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What’s Luck Got To Do With It?

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The consensus after another breathtaking instalment of Euro 2008 last night was that Turkey were incredibly unlucky not to beat Germany and reach their first ever major tournament final. The facts are that Turkey outplayed Germany and should have won the match, but that they didn’t had very little to do with luck.

The conclusion of luck being the decisive factor is arrived at either by romantics who felt cheated by the denial of an exciting upset, or red faced pundits who so confidently predicted an easy German win, despite all evidence saying that the tournament is highly competitive and tough to predict. The latter were very much in evidence on the BBC, with messrs Hansen, Shearer and O’Neill learning nothing from their experience with Holland on saturday, and all making no case for even a competitive Turkish display let alone a result.

If, when reflecting this morning on how they let their chance slip despite wiping the floor with Germany for almost the entire match, Turkey also feel they were dealt a poor hand, I would ask them two things: Firstly, how unlucky was it that your goalkeeper got himself suspended for deliberately pushing someone over infront of the referee, and that the best you could do for a replacement was an ageing clown? Secondly, how unlucky was it that despite dominating possession and continually exposing the German defence as being average at best, you failed to nail your chances? As managers have been keen to remind us in many a post-match interview down the years, you make your own luck in this game.

Turkey should have ended the night celebrating a magnificent overturning of the odds, and a spectacular tactical victory. Fatih Terim produced another coaching masterstroke, with a gameplan of all-out attack that stunned the Germans and everyone else. Germany would surely have gone into the game fairly confident of spending most of the game in the ascendancy, thinking that their biggest problem would be getting past a Turkish back nine. This, after all, was how Turkey approached the quarter-final against Croatia, and they went into last night’s game with their side further damaged by injury and suspension.

The Turks’ radical change of tactics took the Germans completely by surprise, and allowed them to dictate throughout. They went for it pretty much straight from the kick-off, and the totally unprepared German defence looked a shambles in trying to deal with it. Turkey initially looked to have benefitted from one of their injuries, as Colin Kazim-Richards (or Kazim Kazim as he’s known to the Turks), in for the injured Nihat, caused Germany huge problems early in the game with his pace, though as the game wore on he ran out of gas. After a succession of near things however, it was Kazim’s shot that hit the bar and bounced out to Ugur Boral who snaffled the first goal.

In truth, the Turks should have been infront before then, and they were made to pay almost immediately; the lead they had worked so hard for was wiped out in the space of four minutes as lazy defending allowed Podolski to cross from the left, and Schweinsteiger to nip infront at the near post. A 1-1 half-time score was an unbelievable result for the Germans who desperately needed the break to try and formulate plan B, but whatever they came up with didn’t work as they were soon pinned back again.

The second half was quite different to the first, but still dominated by the Turks. In the first period they had whizzed around the Germans like eleven red blurrs, hurrying and scurrying and creating panic in the German rearguard with their urgency. They had relied on this defensive chaos for their chances however, rather than putting together moves that flowed cohesively. In the second half the Turks slowed things down a little, but this time gave the Germans a lesson in passing, movement and technique, knocking the ball around with complete assurance and starving the Germans of possession. They were forcing the Germans further back, but this time, ironically, failed to apply the urgency needed to create chances.

It appeared as though the pressure would eventually tell on the Germans, their play had descended into aimless clearances that suggested desperation and, incredibly for a German side, they were beginning to look beaten. Turkey however, were a team trying to cover up a massive weak spot, and 11 minutes from time, it was exposed. Philipp Lahm put in a fairly harmless cross, and the embodiment of the phrase ‘dodgy keeper’, Rüstü Reçber, duly obliged. The veteran idiot dashed out hopelessly after the cross, was beaten to it easily by Klose, and Turkey’s hard work appeared to have been undone in a moment’s madness.

Against anyone else Germany may have thought that the goal had come late enough to be the winner, but it would have actually been more of a surprise if Turkey hadn’t scored in the remaining time. They duly equalised with four minutes to go, and this time it was the Germans’ unreliable goalkeeper who came up trumps, Lehmann finding a dreadful position at his near post that allowed Semih Sentürk to pop up with his third vital goal of the championships, after the magnificent Turkish full back Sabri Sarioglu had embarassed Lahm for the umpteenth time down the right hand side.

