The Good, The Bad, and Pogatetz

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I suppose it was probably too much to expect another capricious evening of confusion and disarray, and it was certainly too much to expect Austria to keep their hopes alive by shocking their illustrious neighbours. The Austrians, as the saying doesn’t really go, couldn’t score in a house of ill repute. As Alan Hansen put it: “If the Austrians had sat back and played on the break, they wouldn’t have scored. If they’d played all out attack, they wouldn’t have scored. If the Germans had left the field for 10 minutes and had a cup of tea, the Austrians still wouldn’t have scored”.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of not only this match, but of Austria’s entire Euro 2008 adventure. Apart from making a sluggish start in the first half against Croatia, Austria played with passion, creativity, organisation, and will to win. Unfortunately none of these guarantee you goals. It must have been incredibly frustrating for Austria watching the Germans create absolutely nothing for Podolski and Klose, they must have wanted to ask the Germans if they could borrow one of them for five minutes, seeing as they weren’t using them.

Knowing the Austrians luck, if the Germans had agreed to lend them a striker, they would have got Mario Gomez, who unfortunately would fit seamlessly in to the current Austrian set-up. The only clearcut chance created by Germany all night fell to Gomez inside the first three minutes, and he robbed the Greeks of a title they seemed nailed-on for by achieving the miss of the tournament so far, failing to tap-in to an empty net from four yards out with no defender in sight.

The rest of the match set into a pattern, Austria got the ball efficiently to their wingers, who consistently got past their full-backs and put in dangerous crosses. To absolutely no-one. The Germans, who only needed a point, could barely be bothered as it became quite clear a draw was near-enough guaranteed. When your captain is as model a professional as Michael Ballack however, nothing gets left to chance, and he stepped up early in the second half to rocket in the tournament’s first successful free kick.

That was that, and there really was no suggestion that it was going to change, but whilst the outcome was predictable, the evening was not without its interesting diversions. Firstly there was the Austrian players accommodation of their German guests. At face value the game didn’t appear dirty, and yet there were several strange incidents of the TV director suddenly cutting to a shot, usually some yards away from the ball, of a mysteriously flattened German. Time and again the referee was distracted from the play, and would suddenly arrive on the scene wearing a puzzled expression, as he found an injured German player, and no red shirt within 10 yards of him. The whole thing was mystifying, I can’t possibly speculate on what brought these episodes about.

Could it be that the two managers were debating this point when they suddenly decided to launch into a bout of touchline handbags, for which they were both despatched to the stand. Once the referee had intervened, the two managers became united in their disdain for the offical instead, and bonded like two cell-ins about to start a five-stretch together. On reaching the stand, Joachim Low managed to bump into his Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and looked as though he may take a seat beside her. Moments later, Low had found an alternative seat beside Oliver Bierhoff, perhaps having realised that the country’s leader might not have been the ideal companion had the match not gone Germany’s way.

Also adding a touch of the irregular to this game was Austrian defender Emanuel Pogatetz, who gives one the impression that he may not be of this world. He looks like the madman on the bus that you pray doesn’t sit next to you, terrifyingly wide-eyed and unstable. Pogatetz of course plays for Middlesbrough, and when you study his erratic behaviour along with that of Turkey’s Tuncay, you do have to worry about the effect the town’s infamous fumes are having on non-natives of Teesside.

Pogatetz at one stage picked up the ball and attempted to take a bite out of it. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was an attacker that is one opponent I would be giving a wide berth. Personally, I would be perfectly comfortable with any accusations of lying too deep, “Sorry boss, I am doing my best to get further forward but you see the thing is there’s a serial killer at centre-back, and I have a family”. Maybe Pogatetz was so fed up at being part of Austria’s hopeless campaign that he’d asked the manager to sub him and been refused, so now thought summoning the men in white coats represented his best chance of escape.

As I said, predictable but not uneventful. The Germans were presumably more than a little nervous at the potential humiliation of losing this one, which perhaps explains why they weren’t exactly fully committed, but with Portugal now looming the Germans aren’t exactly taking with them an abundance of confidence or momentum from this group.

Croatia on the other hand are flying. Having already secured the group, they made nine changes to the side that beat Germany but, unlike Portugal on Monday, Croatia appeared to have used the tactic to their own advantage. Instead of looking like players sent out to make a token gesture in a meaningless match, the Croat reserves had the look of a side motivated to prove themselves worthy of a place in the side and to play their part in a genuine team effort. Or maybe it’s just that Croatia’s reserves are much more capable than Portugal’s, who knows?

Whatever the reason, Croatia very impressively disposed of Poland with a 1-0 win that should have been many more, and completed a perfect group programme. Their goalscorer Ivan Klasnic, still wearing protection after a kidney transplant just last year, could have had a hat-trick on the night but for more heroics from the goalkeeper of the tournament, and the only Pole to cover himself in anything like glory at Euro 2008, Celtic’s Artur Boruc. In the end the striker had to settle just for scoring the winner. Klasnic’s story of triumph over adversity sums up the mentality of the whole Croatian team, who are showing an extraordinary unity which is threatening to overcome both the perceived gulf in class between them and their more famous rivals, and the loss of their best striker, Eduardo Da Silva.

