Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Euro Thoughts Part 5: The Quarterfinals


I watched 2 of the Quarter Finals in the comfort of my home (Portugal vs. Czech Republic & Germany vs. Greece) and the next 2 (Spain vs. France & England vs. Italy) in a hotel lounge in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s interesting to note that the football matches paired up nicely with the viewing experience that I had for each one.

Portugal 1 Czech Republic 0: Ronaldo should change his Jersey number to ‘20’
Let’s face it, the entire world, save for the Czechs themselves fancied none other than Portugal to win this one. Perhaps the surprise was from the fact that it turned out only to be a 1-0 win for the Portuguese. The level of dominance of Portugal however was not reflected on the scoreline. Except, for the opening exchanges of the game where the Czechs managed to blunt Portugal, it was all Portugal from there.
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The most notable point to the game would have to be once again, Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance. Starting out as an ‘11’ (Left Winger), Ronaldo drifted freely between his starting position as an ‘11’ to the ‘10’ position (playmaker – where he funneled some great balls forward) and further on as a ‘9’ (center forward – where he scored from). 11 + 10 + 9 = 20. Ronaldo was all over the pitch and offered Portugal the ‘attacking platform’ in the final third that they had been lacking all along.
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Kudos must also go to Ronaldo’s ‘supporting cast’: Joao Moutinho whose driving runs from deep midfield gave Portugal that additional presence in the final third which Portugal needed, Coentrao who has been the tournament’s best left back so far, and Miguel Veloso, for shielding the back 4 superbly. Ditto for the 2 center backs who have been a rock for Portugal (also the best CB pairing in the tournament) thus far.
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Praise must also go to Paulo Bento. Portugal have talent, but not at the level of the powerhouses of the tournement (Spain, Germany, Netherlands, or even France) - with their talent pretty much only going XI deep (i.e. they don't have quality on their bench to match their starters like the powerhouse teams). As such, they resemble a club side aspiring for a top 4 position in a big European League. They have a clear approach and strategy in the way they play too. Praise must go to the vertically-challenge Paulo Bento for that. He's built the team around the strengths of his best player (Ronaldo) and has accordingly adjusted the team shape based on the tournament's needs (i.e letting Ronaldo roam diagonally forward to operate occasionally as a '10' or a '9' in game situations - to compensate for their lack of an 'attacking platform' in the final third). 
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Verdict: The Czechs should not hang their heads. For a team that weren’t fancied to get past their group, they did very well. It must also be noted that they played without their creative fulcrum against Portugal (Rosicky) and that they faced a Portugal: a team built around the best individual player of the tournament who himself is gaining momentum and confidence and has just been absolutely unstoppable. For Portugal, who face Spain next, it will be interesting to see if Ronaldo can manage to find the back of his club captain’s net from what will surely only be the 1-2 (3 at most) chances he will get against them.
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Germany 4 – Greece 2 (Die Mannschaft deny the Greeks any hope of a Footballing Bailout)
If the Greeks thought that the 3 changes Joachim Low made to their attacking line (Gomez, Muller and Podolski made way for Klose, Reus and Schurrle) was some form of "footballing bailout", they were dead wrong. I watched this match on the day of my early flight to Malaysia and it duly woke me up for my weekend trip. The Germans showed the world that they are outright terrifying. Set amidst the grim economic backdrop of the European political-economy, the match between the Germans and the Greeks showed that the Germans were just as efficient and merciless (perhaps even more so) even with their ‘second choice’ players.
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Klose offered great movement upfront, while Reus and Schurrle’s pace matched their eagerness, aggressiveness with the midfield trio’s (Schweinstieger, Khedira & Ozil) snappi-ness to tear Greece apart. How defensively the Greeks played or how deeply they sat made absolutely no difference. Irrespective of his well-taken goal, I fancied Reus more than Schurrle – as the latter was clearly more anxious and prone to bad decision-making than the former.
