Monday, June 23, 2008

The Final Four

After watching all four of the quarterfinal games, I was consistently reminded why this is the greatest game on earth. Turkey, Russia, Spain, and Germany are left, and with only two wins to go, any of these teams could become the champions of Europe for the next 4 years. Random thoughts from the tournament so far the "group of death" has no teams in the semifinals........Turkey has had three straight come from behind victories, obviously they are scared to death of what Fatih Terim will do to them if they lose. ............ neither del piero nor luca toni took a pk yesterday; these were the top scorers in each of their leagues and both of them choked big time,........ does anyone else think the yellow card rule is ridiculous and should be re-reformatted where all cards are wiped clean after the group stage?........ Guus Hiddink is the best manager in the world right now end of story........................all future co-hosted tournaments should only get one guaranteed bid which will be hereby known as the Austria rule (sorry Poland and Ukraine)..............the Dutch and Portuguese will never be able to win a major tournament..............does anyone know the odds of Henrik Larsson coming out of international retirement for the 4th time for South Africa 2010?............ I am now officially pulling for a Russia-Turkey final

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Games 22 & 23: In Guus we Trust

The last day of group play did not disappoint, though the Spain vs. Greece game was a non-issue, the Sweden vs. Russia game took center stage. The Swedes seemed to still be stinging from their last minute defeat to Spain on Saturday, and their age began to become in issue during their third high intensity match. The energy, fearlessness, and momentum that Russia had built up, combined with the tactical and technical brilliance of Guus Hiddink saw them completely dominate Sweden for 90 minutes, and the 2-0 result probably should have been 4 or 5-0 with the amount of chances their side enjoyed. In the 24th minute Roman Pavluchenko opened up the scoring netting a square pass from Sergei Semak past Isaksson; 1-0 Russia. The rest of the first half was fairly even with both sides exchanging chances, but the score remained the same going into halftime. After what had to be an inspiring talk from Hiddink at the half, Russia came out hard and fast for the final 45 minutes, and their work was rewarded in the 50th minute with a great transition goal from the left channel and Andrei Arshavin in his first game back from suspension, made a sliding shot into the lower corner past a diving Isaksson, giving the Russians a 2-0 lead. This was all that Russia needed, as they created many more chances against Sweden, while the Swedes threw everyone forward. Hiddink and his Russians will now take on his native Holland in their quarterfinal match this Saturday.

Games 19-21: Group Stage Part 3

Monday and Tuesday's matches saw Groups B and C wrap up their respective opening rounds with some of the tournament favorites needing a result to continue their tournament. Poland was unable to get a result against a well-rested Croatia side, who rested many of their starters having already locked up the group. Ivan Klasnic scored the only goal of the match in the 52nd minute off after picking off a pass and beating Artur Boruc. Croatia was able to comfortably take all nine points from the group stage, and they now await a Turkish side minus goalkeeper Volkun Demirel (who was red-carded on Sunday) in Friday's quarterfinal match up.

Meanwhile the Germans found themselves in a situation where they must get a result against Austria to assure themselves a place in the quarter-finals. On paper this match looked as though it should have been over before it started, as the star-studded Germans took on the 82nd ranked team in the world. Both sides opened the match cautiously, and though Germany had more possession and more shots than the co-hosts, they were unable to ever put the match away. Right before half-time both managers were sent to the stands by referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez for what turned out to be "constant bickering", in a decision that was obviously made to ensure the referee was the center of attention. As play resumed right before the half Michael Ballack opened up the scoring with a cracking goal into the upper 90. This would turn out to be the only goal of the match, as Germany was able to preserve their lead and take 2nd place in Group B. The Germans will meet Portugal in the opening quarterfinal fixture on Thursday.

On the most important day for the so called group of death was Tuesday; in a day full of what-if scenario, the only sure thing was that Holland was through as the group winners and the other three sides were all jockeying for second place. Romania had the most straight forward route to the quarters; win/draw and your in, meanwhile Italy and France both needed a victory for themselves and for Holland to ensure a pass into the final 8. The two matches started simultaneously, and after much debate and speculation, Holland had started 9 different players from their original starting 11, giving rest to their first team, and hope to a desperate Romanian side. The lineups in the Italy-France match-up saw many changes on both sides as well, with both squads desperatley needing three points. France really hurt themselves in the 24th minute when Eric Abidal brought down Luca Toni in the box, earning him a red card and awarding Italy a PK which Andrea Pirlo slammed home to give Italy an early 1-0, and just as importantly allowing them to play 11-10 for the reaming 65 minutes. Italy was able to take a 1-0 lead into halftime, meanwhile the score remained 0-0 in Holland-Romania as they headed into the dressing room. 9 minutes out of the half, the deadlock was broken when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar slotted home a cross from Ibrahim Afellay. When news of the goal spread to the Italian fans, the stadium erupted with joy. Just moments later in the 62nd minute Danielle De Rossi's free kick ricocheted off Thierry Henry's toe and sailed into an empty goal with keeper Gregory Coupet diving in the original direction of the ball. The Italians now had a commanding 2-0 lead, and the French were never able to recover. In the 87th minute Robin Van Persie sealed the fate of group C, putting Holland up 2-0 over Romania. Both matches ended 2-0, and the Italians were ecstatic, while Romania and France were dejected being sent home early. Holland will now play the winner of Russia/Sweden in their quarterfinal match on Saturday, while Italy will take on Spain on Sunday. What a tournament!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Games 15-18: Wacky Weekend

Spain's electric finish in Saturday's early match set the tone for a weekend of drama at the European Championships. With David Villa's 90th minute clincher Spain was basically assured a pass into the quarter finals, and Sweden was absolutely shocked to have let in such a late goal, the defense is to be blamed for that meltdown.

