After an unpredictable season across Europe, it is that time again when Football fans across Europe – and indeed the world – get to see the cream of international talent on show in a major competition. For English fans this is usually a time of despair, while our German and Spanish counterparts look forward more optimistically.
So what have we learnt so far? Are the pre-tournament favourites justified? Could there be a shock of Denmark ’92 or Greece ’04 proportions? Here is my view…
Without doubt the weakest group on paper, and after the opening fixtures this was strongly confirmed. Poland’s low FIFA ranking is probably a little harsh, but after a nerve-ridden second half performance there can be some justification for this. Greece looked like getting nothing from the first game of the tournament for a long time until Szczesny’s ill-timed challenge, but could now prevail from Group A. In Robert Lewandowski the Poles have a frontman to be feared, and I feel that if he can produce in each game of the group phase then Poland will have a real chance. However, Russia will provide a much sterner test in tonight’s second game – and may have the knowledge that a win could give them an unassailable lead at the top of Group A.
Czech Republic have been a team in decline for several years now, and looked frankly out of their depth against a positive Russia side. It will be once again left to the experience of Rosicky, Baros and Plasil to try to prevent a likely early exit. Their game against Greece is certainly winnable and could set up a fiery finale against the Poles in Wroclaw. The Greeks must approach this fixture as positively as they can and build on what they did with 10 men against Poland rather than the way they played with 11. After conceding 4 the Czechs must look for a solid start and build a platform for their front players. Most intriguingly, a draw could suit the Greeks if the Russians then win later – this would give them a group win and an opportunity to rest players ahead of a much tougher Quarter Final. I hope the Greeks do not set up to avoid defeat though as the Czechs may settle for the point too.
I am particularly looking forward to Poland v Russia this evening. Poland have got to pick themselves up from a disappointing draw, and remember the positive way they started the game. If Obraniak and Blaszczykowski can find space to express themselves – and most importantly link up with Lewandowski – they can get the result they need. The Russian defence will be expecting a sterner test, but it is going forward where we will see how their first result can be framed. Arshavin looked like a new player after a tiresome last 18 months at Arsenal, and their ability to flood from midfield through Shirokov and Dzagoev in particular makes them difficult to handle. Finally, if the mercurial Kerzhakov can start converting more chances, Russia could prove to be a threat to the big names.
The ‘Group of Death’ provided more puzzles than answers in the opening fixtures. Many saw the Denmark result as a shock, but (you will have to take my word for it!) I postulated to many friends on the difficulties they would provide to opponents. Morten Olsen is a wily coach who has turned the Danes into an excellent defensive unit. The question was – and still is – on how their lack of attacking options will stifle their hopes. Bendtner and Rommedahl have been perennial Premier League underachievers, and in my opinion will be lucky to survive the chop after their performances against an average Dutch defence. Christian Eriksen is an exciting prospect but maybe this tournament is too soon for him.
Denmark’s gain was Netherlands’ loss, and this sets up a simply enormous fixture against Germany tomorrow. I believe that there is no way they can approach this game in the same way Portugal did. The Dutch back line is very suspect and they must start the game on the front foot. One must not forget they created a hatful of chances against the Danes, and you feel once one comes more will follow. Huntelaar will be chomping at the bit for a start, but how will van Marwijk fit him in? It would seem unlikely he will drop one of his two sitting midfielders, so the change will come in the front 4, where I would like to see Van Persie in the hole behind him. However in reality I think he may have to settle for the bench again. I predict that the only change van Marwijk will employ will centre around Afellay who was almost anonymous on Saturday. The obvious replacements are van der Vaart or the more workmanlike Kuyt who would help to stifle Lahm.
Germany did not play very well – but Germany won. This was a stereotypical tournament performance from them and while it didn’t set the world on fire, I would suggest it looked rather ominous. Gomez did what all great scorers do and scored a superb winner despite not being involved at all in the rest of the game. It is that touch of quality that helps teams progress in tournaments – it is also something that could come from any of their players. I believe that the most fearsome asset the Germans possess in this tournament is their bench – Schurrle, Gotze, Kroos, Reus and even Klose all have the ability to change a game, and I would suggest the first four would all be starting in the majority of other sides.
Portugal created chances and showed that they could still progress from this group. Their final match against the Netherlands could be a humdinger depending on results tomorrow. If only they had another striker! How is Postiga still starting? Probably because the excitement surrounding Quaresma has never really materialised into regular displays of class. They are still susceptible at the back, but have an excellent midfield trio in Veloso, Meireles and Moutinho who shackled Germany well. Nani in particular caused Germany regular concern and it was good to see him actually provide a final ball on a couple of occasions. The stage is set for Ronaldo to produce on this stage – something that must have hit home when he returned to his hotel to discover that Messi had single-handedly beaten Brazil’s Olympic team.
Time to stick my neck on the line I suppose – who will progress in these 2 groups?
