Saturday, 30 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Five (27th-28th June 2012)

Spain are spot on as Ronaldo is forced to pay the Penalty

The penalty shoot out. Often criticised as being cruel and an unfair way of deciding the outcome of a football match. A paradox of controlled random occurrences that more often than not prevents the better football team from success. Recently, Sepp Blatter suggested that there ought to be some better alternative to deciding games but aside from actually continuing extra time indefinitely, what could actually be more decisive than penalties? Stripping football to its most basic element - kicking a ball towards goal - is surely the best way of determining who the best team is. And of course, let's not forget the drama involved. The game is better for it.

Spain made it to their third successive tournament final by virtue of a shoot out as they defeated Portugal. It's safe to say that the penalties provided far more points of interest than the match itself which ended goalless after 120 minutes. The psychology of penalties is a curious thing. The act in itself is completely removed from the collaborative the 'team' and is one of the very rare examples in the game when it's outcome is solely down to 'the player' who is now out of his familiar comfort zone within the confines of his team. In contrast to the speed of thought and spontaneity required in a match situation, a penalty becomes more calculated as it allows the taker, and to an extent, the keeper, more time weigh up their options and to consider their move. Left or right? High or low? Power or placement? However, sometimes there might even be too much thinking involved.

And of course, one of the most beautiful things about penalties is that they require, with one rare exception, no real skill other than the ability to kick a ball.

The main talking point to emerge from this shoot out was the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't allowed/chose not to take one of Portugal's first four penalties. The reason for this is unknown but has caused no end of speculation. A lot of it based on the perhaps incorrect assumption that Ronaldo was somehow guaranteed to score. Given that Spain's first choice taker, the reliable Xabi Alonso saw his kick saved, absolutely nothing could be taken for granted.

Did he bottle it or was he gambling on the fifth penalty being the winner so he could hog the limelight? The latter view is one that many hold simply due to the fact Ronaldo's general aura would suggest he was confident of scoring whenever he would need to step up. It's safe to say that confidence is an absolute necessity when approaching the spot and ties into another theory was wasn't among the early takers. Perhaps Bento wanted to protect and alleviate the pressure on the supposedly less assured and less reliable players by making them take one earlier, saving his 'sure thing' til the end. Either way, it didn't pay off as misses by Joao Moutinho & Bruno Alves meant things didn't get that far. The former seeing his kick saved by Iker Casillas while the latter crashed his otherwise well hit shot off the underside of the cross bar. Only fractions stop us from lauding it as the superb, 'unsaveable' strike it was aspiring to be. It's the very fine margins like this that are all to often the difference between 'good' and 'bad' penalties.

Alves' kick provided another sub plot to this shoot out as he initially appeared to be set to take kick number 3 until he was stopped & replaced by Nani. You have to wonder if this had an effect on his eventual miss. The delay perhaps causing him to lose focus.

One player who remained focused was Sergio Ramos who delighted us with the aesthetically pleasing chipped penalty or 'Panenka' named after its first proponent. As a variation on the primal act of simply shooting, this is that 'rare exception' mentioned above and the closest a penalty can come to requiring any skill as it is designed merely designed to deceive the goalkeeper.

The win was ultimately sealed by Cesc Fabregas who sent his penalty beyond the despairing outstretched arm of Rui Patricio hitting the post before crossing the line to put Spain into the final. Mere centimetres to the left & it strikes the post & comes away, a few to the left & the keeper saves it. Those ever so fine margins once again come into play.

Despite failing to sparkle during the game and, in the view of many, throughout the tournament as a whole, Spain could now find themselves winning a third successive international competition and, if they haven't done so already, establish themselves as one of football's all time great sides. All they have to do is get the better of the only other team in these Championships they've played so far and failed to beat.

Super Mario's star power too much for Germany

To the shock of many, the Spain will go into Sunday's final, not to face Germany but, square off against Italy and the mercurial Mario Balotelli. The controversial striker made a late play for a staring role as one one the players of the tournament with an inspired performance that yeilded two ultimately decisive goals to oust the much fancied Germans and leave his country just one game from glory. His first goal came as a result of a fine header following some wonderful footwork from his strike partner Antonio Cassano who also provided the cross. 10 minutes before half time a wonderful ball from Riccardo Motolivo found Balotelli poised 25 yards from goal before unleashing a spectacular shot into the top corner that left Manuel Nauer rooted.

'Super' Mario has had something of an interesting 12 months. Last Summer on tour in the States with Manchester City he made the headlines for a very public falling out with his manager following a hilariously failed attempt to pirouette/back-heel a goal during a friendly. Just a few months later he scored a brace in City's now famous 6-1 win over crosstown rivals United in their own backyard. In January came the game against Spurs when he appeared to stamp on the head of Scott Parker, escaped immediate punishment and went on to score the winning goal from the penalty spot in the last minute. Then came more rumours of fallings out with his teammates before what can only be described as a counter-productive and reckless contribution to the crucial match against Arsenal that saw him see red. After it was suggested that Roberto Mancini had reached the end of his tether and was prepared to sell his fellow countryman, Mario somehow re-emerged to make telling contribution to City's dramatic final day league win by laying on the key pass for Sergio Aguero to score the all important winning goal against QPR that May afternoon.


Then came the Euros. A lacklustre first two games resulted in Balo being dropped for the final group game against Ireland. It was in this game that he managed to come on and score one of the goals of the tournament with an an innovated scissor kick that Irish defender John O'Shea STILL cant comprehend. However, rather than simply enjoying the moment, 'Mad' Mario instead provided us with one of the images of the competition as teammate Leonardo Bonucci had to physically prevent him from verbally abusing manger Cesare Prandelli for daring to leave him out of the starting line up. Balotelli showed more glimpses of brilliance against England and while he was unfortunate not to convert in the match, he did score in the subsequent penalty shootout to help set up the showdown with Germany.

Balotelli's life and career are both subject to considerable attention. He is one of football's few 'characters' and even before moving to England, made almost as many headlines off the pitch as he had on it. Although as you can see, even without the stories of fireworks in his bathroom or driving into women's prisons, his football is still enough to keep you interested. Capable of both genius and misadventure, the man Jose Mourinho once described as 'unmanageable' invokes a fascination not seen on these shores since a previous Manchester based striker in Eric Cantona – another player whose detrimental 'mad' moments could be quite quickly forgiven as moments of inspiration were often not far away.

The next chapter of Balotelli story, one way or another, will be written on Sunday as Spain and Italy renew acquaintances.

