Friday, June 20, 2008

Euro 2008 - Group Stage XI (plus subs)

GK: Artur Boruc
(Gianluigi Buffon, Edwin van der Sar)

RB: José Bosingwa
(Alexander Anyukov, Hamit Altintop, Philipp Lahm)

CB: Pepe
(Dorin Goian)

CB: Andre Ooijer
(Sebastian Prödl)

LB: Daniel Pranjic
(Philipp Lahm, Fabio Grosso, Razvan Rat)

RM: Darijo Srna
(Cristiano Ronaldo, Libor Sionko)

CM: Wesley Sneijder
(Deco, Luka Modric, Hakan Yakin)

CM: Torsten Frings
(Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Mehmet Aurelio, Cristian Chivu)

LM: Arda Turan
(Simão Sabrosa, Yuri Zhirkov, Rafael van der Vaart)

CF: David Villa
(Nihat Kahveci, Ivica Olić, Lukas Podolski)

CF: Ruud van Nistelrooij
(Fernando Torres, Zlatan Ibrahimović)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

French malaise reaches its nadir: A Euro ’08 post-mortem

France’s sorry 0-2 defeat at the hands of Italy last night drew to a painful close an era in which they first strutted, then stumbled and, this year, limped through a succession of extraordinary major championship highs and lows.

The French got no more, or less, than they deserved for their lame participation in this year’s ‘Group of Death’. Only the most deluded Bleu could claim otherwise.

A pitiful opener against Romania, followed by a 4-1 spanking by the imperious Dutch, and now this; a shambolic reverse in a destiny-deciding clash with their most familiar foes of the past decade.

Italy had failed to turn over their Gallic counterparts (without the aid of penalties) since the ‘78 World Cup. But from the moment makeshift centre-half Eric Abidal crudely clipped Luca Toni’s legs in the penalty box – conceding a penalty and a man advantage to the Italians – there was only going to be one winner in Zurich. In fact, you could make a convincing case that France’s last slim hopes of qualification had been extinguished some minutes earlier – with the departure, through apparently serious injury, of Franck Ribéry.

Ever since that glorious golden goal of David Trezeguet’s smacked decisively into the back of Francesco Toldo’s net at the denouement of Euro 2000, the French team has been in terminal decline. Sure, they miraculously reached the World Cup final just two summers ago, and were quite unlucky to lose, but they had ridden there on the coat tails of just one man. And it certainly wasn’t controversial coach Raymond Domenech.

No, it was the talismanic, charismatic last hurrah of their spiritual leader Zinedine Zidane which provided the impetus for that unlikely adventure. In the quarter-final, Zizou’s peerless display against favourites Brazil recalled his peak of some five or six years earlier. But, with his dramatic implosion in Berlin, the great man exited stage right; leaving a massive creative vacuum in the team, which was always going to be nigh-on impossible to fill.

But the other creaking elements of that French unit (namely Thuram, Makélélé and Vieira) were unaccountably retained for this current tournament, despite their rocky road through pre-qualifying.

The ‘revenge win’ over the Italians in Paris, just months after their Berlin loss, got proceedings underway with a swing, but, in the final analysis, could not disguise the fact that they succumbed not once, but twice, to a limited Scotland side.

It is, in fact, Domenech who is largely culpable for the depth of the French demise. He has manifestly failed in the task of marrying both old and new elements at his disposal. It was, undoubtedly, a task which even the most capable of coaches would have baulked at, but the obstinate astrologer has quite patently not made a good enough fist of it to stay onboard much longer.

Personality clashes with the likes of Phillipe Mexès and David Trezeguet significantly diminished the pool of talent from which he could choose, even if their exclusions were designed to reinforce his waning authority. OK, so neither player could be described as an angel who selflessly puts the team before all else, but it is hard to argue that either player’s inclusion would not have added an extra level of assurance and (in Trezegol’s case) firepower to an ailing side.

Similarly, the crazy omission of midfield energiser Mathieu Flamini – coming off the back of the season of his life, which earned him a profitable move to Milan – was indefensible.

For years now, even before his return to Serie A, Patrick Vieira has tangibly lacked the hunger and ferocious bite in his game – qualities which once made him the most imperious midfielder in the European game.

A clearly over-the-hill, perpetually-injured shadow of his former self; Vieira stumbled through Inter’s title-winning campaign and, when he reported for national duty injured, that should have provided Domenech with the opportunity to say ‘thanks for your fantastic contribution to the cause, but it’s time we moved on’. Instead, when Vieira ultimately declared himself available, poor Flamini was exiled – no doubt to a sandy beach somewhere in Mauritius.

