The Welsh Gull

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Euro 2012 Preview

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Everyone else is doing them, so ordinarily I wouldn’t bother as there’s very little original thought that I could add. However, I’ve done some group previews for a Torquay United forum, so I might as well post them here, as I’ve spent quite a bit of time on them. “Enjoy”

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Group A – Czech Republic, Greece, Poland, Russia

Group A kicks off Euro 2012 tomorrow at 5 pm BST, and includes some of the tournament outsiders, who all somehow managed to avoid the big teams and end up drawn into a group where they now have a realistic chance of making the knockout stages, when otherwise they would have been unlikely to do so

Having said that, though, that doesn’t mean these teams aren’t totally useless. It includes the hosts, former winners Greece, former runners-up the Czech Republic and perennial dark horses Russia – all are perfectly capable of springing surprises, which is what makes this the most open group in the tournament, although with some defensive teams, it could also be the most boring to watch:

Czech Republic
The golden era of Czech football, when they could call upon the talents of Jan Koller, Karel Poborsky, Patrik Berger and Pavel Nedved, is now a distant memory, with only remnants of that side remaining. A great side though it was, it persistently underachieved in the big tournaments – for some reason, the Czechs have been consistent qualifiers for the Euros, and indeed came close to winning Euro 96 (and were unfortunate to miss out in the semi-finals of Euro 2004 to their group rivals Greece), but have only once qualified for the World Cup (in 2006) since the split. The Czechs qualified for this tournament via a play-off with Montenegro, after finishing 2nd behind Spain in a group that also included Scotland

Nonetheless, the squad still contains a number of talented players, most notably scrum cap-wearing safe hands Petr Cech, who played an important role in winning the Champions League for Chelsea this season. The other names familiar to English fans will be Arsenal’s Tomas Rosicky and former Liverpool and Villa striker Milan Baros, now of Galatasaray. Generally, though, it is an inexperienced team – though most of the players aren’t young, they don’t have a huge number of caps, presumably because the previous generation were relied upon so heavily that they never got a chance. They may also struggle for goals – their top scorer in qualifying was defender (and penalty-taker) Michal Kadlec

Greece
It is now compulsory to refer to Euro 2004 when talking about the Greek national team. After all, they don’t really have much else to shout about, having qualified for only 2 World Cups and 3 European Championships. There is a reason why they were given odds as far out as 150-1 to win that tournament. It is arguably the greatest upset in modern football history – most people still couldn’t name you the players that played in that side

Talking of which, there are very few survivors of that team remaining. The most well-known is the captain of the current side, Giorgos Karagounis, the Panathinaikos midfielder who scored the first goal of that tournament. The 35 year old could equal or surpass Theo Zagorakis’ national caps record at the tournament. His club mate Kostas Katsouranis also featured, while Kostas Chalkias was in the squad. The current team, though, now revolves around the post-2004 generation of youngsters, including Celtic’s Giorgos Samaras. Though you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be contenders, they went through qualifying unbeaten, so don’t rule them out

Poland
Expect the usual clichés about the hosts carrying the hopes of a nation, but realistically, don’t expect a huge amount from them. Earlier this year, Poland were at their lowest FIFA Ranking yet at 75th. Like Austria in 2008, this is an average side that has qualified solely because they are hosts – 2010 World Cup qualifying suggests they would have struggled to make their way in that way for this tournament

However, the squad itself has a few talented faces, which suggests potential. Wojciech Szczesny is probably the most familiar, the Arsenal keeper quickly developing into one of the best in the Premier League. Up front is in-form striker Robert Lewandowski, who, along with captain Jakub Blaszczykowski (or Kuba for short) and full-back Lucasz Piszczek, was a key figure in Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back Bundesliga victories. The trio bring a talented, successful core to this side based around the right flank, but I’m not convinced the rest of the side is as strong. It is plausible that they could make it out of the group, especially as it is this group in particular, but I have my doubts