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Verdict: Like the Czechs, the Greeks ought to be proud of themselves for reaching the quarters. Also missing a key player (Karagounis), they were simply no match to the firepower and the peerless slick-ness of the Germans. The Germans on the other hand will be pleased with the outcome of this ‘experiment’ heading into the Italy game. Facing an Italy who will only offer width through their fullbacks, Germany’s ‘alternatives’ displayed the kind of incisiveness on the flanks that can undo the Italians. Low must speak to his midfield though and ensure that they do not repeat the farcical error that England committed against Italy – allowing Pirlo to do what he wanted (which was to basically run the game). Ozil, who is notorious for his lack of defensive effort and must be warned of this. All in all, I continue to fancy the Germans to win the tournament
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Spain 2 – France 0: Xabi Alonso’s moment in the Sun
I took in the match at 2:45am in my hotel’s lounge bar with a couple of beers and a bowl of tidbits. Even before asking me what I wanted to drink, the bartender asked me who I was cheering for. I remarked that I wasn’t really cheering for anyone but wanted to see how my Real Madrid boys would do – and that I did think that Spain would be heavy favorites. He then confessed to me that he had put money into France winning (curiously, he was wearing a Germany kit). ‘Say Good bye to your money’ I thought to myself.
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Soon enough, Jordi Alba raced down the touchline and delivered a cross that had me thinking ‘who the hell was that for?’ Xabi Alonso would then appear in the penalty box with a late run to head it in. The header itself looked a bit awkward – but it was certainly good enough to beat Lloris. Laurent Blanc’s fear of the Spanish attack from the left side came true. He prepared for it too – with Debuchy fronting Revelliere on the French Right Flank… but it was for naught. Revelliere was worried about Iniesta of course, whom he joined in the middle of the park – allowing Jordi Alba to get past the equally attack-minded Debuchy for the cross. I yelled ‘France! Gone already!’ at the bartender. ‘Can still win lah!’ he retorted at me. ‘Yeah right!’ I said quietly. It was 19 minutes into the game – what makes you think France will ever touch the ball again for the rest of the game?
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France were awful. A Portuguese friend would later remark on Facebook that he had no idea how France even deserved to get out of their group. He was right. The French were bereft of ideas and had no creativity in midfield. In front of Yann M’Vila (who impressed me with the ‘clarity’ of his play), Ribery made his runs of course, but there was little else. Cabaye knows how to pass a ball, but doesn’t know how to create, organize a midfield or set up / dictate the tempo of a game. And so, Benzema dropped deeper and deeper – making runs, making passes, attempting 1-2s. But who was going to play with him? Who was going to give him the ball to shoot and score? Where was his Ozil? His Zidane? Zidane’s retired of course… and Ozil plays for the Germans.
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Then for the rest of the match, Spain did what Spain now likes to do – bore the living fuck out of all of us. They passed the ball aimlessly about for the rest of the game, lacking incisiveness and sharpness. I will admit this: I literally dozed off a couple of times in my seat in that bar, beer in hand, watching Spain play. I woke up a few times asking myself if I should play ‘Plants vs. Zombies’ on my phone to wake myself up. Spain are being found out in this tournament (just as Barca was this past season): without Messi, they’re not the exciting prophets of beautiful football that they claim to be.
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Instead, they are functional, obsessed with control and predictable (but effective). Except of course that they don’t use John Terry-like heroics to do so (i.e. throw himself in front of shots), or Roy Hodgson ‘2 banks of 4’ tactics. Their method of control is possession and passing. Don’t get me wrong – it’s clearly a display of superior technical ability, skill and tactical awareness of their teammates’ movements. But is it attractive and exciting? I certainly don’t think so. And so it begs the question: if this obsession with possession and passing is merely a method of controlling a match (the Spanish means to offset their lack of physicality to use their technical ability control a match), then why are many of the masters of this technical brand of functional football the ones who pontificate about football like it was some form of morality? (I’m talking about you Xavi).
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I take my rewards from this game from Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso - it was a night of milestones for him: his 100th cap, he had 90% passing accuracy for the game and scored 2 goals - he also reportedly lost 6 kilos in the match. Oh and by the way, I don't care if Laurent Kocielny thinks it's harder to play against their 'false 9', I still dislike this 4-6-0 formation. 
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Verdict: I still rate the Spanish as the favorites to go through to the final, but I sincerely believe that both the Portuguese and Germans have seen enough to fancy their chances against them. Spain's quality is overwhelmingly superior - but their football is ponderous and predictable. They will be prone to moments of vulnerability to teams who can create lighting-quick transitions in the ebb and flow of the game: the specialties of both Portugal and Germany. Having said that, it will not surprise me to see them win their third consecutive major international title. 
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Italy 0 - England 0 (Italy wins 4-2 on Penalties): The Andrea Pirlo Show
It was my last night in Malaysia, and the lounge was packed with England fans (likely blind followers of the EPL) except for a middle-aged Italian couple sitting behind me. The lady was blonde and the man had red-ish hair - prompting me to suspect him to be British. I asked them who they were cheering for. The man looked at me puzzled: 'Italia!' he belted out with pride as if to tell me: 'who else would I ever cheer for you jackass?' I appeased him with 'I want Italy to win too'.
