Euro 2016 – Quarter Finals

“Well don’t be sad, cos 5 out of 8 ain’t bad.” Meat Loaf (get well soon) almost sang that very song (if he’d then simplified the numerator and the denominator). I got five out of eight Euro 2016 quarter-finalists right – I should have known that England would have played like England and that Italy would have been very much Italy.

As well as my invention of a new childrens’ TV/book character based on this week’s football (“Joe Hart’s Jelly Hands” already has a nomination for a Children’s BAFTA), I’m aware that this week has been in the news somewhat for other non-football reasons – for now I’ll leave these well alone.

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Joe Hart – look at his lovely hair

So, in no particular order, I think the quarter finals will finish up thus:

Poland will beat Portugal – and I’ll have lost a £5 bet;

France will beat Iceland  – even thought I’d love it to go the other way;

Germany will beat Italy – clearly I’ve still not learnt my lesson from the last 16 – added to the fact that Germany have never beaten Italy in a knockout match at either the World Cup or the Euros;

Belgium will beat Wales – though again I’ve be delighted if Coleman, Bale and Owain Fon Williams make it through to the last four.

I’ll be back for the semis midweek.

 

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Euro 2016 – Preview – Groups A-C

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The Stade de France, venue for the final of Euro 2016 (among other games) – photo by Liondartois

It’s come round again. My secret favourite international football tournament – the European Championships. Despite my attempts at nostalgia recently (though I’ll finish my Euro 2000 post at some point as it was too good a tournament to not recall), time has strode inexorably on to the point where in less than 48 hours, France will kick off the 2016 European Championships against Romania. This first 24-team Euros perhaps doesn’t quite have the wall-to-wall quality of the previously 16-team tournament, but I imagine the Championships will still do the job pretty well in terms of general entertainment and footballing endeavour.

As this is a 24 teams into 16 group stage, I’ve employed the useful services of the Sky Euro 2016 predictor (I guess they have to do something when they don’t (for once) have the TV rights) to get the third place predictions properly into play. As ever in compiling these, I am also rather grateful to the good people at FourFourTwo for producing such a chuffing excellent preview to the Championships. I’ll do the first three groups tonight, with the next three to follow tomorrow night.

Group A

Inevitably, I think France will qualify with ease from group A and do so as group winners. One might argue that France’s Benzema-less forward department is perhaps, a little lacking in quality and/or experience compared to its other divisions, but given France won the World Cup in 1998 with Stephane Guivarch as the lone man up front, this may not be troubling too many at the other end of the Channel Tunnel.

Runners-up in Group A will I think be Switzerland, as was the case when the two countries were drawn together in the 2014 World Cup’s group stage. Switzerland are in that reasonably happy spot where they have markers of quality across their side – Shaqiri, Xhaka, Lichtsteiner and their ilk should see the Swiss comfortably into second.

Also qualifying from Group A will,  in my view, be Romania. Like the Swiss they do have a smattering of quality in key positions, though perhaps a less convincing smattering. They also have everyone’s favourite Football Manager Romanian, Gabriel Torje, available to do his real-life thing, as well as having the manager of that wonderful 1994 World Cup team, Anghel Iordanescu, back in charge which should help.

Rather predictably, I reckon Albania will be on their way home in fourth. I’m not entirely convinced they have the quality in their squad to last the pace over the three games, and they did slightly have to rely on a flag-based riot to get them into this Championships (a chip on my shoulder you say?). That said, they did still qualified automatically from a group containing Denmark, Portugal and Serbia and have a tactically secure and sound manager in Gianni De Biasi. They will be wrapping Lazio keeper Etrit Berisha in many protective layers though – his two potential replacements both play in the Albanian top flight.

Group B

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Open-topped bus tour, anyone?

Again sticking fairly tediously with the seedings, I think England will finish top of Group B. Again, on balance the squad’s quality should be sufficient to see off their various opponents. Roy Hodgson, unlike in 2012 and arguably 2014 too, now at last seems to have found his favoured starting 11, a system that works and has picked hungry players (largely) more on form than reputation. As previously mentioned, I’m still utterly baffled why the best English midfielder in the Premier League in 2015-16 has been discarded in favour of someone who’s played about 78.92 seconds of football in 18 months, but you can’t win em all.

