Euro 2012: Episode IV

31 August 2010

Let’s face it. Your 20s aren’t what you expected. You’re lowly-paid, overworked (or underworked – or both), and you’re dreading the day that that itch gets so bad you can avoid the doctor no longer. And you pine – pine – for the simple summer days when your team was humiliated by Spain or Germany (or even the Dutch!). Well, if you’re European your wait is over, since those 47 long months until Brazil 2014 will be broken up by Euro 2012 somewhere out East, where natural gas and Russian denial-of-service attacks come from. The rest of us Americans will have Shark Week expanded to a month and the invasion of the Maldives to enjoy, but until we start awarding three points for a win in international police actions, I’ll settle for trying to decide if Moldova or Albania are more formidable with a little leather ball.

Group A

Germany (World Cup: 3rd place), Turkey (UEFA qualifiers Group 5: 3/6), Austria (Qualifiers Group 7: 3/6), Belgium (Qualifiers Group 5: 4/6), Kazakhstan (Qualifiers Group 6: 5/6), Azerbaijan (Qualifiers Group 4: 5/6)

You may remember Germany having a particularly good World Cup with an extremely young team and no Michael Ballack. They may be a bunch of gays, but undeniable a stylish one on the pitch and as much fun to watch when they cracked against Spain as when they crushed England and Argentina. O(e)zil, Muller and the other non-standard-character-promoting players have been crafted into a powerful system by Joachim Low, who will surely stay as Germany coach through the next World Cup. The best of them might have a decade of national team play ahead. Not only will they top the group, and not only will they do it without losing a game, they will be at worst second-favorites to win it all.

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are perpetual also-rans who might pick up points here or there – mostly from each other. (Despite the rankings, Azerbaijan are better.) As in all things Belgium are a poor imitation of the Dutch and are in the midst of an unending breakdown. Their only real accomplishment in World Cup qualification was scoring a goal against Spain, and 1998 coach Georges Leekens can’t help a lack of top-shelf talent, a shortage cruelly exposed in their 11 August friendly defeat to underrated Finland. A result for them would be lasting longer than their country does.

In fairness bets on their groupmates Turkey and Austria aren’t much more inspiring: Turkey underperformed in World Cup qualification while Austria managed only four home wins in a group won by Serbia and a French team busy packing for their journey into the wilderness. Austria have also had a deal of upheaval in their coaches – 3 since Euro 2008 – while Turkey will still be working with a youngish team. (Only two current call-ups will be out of their 20s when eligible for their first game, which falls on midfielder Emre’s thirtieth birthday.)

And you thought the Mike Ditka pornstache was dead and buried

I favor Turkey. They’ve had time to reflect on missing the World Cup and have a huge pool of native talent with experience in European competition. They’ll also have the distinct advantage of experienced Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who guided South Korea to the 2002 semifinals, Australia to the 2006 Round of 16 and Russia to the 2008 European semifinals (before watching them fuck up on the verge of the World Cup). What’s the chance lightning strikes twice?

Oh, fine. Take an option on Belgium then.

Key matches: Turkey and Austria in Germany.

Group B

Russia (UEFA qualifiers Group 4: 2/6), Slovakia (World Cup: Round of 16), Irish Republic (Qualifiers Group 8: 2/6), Macedonia (Qualifiers Group 9: 4/5), Armenia (Qualifiers Group 5: 6/6), Andorra (Qualifiers Group 6: 6/6)

If not for all the crappy teams you’d call this a Group of Death. Macedonia competed for the second-placed spot in Group 9 up to the final day, while Russia were unlucky to be drawn with Germany, shut out of outright qualification and then stunned by little Slovenia in the playoff. As for Ireland, they attract myths. Like their luck.

Let’s dive right in. Macedonia aren’t that good and never win away – impressing against Scotland does not equal impressing. (But more on that shortly.) So there’s them apples.

