Monday, June 30, 2008

Viva Espana - European Champions 2008

A wonderful tournament (well somewhat wonderful if you take out the French performance) came to an end yesterday with the best team walking away with the trophy. Spain defeated the Huns 1-0 on a spectacular goal from Torres. The score line could have been much more severe had Torres' first half header blasted off the post, Lehman had not made a great save on Ramos and Senna had been a few inches taller. Germany never looked likely to win this game, they defended and sat back absorbing the Spanish attacking flair looking to strike on set pieces and counter attacks. As the game progressed it became clear that the only way Germany would steal the trophy would be to get a fluke goal, go to extra time and win in PKs. Fortunately this did not occur and the proper team won the tournament. Spain was the class of the tournament. Their attack was lethal with Villa on top of his game. Senna was a beast showing how a team can play with one holding/defensive midfielder (please note Domenech). They did not concede a goal in the knock out stage demonstrating their solid team defense. So where does Espana go from here? Many will already have them touted as favorites for the World Cup - they are young - Fabregas 21, Villa 26, Ramos 22, Silva 22, and Torres 24 - not a bad core to build on. I think the main question becomes does Senna keep up his high level at 31+ and who is ready to step up to replace him. Spain had everything going for them this tournament, and a strong reason why their offense was so dynamic was they had a pit bull behind them protecting the back 4. Without that player the game will be very different.

Spain has shaken off their moniker of underachievers, they have the talent, the core and the system. But international football world is fickle, it is up to the new manager to find the right system and to continue to build. The future is bright for Espana...hopefully my buddy Jose is breathing a little easier today and for the next few years!

Viva Espana

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Germany v Spain for all the European marbles

Tomorrow will be the finals of what has turned out to be a very exciting and wide open Euro. We have had surprises - France's terrible showing, Russia getting to the semifinals, Turkey's last minute victories, to name a few. And now we are down to two - Germany a six time finalist and Spain a 3 time finalist, and what I did not know was that Spain has the 3rd most final appearances behind Germany and Russia....who would have known! What this comes down to is a nation that somehow finds a way to make finals when they do not deserve to - Germany (this Euro and World Cup 2002 to name two) and a nation that has long been labeled an underachiever - Spain.

I realize that Germany was a pre-tournament favorite but as I had stated in the past I thought they were wildly overrated. Even a win over Portugal and a last second victory over the Turks to propel Deutschland into the finals I still think they are punching above their weight class. With a number of players stepping up - Ballack, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Podolski, and Klose to name a few, Germany has been difficult to defend since they are not reliant upon an individual player. However they have not convinced me, they have beaten teams they should beat - Poland and Austria (although unconvincingly). Lost to teams that exposed their defensive weaknesses - Croatia. Their defeat of Portugal was not convincing for me, I felt the Portugese were the class on the pitch but allowed the Germans to beat them on set pieces. The semi finals against Turkey, Germany ran into a team decimated by injuries and suspensions....and still were played very closely by the Turks. However this is Germany, as was famously stated "we play beautiful football and then Germany wins." So once again the German machine finds itself in a major final. How about Spain?

Espana has always been seen as the perennial underachiever. They came into this tournament with that albatross around their necks, they had arguably the most talent of any nation - when Fabregas does not even start you know you have outrageous talent. They held service, as they do in many tournaments playing the group stages with mouth watering football, making all the pundits dream that this team could finally shake off their demons and advance far in this tournament. I think this year those pundits might finally be right. Spain have found the right formula and I think the main reason for the success - Senna. Espana finally have the holding/defensive midfielder they need to free up their wealth of attacking options. And being able to leverage Fabregas gives them another midfielder who can link up defense and offense. In addition, having a number of key players plying their trade in England, I think they have a toughness otherwise lacking in the Spanish sides of past.

So what does this mean for the finals? I think this will unravel much to script - Germany playing a very rigid and disciplined defensive system while Spain will have the run of the game early. If Ballack cannot play I think Germany will sit back even more and look to hit on the counter. Spain will not have Villa, which will be a minor problem since Fabregas will have to start, not a problem, but will not afford him as a game changing substitute. There will be a tremendous amount of pressure on Lehman, and while he has held his shaky own until now, not sure that trend will continue. I think Senna will frustrate the German midfield and Casillas is the ultimate last curtain of defense. I have picked Spain to win this and I will stick with that pick. Spain have too much talent and are not afraid of being in the finals. If they can play like they did against Italy, do not get frustrated, do not make silly mistakes and bide your time, they can beat Germany. If Spain get frustrated and forget to keep their shape late, they will get burned by the German counter. The Spanish midfield of Xabi, Xavi, Fabregas and Senna will control the German midfield, and Torres and Silva will prove too quick and dangerous for the German defense. If Ballack does not play, I think Germany will be in real trouble. Senna will most likely take Schweinsteiger and try to mark him out of the game, leaving the German midfield without a viable engine. Without an engine not sure Klose or Podolski will have the support they need.

