Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Euro 2016 Group D Preview



Michael: The transfer window is open. I’d like to transfer the current Glasgow weather to Mexico, and buy from some of the winter storms  from Trondheim in their place.


Jon: I’d just loan 5 degrees or so to Trondheim.


Michael: It’s 27C here! That’s about 20C about my comfort zone!


Jon: Not far off that here. Twenty odd degrees is good for me.


Michael: Chronic asthmatic Scot. Also, it hasn’t rained here for a fortnight. In Glasgow!


Jon: Bloody joke destroying weather.





Michael: Where is my lovely rain?  I can’t cope with this Floridian weather! Try getting a wean to sleep in these conditions when her body clock is used to typical Glasgow weather.


Gav: The weather in Estonia is weird too. Windy, rainy, sunny...


Michael: So, if anyone reading this knows any rain dances...


Anyhow, news we missed out on yesterday. Poor Antonio Rudiger, three days out from the tournament, tore his ACL in training. He’s been replaced by Jonathan Tah. Also, Igor Denisov has been injured, and Artur Yusupov had to drive away from his holiday to meet up with the Russian team at the last minute. As he was holidaying in Monaco, that’s less of a burden to travel than if he’d been in, say,  Lake Tanganyika.


Jon: Terrible hardship. Heh.


Michael: I was just making a crap joke there, and on looking up Lake Tanganyika to spell it correctly, I find not only does it have sunken World War 1 German ships in it, but the western shores have been traversed by both Che Guevara and Michael Palin! Making jokes can be unexpectedly educational these days.


Jon: Incidentally, Michael?


Michael: Yes?


Jon: WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE!


Michael: *cries*


And in distinctly tragic news, it was announced this morning that Stephen Keshi, manager of Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup, has died of a heart attack.


Jon: Only 54, too.


Michael: Our condolences to his family and friends. Seems like only yesterday, a Group preview writing session was interrupted by the news that new Villarreal manager (and Gijon legend) Manuel Preciado had died. Bloody reaper.


And just to counter that dreadful news with lighthearted stuff, former German goalkeeper Tim Wiese has just signed for the WWE.


No, seriously.


This is presumably step one in Vince McMahon’s dream buyrate main event, Messi v Ronaldo.


Jon: Even I’d buy that one.


Michael: Hell, chuck in Pirlo, make it a triple threat, and I’m there...



Group D



Michael: Isn’t it nice that even in a twenty-four team tournament, we find a group which could loosely be called one of Death? We have the past masters, possibly on the wane, but with enough knock out punches in the arsenal; one of the finest midfields in Europe if only they could play as a team for five minutes; one of the “lesser” countries with the finest European Championship records; and finally a country who create fireworks at every tournament they qualify for.


It promises much. I might well have jinxed that.


And as I say that, one of our sides just lost to Georgia.


Gav: Scotland? No, wait, they didn’t qualify.


Michael: *grumbles incoherently*



Spain







Michael: The team that lost to the Georgians was actually Spain! Lucas Vazquez says the loss will motivate them to greater things at the Euros.  You know what I think might have motivated them more? A win.


Jon: What sort of side had Spain got out for that one?


Michael: De Gea, Alba, Pique, Ramos, Juanfran, Busquets, Thiago, Fabregas, Nolito, Lucas Vazquez, Aduriz. With Koke, Bellerin, Iniesta, San Jose, Silva and Pedro on as subs. (Information from Alan Kalter).


Jon: A strong line up.


Clearly Spanish football is in crisis right now.


Michael: Steady on, without wanting to usher in the ghost of Jim Callaghan, what crisis? The Scots would kill to have a crisis on the scale of Spain...


Jon: After becoming the first European team to win three straight international tournaments what was supposed to be the last hurrah for an actual golden generation turned into a last bow where they tripped over their own shoelaces. The X-Men, Xabi and Xavi were rudely ushered into retirement by a magnificent display of Dutch counter attacking and the pace and verve of a fine Chilean side. And to top that off they even lost a qualifying game! If it wasn’t for their club sides snaffling every single European trophy for the past three years we might have to ask what’s gone so wrong with Spanish football.


