Euro 2012 | Match Day 7

The Euro 2012 has claimed its first victim: The Republic of Ireland are the first team knocked out of the tournament, which is sad for me (big fan of Ireland) but hey, deserved; the rest of Group C have produced excellent, competitive football. This has been a great Tournament so far, with 11 of 12 teams still alive on the final day of Group play. Group C provided two very different matches on their second match day, each thrilling in its own way. To the recaps!

Croatia v Italy

Two matches, two leads lost, two draws; the Italian philosophy of “score and shut the door” has been a failure so far. And while every team in the world can be forgiven for shipping a goal to Spain, Mario Mandzukic ’s 72nd minute strike, which cancelled out a brilliant, clinical 39th minute Andrea Pirlo free kick, was a different story; the game should have been done and dusted by the time the Croatians found the net. Italy were simply unable to convert their chances, with blog favorite striker Mario Balotelli missing a slew of opportunities. The Italians seemed to fade in terms of their commitment and their fitness; by the time Ivan Strinic’s great cross found Mandzukic on the far post, it seemed like the simple mistake of leaving him unmarked was a symptom of Italy’s plan to sit back and defend. You must play positive, possession football when you can. It doesn’t mean you cannot defend, but you have to play smart.

Highlights:


Kiss Your Sister.

A quick word on Pirlo– how about that free kick? Classic Pirlo, he’s been an ageless wonder this tournament. Incredible to see him play at this level at age 33; you cannot hide as a CAM, and his ability to make plays has lead directly to both of Italy’s goals this Tournament. On the other hand, you have to wonder about Daniele De Rossi, who has been brilliant playing in a modified “sweeper” role at the back, and what he might be able to do if Italy went to a single striker, played a true back four and put De Rossi in a more advanced DM role. You just get the feeling that manager Cesare Prandelli is playing a little too much with his players in odd positions and while the team have been very good, if he’s serious about locking the door, he may want to add some possession to the midfield while adding to the back line.


He can’t do it all: Italy’s Andrea Pirlo

Croatia, on the other hand, have put themselves in good shape to go through. If they can earn a draw with Spain, it would go a long way toward helping them into the next round. Spain will be playing, though; with two teams on four points and Italy likely to earn five points by beating Ireland, it could come down to the third (goal differential) or fourth (goals scored) tiebreakers to decide the Group.


Ya Heard? Mandzukic makes it 1-1

Republic of Ireland v Spain

OK. What can you say? This was a total destruction, one of the most dominant performances you are likely to ever see at an international tournament. The gulf in class could be measured in miles. I mean, this…


God Damn.

Let’s look at some statistics to outline Spain’s dominance, shall we?

4-0 score (duh)
20 shots on goal vs 4 for Ireland
860 passes attempted
78% of possession
Xavi broke the Euro record for passing, completing 127 of 136 passes
Xavi and Iniesta combined had more successful passes than the entire Irish team


Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

I could go on all day. This was Spain at its most incredible. Even Fernando Torres looked to his old Liverpool-era form, which, wow. Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso absolutely bossed the match like nothing I’ve ever seen. I won’t rub it in any more. Like I said, what can you say?

They’ll want to keep it going; Spain have to be nailed on as favorites against Croatia and to win Group C. Good news for Italy? Stay tuned.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 6

The Group of Death is living up to the name; at the end of their second round of matches, all four teams are still alive (one, just barely) and the unexpected results keep coming. And where the first round featured a pair of tight 1-0 games, this time around things got real, with two entertaining games that delivered the goods; these teams have everything to play for on the final day. It’s on Group of Death…. it’s on!

Denmark vs Portugal

Aftrer looking dangerous (and frankly better than expected) against Germany, Portugal finally got their shit together in this match, pulling off a thrilling last minute 3-2 win against an unlucky Denmark. Any game that features five goals gets the full match highlights treatment (who has time to post five individual goal clips?), so let’s get the goals out of the way. We watch the game for goals don’t we? Yes we do…


Goals.

Portugal dominated the chances and the run of play, but the self-proclaimed “best footballer in the world” Nicklas Bendtner was clinical with his head in front of goal, erasing Pepe’s smart header and Postiga’s sweeping strike to tie the game in the second half. Bendtner’s quality was the polar opposite of Cristiano Ronaldo’s poor play; once again, the all-universe Real Madrid winger had a mare, missing several chances and dogging it on defense a few times. At club level, Ronaldo one on one vs the keeper is almost automatic, but as an international, Ronaldo can’t seem to find the right side of the post. As much as I enjoy watching him struggle (and I do), it’s a shame when one of the best players in the world is unable to produce for his country. Nothing would be better for this team than for Ronaldo to live up to his hype and get his teammates and his country believing in him, to be discussing his greatness. Instead, Ronaldo seems almost cursed by the expectations, which is so unlike him. Is it mental? I expect a goal from him against The Netherlands to get back on track.


Nope.

In the meantime, the Portugese savior on the day was the young attacker Silvestre Varela, who whiffed on a strike before gathering himself and scoring on a second kick of his leg. Which, ooof; where was the vaunted Danish defense on this strike? I can understand not being in position for a quick shot, but for Varela to miss, collect himself, try again and score without someone getting in front of the ball is a shame. Watching that goal again, I am not so sure that is Poulsen gets a leg out, he doesn’t save the day. Still, Varela earns the spoils for a sweet strike and a match winner in the final five minutes. And if the timing of the goal left the Danes feeling hard done by, there was no doubting that Portugal played the better match, had far more chances and could have made this one much worse. Both teams leave the match with 3 points and a zero goal differential with 3 goals scored. Portugal has the advantage of winning the head-to-head match, which is huge, but more on that later.


Get a leg on the winner? Block? Something? Hello?

Germany vs The Netherlands

Mario Gomez does it again. What can you say about him in this Tournament? He has been absolutely great in taking his chances. After scoring the winner in a rather docile performance in the 1-0 win against Portugal, many were calling for Miroslav Klose, Germany’s second leading goal scorer of all time, to replace the on again/ off again Gomez in the starting line up. But why fix what isn’t broken? This is the match, one of the most anticipated of the entire Tournament, that will silence all of the doubters. Gomez was pure class.


1-0


2-0

Goals and strikers will steal the headlines, but for me, this match was all about the midfield pairing of Sami Khedira, who was my man of the match in the German’s first match against Portugal and who was excellent again, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who put in an unbelievable performance from his deep lying midfield position. It was Schweinsteiger who assisted both of Gomez’s goals, who partnered with Khedira to boss the Dutch defensive midfield pairing of Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Even in the first half, he was operating a lot of space, which is unforgivable with two– TWO!!– defensive midfielders on for the Dutch. After coming out at halftime down 2-0, Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk pulled van Bommel out of the game and replaced him with a more attack minded Rafael Van der Vaart, and all that did was open up the universe for Schweinsteiger to boss things, with the Germans dominating long stretches of possession as the Dutch chased the game. There was a ten minute stretch when the Dutch seemed to find their hearts and during that time, Robin van Persie showed his quality with a super strike that brought the game back into question…


RvP 2-1

…but the Germans took things from there, running out the clock and keeping the usually possession happy, attacking Dutch off the ball and out of the game. It was a dominant performance all in all from a team that seems harmonious on the pitch; as I said after the first match, each player knows his role and plays it to perfection. Interestingly, the Germans have never won all three of their Group stage games at the Euros, so it will be curious to see how they do against a Danish side looking to get a result and advance. Should be great.