After their 2010 failure Russia have a new coach, Dick Advocaat, who left Belgium for Russia after Hiddink left for Turkey. (Whose previous coach was made Consul of Rome.) It will be familiar ground for Advocaat: a team with an occasionally-bright past and a few big-name stars which is nevertheless short on raw talent. Besides a few players in the Premier League (Arshavin most notably) they almost all play for Zenit St. Petersburg and the Moscow teams; however there’s no solid core of the sort Barcelona supplies Spain or Juventus used to for Italy.

Slovakia, of course, ran away with perhaps the easiest qualifying group and then stunned Italy on the final match day of the World Cup’s first round. Their team is precisely the opposite of Russia’s, an international melange marked strangely by a core of players in the Turkish Superlig, including the really impressive Robert Vittek. (His exploits detailed better here.) It’s hard not to be impressed, but Slovakia were gifted with weak groups – twice – and an extraordinary Italian team who realized you win by scoring goals just fifteen minutes before the end of their Cup journey. Ten games against opposition of considerably greater quality, the best I can say for them is that they might – maybe – sneak into 2nd. 3rd is far more likely.

The headquarters of the Irish national team. Also the Army, police force and cereal production authority

Which brings us to Ireland. If your heart wasn’t broken and your face contorted into rage over Thierry Henry’s handball, then you’re an asshole. Still, they’re managed by Giovanni Trappatoni – the kind of Italian manager you actually want, unlike a few I’m aware of – and most of the team plays in England or Scotland, lending some mutual experience and a coherent style far beyond what the country’s own anemic league could provide. There’s a diversity in the selection of players available and anchors in forward Robbie Keane and goaltender Shay Given. Both are heading towards the close of their international careers and both will be looking to wrap it up in style – especially Given, as he’s replaced (likely permanently) by England international Joe Hart between Manchester City’s posts.

Perhaps ridiculously, Ireland will top the group. Russia will come second.

Key matches: Any pair of Russia, Slovakia and Ireland. Watch especially when Ireland travels; I think they’re better away.

Group C

Italy (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Serbia (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Northern Ireland (UEFA qualifiers Group 3: 4/6), Slovenia (World Cup: Group stage 3/4), Estonia (Qualifiers Group 5: 5/6), Faroe Islands (Qualifiers Group 7: 6/6)

Or maybe this is the Group of Death, with three World Cup qualifiers in one delicious package. Somebody’s going to go home a sad panda, are they not? And it’s already begun; two stoppage time goals were all that prevented the Faroe Islands upsetting Estonia and – surely for the first time ever – taking the lead in a qualifying group. You’ll forgive me for underrating these two juggernauts, but this will be their last appearance in a paragraph I really ought to have ended thirty words ago.

I do need to take a moment to disregard Northern Ireland specifically rather than just lumping them with the others. They weren’t bad as recently as 2006, when they beat Spain 3-2 at home; the scorer of all three, Sunderland/Ipswich Town’s David Healy, is still available for the campaign. But even in the Euro 2008 qualifiers they came third, behind Spain and Sweden, and they’ve never qualified for the European Championships. Worse, nothing jumps out at me to say that this year they will.

I’m sure they’re all nice guys, though.

Italy will be very early in their reconstruction after the horror show of this year. In Prandelli they’ve got a new manager and some of the oldest players will retire themselves, with a couple of young standouts like Quagliarella and New Jersey’s own Giuseppe “The Situation” Rossi available to take their place. It’s not clear how far and how fast this reconstruction will go; attacking options Pirlo, Gilardino and Pazzini were recalled while the entire back line has been retooled. Even into qualification several players are receiving first call-ups, suggesting (rightly) that there isn’t much satisfaction to be had from the lost to Ivory Coast; of the returners, from perhaps the widest spectrum of Italian clubs  ever, a number are relatively unknown. They’ll have to get known pretty fast if Italy is going to avoid the dragon-slaying potential of the second-place playoffs. (I will give some points. Mario “Stupid Mario” Balotelli returns to ignominy for the first two games. Well done.)

