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 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

How much is too much?

On a dull, wet, gloomy summers day in Ireland I watch the evening news and hear that the Spanish government is on the verge of asking for assistance from the powers that be to help them stabilise their banking system. I’m not an economics expert but I know a little bit about how this banking crisis that has hung over the world and Europe in particular for the last 5 years like a great big rain cloud that seems to be going nowhere, just like the ones that hang over me in the sky as I write this post is getting us all down. We here in Ireland know about this kind of situation more than most, then Greece who were thrown into civil unrest and faced a complete meltdown due to complete lack of responsibility by their whole government who many perceived as downright corrupt. We, or should I say the reckless fools who run the countries banks, had to be bailed out by the IMF, ESM or whoever it is that writes these great big cheques out to the tune of 80 billion euro. The Greek government needed something of the same to keep their heads afloat. Now if Spain’s banks need to be bailed out I’m sure it will need a lot more than what Ireland or Greece needed as it is a far bigger country with a far bigger economy. The question is this, where does this never ending need for tens and hundreds of billions end? Surely if more and more countries have to go down the same road something somewhere is going to have to give and there seems to be no ending in sight. What if France or Germany ended up in trouble? they seem to be the ones making the decisions on whether the other countries get their bailout. We all know Europe is a highly modernised group of nations where colonialism was born and its tentacle’s spread far and wide to shape the world into what it is today but our currency is still only in it’s infancy and it’s future is constantly being brought into question. So how much can it take, how much can we take. Will this raincloud  pass in the near future or ever at all for that matter?