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For the first time, I genuinely enjoyed watching an Italian National Team play. And for the first time also: i really, really believed that England were shit. The England teams of the past had good players (some great) who just couldn't gel into a cohesive unit. This team, however was just utter rubbish - and how they played the game showed it. They did absolutely NOTHING. They were shit in attack, they were shit in defense (with only Joe Hart and Italy's profligacy in front of goal to thank their clean sheet for) and tactically - they were as dumb as a brick.
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It's not uncommon for one team in an international tournament whose play would be defined and dictated by one maestro midfielder. For this Euro 2012, that team is Italy. It's also common in such tournaments that such a team would eventually get found out when their opponents devise a tactical strategy to shut this player down (as done to Argentina's Riquelme in the 2006 World Cup). I have NO IDEA why Roy Hodgson never picked up on Croatia's idea, an OFFENSIVE move no less, to shut Pirlo down by pushing Mondric up the pitch to shadow the italian master. Hodgson instead naively believed that their 2 banks of 4 were enough to do the job. Italy may have failed to score a goal before penalties were necessary - but Andrea Pirlo completely tore England apart and put on a clinic in passing that would have put Xavi 'Mr. Horizontal Pass' to shame. 
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Pirlo won the penalty mind games for Italy too. Joe Hart's cheeky demeanor during the shoot out was clearly a ploy to unnerve the Italians. You might say that his smirks, growls and naughty grins might actually have worked to unnerve Montolivo to miss his penalty. The Italian man behind me walked away and headed to the toilet when Montolivo missed. He came out of the gent's after Rooney successfully converted his penalty. His wife reported this to him "Rooney scored his penalty" (she must have said in Italian - I only understood the 'Rooney' part). "It's fucking Wayne Rooney - of course he's going to make the penalty!" was what he probably yelled back to her (once again I only understood 'Wayne Rooney' from what he said). He didn't go back to his seat. He stood in front instead, leaning practically crouched on the bar counter. 
Pirlo was up next. He executed his 'Panenka' perfectly. I chuckled and laughed out loud. The cheekiness and audacity of Pirlo was a clear message to mock Joe Hart and his scare tactics (it might have even deflated the English's confidence and boosted the Italians'). Ashley Young's miss to the crossbar had me bursting into laughter again... and when Ashley Cole took his place to shoot, the TV announcer had pointed out that he was left-footed - I instantly imagined him powering the shot to the right (rather than side-footing it left. He was a left back after all so I didn't bet on him opting for a side footed finesse shot). Buffon was apparently thinking the same thing. His save was perfect. And just as Diamante converted his penalty, the Italian lady behind me stood up, turned around and yelled 'DiamantEEEH!' in her declarative Italian-accented tone at the England-supporting fans sitting behind her who were mocking her earlier every time she yelled out the Italian #22's name when he missed a chance to score. They kept quiet.
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I turned around to congratulate the couple for their country's win, shaking both their hands. I can only imagine how they feel - as my country will probably need another 100-200 years to be in a World Cup and then to win a Quarterfinal match. I will never understand their emotions but I was happy to witness their joy. As I stepped back into the lift to head back to my hotel room, all I could think of was Andrea Pirlo - what a bloody fucking amazing player.
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Onto the Semis
It's been an amazing tournament so far. And we have a truly-deserving Final Four. The defending Champions who are clearly head and shoulders the best team in the world (Spain), the most exciting, dynamic, energetic and young team in Europe (Germany), a rock-solid team built around Europe's best player (Portugal) and a traditional juggernaut who have shed their reputation as masters of football's dark arts and are keen to embrace their new identity as Europe's most tactically dynamic team (Italy). The next few days will be unbelievable.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Euro 2012 Thoughts Part 4: The REAL Ronaldo Shows Up (Portugal 2 – Netherlands 1)


The Flimsy 'Spine' of the Dutch Formation allowed the Portuguese Midfield 3 to blunt their attack. And when the Dutch Full Backs Bombed forward, Ronaldo and Nani were afforded acres of prime real estate in their favorite attacking zones to do their damage. Ronaldo punished them for this. If Nani was on his game, the scoreline might have been 4-1.

