Thursday, 9 June 2016

Euro 2016 Group E preview




Michael: In the spirit of the recent EU “debates”, perhaps instead of an actual debate, we could debate Group E by separately taking questions from a panel of audience members that we don’t answer?


Jon: He’s laughing now. He won’t be laughing when Iain Duncan Smith becomes the next Prime Minister.


Michael: Nooooooooooo!



Anyhow, after such a terrifying satirical thought killing line, let’s look to the football.


I was watching the BBC and ITV World Cup intros on YouTube the other day. Why are the BBC ones all class, and the ITV ones tacky shite?


Jon: Because...BBC and ITV, basically.


Michael: Even then, ITV’s use of a punk cover version of David Bowie’s Heroes for 2006 makes me as retrospectively angry as it annoyed me back then.


Jon: David Bowie! *sad face*


Michael: Yes, my mum’s not quite got over that one too.



Group E



Michael: It’s the group of death...for the Irish national team!


With them facing the Belgians (home to a million world class midfielders these days), the Italians, and Ibrahimovic (and Sweden), you have to fear for them.


Gav: No you don’t! They shouldn’t have qualified in the first place! I bet the ref gave it to them!


Michael: Hah. You’ve not recovered from the whole Estonia playoff thing from 2011, have you?


Gav: NO! I’ve also never seen The Naked Civil Servant!


Jon:  Don’t bother with the football then, you’ve better things to do. 


Michael: Well, I’ve got good news for you. Guess who IS going to the Euros?


Jon: Hint: Play in red! Dragon on flag! … oh, we’ve done that already haven’t we?


Gav: Estonia?


Michael: Hahhaahahahahahah. Try again.


Gav: Southampton?


Michael: Nope. Victor Kassai!


Gav





Gav: I bet he gets the final.



Italy






Joao: Italy won its group undefeated with 24 points, four points above second placed Croatia and five points above third placed Norway. It was the fourth consecutive qualifying cycle where Italy was undefeated. The last time they lost a qualifying match was in September 2006, a Euro 2008 qualifier against France, that they’d just defeated a few months earlier in the infinitely more important World Cup final.


Michael: Ah, Italy. Here lies the genesis of a great prediction, I got into Italian football watching Juventus’s wonderful performance against Real Madrid in 2003. Then the wonderful Juventus was undone in the Semi-final by AC Milan, and, while annoyed, some of those Milan players did catch the eye. Especially the chap who hit Buffon with the Panenka penalty a few months later in the Italian Super Cup.


I believe his name was Andrea Pirlo.


But then in 2005, Scotland were trying to qualify for a World Cup, and failing as usual, and they took on Italy. Italy won – I know, you’re shocked, right – but their passing, their individual talent, and ability to snuff out attacks before they were attacks struck a chord. I’d seen the Euros, and the Copa America, so had seen a good look at the likely contenders, and as Scotland got marked out of yet another game, I said aloud to Mum: “There’s the next World Champions”.


She scoffed, as did Dad, as did friends and family. For the next year, I told everyone that Italy were going to win the World Cup in 2006.


When the Semi-Official World Cup 2006 thread started (shout out to main stays WSKers, Grav, Todcor, Keith, Steve, et all for the 2016 version) I was pestering everyone with this “Italy will win” prediction, and it got the reaction it ought to have. “There, there”.


And then, they won. France might have had six midfielders, but Italy had one Pirlo.


Basically, that is the prediction on which my entire reputation as being far seeing in these matters rests on. And the fact that I then picked Italy to win in 2008, 2010 and 2012 doesn’t suggest that I was lucky, honest.


My Granda George remembered that prediction though. He was always asking me for tips on Champions League ties so he could make a cheeky tenner on the side at the bookies.


He did penniless. So it goes.


I do think Italy 2006 were a great team. I’d certainly count Buffon, Cannavaro, PIRLO, Del Piero, De Rossi as some of the best of their generation in their positions.


Jon: Not as eyecatching as the 74 Dutch or the 70 Brazil sides, but certainly a fine side.


Michael: Italy have had a long history with the Euros, winning them in 1968, reaching the final in 2000 (with a heartbreaking loss to France) and 2012 (with a more comprehensive loss to Spain). They’ve provided moments from going out in the Scandinavian draw, to the other great Marco Tardelli goal of 1980.


1980? Was that your first Euro, Jon?


Jon: 1988 for more than a passing interest, actually.


Michael: Ah, Van Basten! Though I look at those 80s tournaments and thinking “only 8 teams? A sneeze’d last longer!”


Jon: Was a bloody good tournament to have as a first proper Euros. Dutch of Gullit, Muhren, Van Basten, etc were a fabulous side, and the USSR weren’t far behind. Rats and Mikhailichenko were favourites around Arnold Towers. And then you had the like of Laudrup and Vialli in the other group. Top draw.


Michael: It seemed every other line of narration in the Italy games in the UEFA documentary is “Vialli missed a chance”.


Jon: Genuinely a lot of those games could’ve gone either way, less games but the quality was fantastic.


Michael: Italy, as long term readers might recall, were my tips to do well in 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and most famously of all, 2006, in which I managed to predict them winning the World Cup and have dined out on that predicting acumen ever since. So, it takes great sadness for me to admit that I am not predicting the Italians to do well at Euro 2016. With a squad beset by injuries in the most crucial roles, an aging defence, and a strike force which doesn’t look at all the equal of its previous contenders, I can’t see anything but an early pre-Quarterfinals exit for the Italians this tournament. 