On the other side of the pitch, what the fuck? The Netherlands looked almost incoherent; after van Persie was put in alone on goal and saw his strike saved, the air seemed to get sucked out of the team. I said they played “me first” football against the Danes, but this was a case of “who? me?” football; even Wesley Sneijder’s typical excellence could not bring the front line together. For all of his pace and quality on the ball, Arjen Robben might be the most one-dimensional great player in the world; collect the ball, cut inside, fire over the bar. Collect the ball. Cut inside. Fire over the bar. Get back and play defense? Forget it. His positional responisbilities are, in his mind, a one way street; you can’t cut inside and fire over the bar on defense! This allowed Philip Lahm to pwn the overlapping runs on the left wing. Lahm knows Robben very well (they face one another all the time at Bayern Munich) and is anyone knows which areas of the pitch Robben couldn’t be bothered to defend, it is Lahm. He exploited the Dutch winger on offense and shut him down on defense. It got to the point where van Marwijk was screaming at Robben to get back on defense with the winger giving his manager an earfull of dissent. Pitiful performance.


Off you go.

And for all of the Dutch fans deriding van Persie and wanting Klaus Jan Huntelaar to start, well, you can have that as well. RvP got his goal with a great strike while the rest of the team struggled to even see the ball in dangerous areas. Huntelaar and RvP were pretty much starved for service, but this is primarily because the Dutch feature wingers seemingly incapable of passing the ball in the box. Sneijder did his best with some dangerous crosses from deep and a wicked strike that just missed the top corner, but where was Affelay? Where was Robben? Where was the beautiful interplay in and around the box, the head up look for the open man, the penetrating run? The Dutch inability to play a second or third ball in the attacking third has been shocking and the German backs, particularly Lahm and Boateng, knew what was coming and played their roles perfectly.


Pwned

The Dutch used to play brilliant, tactically superior football; the Clockwork Oranje knew that every player was a defender, an attacker, a passer, a potential scorer. Now, the clock seems to have been smashed on the floor, each beautiful piece spinning in its own direction, disconnected, badly in need of repair.

And yet, the Dutch, on zero points and staring at a -2 goal differential with losses to the Danes and Germans, are still alive in the Group. If the Germans can batter the Danes and the Dutch can absolutely batter the Portugese, they have a fighting chance to get through on goal diferential which is amazing and simply shows the parity in the Group of Death. Nail biting stuff, a race to the finish line; just what the doctor ordered.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 5

Group A came back with a bang today; early goals and gutsy performances, huge gaffes and tactical gamesmanship, this was a great day for football. It was a poor day for supporters though, with reports of Russian fans marching en masse for Russia Day through the streets of Warsaw which, in the spectrum of bad ideas, ranks at the top of the heap.

The aftermath? Not good, according to the BBC…

“Clashes between rival Russian and Polish football fans in the Polish capital Warsaw have marred a Euro 2012 tie between the two teams. A march ahead of the match by thousands of Russian fans to mark their national day had to be halted and some missiles were thrown. Police say they arrested at least 120 people and that 10 people were injured. About 6,000 police were on duty to keep the rival fans apart. Beforehand, some Polish fans on a bridge on the march route had tried to attack the Russian fans and had been involved in scuffles. Tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon were used to disperse fans at the end of the march, according to Poland’s state news agency.”

I won’t post video of idiots sucker punching one another, but they are generally available online and extremely disappointing. You can’t help but link history and sport, especially in the Euros, and with Russian history in Poland, (which includes a 100 year reign after annexation in the 19th century and Soviet domination after World War II), I’m going to go on a limb and say that the Russian fans who decided to parade through the streets of Warsaw were almost as disrespectful as UEFA itself, which allowed this banner to be unfurled in the Polish national stadium:


This is a bad idea.

Hopefully this is the end of it, but the Russian FA might want to re-think their instructions to the traveling support. Interesting to see what UEFA has to say about that banner (hint: Nothing).

Czech Republic vs Greece

The Czechs walked out 2-0 winners after two early Greek turnovers in the midfield lead to two great Czech goals only a minute or so apart. Here they are:


Jiracek 1-0


Pilar 2-0

After all that, it was only the 6th minute, which meant there was a full game to play. The Greeks did very little to address the problems they were having in midfield, but again, Greek manager Fernando Santos did the right thing, recognizing that his only path forward was to keep the faith in three attacking players, and his patience (and better midfield play) paid off when Petr Cech spilled a simple ball into the path of Fanis Gekas who pushed it into an empty net. In the catalogue of howlers, you’ll find this one under “goalies who had their skulls bashed in who are now afraid of contact”:


Cech please.

Czech Republic didn’t have much to do to maintain their lead, and after midfielder Tomas Rosicky went off in the 2nd half with an achilles injury, the plan seemed to be to hold on, press the ball constantly and let the Czech speed advantage on the wings keep the Greeks honest. It worked. With 3 points in the bag, the Czechs have a chance to advance if they can get a result against Poland this weekend. And the Greeks have Russia, who need a result, so um. Yeah.

Poland vs Russia

Previewing Group A, I predicted this was the must see match and well, great match. What can you say? The Poles came out on fire but wasted several chances, with Russian keeper Vyacheslav Malafeev making a save (he never even saw it) with his shin tops on Poland’s most dangerous attack. And, as it has been going in the tournament, after dominating most of the half, Poland gave up the first goal with Alan “Universal Transfer Target” Dzagoev flicking in Andrei Arshavin’s free kick to give Russia the 1-0 lead.


Kid can ball.

At this point Poland, took the reigns back in hand and pressed again, with the middle of the Russian midfield struggling to create an advantage and Aleksandr Kerzhakov failing to find the net again while leading the line brilliantly (I have not given up on him! He is class at playing his part if not at finishing! Where are the Pavlyuchenko lovers now?!). As it was for the Greeks, a costly turnover in the midfield turned into pain for Russia when Andrei Arshavin decided to keep dribbling when he should have been passing (how many times has this particular mistake been punished this tournament? PASS. THE. BALL!), and Polish captain Jakub Blaszczykowski got the ball and crushed the goal of the tournament (sorry Sheva)


Blaszczykowski. Bang!

The match was marred by poor officiating; there were several fouls that went without a call that really impacted the flow of the game. I understand the need to let things go sometimes, but this match saw some brutal no calls and even more problemtic fouls given the wrong way; Dzagoev in particular got on the wrong end of about four bad calls that finally boiled over into a yellow card for dissent. The kid doesn’t strike me as a dirty player or one to complain too much, but I think he had a point. That said, let your captain do the griping…


Booked

Anyway, the game ended 1-1, so I guess both sets of idiotic hooligan fans were right in the end; their team was on top! Yay you! Everyone’s a winner!

But seriously, the Group is set up perfectly for drama on the final day; Russia need a draw or better to advance, the Poles will want to win against the Czech Republic, The Czechs will want to draw or win against Poland, and the Greeks need a win. All to play for, then. My call, as I said in the preview:

“I like Russia to win the Group with Poland to qualify on a final day must-win against the Czechs.”