Domenech’s ineffable persistence with another World Cup-winning legend -Lilian Thuram- was also a policy which returned to bite the coach in the nether regions this week. Thuram is a great professional; deeply admired in the French dressing room and, in his prime, one of the finest defenders of his era. However, the ex-Juve man has been in decline for some time now; his time at Barcelona characterised by a slew of judgment errors and spent mostly warming the bench.

To build a defensive unit around Thuram – relying heavily on the substantial talents of William Gallas to firefight his partner’s slip-ups – was a grave mistake. When, for whatever reason, Thuram declared himself unable to take part against the Italians, Domenech turned to left full-back Abidal to fill the gap. Thuram’s Barcelona team-mate looked every inch the fish out of water and received his marching orders essentially because his inadequacy in his adopted position was ruthlessly exposed by a simple Italian high, long ball. That his emergency replacement was one Jean-Alain Boumsong said it all about the coach’s baffling squad selection.

Last night’s calamity threw Domenech’s string of errors to light in the harshest, most unforgiving of arenas. So, they lost their playmaker early on and were a man short for over an hour, but the French could quite conceivably have lost by an even greater margin than against the Dutch. It was only the strangely off-colour performance of the Italian centre-forward - Beeb pundit Mark Lawrenson cutely dubbed his showing “more Swiss Toni than Luca Toni” - which spared France further humiliation.

By their palpably uninspired, disjointed efforts on the pitch it was easy to jump to the conclusion that what the French dressing room has lacked in harmony it has more than made up for in ego. Perhaps the ultimate super-ego himself, Monsieur Henry, could even have played his 102nd and final game for Les Bleus, as his crippling sciatica problem can surely stand up to little further punishment. In any case, any new boss should welcome the departure of Henry and his fellow ’98 wonderboys, as their complacency has become perhaps the greatest impediment to further achievement.

Could ‘water-carrier’ extraordinaire Didier Deschamps return to the national set-up and re-install that élan and joie de vivre which so characterised the sides he captained to glory in both ‘98 and 2000? He is the pundits’ choice, though many still believe Jean Tigana should be given a long-overdue shot at the top job – but has the ex-Fulham boss’ chance already come and gone?

As something of a wildcard I’d suggest Marcel Desailly as a potential candidate. The former Milan and Chelsea giant has both the charisma and presence to instantly earn the respect of the upcoming Clairefontaine generation, and in his TV analysis (while sometimes a little one-eyed, it must be said) has proven he has learned much under the tutelage of Messrs Sacchi, Capello and, er, Ranieri. Sure, he lacks managerial experience, but with Jurgen Klinsmann, Slaven Bilić, Marco van Basten, and Mark Hughes numbering among Desailly’s playing peers that have gone on to (relatively)successfully coach their national sides with little or no senior experience under their belts, there are plenty of recent precedents.

Whoever takes charge – should Domenech take the bullet – they will undoubtedly face a mammoth rebuilding project, but can do so in the knowledge that the squad (hopefully) travelling to South Africa in 2010 will include stars such as Ribéry, Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, Yoann Gourcuff and Hatem Ben Arfa.

From the stunning zenith of Euro 2000 to the stark nadir of this summer, the fortunes of French football have altered sharply. Nonetheless, hope lingers that a bright future might still lie ahead for the beautiful game in La Belle Pays.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stunning Nihat one-two floors shattered Czechs

Czech Republic 2-3 Turkey, Sunday June 15, Basel

Trailing 0-1 at the interval, to Jan Koller’s powerful headed goal, the flaccid Turkish XI carried the air of a beaten team as they traipsed towards the dressing room.

They had been bullied by the Czechs’ regrettably primitive long-ball approach – Koller the obvious focus – during a tepid first half. Coach Fatih Terim, searching for inspiration, smartly elected to swap ineffective centre forward Semih for energetic Galatasaray wideman Sabri. This change – and, no doubt, a half-time rollocking by the ex-Milan boss – precipitated a remarkable second 45 minutes which will live long in Turkish, and European, football lore.

More or less from the whistle, Turkey pressed forward – their sprightly, short-passing interplay setting the Czechs back in their stride. However, when Karel Bruckner’s men broke out from the siege to go two goals ahead through lightweight winger Jaroslav Plasil – otherwise totally anonymous – this years’ Euro adventure looked all over for the boys from the Bosphorous. But through the unremitting Basel rain, back they came.

