Archive

Author Archive

Mercedes move may be the making of Lewis Hamilton’s legacy

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

On Friday (28th September), it was announced that McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton has signed a three year deal with the Mercedes Formula One team, effective as of the start of the 2013 season and if he can put the team on top of the pile, he will secure his place as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

The decision came as a surprise to many observers outside the world of motorsport, but there has speculation amongst those in the know for some time now about a possible move to the Silver Arrows for the 27 year old. His decision signals the end of a 14 year association with Woking-based McLaren and many within the Formula One world have criticised his choice to leave. At the front of the critics queue is McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who responded to the news by saying ‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to leave McLaren if they want to win.’

On the face of it, it is difficult to disagree with those who question Hamilton’s judgment. Since the German luxury car manufacturer bought out Brawn GP after the 2009 season, its team has managed only one race win (Nico Rosberg, Malaysia 2012) and delivered only four podium finishes. This pales in comparison to the achievements of McLaren in that time. Hamilton alone has won nine races and finished on either the second or third step of the podium a further 12 times, while teammate Jenson Button has managed seven wins and 17 podiums. Furthermore, McLaren have finished second in the Constructors’ Championship for the last three years, while Mercedes have been a distant fourth. All of this suggests that Hamilton is taking a backwards step and make no mistake, as things stand, he is. So why move?

Hamilton’s decision to leave a successful McLaren team is a gamble (This image is the property of the Daily Telegraph)

Rumours have abounded for a while now that Hamilton is ruffling too many feathers at McLaren. The Englishman has had his fair share of bad luck this year with mechanical faults and pit stop errors, but the team’s management have not been impressed with his vocal and public criticism of them. When Hamilton tweeted telemetry data at this season’s Belgian Grand Prix making it accessible to millions, Martin Whitmarsh dismissed it publically as a small error of judgement. Behind close doors, you can bet he was fuming. Hamilton has increasingly garnered a reputation as an attention seeker, particularly when compared to the amiable and relaxed Button, and it has been evident for some time that McLaren are growing tired of his antics. A divorce may be the best solution to a love affair that has soured.

 

Sports fans often like to think that money is not a key factor in the decision making process for men of Hamilton’s vast wealth, but it in fact plays a huge role. Hamilton’s decision to jump ship and join a less successful team is no exception in this regard. Ross Brawn himself stated that the first move was made by Hamilton’s camp and with the riches on offer at Mercedes, this should come as no surprise. It is no secret that McLaren have been looking to offer Hamilton a contract on reduced terms as they need to make economies and weight has been added to this by the signing of Sergio Perez (who is essentially bankrolled by the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim Helú) as Hamilton’s replacement. According to the Daily Telegraph, Hamilton will earn £20 million a year at Mercedes, compared to the £15 million he is currently paid at McLaren, and the scope for income from commercial activities is also much greater in the silver and green of Mercedes. McLaren are notorious for controlling the image rights of their drivers, something with which Hamilton’s representatives have never been happy. At Mercedes however, the 2008 world champion will be free to sign whatever sponsorship deals he wants, significantly boosting his earning potential, while the global profile and appeal of the Mercedes brand will open many new doors in terms of sponsors, allowing Hamilton to profit from the same sort of car-related kudos that benefits Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.While money is a key consideration, it is not however, the overriding factor. Hamilton sees himself as the best driver on the current Formula One grid and for a man of his talents, one world championship is an underachievement. At 27, he is no longer a youngster and having realised this, he has acted to change things.

As things stand, McLaren offers the better chance of delivering a world title, but Ross Brawn and his team at Mercedes appear to have convinced Hamilton that they are the better bet in the long term. As mentioned earlier, McLaren have announced cost-saving measures and some of this is ironically linked to Mercedes. The contract which sees McLaren receive free engines from the German manufacturer expires at the end of the current season, meaning that they will have to spend a great deal of money that they have previously not had to find. With what is said to be the biggest budget in Formula One at an estimated £185 million a year, Ross Brawn’s team has no such problems and can afford to build a car around Hamilton, who will be the team’s undisputed number one.