I’ll stand by that.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 4

Group D played their initial games today with one match an unexpected classic. To the reports!

England v France

The two frontrunners met in the first match of the day with Laurent Blanc’s high flying, pass-and-move France taking on Roy Hodgson’s negative, soul-sucking, defensive to the point of being offensive England. Football is not about being attractive, it is about results, and both teams earned a point in a 1-1 draw. It was a case of…of…of….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….


Jolen Lescott gets his giant, hideous head on the ball.

Ahem. Where was I? Oh, right. Soon after Jolen Lescott scored on one of ambitious England’s three attempts on goal, France came back down the field and, after a nifty interchange between Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri, scored the equalizer with a wicked shot to the near post that Joe Hart failed to stop.




Nasri gets one by his club mate.

Despite holding the ball for 65% of the match and having numerous opportunities to press their technical superiority, France were timid, with Karim Benzema playing way, way too deep (and often too wide) and the entire French attack posted outside the box. The result was a toothless attack with little bite, a perfect compliment to England’s flat 4-4-2 which saw James Milner easily play the role as “worst player on the pitch”, wasting what few chances England had.

This was England at its most dire, playing no ambition, “mission accomplished” football; again, Gerrard was playing way too deep to get in the space between the midfield and defense because Scott Parker can’t seem to pass the ball forward. If you are going to play two in the middle of the field, you have to get Gerrard some room to roam and be dangerous. His free kick assist aside, he was anonymous. What England should do (and won’t) is put Ashley Young out wide, Gerrard in the hole behind Wellbeck, sit Oxlade Chamberlain for Downing, play Parker and Henderson in the middle of the park and get going with a 4-4-1-1 until Rooney gets back and you can put Gerrard and Young on the wings and Rooney in the hole with Wellbeck. Can Roy change his sleep-inducing 4-4-2 in time? No. But stay tuned anyway and suffer like the rest of us…


The Owl and the Pussycats.

Sweden v Ukraine

Okay, time for me to eat my hat. Watching Andreiy Shevchenko bury two headers for Ukraine in their come from behind 2-1 win over my boy Zlatan Imbrahimovic and Sweden, I felt like I was being pulled by a time machine, back back back, to 2004, when the Ukrainian striker was in his prime and lighting up the Serie A. Seriously, almost 36 years old and playing his first ever Euro (Ukraine automatically qualified as hosts of the tournament), Shevchenko electrified the tournament like no one has yet, scoring two thumping, knockout goals in front of an incredible home support. This will be remembered in Kiev for generations, a sparkling display of class from an ageless wonder who beat all my expectations with his performance. Let’s see the goals…


The goals.

Just look at Sheva’s match winner, an inch perfect header between the body of Swedish defender Mikael Lustig and the post, about 12 inches away. That is devastating precision and power, but Lustig has to take some blame for not standing on the post. Still, the win was deserved for the most part; with all of my complaints that Ukraine looked too old on paper to be relevant in this group, it was the young players Andriy Yarmolenko and Evhen Konoplyanka who took up the mantle and pressed Sweden hard all night long. Yarmolenko in particular had the better of Swedish left back Martin Olsson, who gave him the space to deliver the cross for the first goal. Konoplyanka also played a great match, but perhaps could learn a thing or two about clinical finishing and patience from his number 7.


1-1.

Still with Zlatan playing deep in the hole all night long, Sweden were crying out for better forward play ahead of him. A missed header at the end of the first half should have been buried, but he took his next chance well. At last, once Johan Elmander came on and Christian Wilhelmsson replaced Seb Larson in the final 20 minutes, Sweden found their groove, with Ibrahimovic lashing a venomous shot just a little too close to Ukrainian keeper Andriy Pyatov before flicking Elmander in on goal with a glorious lob pass that the striker, likely rusty after a long layoff, hammered over the bar when anywhere likely would have done. The misses can hurt you.


Just a bit outside…

I wasn’t the only one wondering where Sweden’s dangerous play had come from; after the match, manager Erik Hamren had some choice words for his team.

“We needed 11 players on top form together because we’re not that big a team, but only five or six showed the quality I want and that’s not enough…We didn’t reach our level until the last 20 minutes and it’s my responsibility as a coach. We didn’t show the courage and didn’t get as much from the players as I felt we should get. We were cowards in the first-half.”

Cowards? Wow. If that doesn’t get you ready for England, nothing will. Maybe Zlatan’s magic will be enough next time, but tonight is all about Shevchenko. My hat is off to you sir, primarily so I can eat it.


Sheva Delivers on the dreams of a nation

Euro 2012 | Match Day 3

Match Day 3 with Group C was my favorite of the Euro 2012 so far. Yes, Ireland lost (big time), but I thought both Croatia’s excellent display of clinical finishing and Vicente Del Bosque’s bat-shit crazy decision to play a 4-6-0 with Spain being punished with a well-deserved draw by a tough Italian side were outstanding matches to watch. I was in relative disbelief all day, which for me is a pure compliment to the sport; you just never know what will happen when the games start to mean something. Match reviews ahoy!

Spain v Italy

OK, I am quoting my Group previews too often, but seriously, I can’t help myself on this one. Spain!

“And yet… look toward the attacking end and you start to see some problems. Fernando Llorente, a classic center forward, plays a very specific type of game, one that demands aerial service and patience. Fernando Torres is coming off of the worst form of his life, his confidence seemingly destroyed by a string of injuries and a lengthy spell as a bit part player at Chelsea. Álvaro Negredo scores for Spain… when he gets on the field. And Pedro Rodriguez is a classic #2 man, mopping up with goals and assists when given the chance. What’s missing? David Villa. The Barcelona striker has been the model of consistency for Spain for the past four years, but a serious injury this season has ruled him out of the Euros. So, who will step up and replace Villa? Who among the strikers can claim the goals?”

It looks like Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque agreed with me, having made the decision to start the match against Italy with no strikers– zero, none, nada. Instead, he played midfield playmaker Cesc Fabregas in an advanced position with Man City maestro David Silva in the hole behind him and had his midfield six… SIX!… in full, attacking flow. Xavi/Iniesta/Fabgregas/Silva/Busquets/Alonso played their typically fluent ball, with passages of brilliance (especially the Iniesta to Silva to Fabregas sequence that lead to Spain’s lone goal), but without a focal point for the attack, a player in the box who could pull away defenders and draw some attention, the Italians were happy to bunker down and counter in the classic Italian style. And it would have worked too if it weren’t for the meddling Spaniards and theindividual brilliance on display during Spain’s goal…


Touch and go: Fabregas scores

That said, the Italians showed they were not to be overlooked and they certainly deserved their draw on a sweet, flowing counterattack, the goal set into motion by a brilliant ball from Andrea Pirlo to Antonio Di Natale, who buried his first touch of the game with aplomb.


Simple, route one: Di Natale Scores

Again, words of wisdom…

“The only chance opponents have against Spain is to press hard when you can, play organized lights out defense and counter attack with efficiency; if you concede the ball to them, sit back and try to defend, it’s game over and lights out. If you can squeak a goal and disrupt the Spanish strikers with tough, physical play, you may have a chance.”


