Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Euro 2012 roundtable #8: Predictions? What Predictions?



Being Parte the Third of the Epic European Championship Voyages Of Messrs Michael, Jon and Gav and assorted company.





Jon: So, the dominant team in world football, one of the great footballing nations in transition between eras, some easy on the eye entertainers from Eastern Europe and a team whose sole purpose in being at the Euros appears to be to give their fans a chance to sample foreign beers. Group C then…







Italy/Spain





Michael: Cards on the table first and foremost. I had vested interests in this one, with a long standing love of the Italian national team. Spain being the Euro roundtable correspondent Alan Kalders team, this was as close to a Euro roundtable derby as we’ll get at the Euros for now. Just wait till Wales v Scotland in the World Cup qualifiers, that’ll be a bunch of fun and games.




So Italy. I was a bit alone in that department as they have a bit of a reputation which precedes them. I had faith in Cesar Prandelli though, and he showed his bravery from the starting, going with a 3-5-2 formation against the rampant World Champions. What developed was a chess match, but unlike Portugals efforts, this was a proper match which made their efforts look like me trying to take on Kasparov!





The first half ended in stalemate, but, like Italy/Germany in the 2006 World Cup, it was brewing up to be a potentially great match, as both sides had chances but had been unable to take them. The second half started in the same ilk, and I grew more and more excited as Italy began to press further and further upfield. Then Balotelli, wonderfully disposed Spain and ran at the box. The wonderful run was quickly finished off with stupidity, though not of a violent nature, thankfully. Seemingly, he’d thought Pique would come to him and he could pass to Cassano. Pique held his ground, so, not knowing what to do, Mario just sort of stood there! Prandelli instantly took him off and replaced him with Di Natale, the man Prandelli had faced incredulity for picking in the Italian media. Within a minute, a crisp stunning through ball from Pirlo met Di Natale who thumped into the net. That’s how you do it, Mario, and more importantly, thats how to shut up critics over your team selection!





Unfortunately, that goal woke up Spain. Silva passed, Fabregas scored, I feared the worst. On come Fernando Torres, the man who is either past it or in a slump, depending on his individual critic. Having seen him produce a fine reaction goal against South Korea last week, I knew better than to count him out, and he swiftly started trying to give me a heart attack with at least five gilt edged chances over the course of twenty minutes. Thankfully, this was the Torres who couldn’t hit a barn door variation, but he was doing well to get into those situations. The commentary called for Llorente, and bemoaned the chances that Llorente could have scored, but that was to miss the point: the chances Torres made were not the sort Llorente would have, and vice versa. Maybe they can play off each other, I don’t know. As a great believer in the law of averages though, if Torres DOES keep creating these positions, one will succeed over the course of a tournament. He’s going to come up against less intelligent defences than he did today.






All that said, thank god he kept missing today! Buffon was a strong presence in goal, which is almost redundant now, as everyone knows his quality. He also showed the Poles how to deal with a one on one situation, heralding the ball out of play without so much as a foot wrong. Sadly, the commentary and online reaction to that seemed to be: “Hah! He’s made a hash of that!” much like it was when Lehmann punched the ball to his team mates to break forward instead of made a slapdash save for effect.





"Tonight I saw an Italy I had always dreamed of - a team where everyone helps each other out when in need. I am proud."
Buffon




De Rossi was a tower in defence. It’s funny with De Rossi. I never really think of him as being that good, but time and time again he produces stunning performances in big matches I watch. His progression from an infamously temperamental fool (we all remember his elbow on McBride in the World Cup, well, the Americans haven’t forgotten it!) to potentially world class star has been incredible. Here, he played in defence at late notice due to the injury of Barzagli, and produced a potential Man of the Match performance. Defence, midfield, a penchant for important goals: Italy are lucky to have him. And he’s only 28. By Italian standards, he hasn’t hit his peak yet.




It was interesting to see Nocerino on the pitch for a bit, as he was at one point touted as Pirlo’s successor. He now seems the stop gap between Pirlo and the emerging Verrati.




I enjoyed this game. It wasn’t the sterile game some feared it would be. It wasn’t the thumping I feared it would be either!




That was a relief in the end. Italy did well, then they scored and Spain woke up. Spain came into it more, equalised and looked the more dangerous team. Italy had 2 good chances for a second goal but couldn't take them.



Two good sides there going for it. In the end a draw was the right result. Could have been 3-3 easily with better luck.




