Tag Archives: Germany

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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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 ‘Kids’ Are Alright

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The way the TV boys have been referring to Russia and Sweden throughout the tournament, you would think they are, respectively, a bunch of raw 18-year-olds recently plucked from a schoolboy international, and a plodding group of 35-plus footballing geriatrics on their last legs. In truth this is a complete exaggeration, but watching the two sides last night you would have been forgiven for believing the hype.

The curtain came down on the group stage of Euro 2008 with a frightening display by Guus Hiddink’s Russians that displayed all the qualities one associates with young players; pace, imagination, enthusiasm, and panic infront of goal. Sweden on the other hand looked like a collection of ageing limbs, making a rather ungraceful exit from the international stage.

The facts though, are that the youngest player on either starting XI was Russia’s 22-year-old goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, and that Russia fielded two outfield players under 25 to Sweden’s one. Sweden’s starting line-up contained six thirty-somethings to Russia’s three, but this is misleading as only one on each side was older than 31. Also, Russia’s two central strikers, Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, are of identical ages, 27 and 26 respectively, to two of Sweden’s attackers, Johan Elmander and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Given these stats, I don’t think Sweden should be allowed to get away with age being cited as an excuse for their pedestrian display.

Perhaps what we were watching was a nostalgic throwback to the communist era, and the Swedes were actually the victims of a sneaky Russian sabotage. They certainly had the appearance of playing in mysteriously leaden boots, and as anyone who has ever watched an American film from the 1980s will know, these pesky Reds will try anything.

The reality is that the Swedes were totally outclassed by a more confident and skilful side, and the Russian victory was yet another one at Euro 2008 for smart attacking adventure over dour defensive pragmatism, making it so far the exact opposite of Euro 2004. How Sweden got away with a deficit of only two is perhaps the only worrying aspect of the game for Guus Hiddink, but he will prefer to concentrate on his side’s stunning exhibition of passing and movement around the box that has so far only been matched in this tournament by Croatia.

Russia were able to field Arshavin, their most feared attacking player, for the first time in the tournament, and the confidence his presence seemed to give the rest of the side was the noticeable difference between this Russian display and those seen against Spain and Greece. In the early stages against the Spanish, Russia definitely gave some strong hints at their attacking abilities, but quickly seemed to lose heart after defensive errors cost them goals. Against the Greeks, they appeared nervous about over-committing in a game that could have seen them exit the tournament early. Last night, they played with the freedom of a team that felt they were fully-equipped to dispose of their opponents.

From the off, Russia tore a supposedly tough Swedish rearguard to shreds, creating clearcut chances for fun, and getting so many men forward that often their biggest problems were getting under each others feet, and having to hold a debate to decide who would shoot. The two goals that were scored were both of sublime brilliance, and had they been scored by the Dutch we would never have heard the end of it. The first was a swift one touch passing move which saw the ball worked first wide then back into the centre, leaving the static defenders resembling yellow training cones. The second was, in my opinion, the goal of the tournament so far; a quite stunning counter from a Swedish defensive free kick aimlessly punted into the Russian half. The kick fell straight to a Red shirt just over the half-way line, and within seconds the ball had been ruthlessly transferred in four movements into the back of the net, finished effortlessly by Arshavin, with experienced defenders looking on in despair.

Now, I’m going to try a little analysis here:

It’s interesting to compare the second Russian goal to the one scored by Wesley Sneijder for Holland against Italy, as that goal was repeated over and over again for days and presented to us as an example of the perfect counter-attacking goal.

Granted the Dutch move began from their own goal line, so covered almost half a pitch more ground than the Russian one, but as the move evolves you can see that none of the Dutch players are marked. The key ball in the move is the one that releases Van Bronckhorst on the left wing, but because Van Bronckhorst’s run from his own penalty area hadn’t been tracked by a single Italian, he was in acres of space, meaning that the ball to find him needed to be nothing better than a hoof into space. From there, Van Bronckhorst overhits his cross, but the unmarked Kuyt has enough time to backpedal and nod the ball down to the unmarked Sneijder, whose first time volley beats Buffon for pace at the near post.