If anything though, Turkey scored too early this time. I think they must have been confused when the final whistle didn’t go immediately after they’d scored, and I’m not sure they knew what to do with themselves for the remaining four minutes plus injury time. Unfortunately, whilst they were thinking about it, the Germans came in and gave them a taste of their own medicine. In the fashion we’d become accustomed to from the Turks the Germans replied “think that’s a dramatic late goal? Huh! This is a dramatic late goal!”.

Said goal came from that man Lahm, who had been a strong candidate for being the worst player on the field with an absolutely wretched defensive performace. Like all good modern full-backs though, he looks much better in attack, and went on a charge which resulted in him starting and finishing a beautiful little interchange, transforming him from villain to hero in an instant. The Turks quickly learned how Croatia felt about Rüstü at the end of the quarter-final.

The Jekyll and Hyde Germans had been unrecognisable from the victory over Portugal, and no German more so than Michael Ballack. Where was he? With the Turks running rings around the German midfield, this man who had given a herculean display against Portugal was nowhere to be seen. Germany were missing everthing that Ballack provides, leadership, physical presence, a calm foot on the ball in midfield. There just appeared to be a huge Ballack-shaped hole in the German team. How could his form turn around so quickly? The question could easily be asked of both teams, such was the sea change in their performances from their previous outings.

It was an especially interesting night for our beloved broadcasters, and not just due to the punditry team taking yet another disastrous stroll through the minefield of prediction – though there was one notable member of that team who negotiated himself across safely, the wonderful Marcel Desailly, who has easily become the leading punditry craftsman of the tournament. Desailly identified before the game exactly how Turkey could hurt the Germans, and his colleagues should hang their heads in shame for dismissing the Frenchman’s view until it turned out that he’d been right all along.

Upstaging all that however was a freak thunderstorm in Vienna, where the BBC studio was situated and where the worldwide TV feed was powered from. The storm meant a significant part of the coverage was interrupted. The BBC apologised profusely for this, clearly expecting an enormous backlash. But why? The loss of coverage meant not only a lack of picture but also sound. That’s right! John Motson and Mark Lawrenson were silenced! I would personally like to wholeheartedly thank the BBC, or whichever Austrian was responsible, for these precious moments of respite.

Not only this, but the BBC quickly moved to get the commentary from Five Live to accompany the broken pictures. Now, us cool kids had of course switched to the Five Live coverage immediately on hearing Motson’s voice in the pre-match build-up, via the red button. For everyone else though, can you imagine the delight? Suddenly all the inane drivel is replaced by actual analysis, sharp observations, humourous asides that are actually funny, and – gasp! – commonsense! I wonder how many people who had previously been listening to Motty and Lawro went straight for their red button or nearest radio as soon as normal service was resumed. Chris Waddle by the way, is a first-rate summariser who should be moved several places up the beeb’s pecking order.

This match was also another success for Basle, which once again proved itself to be the stage on which to see drama. Basle has now given us Switzerland v Turkey, Germany v Portugal, Holland v Russia, and now this. Vienna on the other hand has given us three matches involving Austria, plus Croatia v Turkey, and Spain v Italy. Is it too late to launch a campaign to get the final moved?

Perhaps Basle has just been lucky? Or maybe the conditions there are more condusive to an exciting game? Maybe the BBC viewers struck lucky getting Motson switched off? Or were they just denying themselves some decent commentary in the first place? Are the Germans lucky to be in the final? Or do they just have the spirit to hang in there even when they’re having a shocker? And did Turkey endure bad luck? Or did they just pay for having inadequate players at the sharp ends of the pitch? Depends what you have invested in the answers I guess.

Turkey have left this tournament with many of it’s greatest memories. Long after someone has finished waving the trophy around on sunday, we will remember the dramatic moments that Turkey’s unpredictable tactics and incredible fighting spirit have produced. For the fact that they won’t be adding to the legacy on sunday however, they only have themselves to blame.