And they didn’t bring Pirlo!



Jon: One moment... (heads down to the bookies and puts a tenner on Italy...)


Joao: Italy has thirteen players left from their 2014 World Cup squad: goalkeepers Buffon and Sirigu, defenders Darmian, Bonucci, Chiellini, De Sciglio and Barzagli, midfielders Parolo, De Rossi, Candreva and Thiago Motta, and forwards Immobile and Insigne.  Ogbonna and Giaccherini missed the 2014 World Cup but were in Euro 2012 squad, and Marchetti was in the 2010 World Cup squad. The remaining seven players will be having their debuts in a major tournament.


Jon: And no Pirlo.


Michael: Time waits for no man. *sobs*



I did like the sublime trolling by Conte, however. When the draw was made, one time wonderkid Mario Balotelli, now with the same relevance on the world stage as New Kids on the Block, tweeted that he couldn’t wait for the Euros. With dry sardonic wit, the Italian coached replied: “Why? Is he planning to watch on the telly?”


Jon: If he hasn’t given his telly to a needy family or launched it into space or something equally wonderful…


Michael: Up front is an issue. The good ship Rossi has long since sunk, a loan move to swiftly relegated Levante unlikely to trouble the Italian selection too much. What a waste of a sublime talent through injuries.  Pelle of Southampton has chipped in with a few crucial goals, but is unlikely to be a long term solution. The preferred option of Eder, Zaza and Insigne has produced 5 goals between them in 30 caps. Stephan El Shaarawy is finally showing the form many expected when he burst onto the Genoa and Milan scene as a 17 year old six years ago, with 7 in 14 for Roma since a loan move there from Milan in January. His international record needs improved though.


Jon: Hey, they could always bring in Bal- oh.


Michael: Balotelli has nine goals in his last 62 games.


Joao: Italy’s first opponent will be Belgium. Italy defeated Belgium 2-0 in Euro 2000, where Sweden was also in the same group, only Turkey was the fourth team then and now it’s Ireland. The second opponent will be Sweden that Italy also defeated in that Euro 2000 group, a 2-1 win, but four years later they’ve met again in Euro 2004 and the result was a 1-1 draw, this time with a worse ending for Italy that couldn’t advance from the group stage. The third opponent will be Ireland, that was also Italy’s third opponent in Euro 2012, and Italy won 2-0 and went all the way to the final.


Michael: Maybe they could do worse than bring in Francesco Totti from retirement. 


The tournament doesn’t start till tomorrow, there’s still time. 


Totti, who could have left Roma by the time this went to print, but has instead signed a contract extension (and justly so), has been free scoring in recent weeks with the sort of form that a player young enough to be his son would be proud of. In 2012, faced with a shooting crisis, Cesar Prandelli turned to the evergreen Di Natale. Perhaps the same trick would have worked twice?


In midfield, Verratti and Marchisio, both big misses, are out through injury, while Riccardo Montolivo would have wanted to make up for missing the World Cup through a nasty broken leg. The one to watch is Alessandro Florenzi, he of the spectacular goals for Roma.


Jon: De Rossi could always fill the… oh.


Michael: Did Conte go around kicking black cats under ladders while smashing mirrors last Friday the 13th or something? And its since come through that Montolivo misses out again due to injury. Poor chap has no luck. And poor anyone who is subject of a headline “News of a 3-year renewal with Milan have supporters disgusted...” You’d think he was Balotelli at Liverpool.

De Rossi will be there, but unfit.


Jon: They could always get in Balot... oh.


Michael: Why always him?


Never mind England, Manaus destroyed the Prandelli era of Italy. Bloody Amazon.


Elsewhere, Sebastian Giovinco (1 goal, 23 caps) thinks his form in the MLS deserves an Italy call up.  Aye, and Danny Seaborne’s form for Partick Thistle should see a call up from Roy Hodgson.


Jon: Hey, if Giovinco’s form deserves a call-up you could always use that as a basis to bring back Old Man Pirlo…


Michael: My campaign has already started. I’ve written to Conte, emailed him, tweeted him, phoned him (well, it goes straight to voicemail now funnily enough…), left comments on the Italian FA’s site… anyone know if Conte’s got a Tumblr?


Anyway… the other potential linger is Domenico Berardi. He is touted as a great future goal scorer, and has impressed for Sassuolo.  And yet, no call up.



Gav: I watched the highlights of some 60s Italy v Chile game because my friend is from Chile. Amazing stuff!


Michael: Battle of Santiago?


Gav: Yeah! The son of a boxer knocks out a dude for fouling him and doesn’t get sent off! Massive apology from David Coleman at the start, as if we’re about to watch them justifying the Holocaust or something!


Michael: Now that Conte is leaving for Chelsea after the Euros, there is some money going on Ventura being the next Italy manager.


Gav: Ace Ventura?


Michael: Close. Giampiero Ventura. He just left Torino after doing well over there.


Gav: So his name is Ventura, and I assume he is an ace manager. It counts!


Michael: I can confirm that Ace Ventura will be the next Italy manager.