The Russian goal is better becasue it has so much less margin for error. When the hopeless Swedish free kick lands at the feet of the Russian player there is a conventional formation infront of him, he has three attacking players ahead, all marked, and there is a spare defender who has just taken the free kick who can come across to cover if necessary. The attacking players all begin to move in different directions, pulling their markers out of position, and the three passes that are played to get the ball to the goalscorer are all placed on a sixpence at the feet of their target, and have to be. Arshavin has no time to wait with the finish, and yet it’s measured, placed to perfection in the far corner.

I’m honestly not picking on the Dutch here, I’m just fed up of biased TV coverage telling us certain teams/players are geniuses whilst merely paying lip-service to others when I can’t see any difference between what they’ve done.

The Russian wonder goal came five minutes into the second half, and they somehow contrived to miss everything else that came their way after that, hitting the woodwork, shooting when they should have passed, passing when they should have shot, and finishing lazily. At no stage did Russia sit back and settle for what they had, even at 2-0; every opportunity to attack that came their way was snapped up. Let that be a lesson to their beaten opponents and a few others.

The Swedes had clearly been sent out with a first priority of protecting the draw that would have seen them qualify, and once that had gone out of the window fairly early, there appeared to be no plan B. They looked distinctly ordinary all over the park, and none more so than Ibrahimovic, who recently became the highest-paid footballer in the world after signing a new contract with Internazionale worth over £9 million pounds a year.

Let me repeat that, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is paid over £9 million pounds a year, more than any other footballer in the world. Does anyone else think this guy is a carthorse? All he seems to do for Inter is convert penalties, and he hadn’t scored for Sweden in over two years before this tournament. Last night he looked slow, predictable and a very comfortable nights work for average defenders, which is all he was up against. Henrik Larsson, ten years his senior, offered far more threat if only because he displayed a little guile and invention, something which seems to me to be beyond the capabilities of Ibrahimovic.

For Russia, they move on to the knockout stages of a tournament for the first time since the USSR were beaten in the final of Euro 88 by Holland, and Marco Van Basten’s famous goal. Their quarter final opponents, of course, are Holland and Marco Van Basten. Holland’s best performance since then was reaching the world cup semi-final in ’98 and losing on penalties to Brazil, under the management of Guus Hiddink. Another ten years on, and all these factors have strangely come around again to give us the mouthwatering prospect of Holland v Hiddink.

Sadly for Euro 2008, we shall now see no more of Greece and their unique brand of beautifully choreographed slapstick. They leave Euro 2008 as the only side not to win a single point, but not as the only side without a goal, after they left us quite fittingly with a reminder of how it was all done four years ago. A set piece, swung dangerously into the penalty area, and Charisteas rises to plant a header beyond the helpless keeper. Ah, the memories!

However it didn’t last, as even Spain’s reserves seemed miffed with the idea of dropping points to the Greeks, and came back in the second half with two goals to turn it around, the first an absolute corker from the appropriately named Ruben De La Red. Greece at least bowed out without too much hilarity this time, for once their veteran goalkeeper and Euro 2008’s clown-in-chief Antonis Nikopolidis appeared blameless.

Greece’s spectacular transition from heroes to zeroes reflect the changing attitudes shown towards the championships this time compared to four years ago. In amongst a group of teams infected with negativity as in 2004, the field was levelled out for Greece and they filled their boots. This time around, where the etiquette has been for ambition, adventure, and risk-taking, they have been left out in the cold. Maybe that’s good news for football, but the Greeks’ incredible triumph will live long in the memoy as a thrilling event, because it was so unexpected. Also, they may have done international tournaments a great service for the future in giving all negative minded coaches of talent-rich teams a wake-up call.

Spain, as all the other three group winners had, sent out an entirely reserve side. Their rather tame efforts had more in common with Portugal’s final game than with Croatia and Holland’s momentum maintenance. It will almost certainly have no significance whatsoever, though it will be an interesting match-up with Italy, who will come into the quarter-final with the match mentality firmly switched on.

So, it’s goodbye to the group stages, and hello penalty-shoot outs. Suddenly, I fancy the Germans again.

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

Safe In The Arms Of Auntie

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Excuse me while I just get something off my chest…

LU – LU – LUKAS PODOLSKI!