The Croatian celebrations at the final whistle once again revealed the togetherness of their squad, and the respect they have for their coach, Slaven Bilic, who looks by far and away the strongest leader at this tournament. The entire squad took a lap of honour, just as they had against Germany, and every individual player seemed keen to embrace Bilic, and he to reciprocate. Croatia now have more confidence and momentum than any team besides Holland, but the difference between their soaring team spirit and the ever-fragile Dutch squad is cavernous.

With their next test being a quarter-final against the gritty Turks on friday, Croatia will now be favourites to reach the semi-finals, which is a stage they have never yet breached. If they make it, they are almost certain to be amongst those to whom lifting trophies is the norm, and it is then we will then find out if their squad possesses the one quality we can’t yet be sure about – belief.

It was generally another excellent night for the BBC, with Martin O’Neill and Alan Hansen in sparkling form, particularly during the half-time interval. When asked about the incident involving the German and Austrian managers, O’Neill dismissively replied “Well I don’t blame them for taking no notice of the 4th official, they’re always wrong”.

As the second half approached, Gary Lineker attempted to take back the reins ready for his handover to the commentary team, but was ignored completely by O’Neill and Hansen who preceded to lean over Alan Shearer and conduct their own in-depth discussion on the German second-half tactics. It’s little moments of lost control like this that O’Neill provides, and that makes the BBC coverage so much more entertaining than ITV’s joyless efforts.

The beeb boys did however let themselves down, right at the end of the show as they were looking ahead to tonight’s Group C conclusion. Hansen and O’Neill were almost wetting themselves at the prospect of France v Italy! O’Neill even made the astonishingly misguided observation that ‘The tournament starts tomorrow’. What? Are we ever going to get away from this boot-licking of the football aristocracy? Anyway, could someone please explain to me what they were getting so excited about? Italy v France will be a dead-rubber, and a guaranteed bore-fest of all time, should Romania score an early goal, and they both realise they’re going home.

The truth is, the clue to this evening lies within the following statement: For the final round of Group C to deliver any excitement, it is reliant on the spirit of fair play being invoked to the full – by the Dutch.

I shall say no more.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group B, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

You Asked For It (Part 2)

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Another day, another team who think disorganisation and panic are vital ingredients in defending a lead. Not that I’m complaining, as the culprits in question this time contributed to one the most astonishing games seen at this or any other championship.

More viewers will inevitably tune in to the final, or semi-finals, but what they don’t understand is that it is the final round of group matches which provide the truly unmissable fayre at a tournament. Mind you, this group had the potential to peter out timidly; one game was a dead rubber with Portugal already through and the Swiss already out, which meant it was left to Czech Republic and Turkey as the only ones in a position to provide drama. They didn’t disappoint.

With Euro 2008 already being touted as one of the greatest football tournaments ever, two more unfashionable sides raised the bar by several more notches. UEFA had already offered the match the possibility of breaking new ground, by declaring that a penalty-shoot out would settle a draw at ninety minutes, with the two sides having identical records after the first two games. In the end it wasn’t necessary, and the tension created in the final 15 minutes surpassed anything that the penalties could have thrown up.

The Czechs dominated the first half to such an extent that it must have been worrying to end it only one goal up. They got their direct game based around the giant Jan Koller working to far greater effect than they had against the Swiss in their opening match, and Turkey couldn’t cope. A traditional British style of play was employed (is it always us who must learn from the Europeans?), and was thoroughly enjoyable to watch, with the ball being played forwards with urgency to two wingers attacking at pace, who regularly got behind the full-backs before delivering crosses for a big target. And those crosses, they kept coming in, causing difficulty almost every time, and Koller inevitably got his head to one to register his 55th international goal.

Turkey, who had virtually surrendered all possession in the first period, had to make a change and they did. Tuncay was moved in from the wing to play in the centre of midfield and ran himself into the ground in order to get the Turks back into the game. It initially worked, as Turkey began to apply pressure, but then they were caught by a Czech break which resulted in a second for Jaroslav Plasil. The Turks on the touchline raged that they had not been allowed to make a substitution with one of their defenders clearly injured, but the ball hadn’t gone out of play in order to allow this to take place.

ITV’s Jon Champion, like the rest of us, thought that this would be the signal for Turkish meltdown. On previous evidence it’s difficult to argue that this did seem the most likely outcome, especially with the disappointment at going two down exacerbated by the injustice they felt about the second Czech goal. The final half an hour might easily have seen Turkey end the game without their full compliment. As it turned out, that’s exactly what happened, but by the time it did Champion, and all of us, owed the Turks an apology.

The Czechs came within inches of burying the match when Jan Polak smacked one against the post, but Turkey survived that, then launched a quite staggering comeback. The inspiration for this was the much-maligned (especially by me) Tuncay, who ran and ran and ran some more, and set a magnificent example to any fragile temperaments there may have been amongst his colleagues. His endeavour embodied a never-say-die attitude that began to rub off amongst his team mates, and was encapsulated when he ran twice across the pitch to receive a replacement linesman’s flag, and deliver it to the official who had managed to break the original.