Spain 3 - Germany 1. Espana celebrate their second Euro title and get the monkey off their backs.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Les Bleus - Euro post mortem

I am a beaten man...I am slowly emerging from my deep depression from France's crashing out of the Euros. I am a little happier that both Holland and Italy have since crashed out as well...misery loves company. Rather than go on about the games and how poorly France played let me jump right into overall thoughts:

  • Les Bleus never had a system for play. Since France lost the World Cup, the have struggled to discover their system of game. Primarily due to the retirement of a certain Zinedine Zidane, the French system struggled to find itself. With Zizou the system was "simple": play a flat back 4, with two protecting defensive midfielders, two wide midfielders, and zidane sitting behind the lone striker. France looked to play strong defense and either hit teams on the counter or play through Zidane, a player who could control pace of the game, come back to collect the ball, or push forward to be another striker. When Zizou retired, the question becoming who is the next Zizou rather than, what system makes sense for the current French players? Domenech stuck with his favored 4 flat back with 2 defensive midfielders, however when one of those defensive midfielders was Vieira you really had 1 defensive midfielder and 1 "box to box" midfielder. While players such as Toulalan are incredibly talented, he is more of the Makelele mold, not bad, but hard for attacking football. The next issue became how to best leverage Ribery? Out on the flanks? Behind the strikers? High up on the pitch? And what about Malouda, he was not getting regular games for Chelsea so did he deserve his spot on the French team? Or should another player get his chance? What about the strikers? Go with 2 or 1 lone striker? What about Nasri, Ben Arfa, and Rothen? Domenech had 2 years to develop a system, granted he needed to ensure qualification for the Euros, but he needed to figure out what system France would move forward with. Rather than look at the players he had available and determine what system to play with he appeared to be stubborn in his methods. National teams are incredibly difficult to manage, unlike a Wenger, you cannot just go out and acquire a new right back to fit your system. Instead you need to take inventory of your players and determine what system works best. France's glory days came when they built a system around the talent - the 50s around the genius of Kopa, in the 80s a system built around a power house midfield led by Platini, and the most recent side built around a strong back 4, 3 defensive/holding midfielders (Deschamps, Karembau, and Petit) Zidane running the show, Djorkaef floating from wing to wing and a lone striker. The current team had no system: 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 or with two wide wingers and two holding midfielders? Play a traditional #10? Domenech never identified the system and therefore France had no system.
  • A tournament too far....Much is owed to the generation of 1998, the players that gave France their World Cup victory followed by a European trophy. It could be argued that the 1998 - 2000 France team was one of the all time greatest teams. However did they go a tournament too far? Were players like Thuram, Vieira, Henry, Makelele and Sagnol stretched too far? I know that Thuram, Vieira and Henry were the ones that at the World Cup, but the others were of that generation. Transitioning rosters is always difficult, when is a generation to be asked to leave to allow the new generation to assume the mantle? And what is the proper mix of youth and experience? Fundamentally I think that the 1998 generation did not go a tournament too far, but there was no back up plan were some of the important cogs missing. The main cog was Vieira. France was built around having a healthy Patrick Vieira patrolling the midfield, linking defense and offense. When Pat was hurt, Domenech could not change the system. Was this a sign of over reliance on the 1998 generation that was getting long in the tooth? This is not Vieira from 2000. Just like the 2002 World Cup that was dependent on Zidane, and for some reason could not weave a talent like Micoud to slot into the midfield to support the strikers. Domenech had to realize that he had older players at key spots - Thuram anchoring the defense, Makelele and Vieira in midfield. It was evident that purely holding/defensive midfielders are in abundance for Les Bleus - Diarra, Flamini, Toulalan to name three. However where was the back up for Vieira? And if there did not exist one, why stick with the 1998 mindset?
  • Domenech's poor management style. I have never been a fan of the French manager. I have been very critical of his management style when it comes to relationships with clubs and players, as well as his ability to strategize in game. A few situations that come to mind: a) His handling of Trezeguet. He was willing to call strikers such as Briand and Pongolle, but was always sour towards one of Serie A's top scorer. I have no problem him turning his back to Trezegol but he should have handled it better, come out and tell us "Trezeguet's game is not part of the system I want to use." Rather than always saying Trezegol was in the mix but he wanted to look at others. This was not only bad for Trezeguet but I am sure did not help team morale. b) The "relationship" he had with managers such as Mourinho and Houllier to name two. Rather than calling and talking to the club managers about their players, building a relationship, Domenech was arrogant and demanding of the club teams and the handling of their players. He would wield the stick before even considering the carrot. Look at what happened with Makelele, he retired and stated he wanted to allow the youth to take the mantle. Domenech basically bullied Claude to come back to the team by stating that any French player was subjected to be called to the national team and if they refused would face sanctions from the federation, granted Makelele kept a team face stating he wanted to come back, but the process left a terrible taste in everyone's mouth. c) During a qualifying game in Israel, France were up 1-0 in a tough qualifier. With about 30 minutes Trezeguet (who had scored the lone goal) was red carded due to a head butt after a vicious tackle. Down to 10 players, and with all 3 of his substitutions left Domenech just sat there and watched as his team was broken down and gave up the tying goal, rather than break the game's rhythm by using his subs and bringing in defensive players to protect the lead. Domenech made his first change AFTER the tying goal was scored....
    not exactly shrewed in game management. These are just three examples of fatal flaws I see with Domenech. d) His selection decisions are in question. Not sure how he can constantly take a player like Boumsong while leave Mexes on the fringe. Not sure how Barthez was given the #1 role in Germany over an inform Coupet. Not sure how Gouvou constantly gets time on the pitch in big games. Not sure why alienate players like Guily right off the bat.
So what does this mean? It means France need a change at the helm. Yes Domenech took Les Bleus to the finals of Germany 2006. Yes Domenech was unfortunate in that game that Vieira got hurt early in the second half and that Zidane lost his mind, otherwise he might have added a second star to the France stripe. However I think that France got so far despite their manager. He did keep faith in Zidane, even when pundits such as this one, was calling for the Zizou to sit on the bench.

Domenech is a very cerebral and thoughtful man, but at times he does not realize that he is dealing in a field where emotion and egos play a major role in success and failure. Unlike a Mourinho who also has some questionable management styles, Domenech appears to be as arrogant and difficult towards his players as he does to the outsiders. At least the Special One shielded his players and allowed an esprit de corps to form.

