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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

Euro 2012 Preview: Group B

June 4, 2012 2 comments

Every major tournament has a so-called ‘Group of Death’ and in this summer’s European Championships it is undoubtedly Group B. All four teams are in the top ten of FIFA’s World Rankings, with three of them in the top five. All four teams possess a wealth of attacking talent, but have also displayed defensive frailties in the recent past. This group looks set up to be the pick of the four and two very strong teams will be on the first plane home. The question is who?

Denmark

Manager: Morten Olsen

Captain: Daniel Agger

Star Player: Christian Eriksen

Denmark qualified for the championships as winners of a competitive group that included Norway and Portugal. The Danes lost just once during qualifying, away to Portugal, but for the most part impressed. They scored 15 goals in eight games and conceded just six, good form by anybody’s standards.

Morten Olsen is able to call on a vastly experienced squad, much of which plays in Europe’s top leagues, and in Christian Eriksen, Simon Kjaer and Nicklas Bendtner, he has a trio of highly talented youngsters who may just be ready to prove themselves at the highest level. Bendtner is never going to win any awards for his consistency, but at his best he can give any team problems. A return of 18 goals in 48 games for Denmark is more than respectable and his ability to hold up the ball and bring others in to play will be a key feature of Denmark’s play. Eriksen has long been touted as one of the hottest prospects in European football. The 20 year old Ajax midfielder is technically superb and an excellent exponent of set pieces. While he may lack goals, he creates plenty for his teammates and he will need to be at his creative best if Denmark are to progress from this group.

Christian Eriksen is in the shop window this summer (This image is the property of Getty Images)

With the high level of opposition they will face in the group stage, the Danes will need a watertight defence and 23 year old Kjaer will need to be on top form alongside Daniel Agger. He disappointed during a loan spell at Roma last season and will need to improve. If Denmark’s defence is not at its best, they will fall at the first hurdle.

Olsen’s men play as a well-organised team and players like Bendtner and Eriksen add a touch of class. I do however believe that they have been unfortunate to be drawn in a group with three other top teams and that they will fail to progress from the group.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Germany

Manager: Joachim Löw

Captain: Philipp Lahm

Star Player: Mesut Özil

Germany go in to the tournament as one of the favourites and rightly so. Jogi Löw’s men breezed through qualifying, winning all ten games in a group that included Belgium and Turkey. In doing so, they scored 34 goals and conceded only seven. The three leading scorers in the qualifying group were all German (Klose – 9, Gomez – 6 and Özil – 5), proving right the view that they are very much an attacking team. Add in the likes of capable scorers Lukas Podolski and Thomas Müller and you have a picture of an extremely dangerous side.

The Germans finished as runners up four years ago and have been the third placed team at the last two World Cups. Many of the players in those three squads remain, but newer entrants such as Özil, Müller, Mario Götze and Toni Kroos have brought further talent to the team. Real Madrid midfielder Özil has enjoyed the best two seasons of his career since the last World Cup and has proved he can cut it on the international stage. He will be the creative force in a midfield that will be anchored by Sami Khedira and the presence of an in-form Bastian Schweinsteiger to conduct proceedings should mean that 23 year old gets something of a free role. If he does, he could wreak havoc just as he did against England two summers ago. Borussia Dortmund Wunderkind Götze is the most exciting young talent in Europe in my opinion and looks in good form having recovered from injury to return at the back end of last season. The 20 year old is likely to be used as an impact substitute. Not many teams have such a luxury.

Mesut Özil is capable of creating and scoring goals (This image is the property of AFP/Getty Images)

In Podolski and Miroslav Klose, they have players who have a proven record of scoring goals in major tournaments and fellow striker Mario Gomez will be eager to prove his worth following a 41 goal season for Bayern Munich.

