Saturday, 30 June 2012

On The Verge Of History?

14th European Championship Final: Spain V Italy, Olympic Stadium, Kiev (Sunday 19:45 BST)
The Henry Delaunay Trophy awaits the winners tomorrow

Looking back at the recent history of the Europrean Championships, it’s amazing to see how many times group opponents have went on and contested the final.  The Netherlands lost to the old USSR in their opening game in 1988 and then went on to win the tournament, beating the USSR in the final.  Germany beat the Czech Republic at Old Trafford in their opening game and faced them again at Wembley in 1996, while Portugal lost their opening match to Greece before reaching the final on their own patch before losing to Greece again in 2004.  One wonders what will happen tomorrow when Spain, bidding to become the first side to retain the European Championships, face off against Italy three weeks after a 1-1 draw in Gdansk opened both sides campaign.

Spain probably start the final as slight favourites.  They have been here before, and have all the tools to win this again.  The only problem is Del Bosque’s persistence with the 4-6 formation (or more accurately the 4-2-4-0 formation – despite the consensus from Spain, Fabregas is not playing in the “False 9” position).  This formation has given Spain a vice like grip on games, the downside is that they have not been able to put sides to the sword in the fashion that they should have. 

In this respect, this is confirming what I thought at the start of the tournament that Spain is missing David Villa.  This is what has fostered the belief among journalists and fans that Spain are maybe “boring”.  Personally, I find them more frustrating, the lack of incisiveness has not done for Spain yet but may come back to haunt them.  I feel that it’s also worth pointing out that Spain have looked shaky at the back as well – both in the group games against Italy and Croatia and in the semi final against Portugal (who caused problems by imitating Spain’s aggressive pressing game).  The one upside of Spain’s 4-6 formation has been listening to Mark Bright on the point of spontaneously combusting with anger any time Spain play without a striker.
Di Natale scores in the 1-1 draw with Spain three weeks ago in Gdansk

Italy have two survivors from their World Cup win six years ago Andreas Pirlo and Gianluiggi Buffon, yet the way they stopped the Germans from playing was impressive.  Apart from the Spain game, Italy have played essentially a variation of 4-4-2, with Pirlo dropping behind the midfield and orchestrating the play from a midfield anchor position.  Prandelli does have a quandary in this respect, does he stick with his 4-4-2 or does he revert to the formation he employed against Spain in the opening game where they played 3-5-2 with De Rossi operating as a sweeper.  Whatever game plan he goes with, Italy must be commended for playing with two up front – a rarity at the highest level of International football.

I think that despite the fact that this Italy side is not as good as Spain, I think that this match is too close to call.  I kind of have a sneaky feeling for Italy, maybe after extra time. That of course depends on whether Spain has their shooting boots on.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Old & The New: Euro 2012 - The Final Four

Had my predictions come to pass, we would be seeing The Netherlands versus Spain followed by Germany versus France. OK, a 50% success rate isn’t great, but I did think that both of the qualifiers from Group B would still be standing (which they are), and I did umm and ah between who would win a potential quarter final between Italy and France before plumping for the team that would capitulate against Sweden and not recover.

Instead of that, we have two semi’s that encapsulate the old European order and the maybe emerging new forces in European Fooball.

Portugal V Spain; Donbass Arena, Donetsk, Wednesday (21:45, 19:45 BST)
Torres goes for the ball during Spain's 1-0 defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004

First up are two sides who are going through their own golden period.  Spain have not really set the heather on fire during their march to the last four of this tournament.  Maybe like the last World Cup, the boa-constrictor method of winning matches is Spain (and Del Bosque’s) preferred method of winning.  How else to explain Del Bosque’s continued persistence to 4-6 (see, Levein is a tactical genius!).  Yet this approach, unlike in the World Cup, could have come unstuck against Croatia while France only posed a threat when the Quarter Final was still at 0-0.  For Spain though, the business end of the tournament starts here as their semi final opponents are the last team to have beaten them in this tournament.

