Friday, June 29, 2012

Great Germany, fantastic Italy

As so often before, I was wrong about one thing: history repeated itself once more in last night's semifinal match between Italy and Germany. Italy was again better than Germany in an important match, much to the disappointment of the Germans that surely has been one of the most entertaining teams of the tournament, and surely it is a shame to see them out. However, they can hold their heads high (perhaps except for the pathetic mistakes by Mats Hummels and Phillip Lahm in defense that gave Italy their two goals) for contributing to the best match of the tournament. Additionally, Germany has a young team with what I believe is a great future, and they will eventually win a tournament.
And as I said before, Germany have had great fans who should be prud of their side.
Italian fans have nevertheless all the reason to be proud. I have always been very critical of Italian sides, not least when they won the 2006 World Cup, but this Italian side I like very much; they play intelligent offensive football. In Andrea Pirlo they have the best best player of the tournament, a general towering above a solid and harmonious side where also Marchissio, Montelivo, Chiellini and Cassano all have had a great tournament. And of course, Mario Balotelli. His second goal apparently reached the speed of 120 Km/h! An extraordinary shot in the two goals by the controversial player who dedicated the goals to his adoptive mother. A wonderful player who deserves the best, he will be a constant danger in the final.
Spain and Italy have reversed roles: where before Italy seemed to be the cynical and experienced side that ran away with the victories, they are now the side that will attract much sympathy, while Spain, who in previous times have been supported for their offensive yet naive style, will now be the towering favourites to take a new title. It won't be easy though against a motivated Italian side that has been improving throughout the tournament, and both Croatia and Portugal have shown that Spain can be shaken.
In any case, we should all look forward for the final on Sunday!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

History in the making

Tonight two of the greatest sides in the history of football will face one another in the semifinal of Euro 2012. Between them, Italy and Germany have 7 World Cup titles, 12 World Cup finals, 4 European Championships and 7 Euro finals. Not including Brazil, these two sides are surely the best in the history of football, although today they are both eclipsed by Spain's brilliant side. That said, both sides have the ambition to take the throne again in a possible final against Spain, so be sure that they will try everything in the semifinal tonight.
The two sides have met thirty times in international matches, with Italy winning 14, Germany 7, and nine draws. In international tournaments, Italy has been the best, as they have never lost a match to Germany in either the World Cup or the European Championships. Of their World Cup clashes, two matches stand among the greatest World Cup matches of all time, namely their legendary 1970 semifinal, where Italy won 4-3 after extra time, and the 1982 World Cup final, where Italy won 3-1 to take the title. Their latest World Cup encounter was in 2006, when Germany, as home side, lost the semifinal 2-0 to Italy, who went on to win the World title in the final against France.
During European Championships the sides have met twice, in 1988 and 1996, both in the group stages, and both ending with a draw, 1-1 and 0-0 respectively.
But history cannot tell us much about the result tonight: The two sides that are playing tonight are very different than those from previous years. Germany started a rejuvenation of its football in 2002, and the side that plays today is much more technical, entertaining and harmonious than in previous times. Under coach Cesare Prandelli Italy has also changed, becoming more offensive, and relying less on their defense.
Both sides have looked strong in the tournament and are surely the only ones capable of taking on the mighty Spanish in the final. But be sure that no matter what, tonight another historical chapter will be written in the history of encounters between these two giants.
Good luck to both sides!