Iniesta.


Picasso.

This was Italy all the way; tenacious, physical (De Rossi playing on the backline was outstanding) and patient. Of course, my man to watch, Mario Balotelli was his usual enigmatic self, earning a yellow card for, well, not much, earning a penalty that was not given by the ref (clearly a penalty… should have been given all day) and, strangely, breaking free of the Spanish defense and walking the ball in on Casillas, only to be caught from behind, a glorious chance wasted. Fernando Torres was much the same; clearly through on goal, he chose to take the ball wide on Buffon, who stayed on his feet and played the ball. Torres also missed a glorious chance at a winner, chipping the Italian keeper but putting the ball well over the bar. In the end, 1-1 seemed the just result (surprisingly) and the question must be asked of Spain– better with or without a striker? Not sure a third title can be claimed without a focal point for the Spanish attack. And Italy now look very good; their game against Croatia will be a stormer.

Croatia v Ireland

This match was an excellent reminder that, in the words of boxer Sugar Shane Mosely, “styles make fights.” Croatia march to the beat of Luka Modrić and the midfield maestro did not disappoint with Croatia bossing large portions of the game and getting three goals from their strikers on the heels of Irish mistakes. First, striker Mario Mandzukić jumped up from his knees to put a speculative header toward the corner of the goal, only to have Shay Given react slowly and let the ball leak in to put Croatia up 1-0. After Ireland equalized on a set-piece header from Sean St. Ledger, in-form striker Nikica Jelavić pounced on an errant clearance during a set piece, one timing a chip over Given and restoring Croatia’s lead before Mandzukić put the Irish away with another header that ricocheted off the post, onto a diving Shay Given’s face and in. 3-1 and goodnight.


Goal.

Ireland actually played brightly in the final minutes with Croatia content to protect a two goal lead and absorb the pressure, but Keith Andrews stared down chance after chance and blinked, peppering the goal line boards with errant headers and shots wide of the target. This was not the Ireland that had gone undefeated for fourteen consecutive matches, tight at the back and confident on the counter; Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane were completely starved of the ball, with Croatia absolutely bossing it in midfield. It is no surprise, in retrospect, that Croatian manager Slavan Bilić knew exactly what to do; give the Irish a heavy dose of Mandzukić and Jelavić and make them pick their poison. It worked perfectly and with the help of some terrible Irish luck, Croatia took three points and shot to the top of the Group with Italy and Spain looming. It was a vital win for them, a dominant performance that should put Italy on notice that they are in for a real fight.


Your Mandzukić of the match.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 2

So, this blog will get old in a hurry if every post begins with an obligatory “I told you so,” but it’s hard not to refer to my Group B Preview when looking at Match Day 2 in the Group Of Death. I’m going to begin each match review with a quote from well, me, because I can’t help myself. Get while the getting’s good, as they say….

Denmark vs The Netherlands

So Denmark. Ahem. And I quote…

“Inconsistency and a lack of fluid play in the midfield creates frustration, until a moment of brilliance, seemingly from nowhere, saves the day.”

and then The Netherlands…

“it is the back line where the Oranje have had a few concerns. Yes, the team are filled with quality players at every position, but somehow, the Dutch always seem prone to the sucker punch; look at their 2-1 loss to Bulgaria for the most recent example of the counter attack causing this team agony.”

So, that happened.

The Netherlands absolutely dominated Denmark and walked away 1-0 losers for a variety of reasons. First, the lights out Wesley Sneijder aside, the Dutch attack was dominated by chemistry-free “me first” play by Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Ibrahim Afellay; when the Robben wasn’t doing his usual “cut inside on the left foot and hammer the ball over the bar”, van Persie was slipping and falling, whiffing on shots, spraying open shots wide of the post and showing for the ball near post instead of pulling his defender away from his attacking teammates by making a far post run. Barn doors and banjos and never the twain shall meet.


Swing and a miss: Robin van Persie

Afellay provided the early threat with some classy runs and shots from the inside channel, but aside from putting in a game effort (unlike his mates up front) he was otherwise ineffective. Once the Dutch made the sensible move of replacing Nigel De Jong with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, their attack gained some bite, but it was too, little too late. Only barely though; Sneijder’s incredible ball from midfield that found Huntelaar in the box was one of the great passes of the year.


What. A. Ball.

You have to wonder why Dutch manager Bert Van Marwijk stayed with two defensive midfielders after falling behind 1-0 to Michael Krohn-Dehli’s brilliant finish in the box; yes, the Dutch dominated possession, but the lack of chemistry in the attack was more than enough reason to make a change much earlier in the match. Obviously, you can’t expect Robben and van Persie to both have a terrible match at the exact same time, but lo and behold, they did. The Danes, on the other hand, did a brilliant job of smash and grab, then picking their moments to threaten again, primarily through the runs of their fullback Simon Poulson, who had an incredible game at left back. And full credit to Michael Krohn-Dehli, whose sweet cutback in the box put him in on goal, where he calmly hit the five hole.


Krohn-Dehli slots it home

Self-congratulatory quotes aside, I thought the Dutch would punish the Danes in this match; even as the minutes ticked by, I expected the Dutch to find the net and at least grab a draw. But full credit to Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer and the Danish defense; they did their job, playing physical football and not putting a foot wrong all night long. Deserved winners and suddenly, right in the thick of it.


Agger gets a boot in…

Germany vs Poirtugal

OK, I can’t help myself… here we go again. In my preview, I suggest Mario Gomez was the man to watch in Group B…

…but one man who will likely be the one to decide the fate of his team is Germany’s Mario Gomez. The Bayern Munich striker is the definition of the poacher, always seeming to pop-up in the right place at the right time to grab a vital goal. That said, he runs super hot and, suddenly, super cold; hardly the most technically gifted player, Gomez can switch from assassin to absolute donkey at the drop of a hat. He’ll have some of the most incredible misses you’ll ever see, only to follow them up with a 93rd minute tap in to win the match.

Bang.


Go Go Gomez

1-0 to Germany, from nothing, and that’s how it ended.

I also said

“For some reason, mental or tactical, I am just not sure, Ronaldo never turns it on for his country in the same way he does for his club…When playing for Portugal, Ronaldo is surrounded by good players who just can’t seem to put it all together.”

And so it was again; starved of service by his teammates, Ronaldo rarely threatened, but when he did have his chances, the German defense were there, throwing themselves in front of the ball, defending with every part of their bodies. Mats Hummels played lights out at the back for Germany, with Jerome Boateng doing a great job marking Ronaldo and covering the overlapping runs of Fábio Coentrão, who was Portugal’s best and most positive player on the night.


Coentrão attacks

As for the Germans, they did not look likely champions in this match, struggling with the play of Lukas Podolski and Gomez, both of whom spurned numerous good chances to score. Thomas Müller and Mezut Özil were both okay for the Germans, but Müller was good when his strikers went missing and went missing when his strikers needed him most. Özil kept things ticking, but found himself marked highly for most of the match. Instead, it was Sami Khedira who was the man of the match for me, not only mopping up in the midfield but pushing forward at just the right moment, getting back when he was needed, getting in the way when the ball came his way and throwing in the cross that Gomez buried. He was everywhere on the night and was the glue that held his team together.