Russia
The Russians edged out the Republic of Ireland in what was one of the weaker qualifying group, but they go into Euro 2012 with another kind draw and are favourites to top the group, with the possibility of progressing further into the competition. Coached by former Rangers boss Dick Advocaat, it is certainly a talented squad, based around the successful CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg sides – Yuri Zhirkov, the former Chelsea left back/winger who now plays for Anzhi, is the only player in the expected starting XI from outside these two clubs. Spain have used such a formula to perfection in recent years, basing themselves around the players of Barcelona and Real Madrid

The key man is captain Andrei Arshavin, who lit up Euro 2008 after returning from suspension – without him in that tournament, they looked a far weaker side. But defensively they are strong – Igor Akinfeev, the first choice keeper if he has recovered from injury, is highly-rated, and Ignashevich and Berezutski make a strong centre-back pairing for CSKA and country. Up front, Advocaat has plenty of options – he is expected to go with Aleksandr Kerzhakov, but could also go for Fulham’s Pavel Pogrebnyak or ex-Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko if he wants to go more direct. They are likely to be the most attacking team in the group, which could play into their hands. But having played a very long season that has lasted a year and a half, fatigue could be an issue

For more info, I recommend Zonal Marking’s analysis of the teams:

Czech Republic: http://www.zonalmark…czech-republic/
Greece: http://www.zonalmark…preview-greece/
Poland: http://www.zonalmark…preview-poland/
Russia: http://www.zonalmark…preview-russia/

Group B – Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal

Group B is widely regarded as the obligatory “Group of Death” of Euro 2012, but I’m not so convinced. It contains 4 big tournament regulars, including 2 of the tournament’s fancied contenders, but usually these Groups of Death end up being underwhelming – Denmark and the Netherlands were also involved in a supposed “Group of Death” in Euro 2000 with the Czechs and the French – 2 wins in the first 2 matches for France and the Dutch meant that the issues were sorted before the played each other. That won’t happen this time due to the fixtures, but I think it’s pretty straight-forward

Denmark
10 years ago, you could have said Denmark were one of the best teams in Europe. You couldn’t say that now. Despite a smattering of talent, they are clear underdogs in this group. Despite coming through a challenging group that contained Norway, Iceland, Cyprus and, again, Portugal, you would assume that this is as far as they will get, barring a miracle of Euro 92 proportions

Highly-rated Ajax midfielder Christian Eriksen is the most talked-about of the Danish players and is the key playmaker of the side. Nicklas Bendtner is one of the players who has talked the most about himself and will be relied upon for goals – only he and experienced winger Dennis Rommedahl are into international double figures of goals for their country. Liverpool’s Daniel Agger is the captain of the side. They are missing regular keeper Thomas Sorensen to injury – Kasper Schmeichel and Anders Lindegaard, both of English clubs, will back up Stephan Andersen

Germany
It would be hard to argue that the Germans have the best international team in the world right now. Despite not winning the 2010 World Cup, they arguably made the greatest impression, dismantling both England and Argentina before being knocked out by Spain in a close semi-final. They have made at least the semis in the last 3 major tournaments and have some of the most exciting young players on the planet in their squad, some of whom can’t even get in their side

Everywhere you look there is quality. Manuel Neuer is one of the best keepers. Captain Philipp Lahm is one of the best full-backs. The midfield triumvirate of Schweinsteiger, Khedira and Ozil is surely only matched by Spain’s. Mario Gomez, despite his disastrous Champions League Final, scored for fun this season, and is expected to keep Miroslav Klose out of the starting line-up. Their one weakness may be at centre-back, where Mertesacker and Badstuber make a less-than-convincing pairing for potential winners. They are arguably a better team than 2 years ago, and they were very good then. They might not be the favourites but they should be

Netherlands
The 2010 World Cup saw the Dutch fall at the final hurdle for the third time. But this was a very different side to the one we have come to expect from the nation that pioneered Total Football, summed up by Nigel de Jong’s assault on Xabi Alonso in the final. Despite considerable talent in their side, they had to resort to ugly tactics in their attempts to stop the Spanish. It seems that they have mellowed somewhat since then, but the side remains more functional than free-flowing

