Thursday, November 22, 2007

European Nights

Wow, a month since I last posted, school seems to be killing me in more ways that one. Ok, so today it's time to go through the Euro-Cup predictions that I made (not here, but to my friends), and see how right I was. I will list the teams I thought would make it, then the teams that did, then talk a bit about each qualifying group, with a special section at the end for the hosts, and whatever else I want to talk about. So here we go.

Group A: Predicted- Portugal, Serbia. Qualified-Poland, Portugal. Once again Poland threw me off. Last year they scored more goals than any team in the World Cup qualifying campaign, and then played terribly at the tournament. I really should have known better...and Smolarek is scoring goals like they're going out of style, which makes sense since he's named after Eusebio. There was no doubt Portugal were going to make it through, even without Luis Figo. In fact, I think the team as a whole looks better without him, since everyone has to step up and pick up some slack. Hats off to Christiano Ronaldo, and Ricardo Quaresma who had a great campaign. Also, Scolari punching out an opposing player was the Portugese highlight for me. Poor Serbia. I was so sure they were going to make it, but a few bad results against key teams really sunk their chances...but there's always the World Cup.

Group B: Predicted-Italy, France. Qualified-Italy, France. Despite their best results in recent history, Scotland failed to qualify out of this group, which to me was the hardest of the lot. This is a real disappointment, not just for Scottish fans, but also for the neutrals like myself who were rooting them on the whole way. Sure, I may have been cheering for them because I hate France, but that's not the point. Speaking of France, no team deserved to qualify less. Domenech is a racist, loud-mouthed buffoon, and I can't believe he is still allowed to coach a professional team...not to mention he's been leaving his best striker, David Trezeguet, at home. As for Italy, what can I say? A rough start had us all on our toes, and only a hard win against Scotland got us through. I don't like the look of Donadoni's team very often, but he appears to have scraped us through. Well, top of the group isn't bad for the world champions...I guess...

Group C: Predicted-Turkey, Greece. Qualified-Greece, Turkey. Despite a last-gasp effort, the Norwegians fell short, again. Apparently this isn't so bad for Norway. My Norwegian friend (hereafter known as The Norse god of Rock) tells me that the nation lacks the winning mentality of Italy or Germany, and so third place is a great result for them. I may have slightly underestimated Greece this time, thinking Turkey would return to show them who's boss, but I wasn't too wrong. After their surprise victory in Euro 2004, only an idiot would discount the Greeks this time around. As for the Turks, the Altintop twins rule...I just wish I could tell them apart. Their presence at the Euro-Cup will puzzle me, as they are clearly not a European nation (just ask the EU)...sorry Aydin, give us back Constantinople and go win the Asian cup five years in a row.

Group D: Predicted-Germany, Czech Republic. Qualified-Czech Republic, Germany. The Germans are looking good, and to my mind are an early favourite to win the whole thing next summer. The only reason they placed second in the group was because they didn't want to place first and be seeded in a difficult group...heh, and you all thought Italians cheated. Ireland failed to qualify and were booed by their own fans after their final match. Maybe this will give the FAI the shot in the arm it needs to get things straight and start winning again.

Group E: Predicted-Croatia, Russia. Qualified-Croatia, Russia. No surprises here, unless you are and English fan, and you don't watch any soccer outside of England. Croatia have one of the best teams in Europe right now, and their win at Wembley today proved it. How anyone can underestimate the "Brazil of Europe" baffles me. Russia proved once again that Guus Hiddink has magical powers. He is clearly one of the best coaches in the world, and I truly hope Italy are drawn in a group with Russia so we can prove to him once again that his great coaching can only beat Italians if the ref is on his side. Full credit to the Russians though, they had a great campaign, as did Isreal, who finished tied on points with England. As for England, see below.

Group F: Predicted-Sweden, Spain. Qualified: Spain, Sweden. Spain may have gotten their act together for a few games, but how long will that last. How long until Aragones makes another racist remark? How long until regionalism rears its head and tears the team apart? My guess is during the knockout rounds at the tournament next summer. Sweden played the way I expected, although Zlatan Ibrahimovic, arguably the best forward in the world, still isn't showing his potential on the international stage (but he is at the Internazionale stage...). This group was home to my greatest disappointment. Northern Ireland deseved to qualify. The tiny nation beat both Spain and Sweden, and I believe Healy is the tournament's top scorer. George Best would be proud...and then he'd have another drink. (RIP BESTIE!)

Group G: Predicted-Netherlands, Romania. Qualified-Romania, Netherlands. The Netherlands finished only one point ahead of Bulgaria...not the campaign they were looking for. If they get their act together (which will happen when America admits it lost the war in Vietnam) then they can be world-beaters, but for now they'll just content themselves with putting in a good show at the Euros. Romania had an excellent campaign, which is no surprise to Italian soccer fans. Christain Chivu and Adrian Mutu are two of the best players in Italy, and I'm glad they've proved the're two of the best in Europe as well.