Bert Van Marwijk needed to win by 2 goals and a German victory to get to the quarterfinals. The Germans did the business once again, becoming the only team to finish with 9 points (a 100% record) in the group stages of the competition – but the Dutch failed miserably again. The Dutch needed to attack – and so they did… but they threw caution to the wind and paid dearly for it. They did not account for the fact that Portugal knew their predicament and would happily hit them on the counter with 2 of the best attacking wingers in the tournament. All the Portuguese were hoping for was for the Real Ronaldo to turn up. The ‘Real’ Ronaldo meaning both the ‘true’ Ronaldo and the ‘Real Madrid’ Ronaldo. Luckily for the Portuguese – he did turn up.
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The Dutch go home with ZERO points after starting the competition as one of it’s favorites. I take their elimination as payback handed out by the Football Gods upon them for their cynical and ugly approach in the world cup. Like the cliché goes: if you want to use the dark arts to win and get far, then the only criteria you get judged by is winning or losing. Those who play positively AND WIN are universally hailed as heroes. Those who do so but lose, are hailed as martyrs. Those who win negatively are generally respected but begrudgingly so. And those who lose while playing negatively are scorned, insulted, belittled, scoffed at and ridiculed… and in my opinion, rightly so. Karma’s a bitch ain’t it, Bert?
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The Dutch played a formation that showed no semblance of balance, organization or team shape in my opinion. It looked like a 4-1-1-3-1: with De Jong as a lone holder behind Van Der Vaart who played a neither-a-10-nor-a-deep-lying-playmaker role at midfield. In front of this fragile ‘spine’ (if you can even call it that) was an array of 3 ‘attacking midfielders-cum-forwards’ who didn’t look to be in their comfort zone –Sneijder shunted to the left flank, Van Persie played as a ‘10’ (a role he hadn’t played for some time) and Robben at his predictable role on the right side.
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In a way, the Dutch Formation fit like a glove to suit Portugal’s tactical intentions to use their wingers (Nani & Ronaldo) to hit the Dutch on the break. Pepe and Alves are both physically powerful bruisers, adept with dealing with poachers like Huntelaar. Coentrao can singlehandedly handle Robben (as proven in the Champions League), while Sneijder, who is keen to drift to the middle wouldn’t have threatened Pereira that much. At midfield, Van Persie, playing as a withdrawn forward, and supported by Van Der Vaart behind him would be outnumbered 3 vs. 2 by Veloso, Moutinho and Meireles. And when we consider the fact that Van Der Wiel and Willems bomb forward while on attack – Nani and Ronaldo are given acres of real estate in their favorite prime attacking areas to thrive. It was too bad for the Netherlands that Ron Vlaar’s bad-ass name did NOT have a bad-ass game to match. Ron Vlaar was not a bad-ass. He was just bad. And Ronaldo abused him over and over again.
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I'm also curious to find out who it was who suggested that Real Madrid ought to buy Gregory Van Der Wiel as our first-choice Right Back. Are you kidding??? The dude can't even guard his lunch. Let Barca have him - as I would love to watch CRon tear him a new one in a Clasico. Ha.
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Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox has sounded like a broken recordin these European Championships, suggesting over and over again, the use of PSVbox-to-box midfielder as a moderate alternative at midfield to De Jong + Van Bommel or De Jong / Van Bommel + Van Der Vaart (and I agree with him). His suggestion fell on deaf ears. I’ve watched Rafa Van Der Vaart in his years both at Madrid and Spurs and have not seen an iota of evidence to suggest that he can play as a Central Midfielder in the true sense of the word (he’s an attacking midfielder, maybe a playmaker, possibly a withdrawn forward). Van Marwijk instead opted for an ‘extreme’ option.
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Verdict:
The Netherlands leaves the competition with their reputation: as a team filled with brilliant attacking players but used as a clumsy, functional and even dirty unit - completely intact. You can also add to that the fact the players sounded and looked like a bunch of whining, petulant bunch of brats with little team chemistry or camaraderie. Bert Van Marwijk deserves the sack. Or if he has any honor left in him, he should fall on his own sword. I miss the days when the sight of the Dutch’s bright orange uniforms would make my emotions simmer with excitement at the possibility of watching a beautiful footballing extravaganza.
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The Portuguese are not without their weaknesses and those will definitely be exposed by worthier teams further down the road. They will take rightful comfort however at seeing their star-man Cristiano Ronaldo show signs of life. As a Real Madrid fan, wanting to see him win the Balon D’ Or, I certainly hope that the confidence boost that he and his team has received from this match and spur him on to bigger things in this competition and for his national team. The Czechs will be tricky but not impossible for the Portuguese to overcome. Either way, the time has come for Ronaldo to turn up and assume the mantle of leadership for his country, just as he has done for his club.
