Euro debate: Rooney in, or Rooney out?

Aside from the EU referendum, the next biggest debate about Europe surrounds the final 23-man England squad for the upcoming European Championship in France.

England boss Roy Hodgson has a tough job on his hands, with much discussion circling around players such as Wayne Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Andros Townsend.

On Rooney, the Vote Leave campaign will argue that he has been nowhere near his best this season.

His tally of eight goals and seven assists in the Premier League last season is mediocre by his standards.

But the Remain campaign would retort that he has had a couple of injuries and has been involved in a goal once every two games.

There is also the fact that Rooney is coming into form at the end of the season after a man-of-the-match performance in Manchester United’s FA Cup final win over Crystal Palace and a superb 20-yard strike against Australia in England’s penultimate Euro warm-up match.

Rooney himself has admitted he sees his future in a deeper position for club and country and there is definitely room to accommodate him at the base of Hodgson’s preferred midfield diamond in France.

Hodgson is keen to use Jack Wilshere in that position but he is desperately short of game time and looked off-form in England’s two warm-up games to date.

Using Rooney in that position would allow him to fulfil a role similar to that of Toni Kroos, who uses his fine array of passes to dictate play deep in the German midfield.

Rooney’s skill set is comparable to Kroos’ and his ability to spray long, diagonal balls in the mould of Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes and Kroos certainly adds weight to his midfield argument.

Of course, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy deserve to start up front against Russia in the first match of the Euros.

The strike pair notched 49 league goals between them last season and it is Kane’s relationship with Dele Alli, who is expected to start just behind them in the number ten position, that Hodgson is eager to preserve.

Therefore, deciding to play Rooney in midfield allows Hodgson to keep England’s captain and record goalscorer in the team, while conserving the exciting forward trio that England have developed since the 2014 World Cup.

So which three players should Hodgson drop from the squad?

Unfortunately for Hodgson some hypocrisy is creeping into his squad selection.

He has always indicated he would pick players on form – his inclusion of Marcus Rashford at least demonstrates his loyalty to form players.

However, there is a glaring exception to his rule in the form of Adam Lallana.

Liverpool’s creative midfielder has been anything but this season, scoring just four goals and assisting six more in 30 league games – even James Milner has more this term.

Lallana has endured an inconsistent season in Jürgen Klopp’s team and his England record is dreadful for a player of his technical ability.

In 22 games for the national side he has scored none and assisted just twice.

Hodgson may be persisting with Lallana because of his ability to play in a number of positions but the statistics don’t lie and they show Lallana to be ineffective at the top level, meaning he should not travel to France this summer.

Despite having a breakthrough season for champions Leicester City, Danny Drinkwater should also miss the Euros.

Hodgson is blessed with several options in midfield and has Jordan Henderson fit again, Eric Dier capable of playing in front of the back four, Jack Wilshere his number one choice, James Milner as a utility player and Wayne Rooney also as a classy alternative.

Drinkwater has quietly gone about his business in the warm-up games but has not done enough to suggest he is worthy of a place over the established midfielders in the squad.

The final player to miss out looks set to be Andros Townsend.

Hodgson is faced with a tough call between Townsend, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, but it is the out-and-out winger who is struggling when pitted against the others.

Barkley has always been a regular in Hodgson’s plans, while Sterling’s versatility up front leaves Townsend looking vulnerable to the chop from England’s final squad.

Townsend has had a great finish to the season with relegated Newcastle, but it is too little too late and he will be left to rue a difficult time at Spurs where chances for him were limited.

However, the likes of Barkley and Sterling have flattered to deceive at international level and the pair will undoubtedly be looking over their shoulders until the announcement is made.

It would be hard to see Hodgson dropping Daniel Sturridge if he is fit, while Rashford deserves the opportunity to travel on form and given he is at times used as a makeshift winger.

As a result, Townsend can count himself unlucky to miss out should he be omitted from the final 23.

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5 sports stars who retired too soon

Put yourself in the mind of a sport star.

