Monday, June 30, 2008

Euro 2008: Magic Moments

In what can easily be described as one of the most entertaining sporting events in recent history, moments of magic and despair were not difficult to find. Here’s my countdown of the 10 moments I will carry with me:

Ten: Michael Ballack free kick
In a tournament that hardly produced any other brilliant free-kick moment, Ballack’s winner against Austria is a standout effort. Of course, the multiple super slo-mo replays have only helped making the moment an everlasting one, but it wasn’t just that it was a brilliant free kick. It was a moment of quality saved for when it really counted, a truly inspirational effort.

Nine: David Villa winner
Almost with the last touch of the game against Sweden, Villa scored a goal which came out of nothing. A deft touch, a feint to throw off defenders and a finish. The sight of a great striker in peak form and essential for Spain. That goal made it possible for them to continue their winning streak through to the final and must have been a major confidence booster.

Eight: Robben Goal
He hardly had much to do in the tournament, but moments after coming on against France, Robben first created a brilliant goal and then scored this screamer. Creativity, speed, finishing and arrogance only a supreme player can have were all at display together. A moment that proved to the world that Robben is up there with the best in terms of talent. If only he can stay fit in the long run...heck, if only he could have stayed fit for the quarter-final.

Seven: Sneijder Goal
A classic counter attack to hot the famed Italian defence which Sneijder finished after great work from van Bronkhorst and Kuyt. A beautiful goal and one that clearly showed the beauty that the Dutch would add to the tournament. Until their meek surrender to the Russians that is.

Six: Lahm Winner
The Turks had pulled off a remarkable fourth comeback in a row and many a lesser team would have lost confidence. But not the Germans. Just when it was ready to go into extra time, Lahm erased the memories of an ordinary defensive display and took charge to create the move and finish it with a spectacular shot that would have done any striker proud.

Five: Mutu miss
This can also be called ‘Buffon save’ but this was effectively the moment that kept Italy in and knocked Romania out. So often we have seen the star players of the team miss critical penalties in major tournaments and this was one of them. Heartbreaking for a player who had been very decent till that moment.

Four: Cech spill
Even though Petr Cech had not looked invincible since his comeback from injury, no one would have expected him to throw his country’s Euro hopes into the feet of an opponent. But in wet conditions, Cech made his worst mistake at the worst time there could possibly be. True, Nihat was to add more drama to that game, but without Cech’s blunder, there may never have been a Turkish story.

Three: Arshavin entry
We heard that Russia were missing some big players but the Spain opener aside, they had looked a decent side. The entry of Arshavin changed them from decent to extraordinary. True this is not a single moment, but the significance of Arshavin’s display was not lost. For all the entertainment and goal scoring, a true star was missing, and in Arshavin we found one.

Two: Casillas lifts the Trophy
How just to see a team with flair, skill and attacking intent be crowned champions, after many disappointing international and club tournaments. Also, at long last, the realization of a dream for a country which always had the eleven to do the job, but never the team.

One: Senturk equalizer
Everything else that happened, cannot take away Turkey’s contribution from this tournament. And while Senturk’s moment of magic was not the first or last for his country in these championships, it was the most unbelievable of them all. With hardly a moment left for a ball to be kicked, the Turks found the pass, the finish and most importantly the desire to score. A moment that defined the spirit of Turkey – my team of the tournament.

Euro 2008: Team of the Tournament

Here is my pick:

Playing Eleven
Goal: Casillas
Defence: Zhirkov, Puyol, Marchena, Ramos
Midfield: Podolski, Senna, Xavi, Shweinsteiger
Forward: Arshavin, Villa

Goal: Buffon, Boruc
Defence: Panucci, Grosso, Boulharouz
Midfield: Fabregas, Altintop, Silva, Sneijder, Modric
Forward: Ruud van Nistelroy, Pavluchenko

Many other players came up for discussion in the grey cells. Not to forget them so:
Lobont, Gokhan Zan, Ignasevich, Kolodin, Lahm,Ugur Boral, Zambrotta, Anyukov, Bosingwa, Zyrianov, Aurelio, Sabri Sarioglu, Pirlo,Camoranesi, Ballack, Hakan Yakin, Torres, Klose, Benzema, Ibrahimovich, Nihat.

Click here to view UEFA’s choice. Iniesta? You must be joking

Euro 2008 - The Final

Team Selection
There were no major surprises as the expected elevens lined up for the final. J Low’s gambles were restricted to retaining two players who had not fully recovered from injuries – Torsten Frings and captain Ballack. Rolfes had done the job asked of him when he had been called upon to play and Frings had not looked the most impressive, especially against Portugal. Ballack would have been more difficult to leave out given the obvious absence of a replacement with his quality.
Aragones started Fabregas finally in a five-man mid-field, a line-up that had played sublime football against Russia and which was used in the first place only owing to David Villa’s injury. Luis had the option of starting Guiza along with Torres (or instead of) but chose to go with El Nino as the sole striker, looking to replicate the magic of the semi-final.

German Plan
Joachim Low and his team approached the final with a degree of respect for their opponent and a plan based almost completely on defence with a single line of attack.
Out of the two fullbacks, only one – Lahm was to move forward with Friedrich supposed to stay back on the right. Frings was to stay well behind the centre line as well as were at least one of Hitzpelsberger or Ballack (mostly the former). Any attack was to be carried from the left with Lahm and Podolski using Ballack as the central link-up player to get close to the Spanish by-line and then look for Klose. Shweinsteiger was to be responsible for the right, but without the expectancy of support from the back or neighbouring mid-field was to move central or left as the situation demanded.
The major objective of the German defensive approach was to prevent the Spanish midfielders from making splitting passes which Torres could latch on to with a burst of speed. The defence was to line up close together and narrow so that the only attacking option available to the Spanish would be crosses.

Spanish Approach
Luis Aragones continued with his impressive performance as strategist-extraordinary by getting his team to do little things with big impact.
All players were given complete licence to attack (bar the centre backs) and with a five man centre, they could just as easily come back to defend in numbers. The cleverest trick was in the manner in which to beat the German defence which was so visibly suspect throughout the tournament (shipped two goals each in three games). In stead of trying to make through passes for Torres’ runs, they instead played the ball into the German defence but a little away from the German defenders. What it meant was that in stead of having to spot Torres’ run, they were putting the ball in positions for him to chase, backing their strikers’ ability to outrun the German defenders.
The narrowness of the German defence also allowed the central mid-field to play the ball dangerously to the empty flanks. However, so narrow was the German defence that the diagonal passes up front were in reality on the edge of the box, which allowed Iniesta to make some fine runs to trouble Germany.

On the pitch
Needless to say, that it was the Spanish plan that worked to perfection with Spain a goal up after Torres outran Lahm. The goal forced the Germans to be more adventurous with Frings and Hitzpelsberger getting more involved. Even Friedrich pushed forward in support. By the end all Germans were trying to push forward including Mertesacker but they got nothing for it. Metzelder his defensive partner has been more adventurous throughout with the spirit of a Libero though not quite having the qualities of Beckenbauer.
The Germans were on top for all of five minutes after Kuranyi came on, but their burst died off after a volatile Silva was substituted for Cazorla. Spain saw off the second half with an excellent display of attacking possession play with Senna and Xavi (man of the match and now officially the man of the tournament) in puppeteer mode.

Worthy Champions
It was fitting in the spirit of the tournament, that the team that came out looking to score rather than prevent won. Oh hell! Spain had the best players anyway.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Euro 2008: David Villa out of final

After limping off towards the last ten minutes of the first half in the semi-final against Russia, there's news today that David Villa will not be playing in the final.

He will of course be missed on the night by millions across the world. It would have been a treat to see him add to his tally of four goals with more of the same quality, but it is not to be and we'll just move on.

The question is if Spain will miss him as much? He has been there best striker (with creditable supporting roles from Torres and now Guiza) but funnily enough they played their best game when he was not on the pitch.

Of course it wasn't down to him. It was down to the formation changing which in turn made the slightly struggling mid-field turn into the most entertaining and lethal force in this tournament, which given all the exquisite stuff we had already seen, speaks something of what they could achieve with a mid-field five.

