I need a break

As a big football fan and Irish to boot, I’ve never been in such need for a break from the beautiful game as I have been this summer. With Irish hopes so high going into this tournament, thinking just maybe we could be in with a chance of making a big name for ourselves in Poland, how utterly naive we were. It was 10 years since our last appearance at a major championship, the World cup and we had a squad back then that was a bit more experienced as regards to the better teams our players were playing for. In 2002 we were in a group with Germany, Cameroon and Saudi Arabia. With all due respect, these teams, Germany apart and even back then they were nowhere near the team they are at present, the chances of us progressing were very good. Now when you take into account the last and only time we qualified for the European championships was 1988 and the teams we were drawn against for this years championship, reality really kicks in. On our day, we can give any top nation a run for their money but when it comes to tournament football of the highest quality we were left fully exposed. To think most people back home thought we would qualify from a group including Spain, Italy and Croatia suggests a lot of people had their heads in the clouds and when Croatia ran us off the park in the first game, winning 3-1, my interest completely evaporated and actually had no interest in the tournament due to such disappointment, hence my complete loss of interest in writing any posts concerning Ireland or football.

I gradually came out of exile and  brought myself around to watching some of the games. Who would have thought Russia would have been going home early after winning 4-1 against the Czech Rep. in their opening fixture, who in turn actually won the group. Or Holland’s dismissal performance. For a team blessed with such fantastic players and not even register point was baffling. Apart from them shocks in the group stage, most teams that were expected to progress didn’t disappoint. The Quarter finals produced some classic matches. Germany went through against the Greeks and did so in style, while at the same time making themselves most people’s favourites for their relentless style of play. Spain went about their business beating France without much fuss and not even playing at their best to progress. Portugal actually improved as the games progressed, with the brilliant Ronaldo finally coming good on the international scene, leaving people to believe that he was about to prove to everyone what he really is capable off. The last Quarter final saw England v Italy and the English had to be admired for their backs-to-the-wall performance that earned them a 0-0 draw and another dreaded penalty shoot out. Again they failed. How frustrating that must be. A special mention must go out to the immense Andrea Pirlo. He really is an outstanding player and has been the driving force behind Italy at these championships.

And then there were 4. Spain/Portugal was much hyped and was a good game in terms of outstanding technical ability but lacked in the goal department. And so it was the Spanish who won through to the final, after a penalty shoot out, their 3rd consecutive appearance at a major football tournament, truly an outstanding achievement. Tonight’s pairing between Italy and favourites Germany really didn’t disappoint. As I mentioned in my earlier post’s were I gave a guide to the teams competing at Poland/Ukraine 2012, I stated that Mario Balotelli could be anything here, villian or hero. As it is, it’s turning out to be the latter. What a devestating display with 2 superb goals to boot to stun the Germans and send them home packing. Now that really was unexpected. But again if you got a chance to read my group guide’s post, you would have noticed that the price the bookies had on Italy to win the tournament was brilliant value for money 25/1 to win outright, Yes that’s winning 25 euros, pounds, dollars or whatever currency you are laying for a 1 Euro etc. stake.

And now what a final we are in for, and the 2 best teams in the tournament will be hosting the main event which really is a good thing. Just who will win is hard to say. Most would say Spain and probably have from the start but think back to the game the 2 of them played in the group stage and you will remember that Italy were very impressive against the Spanish, looking dangerous every time they broke and scoring a fantastic goal into the bargain. It took the Spanish quite possibly one of the moves of the tournament to eventually break down the resolute Italian defence to gain a point. Lets hope we will be treated to more of the same in the final on Sunday. But if there is one tiny bit of consolation Ireland can bring away from this tournament, it’s the fact that we were in the same group as the the 2 teams that eventually reached the final. All I can say now is roll on August the 18th for the start of the English premier league, where I can get my fix of some proper exciting club football.


The final countdown- groups at a glance 4

Finally, if even a little bit late, I get around to the last group. So here is my glance at group D. On paper this is probably the easiest of all the groups to predict but then again you just can’t take it as given and so I begin with England.