Portugal’s 1-0 win in Lisbon eight years ago set them on their way to an appearance in the final at their own party, and is also the only time Portugal have beaten Spain in a competitive match.  The last meeting between the two sides was in the second round of the World Cup two years ago, while the only other meeting in this tournament was a 1-1 draw in Marseilles in 1984.  While there are four or five survivors in the Spanish side from that night in Lisbon, there are two from the Portugeese side, one of which will be a likely key player once again.

Cristiano Ronaldo has at times in this championship looked like he has dragged his team this far with crucial goals against the Netherlands and in the quarter final against the Czech Republic.  He will be the player that Spain will have to keep quiet if they are to have a shot at history.  At the other end, maybe now is the time for Del Bosque to revert to the 4-2-3-1 that won the World Cup two years ago. Whatever happens, I suspect that Portugal at this stage might not be the test that the Netherlands would have been, I think Spain will go through.

Germany V Italy; National Stadium, Warsaw, Thursday (20:45, 19:45 BST)
Eilts and Casaraghi duel during the 0-0 draw at Euro '96

The second semi final is between the two dominant forces of European football – 7 World Cups between them, winners of this championship 4 times in total yet this tournament is Italy’s weakest with the win in 1968 being their only win.  This is fascinating because Germany have ground their way to this point but have always looked ominous, yet Italy have shown tactical flexibility – going between 3-5-2 and 4-1-3-2. 

Italy will need to keep Germany guessing if they are to keep their remarkable record going against Germany – Italy have never lost a competitive international against Germany, this run includes two World Cup semi finals (in 1970 and 2006) and the final thirty years ago.  More pertinent to the final outcome of this match, the two European final’s meetings between the two sides have seen two draws (1-1 in the opening match of the 1988 championships in Munich, while a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in 1996 saw Italy knocked out at the group stages).

To date Germany have played four and are the only side to have won four in this tournament – looking ominous both in the second group game against the Netherlands and in the quarter Final against Greece.  Meanwhile Italy showed great composure to hold Spain to a draw, should have won against Croatia but got a good win against Ireland and played well against England but should have put them away before the match reached penalties.  Despite Italy not being as good a side as Germany, I think that this will certainly be an epic with Germany coming out on top after extra time or maybe penalties to set up a repeat of both the final here four years ago and the World Cup semi final from two years ago.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The Road to the Quarters – Key Games in the First Round part 2

Today sees the start of the last round of matches in the first round of this years European Championships. So lets have a look at the runners and riders for a place in the last 8 in this competition (all games kick off 7:45pm BST)
Group A:

1 Russia +3 4
2 Czech Republic -2 3
3 Poland = 2
4 Greece -1 1
Czech Republic V Poland (Wroclaw)
Greece V Russia (Warsaw)

A win for Russia tonight will see them qualify as winners of Group A, eliminating Greece in the process. A Greece win would see them sneak into the quarter finals. If either the Czech Republic or Poland win, they will qualify at the expense of their opponent, regardless of what happens in the other match. A draw would see the Czechs through, unless Greece win (they have a better goal difference).
Group B:

1 Germany +2 6
2 Portugal = 3
3 Denmark = 3
4 Netherlands -2 0
Denmark V Germany (Lviv)
Portugal V Netherlands (Kharkiv)

Germany only need a draw tomorrow to win Group B and take on the runners up of Group A next Friday in Gdansk. Denmark need to make sure their result is better than Portugal’s result to qualify. A Denmark win, twenty years on since their last meeting in the European Championship’s would see them win the group and take that place in the Gdansk quarter final. Portugal need to win to take the second qualifying place, which would see them in a quarter final with the winners of Group A in Warsaw on Thursday if Denmark drop points to Germany. For the Netherlands to grab qualification from the jaws of elimination, they would need a two goal win against Portugal and hope that Germany beat Denmark.
Group C:

1 Spain +4 4
2 Croatia +2 4
3 Italy = 2
4 Republic of Ireland -6 0
Croatia V Spain (Gdansk)
Ireland V Italy (Poznan)

A point will see the World and defending European Champions Spain into the last 8. In truth, they will probably go for the win on Monday that would see them win Group C and see them avoid Germany until the final. Croatia also need a point to see them into the last 8. Italy need to beat Ireland and hope that there is a victor in Gdansk, or that there is a low scoring draw (which would knock out Croatia). A 2-2 draw in Gdansk would knock Italy out.
Group D:

1 France +2 4
2 England +1 4
3 Ukraine -1 3
4 Sweden -2 0
England V Ukraine (Donetsk)
Sweden V France (Kiev)

A win for France will see them win Group D and take on the runners up from Group C next Sunday in Kiev. A Draw would also put France through, but they wouldn’t be guaranteed to win the group. A draw would also be enough for England to qualify as group runners up, this would see them play the winners (seeded to be Spain) from Group C next Saturday in Donetsk. Ukraine need to beat England to secure qualification from the group.