The triumph of brilliant boredom

Let me start by saying that Spain is currently the best football side in the world, and that is something that has to be respected. However, the Spanish, who have won many admirers over the years, are now turning that admiration into desperation. Last night's victory against Portugal in the semifinal of the Euro 2012 was hard-earned against a fighting but not sufficiently cold-blooded Portuguese side, but the Spanish continue to play a style that while efficient, is evermore boring to look at.
For many years Italy was criticised for their defensive Catennaccio style, where one goal and a brilliant defense gave them many triumphs, but exasperated many fans who would prefer to see Italy's brilliant players entertain. Now Italy, under Cesare Prandelli, is playing much more offensive, but Spain seems to be starting to play a "Catennaccio a la Paella"; without being outright defensive, they rely on their incredible passing abilities and possession to do the occassional brilliant outburst that give them one of their less-than-frequent shots on goal. With its strong defense and the world's best goalkeeper this style is proving highly efficient, but incredibly boring to look at by neutral fans like myself, who would like a more direct style. Spain has even gone to the lenghts of not playing with an outright striker for some parts of the matches, something that to me seems like defensive arrogance rather than some brilliant strategic choice.
Footballing styles come and go, and there is no doubt that given the brilliant players Spain has, they can play like this, and they remain favourites to take their third major title in a row next Sunday. But when their current players come of age, another style, hopefully more entertaining, will become more dominant. Germany is currently the side with the greatest potential to take over from the Spanish, and with a more direct style that will not be as incredibly boring as the last three matches that Spain has given us in the tournament.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Iberian clash

The first semifinal in the Euro 2012 tonight will be between the two Iberian teams Portugal and Spain. Both are great teams in their own right, but Spain, as defending World- and European champions are the ones to beat for the Portuguse side that has still never won anything, but been close a few times. This is the 8th time the two sides will face each other in a major tournament, with Spain having won four, two ties, and one victory for the Portuguese. The last time they met was indeed two years ago in South Africa, when the future World Champions won 1-0.
Under coach Paulo Bento the Portuguese have only become better than they were in 2010, and thier star, Cristiano Ronaldo, has grown as a plyer in Real Madrid these years, as well as having grown in the tournament. Him and his teammates, many of which play in Spain (three in Real Madrid) will be hungry for success against a Spanish side that has been effective but very boring to look at during this tournament. Against France in the quarterfinal they won it purely on routine against a French side that was not worthy of a quarterfinal.
Good luck to the fans of both sides.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Euro 2012 Quarterfinals

The first round of the Euro 2012 is over, and the quarterfinals are now ready. Although the quality has not been overwhelming, it surely improved after the first round of matches. Still, I feel that too many teams have played too controlled and not direct enough. At the same time the exit of both home sides has been disappointing, and the biggest surprise has been the hopeless performance of the Netherlands, who with Ireland was the only side to exit the tournament with three straight defeats.
The quarterfinals are as follows:
  • Czech Republic-Portugal
The Czechs are probably the team that most grew in the tournament; in the opening match they lost 4-1 to Russia, and the played lousy during much of the match. But a victory against Greece and against the home side of Poland gave them the first place in the group, and should not be underestimated. However, Portugal should be favourites. The Portuguese played a fine match against Germany in spite of losing, but what put them in the quarterfinals were the two victories against Denmark and the Netherlands. Portugal are by no means impossible to defeat and their greatest enemy are probably the careless arrogance with which they often confront sides that they do not consider as good as themselves, as well as the lack of confidence they have when falling behind. It is clear that they have nevertheless been working on these mental shortcomings under Paulo Bento, and with an incredible Cristiano Ronaldo they should be on their way to the semifinals.
  • Germany-Greece
This match will be talked a lot about politically given the current crisis in Europe, where an overpowering Germany has been accused of imposing its economic might on a careless and defensive Greece.
Footballwise, Germany is the only team with three wins, even in the "group of death", and should be considered the main favourite to win the tournament.
Greece has been a surprise: after almost winning their opener against Poland they lost to the Czechs, and were under pressure in their last match against the group leaders of Russia. But playing with passion, Giorgios Karagounis gave them the winner. It will be a great loss that Karagounis will be out for the quarterfinal, but be sure that the Greeks will play with passion against the giant favourites of Germany!
  • Spain-France
The defending World Champion have routinely played their characteristic passing game to win their group, but have still not looked as completely overwhelming as four years ago. For periods Italy and Croatia played at least as well as the Spaniards, and except for the match against Ireland, they sometimes have seemed to lack directness. Andrés Iniesta has nevertheless been the star of the team, and as he did two years ago in South Africa, he may be able to carry the Spanish all the way to the title yet again.
Spain are huge favourites against France, who has not looked impressive. They dominated against England but were either unwilling or unable to score. Their best match was against Ukraine, but for their defeat against Sweden they were very poor. The side is full of strong talented players, but if they in any way are to have a chance against Spain, they must play far better.
Spain should be in the semifinals.
  • England-Italy
This quarterfinal is between two big sides that are both looking to be back among the great. Italy has played well under Cesare Prandelli, but still has periods where they seem tired, something that they cannot afford to do much. On the good side, their main strikers, Balotelli, Di Natale and Cassano have all scored, and it is a luxury choice to choose their striker. With Andrea Pirlo also looking great, Italy should have good chances against England.
Still, this English side should not be underestimated. They managed to win a very difficult group with controlled football, a bit of luck and tenacity. It is not exciting to look at, but this English side seems to be past the "Spice-Boys" mentality of the last few years.
I think this is the most difficult quarterfinal to make a prediction about, but I hope Italy will win.