They first had to withstand attempts on goal from bloodied and bandaged Czech midfield workhorse Jan Polak, and particularly veteran beanpole Koller. Each spurned a golden opportunity to grab a killer third. These failures to get the win wrapped up comprehensively would come back to haunt the Czechs, and will continue to do so for some time.

First, it was Arda Turan – so impressive and the match-winner against Switzerland earlier in the week – that breached the stubborn Czech defence. Hamit Altintop’s excellent cut-back drifted behind both Tuncay and Nihat, but Arda charged in from his left-wing post to meet it and fire firm and low past Petr Cech. The Chelsea ‘keeper might have been a little disappointed not to have kept out an effort which sped along the greasy surface to beat him at his near post.

What happened next certainly left Cech more than a little disappointed.

With the Turkish now rampant – flooding forward and creating chances almost at will – the weary Czech rearguard were somehow holding firm; clinging grimly to their slender one-goal advantage. Until the 87th minute, that is.

Altintop’s high, harmless cross eluded Cech’s grip – when he really should have punched clear – and razor-sharp Nihat pounced in between the stricken ‘keeper and the bewildered Tomas Ujfalusi to nudge the ball home for the equaliser.

And, as if such a turn of events wasn’t a cruel enough fate for the Czechs to face, on the cusp of injury time, Turkey snatched a stunning winner.

Another assist from the irrepressible Bayern wingback Altintop found Nihat clear of the Czech offside trap and the Turkish captain curled a majestic shot high and wide of Cech’s floundering reach; the shot crashing in off the underside of the crossbar to complete an astonishing turnaround to rival any other in European Championship history.

To cap it all, Turkish ‘keeper Volkan was dismissed in the dying seconds for a shove on Koller, whose pathetic collapse earthwards tarnished the giant striker’s final appearance in national colours.

Though their football illuminated the previous European Championship, in Portugal four years ago, a Czech Republic side without Pavel Nedved or Tomas Rosicky pulling the strings proved a far more prosaic proposition for their Group A opponents this summer. They struggled manfully to overcome the Swiss in the opening game and, though they were desperately unfortunate to taste defeat at the death against Portugal, it was their opponents tonight that have offered the more enterprising brand of football this fortnight.

For their passion, flair and sheer unpredictability, it is hard to begrudge Turkey a slot in the last eight. A mouth-watering clash with Croatia awaits.

The technical level will be high, and with a potentially explosive nature in the DNA of both sides – not least coaches Terim and Bilic – it promises to be a quarter-final tie to relish.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Euro '08: The story so far

With the first round of group phase games now complete, it seems like an apposite time to cast an eye over the initial impressions made by the sixteen nations, and sort the contenders from the pretenders.

Group A

The tournament opener can often set a precedent for the tone of the rest of the group stage – at Germany ’06, the hosts’ spectacular winning start kicked off a goal-laden fortnight, before the knockout rounds saw an inevitable retreat into negativity which soured that tournament’s early promise. Unfortunately, this year’s summer football festival got underway in a rather subdued manner.

Though co-hosts Switzerland displayed a certain level of promise, it took only the desperately unlucky early loss through injury of captain and chief goal threat Alexander Frei to dishearten their youthful side. Beleaguered boss Kobi Kuhn will hope Frei’s slow, tearful limp from the St. Jakob Park pitch on Saturday is not to be the defining image of the Swiss challenge. The Borussia Dortmund forward’s replacement, deft playmaker Hakan Yakin, and wide-men Tranquillo Barnetta and Valon Behrami, will now hold the key to Switzerland’s chances of making an unlikely recovery and surviving the cull after game three.

As expected, bereft of Tomas Rosický and Pavel Nedvěd, and with Jan Koller visibly creaking at the joints, the Czechs were a quite pedestrian proposition in Basel. However, the physical strength throughout the team’s spine and considerable influence of Petr Čech at their base means that the Portugal ’04 semi-finalists remain a tough nut to crack. A probable quarter-final exit at the hands of Germany awaits.

The highlight of Group A to date has clearly been the thoroughly impressive performance of “Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal” – as the British media would have it – in their 2-0 defeat of Turkey in Geneva. With Luiz Felipe Scolari having the enviable luxury of holding back another twinkletoes, Ricardo Quaresma, while relentlessly rotating a plethora of absurdly-talented wingers, the Portuguese are perhaps yet to even hit their peak. Deco looks to have shaken off his Barça malaise and, on Saturday night, prompted expertly alongside his callow assistant Joao Moutinho, while goal-hero Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho are a defensive dream-team. As long as they can keep loose cannon Ricardo from cocking things up, Portugal must expect to make the semis at the very least.