"Spain is the strongest of them all and today proved it. But we were also good and the Spaniards met their match."
Buffon




That’s the kind of magnanimity I like. Mick Foley once said there’s not point calling your opponent shit, because then you’ll never look good: either you lose to shit, so what does that make you, or you win, but you only be supbar opposition. Some football managers might want to heed the wisdom in that. Here, Buffon states Spain are the strongest side in the world, heaping praise on the opposition, but also on his own team as they held up the pace with the best side in the world! It comes across far better than “You suck! We rule!” style.




“The result was a fair one. Our intention was to play the game, not just contain our opponents”
Cesar Prandelli







Jon: If you’re after pure excitement from your football, the sort provided by the thrash and dash of the Premier League, this was entirely the wrong match for you. The matches between the very best teams tend to be more cerebral affairs, chess matches of passing and probing, searching for chinks in the other team’s defence. It’s the matches featuring lesser teams that tend to be exciting due to their shortfalls and attempts to compensate for them. Spain took their ideal of possession over the vulgarity of goalscoring to its logical conclusion and followed Barca’s lead of playing without a striker, Fabregas playing the role his Barca teammate Messi usually plays. Prandelli matched it by playing three at the back and the anticipated chess match ensued, both teams seeking to control the centre of the board before striking. Brilliant for fans of possession football, dull for those who seek end to end excitement. Me? I could watch the likes of Pirlo, Xavi and Iniesta all day, the art of the pass all but perfected.





Balotelli astonished everyone by having a quiet game and at one point blowing a one on one with some niftily rapid deceleration allowing the chance to be smothered. But Michael’s footballing Jesus, Pirlo, provided a sublime assist for Balotelli’s replacement Di Natale. The old men still had it! Unfortunately they were sucker punched quickly with an equally sublime pass from Silva setting up Fabregas for an equaliser. They woke Spain up a little too early.




Torres came on and, whilst his finishing was as erratic as it’s always been outside his time under Benitez at Anfield, his pace and movement created all sorts of problems for the Italian defence, forcing Buffon into a Maldini/Agger style dispossession and adding the pace and directness missing from the pretty patterns of the first hour for Spain. Fascinating rather than exciting then, an honourable stalemate between two fine teams who’ll be satisfied with a point. Caveat - if both sides beat Ireland as expected it leaves them potentially vulnerable to going out if they have a bad day against a good Croatian team.






Gav:
So, in the earlier discussions I said “I’ve seen a lot of lovely football in Spain this season, but I do find myself wondering – can they do it without Lionel Messi?” and the answer is “no, not really”. They tried to play the false nine without a striker, what’s that called? The Emperor’s New Nine? Not sure really! Well, whatever you want to call it, Spain didn’t really seem to do much. Despite having 6 in midfield Italy looked very comfortable against them. Whenever Spain did find themselves breaking forward with the ball they didn’t really seem to know what to do with it.



In the second half Spain seemed to start trying to attempt more shots but really I was more impressed by Italy than Spain in this match. Maybe because I had higher expectation for Spain here.




“We played against a great Italy side that came to attack us, to press us, and they have players who can make the difference.”
Sergio Ramos






Alan Kalder: Basically, we played well. Italy also played well. Iniesta was out of this world. Del Bosque made a lot of choices that payed off--the Cesc-Silva hookup was obviously a key for us. The substitution of Torres is looked at positively by many--Torres created lots; just didn't finish it off--should have gone with a vaselina ("chip shot") in the endgame. I think Arbeloa was our weakest on defense; Jordi Alba is certainly promising. Would love to have had Puyol in there-we'd a beat 'em. Whatever Del Bosque does, he'll be criticized--obviously--, unless we win the whole ball of wax. He clearly thinks Torres is the answer in the long run; wants Torres to build confidence knowing Del Bosque believes in him. What better way to prove it than putting him in against Italy? That said, we could see Llorente or Negredo start vs Ireland.





Michael: See? Even the Spanish think the Italians played a good attacking game. Yet the C word still comes out over here. Bah!





