Tahiti 1-0 Oceania

Tahiti on the World map, courtesy of Mixcoatl on Wikipedia.

Small break from the Euros this, but something worth mentioning. I love an underdog story, and this certainly meets that criterion. When Australia left the Oceania confederation (OFC) to join the Asian (AFC), the assumption then was that New Zealand would dominate every OFC competition from that moment on.

Nobody, it would seem, told our friends in the French Pacific colonies this before this year’s OFC Nations Cup. First off, New Caledonia (birthplace of Christian Karembeu, among others) beat New Zealand in the semi-finals. Then New Caledonia and Tahiti did battle in the final, with a goal from Steevy Chong Hue (who plays for a side in the Belgian Third Division) after 11 minutes being enough for a Tahitian victory.

It is of course the consequences of this unlikely success that make it doubly interesting. At the 2013 Confederations Cup, Tahiti will line up against sides like Spain, Brazil and Uruguay – a colony (not even a country) with a population which is less than 0.1% that of Brazil’s at around 170,000 will face off against these footballing behemoths. No doubt they’ll get absolutely hammered in each match, but nonetheless it is an incredible achievement. Their passage to the final also puts them in with a chance of qualification for the main event (the World Cup) in 2014 – the four OFC semi-finalists (New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia and Tahiti) will face off between September 2012 and March 2013 for the chance to take that intercontinental play-off spot, this time against the fourth place team from the CONCACAF region (which last time round was Costa Rica).

One assumes New Zealand will return to form, and they might argue that they were only interested in a semi-final berth to ensure a place in the final round of World Cup. However, it seems that, on this evidence at least (and the fact that New Zealand only won their bronze medal with a 4-3 win against the Solomon Islands), they might not be in for quite such an easy ride come qualification time. Football, it seems, can still be surprising, even where miniscule French colonies are concerned.


Euro 2012 Preview

The Olimpiyskiy in Kiev, venue for the final of Euro 2012

It’s that time again. The best international football tournament around is back, and for the last time as a 16-team tournament (see previous moans about this). The Euros are tremendous because at least half of the 16 teams taking part are potential winners, which then means that at least some of those will always be drawn in the same group. The European Championships always has at least one group where the two teams going through isn’t entirely obvious. This year is no exception; although 3 of the 4 groups have two obvious qualifiers, they won’t necessarily get through.

I’m also going to attempt some nostalgia on past Euros, starting with Euro 96 which, like this European Championships, started on my birthday. Those posts are to come – this one is about the not-at-all-distant future.

Group A

So then, to group A, a very good place to start. This is definitely the weakest of the four groups in the Finals, with no definitively excellent team among them. The most likely qualifiers are Russia. The core of the side which reached the semis in 2008 is still there in Akinfeev, Ignashevich and Arshavin (to name but three). The Russians also have a potent “new” (if you’re Mark Lawrenson) weapon in Alan Dzagoev, as well as general Champions League experience throughout the squad with CSKA and Zenit players providing the bulk. They should get through the group but no further than the quarter finals.

Same goes for Poland. At least one host nation has to get through (usually) and my vote goes the Poles’ way. The combination of a weakish group, some talented individuals and a fervent home support makes Poland the most likely runner up in Group A for me. Szczesny provides real quality in goal, Robert Lewandowski has had the season of his life bagging heaps of goals for Dortmund and one would expect the likes of Ludovic Obraniak to provide some real midfield creativity. As with the Russians, I see them falling against their stronger Group B opponent in the quarters.

That leaves Greece and the Czech Republic to bring up the rear in Group A. The Greeks are famously doggedly defensive (as was exemplified in their run to win Euro 2004), but when one of the first 11 squad numbers is given to Georgios Samaras, something isn’t right. Greece will no doubt go out of their way to bore anyone and everyone rigid; however they should still lose most if not all of their games. The Czechs have obvious talent here and there (Cech, Rosicky) but given the fact that Milan Baros is still their star striker (he’s only 30!) and the rest of their squad is workmanlike rather than peppered with genius as it was in the past (Pavel Nedved’s wonderful creativity has never really been replaced), they will be hopping the short distance back to Prague at the end of the group stages.

Group B

Group B is when things start to get genuinely interesting. The first of arguably three groups of “death”, Group B promises the highlight of the first round matches in Netherlands v Germany. Of those two I think Germany will top the group. They should kick on from their World Cup successes and, given the combination of an embarrassment of riches up and down the field (perhaps with the exception of a slightly shaky central defence) and a fantastic coach, they will go far. I’m looking forward in particular to seeing Mario Götze get a run in the side, and to see if Marco Reus (if he gets a shot) can live up to his burgeoning reputation. The central defence (Mertesacker!) is the one weak spot for Deutschland – but this probably won’t be particularly exploited until the semi finals.

I think the Netherlands will finish second, partly because the Germans always seem to have a bit of hold over the Dutch when it comes to international football. The Netherlands should win the other two games, although having said that they never seem to have a particularly easy ride against the Portuguese either… The Dutch, like Germany, have an embarrassment of riches, particularly in the middle of the park (Robben, Van der Vaart and Sneijder in the same team is a wonderful luxury) and one of the form strikers in Europe (Mr Van Persie) up front. Again their issue may be in defence, particularly given a decent replacement has yet to be found for Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. Again their defensive frailties will not come to the fore until the last four.