Fatih Terim’s decision to omit the grand old man of Turkish football, Hakan Şükür, from his squad was a popular one in most quarters. However, Turkey’s showing in their first game back in major competition since finishing third in Japan/Korea ’02 clearly demonstrated why the 36-year-old was even considered a realistic proposition for inclusion. Nihat may have excelled in La Liga this year and - on his day - Tuncay is an enterprising, skilful forward, but together the two simply do not make an effective partnership. While Emre, loose of the shackles of the St James’ Park shambles, probed and linked play well, the Turkish defensive unit behind him proved far too cumbersome to keep the pacy Portugese at bay. Tomorrow’s encounter with the Swiss is now a must-win, which could then set up a decisive showdown with the Czechs.

Group B

In the run-up to the tournament, co-hosts Austria were widely touted as the worst side ever to ‘earn’ a place at the Euros. A narrow 0-1 reverse at the hands of everyone’s favourite dark horse Croatia far from embarrassed the Austrian masses who awaited this event with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Werder Bremen-bound Sebastian Prödl made a fine impression at the heart of the defence. The giant 20-year-old confidently displayed the talents which earned him a spot in the U20 World Cup select XI last year. However, in the short term at least, his countrymen will struggle to overcome the concession of the fourth-minute penalty which did for them in Vienna. The next game against Poland provides their best chance of salvaging a point, before they are swept ruthlessly aside by their neighbours, the Germans.

The Croats have a lot to live up to; their Wembley masterclass last year left the purists purring. Highly-rated coach Slaven Bilić is at the helm of a gifted group, but has not fully been able to redress ‘the Eduardo problem’ up front. In conceding the majority of the possession to the Austrians, they relied too heavily on the counter-attack. Without a spearhead to finish moves off, their aesthetically-pleasing style may come to naught in the last eight.

Favourites Germany opened, as expected, with a performance of quality and confidence. Coach Jogi Löw’s decision to feature out-of-form striker Lukas Podolski on the left wing of his XI to face the Poles paid off handsomely – the Bayern Munich man punctured the inflated expectations of his birthland with a well-taken double. As ever, the supreme balance and composure of the Ballack/Frings midfield axis was, and will be, fundamental to the Germans’ dominant style. Though they started without a win in the Euros since their Wembley triumph of 1996, it would be a foolish man who bets against der Nationalmannschaft making a mockery of that record this time out and surging straight into the final.

Their opponents on Sunday, Poland, will not be entertaining such lofty ambitions. Though Leo Beenhakker’s re-organisation and re-motivation of the national side saw them storm through qualifying, after a shaky start, it was always going to be a tough ask for the Polish to reproduce such form on the big stage. The squad remains a limited one, and with livewire Ebi Smolarek starved of service by the misfiring Jacek Krzynówek and ineffective (and now injured) skipper Maciej Żurawski, those limitations were exposed in Klagenfurt. That said, they may fancy their chances of a positive result against the Austrians, setting up a potentially crucial game with Croatia next Monday night.

Group C

In producing the most stultifying ninety minutes of this (and perhaps any other) European Championship, France and Romania offered plenty of evidence as to why they should go no further. The Romanians stuck doggedly to a pre-conceived game-plan which achieved their goal of snatching a point. Which is all very well, but if they are to have any chance whatsoever of progressing from the group it will be necessary to beat at least one of Italy and Holland. Having nine men behind the ball and poor Adrian Mutu charged with sole creative responsibility is unlikely to get the job done.

The French, meanwhile, offered up a showing comparable with that of their recent major championship group stage form – that is to say they were abject and clueless. As ex-Bleu and BBC pundit Marcel Desailly pointed out, France have relied too heavily for too long on the incomparable talents of Zinedine Zidane (when playing half-fit in 2002 and out-of-touch in the early stages of 2006, his team-mates floundered). The mercurial Franck Ribéry may be exceptionally talented, but he is a winger and should not be expected to fill the gaping Zizou-shaped void single-handedly. That issue aside; Florent Malouda was, again, pitiful and Anelka/Benzema clearly has no potential whatsoever as a partnership. Patrick Vieira returns from injury for Friday’s clash with the Dutch, but the veteran Inter midfielder should be regarded more a liability than a source of inspiration these days. If it all continues to go pear-shaped, then Raymond Domenech may find his omissions of the energetic Mathieu Flamini and goal machine (and, yes, glorified goal-hanger) David Trezeguet indefensible. A first phase exit is on the cards.