Portugal really suffered without a central midfield playmaker and a true striker; while Veloso did a great job of marking Özil and João Moutinho had a couple of good balls, the middle of the park was generally incoherent for Portugal, and it cost them. Hélder Postiga barely had a sniff in isolation up top; it was as if he wasn’t even there with Nani and Ronaldo almost ignoring his presence on the attack. He did make quite a tackle, though…


Postiga makes his mark

Still, this was a very close match; Portugal looked more organized than I feared they might and Germany, Özil in particular, found themselves in a tougher battle than I expected. They ground out a close win, which is a good sign for them. Clean sheets never hurt anyone. Wednesday’s games are now set up to be must see, with Portugal needing a win against Denmark to stay in the hunt, and The Netherlands needing the same against Germany. Group of Death, indeed.

Euro 2012 | Match Day 1

As they say in Brooklyn, not for nothing*, but this blog made a couple of rather tame predictions prior to Group A getting underway; one was that Robert Lewandowski and his Borussia Dortmund teammates would be the driving force for Poland and another was that Russia were the team to beat in the Group and that Aleksandr Kerzhakov was truly the player to watch in Group A. As far as I am concerned, both predictions came true, but not in the way I expected.

Poland vs Greece

A story of two halves, each alike in insanity, divided against themselves. Ha.

Poland came out flying, Greece looking like the underachievers I had expected them to be. The right hand flank of Greece’s defense was battered by the overlapping runs of Lukasz Piszczek and Kuba Blaszczykowski, who pwned the right wing and battered the Greeks with crosses and runs for most of the first half. It all came good when Blaszczykowski whipped in a cross for Lewandowski, unmarked on the far post, to hammer down into the ground, and bounce into the net. 1-0 to Poland and they were flying.


Keep Your Head Down and Keep Reaching For The Stars: Lewandowski Scores

Soon, Spainsh referee Carlos Velasco Carballo decided to try and ruin the game by handing out consecutive yellow cards to Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos on two calls that were not only never yellow cards, but likely were not even fouls. Off he went on a red card, the Greeks reduced to 10 men. A note here about the refs; I am going to do my best not to complain too much, but these men are under too much scrutiny from UEFA. They need to let the refs manage the game and not set down such rigid guidelines. Watching the loathsome Manchester United 12th man English ref Howard Webb do a great job in the Russia v Czech Republic, it is clearly impossible to set a single standard. So, Spanish refs and others like them, lighten up. The game is not about you.

Poland went on to miss several chances, with defender Damien Perquis missing a couple of sitters from close range. But Poland left the pitch at halftime looking good; up a man and a goal at home. Game over.

Hellas has no fury like a team scorned; down to 10 men, the Greek team galvanized into a far more cohesive unit escially after Carballo turned down a penalty shout for handball in the Polish box. After the half, Greek manager Fernando Santos took the team by the neck and turned the entire game with a couple of brilliant tactical choices for which Poland could not find an answer. The first was bringing on the talismanic Dimitris Salpingidis for an underachieving Sotiris Ninis. Salpingidis paid almost immediate dividends in turning the tide of the game.

How many Poles does it take to blow a one man, one goal advantage at home? One. Wojciech Szczesny.

When Vassilis Torossidis swung a ball into the Polish box, the Arsenal keeper Szczesny dove into the feet of his own defender (who had the cross covered) spilling the ball free and to the onrushing Salpingidis, who buried the ball in the net to make it 1-1.

Santos’ other great move was to push his defensive resources to the left, pinching his midfield into cutting off the supply line of Piszczek and Blaszczykowski, and forcing Poland into playing the ball through the middle, where the Greeks mopped up.

When Salpingidis made a brilliant run onto a looping ball into an empty Polish penalty area, Sczcesny ran onto him and stuck a leg in, tripping the Greek attacker, giving away a penlty and earning himself a red card.


Stop Tripppin’: Salpingidis wins the Greeks a penalty

It was the Poles worst nightmare, their goal and man advantage suddenly gone, back up keeper Przemyslaw Tyton brought on to defend the penalty. No keeper in Euro history had ever come on and saved a penalty before, but Tyton dove to his left and pushed away Karagounis’s effort, preserving the draw and adding incredible drama to the opening match. In the end, 1-1 was, shockingly, harsh to the Greeks, who showed an iron will and a real tactical nous in their ability to adapt to this match; they played better with 10 men than with 11. Their upcoming game against the Czech Republic is going to have a major impact on Poland’s chances; they have to hope the Czechs can earn a draw now.

Russia vs Czech Republic

Let’s get the match report out of the way quickly:

a) Russia absolutely battered the Czechs 4-1
b) Alan Dzagoev is a star in the making after two clincial finishes against Chelsea keeper Petr Cech
c) Roman Pavyluchenko scored a goal and set one up in about 8 minutes of time on the pitch
d) Andrei Arshavin was boss, playing fluid, attacking football the likes of which you rarely ever saw him play at Arsenal (his 4 goal performance against my Liverpool side being a rare exception)


Highlights… in Russian. To the winner, the spoils!

But the big debate coming out of the Russian camp will be about the play of Alexsandr Kerzhakov, the striker I targeted as theplayer to watch in this Group. To the naked, uniformed eye, Kerzhakov was an absolute waster, missing chance after chance in front of the goal; only his header off the post, which bounced to Dzagoev for his opening goal, could be seen as bad luck. Everything else in front of goal? Shocking. With Pavyluchenko coming on and bagging a goal and an assist in under ten minutes, surely he must be the choice for Russia, right?


Oops. Missed Again: Kerzhakov Can’t Score

No way.

Kerzhakov was outstanding in linking up play, coming deep and picking up the ball, holding it up and bringing the Russian attack together. His lack of a scoring touch doesn’t erase his qualities in leading the attack and serving as the glue for his entire team. If he had buried his chances, Kerzhakov would have had one of the all-time great matches in Euro history. Instead, his lack of scoring has some supporters calling for Pavyluchenko to get the start against Poland in the next match. Thankfully, Dick Advocaat knows what he has; look for Kerzhakov to shine again on Tuesday.

*I have lived here for 15 years and still have no idea what it means…

Euro 2012 | Racism Tracker

ED: Decided to use this post as a catch all for tracking racist incidents during the Euro 2012. Will update as I see reports…

Friday, June 15

You know who loves to review things then do very little about them? UEFA. here they are against, using their amazing powers of “review”! That’ll teach ’em!

UEFA Reviewing Racist Incidents

WARSAW, Poland — UEFA is looking into reports that Croatia fans threw a banana on the field and racially abused Italy striker Mario Balotelli during the match at the Euro 2012 tournament.

UEFA says it is seeking more information on the alleged fan behavior during the game Thursday in Poznan, Poland. An anti-discrimination group appointed by UEFA says it has “categorical” eyewitness accounts indicating nearly 300 people directed monkey chants at Balotelli, who is black. Piara Powar, of Football Against Racism in Europe, tells The Associated Press that the chants were “not a boo or something that could be misinterpreted.” Balotelli has been the target of alleged abuse at both Italy matches during the Euro 2012 tournament.
*******

And of course, in a related incident, the far-right have to get a word in as well… I’m sure this will be stopped by a thorough review and fine. *sigh*

Croatian fans burn Euro flag, carry Far-Right Banner

POZNAN, Poland — Croatian soccer fans burned a European Union flag and paraded around with posters of a convicted war criminal before their team faced Italy Thursday at the European Championship.