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Post-Script: Belated Thoughts on Other Matches:
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Spain 4 - Ireland 0: Vicente Del Bosque lmight have learned something from this game - that if you put in a player whose main function is to put the ball into the back of the net - then you might actually score goals: lots of them. That Mr. Del Bosque is what you call 'A Striker'.
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Italy 1 - Croatia 1: Oops! Seems like someone figured out how to stop the Italians and their 'unique' 3-5-2. The principle seems to be simple enough: stop Pirlo and you stop Italy. It's difficult not to recall  Argentina's Riquelme-dependent 2006 World Cup Team.
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France 2 - Ukraine 0: People should stop expecting Benzema to score. Those who have followed him through Lyon and then onto Real Madrid knows that one of Benzema's best qualities his is coolness in making the right decisions in pressure packed situations - which leads to either goals or assists. He did the latter against the Ukraine. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't score for the rest of the tournament but continues to create the goals for his team. Sadly I wouldn't be surprised if people choose to take that against him too.
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England 3 - Sweden 2: No one will ever have a clear explanation has to how England will get results or win matches. Their ugliness, functionality, messiness is part of their 'beauty'. They will scrap, run, defend, press, attack and counterattack to get results and win without doing any of those things particularly well. Anyone who thinks and expects otherwise have clearly had one too many drinks.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Euro 2012 Thoughts Part 3


Portugal 3 – Denmark 2: Ronaldo chokes but Portugal Does Not
Last night’s encounter between the Portuguese and the Danes was for me the most entertaining match among those I’ve seen all-tournament. Was it a case of both teams eager to ‘go for it’? or was it a case of both teams being too porous when attacked?
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I commented after their first game that Portugal needed an ‘attacking platform’ – some form of a ‘9’ or a ‘10’ when they attack after seeing them lose to the Germans: and it seemed that Paulo Bento was thinking something similar. Instead of using Ronaldo to run at the Danish defense hugging the left touchline as he usually does, we actually found him making quite a few of those runs more to the middle of the pitch where we saw him attempt a couple of through balls (albeit missed) ala-Ozil to Helder Postiga. This ‘extended’ Portugal’s ‘spine’ further forward and made them look even more menacing when on attack.
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Too bad for Ronaldo, that it was his teammates’ work that would be credited for the win. Pepe, imitated Shevchenko’s second goal (in Ukraine’s 2-1 win over Sweden) by making a similar horizontal run, completely free of a marker to head into the near post. The second goal on the other hand was borne of wing play from Nani, crossing to Postiga to score. The third and winning goal was scored by Varela, whom I thought gave a good account of himself in the Germany game. While the credit for the goals will go directly to these players, I’d have to say that it was Ronaldo’s adjusted position on the pitch (and the way he played this role) that made it possible: Portugal to me looked far more dangerous and attacked with so much more intent with Ronaldo in this semi-central role.
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It’s just too bad for Ronaldo that this game will be remembered for the three gilt-edged scoring chances he had where he all failed. Once again: let me repeat this. Ronaldo should give Raul a call this summer and get our Eternal Captain to teach our current ‘7’ the art of the chip shot.
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The Danes should be given credit (massive loads of it) for turning a game that looked to be a lost 3 points into what almost turned out to be a draw. They worked the flanks beautifully, taking advantage of Ronaldo’s non-existence on defense as their cue to pounce. They almost got away with it too.
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Conclusion: Portugal’s hopes of getting to the quarterfinals has gained new life. They will be facing a dejected Dutch team next where Ronaldo, Nani and Postiga will face the Dutch’s weak defense. If the Dutch further help the Portuguese further by playing their stale defensive midfield (Van Bommel + De Jong) again: it will be once again a battle of the flanks which the Portuguese might fancy winning. Ronaldo vs. Van De Weil , Robben vs. Coentrao. For their sake however, they must hope and pray that Ronaldo shows the world the qualities he added to his game this past season at Real Madrid (clutch play and defensive work) for them to win.
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It will be more complicated for the Danes who face a German team that’s slowly clicking into gear and gathering momentum. One thing’s for sure though: in this Group of Death, Denmark have proven that they aren’t the poor sacrificial lambs many wrote them off to be before the tournament started.