The key players are the attackers. Arjen Robben had a great season and will be keen to banish the idea that he bottles it in the big matches after key misses in the 2010 final and this year’s Champions League final. Wesley Sneijder hasn’t hit the heights of his 2010 since but remains a potent force. Robin van Persie is expected to line up as striker after his incredible season for Arsenal, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is an excellent back-up and Dirk Kuyt is also in the squad. 2010 answered a lot of the critics who suggested they couldn’t defend but left-back is an issue after Gio van Bronckhorst’s retirement and Erik Pieters’ foot injury, while there is debate over who to play alongside Mark van Bommel centre midfield – another defensive player in de Jong, or a more attacking player like Rafael van der Vaart or youngster Kevin Strootman. They certainly have strength in depth but lack stability this time around

Portugal
After a disappointing 2010 World Cup in which they played very defensive football and even more frustrating Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, resulting in them needing to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina in the play-offs, Portugal come into this tournament on a downer. The squad itself seems a strong one, with plenty of well-known stars, but to judge it on individual ability, as some pundits have done, is missing the point somewhat – despite these names, their form in competitive matches has remained poor

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the best players in the world right now, if not in the history of football generally. He has had a tremendous season. However, he cannot carry this side on his own. The truth is, Ronaldo aside, there is no one there who looks like scoring a lot of goals – their main striker is the experienced Helder Postiga, who isn’t the best. It is a more open, attacking side than 2 years ago but lacks a striker and a true creative midfielder – not only is there no Pauleta, but there is also no Rui Costa or Deco. They’re probably in a better shape than they were under Queiroz in 2010, but Paulo Bento has failed to solve the major problems Queiroz encountered, and has also fallen out with experienced defenders Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho. I would be surprised if they can make it out of the group, because that would mean beating either Germany or the Netherlands

Further info:

Denmark: http://www.zonalmark…review-denmark/
Germany: http://www.zonalmark…review-germany/
Netherlands: http://www.zonalmark…review-holland/
Portugal: http://www.zonalmark…eview-portugal/

Group C – Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Spain

When the draw for Euro 2012 was first made, my first impression was that Group C, not B as would inevitably be framed, was the strongest group in the tournament. Though Italy are no longer the force they once were, they are still difficult to beat, while Croatia are always underrated by the English media, and Ireland will cause the other three problems. And that’s without referring to the reigning European and World Champions. It’s probably also my favourite group in the tournament – I honestly I have no idea what is going to happen here, because any of these four could go through

Croatia
As intriguing as ever, Croatia have snuck under the radar of late and could be set to spring a surprise or two in this group. The squad has that ideal blend of youth and experience – the likes of Darijo Srna and Josip “3 Yellow Cards” Simunic sit alongside the early 20-somethings like Ivan Perisic and Domagoj Vida. More importantly, though, they have plenty of options

However, there are one or two issues. Luka Modric, one of best playmakers in the world, is knackered after a long hard season thanks to Harry Redknapp’s refusal to rotate his squad. The defence lacks pace and mobility (Simunic is now 34), the wide defenders are both centre-backs, and they also lack a good holding midfielder now that Niko Kovac has retired. Nikica Jelavic is a talented striker but is unproven at international level – Ivica Olic’s absence through injury may prove problematic, although Eduardo is an able back-up. So there are plenty of questions that remain, but I wouldn’t rule them out of contention, certainly as far as progression to the knockout stages goes

Ireland
This Ireland side is much changed from the last time they qualified for a major tournament in 2002, but the more things change, the more things stay the same. Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane remain key figures, and the team remains a defensive counter-attacking side. As the tournament underdogs, they will go in with a lot of neutral support, as well as the usual passionate support from their own green-clad fans. And I think they have a chance of causing some upsets – the underdogs usually do

The team should be familiar to anyone who watches Premier League and Championship football regularly. Alongside Keane in this 4-4-2 is likely to be Wolves’ Kevin Doyle. They will be supported by Duff and Spartak Moscow’s Aiden McGeady, with the option of introducing Sunderland’s young prospect James McClean, though Giovanni Trapattoni has shunned other creative players like Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan in favour of a rigid structured system – Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews are expected to start in the middle. John O’Shea and Richard Dunne are at the heart of an experienced defence and will be vital to Ireland’s attempts to “do a Greece/Chelsea”