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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Four (21st-24th June 2012)

Parts one, two and three

Cristiano sends away blank Czechs

Cristiano Ronaldo
took centre stage once again as Portgual took their place in the semi finals with a 1-0 win over a feeble Czech Republic side. After an opening day pasting at the hands of Russia, Czech manager Michal Bilek understandably decided to err of the side of caution and in subsequent games, his team have been content to sit back and attempt to hit the opposition on the counter. Up until this point, it has largely been successful. However, they took the extreme against Portugal and didn't make any great attempt to utilise the abovementioned counter attacking strategy that has seen them make it this far. The previously adventurous wide men Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar were virtually spectators. They seemed determined to try and simply contain for the duration and hopefully take their chance with a penalty shoot out. It is easy to knock this game plan but history is littered with examples of its success. But alas, while it may have worked for sides in the past, you don't need me to tell you how risky it is a gameplan. Particularly when you are up against one of the two current best players in the world.

Despite the Czechs approach, Portugal still managed to carve them open with somewhat embarrassing ease. Ronaldo was in irresistible form despite his personal duel with the frame of the goal. The speed of his feet and intelligent movement meant that the Czech defence were unable to get near him despite attempts to double or sometimes triple mark him. Yet given all the attention on what he does with the ball, his goal actually came from a superb diving header which only served to both emphasise and justify the plaudits he receives when people identify him as the most complete player in world football. It was heartening to see his celebrated by the watching Eusabio and Luis Figo. The two Portuguese greats of years past shared an embrace as the heir to their throne put Portugal into the semi final. While they will eternally remain legends in their own right, Ronaldo will be looking to do what both men were unable to in their otherwise illustrious respective careers by actually delivering a senior international trophy for his country.

While Ronaldo was once again the star, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they are a one man team. Without the supporting cast around him to play in a way that allows him to flourish, there's no way they would still be in the competition. Joao Moutinho has been magnificent in his midfield role. Disciplined when he needs to be, but also a creative outlet as he roams in behind the forward line. It was his cross from the right that led to the decisive goal. One area of concern would be the defence. Pepe and Bruno Alves have rarely looked assured as a centre back pairing and the fact that this was their first clean sheet of the competition is more to with the Czechs lack of ambition than any kind of solid defence display.

They face now face Spain for a place in the final and while they go in as underdogs, it's certainly worth repeating that Ronaldo's form and the confidence generated throughout the rest of the team could certainly prove to be a catalyst for a potential upset.

Greece still in Euro woe after being unable to accept Germany's change

Greece v Germany turned out to be the mismatch every preview promised it would be. The Germans ruthless dumped the Greece out of the Euros much like... [nope. Not going there. Sticking to football.] The 4-2 scoreline flattered a Greek team that were overwhelmed from the first whistle. Joachim Loew elected to rest his entire first choice forward line of Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Luckas Podolski, replacing them with the young and hungry Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle who supported the evergreen Miroslav Klose. Loew may well have presented himself with the most welcome of selection headaches as the understudies came in and performed as admirably as those were selected in favour of. Schurrle had a goal disallowed within three minutes, Klose powered in a header to put Germany 3-1 ahead and Reus hammered in an empathic volley to make it 4-1. Selections vindicated.

Equally as good as the front three was the midfield trio of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Ozil and Schweinsteiger were as good as could be expected facing a far inferior side – weaving in and out, creating openings and rarely looking troubled by a Greek midfield that was so out of it's depth they almost drowned. Special praise is reserved for Khedira who capped off a fine performance with arguably the goal of the game; a vicious volley into the roof of the net from a Jerome Boateng cross. I say 'arguably' as the game was full of great goals. There are few strikers who could have scored the kind of goal left back Philip Lahm did to open the scoring while if most teams had produced the wonderful sweeping move that led to Georgious Samaras' equaliser for Greece, we'd be lauding it as one of the great team goals of the competition. Then, of course, there was Rues' rocket.

While the result and arguably the scoreline were no surprise, the evident strength in depth throughout the German squad was something that would have probably surprised many. The seamless way in which the newer players were able to integrate so easily is both impressive and somewhat scary. Weaknesses, if any exist, a few and far between and it is for this reason many people now view Loew's team as favourites for the competition rather than Spain.

Spain reign once again in Ukraine despite accusations of being mundane.

Speaking of whom, in a continuing theme from the last blog post, it now seems to have become fashionable or the 'in thing' to criticise and label them as boring. This is in part due to one of the most dire games in the competition to date as they did away with an unambitious France team without really breaking a sweat. For those that managed to stay awake, what you would have seen was a simple procession of Spain doing what they do best in retaining possession. Aside from the fantastic run and cross by Jordi Alba for Xabi Alonso headed opening goal and the quick feet of Pedro to draw a last minute foul and penalty (which Alonso duly dispatched) there was literally nothing of note to report from the match.

The onus was on France to try and deny them the time and space to pass the ball among themselves at will – something their ultra-defensive approach combined with a disgraceful lack of effort didn't seem to allow them to do. Laurent Blanc decided to field not just one, but two right backs – Debuchy and Reveilleire. Yet Spain's marauding Jordi Alba was able to get away from both before hanging a ball over to Alonso, a supposed holding midfielder, who was unmarked in the box, to open the scoring.

On very few occasions was there a French player even willing to try and press the Spanish pass masters. This often meant that the likes of Karim Benzema and Frank Ribery – both of whom have had a poor tournament after so much hope and expectation – found themselves dropping so deep they were unable to create anything the few times they actually managed to find themselves in possession of the ball. France barely played like a team that had come into the tournament on a 21 game unbeaten run and with more talk of arguments and bickering among the squad, it's little surprise they'll heading home with their tails between their legs once more. Lessons of the last World Cup still go unlearned.

As I say, it is now fashionable to criticise the Spanish. The ability to retain possession seemingly now does not win over fans. I wonder if these same fans simply expect Spain to just needlessly give the ball away to the opposition for the sake of 'entertainment'. While it admittedly didn't provide for any sort of spectacle, there was little wrong with what they did. I know that the current World and European Champions don't need me to defend them but if France didn't come to play, then why should Spain? In tournament football, three games in a week, it makes perfect for Spain to stay in second gear, maintain a slower tempo and get the required result. We'd all like to see them take the handbrake off but from a purely strategic and tactical point of view, Vincente Del Bosque will be rightly satisfied to see his side not overly exert themselves unnecessarily. As a result, they will probably be the freshest of all four teams going into the semi finals.

