• Friday, 29 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #18

    Germany's tournament, this. At least one of our staffers has been saying that for over a year now. So Italy would just roll over and let them pass through to the final then yeah? Err, not quite.

    The first quarter-hour was Germany's. Mats Hummels probably should have scored from a corner, but rather snatched at his shot and it was knocked off the line by Andrea Pirlo. At the back, it looked like Hummels had Mario Balotelli in his pocket. Italy looked panicky every time the ball was played forward, but crucially, it didn't stick up there at the feet of Mario Gomez.

    After weathering that, Italy grew into it and tested Manuel Neuer with shots from Riccardo Montolivo and Antonio Cassano. Moments later, Cassano wriggled free on the left and put in a great ball for Balotelli to head in powerfully. Germany were behind for the first time in the competition and were visibly rattled, losing their shape.

    Germany were left open at the back as they looked for a way back in, operating with a very high line. All it needed was a well-weighted ball over the top for someone to run on to. Montolivo delivered the ball, Balotelli the run and he finished in emphatic style.

    Loew made changes after the break, Miroslav Klose for Gomez at the break, Thomas Muller for Jerome Boateng later, and they did press forward. However, a back four of Balzaretti, Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini will eat all that up and more. They were fairly comfortable. And while Germany pressed, Italy countered. Twice Claudio Marchisio went close, once played in by Alessandro Diamanti and again when squaring to Antonio di Natale was the better option. Di Natale had a chance to win it and Balzaretti had the ball in the net from an offside position. Germany just couldn't get out.

    They did get something in stoppage time as a needless handball gave Mesut Ozil the chance to pull one back from the spot, but it was all too little and all far too late.

    Were Germany hampered by the injury that Bastian Schweinsteiger was struggling with in the lead-up to the game? He was conspicuous by his inconspicuousness throughout. The changes Loew made to his starting line-up didn't work, threw their usual gameplan away and disrupted their flow. This handed the early initiative to Italy which they exploited brilliantly. And it wasn't the Andrea Pirlo show. This was a real collective effort and Pirlo, though good as usual, was not running it all such as he did in the quarter-final against France. A one-man team they are not, such that anyone thought that in the first place.

    Spain await in Sunday's final which throws up all sorts of tactical battles. The sides met in the group stages in a compelling 1-1 draw. Where's your money on this one?

    Thursday, 28 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #17

    Boring has been the buzzword of late. Bizarrely, it's an epithet applied to Spain's football.

    Much has been written on the subject, not least this from James Hunt, and we're not about to go into a great deal of depth here. Suffice to say that it's hardly Spain's fault that other teams are so worried about them that they forget to do what they need to do to win and resort to sitting back and allowing the Spanish the ball. France tried to contain them and it failed. The game was not much of a spectacle as a result.

    So what would Portugal do? They'd have a crack at their neighbours. They came flying out of the blocks, putting the Spanish goal under real pressure early on. In turn, this forced Spain to up their game. The game ebbed and flowed, going from one end to the other. The only trouble was, nobody could find a goal.

    As the game wore on, a goalless draw looked increasingly inevitable as the fear of losing outweighed the desire to win. The one time a really clear-cut opportunity presented itself, it came to Portugal. On the break, they'd engineered a four-on-two opportunity. The standard tactic of 'pass it to Ronaldo' was enacted, but he shanked his shot badly. Extra time came and went - it would be settled by penalties.

    Now, we've gone over penalties many, many times. We've discussed practice, technique, whether goalkeepers should dive or stand still. What we haven't discussed is the order of your first five takers. Surely, your best exponent of the art goes early - certainly in the first three. Spain sent their best - Xabi Alonso - up first. His shot was saved. Step forward Joao Moutinho: also saved. Iniesta finally got one on the board before Pepe and Pique did likewise. Then bizarre decision number one. Bruno Alves had almost got to the penalty spot when Nani caught him up and sent him away. Nani scored, followed by Sergio Ramos with a cheeky Panenka. Up stepped Bruno Alves again. What on earth was going through his mind having been usurped previously is anybody's guess. Off a long run, he absolutely smashed his kick - too much as it turned out and it came back off the bar. Fabregas won it with an unsaveable spot kick, going in off the post. Cameras cut instantly to Ronaldo, Portugal's designated man for the fifth penalty, a penalty that wasn't required.

    The technique on all bar Alves's kick was excellent. Where Portugal fell down was in their selection, their undermining of Bruno Alves and of leaving their best player to take a kick that in any event may not have been needed. That was foolish in the extreme.

    Today, the second semi-final as Germany take on Italy. No German side has beaten Italy at a major championships. It's a brave punter that predicts that run to continue.

    Monday, 25 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #16

    Well that was depressingly familiar.

    All tournament long, it's been a source of some pride that there had not been a goalless draw. That England were involved when one did was inevitable. They got themselves stuck as they attempted to deal with the conundrum that is Andrea Pirlo.