In the quarter final against Italy, the Spanish midfield always had to look for passes up into the opposition area to find their strikers allowing the Italians to cut off their spaces. Though they had a lot of posession, the Spanish were not able to dominate. True that was not the case against Russia, but then Russia began the game looking to be positive unlike the Italians and I expect the Germans to bring an approach which would combine the caution of Italy with bursts of aggression, especially through their wide men.

With five in mid-field suddenly Senna, Xavi etc. did not have to look for teammates through opponent players. At any point in time they could make a little sideway pass and move a few steps further to keep marching towards the Russian goal in small triangles.

Which must make it very tempting for Luis Aragones to start with the five man mid-field and leave either Torres or Guiza alone upfront. I do feel that Spain would be more effective this way than with an untested strike pair up front being given the responsibility of collecting, holding and shooting the ball against some strong looking Germans.

J Low and Germany of course will have seen the Spain performance and will be ready to counter either Spanish plan. They are capable of physically domianting the Spanish and their success will depend on keeping the Spanish as far away from their defensive third as possible. They won't worry about keeping posession too much as they will be justified in backing their own ability to convert a high percentage of the chances they get. And many from their starting eleven have the ability to switch between playing deep or in advanced positions effortlessly.

But will that be enough to stop Senna, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta and Senna? Not if they can repeat their semi-final display. Of course they'll have to play stronger and run a bit more to make themseleves available for passes, but they are capable of doing so, having needed far less than the available quota of steam to finish of the Russians.

I think Villa's injury has made Luis' selection headache a bit easier. Of course, he still needs to pick between Torres and Guiza, and though Torres should on paper be the overwhelming favorite, I won't venture into making a prediction on this one. Personally, I would go for Torres even without his finishing boots on, as I would expect the striker to be involved in a lot of link-up play and flicks to set up advancing mid-fielders and here is where Torres will be deadly.

Its up to Aragones now and all we can do is wait. So I will wait in anticipation to see which Spain turns up on Sunday and whether the German machine can adapt accordingly.

Russia vs Spain Euro 2008 SF

What makes the same team so different from one day to another? From slick passers to strangers in a park? From shorn of ideas to childlike expression? From the Russia against Holland to the Russia against Spain? From the Spain against Italy to the Spain against Russia?

The first twenty minutes were encouraging enough for both teams though. And it was a splendid game of football. All four fullbacks charging forward, the defence decent but not spectacular, all players getting involved and promises of a very open and attacking game.

Spain had looked the better team from the beginning but as it settled down they started taking control. Unlike the game against Italy, they managed this time to find Villa and Torres much more frequently and though there was nothing very dangerous for the keeper, there were nice touches, through balls, flicks and even shots. Ramos was spectacular in defence and in attack. Arshavin and Zhirkov could never get past him. Senna and Silva were impressive as usual. It was Xavi who was having a much better game than the Quarter Final though Iniesta still seemed out of sorts.

The Russians are no Italians and were not cutting off spaces as efficiently. It wasn’t a priority for them anyway because they had it in their minds to attack. But maybe they got a bit rattled by Spain’s early chances or maybe they came into this game with all the wrong things going through their heads. Either ways, their intent did not translate into execution. Too often they tried to create attacks by aiming for the heads of teammates (mostly Pavluchenko at that) while their best football had been about finding feet and men in empty spaces and about making themselves available.

At least Pavluchenko had a few good moments. Arshavin, almost the European creative hope whose reputation was getting bigger by the game, let the occasion get the better of him. The mid-field four were guilty of not getting the ball to him on enough occasions and he was guilty of not doing enough with it and when he did get the ball.

Villa’s injury was an intriguing moment. I fully expected Mr. ‘Like-for-like’ Aragones to bring on Guiza but on came Fabregas. Iniesta had been looking a bit out of place in the mid-filed till then and I thought that this could maybe make it more confusing for them. And Torres did not seem to be having the luck of the final touch. It will turn Russia’s way I thought.

How wrong I was. Not only was Fabregas breathtaking, but the extra man in mid-field effectively reduced Russia to spectators. With short passing options available, the Spanish strode forward in numbers and while Torres couldn’t produce a Liverpool display it didn’t matter. Xavi’s run, Iniesta’s pass and the finish by Xavi began a spell of supreme dominance. After that there was just one team in it.

And as if to show me my place even more, Aragones brought on Guiza for Torres and if it was possible for Spain to get any better they did. Russia meanwhile were just floating aimlessly. Pushing forward with hope but little belief and leaving huge spaces at the back. In the end 0-3 was merciful.

Russia join the Turks as beaten semi-finalists but how different their exits have been. One which built its reputation on spirit and bowed out with a display to remind us what they were made of. The other which wowed us with its skills and the hidden brilliance of its individuals but brought neither skill nor heart to what proved to be their final battle. I hoped they would score a consolation late goal just to say goodbye but it was not to be.

Guus Hiddink’s continues with his reputation intact if not enhanced but he was outscored in this round by Fatih Terim. But they are not to be forgotten, this Russian team. A lot of their players will be seen in Europe soon and we should monitor their qualifiers for 2010 closely.

And now to Spain and Aragones. I was never impressed with him finding him uninspiring and unimaginative but of course I was wrong. The ‘perennial failures’ have reached the final, on the way beating Italy on the anniversary of lost penalties. Some of it has to be down to this man. And a lot to that team. I’ll be cheering Spain in the final. They have given us this performance to remember and they should remember to perform like this...cometh the hour.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Germany vs Turkey SF Euro 2008

What a crazy crazy night. A great great semi final and a whole world deprived. As Germany managed to finally close out a game where the Turks weren’t the last to score, people across the world missed most of a stunning second half with TV signals gone due to some lightning strike at the Basel stadium.

But that came later. Blessed with the luxury of not having to make too many team selection decisions, Fatih Terim spent his time preparing the 11 who were fit and/or eligible to start in the best possible manner. The Turkish starting eleven consisted of 10 players who play in Turkish league clubs and Hamit Altintop. Two of their back four (Sabri and Topal) definitely would have preferred to play further up-field. But none of that seemed to matter.

Definitely not through all of the first half. The Turks took the ball and each man bar Rustu pushed forward. Almost. A typical Turk move consisted of either a series of short passes which moved the ball sideways and forward or a brilliant diagonal ball from the middle towards the flank. Then when they got near the by-line, a cross would be delivered. When they got to the edge of the box, they would look to shoot. There was no fear, no holding back.

It’s difficult to pick out individuals for praise. Kazim Kazim troubled anyone who got close to him and should have scored two, though the second time he hit the bar, Boral was at hand to equalize. Aurelio marked Ballack out, won the ball, carried it forward and made passes, Altintop was on the ball every 10 seconds or so, Sabri was making the smartest forward runs leaving Lahm stranded, Boral was sending in dangerous crosses and making Lehman work, Senturk was at times available deeper to pass the ball to oncoming teammates or in the box looking for crosses or shooting chances, Akman was working as hard as anyone else and the it goes on.

The thing is that in this first half, the Turks played to the best of their ability. The passes were flowing, the marking was amazing, the runs were everywhere and there was always a free teammate around. The work rate was unbelievable and each player ran a marathon sprinting half the way.

The Germans set out like they had against Portugal but got blown away. When they were on the ball which was rare, the Turks would just ease them off it or very often they would voluntarily give it away.

At least Schweinsteiger, Ballack and to an extent Rolfes and Podolski were half-decent when they had the ball. Off the ball, the Germans were just pathetic. They didn’t try and cut out passes, they did not press hard enough when a Turkish player moved with the ball, they got caught out of position (Lahm) a number of times and they failed to do the basics in the box. For the first Turkish goal, you just have to look at how late Friedrich reacted to the ball coming back off the bar in comparison to Boral.

Nor were they able to hit the Turks on the break. The only time they did that was at 1-1 when Podolski got a free run on to Rustu but somehow there was no goal.

