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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