Serbia were unlucky not to go to the World Cup round of 16 – they fell to weak Ghana thanks to a red card, a penalty and international sympathy for OMG AFIRCAN TEAM!!!11, gained a shock victory over Germany and then collapsed when Australia found their own shit too late, a trend that’s plagued Serbia longer than just this June. Even if they wanted to retool it’s not clear they have enough options, as their team is not hugely aged or experienced to begin with and already draws in the best of the Serbian soccer diaspora. Matters are made worse as Coach Radomir Antic landed himself a four-match ban for slagging off the referee in the Australia game and the Serbian authorities, complaining of the lack of better options, demanded he take a pay cut or get the boot. (And took the chance to piss all over him as they did.) They should have thrown him into the Guus Hiddink merry-go-round. They could have sent him to Iceland and got San Marino’s coach.

Slovenia, meanwhile, finished the best of the three, narrowly missing clearing the group at the expense of either England or the USA. Like Serbia’s, their squad is pretty settled and proved unusually thrilling despite extremely limited resources. What can you say? They had the fussballgeist. But this is a fickle thing, and surely they won’t keep it. The problem for a team like Slovenia (or indeed Serbia) is that in order to progress in a more difficult group – which this one is – they will need to rely on all of the same players over a long period of time, a big difference compared to gambling on their fitness in three games over 10 days. A bench consisting of all (and only) of the finest players with major league experience in the country makes attrition their biggest foe, especially for those players who have both league and European competition. Any changes forced on them due to form or injury will have more of an impact on systems which have already proven relatively successful with a certain set of players. The temptation will be to shoehorn new players into the old system.

All material, this one. Italy will be shaky but will have enough time to put together a decent team. I don’t smell the magic around Slovenia again, but I’ll back them to continue on in second place. Serbia’s turmoil (and pre-existing injuries to a few key players) will cost them.

Key matches: Slovenia away in Belgrade.

Group D

France (World Cup: Group stage 4/4), Romania (UEFA qualifiers Group 7: 5/6), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Qualifiers Group 5: 2/6), Belarus (Qualifiers Group 6: 4/6), Albania (Qualifiers Group 1: 5/6), Luxembourg (Qualifiers Group 2: 5/6)

Does anyone else think that when Henry handled the ball he stole Ireland’s luck?  I think that. The President of Ireland and some Druid prince and his Leprechaun Army will probably have to rip out his beating heart and turn it into an amulet so Milla Jovovich can use it to stop the destruction of the Earth with her sidekick, Norm from There’s Something About Mary, and the Artist Formerly Known As the Second-String Mel Gibson.

Either way, once again France drew the Group of Life. An AIDS Ward XI could go to the finals from here. Belarus, Albania and Luxembourg are all minnows and Romania’s not much more: They have a new coach who’s okay but they draw their core team from the country’s own biggest sides, whose failure in European competition leaves the national league and by extension the team in freefall. (Though, famous last words.)

France and Bosnia/Herzegovina, then. As ever the ball is pretty much in France’s court. B/H are what they are and though certainly no pushover they don’t have the depth to metamorphose into a really superior team. If they win, it is because France aren’t pushing hard enough; if they lose it is because France are on the way to comprehensive reform. Given their dive into the abyss in South Africa, coach Laurent Blanc has the leeway to completely recraft this team. He has the players, too. The real question: Does he have the balls?

His first step was decisive: against Norway he banned all 23 of the players in South Africa and called up a whole new squad, declaring also that only the blameless keeper, Hugo Lloris, is certain for re-inclusion. This offered him the chance to call up an entire raft of the neglected and ignored. The cost was a 2-1 loss, but it may be the best of all France’s late sufferings. Lessons were learned, and the squad now named for the beginning of Euro 2012 qualification is a decent melange of old and new: Saha, Benzema and Mexes return as Loic Remy and the excellent Jeremy Menez join up.

The consensus was that after the collective punishment of the Norway match the entire thing should be put behind France; for that reason, and for the effect on qualification, the further bans handed out to Anelka (the “mild-mannered” man who will never play for country again) et al were a mistake which could only hamper the team. Bilge, I say. In fact wouldn’t have mattered a jot if Laurent Blanc called up eleven new people to play Norway, all were terrible and then he called them up again. Everyone on the team must know they’re optional and that bad attitude is worse than bad form, since it means they’ll be humiliated despite rather than because of their skill on the pitch.  Sending this message is the only thing that can save these miserables. On September 7th in Bosnia, we’ll see if they have done enough.