France had a very disappointing tournament, a team that was full of potential and talent should not leave with 1 point, 1 goal for and 6 against. Les Bleus have a bright future with player like Benzema, Nasri, Ribery, Toulalan, Mexes, Sagna, Clichy, Mandanda to name a few. But the system of play and the core must be determined very soon because World Cup qualifiers are right around the corner.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Les Bleus - Dien Bien Fu

Les Bleus crashed out of the Euros today after a difficult 2-0 loss to the Azzurri...I am still in a haze after this horrible week. Much like those manning Beatrice, Anne-Marie and Gabrielle those wearing the Blue stripe of France fought a tough but doomed battle today...once I recover from my heartache I will give some thoughts on the match, the Euros and the future for Les Bleus.

Merci Lilian, Willy et Claude

Les Bleus change is in the air

Looks like Les Bleus will go into the final Group match with the following formation -

Coupet - Clerc, Gallas, Abidal, Evra - Makelele, Toulalan - Ribery, Gouvou - Benzema, Henry

An infusion of youth...playing the 4-4-2 will be interesting but it really feels like a 4-2-2-2, with two holding midfielders, two wing players supporting the two strikers. I fear that we will have the same problems faced in game one, little creativity, too much space in the midfield and not enough support coming from the flanks. Makelele and Toulalan are good players in their own rights, but they are too similar in their style. Both are great at protecting the back 4 but not the most adept at jumping in the offense and when they do are no threats to score (how ironic would it be if Keke were to score the winning goal today....that would be awesome....). I like slotting Ribery to the left where he is used to playing for Bayern, and Gouvou...well he is Domenech's binky so I guess he has to play. Granted, he might form a good link between Clerc, Toulalan and Benzema all play these positions at Lyon.

I trust that Domenech will not be afraid to shift his formation if a goal is needed, maybe take out Makelele for a Nasri, play with 3 offensive midfielders, allow Toulalan to protect the back 4. You risk the counter attack but if you need a need a goal (that was deep).

I am surprisingly calm before this game. I think that I am ready for France to crash out of another tournament, I hope that if and when they do we get rid of Domenech. He has been frustrating as a national team manager. I will save my postmortem for another date, but needless to say the manager will share his fair share of blame.

France can advance and my heart says they can, but unfortunately my brain tells me that they have no heart and are already thinking about their summer vacations on the Riviera.....Italy is hungry and Buffon will find a way to get Italy a clean sheet and a win. Let us hope that Van Bastard and his band of merry Oranje men play a good game and get the victory.

Allez les Bleus

Monday, June 16, 2008

Less than 24 hours for Les Bleus

At this time tomorrow Les Bleus will be heading off to their summer vacation...or will it be the beginning of an incredible adventure??? The situation is as follows:
  • Holland must not allow Romania to beat them otherwise the France v Italy game is moot.
  • If Holland beat or draw with Romania, the winner of the France v Italy game go through, Italy can go through with a draw (as long as it is not a goalless draw and some other crazy things have to happen with Romania and goals...rather not get into it)
  • Bottom line....France must win tomorrow.....the rest is out of their hands.
Of course there are some interesting changes that are apparently in the works...
  • Sagnol is out...Clerc will be inserted at right back. Giving Les Bleus some youth on the right flank.
  • Thuram is out...Abidal will slot in to the middle of the defense. This is not a role that Abidal is not familiar with, however having an Abidal - Gallas central defense, while a good idea for the future, might not be a good idea to try at this stage....then again not sure the defense can be worse than it was during the 4 goal debacle versus the Dutch.
  • Makelele out? Keke might make way for Diarra, giving France a more creative defensive midfielder. Lassana is viewed as the next "Makelele" so let us see what he can do in this venue. He did play very well at the San Siro during qualifiers, so I have no fear that the moment will overwhelm him.
Italy is due to make some changes as well, so the two sides will have some tinkered with sides heading into this must win game. So what do I think will happen?

I think both teams will be looking to win the game, they both desperately want to get to the knock out stages and both would love a chance to get back at the Dutch. I think that the Benzema-Henry-Ribery combo might click and cause the Italian back line some problems. Luca Toni will be a monster to handle for Les Bleus, but I think with Abidal in the middle they should have enough pace and athletic ability to control the Italian striker. The Italian midfield will be different once again, the one player to look out for is De Rossi. I think that had he been given the start against the Dutch the outcome might have been very different.

My prediction - France will win a scintillating game 3-2 with a last minute goal from Gallas. Romania will carry a 1-0 lead deep into the game only to see an own goal sink their chances to get to the quarter finals.

Yes wishful thinking
Yes farfetched
But this tournament has been crazy so why not more insanity...

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Friday 13th horror show for Les Bleus...

I am not sure what to say after yesterday's disaster of a game...FOUR goals...FOUR GOALS???? How does a team, ranked in the FIFA top 10 give up FOUR GOALS????? Just typing that makes my stomach churn. Not sure how to review the game...or if I even want to but for my own sanity I will spew my thoughts...please excuse my drunken ramblings I feel as if I got kicked in the stomach by someone in wooden shoes.