The late game on Saturday offered a little less in the way of drama, but it was still a close match with Russia and Greece each needing a win to keep their tournaments alive. Greece never really looked too dangerous, and Russia was able to protect their 1-o lead after a Konstatin Zurianov goal in the 33rd minute. Greece crashed out of the tournament without scoring a goal in their opening two matches, the defending European champions are the first team to lose their opening matches after winning the previous championship, and the Greek side was surely the poorest performer we've seen so far. Russia controls their own destiny in their final match against Sweden, win and they're through to the quarters.

Sunday marked the beginning of the end for half the field, the 3rd round of the group stage kicked off with a bang, with matches being played simultaneously to avoid any chance of thrown or fixed games (see Italian soccer for further explanation). The Portugal-Switzerland match was a throw away game for both sides since Portugal had already won the group, and Switzerland were already eliminated. The Swiss were able to beat a Portugal side who was resting 8 of their 11 starters from the first two matches 2-0, giving their home fans a chance to exit on a somewhat positive note.

While the Portuguese-Swiss match was rather dull and had no direct impact on the tournament, the Turkey-Czech Republic game was a winner-take-all, drama-filled, 90 minutes of shear brilliance, action packed event. The Turks have now been involved in the two best games of the tournament, even though in their last two matches they looked to be defeated and left for dead. For the first hour of the match the Czech Republic looked well on their way to the next round, Jan Koller had scored in the 34th minute, and looked confident and dangerous the entire match. Osasuna midfielder Jaroslav Plasil looked to have put the final nail in the Turks coffin in the 63rd minute putting the Czechs up 2-0 with under 30 minutes to play. In the 75th minute Arda Turan breathed new life into Turkey knocking home a cross from Sabri and past a helpless Petr Cech. Then in the 87th minute the unthinkable happened, on a routine, unpressured cross from out wide, Petr Cech jumped and the ball sailed through his hand into the path of an unmarked and partially flabbergasted Nihat Karvachi, who easily tapped the equalizer into the back of the net, and the entire city of Geneva erupted with disbelief and pure joy depending on what color kit you were supporting. The top goalkeeper in the world just allowed the softest goal of the tournament past him, and it looked as though we'd see a Euro championship first, a PK shoot-out to break the draw. The Turks continued to push on as the Czechs were still in shock of the last goal, and Nihat Karvachi beat the offside trap and scored the game-winner in ultimate style bending in a perfect strike into the upper 90, in the 90th minute of the match.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Game 14: Brilliant Orange

Outside of about 45 seconds after France scored their first goal to get back in the match, Holland continued to play the best soccer of any side in this tournament, bar none. Though France played better than their opening snooze fest against Romania, they were no match for the Netherlands beautiful, attacking, and explosive soccer. Dirk Kuyt opened up the scoring early in the 9th minute with a powerful header from a well struck Giovanni Van Bronckhorst corner kick, and the Dutch never looked back. France was able to stay in the match throughout the first half, and Edwin Van der Sar came up with some big stops to preserve the 1-0 lead. Out of the half the Dutch began to lay back a little bit, and protect their lead, however France turned up the pressure, and Marco van Basten responded by bringing a fully fit Arjen Robben, and Robin Van Perisie on to provide more offense. Van Basten's efforts were quickly rewarded as Robben took an excellent pass from Van Nistelrooy and streaked down the left flank crossing a low ball into Van Persie who slammed it off of French keeper Gregory Coupet and into the back of the net. To their credit, the French continued pressing, and Thierry Henry deflected a pass from Willy Sagnol into the side netting, giving Les Bleus their first goal of the tournament. This score line lasted all of 45 seconds when Arjen Robben made another streaking run down the left flank, beating Lilian Thuram and roofing a shot over Coupet to ignite the Dutch supporters, and put the game away for Holland. Just as it looked like the game would end 3-1, Wesley Sneijder took a pass from Van Persie, spun around and chipped Coupet, hit the bottom of the cross bar and officially ended the beating. Holland secured the group of death's top position and now has the luxury of being able to rest their players in the final match against Romania next Tuesday.

Game 13: A tale of Two Keepers

Another exciting match took place today when Italy and Romania squared off in Zurich in the 2nd round of matches for Group C. The match got off to a cracking start with Italy dominating the first 12 minutes, barely missing a few early corner kick opportunities. It seemed like nothing would fall for the Azzuri even though they controlled most of the first half. Romania however would create many dangerous chance, picking the proper moments to counter attack. Just before the half Luca Toni looked to have headed home Italy's first goal of the tournament, only to have it questionably disallowed by a shaky offside call. Coming out of the dressing room both sides exchange blows, but Adrian Mutu capitalized off a horrible decision by Zambrotta to half-heartedly head a ball back to Buffon. The Italians struck back quickly when Christian Panucci slammed home the equalizer even the score just 60 seconds after the Mutu goal. The Italians and Romanians continued to have their chances, and all of a sudden in the 80th minute, Panucci gets whistled for an even harsher penalty then yesterday's decision against the Poles. It looks like the Italians got hosed by the ref, but Gianluigi Buffon is able to make a tremendous save, keeping Mutu's PK out of the net, and giving Italy at least a chance to stay alive in the tournament. The match ends in a draw, and both sides are exhausted. The Romanians played well, but were bailed out by excellent goalkeeping from Lobont. Donadoni had a much better starting XI, seeing five changes from the opening debacle against the Dutch. Grosso, Camoranesi, De Rossi, and Del Piero all played excellent for the Italians, and the Italians had much better flow in the midfield with Gattuso and Ambrosini on the bench in favor of a more attacking lineup. The Italians must continue to build on their improvements today, and soundly beat the French on Tuesday in order to make it into the final 8.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Game 12: Phantom PK and the wisdom of Rob Stone

Before we get into the analysis of the Poland-Austria match lets get one thing straight; Rob Stone is a tool. Everything that is bad about American soccer is embodied by this arrogant, cocky, and clueless talking head. In between matches Stone was honestly trying to tell Andy Gray (a professional player at the lop European level in the 70's and 80's) that European clubs don't understand the "harsh atmospheres" that the US Men's National Team has to visit during World Cup qualifying. In reference to such teams as Canada, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvadore, and other island nations, Rob Stone is really trying to make the point that the US has just as difficult if not a more difficult road to qualify for 2010 South Africa.

