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Roker Ramble: England - World Cup favourites?! You heard it here first... or not

Why we should try and feel good about Russia. Gareth Bale - Chinese God, Zlatan, actual God. Alan Pardew - God knows.

England Media Access
So, imagine this guy’s a German....
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Apparently we’re a force to be reckoned with. And when I say ‘we’ I don’t of course mean Sunderland – we’re a farce to be reckoned with. No, I mean England, perennial under-achieving international football lightweights, England.

At least that’s according to Tunisia, who going into last weekend’s international friendlies said that England would be ‘one of the favourites for the World Cup’.

And given that we have to play in them in the opening group stage, along with Belgium and Panorama, I’ll take that, albeit with a bit of a pinch of salt - I mean it is Tunisia after all. But then more praise, this time from Italy, who’s (soon to be fired) coach said that Italy ‘should learn from England’.

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I thought they might mean that they’re going to start driving on the left, which would be a great help when trying to cross the road on holiday but no, he meant that the Italy national team should emulate the English model.

We have a model? Blimey, first I’ve heard of it, unless it involves picking Harry Kane and making sure everyone passes to him all the time. But no, what he was referring to is our success at U-17, U19 and U-21 level, where it has to be said we’re pretty sh*t-hot. And with Italy not qualifying for the World Cup and most of their old guard retiring about now, Italy is focusing on ‘yoof’ – so it was with some interest that I tuned in for the match with England.

England make a big thing about the average age of our squad, which is in the region of 24, and that’s a good thing. However, the Italian team looked like they’d struggle to get served in The Upper Deck on a match night - they all looked about sixteen, and zipped the ball around with a fluency that made one wonder what had gone so wrong with their World Cup qualification.

They had a striker called Immobile, who clearly wasn’t, and a goalkeeper who appeared to be called ‘Donna Summer’ if I read the back of his shirt correctly – classic opportunity for the band to play the theme from Saturday Night Fever continually all game to put him off, which they didn’t, unless it was cunningly disguised as ‘Rule Brittania’ but with added funk.

SS Lazio V Tristina - Pre-Season Friendly
Immobile - not
Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

With their youth - and their suntans - I thought the Italians made us look quite pedestrian for most of the game, which took the shine off a small but growing optimism about the World Cup this summer. With all the positive comments and the win in Holland I thought for a moment that this year’s tournament just might give us something to cheer about for a change.

I mean what could go wrong? As long as we don’t play Germany until the final, mention anything about nerve agent, state sponsored doping, the US elections or their lousy football team in a press conference, come out as gay, antagonise the ultras, insist that ‘vodka is a drink for girls where we come from’, or insinuate that Vladimir Putin’s habit of taking his shirt off to be photographed for a calendar makes him look more like Sylvester McCoy than Sylvester Stallone, we should be fine.

The international friendlies also marked the first match as Welsh manager for Ryan Giggs, which must have come as a shock given that he was appointed about six months ago. However, he was not unprepared, drawing on his long years of experience as Manchester United’s go-to emergency manager – the sort of manager you should always have in the car in case there’s an incident:

I learned a lot about how lonely it was when I was United manager.

When you shut the door of your office and everyone else has gone home, you’re on your own.

Profound words, pulling together the twin concepts of everyone going home, and being on your own. Wales are in safe hands I feel - and they were in China, which is a long way from Cardiff, but were there to try and meet the almost insatiable demand that the Chinese have for all things Gareth Bale.

Eibar v Real Madrid - La Liga
You can see where they’re coming from....
Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Bale has been welcomed to China ‘like a God’ said Giggs. Apparently the Chinese fans call Bale ‘Dasheng’ which means ‘Monkey King’ in Chinese. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that it actually means ‘weird hair’ and given that the cartoon Monkey King is supposed to look very similar to Bale himself, there’s an element of truth in there.

Giggs has advised Bale to stay at Real Madrid for next season, however, Monkey King might find himself on the Megabus to Paris as Real are fed up paying him £18 million a year to try out their treatment room. A swap with PSG for Neymar would seemingly tickle their fancy, and would mean that Bale meets up with Antonio Conte, who’s being wooed by the PSG glitterati and who can then perfect his ability to look miserable in more than one language.

Dear Los Angeles. You’re welcome.

He may be a pace off the pace of the Premier League but I’m going to miss Zlatan. What a character, and given that US football seems to be played as if everyone is wearing bomb-disposal suits he’s going to light the place up. And not a bad debut, coming on when you’re 3-1 down in the local derby, scoring a 40 yard wonder goal with your first touch, having a hand in the equalizer and then notching the winner in injury time.

You can’t make it up really, can you?

Los Angeles FC v Los Angeles Galaxy
For the next game they’re going to give him a shirt.
Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

However the most surprising thing of all, watching the highlights, was seeing that Ashley Cole is still playing for them at 37. Nice job if you can get it.

Back home, the season is playing out largely as expected. Manchester City look invincible – what if Mo Salah went there next season? Alan Pardew was finally shown the door as was Hasselfloyd Jimmybank, Mark Hughes looks like he’s going to go down with Southampton, and doesn’t Jonjo Shelvey look like Gru from ‘Despicable Me’?

Newcastle United v Manchester City - Premier League
Despicable Him
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images