The Good:
  • Holland was very good, how else can you explain FOUR GOALS...there I go again. Van Basten, at least for the first 2 games, has found the right formula. Being able to bring in Van Persie and Robben for the last 30 minutes is huge. Both players barely played this season so they are the freshest players at the Euros! I hope Wenger sells Van Persie because I cannot stand seeing him under the Arsenal colors after what he did to Les Bleus. Van Nistelidiot is playing like a young Cruyff, the ball he saved on the touch line which led to goal #2 was spectacular, the stuff of playground lore.
The Bad:
  • Hmmm where to start.....Domenech is a good place to begin. The French manager continues to baffle me. I have made it clear that I was not keen on some of the players he selected, but that is not the point for this match. Here are some areas I think Domenech was exposed for during this 4-1 drubbing. First his substitution of Gomis for Malouda. I know that Gomis has wowed everyone with his two wonder strikes for his first cap, however Domenech has constantly had Henry-Benzema-Ribery playing together during the tune up games....the first game he has a chance to run out this trio and instead he leaves the young Lyon prodigy on the bench?? After Benzema had been warming up for an hour. Not sure that makes any sense from a game standpoint and from the psyche of the players. Second he decision to bring on Anelka for at that point you were down by 2 goals, the only chance you have is to throw on more offensive players for either Toulalan or Makelele...maybe even go with 3 at the back. But substituting offense for offense, when you already were not generating the offense needed makes no sense. One thing if the game is even or if you are only down a goal. Finally, okay I said I would not, but the fact he left a player like Ben Afra or even Rothen at home did not give Domenech the flexibility of bringing in a true left wing player to allow his team width and to change the game. Anelka has bags of pace and ability, but he is not a true left winger. Domenech was fortunate in 2006 that Zidane took over and willed Les Bleus to the finals, he was fortunate that Scotland inexplicably lost to Georgia in Euro qualifiers, yet with all these chances he always appeared too smug for his own good and that is coming back to haunt him.
  • Thuram - Gallas, these two players have over 200 caps between them and have been the anchor for the French back line the past few years, so how is it that all of a sudden they look like the could not even play for my O30 footie league? They both seemed out of sorts, took bad angles and did not seem to know what to do against the waves of Oranje descending on their goal.
  • Maybe it is me, but I felt Coupet looked terrible. You cannot place too much blame on him for the first goal, although the ball was struck near post within his 5 yard box....maybe he needs to attack that ball. But he looked disinterested and defeated on the other goals. Granted he was not getting too much help from his defense but something tells me that Cech, Buffon, or Iker would have made better showings.
  • I think Ribery looks tired, he still has flashes of brilliance and makes some great runs but overall he appears to be lacking a gear that he had 2 years ago and all season with Bayern. Even earlier this season in a friendly against England he looking much fresher, much more assertive. Maybe it is the pressure, he is seen as the focal point for Les Bleus. During the World Cup he was a piece of the puzzle, this time he is the fulcrum for the team.
The Ugly:
  • The entire French team....FOUR GOALS??? I mean please....I gave up four goals earlier this season and I was EMBARRASSED, but when you are a national team who has won 2 European cups and a World Cup, whose players are sought after by ever major club team, who leaves players such as Mexes, Escude, Sagna, Clichy, Trezeguet, Flamini, Ben Afra, Cisse at home because you have outrageous talent and you take 4 GOALS in a major tournament in a game you must get points from...that is not just ugly but down right EMBARRASSING. This could go down as one of the worst tournaments for Les Bleus, rivaling the 2002 world cup where they did not even register a goal.
  • France's heart, I am sure some readers will snicker and make jokes about France surrendering again etc etc, but Les Bleus have always had heart. Whether it was Platini's teams of the 80s battling Germany in two world cup semi finals, or Zidane's teams never giving up until the final minute, or even the teams that rose from the ashes of not going to USA 1994 France always showed heart and a fighting spirit. Unfortunately I do not see the same in this team.
Okay...I feel a little better but not much. The sad part is Les Bleus, with 1 measly point, can STILL qualify for the 1/4 finals. If they beat Italy and as long as Romania do not beat Holland, France is through to the 1/4 finals so Spain can score 4 on them as well. I am torn, do I want France to find a way to the 1/4 finals? Or is it better for them to put me out of my misery get shlacked 4-0 by the Azzurri and allow me to move on with my summer in a general malaise???

What I think will happen - France and Italy will play a game for the ages with Les Bleus winning on a last minute tap in from Gallas to win 3-2, unfortunately Van Basten will pull a Germany 1982 and loose a "friendly" game 1-0 seeing both Holland and Romania through.

At least I have already starting thinking about my postmortem for Les Bleus, I should have plenty of time after Tuesday to write it.....

Friday, June 13, 2008

Les Bleus all done

Inexcusable....3 goals? And the game is not even done. This is ridiculous. Les Bleus do not deserve to go on. And with Holland guaranteed the top of the group and Romania needing a win, would anyone be surprised with a nice 1-0 win by the Eastern Europeans? Ugh....see you in 2 years in South Africa....hopefully



France v Holland half time...UGH

France down a goal at half time to the dutch...deep breaths....okay so in the end even if Les Bleus loose they can still qualify for the 1/4 finals in the last game against Italy. But ... UGH. They are not playing that poorly, the 3 man attacking midfield is causing the Dutch defense some issues. But once again Les Bleus appear toothless in the final 18 meters. While Gouvou had some nice moments, not sure I want him out there much longer. And the Dutch just look ready to pounce on a counter....not looking good for les bleus.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Group of death - Day 1....Les Bleus giving me heart burn again

Ahhhh, Les Bleus what are you doing to me? Once again my beloved France is going to give me high blood pressure for the summer season or just go crashing out of a major footie tournament way too early. Before I get too down or irrationally exuberant let me look at the France v Romania game from earlier today.