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Old Habits Die Hard

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Hmm, Lord Mayor’s show and all that. The last quarter-final of Euro 2008 put in a rather fierce challenge for the dubious accolade of being the tournament’s low point, and whilst the significance of the match probably kept its status as a spectacle slightly above that of France v Romania, that is the only hint of polish anyone could possibly offer this turd.

Spain and Italy played out an insomnia-curing 120 minutes that looked destined for penalties from a very early stage. As is the usual form when two sides of such magnitude play out a direfest, the commentators will try and convince us that the game is ‘tactical’, ‘technical’, or that the teams are ‘cancelling each other out’. Strangely, ‘shite’ never seems to be a term they’re keen to apply no matter how bad things get, and this was very, very bad. That, by the way, is all it was. The poor quality of the match was not down in any way to the two teams tactics, it was down to the fact that they were rubbish. They couldn’t pass it, they couldn’t cross it, they barely moved, and they couldn’t shoot.

The latter criticism applies in particular to the Spaniards, whose entire game plan appeared to consist of making their way at a snails pace to an area 25 yards from the Italian goal, before unleashing the most harmless of efforts on goal that generally failed by numerous yards to find the target. All this would have seemed speculative under normal circumstances, but considering the world’s finest goalkeeper was between the sticks, it just appeared lazy and careless. The Italians however, weren’t even this good, as any or all of the above would have been an improvement on the virtual zero they offered in threat to Iker Casillas at the other end.

The first half was probably honours even for both incompetence and negativity, both sides barely breaking into a jog, playing safety-first possession football which offered no threat whatsoever of penetrating either defence. Moves came to an end with either a tame and inaccurate shot , as described above, or with an equally hopeless cross or final pass.

After half-time, a divide did occur between the two sides; both were still awful, but Spain were at least poor in a good cause, at least making the effort to come forward, where as Italy just seemed to pack it in altogether. The game sank to unpalatable depths, one side not interested in playing, the other not good enough to punish them for it. I’m not sure whose reputation comes off worse in this situation, the Italians for making no attempt to look any good, or the Spaniards failing to do so despite trying quite hard.

For the Italians it was a return to the bad old days. In the last few years, and especially in the World Cup two years ago, their play had begun to make the common criticism of them being overly defensive sound like a tired old cliche. From the second half onwards however, it looked relevant again, as Luca Toni became totally isolated up front, and virtually had to come back to his own half of the field to have any chance of seeing the ball. Extra-time also came and went without any Italian advance that registered in the memory. Whether the side lacked the courage to try and dominate the midfield without the suspended Pirlo and Gattuso I’m not sure, but this is hardly an adequate excuse for such negativity.

Spain looked better after rejigging their midfield on the hour mark, taking off the ineffectual Barcelona pair Xavi and Iniesta, and bringing on Cesc Fabregas. A no-brainer to everyone else, it’s logic which still escapes the Spaniards’ nasty old fool of a manager, Luis Aragones. The performance of the two first choices must be especially worrying for Spain when considering that their opponents were much weakened in the same area. Fabregas improved the quality of Spain’s passing immediately, and added to it some much needed urgency, though it was still not good enough to break down the dour Italians and create any clearcut chances for David Villa and Fernando Torres.

Extra-time plodded on towards its inevitable conclusion with neither side prepared to show even a smidgen of the courage that Russia had in dominating their extra half-hour the night before. This is perhaps especially surprising when one considers the horrors that both sides have suffered in shoot-outs of the past. This extra period was a far cry from the one Italy played in the World Cup semi-final against the Germans two years ago, when they ended with four strikers on the pitch, so desperate were they to avoid the spot-kicks. On that occasion their positive attitude paid off and led to them winning the World Cup, but on sunday they appeared to have learned nothing from that experience.