Italy
The 2006 World Cup victory seems a long time ago, as that golden generation of players has now largely left the stage. However, there are definitely echoes of that side in this one, not only in the likely presence of a couple of familiar figures (Buffon, Pirlo, de Rossi), but also in the formation, with a diamond midfield preferred again. That does leave them with little width but gives them plenty of presence in the middle, which will be key against Spain

Up front, the volatile pairing of Mario Balotelli (we all know about him) and Antonio Cassano, now recovered after his recent heart scare, could make for entertaining viewing, but the question is where the service will come from – there is no Baggio or Totti in this Italian side. Perhaps it will come from the full-backs, who will be given license to push forward, in particular Napoli’s excellent right-back Christian Maggio. But this in turn creates another problem – Pirlo sits in front of the back 4 but he is a deep-lying playmaker and isn’t particularly defensive. It is unusual to be talking about an Italian side that isn’t very good defensively but it could be an issue here

Spain
The best international team in the world? Well, maybe not at the moment. Unquestionably we are still in a glorious era for Spanish football, winning the last two major tournaments and having the best two club sides in the world. However, signs of weakness are creeping in, While Euro 2008 was a procession, the 2010 World Cup was a bit more of a challenge and it required some rather dull, negative football for them to get back on track after an early defeat to Switzerland. The slightly downward trajectory has continued, and Barcelona is key to this

On their day, Barcelona are still the best team in the world, and their players still dominate the Spanish team. However, this year was a disappointment, as fatigue began to set in and Guardiola’s strategy began to be worked out. Injuries were also crucial, and will be for Spain – they will be without two key players: striker David Villa, who broke his leg during the Club World Championship last year, and experienced defender Carles Puyol. Without these two, Spain look weaker going forward and at the back, and it’s hard to get away from that. Suddenly they are relying on Fernando Torres, currently in infamously bad form, to fire them to a third straight tournament. It is worth remembering that France entered the 2002 World Cup in a similar position, and didn’t even win a match. You’d be brave to bet on the same for Spain, but you never know…

Further info:

Croatia: http://www.zonalmark…review-croatia/
Ireland: http://www.zonalmark…review-ireland/
Italy: http://www.zonalmark…-preview-italy/
Spain: http://www.zonalmark…-preview-spain/

Group D – England, France, Sweden, Ukraine

Group D is essentially England and the rest, as far as England is concerned. But it’s an interesting, open group, with all 4 teams capable of advancing or self-destruction. It is unlikely the winner will emerge from this group but there enough sub-plots to make it fascinating viewing

England
Fabio Capello’s Roy Hodgson’s men enter the Euros on behalf of a nation that is finally now resigned to the fact that they aren’t going to win the tournament, for the first time in some 20 years (and yes, I’m sure some England fans still expected to win the last Euros despite not qualifying). Numerous quarter-final exits have convinced most people that that is what they are capable of – you’d have thought the message would have got home faster given how many times it has happened

Having said that, I have had a funny feeling for a while that England might do better than expected, as they usually do when expectations are low. OK, so preparations haven’t been ideal to say the least, but don’t forget Chelsea’s adventures in the Champions League this year – the defeat in Naples, down to 10 men and losing to Barcelona, missing key players in the final due to suspension, and yet they still managed to win it. This year has already seen a few unlikely stories in football. You wouldn’t bet against another. Although it’s cool to say England are rubbish, you’d never discount them, because the talent is there

In terms of the players, much rides on Wayne Rooney as ever, but until he returns from suspension, the key man will probably be Ashley Young, who will sit behind the main striker (be it Welbeck or Carroll). He has been in good form in recent matches. Behind this will be two banks of four, as per Hodgson’s beliefs. Gary Cahill’s absence means John Terry will probably be partnered by Joleon Lescott at the back, flanked by Glen Johnson and arguably England’s best player, Ashley Cole. The midfield pairing of Gerrard and Parker is good but ageing and lacking in positional intelligence. The wingers are a question mark – Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Milner and, somehow, Downing are the contenders for those positions. The only player with a definite position in the team is Joe Hart, one of the best keepers in the world at the moment

