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

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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