    We saw Holland fail to deal with Bastien Schweinsteiger earlier in the competition. Holland's deep-lying midfielders did not push out to close him down and he passed them to an early elimination. Pirlo, if anything, sits even deeper than Schweinsteiger and that left England with a problem. If they push out to close him down, they leave themselves wide open at the back. Stand off him and he'll boss things. The solution was to have the forwards dropping a bit deeper to pressure him. This had the consequence of compressing England's two banks of four into what became a back eight. With Wayne Rooney in particular dropping deep to track Pirlo, there was no outlet and on the rare occasions England won possession, it was given away almost immediately.

    And yet, for all they enjoyed the overwhelming majority of the ball, Italy couldn't fashion any really clear-cut chances. Their own lack of width combined with England's desire to funnel them into the middle - their one area of strength with Joleon Lescott and John Terry particularly good - saw them get tangled up too often and resorted to shots from 25 yards and more. One of those almost crept in, Daniele de Rossi with a wicked, swerving effort the hit the outside of the post. For all that Pirlo was in charge out there, Italy simply couldn't break an obdurate England down in the initial 90 minutes or the additional half hour.

    And so to penalties, the English bete-noire. When Ricardo Montolivo screwed Italy's second penalty wide of the goal, there was a glimmer of hope that this time might be different for England. Pirlo's delicious Panenka seemed to swing things back Italy's way and Ashley Young hit the bar and Ashley Cole fired a weak effort in that Gianluigi Buffon saved easily. England undone on penalties yet again.

    Cue the hand-wringing and the blaming of luck. It is not luck, nor lack thereof, that decides penalty shoot-outs. Blaming luck allows you to gloss over the skill deficit in this area. It seeks to minimise the failings. It is the last resting place of the scoundrel. Books have been written on penalties. You can practice all you like, but there has to be more to it than just taking pot-shots from 12 yards. There needs to be critical analysis of technique, an understanding of why a penalty is missed and why it is scored, a plan to take better penalties more often. It happens so often in tournament football that it has to become part of the process.

    So what did we learn? Well not a lot about England. A new manager in charge for only five weeks got results in distinctly unflashy style and took them as far as anyone else could and as far - beyond, even - anyone expected. His real job starts now, trying to put into place a system which can produce both players and, more critically, coaches, trying to find a voice, a style, so we never again see England absolutely stink the place out at a major championships. For Italy, for all they were massively superior, that lack of width was quite alarming and a harsh booking keeps Cristian Maggio - one player who can supply width - out of the semi-final. It's unlikely that Germany will be too afraid of what they saw here.

    Some days off now before the semi-finals. First, on Wednesday, it's Spain v Portugal with Italy v Germany to follow a day later. It's difficult to conclude other than the best four sides at the tournament have progressed through to this point.

    Sunday, 24 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #15

    There has been an amount of criticism of Spain at these championships. Vincente del Bosque's strikerless approach and possession-based game has even been criticised as boring, which is just plain bizarre. Yes it's unconventional, they are missing David Villa and maybe del Bosque isn't quite using all the options available to him, but he keeps winning games and isn't that what really matters?

    Spain were in control from the off against France who were disappointing. If the object was to hold the Spanish for as long as possible and work into the game that way, it didn't work as Xabi Alonso, on his 100th appearance for his country, arrived late and unmarked in the box to head in Jordi Alba's cross. It's rare these days to see Alonso that far forward, but it was a well-timed run that France totally failed to deal with.

    That left France with 70 minutes to get back on terms, but they didn't really threaten to do that. Anthony Reveillere was included at right-back with Mathieu Debuchy pushed forward as Samir Nasri was dropped. It didn't work. Eventually, Laurent Blanc put Jeremy Menez on for Debuchy, but still it didn't work. It was just a question of whether Spain would add to their lead. They did eventually as Reveillere bundled Pedro over and Alonso put the penalty away in emphatic style. It was a bit of a soft penalty decision, but it was clumsy by Reveillere after Pedro had stood up Adil Rami.

    And still you get the feeling Spain can play better, which must be a worry for everyone else. They have set up an Iberian derby in the semi-finals on Wednesday in Donetsk.

    The last of the quarters is tonight, England and Italy meeting with the winners playing Germany.

    Saturday, 23 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #14

    Or to put it another way, the striker who kicked the hornet's nest.

    It went pretty much as expected with Greece sitting deep and in numbers and asking Germany to break them down. For 39 minutes, it worked. Germany did get the ball in the net, but Andre Schurrle - one of three changes up top as Joachim Loew boldly swapped his forwards - was a smidgen offside. Greece were beginning to believe they might do this again. Then Phillip Lahm decided to drain one from downtown (as I believe the basketball vernacular would have it).

    It was a vicious, swerving, dipping strike from 20-something yards - quite spectacular and for all their firepower up front, suddenly you had to start wondering about the quiet lad at full-back, the respected captain, the man that seems to have been around forever, who wouldn't say boo to a goose and has hardly been prolific throughout his international career.