That the Germans still went into half-time on par with the Turks probably explains why they have been such super powers of football all along. Turkey had to make their domination count and faced against opposition such as the Germans, just one goal was never enough return for superiority of such proportions. And Germany by making their only good move count, in one moment just shrugged off all the dominance and battering and gained parity. Efficient Рwhat a clich̩, what a fact.

The big question for the second half was Turkey’s ability to carry on with the blissful display of football. How soon would they tire and would they be able to do enough damage by then? Would Germany just wait patiently for the Turks to run out of breath and then go for the kill or would J Low make immediate changes to turn things around?

Well it never goes to plan. For starters the second half was seen by TV audiences worldwide in fits and starts so it is not known if we’ll ever see the full story of the half. Moreover, everytime the pictures did come, the game seemed to have changed hands. Immediately at the start of the second it was the Germans who looked better with the Turks having lost a little bit of the touch. Then when we saw things live next, it was Turkey yet again in first-half mode and then a brief two minutes of drama in which Turkey pulled it back to 2-2 (Klose had secretly given the Germans the lead) and then Lahm suddenly shot up the player ratings with a move and finish of brilliance to finally give the Germans a second 3-2 win in a row.

The Turks are out but they’ll not be forgotten. Three successful comebacks and one very successful threat of a comeback. Too bad it was not to be. They would have brought a lot more excitement to the final than the Germans I think, who will prefer to raise their game as and when needed. I know the comebacks will be talked about but there is another aspect to the Turkish display – the ability of all players to play at their best at the same time. The Germans may have gotten by on some amazing moments of individual brilliance and the ability to exploit mistakes and grasp opportunities, but player-on-player more Turks will go back thinking that they played the game of their lives. And credit to Fatih Terim that they did so not once but over and over again.

The Germans are through to the final and this makes half of my pre-tournament prediction true (I had Russia v/s Germany in...I swear). They have been winning and they have been involved in high-scoring games, but I think their best display was against Poland and they have never reached those standards. From a team perspective, I find their defence suspect, especially Mertesacker. Friedrich does not get forward enough and Lahm who does, had a horror show defensively today. He did make up for it though.

J Low will not have to change much irrespective of who he faces in the final. He will depend on a solid defence (which was not so solid tonight), and then the individual brilliance of any one of Shweinsteiger (who was Germany’s best player again tonight), Podolski , Klose or Ballack or maybe even a combination of these players to get him the goals. And one or more will. They are like that – these Germans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Oranje for the Future

I'm as disappointed as everyone else with Netherlands not being able to carry their form through to the finals.

But we will remember this team as one that entertained. Mathew Wheatley on has listed some Dutch stars for the future. Read this to find out.

Among others we have Wesley Sneijder's younger brother. Let's see how many of them feature in 2010 and how many (if any) go on to win an international title.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Italy v/s Spain Euro 2008 QF

None of the quarter finals really lived up to expectations – in terms of quality that is. In terms of drama there was plenty and some more but barring an Ashravin inspired Russia, most of the football on display was fit for a league game between two mid-table teams. This one though, was a little rock-bottom even by the standards set in QF1-QF3.

With Donadoni’s selection reduced to just a couple of big decisions, and he left me unimpressed. There was never going to be any surprise in terms of the formation but the selection of Perrotta instead of the much more impactful Camoranesi seemed strange. The only logical explanation could be Camoranesi’s suspect reserves of steam, which was so evident in that second half against Romania. But surely he would still be more effective than the fairly useless Perrotta.
Cassano against France had looked hard working but non-threatening. With Toni misfiring yet being almost impossible to drop given the chances he was getting, I would have thought the choice for the second striker would be someone who on his day could be a bigger goal threat. Both del Piero or di Natale could have been worth a try. It wasn’t a change he necessarily had to make but would have been interesting if he had.

Spain started with the expected line-up and with no suspensions or injury worries their bench had as much potential as the first eleven. No real points of discussion there.
Almost no real points of discussion about the game as well. What can be discussed are the ‘could have been’ and ‘why not’ issues.

For a team like Italy to have played for penalties for 120 minutes is just inexplicable. Remember, this Italian team had not been dour and defensive coming up to this game. Poor at times yes, but never boring.

The forward runs of Grosso had been a major contributor to Italy’s attacks (and Toni’s goal-less but ever present threat) throughout this tournament, but they were mercilessly banished from the Italian armoury as Donadoni turned to Catenaccio to make up for the absence of the creative inspiration of Pirlo. Most of Grosso’s involvement came in the form of pushing the ball up-field to Ambrosini or Cassano instead of being the man who sent in the cross on so many occasions in the past.

Zambrotta on the right was more adventurous but found little link-up support with Aquiliani preferring to stay deep or add more resource to the left.

De Rossi, who performed well against the 10 of France but had looked uninspiring when playing against 11, had to be forced into coming forward, only doing so when twenty yards of space was made available.

Amrbrosini and Cassano worked hard and had shown a little bit of intent in the beginning, but soon fell in line with team strategy.

Perrotta – poor as usual. Didn’t get involved, lost challenges and gave the ball away and missed a good chance to score.

Toni – He could either have started converting some chances or turned into sh**. The latter happened. But then with the team so intent on not providing support to the front men, maybe even he didn’t feel the need to worry defenders like he usually does.

And the defence – well they are Italian and they defended. All 11 of them all the time. Almost. What do you expect?

Spain would have looked good against a more attacking team. Torres and Villa would have seen more of the ball and Xavi would have got more made some defence splitting passes. But against a defensive, taller and stronger Italian team, they had to be happy with keeping possession and feeling they were dominating.

Senna is just brilliant. Feels like Makelele with a little more creativity. And he can shoot a bit and score penalties as well. Xavi was involved a lot as well but failed to do anything that was telling. Though he did get the ball to David Silva a number of times who by virtue of being neither completely in attack or in mid-field, was allowed to receive the ball more often than others. And it was he who threatened most, running at defenders and making some interesting shots. Nothing far too spectacular but an honest effort.

Iniesta was the mid-field man to disappoint the most. Not only did he not create any moves whatsoever, he somehow managed to handle the ball when presented with a great opportunity for shooting at goal.

Among the substitutes, Fabregas made some impact. Cazorla proved to be a pair of fresh legs and not much more but Fabregas did manage to make two telling passes – One over the defence to Villa’s feet and the other splitting the defence to Guiza (or maybe Villa or Silva...). Guiza’s performance showed why Torres should not be substituted.

For the Italians, Camoransei made an impact by conjuring the best chance of the match which was well blocked by Casillas. De Natale didn’t do much until screwing up his penalty and there was little logic to bringing del Piero on for the last five minutes. Especially as he didn’t even take a penalty.

Donadoni can say that he was limited in choice with Pirlo and Gattusso not available but he was guilty of not trusting his replacements enough. He was also guilty of not allowing his players play to their strengths, especially de Rossi and Grosso. And meaningless substitutions and probably not being able to figure out how to break a deadlock. He played the game in hope and it got him far but not far enough.

Aragones has a semi-final to play and one hopes it will be a different affair. Different from yesterday and from the first Spain v/s Russia game. Aragones has a great team and he did win with 10 changes, but on yesterday’s evidence, his problem lies in being able to significantly change tactics if things don’t work. Like-for-like substitutions have been the extent of his gameplan and if Guus has the edge after 60 minutes, will Luis have the inspiration to turn it around?

Oh and the shoot-out. Thank God Italy lost.

Robben I njury

So of course the only reason for Robben not making an appearance in the QF was an injury. Obviously I haven't been staying alert enough.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Russia: The next big thing in football?

Interesting article by Sulmaan Ahmad on the strengths of the Russian team. I personally agree with him on the ability of the Russian players but think they need to really achieve a lot more before being compared with Italy, Brazil etc. (even the current teams). They do have the core to win stuff but without it they could be just another of those 'Golden Generation' teams (Portugal, England). Let's wait, watch and enjoy.

Netherlands v/s Russia Euro2008 QF

Anyone who had seen the Dutch annihilate Italy and then France and happens to be a neutral, would have wanted the Oranje to go on and win the title.