Michael: It’s hard to put into words what watching that Spain v Holland game last World Cup live felt like. For so long, all the great historical matches and how people felt watching them at the time, but they were all history for me. There’s been the odd great match, and I maintain the Italian 2006 side is one of the great sides, but no standout 6-3 Hungary or 3-2 West Germany or tickertape or Van Basten’s goal or whatever you like. Then, one night in June 2014, I saw the best football minds of my generation destroyed by madness, a madness of a game in which the dour Dutch turned back the clocks forty years and demolished the World Champions and standard bearers of the sport. It was a historical epoch live and in colour, and I felt much like a witness to the Hindenburg disaster might have felt.


Amazing match.


Jon: Of course they responded to that blip in Slovakia by winning every other qualifying  game and swanning through.


Joao: Spain won its group with 27 points, five points above second placed Slovakia and eight points above third placed Ukraine. With nine wins and one defeat in ten matches, they were the third best team in Euro 2016 qualifiers, only behind England (ten wins) and Austria (nine wins and one draw).
There are thirteen players left from the 2014 World Cup squad: goalkeepers Casillas and De Gea, defenders Juanfran, Piqué, Ramos, Jordi Alba and Azpilicueta, midfielders Busquets, Fabregas, Koke and Iniesta, and forwards Pedro and Silva. The remaining ten players will be having their debut in a major tournament.


Jon: It’s tempting to call it a transitional period for Spain but really it’s evolution rather than revolution; where two of their pass masters have departed Iniesta continues to be able to pick apart any defence; Busquets is still there to do the dirty work and oh look, there’s the likes of Koke, Fabregas, Thiago Alcantra and Isco… still no-one does midfielders like the Spanish. I mean, how many other squads couldn’t find room for Javi Martinez or Juan Mata?


Michael: Or even Isco. Or poor old Saul Niguez.


Jon: Madrid and Barca continue to provide the defensive backbone with the likes of Pique, Alba and Sergio Ramos, a man who’s collected so many cards he can send one to everyone on the planet for their birthday… maybe the universe. The really intriguing story’s up front though. Fernando Torres appears to have been retired after a decade or so of service and replaced… by an older model. Aritz Aduriz’s last cap was six years ago, he’s 35 now and has had a fabulous season for Bilbao. If he plays a major role here even Jamie Vardy’s rise might seem prosaic.


Michael: Aduriz was sensational for Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. His stand out was the tie with Marseille, in which the French side had Athletic on the ropes for long periods of time, only for Aduriz to score a chipped volley from way out to basically seal the tie.


Nolito will also be staking his claim for a run in the team. He had a good season with Celta Vigo, and scored a double for Spain in their 3-1 win over Bosnia. Bruno of Villarreal was one I thought might be cut, but has made the final 23, a just reward for a fine season for the club who made the Europa League semifinals and will be in the Champions League qualifiers next season.


Joao: Spain’s first match will be against Czech Republic. They’ve faced them in Euro 2012 qualifiers and Spain won twice. The second opponent will be Turkey. Spain faced them in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and won twice. The third opponent will be Croatia. They were also Spain’s third opponent in Euro 2012, and Spain won 1-0 and went all the way to win the tournament. So, as long as history repeats itself, Spain should win its group comfortably. The problem is that history doesn’t have to repeat itself, like Spain experienced with Holland in the 2014 World Cup. They defeated them in the World Cup final, but four years later they lost 1-5.


Gav: So as I write this, there’s still four spots in the team to be decided.


Michael: Yeah, Lucas Vasquez, Koke, Isco, Saul Niguez fighting out for 2 spots. (The other two were almost certainly defenders.)


Gav: It’s not Pop Idol. I’m not sure why they don’t just announce the final team?


Michael: Yeah, I know. The Czechs did it bit by bit too, like Survivor.


Gav: Can just imagine them being on the phone to each other...”Isco...it....could still be you”. Nationally televised.  Estonia just cut everyone at once.


Michael: Yeah, “none of you are going”.


Gav: (Mutters under breath) Qazaishvili...


Jon: Still, not a bad squad if you can get by without potentially Niguez or Koke.


Michael: But aged. I could see them being caught on the hop, ala Argentina in 1994.


Jon: Or one glorious last stand ala Argentina 1990 or France 2006.


Michael: Well, glorious depends on your mileage, Argentina wise.


Jon: Their (Spain) style means older players can perhaps go on a little longer.


Michael: Aye, but a tough group.


Jon: Tough, but not terrifying.


Michael: And then knock-out matches all depend on fine margins.


Jon: *Mostly* - certain World Cup semis didn’t!


Michael: This is all leading up to a Kenny Dalglish style “could be, could no be”,  isn’t it?