    1-0 it remained to the break, a 45 minutes in which Germany enjoyed 78% of the ball. But within ten minutes of the restart, Greece were level. Theofanis Gekas played a lovely through-ball for Dimitris Salpangidis who squared the ball beyond the advancing Manuel Neuer for Giorgios Samaras, sliding in, to tuck away, though Jerome Boateng really should have done better.

    Oh Giorgios. What did you do? He made Germany angry, and you wouldn't like them when they're angry. Within five minutes, the lead was restored thanks to a frankly amazing volley from Sami Khedira who met Boateng's cross with a perfectly executed kung-fu kick to smash the ball past Michalis Sifakis. Seven minutes later, the compulsory tournament goal from Miroslav Klose and the outstanding Marco Reus volleyed a fourth a further six minutes later. Greece did get one back via a last-minute penalty converted expertly by Salpangidis after Boateng had handled needlessly. Boateng's performance was the one negative for Germany and it would not be a shock to see Lars Bender recalled for the semi-final.

    So what did we learn? Not a lot about Greece who did all they could in the face of overwhelming opposition. We learned a lot about Germany. That they could drop Mario Gomez, Lukas Podolski and Thomas Muller and replace them with Schurrle, Reus and Klose is frankly frightening. And still Mario Gotze only got ten minutes, Ilkay Gundogan, Toni Kroos, Marcel Schmelzer and Benny Howedes couldn't get a kick. Be afraid, Europe.

    So long Greece, but we still love you:

    Spain v France today. It should be a cracker.

    Friday, 22 June 2012

    Greece v Germany: Euro cliché-watch

    It's Greece v Germany tonight. You may have heard that these countries are at the centre of an economic snafu that threatens the future of the European single currency. Headline writers around the world certainly have and have been predictably awful, overly hyperbolic and just plain baffling.

    Independent: Germany v Greece: A real Euro stress test
    The game also features in the paper's cartoon.
    Not the worst offender by any means

    Guardian: Greece said yes to the Euro - now they'll fight for the Euros
    Good grief that's laboured

    Also in cartoon form on the business pages:


    Daily Telegraph: A new Greek rescue plan to avoid defeat against Germany
    Or a tactical plan to win a game of football? Maybe?

    Daily Telegraph (again): Greece determined to overcome Germany and avoid winding-up order in quarter final
    Wow. The country gets shut down if they lose? High stakes indeed.

    FT: Greek footballers seek to sidestep politics
    They'd do a lot better if people didn't keep bringing it up

    Daily Mail: Greece focused on Germany rather than eurozone problems
    No shit! You mean Fernando Santos doesn't concentrate his team-talks around financial probity?

    Daily Mail (again): Merkel out to sink Greece again!
    Bold ploy by Loew to pick the German Chancellor. Probably still a better bet the Mario Gomez up top. Also, when else has she, personally, sunk Greece?

    Daily Mail (yet again): They should toss a drachma to start the match! Battle of the bailout looms
    Right. For starters, you start a game with a whistle not a coin toss. Secondly.... actually, forget it - it's the Daily Mail. Not worth the steam off your piss.

    BBC: Greece v Germany - the bail-out game
    What does that even mean?

    Reuters: Euro zone battle moves to the pitch as Germany play Greece
    It's not a battle, economically or footballingly

    Zee News: Germany v Greece: It's more than just a game
    It really isn't

    Irish Times: Germany to break Greeks
    Not entirely sure whether this is about football or not

    Belfast Telegraph: Germany and Greece braced for 'Debt Derby'
    At least you had the grace to put it in inverted commas

    News.com.au: Germany v Greece not about money
    Sound the obvious-stating klaxon

    Londonist: Austerity showdown
    Fuck off. Just fuck off

    NESN.com: Future of European Union at stake as Germany meet Greece in 'bailout game'
    We're pretty sure it isn't. In fact we checked - it's just a place in the semi-finals up for grabs

    Stuff.co.nz: Germany, Greece play down Euro crisis talk
    Well of course they do as it's got shit all to do with football. Sheesh

    Telegraph.com.au: Austerity drive to avoid a Greek crisis
    This really is about football. The 'austerity drive' is Joachim Loew saying you can't be gung-ho in the Euros and need to make sure your defence is tight. If it takes this much explaining, it just doesn't work

    Press of Atlantic City: Loew leaves politics to the politicians
    What? He was involved before? No he wasn't, so this is meaningless guff

    Der Spiegel: Germany and Greece take their fight outside
    Not you too Germany

    Deutsche Welle: Germany, Greece clash over Euro
    No. No they don't.

    Bild: Goodbye Greece. Today we won't be able to save you!
    We expected nothing else from these chaps

    San Francisco Chronicle: Greeks face German nemesis as bailout battle moves to soccer
    It doesn't though. It really doesn't

    Washington Post: Greece hopes for payback against Germany on Euro 2012 pitch
    Payback for what exactly?

    Wall Street Journal: Germany to kick Greece out of the Euro.... Championships?
    Ah ha haaa! We see what you did there!