Belgium/Italy and Sweden/Italy should be good matches, but they are ripe for upsets. Going into the tournament cold, as Italy have done plenty of times in the past (Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 for two recent examples) could see them home and dusted before the lasagna’s even cooked. I think they’ll get to the next round, but be gone before lovers of the Azzurri have even settled down to cheer.


Jon: Which’ll terrify Chelsea fans who might be concerned about the calibre of manager they’re getting next year. I do wonder if Conte essentially being a lame duck will undermine his authority too. The omens really aren’t good for them.


What the Experts Think



“Scoring 16 goals in their 10 qualifying matches, La Nazionale have had problems going forward, and Conte has yet to find the right equation. Five of the Azzurri goals came against Azerbaijan, while the team toiled and laboured to score one against the likes of Bulgaria and Malta. Conte demands a lot from the team and tends to play exhaustive tactics, which could diminish the team's capabilities in front of goal. Couple that with the lack of genuine talent in the No. 9 role, and the squad might struggle to overcome well-organized defenses.” Mina Rzouki, Italy will defend well at Euro 2016 but lack of creativity in attack is a problem, ESPN 24 March 2016



““In the last Euros, the Italian team arrived in the tournament against Spain after a good tournament, but in the last World Cup, we were knocked out in the first round,” he stated “This is not a good moment for Italian football. It is difficult to find new young players who are very strong. We are working hard to become a good team and have a good squad and if we find the way, it is possible for us to be an outsider (to challenge) in this tournament.”” Antonio Conte, Independent.ie, Kevin Palmer 6th June 2016



Previous – Winners 1968
Recent – Finalists 2012
Don’t mention – Their allergy to World Cups since winning in 2006.
Do mention – Buffon’s eighth major tournament in a row, and 9th in total
Self-Destruction Potentiality Rating – 9.


Michael: I don’t want to sound biased or anything, but a near 40 year old past any resemblance of his prime Pirlo is still a better choice than some of these choices. Hell, a one legged Pirlo would be better.


Still, in 2014, I got so pissed off about Italy exiting the World Cup I sodded offline for a few days in a huff. This time I am calm and collected and expecting the worst ahead of time. At least there’s no Mario this time. Did you know during the Costa Rica game at the World Cup, he CRITICISED PIRLO’S FREE KICK TECHNIQUE? HOW DARE HE? WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS TO TURN ON THE MASTER WHEN HE OPENLY SUPPORTED HIM DURING HIS TEARAWAY ERA....


As I say, calm and collected.



Belgium



Michael: Belgium seem to be everyone’s tip to do well this time out. Perhaps the mystique of the World Cup team is done and dusted. A quarterfinal, if a tame one at that, was a success for Belgium. Now, it feels like anything less than a Quarterfinal, or further, would be a failure. And yet, there was question marks around the manager who, as Steve Atkins might charitably put it, is fond of eccentric decisions.


They might also have the handicap of playing Benteke.


Jon: Nothing wrong with Benteke as long as you’re playing him in the right system. It’s fair to say that Liverpool this season was at no point the right system for him. That said it’s likely that Lukaku (of the Romelu variety) would be a better option simply on form and confidence.

Did I mention their results against Wales in qualifying?


Michael: Once or twice… or fifty or sixty times. Each day.


Joao: Belgium won its group with 23 points, two points above second placed Wales and six points above third placed Bosnia.Although they finished above Wales, they lost the head-to-head, with a 0-0 home draw and a 0-1 away defeat.


Michael: The Belgian talent investment has brought dividends for their team, with more class midfielders vying for the international spots than there was line ups for the Sugababes.


Jon: Selection problems In The Middle for Wilmots then that he needs like a Hole In The Head. At some point though he’ll have to be Stronger, stop everything going Round Round in his head and just Push The Button on his selections.


Midfield of Buena, Range, Buchanan and Berrabah then…


What?


Michael *Paddington Bear stare*


Joao: Fourteen players remain from their 2014 World Cup squad: goalkeepers Courtois and Mignolet, defenders Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Ciman, midfielders Witsel, De Bruyne, Fellaini, Hazard and Dembélé, and forwards Origi, Romelu Lukaku and Mertens.  The remaining nine players will be having their debuts in a major tournament.



Michael: Nainggolan missed the World Cup: with increased important (and sometimes violent) performances for Roma, his appearances in the Belgium team have been more frequent.


Divick Origi, injured in a nasty tackle by Everton’s Mori in the Liverpool derby, has a shot at making the Euros. Well, he’s made the team, I mean making an impact on the tournament itself.


Jon: He recovered impressively enough to make the bench for the Europa League final; should be fit enough to participate in the Euros with the few more weeks’ recovery time.  I suspect his role will be similar to the one he played at the World Cup though; a game changer who’ll test defences late on with his pace and power.


Michael: Yannick Carrasco, who has been class in a class side this season (Atletico Madrid, Champions League finalists) will be a player to watch if he can break into a Belgian midfield which is stacked with all the talents.


Witsel, Dembele, Nainggolan, Hazard, De Bruyne, Carrasco...and  the likes of Defour, Chadli, Tielemans and the wonderfully named Sven Kums unable to break into the side. Perhaps they should start loaning out international midfielders to less successful nations?


Jon: Can we dump a team and just make one out of the Spanish and Belgian cast-offs? Spalgium we’ll call it, a team playing a 0-11-0 formation but you’ll never get the ball off them to score.