"They are certainly not weaker than Spain. In some ways you could say they have more diversity to their play. We must remain at this level if we are to win. Italy are very much a team of my liking. I am really excited for the match."
Slaven Bilic


"Cesc did very well in that position. When Torres came on, the game was much more open. We had more chances to score, but they, too, lest we forget. Time will tell if this [the system] is good for us or not. We did a good job, it was a good effort. We are relatively satisfied with the result." Del Bosque







Croatia/Ireland




"It does not matter whether this is one of the best performances of this generation. We previously had good matches against England, Germany and Russia. The most important thing is that we played well. We outplayed them physically, tactically and psychologically.”
Slaven Bilic






Gav:
Estonia Republic of Ireland vs Croatia





I really enjoyed this match! Mandžukić scored before I’d even poured out my first beer! I think this match really highlighted how much better the tournament would have been had Estonia rightfully qualified in Ireland’s place.




For those of you who pay for the premium version of Michael’s blog – I’m terribly sorry you had to read my uncensored tirade of expletives in the group stage previews, though I’m sure you all agree with everything that I said there.




I’d just like to remind people that I also quite confidently said that Croatia would get out of this group. I know Ireland are soft opposition but Croatia are looking good for confirming my prediction.





Michael: For the premium version of this blog (like this, but with a government grant of several million purely to change the title) please send a cheque to my favourite charity, the Considered Aging Support Hospital, or C A S H if you prefer, to the following address...




Gav: Taking your humour from Rik Mayall now, really?





Michael: Have I ever not? NICHOLAS PARSONS!






Jon: *Paddington Bear stare*





Michael: Well, there’s a reference that will go over the heads of almost everyone who reads this. (“Mr Jolly Lives Next Door” for those wondering, is a comic TV play from the 1980s, involving but not limited to: gangsters, Nicholas Parsons, a serial killer, terrorists, Rik Mayal, escorts and drunk Japanese businessmen. Its hilarious, much like everything else that has Peter Cook in it. )






Jon: There must be more to life than stereotypes, as Damon Albarn once sang. This was a match to prove him wrong, Croatia passing their way around the Irish, gradually building pressure to force errors, and the Irish countering it with physical effort and a threat from set pieces. It’s been played out hundreds of times in Europe, British Isle teams being undone by sneaky, cunning foreigners.





Ireland’s defending was unusually sloppy for a Trapattoni team, Mandzukic being allowed to wander about the area at his leisure before popping up with a weak but well placed header. And there we were, all set up for Croatia’s neat, incisive passing to tear Ireland apart on the counter when Sean St Ledger popped up at the back post from – deep shock here – a free kick to equalise.




And then, as it has a tendency to do, history began to repeat itself. In this type of game it’s now happened so many times it’s far beyond comedy or tragedy.





Croatia imposed themselves and began to build pressure, Ireland never seeing enough of the ball to release it. In those circumstances Stephen Ward’s panicked attempt at clearing Modric’s shot just before halftime shouldn’t be seen as someone having a shocker but the inevitable result of a team’s tactics inviting pressure on itself. Eventually, no matter how good you are, someone will crack and much of this Irish team aren’t of a high enough standard to hold out under pressure that long. There was a question of offside on Jelavic from the initial shot, ultimately though Jelavic played to the whistle and asked questions later while the Irish desperately stuck their hands in the air in the despairing manner perfected by the Arsenal back four.





What should be down as a Given own goal but won’t be, a classic diving header into his own net after Mandzukic’s shot rebounded off the post, simply settled the pattern of the second half. Ireland can consider themselves unlucky with a penalty not given for Corluka’s challenge on - I doubt many Estonians were sympathising with the Irish getting the rough end of refereeing decisions – but ultimately they weren’t smart enough to unlock the Croatian defence. A fourth for Croatia looked far more likely than the Irish pulling one back.





It’s tough to see how Ireland are going to get anything from the tournament after this – their set pieces may trouble the less than gigantic Spanish but on this evidence the Spanish possession game will bamboozle them into submission over 90 minutes. Difficult to tell how good the Croatians are either – they’re certainly a good footballing side but what might as well have been a training ground exercise for them says nothing about how they’ll fare against Spain or Italy. 





Difficult to draw any overall conclusions as to who’s going through then, except to say that we’re safely able to rule out the Irish. If Trapattoni doesn’t have the personnel at his disposal to compete with Croatia it’s even more unlikely that they’ll compete with two of the three best technical sides seen so far in the competition. We should be in for plenty of entertainment from the remaining Croatian games though.




"Is this the best match of my life? I must thank the coach first because he gave me a chance to play and then I really played a good match. I scored twice but I also must thank my great team-mates."
Mandzukic







Michael: Speaking of thumpings. I predicted 3-0 for this one, but Ireland did get a goal from Sean St Ledger of all people. Let me repeat that. Sean St bloody Ledger of Leicester City, formerly of Preston Northend, scored in the European Championships. That’s just bizarre!