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Germany 2 – Netherlands 1: Sour Oranjes
Mario Gomez looks like a 'Biffed Up' version of George Mcfly. ('Biff pun' intended: Back to the Future Fans would get the joke :) )

OK – Maybe we all jumped the gun when we all once said that the Dutch were among the tournament favorites. They may boast the attacking potency of Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder, but behind them is a clumsy slow-footed defense with an attack-minded right back and an 18 year old left back fronted by cavemen-in-football-boots (De Jong + Van Bommel): so what’s so great about that? Huntelaar, Van Der Vaart, Kuyt, etc. you may say – but they’re all on the bench! And on the flipside, I have yet to see Ibrahim Affelay do anything of note from his 2 starts in this tournament thus far. So let’s all admit what we may have been too shy to concede all along – might have we over-rated the World Cup 2010 finalists this whole time?
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For the second consecutive match in this tournament, on a night where the Netherlands NEEDED to be on attack mode against the Germans, Bert Van Marwijk once again  opted to relegate half of players that makes his squad to potent to the bench (Huntelaar, Van Der Vaart, Kuyt, Strootman) – opting instead to employ thugs-in-boots like Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong in the lineup. For what? To prevent Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Ozil from dominating the midfield? Clearly that didn’t work – as both of Germany’s goals were created by Schweinsteiger whose space was in turn created by the great work of Mesut Ozil (Michael Cox explains it brilliantly here).
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The Germans played far more fluently and Mario Gomez (whose striking resemblance to ‘Back to the Future’s’ George Mcfly was hilariously pointed out by the Guardian’s Barry Glendenning) is now showing the goalscoring form that eluded him in Euro 2008. With a bench that features goalscorer par excellence Miroslav Klose and midfield dynamos Toni Kroos and the yet-to-be-used Mario Goetze, the German Machine is truly beginning to hum in this tournament.

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Verdict: The Germans look to have one foot now in the quarterfinals needing only a draw against Denmark to book their place while the Dutch have it all to do against the Portuguese. I really feel that the Dutch need to have a close look at the Portugal’s lineup and think twice before fielding 2 holding midfielders again – who are they supposed to shadow if Portugal don’t even have a ‘10’? The Dutch need a WIN – by 2 goals at least if they even wish to have a chance to going through. In the past, Dutch sides would reach finals playing their brand of attractive attacking football – showcasing their players’ jaw-dropping technical skills. 2 years ago, the managed to reach a final again – only this time playing functional, brutal and even dirty football. Neither side lifted the cup – but the 1974 side however, is celebrated to this very day as if it had won the cup.
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A note to Bert Van Marwijk – no one likes Sour Oranjes.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Euro 2012 Thoughts Part 2: England becomes a ‘Small Team’


I wanted to watch Poland again last night: unfortunately I’ve caught the flu. To be sick and in need of sleep / rest while a tournament whose matches take place at 12 midnight and 2:45 am is a horrible experience. I thus chose sleep last night in favor of tonight’s tasty match offerings from the Group of Death. But in any case, here are my thoughts on EnglandFrance.
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England have officially become a small team. 2 neat banks for 4, the use of pacy forwards and wingers and of course, to top all off: goals from well-drilled set pieces. To the many who currently surround me that the English Football is oh-so-mighty – I scoff at you all! Your European Champions (Chelsea) looked like Greece from Euro 2004 and now so does your National Team. Ha!
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Having said that, England did very well given their dire resources (read: quality of players) and circumstances (read: getting their coach onboard too late, etc.). Their neat 2 banks of 4 which included the usually-tactically-uncontrollable Gerrard at Center Midfield kept their shape and balance all through out. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also looked really good with his bursts of pace past De Buchy to keep the French respectful of England’s credentials on the counter. The decision to go with Danny Welback over Andy Carroll fit the counterattacking game plan too. Ditto for Ashley Young who clearly knows how to work the channels in that free role behind the striker.
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It’s worthy to note that while Hodgson used his left midfielder (Chamberlain) to zoom forward when the counterattacking opportunity came up, he had a right-sided player who had a natural tendency to drift to the middle in Milner (which also I think explains his choice of bringing Jordan Henderson into the squad). While on his second bank of 4, it’s actually the right-sided player (Glen Johnson) who bombed forward more frequently with left one on the left (Cole) playing more conservatively.
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For the French, I have to say that I’m unconvinced with the use of a 4-3-3 (with Malouda and Cabaye in carillero roles) – when a 4-2-3-1 with the same personnel might have put everyone in their preferred roles (Nasri as a ‘10’, Malouda as a winger). If would have also allowed the French a 3 vs. 2 advantage at midfield. The English were always going to defend deep and hit on the counter and the onus to attack was always going to be on the French. To do that though, Blanc’s boys needed to be organized well in attack and neither Cabaye nor Malouda knew how to organize an attack – perhaps a ‘10’ (Nasri) would have done the job?