Still two down with a quarter of an hour left, the Turks were piling everyone forward. It was by this time that the Czechs had made the fatal error of retreating to the edge of their own box, guaranteeing that they would only the final period one way – under intense pressure. Turkey finally broke through thanks to a smart finish by Turan, and the Czechs knew they were hanging on for dear life. They made it to within three minutes of the ninety ending before Petr Cech made surely the biggest howler of his career, though by no means his first of the season, and handed an equaliser to Turkish captain Nihat on a big shiny solid silver plate. Bedlam ensued at the Turkish end of the ground, and on the bench, as they celebrated a well earned shot at a place in the quarters via a penalty shoot-out.

The drama, however, had barely started. The predicted Turkish indiscipline had not materialised, but there was now plenty of it from the Czechs, who lost their way completely. The next Turkish attack resulted in a shambolic Czech defensive line being comfortably breached by that man Nihat, who stunned everyone with a majestic curling finish off the underside of the bar. The bewildered Czechs, who had taken off their wingers and now had no attacking shape whatsoever, attempted to launch a response, and Milan Baros inevitably began to strip off but amongst the mayhem never actually made it onto the pitch.

Four minutes of injury time were signalled almost immediately after the third Turkish goal, but these were barely underway when suddenly curtailed by yet more craziness. A disbelieving crowd saw Turk goalkeeper Volkan Demirel make a valiant attempt to secure himself a chance of saving some penalties after all, by first flying out of his goal to flap at a ball, leaving an empty net which the Czechs failed to find, then following it up by shoving Koller to the ground in full view of the referee who dismissed him immediately. What Demirel had almost certainly forgotten was that the Turks had used all their subs. So, the question was, who would go in goal for the remaining time? There was only one answer of course, the heroic, if completely insane, Tuncay pulled on the gloves, and safely kept a three minute clean sheet.

The broken Czechs slumped, and amid the chaos there was no real chance for them to bid goodbye properly to two heroes, manager Karel Bruckner, and the magnificent Koller, both of whose careers came to an end with the final whistle. They should have had more to show for a fantastic Czech dynasty, and they will always look back knowing that Euro 2004 should have been their moment.

What this incredible match offered was yet another example, and once again I beg TV executives to take note, of what makes football the phenomenon it is. In fact if all games were like this there would surely be no non-believers left. At face value, this match was as far from being box-office as it gets, and therein lies the problem. Czech Republic v Turkey, ask our TV friends? Who’s interested in that? Where are the superstars? I can’t see anyone from a cola commercial on this pitch, which one out there earns 80 grand-a-week and dates a model? How the hell do we sell this? Surely the people would rather watch Portugal?

The truth is you don’t need any of the above. When left alone, football looks after itself. Without any help at all this match descended into glorious anarchy. Don’t these people realise the lifeblood of football is it’s unpredictability, and that’s the very thing being eroded by the Premier League and Champions league as every season goes by. Perfection isn’t exciting, we want disorder, pandemonium and instability. This match had them all in spades, which is why it will live long in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have seen it.

The Swiss bowed out of their home tournament against Portugal reserves, and happily went out with a victory for their departing coach Kobi Kuhn. He will surely look back on Hakan Yakin’s scoring record of 3 in 2, and wonder why on earth the last part of that stat is only 2. The man who provided the Swiss’ only threat of the tournament was not given the opportunity to do so in the opening game, and they’ll always wonder if it could have been different. Only saw highlights of this one thanks to the simultaneous kick-offs, but from what I could tell Portugal appeared to be offended that they’d actually been asked to play the match.

Their early demise was a great shame for the home fans, who are a massive part of any tournament. For national bonkersness we must now look to Austria, and if they beat the Germans believe me, it will be on a grand scale. If it comes about in as dramatic a fashion as last night’s game, I think I shall need a lie down. As this incredible tournament has gone on, each match has had more and more to live up to, but has somehow risen to the challenge. We just have to hope now that Czech Republic v Turkey doesn’t end up as the match of the tournament.

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Filed under Football, Group A, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

You Asked For It (Part 1)

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Writing about matches after subsequent matches have taken place sometimes offers a different perspective, for instance it opens up the opportunity to see teams make the same stupid errors, and you just want to ask them “Weren’t you watching yesterday?, Didn’t they do exactly the same thing?, And didn’t they look stupid?, And don’t you now look even more stupid?”.

More of that in the next post however, first to take care of Saturday. Group D is not exactly getting into the spirit of things at Euro 2008, it’s a bit too well organised and not especially adventurous. It’s not dull or completely bereft of interest by any means, but it needs a bit of chaos to get it going.

Spain and Sweden played out a largely uneventful encounter, which looked all on for an appropriate draw until a little late genius from David Villa settled it in Spain’s favour. The match did reveal the vulnerability of the Spaniards, who looked pretty clueless when it came to making chances, and appear to be relying on their two superstars up front to both make and take their own opportunities. They got away with it in this match by the skin of their teeth, but you wonder how many more times they will.