Andrea Pirl's on the misery for England

And so the first 0-0 of the competition, came, almost unsurprisingly, between Italy and England. In a game lacking goals, possession was once again the talking point. Italy had it, England couldn't seem to keep it. The same old English failings reared their head once more, primarily the belief that grit, determination, resilience and at times, desperate defending make up for a complete lack of skill, creativity and basic technical ability. Scott Parker and James Milner running themselves into the ground is not really a sound approach for trying to win football matches let alone major international tournaments. It is worth considering however that recently appointed Roy Hodgson has only really been able to play the hand he's been dealt. It's understandable that with such little pre tournament preparation he would simply take a more disciplined, organised, risk free approach especially given the players, and their limitations, at his disposal. That said, there's no excusing the players for their inability to either keep, or do something worthwhile when fleetingly actually being in possession.

Italy on the other hand seemed some way more accomplished on the ball. While everyone is rightly praising yet another Andrea Pirlo masterclass, Riccardo Montolivo playing in a more advanced role also put in an eye-catching display using the ball well and always looking to make something happen in the final third.

Stats are not always an honest reflection of what happens in a game but the fact that the top eight players who attempted the most passes in the game were all Italian gives an impression of how dominant the Azzuri were with the ball. The gulf in class was all too obvious even if the scoreboard didn't reflect it. It was only due to some truly abominable finishing by the Italians that England weren't on the receiving end of a truly humiliating scoreline. But then again, might that have been preferable to yet more penalty heartache?

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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Three (16th-19th June 2012)


Greece Lightening ruins Russia's Summer Nights

Once again Greece have gone and left us all scratching our heads and simply asking 'how?' as they somehow managed to pull off an unlikely win and navigate their way into the last eight following a smash and grab win over a much fancied Russian outfit. After two impressive performances leading into the final group game, it was very much expected that the Russians wouldn't face much of a challenge from the Greeks and see themselves safely through. Even after the match had begun there was little indication to expect anything else. Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev seemed to have picked up where they left off previously and with an inspired Yuri Zhirkov bombing on, they forced their opponents further and further into retreat. A goal seemed inevitable and eventually it came - only not from Russia. A lapse in concentration at the end of the first half from the abovementioned Zhirkov allowed one of football's most unlikely legends to pounce on an extremely rare Greek chance and score the decisive goal to seal the fate of Dick Advocat's side.

They may have given the world Maths, Philosophy and some kick-ass cuisine but let's be honest, history is hardly awash with any particularly brilliant Greek footballers down the years. Despite being a key part of the success of 2004, the name Nikos Dabizas still prompts a snigger among fans over here who saw him ply his trade for firstly Newcastle then Leicester. Newly crowned champions of England Manchester City still consider Georgios Samaras to be the punchline of an awful joke reminding them of the years before Sheik Mansour's millions. Step forward Captain Giorgous Karagounis. Not exactly among the all-time football greats but if you are looking for a true Greek hero, he's your man. After famously scoring the first goal of the 2004 run to the final in Portugal, now, in what could well be his last ever match, he not only equalled the record number of appearances by a Greek international but also scored a goal that momentarily lifted an entire nation in a time of crisis. Of course, football isn't going to solve any of the country's problems but as the man himself said post match, the win will have put a rare smile on the faces of his countrymen and women.

Nothing encapsulated his passion more than when he was wrongly booked for diving in the second half. Choosing not to hide his indignation, Karagounis stormed around the pitch enraged, fired up and snarling until manager Fernando Santos saw fit to substitute him. The yellow card unfortunately means he misses the Quarter final against Germany when many expect a Greek defeat. At 35, it's highly unlikely we'll ever see the Panathinaikos legend represent his country again, sadly.

Bouncing Czechs prevents Pole dancing into Quarters

Joining them in the last eight will be the Czechs who beat and eliminated Poland thanks to Petr Jiracek's second goal in as many games. Unimpressive thus far and with a squad not nearly as good as those that reached the final and semis in 1996 and 2004 respectively, progression beyond the first round is something of surprise. There's nothing to take from the group games to suggest they will do much against better sides and while stranger things have happened, I very much doubt there will be any partying in Prague beyond this Thursday's encounter with Portugal. Far from an awful side – Tomas Hubschman in midfield and the exciting, direct Vaclav Pilar cutting in from wide areas have looked the most impressive – the counter attack seems to be their only strategy but one that you would expect the Portuguese, as well as others, to be able to combat.

It was disappointing to see the hosts exit the tournament at such an early stage but once again, it was their finishing that ultimately let them down. A bright start saw the Poles create a number of chances but found more joy hitting the side netting (three times) than troubling the previously erratic Petr Cech. I wonder if there's a Polish translation for the football cliché “goals win games” because whoever replaces outgoing manager Franciszek Smuda would do well to relay that to Robert Lewandowski et al ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.


Bratwusrt > Bacon

Germany ended the first round as the only team with maximum points from their group games after beating a resolute Denmark side thanks to goals from Lukas Podolski and substitute Lars Bender. After the new Arsenal signing had given the Germans the lead, an equaliser came after a clever corner routine saw Niklas Bendtner pulling away from the danger area, drift away from the goal and win a header that set up Martin Krone-Dehli who nodded home from close range. Seemingly content with the draw they believed would be enough to progress, Denmark seemed content to contain Germany when the scores were level. However, as it became evident they required a victory, they were forced to open up and like a great white shark, the Germans took full advantage to send the Danes home. An unfortunate outcome given that their two better performances, in this match and previously against Portugal, have resulted in defeats following their somewhat fortunate win over a wasteful Dutch side.

Portugal Ron their way after Dutch vans break down

Speaking of whom, Bert van Marwijik's misfits went home with their tails between their legs following a 2-1 defeat to Portugal – their third successive defeat and grand total of nil points in the group. To say their early exit was unexpected would be an understatement. I know I'm not alone in wondering how a team packed full of talent went out without putting up any kind of fight. Reports of divisions in the squad were unsurprising in the sense that we've seen it all before from this team down the years yet also surprising as one would think they would have learned some sort of lesson by now. Evidently not.

Despite taking the lead through a fantastic Rafael van Der Vaart effort after Arjen Robben finally decide to reap the benefits of acknowledging that he had teammates, the Dutch failed to capitalise. Going a goal down actually galvanised Portugal and the story of the match was as much about their resurgence than Holland's failings.

Van Marwijk elected to leave out Mark van Bommell for the abovementioned van Der Vaart. While his decision was vindicated as the Spurs man scored, the more attack minded approach left Nigel de Jong horribly exposed in the middle of the park. This allowed the Portugal midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles to have a field day, distributing the ball far too often to the wide men Nani and the star of the show Cristiano Ronaldo who finally decided to show up on the big stage for his country. The Real Madrid man scored the two key goals and put in the kind of performance the Madridistas at the Santiago Bernabeu are used to seeing on a regular basis.