You’re midway through your career, still competitive, maybe even at the top of your game. But you suddenly decide to retire. Has it all become too much? Are injuries taking their toll? Do you miss family time? Have you lost interest in the sport you’ve competed in all your life?

These are all reasons that sport stars have given for what has been deemed a ‘premature’ retirement.

The trouble is, some of the sportsmen and women that have retired ‘too early’ were sporting mega stars.

So, who are arguably the five biggest sporting stars to have retired with plenty of gas left in the tank?

  1. Björn Borg – Tennis – retired aged 26

Seventies heartthrob. Winner of 11 Grand Slam titles. Bjorn Borg had it all going for him when he retired in 1983. Borg had a superb career, particularly on grass and clay, winning the French Open six times and Wimbledon five, including a four-year domination at Roland Garros from 1978-81.

Borg was also the first tennis player to earn more than $1m in a year. So why quit?

Simply, the attention his success earned also proved to be his downfall. He was fed up with the demands on his time from sponsors and media and decided to give it all up.

Eight years after his retirement he made a calamitous comeback when failing to win a single match between 1991 and 1993 before he halted his career for the second time.

Borg can still sleep easy though. He remains fifth on the all-time list of Grand Slam winners and has a successful fashion chain in his native Sweden.

  1. Casey Stoner – MotoGP – retired aged 27

When people think of MotoGP legends, most think of Valentino Rossi, few of Casey Stoner. Maybe that’s because the Australian quit the sport with so much more to give.

Stoner’s ability on the fastest motorbikes on the planet was incalculable. He routinely made a lumbering Ducati compete against the faster Yamaha and Honda machines in the late noughties and took his first title in 2007.

His prowess on the misbehaving Ducati led many to realise just how special a rider he was but he soon grew frustrated, leaving for Honda in 2011 and winning his second title after taking victories in 10 of the 17 races.

Midway through the 2012 season Stoner announced his retirement from MotoGP, citing a lack of family time, annoyance with political issues within the sport and a decreasing enjoyment of riding.

Stoner, who won his home race at Phillip Island six consecutive times, had been testing with Honda up to 2016 and has now switched to Ducati. Could a full-time return in 2017 be on the cards?

  1. Justine Henin – Tennis – retired aged 25

Despite her diminutive appearance Justine Henin was a heavyweight in women’s tennis.

Her distinctive cries of “Allez!” at Roland Garros became her trademark as she claimed four French Open titles in her career tally of seven Grand Slams.

But, in 2008, when ranked world number one, Henin announced her shock departure from tennis, enabling her to feel less burden of expectation and to concentrate on other projects such as her tennis school.

However, her retirement ended just 19 months after it began as she returned to competition at the Brisbane International in preparation for the Australian Open.

Chasing a career Grand Slam at Wimbledon, Henin fractured her elbow after slipping and didn’t play again in 2010. A brief pre-season in 2011 was unsuccessful after aggravating her elbow and she retired again aged 28.

Henin continues to run her academy and is an ambassador for UNICEF post-career.

  1. Carolina Klüft – Athletics – retired aged 29

The second Swede on this list, Carolina Klüft was the queen of athletics when she decided to switch disciplines, ditching the heptathlon to concentrate on the long jump.

Undoubtedly, in many people’s eyes, she retired from the heptathlon too soon. Citing a lack of motivation, Klüft stepped away aged 25.

The news came as a huge shock, with Klüft dominating her event in the noughties by claiming one Olympic and three consecutive world championship golds.

When she did solely focus on the long jump, she struggled to make an impact and could only manage ninth in the Beijing Olympic final.

Injuries played their part in Klüft’s eventual retirement from the sport. She had suffered a bad hamstring injury in 2009 and wasn’t the same athlete post recovery, often claiming her legs had lost their spring.

In hindsight it’s easy to suggest that she could have continued with the heptathlon for several more years but, had she succeeded in her long jump career, perhaps she wouldn’t have featured on this list.

