his talent to the world.

Setting the world alight: Owen fires past Roa

Setting the world alight: Owen fires past Roa

Now imagine that goal replicated by a
current England player in the opening group game of Euro 2012. Who would
be the scorer Not Wayne Rooney, he is suspended. Not Darren Bent, he
is injured. One of a trio of strikers selected by Stuart Pearce for the
match with Holland Unlikely.

They
are all talented, and quick, but do not have the sheer audacity that
marked Owen’s career as a teenager. There is only one player in the
current England squad that might be capable of scoring like that.

Theo Walcott.

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Not just on the back of two goals
against Tottenham Hotspur, but based on the evidence of goals against
good teams, consistently, throughout his career. Walcott scores against
the best defenders, and the best defences; indeed six of his eight goals
this season have come against teams either competing in the Champions
League or residing in Champions League qualifying positions: Udinese
(home and away), Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham. He has scored
against AC Milan, and Barcelona, too, on a night when he turned the
game in Arsenal’s favour from 2-0 down.

Half
of Andy Carroll’s six goals for Liverpool this season have come against
teams outside the Barclays Premier League — Exeter City, Oldham
Athletic and Brighton and Hove Albion. /02/28/article-0-029B255E00000578-115_634x339.jpg” width=”634″ height=”339″ alt=”Clinical: Walcott hits the first of his masterful hat-trick in Zagreb” class=”blkBorder” />

Clinical: Walcott hits the first of his masterful hat-trick in Zagreb

And that is it. His sole goalscoring appearance in an England shirt: 21 matches, three goals, all within the space of 56 minutes. Yet do not let that fool you. Walcott’s ratio may be inferior to some international rivals, not least Ashley Young, who has four in 18 caps, but he has never been used as a striker. It is a position he covets, for club as much as country, but Capello in particular demanded he hug the touchline. Indeed, failure to do so cost him his England place.

It is an irony of Walcott’s career that he travelled to the World Cup that should have been beyond him — in 2006 when Sven Goran Eriksson took the ludicrous decision to select him blind before he had played for Arsenal — but did not make the one he should have, South Africa in 2010. Walcott was dropped for ignoring Capello’s instruction to stay wide in two friendly appearances. Capello later admitted he made a mistake.

So the jury is out, because Walcott has never been in as the focal point of England’s attack. It is time that changed. Pearce would already appear to have made his mind up, with Danny Welbeck the central striker and Walcott and Daniel Sturridge either side, but there is still time.

Harry Redknapp, England’s manager-elect, is a big Walcott fan and with options so limited up front — at least until Rooney has served his two-game suspension — may be interested to see Walcott in the role in the two spring friendly games.

Follow my lead: Owen (right) and Walcott train before the 2006 World Cup

Follow my lead: Owen (right) and Walcott train before the 2006 World Cup

Ian Wright, the former Arsenal striker, is presently advocating Walcott as Arsenal’s spearhead, to return Robin van Persie to his supporting role, but this seems a needless complication.

Van Persie has been stunning this year and shows no sign of tiring. If England had Van Persie as a striker the need to inspect Walcott’s credentials would not be so great. The fact is, England’s manager in Ukraine this summer will be forced to work with relative novices — Pearce’s call-up of Fraizer Campbell shows how limited the resources are — or recall a warhorse like Peter Crouch, whose presence can make England’s midfield more direct than is healthy.

The other benefit of Walcott played centrally is that it finds room for Sturridge, Young, perhaps even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain either side.

If the front line then misses the craft of Rooney, it at least provides the other element that terrorises defenders: pace. John Terry, Ledley King, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling: Walcott has hardly been scoring against mugs this season, and even Barcelona’s back four were intimidated by his speed.

Owen’s urgency undid Argentina, and later Germany in Munich, and it was the means by which Walcott dragged Arsenal back into the game with Barcelona in 2010.

Redknapp certainly knows the effectiveness of this simple trait, having seen Gareth Bale destroy Inter Milan in last season’s Champions League.