After a rest day next Wednesday we reach the quarter finals, which means knock out football. There will be penalties!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Removing A Milstone

European Championships, 1st Round, Group D: Kiev; Sweden 2, England 3

Carroll Goal 22"
The talk in the lead up to this game was over the influence of Bobby Houghton and Roy Hodgson on Swedish Football.  Yet at the end of an exciting if not error strewn match, Hodgson’s England triumphed over the side that have been under his influence since the 1970’s.  A victory that saw England rack up their first victory in a European Championship or World Cup match over Sweden and simultaneously eliminated them from this tournament.

The match itself was punctuated by the continued giving the ball away by both sides.  It was a world away from the chilling performance put in by Spain 24 hours earlier when they put Ireland to the sword so mercilessly.  Both sides played variations of 4-4-2 (Sweden had Ibrahimavic floating behind Elmander, Wellbeck played a similar free role for England but played alongside Carroll a lot more).  Crucially, England would not be playing in the heat that sapped them during their opening match against France.

First blood was drawn by England about half way through the first half.  Gerard’s cross from the right was powerfully headed in by Andy Carroll (above), the delivery by Gerard was a facsimile of his delivery to Lescott on Monday.  Yet the goal did not settle England down.  Because both sides were intent on digging in for an attritional midfield battle, Sweden were never out of the game as half time came and went.

Indeed Sweden charged into a 2-1 lead early on in the second half.  Firstly, a free kick by Ibrahimavic was blocked by the England wall, the return shot rebounded to Mellberg who saw his shot hit Hart and come off Glen Johnson while going in.  Just before the hour, another free kick, this time on the England left saw a cross by Larsson headed in by Mellberg unopposed.  England were rocking, and could have conceded a third when Sweden broke up field from an England corner. England then had a couple of moments where they dominated, which culminated in their equaliser.

Wellbeck Goal 78"
A Glen Johnson cross was headed in by Terry, only to see his header saved by Isaksson.  From the corner Sweden cleared only to see the substitute Walcott pick up the ball and smash a swerving and dipping shot past Isaksson, England’s first goal scored from outside the box in a Final’s match since Beckham’s free kick against Ecuador in Stuttgart six years ago.  The match opened up, with Kallstrom and Elm missing chances for Sweden while Wellbeck had a chance and Young put a free kick over the bar.  Wellbeck’s moment came though with 12 minutes to go. Wallcott ran at the Swedish left and put in a cutback to Wellbeck. With the ball being slightly behind him, Wellbeck kind of back heeled the ball past Isaksson and went in off the post.  The question now was could England hold out.

Against the grain of this match, the team more likely to score proved to be England.  Parker put a shot over the bar, while in the dying moments Gerard had a shot saved by Isaksson.

So, are England back?  Well, no.  Hodgson’s current England team is still very much a work in progress.  They struggled to beat a Sweden side some way short of the vintage Sweden sides of the past.  Yet they will be happy to break their duck against Sweden.  It gives them a chance to progress in this tournament.  All they need to do now is get past the hosts

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The 14th European Championships

Torres & company list the Henri Delaunay trophy
Four years ago, we all thought that Spain could win this championship.  The nagging doubt that we all had was that Spain were the epitome of so near and yet so far.  As we approach these championships, we are still asking questions about Spain, they are different ones though.  Ones about history being re-written.

