Friday, 8 June 2012

EURO 2012: Our Friends In The East

Si's Insights looks at England's chances this summer, and predicts the overall tournament winners

International football competitions and The Olympic Games have a lot in common. They always take place in even-numbered years and they always bring fears of debt and over-commercialism. But they also bring a sense of togetherness and warmth to countless countries and communities, not to mention numerous iconic moments. It's what makes them worth looking forward to, every single time.

Yes, every single time! Even when our famous friends in the east, those white shirted "lion hearts", don't qualify. Now, before I begin, let me assure you all that I really have nothing against the English (except when they play the two Ireland teams!) - in fact, I've even enjoyed cheering them on.

I remember being in England during Euro 2004, and getting completely caught up in the hoopla surrounding every single match. I still believe that the tournament was England's best chance of winning an international competition in the last decade; it was the last time England generally gave us something to get excited about. Everyone remembers how a then not-so-well-known eighteen-year-old took the world by storm, but what really stood out for me was the midfield. David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Paul Scholes. Four genuinely gifted - even outstanding - individuals in their own right. Unfortunately, they never quite clicked as a unit, and we were robbed of the chance to see three of them at their peak in 2002 (Beckham and Gerrard's injuries made sure of that).

But what memories they conjured up. Even now, I still marvel at the passing and vision of Beckham, Gerrard and Scholes during that 5-1 win in Munich (above), or the spirit Lampard showed in his first major tournament in 2004, culminating in three goals. Such moments, alas, have defined England as a "team of frustration" - for every dazzling moment (like Joe Cole's stunning goal against Sweden in '06), there's many equally infuriating ones (like everything else in that tournament).

It's a different story today. With the rather modest Roy Hodgson in the hot seat following "Don Fabio" and his spectacular failure of 2010, expectations are significantly lower. More than that, injuries to Lampard and Gareth Barry have left England almost as thin in the centre of the park as the Irish. I say "almost", because I must grudgingly admit that England's squad is technically better than ours. But, also like Ireland, there are a series of players in this England team determined to make their mark - and that could see them progress further than they think.

I personally think that Joe Hart and Phil Jones - if the latter is given a chance - are likely to impress, with Gary Cahill's unfortunate injury giving Jones the opportunity to succeed in his natural position.* I'm also looking forward to seeing Theo Walcott and Ashley Young take on elite international defences on a consistent basis. Their pace - and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's, if Hodgson allows it - could give England a new dimension altogether, one that will help to take the pressure off an ageing Gerrard. I've a sneaking feeling too that Andy Carroll - a slightly controversial selection ahead of Peter Crouch - might surprise us. And who would bet against Wayne Rooney doing a "Paolo Rossi" and returning from suspension to top-score the team to victory? Let's face it, he owes the England fans one after two goalless and mediocre World Cups.

I don't think an England victory will happen though, and not just because they could end up meeting Ireland in the quarters. No, my logic tells me that a quarter-final place is probably the best that England and Ireland can hope for. A semi-final four of Holland, Spain, Germany and France is difficult to overlook at this stage, with German exuberance getting the better of a declining Spanish side. I maintain that Joachim Loew has never gotten anywhere near the amount of accolades he deserves for what he has done - in the last three major tournaments, Germany have established themselves as a multicultural, vibrant and attacking team, an accomplished and entertaining side that have only been denied the ultimate prize by the eventual winners. And with Spain's defence not as solid as it was four years ago, and goal machine David Villa on the treatment table, is there really a better time for them than now?

I'll return on June 12 to discuss the first set of matches. In the meantime.... enjoy the games!

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*Imagine - England could have a Terry-Jones defence! But will it be as sharp as Monty Python's comedy?

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