The neutral observer was surely favouring Spain in the shoot-out, which convinced me that Italy would probably win it, as the team that deserves to win the match often seems to lose if it goes to penalties, as happened on friday with the Croatians. Spain’s nerves were allowed to settle early in the shoot-out however, as they took a successful first kick and the Italians followed it with a failure. Spain could even afford to miss their fourth penalty and come through, and fittingly it was Fabregas, the only player who really showed any quality on the night, that converted the decisive penalty.

Overall the quarter-finals produced quite a stark contrast, the big winners being the spectators in Basle, and ITV, whose two matches were both thrillers. The two matches in Vienna on the other hand, both covered on the BBC, were complete stinkers saved only by two minutes of drama at the end of Croatia and Turkey’s extra-time, and two penalty shoot-outs. By this standard, the first semi-final in Basle tonight between Germany and Turkey should be the one to see, whilst tomorrow’s match in Vienna between Spain and Russia will be the non-event, though the received wisdom would surely say that the opposite is the more likely outcome.

I am saying nothing, trying to predict what will happen in this tournament is clearly for fools, though you if you are prepared to dabble in groundless guesswork, you should have no problem in securing employment with one of our fine broadcasting networks. A Turkish side ravaged by injuries and suspensions against a now mighty-looking German team that go in as hot favourites. Only one result right? The only thing I’m certain of is that if the Germans are one goal ahead with a minute left, I don’t think too many in the crowd will be nipping off to miss the traffic.

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Make Way For The Dutch Grand Master

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Euro 2008 just doesn’t know when to stop does it? It continues to raise the bar of excitement still higher; just when you think you’ve seen everything this amazing tournament just keeps delivering more. Surely though, surely we saw the tournament reach its peak on saturday with as thrilling a game of football as has been seen in this or any other championship? Surely this one can’t be beaten?? Seriously, if we really are destined to see a more dramatic match than the one between Russia and Holland, I cannot understand why the world is not as one clearing its diaries for the remaining four instalments of this incredible competition.

Now, having been heavily critical of Holland whilst everyone else has been unable to do anything but dollop great spoonfuls of golden-syrupy sweeteness all over them, it would be easy for me to be smug at what was a quite comprehensive and embarrassing defeat. All I can promise is that I will try my level best to be objective, but I can’t help but think that every single Dutch bandwagon-jumper must have a sickly taste in their mouth after this.

In truth, the kind of defeat I had predicted for Holland, one that involved sulking, cheating and general nastiness, never happened. The Dutch took their defeat fairly gracefully, and quite rightly so as they were thoroughly outplayed in every department of the game by a better team. More painful still, they were completely outfoxed tactically by the competition’s finest Dutchman, Guus Hiddink. Why the Dutch F.A haven’t spent the last 10 years begging this man to come home and bring the success to the national team that his genius would surely guarantee, only they can know.

The BBC punditry team, when giving their predictions on Football Focus, went 7-0 in favour of Holland. Only simpleton Mark Lawrenson hadn’t been asked for his view previously and, having watched the film of all his colleagues going for Holland, decided to go for Russia just to be different. It’s about time Lawro got something right, even if it was by accident, so I’ll grant him his moment of glory.

The beeb’s predictions, like everyone elses, were totally blind to the football that had been played previously, where Holland had had more than their fair share of luck against Italy, then beat a dreadful French side largely thanks to the impact play of Arjen Robben in the second half. Russia had given by far the best complete footballing display of either side in the group stages when dismantling Sweden in their final match, so their danger should have been more widely acknowledged.

Over on ITV, where the match was actually covered, things were no better. The build-up to the game was almost entirely Oranje-related, and the boys couldn’t say enough about how much they were looking forward to another exhibition of attacking beauty. The boys got their wish, but the beauty came exclusively from the team in white, who so consummately disassembled the Dutchmen that on the night Holland could be thankful the score against them didn’t comprise two figures, and were unbelievably fortunate in taking the game to extra-time.