Meanwhile, the Dutch lit up the tournament with their dismantling of World Champions, Italy; returning to a brand of sexy football that went missing at the turn of the century. Ruud van Nistelrooy gave a display of world-class centre-forward play – a dying art, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart finally showed signs of fulfilling their enormous potential on the biggest stage, and the much-derided back four held firm under near-constant second half pressure. Sneijder’s goal was an extraordinary example of the precision and panache of the Netherlands’ counter-attacking supremacy. With Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie still to return to full fitness, they hold a very real chance of not only progressing from the ‘Group of Death’, but also making it through to the final week.

Italy, while mercilessly turned over by a rampant Dutch XI – conceding three goals in the process – will still hold out hope of progression. There was little fundamentally wrong with their play; but under-fire Roberto Donadoni (who signed a fresh 2-year contract prior to the tournament) will have to tweak his midfield line-up, ideally by bringing in Daniele De Rossi or Alberto Aquilani, and pray that their once rock-solid defence can eventually absorb the loss of Fabio Cannavaro (dropping professional disaster-zone Marco Materazzi might be a good start). Toto Di Natale gave 100 per cent as always in his support of the frustrated Luca Toni, but it was only when old master Alex Del Piero took the field that the Azzurri looked likely to breach the Dutch defence. Italy-France in Zurich next week may well prove to be the definitive clash in this ultra-tough group.

Group D

Perennial under-achievers Spain generally impress during the early stages of a competition; garnering admiration and support along the way, before an inevitable quarter-final departure. In Portugal four years ago they suffered a group-phase exit, but this time around they need not fear such a fate. Systematically dismantling Russia (the darkest of dark horses) was no mean feat, and the Torres/Villa show was a sight to behold. With a plethora of midfield craftsmen to choose from, Luis Aragonés has a tough task in selecting a balanced XI, while featuring all of his top talent. Cesc Fàbregas was unlucky to miss out initially, but showed his worth with some fine runs and a headed goal in injury time. The centre of defence remains a concern, but with Brazilian-born Marcos Senna patrolling at the base of a midfield diamond, the Spanish retain a certain solidity. They are, of course, serious contenders.

Guus Hiddink’s Russia, meanwhile, only served to show how fortunate they were to stumble through qualification for the finals. Without creative fulcrum Andrei Arshavin, who also misses the upcoming Greece clash through suspension, the Russians were largely clueless in the final third of the pitch. Hiddink has an undeniable talent for over-achieving, even with the most unpromising of raw materials, and perhaps that trend might run aground in Austria. Their clumsy defensive four was clinically exploited by Spanish flair and ingenuity, and even if Russia are fortunate enough to escape the group – a distinct possibility given the limitations of their next opponents – they will struggle to make an impact in the last eight.

Greece once more forced upon the viewing public their ugly brand of ultra-negative anti-football in the game with Sweden. The fundamental flaw with their approach is that if the opposing side are as similarly offensively inadequate, they cannot rely on their opponents to take the initiative and open the game up. Simply put, they’re only effective as underdogs. As usual, Angelos Charisteas put himself about gamely up front, and the midfield marshalled by Giorgios Karagounis worked over-time to restrict the (already restricted) Swedes. There is little chance of Otto Rehhagel producing another ‘Miracle of Lisbon’ in this year’s Championship, and his ageing side will be lucky to garner even a point from their remaining games.

Despite selecting more or less the same squad each time around, the Swedes keep qualifying for major tournaments and then keep progressing from the group stages, without ever showing any exceptional ability. With the likes of Henrik Larsson, Niclas Alexandersson and Freddie Ljungberg back again, it was familiar side that took the field on Monday night, and a similar result followed. The thunderbolt strike of Zlatan Ibrahimović illuminated an otherwise tedious game, and the Swedes will rely on the hugely-talented frontman to provide goals and inspiration against the Russians and Spain. With Johan Elmander and Markus Rosenberg waiting on the bench, Sweden carry a greater goal threat than usual, and now have a good platform for quarter-final qualification.


Group A - Germany & Croatia
Group B - Portugal & Czech Republic
Group C - Netherlands & Italy
Group D - Spain & Sweden