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Ribery looked lively and had a few good dangerous moments, while Benzema seemed like he needed some good service behind him (needing a ‘10’) to score – leaving the Real Madrid man, to rely on long distance potshots (all saved by Hart) and help open up space with his running. I really would have liked to see Nasri in that ‘10’ role in front of Cabaye & Diarra and behind Benzema with Ribery and Malouda diagonally in front of him. It’s worthwhile to note as well that Nasri’s goal was taken from a position one would normally find the ‘10’ at. In terms of substitutions, I would have also liked to see Hatem Ben Arfa come on earlier that he did.
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Verdict
The English would be pleased with the result. They managed a point on the board while affirming to themselves that they just might do something in this tournament with their small-team tactics. I can totally imagine them getting a scalp off a tournament favorite playing like this. They were defensively organized, and showed that they can score off dead ball situations (I realize now that I committed a gaffe stating on RMFB that Cahill was my favorite for a red card in this game despite the fact that he’s not even in the tournament) – with Lescott, Terry, Carroll, Rooney, etc. all legitimate aerial threats. They’re getting attacked in the media of course for using ‘small team tactics’ with grim comparisons to Chelsea’s Champions League-winning “defend-until-death-then-sucker-punch” performances. To that I say: what would you have them do?
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Before the match, I called the French to win it 2-0 and was thus disappointed to watch their scatter-brain attacking performance. The French are still favorites to top the group but might need to look into their team shape. I say: play the boys in their natural position – play Nasri as a ‘10’, let Malouda do his work on the flanks, etc.
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I truthfully expected far more from this match than what I got out of it. Who knew that all the drama in this group would come from co-hosts Ukraine and their old warhorse Andriy Shevchenko?


Monday, June 11, 2012

Euro 2012 Thoughts - Part 1

Some quick thoughts thus far on Euro 2012:

Poland vs. Greece (1 -1)
I really liked the look of Poland in the early exchanges of the game - they allowed the Greeks to have possession but once the ball was won - they attacked with great speed. Their RB Pisczek (dunno how to spell his name properly) was impressive bombing down the flanks as he combines pace, control and intelligence. I also agree with many the Robert Lewandowski looks a favorite to be tournament top-scorer. I was thus, happy to see him get the 1-0 and put the Polish on the advantage. 
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The Greeks didn't help themselves with their sending off and for a while, I thought I was about to see a 3-0 win by the Poles. I was wrong of course. The Greeks re-grouped very well at halftime and managed to keep Poland at bay - even managing an equalizer. The Greeks will lament that missed penalty though which could have easily won them the game. 
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Verdict: The Poles had a great start and must learn to use their speed and sustain it for 90 minutes. The Greeks did well with their post-sending off tactical adjustments but will rue the chance to win a game that in the early stages, they thought might have never been within their reach.
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Denmark vs. Netherlands (1 - 0 win for Denmark)
Some will call it a shock result. But is there really such a thing as a shock result in a Group of Death? Denmark sucker-punched the Dutch on this one. Plain and Simple. The Dutch played this game the way they probably imagine they would - but then again, so did the Danes. People were asking all game long - where the hell was Premier League Top Scorer Robin Van Persie???? The answer as many have hilariously suggested: in Daniel Agger's pocket. 
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Verdict:
The Danes have now suddenly gained a huge advantage to get past the groups stage with this win while the Dutch face the tall task of having to put points on the board at the expense of the Germans. Johan Cruyff was said to be displeased by Bert Van Marwyk's decision to play with 2 holding midfielders (Van Bommel + De Jong) as neither of the 2 can facilitate the fluid passing game the Dutch WERE known for. I can't help but agree. Having lost with 2 of the masters of the Dark Arts of fouling in the middle of the park - perhaps they should try something a but more positive next time? I for one would like to see their young box-to-box dynamo from PSV (Kevin Strootman) get a run out.... or even better - play with both Sneijder AND Van Der Vaart. If you're going down, might was well do it in a blaze of fire right? 