The Hosts- Austria, Switzerland: I have no doubt that Switzerland would have qualified for the tournament had they been forced to. Since the Swiss-German Only regime ended, the team vastly improved. With Frei, Barnetta, Yakin, and Grygera, I think they have a shot at making it at least to he knockout stages, and possibly quite far if their fans can get behind them. As for Austria...wel...their fans signed a petition to pull them out of the tournament because they don't want to be humiliated (like Canada was at the Under-21 Championships), and I can't blame them. Austria was great in the 1950s, and their only notable moment since then was cheating with Germany to knock an African team in a world cup. My guess is that they will place last. Sorry guys.

Italy: Ok, I need to get on my soapbox here. So we qualified, and overcame the post-World Cup Victory jinx that we suffered from last time we won it. And sure, we looked good against Scotland for large periods of the game...but in many of the other games, I was left asking myself why an amateur British team was wearing blue shirts and combing their hair so often. I applaud Donadoni for trying out new players, Particularly Chiellini, Quagliarella, Nocerino, Palladino, and Commandant Che Gue....I mean, Christiano Lucarelli. Antonio Di Natale has proved the best of the new additions, and I will be surprised if he doesn't become a permanent fixture on the team sheet. BUT (theres always a but) very often the team I saw wearing Azzurri shirts lacked all creativity and flair. They battered their way through teams, with none of the style we've come to expect from them. This is possibly due to the lack of Francesco Totti in the midfield. Whatever the problem is, we have the players to win the Euro, all Donadoni has to do is mold them into a coherent and determined squad that plays for each other and not themselves (which is what Lippi did to bring us home the World Cup). And, if we're lucky, there will be another scandal in Italy right before the tournament that will give us the added incentive to beat everyone again and prove our superiority in Calcio.
England: I have a lot to say here, but first I want to make something clear. The English invented the modern game, and I watch the Premiership and the national team as much as anybody, so don't take this criticism as Latin racism against Northern's simply a footballing point of view, nothing more. OK, with that said, who to blame? Well, I have a list, so let's get
started on it.
Steve McClaren: Sure, it's a cliche response to make the coach into a scapegoat, but let's face it, McClaren seems to truly lack an understanding of his team's (former team's...I just found out 5 minutes ago that he's been sacked) strengths and weaknesses. I'm glad he changed things up and tried out new players, but his overemphasis on "star players" to the detriment of the team is inexcusable. It's not that English coaches are bad, as some have suggested, it's just that McClaren is an assistant coach at best, and his appointment as England coach was doomed to failure.
The Players: Obviously, it was the players themselves who lost the games, not McClaren, but which ones? I think as a team, this lot didn't show the drive and determination that we expect from an England team. Most importantly though, they did not really look like a team, but rather like a group of individuals playing on the same side. This, to my mind, was the fault of the players. Shut up, get along, and play for each other.
The FA: Alot of people are going to say that foreign players in the Premiership has finally screwed England, and I'm still not sure of the truth of the matter. It seems to me that so much focus is on signing a new foreign star that most of us can't even name 30 English players in the Premiership...let alone the younger ones. Maybe this has less of an effect than we think, but there's really no way to find out. Maybe the FA should enforce a minimum number of starting Englishmen, and see if there's any long term effect. Right now, anything is worth trying once.
The British Media: These are the people I think deserve most of the blame. The media makes it so hard to play for England that you can't blame the players for faltering. Before games they convince everyone (even the players) that the team is unstoppable. No hint that the players are people, no...they're Gods, who only have to walk out onto the pitch and victory is secured, no matter their opponents. Confidence is great, but this kind of overconfidence is detrimental to the team. Why try if you and the rest of the world know that you don't need to try, and you'll still win? Then, after the game, when England has invariably lost, the media tears the players to pieces. For crying out loud, they're PEOPLE! People makes mistakes, people have off-days. Destroying them in the press merely destroys morale, and ensures that they will not be up to standard next game. Maybe England should impose the kind of media blackout that Italians use leading up to major tournaments. The players are cut off from the news, and so they only worry about themselves, and their game. I think this would do alot of good. Bottom line, the media needs to be gagged, silenced, and if possible, beaten.
Final Rant, Joe Cole: I personally put much of the blame for this whole debacle on what I call the "Joe Cole Syndrome". Essentially, it goes like this: Joe Cole is England's most gifted and creative player, yet the amateurish strictures of the English game force him to play in a style that he is not suited to. He is best as a creative central midfielder, and needs to play on a team that supports him in that role. However, the English tactics are based on one-dimensional long-ball players like Terry and Lampard. Give Joe Cole the freedom to play, drop the players who can't think during a game, and you'll see the difference...I'm willing to bet money on that fact.

Ok, that's it for now. To end off, I'm going to list the teams that are in the Euro and the draw pots they will be in. There will be 4 groups, with one team per-pot in each group. Ciao for now, and Forza Azzurri!!!!

Pot 1: Greece, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands
Pot 2: Italy, Croatia, Czech Republic, Sweden
Pot 3: Germany, Romania, Portugal, Spain
Pot 4: Russia, Poland, Turkey, France