There are only four sides who have won two championships in a row, yet the odds are firmly on Spain becoming the first team to retain the European Championships, as well as to win three Championships in a row.  Spain though are not without their problems.  They will be missing Carlos Pujol at the heart of their defence as well as David Villa up front.  There are also signs that this Spain side are a tired side – after all shape based teams only last so long.  Spain’s biggest problem will be up front, they will miss Villa cutting in from the right and they will have to figure out whether to start with Torres (who has been out of form for the best part of two years now), or Llorente (who has been spearheading Athletic Bilbao’s Europa Cup run).  Spain start with a Sunday teatime kickoff against the side they beat in the quarter finals four years ago, Italy.  If they finish top of their group (ahead of Croatia, Italy & Ireland), they are seeded to face either France or Sweden (though could conceivably face England), and will possibly face the runners up from Germany’s group in the semi final – either the Netherlands or Portugal.

If Spain do fall short, the next in line looks to be Germany.  Many people think that they are overdue another championship – it will be 16 years since they last won this tournament and 22 since as West Germany they lifted the World Cup.  They look as ominous as they did during Italia 90, while their young side that reached the World Cup semi final two years ago has…  yes…  two years experience under their belts.  Much though will rest on how Low handles his Bayern Munich contingent, who lost both the German Cup and the European Cup finals in the final weeks of the season.  Germany don’t exactly start with an easy tie either. In a tough group that features The Netherlands and Denmark, Germany start off with the side they beat in the Quarter finals four years ago, Portugal.  Finish Top and they will face either The Czech Republic, Poland or Greece with a possible semi final against England, but more likely to be against France, Italy or Croatia.  If they finish Runners up in their group, they will be in the same half of the draw as Spain.
Torres scores the winning goal four years ago, can Germany turn the tables on Spain this time?

The last side you can put into the heavyweights category is the Dutch, who are currently ranked fourth in FIFA’s rankings (behind Spain, Germany & Uruguay).  They have been remarkably consistent over the past four years, losing in the Quarter finals to Russia four years ago before reaching their third World Cup final (the less said about that game the better…).  Like four years ago, The Dutch have drawn a rotten group (Germany, Portugal and Saturday’s opponents Denmark, four years ago they had Italy, France and Romania).  Four years ago they faced Russia in the quarter finals and were in the same half of the draw as Spain, should they finish behind Germany they are seeded to face Russia in the quarters and are seeded to be in the same half as their World Cup final opponents.

There are quite a few possible dark horses, France look as if they have seriously re-grouped since the disaster that was the last World Cup for them, Russia have pretty much the same side as four years ago while from the hosts the best placed country to progress may well be Poland, who have three members of Borrusia Dortmund’s double winning team in their squad.  Representing the British Isles will be our friends from the south and our “cousins” from across the water. 

England has made a sensible judgement call in appointing Hodgson.  One of his problems though will be quelling the ego’s that rampage through England away days – witness Ferdinand’s unwillingness to accept that there may actually be footballing reasons behind his omission.  I actually suspect that England will do OK in this championship, sure they’ll get knocked out in the quarter finals but I think they’ll get out of their group.  The other team representing these isles is Ireland, who with typical luck of the Irish…  er… play Italy, Spain and Croatia.  I suspect that a lack of experience of this level will do for them.

Come the end of the month though, the last four will be The Netherland’s, Spain, Germany and France with Germany beating The Dutch in the final.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Euro 2012: The Key Games in The First Round (Part 1)

The 14th European Championships begin on Friday afternoon with an opening match between co-hosts Poland and the winners of this competition in 2004, Greece.  The first part of Fan With A Laptop’s preview of this competition looks at the key matches in the first two rounds of the group stages.  An overview of the competition will be posted later on this week.

Russia V Czech Republic; Wroclaw, 8 June, 20:45 (19:45 BST)
Semi-finalists four years ago, Russia’s revival was checked by their unexpected failure to reach the World Cup finals two years ago. They retained Advocaat as coach and qualified for this tournament.  Russia’s first match will be against a Czech Republic side that were very much a shadow of their former selves during qualifying – but still finished ahead of Scotland in qualifying.  Their previous finals meeting in this tournament was a 3-3 draw at Anfield in Euro 96.