Michael: Kevin Mirallas pays the piper for a mediocre Everton season, and Adnan Januzaj is so unlikely to appear in the squad again, he’s likely to sign up for Kosovo.


Jon: Januzaj looks to be an overhyped talent right now, a couple of decent early games for United seeing him heralded as a future star by their publicity machine. Might be unfair there though, Ferguson’s retirement has left United something of a mess over the past few years and the entry of Mourinho probably won’t do much for young talent like him unless it’s to ship him out and let him blossom elsewhere.


Michael: My general feeling about Belgium is that they have baseline of talent now that ought to see a Quarterfinal, but lack the extra stuff that takes them from "great eight" to "winners". Be that the coach, the abundance of great midfielders and lack of non-central defenders as you suggest, an inability to get the best from all the talents...


Jon: Wales showed how to beat them in the qualifiers; they struggle against a deep lying, resolute defence which denies space and they’re likely to make a mistake or two which’ll give the opposition a chance. And there are plenty of those type of team in this tournament as well as very good teams who’ll be able to do some serious damage to them.


Michael: That, and an over reliance on Felliani, and an under reliance on Batshuayi (he's only one of the best young strikers in Europe, I can see why that's not a quality Wilmots would want in his team...)


Jon: Fellaini, a man made entirely of hair and elbows. I really can’t see him avoiding suspension at some point in this tournament. 


Michael: I do think, if he gets game time, Carrasco will be one of the stars of the team.


And if Batshuayi actually gets playing time, he might be an outside bet for Golden Boot. I mostly expect him to get about 3 minutes as a sub.


Jon: What, with Benteke, Lukaku and Origi about? Pray for injuries!


Joao: Belgium’s first opponent will be Italy that defeated Belgium in Euro 200 group, and before that they also faced each other in Euro 1980 group and the result was a 0-0 draw.  The second opponent will be Ireland. They faced each other in the 1998 World Cup playoffs, and Belgium advanced with a 1-1 away draw and a 2-1 home win.  The third opponent will be Sweden. Belgium also faced them in Euro 2000’s opening and won 2-1.  In their previous four Euro participations, Belgium always won only one match. Firstly, will they also be able to win one match now? And if they do, will they be able to win more? Marc Wilmots already faced the same problem two years ago, Belgium had never won more than two matches in a World Cup edition, and he doubled that record to four. Perhaps he can also break this record.




What the Experts Think




“The manager has rarely changed his 4-2-3-1 system since taking over from Georges Leekens in 2012. The players are more or less the same as those who reached the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, who surprisingly was not in the squad for Brazil, is the only new face in midfield. He gives Belgium something extra with his energy, his powerful tackling and long-range goals. He suffered a calf strain at the end of May but should be fit just in time for the Euros. Belgium have struggled to dominate games because their passing has not been quick enough but Wilmots has made a few tweaks in an attempt to speed things up.” Kristof Terreur, The Guardian 8 June 2016


““He has bettered his personal goalscoring record in England and that’s nice for a young striker who is playing in a team ranked 12th,” assesses Lukaku. “He has become more adept with his back to goal. He varies his game more. He can drop deeper and demand the ball. He is better in possession and in combinations.” Jordan Lukaku on his brother Romelu, to Samindra Kunti, Jordan Lukaku Interview: his relationship with Romelu and hopes for Euro 2016, 11 May 2016


“In order to feel confident, Belgian football fans just need to look at the players in their squad. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois are all world class, with five or six others being very close to that level. If that isn't enough, the Belgian squad has been the costliest of the 24 to assemble, at £319 million. Added to that, Belgium are the highest FIFA-ranked European country. It's a team that is always hard to beat and if the quality players can get it together on the pitch, these boys could go all the way.” John Chapman, ESPN, 8 June 2016



Previous – Finalists, 1980.
Recent – Group Stage, 2000
Do mention – Their vast array of talents.
Don’t mention – Their inability to turn that talent into a cohesive team.
Self-destruction Capability Rating: 9



Michael: Belgium should be part of the top four of Euro heavyweights with France, Germany and Spain. That they’re not speaks volumes. And yet...




Sweden



Michael: The man that Zlatan Ibrahimovic thinks is the greatest footballer on Earth, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, gets to embrace one more tournament.


Jon: Most individuals don’t see as many medals as Zlatan outside wartime. He’s like Ronaldo but with a sense of his own absurdity.


Michael: Zlatan’s goal against Italy at Euro 2004 is the greatest goal I’ve seen which I always forget about between seeing.


Jon: It was a good one.


Joao: Sweden finished third in its group with 18 points, ten points behind group winners Austria and two points behind second placed Russia, and seven points above fourth placed Montenegro. Then they had to play the playoffs against another third placed team, Denmark, and they advanced with a 2-1 home win and a 2-2 away draw.


Jon: But Michael, let’s talk about your dark horses prediction from 2012…


Michael: I’m running low on Paddington Bear stares here you know…


Jon: *evil laugh*


Michael: The team behind him are full of worthy hard working individuals and not scarce of talent in their own right (though the clever Rasmus Elm is injured, sadly), but the spotlight and the press will focus on the man Zlatan.