I had with some audacity predicted that Russia will be the new Champions even before the tournament started, and hence had some reason to cheer for Russia. Then again, if the Ducth have been brilliant, the Russians have been equally entertaining and attacking and it has not been hard to like them. But in spite of all that, if one were forced to pick a favourite, it had to be Holland. Actually you wouldn’t have to use too much force at all. I was cheering for the Netherlands and predictions be damned, I wanted them to win.

I did not watch Van Basten score that goal in 88 that gave the Ducth their first and only major title, but I have watched them fall y the wayside a number of times. Italia 90, France 98, Portugal 04....And there was apprehension that for all the magic that they had displayed so far, they would still need to start from scratch starting from the Russia game and past performances would count for nothing. I said a silent prayer that the Dutch would not have an off day.

The game was exciting but played at a much slower pace than I had expected. I had hoped that Robben would start and was looking forward to a game where Sneijder and van der Vaart would keep splitting the Russian defence with some electric passing and Robben and Nistelroy would have more attempts on goal than you could care to count. I was almost certain that Netherlands would expose the Russian defence in the same way that Spanish had if not more. However, I also expected the Russians to be equally lively in attack with Arshavin and Pavluchenko wrecking havoc aroud Ooijer and co. I expected them to continue to pass the ball around and move forward in a horizontal line almost like an infantry front-line. The result for me would be decided by the capability to convert chances and here I backed the Dutch.

How different it all was. From the beginning it was all about the Russians. Arshavin clearly is amongst the best players in the roaming advanced midfield position and the Dutch defence had trouble coping with him Pavluchenko was getting into wicked positions as usual and when he missed a free header to put the Russian’s ahead, I tut-tutted thinking that he wouldn’t get many more of those. Kolodin showed that he has a very lethal kick and over a season of club football, he looks like someone who will score a few scorchers. The Russians dominated the first half hour, kept position, passed well but did not score.

Part of the reason for some missing bite on their part was the fact that the Russian mid-field did not advance in as many numbers for every move like they did against Sweden. Zyrianov, Semak, Semshov and Seonko never came to the edge of the box all at once and that meant that a lot more crosses and long rangers were attempted instead of passing the ball right up to the goal such as they did so many times against Sweden.

Not that the policy didn’t pay dividends. For the first half an hour Sneijder and van der Vaart were completely starved of the ball and the Dutch seemed completely out of the game. De Jong and Engelaar were forced to play it back or make speculative lobs when they got the ball and when they tried to play through the flanks, the only option they had was to play the ball to Boulharouz who would then pass it to Kuyt who was marooned somewhere near the right touchline and from there the Dutch would lose possession. Thus having cut off the creative forces in mid-field, the Russians ensured that the Dutch were not able to play their game.

Towards the end of the first half, Holland seemed to have made a few adjustments and there were signs of them coming into the game. Kuyt moved central meaning that Boulharouz would have to play the ball into danger rather than make safe passes to Kuyt. Also Sneijder started coming a lot deeper to collect the ball from the defence and force the issue.

The game was never dull with an interesting chance falling to either side every few minutes. The Russians of course had more chances though the chance of the first half probably fell to Sneijder who would have scored with only the goal keeper to beat on many other days.

The question for the second half was what changes van Basten would make and I was again expecting to see Engelaar swapped with Robben and Kuyt with van Persie. At half time only the latter happened and then Boulharouz was replaced by Heitinga ten minutes into extra time and I thought - “Surely the next on will be Robben”.

But Russia had scored before that. Heitinga caught out by Semak who put a lovely cross in for Pavluchenko to finish making the Dutch central defence look very ineffective indeed. The Russians seemed completely unaffected by van Basten’s changes and kept getting bolder and better as time went on. Arshavin especially made reaching the by-line a habit and the Russians looked well on their way to a deserved victory. The third Dutch change saw Afellay and not Robben come on and I’m sure, many people the world over would have wondered if this made sense.

Till they conceded from a free-kick. They had looked susceptible against Sneijder’s free kicks before in the game, almost allowing de Jong to score on a couple of occasions, but when they let Ruud (who had been brilliantly marked by Kolodin till then) have the chance, there was only to be one result. A late equalizer and the momentum and one would feel destiny seemed to be with Holland.

Russia should have won it comfortably in the first half of extra time. Pavluchenko made space from no where to shoot from the edge of the box and hit the bar and then Torbinski, on as a substitute pushed a simple chance in front of goal tamely into the hands of vad der Saar. But in the second half they were not to be denied. Arshavin first set up one for Torbinski (who made a delayed run into the box at break-neck speed...definitely full marks to Hiddink for having a fresh man there) and then moments later latched on to a long throw and shrugged of the Dutch defence and scored. 3-1 to the Russians and today there would be no fight-back.

The Russians are deservedly in the semi-final waiting for Spain or Italy. They have it in them to beat either of them even though Spain thrashed them last time round. As before, I think this team is not to be taken lightly as it is not just a bunch of decent players playing well as a team, but more like a bunch of very skilful players also gelling superbly as a team. Their weaknesses – speed in defence and ability to handle set pieces.

The Dutch – promised so much but gone again. They did give us some great moments, wizardly goals and lots of color. Van Basten who inspired such confidence, failed to do so with his substitutions yesterday. Maybe he knew what he was doing but the players couldn’t pull it off, but he left Robben, Huntelaar etc. on the bench and some questions will be asked. I still think he is a brilliant manager who is not afraid to be positive and wish he had been more so from the beginning yesterday. Anyway, goodbye to Holland and will wait for the next chance to cheer them on.

Croatia v/s Turkey Euro2008 QF

What makes some teams more stubborn than others? Why do one set of players have ‘belief’ faced with any circumstance while others wilt at the slightest setback? Where are the scripts for the greatest sporting moments written?

The 120th minute goal scored by Klasnic and created by Modric was the apt finale to a tense quarterfinal. Croatia the better team over, first ninety and then 120 minutes of play finally scoring the goal they deserved but did not have. Modric the best player on the pitch playing his part and Klasnic the man who’s made a comeback in life after two kidney translplants putting the ball at the back of the net. Perfect. Job done. And thank God no penalties. You always feel it is fairer when the game is won before the kicks.

Except that there was still time. For one last kick by the Turks. And when that was shot over the bar from a long range (Sarioglu I think), it was definitely all over bar the whistle. But before the ref had time to put the whistle in his mouth the Turks conjured a second chance. One that flew in from the deep, bounced dangerously in the Croatian box and was punched straight in by Semih Senturk.

From then the penalties seemed a formality. Dejected Croats and chirpy Turks lined up one after the other and the result was hardly a surprise after the way the game had turned. Modric, I felt was destined to miss. Penalty shoot outs are rarely about goal keepers and their heroic saves. Most of the times it is the strikers with wobbly knees and pounding hearts who write the script and two shots wide sealed Croatia’s fate.

Like all other teams that have been eliminated, Croatia will look at the what-ifs and wonder how they didn’t wrap it up in regulation time. They had a team which could have gone all the way but the failure to force the win, cost them their chance of glory. But I expect to see a lot of Modric (Spurs and Ramos seemed to have picked a class act) and co. and certainly we will see Bilic end-up in the highest paid Managers league sooner rather than later.

Turkey. They are not the best team around but after three come-from-behind wins on the trot, maybe the Germans will be tempted to concede first to stand a greater chance. If they do become champions, it will be the triumph of spirit, teamwork and strategy. Which will be great, but if they can add some flair to the equation, the package will be complete.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Germany v/s Portugal QF Euro 2008

At half-time I read on the BBC website that one of their experts thought that the first half of Portugal v Germany was the best half of this tournament. What utter crap! For a game that had 5 goals and a very nervy ending, I can’t remember another with so little excitement happening on the pitch. 5 goals produced 5 moments and may be there were a few more where you went ooh-aah, but on the whole a very disappointing affair.

The three German goals came from three curious defensive displays. The second goal was just atrocious and deserves no further comment. The third showed Paulo Ferrera in very bad light. He ran towards the ball leaving Ballack space which allowed the German skipper to push Ferrera away from the ball with a gentle tap-on-the-back and easily head home. But what about the Shweinsteiger opener?