It was just a prelude to a thumping though. Mandzukic got the task underway two minutes in. Jelavic before half time, Mandzukic in the second half sealed the deal. I believe it was 2009 when I first pointed out Mandzukic as a future talent, promptly a week before he scored against Hearts in the UEFA Cup. Seeing him dazzle on an international stage made me feel very happy. It was like seeing Alexis Sanchez at the World Cup.



That’s me picked two Stars to Watch who came good in 10 years. Mandzukic and Sanchez. With that kind of success rate, I could be a Liverpool scout.





"They scored from a set piece but we were a much better team. We were far more creative. Yes they scored but we reacted very well."
Slaven Bilic





Michael: Modric had about thirty passes in the second half and only two miss his team mate. Jon suggested he was wasted in the English Premier League. He’s probably right. Jelavic hid on the pitch, and was forgotten until he scored, the sign of a class striker. I expected more from the likes of Aidan McGeady and Simon Cox, a few of the talents Ireland possess, but they were largely anonymous.




“We can get to the Final” said one Irish fan on ESPN before the match. You almost have to feel sorry for him.





Gav – No you don’t.






Michael – Heh. Speaking of ESPN, they stunned me with a thought provoking video with Shevchenko looking back on the infamous Death Match of 1942. For those who don’t know of it: Nazis arrange football match with local Kiev side as propaganda, order the Kiev lot to lose, they decide to win, you can guess the rest. There are a lot of myths and sensationalism around that match, but it seems fairly certain a good number of the players were murdered soon after. Not the kind of topic which is easy to cover, as you might imagine, yet they did an admirable job, so top marks to them.











Pirlo



Was magnificent. That is all.



Don’t believe me? Listen to the Special One.



“Spain failed to stop Pirlo, and when the latter plays comfortable he makes a lot of problems.”
Jose Mourinho



Yes, I am not beyond quoting Jose when it suits my purpose. Heh.




"I was surprised by Spain. They didn't have a striker, but sometimes they play like this. We played well. I would give us a seven [out of 10]. This match can give us a lot of confidence for our next games. [Cassano and Balotelli] played well. One was trying to find space, the other one proved his talent."
Pirlo on the game.



“Great assist from Pirlo, I think this is my best goal for the Azzurri.”
Di Natale




Prandelli


Italy's average age in the first eleven would be a lot lower if they didn't have Buffon and Pirlo, two genuine world class stars who are still producing. Prandelli's done well to bring in younger replacements to many of the tired 2010 faces, and even with Pirlo had him training with Nocerino (his immediate replacement) and Veratti (his potentially more spiritual successor time).


The big problem is who replaces Buffon?



They seem in better shape for the future and the World Cup than England are on current form though.





Jon – Point that out, though England’s age profile is no great virtue.Plus, if ever a country got the most from aging stars, its the Italians. 




Michael – Gerrards replacement is learning nothing from him for example France had similar problems from 1998 on, forcing Blanc to act from scratch. Prandelli went for a phase out, with younger folk learning from older heads. Balotelli from DI Natale, Nocerino from Pirlo and Verrati from Pirlo, and so on. 



Jon – Short termism has always been Englands problem. And lets face it, just who is Gerrards replacement.



Michael – Cleverleys the only person I can think of whose been brought through in who is similar, but hes had injuries and is not in the England set up. In terms of which, Gerrard only has 2-3 years left tops, it’s not going to be someone we don’t already know, by necessity. 



Jon – that’s 2-3 years at club level, not international either. Move Rooney back?



Michael – That would rely on Rooney becoming a more intelligent player and I have yet to see that in him.



Jon – Well Gerrard and Lampard were never overly intelligent, so no change there! Only smart English midfielder of recent years has been Scholes.



Michael – In two to three years, me and Rooney will be 29. That’s not planning for tomorrow. That’s a bandage. 




Jon – Particularly given Rooney started early so likely is already around his peak Strikers and attackers peak younger these days to my mind.


Michael – Depends when they get their chance. Pedro broke through at 22 so his peak will be c 27/28. Rooney 16, so about now. Etc.



Jon – Yep, thats more accurate actually. Rooney also played lots of football from 18 on after Moyes managed his early career well.