I really fancy Wales to join their near-neighbours in the last 16, on the assumption that they keep Gareth Bale fit. Like the Swiss in Group B (and other than the fact both sides play in red), they have a reliable spine through their team with Wayne Hennessey, Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey and the aforementioned world transfer record subject all playing at a high level. The added poignancy of this being a team arguably built (or at least the foundations) by the late Gary Speed will I imagine provide further motivation.

In third but still in the round of 16, I’ve plumped for Slovakia. This is largely based on the premise that I really, really rate Marek Hamsik who has, when so many around him have high-tailed it to England, Spain or Germany, stayed put in Naples and helped his club side to half-decent runs at the Serie A title and in Europe. Like Bale for the Welsh, he is the man the Slovaks build their side around and rightly so. If Martin Skrtel can reduce his propensity for own goals, the lower half of the Velvet Divorce should also be solid at the back.

In last I’ve gone for Russia. I’ll admit right away that this is predicated solely on the fact that, other than the blip that was Euro 2008, Russia tend to be abysmal when they qualify for tournaments. Still relying on Ignashevich and Berezuitsky as your first-choice central defensive partnership two years prior to hosting the World Cup perhaps also demonstrates the dearth of defensive talent in President Putin’s domain. I am though looking forward to seeing if Aleksandr Kokorin can produce the bacon for his side in a major tournament.

Group C

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Party along here come the 10th of July? Hmm…

Sticking to my record so far of exciting and out there predictions, I think a recently-slightly-ropey Germany should still top their group. Though Lahm-less they are certainly not sheep, though have, as everyone seems to have pointed out over the last few months, lost something of their defensive solidity and decisiveness despite Jerome Boateng emerging as a leader in the back four. Like the French, their forward line is severely lacking other than the ever-present yet elusive Thomas Müller. Deutschland should still however be capable of progressing some way into this tournament.

The only other side joining Germany from Group C in the last 16 will be Poland. At last the Poles appear to have found a way to get the most out of Robert Lewandowski (unlike in 2012), while there is more reliable European experience throughout the squad. Remaining unbeaten against Germany (and Scotland) in qualifying will only add to the Poles’ (rightful) sense of entitlement to progress further in the competition.

It gives me no pleasure in saying that I think Northern Ireland‘s European odyssey will come to an end when the group stage concludes. I still though, with their incredible team spirit and astute manager in Michael O’Neill, fancy them to beat Ukraine. For a side which features players from the likes of Kilmarnock, Notts County and Melbourne City, to get this far (at the risk of sounding extremely patronising) is an incredible achievement. And again makes me question why Scotland won’t be in France this summer.

Joining Northern Ireland on their way home (though in a different direction) will be Ukraine. Though granted Yarmolenko and Konoplyanka are both excellent creative players with real European pedigree, the spine of the side looks to be suffering a few slipped discs (I’m here all night). Andriy Pyatov is not immune to the odd blunder, while Anatoly Tymoschuk, while undoubtedly a wonderful holding midfielder in his best days, is playing in Kazakhstan at the age of 37. Add to that the fact that a significant minority of the squad haven’t played in their club side’s home stadium in 2 years, and much as I’d like them to bring their countrymen some well-needed cheer (and frankly stick one to the Russians), I think Kiev Airport will be seeing a charter return flight reasonably soon.

Enough of my babbling for tonight – until tomorrow for Groups D-F.

 

Euros Reminiscing – Euro 96 – Part 2

Continuing my odyssey to previous editions of the European Football Championships, here’s my concluding post on Euro 96.

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Davor Suker, in 2008 mode (picture by Ante Perkovic)

 

Eastern Europe Roars

Euro 96 was the first European Championships for which 16 teams could qualify, and also the first after them various Eastern bloc countries had properly sorted themselves out. From that part of the world, Romania and Bulgaria had qualified having had fantastic World Cups in 1994, but would fall far short of those standards in England. Russia meanwhile, having had a terrible World Cup, had a fairly terrible Euro 96 too.

Croatia and the Czech Republic, however, were quite. One country formed from a horrible civil war, the other from the “Velvet Divorce”.  Both of their recently formed national sides had rather good tournaments.

The Croatians pretty much had me hooked the first time my 12-year-old saw their white and red draughtsboard shirt. Their match against Denmark was the clincher really – Davor Suker beautifully chipping Peter Schmeichel, and then trying to beat the Manchester United keeper from the halfway line. That he was the top scorer at France 98 was no real surprise.