If the Germans do have a weakness, it is in defence. Per Mertesacker has only just returned from a serious ankle injury and although undoubtedly talented, Mats Hummels and Benedikt Höwedes remain relatively untested at this level. They should however, be solid enough and the

Löw’s biggest problem may well be deciding on a best eleven, but that is a nice problem to have. The talent in the German squad, coupled with their trademark discipline and organisation, should see them competing right to the end of the tournament.

Sport Report Verdict: Group winners

Netherlands

Manager: Bert van Marwijk

Captain: Mark van Bommel

Star Player: Arjen Robben

Much like Germany, Netherlands eased through qualifying, winning nine of their ten games. The Dutch found the net 37 times and conceded only eight and this has made them one of the bookmakers’ favourites.

Bert van Marwijk’s team were losing finalists in South Africa two years ago and many of that squad will be in Poland and Ukraine this time around. The likes of Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Arjen Robben are at the stage of their careers that is traditionally seen as a player’s peak, but also have great experience at international level. Not many active players have more caps than captain Mark van Bommel and Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder are also proven performers at this level. Ibrahim Afellay, Luciano Narsingh and Kevin Strootman add youth to what looks on paper like a very well-balanced side.

While the hero of two years ago Sneijder has struggled to maintain the form he showed in the run-up to and during that World Cup, van Persie, Huntelaar and Robben are all coming off outstanding seasons for their respective clubs. Van Persie netted 37 times for Arsenal, while Huntelaar scored 48 times in 47 appearances for Schalke. Robben scored 19 from his position out wide on the right and this may give van Marwijk a headache.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored 12 goals in qualifying but is far from a shoe-in for a starting place (This image is the property of Proshots)

The Dutch have often played with just one striker and van Persie seems to have gotten the nod in the recent past. Huntelaar was the top scorer during qualifying, netting 12 times so he cannot be discounted. Either way, the Netherlands should not be short of goals this summer.

Like group opponents Germany, their weakness looks to be at the back where players like Khalid Boulahrouz, Joris Mathijsen and Wilfred Bouma are perhaps less capable than their attacking counterparts, but they are a well-drilled side and should have too much talent to fall at the first hurdle.

Sport Report Verdict: Group runner-up

Portugal

Manager: Paulo Bento

Captain: Cristiano Ronaldo

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Once again, we are heading in to a major tournament not really sure what to expect from Portugal. On paper, Paulo Bento has a talented squad. Cristiano Ronaldo would walk in to any team in the world and the likes of Nani, Raul Meireles and Fabio Coentrão would be the envy of many teams. However, despite five goals from Ronaldo and four from Nani, the Portuguese failed to impressive during qualifying, just sneaking in to the playoffs on goal difference, where they defeated Bosnia-Herzegovina 6-2 on aggregate.

Paulo Bento’s men have not won since then, drawing 0-0 with Poland and Macedonia, before losing 3-1 to Turkey on Saturday night (2nd June). This lack of form has seen confidence among fans reach new lows and they were in fact booed after the abject display against Turkey. Bento has warned that star man Ronaldo cannot win the Group of Death singlehandedly

Portugal will need Cristiano Ronaldo to be on top form if they are to progress (This image is the property of The Guardian)

In Ronaldo, Nani, Meireles Helder Postiga and Hugo Almeida, Portugal have players capable of scoring goals. Manchester United winger has also shown that he can make goals, but the fact is that the Portuguese have too many inconsistent performers. Joao Moutinho and particularly Ricardo Quaresma have never really delivered on undoubted talent and therein lies the problem. The defence is also far from tight, conceding 12 goals in eight games during qualifying and these factors combined will prove Portugal’s undoing. Had they been drawn in a weaker group, the attacking flair of Nani, Ronaldo et al. may have been enough to see them sneak through, but with Germany and the Netherlands standing in the way, I see Portugal being eliminated at the first stage.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Categories: Football

Euro 2012 Preview: Group A

June 3, 2012 2 comments

With just five days to go until Poland and Greece get the 2012 European Championships under way in Warsaw; anticipation is building across the continent. Spain are the bookmakers’ favourites, whilst Germany and the Netherlands are also much fancied following impressive qualifying campaigns. Will there be an early big name casualty? Who will be the surprise package? Many questions will be answered between now and 1st July; and over the next four days, Sport Report will preview the tournament group by group, starting with Group A.