It is unclear what McLaren are going to do in terms of engine provision, with some claiming they will simply become a Mercedes customer and others stating that they are going to build their own. Whatever the case, it would seem they have been unable to convince Hamilton that it is a project worth buying in to.

Brawn himself is a selling point as team principal, who would not want to drive for a man who has helped mastermind eight Drivers’ and eight Constructors’ Championships? Brawn built a dynasty with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari that saw the German clinch five consecutive world titles on his way to becoming the man who many see as the greatest Formula One driver of all time. Hamilton, it would seem, has been convinced that Brawn can do the same at Mercedes. It is a big gamble, but if he can succeed where the great German failed and establish Mercedes as the leading team in the sport for years to come, he will cement his own place as an all-time great.

Categories: Motorsport

Saeed Ajmal: Pakistan’s Star Man

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

By Faisal Hanif

With the fourth edition of the ICC World Twenty20 imminent, one player on most people’s list to star at the tournament in Sri Lanka is Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal.

In the post Warne/Murali era the man from Faisalabad has established himself as the premier spin bowler in world cricket. Given his performances over the last year some would even argue that he is the number one bowler outright.

Ajmal, who began his international career at the relatively late age of 30, has made up for lost time. In helping demolish England earlier in the year he became the fastest off spinner in history to 100 test wickets (19 matches). Recently he has also overhauled compatriot Shahid Afridi to become the highest wicket taker in international Twenty20 cricket. In all three formats of the game Ajmal is ranked in the top three in the ICC’s official rankings, coming in at number one in ODIs.

Saeed Ajmal in action

His consistency over the last twelve months has been so spectacular that his omission from the shortlist for the ICC’s prestigious test player of the year award has caused a national and international outcry.

But stats and awards or the lack of them in this case paint a partial picture of Ajmal’s influence on the world game and that of Pakistan cricket as a whole. In the aftermath of the spot fixing scandal that has deprived Pakistan, and world cricket, of two potentially great bowlers in Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif, Ajmal has stepped in to fill the void. He has more than any other bowler, or player for that matter, assured Pakistan’s continued competitiveness on the world stage.

For a country famous for its production line of bowling greats he maintains the tradition, sharing a common ability to deceive batsmen with both subtle and exaggerated variations.

His doosra has proved virtually unplayable at times and he has bamboozled even the historic masters of spin bowling like Sachin Tendulkar, as well as dismantling the top order of the then ‘number one test team’ three test matches in succession. A breakdown of Ajmal’s figures show that over 60% of his wickets have involved batsmen from position 1-7 in the batting line up.

Whilst in technical ability Ajmal is most often compared with Muttiah Muralitharan (given the shared occupation as offspiners) he has exhibited characteristics more commonly associated with the other great spin maestro, Shane Warne.

Throughout his career Warne was not only hailed as a great technician but also a master of the mental aspect of the game. As part of the great Aussie generation that revolutionised methods in the mental degradation of opponents, Warne was more often than not the chief culprit.

Ajmal took this one step further as Pakistan prepared to battle the all conquering England team in a three test series in January-February 2012. With his reputation growing in the build up to the series, coupled with the English batting’s well known susceptibility to spin bowling, Ajmal issued a warning of having invented a new delivery. The English batsmen, already in dread of having to face the now infamous doosra, where now in a sweat over the mysterious teesra that threatened to compound their problems.

Pundits and fans alike were equally enthralled as to what this new delivery would do. Perhaps as its name suggested it would spin in three different ways? As the series progressed and Ajmal took an impressive 24 wickets at an average of 14.70 it became clear that there was no teesra. The mind games had the desired affect and the doosra and other little variations had been enough to whitewash the competitors and claim a historic victory.

The fact that Ajmal’s threats had been taken so seriously shows how much his opponents have come to rate his abilities. As a late developer Ajmal continues to work at his art all the time with each game providing a new subtle variation that doesn’t allow a batsman to ever truly settle. It may not be long before an actual teesra is unveiled to the world.

With or without such a delivery he is sure to relish the slow spinning wickets of Sri Lanka and will be Pakistan’s trump card in securing a second Twenty20 world title. Despite the twenty over format being a batsman’s game he is a good bet to be the star performer and perhaps man of the tournament. Shane Warne certainly thinks so.