Several thousand Croatian supporters crowded into an area around Poznan’s main old town square, drinking and singing before the Group C game. Some men were bare-chested despite the chilly weather, displaying tattoos of nationalist symbols. There were also banners on display, some with designs evoking the fascist “Ustasa” movement, which governed Croatia as a Nazi protectorate from 1941 to 1944. Some people also carried pictures of Ante Gotovina, a former general convicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Gotovina is an icon of the far-right in Croatia. Police, some in riot gear, monitored the situation, but did not intervene.

Wednesday, June 13

From the training ground, to the matches now… wonder what Platini will do about it it. I just put $50 on fuck all. Full story at the link.

UEFA to Investigate Racist Chanting

Uefa is to investigate alleged racist chanting during the Euro 2012 matches between Spain and Italy and Russia v Czech Republic.

A Spanish fans’ group has said some of its supporters abused Manchester City and Italy striker Mario Balotelli. Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie told reporters he “noticed” racist chants directed at him. Uefa said that no disciplinary proceedings had been started at this stage.

The Uefa statement added: “Following the provision of new independent information today, regarding the two cases of alleged racist chanting in the Spain-Italy and Russia-Czech Republic matches, Uefa is now conducting further investigations.” No official complaints have been made to Uefa by Italy or Czech Republic.
The admission by a Spanish fans’ group that some of their supporters racially abused Balotelli during Sunday’s game was sent to Uefa by an anti-racism network.

Tuesday, June 12

Some may think this doesn’t qualify as it is not about race, but Antonio Cassano’s bigoted comments about gay players certainly qualify for me as being part of the problem of “respect” that FIFA and UEFA purport to endorse. Cassano issued this apology, but I’ll leave it to others to gauge the validity of that apology.

Antonio Cassano ‘hopes’ there are no gay players in Italian squad

The Italy forward Antonio Cassano has caused controversy by saying he hopes there are no homosexual players on the team at Euro 2012, and he then used a derogatory term to describe gays.

When asked about media reports that there were two metrosexual players and two homosexual players in the Italy squad, the Milan forward said: “What’s a metrosexual?” before adding: “Queers in the national team? That’s their business. But I hope not.”

Cassano later issued an apology through the Italian state news agency ANSA. “I am sincerely sorry that my comments have caused controversy and protests among gay groups. Homophobia is not a point of view that I share. I didn’t want to offend anyone and I absolutely don’t want to put a person’s sexual freedom under discussion.

“I only said that it was a problem which was nothing to do with me and I don’t let myself express judgments on other people’s choices, which should all be respected.”

Saturday June 9

Euro 2012 anti-racism group reports abuse of black player, far-right flags at Russia match

WARSAW, Poland – Anti-racism experts say they identified racist abuse and far-right Russian flags at a European Championship match on Friday.
The Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) network says Czech Republic defender Theodor Gebre Selassie, who is black, was racially abused during Russia’s 4-1 win in Wroclaw.
FARE director Piara Powar tells The Associated Press that imperial “Russian Empire” flags were displayed. UEFA asked FARE to help appoint expert spotters who will report offensive banners, chants and behaviour in stadiums. UEFA has pledged zero tolerance of discrimination at the three-week tournament in Poland and Ukraine. Film circulating online Saturday also appeared to show some Russia fans attacking stadium stewards in Wroclaw.

Thursday, June 7

According to The Guardian, it’s all kicking off. UEFA? Useless excuses, as usual…

Euro 2012: Holland players subjected to racist abuse at training session

Euro 2012 was plunged into its first racism controversy after the black players in the Holland squad were subjected to monkey chants during an open practice session in the same city where England will also invite the public to watch them train on Friday.

Several hundred people targeted players such as Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel when 25,000 spectators attended the Dutch practice session at the Stadion Miejski, the home of Wisla Krakow.

The players, on the instructions of the captain, Mark van Bommel, responded by moving their training drills to the other side of the ground. “It is a real disgrace especially after getting back from Auschwitz [the Dutch squad had visited the concentration camp on Wednesday] that you are confronted with this,” Van Bommel said. “We will take it up with Uefa and if it happens at a match we will talk to the referee and ask him to take us off the field.”

The problems occurred as the players began the session by jogging a lap of the pitch only to be greeted at one end of the stadium with monkey noises and loud jeers. On the second circuit, they were even louder and it was then the players decided not to go around again. “At least now we know what we can encounter,” the Holland coach, Bert van Marwijk, said with heavy cynicism. “Very atmospheric.”

Uefa subsequently tried to deny that it was racially motivated, saying they had checked with the Dutch squad and had been told it was not thought to be of that nature. Instead, the official line is that a small part of the crowd was protesting about the fact that Krakow had not been made one of the host cities. Another theory that has been put forward is that Wisla’s supporters did not want their stadium being used by anyone but their own club and were simply booing the Dutch players.

Van Bommel, however, responded angrily when it was put to him not everyone had heard monkey noises. “You need to open your ears,” he said. “If you did hear it, and don’t want to hear it, that is even worse.”

Read the full story here.

Euro 2012 | The Racist Problem

Let’s start with this.


FC Karpaty Lviv fans in Ukraine

and this…


BBC Report On Football Racism in Poland and Ukraine

Finally, give this a read.

Euro 2012: Racism In Ukraine

*****

When UEFA (The Union of European Football Associations, the governing body of the game in Europe) decided to host the 2012 European Football Championships in Poland and Ukraine, the thought of bringing Eastern Europe to the forefront seemed overdue; the 1976 tournament, which was hosted in the then-Yugoslavia, is the only time the Euros have been hosted outside of Western Europe. In an organization where the politics of self-righteousness trump common sense, an organization driven by the despotic, almost whimsical, decision-making of deeply flawed individuals, the shortsighted choice of Poland and Ukraine was never going to be addressed with any sense of realism. Just look at the horrible political situation in Ukraine; the jailing, beating and hunger strike of politician Yulia Tymoshenko, their horrible record on gay rights, and on and on. But politics and sport should never mix, amirite? Sure.

And so, with the Euros opening and reports circulating that a real fascist, racist threat exists in many of the host cities, UEFA are turning the tables on the concerns about racism, taking a philosophical approach to the issue it was so eager to make the centerpiece of its identity just a few short months ago.

UEFA President and former star for France, Michel Platini, in his own words: 



Platini dismissed suggestions his reputation would be tarnished if there is racial abuse at Euro 2012.

“Are you joking? You think I am responsible for the racists in the rest of Europe or in England or in France?” he said.

Platini said UEFA had done a lot to tackle racism, backing such initiatives as Never Again, but said he was “not responsible for society”.

He added: “Society is not so easy. You have some problems and we have to organize these Euros from the beginning with some problems because these two countries never welcome so big an event in the past.