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Germany vs. Portugal (1 - 0 win for Germany)
Jose Mourinho was in attendance with his son decked out in a Ronaldo Jersey. I do suspect that Mou was not just there to cheer for his beloved Portugal, but also to cast an eye over his German Real Madrid boys (Ozil and Khedira). If I was Mourinho, Ronaldo aside, I'd be very happy with what I saw from the Real Madrid players that night. Ozil was his usual self... Khedira on the other hand was even more impressive. Sami somehow looks more assured, confident and capable of more things on attack with his country than with his club (even attempting Ozil-esque through passes!). With Portugal, Coentrao looked pretty good while Pepe was solid. Cristiano Ronaldo however, failed to rise up again. Don't get me wrong - Ronaldo was not awful, but he didn't rise up with his "Don't Worry Guys, I'll sort this out" mentality for Portugal like he's learned to do with Madrid.
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Portugal will feel bad to not get a point from this one - but their weaknesses were there for all to see: The lack of a reference point in the final third. Whether it's a '10' or a '9' - they need someone there to establish an 'attacking platform' in those advanced positions. Perhaps they ought to try playing Ronaldo in a '9' position at least in the final 30 minutes of a game, especially with alternatives on the wings available on the bench (Varela looked good in his substitute appearance and they have Quaresma too). That might also just be the right position for Ronaldo to make his presence felt even more during the game.
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For the Germans, I have to say that I'm impressed with Borussia Dortmund CB Mats Hummels who started ahead of Mertesacker at CB. Hummels combines a German CB's imperious positioning, defending and physicality with a nice touch and his audacious Lucio-like propensity to charge up the pitch, ball at his feet to rattle the opposing defense. On attack, I often wondered if Mario Gomez was going to make this tournament a repeat of Euro 2008 (which I remember distinctly for the no. of sitters he's blown) - he didn't of course: scoring the winning goal a big, burly Center Forward would. Andy Carroll should watch DVDs of this dude.

Verdict:
The Germans retain their tags as tournament favorites (for me at least). With the Dutch needing to WIN to get their tournament hopes up again, the Germans now have the benefit of playing the game that made them so effective in South Africa: play on the counter. 
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The Portuguese might take a sort of 'moral victory' from this one: they didn't get badly beaten by the Germans and almost looked like they could scrape a point from the game. If they take this game as a confidence booster, they just might beat the Danes and get within an earshot of the quarters.
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Spain vs. Italy (1 - 1)
Last night's match between Spain and Italy might just have been the most interesting from a tactical point of view: Italy played with a 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2 on defense) while Spain played with a striker-less 4-3-3... or perhaps you can call it 4-6-0? 
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I generally dislike Italian sides but i have to admit that I really liked the look of them last night. De Rossi at the Center of Defense playing a role similar to Busquets at Barca gives them both solidity and dynamism at the back. I was too shy to suggest once upon a time that Real Madrid should have picked up Pirlo for free when he left Milan given the voracious 'he's over the hill' judgement passed on upon him at the time. I regret not speaking out. Instead, he's had a renaissance season at Juventus and was fantastic last night. Claudio Marchisio also gave a clinic last night on box-to-box midfield play. I'm delighted with how Prandelli has embraced the 3-5-2 and has, as a result created a very unique-looking side. 
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In contrast, despite the fact that the 3 'front men' Del Bosque fielded looked great, I really dislike this striker-less system that Spain played. Iniesta was an absolute monster last night: his performance reminded me of the likes of Zidane and Ronaldinho: menacing dribbles and runs that completely bamboozle defenders, excellent passing and shots on goal that would get opponents queasy even if they weren't on target. Spain tried to rattle Italy's back 3 with their runs into the box - often creating 3-on-3 matchups which they might have fancied scoring from. It was not to be though. I can't help but wonder however if they would have won if they had someone in there to physically disturb the Italian CBs? Del Bosque would send Navas later in the game to spread the field but who was he going to cross too? The midgets Iniesta and Cesc? He would send Torres late in the game who had a few good chances but was foiled by Buffon (whose saves have inspired a series of 'you think I'm as dumb as Victor Valdes?' images on Facebook).
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Verdict:
Spain are still favorites to top the group. I can't see how the Croats or the Irish can thwart them. I'd imagine that their 3 attacking midfielders in front would be more effective against a back 4 (with 2 at the middle) than against a back 3. They will need to watch out for those counters though - the world knows it's their weakness. Also, they should stop whining about the state of the pitch - as they are starting to sound like those pontificating, self-righteous zealots from Barca. Oh that's right, these guys whining ARE the Barca boys....
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I'm shocked at how enjoyable I found Italy last night. Solid yet incisive, intelligent and can attack with purpose. The result between the 2 last night changes nothing: they will both go through and look like they will leave us with some memorable plays while doing so.