True it was a classy counter attack and the roles played by Ballack, Podolski and Shweinsteiger have to be appreciated. What I can’t figure out is why Pepe ran alongside Bosingwa for the entire length of the pitch (only to withdraw and stop at the edge of the box)? Why was Ricardo Carvalho not involved in blocking Shweinsteiger off? Where were Petit and Moutinho? We always knew that Pepe has a tendency to get caught in attack, but someone should have been covering up?

At two-nil after 26 minutes, I was still not writing the Portuguese off. I thought that the German weakness has been evident in the last two games and surely Simao, Ronaldo and Deco would run channels around central defenders leaving them sprawling on the floor and getting into 1-on-1 situations against Lehman. But the Portuguese strategy was stunning. Get men forward and then put crosses in all the time hoping for someone to score.

The late second goal for the Portuguese came from such a move with Nani finding Postiga at the end of a beautifully curved goal for the latter to head home. Metzelder and Mertseacker were both culpable, allowing Postiga a free header while they sandwhiched him in front of the goal keeper. That second goal seemed to have made it a nervy ending and I can understand Joachim Lowe chain-smoking in the executive box, but for me there was too little desperation and desire in Portugal for them to complete the come back.

Disappointing performance of the night – Ronaldo. Got on the ball less times than you have fingers and never really took responsibility the way we have seen him do a number of times at Manchester United. Clearly his head was elsewhere and he looked surprisingly unbothered by deafeat.

For Scolari, this raises a few questions. Of course, to raise questions about a World Cup winner’s abilities is a little presumptuous on my part that too on the basis of a single game. But Grant was sacked because a penalty did not go in and Scolari will not have the luxury to see his club team perform like this in a tournament quarter-final. I have two big issues about Scolari’s role on the evening – the team’s preparation, desire and focus coming into the game and the complete failure to change the style of play despite the game slipping away. Seeing the entire mid-field make speculative shots from outside the box in hope and in vain, one could not help thinking about Fatih Terim’s Turkey in their comeback against the Swiss and their composed and non-panic approach to a comeback.

The German team looked a much better one than the 11 who took the field against Austria. Rolfes, in for the injured Frings was a revelation and Hitzpelberger for Fritz was definitely an improvement. Schweinsteiger back from suspension put in a man-of-the-match show with the rest looking lively and most importantly making it count by taking their chances.

With their midfield now looking solid, I think the weak link for them looks to be central defence especially in the form of Mertesacker. I’m surprised the Portuguese didn’t exploit it enough and would really like to see their next opponents test my theory. Dribble past the central defence and you’ll rip the Germans apart is what I feel. Let’s see if some of the biggest managers in the world agree with me. Meanwhile the German’s will have to be favourites to get into the final now with both their possible semi-final opponents having farily limited experience of competing at that stage.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

My football Diary - 19th June

Woke up after four and a half hours of sleep (because of the Russia Sweden game) to make it just about on time for a game of football. Someday after the Euro is over, I will write about the story of our bi-weekly (at least attempted bi-weekly) footballing sessions.

Ran more than usual but was slow. Failed to reach and trap a number of good passes. Was especially horrible in defence. Giving away the ball from the goal line twice with one of them leading to the opponent scoring. The only good part was scoring two goals – especially 1 where I actually managed to control the ball and turn and run a few steps before shooting into goal (well the goal was empty but I’ll take credit anyway).

Need to improve first touch. Just need to.

Anyway, here is a picture of the ground we play in (National Games Village, Koramangala, Bangalore). On Saturdays their are 15 teams playing cricket and and maybe 4 playing football. Games can range from 3 a side to 33 million a side all in the space of a 5-a-side game. Quite often the cricket fielders are unwittingly the best defenders in the game accidently blocking shots on goal and passes. I think it is close to being the best place to play football in the world.

Russia v/s Sweden Euro 2008

Russia, my pre-tournament pick as the outsider to go on to win the championship have crossed the first major hurdle. A 2-0 win against Sweden in a game which they could and should have won 5-0.

My cable guy shows a maximum of 2 sports channels at a time and to my horror neither of them was ESPN or Star Sports. After desperate unreturned calls to the cable guy, I was almost ready to call it a night when I saw Greece and Spain playing on good old Doordarshan. With only half an eye on that game, I stayed awake following the other game on the internet before to my relief, ESPN was on air by the end of the first half.

I remember Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven who had completely dominated AC Milan over two legs in a Champion's League semi-final but ended up losing. They were all about passing, movement and speed and this Russian team seems to play just like that. True the Spanish exposed their defence in the first game and it will be a worry for the Russians, but they themselves are equally capable of troubling defenders, getting into scoring positions and finding the net.

Sweden had their best moments of the tournament against Spain when they completely nullified the formidable Spanish mid-field and managed to use Ibrahimovic’s strength and presence to score. But that was essentially a performance aimed at getting a draw than forcing a win which was the need of the day. While players and strategy can be analyzed upside down, for me there was 1 moment that summed up Sweden’s problems.

Down by a goal and getting battered by the Russians, the Swedes suddenly had a great moment of hope. Ibrahimovic was fed the ball some 10 yards outside the box by Ljunberg and he did well to hold off a defender and play the ball back to Freddie. At that moment with Ljunberg in space Larrsson found himself clear on the other side of the box needing a pass from Ljunberg to get a clear run on goal. But by the time Ljunberg read the situation and had the ball in control, the moment had passed. Guess you have to see a replay to really understand what I mean but it was clear that the Swedish stars were clearly past their peak. At their best, you know they would have produced a champagne moment with the ball landing at Larsson’s feet and finding the back of the net.

Swedes like France, Greece and even Italy need a new team. They have some players who can go on, but the starting line-up needs to get rid of Mellberg, Larrsson, Ljunberg etc.

Back to Russia. Almost the entire squad plays club football in Russia (CSKA, Dynamo, Zenith and the skipper for Rubin Kazan – one of the best sounding club names in the world), and are well hidden from people like me who are largely stay informed through a very English focussed media. But I did see Zenith St. Petersburg towards the end of the UEFA Cup this year and CSKA in the same tournament a few years ago, and the quality is evident.`

I mean this team is not just a about Guus Hiddink getting the best out of ordinary players. Look at Zhirkov, Arshavin, Semak, Bilyaletdinov and Pavluchenko just to name a few. All capable of getting first team spots in top European clubs.

Next up for them is Holland. The high flying Dutch will be hot favourites and very importantly fresher than the Russians and any result but a Dutch victory will be a surprise. However, Russia can spring a surprise if they are able to do all of the following:

  • Central defenders to stay deep. Let all the closing down and pressing be done by the midfield. Central defenders to focus on cutting off passes, intercepting crosses and going for and making last ditch tackles.
  • Deploy a two man defensive midfield (Semak to stay deep along with Zyryanov). To push forward in turns. Main job to hassle the life out of Robben, de Jong, Kuyt etc. as soon as they get the ball. Also I think, this way they will be set up almost exactly as the Dutch and if they find it difficult to break down the Russian’s they may change their own formation and allow space to the Russians and leave their relatively vulnerable defence exposed.
  • Pavluchenko and Arshavin to take chances as if each is their last. Cannot afford to be as profligate as yesterday because I don’t see them creating anywhere close to the number of chances they had yesterday

No International retirement for Henry

Clearly Henry does not agree with me. Contrary to my view that it's time for him to quit international football, he seems to have gone on record saying that there are no such plans.

Check this news here:,23063,11966_3709588,00.html

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

France v/s Italy Euro 2008

What if Frank Ribery did not get injured? What if Abidal did not see red? These will be two questions that will be asked about this game more than any others. Both very valid questions. For Ribery had looked good for the couple of touches he had before his injury and France did match Italy most of the way in spite of going down to 10 men.

It will be easy to give a lot of Italians a high rating based on their performance forgetting that they were playing against 10 men. Especially de Rossi and Cassano who did look much improved versions from the game against Romania. However, both had not had much influence before the 25th minute sending off.