Group A has been identified by many as ‘the weak group.’ Whilst it is true that it contains none of European football’s so-called giants, the four teams contesting the group are fairly evenly matched. Four must become two however, and so Group A promises to be hotly contested.

Czech Republic

Manager: Michal Bilek

Captain: Tomas Rosicky

Star Player: Michal Kadlec

Czech Republic qualified for the playoffs from Group I, which contained only five teams. They finished second to Spain, but in truth did not exactly impress in a group containing Scotland, Lithuania and Liechtenstein. They finished with four wins, three defeats and a draw from their eight matches, form that would not have seen them progress from many of the other groups. Two defeats to Spain are nothing to be ashamed of, but a 1-0 defeat to a poor Lithuania side is worrying. Furthermore, they were reliant on a very questionable penalty decision in the last minute against Scotland to salvage a draw, a result which proved to be the difference between elimination and playoff qualification. Their form improved in the playoffs as they coasted to a 3-0 aggregate win against a capable Montenegro side, but they will do very well to progress beyond the group stage here.

Michal Kadlec starred during qualification (This image is the property of Sky Sports)

Michal Kadlec was the star man during qualifying. The Bayer Leverkusen full back turned in a string of impressive performances and found the net four times. Tomas Rosicky enjoyed his best form in three or four years for Arsenal during the second half of last season and if he can rediscover the form that has seen score 20 times for his country and orchestrate proceedings from midfield, then maybe the Czechs will have a chance of progressing.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Greece

Manager: Fernando Santos

Captain: Giorgos Karagounis

Star Player: Theofanis Gekas

A second championships victory for the team that shocked Europe in 2004 would be the perfect tonic for a country in the throes of an economic meltdown, but the chances of a repeat are remote.

There are some survivors from the victorious team coached by Otto Rehhagel and the similarities in playing style were evident during Greece’s successful qualifying campaign. They topped a group that included a highly talented Croatia side to qualify automatically and once again, their game was built around a miserly defence. The Greeks conceded only five goals in ten games and they will need to be as tight if they are to progress beyond the group stages as they struggle for goals. With the exception of Theofanis Gekas, they do not have a proven scorer at international level and no one player netted more than twice for them during qualifying. This could ultimately prove their downfall in a group that contains three teams with very capable attacking players.

Theofanis Gekas is a proven goal scorer at international level (This image is the property of Sky Sports)

Gekas has enjoyed a good start to life at Samsunspor and boasts 21 goals at international level. 20 year old Schalke defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos is a promising young talent but he will need to play the best football of his life at the heart of a defence on which Greece will be reliant if they are to progress. Whilst they impressed during qualifying, I cannot help but feel this will be a bridge too far for them.

Sport Report Verdict: Group stage elimination

Poland

Manager: Franciszek Smuda

Captain: Jakub Błaszczykowski

Star Player: Robert Lewandowski

As one of the host nations, Poland did not have to qualify for the tournament. This means that they have not played a competitive fixture for over two years, which some see as a disadvantage. I do not however think that this will be an issue as they have played plenty of football in that time and at this level, you always play to win. I have said for a while that I feel Poland could be something of a dark horse at this tournament as they have a squad of talented players. The likes of Jakub Błaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszcek and Ludovic Obraniak are top class players and like much of the squad, now ply their trade in Europe’s top leagues. Wojciech Szczęsny is one of the best goalkeepers on show this summer and promising youngsters Adam Matuszczyk and Maciej Rybus will be looking to really make a name for themselves on home soil. Star striker Robert Lewandowski will be eager to build on a burgeoning reputation and perhaps attract interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The 23 year old is coming off a double-winning, 30 goal season for Borussia Dortmund and has already scored 14 times for the Białe Orły. He will be central to Poland’s bid for glory in their own country.