Jon:  Absolutely!


Gav: So, I heard that the decision was “Isco, it certainly isn’t you” after all...


Michael: Which does give an insight into how much talent there is in this Spanish side. We’re all talking about the End of Empire, well, other media sources might, but there’s still, in this post-Greatest Side of Our Generation team, more than enough talent to actually win the whole caboodle. Morata, lethal for Juventus, and Koke were too young to take part in the trophy period, but could easily contribute to their own legacies. Iniesta, the man having a running battle with Pirlo the last decade for best player in the world when everyone focused on Ronaldo and Messi instead, is past his prime but then, so was Pirlo in 2012. A descent from perfection is still a decline into brilliance, after all.


Mind you, the UEFA Euro 2004 documentary: “a tournament too soon for a youthful Spanish side”. Bollocks!


Casillas, Puyol, Helguera, Marchena, Raul Bravo, Albelda, Baraja, Etxeberria, Vicente, Raul, Morientes. That’s not very young! All the young players, Casillas aside, were on the fringes or not even picked yet.


Jon: Revisionist toss. Loved Albelda and Baraja as a midfield though.


Michael: I asked Alan Kalter once what happened in 2004. His reply was simply “Inaki Saez”.


Jon: Wise of him.


Michael: Xavi says it too, that Euro 2004 was a tournament too soon for their young side. There’s more of an argument for 2006.


Jon: And even then you wouldn’t have tipped Spain.


Michael: Well I know some did after their 4-0 win over the Ukraine, which had my second favourite World Cup goal ever seen live, just behind THAT Argentine one. (Cambiasso 2006)


Jon: But pre-tournament?


Michael: All the hipsters were picking Ukraine to go far, if I recall. I know, as I read The Guardian at the time.


Jon: Second Torres goal, btw?


Michael: Oh yes!


Jon: The attacking flairs in place then but defence was still dodgy and much as I love Luis Garcia, he was never the most consistent.


What the Experts Say



“Key players such as Sergio Ramos, Fábregas and Pedro are worryingly out of form. In addition, there’s the same old problem: the offensive system. Del Bosque has never really built a fluent and coherent attacking structure, and they have often played at their best without a striker (with Fàbregas playing as a false No9) or without pure wingers. Álvaro Morata has emerged as a solution better than Aritz Aduriz or Diego Costa, who did not even make the squad. Apart from the inspirational Andrès Iniesta, it seems there are no players who can define a game single-handedly. But it would be wrong to focus only on Spain’s weaknesses, because clearly they have considerable strengths too. It is an experienced squad, highly competitive, and with a common goal. Spain abounds in talent.”
Chema R Bravo, The Guardian 6 June 2016




Previous -  Winners 1964, 2008, 2012
Recent – Winners 2012
Don’t mention – Holland.
Do mention – Their young talents
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 4.



Michael: The Roger Federer of international football might be past his best, but like the Swiss maestro, don’t count against them reaching a Grand Slam semifinal at worst once more.



Turkey






Michael: YESSSSS!!! Turkey have qualified for another tournament!


Jon: *gets out the champagne*


Gav: *goes to check Euro 2008 on Wiki* YES! Even if they don’t have any Southampton players.


Michael: I’ve been waiting for this ever since 2008.


Jon: I’ve been looking forward to it since I heard Fatih Terim was back in charge.


Michael: The Turkish national team are quite popular in these quarters. I can't think why, after the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2008...


It’s funny, some folk are older than me, and recall Turkey being a bit rubbish at football, so when evidence of them being quite no bad at it these days happens, they are bamboozled.


Jon: I recall the days when Turkey were Luxembourg-esque and got thrashed 8-0 at Wembley but they’re long gone.


Michael: I don’t. Turkey were World Cup semifinalists as my introduction. But then, I guess I might get that if Montenegro or Moldova became big one day.


Truly, Turkey qualifying for major tournaments is one of the great happy moments for any neutral fan. Why? Keep reading! I guarantee that, by hook or crook, they have as many new fans as Leicester City by July.


Jon:  Talking of Leicester… there’s been one major casualty of their unexpected season and that’s Gokhan Inler.


Michael: He’s Swiss, but I trust you’re heading somewhere with this...


Jon: Must have looked a good move from the outside; a Premier League team (albeit one likely to struggle) and a good chance to make an impression… if they do well you might well catch the eye of bigger and better outfits. What are the odds that a team would become close-knit and not only stay injury and suspension free enough so you couldn’t force your way in but win the championship?