After justified criticisms of his two previous matches, Ronaldo set out to prove a point by tormenting Holland right back Gregory van der Weil with embarrassing regularity. After another outrageous season in Spain – 60 goals in 55 games – many will be suggesting that this kind of display is long overdue. Not many people fancied Portugal before the competition begun but if their talisman can continue in the same vain, there aren't many, if any, defences left that will be able to stop him. Dark horses? Maybe.


Jesus saves as Spain avoid paying the Bil

Spain predictably negotiated their way into the last eight following a narrow victory over a hard working Croatia side who might count themselves somewhat unlucky to be going home from the competition early. While the Ibreians, as expected, controlled possession, dictated the play and never found themselves on the backfoot for any prolonged period of time, the Croats certainly battled hard to keep them at bay with a committed and disciplined defensive display that restricted the current World and European champions from creating many clear cut openings. Slavan Bilic reverted to 4-2-3-1 with Ivan Rakitic and Ognjen Vukojevic tasked with, and succeeding in denying the narrow Spanish creative hub of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva any space to weave their creative patterns for an ultimately lonesome Fernando Torres up front. The extra defensive midfielder for Croatia freed up their own creative influence in Luka Modric who, for the fleeting touches he was allowed, had an excellent game.

In fact, the best chance of the match came as result of a rare foray by Modric who found himself in space on the right side of the penalty area and played an exquisite outside foot cross to Rakitic who could only head straight at Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal - A chance they would come to rue as Jesus Navas proved to be the Spanish Messiah after coming off the bench to score the all important winner. Croatia were crucified with just 5 minutes left on the clock. 

Given the initial resilience of the opposition, Spain needed to remain patient before finding their breakthrough. After withdrawing the ineffectual Torres and reverting to the now famous 'false 9' formation, it was his replacement Cesc Fabregas who saw fit to outdo Modric's sublime earlier pass with an even more outrageous dink to Iniesta who squared for Navas to smash home. A truly special team goal worthy of winning any game, albeit with a slight hint of offside.

In some quarters I've seen Spain inexplicably criticised for not doing more with their possession and even been described as boring! But I guess this is what happens when stupid people are given nice things. Presented with a team who have earned the right to ranked up alongside the great Brazil and Dutch sides of a generation ago, people still have cause to complain. Yes, for their dominance they could probably create more and maybe score more goals but not beating every team by four or five is hardly a reason to slate a team that, in terms of pure aesthetically pleasing football, cannot be touched.

I guess all the critics of Spain derive more joy from watching Ireland.

Ireland Given a lesson as Super Mario makes A-zure of Italian qualification

To be fair, they weren't as bad in their 2-0 defeat against Italy as they were in their opening two matches and despite the Italians still being the better side, the Irish gave a better account of themselves than we had seen previously. In fact, the most disappointing player on the team was the usually reliable Shay Given. Having suffered something of a nightmare against Croatia, Given could not be faulted for any of the goals against a rampant Spain after getting no help from his defence. However, the long serving keeper was guilty of not one, not two but three errors that led to Italy's first goal. Firstly, Charging out hastily to allow Antonio Di Natalie to go round him and get a shot on goal. Secondly, spilling a routine catch from Claudio Marchiso in the follow up to concede a corner and finally, from said corner, flailing at Antonio Cassano's header that eventually gave the Azzuri the lead.

These mistakes were totally uncharacteristic of a goalkeeper of Given's usual quality. There have been suggestions in some quarters that he wasn't 100% fit coming into the tournament which may well explain his hapless displays or this could just be a convenient excuse for the fact it would appear that time is finally catching up on him. Aston Villa and Paul Lambert will be hoping it's the former ahead of the new campaign.

If Given was at fault for the first, it would be harsh to attribute any blame to him for the second as Mario Balotelli, relegated to the bench for the game, set out to prove a point after being introduced by scoring an incredible, powerful scissor kick volley late on. What followed were comical scenes as Mad Mario then attempted to direct a second volley – this time one of abuse – at his manager Cesare Prandelli for having temerity to leave him on the bench. Only Leonardo Bonucci's intervention prevented any confrontation as he has to literally physically gag his countryman. Only Balotelli, eh?

At the time, it was probably goal of the tournament. However, it was to be bettered 24 hours later...


Ibracadabra! Zlatan magic gives France Les Bleus

What is it with controversial strikers and stunning volleys? Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked at his old pal Mario's strike against Ireland and decided he would join the party with a stunner against France to set Sweden on their way to a surprise 2-0 win. Sebastian Larsson dinked a cross to the edge of the 18 yard box where Ibrahimovic was poised like a coiled spring before exploding with one of the most technically brilliant scissor kicks you are ever likely to see. The ball whistled it's way beyond a despairing Hugo Lloris to give Sweden a second half lead. The spectacular nature of the goal served as a massive middle finger to the critics who seem to draw their conclusions about him without ever really seeing him play. Having just completed his most prolific season at Milan with 34 goals in 43 appearances, and having scored 2 in 3 for a poor Sweden side in this competition, feel free tell anybody who thinks he's “shit” that maybe they out to start watching him a bit more closely.

Ordinarily, Man of the Match Larsson's own volley to make it 2-0 would have won more plaudits but for Zlatan's majestic strike. The result meant Sweden do not go home empty handed but more crucially, a toothless France team now finish second in the group and face Spain in the quarter finals where they cannot afford another limp performance or else it will be au revoir for Laurent Blanc's team.

Fortunate England avoid pain in Ukraine as they tech their chance

France's defeat means that England somehow win Group D following a rather unconvincing 1-0 victory over hosts Ukraine. The returning Wayne Rooney scored from all of 3cm from a Steven Gerrard cross (again) at the start of the second half in a match where the result certainly masks a lot of what was, at times, incredibly tedious and unenjoyable to watch. The overriding belief is that England defended well but if the 16 shots on goal Ukraine when allowed is an example of 'good' defending, I’m sure I wont be the only one concerned when England add 'bad' defending to their inability to retain any meaningful possession.

The defeat saw the home side eliminated in a game where they looked far more competent on the ball and more technically superior on the ball than their supposedly more illustrious opponents. Andriy Yarmolenko proved something a thorn in England's side and with a bit more experience might have actually punished Roy Hodgson's men. The hosts may well have actually taken something from the game when Marko Devic's deflected was hooked away from goal by a retreating John Terry – the only problem was that the ball had already crossed the line but this minor incident happened to be missed by the referee, the linesman and the extra official standing on the goal line tasked with actually making sure mistakes like this don't get missed.

In this country, we have convinced ourselves that because of the great injustice against Germany two years ago, this incident is some kind of...erm.... payback? And of course, the controversy has led to the reopening of the tiresome debate regarding goalline technology. Sepp Blatter has now called it a “necessity” ignoring the fact that any mooted technology that would have rightly given the goal wouldn't have picked up on the fact that Artem Milevskiy was actually in an offside position during the build up to the chance.