Some of the commentary heard from Peter Drury as the game evolved and it became abundantly clear that ITV weren’t going to get the opportunity to worship the Dutch display as they clearly desired, but worse still assumed all the viewers did too, was quite disgustingly patronising. During extra-time he openly admitted to loving the Dutch, but discussed with summariser Jim Beglin that he was being swayed by the Russians such was the quality of their football. Translation: “Christ Beglin, we’ve backed the wrong one here bigtime, how can we get out of this without looking thoroughly stupid?”. My advice Peter, would be to turn up just to commentate on what actually takes place and not let your hype-induced favour for one of the two teams allow you to make such misjudged predictions.

The Russian display was exhilharating. Whilst the Dutch did their usual and sat waiting for the opposition to make the first move, Russia snapped up the initiative and pinned Holland back from the off. For the first time a Dutch defence that always looked weak on paper received a real test, and they crumbled. The Russians walked through the Dutch back line time after time with high-speed precision passing and movement that was made to look simple and effortless. Holland were forced to play so deep that they were completely unable to respond with any periods of pressure, their only threat coming from set pieces where the Russian defence showed its own fallibility.

The one thing that does elude this Russian team though is clinical finishing and, just as they had against Sweden, they wasted so many opportunities that it undermined their dominance and allowed their opponents to stay in the game. It took Russia until the 56th minute to take the lead, when Roman Pavlyuchenko turned in Sergei Semak’s cross. Pavlyuchenko seems to be your classic frustrating striker; very reliable in terms of getting on the end of chances, but the exact opposite when it comes to actually putting them away. He certainly infuriates Hiddink, who insisted that his man-of-the-match award against Greece had been unmerited due to being so wasteful infront of goal.

Russia seem to make so many chances however, that Pavlyuchenko seems to be able to miss plenty and still end up on the scoresheet in most games. It was not just the striker who was guilty on saturday however, and Russia’s failure to make the scoreline reflect the beating they had given the Dutch threatened to cost them dear.

Many inexperienced teams would have tried to put up the shutters on going one up in such a huge game, but this Russian team doesn’t appear to know the meaning of negativity. Or maybe they’re just aware that their defending isn’t quite in the same league as their attacking play and so sensibly try and keep the ball as far away from the danger end for as long as possible, a lesson a few other teams would do well to learn. However, as the semi-final prize edged nearer, some panic inevitably set in and in the last 15 minutes Russia began to clear their lines with more desperation, and for the first time in the match conceded some ground and possession to the Dutch. It’s worth pointing out that the Russians still looked the more likely to score when breaking, and that the only way Holland looked like scoring was still from a set piece.

Any neutrals watching, which clearly didn’t include our broadcasters, can only have been willing the Russians to either hang on or grab another to seal it, such would have been the injustice of a Dutch equaliser. I hardly need to tell you what happened next do I? Yep, Holland equalised from a set piece. Three minutes from time, free kick on the left, Sneijder curled in a beauty, and the statuesque defenders watched Van Nistelrooy score from his average distance of about two yards. Neutral hearts sank.

Failing to see it through having come so close must have hurt a young, inexperienced team like Russia, which only makes what happened in extra-time even more astonishing. With everyone waiting for Holland to grow in confidence after their escape, and finish off a mentally shattered side, Russia took up where they had left off, and then some. Extra-time can often be cagey, as both teams become nervous about conceding with so little time to respond, but on this occasion it was complete one-way traffic, as the Russians proved themselves to be not only technically and physically superior, but also resilient and courageous. Russia, with no fear whatsoever, attacked Holland throughout extra-time, missed yet more chances, but finally, finally sealed the semi-final place they deserved with two more goals in the second period.

Russia’s on-field driving force throughout had once again been Andrei Arshavin, who gave the sponsors their easiest man-of-the-match decision of the tournament with a virtuoso display that was comfortably the finest individual performance seen at these championships. In two matches he has changed this Russian team from potential also-rans into potential champions, not only with his own play, but with the additional confidence his presence appears to inject into his team-mates. He’s probably also added about £10 million to his transfer value, something we are almost certain to discover when Russia’s adventure comes to an end.