France leaves the day with 1 point from a nil - nil draw with our Eastern European rivals. The game went very much to script, the Romanians defended vigorously looking to beat the French on the counter while France dominated possession but could not find the solution in the last 18 meters. Frustrating to say the least....anyways so thoughts on the match:

The Good -
  • Hmmm hard to figure what was good for Les Bleus...okay Makelele as always the engine in the middle of the French formation. He was constantly running, looking to carry the ball to the fowards, tracking back to defend, and overall destroying any Romanian attacks that went through the middle of the park.
  • The Romanian strategy was perfect, not just in thought but in execution. It was clear they were going to pack their penalty area, play 4 or 5 across the back and drop the midfield as soon as the French mounted any attack. With Mutu and Niculae looking to beat the French on the counter. While France had a half dozen pseudo chances, the Romanian defense worked to a tee never allowing the French to break out quickly and when they finally got into the offensive 1/3 of the pitch would have 5 defenders in the box while the other Romanian players would track down the ball looking to break all the French flair.
The Bad -
  • Hmmm where to start...France's lack of creativity. France knew heading into this match it would resemble the two qualifiers against Scotland, one team defending from the moment they walk off the team bus and one team trying to figure out how to break that lock. Without Vieira and Henry, France was heading into the game without two of their creative players. Without Vieira they lacked their midfield maestro that would link up the defense and offense, something that was clearly lacking. Henry would give France the opportunity to take on the defense one on one...something Benzema and Anelka should also have been able to do but were not successful. Okay I am not sure having Henry would have changed much, other than a veteran attacking option late in the game. Regardless, with Ribery, Anelka, Benzema, and Malouda France should have found the offensive options to break down the defense. The main problem was that when France got into the offensive third of the park, the support was late coming. Rarely would I see Toulalan, Makelele or the wide fullbacks jump into the play early enough to trouble the Romania defense. By the time they found themselves involved, the Romanians had positioned everyone behind the ball, completely strangling the offensive third of the park for the French. Granted, Makelele and Toulalan are not offensive juggernauts, but they would have given the attack an option to play the ball out to switch sides quickly. Something that needs to be improved if France is to survive this group.
  • French finishing was poor to say the least. Between Benzema and Anelka, there were 3 clear chances at goal. Anelka should have done better with a header in the first half. He had acres of space to attack the cross but rather than force a save he ballooned his shot over the net. He had a second chance later that half barreling down the wing, but rather look to play it back to the penalty dot he looked to score from an outrageously tight angle. The last clear chance fell to Benzema when he received a Ribery cross to inside the 18 yard box only to drive the ball right into the keeper's stomach. Les Bleus will have to find a way to put the ball into the net if they do not want a repeat of World Cup 2002....and score no goals in 3 games. Ugh I hope not.
The Ugly -
  • Lack of goals, nothing worse than a 0-0 draw. Well I guess a Romania 1-0 win would have been worse. But seriously, no goals....that is ugly. With all the fire power France supposedly brought to bear, one goal was not too much to ask for.
  • France's system, or lack of change as the game progressed. France started in a 4-4-2, with Anelka and Benzema at the top and a 4 player midfield - Malouda, Toulalan, Makelele and Ribery. The main problem with this formation is it stuck Ribery on a wing. Without Vieira to fill the gap in the middle of the park, there was little direct support for the two strikers. This reminded me of Santini's 4-4-2 from the last Euros where Zidane found himself on an island on the right of the formation. Malouda and Ribery were great in the channels during World Cup 2006 because you had a certain Zidane playing between them supporting Henry up front with Vieira behind to link up the offense and defense. This system is hard to work with the current French make up, either Benzema drops back to sit between the two wing players, which he ended up doing, or you have a huge gap in the middle of the park since Toulalan and Makelele are not offensive enough to take that space. Not allowing Ribery to roam more, stifles his offense. Of course the formation was not horrible, creating some chances against a tight defense. What bothers me is the lack of change early enough in the match. Domenech did bring in Nasri and Gomis but late, and did not really alter the formation France was playing, especially since he brought them in for a position for position change, Nasri for Benzema and Gomis for Anelka. If Domenech wanted to change the style of play, why not bring in Nasri for Toulalan? Or maybe take out one of the strikers earlier, put in Gouvou or Nasri and go with a 4-2-3-1, look to attack the perimeter of the Romania defense with two wing players and one true "10" sitting behind either Benzema or Anelka. France needs to find some creativity, this might be the option. Then again 2 years ago I was clamoring to have Zidane benched...oops.
The other BIG story of the day is the trashing the World Cup champs took at the hands of Oranje. 3-0 thumping of total football versus Catenaccio football...this turns the group into a very interesting situation. Of course the score, in my opinion, does not reflect the game. The first goal was OFF SIDES! The Italian player was off the pitch due to injury and therefore not in the play so was NOT keeping Ruud Van Nistelrooy on sides. If that goal is not scored the game completely changes. The second goal was just a great example of how fast the game can change, Italy were unlucky not to score on the corner kick and were then crucified by a perfect counter. That rarely happens against the Azzurri.

I think the loss of Cannavaro is sorely felt by the 4 time World Cup champs. Listening to Judy Foudy and Andy Gray you would think that losing Cannavaro was trivial since prior to the last World Cup Italy lost Nesta only to have Materazzi step different players! Materazzi could step in as a stopper, but you still have the cerebral Cannavaro sweeping...without Cannavaro you do not have the organizer in the back for Italy, and that was sorely missed. The Italian defense looked all out of sorts without their captain. But what do I know compared to Foudy and Gray....other than the European Cup and World Cup are two years apart (Andy Gray made a bone head comment about 4 years).