As I am writing this post the rankings for this month are just in and the English team have moved up 1 to 6 in the World rankings. They are managed by Roy Hodgson who was the surprise choice by the FA. to replace Fabio Capello after months of speculation and expectation that Tottenham’s Harry Redkanpp would be the man to step in. He is a highly experienced manager having led many clubs and countries over the last 30 years. Surprisingly enough they are coming to this tournament without the usual hype surrounding them. Usually the English media have the whole nation revved up, having them believe that they are World beaters and are definitely going to win this time, only for them to crash out at an early stage and for the manager in particular to pick up the blame for the mess. There may be a few reasons for this, the Olympics coming up in July, the Quenn’s Jubilee or the unbelievable finish to the Premier league. Whatever it is it can only be an advantage to the players. But there is a lot of problems for the manager to have to cope with as well. For instance, there is debate over Rio Ferdinand’s omission, Wayne Rooney will miss the first 2 matches due to suspension and John Terry’s imminent court case must be hanging over him like a big rain cloud. So taken that into account these are the players I will choose to focus on. Danny Welbeck of Manchester United is a tremendous young talent who seems to be coming of age at just the right time. He is a lad with great heart but also a great passer and dribbler and scores some great goals. No doubt he will start the first 2 games because of Rooney’s ban and Jermain Defoe’s Father passing away. Steven Gerrard of Liverpool is a very special player for his club. He has power, pace, vision and goals in abundance but on the international scene he blows hot and cold. That may change though, now he has been handed the captain’s armband. Finally John Terry could be anything here. He is the true leader of the Chelsea team, where his commitment, passion, calmness under pressure and ability to score a few goals has been the bedrock behind their success in recent years. His court case may weigh heavy on his mind here and they are all ready down players in defence. They are priced 12/1 by the bookies which seems about right.

The next team up are France, who are ranked 14 in the world following the mess they left behind at the last World cup. Their manager is Laurent Blanc and is without doubt one of the best young managers in the game at present. He took over after the players revolted openly at the Raymond Domenech regime and has brought them here on the back of a 19 game unbeaten run. Replacing the golden age of French football was always going to prove difficult but Blanc seems to be going about his work in the right way as he has a great amount of talent at his disposal. They, like the English, are coming here without much fuss which again can only be a good thing. They have won this competition twice in the past, in 1984 on home soil and then in 2000 to add to the World crown they won in 1998. The players I am picking to focus on are; Hugo Lloris who is the Lyon goalkeeper and the last line in a tough French defence. His positioning is second to none and pulls off some breathtaking saves. Definitely one of the best ‘keepers in the World at the moment. Frank Ribery of Bayern Munich is the driving force in the middle for France. He is a tough tackler who can mix hard graft with skill and is regularly the catalyst behind a lot of their  goals. Karem Benzema is the star man of the team. Plays for the star studded Real Madrid team, he has excellent skill and balance and that together with his strength means he scores lots of goals but can also assist in many goals. If you fancy a bet on them you can get them at 10/1 and this represents very good value.

Sweden are ranked 17 in the world and are led here by Erik Hamren. They are coming here as one of the lesser lights and not too much is known about them. In saying that, they did qualify for EURO 2012 as the best runner-up from the qualifying groups where they actually beat Holland in Amsterdam 3-2. According to news reports, the Swedish were a team that always stuck to a 4-4-2 formation and when the manager came in and changed that to a 4-2-3-1 set up, he believed it was responsible for their up-turn in recent form. Their best finish in the competition was a semi-final finish at the 1992 games, where they were the host nation. My players to watch include Johan Elmander of Galatasary who is now the lone striker in the Swedish team. He is blessed with beautiful close control for a tall man and is capable of scoring some magic goals. That said he hasn’t got many lately so will want to be more involved here. Olof Mellberg is the most experienced player in the defence and indeed the team. His presence is much appreciated and brings vast experience with him. These games will be his 6th at a major international tournament. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is their main man. When he is on his game he is one of the best in the world. Great technical ability and skill and also very fast for his size. He will be the man to make way for Elmander up front so will be asked to be more creative. They are one of the rank outsiders and priced at 66/1