It’s difficult to know whether Arshavin is a midfield playmaker, winger, or striker, as at present he seems to be doing all three. If his future managers have any sense they will take their lead from Mr Hiddink and let him do whatever he wants. The free role he enjoyed allowed him to provide the crucial second Russian goal from the left hand side, and score the third from the right. The cross he provided for the second was quite unbelievable, lifting it over defender and goalkeeper from an impossibly tight position to drop just inside the far post requiring only a tap in, which it received from substitute Dmitri Torbinski.

Of course many managers could do a lot worse than take a few lessons from Guus Hiddink, who has now added to an already staggering record with another unlikely success. Hiddink said afterwards that to outplay a team like Holland tactically, technically and physically was testament to the quality of his players. That was modesty talking of course; the victory was an enormous tribute to Hiddink’s own, currently unmatched, skills as a coach. Before he took over Russia were a bunch of water-treading underachievers who wouldn’t have qualified, two years on they sit two matches away from becoming European Champions, with very few brave enough to write off their chances.

Hiddink does have one new obstacle to overcome however, and that is the semi-final. He has been thwarted at this stage with his native country and with South Korea in the World Cups of 1998 and 2002 respectively. Surely no one would now put it past him to make it third time lucky, and cement his place amongst the managerial legends.

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Who’s Got The Ballacks?

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One always hopes that the knockout stages will move a tournament up a notch in the excitement stakes, but often it doesn’t work like that. The nerves tend to get worse as the stakes get higher, and that’s why we generally end up with so many penalty shoot-outs. Given that the group stages have produced such fantastic action here, it seemed less likely than usual that the latter rounds would upstage them. This, however, is Euro 2008, the finest football tournament in living memory, home of the brave and ambitious, and it seems that we’ve only just started.

Germany and Portugal were the first to do battle in the quarter-finals, and they produced a classic, once again packed with over-committed attacking football, disorganised defences, and goals, goals, goals. The Germans, embarrassed by Croatia, and nervous against Austria, returned to form with a bang, surging at the Portuguese, and exposing major flaws in their defence, which had gone relatively untested in the group.

Before long they were two up, the returning villain Schweinsteiger, sent off for idiocy against Croatia, turned hero, flying in at the near post to complete a sensational German move for the first after Ballack had released our old friend Podolski on the left. Shortly afterwards he added an assist to his tally, resisting the temptation to shoot from a thirty-five yard free-kick in favour of floating a much more dangerous ball into the mix, where Klose found the freedom of Basel thanks to non-existent Portuguese marking, and glanced in the second.

The Germans succeeded with tactics that have become the theme of the tournament, using the full width of the pitch, feeding the wingers, and getting behind the opposition defence before putting crosses in, and getting men in to the box to challenge for them. Then, once the lead was established, they used regular counter-attacks to ensure that their opponents could never feel comfortable in piling everyone forward when going in search of a comeback. They passed the ball in a fashion which was direct, but stopped short of being aerial and aimless. I would like to reiterate, these are nothing more than traditional English, or perhaps British, tactics; the tactics we’ve been told for years that we had to get rid of if we ever wanted to succeed in Europe; the tactics we’re told are from the stone age. The tactics used by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa that brought six successive European Cups to England between 1977 and 1982.

The Portuguese spent the greater part of the first half doing their usual huffing and puffing and getting absolutely nowhere, but with style. Deco had his finest match of the tournament, but his efforts were so sadly wasted in a side that so desperately, desperately needs a striker. In how many more tournaments are we going to have to point this out? Please Portugal, please, please, please find a striker! There must be someone somewhere with a Portuguese granny that can improve on Nuno Gomes or Pauleta. Failing that, at least play a second idiot up front instead of one on his own.

Nuno Gomes did actually score to bring Portugal back into it before half-time, and significantly this happened when Ronaldo made a direct run through the centre, making of himself a second striker. You have to wonder why on earth Portugal didn’t just make it a permanent move, after all it’s not as though Ronaldo can’t finish, and he would have added physical presence and height, aspects of his game that are mostly wasted when he’s stuck out on the wing. You would think in this tournament of wingers that Ronaldo would be in his element, and yet he has had a quiet tournament, adding further credence to the view that he doesn’t produce when the pressure is on. He certainly grew more and more ineffectual as the game wore on and Portugal became more in need of him.