Last time they relied on Ola Toivonen (heavily rated by me, who went onto have a rubbish tournament) and Rosenborg (the player), neither of whom, it turned out, could have arranged a piss up in a brewery when they only invited Glaswegians. This time round, alongside Ibrahimovic’s goals, there is Gudietti, who knocked in goals like he was throwing thunderbolts at lesser beings at Celtic (including several against defenceless and innocent Partick Thistle), and has continued in strong form at Celta Vigo, who will now be in next year’s Europa League. He never played for Manchester City, and was released without fanfare. That might prove to be an error before too long.



Joao: Sweden has eight players left from its Euro 2012 squad: goalkeeper Isaksson, defenders Lustig, Granqvist and Olsson, midfielders Kallstrom, Larsson and Wernbloom, and forward Ibrahimovic. The remaining fourteen players will be having their debut in a major tournament.



Michael: Toivonen, who looked to have Europe by the wrist four years ago, now barely survived relegation with Sunderland, and in terms of the Euros, is Sir Not Appearing In This Film. His place is taken by the aforementioned Guidetti, and Emir Kujovic, a 27 year old Norrkoping player with 3 caps whom I know nothing about, beyond a glance at a Wikipedia page which doesn’t mention much.


Looking at the Swedish 23, its striking how weak it looks on paper. The talents are all aging, and the younger talents which looked so promising a few years back have either struggled to convince or fall away into the ether. They were the star makers of Scandanavia not so long ago, now they are like Wales and all the other hard working sides with one superstar.


Jon: Oi!


Michael: *innocent face*


I expect nothing from Sweden.


Still, I expected lots in 2012, and was disappointed. Perhaps with expectations so low, and a manager leaving soon after, they’ll surprise?



Jon: An unimpressive qualifying campaign suggests you’re right; sneaking through the playoffs after a 4-1 shellacking at home by the New Wunderteam (I’m copyrighting that one for when Austria win the whole thing). That said they were the only side to nick a point from Austria during the campaign so they’re capable of some dogged performances.



Michael: Incidentally, Ibrahimovic wins titles, so wherever he winds up in England, put some money on them winning the league next season.


Gav: Hopefully Southampton.


Jon: Sadly for the Saints, I hear he’s a boyhood Thistle fan and always wanted to play for them…


Joao: Sweden’s first opponent will probably be the easiest, Ireland. Sweden got a 0-0 home draw and a 2-1 away win against Ireland in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. The second opponent will be Italy. In Euro 2004 Sweden got a 1-1 draw and they advanced while Italy was eliminated. However, four years earlier in Euro 2000 they lost 1-2 and were eliminated in the group stages. The third opponent will be Belgium that Sweden also faced in its Euro 2000 group, and also lost 1-2.



What the Experts Say



“The group is exciting and very strong. I have played in Italy – they have plenty of good players and are a good team. Belgium have been the top-ranked team in the world and have a lot of good individual players. The only thing missing is achieving something in a big competition, which they are capable of. It will be exciting to play against Ireland as well. We played against them in two difficult qualification games [for the 2014 FIFA World Cup] so it will definitely be tough again.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, UEFA.com interview, 7 June 2016



“Zlatan Ibrahimovic carries Sweden's hopes into this summer's finals, but only a dazzling show from the 34-year-old striker will be to be enough to see them progress to the knockout stage. No side in the tournament is more reliant on one-man than Blagult are on their outspoken striker...However, with Italy, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in the 'Group of Death' the Swedes will need more than their talisman to be firing on all cylinders if they are to progress. They showed a real weakness against higher-ranked teams in qualification claiming just two points from 12 against group winners Austria and runners-up Russia, while defensively they look laboured and vulnerable and the fact they only kept clean sheets against Liechtenstein and Moldova is a major concern. Sweden's best chance of getting through to the knockout stages could be as one of the best third-placed teams but to do that they'll probably need to beat the Republic of Ireland in their opening match and possibly take least a point from Belgium or Italy. Based on their recent performances it's hard to see that happening.” Steve Bramley, Euro 2016: Group E guide, Sporting Life 8 June 2016



““If you look at Sweden’s best games in the last couple of years I would say they played very much like Norway [under Egil Olsen]. They played simple, made Ibrahimovic the first defender, with pure zonal marking, and that worked to beat Denmark over two games. It was much more of a Lagerback performance over two games than many would like to admit.” Stale Solbakken, to Olof Lundh, The Guardian 7 June 2016



Previous -  Semifinals, 1992
Recent – Quarterfinals, 2004
Don’t mention – Not qualifying from a group stage since 2006.
Do mention – Zlatan.
Self-Destruction Capability Rating – 9



Michael: Myself and Jon have long been fans of the man they call Ibrahimovic. Don’t think it shows, though.



Republic of Ireland








From the future


Michael: Man, who knew Ireland would lose all three games 30-0?
Gav: I was hoping for 100 goals. Damn you, Italy, shutting up shop at 17-0.





Michael: I couldn’t find Dave Allen’s Ian Paisley impression online, sadly.



Dave Allen: “And there will be a great gnashing of teeth!”, guess who that is, and a wee man at the back asks “What if we haven’t got any teeth?” TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”



Michael: Do you know who Ireland are bringing?


Gav: Shame Long. Shame because he plays for a team who once screwed over Estonia.


Michael: Other than him.


Gav: They have other players?