Now on to the final team in the group, the Ukraine. They are ranked 50 in the World and are managed by the legendary Soviet record caps holder, Oleg Blokhin. Like Poland, they are coming here without a competitive game under their belt for over 2 years and it looks like they will be going out early, such is their poor form of late. But in saying that, they are playing at home and this might give them a major boost. It is also the first time they have played at the finals of the European championship. The fact that they are also a young team on the international scene, having been in existence for just over 20 years would have a lot to do with it. They are the least known team here but I have picked 3 to watch and they are; Anatoliys Tymoshchuk of Bayern Munich is an imposing midfielder and the star man in the team. He will be behind most of their attacks and a lot will be expected of him. Yaroslav Rakitshy of Shaktar Donetsk is a young defender beginning to make his mark. He is believed to be very hard working but still has a lot of improvement in him. Finally the great Andriy Shevchenko of Dynamo Kiev is a fading star these days. Surely this will be his final chance to play on the big stage so may have something to say. Was one of the top players in the World a few years back and had everything in his game. Speed, control, agility and a goal machine besides. Another rank outsider to win and this shows in the50/1 price the bookies have on them.

My predictions for the finishing places in group D are as follows;

Group winners: France

Runners-up: England

3rd place: Sweden

Wooden spoon: Ukraine

I hope my posts covering the teams competing at these finals have been of interest to you and glad to get all the groups finished. Now it has kicked off, I will be watching in hope for Ireland and pray we can get to the quarter-finals. I will make my predictions for the knock-out stages before group B kicks off tomorrow.

The final countdown- groups at a glance 3

On the eve of the big kick-off, I will be taking a look at possibly one of the most difficult groups to predict group C. It is also the one closest to my heart because Ireland will be participating and I just can’t wait until Sunday. To kick things off I will begin with the World and European champions and number 1 rank Spain.

Spain will be going into this tournament as the rightful number 1 team in the World. They will be led by Vicente Del Bosque. He is a highly experienced and successful manager, notably with Real Madrid, leading them to European glory. Instills a great measure of calmness under pressure in this unique team. Surprisingly though, they are going into the tournament without the same fuss that followed them previously and this is probably due to the massive weight lifted off their shoulders following their recent success’. In the past they were always a highly fancied team and almost always went home early. But there is no fear of that happening now with the unbelievable talent coupled with a winning mentality. They can be mesmerising to watch at times they really are that good and their recent win at the UEFA U-21 championships means it doesn’t look like they will be stopping soon. Winners of this tournament in 1964 and reigning champions following their 2008 win. In a squad brimming with world-class talent all over the pitch, it is very difficult to pick out 3 to watch but nevertheless these are the players I will concentrate on. Andreas Iniesta is just one of many Barcelona players included in the squad and undoubtably one of the best in the World. Blessed with close control and vision to pick out defence splitting passes, he will wreak havoc on opposing teams alongside Xavi. Fernando Torres of current champions league holders Chelsea looks like he is about to explode again after almost 2 years off the boil. Scored in the 2008 final and his goal against Barcelona in the semi-final of the champions league might signal a resurgence. David Silva of money bags Manchester City is quality through and through. Close control, deft touch and a beautiful passer of the ball. He was the best player by far in England up until January and then went a bit quiet but we will be in for a treat if he is back on song this summer. Currently drifting from co-favourite with Germany to sole favourites at a price of 11/4. Many people’s idea of winners but not great value for a punt.