What next? 'Offside technology'? If that's the case then you could easily present a case for 'shirt-pulling' technology, 'incorrectly awarded goal-kick technology' and 'corner kick not taken exactly on the curve of the quadrant technology'. Of all the football matches that take place all over the world every single waking hour of the day, how often do these contentious goal line incidents actually occur? I would guess at less than 0.001% if that so why waste time with the addition of machines, censors and cameras messing around with the very essence of the game? Where will it end?

Referees of the future?

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Two (12th-15th June 2012)


Czech-ing In!

The second round of games kicked off in Group A with the Czech Republic going some way to right the wrongs of their opening day hammering at the hands of Russia. Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar's early strikes allowed them to relax and see out a victory without needing to get out of second gear. The only scare came when a horrific Petr Cech error allowed Fanis Gekas to give the Greeks something of a lifeline at the start of the second half. Again, it is baffling to see one of the best goalkeepers of a generation perform so badly when representing his country. His butter-fingery here was reminiscent of the cross he mishandled four years ago against Turkey which ultimately led to the Czechs being eliminated at the group stages. On the face of it, this faux pas does not look as costly but when goal difference could prove so decisive in these tight groups, the spill may not look too clever come Sunday morning.

On a similar note, it was curious to see the Czezhs happy to settle for the narrow win rather than push on for more goals. The ease with which they carved open the Greek defence at the start of the game suggested they could have easily racked up a far more handsome scoreline. The two quick-fire goals they scored in the opening six minutes should have been something of a catalyst or springboard to cancel out the deficit suffered in that Russia game. Instead,Tomas Hubschman's through ball for the opener and the adventurous overlap by Theodor Gebre Selassie to set up the killer second proved only to be fleeting examples of a quick, direct style that surely would have been more fruitful had they been brave enough to continue it throughout the match.

Greece's defending for the opening two goals was atrocious. One could almost suspect that they were fed up of all the unfair criticism they received for the rigid, solid, defensive approach that made them a success four years ago and decided to abandon any sense of discipline in an attempt to shed themselves of that perceived negative tag. In fairness, they could well have found their way back into the game after a strong second half display. A striker younger than Giorgos Karagounis or one better than Georgios Samaras might have yeilded greater rewards in advanced positions.

The bum's Russ

Russia and Poland renewed pleasantries both on and off the pitch in the later game on Tuesday. The violent scenes of both sets off fans kicking seven bells of shit all over the streets of Warsaw pre and post match will turn out to be some of the lasting images of the tournament. It would be easy to write off the ruckus purely as hooliganism but given the long, complex political history between these two nations, the strength of feeling on both sides is almost understandable. Whether that condones what we saw is obviously open to debate. On the pitch, Poland once again played with the kind of attacking endeavour that should have seen them do better against Greece last week.

Once again, however, a lack of cutting edge in the final third meant they had to be content with a 1-1 draw. The Russians were once again looking to exploit the openness of their opponents with some slick Andrei Arshavin inspired counter attacking. However, with an out of sorts Aleksandr Kerzhakov leading the line and Poland showing far more resistance than the Czechs, they were always far less likely to repeat the emphatic scoreline from the opening day. In fact, it needed an Arshavin set piece to be glanced in by Alan Dzagoev to give them the lead. The CSKA Moscow hotshot has three goals in two games so far and with his current contract reportedly expiring at the end of the calender year, seems to be using the competition to showcase his talents to any potential suitors. Already, Arsenal are rumoured to be interested.

Poland's equaliser came through a fantastic left footed strike by the unpronounceable Jakub Blaszczykowski. A true 'captain's goal' which lifted an entire nation and is undoubtedly one of the goals of the tournament so far. If, for whatever reason, you haven't seen it yet, it's certainly worth a look.


Bendt Double

If Blaszczykowski's rocket was goal of the tournament so far, then match of the tournament has to be the five-goal thriller between Denmark and Portugal in group B. After many a less than enthusiastic appraisal of their conservative gameplan to stifle the Germans last weekend, Portugal set out to remind the world that they still very much adhere to their attack-minded philosophy of years gone by. After a Pepe header from a corner gave them a deserved lead, Helder Postiga, a striker who struggled to find his feet during a miserable spell for Tottenham, swept in a superb second from a continuously frustrating, but sometimes incisive, Nani cross.

Another striker who has failed to set North London alight is Arsenal's wantaway striker Niklas Bendtner who pulled one back before half time before scoring what many thought to be the goal that salvaged a draw and crucial fourth group point for the Danes with 10 minutes to go. Bendtner's perception as something of a misfit in Arsenal colours is arguably down to Arsene Wenger's insistence down the years to try and play him as some sort of fleet-footed silky skilled playmaker type forward when it in fact obvious that his best position is as a centre forward target man – a position in which he thrives for his country for whom he has now scored 20 goals. Astonishingly, six of these have now been scored against Portugal. For years we have been bored to tears by everyone bemoaning Arsenal's lack of 'Plan B'. In theory, Plan B could be 'Plan Bendtner' if Wenger could be flexible enough to make him the focal point of their attack in certain situations and actually instruct his players to cross that ball properly.

It might be worth mentioning that Bendtner landed himself in hot water with UEFA by celebrating one of his goals by revealing his 'Paddy Power' sponsored underpants. A stunt well worth doing given the fact you expect the gambling firm to pay him more than enough to cover whatever meaningless fine the authorities hand down.

But I digress, Bendtner's heroics ultimately proved to be futile as Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela slammed home a brilliant goal three minutes from time to put Portugal in a fantastic position for qualification. Cue: delirium.

However, one Portuguese who may have been more relieved than ecstatic at the dramatic late win is golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo who once again somehow flattered to deceive on the international stage. During another typically unremarkable performance, Ronaldo was almost guilty of costing his team the points when at 2-1 up and presented with the kind of one-on-one chance he would ordinarily be able to score in his sleep, he put embarrassingly wide of the post. Moments later, the Danes scored their would-be equaliser.

Instead of wasting his time sniping, unprovoked, at Lionel Messi, Ronaldo will do well to start raising his performance levels for his country lest he wants to be compared to a certain Mr. Arjen Robben.

Dutch down to last life in Super Mario's World

Speaking of whom, another lacklustre showing in the orange of his native Netherlands in their 2-1 defeat against Germany means he will be facing Ronaldo in a must-win showdown on Sunday. The two men who lit up this year's Champions League semi final with their respective clubs and will now do battle for the unwanted crown of the most selfish under-performer in the tournament.