Sweden however, were the side guilty of brainlessness in this match, and got their just desserts for settling for a point with a level of negativity that was quite unnecessary. After the two sides had traded scrappy goals in the first half, the Swedes largely dominated, and looked more than capable of causing an upset. As the second half dozed along however, the Swedes drifted back, and back, and back… and then came the substitution of the forwards, which left them with no outlet and therefore made ball retention much more difficult for themselves. Consequently the Spaniards ended up with more possession at the end of the match, and despite not exactly using it to apply unbearable pressure, the fact is that if you’ve got the ball then you’ve got a chance, and if a chance falls to either of Spain’s strikers, there’s only one place it’s finishing up.

Just why do teams do this? I’ve seen this kind of petrified mass retreat so often before, and it just never works. If Sweden wanted to protect a point, the logical thing to do is surely attempt to keep the ball as far away from your goal and the opposition players as possible. You certainly don’t achieve it by altering the shape of your team into something unrecognisable to the players, forcing them to play entirely in one half (the wrong half) of the pitch, and sending the opposition a postcard to let them know you no longer have any intention, or possibility, of scoring another goal in this game.

Spain can consider themselves lucky, because against a more courageous side they would have been beaten. We should not be surprised of course, except perhaps for the fact that Spain’s inevtiable collapse has started a little earlier than usual. Generally they complete a full group programme impressively before imploding. Alright, they haven’t exactly fallen apart yet but the cracks have definitely started to appear in the form of a fragile looking rearguard, and a void of creativity in midfield. Why the Spanish coach Luis Aragones, a racist old fool, chooses to start with the ineffective Xavi and not Cesc Fabregas is beyond me and presumably anyone who’s watched a Premier League match in the last two years.

It’s just irresistable for a commentator to resist a cliche. I might have said it was like a moth to a flame, but that would just make me look silly, so I won’t. I am overall very happy with the return of Jon Champion to the ITV microphone, he has far more acute sense of perspective than his idiot colleagues Tyldesley and Drury, far less likely to use inappropriate hyperbole, or, as in the case of Tyldesley, grovel at the feet of any ‘big 4’ Premier League player. Alas he still appears to be third choice behind them for some reason, but at least they are making use of him. Even Champion can’t resist the cliche though, and it was a slight disappointment that he couldn’t get through Greece v Russia without reducing himself to the cringeworthy “It’s a Greek Tragedy”, and “No need for Russia to beware Greeks bearing gifts”.

I must admit at this point that I did myself make some allusion to the whole Greek tragedy thing after their first game, but I like to think that I at least made some attempt to steer it clear of the obvious and repetitive. I must admt also that my chosen avatars to represent the various nations on this blog may have a hint of cliche about them. The difference is that I am under no obligation to maintain any standards, I shall be as crass and predictable as I like if I think it’s funny. Champion really needs to try harder.

As you might have already guessed from those choice cuts of questionable commentator’s language, Greece continued on their merry quest to make the worst defence of a trophy ever seen. Greece appear to be the poorest side in Euro 2008 by such a distance you have to wonder if they shouldn’t have been made to play in every group in the interest of fairness; it seems wrong that only three teams in the competition get the opportunity for a gift three points.

Not that I’m not pleased that Greece are taking part, that’s why I advocate them having more matches as opposed to none at all. They are after all the best comedy value in the tournament, and they continued in saturday’s match where they had left off against Sweden. Their attitude to the match wasn’t quite as comically negative as it had been against the Swedes, this time it was just ordinary dullness, which was disappointing. Their goalkeeper Nikopolidis more than made up for it however, with a second hilarious howler of the tournament, taking an inexplicable stroll towards the left hand edge of his box in the direction of an overhit cross, blissfully ignorant to the fact that a Russian was several yards better off in the race. The hapless custodian looked on as the ball was lobbed gently back over his head into the centre, where Zyryanov was waiting to tap in to the vacated net.

Greece ensured that a sense of balance was applied to the occasion by proving themselves equally capable of slapstick at the other end as well, as Charisteas put forward a leading contender for miss of the tournament, failing to convert a header when unmarked from 3 yards. The striker showed his prowess with the boots was on a par with his heading too, when turning down the opportunity to fire an easy chance past the Russian keeper, instead choosing to give the watching defenders a textbook demonstration of the safe back-pass.

The fact that Russia actually seemed a little tentative about making an attempt to increase their lead probably tells you the extent of their ambition in this tournament. They now face a winner-takes-all clash against the Swedes, but having scored only one goal against the Greeks and been leaky against Spain, have handed the draw to Sweden.

Greece of course are out, and their presence will be greatly missed in Euro 2008, if not for reasons they would appreciate. They will now play a dead-rubber against Spain; their swansong as European Champions. If what we’ve seen from them so far is just the first act then I, for one, cannot wait for the finale.

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I should think so too

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There is a common football cliche, which I refuse to utilise here, that has never been so appropriately applied as it would be to last night’s match between Holland and France. Suffice to say that the football that took place after half-time was unrecognisable from that which had done so beforehand. I had a couple of friends over to watch the game, and both left with terrified haste at half-time, as if feeling threatened that I would use force in order to ensure that they stayed the distance, having had to suffer the full horror of the first 45 minutes.

In short, the first half lived up to my expectations of this game, the second lived up to everyone else’s. As far as ensuring a spectacle was concerned, the game received the worst possible start – an early goal for the Dutch. Kuyt headed in a corner aided by questionable French marking, and Holland had exactly what they wanted, namely an excuse to go on the defensive. So the scene was set for Euro 2008’s worst 45 minutes so far, the only previous contender having also involved the French.

Commentators often makes excuses for bigger sides when the game is poor, referring to the game as ‘tactical’ or claiming that the sides ‘are cancelling each other out’. John Motson last night remarked that the first half had become a “tough battle in the midfield”, which is another one. This wasn’t a case of the sides’ tactics negating each other, they were just rubbish. After the 9th minute goal, the first period became a lamentable exhibition of dreadfully misplaced forward passes, niggling fouls, lazy non-movement, and poor decision-making. Holland went into extreme safety-first mode, often working the ball back to Van Der Sar from deep inside the French half. The BBC studio appeared to have been shown another game as Alan Hansen claimed to have enjoyed the first half, which I can only put down to a lack of defensive errors.

When the teams returned for the second half, and I found myself a lone spectator in my front room once again, it was as if UEFA had exchanged the two sides for twenty-two virtual reality replicas, programmed to play properly whilst there were some viewers left. Seriously, the transformation was down to the French, though you have to wonder where they got the inspiration from, as I can’t imagine too many players responding to the half-time reassurance that “it’ll be ok lads, no problem, it’s quite clear that Venus is entering the Moon’s third quarter, you can’t lose!”.

Whatever the reason, France were awake at last, and the game became more inkeeping with the tournament, as the Dutch began to revel in the opportunities offered to them by the more expansive French game. All of a sudden, the level was raised, and incisive passing movements began to cut through defences at either end. France created clearcut opportunities for the first time in the competition, but unfortunately for them they all fell to Thierry Henry, who looks a shadow of his former self after a season warming Barcelona’s bench/treatment table. Henry spurned chances he would have gobbled up in an Arsenal shirt, and inevitably France left themselves exposed to the Dutch rapid response service, enhanced greatly by the introduction of the flying machine Robben.

Robben got clear down the left, streaked clear, and laid on a second for fellow sub Van Persie. This was, thankfully, the signal for the two sides to forget themselves completely and launch into all out attack. The French though, had left it too late. They quickly reduced their arrears thanks to a deft finish from Henry, but within seconds had the stuffing knocked out of them again, as Robben took advantage of lazy defending by Thuram to squeeze one in from an impossible angle. Sneijder plopped a great big cherry on top of it all in injury time, with a sensational fourth. France were deservedly thrashed, deservedly because they couldn’t be bothered taking part until one and a half games had elapsed.

I still think Holland have a little to prove, they haven’t been put under any pressure whilst the score has been level, their back-four looks vulnerable, and their infamous temperament will be put fully to the test should they fall behind. It’s two successive games without any questionable antics though, and that’s a big improvement on previous years.

Italy will be in no doubt that the world is against them once more; after suffering the Van Nistelrooy offside decision, yesterday’s match against Romania saw them suffer more misery at the hands of the officials. Luca Toni has enjoyed plenty of luck so far, and all of it rotten. The big striker had one chalked off incorrectly for offside, then was stopped in his tracks by another erroneous flag when he was about to find the net for a second time. The Italians must also be very confused about UEFA’s amendment to the offside rule in this tournament, which I’m guessing must read “If it pisses off the Italians, it’s fine by us”.

Italy ended up having to rely on a classic skin-of-the-teeth escape that they must have become quite accustomed to over the years. Despite enjoying the vast majority of the game, they found themselves first of all behind to an excellent Mutu finish after a complete howler by Zambrotta, then after equalising immediately they later found themselves on the brink of falling behind again, this time to a penalty correctly awarded against Panucci. Mutu’s kick failed however, thanks to an extraordinary save by Buffon who, having dived the wrong way, stuck out a trailing hand, palmed the ball onto his boot, and away to safety.

The Italians really should have been out of sight by then, the two bad offside decisions aside, the Italians created plenty of other opportunities to bury the lightweight Romanians, but were let down by frustrating marginals, final pass slightly off target, crosses slightly underhit/overhit, goalbound shots blocked, slightly slow to he second ball, etc, etc. The run of the ball hasn’t been with Italy in this tournament for sure, but you felt yesterday that they just needed to up their level and these scraps could easily have been turned into feasts.

The Italians did win one contest, in fact they proved themselves to be the undisputed champions at looking aggrieved at a referees decisions. Never have you see so may raised shoulders, upturned palms, and wide, offended blue-eyed stares in your life. Especially at the award of the penalty, all eleven of them striking the same incredulous pose. Wonderful.

As it is, the Italians’, like the French, have relinquished control over their own qualification. If Romania beat Holland, who have already won the group and will surely be planning to rest players, then Italy and France are on their bike, whatever happens in their own game. The Dutch, I’m sure, will be terribly concerned about playing fair given that the Italians or French would be their likely semi-final opponents should either get through at the expense of Romania.

I am starting to come to terms with the idea that before this tournament is out, I may have to heap praise on a Dutch side. Which is a terrifying prospect. Far less likely at the moment is that I will have to do the same with the French, so it’s not all bad.

Interestingly, a Romanian victory over Holland on tuesday night is already as short as an 11/10 shot. In fact Holland are barely favourites for the match, having scored 7 goals in two games against the two World Cup finalists. Hmm. The words ‘Rat’ and ‘Smell’ spring to mind.

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Congratulations Croatia, Worthy European Champions!

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Well that’s it then, a magnificent end to a great tournament, with Croatia deservedly lifting their first major trophy. I must say it flew by for me this time. The final went to the underdogs in thrilling fashion, as Croatia’s slick, high quality passing game proved too much for the tournament favourites Germany, and goals from Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic swept the Croats and their exciting young coach Slaven Bilic to a memorable victory.

I’m sorry? What do you mean? Croatia haven’t won the championship? But I saw them do it! I mean, they beat the Germans, all the coaching staff came on to the field, the players did a lap of honour and threw their shirts into the crowd, Bilic took a bow infront of his adoring public, celebratory music boomed out, the fans embraced one another; okay there was no trophy, but I just assumed this was part of some new UEFA security directive.

All right I’ll knock it off now, but watching the way Croatia celebrated their group B victory over Germany yesterday, you had to wonder what on earth they will get up to if they do become champions in Vienna on June 29th. This idea, by the way, will now be scoffed at far less after this result, and Croatia’s reaction at the final whistle which suggested they had just won the whole thing, perhaps reflected that all connected with the team had gained the belief that they could do just that.

Croatia came into this competition as no more than dark horses, their chances mainly being written off due to the absence of Eduardo Da Silva, their greatest forward threat in qualifying, and a lack of experience at the highest level. They overcame both in thoroughly convincing fashion, sending the tournament favourites packing with plenty apparently still left in the tank. The Germans were made to look pedestrian and unsophisticated, as Croatia picked their way through them at will with a display of technical brilliance that matched, and probably surpassed, anything seen so far from their more luminous peers in other groups.

If the Croats’ opener had been scored by Argentina, we would have seen dozens more replays by now, and it was not all that dissimilar to the ‘perfect goal’ that the Argentines scored against Serbia and Montenegro in the World Cup, a stunning multi-pass move that displayed patience and purpose, technique and flair. The Germans were lucky to go in at half-time only one down, but their luck soon ran out in the second half as a deflected cross embarrassed Lehmann and provided a tap in for Olic, settling a few Croatian nerves which had begun to appear. With a two-goal lead though, the Croats relaxed, and got back to attacking at will again. Only when the lead was reduced late in the game by

LU – LU – LUKAS PODOLSKI!

did the Croatians begin to think about looking after what they had. They even did this superbly, and a seemingly inevitable 10-minute German avalanche never materialised. The tournament officially has new contenders.

In Vienna the Austrian and Polish hordes, distraught, no doubt, at the Germans’ demise, somehow dragged themselves to the stadium or town centre for an enormous knees-up. The Austrians seem to have come into this shindig with such low expectations for the team that mass drinking appears to be the sum total of what they imagine they can get out of it, and it would appear they intend to make the most of that. The problem is, the team never make it that easy. How many Austrian fans do you think are asking today “why couldn’t we just get caned 3 times and be done with it?”, because the team have decided to play so heroically they have given their public the one thing they probably dreaded the most. Hope.

Austria conclusively secured the title of the Scotland of Euro 2008 by confounding expectations for a second time and giving a supposedly superior opposition an absolute roasting, but failed majestically to convert their dominance into a victory thanks to an irresistable combination of incompetence and bad luck.

Now I’m not sure of my facts here, but I always imagined Austria to be place with an above average number of barn doors, but you would never have guessed it from watching their strikers, who displayed a quite stunning inability to hit one. The strange thing is, for a team that we have been led to believe are useless, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal else wrong. They displayed a superb attitude from the start, attacked with skill and pace down the flanks, and created genuine chances, admittedly with a little help from the worst defence in the tournament. They were also well-organised in defence, passed the ball well, worked hard at closing down space, etc, etc. All the elements appear to be there. They just couldn’t hit the target if it was fifty feet wide.

Austria managed to miss three one-on-one, clean through on the keeper, take your time mate, help yourself, pick your spot chances, amongst a whole host of other near misses in a frantic first half that Poland would have been lucky to escape from with a 4-0 deficit. This being Scotland…sorry, Austria, they went in with a 1-0 lead, thanks to the second outrageously offside goal of the tournament which the BBC commentary team of Guy Mowbray and Mark Lawrenson, a buffoon, failed to notice altogether. This despite the director giving them a replay with the most dramatic ‘this is the moment he is offside, just here, see, HERE!’ pause that you could wish for.

Had that been the only goal of the game, it would have been an injustice on such a scale that I would have advised the Austrians to seek assistance from the European Court of Human Rights, and it looked like being just that, until England’s standard bearer at these championships, ref Howard Webb, intervened. A blatant and brainless act of assault from Polish defender Lewandowski on Sebastian Proedl, as another inevitably fruitless cross made its way into the box two minutes into injury time, resulted in an Austrian pen. Now given the earlier profligacy from not dissimilar range, and with the small added pressure of it being the last kick of the game to stay in the tournament, I can’t imagine there was exactly an abundance of confidence amongst the Austrians. Thankfully though, in it went, and we at least have a host nation still offering a faint pulse in Euro 2008. Unfortunately, the grim German reaper is looming.

More important than the result though is that this was just another fantastic game, in what is turning into the best tournament in years. This match, like the Switzerland v Turkey game the night before and a few others, resembled an English game from the 70s or 80s, but with added technique; fast attacking football, using both wings, with a healthy amount of shambolic defending. What more could you ask for?

I’ve been trying to think how many times in the past I’ve got to this stage of a tournament and not been constantly moaning about diving, play-acting, whining, crazy referees, unambitious teams ruining the game with dire tactics, etc etc, and besides the French there’s been none of it. For the most part we’ve had positive football, played in a good spirit, well refereed, and with the least amount of cheating I can remember for a long time. Many of the best games have involved the unfashionable teams, a fact which completely contradicts ITV’s opinion that we have to watch Portugal, Holland or Spain in order to be entertained.

Come to think of it, this blog might be in trouble, because TV coverage aside, I’m running out of things to moan about. Now who’s playing today, let me see… Ah! France v Holland. What a relief.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group B, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

Come on, admit it…

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…you missed it didn’t you? Even many hardened fans will consult the tournament schedule in order to find a gap, a night when they can return to the real world and try to ensure that their normal lives aren’t damaged beyond repair by an entire month of football worship. I know you’re out there, and I know many of you would have chosen Switzerland v Turkey as your one to miss. The BBC appeared to agree with you too, relegating this match to BBC2. Shame, shame, shame on you all.

The best match of the tournament so far by a mile saw the earliest ever exit of a Host Nation in this event, but only after they had been sent through an emotional mangle thanks to the weather gods, who intervened midway through the first half with a match-altering downpour, perhaps sent as a reward to those of us who had kept the faith.

The opening twenty minutes actually suggested that the absentees may have got it right, as an anxious stalemate began to develop. Then the heavens opened, and naturally the results were glorious. Within minutes the football match had been replaced by It’s A Knockout, as players began to run, fall over and collide with each other as standard, and the ball became an afterthought. Wherever he was watching, I bet Stuart Hall was laughing uncontrollably, whilst awarding both sides 15 points.

To anyone reading this who is involved with the production of our television coverage, especially if you work for ITV, please try to understand that it is this supporters really want to see. Judging by the groveling of Rider, Tyldesley and co, they seem to think that we’re all here to sit open-jawed at the technical prowess of Portugal, Holland or Spain and all the millionaires they bring with them. Wrong. What we want is mayhem, pandemonium, instability, and lunacy. Preferably in farcical conditions with footballing life or death at stake. Last night, we got what we came for.

Hansen and co might have been on the wrong channel, but they were in no doubt that this was pure entertainment. Alan Shearer and Lee Dixon revealed a hitherto dormant sense of humour, relishing the slippery chaos to the full, and laughing fully in the faces of unfortunate defenders with the rest of us.

Switzerland initially benefitted from the cloudburst, as Turkey’s short passing game was rendered useless by the puddles that began appearing all over the pitch, and one puddle in particular which had formed in the Turkish six-yard box assisted a Turk in Swiss colours, Hakan Yakin, to open the scoring. Hakan missed an almost identical chance (an open goal from three yards), just minutes later, and incredibly the absurd circumstances resulted in just that single goal. If the rain had continued into the second half, or if UEFA were as precious about players health as they are the tournament schedule, the game would almost certainly have been abandoned. However the rain relented at half-time, allowing the Swiss ground staff to do an extraordinary mopping up job, making the pitch perfectly playable again in the second half. Big mistake on their part.

It probably seemed sensible at the time, but as the Swiss were mainly relying on pinging long balls towards their pacy forwards, the sodden surface was assisting them far more than their opponents. In hindsight the act was either commendably fair-minded, or criminally naive. The spirit the entire match was played in suggested the former, which given that the last time these two met competitively (in a qualifying play-off for the last World Cup) the match ended in a full-scale riot this was a refreshing surprise.

Turkey grew in confidence, and knocked the ball around as well as anyone in this tournament so far, though given their unfashionable status no one on TV bothered pointing this out. The goals that secured their victory were somewhat fortuitous, a lovely move ending in a goalkeeper error, and a speculative shot aided by a deflection, but they were thoroughly deserved on the balance of play, and given that Switzerland appeared the better side only when playing in a swimming pool.

That said, they very nearly managed to pull it out of the bag in a frantic last 20 minutes, as both sides realised a draw was no good to them and launched into each other with gusto. It was magnificent viewing, and the Swiss fans would have raised the roof had they managed to convert a 4-on-1 breakaway in the 89th minute. They failed, and moments later Turkey punished them with the clock ticking into the second minute of injury time. Cue what seemed a 50-strong Turkish bench invading the pitch, indulging in wild celebrations whilst yards away from them there was devastation. The TV director filled his boots, quickly switching from a shot of Turkish coach Fatih Terim making a very half-hearted attempt to calm his charges down, to one of his Swiss counterpart staring numbly into space. Pure gold.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Swiss, just imagine how long their fans have been waiting for this. All of them decked out in national costmes, faces painted, ready to unite for an amazing month-long adventure. Four days in, and its all over. It’s sad for everyone because host nations and their fans are great for the atmosphere of the tournament, but the truth is the Swiss never looked good enough. However, they weren’t nearly as dull as in the World Cup, and a cynic might suggest that they would have been better off sticking to a plan that did work for them up to a point, but they should take credit for entering the spirit of the tournament and at least trying to give their supporters something memorable.

Prior to the fun part of the evening Portugal had recorded an impressive, if somewhat predictable, victory over Czech Republic, predictably with the help of Ronaldo, the reaction to whose first goal of the tournament was met with predictably toady obseqiousness by commentators on both channels, who squirmed to find superlatives for what was a tidily placed sidefoot shot from the edge of the box. As for the Czechs, they were largely just, well, predictable.

On last night’s evidence, I think Turkey will fancy their chances in a winner-takes-all meeting with the Czechs on Sunday, especially as their opponents now appear to be uncertain as to which striker should be sent out to receive no service, Koller or Baros. The inevitability of the Portuguese win, in what they would have considered their toughest fixture of the group on paper, will strengthen their claims on the trophy, but I have a feeling that they could get caught cold in the knockout stages due to failing to receive a real test.

During the Switzerland v Turkey match, news broke that the Portuguese boss ‘Big Phil’ Scolari, is off to join the Premier League circus with Chelsea. So no doubt what his advice will be to Ronaldo regarding his potential transfer to Real Madrid then. This is good news, as Scolari will bring some much needed dignity and decorum to a world dominated by egomaniacs, as the above picture displays.

Now, having finally discovered the secret behind what can really make Euro 2008 into the most exciting tournament ever, I’m off to check the weather forecast.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group A, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008

Encore! Encore!

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Whilst it’s a well known fact that the Ancient Greeks were the first masters of tragedy and comedy, it’s a debate in literary circles whether they can truly be credited with getting to grips with the idea of the hybrid genre of tragicomedy. The argument may step up a gear tonight, after Greece’s modern footballers suggested that the tradition was flowing through the blood.

The defending champs delivered an opening performance that was so dreadful that it went beyond bad, came all the way around again to good, then soared to hilarious. The Greek display had the appearance of being choreographed, so perfect was its execution of comic timing during passages of despairingly poor play.

Sweden looked on dumbfounded, as the Greeks gained possession in their own half, and preceded to pass it amongst themselves aimlessly in the fashion of West Germany and Austria in the 1982 World Cup, when the two sides fixed the result in order to both qualify for the next phase. The Swedish crowd whistled with fury as time after time, the Greeks just walked around with the ball showing no interest whatsoever in participating in a football match.

Maybe Greece have grown so fond of their tag of champion spoilers that, aware they have no chance of producing a repeat, they’ve come here to parody the concept. Perhaps their three games at Euro 2008 will soon be arriving on a stage, entitled Greece Are Dull: The Musical. In its way it was enormously entertaining, and the way in which Greece seemed to deliberately play as awfully as possible definitely contained a certain artistry, comparable, say, with Les Dawson’s piano playing, or Tommy Cooper’s magician’s act.

Greece’s apparent preference for the performing arts didn’t end there either, their number also included a classic hero-villain in centre back Sotiris Kyrgiakos, who first tried to combine with a team mate to make a human vice in which to crush Freddie Ljungberg, then spent the rest of the match attempting to render redundant as many of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s body parts that he could gain access to.

Before the curtain came down, it was time for the final act; a stunningly executed piece of slapstick involving a high ball, a floundering custodian facing his own goal, and four pairs of legs succeeding more in kicking each other than the ball. Eventually the ball appeared to find its own way into the corner of the net, and the show was over to a thoroughly merited standing ovation. Alright, maybe the standing ovation was from the magnificent Swedish fans for their players, but in my head they were all cheering our Greek entertainers.

ITV’s Steve Rider proved to have his finger as far from a football fan’s pulse as possible by declaring “At least the first goal made it worth watching”. The first Swedish goal, a decent strike from Ibrahimovic, scored whilst the defenders were presumably busy with a costume change, represented the intermission drink or ice cream, a pleasant enough diversion, but soon forgotten again in a long evening of cultural indulgence.

 

Before the Greeks took the stage, Spain had earlier made yet another good start to a tournament, setting up perfectly their usual scenario of false dawns and miserable failure. If the inevitable crash to earth is as spectacular as the lift-off though, it should be worth watching, as Spain gave pretty much a complete performance, ruthlessly exposing Russian defensive hesitancy with forwards oozing pace and class, then giving a masterclass in how to complete a victory by snuffing out any thoughts of Russian resistance in the second half with perfect possession retention.

It will all end in tears though, as we know, and it was pleasantly surprising to see the BBC pundits not falling into the trap of bestowing upon Spain the status of genuine contenders. A studio full of once bitten pundits stonewalled the issue beautifully, heaping praise on Spain’s display, but remaining transparently non-committal on the issue of their further progress. Sensible boys.

Spain’s day for sorrow is to come later though, tonight the tears belong to Greece. Whether they are tears induced by sadness or laughter depends on your position, but one thing is certain: The show must go on.

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Filed under BBC, Football, Group D, ITV, Sport, TV, UEFA Euro 2008