Michael: About 5,000-1?


Jon: So anyway, that’s how you miss out on the Euros. Turkey had done their best to match that, winning only one of their first five games (and that at home to the mighty Kazakhstan!) before turning it all around and winning four of their last five to scrape into an automatic third place qualifying spot with a last minute free kick winner from Selcuk Inan after having had Gokhan Tore sent off. It might very well be my favourite qualifying campaign of recent years that doesn’t involve Gareth Bale.


Michael: Inler as in road to Turkey nearly missing the Euros? They’ll be calling us obtuse next. Anyhow, Turkey, they left it late to say the least! But then, they left it late in 2008 too. Many, many times.


Joao: Turkey finished third in its group with 18 points, four points behind group winner Czech Republic and two points behind second placed Iceland. And five points above fourth placed Holland. As the best third placed team, they were automatically qualified to Euro 2016, unlike the other eight third placed teams that also had to play the playoffs for the remaining four spots.


Turkey only has three players left from the squad that played Euro 2008: defender Hakan Balta, and midfielders Mehmet Topal and Arda Turan.



Michael: It’s always good fun to see the Turks at a tournament though. They never seem to know the meaning of the words “dull, unmemorable match”. Through last minute comebacks, never say die attitude, controversial red cards, and the occasional bit of insanity, it’s likely we’ll leave this Euros recalling the Turkish side for one reason or another.  You wouldn’t believe how disappointed I get when we reach a tournament and once again the Turks have failed to qualify.


And whilst it’s not on the level of the 2008 Euro side, this squad still has talent. Captain Arda Turan earned a move to Barcelona, with a series of great displays for his national team and Atletico Madrid. With a season blighted by the Barcelona transfer ban, and press criticising his handful of appearances for Barcelona since he was allowed to play as signs of a transfer flip, Turan has a lot to personally prove to his doubters this summer.


Elsewhere, there is Hakan Calhanoglu, with free kick skills which are the combined children of Andrea Pirlo and Juninho. His talents were seen in the Champions League, and have helped Leverkusen back into that tournament next season. I can’t see him lasting long at the BayArena, as there will be far better clubs looking at his services. He only scored once in the qualifying, but it was a crucial goal to seal a 2-0 win in the Czech Republic.


Joao: Turkey’s first opponent will be Croatia. In Turkey and Croatia’s Euro debut in 1996 they faced each other and Turkey lost 0-1. That was the beginning of a rivalry that had a second chapter in Euro 2008 quarters, this time with a Turkey win in a penalty shootout. Croatia then eliminated Turkey in Euro 2012 playoffs. And now, the fourth chapter will be in Euro 2016, is it Turkey’s turn to win? The second opponent will be Spain. Turkey faced them in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and lost twice.The third opponent will be Czech Republic that they already faced twice in these qualifiers. Although Czech Republic won the group while Turkey was only third, Turkey won the head-to-head.  Turkey’s win was against an already qualified Czech Republic though, so perhaps a better example is the Euro 2008 match, also the third, where Turkey won and advanced while Czech Republic was eliminated.


Michael: The Turkish side is a solid hard working one, with a touch of flair, and some class players. They should be underestimated at your peril.


They are also bringing teenager Emre Mor, currently playing in Denmark, who I am told is super exciting, very talented, and also has a underlying capacity for being a bit of a nutter. Can’t wait.


And neither could Dortmund, who have apparently just signed him for a Scandinavian transfer record. Awesome. Probably a tournament too soon for him, but then, like Ante Rebic at the World Cup,  he might come on in cameos and lift the verve of the team.


Jon: That’s the same Ante Rebic who got sent off at the World Cup, relegated with Verona, and isn’t appearing in this tournament?


Michael: Bad example.


Jon: Good deal for Dortmund, though. I’ve heard good things.


Michael: Did you know that Fatih Terim has his sides constantly practice penalty shootouts, just in case it might come in use?


Also, there was a funny moment during a recent friendly with England. He saw that the English goal was offside, but the assistant linesman didn’t, so Terim brought out his smart phone, went onto Vine and showed the linesman video footage from social media of the offside goal! It wasn’t ruled off, but full marks for effort.