Back to Vienna, where outside of the first 10 minutes Poland had thoroughly dominated the match against Austria, looking to be on their way to secure a victory and a vital 3 points going into their last match against Croatia, until the 92nd minute when English referee Howard Webb gives the softest PK I've ever seen in at an international level, gift wrapping a draw for Austria that they did not deserve. Artur Boruc was simply magnificent all game stopping 3 point blank shots inside the first 10 minutes, Poland then settled into the game and dominated the next 70 minutes. Polish naturalized striker Guerrero was Poland's best field player by a long shot, consistently creating danger in the Austrian defensive 1/3 and his efforts we rewarded with a tap-in goal in the 30th minute. With the successfully converted penalty by the tournament's oldest player Ivica Vastic, a draw keeps the hopes of the co-hosts alive going into game 3, while sealing the #1 group position into the quarter finals.

Game 11: Croatia Conquers Germany

The upsets just keep on coming as Germany and Croatia reversed their form from Sunday. After narrowly defeating Austria on Sunday Croatia was a heavy underdog against the Germans who were fresh off a dominant performance over Poland. The only German to produce in this match was Lukas Podolski, who again found the back of the net, but it was too little to late as Croatia preserved their 2-1 lead into full time. Captain Michael Ballack had an abysmal performance, showing no leadership and even getting carded for continually badgering the officials all match. Meanwhile Jens Lehmann proved to everyone why he had been dropped from Arsenal's starting XI after showing the reflexes of a sloth and the poise and composure of a schizophrenic meth addict. Then in injury time Bastian Schweinsteiger earns himself a straight red card, which rules him ineligble for Germany's must win game against Austria on Monday, further embarassing Joachim Löw's side. With goals by Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic Croatia looked to be in control of the match from start to finish, completely changing the structure of Group B. It now appears that Croatia is firmly in the driver's seat, depending on what happens in the late game between Poland and Austria.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Game 10: Slip and Slide

In the most dramatic and exciting game of the tournament thus far, Turkey pulled off a stunning win against the Swiss with some last minute magic courtesy of Arda Turan. The Turks seemed to be a completely different team after the first half that saw Switzerland dominate most of the match and scoring opportunities and with a 1-0 lead in the rain drenched pitched, it seemed that the Swiss were in control of the match. Fatih Terim must have inspired (or threatened) his players at half-time, and with the rain slowing, and pitch drying out a little bit, the Turks were able to get back into the match and re-establish a rhythm that saw them equalize thanks to Semih Senturk's header. For the next half hour the action was back and forth with both sides exchanging blows offensively, and as the match wore on it was clear that Turkey was going to be happy with a draw, as they began to slow play and stall at every possible moment. Then in the 93rd minute Turkey experienced pure ecstasy while the Swiss were absolutely shocked to find themselves the first official casualty of the European Championships. Meanwhile somewhere in Switzerland Luiz Felipe Scolari is not only celebrating his appointment as new manager of Chelsea, but with a Turkey victory, his Portuguese side is now officially the first team to get through to the quarter-finals.

Game 9: CRonaldo Strikes!

The Czech Republic followed up their less than stellar opening round performance with a much better performance against Portugal, this game was back and forth for the first hour, but Portugal's talent finally overtook the Czechs. Deco opened up the scoring in the 7th minute combining with Ronaldo to cause chaos inside the 18, and jumping in front 1-0. Libor Solonko equalized with just moments later when he sent a header rocketing past Ricardo off the corner kick by Plasil, and both sides fought hard back and forth until halftime. The Portuguse came out of the dressing room hungrier than the Czech Republic, Ronaldo and Gomes both had many shots on goal, but few troubled Petr Cech until the 63rd minute. Just seconds after a golden opportunity from Jankulovski flew just past Milan Baros the Portuguese countered with Deco made an excellent run out wide, slid the ball to an oncoming Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ronaldo cracked a low, well-placed shot, finding the back of the net and putting Portugal up 2-1. Ronaldo was off and on up until this point, and this goal gave him the confidence he needed to be a factor the rest of the match. The Czechs had a few more dangerous chances that almost saw them knot the game back up, but in the 90th minute they were caught napping after a quick restart from Deco who hit Ronaldo with no defender in 15 yards of him, unselfishly he tapped the ball across to Ricardo Quaresma to bury home essentially sealing a place for them in the quarter finals with 6 points from their first two games. The Portuguese still looked a little suspect in the back at times, but if they continue to score goals at this clip, I still feel confident in my prediction for them to win the tournament. Meanwhile the Czechs need to have a strong showing in their final match against Turkey on Sunday to qualify for the quarterfinals.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Game 8: How Swede it is

The last two teams to kick-off the tournament saw the defending champions from Greece take on the Swedes from Salzburg. The Greeks in many way embody everything that Americans hate about soccer; notorious for slow play, low pressure, overly-cautious soccer and it was working. The Greeks plan was frustrating the Swedes and the Swedish supporters up until the hour mark in the match, without any real danger up to this point, in the blink of an eye Ibrahimovic was able to break his 14 game international scoring drought, and put the Scandinavians in firm control of the match. At this point the Greeks began to crack and eventually fell apart when Petter Hansson was able to run into a garbage goal that nutmegged Antonis Nikopolidis and sealed the match at 2-0. Though it was by no means attractive, watching the Greeks play was very entertaining to watch; the discipline, patience, and and tactical awareness that they showed was truly memorizing. Perfectly content to play with 5 across the back line, lulling the Swedes to sleep, their were time in the first hour of the match that it looked like Greece would steal a goal, and close down shop, luckily for the Swedes they were able to show the patience necessary to break down Greece, and their efforts were rewarded with two goals, and more importantly three points from their opening match.