Not so for Pirlo. He was at his best from the word go. Collecting passes, distributing balls in midfield and creating chances for Toni. It was one such lobbed ball over the defence that earned Italy the penalty and Abidal the red card. My man-of-the-match Pirlo did the necessary scoring to give Italy the lead.

The ones who did not improve for Italy were Perrotta and Toni. Perrotta quite frankly does not look up for it in this tournament though having not seen much of him in the past, it would be foolish to suggest that he should stay on the bench till it ends.

Toni showed his best and worst in a span of 90 minutes. We knew he can head long balls towards goal, but we also saw how he can absolutely hassle defenders with strength and pace when chasing or receiving balls on the ground. But his finishing....can’t be the same guy who scored almost 40 goals this season. The plus for Donadoni is that the day Toni starts knocking them in, he’ll probably get half a dozen in a game.

Italian defence – looked alright but then again the opposition’s reduced numbers should be remembered. Panucci is dependable and provides great attacking threat in the box (only a goal line clearance by Makelele stopped him scoring a second in the tourney). Without Cannavaro and of course Maldini/Nesta, he seems to have stepped up to the role of the defence general. Chiellini was ok though he let Henry slip by once. The fullbacks were delightful in attack and just about reasonable in defence. Guilty of letting Benzema get too close to the box a number of times though.

Donadoni was a lucky man for the night though I will never understand the reason for taking Pirlo off with 35 minutes to go. It’s not as if he needed to be rested as he is suspended for the next game anyway.

And what of France. First lost Ribery and then the red card to Abidal meant having to take off Nasri (what a chance it would have been to get a good look at him). Benzema carried the team with brilliant support from Toulalan and even Makelele putting in a close to peak performance.
Two players could still have swung it for France I thought:
· Henry, if he could have been 80% of his Gunner avatar
· Govou, if he had played a little bit deeper to reduce Benzema’s work load and put in the same effort as Benzema

It wasn’t to be. The second goal for Italy came when France were at their best (throughout the tournament) and more or less finished them off. Evra had another ordinary game (another whatif – What if Boumsong had started in the centre and Abidal at left-back?) and Clerc replacing Sagnol did a much better job than his predecessor.

So France are out and will face the music back home. Domenech must go and so will a number of players. I believe it is time for Henry to quit international football as well and let the team rebuild around Ribery, Benzema, Nasri and company. He could keep the option open of coming back to help if France are in trouble with the world cup qualifiers just like Zidane, Makelele etc. had done a few years ago.

Italy will face Spain and they will have to change a few things. For one – the finishing will have to be better but more importantly, the defensive midfield will have to work harder. Cannot allow Xavi and company space to come close to the box and feed Torres and Villa. Pirlo and Gattusso are suspended so the midfield will change again. Camoranesi MUST start and de Rossi will after yesterday’s performance. The rest will be from Aquilani, Ambrosini and Perrotta – none of whom have impressed though the first two had limited playing time yesterday.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Euro 2008: musings

Players who I did not know much about but who have caught the eye:

  • De Jong (Holland)
  • Engelaar (Holland)
  • Lobont (Romania)
  • Semak (Russia) (Actually knew a bit about him having managed him for PSG in FIFA Manager)
  • Pavluchenko (Russia)
  • Hakan Yakin (Switzerland)
  • Inler (Switzerland)
  • Arda Turan (Turkey)

Croatia v/s Poland Euro 2008

Did not see this one and that means that I have only seen Croatia in their disappointing win over Austria. But three wins in three must make them very strong contenders.

The story of the game has to be Klasnic scoring for Croatia having gone through a kidney transplant last year.

Croatia may not have a wonder boy like Suker in this line-up but in Slaven Bilic they have a top class manager. Topping the qualifiers with two wins against England and now three wins in three in spite of nine changes to the starting line-up and Germany being one of the opponents. Clearly facing a high profile team will not be too much of a concern for the Croatians if and when they do get the chance again in this tournament.

But up first will be the Turks – masters of comeback and champions of poise. The Turkish defence has been vulnerable and the Croats will worry them with crosses from the wings and should also look to playing the ball to Modric just outside the box for testing the keeper. Having said that, Arda, Nihat and co. will also not be easy to contain.

The big strength that the Turks have shown is their ability to work the ball into dangerous areas without any desperation irrespective of the match situation. No long balls for them (though in Tuncay they have a player who has played alone up front at Boro and has done well converting some of them).

Am predicting a closely fought end-to-end encounter with emphasis on the wide men and the advanced midfielders. Difficult to pick a winner but if I was forced to pick, I would go for Croatia. Why? Have seen the Turks and their obvious defensive weaknesses. Haven’t seen the Croats in such detail so will go by there results.

Austria v/s Germany Euro 2008

I am doing a u-turn on Germany. I am now of the opinion that Germany’s performance against Poland was an aberration and they are not really that good.

A Michael Ballack free kick (the only well taken free kick of the tournament so far) was the only difference between 92nd rank Austria and top-10 Germany. Otherwise, the Austran’s matched the German’s in attack and defence throughout the game. Both sides were guilty of spells of poor passing and messing up chances to score. From a neutral’s view, an unspectacular game but cheers to the Austrian’s for holding their own.

Gomez didn’t waste time at the start to easily leave the Austrian defence behind and get into great positions. He even was fed the ball at his feet with an open goal inviting by Klose but shot over. All that was in the first 10 minutes. After that maybe he chickened out of getting into good positions not trusting his finishing abilities and had little impact till his substitution at the hour mark.

Frings and Fritz were horrible! Nothing positive can be written about their performance.
Podolski looked the sharpest and maybe he should line up next to or just behind Klose instead of somewhere on the flank. He spends most of his time in the centre anyway and because of his mid-field duties was even found covering up at right back.

Klose had a decent game in terms of troubling the defence and creating opportunities for others but looked like an Austrian striker when presented with chances to score.
Ballack – decent, failed to get any defence splitting passes in but covered up with the spectacular penalty.

Which brings us to the weakest link in the German line-up – their defence. That in spite of a non-existent midfield, the defence was what looked the worst is a major problem for Germany. The full-backs are ok, especially Lahm when he pushes forward, but they do seem to allow the opposition a free run to the by-line, maybe hoping that the tall centre-backs will easily handle all crosses. Which Mertesacker and Metzelder may well do, but it looks like that is the only thing that they would do well.

Mertsesacker especially was woeful. Easily beaten by attackers he was trying to close down (much like Frings and Fritz) and culpable of mega blunders allowing the Austrians to run through on goal. Against a better strike force, he would have been finished. Metzelder was better, but only partially. He did look much more comfortable taking the ball forward through the middle however.

Joachim Low (who along with Hickersberger was sent off to the stands around the 40th minute) fails to inspire. Especially shocking was the failure to replace Frings and/or Fritz. They might still be the first choice but one would expect the Germans to have quality replacements if they are not firing.

For Austria, Korkmaz and Hoffer both looked good but they showed an amazing reluctance to shoot. Lehman was not tested at all even though the Austrian’s got into the German box almost as often as the German got into their’s. They were very bright and showed good movement and attacking flair throughout their stay and may have done better if they could score. They have however clearly shown that the top 100 is much more competitive than 100-150. Think Austria would beat India (aprox. 150 rank) by seven nil but that should be a subject for some other day.

Back to Germany again – I think they will find it really difficult to beat Portugal. The mid-field and attack may get back into form and have a good day but I don’t see the central defenders being able to stop attackers running into them with the ball at their feet. And with Ronaldo and company, we should expect a lot of that to happen. Think the sight of the 2 M’s on their knees beaten by a dribbling Portuguese player will be a common sight in the quarter final.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Portugal V/s Switzerland Euro 2008

Did not see this game which ended two nil for the Swiss. Good for them – something to cheer for the host nation. Germany will hope that they don’t allow the other hosts to celebrate tonight.

Scolari made many changes and while no one will lose sleep over their loss, I’m sure the confidence on the bench will be a little lower. After all the team that played had Quresma, Nani and Postiga among others and a goal-less surrender will not have pleased the guys out on the pitch.