    ABC.com: Political football
    Yeah, OK, that's not bad

    Boston.com: Greece seek to win Germany's respect at Euro 2012
    We reckon they'd rather win a game of football

    Bloomberg: Greece, Germany take Euro crisis to soccer pitch
    No they don't

    PBS NewsHour: At Euro 2012, Germany and Greece face off in battle of the Eurozone
    Yes, because these are the only nations with the shared currency

    Hollywood Reporter: Euro crisis to play out on TV screens Friday night
    They're showing some top level summit action instead of the football?

    Toronto Sun: Lenders v Borrowers at Euro 2012
    Borrowers? Don't fancy them at corners

    The Fiscal Times: Germany vs. Greece: Bailout battle plays out on pitch
    No. Football battle plays out on pitch. Bailout battle plays out in ballot boxes and EU/G8 summits

    Hamilton Spectator: Germany vs. Greece quarter-final match amid eurozone crisis could raise passions
    It could if there wasn't macro-economic chicanery afoot as well. What's your point?

    mg.co.za: Greece to take on Germany in ultimate grudge match
    We can think of several dozen more grudgier matches than this

    Daily News and Analysis (India): Germany vs Greece to be Euro grudge match?
    As a rule, if a newspaper headline asks a question, the answer is 'no'. Just as it is here.

    Straits Times (Singapore): It's Germany 8, Greece 0 even before kick-off
    No it isn't. In no sense whatsoever is it.

    The National (UAE): Greeks dream of Euro exit for Germany
    Actually, we'll give you that one

    Yahoo! Eurosport UK: You can bank on a Germany victory
    Classic punnery

    But it's not all insanity:

    Yahoo! Eurosport UK: Put Euro crisis aside say Greeks and Germans
    Sadly a plea that has summarily fallen on deaf ears - including their own, as evidenced above

    Businessweek: How soccer will decide Euro crisis (It won't)
    Hallelujah brother

    We've been updating this throughout the day, but for reasons of maintaining our sanity we're ending the madness here.

    Yesterday at the Euros #13

    The day off was horrible and, frankly, the sop of one game yesterday barely took the edge off. Anyway, the quarter-finals are underway.

    Czech Republic against Portugal was not a thriller. The Czechs started quite brightly, Portugal content to let them have the ball and have a look at them. Eventually they sussed them out, took control of possession and wore the Czechs down. For all they were edging matters, Portugal didn't look too great themselves. Nani fell over in the penalty area after a horrendous first touch - you don't get penalties for having a first touch like a landmine - and Ronaldo hit the outside of the post from a tight-ish angle late in the first half.

    After the break, more of the same. Again, the post took a knock from Ronaldo and Hugo Almeida - first half substitute to replace thigh-twang victim Helder Postiga - missed a very good opportunity from close range. Still level with the clock running on, the Czechs had a brief spell of six or seven minutes where they exerted some pressure, largely through Vaclav Pilar, but it came to nothing. Instead, Portugal went up the other end and Joao Moutinho's cross was met by... him... with a towering header and they closed out the remaining five minutes with little alarm.

    Two gripes, both about... him. That thing he does before free-kicks is bloody tiresome. It's like Jonny bleedin' Wilkinson and more often than not with the same result, i.e. the ball sailing way over the crossbar. Also, step-overs. Just pack it in eh? If it takes radical measures to eliminate this from the game, we'll back them. To whit, one free kick of the shins per step-over. That should sort it.

    Tomorrow, Greece v Germany. Strap yourself in for European economic crisis punnery. We'll avoid that ta and watch this instead:

    Go on Socrates!

    Thursday, 21 June 2012

    Team of the Tournament (so far)

    After the group stage, it seems customary to make a team of the tournament so far. With a whole day of cold turkey where we've all been jonesing for another hit of live football (just hours to go now, hang in there), we've had time to think. This is often a dangerous thing, but we've tried to keep it positive. Here's our XI of the players we've most enjoyed watching. Most enjoyed watching - not 'best'. Therefore we're not saying that this is the best team, formation, anything. We like these dudes the bestest just because.

    Goalkeeper: Przemyslaw Tyton
    We like the resurgence of the goalkeeper as captain - Buffon, Lloris, Casillas - in the Dino Zoff envelope, but as Roy Carroll will testify, there's one way to make yourself an instant hero: make your first touch of the ball a penalty save. Moreover, the last time we saw Tyton play was in the Eredivisie early in the season where he was wiped out by a team-mate's knee to the noggin, prompting the little seen double figures on the added-time board. Coming on in the opening game following Wojciech Szczesny, he turned Giorgios Karagounis's penalty away earning himself near-legend status in the blink of an eye.

    Defence: Mats Hummels, Theodor Gebre Selassie, Olof Mellberg
    Olof Mellberg is the manliest man alive. Hewn from granite 34 years ago, he looks as good as he ever did. Frankly, UEFA have a right cheek to credit his second goal against England to a Glen Johnson own goal. The ball was in. Also, cool beard.
    It's our thesis here that the full-backs are the most important players on the field in the modern game. Gebre Selassie looks every inch the part. He gets forward, he's comfortable on the ball, he looks good in defence. What's not to love?
    Mats Hummels is just brilliant.