“It was a big challenge for Poland, big challenge for Ukraine, a big challenge for UEFA, and we have done our best.

“It is not just a fact only in Poland and Ukraine. You can go in France, United States, in England and you will find the problem of racism.

Well, good enough then. It’s hard, it’s a big deal, everyone’s trying. Well done, Michel.

*****

There is racism everywhere, but it is rarely institutionalized within a sporting culture as it is within football, especially in a Europe that is facing radical demographic and political changes. One of the massive failures of UEFA and FIFA in addressing racism among the fans of its game is that they instead have focused attention on creating an illusion of racial harmony among the players, doing very little to change the attitudes in the stands. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, the leader of the organization that governs world football, has set an horrific example for the game through his own lighthearted statements about the problems of discrimination in the game. Let’s run his greatest hits, shall we?


In 2004, the FIFA president said women players should ‘wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts… to create a more female aesthetic.’

‘I would say they (gay fans) should refrain from any sexual activities’ – Blatter after being asked about the illegality of homosexuality in Qatar after they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

‘I think in football there’s too much modern slavery in transferring players or buying players here and there, and putting them somewhere.’ – Defending the ‘oppressed’ Cristiano Ronaldo after his £80m switch from Manchester United to Real Madrid.

In response to whether football had sexual inequality, he replied: ‘There are gay footballers, but they don’t declare it because it will not be accepted in these macho organizations. Look at women’s football – homosexuality is more popular there.’

‘I have never seen Italy, Germany, Brazil or Argentina with a coach from another country. In fact, most of the best teams have a coach from their own country.’ – Blatter’s response to Fabio Capello’s appointment as England boss.

Blatter’s advice for dealing with racist comments on the pitch?


Asked if he thought there was racism on the pitch, the FIFA president told CNN World Sport: “I would deny it. There is no racism, there is maybe one of the players towards another, he has a word or a gesture which is not the correct one, but also the one who is affected by that, he should say that this is a game. We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands, and this can happen, because we have worked so hard against racism and discrimination.”

When the deep denial of serious issues comes from the top, how can you expect the subordinates to be serious? Looking at Platini and UEFA, it’s clear you cannot. Faced with a threat of racist supporters at Euro 2012 matches, Italian striker Mario Balotelli stood up for himself and made sure everyone knew he would not stand by and allow fans to racially abuse him.

“If [racism] does happen I would leave the pitch and go home,” said Balotelli. “Racism is unacceptable to me, I cannot bear it. We are in 2012, it can’t happen. If someone throws a banana at me in the street, I will go to prison because I will kill him.”


Balotelli

Platini’s response? Any player who is being abused and leaves the pitch will receive…. a yellow card.

“Platini said: “It’s a yellow card. It’s not a player – Mr Balotelli – who’s in charge of refereeing.”

Platini insists officials will deal with any racist incidents that occur during the tournament, which begins on Friday.

“It’s the referee who takes these decisions. Referees can finish the game. They have this power in case of racism,” Platini told the BBC sports editor David Bond. “That is, I think, the best way to protect the game against racism. The referee has been given advice and he can stop the game if there are problems.”

Of course, Platini completely ignores the fact that just this past February, Balotelli’s club Manchester City filed a complaint with UEFA that the striker had been racially abused in Portugal in a match against Porto. Platini’s response to that incident was to fine Porto €20,000. There is no zero missing there.

You would laugh if you didn’t want to cry.

*****

Also, let me just say Platini has huge balls to criticize racism in the USA as if it were something akin to flying swastikas in Ukraine’s football grounds. Living in the US, it is easy to see the game through a much different lens than most; racism in most sports here was eliminated by watching great players break racial barriers over many decades. And while our churches and communities may still struggle with being fully integrated, our sporting events are clearly the one place where the concept of a meritocracy, vital to our self-conception as a people, is prized above everything else. If you can score touchdowns, it doesn’t matter your skin color. If you can hit home runs, it doesn’t matter from where you come. American fans look at the issues of racism (and its twin, hooliganism) in football and not only shake their heads, but turn off from the game, labeling the permissive, tolerant culture of law enforcement as completely unserious about protecting the rights of fans to enjoy safety at a sporting event.

That is perhaps the most important, unaddressed violation in the game; the culture of fandom in European football is too often completely conceded to a violent minority that bases its existence on its continued access to the game. By stubbornly refusing to take the game out of the hands of supporters who are violent and/or racist, FIFA, UEFA and the national football associations continue to shirk their responsibility to create an environment for all fans to have fun at a football match. Perhaps their is too much money to be made by turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the problem.

******

Football needs a long look in the mirror. I hope Balotelli doesn’t have to face any problems. I hope fans of various racial and national backgrounds can enjoy a safe, fun trip to Poland and the Ukraine to support their teams. But it shouldn’t be an issue, and the farcical attempts of the game’s governing bodies to superficially address the issue of racism while counting their Euros behind closed doors is something that shouldn’t be tolerated any more.

I am not sure how the game has come to this, but while FIFA faces down its own corruption scandals, both it and UEFA need to address their moral bankruptcy on the issue of discrimination. The idea that in 2012, a football supporter can walk into a football stadium and hoist a Nazi swastika is an outrage. The fact that fans can make monkey sounds at black players and throw bananas at them is an outrage. The fact that players will be punished if they remove themselves from that kind of an abuse is an outrage. The fact that, all over Europe, police and the game’s overlords cannot figure out a way to make a football stadia safe, fun places for supporters is an outrage. The fact that this has been going on for decades is an outrage.


Beautiful Game Turned Ugly: An ESPN report From 2006. Six Years Ago.

In the past, it has taken the literal death of supporters to force changes to the culture of the game. So, what grievous injury needs to happen now for football to take it’s racism problem seriously?

Euro 2012 | Preview: Group D

Euro 2012: GROUP D PREVIEW

Group D is home to one of the most competitive Groups in the tournament, with three teams just about equal in stature and ability playing alongside an emotional host nation who will likely struggle to advance. But if you’re as obsessed with drama in your football as I am, this Group also features three of the most problematic, anxiety ridden teams in the tournament.

First there is England, the “home” of football, the nation that seemingly cannot discern between reality and expectation. Let me say; I watch English football like it is my job, I follow Liverpool FC of the English Barclays Premiere League as a religion, I am smitten with the League, the way the game is played, the pace– the entire narrative of club football in England. I know a little bit about the players and the manager, to say the least. So, please believe me when I say, and many English supporters will say the same; there are few people on the planet more deluded than English fans. I’ll get to the why of it in my team preview below, but right now, England have possibly the worst manager in their entire existence, and the enter Euro 2012 a team bereft of chemistry and imagination with the weight of the world on their shoulders. They can compete, they have great players, but they cannot win it all. Will not happen.

Then there is France, the team that self-destructed at the 2010 World Cup. This was a team that won the 1998 World Cup, were finalists in 2006, but who suddenly held a locker room revolt against their own manager, becoming a group of players who were an absolute embarrassment to their nation, a team without an identity or a focus. Suddenly, under Manager Laurent Blanc, the French have reversed their fortunes and Voila!; the team that everyone loved to hate last time around have the look of contenders about them.