The second round of group play begins tomorrow, and I am still holding to my predictions for the most part. although with a loss today, I think that Greece will have a difficult time escaping their group with Spain and Sweden both looking like they will advance.

Game 7: King David has Arrived

David Villa was the only think coming down heavier than the rain in Innsbrook today as Spain asserted their dominance over Russia in a 4-1 victory. The Valencia striker surely just assured himself a transfer and huge pay day with his stunning hat trick, making the Russian defense look a more like suburban rec team than the national starting back line. While Fernando Torres continues to struggle to score goals for his country, the 4-4-2 formation that Luis Aragones opted for instead of the more defensive 4-5-1 that the Spanish had used in their qualifying campaign, was a terrific tactical decision. Having Torres and Villa up front should help Spain score more goals than anyone else in the group stage. Even though the score sheet reads 4-1, Spain does have some major issues to address in their defense, Sergio Ramos alone turned the ball over 3 times in the back 1/3 as well as giving away another 3 free kicks to the Russians. Russia deserved at least 2 goals in the match, but again they lacked the ability to finish off their chances, proving why they are an average team and not a good team. For Russia to overcome this opening round loss they must defend better as a team, and continue to pressure high, and capitalize on their number up in the midfield. Spain needs to be wary of the same issues that Holland does, they need to learn how to close out a game defensively, rather than always looking for their outside backs to push up field. Even when Fabregas entered the game to gave Spain a 4-5-1, it did not help to eliminate the Russian chances. due to their overaggressive runs particularly on the flanks. Spain are obviously the favorites the win this group, especially after today's performance and if they can figure out a way to bolster their defense they are going to be tough to beat over the next 2 1/2 weeks.

Meanwhile the soap opera back in Bristol continues to entertain, the focal point of their post-match coverage revolved around the ongoing controversy of the Italy-Holland match, and Ruud van Nistelrooy's opening goal. What started out as a civilized discussion before their first commercial break, turned into a 5 man (yes I know Julie Foudy was there), a 5-man clusterf&%k, that saw Tommy Smyth and Andy Gray shout over the top of some ESPN contributor/CONCACAF referee/whipping boy who protected UEFA's decision and newly released clarification of the "active" role of Christian Panucci. Gray admitted that every manager, player, and adviser in England he talked to disagreed with the ruling, saying that Panucci was inactive in the play and therefore van Nistelrooy was offside.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Game 6: The Fall of Rome

What a difference two years can make. The defending World Cup champions have not looked this bad ever in a European Championship. Sure there was some controversy on the opening goal from Ruud king of garbage goals van Nistelrooy, was Panucci still involved in the play? Did he intentionally leave the playing surface? I don't know let the experts (Tommy Smyth and Julie Foudy according to the worldwide leader in sports) debate his issue, for me this was a symptom of much bigger problems for the Azzuri. Yes the Italians are old, but this can be overcome. What cannot be overcome is the decisions of Roberto Donadoni. Losing the opening match to the Dutch is the least of Italy's worries right now. Italy will not win this tournament playing in this 4-3-3 formation with Di Natale, Ambrosini, and Gattuso all in the starting lineup. For De Rossi and Perrotta to remain on the bench was absolutely mind boggling to any Italian supporter. It was obvious that Cannavoro cannot be replaced, and his absence will be further proof that the Italians will not reach the semifinals. Luca Toni looked like he forgot how to score, Pirlo is too old to run the midfield by himself, and our outside MF is too old to get forward and back against the younger, more athletic teams (such as the Dutch). The Italians desperately need to re-install their 4-4-2, but Donadoni will insist to keep with his more attrative, be completely ill-suited 4-3-3. Here is the line-up that should be employed: Materazzi, Panucci, Zambrotta, Grosso in the back, Pirlo, De Rossi, Perrotta, and Camoranesi in the middle, and Toni and Del Piero up top. Then you can bring in Gattuso and Di Natale late in the game to inject energy, strength, and the defensive presence needed to close out the game. Hats off to the Dutch, who were the most exciting side to watch by far this tournament. Van Nistelrooy should have another strong tournament, but I think the lack of defense will eventually see Holland lose in the semis or possible even the finals.

Game 5: Group of Smyth

Up until now all results have gone as expected, the favored teams have taken care of the underdogs (even if the results didn't reflect the effort), but today the French looked absolutely anemic and disinterested in playing Romania. It was clear they came in overconfident and under-prepared, and this is going to make it near impossible for les bleus to make it out of Group C. Though France did have their fair amount of chances, they lacked any guile and aggression to run at the back line of Romania who seemed to constantly have 6 defenders waiting to stifle any attack. The French desperately missed Henry and Vieria, but the likes of Anelka, Ribery, Benzema, and Malouda seemed as though they forgot how to strike a ball on frame. When Gomis and Nasri were substituted on they fared no better, and as a result the French should be very nervous about taking on Holland and Italy later in the tournament. Anything short of two victories will leave the French finishing in 3rd by my prediction, and beating both Holland and Italy on based on their performance today, is too tall a task even if Henry and Vieira are fit. Romania on the other hand, has to be encouraged with their effort and the point that they stole from France. Thanks to a solid defense and possession the Romanians were able to keep at least the slightest of chances alive of moving on to the quarterfinals. France should be disappointed over all, and I'm looking forward to a much better match from Italy and Holland.

Its also apparent that the longer this tournament goes on, the crazier Tommy Smyth gets. Between his analysis of hip checks, Paul Pierce, Inverness, and the constant reminders of the NBA Finals he made it clear that the only players capable of scoring for France were Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery. If those two didn't see the ball immediatley than the rest he'd start screaming about Anelka being out of position, or Malouda not getting the ball to the two golden boys quickly enough. Its also clear that he has a not-so-secret man crush on Claude Makalele and will never forgive Real Madrid for selling him. I feel sorry for Derek Rae as the days go by, not only does he have around 20 matches in a row, but he also has to constantly cover for Smyth's blown analysis and remind him that they are covering the Euro's and not the Lakers-Celtics series....... and in case you didn't hear about the "breaking news", Michael Strahan is retiring.