Germany V Portugal; Lviv, 9 June, 21:45 (19:45 BST)
Since reaching the final four years ago, the old German aura seems to have come back, reaching the World Cup semi Final two years ago.  All that seems to be missing is a trophy for Germany.  The first hurdle in their attempt to win their first championship in 16 years is a side they disposed of in their quarter final four years ago.  Portugal disappointed four years ago, and flopped in the World Cup, yet you cannot discount a side containing Cristiano Ronaldo.  The runners up in this group are seeded to play Spain in the semi finals.
Spain V Italy, Gdansk; 10 June, 18:00 (17:00 BST)
The entrance of the defending European Champions and World Cup winners, against the team Spain succeeded as World Champions in another repeat of a quarter final from four years ago (right).  If Spain had picked a group to ease them into a tournament, this would not be it – especially as the double champions are hampered by injuries to key men.  Yet Italy have had a nightmare period since their World Cup win in 2006 – struggling to that quarter final with Spain four years ago followed by elimination form the World Cup at the first hurdle – a feat only Brazil (in 1966) and France (in 2002) had previously “achieved”.  This may be the beginning of Italy’s shot at redemption.

France V England; Donetsk, 11 June, 19:00 (17:00 BST)
Our dearest neighbours make their tournament bow against one of the teams they love to hate – yet two years ago both sides were in different types of turmoil.  Since losing to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final – France have endured a similar nightmare phase as Italy – being knocked out of the group phase in this tournament four years ago (by Italy in a winner takes all group game in Geneva no less) and failing to get out of the group in the World Cup two years ago. Despite losing twice to Scotland, at least France were here four years ago.  England failed to qualify, and saw those who qualified ahead of them threaten to win before being cowed by Spain (who beat Russia in the semi finals) and Turkey (who beat Croatia in the quarters).  England go into this tournament having only recently appointed the experienced Roy Hodgson.  The omens are not great for England – in two meetings in this tournament, France won the last meeting (in Lisbon 8 years ago: 2-1) while the other one was a drawn affair (0-0 in Malmo twenty years ago) notable for a ferocious Stuart Pierce free kick that hit the bar moments after he was apparently head butted by Basil Boli.

Poland V Russia; Warsaw, 12 June, 20:45 (19:45 BST)
The hosts second game, and a must win game if they are to avoid the fate of Austria & Switzerland from four years ago – hosts who failed to make it into the knock out stages at their own party.  Russia will also be looking to win to try and win the group – remember the group runners up are seeded to face Germany in the quarter finals so Russia will be looking to avoid that fate.

Netherlands V Germany; Kharkiv, 13 June, 21:45 (19:45 BST)
While Portugal and Denmark play earlier on this day, this could well be the tie of the opening rounds as these two faces off for the third time in these championships since that semi final in Hamburg 24 years ago.  Their first meeting in these championships was a 3-2 win for West Germany in Naples at the 1980 championships, however it’s their next meeting that is fondly remembered as the Dutch avenged their World Cup final defeat in 1974 with a 2-1 win at Euro 88 that put the West Germans out on their own soil whilst setting the Dutch up for their own win.  Since then, the Dutch won 3-1 in Gothenburg at Euro 92, while the last meeting was a 1-1 draw eight years ago in Oporto.

Italy V Croatia; Poznan, 14 June, 18:00 (17:00 BST)
Despite Croatia’s late entry to UEFA, this is a fixture with history.  Croatia beat Italy in the qualifying rounds for Euro 96 in Italy, while Croatia have also won in a World Cup finals match in Kashima.  Given that Spain will be starting favourites against Ireland in the later match from this group, a result for either side will make them favourites to qualify alongside Spain.
Sweden V England; Kiev, 15 June, 21:45 (19:45 BST)
It used to be the case that England were always drawn to play Poland.  At the moment Sweden is the new Poland as this will be the third Finals out of 5 that these two have met, with there being two draws in the World Cups of 2002 and 2006.  The last meetings in this competition were in the qualifying stages of Euro 2000 (where Sweden won 2-1 at home and drew 0-0 at Wembley), while the only finals meeting was the infamous 2-1 win for Sweden twenty years ago (above) when they hosted the party.  Both sides will be hoping for a win that would put them ahead of France and Ukraine, and will see them avoid Spain in the quarter finals.  On the minus side, the group winners are seeded to play either Italy or Croatia.