Catenaccio




Michael: It was funny to think of Catenaccio today. People still believe the Italians will perform it, though they haven’t in at least eight years now. Its got to the point where the Azzurri could win a match 10-0 and someone would bring up the C word. Italian football more often than not was focused on having a strong defence, but equally alongside a clinical striker and a fantastico playmaker in the centre. It is the latter two which bring the joy and verve to Italian sides, which make them so fascinating and hard to beat. The best defenders, Maldini for example, could set up attacks as well as stop them. Compare to attack minded England, who have bored millions at their last two World Cups. In that time period, Italy had five thrillers, and produced enough excitement to be memorable in their other matches. Heck, the least memorable of Italy’s ten World Cup matches in Germany and South Africa was the one they won 3-0, which also happened to be the only Italy match I can recall they had the backing of nearly 100% of everyone I knew, as they vanquished the winners of that match we dare not mention by name.




Converse this with Ireland, led by the last great proponent of Catenaccio style, Trappatoni. Yet his Ireland side, who depended on the braveheart qualities of Richard Dunne in the qualifiers, were undone by the simplest methods of catching defences out in the book. A decade ago, this would have been 1-0 Ireland. An aging Trappatoni still has the ability to inspire a team and manage better than men half his age, but the thin line between success and failure has started to narrow. Despite his football philosophy being opposite of mine, I have great respect for Trappatoni and his many achievements in football. It is a shame they might finish with his greatest assets in his heyday being exposed on the big stage in his twilight.





All Fur Coats and Nae Strikers



"It's not good to keep on passing between Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas without creating a big threat on Buffon's goal. Yes there was a big effort from Spanish midfielders but without a striker the team was sterile."
Jose Mourinho



Ah, Spain, with some many good midfielders. Who misses out? No one! Of course, tiki taka is nice to watch, but it needs a Messi or a Villa to be the beneficiary!



After all, Spain had six midfielders, but Italy had one Pirlo!





A Danish perspective on Group B



Keld: A great performance by the Danish side, who managed to beat a superior side without parking the bus. We did not defend in numbers most of the time; instead we managed to hold on to the ball well for several periods of the game. Not that we created a lot from that possession, but it helped us calm the game at critical times. This thing about keeping possession is a two-edged sword, however, and if William Kvist's mistake or Stephan Andersen's flagrant mispass to Robben had resulted in a goal, then we would all have criticized Olsen for insisting that we play this possession game.



Andersen, apart from the mispass, had a great game in goal, and especially the heroic double-save in the second half was fabulous. 



The defense did a fine job, and it must've been amazing for Simon Poulsen to revenge his tragi-comic own goal two years ago with a great performance and the decisive assist. 


Zimling recovered from a swollen toe to play, and was very important defensively and our best player when in possession. His central midfield colleagues, on the other hand, had tough games; Kvist had difficulties in containing the brilliant Wesley Sneijder, and Eriksen did not have many successful actions.


Rommedahl and Bendtner were both fairly quiet, while Krohn-Dehli was out best player. Quite amazing that a player from the ninth-best Danish team outshined superstars from the best clubs in the world. Maybe it helped us that both Krohn-Dehli and Rommedahl more or less stopped playing two months ago in Brøndby. When Brøndby couldn't really reach anything, the pair faked injuries or illnesses or simply did not make an effort on the pitch, and they were even allowed to join the national side before the last league match.



Of course, we could not have won this game without a couple of below-par performances from the Dutch. We must thank Robin van Persie, who has apparently been transformed from the Premier League top scorer to a player who could barely stay on his feet when finishing. Another thank you should be send to Arjen Robben, who several times completed his move towards the middle of the pitch that ended with thumbing the ball above the goal.



Naturally, Denmark is in a state of football euphoria after the win as many probably feared a repeat of EURO 2000 with three clear defeats and a 0-8 goal difference. Few fans have taken the trip, around 9.000 tickets have been sold to Danes for the first three games combined, but some have now changed their mind now and will try to access a last-minute ticket, although I guess it will be hard.



Our chances look good now, and we are fairly confident as we have beaten Portugal in our two latest qualifications. They did look good against Germany when forced to attack, but that must mean that they will have to loosen their iron defense.









