Euro 2012 Week 1 Preview
Metalist Stadium, Kharkiv
Saturday 9th June 2012
The Dutch have been widely installed as third-favourites to win the tournament behind Spain and Germany, while the Danes have yet again begun to emerge as possible dark horses.
Like most of their main rivals, both sides have shown indifferent form in their recent friendly outings, the Oranje beating Slovakia and Northern Ireland but losing to Bulgaria and the Scandinavians suffering defeats at the hands of both Brazil and Russia before accounting for the Socceroos.
But history suggests that it is unwise to read too much into such games which tend to be little more than glorified training runs.
Crucially none of the key men for either country appeared to pick up injuries during those friendly outings, leaving respective coaches Bert van Marwijk and Morten Olsen with some interesting selection decisions to make ahead of the Kharkiv showdown.
van Marwijk’s main issue concerns his attack and who should act as the spearhead in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Robin van Persie looks likely to get the nod having started against Northern Ireland and bagged two goals in that game, but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar also has his supporters among the Dutch press who feel, with some justification, that the claims of last season’s Bundesliga top scorer should not be ignored.
van Persie could of course move back to join Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben in the 3 of the 4-2-3-1 should van Marwijk opt to reinstate Huntelaar, but as it stands, the Schalke man is likely to have to settle for a place on the bench.
Highly-rated midfielder Kevin Strootman may well join Huntelaar for a spot of pine-warming, with Manchester City’s Nigel de Jong expected to partner fellow-bruiser Mark van Bommel just in front of the back four, while 18-year-old PSV Eindhoven starlet Jetro Willems is set to be handed a start at left-back.
The Danes, meanwhile, could spring a surprise at centre-back where Andreas Bjelland may just oust the more internationally-experienced and better-known Simon Kjaer.
Unlike the vast majority of the rest of the Danish squad, the 23-year-old still plies his club trade at home, recently playing a key role in steering FC Nordsjaelland to the domestic SAS Ligaen title and made a big impression when replacing Kjaer for the second-half against the Socceroos earlier in the week.
Skipper Daniel Agger certainly seemed to prefer having Bjelland alongside him rather than the gifted, but error-prone Kjaer and it will be interesting to see if Olsen opts to start the man with only six full caps to his name.
Formation-wise, the men in red and white favour 4-3-3, with their main source of midfield creativity being Ajax’s superstar in the making, Christian Eriksen. All eyes will be on the man for whom a successful tournament will surely prompt a move to either England or Spain, but the Dutch will also need to be aware of evergreen winger Dennis Rommedahl and central striker Nicklas Bendtner who attracts more than his fair share of criticism among fans of the EPL, but hits the net on a very regular basis for his country and is a key component in the way they play.
With four of their squad currently playing in the Dutch Eredivisie and Olsen having previously coached Ajax,Denmark will be fully aware of what to expect from the Dutch, but would be advised to avoid glancing through the history books which show that they have failed to beat their near-neighbours in eight meetings dating back more than forty years.
With the notable exception of Eriksen, the Danes don’t have much in the way of out-and-out star quality, but they are well-organised, hard-working and are very comfortable in the system that they employ.
Netherlands will almost certainly enjoy the bulk of the possession, but they will find Olsen’s men a tough nut to crack and with both sides desperate not to suffer a first-up defeat that would leave them well and truly behind the eight-ball in terms of qualification, we could well see the spoils being shared in Kharkiv.
Prediction: Netherlands 1-1 Denmark
Arena Lviv, Lviv
Saturday 9th June 2012
Coach Paulo Bento has some genuine world class talent in his Seleccao squad, most notably skipper Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Euro 2004 runners-up made hard work of qualifying from their group and have been no more impressive in their recent friendly outings which saw them lose 3-1 to Turkey and labour to goalless draws with both Poland and Macedonia.
Those disappointing results mean that the Portuguese are still to register a single victory in 2012 and they will need to up their game significantly if they are to avoid making an early and inglorious return to Lisbon.
Such an improvement is not beyond them, however, as although they have several glaring weaknesses, any side containing Ronaldo has to be taken seriously.
The former Manchester United man did of course enjoy a staggeringly successful campaign with Real Madrid last season and his close relationship with coach Bento has set the tone for what is reportedly a very close-knit camp.
Ronaldo is likely to start as the central striker in a 4-3-3 formation, flanked by Nani and Ricardo Quaresma whose pace and movement will ask plenty of questions of a German defence which has an unsettled and slightly uncertain look about it.