    Enduring image of the tournament

    Midfield: Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Yohan Cabaye, Luka Modric
    Yes, we've picked a midfield of tiny football pixies, but we like tiny football pixies. We could watch all five of these all day long. Pirlo's range of passing is incredible, his free-kick against Croatia magnificent. Good luck to Spain and Barcelona finding a new Xavi, Cabaye is a real driving force in the French midfield, has a bit of bite in the tackle and thunderous shot on him. Modric did his level best to drag Croatia into the knockout stages and but for a brilliant Iker Casillas save would have done just that. But the king among the princes is Andres Iniesta.
    Ahh, Iniesta. What can you say that these pictures don't?

    Not a lot really.

    Forwards: Karim Benzema, Mario Mandzukic
    He hasn't scored yet, but Benzema's all-round play has been quite outstanding. He's a man on top of his game after a stellar season in Spain, he's quick, strong and inventive and has looked right up for it from the off in this tournament.
    Mandzukic has found the net, been a massive handful for whoever he's been up against and is a bit of a throwback to an old-style, hairy-arsed centre-forward. Strong, powerful and direct - there's a lot to be said for that.

    Who to manage that lot though? It's a choice of two. We like Erik Hamren turning up dressed like Terry Griffiths circa 1979, but it can only really be Slaven Bilic, mainly because we'd fear being bundled into the boot of a car, driven to some wasteland and buried under a new motorway fly-over if we didn't appoint him. Oh, and the suit-and-beanie look is coming to a high street near you soon, whether you like it or not (HINT: you do like it, or else).

    Wednesday, 20 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #12

    For the last time in the group stage...

    It would have taken an extraordinary set of circumstances for France to go out of the competition at this stage, but they did their bit to make it happen. Though they had 58% of the ball and carved out plenty of opportunities, they simply didn't work Andreas Isaksson enough. That was down to two things - France's wayward shooting and Olof Mellberg, one of the stand-out players of the tournament so far and unlucky to be going home at this stage. Time and again he got in a block or a crucial tackle in and when he didn't, France failed to hit the target. Hatem Ben Arfa got a start and had three efforts in the first half, and they gradually got closer to the crossbar. He was taken off after an hour, but if he'd been left to the end, he might have found the target. Sweden, already eliminated and with coach Erik Hamren resplendent in a waistcoat reminiscent of Terry Griffiths' world snooker championship season of 1979, could have been forgiven for not really giving a damn, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic, inevitably, came up with the goal of the tournament so far ten minutes into the second half. Watch it. It's quite fabulous. Hugo Lloris kept France in it with a couple of what for him are routine saves, but for anyone else would be ones for the scrapbook, but he was helpless when a late Swedish break lead to Samuel Holman crashing a shot off the bar which Sebastien Larsson smashed into the net. If only Sweden had found this form earlier.

    Ukraine edged the other game on points, but one defensive mix-up allowed Wayne Rooney to head England into a lead early in the second half. Andriy Pyatov had Steven Gerrard's cross covered, but a slight nick off Yevgeny Khacheridi diverted it past him and into Rooney's path. Back came Ukraine and they caught England out on the break and Marko Devic's looping shot was cleared from out of the back of the net by John Terry. It looked over the line and one replay was all it took to confirm that. "Great defending by John Terry" boomed Andy Townsend on the ITV commentary in the UK. Yes, but only if you discount that he was caught out by a high ball, completely done for pace and the ball crossed the line. Stand by for the same tired arguments about how to resolve these once-every-two-year issues and intransigence on both sides. The role and positioning of the extra official might be more pertinent, but basically, one bloke fucked up. Other than that, it really was rather dull, as we've become used to with this iteration of the England national team which makes Gerrard's claim of "nobody will fancy playing us" seem spurious at best. The Italians are hardly likely to be fretting as they breakfast on their delicious pastries and tiny cups of coffee this morning. Oleg Blokhin, meanwhile, suggested a journalist who asked a tricky question join him outside for a "man conversation". Lovely turn of phrase, these Ukrainians.

    So England, unbelievably, top the group and play Italy in the quarter-finals. France come second and play Spain.

    Today, nothing! A day off before the quarter-finals. Tomorrow, you are saved another missive.

    Tuesday, 19 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #11

    So it turns out that you can walk the ball into the back of the net.

    The great 2-2 conspiracy did not come to pass. That score between Croatia and Spain would have rendered Italy's result against Ireland irrelevant. As it was, Italy worked themselves to a pretty comfortable 2-0 win. Already out of the running, Ireland were pretty poor and ceded the vast majority of possession. They defended slightly better than the previous two games though, hence it took 35 minutes for Italy to find the breakthrough, Andrea Pirlo's corner turned in off Antonio Cassano's shoulder. Ireland did manage a whole two shots on goal in the second half, but still Italy were very comfortable. The crowning turd in Ireland's water pipe came a minute from time when Keith Andrews was sent off, picking up a second booking after kicking the ball away before Mario Balotelli finished wonderfully to seal the win. With his back to goal, he hooked a cross round John O'Shea and beyond Shay Given - a really nice effort.