Robben's Dutch team failed to put up anything resembling a fight in their match against the old enemy and came away with exactly what they deserved; nothing. Whereas they were creating but missing chances against Denmark, the toothless nature of the Holland attack this time around meant that Germany were content to contain and keep then at arms length for much of the game. The Germans were predictably organised and used their possession both intelligently and patiently to create openings – two of which fell to much maligned Mario Gomez who didn't require much of an invitation to do what he does with curious regularity; score. Twice.

Holland improved massively after the restart but a disciplined German side prevented them creating many clear cut openings. It was only a fine long range effort by Robin van Persie that was able to finally penetrate their rivals' back line in the end but it wasn't enough and the Dutch are now on the brink of elimination.


Moderate  performance enough for Croatia

Italy versus Croatia was your archetypal 'game of two halves' where one side controlled the first half an the other the second resulting in a 1-1 draw that neither could really argue with. 

The Italians were the better side in the opening 45 playing with an attacking intent not usually associated with Azzuri teams of the past. The bold deployment of both Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli for the second game running caused the Croatian defence a number of problems with the Man City striker in particular looking very much in the mood.  Unfortunately, neither man seemed capable of breaking the deadlock for the Italians and it was left to the evergreen Andrea Pirlo to break the deadlock with a trademark free kick which outfoxed a flailing Stipe Pletikosa in the Croatia goal.

The main narrative from the game was the clash of the creative midfielders and provided an opportunity to compare and contrast the above mentioned Pirlo with the Croat's own pivot Luka Modric. It's safe to say that Pirlo won this duel with an impressive first half shift where he seemed to be at the heart of everything good this expansive Italy side were creating. It was only in the second half when Italy sat back that Modric was allowed to come into the game. However, the diminutive playmaker's underwhelming performance was a continuation of his last six months in a Spurs shirt where his loss of form coincided with the team's slump. Of course, other factors came into play but you had to think if Modric had been playing to his usual high standards, Tottenham may well have hung on to third place, qualified for the Champions League and Harry Redknapp may still be in gainful employment today. Who knows? 

Mario Mandzukic's equaliser came from a defensive lapse by Georgio Chiellini but it was no less than Croatia deserved after finally finding thier feet in the match. As predicted right here, Croatia could well find themselves progressing to the quarter finals. All they have to do to make absolutely certain is beat Spain on Monday. Simple really...

Spanish fly and leave Irish to stew

And of course, one has to ask, who are Spain, really? I mean all they managed to do against Ireland was exercise their overwhelming dominance and play the kind of sublime passing football that makes one wonder if the two teams out there were even playing the same sport.  

In a way, the 4-0 victory actually taught us very little about the defending champions. A slight formation tweak saw Vincente Del Bosque do away with the strikerless formation used against Italy and give Fernando Torres the opportunity to redeem himself following his hapless cameo in that game. Torres didn't disappoint - scoring twice in the rout before making way for Cesc Fabregas who himself scored his second of the tournament after coming on. False 9 or real nine, it really made no difference as Ireland wouldn't have had a chance if Spain had only played with 9. 

Again, I'm baffled to the point of dismay that, realising thier limitations, there seemed to be no obvious game plan from Trappatoni's team. Whereas the Spanish seemed to know what pass to make three passes in advance, Ireland found them in a state of panic on the very few occasions they were able to retain possession for more than half a second. There also seemed to be no defensive cohesion or strategy to speak of. Evidenced by the frequency with which the like of Richard Dunne and co found themselves on the turf having been continuously turned inside out by scorer of the second David Silva among others. When you lack the personnel as Ireland so obviously do, there needs to at least be an attempt to prevent embarrassment.  

It's a testament to how awful Ireland were that the only positive about the match was the unrelenting noise generated by their supporters. But as Roy Keane so aptly pointed out in the ITV studios post match, there's no point in only being out there for a sing-song. 


France toast after getting better of UkRAIN

France showed their class as they coasted to victory over hosts Ukraine in an otherwise unremarkable game that was only really notable for the extreme weather conditions that interrupted and delayed the the game. Thunderstorms and lightening proved very, very frightening as players were withdrawn just minutes into the game before returning an hour later. France were dominant in the first half but were unable to find the breakthrough. Ukraine's defence were given such a run around they were merely seeing a silhouette’s of the men the they were supposed to be marking. The poor boys needing sparing from the monstrosity that was the France sustained attack.

It was only a matter of time before they finally scored through Jeremy Menez and the feeling amongst the partisan home supporters was that Menez just killed a man. The French fans found somebody to love and after Johan Cabaye added a second, they were probably doing to the Fandango. Another one bit the dust in Les Bleurs 23 game unbeaten run. At this point they were having such a good time, Laurent Blanc was asking his team to don't stop (me now) but they weren't able to add to the tally. The result leaves Ukraine under pressure to win their final game while the France will be thinking that similar performances and fighting to the end will also get them to say 'we are the champions' come July 1st.

England have Swede dreams despite nightmare performance

Football can be a strange game. Sometimes the worst matches can somehow be the best. The absence of quality can lead to great excitement. Such was the case when England took on Sweden. Poor passing, dodgy defending and questionable goalkeeping lent considerable weight to the view that 'bad' football can actually be more fun to watch than good football. I think it was the Italian (obviously) Gianni Brera who said that the perfect game would end 0-0. This was the polar opposite of that mantra. A match that was the blueprint of bad football has lit up the tournament. England secured a 3-2 victory by virtue of managing to be only the second worst team on the pitch.

'Star' performers on the day were the likes of Glen Johnson, Jonas Olsen, Johan Elmander and James Milner who showed that competency is actually not a requirement for a top level footballer. Andy Carroll put England ahead with a fine header from a Steven Gerrard cross before woeful defending allowed 107 year old[citation needed] defender Olaf Melberg to TWICE score to put the Swedes 2-1 up. Roy Hodgson then showed the managerial nous that his critics would do well to acknowledge by introducing a fresh, hungry Theo Walcott to the proceedings and was rewarded as the Arsenal man first scored and then provided the assist for Danny Welbeck's improvised finish. Although, Walcott's admission that he wrongly thought his long range effort to level the scores had taken a deflection is, to me, an admission that his shot was merely hit and hope and further confirms the lack of anything resembling finesse in this game.

Sweden now exit the tournament which is probably for the best given how poorly they've played in both games while somehow England are on the brink of the quarter finals. Last Monday England drew against France thanks to a rigid, resolute defensive display. It wasn't pretty but the major positive was that the team were difficult to break down. All of that went out of the window against Sweden and while it is easy to praise the resilience to come back from a losing position, performing that badly against a better team will simply add more numbers onto those years of hurt Ian Brodie so famously sang about back in 1996.

