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.

 

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.

 

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.