    While it remained goalless between Spain and Croatia, Italy were going through with Spain. But with little real threat in the final third, Spain were living on the edge. Time and again Croatia looked to get them on the break, Luka Modric pulling all the strings and Mario Mandzukic the main outlet. The best opportunity came from such a break with Mandzukic dragging the cover defence to the near post leaving Ivan Rakitic, who had bust a gut to get up in support, alone at the back. Modric's ball was perfect, Rakitic's shot was perfect, but so was Iker Casillas's goalkeeping and 0-0 it remained. Jesus Navas was thrown on to offer something a bit different for Spain, just as he did in the first game against Italy. But his crucial involvement was finishing rather than starting something. Spain are often criticised for trying to walk the ball in rather than actually having a shot. Well it worked here. Three minutes from time, a ball from Cesc Fabregas caught the defence flat-footed and found Andres Iniesta all on his own. He squared it for Navas to stroll it into the unguarded net. At that point, a goal for Croatia would send them through with Spain at Italy's expense and they chucked everything at it, Stipe Pletikosa trotting forward on one occasion, but for all Slaven Bilic's impassioned urging from the sideline they couldn't find a way through. Bilic is probably best avoided for the next few days - he looked a bit angry. Well, angrier than normal.

    This evening, it's the final day of the group stage. England take on Ukraine in Donetsk needing a point while France play Sweden.

    Monday, 18 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #10

    Group B concluded yesterday. The proverbial group of death swung back and forth for much of the evening before rather petering out at the end.

    The Netherlands had to win, and win by two, and hope Germany beat Denmark. Bert van Marwijk dropped his son in-law Mark van Bommel in favour of Rafael van der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar started in place of Ibrahim Afellay and Ron Vlaar was preferred at the back to Johnny Heitinga. The changes looked to have paid dividends early on as van der Vaart curled in a beauty from the edge of the box to give the Dutch the lead.

    Moments later, Germany took the lead as Mario Gomez's total mis-hit fell into the path of Lukas Podolski. On his 100th appearance for Der Nationalmannschaft - he's only 27 - he made no mistake from eight yards. Then it all went wrong for the Oranje. First, Michael Krohn-Dehli headed in an equaliser against Germany and at that stage it was Denmark and Germany going through. But the tactical shift by van Marwijk began to unravel in Kharkiv.

    Shifting van der Vaart into the central area allowed the Portuguese a lot more freedom. It just took them a bit of time to realise that. While van der Vaart got into a position that van Bommel never would for the goal, he doesn't get into positions van Bommel takes up when the Dutch don't have the ball. As a result, Nigel de Jong and the flaky defence were horribly exposed. Cristiano Ronaldo, inevitably, took advantage. Played into an ocean of space on the half hour, he slotted coolly past the otherwise exemplary Maarten Stekelenburg but for whom it would have been a far more comprehensive defeat. Now it was Portugal going through with Germany.

    Holland disintegrated. Van Marwijk, needing two goals in the second period, waited. And waited. And waited some more. Ronaldo hit the post. He waited some more. Eventually, he made his one, sole move, removing Jetro Willems for Afellay and going three at the back. Ronaldo picked them off on the counter-attack and Holland now needed three in the last 20 minutes, but van Marwijk stuck with what was out there. With attacking options like Dirk Kuyt, Kevin Strootman, Luuk de Jong and Luciano Narsingh sitting on the bench, he opted not to change things. Consequently, Holland went down with barely a whimper. Even van der Vaart's late effort that came back off the post wouldn't have made a difference.

    Still, a goal for Denmark in Lviv and it would be them going through instead of Portugal, but Lars Bender dashed their hopes with ten minutes to go, played in by Mesut Ozil and finished with a delightful clip to the back post.

    Portugal and Germany go through to face the Czech Republic and Greece respectively. Stand by for a number of economics-related puns for that latter one. Denmark go out with their heads held high, veteran coach Morten Olsen with little to be disappointed with. The recriminations for the Netherlands have already begun and will go on for some time. The KNVB have already said van Marwijk will continue in his role, but questions must be asked. There's a real feel he's taken this side as far as he can. Mark van Bommel has surely played his last game for his country, perhaps also Dirk Kuyt and others. It may be time to forcibly end the careers of some others too, especially if they can't get on with each other. The talent is there in the likes of Luuk de Jong, Narsingh, Ola John, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Strootman. It's time to give thise new generation their head. Van Bommel was charm personified after the game which seemed to suggest he's done at this level and he's possibly the only player to have enhanced his reputation after that game.

    Today, group C. Spain face Croatia where a score draw of two or more sees both sides progress at Italy's expense. Italy have to beat the hapless Irish and hope for the best.

    Sunday, 17 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #9

    What a turnaround.