Good luck to all sides.

Ukraine left out

After having recently travelled to the Euro 2012 in Ukraine I was hoping to see the friendly Ukranian fans continue in the tournament. This seemed so much more urgent after Poland left the tournament as the worst host nation ever. At least Ukraine won their opening match against Sweden, but after losing their second match to France they needed a good result against England.
On the other hand England, with a tie and a victory, could play more controlled, and with the return of Wayne Rooney expectations were surely high.
Ukraine played a good match, but it was indeed Wayne Rooney who scored the winner for England after a silly mistake by the Ukranian goalkeeper. That said, the real executioner for the Ukranians was none other than the referee. Down 0-1 the Ukranians put pressure on the English, and scored a goal that clearly went over the line, but that was not allowed by the referee.
A very poor call.
Maybe England says that this is payback for the goal they had disallowed against Germany in the 2008 World Cup, but Ukraine did not deserve this payback for something they had no influence on.
A pity for Ukraine.
England ended up winning the group with two victories and a tie after a pathetic French side lost 2-0 to Sweden. This is quite impressive considering that England has not played well, but has been efficient and lucky. They will now face Italy, but should not be discounted. In fact, I believe this may be England's year.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ukranian travels

Over the last week I have been in Ukraine, exclusively to watch football. A lot had been said in an exaggeratedly eager English media to put down the country, but truth is that the English should be ashamed.
Ukraine is a beautiful country, and under the most difficult circumstances, they have prepared as well as anybody for this tournament (and I am not saying that they do not have problems).

The first match we went to was Denmark-Portugal in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv. We had travelled on an all-night train to get to Lviv, and without a reservation at all, got a hotel room at the first place we walked into.
So much for all the stories of sold-out places....
There was a good atmosphere in the small charming city of Lviv, with fans happily mingling and drinking beer before the match. That said, if I have to criticize anything in Lviv, it must be that the stadium is situated on a field quite a distance from the city, and although a caravan of busses transported people to and from the stadium, it was tedious to get there. Also, since there was nowhere to go near the stadium, we had to bring a few beers along which we could enjoy on the grass outside the stadium.
After Denmark's sensational victory against the Netherlands in their opener, expectations were high among the Danes. However, the Portuguese are strong, and after Denmark won the group ahead of them in the last two (World Cup and Euro) qualifiers, Portugal also went into the match with a high degree of respect for a Danish side that nevertheless is far inferior to the talented Portuguese. And Denmark did indeed seem to start best until Pepe brought Portugal ahead. When Helder Postiga brought Portugal ahead 2-0, I think most of us Danes in the stadium started to fear what could happen, but on the other hand we have to admire the tenacity of the Danes, and the poor attitude of the Portuguese (Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed some horrible chances, was later quoted as saying that they had thought that victory was pretty certain with 2-0). First, Nicklas Bendtner, who always scores against Portugal, scored a first for the Danes before halftime. And then in the second half Denmark put pressure on the increasingly nervous Portuguese, Bendtner scored the equalizer for Denmark, it seemed that Denmark could in fact take home a very important tie, or perhaps even better, a victory! All of us Danish fans were very excited!
But sometimes in football things are not to happen. Substitute Silvestre Varela scored the winner for Portugal in a bit coincidential situation, where he hit the ball perfectly.
A great disappointment for the Danes, but great for the Portuguese. In fact, after the match, trying to drown our sorrows, we ended up drinking beer and singing karaoke until the early morning with a group of Portuguese fans.
An excuse to party no matter if you win or lose.... That is really what all great football fans should consider such a tournament.
Warm-up: Denmark-Portugal

