England 1-1 Italy: The view from the press box

It is that time of year when cautious optimism begins to creep in. The tide turns on England’s prospects, the no hopers become the outside bet. Maybe this group of players, under this manager can perform at a major tournament? 

In many ways, it is the same this time around, despite Lorenzo Insigne’s late penalty at Wembley to deny England a sixth successive clean sheet. Gareth Southgate’s inauspicious start has been largely forgotten, as England have become a defensive force and a side with attacking verve, not overly reliant on Harry Kane. The manager is at ease with the press, his players look comfortable and he commands the respect of his men. 

WATCH: Nizhny Novgorod City Preview

England's World Cup fate has been decided. Gareth Southgate's men will have to navigate their way through a group containing Tunisia, Panama and Belgium to go one better than four years ago and reach the knockout stages. 

Of the three cities England will play in, Nizhny Novgorod is without doubt the most appealing. Centrally located, with excellent transport links and a rich history dating back to 1221, it is simply more enticing than Volgograd or Kaliningrad. England will play Panama in Nizhny, on paper their easiest fixture, so it could really be a city that the players and fans will enjoy. 

Dined, Wined and Manhandled in Tbilisi

I left Georgia full-bellied, sun kissed and wholeheartedly cleansed. The food, weather and people in and around Tbilisi had treated me most favourably on my long weekend. Georgia is an ancient nation, located in the Caucasus mountains, wedged between Europe and the Middle East. For centuries, Georgia has experienced the peaks and troughs of conflict: long eras of rule and prosperity followed by invasions and occupation. Perhaps scarred by the continual presence of unwanted visitors, Georgians could be forgiven for being a little hostile. However, an ingrained sense of hospitality seeps through this country, from helpful stranger to restaurant host, tour guide to masseur. Read on and you will see what I mean. 

Drugs In Sport: Who Do We Trust Enough To Cheer?

Three hundredths of a second. The difference between success and failure; jeers and adulation; Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt. The margins in sport are incredibly tight: hopes are dashed, careers made, and legacies secured in the blink of an eye. As such, athletes go to extraordinary lengths to gain even smallest advantage in competition. Training innovations, recovery and nutrition plans, fine-tuning technique and marginal gains in fitness are just some of the ways athletes seek to improve their performance.

Another is doping. Those who dope are labelled drug cheats, and ‘doping’ is a dirty term. But is a doper necessarily a cheat when some drugs are legal in regulated quantities? To what extent is the issue of drugs in sport a moral one?

Onion Domes: Layers of Orthodoxy in Russia

Cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church are iconic and instantly recognisable. The distinctive domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square and the Church on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg attract visitors from all over the world. These famous onion domes sprout up all over Russia, particularly in the west of the country, where the towns tend to be older and more numerous. To the north east of Moscow, cities such as Yaroslavl, Vladimir and Suzdal make up the ‘Golden Ring’, ancient towns which played a large part in the formation of the Russian Orthodox Church. These picturesque towns are largely a source of tourism, but in recent years Russia’s Orthodox Church has been undergoing something of a revival. 

A Literary Tour Of Moscow

Literature is one of Russia’s greatest exports. For centuries Russian authors have contemplated, opined and discussed the state of Russian society and culture. Despite the best efforts of propaganda and censorship, literature still gives us fascinating insight into Russia throughout history, and arguably, right through to the present day. To read Russian literature is not only to marvel at literary craft and storytelling, but to better understand the Russia that we see before us now. From Pushkin to Pasternak, Tolstoy to Turgenev, Gogol to Gorky, there are countless writers to explore. Russian authors may have arrived at the proverbial dinner table of civilised literature a little later than those of other European powers, but they have provided us with a veritable feast of works to consume. 

Spanking and Skinny Dipping: The Russian Banya

It may sound odd, but I have never felt more relaxed than when surrounded by naked Russian men. Men who ferociously beat each other with silver birch leaves and branches. Men who let out low grunts of either pain or pleasure as a twig thwacks across their buttock. Men who suffer in sweaty silence as a searing wave of heat emanates from the hot stones in the corner. This is, of course, the Russian banya. A place where worries dissipate, friendships are cemented, and a man’s genitals are afforded more freedom of movement than an EU national with an inter-rail ticket.

The Moscow Metro: An Underground Museum

The Moscow Metro is widely regarded as the most beautiful in the world. Intended to reflect the magnificent, radiant future that Soviet leaders envisaged when construction began in the 1930s, many of the stations are a joy to behold. The whole metro complex is an impressive blend of arches, columns, balconies and chandeliers, made of marble, glass, metal and stone. Forty four of the metro stations are cultural heritage sites. Often the metro feels like a museum, as tour guides lead groups round and statues loom over you. But it is first and foremost a transportation system, so rather than dwell on its beauty, I’ve compiled a little ranking system. 

День Победы: Victory Day

Victory Day in Russia, the 9th May, is a triumphant celebration of the military, a colossal tribute to the millions who gave their lives during The Great Patriotic War (Великая Отечественная Война), also known as World War II. Through the lens of a camera, the world sees parading army regiments, an extravagant fireworks display, and an ominous procession of tanks and missiles passing through Red Square. On the evidence of these images alone, Victory Day might seem like a display of military strength and power. However, on the streets, one discovers that the 9th May is a personal experience, emotional, and collectively shared.