    A lot of people were backing Russia as outside bets for the championship and after thumping the Czech Republic 4-1 in their opening game, suddenly they weren't so far outside. A draw with Poland meant they went in against an abject Greece side only needing a draw even if the other game produced a winner. Goalless as the clock ticked on to 45 minutes, suddenly Giorgios Karagounis - who has scored once in the last two seasons at Panathinaikos and missed the penalty against Poland - found himself in space inside the box and fired one across the goal and inside the far post. Russia chucked everything at the Greeks, but for the first time in the competition, Greece found some defensive fortitude.

    After two draws, Poland needed to win to progress and started brightly. But after the 20-minute mark it all fell apart. As if someone had thrown a switch, suddenly they were totally unable to keep hold of the ball in a Wrocslaw downpour. Having weathered that opening 20 minutes, the Czechs grew into the game and found the breakthrough half way through the second half, Petr Jiracek with a nice drag-back and measured finish. Poland pressed late on, but as time ticked down they were never likely to get the two they needed. But with Greece ahead in the other game, had they got one, both Poland and the Czechs would bow out. Tomas Sivok headed the one goal-bound effort - from Polish skipper Jakub Blaszczykowski - off the line in the dying stages.

    Word had got to the Greeks in Warsaw that the Czechs had won as their game headed into stoppage time, sparking a minor celebration. A minute later, the whistle went for the final time in their game and the celebrations started for real. Czech Republic top the group on six. Greece come next, level on four with Russia, but ahead by virtue of the head-to-head record. Russia and Poland are out and, after one game in the group, that's pretty much completely backwards to what everyone thought. Also, you would not have this scenario in a 24-team competition which is what we'll have in four years time. As daft ideas go, that's one of UEFA's worst.

    Today, Group B. Can the Netherlands pull off a similar great escape?

    Saturday, 16 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #8

    Well that was dramatic. Not the football, the skies above the Donbass Arena in Donetsk.

    The first sign something was afoot was the huge thunderclap during the French anthem which knocked out comms momentarily and seemed to affect the stadium PA. The game kicked off as normal, but five minutes in, the torrent had become apocalyptic and the risk posed by the lightning prompted referee Bjorn Kuipers to take the players from the field. Eventually, the deluge eased and the standing water drained quickly. After a 55-minute break, the game could resume. When it did, France assumed control and were relatively untroubled. Yohan Cabaye was outstanding, scored the second and lashed a reflex shot off the post. Jeremy Menez had put France in front and Ukraine could only muster one shot on goal in the 90 minutes. Andriy Shevchenko cut a frustrated figure and the locals booed them from the field which was a little harsh.

    In the late game, England put their fans through the whole gamut of emotions. It started much like the France game insofar as they took the lead - a towering header from Andy Carroll - before trying to sit on it and failing. Olof Mellberg - possibly the manliest player at the tournament - headed in twice from set pieces, the first with the assistance of Glen Johnson. Whatever England's failings, and they are many, they do possess some talented individuals and two of them found moments to turn the game back around. Theo Walcott smacked a 20-yarder in as Sweden could only half-clear a corner, the ball deviating enough to deceive Andreas Isaksson, and Danny Welbeck finished brilliantly with a back-heel as England managed to string a whole eight passes together. That doesn't sound overly impressive, but for England it's akin to tiki-taka. Sweden are out, which is excuse enough for this:

    Next up, Group A reaches a conclusion. Poland need a win against the Czech Republic for whom a draw will suffice. Greece need to beat Russia.

    Thursday, 14 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #7

    Why oh why oh why is this tournament serving up so many great games? It's difficult to keep up. And we had two more yesterday.

    It looked like Italy were going to overwhelm Croatia, especially after Andrea Pirlo's sumptuous free-kick. Mario Balotelli was more switched on than in the opening game, as was Antonio Cassano, but the Italians couldn't get that crucial second goal. Instead, Mario Mandzukic brought a deep cross down on his toe and smashed it on off the far post. 1-1 it remained through the flares.

    The second game lasted, as a contest, for all of four minutes. Someone replaced the sad version of Fernando Torres with the Fernando Torres that scored a bunch of goals for Liverpool and Atletico Madrid and it was this non-sad version of Torres that seized upon some lackadaisical defending and lashed one past Shay Given. Ireland circled the wagons and they held out for exactly 45 minutes until David Silva decided to take the piss. Andres Iniesta's shot came back off Given and Silva swooped on the rebound, told the defence what he was going to do and did it anyway. With 20 minutes left, non-sad Torres was set free and slotted one past Given. Shortly after, Cesc Fabregas was brought on for Spain and he finished another chance from a tight angle as if to say "I'll show you for not starting me". Ireland are out. Trappatoni - that unpretty blend of the Pope, Bishop Len Brennan and Gary Oldman's Dracula - finally brought James McClean on, but only at 3-0 down with 15 minutes to go. Madness. Almost as mad as Gerard Pique playing centre-forward with Damien Duff marking him.

    Ireland are out, but could be kingmakers should they beat Italy. That seems unlikely. Basically, everyone needs to win.

    Tomorrow, it's Sweden v England and France against Ukraine.

    Yesterday at the Euros #6

    This tournament just keeps churning out really good games and day six was no exception.