The second match we had tickets for was England-Sweden at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev. This is a beautiful stadium where the final of the tournament will be played, situated centrally in Kiev and with good accessibility. The atmosphere was also excellent before the match, with an overwhelming majority of merry Swedish fans in the zone we got in through (barely any English fans, which I guess had been directed in through another part. Apparently there were indeed some problems with English behavior in spite of the heavy police presence that we saw during the match). And wearing our Denmark shirts, we got a lot of sympathy from our Swedish neighbors.
We had extraordinary seats on second row behind the Swedish players box for what turned out as the best match of the tournament so far. I was happy to see Sweden play so well against an English side that in spite playing better than against France, still seems overly defensive. Still, Steven Gerrard is a crucial player for England, and gave the perfect pass with which Andy Carroll brought England ahead, and the English were leading at halftime to the disappointment of the many Swedish fans, as well as me.
But Sweden started the second half the best: only five minutes went by before Olof Mellberg equalized, and ten minutes later all Swedes were delighted when Mellberg scored again to bring Sweden deservedly on front.
Maybe this is England's year, as they are lucky at the right moments. Theo Walcott equalized for England on a goal where the Swedish goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson looked somewhat confused. After this, both teams had chances, until Danny Welbeck scored a spectacular and lucky goal for England. After this, Sweden seemed broken, and England was closer to 4-2 than Sweden on an equalizer. Sweden was out, but has been a good side in the tournament.

The two matches we had bought tickets for before the tournament were Denmark-Portugal and Sweden-England, and had originally planned to stay the last days in Kiev.
But on our way into the Sweden-England match we were approached by a young Canadian guy who offered us two tickets for the Germany-Denmark match in Lviv for 30 Euros a piece. Following the principle of not planning our trip, we immediately bought the tickets, and the next morning we had to go out on a mission to get train tickets back to Lviv, as well as a return to catch the flight we had from Kiev on the day after the match. Our luck did not leave us: we got the last tickets on the night train that same night, and return tickets on the new fast-train between Lviv on Kiev, arriving 3 hours before our flight.
And in Lviv, we again got a hotel room in the first place we walked into.
Not planning a trip is the best way of travelling.
The atmosphere in Lviv was if anything livelier than for the previous match, but this time the Danes were heavily outnumbered by a lot of German fans who in my view turned out to be some of the best fans I saw during this tournament. Friendly and with great songs, there was a slight feeling that Denmark had already been defeated before the match started.
Still, there were high hopes among the Danes knowing that the match also depended on the other match being played as the same time, Portugal-Netherlands, where the Dutch vice-World Champions had to win to avoid the total humiliation of exiting the tournament with three defeats.
I was surprised to see Germany play with controlled respect for the Danes, even after they went ahead on a goal by Lucas Podolski. But Denmark again fought back, and Michael Krohn-Dehli equalized for the excited Danish fans. In the meantime the Netherlands was leading Portugal, and Danes started singing happily. In the second half Denmark played fine, although too controlled as news came in that Portugal had equalized, since Denmark then needed a victory. There was not increased pressure, and instead, ten minutes before the end of the match, Lars Bender scored the winner for Germany.
In the meantime Portugal had scored a winner against the hopeless Dutch, and it was certain that Denmark would be out of the tournament together with the Netherlands.