Robert Lewandowski is fast earning a reputation as one of Europe’s top strikers (This image is the property of Marek Zakrzewski)

Poland have long been underachievers but there is a sense of optimism amongst fans who now feel they have a squad capable of competing with the best. Fervent home support should motivate the players and this, coupled with their ability, should see them make it through to the knockout stages.

Sport Report Verdict: Group winners

Russia

Manager: Dick Advocaat

Captain: Andrei Arshavin

Star Player: Alan Dzagoev

On the face of it, Russia should make it out of Group A with very few problems. Wins against the Czech Republic and Greece seem likely, with a potential draw against Poland. I am certain Dick Advocaat would take that but very few things in football happen as expected.

That said, a look through Russia’s squad reveals a great deal of quality and a nice blend of youth and experience. In Igor Akinfeev they have one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers and his CSKA Moscow teammate Alan Dzagoev is one of the hottest properties in club football. The 21 year old impressed hugely during Russia’s march to qualification, scoring four times. Andrei Arshavin seems to have discovered some form since returning to Zenit St Petersburg on loan in January and Roman Pavlyuchenko is a proven threat at this level with 20 international goals (just six behind Vladimir Beschastnykh’s all-time record.) Fellow striker Pavel Pogrebnyak enjoyed a goal-filled spell at Fulham during the second half of last season and so Russia look to have key players coming into form at just the right time.

Alan Dzagoev will be key to Russia’s bid for glory this summer (This image is the property of Eurosport)

They qualified by winning Group B ahead of the Republic of Ireland with seven wins, two draws and a defeat from ten matches, conceding just four goals in the process. This is not stellar but they achieved their objective and a highly impressive 3-0 victory in last week’s warm-up friendly with Italy has made people sit up and take note. There are several survivors from the squad that made it to the semi-final four years ago, including Akinfeev, Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko, Pogrebnyak and vice captain Aleksei Berezutski. Dick Advocaat has plenty of experience on the sidelines too and this, along with the class and youthful exuberance of Dzagoev should be enough to see them progress.

Sport Report Verdict: Group runner-up

Categories: Football

Chelsea seal first ever European Cup triumph in dramatic penalty shootout

May 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea (AET). Chelsea win 4-3 on penalties.

Chelsea tonight won the club’s first European Cup, defeating Bayern Munich 4-3 on penalties after the two teams could not be separated during 120 minutes of football at the Allianz Arena.

Going into the game, the big questions revolved around team selection as both sides were affected by suspensions to key players. Chelsea were missing influential captain John Terry, his fellow defender Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and the hero from the Nou Camp, Ramires. Bayern were also affected by suspensions to defenders as Holger Badstuber and David Alaba were forced to miss out as a result of yellow cards picked up in Madrid. They were also made to do without midfielder Luiz Gustavo.

Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo sprung a surprise by handing 22 year old Ryan Bertrand his Champions League debut in the unfamiliar position of left wing as he looked to nullify the threat of Bayern’s right wing maestro, Arjen Robben. Bayern’s line-up was more predictable, although Jupp Heynckes’s decision to go with an out-of-position Anatoliy Tymoschuk at the heart of a back four instead of Daniel van Buyten raised a few eyebrows. Once the game got underway, this decision looked like a complete irrelevance as Bayern dominated a Chelsea side that offered very little in the way of an attacking threat.

The German side immediately got on the front foot and it was obvious from the outset that they had identified Jose Bosingwa as a weakness. Bastian Schweinsteiger and co. looked to find French winger Franck Ribery at every opportunity to give him the chance to run at the Portuguese fullback. Schweinsteiger had the first shot of the game in the fourth minute but it was deflected behind for a corner that came to nothing, before Toni Kroos screwed a shot wide a minute later. Bayern’s tactic of getting the ball wide was working well as Robben and Ribery caused problems almost at will. The two, who are barely on speaking terms, combined well eight minutes in when the Dutchman sprung the offside trap and latched onto Ribery’s clever through ball. Robben cut inside on to his favourite left foot but ballooned his shot horribly over the bar.