Update: if this isn't bad enough, coverage in between games saw Rece Davis and Tommy Smyth actually breaking down the game 2 of the NBA finals, and Julie Foudy just referred to the Lakers as "her boys"..... If this keeps up I'm turning it to ESPN Deportes and I don't understand a word of Spanish.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Landy's 100th CAP

It started out as a frantic onslaught against Tim Howard, the Argentine attackers were unleashing shot after shot against the US keeper in the first 15 minutes, but thanks to several key saves Howard was able to keep the US in the match. With the hoopla surrounding Donovan's 100th cap, our guys came out very flat, and it took them the first 20 minutes to establish anytime of comfort and rhythm in front over 80,000 fans in Giants stadium. I felt that most of the MNT played well in the first half. Thanks to strong outside defenders and midfielders, the US was able to get forward, posses the ball, and switch the point of attack in a comfortable manner against the Argentine side who were much more skillful. The US went into half 0-0, and this was mainly a credit good defensive positioning, athleticism, and Tim Howard's ability to blank Julio Cruz 4 times one on one. The U.S. came out of the half much more focused and determined to show no signs of intimidation, they were able to elevate their game to match the Argentines, creating just as many dangerous opportunities as the South Americans. Mastroeni led our back line that saw Cherundolo and Cariff play a hard fought match. While Donovan was MIA for much of the game, he did show flashes of brilliance, Michael Bradley had another mediocre match, and Dempsey played well on the right flank, he has stepped up his defensive presence noticeably in the last few matches. Eddie Johnson played well, but not spectacular; the difference maker from an offensive standpoint was Freddie Adu, Adu came on midway through the 2nd half, and he was the only player confident running at the back four of Argentina. Freddie Adu should be a regular starter in the USMNT period, he's got more ability, heart, determination, speed, and skill than any other player Bradley has run out during his tenure. Oneywu played suspect in the back, but when Demerit was substituted on late in the match, it was clear he was better suited that Oneywu, and hopefully Bob Bradley starts to notice that the Watford defender should be paired along with Mastroeni (who was sent off for a phantom 2nd yellow for an unknown reason) to anchor our central defense. Ever since his move to Newcastle, Oneywu has seemed out of sorts, confused, and clumsy for the US, and he needs to be benched until he figures it out.

Game 4: Podolski Part 2

Group B's second game provided a higher level of skill and crisper play after a fairly sloppy opening match on day 2. The heavily favored Germans got an earlier scare as Poland did their best Argentina impression, stringing a series of 10 passes together in a row and notching a dangerous shot before a German was able to get a touch on the ball. The Germans then fought back and forth for the first 15 minutes with the Poles, but eventually they settled down, and began to dominate the match, proving that they were indeed a strong favorite to go deep into Euro 2008. In the 20th minute the Germans were able to beat the Polish backline, breaking down their overly aggressive offside trap; Miroslav Klose slid a square ball across to his fellow Bayern Munich club teammate Lukas Podolski, who buried the first of 2 goals. Germany continued to dominate the rest of the match and Podolski slammed home the clincher in the 72nd minute, and continuing their dominance over Poland (12-0-4 all time). Podolski recovered from a 2nd disappointing club season in Munich to pick up where he left off the '06 World Cup; proving that he can produce on the world's biggest stages, but not in his own domestic league (sort of the reverse of Taylor Twellman.........zing). Along with the solid German backline; Podolski, Gomez, Klose, and Schweinsteiger all played well for the most part. Captain Michael Ballack didn't dominate the match, but then again he didn't have to, the Germans will no doubt need Ballack to feature more as they advance past the group stage, but they should have no problem costing on in to the quarterfinals.

Tomorrow we look forward to a much anticipated match-up in the group of death. France should be able to beat Adrian Mutu and the Romanians even without Patrick Vieira, and all eyes will be on the defending World Champions as Italy squares off against the Dutch in the late game from Switzerland.

Meanwhile tonight in New York it will be the Landy Donovan show as the golden boy is set to earn his 100th cap when the U.S. takes on Argentina in their last of three warm-ups as they prepare to take on CONCACAF giants Barbados later on the month to begin qualification for the 2010 World Cup. I'm sure that Alexi Lalas has asked the likes of Messi and Tevez to take it easy on the U.S. and old Landy-cakes because he has to focus on his upcoming match against Real Salt Lake. If all goes as planned the referees will award the U.S. a PK (earned no doubt by any of the other 10 players besides Donovan, who have enough balls to attack inside the box), Donovan will raise the dead and make-out with his wrists before adding another meaningless goal to his tally as the all time over-rated prate that he is American goal scorer.

Game 3: Deja Vu

Day 2 got off to a frantic and controversial start when Croatia was awarded a PK in the 4th minute of the opening Group B match against Austria. The co-hosts were everything but a roll over against the highly favored Croatian side that took 3 points but failed to impress in a lackluster performance. Tommy Smyth along with some other so-called "experts" continue to harp on the fact that Croatia stole 10 yards by advancing a throw-in in the Austrian defensive third, which ultimately led to a clumsy challenge by Rene Aufhauser who fouled Ivica Olic in the penalty area and led to a converted PK goal by Luka Modric. This turned out to be the only goal of the match, though both sides missed their fair share of opportunities. In many ways this mirrored yesterday's opening match, a heavily favored Eastern European team underperformed against a host nation that kept the match closer than it should have been for the full 90 minutes. Austria failed to convert some dangerous chances that could have seen them draw or even win the match, but converting opportunities is all that matters, the bottom line is that though Croatia played poorly, they were able to convert one time, and they were able to keep a clean sheet. While no one player stood out for either side for me on either side, it was painfully obvious that Eduardo was not on the pitch, and I believe his absence takes away the creativity and potent finishing that Croatia needs to advance past the quarterfinals. Croatia will finish second in their group, but the need to step up their game to take care of Poland next Monday; because they will overpowered by a German side that is simply in a different league in game 2 on Thursday. My heart goes out to Austria, who deserved better and played above their ability for much of the match, there is a good chance the co-hosts can knick at least a point or possibly even a victory from Poland on Thursday.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Game 2: Just call me Pepe