The second seed in this group are the Italians and they are surprisingly ranked 12th. This is because they are rarely outside the top 10 teams in the world. They will be led in by the highly respected Cesare Prandelli who came from Fiorentina where he finished up as their longest serving manager. Italy are well-known for their solid defensive style of play which makes them very hard to score against but at the same time seldom ever do they score highly in their matches. That said, it doesn’t prevent them from producing World class talent time after time and the current squad is no different, although a little more evenly spread. For a country that has been World champions on 4 occasions, it comes as a big surprise that they have only won this tournament once and that was back in 1968!. It can only be a matter of time before they put that right but when it will be is debatable. The following players I have chosen to highlight; Andrea Pirlo of Juventus is the bulldog in the heart of midfield and is very highly respected in Europe. He is a great passer of the ball and links excellently with the front men. He is a veteran of their 2006 World cup winning campaign. Mario Balotelli of money bags Manchester City can be frustrating at the best of times and carries a bad reputation but when he puts his mind to it, he is a serious player. Rarely ever smiles even when he scores, certainly for his club where he ended the season as a champion. That said he can be one of the stars of the tournament, but only if he applies himself. Danielle De Rossi of AS. Roma is the driving force of the team with an engine to match and blessed with skill. A vital cog in their set up and you could call him a stereotypical Italian attacker. On paper they should qualify from this group for the quarter-finals but in reality it’s not that simple as defeat in their opener against the Spanish could seriously hamper them. Most bookmakers price them at 16/1 and it’s not at all unreasonable to imagine them winning, therefore this represents the best value of the tournament in my opinion.

At long, long  last we come to my country, Ireland and I can’t fully explain how excited I am to be able to cheer them on again at the finals of a major tournament. The country is currently managed by the charming Giovanni Trapatoni, a man with success and experience in abundance. He stepped in in 2008 and guided the team to the World cup play-offs after going through the group which contained World champions at the time and his home country, Italy. What happened against France in the play-off was bitter to swallow as it was so clear to see Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball to control it before setting up William Gallas to equalize. But it proved to everyone back home that he was the man to do the job after years of stagnation, calamity and bad decision making by the FAI. Finally, they seem to have put things right and the completion of the new national stadium, the Aviva Stadium has been the springboard to future success coupled with “Trap’s” know how. But it was actually our away form that got us into the play-offs after 4 wins and 1 draw from 5 games which included only 1 goal conceded. The stand out performance was the point gained in Russia, where an outstanding display by the defence and especially by Richard Dunne and  Shay Given proved how hard we are to beat. The blend of experience and youth coming through means we should qualify for more tournaments in future, whereas before hand we went 10 years since our last appearance in a finals, the World cup in 2002. These games will be only our second following our debut in 1988, where a good team led by Jack Charlton made the World open their eyes . An historic win against England and a battling draw against the Soviet Union was followed by a heart breaking loss to the Netherlands who eventually won the tournament. That was 24 years ago and the 2012 vintage have similar qualities, but in their own way. My 3 to watch include Aiden McGeady who plays for Spartak Moscow. He is probably the most technically gifted Irish player since Liam Brady back in the 80s. He is a very tricky winger and works tirelessly for the team. A great crosser of the ball and could make a big name for himself here. Robbie Keane of LA Galaxy is a living legend for the Irish team. Usually plays up front on his own and works his socks off. By far the record scorer and has nearly 60 international goals to his name which included 7 in qualifying. This could be his swan song on the big stage as he is 31 now, so will want to impress. Finally we have Richard Dunne marshalling the defence and we are fortunate to have him fit as there was a doubt about him being ready. One of the best defenders coming into the tournament and will not let us down. His presence along with Shay Given in goal will be an inspiration to all around due to his heroics. He would literally throw himself under a bus for the cause and that is the sort of spirit that will be visible in abundance with this team. We know we won’t win EURO 2012 (OR WILL WE?) but just to know we will be their and fighting as hard as we can makes it all worth while. This is why we are at a general price of 80/1 and I might just have a little flutter on that. COME ON YOU BOYS IN GREEN!