England v France 







The English, for once, are approaching this European Championship with something approaching humility and it might well serve them if they were to win this first important game. Physically the French are in better shape, though, and haven’t had the injuries, and suspensions of the English team.The coach has had sufficient time to gel his team together, and so I must give slight edge to the French. But it’s very close, and as both teams have very talented players it should be an excellent game."
Diego Maradona





"I wanted Harry Redknapp, like about 80 per cent of the English public. But Hodgson is there now and we're all going to get behind him. "It kills me to say it, but England will struggle to get out of this group. France will win the group. England will have a fight to finish second.”
Robbie Fowler (will be as good a pundit as he was player in his second Liverpool spell?)





Jon:

Those thoughts on Ireland-Croatia? Rinse and repeat, except for the British Isle team having a decent keeper and the continental types being blunt up front. 



This was a game, in the words of Happy Thom Yorke, of no alarms and no surprises. England? 4-4-2 and score off a set piece. Two banks for four, solid, deep and narrow and if in any doubt hoof it up for the forwards to chase. Possession’s something those crazy foreign madmen do, it’s dreadfully un-British to descend to their levels of cunning. It’s a fairly typical Hodgson tactic, but it’s one which served Chelsea well in the Champions League this year. However, with all due respect to Welbeck, who worked his behind off, without Rooney England don’t possess a forward of the calibre of Drogba so England lack the invention to create many chances – this game actually saw them create their least chances in any European Championship finals game since the format of a summer tournament was adopted in 1980. Watching England promises to be attritional stuff, possession happily ceded, few chances created but few given away either. It’s the English game reduced to its old fashioned basics. Given this seems a limited team, maybe it’s the right approach then. 



France? Pretty, pretty patterns in front of the England back four and aside from Nasri’s dart forward and pinpoint finish, not too much threat on Hart’s goal. After a lively first half Nasri and Ribery were becalmed in the second, seeking the chinks in the English armour in vain. 



With the result in the other game this means that the third game in the group will likely be decisive for both teams in deciding who goes through – the selections of M’Vila and Rooney in the squad, despite their initial absences therefore looks justified already.







Michael: Ah, the big game. Zzzzzzzzz.



Bit unfair, I admit.



This was technically the worst match of the tournament by far. This is a great testament to Roy Hodgson, whose tactics in neutralising the threat of France were almost completely spot on, and but for a minute where England fell asleep, would have produced a deserved win. Tiki taka clearly works, it hypnotised the English. Nothing else can explain Nasris speculative shot going into the net.





Englands opener a few minutes earlier was straight out of the England v France Euro 2004 playbook, just substitute Steven Gerrard for David Beckham and Joleon Lescott for Frank Lampard. France played lots of passes about the place, but never seemed to come close to an equaliser, and in the second half I nearly dropped asleep. French openers have a tendency to be dull affairs, ever since their last England game in fact! This one had goals but very little else. The problem England had was they were able to neutralise the opposition but had little clinical edge of their own. In this regard, a certain Mr Rooney was desperately needed. A Swedish win in the next round would set the cat among the pigeons for sure, but if they keep to this game plan, they ought to get a draw at least, which might be good enough to qualify for the last 8 with a win over the co-hosts, who might even be qualified by that point.





As for France, I remain unconvinced by them. They’ll have to improve to get out of the group. They still look like a team that can be got at, and Evra in particular looks like hes playing through anesthetic.





Gav: I liked what I saw from England in the first half of this game. I think it was a great decision of Hodgson’s to put Oxlade Chamberlain into the starting line up. I find it quite interesting that when Walcott was first picked for his major tournament a lot of people really questioned the decision but I feel less people have questioned Chamberlain’s callup. I think that’s a definite sign of his quality.




Anyway, it was a good match, England played well and were unlucky to concede the goal they did. England looked quite nervous in the second half but I am encouraged by what I saw in general.







Michael: It is nice to have an England supporter doing these, lest the Celtic boys (that Wales and Scotland, not the Old Firm) get accused of something akin to bias. I quite like Welbeck and Ashley Young (whisper it round these parts though) and Roy as a manager. If they managed to stop being dull for ten seconds they’d be almost bearable. 


ITV were rubbish incidentally. Jamie Carragher managed to make the same point about Oxlade-Chamberlain three times in one sentence, that he must have impressed in training. Reference was made to Roy Hodgson’s short international career: “two games, two wins”. My history tells me his international career has been slightly longer than that. Their start – “Good afternoon England fans and those who liking watching us suffer” – immediately cast them in the wrong shade, as being neither, I felt left out of proceedings. Being able to switch over to BBC right after the game showed best the gulf in class between the two providers. Heck, ITV have been 3rd best this tournament, as ESPN have wiped the floor with them in the US. I thought ESPN’s balding spectacled excited Irish pundit, whose name escaped me, was going to pick a fight with the rest of his team at half time during the Ireland match! The BBC have shown countless wonderful short vignettes on history and culture, and we’re only into day 4. ITV, on the other hand, have shown the great adage of quality over quantity is most definetly true.