Looking back at that Croatia side now, you see why they were quarter finalists in England and semi finalists in France. The starting line-up against Turkey in their first group game is full of fantastic players: Boban, Prosinecki, Stimac, Boksic, Stanic among many others. Unfortunately, eventual champions Germany stopped the red and white picnic blanket army, Mattias Sammer’s goal decisive in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford. The Croatians would have some revenge, of course, 2 years later.

Czech Republic

Karel Poborsky on the right, with slightly more sensible hair than he had in 1996 (picture by David Sedlecký)

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, were even better. Again, looking through their squad, the names leap out – Kouba, Kuka, Poborsky and Nedved some among a great squad. They started as you might expect the Czech Republic to  – a 2-0 defeat to Germany. With Italy next, the odds appeared to be in favour of the Czechs taking a short flight back to a pre-stag-night-infestation Prague. Instead, they  won 2-1 with a 24-year-old Nedved among the scorers. A 3-3 draw with Russia, thanks to an 88th minute equaliser from Vladimir Smicer, took one of Europe’s newer countries through to the quarters.

Where they would, of course, face Portugal. And where, 8 minutes into the second half in front of a mere 26,000 folk at Villa Park, Karel Poborsky, soon to join Manchester United, scored the goal of the tournament to win the match for the Czech Republic. Running through the Portuguese defence, he scooped the ball deliciously over Vitor Baia to score the game’s only goal. After navigating a penalty shoot-out win over the French in the semi-finals, it was to Wembley and the final the Czech Republic went, to face Germany.

A Patrik Berger penalty gave the Czechs the lead on 59 minutes. The game’s turning point, however, would be in the 69th minute when Oliver Bierhoff replaced Mehmet Scholl. Four minutes later, Bierhoff equalised. Then, with only 5 minutes of extra time played, he scored the first international golden goal to give Germany the trophy, Petr Kouba making a costly and unfortunate error in the Czech goal.

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Wembley Way, prior to the England v Germany semi final (picture by “Nick from Bristol”)

England

As much as it pains me to say as a Scot, England really did play well in those three weeks in June 1996. Though their performance against Switzerland was pedestrian, their second half against Scotland (which I’ve rewatched and was reannoyed by on the BBC website tonight) was something of a catalyst for the remainder of the tournament.

It was the 4-1 win over the Netherlands (the “1” still rankles) that was in retrospect their biggest success of that tournament, the Shearer and Sheringham combination working to perfection. David Seaman, having saved one penalty against Scotland, then saved some more in England’s shoot-out win against Spain (not quite so likely a result now) in the quarters.

England’s semi-final with Germany was by far the most entertaining of the two, the other being a 0-0 dirgefest between the aforementioned Czechs and the French. Shearer gave England a very, very early lead before Stefan Kuntz equalised. Despite Paul Gascoigne being millimetres away from a Golden Goal in extra time, we all know the story. Gareth Southgate missed his penalty, Andreas Moller scored his, and England lost.

But of course Euro 96 was also the springboard for further commercialisation in English football, to extend the brand a bit further out. It was, despite the odd low attendance (not something, I imagine, would happen now) and a bit of post-Germany-defeat trouble in central London, a tournament which showed England as a modern footballing powerhouse. That some of the tournament’s stars, players like Suker and Poborsky (and Jordi Cruyff…) would soon play in English football, laying the foundations for today’s multinational, multi-billion pound industry, is not something that should be forgotten. Oh and “Three Lions” by Skinner and Baddiel was decent too.

Euro 2000 next time.

The Great Wayne Snobbery

Among this week’s clutch of largely forgettable international matches, unless you’re a Scot or a Malaysian, came an outstanding moment in the history of English football. Wayne Rooney, with a penalty in the 84th minute of England’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland at Wembley, broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s long standing accolade as England’s record international goalscorer.

The repercussions for Rooney have begun almost immediately. Indeed, they began on Saturday after his penalty against San Marino brought him level with Sir Bob. Analyses of which teams he’s scored his goals against. The fact he hadn’t (until last year) scored a goal in World Cups. The fact that Charlton won a World Cup and Rooney patently hasn’t.