And take a look at Sweden, the team that is always just a hair away from greatness, the team that fights for respect despite playing attractive football, the team that is always flying just below the radar; they’re at it again. A string of attractive results prior to the tournament have raised a few eyebrows and have people thinking that they may be one of the real dark horses of the Euro 2012. It helps to have one of the most outstanding (and vain) players in world football leading the line (more on him later), but Sweden, for whatever reason, look primed to compete, cohesive where once only underachievement seemed likely.

And finally, the co-hosts Ukraine, who are an ok team, but who have the dreams of their nation on their back. I won’t lie; in my opinion, the country itself should not be hosting this tournament. Political repression, concerns about fan racism, homophobic laws being passed; right now, Ukraine seems like a regressive place to showcase European football. Of course, it’s not fair to pin any of that on the team, so I won’t do that, but I will be addressing my concerns about the tournament and Ukraine in particular soon. Needless to say, I think the team are in trouble in this Group, even as hosts.

Lots to discuss…

The Teams

England

Roy Hodgson. The name strikes fear in the hearts of, well, of supporters of the teams he manages. Tactically bereft, seemingly appointed to the England position out of sheer desperation, Hodgson has picked up where former England boss Fabio Capello left off; boring the life out of football fans. Watching England play under Hodgson, a 4-4-2 system with balls hoofing out of the back and no player being used to link the defense and attack, one might be lead to believe that this England team had no creative imagination at all. Which is an absolute shame.

The main issue is with the midfield pairing of England captain Steven Gerrard and defensive midfielder Scott Parker, who should allow Gerrard to press forward in the attack. Instead, because of the pure width of England’s wingers James Milner, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young (who has been playing as a second striker), Gerrard is being forced to play deep with Parker, the England center back pair generally uncomfortable playing the ball out of trouble into Parker and Gerrard. What this means is that teams set up with a single striker (France, for example) and a combative midfield will be able to overwhelm England in their attacking half, allowing for few opportunities to create offense. How do England respond to that numerical mismatch? Hoof. Counter attack. Hoof. Offside. Hoof.

Sometimes, it works. If England could play the ball fluently, on the ground, and allow their wingers and fullbacks to tuck in a little and help support a possession game, England would have a much more dynamic approach, allowing wide players to press forward, setting up overlapping runs for the excellent Ashley Cole and Glenn Johnson at the fullback position– all of it without sacrificing the shape of the team. But English players simply are not technically gifted enough to play this way. Instead, the lack of skill in moving the ball forward has forced Gerrard to play much deeper, leaving a giant hole in the attacking midfield and leaving the opposition room to press their own attack. It could have been so different, but this is England now; organized, defensive-minded and without a playmaker until the suspended Wayne Rooney, who can fill that hole in the midfield by playing off of another striker, makes his return in the final match of Group play. England have enough quality to make their way out of the Group– I have it at 50/50– but what do they do when they run into Germany? Spain? The Netherlands? Yikes. England are grueling to watch right now, but I have to watch anyway. It wouldn’t be England if you weren’t suffering.


Roy talks tactics. *sigh*

France

Right now, I have France winning this Group and earning a spot in the semi-finals of the Euros. I am loving how they are playing right now; Karim Benzema is dramatically improved as a striker, Samir Nasri is doing a great job of opening space with his passing, Franck Ribery is on fire attacking from the wing, they have one of the must-see rising stars of the Euros in Jérémy Ménez, and an experienced back line lead by Philippe Mexès. After the absolute train wreck that was the French team of just two years ago, Laurent Blanc has come in and righted the ship, getting this new generation of French players to attack with a fluid, beautiful style. It has paid off; France are lighting it up right now, winning recent matches against The USA, Germany (!!), Iceland (coming back from 2-0 down to win 3-2) and the always tough Serbia– France just look good and are controlling possession with attractive football. The other piece of good news from France is that the goals seem to be coming from the right places, with Ribery, Malouda and Benzema all in form right now. There is something about Les Bleus attitude and their tactics that have me believing in them. Can I get an Allez?

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You know what they say about books and covers? Meet Franck Ribéry

Sweden

Sweden are another team playing attractive football right now, but they are missing the balance and depth of a team like France. Instead, they rely on one of the geniuses of the game to make them dangerous; Zlatan Imbrahimović is an absolute nightmare for the opposition, a player of tremendous skill, technique and a fiery attitude that pulls the entire team forward. In eight qualifying games for Sweden, Imbrahimović scored 5 goals and had 3 assists, essentially responsible for a goal a game. That number should scare anyone. He’s 6’4” but can dribble the ball with the best in the world, and he is absolutely deadly in front of goal. The best part? He knows how good he is; there may not be a player more in love with his own abilities than Zlatan. But honestly? If I were him, I’d feel the same way. When Zlatan’s on the pitch, Sweden are always in the match; with a new generation of midfielders like Rasmus Elm and Seb Larsson and good chemistry with strike partner Ola Toivonen of PSV Eindhoven, Zlatan and Sweden could finally make some noise at the Euros.


I’d Probably Hate On Me Too: Zlatan

Ukraine

On paper, Ukraine look like a team of faded potential. With names that would make most people’s “he’s still playing?” list, names like 35 year old striker Andriy Shevchenko, 32 year old midfielder Serhiy Nazarenko and 32 year old Andriy Voronin on the roster, Ukraine will certainly not be lacking experience. They also feature a few names that pop off of the team sheet, none more so than Bayern Munich star Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (33 years old!), who is coming off of a heart breaking loss in the Champions League final. Still, it seems clear that hosting the tournament has stoked something nostalgic in Ukraine, allowing a swan song for its great generation of footballers. I expect it to be bittersweet; despite the power of playing home matches and the support of their nation, Ukraine don’t look likely to make it out of the Group. They have been disappointing in the run-up, losing their last two matches to Turkey and Austria; just can’t see them taking down the other three teams in Group D.


Hosting Is Fun!

Must See Match

I’m inclined to say France vs England (who am I kidding, of course I’ll be watching that one), but the game that I think will be the best game of Group D will be France vs Sweden on Tuesday, June 19th, the final match day of Group play. I think this match will decide the Group D winner and since England will be playing Ukraine at the exact same time (and with Wayne Rooney itching to get on the pitch), this one promises to be a scoreboard watching affair with two attractive teams gunning for the knock out stages.

Players To Watch

Group D is full of great players, especially the aforementioned Imbrahimović, Benzema and Ribery, but I think it’s going to come down to how productive Ashley Young can be in setting up goals and scoring them for England. Without the creative influence of Rooney until the final match, England are going to need Young to continue to be an attacking influence, mostly because Steven Gerrard will likely be sitting deeper than he otherwise would be (and thus, less effective than he otherwise would be.) Young is a streaky player who is in good form at the moment; if he can get the ball and link up with Andy Carroll up top, if Hodgson continues to play him as a second striker, he can make some noise for England and man, do they need some noise to be made…


One man, one match, one-nil: Ashley Young for England

Group Prediction

I have France as Group D winners, with Sweden surprising a disappointed England for second place and Ukraine breaking the hearts of the locals in fourth. I just have a feeling Sweden are ready to get over the hump against England. Just a hunch…

Previously
Group A Preview
Group B Preview
Group C Preview