After a well fought and tight opening match in group Basel, Group A's second game was nowhere near as close. While it took the Portuguese side 61 minutes to find the back of the net, there was never any doubt that the Turks were out of their league against the free-flowing Iberians. In the 16th minute it looked as though Pepe scored his first ever international goal, but it was then waived off since he came from an offside position. All eyes were on Ronaldo in this match, and though he did not get on the score sheet, he dominated his 1/2 of the field, setting up many dangerous opportunities inlcuding hitting the post on a free kick thanks to a fingertip deflection from Volkan Demirel. Ricardo was not tested much all game, and for the most part played well outside of being caught out of position on one or two crosses. The best players on the field were on the Portuguese backline, and I'm not talking about Ferreira or Carvalho; Pepe was denied one goal, but was able to make an amazing run and finished off a beautiful wall pass from Nuno Gomes and gave the Portuguese the lead they deserved. Right back Bosingwa's name will not appear anywhere on the stats sheet either, but he was the best pure defender on the day, he was never beat, always properly positioned, and was a threat when he pushed forward to support the attack. I look forward to seeing the young defender anchoring the right back position for Chelsea next year, he impressed me the most out of anyone today. Deco and Hugo Gomes both played well, and when Nani was substituted on he injected a new energy into the squad. If Portugal can keep up this type of effort, they well be favored to take home the championship. Turkey struggled to provide any type of pressure or sustained possession, and they can take pride in the fact that they held Portugal to 1 goal up until injury time. If Fatih Terim can adjust his formation to provide more offensive pressure up top, Turkey should be favored to beat Switzerland, and possibly even upset the Czech Republic in their third game and squeak into the quarterfinals.

On a separate note, I thought ESPN's studio coverage today was terribly painful to watch. Who the hell is Steve Bunin?....and has he ever seen a soccer game before today? Not only was his soccer knowledge non-existent, but he bumbled and fumbled his way through the lead-ins and technical aspects of the show as well. Having Julie Foudy as your best studio commentator is not a good sign. Maybe he can look through a media guide and roster sheet before coverage starts tomorrow, if that doesn't take away from his hair and make-up preparation.

Tomorrow Group B kicks off, and the opening match should see Austria get embarrassed by Croatia, followed by a much closer Germany-Poland showdown. Overall, I would say day 1 lived up to the hype, and for the most part results went as planned.

Game 1: Czech it Out

In somewhat of a surprising result based on the pace of the match, the Czech Republic were able to eek out a 1-0 victory, despite the Swiss outplaying them for most of the match. I believe that if Alexander Frei did not get injured in the 1st half, the result of this match could have been quite different. Frei looked very dangerous early on with three menacing shots on target. Early on the Czechs looked very pedestrian in their play most of the match, giving away many balls out of the back, managing only 1 shot on target all match, and Petr Cech looked average at best, making all the stops, but giving up far too many rebounds. Jan Koller was MIA all the way up to the 56th minute when the game's only goal scorer Vaclav Sverkos was substituted on for the giant striker. The first twenty minutes of the second half saw the Czechs have the only sustained possession and pressure they saw all game, and they were able to capitalize on some poor clearances by the Swiss defense when Sverkos tucked away the only Czech shot on goal passed a helpless Diego Benaglio. Phillipe Senderos continued to show why he was benched for the latter 1/4 of Arsenal's season and Ludovic Magnin provided some dangerous balls into the box, but his defending was reckless and completely undisciplined (rightfully earning the first yellow card of the tournament). The other disappointment for the Swiss side for me was Gerson Fernandes; the young Man City midfielder seemed lost most of the match and was shut down by the Czech midfield. While I did predict the Czech to win this match, the Swiss were the better side and deserved to come away with at least a draw if not a full three points. This will make the quarterfinals a bridge too far for the co-hosts, and despite being outplayed the Czechs need to take care of the Turks and they should book their ticket into the quarterfinals. I know its early, but the Portuguese should be able to take 9 points from this group without breaking a sweat.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Uefa Euro 2008 Preview Part 2

Previews and Predictions for Group C and Group D.

Group C: 1. Italy 2. Netherlands 3. France 4. Romania

Romania has the misfortune of being paired in the group of death. Group C is the most difficult by far, and though the Romanians are a strong young side, who actually finished ahead of the Dutch in qualifying, they will just be over-matched by Holland, and two of the last three world cup winners in Italy and France. In another group I would give Romania a fair chance to sneak into the quarterfinals, but not in Group C. Player to watch: Adrian Mutu; despite the fact that he has just been ordered to pay Chelsea 10 million pounds as a result of a positive cocaine test in 2004, the Fiorentina frontman netted 27 goals in Serie A and the Uefa cup this season, and scored another 6 in Euro qualifying. If the Romanians want to finish higher than 4th in their group, Mutu has to bring his A-game.

Les Bleus may very well be that odd man out in Group C, any other group and France moves on to the final 8, but due to some possible injuries and poor squad selection, the French will make a surprise exit this year. With captain Patrick Vieira, Franck Ribery, and Thierry Henry all having various minor injuries and limited training heading into the tournament, there is a real threat to the fitness of the squad. The decision to drop Phillipe Mexes, Mathieu Flamini, and Cisse in favor of some lesser known domestic league players along with the decision to leave out David Trezeguet have many critics (including me) wondering if France boss Raymond Domenech is playing politics rather than his best squad. These decisions will ultimately cause France watch the Finals at on television. Player to watch: Franck Ribery; as long as Ribery is fit, look for him to fill the void left by Zidane as France look to challenge for European glory in their first major tournament post-Zizou.