You certainly could not say the same about Michael Ballack, who was an absolute giant in the middle of the park, organising, ball-winning, passing, driving forward, and in the second half scoring the goal that proved to be the winner, rising to meet another Schweinsteiger free-kick, and again exposing a soft-centre in the Portuguese defence which was this time exacerbated by a hopeless wander and flap by goalkeeper Ricardo.

Replays showed a push by Ballack on Paulo Ferreira as he leapt to head the ball home, which Scolari saw on the big screen and showed his displeasure about, but really, this kind of thing is surely fair game in the box. Just because a replay happened to catch this one, it doesn’t change the fact that there are dozens more in every single game that go unnoticed. If free-kicks and penalties were given for this kind of thing, there would really be no point in taking any set-pieces at all.

Moreover, the ‘foul’ by Ballack was nothing compared to the assault by Pepe on Klose that led to the award of the free-kick from which Germany profited. Pepe launched himself into the striker with force, leading with his shoulder and making thumping contact with Klose’s face. The German was lucky to escape uninjured, and Pepe should have been punished with a straight red card. The fact that the defender stayed on the field meant that there was more than a hint of justice about the resulting goal.

Portugal ‘responded’ by throwing on Nani and Helder Postiga, which must have relaxed the Germans no end, and yet incredibly it was these two that combined to make them sweat for the last five minutes, the latter heading in the former’s cross as the Germans dozed off at the back. That was as good as it got for Portugal though, and the final whistle brought down the curtain on Scolari’s reign. One can only wonder what a legacy he may have left if he could have uncovered that elusive striker; Euro 2004? Almost certainly. 2006 World Cup? Maybe. As it is, his team will be remembered as nearly men, something that definitely won’t be acceptable in his next job.

The Germans had been doubted by many after a couple of mediocre group games, but you can be sure there will be few doubters left now. Certainly not amongst the bookies, who have now reinstalled them as tournament favourites. Down to serious business, several German players stood up and showed their class: Lukas Podolski, who pulled defenders all over the place with his movement, provided a constant threat, and was inches away from one of the all-time great goals as a 35-yard exorcet flew past the post; Philipp Lahm, who coped comfortably with, in effect, two right wingers in Simao and the non-defending full-back Bosingwa, and still found time to join the attack; and Schweinsteiger, who returned from the disgrace of his red card against Croatia to deliver a match-winning contribution of a goal and two assists.

Standing head and shoulders above everyone though was Ballack, a true leader with the presence to dominate the biggest of matches, and as the stakes get higher, the stronger he becomes. This is a man who led Germany to a World Cup final almost single handed when still only 25, and may have gone on to lift the trophy but for being suspended for the final. He was denied again two years ago on home soil in the semi-finals, and has been on the losing side in two Champions League finals. If he were to be the man to lift the trophy at Euro 2008, there could surely be no more deserving winner.

One enormous relief felt by all at Portugal’s demise is surely that we will no longer have to listen to the world’s worst football commentator, Clive Tyldesley, turn ITV into MUTV. Ronaldo’s lame display continually made a fool of Tyldesley, who gave him the big build up every time he received the ball around the box with a hearty “…and here’s CristiANO RONALDO…”, only for the next line to fall flat on its arse as Ronaldo’s contribution limped into obscurity. A suggestion for you ITV – Tyldesley won’t be interested in the rest of this now that Ronaldo’s out, I mean surely he can’t base an entire commentary around Edwin Van Der Sar? Do yourselves, and especially us, a favour by packing this horrendously biased idiot off early to prepare his Champions League preview, and please give the remainder of your fixtures to Jon Champion.

In fact, I will make you a unique offer – I promise to watch at least one of the dual broadcasted semi-finals on ITV if Champion is in the chair. I don’t promise to watch your analysis, but the second the BBC pass to John Motson, I’ll be over.

I await your reply with anticipation.

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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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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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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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