Sometimes speed can be Walcott’s undoing, too, of course. For his first goal against Tottenham on Sunday, he arrived so fast that his initial touch was weak. His recovery and neat chip over the goalkeeper, however, revealed a player with a striker’s instinct and, increasingly, more of a football brain than his critics identify. It is as if Walcott is an easy target, baby-faced and perceived as middle class and over-privileged because Eriksson took him to the World Cup too soon.

It is often forgotten that he is still just 22. In Milan two weeks ago, Walcott was poor for Arsenal and was removed at half-time; yet again he was playing in a wide position. Arsenal’s midfield was desperately sluggish that night and slow ball is as much a curse to a winger in football as it is in rugby, but few make excuses for Walcott. Judging by the reaction of even his home crowd at Arsenal, he is a soft target and many pick on him, without appreciating the uniquely tailored service a player with his strengths requires.

On target: Walcott evades the attentions of Scott Parker and Brad Friedel to score Arsenal's fourth

On target: Walcott evades the attentions of Scott Parker and Brad Friedel to score Arsenal's fourth

Could Sturridge give England a Walcott-like explosion of energy, too Perhaps. He has 11 goals for Chelsea this season, but only one since December 22, against Birmingham City in the FA Cup. Welbeck is more of a replacement for a target-man striker in the style of Bent, but his rate is hardly prolific, just one more goal than Walcott, despite featuring in 28 matches for Manchester United this season.

Even so, we will, in all likelihood, find out about Welbeck, Sturridge and perhaps even Campbell against Holland, while Walcott’s potential remains untapped.

He may be the best, the most direct, the most natural finisher since Owen; he may be the one player capable of provoking genuine fear from opponents made cocksure by the absence of Rooney.

He may even, as Sir Alex Ferguson once said of Craig Bellamy, be able to catch pigeons. We just do not know; and each time 90 minutes passes without finding out, it is in some small way wasted. Although lucky for the pigeons.

Time we cut Ashton some slack

Congratulations to all those around English rugby who have made Chris Ashton the player he is today — in other words, a shadow of the player he was 12 months ago.

Even in a spirited England display at the weekend, Ashton performed like a man whose spark has been extinguished. A barrage of sneers and spite have taken their toll and stripped all verve from his game.

This time last year, Ashton was a revelation in a Martin Johnson side that appeared on course for the Grand Slam. Slowly, the cynics wore him down, until now he is an anonymous figure in England’s back line, unsure of his place in the next match with France.

Ashton behaved foolishly at times during the World Cup, and was rightly censured. He always seemed to be in trouble, or at least on the fringes of it, and that had to stop. Yet the way the stuffing has been knocked from his play is pitiful.

Down in the dumps: Ashton trudges off after England's painful defeat to Wales

Down in the dumps: Ashton trudges off after England's painful defeat to Wales

There were just too many sour faces every time he performed with exuberance, too many po-faced lectures accompanying each swallow dive. What is wrong with fun; what is wrong with showing off your talent If a kid can see a space, chart a path, make a run that takes him over the try line five yards clear of the rest, why not celebrate it with a smile

It is certainly a finer use of facial muscle than the gleeful malice of his purse-lipped detractors when Ashton’s mistake gave Scotland a penalty at Murrayfield earlier this month.

Perhaps Ashton’s crime was to be seen having fun in an England shirt; after all, no passionate debate about self-aggrandisement or respect for the opposition followed Scott Williams’s swallow dive to win the game for Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.

‘Williams also opted to finish his try with an elegant swallow dive,’ smarmed Rugby World. ‘It’s the first time Twickenham has seen that manoeuvre for quite some time.’

Yes, and there is a reason for that. The one English bloke who could do it had the joy sucked out of him by dullards. So now we’ve lost him, we must hope not for good.

AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT… Grant's distorted vision

‘I’m not arrogant,’ says former Chelsea manager Avram Grant, ‘but when I look back I think that was the best season for Chelsea in recent years, in terms of the way the side played.’