That’s better. The finest chant of World Cup 2006 is back in business.

If I had found time to write a preview of this group, it would have been difficult to avoid saying the blatantly obvious, which is that Germany and Croatia ought to walk through to the second round. After both recorded opening wins, they will be even stronger favourites to advance, but they both now know that they won’t be walking anywhere.

Germany, Poland, and the BBC got this show on the road for real this evening with a rip-snorter of a match, and a televisual feast, that came straight from the old-school. First of all, it’s amazing what a difference it makes to have two sides playing good old 4-4-2, an endangered species at the highest level these days with so many wretched 4-5-1 advocates amongst the elite managers. The result was a wide open match with a ridiculous amount of chances that somehow didn’t end up with a 6-2 German victory, but rather a routine looking 2-0 that doesn’t even threaten to cover the events.

It must be conceded though that this excitement was down in no small part to a kamikaze Polish defensive system, which was based around playing the offside trap somewhere near the halfway line. This never fails to make a match worth watching, so all power to the Polish coach for a well-judged act of martyrdom in the name of entertainment.

The Germans gleefully waltzed through the non-existent Polish rearguard at will (additional jokes are unwelcome at this point), the charge ironically led by two Poles in opposition colours, Miroslav Klose and, our hero, Master Podolski. The scoreline may have been more embarrassing for the Poles but for Klose’s strangely over-generous mood, as he appeared to believe that his role was not to score but to attempt to lay on a chance for his younger strike partner at every opportunity, rather like a father playing up front with his own son on the park. In fairness to him, he made a pretty decent fist of this task, laying on both goals for Podolski; firstly turning down an easy chance for himself to provide his team-mate with a tap-in (this was at the second attempt, having made a horlicks of the exact same scenario a few minutes earlier), then mysteriously hacking at a great chance which resulted in the ball looping up perfectly for Podolski to rifle in a superb left-foot volley. Young Lukas ought to be nailed on for top scorer with a guardian angel like Klose watching over him.

Not that the Germans had everything their own way by any means, the Poles responded to each German attack with one of their own, and with just a bit more nous around the box they would surely have breached a far from solid looking German defence. It was just a huge lift to the spirits, and a romantic throwback to better times now sadly passed, to see two sides, roared on by a deafening crowd for the duration, prepared to commit men forward, to play with wide men, and to appear to agree with the idea that your best chance of winning a football match is to try and score as many goals as possible.

Croatia may wish take note of the latter point, as their attempt to try and hold a 1-0 lead earned with a 2nd minute penalty against the written-off Austrians almost came unstuck, as the beleaguered co-hosts launched a wonderfully spirited response to an enormous group of home dissenters who have actually campaigned in complete seriousness for their own charges not to be allowed participation in the tournament because they feared national humiliation.

I have a feeling this group of Austrian players may have made heroes of themselves amongst their public tonight, after the kind of glorious defeat that we have become accustomed to seeing Scotland produce down the years. After an initial 20 minutes which threatened to confirm all Austrians’ worst fears, the Croats found themselves still with only a single goal to show for their domination, and in an attempt to strike a balance between defending their lead, and making some effort to increase it, lost their way completely. The Austrians picked up on their uncertainty, and went for the jugular, creating numerous chances, but alas found no-one with the required composure to convert any.

One suspects that the Croatian boss Slaven Bilic will have been less than impressed with the panic caused to his defence by the tournament’s rank outsiders. It must be noted however that Austria have been written off on no adequate basis, as they had not actually played a competitive international for two and a half years before this evening, and they will go into their next match against Poland with vastly increased confidence.

The real stars of the evening though, were our faithful broadcasters. If Auntie BBC’s team had put their feet up and revelled in the hopeless submission of their ‘rivals’ the previous evening, tonight the big boys put their fags out and got to work on kicking the other side into touch. The Beeb couldn’t have played a bigger hand tonight, and with both games in their locker they sent out the A-Team, keeping Lineker and Hansen out for the entire evening, and arrogantly showing off a conveyor belt of genius by exchanging Gordon Strachan for Martin O’Neill between games. They also took the inspired decision to give Motty the night off, meaning the only sources of embarrassment were Alan ‘bleedin obvious’ Shearer, and village idiot Mark Lawrenson. But even the presence of a dreary geordie and a halfwit couldn’t detract from the BBC’s awesome display.

