Saturday, 16 June 2012

EURO 2012: Still Without Us, The Show Goes On...

Si's Insights evaluates Ireland's early exit from the tournament, reviews England's chances and predicts who will reach the quarter-finals of Euro 2012

We're Dunne for...

We dreamed of something along the lines of the first half of Big Jack's reign - a team that, even though it wasn't the most attractive to watch, was hard to beat and would do us proud.

What we got instead was something resembling the very end of Big Jack's reign - a demotivated, ageing, unfit team that leaked goals like a sieve, and was lucky not to be beaten by more goals in the most important match of all. A tactician that was once respected became wrongheaded.

Let's cut to the chase - it was a hiding. No threat up front, second best in midfield by a *long* shot, feeble at the back. Our key players looked either unfit or very, very old. In football years, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane looked fossilised. The pace and vitality that once served both players so well has gone. Richard Dunne and Shay Given were clearly below par, the occasional impressive tackle or world-class save failing to mask that they'd conceded seven in two games. More passion and organisation, drained out of the team in both matches thanks to the concession of early goals, would have prevented Croatia and Spain from scoring as easily as they did.

In fact, the word "easy" says it all. The "Murder on Gdansk floor", as the Irish Daily Mirror called it, was an utter embarrassment. Spain won at a canter. They always looked like they had something more in the tank, and you wonder just how much more humiliating it could have been had David Villa been fit enough to play in the tournament. The trick with Spain is to not allow them to dictate, or to defend well enough in the face of their dictation; and we did neither. It was painful to watch, a collapse in the face of awe.

At least we've the best fans in the world...

To be frank, I know exactly how other Irish fans feel; the current Ireland set-up have as much attacking flair as Strachan's Middlesbrough teams. And, like Strachan's Boro, what flair they do have rarely gets to express itself under a questionable tactician who's never really connected with the fans.

Euro 2012 has been a highly enjoyable tournament, full of offensive play and a "never give up" mentality which even the dour Greeks and disappointing Dutch have adopted. Trap's defensive strategy clearly needed to be changed, if only slightly, to fit the competition around him. But he never read the script. When James McClean did get onto the pitch, the game was already over.

But perhaps a little perspective is called for.

When we qualified for Euro 88, and later, Italia 90, the mere idea of reaching a major finals was both novel and enthralling. And, for the most part, all was well! The football wasn't the greatest, of course, but it was undeniably wonderful to see both the Irish team and the Irish fans make such a mark on the world stage.

Then came raised expectations and steadily diminishing returns. By the time we'd reached Euro 2012, everyone on these shores wanted to believe that our pluck and organisation (neither of which we've shown a lot of this summer) would get us out of the group. After all, with the exception of Euro 88, it's always worked before.

But these are very different times. The methods that worked so well under Big Jack are either too well-known or antiquated. Moreover, our qualifying group wasn't difficult enough; apart from Russia, we never needed to face a single legitimate contender for these championships. The days when we were good enough to eliminate the likes of Holland and Denmark seem long gone.

Then again, if we can somehow eliminate the Italians I might change my mind...

* * * * *

By contrast, our neighbours across the Irish Sea all have massive (and some might say, unbearable) smiles on their faces at this moment in time. And despite some comical defending against the Swedes, they have every reason to be pleased.

For the first time in a long while, England are looking like a very good collective unit. Too often in the past, it's all been about relying on the likes of Scholes, Beckham, Owen, Gerrard and of course Rooney to lift the team by the scruff of the neck and carry them to victory. But this particular team really look like they understand one another, no matter who plays. They seem pretty tight defensively (okay, with the exception of twenty minutes of madness against Sweden) and highly effective both at set-pieces (see: Lescott and Walcott's goals) and on the break (look at Welbeck's goal). Moreover, in Roy Hodgson they have a manager who genuinely seems to know what he's doing. He's installed a cup competition mentality in England similar to that of his Fulham side in the Europa League. That is to say, his team are not afraid of anyone. If they eradicate the sloppiness, and record a convincing victory over Ukraine, then who knows?

Question marks, of course, still lie over Gerrard and Parker and whether they've got the legs to last a full tournament. Also, I somehow doubt Wayne Rooney will be very pleased. Had England drawn or lost against Sweden, the stage really would have been set for him to do a "Paolo Rossi" and inspire the team to a highly unlikely triumph. Now, the question is: where is he going to fit in?

* * * * *

Group A...  Full credit is due to the Czech Republic for playing like they needed a win against Greece, even if neither them nor Greece would have gone out had it been a draw. The Czechs may yet regret not adding to their goal tally if it all comes down to goal difference, however. Especially since, despite appearing more organised against Poland, Russia had a sense of flattering to deceive about them. I feel they will rue not burying the co-hosts when they had the chance, though the Poles deserve respect for the way they battled back. However, the way both sides seemed to settle for a point near the end was sort of worrying - it's left the group ridiculously open, to the point where absolutely anyone, even the so called "nothing sides" - the defensive Greece and class-starved Czechs - can top it. I said before the tournament that this well-balanced group would be hard to predict, but this is something else. It has reached the stage where all four of the teams can go into their matches knowing that if they win, it will be enough to take them through. Logic tells me that the class of the Russians and the home advantage of the Poles will prevail.

Verdict: 1st Russia, 2nd Poland

Group B... The Germans have established themselves as everyone’s favourites for the tournament, and rightly so. Unfazed by high expectations, they are a joy to watch, a fluent, free-flowing side with a marvellously creative midfield – Ozil, Muller, Schweinsteiger and Khedira – and an in-form striker in Mario Gomez. Like France in the 1990’s, they have thrived through multiculturalism.

But their passage into the quarter-finals is not so clear-cut. Three teams can finish on six points in Group B.  And Denmark know that a draw might not be enough, so things could get very interesting indeed. Add that the Danes have already surprised us by beating Holland and running Portugal all the way, and anything’s possible. Meanwhile – and this is where it gets even more interesting – the disappointing Dutch still have a lifeline. Despite everything, a two goal win over Portugal and a German victory over the Danes will still be enough to take Holland through with the Germans. But with Portugal, barring Ronaldo, starting to show something resembling their true class, and with Denmark as spirited and organised as they are, is this really likely?

Verdict: 1st Germany, 2nd Portugal

Group C... Am I the only one who thinks that the current Italian set-up really lacks something? The way I see it, if you have to rely on temperamental strikers like “Super” Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano, you’re in trouble. More worryingly for Italy, their fate could be out of their hands – a 2-2 (or higher scoring) draw between Spain and Croatia will be enough to put them out whether they beat the Irish or not. And, funnily enough, even if we don’t buck up and put the Azzurri out of their misery, I think that might just happen anyway. The Spanish and Croats have shown themselves to be the classiest teams in the group. Still, I expect a better showing from the lads in their final match whatever happens, and hence it should be “Arrivederci Italia” on Monday night.

Verdict: 1st Spain, 2nd Croatia

Group D... Poor Ukraine. As much as I wanted them to make a game of it against France, rain or no rain, they didn’t have the players to do so. Even so, they can still qualify by beating the Three Lions, and despite my positive comments about the English, this is entirely possible! (That’s England for you.) On the other hand, there’s the possibility that Shevchenko’s double is as good as it will get for Ukraine... and the return of Rooney, not to mention the grounded presence of Hodgson, should inspire England to get the job done.

Verdict: 1st France, 2nd England

I’ll be back next Wednesday to preview the quarter-finals, and find out how correct my predictions were. In the meantime...

Enjoy the games!

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