But but least no-one can accuse England of being boring now, right?

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Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part One (8th-11th June 2012)

From Pole Position to a near Greek Tragedy

Friday saw the Euros kick off with an entertaining game between two teams many believe, either rightly or wrongly, to be the two weakest in the competition. Even as hosts, I can't imagine that there was a lot of pre-tournament money being wagered on Poland even progressing from the group stage let alone winning the thing. As for Greece, I think it's safe to say that there is very little chance of a repeat of the heroics from 2004 when they shocked the world with their triumph in Portugal. The team now is a mere shadow of what it was eight years ago and even then they weren't really even that good; Merely smart enough to deploy a playing style that teams felt unable to combat.

A match full of incident ended in a 1-1 draw which was somehow satisfactory yet disappointing for both sides. The hosts were dominant in the first half and certainly should have had more to show for their efforts at half time than Robert Lewandowski's fine header which gave them the lead. Maybe it was the pressure of playing at home and all the expectation that comes with that but there seemed to be a lack of composure and conviction whenever Poland found themselves in advanced positions. Chance after chance went begging and there was a sense of inevitability about Dimitris Salpingidis' equaliser five minutes into the second half.

Poland had even been given something of a helping hand after some woeful refereeing by Roberto Martinez lookalike Carlos Velasco Carballo who sent off Greece's Sokratis Papastaphopoulos (thank you Google for the spelling!) for reasons still unknown to even those most clued up on the most laws of the game. The defender seemingly received his second yellow for the crime of being too close to Rafal Murawski as the Pole simply slipped over.

Regardless its validity, the dismissal should have inspired the hosts to use thier advantage to push on and win the game. Manager Franciszek Smuda will be frustrated they were unable to do so. Yet at the same time, there would have also been a sense of relief that they managed to escape with a draw after sub keeper Przemyslaw Tyton came on to save a feeble Giorgos Karagounis penalty after Wojciech Szczesny was also sent off for fouling goalscorer Salpingidis midway through the second half.

After being at fault for the opening goal as well, Szczesny seems to have carried his erratic form at the end of the season for Arsenal into tournament and it may actually be a relief for his countrymen that he sits out the next game.  

Czech-ing out
The second Group A game on Friday saw a rampant Russia hammer the Czech Republic with the kind of ease that suggest they could go some way to repeating, and possibly improving on their performance of four years ago when they reached the semi finals. The Czechs actually began the game the better of the two but were twice undone by deadly Russian counter attacks and found themselves two goals down within the opening half an hour. The highly rated Alan Dzagoev with the first and Roman Shirokov with the second. The Russians were inspired by Andrei Arshavin who put in the kind of performance that will have Arsenal fans scratching their heads and wondering why he hasn't been able to replicate anything at the Emirates over the past two years.

International football has recently been on the receiving end of a lot of, sometimes unfair criticism due to the fact teams have erred towards a more cautious approach, particularly in major tournaments. The idea that winning is less important than 'not losing' has led to a lot of tedious, unenjoyable encounters where teams are simply waiting to see if the opposition blink first. Not that there's anything wrong with that approach but thankfully for the neutral observer, none of this was evident here as the Czechs continued to play on the front foot in the second half despite the goal deficit. Vaclav Pilar pulled one back but in trying to chase the equaliser, they remained horribly exposed at the back. Dzagoev scored a impressive second before substitute Roman Pavlyuchenko riffled home a fourth to ice the cherry on a very impressive Russia cake. A PAVlova, perhaps...

Sticking with the theme of underperforming Premier League goalkeepers, many of us will be cursing the fact that Petr Cech didn't look this hapless during Chelsea's Champions League run this year.


Oranje Squashed

Holland were pre-tournament favourites in the eyes of many and on Saturday they took to the field in the fabled group of death to face Denmark. Somehow, the Dutch contrived to lose the game as Michael Krohn Dehli's first half strike was enough to give the Euro 92 champions an unexpected victory.

The goal was example of one of those typical footballing anomalies as it came from a very rare foray forward by the Danes in a match where they spent the majority of time attempting to stop wave after oncoming wave of Holland attack. It's not even fair to say that their win was achieved on the basis of a strong defensive performance. It wasn't. On another day, Denamrk would have been humiliated but on this occasion, inexplicable and unforgivable profligacy from the Dutch was their saving grace.

If Robin van Persie is to leave Arsenal this summer as is rumoured, he'd do well to retrieve his shooting boots from his locker at London Colney because that's the only place I could think he'd have left them on Saturday given that they clearly weren't on his feet. Ibrahim Afelly was not only unfortunate enough to share my first name but also my finishing ability but the biggest culprit of the the day was once again Arjen Robben. Against Denmark he displayed all the aspects of his game that have left both teammates and supporters continuously frustrated with a player capable of so much more. The insistence to repeatedly try to cut inside from the right wing onto his left foot, shoot and consequently miss was boring by the 15th time of asking and only served to highlight the two major criticisms of his game: selfishness and predictability in only ever using his stronger foot.

Cast your mind back to the 2010 World Cup final when he fluffed a great chance to win the game and the tournament in extra time as well as his penalty misses, not just against Chelsea in this year's Champions League final, but also a few week's prior against Dortmund in a crucial top of the table Bundesliga clash. For all his obvious talent, the all too frequent example's of 'spectacular failure' will be what separates him from the true modern greats of the game. Robben risks earning a reputation as something of a bottler. Here's hoping for his sake, he can raise his game for the now crucial game against the Germans.

Tactical Germ warfare

Speaking of whom, the highly fancied Germany successfully navigated their way through a potentially tricky game against Portugal. This game almost fell into the category of 'dull' overly-cautious described above but actually proved to be a rather intriguing battle of wits. Much maligned Mario Gomez headed the winner in the second half to put the Germans in the box seat in the group.

The win owed much to those cliched traits of patience, organisation and efficiency. However, it has to be said that some cliches exist for a reason. Portugal seemed content to try and sit deep in order to frustrate their opponents and for the most part, a midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, João Moutinho and Raul Meireles did well to stifle the creativity of Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger forcing the Germans to often look wide to Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski – neither of whom playing anything close to their best. The only goal came from a deflected cross 20 minutes from time. This owed as much to Germany's refusal to be frustrated as it did to good fortune as Portugal's game plan was generally working up until that point.

Portugal became more of an attacking threat late in the game but a solid German rearguard action and in particular impressive performances from Holger Badstuber and Mats Hummels (and not forgetting a huge save by Manuel Neuer at the end) kept the scoreline at 1-0.