Michael: Robbie Keane, OAP.


Gav: Hah! OAP he might be, but he’s probably the highest scorer in the MLS.


Michael: He has 77 goals there so he might well be.


Jon: He’s scored at every single one of his childhood clubs, you know.


Michael: Except Inter. That’s a bit random. He moved from Coventry to Inter. In 2000. Truly the early 2000s were a different lifetime.


Martin O’Neill says Shane Long is great.


Gav: Well, he is.


Michael: So does this conflict you? Ireland’s having one of Southamptons stars? Or do you just want them to lose 10-3 now?


Gav: The latter! Or 10-9, with a hat trick of hat tricks for Long.


Notes for newcomers - Gav lives in Estonia. Estonia reached the 2012 Euro playoffs, only to lose via some contentious referee decisions to the Irish. He's never forgotten...



Joao: Ireland finished third in its group with 18 points, four points behind group winner Germany and three points behind second placed Poland, and three points above fourth placed Scotland. Then they had to play a playoff against other third placed team, Bosnia, and they qualified with a 1-1 away draw and a 2-0 home win.



Michael: They qualified from a tough group via the stewardship of one Martin O’Neill. You could say they’ve replaced one stubborn inflexible coach with another.


Jon: I’m not a big fan of O’Neill, but credit to him, he puts out teams that are dogged and scrap and make things awkward for what, on paper, look better teams. He’s perfectly suited to managing a team of scrapping underdogs like this.


Michael: Ever looked at a group, and thought, this is a tough one, the Irish are going to get thumped. 


And then thought: Damn, this could have been Scotland’s thumping!


Jon: Ask me after the last Group B games…


Michael: I expect the Irish to lose all three games, and I, for one, will be incredibly jealous of them in all three matches.


Joao: Ireland has ten players left from its Euro 2012 squad: goalkeepers Given and Westwood, defenders O’Shea and Ward, midfielders McGeady, Whelan and McClean, and forwards Walters, Keane and Long. The remaining thirteen players will be having their debut in a major tournament.



Michael: They admittedly got through a tough qualifying group (in which they dropped four points to Scotland, yet still made the playoffs), but then, in 2012, facing Russia, Slovakia and Armenia was no picnic either, so we can’t compare the two qualifying groups for signs of improvement. And besides, qualifying never gives that much of an aide to the tournament itself, otherwise Poland would have been 2006 Semifinalist and Brazil would have gone out in the group stage of the 2002 World Cup.


The troubles for Ireland are multiple. They are still turning to forty year old Shay Given as goalkeeper in the crunch, and his once hovering on world class skills have decreased substantially in older age. He made the Stoke line up for two games this season in the league, and conceded eight goals in those two games. Behind him, there are aging Forde and Westwood are in the lower leagues, and whilst Darren Randolph got games in the qualifiers and recently friendlies, he’s not a top class keeper either.


Jon: I’ve never been a big Given fan – he always looks like he plays in lead boots.


Michael: See, when I said world class, I clearly meant by Celtic nation standards...


Jon: Yes, but you think Alan Rough was world class.


Michael: He WAS!


Jon: Anyhow, Given: Undoubtedly an agile shot-stopper but if he’d been a little more adventurous and not apparently nailed to his line he’d have had no need to make those saves. Case in point: that infamous Henry handball. All stemmed from a cross from deep which was there to be claimed and which might not have bneen attempted but for Given’s weaknesses.


Michael: Up front,  they have no real goal scorers. In eight of twelve qualifiers (including the playoffs), they scored one goal at best. The lack of goals is best exemplified by the fact that they’ve brought Robbie Keane in back to the squad from LA Galaxy. Potentially reliant on a 35 year old from the Major League Soccer retirement league. Shane Long is a decent player for Southampton, but he was a decent, young and faster player in 2012 and had no impact.


Jon: Depends how they use him. Long can unsettle and harry defences with a superb work ethic and a sharp footballing brain which’ll annoy the defenders he faces.  Jon Walters plays similarly so their tactic in the absence of a great deal of creativity looks to be to hustle teams into a mistake. Keane’s not got the turn of pace he once had but he’s smart enough to keep defenders alert.


Michael: In midfield they have the talents who never seem to put in the effort (McGeady, McCarthy and McClean), and a bunch of hard workers. Hopefullly Harry Arter makes the final squad – hes unlikely to make a difference, but it would be nice after the sterling season he’s had for Bournemouth.


It is a team of hard working grafters. I can see a repeat of 2012 coming.


Jon: In fairness McGeady certainly seems motivated; O’Neill told him he had to be playing regular first team football and he got a loan move to Sheffield Wednesday. So he at least is motivated and working towards it. Shame about Arter, but apparently he’s been ruled out by injury.


Joao: Ireland’s first opponent will be Sweden. Ireland faced them in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers and got a 0-0 draw away and a 1-2 home defeat. The second opponent will be Belgium. Ireland faced them in the 1998 World Cup playoff, and Ireland was eliminated with a 1-1 home draw and a 1-2 
away defeat. The third opponent will be Italy, just like in Euro 2012, where they were also Ireland’s third (and last) opponent. Four years ago Ireland lost 0-2. They were already eliminated anyway, even with a win, because they had zero points while Croatia and Spain already had four each. This time, even if they get to the last match in the same circumstances, one win will be enough to get the third spot with three points, and if they are one of the four best third placed teams, they’ll also advance from the group stages.