Portugal also have a fine goalkeeper in Rui Patricio of Sporting Lisbon and a solid back four underpinned by Real Madrid duo Pepe and Fabio Coentrao who should enjoy a decent tournament if they can maintain their discipline.
But it is the lack of a world-class creator in central midfield that may ultimately prove the Iberian side’s undoing and if Ronaldo is forced to drop deeper and deeper due to a lack of quality service, much of Portugal’s attacking threat will be nullified.
The likes of Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho must step up to the plate and provide plenty of go-forward if their side is ultimately to progress to the knockout stages, although given that a draw with the Germany in Lviv on Saturday would represent a very satisfactory start to the tournament, we may see them err on the side of caution and sit pretty deep before becoming more adventurous against Denmark and Netherlands.
A lack of adventure is not something that the Germans can be accused of, meanwhile and they look set to come out all guns blazing in a bid to take immediate control of Euro 2012’s very own Group of Death.
Joachim Loew’s squad is a largely youthful one, yet it boasts plenty of international experience with most of the players included having also featured at the 2010 World Cup.
Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger look likely to anchor the midfield in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Miroslav Klose is expected to edge out Mario Gomez for the lone striker role ahead of a wonderfully-gifted trio of attacking midfielders in Thomas Mueller, Mesut Ozil and Lukas Podolski and teenage sensation Mario Gotze is set to be used as an impact substitute.
Indeed it is their abundance of creativity and pace in midfield that will form the backbone of Germany’s Championship challenge, with their supporters hoping that they can overwhelm their opponents with attacking flair and in doing so, disguise the fact that defensively they are a little vulnerable.
Left-back remains an area of concern for Loew following Philipp Lahm’s move to the right and even Petr Mertesacker’s shock return to fitness has not convinced the doubters that all is well at centre-back either. The Arsenal man’s lack of pace was brutally exposed at times in the EPL last season and whether Mats Hummels or Holger Badstuber get the nod to play alongside him, they will have to try and ensure he does not become isolated in a one-on-one situation with the likes of Ronaldo, Robben, or his Gunners team-mate, van Persie.
Of the eight meetings between the two countries dating back to 1936, Portugal have enjoyed the taste of victory on just one occasion and it’s hard to make a case for them improving that record this weekend.
Germany tend to hit the ground running in tournament football and even if they aren’t at their very best in Lviv, they should still have enough of an edge in terms of attacking quality to claim all three points.
Prediction: Germany 2-1 Portugal
Arena Gdansk, Gdansk
Sunday 10th June 2012
And it is definitely not a game to be missed by any tactics anoraks out there.
Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy have developed a far more possession-orientated game, relying less on a stonewall defence and more on simply starving their opponents of the ball. But can the Azzurri succeed in employing that approach against Spain, the undisputed world kings of possession football? Can the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and Claudio Marchisio really out-pass Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso and co?
The short answer is almost certainly no.
It looks as though Prandelli may have to adopt a more pragmatic approach, at least partially re-embracing an element of catenaccio in order to contain what remains an outstanding Spanish side.
It would come as no great surprise if the Italians were to start with a 4-5-1 formation, aiming to disrupt Spain’s rhythm with high-intensity pressing and look to carve out some chances of their own on the break.
Such an approach worked perfectly when the two sides met in a friendly played in Bari just under a year ago, although it should be noted that Spain were not at full strength on that occasion and there was no tournament pressure to factor in.
With Mario Balotelli struggling to overcome a thigh injury, it looks as though Antonio Cassano may well get the nod to start up top for the Azzurri, a welcome sight given that he suffered a stroke as recently as October.
Andrea Barzagli, meanwhile, will definitely miss the opening two group games through injury, paving the way for Leonardo Bonucci of Juventus to slot in alongside club-mate Giorgio Chiellini at centre-back.
Last week’s embarrassing 3-0 friendly defeat at the hands of Russia should certainly have shattered any feelings of complacency that may have been lingering in the Italian camp and they are unlikely to be as generous at the back come Sunday.
And those fans in blue heading for Gdansk will also take some solace in the fact that of the eleven previous meetings between the two traditional European powerhouse nations, Spain have won just two.
Such statistics won’t overly concern Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque, however, as he prepares his charges for the defence of the title they won in such style four years ago.
La Roja remain very much the team to beat and should they manage to pick up three points at the expense of the Italians, it’s nigh on impossible to foresee them failing to top the group with something to spare.
And yet with key men Carlos Puyol and David Villa unavailable due to injury, right-back Alvaro Arbeloa regarded as a major doubt due to a back problem and attacking midfielder Jesus Navas nursing a severely bruised hand, Spain’s preparations have not exactly been untroubled.