Like Spain and Portugal, Holland is a side that seems to always underachieve on the biggest stage. Despite Robin van Persie's lack of fitness, I believe the Dutch will advance to the quarterfinals and with a bit of luck possibly even the semifinals thanks to the class of their side. With an excellent mix of veterans such as van Nistelrooy, Bouman, youngsters Roebben, Babel, and Van der Vaart, and Edwin Van der Sar (this author's pick for best keeper in the tournament) in goal, I am picking the Dutch to advance along side Italy in the group of death and go deep into this tournament. Player to watch: Ruud van Nistelrooy; the Real Madrid superstar has proven that he can score goals at every level, if he is able to find his form, the Clockwork Orange could finally shake their reputation of being a soft, and selfish team that self-implodes in major tournaments.

The reigning World Cup Champions are another side coming into the tournament with very high expectations. The Azzuri were my pick to win the tournament until Fabio Cannavaro suffered an ankle injury that will sideline him for the whole tournament. Since Cannavaro has pulled out, fellow defender Christian Pannuci was also injured in Friday's training session, limping off the practice pitch. Despite these injuries Italy still has the depth to go all the way to the finals riding on the quality of Toni, Pirlo, Del Piero, Materazzi, the ever-solid goalkeeping of Gianluigi Buffon. Look for Italy to play slow and defensive, picking out opportune moments to counter attack and win low scoring matches. Ultimately the injury to Cannavaro will cost the Italians the tournament, as the finish runner up to Portugal in an epic final. Player to watch: Luca Toni; the dynamic Bayern Munich frontman is the embodies what it means to be an out and out striker, strong in the air and on the floor the 6'4" Toni netted 47 goals in 48 games for Munich this season and look for him to keep this scoring pace in June.

Group D: 1. Spain 2. Greece 3. Russia 4. Sweden

Group D is another formidable collection of teams, with Spain as the powerhouse, Greece as the defending champions, Russia as the unknown wild card, I believe that Sweden will actually finish last in this group. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal scoring drought will continue, and the Inter striker will continue to prove that despite all his natural talent, he cannot produce in the big games. With the aging Henrik Larsson and Freddie Ljunberg, Sweden's best years are behind them, and they need to look to develop some of their promising young talent in hopes of qualifying for South Africa in 2010. Look for Sweden to be one of this year's Euro disappointments. Player to watch: Johan Elmander, though he doesn't have the recongnition of Ibrahimovic, or Larsson, Elmander is gets my vote for best Swedish striker on current form, netting 14 goals for Toulouse in all competitions, look for Elmander to be the lone bright spot for the Swedes this year.

Thanks to a last day collapse against Croatia, Russia are now occupying the spot that most believed was England's position in this year's Euro championships. Russia is riding into the tournament with the hopes of being a dark horse, much like Greece was in 2004. Much of the credit given to Russia belongs to manager Guus Hiddink, who hopes to improve on a disappointing Euro 2004 appearance in which Russia failed to win a single match. Hiddink has denied rumors that he is headed to Chelsea after the Euros "I have just given my word to the Russian football president and he to me that we will continue until the end of the 2010 World Cup.", this type of talk can only help to fan the flames of the Russian side who may also be a team that can squeak by into the quarterfinals with a little bit of luck. Player to watch: Roman Pavluchenko, the Russian forward emerged as Spartak Moscow's greatest offensive threat this year and with his size look for Pavluchenko to dominate the undersized Spanish and Greek defenses in the air.

The defending European champions can no longer slip through the tournament anonymously, for the Greeks to have success this year they must continue to rely on their low-pressure, counter-attacking style that worked so well for the in 2004. Otto Rehhagel is returning 7 of his starting 11 from the Euro championship final from four years ago, and will rely on a stalwart defense to help guide Greece out of group D and into the quarterfinals this year along side Spain. Greece will be lucky to advance past the quarterfinals this year, with the hope that lightning can strike twice. Player to watch: Theofanis Gekas; the Bayer Leverkusen forward who never stops running and loves to collect garbage goals in the box.

After a mediocre performance against the United States earlier this week, Spain is another over-hyped, under-performing European side whose results on a world stage have always fallen short of expectations. The 2008 Spanish side is another example of a squad loaded with household names; Fernando Torres, David Vila, Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Xabi Alonso, Carlos Puyol, and Pepe Reina have all made their mark throughout the biggest clubs in Europe, if these players could figure out how to play toghether for their country they could be a real threat to win it all. The problem with Spain is their insistence on playing beautiful soccer instead of smart soccer. Defensive lapses, selfishness, and rash decision making often lead to soft goals and cards that will eventually end Spain's tournament in the quarterfinals yet again. Player to watch: Fernando Torres; the Liverpool star has been quoted this week as wanting to erase the pain of Champions League defeat to Chelsea with a strong European showing. While Torres is a gifted goal scorer, I don't believe he is mentally strong enough to thrive in this competition at this stage in his career, if he proves me wrong then Spain has a chance to go the distance.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Uefa Euro 2008 Preview Part 1

The UEFA Euro 2008 Championships kick off this Saturday in Austria/Switzerland. Group play will begin June 7 and will wrap up on June 18th, with the top 2 teams in each group advancing to the quarterfinals. First we will begin with a few predictions from 1st round action; teams are listed in the order in which I believe they will finish. The top 2 from each group will make it through to the round of 8.