I want Blanc to succeed. I think he will. France will top the group and maybe even with a little style. B/H to the playoffs.

Key matches: The very first one. If France win in Bosnia they’ll be pretty much home free. Runner-up status to the matches between Bosnia/Herzegovina and Romania.

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Whas happeni-oh wrong show

Wha's happeni-oh wrong show

The last day of qualifiers on three continents came and passed today.  In an effort to be more international – I guess – I’m going to try to hit all of them, especially since more of the story in Europe was already done.  (For the perhaps 1 of you who will read this in the absence of a gratuitous reference to a 80s-90s television celebrity, such as Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot.)

UEFA

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

Wow that picture of Bronson Pinchot really crowds out the screen - photo credit AP

The last two teams to secure automatic qualification clinched it today, both on the strength of just-barely-enough performances.  In weather conditons that can only be described as horrendous – or hysterical – Slovakia edged out Poland on the strength of an early own goal.  This was as expected, though the late challenge by second place Slovenia in the Slovakian capital last weekend transformed this match from a lame duck showing.

In sunnier climes, if one would like to refer to Basel that way, group winner Switzerland and Israel played to a scoreless and rather unexciting draw. (Though tell that to the Swiss fans in attendance.)  For the Swiss this was actually a rather close-run thing; had they lost by a single goal today, second-place Greece‘s 2-1 victory over Luxembourg would have been sufficient to propel them into pole position.  Both Switzerland and Greece seemed to be playing surprisingly conservatively, or at least without a great deal of verve; but with a Greek attempt to storm into first place out of their hands all parties may have just thought it best to be slow and steady.

Portugal and Ukraine were the last teams to nab playoff berths without being in contention for their respective top spots.  Portugal gained a decisive (and inevitable) victory over Malta, while Ukraine did the same over Andorra.  On a personal note I continue to be infuriated with the lackluster play England exhibited in allowing Ukraine both to ruin their perfect record and edge out Croatia for the playoff.  I will undoubtedly continue to air this opinion at every opportunity.

As predicted, Norway was excluded from the second-place playoffs on the basis of weak group performance. Perhaps ironically, had Scotland not experienced their calamitous defeat to the Norwegians, or had they overcome the Dutch in their last meeting, it would instead have been the Irish Republic excluded. I mourn for the benighted Scots and their benevolent, long-suffering fans. But soccer, like politics and alcoholism, is an enterprise which worships always towards the dawn.

Second-place playoffs

You kiddin me?!

You kiddin' me?!

The draws for the second-place playoffs will be next Monday. (I think…)  Because Sepp Bladder is a man I might only describe in a terms both inventive and exceptionally lewd, Europe will be having a seeding system for its playoffs.  The initial plan (though it was never shared with anyone, so how could we know?) was to have the eight second-place qualifiers randomly paired off, each to play one game at home and one away, with the overall winner of each to gain the final four places. However there is now to be seeding based on next week’s FIFA World Rankings, which orders teams by a variety of factors based on international performance. The top four teams will be placed in one pot; the bottom four teams in another. Teams will be paired only with those from the other pot, which assures that the “best” teams will face weaker opposition. These latter are furious, with Irish coach Trapattoni being especially vocal about it, but I don’t see Bladder backing down.

Almost assuredly, the high pot will consist of Russia, France, Portugal and Greece and the dregs with Ukraine, Ireland (I think we can dispense with this Republic business, yes?), Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We don’t know who will be paired with whom, of course, so speculation is early, but some conclusions are possible. Russia will qualify, knocking out whoever is set against them with indecent ease. (I dreamed they would do so to Portugal… alas.) Besides Russia the ironic truth is that none of the top teams are that good. France took second in a weak group; had any of the virtuous thirds like Sweden, Finland or Croatia been placed with them I doubt they’d have come this far. Portugal and Greece are notionally strong and rallied towards the end. Greece didn’t face a really tough group, so they have to be rated as faltering, but Portugal really were in a bad neighborhood with Denmark and Sweden and should be credited with a late rally. They’re not as sure a thing as Russia but they’re odds of their failure are 3:1 against.

