Friday, June 06, 2008

Euro 2008: preview

So Euro 2008 finally starts in less than 12 hours yet I am still not that keen on the tournament, the first time I am not looking forward to a major soccer tournament since I started following the game prior to the 1990 World Cup. I even held a personal Euro 2008 film festival a few months ago to help kick things off but two major reasons are still making me wary of the games.
  • The dull games in the 2002 & 2006 World Cup + an awful Euro 2004

  • The mediocre European soccer season that ended in May 2008

  • 3 dull tournaments:
    The 2002 World Cup has to be worst soccer tournament I have ever seen. Awful games, un-interested/tired players, negative tactics and amateur officiating all made for a painful month of soccer. Euro 2004 was no better when an average Greek team won the tournament despite not having any dribblers on their team or players with even the basic technical skills required in top flight football. The 2006 World Cup had very few good moments with the best memory being Italy fielding 4 strikers in extra-time against the hosts Germany in an exciting semi-final. Italy were not great in all their games but they were still the better team and deserved their title.

    One negative aspects in the last few years has been the emergence of defensive tactics in the game. The most common form is 4-5-1, with 4 defenders, 5 midfielders and a lone striker. On top of that, one of the 5 midfielders actually sits in front of the 4 man defense resulting in sometimes 5 defenders and the lone striker dropping back in midfield. Jose Mourinho perfected this at Chelsea and Rafa Benitez used this often at Liverpool. As a result, the games became chess matches with players waiting for their opponents to make a mistake and capitalizing on any slip-ups. The brilliant writer Eduardo Galeano put this perfectly in his summary for the 2006 World Cup:
    The results rewarded what is now called practical sense: high defensive walls and way up front a lone scorer, imploring God for a favor. As is usually the case in football and life, he who plays best loses while he who plays not to lose wins.

    Galeano goes on to add: In professional football, the kind on television, there is little joy to be seen. We seem condemned to nostalgia for the old days when there were five forwards, and to the sad recognition that now there is just one. And at the rate we are going, not even he will remain: one day there will be only defenders.

    And that is precisely what Greece did in Euro 2004: they played with 10 defenders. It is true they played themselves into the ground and were organized, but it does require less skill to break up an opponent's play as opposed to constructing an offensive plan. No wonder the defensive tactics are finding favour in teams which do not possess talented players but it is a criminal when teams such as Chelsea and Liverpool play defensive football despite having some of the best players in the world on their teams. Ofcourse, if winning is the only thing that matters at any cost, then the game's beauty will be sacrificed.

    The average 2007/08 European season:

    Feb 23, 2008. The day that beautiful soccer died. 3 minutes in the league game between Birmingham and Arsenal, the inept defender Martin Taylor goes in with a kick aimed to hurt Arsenal's talented Eduardo. Taylor accomplished his goal and broke Eduardo's leg in two spots. While sympathies poured in for Eduardo, it was shocking to see the number of people who jumped to Taylor's defense. Taylor was described as a "nice guy" and his tackle was deemed "not that bad". In fact, people were quick to point out that such tackles were common place in the Premier League and one should not make too much of it. But no one wanted to discuss why these tackles were common place in the Premier League. No one wanted to talk about the lack of skilful players and how average teams resorted to brutal kicking and fouling to stop attacking players and teams.

    That injury to Eduardo derailed Arsenal's season. Prior to that game, Arsenal put on displays of beautiful soccer for the good part of 6 months. But after the Birmingham game, Arsenal only managed two wonderful games against AC Milan in the Champions League; in the remaining games they appeared shocked and unable to cope mentally (the exception being the 3-2 win at Bolton) in the last few months and gave up both titles. Man Utd eventually won the English league but with the exception of Ronaldo, they were an average team for most of the season. Sure they knew how to grind results out but that's all they did. Chelsea continued to play in the Jose manner -- dull, boring but effective football. Liverpool rode their luck in the Champions league until lady luck turned their back on them in the semi's.

    The presence of 3 English teams in the semi's of the Champions League contributed to a dull finale to the European season. On top of that, Barcelona were a pale shadow of their former self and never woke up during the season. Madrid won the Spanish league title but they were inconsistent throughout the year, while Inter were their dull self, Milan were slow and un-interested despite the efforts of Kaka and Pato, Lyon failed to improve in Europe despite winning a 7th straight league title and their first league-cup double. Bayern Munich won 2 of the three trophies they were expected to win but they failed miserably in the UEFA Cup where the Russian team Zenit St. Petersburg surprized everyone and deservedly won the cup.

    Will Euro 2008 be an improvement?

    I am just hoping for some good games. My expectations are quite low but I wish I am proved wrong.

    Group A: Switzerland, Czech Republic, Portugal, Turkey

    Predictions: Portugal and Turkey should get through this group. But I don't expect Ronaldo to star for Portugal. Their best hope might be in Quaresma. It is shocking that Portugal do not have a talented striker and have to rely on their wingers to get them results.

    The Czech Republic were strong at one point but the loss of Rosicky is a big blow and they will struggle for creativity.

    Group B: Austria, Croatia, Germany, Poland

    Predictions: Germany and Croatia to advance. Germany got the easy group they wanted and despite missing Eduardo, Croatia should squeeze through. Austria appear to be doomed.

    Group C: Holland, Italy, Romania, France

    Predictions: Italy should advance despite missing their captain Cannavaro with France to follow.

    With the absence of Cannavaro, Totti or Maldini, Italy have no real leaders in the team. This might work to their advantage as the team might play as a unit.

    I really wonder where the goals will come for France. On top of that I have very little faith in Raymond Domenech. He still seems unable to understand how to tactically arrange his team. Plus I am not sure whey left out Sagna and Clichy from the team. Even though Sagna was injured near the end of Arsenal's season, he should have been given a chance to prove his fitness.

    Holland will self-destruct again, on their own. Their worst enemies are themselves.

    Romania are a good technical team but despite whatever Contra and Mutu can muster, they might fall short.

    Group D: Greece, Sweden, Spain, Russia

    Predictions: Spain and Sweden to advance.

    Spain should advance easily but I am not convinced they will do as good as the odds they are being given (Spain are the bookies second favourite to win the tournament after Germany). After Spain, both Sweden and Russia stand an equal chance of advancing. The one concern for Russia is that one of their best players, Andrei Arshavin, will miss the first two games through suspension.

    Overall winner:
    I feel Italy will win the tournament and defeat Germany in the final.

    The four expected semi-finalists: Portugal, Germany, Italy and France.


    Pacze Moj said...

    I didn't think it was quite that unexciting.

    The English and Italian leagues came down to the last day, and both all-English affairs in the Champions League (Semi-Final & Final) were good, dramatic games.

    But that's a good point about football in general being so boring that the tabloids have to rely on history to add excitement. Perhaps it's also telling that they can't rely so much on football history as actual history. Int'l footie's been a bit poor for a while.

    Goalcentre said...

    World Cup 2002 serve as a surprised tournament to many. Imagine what South Korea did to Portugal, Spain and Italy. ^^

    Nonetheless, international football is not as precise as league soccer as the players don't really train together that much. So at times, they might be doing silly and simple errors while playing for the national team.

    Anyhow, i hope the Dutch win this time around. :)

    Sachin said...

    Even though I am not Dutch, I feel really bad for their 1974 & 1978 World Cup losses. So I keep hoping that one day the Dutch win by playing some of that great total football but despite having so much talent, Holland find ways to make lives difficult for themselves. Still I hope I am proved wrong and they turn in some great performances :)