Group A: 1. Portugal 2.Czech Republic 3. Turkey 4.Switzerland

With a dual host in this years competition we see Austria and Switzerland both gaining automatic births into the Euros, this will not doubt weaken the tournament in the opening round. While Switzerland should get a boost playing in front of their home supporters, they will need to rely on their disciplined, defensive style of play in order to finish 3rd or higher. The Swiss did provide an adequate showing in the 2006 World Cup (they are the only team in World Cup history to be eliminated at the group stage while never allowing a goal in their three matches), they will not be able to match the firepower of the other three sides in their group. If the secure more than three points from the group stage, they should consider that a success. Player to watch: Fernandes Gelson; Gelson is considered by many (including ex club boss Sven Goran Eriksson) to be Switzerland's best outfield player. At only 21 Gelson scored 2 goals int 21 appearances for Manchester City this past year, and was a key component of City's early EPL success. Look for Fernandes to grow into a leader of this Swiss side for many years to come.

Turkey is a team that qualified for the Euros thanks to being in a fairly easy group. Though Greece won their qualifying bracket, Turkey beat the 2004 champions 4-1 at home, and lost 1-0 in Greece. For the Turks to have a chance to advance the need to continue to score a lot of goals, and this will be a tough task with an inconsistent team that is experiencing some dressing room problems between manager Fatih Terim and some of his star players. In the end Turkey should beat Switzerland, and will be fortunate to draw with Portugal or the Czech Republic. Player to watch: Nihat Kahveci; Kahveci is an exciting striker who is always dangerous in the final 1/3, the Villareal striker has recovered from a knee injury suffered in the 06/07 seasons. Kahvci netted 27 goals in La Liga and Uefa Cup competition for Villareal this year, as well as scoring 3 goals in only 2 appearances for Turkey in Euro qualifying.

The Czech Republic can be seen as the wild card in Group A, one one hand they are coming off a solid World Cup in 2006, as well as finishing atop Germany to win their qualifying group. The Eastern European side is full of some big names such as Milan Baros, Petr Cech, Jan Koller, and Tomas Rosicky. On the other hand Rosicky is injured, and will be missing the tournament all together, Pavel Nedved has retired from international duty, Milan Baros has been on a goal scoring drought, and many still believe the Petr Cech is still not the same keeper he was prior to his horrific head injury playing for Chelsea in the Fall of 2006. Despite these setbacks look for the Czech to move on to the round of 8, but it would surprise me if their tournament continued beyond the quarterfinals. Player to watch: Milan Baros; Baros is still experiencing a prolonged goal scoring drought, not scoring for his country since March of 2007, and not finding the back of the net at all since transferring from Lyon to Portsmouth in 12 Premier League games. If Baros is able to regain his form, there is a chance that he can carry the squad on his back, and surpass expectations.

No doubt the team with the most expectations in Group A (if not the entire tournament) is Portugal. The Portuguese are riding a tremendous waive of media hype and expectations for the tournament thanks to young Man United superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Though Poland finished ahead of them in qualifying there was never any doubt that Portugal would be one of the favorites to win the tournament. With names such as Nani, Deco, Quaresma, Ferreira, Carvalho, and Ricardo as a supporting cast for Ronaldo the Portuguese should easily win the group, only being tested by the Czechs. Portugal is my pick to win the competition, thanks to a break-out tournament by Ronaldo, this team will go as Ronaldo goes, and on current form he is due to impress those who say he chokes on the biggest stage. Look for Portugal to play some beautiful soccer and lead the tournament in goals scored as the breeze through the first two rounds. Player to watch: Cristiano Ronaldo; already the front runner for FIFA player of the year, look for Ronaldo to to validate his position as best soccer player in the world.

Group B: 1. Germany 2. Croatia 3. Poland 4. Austria

As an automatic bid being a host nation, the Austrians are just happy to be in the tournament considering they are no where near the top half of Europe in class or pedigree. With a very tough group Austria will be lucky to stay competitive against Germany, Croatia, and Poland. Player to watch: Ivica Vastic; Vastic is the oldest player in the tournament at age 38, a Four time Austrian player of the year and member of the Austrian World Cup team in 1998. Vastic is the biggest offensive threat for Austria, and Austrian supporters should look for him to turn back the clock and show that he still has a few goals left in him yet.

Finishing atop their qualifying group ahead of Portugal has given the Polish side a belief that they can surprise some teams in this competition. Its been 25 years since Poland beat Germany in a major competition, and I don't see how they will be able to match the Germans in game one. Their best chance at advancing will rely on their third match against Croatia, if they can find a way to beat Croatia, Poland might be able to sneak into the quarterfinals. Poland Player to watch: Ebi Smolarek; Smolarek has been the voted the Polish player of the year each of the last three seasons, during which he has played in the Budesliga for Dortmund and then for Racing Santandar in northern Spain. Smolarek scored 9 goals in 10 games during Euro qualifying.

Croatia is a side whose European hopes were very high until Arsenal star Eduardo Di Silva's leg was shattered in February by Martin Taylor's reckless challenge. Now Croatia is still poised to advance to the quarterfinals with Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric looking to replace Eduardo's offensive prowess, and they should be a side that gives pause to all their opponents. Look for Croatia to turn some heads and upset the tournament similar to '04's Greece. Player to Watch: Luka Modric; though his numbers may not show it, Modric has been the catalyst of a dangerous attacking midfield, look for the young playmaker to put his opponents on their heels, and create chaos in the offensive zone.

Fresh off the World Cup semifinal that surprised everyone, the Germans are coming into the Euro's as a heavy favorite to win the competition. Carrying a squad full of superstars led by captain Michael Ballack, look for Germany to coast through Group B with little opposition. Klose, Podolski, Lahm, Scheweinsteiger, and Lehmann are all poised to have their way with the opposition, making it to the semi's, and possibly even the finals. Player to watch: Philip Lahm; not only is Lahm one of the best young defenders in the world, he is also a true left-sided player who can get forward and score goals that make you wonder if he is truly a defender. Lahm's opening goal in the 2006 cup was probably the goal of the tournament; look for him to get even more confident and comfortable as he ages into maturity. In a team full of superstars Lahm could carry the Germans to European glory.