I’m going for Russia and Poland, Germany and Denmark – so bet on any other combination!
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament came prior to the first match in Group C when the teams for the first game were revealed. Del Bosque’s decision to go for the Craig Levein 4-6-0 startled everyone, while I believe Prandelli’s 1-4-3-2 was just as interesting. In the end, Del Bosque’s decision was highlighted when Torres came on and spurned chances – although Llorente, Pedro and Negredo must have wondered how he got the call anyway. My view is that the final 15 minutes completely cemented my belief that Spain SHOULD have started with a striker, even if they played Pedro in this position. They created more in the last 15 minutes than in the first 75, and on another day (or with an in-form Torres) it would have finished at least 3-1. Why did Spain play with no striker? I believe this was a clear show of respect for Prandelli’s Italian side who have been spoken about by the press for many other reasons rather than the fact they could have a big say in the destiny of the championship.
Starting with two strikers showed Spain they were willing to take them on. This also provided much needed game time for Cassano, while proving further that Balotelli is one of the most frustrating players in the world. It was the foundations of the Italian side that really impressed. De Rossi was colossus in his new sweeper role, while Marchisio and the ageless Pirlo were majestic in midfield, proving they could put in the hard work as well as provide telling passes. Thursday’s game with Croatia now poses the problem of whether to stick with this formation and the same names – Di Natale in particular must think he is ahead of Balotelli in the pecking order. De Rossi would definitely have to play a freer role allowing him to advance more and thus give the rest of midfield the opportunity to break.
The Italians must try to attack more as Croatia looked very suspect at the back against a very average Irish side. No one doubts the potential Croatia have to cause major upsets here – Modric was simply majestic in midfield on Sunday, Mandzukic looks to have formed a lethal partnership with Jelavic, while Srna continues to be a raiding threat down the right. The back four steadied the ship a little in the second half, but Corluka had a torrid 45 minutes at centre half, while crosses provoked havoc on every occasion. Bilic will hope that their next opponents continue to play tiki-taka rather than directly. Croatia could cause a huge upset and win the group – English fans will know the implications that could have.
Ireland came into the tournament with a huge task but it is now of mammoth proportions – I believe their target must now be avoiding embarrassment and hope they can pinch a point. I worry that their pedestrian defence could be sliced open if the Spanish can play with slightly more pace. The front 6 will surely have to change after their efforts against Croatia. Doyle can take pride in a bustling performance, but McGeady had a night to forget while Duff only had occasional joy. McClean is surely the name on Irish lips before Thursday – he could cause Arbeloa serious problems with his pace and direct approach, but Trappatoni seems cautious on starting the young Sunderland winger. I would suggest that his formation will have to change against the Spanish if they are to have a faint hope, and packing the midfield with 5 would seem a sensible option.
The penultimate game of first round undoubtedly filled the most column inches as England entered the tournament with more appropriate expectations than in previous years. Without talking too much about my home nation, I think it was a promising start that should provide the basis for progression from the group. I also believe that Hodgson will keep the 4-4-2 for the last two group games. However, I believe that if England want to go any further, they must adopt the Barca-style 4-3-3 that can work as a 4-5-1 when on the back foot. Deploying Milner alongside Parker would allow Gerrard to have more attacking input while the pace of the front 3 is a threat to any nation. The question for Hodgson before Rooney returns is whether to stick with the same team or whether to bring Carroll into the attack. A controversial issue I know but he could cause Sweden a huge threat judging by their aerial ineptitude against Shevchenko.
France are a team capable of winning this tournament and they will be slightly disappointed by their opening game. Benzema dropped far too deep and they played very narrow which suited England. How Blanc will deal with that in the later stages is interesting but against Sweden and Ukraine I feel they will have far too much quality. Nasri continued his excellent league form, as did Cabaye, and their quality should see them safely through.
Whether France will top the group could depend on their next game against Ukraine, who will be riding the crest of a wave after their comeback win last night. I did not believe that Shevchenko and Voronin could make such an impact on an international stage but this is their last hurrah and they showed glimpses of their glory years that they will have to repeat if the co-hosts want to reach the knock-out stages. While the much-lauded Yarmolenko did not have a great game, on the opposite wing Konoplienka was exceptional – he is certainly one to watch in their remaining games.
The Swedes were thought to be England’s biggest threat to qualification – and they still could spoil the party on Friday night – but Hodgson will not be having sleepless nights about how to deal with them. Keep Ibrahimovic quiet and you struggle to see them winning. Much was expected of Elm but he made a quiet start to the tournament. Kallstrom is capable of providing chances, and the dead ball skills of Larsson are familiar to all English fans, but their defence is mediocre. Mellberg was embarrassed by Shevchenko for the first goal, while Olsson was exposed in the same move. History will undoubtedly be the main worry as time and again the Swedes have managed to frustrate England.
Going through? I still fancy Spain and Croatia, France and England as I did before the tournament.
Roll on the second round of games…