  1. Miguel Indurain – Cycling – retired aged 32

Known as ‘Big Mig’, Miguel Indurain will go down as one of the greatest riders ever to have competed.

His palmares – list of achievements – includes five consecutive Tour de France wins from 1991-95, including two Giro d’Italia-Tour doubles in 1992 and 1993.

He also won Olympic and world gold in the time-trial and took to the podium three times in the world road race.

However, with a lucrative two-year contract on the table, he decided to quit the sport aged 32 despite being in good enough condition to win a sixth Tour.

Indurain claimed this was due to the sport getting harder and harder for him but, compared to other professional cyclists, he could at least have seen out the contract he was offered and potentially have won the Tour twice more.

Sceptics have claimed his retirement just before the era of doping came to prominence was particularly suspect, but the Spaniard has never tested positive and his legendary results remain intact.

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2016 Giro d’Italia preview

The 99th edition of the Giro d’Italia rolls off in Holland on Friday as some of the world’s best stage riders attempt to win the first Grand Tour of the 2016 cycling calendar.

Race organisers RCS have concocted a challenging route mixed with three individual time trials, which has attracted a stronger GC line-up than in previous years.

Many media outlets are billing the 2016 Giro as a shake-up between 2013 maglia rosa winner and home favourite Vincenzo Nibali and 2015 podium finisher Mikel Landa, but there are numerous others in with a realistic shout of winning.

The contenders

Alongside favourite Nibali and rival Landa, there lurks a dark horse – Alejandro Valverde.

Valverde has enjoyed an excellent early season, racing to victories in La Fleche Wallonne and the Ruta del Sol stage race.

However, this will be Valverde’s first Giro campaign and many experts are predicting a tough time for the Spaniard in the often snowy weather a Giro endures.

Outside shots for the GC win include Team Katusha’a Ilnur Zakarin, who has enjoyed top 10 finishes in each stage race he has ridden this season, Tinkoff’s Rafal Majka who is released from super-domestique duties for Alberto Contador and Tom Dumoulin, who is looking to capitalise on a breakthrough Vuelta last term.

The sprinters

Much will be made of the battle between German rivals Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in the sprint stages but, in reality, the odds of a Kittel domination are extremely favourable.

There are five official flat stages to contest, along with a couple of ‘hilly’ stages that may end up in a bunch sprint if the peloton fancies a rest.

Kittel and Greipel will be pushed in the sprint finishes by young Australian sensation Caleb Ewan, while home rider Elia Viviani will have a free licence as Team Sky concentrate on Landa’s GC ambitions.

Sacha Modolo and Giacomo Nizzolo are other noteworthy Italian sprinters, both of whom will closely contest the red points classification jersey.

The Brits

Unfortunately for British fans there are no British riders in the Giro for the second year running. Team Sky are fielding two Irishmen – Nico Roche and Phllip Deignan – but that is as good as it gets for British and Irish supporters.

The Tour de France has always been the focus for Team Sky and there will be opportunities for the likes of Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Irishman Dan Martin to grab stage victories later in the summer.

The fun zones

Giro d’Italias are never forgiving races and the 2016 edition is no exception. The queen stage features two highest category climbs of more than 20km in length and an average gradient of 7%. Both climbs also ramp up to at least 11% for sustained periods.

The 3,383km race contains 21 stages and includes a total of 13 mountainous stages, five of which boast multiple high-category ascents.

RCS have ditched the team trial in favour of three individual TTs, bringing the total TT mileage to 61km – a factor that could pay dividends for the likes of Tom Dumoulin.

The route will begin in the south of Italy after the ‘Grande Partenza’ in Holland, working its way up to the north where it flows around the Italian Alps before finishing in Torino on May 29th.

With so much time-trialling and some long, brutal stages it could prove to be the perfect playground for Nibali. How well Landa fares in his first Grand Tour as GC leader also remains to be seen.

But the biggest threat to them both is Valverde. Given the Spaniard has again conditioned himself perfectly for the springtime classics he is in excellent shape to contest the Giro for the first time and win his second career Grand Tour.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089