It was of course a disappointment that Denmark was out, but in fact I think that Denmark did far better than I would have expected before the tournament.
And of course, it was a great experience to see these matches and experience the atmosphere of the tournament in a beautiful and friendly country such as Ukraine and with a great friend!

Monday, June 11, 2012

The first round of Euro 2012

We have now had the opportunity to watch every team play in the Euro 2012, and if I have to say anything, it is disappointment.  this start of Euro 2012 has been marked by a Europe in crisis: off the pitch we have had match-fixing, racism and politics, and we have already seen the first hooliganism. This seems to be what Europe is all about... Welcome to it Poland and Ukraine!
And on the pitch it has not been much better. While a tournament usually starts with a bit of nerve and fear (not to say the outward cowardice showed by teams such as England and France),I cannot help but compare what I have seen until now with the World Cup qualifers in South America I have been following lately, as I live in Venezuela.
In South America there is no doubt, that in spite of all of the problems, passion and creativity still dominate the matches on the pitch. Be sure that all teams will fight for the last point, and will use their utmost skills and creativity to score goals. Teams like Uruguay and Argentina are fully at the standard of the best in Europe, while Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and Ecuador surely have the quality to defeat almost any team in this year's Euro after the first round, and they are much more entertaining to watch.

In spite of me being delighted for Denmark, as football enthusiast I must admit that the Dutch lost to a clearly poorer Danish side, and that they had nothing to show when faced with adversity. Russia was good, in spite of playing a lousy Czech side, while Germany and Italy get acceptable marks for their performances, rising as the favourites of the tournament. Finally, that the best team in Europe, the world champions, chooses to play without a striker, is telling of a team that just wants to be playing a passing-catennaccio, instead of actually scoring goals. We are seeing too much defensive, careful football, with too few shots on goal, too many dives and cry-outs (sadly, I have started to think that players should keep playing when a player is lying crying on the pitch; they are usually up 20 seconds after the referee has stopped the play!!!! I would love to say they are like girls, but girls are more rough than the porcelain cry-babies we are seeing in this tournament!), as well as an apparent lack of pace (has it been a too long season for many players, then UEFA must do something about it) and generally poor technique.

I expect it to improve, but considering these things, I find it appalling that the next Euro 2016 is set to be with 24 teams. Pressure, quality and performance can only become worse by making a tournament which is just at its right size (if not too big). This may be the advantage of South America, where only 10 teams play all against all in the most competitive national team tournament in the world, with highst concentration of talented teams. In Europe, we are diluting the power of our football, and this is perhaps only a symptom of a Europe being diluted in general.

Summer football

The match between England and France had the atmosphere of a dentist´ waiting room. In a 1-1 match that had a very slow pace, it was an enormous disappointment to see an English team that did not want to do anything but defend, while France somehow wanted to win, but was without much creativity. This was more like a summer friendly match than the start of a great tournament!
Two great nations that live on their history, but who hardly deserve to be in the next round of the tournament, and I really hope Ukraine and Sweden (which ended 2-1 to the home side later) will dispatch these two sides, whose otherwise great fans seem to have become boring and without creativity as well.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mediterranean tie