What about the “dregs”? Again, without pairings this is speculation, but none of the four were deeply-impressive runners up. Ukraine is notionally the strongest, but they were pretty eh. B/H did just well enough to beat failing Turkey and a Belgian team in almost as bad a shape as their country. They could maybe beat Greece but they’re not giant killers. Slovenia fought their way through a very tough group, and did so as unexpectedly as forcefully, but the fact that they overcame an evenly-matched group doesn’t mean they beat a good group. Ireland, however, have been turning in powerful performances and went undefeated in their group, nearly holing the Italians in the process. (And even at half-speed Italy are no slouch.) I like their chances best, and am in fervent negotiations with the Almighty to ensure they’re not paired against Russia. In the atmosphere Slovenia and Ukraine are balanced for second-best-second, Slovenia on hustle and Ukraine on talent, with B/H trailing behind.

CONCACAF

The North American section closed with a bang – indeed a veritable Soccer War – tonight as an excruciatingly-late stoppage time equalizer prevented the Costa Ricans from clinching automatic qualification in Washington, DC. A game at which I was not present. I didn’t know soon enough, I tell myself. I can’t afford it, I tell myself. And still wish I’d gone.

This was morally important for the US, as it left us at the top of the fourth round group (an all-important point above Mexico) in a week in which the US team was plagued with disastrous injuries. The last, a rather severe tendon issue with Oguchi Onweyu late in the second half, follows a day after Charlie Davies’ car accident outside the District and left the side Estadosunidense at ten men going into stoppage. Compounding the bizarre pageantry of the whole affair, Costa Rica’s coach Renê Simões was ordered off the field (along with an assistant) following some substitution clusterfuck – perhaps in view of the paucity of time left, the referee refused it and he got lippy. Retaliating, the referee left a full five minutes on the clock, allowing the Hail Mary goal that saw Honduras qualify for the World Cup for the first time.

Well THATS rather uncalled for

Well THAT'S rather uncalled for

I didn’t see much of the Honduras game, but it was apparently tight and pretty brutal.  El Salvador could easily have tied it up and left Honduras (as I’d predicted) to slug it out with the CONMEBOL fifth-place. But now it is Costa Rica that will go in their stead. In soccer as in life, someone else always pays for your success.

CONMEBOL

By comparison South America’s final night was somewhat humdrum if you weren’t secreted away in a Buenos Aires suburb with a spicy Argentinian lover and a deactivated Blackberry/wife and kids. Argentina frustratingly managed a desultory goal in the 84th minute of play that turned out to be completely extraneous, given that Chile sent Ecuador quietly into the good night. A sad end to the city that hosted the first World Cup, but Uruguay’s night was tinged with hope, as Ecuador’s loss also guaranteed them the playoff spot against the fourth-placed North American side. Their dog will have its day in two matches against Costa Rica.

Playoff

I would generally rate Costa Rica the favorite. But Uruguay has done arguably better in an inarguably tougher milieu, and the endless series of qualifiers they’ve played starting two years ago has got to whet the appetite. Costa Rica will have something to prove, but the crushing nature of the draw to the US tonight has something to do with a sense of entitlement on their side.

But then again Uruguay’s wins haven’t been all that impressive. You get the sense Argentina rather deserved to go on if that was going to be their opposition. If Costa Rica faces similar they’ll seize the lifeboat of one of the last 2010 spots.

AFC-OFC playoff

Bahrain to win. Even if they weren’t a better team – it’s not clear – they’ll be away when they face New Zealand again, which means that a non-scoreless draw will see them through. I actually don’t know what happens if they draw scorelessly. Penalty shootouts, I imagine. New Zealand might have a shot there, as playing a tournament against Tuvalu and the Federated States of Micronesia must be very like practicing penalty shots.

CAF

Oh for fuck’s sake.

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria

I stand by my predictions - Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria