Euro 2012: With Ferdinand Baggage and A Host of Question Marks, Group D Appears to Be France’s For the Taking
While the majority of soccer American soccer fans have been playing close attention to the USMNT preparations for qualifying with matches against Scotland, Brazil, and Canada, there are (obviously) other major footballing events about to take place across the pond. Of course I am referring to the 2012 UEFA Euro Cup that will be held in Poland and the Ukraine over the next month. Certainly, this event is not World Cup, but continental championships carry with them a drama and prestige all their own. To that end, we here at TYAC wanted to give our readers a brief rundown of the teams competing in the Group stages. Here is my rundown of Group D, which features an England squad mired in controversy and disarray, with commentary on the state of the other three squads, my pick for the defining match of the group, as well as who will make it into the quarter finals.
Group D Members: England, France, Sweden, Ukraine
While many American sports fans may not agree, it can be argued that being the manager of the English National Football Team is the most stressful and unforgiving job in all of sports. English supporters are a special breed. Going into each international tournament fans and commentators alike repeat the same tired platitudes about how this year will be different, regardless of the fact that on paper, their squad does not warrant such optimism. Predictably, the team fails to reach the publics unwarranted expectations, and the manager is lambasted in the tabloids for not making the proper team selections, in game decisions, etc. It is against this backdrop that Roy Hodgson leads the Three Lions into Eastern Europe with just over a month on the job.
Expectations combined with a lack of proper preparation time would make any manager’s job difficult, but the growth of the injury list over the last two weeks reads like a tragic comedy. Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, and now Gary Cahill will miss the tournament because of injury. Papers are also reporting that former captain and yes, European champion, John Terry, is battling injury and time to get fit. Let’s also not forget the loss of Wayne Rooney for the first two games of group play as a result of this temper tantrum in the final stage of qualifying. Most countries would fall into the fetal position and admit defeat under these circumstances, but the English will still manage to put a competitive side out on the pitch. The first major question that needs to be answered is, who will play next to Scott Parker? James Milner might be able to give it a shot, but he has also looked more comfortable operating on the flanks. The logical fill in appears to be Stewart Downing, but Hodgson may be crazy enough to put his hopes in the 18 year old legs of the talented, but untested Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The second major concern is who will score goals in the opening games with Rooney on the bench? Danny Welbeck had an excellent season with Manchester United, but he certainly benefited from having Rooney draw the attention of the opposition’s defense. Andy Carroll has been a shell of his former self since his $50 million pound transfer to Liverpool, and Jermain Defoe has been the definition of erratic for the last two years. The only thing the English should feel confident about going into Group play is their goalkeeper, Joe Hart, who had a career year leading the Blue Side a Manchester to their first league title in four decades. If it were me, I’d prefer Jermaine Defoe, because from a technical standpoint he’s the only pure goal scorer the Three Lions have in terms of his ability to attack directly and centrally. But this is just the beginning of the English question marks.
Making matters even worse, there have to be legitimate questions about the cohesion of the team, and not just because Roy Hodgson has had so little time to establish his personality in the dressing room. The omission of Rio Ferdinand is a headscratcher of the worst sort– an omission having absolutely nothing to do with football and everything to do with insulating John Terry from a strong personality who isn’t altogether pleased with Terry’s general life view. That’s a nice way of saying that Hodgson is protecting an accused racist from a leader whose commitment to country, community and equality is unparalleled in English football. (And keep in mind, as a Manchester City supporter, that’s not the easiest sentence to write).
Henry Winter brilliantly examines the Ferdinand decision here, but the main takeaway has to be that England has a cohesion problem, and they’re protecting the bad guy instead. That’s a deep irony given former international Sol Campbell’s comments on prevalent racism being a reason that Poland and Ukraine shouldn’t be hosting this tournament in the first place. Campbell says it is unfair to the families of England’s black players to have to face potential hate in the host countries. Fair enough, Sol. But why be silent on why it’s okay for the players themselves to have to face potential hatemongering on the pitch? If that makes you uncomfortable, imagine how Roy Hodgson feels, trying to navigate those murky waters. It all just smells like disaster.
Both French fans and players have been looking forward to this tournament from the moment they were eliminated from the World Cup two years ago. The French performance in South Africa was the textbook definition of embarrassment. Star players refusing to play, a manager have a nervous breakdown in a press conference, a physical confrontation between a player and trainer, all while securing only one point in three games. The French performance was so horrendous they only finished above tournament doormats Cameroon and North Korea while being even on points with Honduras.
With the Raymond Domenech tenure firmly in the rear view, new manager Laurent Blanc has the squad at the top of its game. Coming into the tournament, the French were dominant, putting together a 20 game unbeaten streak. The French have plenty of creative goal scoring options to choose from including Florent Malouda, Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, and the unfortunate looking Franck Ribery, who just ended a long goal scoring drought for the national team. While attacking options will be easy to come by for Blanc, the French are incredibly thin on the back line, especially after the withdraw of Bacary Sagna at right back and the ankle injury to midfield powerhouse Yann M’Vila. Any more injuries on the defensive side of the ball could be disastrous for a French side that will be looking to do some damage the month. Still, there is enough here to make the French a dark horse for the entire tournament, and its hard to imagine France playing poorly for the third consecutive international competition. And the French know it too– Karim Benzema said this week that France have a “special opportunity”, given the English injury list.
Traditionally Sweden has been seen as a hard working defensive side that is hard to break down. After baiting their opponents to press higher and higher up the pitch, the Swedes would launch a devastating counter attack and take control of the match. This defend and counter strategy often left world class striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic on an island completely unable to create space and scoring chances. Realizing this, new manager Erik Hamren has tossed this strategy completely out the window, adopting a far more offensive style of play. Two changes have turned this formerly defensive side into a formidable attacking force. First, Hamren encourages his wing backs to join the attack with much more regularity then before. These overlapping runs create both width and confusion for the opposing defense. Secondly, Ibra has been moved from a lone striker back deeper into the hole. This gives him more freedom to pick up the ball in the midfield and create havoc when running at the center backs. This formation really benefits Johan Elmander, who will likely be on the receiving end of opportunities created by Ibra. If these two goal scoring threats bring their A game, the Swedish could cause come serious trouble in the Group stages and beyond.
On a side note, the Sweeds received a great deal of luck when the match draw was announced. The team will play all three of their group matches in the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, and will not need to travel for any match, as they are training nearby.
The Ukrainian roster is essentially an All-Star team of the Ukrainian Premier League, with only two members playing outside the domestic league. This leaves a the team itself surrounded in a little bit of mystery considering that most fans don’t watch a lot of Ukrainian Premier League action in their spare time. Complicating matters is the lack of matches the team has seen in the led up to the tournament itself. The most recent results include a 4-0 romping of Estonia, and a 3-2 loss to Austria. While the Ukrainians looked impressive in both matches, neither opponent represents the quality they will see when the competition gets started. Manager Oleh Blokin brought in over 40 different players throughout training before choosing his final squad that is completely devoid of any international star power. Blokin is hoping that playing on home soil with national support will propel his team a couple shocking, but incredibly unlikely results.
Ukraine might contend for second, on the home advantage alone– and recent international tournaments teach us that even horrific sides can be urged on by the great home crowds– but with England, France and Sweden all in this group, the task may be too tall. Look for them to play well, earn a draw they shouldn’t, and maybe win a game, but come up just short.
KEY GAME: England vs Sweden
This match will define how Group D plays out. France has the fire power and defensive organization to win Group D outright, and will likely come away with 7-9 points. A place in the quarter finals will be determined when England and Sweden go head to head in the second match for both teams. Without Wayne Rooney on the pitch, the English will struggle to score goals, while the loss of Gary Cahill may prove to be devastating. A loss will most likely eliminate England from the tournament, while a draw could make their final match against Ukraine all about goal differential.
France wins Group D while Sweden finishes second as a depleted English team does not have enough in the tank to move on. The host nation gives it their all, but the lack of talent compared to the other nations proves too much for them to overcome.
Puck is the Pop Culture Guy for The Yanks Are Coming. An avid Manchester City fan, he just experienced the greatest spring of his life. You can follow him on Twitter at @PuckLovesPBR.
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