So after one day here is what we know -
  • Romania are very much alive in this. They play Italy next and if the Italians play the way they did today they might have trouble with the Romanians. Romania knows that any result from that match means they have a chance to go through. They must feel very good about themselves, if they can get a point (at least) from Italy, which is entirely possible, they know they can get a result from Holland having done so during qualifying.
  • France are not a great position but at least they are not Italy. They know that a win against Holland will be huge, but even a draw means they still have their chances. Even a loss is not fatal. Getting a simple point for the first game means they will most likely play 2 more meaningful games. The last game against Italy will determine everything....ugh.
  • Italy are in trouble, they must win their next game, otherwise they are in trouble. A draw would be okay but the problem will be goal differential as well, they are already -3 in that category. Of course nothing is lost, if they go out and beat Romania all is to be played for against France.
  • Holland are sitting pretty....for day 1. They slayed the 800 lb gorilla of the group, the defending World Cup champs. They know that going into the next game they need a draw and are in a good position, a win and they are through. Of course they could wake up and realize they are Holland and crumble under the pressure.
An exciting first day for the group of death....okay exciting due to the Dutch trashing of Italy. The possibilities are numerous...meaning I will be tense until Friday. I wonder which Dutch team we will see, the one that struggled during qualifiers or the one that thumped Italy? I am hoping for the former.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Euro 2008 - Knock out round

So I have given you my groups...what about the knock out stages? Based on my "predictions" here is we go -

1/4 Finals -
Germany v Switzerland - Once again Germany gets a lucky draw....granted it is the host nation but still. Germany wins 1-0 to move on.
Portugal v Croatia - 6 months ago this would have been an intriguing match up, the rock solid team of Croatia vs the flair of Portugal. Without Eduardo, Croatia is declawed.....Portugal is too talented. Portugal wins 3-1
France v Greece - Ah a rematch from 4 years ago....will revenge be sweet? Yes, Les Bleus do not take Hellas lightly. France wins 2-1
Spain v Italy - The most mouth watering 1/4 final, will Spain beat its demons? Or will Italy emerge to continue its quest for the "double?" I think Spain have too much and without Cannavaro Italy cannot stop Torres. Spain 1-0

1/2 finals -
Germany v Portugal - Oh a rematch from the world cup 3rd place game. This time Germany does not have the home field advantage and Portugal does care about the game. Ronaldo is too much for the German defense to handle. Portugal 2-1
Spain v France - So much history between these nations, Euro 1984 finals, Euro 2000 1/4 finals, World Cup 2006 1/4 finals....all of those France victories. Too bad that string does not continue, Spain gets the monkey off their back and gets into a major final....unfortunately. Spain 1-0

Finals -
Spain v Portugal - An Iberian peninsula finals, wow. Spain will look to rid themselves of the moniker of chokers in big tournaments while Portugal will look to achieve what it could not on home soil 4 years ago. In the end I think Spain have to much talent and will overwhelm their Iberian brothers. Spain 3-1

Yes I am calling Spain as our Euro 2008 champs, a risk prediction based on their usual run of form. However I think they finally have all the pieces in place. They are experienced, have oodles of talent, have players that are playing in England (giving them toughness they otherwise lacked) and do not have Raul who in my mind had become a cancer for the team.

Viva Espana!

Euro 2008 - Groups C&D

Here we go with the last two groups.