Jon: Thing is, Sweden and Ireland only need 3 points to qualify.


Michael: I’d say four myself.


Jon: I think 3 points will be enough to qualify as a best third place in the end. Four will certainly be enough.


Michael: Four wasn’t enough in 1994.


Jon: The Irish group. Beat Italy, drew Norway, lost to Mexico when Aldridge went nuts at not being allowed on for ages.


Michael: Poor Norway. But that’s only ever happened once to my knowledge. A statistical rarity.


Jon: There are scenarios where 5 and 6 points will send people home but those are extremely unlikely.


Michael: That would require five groups to have teams in third place finish on 5 or more points. Statistically...quite unlikely I’d say!


Jon: I’ve never been one to overstate the odds. It could happen, but it’s unlikely as to be next to impossible.


Michael: Four points is 99% sure, I’d think.


Wouldn’t surprise me if they did KO Italy though. I’ve no faith in Italy at all this year.


Jon: Or maybe it’ll be a repeat of USA ’94 and they’ll both go through…


Gav: Rather than talk about Ireland (boo to them), I have a theory about Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Star Trek, which people can tweet me about.


Jon: Yes, I often link the Irish with bartenders too…


Oh, Michael, speaking of the Irish in general, there’s late breaking news.


Michael: What’s that?


Jon: WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE!


Michael: Why do I always walk into that? He’s going to score at the Euros and we’ll never hear the end of it.


This tournament looks like it could get messier than a feeding scene in Jurassic Park for the Irish. 

One of my favourite films, that. Whenever it’s on, I am genuinely impressed by how well it holds up.


Jon: It does, but I find that with just about all Spielberg films. Because for me the combination of artistic smarts and commercial appeal makes him the best director I’ve come across. You can argue others in technique but they never met for the mass audience as he did.


Michael: Other than Hitchcock, in Western terms of course. I’d suggest Jaws still holds up 40 years on, but the Joe Publics on Gogglebox were deriding its cheapness.


Jon: Well, they’re deriding the bits that *will* age no matter what you do rather than story technique.


Michael: I think Jurassic Park has aged better, effects wise, than the famous Avatar to be honest.


Jon: Avatars just technical dazzle, it’ll age horribly. Jurassic Park is technical dazzle and great direction.



What the Experts Say





“Na na. Na na. Na na na na na na na na na na na na (builds to crescendo)” The shark from Jaws, in anticipation




“Nobody should underestimate the Irish, who have plenty of experience and have shown they can scrap their way to the kind of result that would throw the group wide open. Their first match against Sweden looks vital, and anything but a win would make progression a very long shot.” Nick Ames, Euro 2016 team preview Republic of Ireland aim to improve on 2012, EPSN 5 June 2016



“Ireland's group, have a feeling we might sneak out of it, we drew and beat Germany in the qualifiers, so we've nothing to fear.” Gallifrey Base legend GarlicBread, 13 May 2016



Previous – Group Stage, 1988, 2012
Recent – 9 goals conceded, 2012.
Don’t mention – Pretty much any competitive match since 2002.
Do mention – Errr....  their fans will be friendly.
Self-Destruction Capability Rating – 9.



Michael: Where’s the youth? Youngest person in the squad is 23.  Only one twenty-one year old has played for them in the last year. The u21 side has to fill their squads with players from Boreham Wood, Braintree Town, Halesowen Town and even QPR.




Managers




Michael:  Conte did well at Juventus (though as Joao suggests below, not that well), and is moving onto basketcase Chelsea after the tournament. His moodswings might have further hamstrung a depleted Italy, time will tell. Martin O’Neill, I’m not a fan of, but I keep it quiet. Did you know his Aston Villa once spent the third most on transfers in Europe in one season? Anyhow, he did well to qualify, even if he needed a helping hand from Georgia... grumble. Eric Hamren is still in charge despite the Swedish failure at Euro 2012, and Marc Wilmots could manage the strongest side in the tournament bar none if he actually picked his best side.


Joao: Antonio Conte being undefeated in Euro 2016 qualifiers is nothing that others haven’t done before him. He took Juventus to the Champions League quarterfinals in 2013 and to the Europa League semifinals in 2014, before joining Italy, but his successor Massimiliano Allegri did a better job by taking them to the Champions League final in 2015, when in the previous season, with him in charge, they couldn’t even advance from the group stage. After Euro 2016 he will leave Italy to join Chelsea that was probably impressed when his Juventus faced them in the 2012 /2013 Champions League – the highest point in Antonio Conte’s career. Let’s see if after Euro 2016 he will reinforce that good impression or ruin it.


Marc Wilmots is getting impressive results with Belgium, compared to his predecessors. Firstly he qualified Belgium to the 2014 World Cup, and he was undefeated all way to the quarter finals (twelve wins and two draws) where he lost against Argentina. Before that Belgium missed the 2010 and 2006 editions. And now he qualified Belgium to Euro 2016 – Belgium missed the 2012, 2008 and 2004 editions, in 2000 was automatically qualified as co-host, and before that also missed 1996, 1992 and 1988, so the last time that they advanced from the Euro qualifiers was in 1984, when none of their current players except reserve goalkeeper Gillet were even born.