What the Experts Say



“Fatih Terim, the master motivator, now has his third crack at a European finals, after 1996 and 2008. However, this time there are some considerable problems in his squad. Terim needs another Hakan Sukur, but top striker Burak Yilmaz is out of shape – not only physically but also mentally following a January move from Galatasaray to the Chinese league. Many people in Turkey questioned Burak’s motives for moving to China and it remains to be seen what sort of condition he will be in when he arrives in France. There are also problems in defence, where Turkey concede goals far too often. Things have been tightened up recently, but tournaments tend to expose defensive weaknesses.” World Soccer preview, June 5 2016



Previous – Semifinals 2008
Recent – Semifinals 2008
Don’t mention – Failing to qualify for anything in between 2008 and 2016.
Do mention – KOing the Dutch. And Kazakhstan, who less people mention for some reason.
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 8. (There’s always a Volkan waiting, as they say – besides, that’s part of the fun!)


Michael: Turkey are outsiders in this group, but I wouldn’t count them out on previous tournament form.



Croatia




Joao: Croatia finished second in its group with 20 points, four points behind group winner Italy and one point above third placed Norway. They had a good start, with four wins and two draws in the first six matches. However, in September 2015, a draw against Azerbaijan followed by a defeat against Norway was enough for a managerial change.


Michael: Ah, Croatia, just look at that midfield...


Jon: If there’s one team that had the right to be grumpy at the last Euros it was Croatia. In a tournament where two qualify from each group they were always going to be up against it with the best side in the world (no Michael, not Italy, even if they did have Pirlo), one of the best sides at consistently navigating the hazards of tournament play and a bunch of sacrificial lambs for everyone to beat up on.  Being Croatia they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a late Jesus Navas goal allowing the Italians to sneak through. So one of the most fun sides to watch went home after the group stages where the likes of possibly the least ambitious England side in memory (and I’ve got a long memory) progressed. Seriously, that Croatia were left watching whilst a Capello-Hodgson hybrid survived to give Italy a practice game in the knockouts is a crime.


Talking of Capello-Hodgson… here’s another side that  switched managers for an older model late in qualifying. Under Niko Kovac Croatia were struggling, losing 2-0 to Norway to lie in third place in the group with two games left (thanks partly to that deduction of a point for someone managing to paint a swastika on the pitch used for the game against Italy that had to be played behind closed doors). And then he went and criticised the players for not being committed. You can sort that out in club football but in international football you’re doomed because you’ve got limited options for change. 


Out goes Kovac, in comes former TV shop owner and peripatetic wanderer Ante Cacic to guide them straight to the Euros with two wins from two (coupled with a late Italy comeback against the Norwegians). And their good form’s continued, an impressive come from behind victory away in Russia followed by a comfortable win against Israel and a draw against Hungary. So they’ve managed to defeat UEFA’s disciplinary committee and their own failings to reach the tournament and really, if we’re simply talking on the pitch reasons we ought to be glad with the surely bionic Darjo Srna and a midfield of Modric, Rakititc, Perisic and Kovacic and their spearhead Mandzukic likely to provide plenty of entertainment…



Michael: Croatia look wonderful. Their midfield, on paper, is one of the most exciting and mouth watering in all of Europe: Modric, Rakitic, Perisic, Kovacic, Ante Coric. I name them much like Jon did, because, I am getting a strong sense of déjà vu. In every final tournament this century (including the 2010 World Cup which they failed to qualify), they’ve looked a sensational team, and yet, time and time again, they go home early. The 2008 Euros were the only time I’ve seen them qualify from the group stages while being a football fan. 

So are we getting a case of the boy who cried wolf here?


Mandzukic, who in 2012 was at Wolfsburg, has spent the last four years scoring freely at Bayern Munich, then scoring reasonably at Atletico Madrid and Juventus. In that time period he has won, among others, the Bundesliga, Serie A, the Coppa Italia, the German Cup, the Spanish Super Cup, and a little thing called the Champions League.  Indeed, in the tight 2013 Bayern v Dortmund final, he scored the opening goal. It’s not been a bad couple of years for the man from Slavonski Brod, and he’s no doubt the second most successful youth player I ever suggested for bigger things (alongside Mr Alexis “world class” Sanchez). There’s no doubt Mandzukic is top class... which is just as well, as Kalinic and Kramaric really aren’t. Jelavic could score, but he retired under a huff.


Joao: Compared to the 2014 World Cup squad, 13 players return for Euro 2016: goalkeeper Subasic, defenders Srna, Corluka, Vida, Vrsaljko and Schildenfeld, midfielders Modric, Brozovic, Perisic, Rakitic, Badelj and Kovacic, and forward Mandzukic.