Sweden v Ukraine 





Michael: So last night I was quite grumpy about this result, but have slept off most of the resulting depression and lets see if we can cover it in sensible terms.





Swedens tactics were spot on for the first fifty minutes or so of the match. The only problem is a match is ninety. In the first half, they said “Come and have a shot” at the Ukraine, who then showed some spectacularly toothless attempts at goal. Sweden were doing well to soak up the pressure, and had a few chances. It did look like a Ukrainian lamb had walked into the lions den however, and sure enough, shortly after the break, Sweden scored through Ibrahimovic. So far everything had gone to plan.





Then Ukraine equalised. Through the oldest man in the universe, Shevchenko. And Ukraine found new life, roared on by a massive home support. They found their winner, and though they were fortunate to hold on to it, Sweden proving profligacy in front of goal at crucial moments is not purely a Dutch curse, you’d have to say over all the co-hosts deserved their win.




It was of slight nuisance for me to see the man Toivonen, who had been sensational every time I’d seen him play before, pick the single worst time to have his worst performance in a year, and make me look like a right fool. He did well to keep the ball in play for Sweden’s opener, but did little of note in the rest of the match, and was replaced by Anders Svensson. Ibrahimovic looked lively, and could have had two but for the post. Rosenborg hasn’t scored for his country in years, and looked like a man with the confidence of someone who hasn’t scored for his country in years. Ruining good build up, wasting shots, its difficult to see how much worse the seemingly injured Gudietti could have performed in his place. The worrying thing in the build up was how negative the Swedish press seemed to be about the team: criticising team selections and talking of strife in the team, generally acting like the English media. I can think of no lower insult. The worry is they listen to this bad publicity, as their efforts in the first fifty minutes, and in searching for an equaliser, showed they weren’t a bad side by any means, and they could trouble England and France if they keep a positive frame of mind.





As for Ukraine, well, given I am always first to be smug about times I am correct, I am afraid I must eat humble pie here, much to the delight of the Ukrainians reading this, no doubt. I did underestimate the Ukrainian side, which seemed on paper the weakest of the four teams. I didn’t properly account for home support, the intelligent behind aging legs, and a general will to win. I still don’t think they are that hot a side, but those three things above can serve well when a side is at by half a tournament too early and a tournament too late. The result sets the cat among the pigeons. It is terrible for the French and English too, as a Ukraine win against either qualifies the co-hosts at the expense of one of the giants. Perhaps both if Sweden decide to take part in the scoring part of football. One can dream.





I think what Ukraine showed more than anything was, if you’ll excuse a throwback to cheap cliché, that is not the size of the dog in the fight, its the size of the fight in the dog. Good old Mark Twain. Ukraine look to have a fighting spirit as strong as anyone in the Euros, so it will be as tough to beat them as it would a team of world class quality. Underestimate them at your peril.





I enjoyed this game even if the result went against me. A class example of trap football in Part 1, a stirring fight back in Part 2. It had more to it than a certain match with bigger players on a previous day.



“I think it’s really hard to play with such nerves, I must say that the Swedish team is a really good and it is very hard to play against them, we knew everything about them, but I really think that they will be a tough opponent for the next opponents in our group.”
Blokhin





Gav:
As I type this Ukraine are beating Sweden 2-1 thanks to a brace from aging talisman chappy Shevchenko. I’m really pleased he scored (twice) – I always felt kind of sorry for him when he joined Chelsea. Read into that however you want! :D




Unfortunately Anders Svensson has not been able to turn this game around, despite being a proper Saints hero, unlike Thomas “The Pretender” Pekhart. Elmander just missed a really good chance. I have just decided that I’d like to see Ukraine go far in the tournament because when I met with people from Kiev none of them seemed that interested in the football – I think they need a bit of excitement!




I’ll just run this report down near the corner flag while I wait for the game to finish. I wouldn’t want to email this off to Michael only for his prediction of 3-2 to come true at the last minute!




What else can I say while I’m winding the clock down? Hmm. Melberg has a cool beard. Not enough footballers have beards. Oh, there goes the final whistle. Well done Ukraine! Host factor + Shevchenko = good win!