There has been some news about players not happy with Scolari’s job announcements with the tournament in progress and this defeat though inconsequential, would definitely not be what the Portuguese would have wanted. Whether they can just shake all this off and march on is still to be seen.

Personally, I think that Germany’s loss to the Croatian’s was an aberration and they will qualify to meet Portugal in the next round. It will be one hell of a game but I back Germany to go through that one. But then when has football gone to plan?

Turkey V/s Czech Republic Euro 2008

I must be honest. I was busy checking out stuff on the web and hardly paid attention to what happened in the first half. Just glanced at the TV in time to see Koller score the opener. The commentary in the background had given me the idea that the Czech seemed to be doing better and that Sionko was being particularly influential.

My interest was piqued when Sabri Sarioglu came on the pitch. I bought him for Newcastle United in FIFA Manager ’08 and he has not really been a great investment so I wanted to see what he is worth in real football. Looked very good. Fast down the right, capable of winning balls and sending crosses from close to the by-line. He was partially to blame for the second goal though, being the last man trying to block Plasil’s effort.

Turkey had been dominating at that time (in spite of Koller missing a sitter moments before Plasil’s goal), but when the Czech’s second goal went in, it seemed to be all over for them. But suddenly something changed after that. The Czech’s seemed to get a little casual and the Turk’s got one back through Arda.

As soon as I saw Plasil getting substituted around the 80th minute mark, I wondered that the Turk’s may still take it to penalties and wouldn’t he be needed then? Anyway, Fatih Terim’s men continued to try and get the ball in the opponent’s box and the Czech’s had not really woken up in spite of conceding the first. That the blunder that allowed Nihat to equalize came from Petr Cech was really the only big surprise.

But obviously it was not over yet. An off side trap gone all wrong and a late winner for the Turk’s scored by Nihat and it ended 3-2. Turks through, Czech’s gone.

Bruckner will look back at the last 15 minutes of his reign with disbelief and Cech will want to change the moment for the rest of his life. But I am going to interpret this as a sign that this tournament will continue to reward those who look to score and not to sit.Turkey have now won it twice after trailing and will be very very confident going into the knockout stages. Terim has shown the world that he is capable of delivering big and not just once. Just wondering if he would have figured in Abramovich’s scheme of things had Scolari like Ancelotti turned Chelsea down. They do have to deal with injuries and a suspended goal keeper but but in spite of what happens from now on, the Turks will have written their story in this tournament.

Russia Vs Greece Euro 2008

Russia are the team I have picked as my favourite under dogs for the tournament and in spite of their thrashing at the hands of Spain and a defence that could have conceded a dozen, I’m still not changing my vote. Without star strikers, with a brittle defence and with the prospect of facing one major nation after another even if they do qualify, it looks unlikely, but with Guus around, you never know.

Greece for me, have had their moment of glory, maybe more than what they had deserved and I was not going to be disappointed if they got knocked out in round 1.

The TV broadcast was really poor so could just about follow the game but for what they are worth, here are my thoughts.

From five at the back to three up front, Otto’s gamble seemed to be another from the school of ‘Am desperate and I don’t really know what to do’. Can’t blame managers if they do that with all the pressure around. It’s not as if there is too much time to recover, and sticking with plan A after the first defeat would invite murder if the second attempt also fails.

The game seemed competitive and pacy with Russia creating more chances. The one performance that needs to be mentioned is Pavlyuchenko. Got into great positions, linked up brilliantly with the rest of the attack but missed some great chances. He is definitely one to watch out for, and if the goals do start going in, he could have a major influence on the tournament.

The goal that Zyryanov scored was coming even though the incident itself was a major blunder by the Clooney look alike Nicopolodis. He went chasing Semak leaving his goal open for the Russian skipper’s speculative bicycle ball to be tapped in by Zyryanov.

The Greeks never looked dangerous inspite of their 4-3-3 until Karagounis came on as a sub and tested the Russians with some fine long range efforts. The Greeks did score a perfectly legitimate goal almost as they were running out of time, but it was not allowed and it was a little disappointing to see that a refereeing decision was what eventually sealed the Greek’s fate.
I thought that the Russian’s did deserve their victory and could have won by a handful, but they did not take their chances, so the Greeks will have every right to feel unlucky. But the truth remains that this team has had all its blessings exhausted 4 years ago and it will need another generation of players some time in the future for the Greek fable to be written again.

Spain Vs Sweden Euro 2008

Spain like Netherlands, Germany and Portugal were under pressure to repeat their stellar performance from the first set of matches. Germany clearly were not upto the challenge though Portugal and Netherlands both made it two out of two and have emerged as strong title contenders.

I’m in no way a fan of Luis Aragones but Spain have been on a streak and he has to be given some credit for it. It would help to have, what in general opinion is the best set of players in the tournament.

Lars Lagerback’s Sweden came into the game with lesser pressure but an equal amount of confidence following a very convincing win against holders Greece.

The game began as expected. Still no place for Cesc but it’s difficult to say that his being there would further improve the mid-field, great player though he is.

Spain kept calm and eye-pleasing possession and not too late into the game scored through a Fernando Torres header from Silva’s ball in. That would be the last time they would win an aerial ball in the Swedish box for a long-long time.

Not for the first time in this tournament, we saw a team wake up suddenly after conceding. Sweden decided it was time to press hard when without possession and cut-off the supply lines to Xavi, Iniesta and Silva. They also got their own forwards involved much more and played what can be best described as the typical English game. Before you knew it they looked more likely to score especially from long balls in to the strikers or set pieces.

Imbrahimovic did score from one such ball when he was allowed to trap, turn and shoot from six yards. And even though the shot was not the greatest, it was placed well and did enough to beat Casillas. The point to note is that neither of the two brilliant Spanish strikers were afforded such time and space by the Swedes in their area.

Aragones did try the usual set of changes by getting Fabregas in but things did not improve significantly. Critically for their tournament prospects, Puyol limped off to be replaced by Albiol, which hardly spoke much about the Spaniards depth in defence.

The Swedes also went through the second half doing enough to stop the Spanish from playing their passing game, but with Ibra out injured, their goal threat reduced significantly.
The late winner scored by Villa has to be the only reason Spain did eventually deserve to win. Any team which can score like that should win. A desperate long ball by Capdevilla, stopped with a delightful touch, a quick change of balance, first towards the left and then right to throw one defender off and then before the other two could close in an explosive shot into the back of the net. 2-1 Spain.

The goal reminded me of Bergkamp’s winner against Argentina in ’98 and Kaka’s Champion’s League semi-final goal against ManU in 2007. Kaka did have more space though and Bergkamp probably had an easier finish after having controlled the ball, so I will rate this one higher.
So Spain did win and ensure qualification, but the Swedes showed how they could be stopped. Xavi, Iniesta and even Senna looked fragile and seemed unable to cope with the Swedes’ bully approach. Xavi and Iniesta were particularly poor with only the strikers and Silva really getting positive marks for the game.

As for the Swedes, they face a tough final game against Russia and they will need Ibra fit. I don’t know their squad too well, so can’t comment on replacements, but Larsson looks unlikely to pose a major goal threat, though he still gets into positions and can create. I think they have a stronger team overall than the Russians but I would not bet on them going through, especially as one Mr. Hiddink is waiting to stop them.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Netherlands France Euro 2008

In one moment Marco Van Basten became my favourite football manager on the planet. It’s too early to say that the Dutch will be champions or that Van Basten will have a glittering career as a manager, but nobody will be able to take away his moment of genius, bravado and pure inspiration.

The Dutch made no changes and there was no reason to make any. The French got Henry to start and Govou came in support with Benzema and Anelka moving to the bench. Evra came in for Abidal but there did not seem too much change in the setup. Except that Ribery played more central with Govou combining the right wing to his central attack duties.

The Dutch started where they left off. All players got involved, they passed the ball around the ground with ease and in lovely shapes (Kuyt to Sneijder to de Jong to Ruud to Engelaar to Van der Vaart...see what I mean) and were all over the French when they scored the opener. Kuyt showed a striker’s instinct, a trait that he has often lacked the last few months and just ignored Malouda’s feeble resistance to head home from a corner and the Dutch were ahead after 10 minutes.