Michael: Now here’s the flip to what I said above. Undoubted star Mandzukic scored only one goal in the qualifiers. That’s as many as aforementioned Kalinic, and even Ivica Olic, who retired from all football in 2016 rather than play for Ante Cacic. (Oversimplified for comic effect, before anyone complains!) It’s potentially accurate that Kramaric and Kalinic actually fit better into the Croatian system than the star player, and if so, then, despite own feelings, they really ought to go with whats best for the team.


An improving (though still dodgy) backline, one of the two two or three best midfields in the entire tournament, and an indomitable marksman up front. They should be a force to be reckoned with, and yet, if history is anything to go by, they’ll be out long before their talents suggest, with the watching neutral viewers sighing in what might have been.


Joao: Croatia’s first opponent will be Turkey. Their Euros debut, in 1996, was also against Turkey, and Croatia won 1-0. However, they’ve met again in Euro 2008 quarter finals, and Croatia was eliminated in a penalty shootout. Croatia then eliminated Turkey in Euro 2012 playoffs.


The second opponent will be Czech Republic. There’s a lot in common between these two, and they’ve never faced each other before. Both started competing in Euro 1996 qualifiers, before they were part of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The Czech Republic impressed by reaching the final in Euro 1996, two years later it was Croatia’s time to shine with third place in the World Cup. Croatia only missed one Euro (2000) and one World Cup (2010), while the Czech Republic never missed a Euro but missed four World Cups (only qualified in 2006).


The last group opponent will be Spain, that was also Croatia’s last group opponent in Euro 2012, defeated them 0-1, and Croatia was eliminated. Fortunately for Croatia, this time the four best third placed teams also advance, so if Croatia repeats its Euro 2012 performance (third place with four points) it should be enough to advance.


Michael: Did you see social media when they dropped Halilovic?


Jon: No.


Michael: Conspiracy theorists everywhere! To avoid getting on the bad side of Becali, I shall say no more...



What the Experts Say



“If Croatia come together as a team, then there is no reason why they can't match their achievements in 1996 and 2008 and reach the last eight. A lot of the attention falls on the midfield and understandably so. Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic play for Real Madrid; Ivan Rakitic is a regular for Barcelona. The depth and variety in those positions is impressive too. In defence, Croatia have excellent full-backs. Darijo Srna is a great leader. Sime Vrsaljko is one of the best crossers in Serie A. Up front, Mario Mandzukic is a warrior and has had a fine season at Juventus; Ivan Perisic offers width and goals. But the question marks come at centre-back as Dejan Lovren has been left out amid differences with coach Ante Cacic. Confidence in Cacic in general is not the greatest, however if he gets the balance right, this team has what it takes to do very well.”
James Horncastle, Euro 2016 Group D, Spain face Turkey, Croatia and Czech tests, ESPN 5 June 2016


Previous –  Quarterfinals 2008
Recent – Group Stage, 2012
Don’t mention – How they always manage to blow it.
Do mention – How they might not this time.
Self-destruction Potentiality Rating – 8.



Michael: The Croatians should be in the Quarterfinals at worst. But do any of us actually see that happening?


Jon: Surely, surely they can’t miss the knockouts this time?


Czech Republic






Jon: Oh look, a second opportunity to remind ourselves of the mess the Dutch made of qualifying.


Michael: You really wanted to make that “passed the Dutchy on the left hand side” gag, didn’t you?


Jon: With a joke that bad, people deserve to be tortured with it at least twice. Count it as educating the modern musical youth…. Anyway, same group as the Turks, opposite approach. Starting with a last minute winner against the Dutch, four wins to start with and cruised through an awkward looking group.


Joao: Czech Republic won its group with 22 points, two points above second placed Iceland, and four points above third placed Turkey that they’ll now meet again in Euro 2016 group.  Czech Republic was already supposed to finish above Iceland and Turkey according to seeding, but they weren’t the highest ranked team in their group, that was Holland, that finished fourth, nine points behind Czech Republic.


Michael: They’ve got Pavel Vrba in charge, who transformed Victoria Plzen into one of those teams to watch in Europe. He has a cavalier attacking approach, and a history in developing young players, so hopefully that’ll transfer to the tournament. There isn’t much youth in this Czech side, admittedly, as even Patrick Schick didn't make the final team, but there is a smattering of understated talent throughout.