False Nandos

On Sunday, Spain took on Italy in arguably the least inspiring game of the opening round of fixtures. A 1-1 draw was the best the last two world champions could muster between them. Much was made about the somewhat revolutionary formation deployed by Vincente Del Bosque as he named a starting eleven without a recognised striker. Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas played in the most advanced role as the 'false 9' in what was essentially an attack-minded 4-6-0 formation. The idea, one assumes, was that the fluid movement of the advanced midfielders would be able to compensate for a lack of frontman as they would more often than not find themselves in the attacking positions to finish of the chances their expected dominance of possession would create. The tiki-taka style was expected to open up opponents with tiny incisions rather than hacking away with direct passes to a striker whose sole purpose was to get on the end of them.

Unfortunately, such a tactic did not yield many benefits against a side as defensively adept as Italy – even with their own still relatively experimental 3-5-2 formation. What resulted was a game that struggled to find any real cohesion and was only really prevented from being a complete washout thanks to two high quality goals from both sides. With half an hour remaining, Andrea Pirlo played a sumptuous through ball to substitute Antonio Di Natale – on for the ineffective Mario Ballotelli – to calmly slip past the onrushing Iker Casillas to give Italy the lead. It wasn't to last however. David Silva evidently figured that anything Pirlo could do, he would try to match as within minutes, he flicked an impeccably timed pass to the advancing Fabregas to level the score.

Despite this, Del Bosque then decided to revert to the tried and tested method of playing with a striker and Fernando Torres was introduced late on. As it turned out, the Chelsea man proved no more effective than playing with no striker at all as he missed at least two decent chances to win the game for the defending champions. The first came within seconds of his arrival but a poor first touch allowed Gianluigi Buffon in the Italy goal to come out and intercept without even needing to go to ground. With few minutes remaining, with Buffon in no mans land, the Chelsea striker found himself with the whole goal to aim at and somehow managed to miss the target completely despite having ample time to pick his spot. Both opportunities he with gobbled up a few years ago in what feels like a footballing lifetime ago now.

Playing with no striker may not be the way forward for Spain but on the evidence of this mediocre cameo appearance, neither is Torres. Many will be expecting to see the other Fernando (Llorente) preferred next time around.

Trap Given reason to be Eire-rate

Next up for Spain will be an Ireland side reeling from a disappointing 3-1 defeat at the hands of Croatia on Sunday evening. The usually dependable Shay Given failing to cope with two Mario Mandzukic headers which you would ordinarily expect a keeper of his ability to do better with. Croatia's other goal was scored by Everton's Nikica Jelavic after some comical Irish defending. Sean St Ledger's consolation goal was merely that.

The familiarity of the players in the Irish team in this should indicate that player for player, they are probably one of the poorest teams in the competition and wouldn't be expected to make many waves. However, they would have looked at this match with a realistic expectation of taking something away from it.Despite the glaringly obvious limitations in their team, it's not unfair to say that they could have performed much better. Yes, Croatia are a better team and so it ultimately proved but it was surprising to see this Ireland side managed by Giovanni Trappatoni look so defensively naïve. Given all the Premier League experience in the team, it was baffling to see Luka Modric allowed so much freedom to dictate the play. The two Ivan's in Perišić and Rakitić also saw far too much of the ball and found themselves in far too much space far too often.

Although perhaps maybe I'm doing a disservice to Croatia. The overriding belief coming into the tournament is that this squad is not quite as strong as in previous years and that the purported Midas touch of Slavan Bilic may have finally worn off as he is set to leave the post to manage Lokomotiv Moscow after the tournament. However, on the basis of the opening round of games, I fear it may be a little hasty to write them off completely and it is far from unreasonable to consider the possibility that they could either upset either or both of Italy or Spain and progress to the quarter finals. Unlikely? Maybe. Impossible? Definitely not.


The Good, the bad and the England

England kicked off their Euro 2012 Group D campaign with a hard fought 1-1 draw against France in a match that taught us nothing new either about the England national team or Roy Hodgson's managerial style. Not particularly great, not particularly awful either. We wont win the competition, but we are less likely to embarrass ourselves along the way. Hard to beat and who knows, might surprise a few people.

England's opener summed up the functionality of the entire performance. Set piece, cross, header. I'd be curious to know how many other footballing cultures consider set pieces such a major part of their game. Not many I'd imagine. Every weekend, at every level of football you care to watch in this country, you will almost always find teams looking to compensate for the absence of technical ability by placing a great deal of emphasis on utilising dead ball situations. Steven Gerrard's cross for Joleyon Lescott is the kind goal you imagine is practiced on the training ground repeatedly.

The idea of conceding possession and waiting for an opportunity for a more direct route to goal has been the approach of managers over here for years therefore nothing we saw on Monday evening should have been a surprise to anyone watching. It may not make for great or comfortable viewing but people will tell you that if it gets results then the ends unfortunately justifies the means. That's not to say England didn't try and force the issue on occasion either. James Milner should have done better with a rare burst early on but panicked at the vital moment.

Getting men behind the ball and defensive discipline was enough to restrict France's attempts to work the ball into the box and it was ultimately a shot from distance that proved to be their only way back into the game. Had the otherwise solid Joe Hart been a tad more alert, we'd be talking about a famous England win right about now.

The French themselves were laclustre. Goalscorer Samir Nasri was probably their best player on the day along with the marauding Mathieu Debuchy but aside from that, manager Laurent Blanc will be disappointed that his star men Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema didn't do more to try and unlock the England back line. Touted as outsiders for the tournament by many, you would expect a little more dynamism in the remaining group matches.  

Andrei Shev's criticisms back down their throats

There are few things better in football than when big name strikers from opposing teams 'show up' in a match. Seeing Andrei Shevchenko and Zlatan Ibrahimovic sharing all three goals in Ukraine's 2-1 win over Sweden brought me inexplicable joy. Moreso because of the fact that both have been on the receiving end of undue criticism from many so-called experts over here. Due to a handful of disappointing performances against English sides in European competitions, there is a widely and wrongly held view that Ibrahimovic is somewhat overrated. This despite the fact he has spent the last decade banging in goals for fun at Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona and now AC Milan hording trophy after trophy in the process.

The same misguided folk also seem to believe that Shevchenko's poor spell at Chelsea is what his entire career ought to be judged upon. Not that the so called 'flop' needed to prove anything to anyone who knows better, but by scoring both the goals to give the Ukraine a huge opening game win on home soil, he did so emphatically.

In contrast to their co-hosts, the Ukraine now find themselves well placed for unlikely progression into the next round. This win will provide a huge psychological boost and now alleviates the pressure ahead the France and England games where simply avoiding defeat should be enough to see them through. Home advantage could well play a major role in this scenario becoming a reality.

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