The final team in the group is Croatia, who are one of the youngest teams in international football following the break up of the former Yugoslavia. Managed by Slaven Bilic, who has proved himself to be a fine leader in his time in the job. They are currently ranked 8 in the World. Another nation to embrace stylish football, they exploded onto the scene when reaching the quarter-finals of EURO 1996 after being in existence for only 5 years. That was the Croatia of Davor Suker and co. who topped that 2 years later finishing 3rd at the World cup of 1998. They equalled their 1996 performance at the last European championship, proving they were no flash in the pan. The current squad though, are a little less experienced and their opener against Ireland will be a key to whether they have a chance of progressing but the omens are not good in this situation because in the 6 games the 2 nations have played, Croatia have only won once. They qualified for these finals via the play-offs and will also bring a large colourful following with them. These are the 3 players who I will pick to highlight. Nikica Jelavic who only joined Everton recently, has proven to be an instant hit, scoring 9 in 13 matches and is coming here at the top of his game. He has great control and links superbly with the rest of the team and could be one of the players to watch closely at these finals. Luka Modric of Tottenham is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players in Europe. He is also very hard working and scores some breathtaking goals. Dario Srna is the Croatian captain and the driving force behind the team. A powerful and precise winger who leads by example, he is a fine crosser of the ball and no doubt his team-mates have the ability to take advantage as he assisted in 6 goals in the qualifying. Croatia are another team who are ranked highly in the world but outrageously priced by the bookies, in this case a massive 50/1, therefore another value bet for anybody who takes it up.

My predictions for this group are as follows;

Group winners: Spain

Group runners-up: Ireland

3rd place: Italy

Wooden spoon: Croatia

You will have to forgive me if you think I’m being over optimistic regarding Ireland’s chances and think they have no chance here at all but when you are looking at a group containing your own country, you tend to see things a little different. I’ve watched them over the last few years and in 3 games against Italy in that time we are unbeaten and won once in Italy so yes I definitely think we have a good chance of making the quarter-finals

The final countdown-groups at a glance 2

Welcome back to my guide to the teams competing at this years European championships. Today I’ll be looking at group B. This is one tough group to try to qualify from and lends weight to my argument that the European championships is a better tournament than the world cup due to the quality of the teams competing. Widely regarded as the “group of death”, it has all the ingredients for some mouth-watering clashes. I’ll begin with Joint favourites Germany.

The most successful team in the history of these championships and seem to be maturing at just the right time. They are ranked 2nd in the world and managed by Joachim Low. He has Germany playing a brand of exciting football that’s not generally associated with them. For all the success they have had at both the World and European stages words like efficient, reliable, aggressive and experienced would be best used to describe them in the past. A young team that were so exciting to watch at the 2010 World cup, they definitely deserve the tag of co-favourites. They qualified at a canter winning 10 from 10 but for all the praise being bandied about, it’s highly unlikely they will qualify for the quarter-finals at such a canter. An ability to produce such fine players time after time has enabled them to reach the final on no less than 6 occasions winning the trophy in 1972, 1980 and 1996 while finishing as runners-up in 1976, 1992 and 2008. The players that stand out for them amidst an array of talent are Manuel Neuer who is without doubt one of the top ‘keepers in the world today and talisman Mario Gomez who finished the champions league as top scorer. Both play for Bayern Munich who lost the final to Chelsea on penalties in front of their home support. Another to pay close attention to is Mesut Ozil of Real Madrid who was probably the best player at the 2010 world cup. They will be many people’s idea of champions but they have to get through this minefield first and no team has the god given right to in this group. They are available at a general 3/1 price.