Michael: Now I know who to blame! If Gav HAD sent this, Sweden would have equalised! Hah.




"It feels strange, as it seemed like some players were too affected by the occasion. We did not perform at the level that we are capable of. We did not play as a team. Five or six of our players were far from their best.”
Eric Hamren





Jon: The old man still has it then!





This game looked to be going absolutely to plan for Sweden for nearly an hour. They drew the sting from the Ukrainian attack, calming the crowd a little. Voronin in particular tested and probed but without any great effect. Ibrahimovic and Konoplyanka missed good chances to give their sides a halftime lead. And ten minutes after halftime the Swedish gameplan seemed to be paying off as Ibrahimovic put them ahead. Thing is about great players though, even when the gas in their tank has run low they’re capable of turning games. Shevchenko’s pace might be long gone, but the brain remains as sharp as ever and intelligent movement to get across his marker not once but twice resulted in two fine headers to turn the Swedish gameplan on its head. Sweden had their chances, Elmander in particular being guilty of a horrendous miss, but frankly no-one in the Ukraine will care. 



Sweden looked the more accomplished side, passing and movement generally being superior to their opponent. Ibrahimovic did enough to suggest he’ll be more of a test for England than the English media might make out. They disappointed though, not producing the football that had seen them qualify so stylishly. Ukraine certainly didn’t look the equals of Sweden, nor even perhaps of France, but the edge home advantage gives them shouldn’t be underestimated. Once Shevchenko had given them a moment to remember they seemed to play as much a part as the players in willing their team on to victory. England have to venture into the lion’s den in Kiev with qualification for the knockout stages on the line. If Shevchenko’s legs hold out, you wouldn’t put money on them getting a result. 




As a pair of results it sets up Group D fascinatingly. Can this limited England find a way to take three points? Will Sweden be so profligate again? Can France find an end product for their clever, intricate play? And can the Ukraine repeat the upset? Three points against France would suddenly make three nations who must have fancied their chances of going through very nervous indeed.






Group A today




Jon: Back to Group A tomorrow then. Greece surely need to seize their chance against the Czech Republic and Russia have the chance to be the first side through to the knockout stages. I’m quite confident that my picks to go through won’t be letting me down tomorrow.





Pawel: Russia has made a great impression by their fine performance against the Czech Republic. The general thinking is that we cannot win today's match and if we are lucky, there will be a draw. And apparently quite a lot of people believe in a draw. 


The Czechs will have a huge support from the Polish fans today as their win over Greece is important for us.
There will probably be some changes in the Polish squad - Obraniak and Rybus were criticized and it seems that Dudka will replace one of them. Dudka is a universal player who can play at almost any position at the pitch. However, he is known for making occasional mistakes that results in losing a goal. The most famous example is his mistake in the last minute against Germany at the World Cup in 2006, when we finally lost 0:1. 


However, the main subject in media is now concerned with Russian supporters. They are generally considered a problem. As far as I know they want to celebrate the Russian national holiday today and many Poles are against it. Well, we'll see what will happen. 


Sport events involving Poland and Russia have always been special ones. This one is not different.
I will be at the stadium during the match. I hope it will be an exciting trip. Well, I'm sure, it will.




Michael – On behalf of all of us here, enjoy!






"We will try to win. If we can't do this, then we will try not to lose. That is an outcome that we must avoid. That doesn't mean we'll play for draw. We will do everything to win the game."
Fernando Santos, Greek manager



"We felt the disappointment immediately afterwards, for sure. We did not succeed in any way in that first match, but we know we have another 180 minutes to play to allow us to qualify for the quarter-finals. So we're determined to do just that." Petr Cech

"I guarantee that we will battle for 90 minutes. It will be a match of a very high tempo."
Smuda

"This match is now the most important match in this tournament for us. We have some respect for Russia but we are well prepared. No one is resigned [to defeat] because we have not lost."
Blaszczykowski



“"To say the truth, I remember it, the 2004 semi-final, but it's not a revenge. I still feel sorry about it though. Both teams have changed a lot since then, but for me it's not a matter of revenge. That's the past and this is today and tomorrow's game is another match we have to win.”
Rosicky



Michael: I remember the 2004 match well, I was heartbroken.







Enjoy Group A everyone!




Next time we speak, one of Holland or Portugal could be gone from the Euros.










(All quotes come from Goal.com)