He is talking about his wonder year, of course, 2007-08, when Chelsea pushed Manchester United all the way in the title race, but lost, then met them in the Champions League final and lost there, too.

Who even remembers that Double-winning season under Carlo Ancelotti or the back-to-back titles of Jose Mourinho against Grant’s epic marshalling of almost glory

So near, but yet so far: Grant eyes up old big ears after a crushing penalty defeat in Moscow

So near, but yet so far: Grant eyes up old big ears after a crushing penalty defeat in Moscow

No doubt Grant will be looking to at least emulate this remarkable not-quite-achievement at his new club, Partizan Belgrade, having taken over from Aleksandar Stanojevic.

Partizan, targeting a fifth consecutive title, were a mere 10 points clear in the Serbian league when Grant arrived in January, so it is quite a task ahead.

Partizan’s season recommences at relegation-threatened Novi Pazar on Saturday. Nice work if you can get it and, heaven knows how, but Grant always does.

Futile Fernandes

Old foes: Fernandes and Warnock

Old foes: Fernandes and Warnock

Tony Fernandes, owner of Queens Park Rangers, is planning to take a walk around the bars of Loftus Road on Saturday to meet unhappy fans and hear their concerns.

Why What is he going to do Sack another manager Reinstate Neil Warnock Tell Mark Hughes what team he should pick

The transfer window is closed now, so Rangers are powerless to act until the summer.

Fernandes made his call, replacing Warnock with Hughes, and must now back his judgment, rather than sway to the sound of the crowd. It is not healthy for a club and their fanbase to be at war, but to be influenced by an endless round of vox pops is equally useless.

Fernandes may think he is winning a valuable PR struggle, but courting public opinion is dangerous and reinforces the idea that the executives can be influenced.

Either this ends in disappointment and a backlash when the owner goes his own way — and sacks a popular manager like Warnock — or the club end up being run by an ad hoc committee of conflicting opinions, creating a mess.

Meat's off the Chinese menu

China have banned their Olympic athletes from eating meat in restaurants due to a food additive crisis that could lead to positive dope tests; or maybe they are just getting the excuses in early, who knows

Gone to seed

So England may not be seeded for the 2015 Rugby World Cup Big deal. As long as two go through from each group it should not matter.

Italians win, AVB

Andre Villas-Boas is a man of principle. ‘I refuse to build a team like Manchester City,’ he says. ‘I don’t like their standards of football. City are an Italian team. They follow Italian standards.’

And what standards might they be A total of 29 European trophies split between nine clubs, four World Cup wins and one European Championship, a culture of professional excellence exported throughout the globe

Serial winners: Carlo Ancelotti celebrates after steering AC Milan to their seventh European Cup in 2007

Serial winners: Carlo Ancelotti celebrates after steering AC Milan to their seventh European Cup in 2007

We know Serie A’s quality has slipped slightly of late — although there is resurgence at the Premier League’s expense this season — but since when did the charge of adhering to Italian methodology become an insult

If Villas-Boas gets the sack at the end of this season, as seems likely, one of the reasons will be his inability to match Italian standards, either those of Roberto Mancini in the Premier League, or of Napoli in the Champions League. He has no reason to be smug.

Leicester captain Matt Mills bust-up with Nigel Pearson

Leicester captain Mills frozen out after row with manager Pearson

Matt Mills: angry words

Matt Mills: angry words

Matt Mills' career at Leicester appears to be over after he was involved in a furious bust-up with manager Nigel Pearson.

The row is thought to
have erupted when the
Leicester skipper
questioned Pearson's
decision to drop him to
the subs bench for the
FA Cup tie against
Norwich last Saturday.

Pearson was said to be fuming at his
player's audacity in questioning him over his decision to bench him for
the clash against the Canaries.

Mills was then dropped from the Leicester squad that beat Derby 1-0 at Pride Park on Thursday.

And it is understood Pearson will refuse to select Mills – who cost
Leicester in the region of 5million.

The Foxes are willing to let him go out on loan if another club are willing to take on all of his 25,000-per-week wages.