Jon: Sparta Prague’s run to the Champions League quarter finals means they provide nine of the provisional squad and elsewhere it’s been kind of Tomas Rosicky to save himself for the Euros. It’s not the most exciting side on paper but Borek Dockal’s emergence in qualifying as a reliable goalscorer has been matched with goals spread throughout the team – their goals were spread across eleven different players.


Joao: Thirteen players remain from the Euro 2012 squad that reached the quarter finals: goalkeeper Cech, defenders Gebre Selassie, Suchy, Sivok, Hubnik, Kadlec and Limbersky, midfielders Darida, Plasil, Kolar and Rosicky, and forwards Necid and Lafata.


Their first opponent will be Spain. They were in the same group in Euro 2012 qualifiers, Spain won both games, and in the end both qualified, Spain directly and Czech Republic after eliminating Montenegro in the playoffs.


The second opponent will be Croatia. They’ve never met before; they can only be compared indirectly. Four years ago Czech Republic advanced from its group while Croatia didn’t. Eight years ago it was the opposite. These are indirect comparisons, they were playing against different opponents, and the level of the opponents also influenced how far they could go. Now the comparison will be direct, in the same group against the same opponents and also against each other.
The last opponent will be Turkey that Czech Republic already met in the qualifiers. Although Czech Republic won the group and Turkey was only third, Turkey would have won a head-to-head, with a 2-1 win for Czech Republic away and a 0-2 defeat at home.


Perhaps a better comparison is that they also faced Turkey in their last Euro 2008 group match, lost and were eliminated.



Michael: If you believe in historical fate, then the Czechs are doomed this tournament. See, in Euro 96, they reached the final. In Euro 2000, they crashed out to the Dutch and French in the group stage. At Euro 2004, they should have won, being the best team in the tournament, but lost out in the Semifinals to Greece on the rubbish silver goal rule, amid an injury blitzkrieg. In 2008, they helped KO the hosts, Switzerland, before crashing out in a famous Turkish comeback to make another group stage exit. In 2012, they KO’d the hosts, Poland, but this time reached the Quarterfinals, despite being written off pre-tournament by most pundits.


See the pattern here?


1996 – KO stages
2000 – group stage exit
2004 – KO stages
2008 – group stage exit
2012 – KO stage
2016 – group stage exit?


With the growing reputation my predictions are gaining on Bert Kassies’s coefficients forum, any Czech readers grateful for their unexpected title triumph I’ve just jinxed into creation can send financial gratitude to The40p.


Jon:  Even now, a plug.


Michael: What can I say, I learnt from Mick Foley. And no one is going to get that line.


Jon: And anyone who does will have a nice day.




Managers



Michael: Vrba has won plaudits across Europe for his Plzen side, here’s hoping his Czech side can be just as good. Del Bosque won a World Cup. Fatih Terim is an old favourite, and Cacic seems to be one of the many identikit pro-establishment Croatian managers, on paper.


Joao: Fatih Terim is in charge of Turkey for the third time, the first was between 1993 and 1996, and the second was between 2005 and 2009. His third spell began in September 2013, in the middle of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and although he won his first three matches, a home defeat against Holland in the fourth ruined Turkey’s chances to reach the World Cup. He avenged that defeat in the next qualifying cycle, eliminating Holland and qualifying Turkey to a major tournament for the first time since Euro 2008, when he was also in charge.


Vicente Del Bosque is a legendary coach that won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 for Spain. However, the 2014 World Cup was a failure, and he doesn’t want to leave Spain in a bad moment.  If he wins Euro 2016, he will be the magnificent coach that won 3 major tournaments for Spain in four attempts. However, if he loses, especially in a 2014 World Cup like disaster, he may be remembered as the coach that just took advantage of someone else’s job (Luis Aragonés was the founder of this golden Spain in Euro 2008) and failed to refresh it and remain successful.


Pavel Vrba became the manager after Czech Republic missed the 2014 World Cup. Qualifying them to a 24-teams Euro, which already happened since 1996 when there were only 16 spots available, is far from being his greatest achievement. As Viktoria Plzen’s coach, he qualified them to the Champions’ League group stages twice, in 2011 and 2013. And in 2012 he took them to the Europa League last 16. They were an unknown club without him; with him they became a renowned team, and once he left the results became a lot worse.