Puyol’s absence undoubtedly leaves a question mark hanging over the solidity of the defence, while neither Fernando Torres nor Fernando Llorente have proven as adept at spearheading the side as Villa has in recent years.
Of course the overall quality of the Spanish squad nevertheless remains incredibly high, but there remains a nagging feeling that they may just have lost a little bit of their aura and that their major rivals Germany and Netherlands have improved significantly since the 2010 World Cup.
Throw in the fact that many of del Bosque’s squad played more than 50 games last season and it’s not hard to see why some pundits feel that the world number ones will not have it all their own way in Poland and Ukraine.
Selection-wise, del Bosque is unlikely to produce any surprises this weekend, with Torres set to lead the line ahead of an attacking trio of Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and David Silva, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso patrolling in front of the back four.
Although it may well be a cagey affair decided by a single goal, there won’t be many more fascinating group games than this one at Euro 2012 whether you’re watching from the red, blue or neutral corner.
Italy will make it very tough, but Spain should just edge it.
Prediction: Spain 1-0 Italy
Municipal Stadium, Poznan
Sunday 10th June 2012
With Spain and Italy lying in wait over the course of the next eight days, the group underdogs know that they simply have to pick up three points here if they are to stand any realistic chance of upsetting the odds and squeezing their way into the knockout stage.
Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni took the unusual step of stating that the side that started last week’s friendly with Hungary would also line-up against Croatia, but following a lack-lustre display in Budapest, the Italian has performed a back-flip and suggested that he may in fact make changes.
The men in green rarely threatened going forward in the 0-0 stalemate and were grateful to Shay Given for producing a string of fine saves that kept the Hungarians at bay, providing more questions than answers for their veteran Italian coach in the process.
It looks as though he may be considering changing formation and for a man who has appeared almost welded to 4-4-2 since taking the Ireland job, such a move would be dramatic indeed.
The word coming out of the Irish camp is that 4-3-1-2 could be the option Trapattoni chooses to take and he may well do just that if his side find themselves chasing the game late on. But from the outset, a 4-4-1-1 formation seems far more likely to be the go as it would enable Trapattoni to retain his beloved wingers and skipper Robbie Keane has previously shown that he can operate very effectively in a slightly deeper role behind Kevin Doyle.
Fortunately for the men in green, Given has declared himself fit to start after overcoming a calf strain and although several other players have complained of tiredness this week, they should all be available for selection.
As for Croatia, they are also travelling reasonably well in terms of squad fitness and coach Slaven Bilic has been quick to praise both the spirit within the playing group and the training facilities that have been made available to them at their base in the Polish town of Warka.
Bilic has lost the services of striker Ivica Olic who has been ruled out of the tournament by a thigh injury, but the 32-year-old Bayern Munich man would almost certainly not have started against Ireland anyway and his replacement, former Blackburn man Nikola Kalinic, is a very capable deputy.
Ivo Ilicevic, meanwhile, picked up a calf injury in Wednesday’s training session and is regarded as a doubt for Sunday’s big clash.
The Croatians secured a win over Estonia and a draw with Norway from their pre-tournament warm-up games, producing satisfactory performances in each, but not doing enough to seriously alarm any of their group rivals.
They remain painfully sluggish at the back, meaning highly-rated goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa is likely to enjoy a busy tournament and while Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric is a genuine world-beater on his day, he looks decidedly jaded following a gruelling EPL campaign and is unlikely to be firing on all cylinders.
Norway troubled Bilic’s men at set-pieces, a fact that will not have escaped the attentions of Trapattoni whose in-depth assessment of his side’s opponents borders on the obsessive, but the Croatians did look threatening on the counter-attack, with Nikica Jelavic appearing every bit as dangerous as he was for Everton last season.
The former Rangers man may well be partnered up front against the Irish by Eduardo whose late strike in that Norway friendly maintained his impressive record of a goal every other game at international level.
In conclusion, Ireland’s reactive tactics may have made them tedious to watch during qualification, but they also proved highly-effective in terms of negating technically superior opponents and Keane and co will fancy their chances of repeating that trick against both Spain and Italy.
If Trapattoni is willing to even partially eschew his safety-first approach on Sunday, Croatia’s defensive vulnerabilities mean that they are there for the taking and with three points in the bag, a place in the knockout stages would suddenly become a distinct possibility.
Should Ireland prevail, and they look to have a very decent chance of doing just that, it would surely signal bag-packing time for the Croatians even at this early stage.
Prediction: Ireland 1-0 Croatia2,354 views