Categories: Cricket, Guest Blogs

The greatest night in the history of British sport

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

For those of us born and raised in Great Britain sporting disappointment is something all too familiar. Too often we let ourselves buy into the media hype and get carried away only to feel that well-known sense of utter deflation when we come up short. However, for one magical night on the 4th August 2012, our tiny island of 60 million people took on the world… and won!

The stadium announcer in London called it ‘the greatest hour in the history of British athletics,’ while the BBC’s Brendan Foster opted for ‘the most exciting day in British athletics history.’ I would go one step further and say that it was the greatest chapter in the history of British sport full stop as three of our athletes won gold medals in front of a home crowd in the world’s biggest sporting event.

Superstar heptathlete Jessica Ennis (who The Sunday Times’ Chief Sports Writer David Walsh today accurately describes as ‘the nation’s favourite woman’) started the gold rush when she produced a barnstorming 800 metres to win her race and the gold medal by a whopping 306 point margin. Nobody has had to deal with more pressure in the run up to the games than Ennis. Her status as an elite performer in her sport, combined with her affable personality and photogenic appearance, meant that she became the face of the London games and carried the nation’s hopes on her slight shoulders. In short, Ennis was expected to win gold.

Jessica Ennis: The nation’s golden girl (This image is the property of AP)

She handled the pressure brilliantly, setting personal bests and entertaining the adoring crowd across two days of intense competition. She can now call herself the Olympic champion and the nation could not be happier for any athlete. She is surely a shoe-in for Sports Personality of the Year and may yet compete for gold in the 100m hurdles. Her time in the hurdles event of the heptathlon would have won gold in Beijing four years ago, so if she does decide to go for double glory, don’t write off her chances.

While Ennis was preparing to start her 800 metres race, Milton Keynes’s Greg Rutherford was about to take his fourth round jump in the final of the long jump. He was leading the competition with a distance of 8.21m but his fourth round jump saw him go out to 8.31m, just 4 cm short of his British record. Jumper after jumper went without threatening Rutherford’s mark and just minutes after the nation’s golden girl was crowned Olympic champion, Britain had won a second gold.

Rutherford’s gold was much more of a surprise than Ennis’s and sent the crowd in to an even greater frenzy (and me watching in my living room). TeamGB was on fire. Next up: Mo Farah in the 10,000m.

Farah has always been seen as something of a nearly man but his 5000m gold in last year’s World Championships in Daegu gave us all hope that he might win a gold on home soil. There was stiff competition in the form of Ethiopia’s Bekele brothers and the pressure was on to follow Ennis and Rutherford. Could the Londoner deliver?

It was certainly one of the strangest 10,000m races I can ever remember watching and in commentary Brendan Foster described it as ‘a race without a plan.’ The lap times were all over the place and nobody seemed to want to take it on. With 600 metres to go the race was anyone’s and that is when Farah started to make his move. He lengthened his stride, upped his leg churn and went. The Kenyan Masai attempted to go with him as did the Ethiopians, but Mo would not be denied as he streaked down the home straight to glory and a place in British sporting history.

Three gold medals in an exhilarating 47 minutes in the Olympic Stadium: what a night to be British.

Categories: Athletics

Euro 2012: Semi-finals Preview

June 24, 2012 Leave a comment

On the 8th June, the 2012 European Championships began with 16 teams. Just 16 days later, we are now down to four. Holders and pre-tournament favourites Spain have safely negotiated their way to the semi-finals, as have the much fancied Germans. A Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal are also one of the final four, a quartet completed by Italy. Both semi-finals provide intriguing matchups but four must become two.

Spain vs. Portugal (27th June, Donbass Arena, Donetsk)

Spain are the defending champions and favourites to win the title, but so far have not looked at their fluid best. Following a 1-1 draw with an impressive Italian side in the first round of group games, Spain went on to defeat Ireland 4-0 and Croatia 1-0 to top the group. Both Italy and Croatia had sufficient opportunities to defeat Vicente del Bosque’s men and so their cloak of invincibility has disappeared somewhat. They controlled the quarter final against France and thanks to two Xabi Alonso goals, progressed without too much difficulty. That said, France offered little in attack and when they did, the Spaniards did not always look comfortable. Del Bosque himself commented that they looked jaded and it is hard to disagree.

Much has been made of their decision to play without a recognised striker and as I predicted in my pre-tournament blog, they have undoubtedly missed David Villa. At times, their midfield has looked overcrowded, particularly when Cesc Fabregas (the player most suited to playing in a central advanced role) has been left out.

They have however, showed their much-vaunted passing game and continue to monopolise possession in games. When they do lose it, they work harder than any other team to win it back by pressing high up the field. This makes them very difficult to beat and I do believe Portugal will struggle against them.

In their first group game against Germany, Portugal put in one of the worst performances by a supposed big team in a major tournament that I can ever remember. They were ultra-defensive, using three holding midfielders and I thought ‘this is Portugal from the 2010 World Cup all over again.’ They improved in the second group game against Denmark, but looked defensively poor in an entertaining 3-2 win. It was in the final group game against the Netherlands that they really came to life or, more precisely, that Cristiano Ronaldo came to life. He had had numerous golden opportunities versus Denmark but had uncharacteristically failed to convert them and so the pressure was on. Against de Oranje he seemed to thrive on that pressure, scoring both Portuguese goals and firing his team to progression from the Group of Death. So, all in all a mixed bag from Portugal in the group stage, but with an in-form Ronaldo, they looked odds on to beat surprise quarter finalists, Czech Republic. Ronaldo did not disappoint, once again being something of a one-man show (although it should be noted that Joao Moutinho played well in the centre of midfield). The Real Madrid man scored the only goal of the game to put his side in to the semi-final, but in truth it could, and probably should, have been more against a very defensive Czech side.

The worry for Portugal is that they are extremely reliant on their star man. Nani looked off the pace against the Czechs and Miguel Veloso was simply awful. Raul Meireles has offered little and they still struggle for a striker, a situation that will not be helped by an injury to first choice Helder Postiga. For the Portuguese to have any chance Ronaldo will have to have the game of his life and others will need to improve too. I do however, feel Spain will dominate possession and they have the quality to expose Portugal’s defensive frailty. This is most evident in the wide areas with Coentrao looking very much like the converted winger he is. Del Bosque may be tempted to introduce Jesus Navas at some point as he offers natural width and searing pace. Spain’s possession game will lead to a frustrated Ronaldo, who will have to go looking for the ball. This will mean he is not at his most effective.

Sport Report Prediction: Spain win

Germany vs. Italy (28th June, National Stadium, Warsaw)

Germany were many people’s favourites going in to this tournament and from what we have seen so far, it is not difficult to understand why. They have played their usual brand of attacking football with great tempo and even when this was made extremely difficult by a super-defensive Portugal, they found a way to win. That way was Mario Gomez. Against Paulo Bento’s men, he had one chance and he found the net. In tournament football, such a striker is gold dust. Gomez again found the net against the Dutch, scoring two magnificent goals and proving his doubters wrong in the process. He has seen little playing time since, but given his ability to finish, must surely be in line to start in the semi final. Bastian Schweinsteiger has ably dictated the pace of games from midfield, while Mesut Özil has provided his usual creative magic. Sami Khedira has been, in my opinion, the best player at the tournament so far and showed against Greecet hat he can even score. Germany made the so-called Group of Death look easy; winning it with maximum points, but it was the Greece game that showed the quality of their squad as Jogi Löw brought in Andre Schürrle, Marco Reus and Miroslav Klose. The latter two both scored. Only Spain can boast similar strength in depth and so the Germans will be very difficult to beat.

There are still question marks defensively however, and Italy will feel that if they can test Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber, they may get some joy. Manuel Neuer has been called in to action on several occasions and the fact that the Greeks netted twice in the quarter-final shows that the Nationalelf are not invincible.

Before the tournament I predicted that Italy, a country to which I have an attachment (my grandmother is Italian), would go out in the group stage. They came in to the competition on the back of three consecutive defeats to nil and with their game engulfed in yet another match fixing scandal, it just seemed like they would be on their way home early. How wrong I was. They have looked extremely well organised and Andrea Pirlo has proved that class is permanent by controlling game after game with his metronomic passing.

The Italians could have beaten Spain in the first game of the group stage and looked fantastic for 45 minutes against Croatia before fading badly. They did enough against Ireland without pulling up any trees, but they dominated England in the quarter final and should not have required penalties to progress. The reason they did was poor finishing and this is a potential problem for Italy. Pirlo is to Italy what Xavi is to Spain but like the Spaniards, Italy are lacking a top class forward. For whatever reason, Cesare Prandelli will not start with Antonio Di Natale and we all know how infuriatingly inconsistent Mario Balotelli is Against Germany, they will not get the chances they got against England and so they will need Balotelli to be more composed in front of goal.

Pirlo is the key for the Azzurri as absolutely everything goes through him. England allowed him the freedom of Kyiv and he punished them. Germany will not. Sami Khedira will likely be the man tasked with harrying the Italian maestro and it will be interesting to see how the Italians try to stop Germany’s own orchestrator, Bastian Schweinsteiger. That midfield battle will be where the game is won and lost.

I do, however, feel that Germany will just have too much for Italy. Özil, Podolski, Gomez, Müller etc. as well as the potential substitutes available to Löw will be the difference. Italysimply do not have such attacking riches and I feel that this will ultimately prove to be the difference.

Sport Report Prediction: Germany win

Categories: Football

Who will win Euro 2012?

June 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Euro 2012 kicks off tomorrow! We want to know who you think will lift the trophy on 1st July.

Categories: Football

Euro 2012 Preview: Group D

June 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Group D contains perennial underachievers England, the enigma that is France, a useful Sweden side and a Ukraine team hoping to be carried forward by fervent home support. This group lacks a clear favourite and so should provide plenty of entertainment.

England

Manager: Roy Hodgson

Captain: Steven Gerrard

Star Player: Wayne Rooney

England always attract much attention heading in to major tournaments and this time is no exception. They head in to the tournament with a new manager and several new faces and so expectation back home is about as subdued as it has been for any competition since the Graham Taylor era.

England’s preparations for the championships have been disrupted by a string of injuries to key players. Frank Lampard, Gary Cahill and Gareth Barry have all been forced to withdraw through injury and have been replaced by less experienced players in the form of Jordan Henderson, Phil Jagielka and Martin Kelly. Roy Hodgson is new to the job and so probably still does not know what his strongest eleven is and if he had some idea, it has been ruined by these injuries. Furthermore, there are question marks over the fitness of John Terry and Jermain Defoe has temporarily left the camp following the death of his father. The omission of Rio Ferdinand has caused uproar inEngland, with many believing he has been left out for non-footballing reasons (squad member John Terry faces a criminal trial for reportedly aiming racial abuse at Ferdinand’s brother Anton) and this has threatened to overshadow the football.

 

England will be hoping they stay in long enough for Wayne Rooney to make an impact (This image is the property of The Press Association)

England were more or less convincing in qualifying, winning five and drawing three games. They scored 17 goals and conceded only five in a group that included Montenegro and Switzerland. What was impressive was that, unlike many other teams, England were not reliant on a particular player. Defoe, Rooney and Ashley Young scored three each, whilst Adam Johnson and Frank Lampard scored two a piece. However, Rooney is suspended for the first two games and Johnson and Lampard are not in the squad.

 

Rooney’s suspension could really hurt England as they have limited options up front. Following his father’s passing, Defoe is unlikely to be ready for the first match, which is, on paper, the most difficult (France) and Andy Carroll is going in to the tournament having had a poor season for Liverpool. Rooney’s Manchester United teammate Danny Welbeck is talented but still somewhat raw and I just wonder whether too much will be asked of the 21 year old in what is his first experience of a major tournament. England lack creativity, with Ashley Young the main hope in that regard, and there are question marks over a back four that includes an out-of-form Terry and a much maligned Glen Johnson.

Joe Hart, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney bring an element of world-class quality to the squad and all in all, I feel England will be well organised and have enough ability to make it through what is a fairly tough group.

Sport Report Verdict: Group runner-up

France

Manager: Laurent Blanc

Captain: Hugo Lloris

Star Player: Karim Benzema

I believeFrance may just be the team that people have slept on. Nobody is really talking about them heading in to the tournament, but they have plenty of quality in the shape of players like Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Yann M’Vila.

France’s detractors point to the fact that they did not pull up any trees during qualifying (they won just six out of ten games) and their recent record of ill-discipline and internal squabbling. However, the fact that they are on a 20 game unbeaten streak cannot be ignored and Laurent Blanc seems to have created a sense of unity within a squad that just two years ago famously went on strike.

Star striker Karim Benzema has a point to prove having been omitted from the World Cup squad in 2010 and is coming off an extremely impressive season for Real Madrid. The 24 year old scored 32 goals for the Spanish champions last season and, more importantly, performed consistently at such a high level that he was often preferred to Gonzalo Higuain. Franck Ribery had a superb season for Bayern Munich and has scored in all three of France’s warm-up games, whilst Samir Nasri is capable of unlocking any defence with his trickery and eye for a pass.

 

Karim Benzema will be France’s main goal threat (This image is the property of transeet.fr)

Rennes midfielder M’Vila is struggling with an ankle injury and looks doubtful for at least the England game but should he pull through, will prove to be an important cog in the French machine. The 21 year old has impressed with his athleticism and reading of the game this season and is reportedly a target for several top clubs. Blanc will be hoping that his key midfielder is fit but it is clear to see that the French have plenty of quality in the squad.

The game against England should decide the group and I expect France to win narrowly and therefore qualify as group winners.

Sport Report Verdict: Group winners

Sweden

Manager: Erik Hamren

Captain: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Star Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Sweden impressed during qualification, finishing second to the Netherlands in group E. The Swedes won eight and lost two, including an impressive 3-2 victory over Bert van Marwijk’s men in Solna. Like England’s qualification campaign, it was very much a team effort. Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted five times, Kim Kallstrom, Sebastian Larsson and Christian Wilhelmsson all scored three, whilst Johan Elmander, Andreas Granqvist, Martin Olsson, Ola Toivonen and Pontus Wernbloom all found the net twice.

This epitomises Sweden as a team. Ibrahimovic is the star man and will be the man they look to to lead their charge, but after him, it is a very much a team of very capable, very hard working players. Larsson has proved in the Premier League that he can score and make goals. In fact, there may not be a player with better set piece delivery on show in Poland and Ukraine. Ola Toivonen and Johan Elmander are talented strikers who will be competing for a slot alongside Ibrahimovic. Kallstrom and Wilhelmsson bring goals from midfield, as well as a great deal of experience. This is something also brought to the squad by the likes of Olaf Mellberg and Andreas Isaksson. Martin Olsson brings real quality and youth to the back four and so on the face of it, Sweden has a very well-balanced team.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be eager to prove himself at a major tournament (This image is the property of Getty Images)

They do go in to the tournament as something of an underdog team as they have been drawn in the same group as England and France. Neither of those teams is known for always delivering when it matters and so Erik Hamren’s men are very much a live underdog. If France and England are not at their best, Sweden will qualify. I however expect that they will be and so I think that Sweden will be one of the strongest teams heading home after the first round.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Ukraine

Manager: Oleh Blokhin

Captain: Anatoliy Tymoschuk

Star Player: Artem Milevskiy

Ukraine will be eager to impress on home soil but if truth be told, they will have pulled off a minor miracle if they find themselves playing knockout football.

 

Artem Milveskiy has ability can he deliver for the hosts? (This image is the property of AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine’s greatest ever footballer, Oleh Blokhin, is now in his second spell as manager of the national team and in both terms, he has focussed his attention on making them a compact and difficult team to break down. They have therefore, won many games by a solitary goal. In my opinion, this team is not as defensively solid as the side that Blokhin led to the World Cup quarter final in 2006, despite the presence of talented defenders like Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Yevhen Khacheridi. There are also talented creative players in Oleksandr Aliyev and Artem Milevskiy. Both are also capable of finding the net, but are also notoriously temperamental and inconsistent. There is also great experience with Andriy Voronin, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and, of course, Andriy Shevchenko all present. However, Shevchenko is not the player he was five or six years ago and this will probably be the end of his international career. The likes of Milevskiy, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Marko Devych will therefore need to deliver in front of goal if the host nation is to have any chance of qualifying.

 

As is the case with Poland, Ukraine qualified automatically as hosts and so have not played competitive football for nearly two years. They have however played plenty of friendlies, many against strong opposition. They have lost their last two warm up games against Austria and Turkey, although they did beat Estonia4-0 last week. There have also been wins against Israel and Austria, as well as a draw against Germany so their form is far from disastrous.

I do however, feel that they have been drawn in a group with three stronger teams and therefore I think they will finish bottom of the group.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Categories: Football

Euro 2012 Preview: Group C

June 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Group C is an intriguing group containing defending champions and pre-tournament favourites Spain, a crisis stricken Italy, a talented Croatia side and an Ireland team unbeaten in 14 games. It may look like a straight forward group for two of Europe’s giants, but nothing in football is easy and this may just be the group that accounts for the tournament’s early big name casualty.

Croatia

Manager: Slaven Bilic

Captain: Darijo Srna

Star Player: Luka Modric

The Croatian side contains a lot of very talented players but they needed to come through the playoffs to qualify after finishing second to Greece in qualifying group F. Losses away to Greece and Georgia, as well as a draw with Greece in Zagreb, do not exactly paint a picture of a side that will be challenging for the title of European Champions in the coming weeks. They did however, defeat a very useful Turkish side in the playoffs and their form in recent friendlies has been reasonable.

In Luka Modric, they have a midfielder capable of dictating games and of creating something out of nothing, a great attribute in major tournament football. The 26 year old has played on this stage before and has shown that he can perform consistently in the Premier League. He will be the man through whom everything goes in midfield so he will need to be at his skilful best if Croatia are to progress.

 

Luka Modric will look to orchestrate proceedings for Croatia (This image is the property of Getty Images)

Modric does not score a great deal of goals and so Bilic will be looking to the likes of Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic to find the back of the net. Jelavic was a revelation in the Premier League after joining Everton in the January transfer window, showing an unerring ability to finish any chance that came his way. Croatia will be hoping he continues in this vein, especially as long-time go-to man Ivica Olic will now miss the tournament with a thigh injury. The likes of Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic are more than capable midfielders and experienced players like Stipe Pletikosa, Josip Simunic and Vedran Corluka form part of a solid back five.

The Croats undoubtedly have enough quality to progress and with Italy looking like they would rather be anywhere but in Poland and Ukraine, they may just do so.

Sport Report Verdict: Group runner-up

Italy

Manager: Cesare Prandelli

Captain: Gianluigi Buffon

Star Player: Mario Balotelli

Where to start with the Azzurri? They could turn up and win it. They could turn up and not win a single match. This is what makes them such an intriguing team this time around.

Cesare Prandelli’s men romped to qualification, winning eight and drawing two of their ten matches. A watertight defence conceded only two goals and 20 scored was a very respectable return. However, it is difficult to know exactly what this means as the competition was not up to much. Serbia were desperately disappointing and Faroe Islands, Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Estonia are not, with all due respect, what you would class as top teams. Still, the Italians did what they had to and are in this summer’s competition on merit.

Their preparations have however been overshadowed by yet another match-fixing scandal which has seen Prandelli forced to omit Zenit St Petersburg defender Domenico Criscito. Police raided the team’s Coverciano training base last week, forcing the cancellation of an arranged friendly with Luxembourg. This means that they have played only one friendly in preparation for the tournament, one in which they were comprehensively beaten by Russia. All in all Prandelli has a job on his hands getting his players to focus on the task at hand because quite frankly, some of his players look like they have other things on their minds.

 

As captain, Gianluigi Buffon will need to call on all his experience to bring together a troubled Italy team. (This image is the property of Getty Images)

Injuries also look to be an issue. Andrea Barzagli is struggling with a calf injury, whilst enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli is also carrying a knock. There is however, quality in this side. Balotelli is capable of causing any team problems on his day and the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Buffon are proven performers on the biggest of stages. Antonio Nocerino and Sebastian Giovinco add some flair in attacking midfield positions, whilst Giorgio Chiellini will lead a defence that often proves hard to breach. The Italians know how to play winning football and that, coupled with the unquestionable talent in the squad, may be enough to see them through a testing group. I do however feel that the ongoing police investigations and their repercussions have taken the players’ eyes off the prize. There is usually a big name casualty at every major tournament and this time I feel it may be the turn of Italy.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Republic of Ireland

Manager: Giovanni Trapattoni

Captain: Robbie Keane

Star Player: Robbie Keane

Ireland may be seen as the group’s outsiders, but they are certainly live ones. They pushed Russia hard in qualifying group B, finishing just two points behind Dick Advocaat’s team and since then, their form has improved. They put Estonia to the sword during the playoffs and are currently on a 14 game unbeaten run following a 0-0 with Hungary yesterday evening (4th June). What is even more impressive is the fact that they have kept 11 clean sheets during that run.

Manager Giovanni Trapattoni has seen just about everything the game has to offer and he has successfully moulded a team that is very difficult to beat. In a tournament like this, that is crucial as one-nil wins are good enough and they could potentially put a spanner in the works for someone in this group.

 

Giovanni Trapattoni has made Ireland very difficult to beat (This image is the property of The Hindu)

Ireland will rely heavily on hard work and a great team ethic as they lack the star power that other teams have. That said, Aiden McGeady can cause defenders problems with his trickery and Robbie Keane has shown time and again that he can score at international level. Furthermore, the sight of Shay Given fit and performing well against Hungary will have boosted morale and he brings a great deal of experience in the form of over 100 caps.

Unlike Italy and Spain, Ireland are not under any pressure as nobody expects them to make it out of the group. This should mean that they can enjoy the occasion and express themselves. The tactical discipline instilled by Trapattoni should ensure that they are not embarrassed but I believe the quality of the other three teams will mean that the men from the Emerald Isle do not progress from this group.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Spain

Manager: Vicente del Bosque

Captain: Iker Casillas

Star Player: Xavi

On paper, Spain have by far the best squad in the tournament. There is arguably no better goalkeeper in world football than Iker Casillas, Xavi is in my opinion the best midfielder in the world and the likes of Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Santi Cazorla are not bad either. In fact, when you consider that players like Iker Muniain, Adrian and David de Gea have had to miss out, it illustrates the riches available to Vicente del Bosque. Spain have the deepest squad at the tournament. Fabregas, Fernando Llorente and Juan Mata would walk in to any other team, but may find themselves on the bench here.

The Spaniards go in to the championships as defending champions (they are of course also world champions) and so many of the squad have tasted success at the highest level. Iker Casillas has over 130 caps, Xavi 108 and Fernando Torres and Sergio Ramos are nearing the 100 mark. Spain therefore have a perfect mix of experience and talent.

 

Xavi is the most important cog in a well-oiled Spanish machine (This image is the property of Goal.com)

They won eight of eight in qualifying, scoring 26 and conceding six and so rightfully start as favourites, but their preparations have not been without issue. Defensive stalwart Carles Puyol has been sidelined by a knee injury and whilst he may be the most technically proficient player in Spain, he brings a determination and love of defending that nobody else in the squad can match. He will therefore be a miss. Furthermore, his Barcelona teammates Iniesta and Xavi looked tired towards the end of last season and the latter is reportedly not 100% fit.

A bigger worry is the loss of striker David Villa, who has failed to recover from a broken leg he sustained in December. With 51 goals, he is Spain’s all-time leading scorer and won the Golden Boot four years ago. In short, he has been a constant source of goals for Spain in recent years and may prove impossible to place. Attacking midfielders like David Silva and Fabregas will have to shoulder some of the burden as Fernando Torres has been struggling for form all season. Fernando Llorente has proved his quality for Athletic Bilbao but he is more of a big target man than an on the shoulder striker better suited to Spain’s tika-taka style of play. Replacing Villa or devising an alternative style of play will be the biggest challenge facing del Bosque, but such is the quality throughout the squad that they should still go far and I expect them to progress from this group as winners.

Sport Report Verdict: Group winners

Categories: Football