Ante Cacic was in charge for the last two games, and he recovered the second spot that was lost in Norway, with two wins against Bulgaria and Malta. His club career is unimpressive; in 2012 he took Dinamo Zagreb to the Champions League group stages but then lost the first five matches before being fired. In 2013 he couldn’t do the same for Maribor, losing twice in the last hurdle against Viktoria Plzen, and after also losing the first Europa League group match was fired again. Luckily for him Croatia is more relevant in national team football than clubs like Dinamo Zagreb or Maribor in European club football, so he may be able to get better results now.


Game to Watch


Gav: Games with Croatia in them as I think they’ll concede lots of goals without former Southampton great Lovren...


Michael: Croatia/Turkey could help settle second place right off the bat.


Jon: As well as having all sorts of potential for goals, style and everyone losing their tempers and turning it into a violent cardfest of the kind commentators like to say that nobody wants to see but, not so secretly, we all do.


But since Michael’s picked that… Croatia-Spain to watch arguably the two best midfields in the tournament go head to head. Technically it’ll be fantastic though it’s got the potential to dwindle into an arid version of football perfection all about aesthetics rather than excitement.


Michael: Like what happened in 2012?


Jon: You might well think that...



Players to Watch



Michael: Coric, Gebre Selassie, Saul Nigue,  Morata, Emre Mor


Jon: Coric is fascinating – courted by some of the world’s richest clubs and has the confidence and sense to stay where he is and let his game develop. How do you pick anyone from the riches of a squad that’s either playing for or being monitored by the world’s elite? Let’s instead pick up the potential nuttiness and aggression of Vida in defence. Dockal could provide an element of the spectacular from midfield for the Czechs. Could this be the tournament Thiago Alcantra finally assumes the mantle of successor to Xavi and Iniesta? Probably not, so Koke’s probably the man to look for once Iniesta’s inevitably been subbed early. Calhanoglu’s set pieces and passing make him a key player and he’s got something to prove with the absence of Tore and Toprak which is widely interpreted as being down to an alleged incident where a friend of Tore’s allegedly pulled a gun on Calhanoglu and Toprak over a friend of theirs allegedly trying to chat up Tore’s girlfriend.


Michael: Glad you remembered to put an allegedly in there.


Joao: Goalkeeper Subasic and midfielder Rakitic played in every qualifier for Croatia. Winger Perisic was the team’s top scorer with six goals. Goalkeeper Cech is one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers. Midfielder Darida was the only Czech that played the 10 qualifiers. Midfielder Dockal was the team’s top scorer with four goals. Goalkeeper Casillas, defender Ramos and midfielder Iniesta started in all three Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 finals, and if they keep that level it’s likely that Spain will succeed again. Midfielders Arda Turan and Hakan Çalhanoglu are among Europe’s finest. Forward Burak Yilmaz was the team’s top scorer with four goals.





Predictions



Michael:

1. Spain

2. Croatia

3. Turkey

4. Czech Republic



Gav:

1. Spain

2. Turkey

3. Czech Republic

4. Croatia



Michael: Think Croatia will crash and burn?



Gav: Yes, they should have brought Lovren.



Michael: A fatal Shakespearean flaw, as far as Gav is concerned.



Jon
1. Croatia

2. Spain

3. Turkey

4. Czech Republic




Joao:

1. Spain

2. Croatia

3. Czech Republic

4. Turkey



Spain should win the group, not because of history, but because their current squad is the strongest. Czech Republic, Croatia and Turkey are all good teams, but they’re not good enough for Spain. Croatia should be able to finish second behind Spain. Czech Republic has alternated advancing and failing to advance from Euro groups. Now would be the turn to fail. However, the best four third placed teams advancing improves their chances if they finish third. Maybe they can even be second and not worry about this. Turkey is actually quite good once they reach the final tournaments; the problem usually is getting there in the first place. On average they are the group’s weakest team, but there’s a big difference between the best and the worst they can do.



Michael: So to recap Group D: Spain are in decline and they can lose to Georgia, Croatia have an alleged puppet in charge and a disharmonious locker room, Turkey have a considered weak side buoyed by three or four great talents, and the Czechs are weak but have a good manager.


Bloody hell, it’s anybody's!



Jon: It’s a good group. Not a duff game in there.



Michael: Unlike other groups we could mention, involving Romania. 


What’s going to last longer, the tournament or David Cameron’s career?



Jon: Now that’s too close to call.



Michael: And that was the group that was.