But it wasn’t going to be a walkover like the other day against Italy. Not yet at least. Around half-way through the first forty-five, the French found their feet as well. They began passing the ball better, not losing it as easily and settled into a rhythm. The result – two teams both playing well, keeping possession and equally effective in defence.

Look at this. The back four with two sitting in front and linking play – de Jong and Engelaar for Holland and Makelele and Toulalan for France. Two attacking midfielders covering the wings and central areas: Van der Vaart and Sneider and Malouda and Govou. Ruud and Henry both playing like lone strikers. The only difference being Ribery on a more central role compared to Kuyt who was distinctly right midfield.

While Van Bronkhorst’s runs up-field left some space for France to push up the right, the overall layout for both teams ensured that the game was competitive, attractive but absolutely in balance. No chance of the striker’s getting behind the defence and no real way to make penetrating runs in the box. A bit of a stalemate with advantage to the Dutch as the game reached half time.

It was then that it happened. With the second half about to start and the onus on Domenech to change things around and force the issue, we were greeted with the sight of the very impressive Engelaar being replaced by Arjen Robben. Van Basten chose to sacrifice the formation that was doing more than enough to keep France in control by removing a wall in central midfield and introducing a floating missile. He didn’t need to. He could have sat back and relaxed and played the game of “Maybe we’ll score a second, maybe they’ll equalize, maybe we’ll win 1 nil, let’s wait and watch”. That’s what Raymond was doing.

The smile on my face did not go away for hours after that. When was the last time a manager did that? In such a big game too? Will he pull it off? Or will France make them pay?

Those answers came later on but it was evident from the beginning of the second half that the game had changed. With Engelaar gone, France found more space to press forward. They looked a little more threatening and soon enough Malouda chipped the ball over the defence to get Henry one-on one against Van der Saar. Henry chipped it over the net and France had blown their best chance of getting back into the game.

Then came the Dutch magic. Ruud pressed by three defenders danced and passed the ball to Robben who zipped down the field and laid the ball for Van Persie who had come in to replace Kuyt just a while ago. Just brilliant.

When France got it back to 2-1, it was still more to do with what Van Basten had allowed them to do rather than their own brilliance. With Von Bronkhorst caught away from his position, there was no one to provide extra cover and the rather limited pace off the Dutch backline was exposed with Sagnol’s only great pass of the game and Henry’s one touch reminding us of the player he was and still may be.

Within 60 seconds Arjen Robben showed his brilliance again. A goal which had a great pass, great speed and an unbelievable finish with no space to shoot. Please God! Let Arjen Robben not be injured forever and please let us have the joy of seeing him play for many many years.

Domenech deprived of ideas and inspiration made changes for the sake of changes but did not really change much. Henry showed the will to fight back but did not seem to have the ability or support. Evra played worse than I have ever seen him do and with the midfiled not getting more adventurous than Makelele and Toulalan, a French comeback looked unlikely.

What didn’t look unlikely was a fourth Dutch goal, with Robben testing Coupet and Ruud nodding one almost into the post. It was also what was needed to set up a perfect group finish by getting the French and Italians equal on goal difference as well as goal scored though I am not sure how much impact that has as per the tournament rules.

The fourth came and it came through Sneijder who has to be very very close to being the player of the tournament so far.

The great French side is no more. Sagnol does not look good enough, there are too many old players, the manager does not know who to start with now that none of the strikers have inspired confidence, Italy are almost a replica of their own team and will fight hard and if that was not all, the Romanians have to play against a Dutch team that has already qualified. I don’t think France will make it.

Italy-Romania Euro 2008

Roberto Donandoni had been understandably under fire since the three goal surrender to the Dutch and responded by sending out a completely new team. Well almost. Grosso, de Rossi and Del Piero were almost certain to be included, but Donadoni went further and got in Chiellini and Perrotta as well.

Romania made two changes as well but it was definitely the Italians who started better. After an early Mutu shot, it was Del Piero and Toni who had chances to score but missed.

The pattern of play in the first half was established soon. Camoranesi works hard and links up with Grosso on the left and occasionally with Zambrotta on the right who then send crosses in for Toni. The cross may be from the by-line or anywhere near the touchline in the final third. Toni either makes a weak header or heads wide or something else which is not a goal. Romania play their part too. When they do get the ball and manage to keep it away from Camoranesi, they work hard and get it to Mutu. Mutu troubles defenders and has shots and all in all it’s a thrilling, gripping encounter. Romania even hit the post through Chivu’s free kick and a Panucci deflection.

It was thrilling and gripping alright, but a few ominous signs were visible for Italy. Del Piero and in particular Toni were both not looking their sharpest, but more importantly, Italy seemed to have only one plan – bomb the ball to Toni. Even there, all dangerous balls came from the flanks and there was nothing creative through the middle. De Rossi, Pirlo and Perrotta were all either invisible or losing possession when they did see any of the ball. De Rossi and Pirlo never really carried the ball forward don the middle and Perrotta rarely followed up behind Toni to get into dangerous positions. All Italian moves from the centre were long balls to Toni and with Perrotta not very lively, none of them had any effect.

The Romanians defended brilliantly and looked dangerous when Mutu had the ball or from long range efforts and set pieces.

Toni did eventually put the ball into the net and was wrongly called offside. It was a chip over the defence and it was not the only time that Toni had space for the header but t was the only time he did score. Hard luck to the Italians but in my view any strategy that depends solely on finding the striker’s head will yield at the most one goal in a game and that was it.

I was surprised that Donadoni did not make any changes at half time because the game needed one. There seemed to be only two ways of breaking the deadlock – a defensive error (like leaving Toni free) or a moment of brilliance very likely to be from a long range effort. There seemed to be little chance of complete domination and persistent pressure breaking the opponent down.

The defensive errors came first from the Italians and then immediately after that from the Romanians. Mutu finished well after Zambrotta’s howler and Panucci was there to take advantage of a non-clearance of Chiellini’s header across goal after a corner.

The goals aside, the second half offered nothing new for most of the firty-five. Romania looked more dangerous after the hour mark and the Italy midfield refused to improve. Camoranesi faded out as the half progressed and the midfield trio continued to disappoint. Cassano came on for Perrotta and had maybe two good moments in the game.

Donadoni replaced the tired Camoranesi and Del Pierro but there was no real spark coming. A slightly soft penalty for the Romanians could have ended the tournament for the Italians. But Mutu did look nervy before taking the shot (he glanced hesitantly at the ref when he blew the whistle for the kick) and Buffon was the favorite to save it once he had dived correctly. It did need two touches from Buffon but Italy will take it and it may put some belief in the team about destiny and stuff before they meet France next.

My Man-of-the-Match has to be the Romanian keeper Lobont who made some good saves and looked very assured in goal.

This game raises big questions about Donadoni. I don’t think his changes had too much conviction, seemed too populist to me. Couldn’t understand why he didn’t get his midfield to participate more and it was apparent that the Italian bench may not be so impressive after all. Also did not like the extended wait to try and change things at all.

As for Victor Piturca and his Romanian team, they are well placed to qualify despite the Mutu penalty miss. I’ll not be surprised if Romania qualify after a third draw, this time against the Dutch with France and Italy also playing out a draw. It’s just a premonition. They look like a well organized team that knows it strengths and will play to them. A lot depends on how Mutu responds to the missed penalty and the loss of Radoi will also be a blow. They could qualify and be effective enough to knock out some off the big guns. Having said that, with all the beautiful teams on display in this tournament, it will be disappointing to see a team with the Romanian approach win.

Italy: Buffon, Zambrotta, Panucci, Chiellini, Grosso, De Rossi, Pirlo, Perrotta (Cassano 57), Del Piero (Quagliarella 76), Camoranesi (Ambrosini 84), Toni

Romania: Lobont, Contra, Tamas, Goian, Rat, Petre (Nicolita 59), Chivu, Radoi (Dica 20), Codrea, Mutu, Niculae.