Half-time during the Germany-Poland game was a joy, with Hansen calling on the words that should carry his copyright, ‘abysmal’ and ‘shambles’, to describe the hapless Polish defending. O’Neill joined in a ruthless dissection of their incompetence with angry relish, sounding truly offended at being asked to watch such bungling and ineptitude. When this fun was over, the Beeb then played another blinder, previewing tomorrow’s action by pulling out a hilarious, and long-overdue, half-time feature on how the ludicrous French coach Raymond Domenech is a fruitcake who uses astrology to select his team. An incredulous French journalist asked “How can you take seriously an international football coach who refuses to select a player because he’s a Leo?” Could not have put it better myself Monsieur.

More of this French lunatic and his crowd of overrated underachievers tomorrow. Tonight I shall enjoy a most content night’s sleep after an evening to make the heart glow; football as it should always be played, presented with panache and humour. And do you know something else? I can’t remember the Premier League being mentioned even once tonight.

Aaaaah….Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

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Welcome

To any football fan, this day is the equivalent of Christmas Eve. In other words, this is the best bit; the anticipation, the tension, the unknown. The bad news is tomorrow we can finally take off the wrapping paper to reveal a succession of dirty, cheating, overpaid, snivelling, whining, egomaniacal excuses for footballers ready to dash all our dreams. And that’s just the Dutch.

Ah, stop pretending that’s not what you’ve signed up for. We know this is what we’re stuck with, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Anyway, there is some good news: England aren’t here! What, hadn’t you heard? Yes, yes, we actually get to enjoy this one without having to listen to embarrassingly biased analysis, or having our coverage interrupted every five minutes by Garth Crooks updating us on where the England players went shopping today. I feel better about this already!

As, some of you may know, I have done this before. See the links for a record of my previous tournament-blogging exploits from two years ago. Same rules apply again here, I’ll be attempting to watch every match possible, and post updates every day on the life of a football obsessive during these crazy biennial periods.

The European Championships, formerly European Nations Cup, and now annoyingly just known as “The Euro’s”, are a very different animal from the dear old World Cup. History shows us that the World Cup is the property of the aristocracy, yet this is far from true of this continental get-together. This is a point hardly worth explaining with the trophy currently in the hands of Greece, but 2004 was just the latest in a succession of oddities thrown up by these championships. Czechoslovakia’s 1976 win over the World and European Champions West Germany is of course the stuff of legend, thanks to this blog’s cover star Antonin Panenka, and a certain penalty. Denmark managed to lift the trophy in 1992 despite failing to qualify for the finals, and if any further proof were needed that this tournament produces the unexpected, close examination of the trophy will reveal that even the name of Spain appears. So anything’s possible.

I had planned to decorate this blog with a fancy video roll down the side, but UEFA in their wisdom appear to have wielded their big copyright stick at anyone attempting to show clips of previous European Championship glories. The Beeb seem to be allowed though, so I’ve instead included a healthy list of links to their excellent archive. Watching these clips demonstrates that this really isn’t England’s tournament, so all the more reason for us to be pleased that they aren’t here to embarrass themselves once again.

As you will have already realised, one of the things any reader will have to cope with throughout the lifespan of this blog, is my complete elation at England’s failure to qualify. I really couldn’t be happier. As an obsessive of football, and of these summer festivities in particular, England just get in the way.

One thing is worrying me though: So far I only have five tournament wallcharts to fill in. This is below my usual standards, and it makes me wonder if I am starting to go soft in my old age. I think a visit to the newsagents tomorrow morning may be in order to search for an emergency supply.

So, one sleep ’til Christmas… sorry, I mean football. That’s football for the next 23 days, including the next 16 days in a row with the first day off (horrific thought) not coming until after the last quarter-final. That’s 23 days for us to watch, wonder, and moan about TV pundits, but more importantly to do exactly what I have done in this opening post: Ignore the fact that the Germans are so obviously going to win.

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