The Netherlands are next team we will look at. They are currently ranked number 3 in the world and will be led by Bert Van Marwijk. He is a relatively young manager but has been successful in European competition winning the Europa/UEFA cup with Feyenoord. He proved to have the uncanny knack of being able to bring a Dutch team together that in the past proved their own worse enemy with numerous internal feuds proving counter-productive. He brought them to the 2010 world cup final but were unlucky again to lose out for the 3rd time. The Dutch have produced some of the greatest players the world has ever seen and continue to do so with a squad packed full of talent from back to front. They are former champions having won in 1988 with a wonderful team and a goal that many consider to be one of, if not, the best ever scored when Marco Van Basten volleyed home from an acute angle in the final against the Soviet Union. The players are well scattered throughout Europe and my 3 to watch are Arjen Robben, a winger of sensational talent and burst of speed. Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan) has had a relatively quiet season due to injury but always comes to light on the big stage proving his pedigree at the last World cup while being the driving force behind Inter’s charge to Champions league glory the same year. Robin Van Persie of Arsenal is without doubt one of the most devastating strikers in world football at the moment and will prove a menace to any team with Klaas Van Huntelaar beside him. Will be one of the best supported teams at the finals with the blindingly colourful and charming “Oranje” cheering them on. Again even with all the talent at hand they know getting out of this group won’t be easy. At 6/1 with the bookies you can be sure they will have a lot of followers.

Next up in the group of death are Portugal. They are managed by Paulo Bento who took over from Carlos Queiroz after they only managed 1 point from their first 2 qualifying games. They are currently ranked 5th in the world and have always been a team that played football with a large dose of style and panache. Surely the nation would have been left wondering what could have been of their “golden generation” that were world champions at under-age level in the 90s and so much was expected of them. They went close in a lot of tournaments and when they were pitted against the Greeks in the 2004 final in front of a fanatical home support they could have been forgiven for thinking Figo, Gomez, Costa et al were going to finally come good with their promise. Famously it wasn’t to be. A slight concern about this Portugese team is the real lack of strength in-depth. But the big guns they have contain the biggest one of them all on show at these finals and will play their hearts out for each other. My players to watch are who else but Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid. A true goals machine averaging just over 1 a game who is blessed with vision, speed, touch and trickery. Who will forget his tears as he left the pitch as a loser in the 2004 final. Luis Nani of Manchester United and former team-mate with Ronaldo is the other big gun. Really starting to deliver now and his crosses into the box regularly end in goals. Fabio Contreao is Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team-mate and is unfortunate to be playing at a club blessed with so much class but is a vital cog in the Portugese team. Will need to be at their very best to navigate these tricky waters and if one of their 2 true world-class players get injured they may find things getting a whole lot harder. Still for a team ranked 5th in the world they represent excellent value at 18/1. Very tasty indeed!The last team in group B are Denmark. They are ranked 10th in the world and managed by Morten Olsen a man who has played 100 times and managed 100 times for Denmark. To be honest not many people will be giving them a chance but this tournament is famous for shocks and upsets big time. In fact they really don’t come much bigger than the one pulled of by none other than Denmark in 1992. Called up at the last-minute to replace Yugoslavia who were expelled by UEFA due to the civil war that ripped the country apart, they had little time to prepare but took it all in their stride and were to prove to be the only thing worth remembering from one of the dullest European championships ever. Always a team to punch above their weight a lot of people will tend to forget they finished ahead of Portugal in the qualifying groups. Not being disrespectful, they are a squad that doesn’t contain too many household names but the players I have chosen to keep an eye out for are Christian Erikson of Ajax who is one of their best players and technically very gifted, he could be one of the dark horses of the tournament (you know where you heard that first). Daniel Agger of Liverpool is the Danish captain who is a solid and competent defender, fearless in the challenge and will provide leadership from the back. Nicklas Bendtner who is currently on loan at Sunderland from Arsenal has definitely proven to be a more accomplished international than club player but he does have an eye for goal and is a good team player. For a team regarded as the 10th best in the world I think a price of 80/1 is a tad disrespectful but you never know, they have made everyone eat their word’s before.

Predicting this group is very difficult but I will have to make my choice at some time so this is what I reckon.

Group winners: Germany

Runners-up: Holland

3rd place: Portugal

Wooden spoon: Denmark

Now I’m glad that’s out of the way I will take a well earned break before I give my guide to group C. Just making a prediction here is hard enough imagine what it must be like to play against these teams. Hope my guide has been of some interest to you.