Day 3 review
Romania 0 France 0 (predicted: 0-0)
Tepid and fairly uninspiring, if this is what the group of death is to be like then I may just switch Group C off. Romania cannot be faulted for their workrate and organisation – the back four were very impressive and left-back Razvan Rat kept Franck Ribery very quiet. But France manager Raymond Domenech has some serious thinking to do as he tries to inject some energy and inspiration in to his tired looking team.
Nicola Anelka continued from where his post-Bolton career left off, looking decidedly disinterested. This was in stark contrast to his co-striker Karim Benzema who showed plenty of industry and skill even if there was no end product. There was similar endeavour from Bafetimbi Gomis when he replaced Anelka and we saw a 12 minute cameo from the new French golden boy, Samir Nasri. But Theirry Henry and Lassana Diarra (it’s hard to believe that both Chelsea and Arsenal let him go) remained seated.
Romania were technically sound, neat on the ball and a very solid unit. They did play much of the game in their own half and this was apparent from the passing statistics – France’s top three passers were all midfielders; Romania’s were defenders. If they repeat the feat against Italy in the next game then there is every chance they could upset the applecart (or indeed carts intended for any fruit) in the final game against the Netherlands.
Netherlands 3 Italy 0 (predicted: 1-2)
I’d be surprised if there were many who called such an emphatic win for the Netherlands – or even many who called a Dutch win at all. Without many of their most attacking players available it seemed that they would struggle against what is usually a solid Italian defence.
While the best team won, Italy did not get the rub of the green and several small (and big) decisions went against them. The fuss over the opening goal, when van Nistelrooy scored while a yard offside, will probably dominate the papers. My initial thought was that it had to count since Panucci, regardless of the fact he was clattered by his own goalkeeper, was technically still part of the play. What’s to stop a player falling on the pitch and then quickly rolling off it to play an opposition player offside? The play wasn’t stopped as it wasn’t a head injury so therefore in my opinion it was right to alow it to stand.
The second goal was not exactly in the class of that vintage Bergkamp goal against Argentina in 1998 but it came from a van Bronckhorst clearance off the line from which he then charged the full length of the pitch to set up Sneijder via a typically efficient Dirk Kuyt knock back. The third goal involved Kuyt and van Bronckhorst as well, the latter converting a header from six yards after a great break by the Dutch.
Italy had chances and were spurred on by the introduction of left-back Grosso for the pedestrian Materrazi and Del Piero for the ineffective Di Natale. Luca Toni toiled without reward and missed their best chance when he beat the offside trap, lobbing the ball ten feet over the bar from six yards. Pirlo and Gattuso got about and were useful but Italy had nothing up front.
This puts a very different complexion on the group. The Netherlands were very good but clearly show signs of weakness in defence. They could have enough to see off France and that then leaves us with a battle for second place between the Italians and France in the last game. Not what I expected.
Day 4 preview
I might be madder than Mad Man McMad but I think Group D might just be as hard to call as Group C: a second group of death if you like.
Looking at how the more fancied teams have struggled against seeming inferior opposition so far, it’s not inconceivable that the much-fancied but usually disappointing Spaniards won’t come up against similar obstination against Greece, Russia and Sweden.
In the opening group game Spain face Russia, the team that ultimately edged out England in the qualifiers. On one level they don’t look any great shakes but then you remember that Guus Hiddink is managing a national side whose association has had huge investment in recent years.
Their qualifying campaign was erratic. They were battered at Wembley, beat England a month later in Moscow and then a month after that lost in Israel. If anything it indicates that their away record is not great and perhaps away from the comfy, snowy confines of Russia they are not the force they could be.
But they proved they can play and one particular dangerman is the striker Roman Pavlyuchenko who scored twice against England. Zenit, who beat Rangers in the UEFA Cup final this year, supply a number of players including Andrei Arshavin who has 11 international goals to his name. Unfortunately he is suspended for the first two matches. Sergei Semak and Konstantin Zyryanov (2007 Russian player of the year) are quality midfield players and if Hiddink can get his team playing as a unit (in a likely 3-5-2 formation) then they have a chance.
Spain’s forward line of Iniesta, Torres and Villa is usually enough for me to pronounce them as champions-elect. Add in Xavi and Fabregas as the supply-line and it’s an even firmer belief. But somewhere along the way it falls apart with their only major championship being the 1964 European Championships that they hosted.
The back four is a bit of a worry with Carles Puyol filling me with Bramble-like jitters at times and Carlos Marchena not convincing me fully yet but Casillas is one of the best keepers around it’s hard to see how we won’t see Spain in the shake up for the semi-finals at least. They play slick football, rarely lose the ball and can score goals all over the pitch.
I think they will have plenty of posession against Russia and once they work out how to overcome their hard-working opponents should hold out for a win
Prediction: Spain 1 Russia 0
I like Greece. I loved the fact they won Euro 2004 and I still wonder how they did it. The thought of them winning back-to-back European Championships has me salivating even though I admit it’s incredibly unlikely. You only have to look at their awful World Cup 2006 qualifying campaign to see that the Greeks are unpredictable – they finished fourth in a group behind the Ukraine, Turkey and Denmark, suffered defeat to Albania and were generally unimpressive.
Loyalty to coach Otto Rehhagel was undiminished and Greece reaped the rewards when they won their Euro 2006 qualifying group with a record 31 points, losing just one game to Turkey in an admittedly average group.
So here they are, with 7 of the team that won the tournament four years ago still on board. 36 year old Antonios Nikopolidis is still in goals with the back four containing Seitaridis, Dellas and Kyrgiakos who only missed Euro 2004 through injury.
The midfield is key with the versatile Kostas Katsouranis, combative Giorgos Karagounis, legendary battler Aggelos Basinas and former Bolton livewire, Stelios Giannakopoulos. Angelos Charisteas, with 18 international goals, was a crucial cog in 2004 and he may partner up front with Leverkusen’s Theofanis Gekas who scored 5 in qualifying.
Here’s something you seem to read before every major tournament: Sweden lured Henrik Larsson out of retirement for one last shot. 36-year old Larsson will simply replace 34-year old former Aston Villa striker Marcus Allback up front but he and Johan Elmander are not a bad back up to the Larsson/Ibrahimovic tandem that is likely to start.
The squad is not as ageing as one might expect. Ok, so Freddie Ljungberg, Niclas Alexandersson and Tobias Linderoth seem to have been around forever but Alexandersson is unlikely to start and Linderoth – who played for Everton from 2001-2004, is only 29. Kim Kallstrom, at 25, has 55 caps and the exciting Birmingham City midfielder Sebastian Larsson could get a starting place.
The defence is experienced. Mikael Nilsson, Olof Mellberg, Petter Hansson have been around for a while and we may see Mikael Dorsin add to his three caps at left-back after Erik Edman dropped out through injury.
I think Sweden are solid and competitive and if they win here I fancy them to join Spain in the quarter-finals. However, I think they will find the Greeks a handful and a draw is the likely result.
Prediction: Greece 1 Sweden 1