Robben, Ribery and Mario Gomez were constantly interchanging positions and Chelsea’s defence was struggling to come to terms with it. 13 minutes in Ribery whipped in an early cross but Gomez was unable to find the target, something that would become a feature of the night.

Bayern had dominated the first 15 minutes and although Chelsea were maintaining a good defensive shape, the early signs were worrying. Chelsea’s lack of attacking threat meant that Bayern fullbacks Philipp Lahm and Diego Contento could bomb forward at will and support the duo nicknamed ‘Robbery’ by the German tabloid press. Bayern continued to turn the screw with Gomez trying to turn in the box when shooting first time would have been a better option and Robben having a shot low to left just about kept out by Petr Cech.

After 25 minutes, Chelsea had registered zero attempts on goal and had only enjoyed 36% possession; the pattern of the game was well set. Bayern went close ten minutes before half-time when Thomas Müller met a Contento cross with a sweetly struck volley that flew just wide of Petr Cech’s right hand post, but two minutes later, Chelsea finally tested Manuel Neuer as Salomon Kalou fizzed in a low shot at the near post. Chelsea were starting to find their feet in the game, with Gary Cahill beginning to carry the ball out of defence and launch attacks. However, three minutes before halftime they could, and probably should, have found themselves one nil down. A clever dummy by Müller saw the ball arrive at the feet of Gomez 13 yards out but the German striker leaned back and blazed what was a good chance over the bar.

Shortly after, the Portuguese referee blew for halftime, signalling the end of a period that the Germans had dominated, but in which they had failed to make their superiority count. Would they rue their missed chances?

The second half began much as the first had ended; with Bayern pushing forward in search of a goal. Toni Kroos had a shot deflected behind by David Luiz before Bayern carved Chelsea open and Franck Ribery scored. Luckily for the English side, he was offside and so the goal was correctly ruled out. Nonetheless, Di Matteo would have been worried by the ease with which Müller was able to streak up the right flank and pick out a wide open Robben on the edge of the 18 yard box. Chelsea continued to defend manfully with Ashley Cole blocking a goal-bound effort from Robben before Luiz threw his body in the way of a Kroos strike. Bayern were still dominant but with just 20 minutes left, the score remained 0-0.

It was not until the 72nd minute that the Londoners launched their first attack of the second half. Bosingwa picked up the ball on the right wing and swung in a good-looking cross, but with the peripheral Didier Drogba lurking at the back post, Neuer came and claimed the ball with a safe pair of hands. Just a minute later, Di Matteo made the first substitution of the final when he brought on Florent Malouda to replace the debutant, Bertrand. Immediately after the change, Chelsea had a sniff of goal as Neuer flapped at a cross. The ball fell to Drogba but the Ivorian failed to make anything like clean contact and the ball tamely bounced in to the grateful arms of a relieved Neuer. As the game neared the end of normal time, Bayern continued to pile on the pressure, with Thomas Müller dragging a poor effort wide from 15 yards, before heading straight at Cech from a Robben cross.

 

Chelsea beat Bayern in their own back yard to win the club’s first ever European Cup (This image is the property of Getty Images)

The German midfielder had better luck eight minutes from time as Toni Kroos whipped in a cross from the left. Müller lost Ashley Cole at the far post and met the ball with a header in to the ground. The ball bounced up and despite Cech’s best efforts found the roof of the net.

Almost immediately, Heynckes looked to protect the lead by withdrawing the goal scorer for Daniel van Buyten. It proved to be a move that backfired as Fernando Torres, who had come on in the aftermath of Bayern’s goal, won a corner that Juan Mata put on Drogba’s head. The 34 year old made no mistake and powered a header goalwards. Neuer got a hand to it but it was simply too powerful. Chelsea, out of nowhere, had equalised two minutes from the end. All of a sudden it was game on. A scrappy few minutes, characterised by great nerves, were played out before the game entered extra-time.

Chelsea started on the front foot as Torres surged in to the box. Jerome Boateng came across and the Spaniard hit the ground appealing for a penalty. The referee remained unmoved, but he did not two minutes later as Ribery ran in to the Chelsea penalty area. Drogba attempted an ill-advised tackle from behind and only succeeded in kicking the Frenchman’s calf. The referee pointed to the spot.

After a delay due to Ribery’s injury, former Chelsea man Arjen Robben placed the ball on the spot. It was not one of his finer efforts as he rather telegraphed his intention. Cech dived low to his left and held on to the shot and so the score remained tied at 1-1. The injured Ribery was replaced by Ivica Olic and the rest of the first period of extra-time was somewhat scrappy.

By the time the second period of extra-time began, it was obvious that nerves were jangling as the prospect of a penalty shootout loomed large. Three minutes in, Bayern came close to avoiding spot kicks as Olic cushioned a volley just inches wide. He may well have been trying to cushion it in to the path of van Buyten on the edge of the six yard box but for reasons known only to him, the Belgian had not continued his run.

The Germans continued to plug away but as had been the case all night, their delivery from set-pieces (of which they had many) and their finishing were poor. After 120 minutes of football, the teams were locked at 1-1 and so for the tenth time in history, the final was to be decided on penalties.

Bayern captain Philipp Lahm stepped up first and although Cech got a hand to it, it found the net to the keeper’s left. Juan Mata was first up for Chelsea but he could only drill it down the middle straight at Neuer. Advantage Bayern. Mario Gomez, who had been out of sorts all night, confidently fired home Bayern’s second before David Luiz did an impression of Julian Dicks to get Chelsea on the board. Bayern then gambled big by sending their goalkeeper to take one, but Neuer did not let them down sneaking it past an outstretched Cech. At this stage, Bayern looked odds on favourites. Chelsea’s regular penalty taker Frank Lampard was the next man up and he powerfully drove the ball in to the roof of the net and Chelsea were still very much in it.

Bayern had the opportunity to reach match point and the responsibility fell to Olic. However, the Croatian’s penalty was the ideal height for Cech to save to his left and Chelsea suddenly had the opportunity to level the scores. Ashley Cole made no mistake, firing a terrific left-footed penalty in to the inside netting to Neuer’s left. The pendulum had swung and the pressure was suddenly on the Germans.

Having missed earlier, Robben did not volunteer to take one of the five and so the man who had been the best player on the park for 120 minutes, Bastian Schweinsteiger, made the long walk from the halfway line. He paused during the run-up waiting for Cech to shift his weight one way or another. The Chelsea keeper did not move and so the German midfielder had to make a decision. He placed his kick to Cech’s right but he saw it strike the post and bounce back out. As they were in 2008, Chelsea were just one penalty away from Champions League glory. Fortunately for them, John Terry was in a polo shirt on the touchline and so Didier Drogba was the man charged with the task of winning it. He took a very short run up and coolly slotted it in to the bottom left-hand corner with Neuer diving the wrong way. Chelsea had finally found the Holy Grail and fulfilled Roman Abramovich’s dream of winning the European Cup.

Nobody can argue that Chelsea were deserved winners on night as they were outclassed by a Bayern Munich side who ultimately paid for their profligacy in front of goal, just as Barcelona and Napoli did before them. In fact, when one thinks back to Chelsea’s 3-1 deficit after the first leg in Italy, Lionel Messi’s missed penalty in the Nou Camp and Petr Cech’s penalty save from Arjen Robben tonight, one may just feel that it was meant to be for Chelsea. Whatever the case, they will not care one bit. They are the Champions of Europe and nobody can take that away from them.

Categories: Football