Thus leaving Portugal and Denmark. If Portugal had been drawn in any other group, with the talent they possess they would have sailed through to the quarters (Alan Hansen did, at one point yesterday, have a Germany/Netherlands/Portugal 1/2/3 for the tournament. Quality journalism). As it is, they are just not as strong a side, in my view, as the Germans or the Dutch. Cristiano Ronaldo, as has been seen in the past, can’t win games on his own for his side. Indeed, their midfield generally is blessed with talent, but with a shaky defence (when Pepe is your rock at the back, start worrying) and an ever toothless frontline (still with Helder Postiga in it) I can see the minor Iberians going home after 3 games. The same applies to the Danes, who despite having one of the most talented youngsters in Europe in Christian Eriksen, and a solid centre-back partnership in Kjaer and Agger, don’t have the talent to get through. In Group A they would have had a chance – in Group B, no chance.

Group C

Group C is another interesting one, with two blatantly obvious candidates for qualification, and two “lesser” nations. The blatantly obviousest is of course Spain, the reigning European and World champions and the international version of Barcelona (i.e. no Messi/Sanchez).  This Euros may be a little trickier for Spain than they had initially envisaged – their record goalscorer David Villa is out, as is defensive lynchpin and occasional provider of vital goals from set pieces, Carles Puyol. They do still, however, have an utter embarassment of riches, particularly in the middle of the park. The big question will be who replaces Villa – I think Del Bosque might at least try Torres given his decent end of season form – whether or not he stays there is of course down to the £50m man. Spain can get to the final – where I think they may come a cropper.

Italy should (should) be the second qualifiers, although their position is perhaps the least clear of the “obvious” candidates for group qualification in the whole tournament. A side that appears to be relying on Mario Balotelli for its goals (he has the number 9 shirt anyway) does seem to be taking something of a calculated risk, depending on whether or not it’s the Old Trafford or the Emirates Balotelli who appears. The inclusions of Cassano and Di Natale are great to see; Di Natale rightly getting what will (probably) be a last hurrah for him at 34, which he thoroughly deserves given his goalscoring record in Serie A. If Andrea Pirlo can provide for those three as he has done for Juventus all season, and combine well with his club-mate Marchisio, Italy should have enough to see them to the quarters, but not any further.

Leaving, then, Croatia and the Republic of Ireland. Hrvatska does have some real talent in that side in Modric and Eduardo, some up and coming younger players in Badelj and Perisic and some relaible old hands in Srna and Pletikosa, but in a group with Italy and Spain? I can’t see it happening. The same goes for the Irish, who I think are more capable of springing a Greece-like surprise rather than Croatia, given Trap’s penchant for playing ultra-defensive stuff and taking a goal (usually from the LA-dwelling Mr Keane) when it comes. James McClean should at least provide an element of surprise for the bigger sides to contend with.

Group D

Again, Group D contains two more obvious qualifiers and two bringing up the rear. I will undoubtedly get one of these four groups wrong as the Euros never tends to entirely go the way you expect – Denmark in `92 and Greece in `04 being the ultimate examples. However for first Group D I cannot see past France. This may partly be down to the fact I’ve put a fiver on them to win the tournament, but in this case I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is. The side has been revitalised since 2010 by Laurent Blanc, and although it is not yet perfect by any means (see that victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat 3-2 win against Iceland in a recent friendly), the undoubtedly have the talent to do it. Llloris, Mexes, M’Vila and Benzema provide a solid spine from front to back, and Franck Ribery is at last starting to show the form internationally again that he first did when he came out of (relatively) nowhere at the World Cup in 2006. I think, and my fiver may have influenced this, that France can win it.

England, meanwhile, should come in second in the group. A shrewd appointment in Roy Hodgson has been followed by two shrewd performances against Norway and Belgium. Injuries have rather gone against him; however his style of management and tactics (there’s that “s” word again) should ensure that they at least get to the last 8. Hodgson already seems to have identified the way to get the best out of Ashley Young, and with Hart, Cole and Rooney (when he returns) he has genuinely top-drawer players in the side. If Gerrard can perform and Terry doesn’t do a Terry, they should at least get to the quarter finals.

Bringing up the rear should be Ukraine and Sweden.The Ukrainians, although hosts, don’t appear to have any discernibly top-class talent in their squad; years of relying on Andriy Shevchenko (who incredibly is still in the squad) are perhaps being brought to bear. The rest of their squad looks either too old or too young to have much of an impact – even chaps like Artem Milevskiy haven’t quite lived up to their obvious potential. Sverige, meanwhile, will no doubt rely heavily on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s creativity and goalscoring – and he does seem to always perform for Sweden in the Euros. Sebastian Larsson should provide some good set pieces and Ola Toivonen is a fine midfielder, but other than perhaps the odd goal from Johan Elmander, there’s not much for the Swedes to get excited about.

So there you have it. It all starts tomorrow with the slightly uninspiring double-header of Poland v Greece and Czech Republic v Russia, before the real fun begins on Saturday with matches from Group B.

To round this off, in case it wasn’t obvious above, I think it will be a France v Spain final, with the French coming through to end the Spanish dynasty – no European side has ever managed three-in-a-row and given the crucial absences the Spanish have I don’t think they’ll quite get there. Top goalscorer I think is between Robert Lewandowski, who could score a good few in a fairly weak group, Karim Benzema and perhaps Robin Van Persie.

Can’t wait.