The key will be how England’s talented players adapt to playing in what is a rigid system. It will be less about creativity and flair, and more about solidity. Hodgson is at his best managing the underdog, and England are the underdogs. Underdog victories are possible – Denmark, Greece and Zambia show that. However, it just depends on whether Gerrard, Terry, Rooney et al are capable of adjusting their mentality to fit this

France
The 2010 World Cup was even more catastrophic for the French than it was for England. But the group stage exit marred by in-fighting and rebellion came after it had already been effectively confirmed that controversial coach Raymond Domenech was to leave after the tournament. He has been replaced by Laurent Blanc, who, although embroiled in his own controversy (the race quota affair), has gradually turned around the affairs of the slumping team. With old heads Henry, Anelka and the like gone, the team has an air of freshness about it, and is in-form – they are currently considered the best of the rest behind the current “big three”

France now have a much more effective attack. Karim Benzema has had a great season for Real Madrid and is comfortably their lead striker. He will be supported by Champions League finalist Franck Ribery and Premier League winner Samir Nasri – Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa is among the back-ups. The potential issues start in the middle – Yohan Cabaye had a great season for Newcastle and Alou Diarra is a capable player (though I’m sure Yann M’Vila will be in there ahead of him if fit), but Florent Malouda, set to be the third midfielder, hasn’t played particularly well there for Chelsea. But there are more problems in the defence due instability – no centre-back pairing has been decided upon, with Koscielny, Mexes and Rami vying for places (the latter two seem the most likely, but lack pace), while the absences of Abidal and Sagna to injury means they are slightly weaker in the full-back department. Nonetheless, I would still expect them to top the group

Sweden
I don’t really know what to say about the Swedes. Like most of the Scandinavian countries to me, their teams have always been a bit anonymous – not playing particularly attacking football or having much in their teams that is particularly exciting. This is despite having one of the world’s great flair players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as their key man. Zlatan has had another great season in Italy, although has an infamous tendency to somehow not perform when facing English opposition, meaning he is criminally under-appreciated here

Aside from Zlatan, though, the Swedish side isn’t much to shout about, though not average enough to discount from progressing. They play a more attacking style football than in the past thanks to new coach Erik Hamren, but the players remain largely the same. The main striker, playing ahead of Zlatan, should be Johan Elmander, but the former Bolton player is recovering from injury and may not be fit to start. Rasmus Elm and Sunderland’s Sebastian Larsson play a supporting role. Svensson and Kallstrom are decent midfielders, but they look weak defensively. I find it surprising that English fans have been quick to write them off, giving that England have consistently not beaten them in competitive matches. But then English fans have always underrated Sweden

Ukraine
The Ukraine squad was recently hit by a bout of food poisoning affecting nearly half the squad. This could well have a disruptive effect on a side that was already lacking in stability. Coach Oleh Blokhin, a star of the USSR team of the 80s, has experimented quite a lot with the team in recent weeks and months, and has also suffered with injuries – among the absentees are veteran keeper Oleksandr Shovkovskiy and former Barcelona defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy

The most well-known Ukrainian footballer, or perhaps even the most well-known Ukrainian full stop, is Andriy Shevchenko. The legendary striker is now 35 and well past his best, though, and will likely only play a supporting role. Dynamo Kiev’s Artem Milevskyi or Shakhtar’s Marko Devych will likely compete for the starting lead striker role, and may be supported by former Liverpool flop Andriy Voronin. Thus, the only player who seems to have his place secured in the team is their most capped player, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk of Bayern, who will play as a holding midfielder. Given the total lack of a defined first XI, Ukraine’s performance is therefore unpredictable but likely to be disappointing, though England’s record against host nations in major tournaments is notably poor

Further info:

England: http://www.zonalmark…review-england/
France: http://www.zonalmark…preview-france/
Sweden: http://www.zonalmark…preview-sweden/
Ukraine: http://www.zonalmark…review-ukraine/

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Written by James Bennett

June 7, 2012 at 19:24

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