Martin O’Neill became Ireland’s manager after they failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, finishing fourth with 14 points in 10 matches, fourteen points behind future World Champions Germany, six points behind Sweden, and three points behind Austria. Two years later, with him in charge, Ireland finished in the third spot instead of fourth, with 18 points instead of 14. Perhaps the group was easier though, so we’ll only know if there was a real improvement with the results in Euro 2016. Martin O’Neill’s biggest achievement so far was taking Celtic to the UEFA Cup final in 2003. If Ireland advances from its Euro 2016 group, it would be other big achievement to rival with it.


Erik Hamrén became Sweden’s coach after they missed the 2010 World Cup, finishing third in their qualifying group behind Denmark and Portugal. He qualified them to Euro 2012, but two years later once again they missed the World Cup, eliminated by Portugal in the playoffs after finishing second in their qualifying group behind future World Champions Germany. Now he qualified them for Euro 2016, but Sweden was only third placed again. It seems that Sweden qualifying or not has much more to do with the opponents and the number of spots available than with Erik Hamrén’s ability to lead them.





Game to Watch



Gav: Is thingy going?


Michael: Thingy?


Gav: Swede.


Michael: Ibrahimovic?


Gav: Yeah.


Michael: Of course.


Gav; Then Italy v Sweden.


Michael: If Zlatan didn’t go they should cancel the tournament, for it wouldn’t be worth watching. As Zlatan said.


Gav: Is Svensson playing?


Michael: No, retired now.


Italy/Belgium, behind the sofa.


Jon: Sweden-Belgium on the last game has the potential to be a straight knockout fight, though each of the top three will probably get out of the group by taking three points from the Irish.


Gav: I think Italy will beat Ireland worse than when Georgia beat Scotland.


Michael: *mutters under breath* 7-0.


Gav: Was it that bad? I thought you only lost 1-0!




Players to Watch



Michael: In huff due to no Pirlo


Jon: Ah, go on. Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on WILL GRIGGS ON FIRE go on go on go on...


Michael: Florenzi, especially if he can pull off another of his Champions League scorchers. Wes Hoolahan. Guidetti. Nainggolan.


Jon: Zlatan’s contemplation of this from the footballing Olympus he inhabits moves from indifferent to contemptuous for not picking him. Might be his last international tournament so make the most of it! As a Liverpool fan I’m shamelessly going to pick the potential havoc late on of a Klopp trained Origi ahead of the more obvious de Bruyne or arguably the best player in the Champions League final this year, Ferreira-Carasco. Bernadeschi looks to be Italy’s most versatile young talent and could force his way in on either wing or playing just off Pelle.  And much as I love Hoolahan I suspect the Irish player we’ll be seeing most of before they go home is Darren Randolph.



Joao: Goalkeeper Courtois is one of Europe’s finest. Wingers De Bruyne and Hazard scored five goals each in the qualifiers. Defender O’Shea, midfielder Hendrick and forward Walters were the players with more playing time in the qualifiers. Goalkeeper Buffon will be in his eighth consecutive major tournament. Fullback Darmian was the most used player during the qualifiers, and forward Pellè the top scorer with three goals. Goalkeeper Isaksson, midfielder Kallstrom and forward Ibrahimovic will all be playing their fourth consecutive Euro.



Michael: If Darren Bent were Irish, he’d have  had 100 caps. He should have gone to the 2006 World Cup, instead, Walcott went.


Jon: Bent (and I saw him develop at Ipswich) was seen as a Lineker type. He offered nothing to the team if he didn’t score. Not a fashionable option in the modern game and he’d need to be as prolific as Ronaldo to really merit consideration.







Predictions



Michael:
1. Belgium

2. Italy

3. Sweden

4. R Ireland

I was tempted to put Sweden second, but Zlatan aside, they look dire. All the talent from 2012 got old, rubbish, or in Rasmus Elm’s case, horrifically injured.


Jon: Elm’s is a real shame.



Michael: He has an undiagnosed illness which causes his stomach to bleed if he exercises. Ewww and ouch. Apparently if he plays football ever again, he might actually die. 



Jon: Aye, not even an accident, just unlucky on physiology. 



Michael: Aye.



Jon

1. Belgium

2. Zlatan

3. Italy

4. Republic of Ireland

It’s Zlatan and, on paper, one of the weaker groups.




Gav:

1. Italy

2. Belgium

3. Sweden

4. Republic of Ireland



Joao:



1. Belgium

2. Italy

3. Sweden

4. R Ireland

In theory Belgium is at least one of the strongest two teams in its group – Ireland and Sweden could only finish third in their respective groups while Belgium won its group, and Belgium was in the 2014 World Cup, unlike Sweden and Ireland, and with better results than Italy. It’s undeniable that Italy has a better history than its group opponents; the question is if the current team can be as good as the teams in the past were. The first suspicious sign was that they weren’t one of the seeded teams in the draw, Belgium was. Sweden should at least be stronger than Ireland and avoid the group’s last place. Maybe they can also finish above Belgium or Italy, but in the qualifiers they couldn’t even finish above apparently weaker teams like Austria and Russia. Probably Ireland will once again lose every match, just like they did four years ago. Even if they don’t, they’re still likely to end bottom of their group.





Michael: And that was the group that was!

That preview was longer than a speech by Neil Kinnock!