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The very place where Charlton’s record was broken.

To that theory, that Rooney’s goals for England are somehow devalued, I would propose the theory is nonsense. International football in general terms isn’t easy, and what’s also not easy is to be consistent in it over a great period of time given the lack of preparation and engagement with team-mates. Great forwards have come and gone for England in the 40-odd years since Charlton’s last international and many have not come close to his record. Given Rooney’s longevity in the international game, from that Gazza-esque 18 year old at Euro 2004 to the…Gazza-esque striker of today, he is patently a player of genuine quality. Whether he has ultimately fulfilled the potential he showed in Portugal 11 years ago is perhaps an argument for another day. For now, he has achieved what no other England player has managed – a half-century of international goals. No matter who they’ve come against, and yes a decent proportion of them have come against Kazakhstan and San Marino,

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The Holy Trinity Statue, including Bobby Charlton, at Old Trafford

Therefore I say – give the guy a break. Congratulate him for what is an historical achievement, and hope, from an England fan’s perspective, that he goes on to score many more for his country before his retirement and consequent appearance on I’m A Celebrity in about 2026.

2014 World Cup Draw

Expect to see a lot of this next June and July

Expect to see a lot of this next June and July

Let the speculation and build-up commence. On Friday afternoon, after another FIFA circus, the groups for next year’s World Cup in Brazil were drawn. The draw as usual has thrown up some groups which are likely to be meaningless with one or two teams clearly going through; others look rather more interesting.

The other factor, which Tim Vickery has been right to point out, which will impact the sides going through is where and when matches take place. Matches taking place in venues like Fortaleza and Recife (in the tropical north east), particularly games there which kick off in the afternoon, are likely to be very tough for the European sides, no matter the opposition. This has affected my thinking a little, as you will soon see.

The draw came out as follows:

Group A

Brazil, Mexico, Croatia and Cameroon

Group B

Spain, Chile, Australia and the Netherlands

Group C

Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan

Group D

Uruguay, England, Costa Rica, Italy

Group E

Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

Group F

Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria

Group G

Germany, Ghana, Portugal, USA

Group H

Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

Starting at the beginning, the winners of Group A will no doubt be Brazil. They are the hosts and the favourites, with Luis Felipe Scolari already doing an Alf Ramsey and proclaiming his side as champions come next July. Going through to the last 16 with them I’d take a stab at Mexico, given they will be in a climate similar to their own, playing 3 games in the furnace of the Brazilian north-east.

Group B is one of three that is very difficult to call. The Netherlands had a very tricky draw for Euro 2012 and I have the feeling this group will go the same way for the Dutch, with Spain and their current side embarking on their last hurrah likely to top the group. I fancy Chile to come second, largely due to their exciting style and their continental experience.

In Group C, again Colombia should benefit from playing in South America, while having in Falcao, Jackson Martinez and James Rodriguez some genuinely exciting attacking players, if a slightly elderly defence. Something of the football hipster/romantic about me thinks that Japan have a good chance of getting out of the group in second. Again they have a fine collection of attacking talent, Keisuke Honda being the obvious candidate, though again their defence is not the greatest with Southampton reserve Maya Yoshida being among their first choice centre-backs.

Group D is another tricky one to call, with three sides capable of reaching the last eight stuck together with Costa Rica. Of the three, I have a feeling England and Uruguay will progress. Costa Rica are clearly the weak link of the four, and I’m basing my views on Italy largely on their slightly ageing set of stars (Buffon in particular) and their tendency to start tournaments slowly or poorly (see the last World Cup). A lot is being made of England’s game in the heat and humidity of Manaus but Italy will struggle to cope with that too – the Italians will find things equally tricky in the searing heat of Natal against Uruguay.

Group E is probably collectively the weakest of the 8. Despite Switzerland’s bizarre presence as top seeds, I can see France and Ecuador qualifying. Ecuador’s one weakness is up front where they have still to replace the tragically departed Christian Benitez, but I think, again with the familiarity they will have with their surroundings that should be enough to see them finish runners-up to the French. I would love to see the Hondurans going through having become a huge fan of that side during the 2012 Olympics but they are probably there to make up the numbers.