Group C -
France, Italy, Holland and Romania...aka the group of death
  • France - Ah where to start with my beloved Bleus. First of all, on paper this team is stacked, the fact you can leave Mexes, one of the best defenders in Italy at home is ridiculous...well maybe that is more because the manager has some questionable ideas when it comes to selecting players. Regardless this team is loaded - offensively we are looking at Benzema, Henry, Anelka, and Ribery carrying the load, and one of these 4 will not start. Gomis has shown some real potential and scored two superb goals in their first tune up game against Ecuador. Malouda will have to live up to his form from Lyon. To me the potential weakness finds itself on defense, not because there is a lack of talent but due to the fear of injury and not being 100% - Gallas has been hampered with nagging injuries, Sagnol is just coming back to 100%, Thuram is not a spring chicken (he is 36 that is OLD) and Coupet is also coming back from injury. The cover is solid, but not as strong as could have been had Mexes and Escude not being 100% meant they were left off the roster. I have no faith in Boumsong, Squillaci is solid but in my mind not better than Mexes or Escude, although probably healthier. I am also concerned about the injury to Vieira, but I have faith in Toulalan slotting in for the injured French captain. Okay enough about the French, I will write a dedicated entry about Les Bleus...Player to watch - Henry to me is the main man for France, Titi has been a mainstay for Les Bleus since the 1998 World Cup, however he has never really taken over a tournament. He has had flashes of brilliance but never lived up to his immense talent and form for club. This has to be his tournament for France to go deep.
  • Italy - The defending World Cup champions will look to copy what Les Bleus did in 2000 which to win the Euros after winning the World Cup. The Italians remain loaded, however the untimely injury to Cannavaro will be more difficult to overcome than some may believe. Granted, Italy lost another central defender prior to Germany 2006 - Nesta only to have Materazzi step in seamlessly to partner with Cannavaro. But this is not Nesta this is Cannavaro the captain and rock of the Italian defense. They still have Buffon between the pipes and still have Gattuso and De Rossi to protect the back four and destroy any offensive play in the midfield. Offensively everything will go through Pirlo from his deep midfield looking to feed the wingers Di Natale and Camoranesi to keep the pitch wide and lean on Toni to score the goals. On this side of the pitch I think Italy will not have too many problems and they can still call on Del Piero to come off the bench. What I will be watching is how the central defense handle the loss of their rock and captain. Player to watch - Materazzi, without Cannavaro he will be expected to anchor the defense and the central axis. And can he control his sometimes over aggressive play.
  • Holland - The Oranje go into this tournament with enough talent to win everything or to come crashing out after the group stages. The Van Basten error has been fraught with highs and lows, but mostly lows. I think this tournament will be another low. First the former AC Milan star has already announced he is going to Ajax to manage post that is not good for team or manager focus entering a tournament...see Santini and France last Euro when he was announced at Tottenham just prior to Portugal 2004. I am also not convinced that van der Saar has the legs for a month long tourney. Also, what formation 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1? And if the latter who steps in for an injured Babel? What about Van Persie, can he hold up? Player to watch - Van Persie the talented but oft injured Arsenal player will determine how dangerous and how far the dutch can go. He needs to be a goal scoring threat to take some pressure off an aging Van Nistelrooy.
  • Romania - On paper the team that will not make it through the group of death, but upon further review this is a solid team with star power. Many of the players come from the same team in Romania, so they are very comfortable playing on the pitch together, and they have Mutu who after a disastrous spell at Chelsea has found himself in Italy and is a threat to score at any moment. In Chivu they have a player who practices his trade at the highest level with Inter and who will be the key to holding the center of the park together. I am very nervous about playing them in the opening round. Player to watch - Mutu has been sensational for Fiorentina, if he carries over this form to his national team Romania could surprise and come out of this group.
This is definitely the group of death, any two team can emerge from the group. I think nothing could be decided until the last game, which is not good for Les Bleus since of all teams they can use the extra day of rest. While I want to, I cannot pick against the established sides of France and Italy....Predictions:
  1. France - all will be determined in game 1, if they can get the max points I think they go into the Holland game at ease and beat Oranje....if they draw or lose game 1...all bets are off.
  2. Italy - defending world cup champs have too much talent and experience, even without Cannavaro they have the defensive talent to play Italian football and with Toni up front can score goals
  3. Romania - they will challenge for a spot in the knock out round until the last day, I think they could be the surprise of the tournament if things fall their way
  4. Holland - loads of individual talent, but have not found themselves the past 2 years. If they click this table could be inversed, but something tells me there is too much upheaval in the Dutch camp.
Group D -
Greece, Russia, Spain, Sweden
  • Greece - The defending champs missed qualification to the World Cup Germany but had a strong qualifying campaign for the Euros. The team remains much the same as the one that hoisted the trophy in Portugal which means they are experienced and cohesive but also older. They will lean on their defense, anchored by the ageless Nikopolidis in goal. The difference between this Euro and the one 4 years ago, is that no one will underestimate the Greeks and their whily coach Otto Rehhagel. Player to watch: Charisteas and Samaras, which of these two will provide the goal scoring threat for the Greeks.
  • Russia - Guus Hiddink did the impossible and got Russia through qualifiers to the Euros...but barely. After having been given a life line by England, Russia could not hold on in Israel and barely beat Andorra to squeak through. Without one of their best players Arshavin for the first 2 games this could be a bridge too far for the Russians. Player to watch - Zyrianov will look to replicate his clubs brilliant run to the UEFA cup title. He will be called upon to destroy any threats coming through the midfield, which will be crucial against Spain in particular.
  • Spain - Once again Spain come into a major tournament with outrageous talent up and down their roster. When Fabregas, one of the best players in the England, is not the best player on your squad that is saying something. They are strong everywhere on the pitch and even on the reserves bench. Casillas is arguably the best keeper in the world right now, Ramos the best right back, Torres one of the best strikers, Fabregas one of the world's best midfielders...add in Villa, Senna, Xavi, Iniesta, and you have a team dripping in talent. Additionally, unlike other Spanish teams they have a number of key players working in foreign leagues, adding an element of toughness they otherwise have been lacking. They have a relatively easy group, so should find themselves in the 1/4 inals. Player to watch - Fabregas, if he can replicate...even at 75%, his Arsenal form this team could go very far.
  • Sweden - Ah the Swedes, they always fly under the radar and do so for a reason. They have some world class players in the mold of Ibrahimovic, but never seem to go very far in major tournaments. I think this will be much of the same. They have some nice players in Kallstrom, Mellberg and Ljungberg, the key will be can they score enough to get through the group stages? Player to watch - Elmander, the Toulouse player will be looked upon to take some pressure off Ibrahimovic, if he can replicate his goal scoring touch from his club this could be a good attacking duo.
This group looks vanilla on the surface, Spain will win, Greece and Sweden fight for second with Russia the whipping boy. Predictions:
  1. Spain - too much talent to fold this early, in the knock out round maybe but not in the groups.
  2. Greece - I think Otto has a few tricks up his sleeve and will find a way to get the defending champs to the knock out stages
  3. Sweden - lack of creativity will cost this team
  4. Russia - just happy to be there, without their captain and best player will struggle to stay above Austria as the worst team of the tournament.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Euro 2008 - Let the fun begin - Groups A&B

We are less than 24 hours away from the start of the European Championships. I looked back at my earlier predictions for the tournament...ahhh how things have changed. In case you would like to read what I had to say in January -

