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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