Group F is another which has two qualifiers which jump out. Patently Argentina are destined to go a long way in this competition, particularly if Lionel Messi can find his way back to fitness and form by June. I really fancy Bosnia to finish as runners-up provided they can cope with the pressure of their first appearance on the big stage – players like Dzeko, Begovic and Pjanic and their experience of huge games will be vital. Iran and Nigeria, despite the latter’s Africa Cup of Nations success, will be going home.

Group G is probably the Group of Death with the Most Death In It. One would expect Germany to gain maximum points and make their way through. Portugal, Ghana and the USA will provide both the Germans and one another with a stiff test. Just to be a bit different, I’ll stick my neck out and go for Ghana to build on their successes in South Africa and Germany in qualifying from the group.

Group H will likely see the already overhyped Belgium through to the second round – I’d like to see a little shock in this group and maybe go for South Korea progressing to the last 16, ahead of the stereotypically underperforming Russians.

As for the winners? I’ll let that one slide until the summer. In the meantime, I cannot wait for the World Cup to come round, and frankly am already getting excited at the prospect at a whole month of football to come. People might say that international football is no longer the pinnacle of the game; nonetheless, for me and millions of other people, it continues to excite us all. We’re due a good tournament too.

Big Woy

Brief post as I am currently broadband-less and having to rely on the WordPress iPhone app.

Roy Hodgson’s appointment as England manager is an interesting one and I for one wish him the best of luck (to a point, leaving my football-based nationalism to one side).

However, the fact that the FA has offered him a 4-year contract utterly baffles me. Capello’s resignation was the FA’s chance, in my view, to take on a one-championship, no-risk appointment and then assess that person’s performance thereafter. This approach particularly made sense to me after Capello was offered a new contract before England’s World Cup experience in South Africa.

So, before going into a major championship, England offer their new manager a 4-year deal. Before! The old fool me once/twice quote leaps to mind. If England’s performances in Ukraine and Poland are terrible, there could be yet another large managerial payoff to come.

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Captain England, looking swish

England play the Netherlands tomorrow night, in the game which was originally postponed due to last August’s riots. As you may have heard, largely from the global media, Fabio Capello has resigned as England manager and has been replaced, on an initially caretaker basis at least, by Stuart Pearce. Pearce has already corrected the one glaring omission from Capello’s most recent squads (Micah Richards), and appears, controversially, to be picking at least some players based on form rather than reputation (Frazier Campbell’s inclusion being the obvious one in this category).

Pearce has, unfortunately, become somewhat inevitably embroiled in that most pointless of debates surrounding the England national side – the captaincy, and thus his own “choice” for captain. The main headline on the BBC Sport website is currently “Pearce waits to name England captain.” So on the sports homepage of one of the most highly-respected media organisations (and indeed web-based news providers) in the world, the top story is basically “caretaker manager waits until tomorrow to name captain for a game taking place tomorrow.” For me, Pearce is taking exactly the right line (I do like Stuart Pearce, by the way). He realises this is, for now at least, a temporary job for him. He therefore isn’t letting the media push him into any decisions which may bind his future boss as to the captaincy.

And why should he? The captaincy in football is almost an irrelevance – it’s a bloke who happens to wear an armband for 90 minutes, and doesn’t deserve any press attention whatsoever. The captaincy seems to have been a massive deal for England since David Beckham took it on, and then when Capello did his preposterous captaincy “rehearsal” for Ferdinand, Terry and Gerrard. The point is, no-one cares. I’m pretty sure Spain don’t definitely need Iker Casillas to be wearing a shiny armband to perform the way they do; England needs to take the same approach. The captaincy is not and never can be the main event.

Indeed, anyone in the starting 11 can be the captain in football. You lead the players out at the start, you shake hands with the oppo and the referee in the centre circle and carry out a wee photo opp with the mascot(s), then the game starts and no-one cares any more. It’s a well-worn cliche, but some cliches are such because they’re true – you ideally want 11 leaders on the pitch. Football isn’t an instructive sport in that way that relies on a man on the field’s vision for the game (cricket being the obvious opposite case in point) – who wears the armband should be utterly irrelevant as soon as the ref’s first whistle blows. England need to get this in their heads and stop making it such an unerringly massive issue that it dominates the media build-up to what should, notwithstanding the fact it’s an international friendly, be a fairly intriguing match against the mighty Dutch. My advice for Pearce? Pick who you like, and make it as off the wall a decision as possible.