It is seldom that I support Italy, mostly because I have always been critical of their historical and cynical catennaccio style. However, contrary to what many think, teams do change styles, and the Italy of coach Cesare Prandelli is not a team that plays that way.
On the other hand, I have also been critical of Spain, while admiring their technique and possession, I have always felt they do not shoot enough, and the fact that they are the team ever to win the world championship with least goals (which is amazing considering that there are more games today), shows that they are simply not direct enough.
So I was kind of divided today, just until the match started, and I found myself supporting an offensive and motivated Italian side against a Spanish side that started the tournament bordering the same arrogance with which they started the World Cup in 2010 (when the defeat against Switzerland I think in fact gave Spain such a warning, that this led them to win the tournament).
This is not the same Spain though: while they still miss striking power, more so after missing David Villa (Fernando Torres is worthless), they are seriously weakened by the absence of the best Spanish player of the decade, Carles Puyol.
Italy started well against Spain, and should have been ahead in the first half, with notably Mario Balotelli missing unforgivably. In the second half Spain pushed forward though, but only seemed truly to wake up after Antonio Di Natale (who had come in for Balotelli) brought Italy ahead on an excellent through ball.
What shows that this is not the same Italy as before is that their marking or defensive style did not make them pull back and effectively defend their lead. In the meantime Spain's equalizer, by Cesc Fabregas, was an example of how efficient Spain can actually be when their passing game works out.
Spain pushed forward for the winner with a couple of good chances for Italy on the counter-attack in what was, in the end, a great football match.
1-1 works out for both sides, who surely will take their next to games lightly, and will hopefully be punished for it. Still, I would rather see Italy in the next round than Spain.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Glorious(-ly lucky) Denmark!

I had planned my vacation from Venezuela so that I would arrive in Denmark to watch the first match of the Danish Dynamite against the mighty Dutch vice-champions of the world. It was with anticipation, but without expectation. In my view, for the Danes to defeat the Netherlands, with all its stars, is nearly impossible.
But that is the beauty of football: sometimes the impossible happens.
Denmark won 0-1 on a goal of Michael Krohn-Dehli. In spite of playing organised, with a strong defense and a good goalkeeper, nothing can take away from the game that Denmark also was lucky, with the many missed chances of the Dutch. To give the Danes a bit of credit, one must also say that the Dutch, towards the end, seemed to have lost faith that they could turn it around, and that kind of lack of confidence against a small team like Denmark, is what will cause the Netherlands not to win the Euro 2012.
Denmark will not win the Euro 2012 either, but this victory, no matter how it came, was fantastic in giving Danish fans hope, and that the so-called Group of Death has become not only deadly, but infernal!
Go Denmark!

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Uruguay's Venezuela complex?

Uruguay is one of the best footballing nations at the moment: semifinalist of the 2010 World Cup, winner of the 2011 Copa America, and currently ranked number 3 in the FIFA World rankings (behind Spain and Germany), they were looking to cement their lead in the South American World Cup qualifying group against Venezuela in Montevideo today.
Venezuela has been on the rise lately, and were number 2 in the qualifying group after some excellent initial results where they have, among others, defeated Argentina. And in fact, in spite of Uruguay's power, they have in fact had really bad results against Venezuela: not since 2001 has Uruguay defeated Venezuela, and in 2004, Venezuela gave one of the biggest humiliations Uruguay has ever had by defeating them 0-3 in Montevideo in another World Cup qualifier.
Still, I think most people expected Uruguay to win, and in the first half they indeed dominated and were leading 1-0 on a goal by the veteran Diego Forlan.
Although I live in Venezuela, I am not a big fan of the team, but like they played today, one must bow in respect: highly organized, disciplined and with a patience that seems to be their main characteristic, they slowly fight themselves into the match as Uruguay seemed to get more tired and comfortable. Some warnings had been given to the Uruguayan defense by some high balls into the Malaga striker Solomon Rondon, and it was indeed one such ball, in a perfectly timed counter-attack five minutes before the end, that Solomon Rondon scored the equalizer on a perfect header to the disappointment of the home fans.
This is a very important result for Venezuela, and although still early, it is looking more an more probable that they may qualify for their first World Cup ever (being the only South American side never to have gone to a World Cup).
I still think Uruguay will qualify, but this great footballing nation seems to have a problem with Venezuela.