Now with 5 months of thinking and the fact the tournament starts tomorrow, I will revisit my thoughts on the outcome of this tournament. So let us go through the first two groups:
Group A -
Portugal, Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Turkey.
  • Portugal - This Euro 2004 runner ups and 4th place team from the last World Cup are a team that appears on the verge of greatness. Their strength lies in their world class midfield, starting with Ronaldo who is coming off a season for the ages at Manchester United. Partner him with a combination of Nani, Deco or Quaresma and you have a lethal midfield combo. However their lack of true striker might be their undoing, Ronaldo had an outstanding goal scoring season at ManU, yet he had folks such as Tevez and Rooney up front how will he hold up without such offensive talent to lean on? The Portugese defense should be serviceable, it is experienced and in Ricardo have a keeper that is not only solid but has demonstrated a knack of winning penalty shoot outs. The Player to watch - The obvious player is Ronaldo, but I think the difference maker could be Quaresma. If he plays a significant amount and if he lives up to his talent, Portugal will be very difficult to stop.
  • Czech Republic - Hmmm which team will show up? The Czechs have been incredibly frustrating in the past few tournaments, sometimes surprisingly cohesive such as the Euro 1996 in England where they made it to finals or the European Cup in 2004 where they made the semi finals and sometimes frustrating as in the World Cup in Germany where they started strong but quickly fizzled and did not make the knock out stage. The Czechs no longer have the midfield maestro of Pavel Nedved and Rosicky is hurt, they still have one of the world's top 3 keepers in Cech and Baros who for some reason cannot score for his club but can be deadly for nation. I think their weakness will be lack of midfield creativity, without Nedved and Rosicky not sure who will pull the strings in the middle of the park. The Player to watch - Koller, the giant striker can be the difference maker for this team. If he is on, it will make the Czechs very dangerous on set pieces and long crosses into the area, freeing up space for Baros to do his thing.
  • Switzerland - One of the host nations, there is some pressure for them to advance since the other host, Austria, is seen as the weakest side and it would be considered a success if they do not end up last of their group! The Swiss are an interesting side, they qualified for the last World Cup after winning a contentious home and away knock out game with Turkey and then finishing first of their group in Germany. With a nation behind them can we expect the Swiss to progress in their tournament? Overall they bring a solid and experienced squad with no real superstars but with a solid block. The Player to watch - Frei, the striker will be lean on heavily to score goals and put pressure on their opponents' defense.
  • Turkey - This is a team in transition, having lost such established stars as Sukur. It is difficult to determine which team will show up, they finished as runners up in their group, behind natural rival Greece, but in an overall weak group. A 2-2 draw versus Belarus in a friendly does not inspire confidence for the task at hand. A match up with Switzerland should prove interesting based on the incidents from the World Cup qualifying match. The Player to watch - Aurelio who will be tasked to orchestrate the midfield and team. He plays for Fenerbache so he understands the pressures of playing in big games.
This group should be very interesting, with a host nation and the best player in the world not named Kaka or Messi anything could happen. The match to watch Switzerland vs Turkey, during the world cup qualifiers punches, groin kicks, insults, handbags, were all part of the post match bust up between these teams. Predictions:
  1. Portugal - Ronaldo is too talented for this team not to get to the next stage.
  2. Switzerland - Home field advantage and an experience squad gets them through
  3. Czech Republic - A team in transition, Peter Cech will not be enough to get them through, opening with Switzerland is not best scenario
  4. Turkey - Too many questions, not enough talent to get through
Group B -
Austria, Croatia, Germany, Poland
  • Austria - Yikes, this team is bad. How bad? Mozambique and Bolivia are ranked just ahead of them in the FIFA world rankings...ouch. There was even a motion raised within Austria to have the squad pull out of the tournament for fear of embarrassing themselves. I cannot even pretend to know anyone on the team, so not sure what to say about this team. Player to watch - the fans, will they stick with their team?
  • Croatia - With Brazilian born Eduardo in the line up this team could be viewed as a dark horse, without him they are an outsider. Their coach Bilic has done a great job of creating a team that works well together and is solid. However they will lack the creativity and deadly striking capabilities of Eduardo. They remain a dangerous team but not one I see going as far as they could have prior to losing their talented striker. Player to watch - whoever steps up upfront, whether it be Olic or Petric one of these two or both will have to fill a huge void left by Eduardo's absence.
  • Germany - The Nationalmannshaft is being touted as many as the favorites to win this Euro addition and add to their 3 titles. I am still scratching my head why so many pundits are so high on the German team. Many point to the fact they had a great World Cup run...I would argue they had a good World Cup run playing on their home soil. They had an easy group, faced Sweden in the first knock out round (a perennial underachiever), beat Argentina yes but that was more due to poor management on the part of the Argentine can Messi stay on the bench the entire game??? And then Germany lost to eventual champs Italy in the Semis, yes Germany defeated Portugal in the third place game but is that really a true measure or just an exhibition game where on team was already mentally back on the beaches in Portugal while Germany looked to make their home fans happy? Pundits then say, well look at their qualifying games they were dominant. Again, not sure that is the case. Take away the embarrassing 13 goal drubbing of San Marino (I think my men's league team could play San Marino tough) and what you have is a standard campaign. They had a relatively simple group and still found a way to have draws against Cyprus, Ireland and Wales....and they split the games against the Czechs. This team has talent on paper, but not sure that talent is to the level it is hyped up to be. Klose is getting long in the tooth and Podolski has not lived up to the hype his talent has brought on him. Lehmann remains a weak link, he barely got any playing time this season for Arsenal and when he did found new ways to make mistakes...remember the Fulham game where he inexplicably misplayed a back pass right into the path of a Fulham player? The key remains Ballack and Gomez, does the veteran Ballack play to the level he is capable and can Gomez carry forward his goal scoring? Player to watch - Ballack, the Chelsea man must be in top form if this team is to advance very far.
  • Poland - Polska had a great qualifying campaign, finishing first in their group which contained Portugal, not bad for a nation that previously had never qualified for the Euros. Yet they then turn around an lose to the United States at home in a friendly...hmmm. Which team will show up in the alps? They do have a solid midfield on paper and an experienced coach to guide them but their true strength lies in goal where they can look to a number of keepers playing at big clubs in Europe - Boruc at Celtic, Dudek at Real Madrid, Kuszscak at Manchester United or even Fabianski at Arsenal, too bad only one can play at a time. Player to watch - Boruc, the keeper might be called upon to keep his team in games especially in the opener against the Germans, if he plays well they have a chance to get out of the group.
This group is tailer made for Germany to win, they are basically playing at home being right next door, they have the weakest team in Austria, a team that is not what it could have been in Croatia and a team they perennial beat Poland. The fight will be for second place, and I think that Croatia have too much for the other two teams. Predictions:
  1. Germany
  2. Croatia
  3. Poland
  4. Austria