    First up, Portugal and Denmark served up a bit of a classic. It didn't look like being that for the first 40 minutes as Portugal twice carved the Danish defence open for Pepe and Helder Postiga helped themselves. The Danish goose looked well and truly cooked by then, but Nicklas Bendtner has a habit of not looking total crap in the colours of his nation. Michael Krohn-Dehli teed him up four minutes before the break to give Denmark a lifeline. Portugal should have wrapped it up, but good old Ronnie Cristialdo fluffed a couple of efforts that he really should have buried. One in particular stood out - one-on-one with Stephan Andersen, he waited for the goalkeeper to commit and still screwed it wide of the post. And it looked like Bendtner had made them pay for that as he headed in a second from a delicious cross from Lars Jacobsen. With time running down, Portugal launched forwards. A cross found it's way across the box to Silvestre Varela who swung a lazy left peg at it and missed completely. Reacting quickly, he gathered himself and swung a less lazy right peg at it and it rocketed past Andersen into the bottom corner. Could Simon Poulsen have done better? Possibly, but it was quite a strike. Lasse Schøne had one late opportunity, but blazed over the bar.

    The fear was that the Germany v Netherlands game would be a disappointment in comparison, but not a bit of it. The Dutch came flying out of the blocks, but Robin van Persie couldn't convert the best early chance, when the otherwise magnificent Mats Hummels switched off momentarily to allow van Persie to reach a long ball over the top. Manuel Neuer to the rescue. Germany came roaring back, aided by the Dutch midfield allowing Bastian Schweinsteiger the run of Kharkiv, which is odd given the two holding midfielders so beloved of Bert van Marwijk. It was Schweinsteiger who sent a ball between the Oranje defence for Mario Gomez. He turned brilliantly and though Maarten Stekelenburg got hands to the shot, it wasn't enough to keep it out. Quarter of an hour later, the same two combined and Gomez gave Stekelenburg no chance with this finish, high and across him into the far corner from a relatively tight angle. Holland were in utter disarray. Van Marwijk responded by bringing on Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but they didn't get the latter involved anywhere near enough and Germany looked comfortable with 2-0. Van Persie had one chance with a snap shot from 20 yards which Neuer did very well to turn away, but van Persie did get on the scoresheet with that collectors item - a goal with his right foot. Germany were content to run it into the corners for the remainder and closed out the game with what someone who likes a cliche may term ruthless efficiency. In the build-up, Ralf Rangnick said that, like Bayern under Louis van Gaal, Holland under van Marwijk are too predictable. He was right. Highlight of the game: Joachim Loew mugging off a ballboy.

    The game can be summed up in one picture:

    Gawd, but Mats Hummels is amazing....

    Something did happen in both games, at least for UK viewers. Ronaldo missing the one-on-one chance was followed by 'expert' summariser Andy Townsend saying "in a Real Madrid shirt, that's a goal". After van Persie's early miss following the Hummels brain fade, 'expert' summariser Mark Lawrenson reckoned "in the Premier League, that's nestling in the back of the net". How does that work? They are both dreadful characters, obviously, but what process of thought has to go on to even think that that line of argument is even vaguely coherent? We've not heard anyone covering Premier League games laughing at yet another comedy miss from Bendtner saying "put him in a Denmark shirt and he scores that".

    Anyway, the Dutch aren't quite out yet. They need to beat Portugal in the last game by at least two goals and hope that Germany beat Denmark. Anything else and they're out. Portugal need to match or better Denmark's result, Denmark need a better result than Portugal.

    Today, Italy take on Croatia and it's Spain against Ireland.

    Wednesday, 13 June 2012

    Euro lookalikes

    Some lookalikes spotted in the European Championships.
    Iniesta v Italy

    Maradona v Belgium

    Joris Mathijsen - him out of the comedy Dutch back line

    John Saxon - him out of Enter The Dragon

    That bloke scoring all the goals for Denmark
    Nicklas Bendtner

    Model of Ruud Gullit's head

    Model of Lionel Richie's head

    Any more for any more?

    Yesterday at the Euros #5

    From ITV's vantage point in Warsaw, you had a hint as to what was going on elsewhere in the city. Behind the assembled punditry team were lines of riot vans and tooled-up rozzers. On Russia's national day, somehow it managed to kick off ahead of Poland v Russia, not helped by the city authorities allowing a march by Russians through the streets of Warsaw. Perhaps they thought it better to allow this and contain it as best they can for fear of further stoking trouble, but 300 years of often bitter conflict between the two nations is always likely to overspill even when Russians aren't marching through the Polish capital and unfurling a huge banner inside the ground declaring 'This is Russia'. It was a busy night for police with over 100 arrests, water cannon and plastic bullets deployed. In short - what a mess.

    There was some football too. Firstly, the Czech Republic beat Greece after coming flying out of the blocks and scoring two in the first five minutes. Firstly, a delicious Tomas Hubschmann through-ball met a well-timed diagonal run from Petr Jiracek who beat Kostas Chalkias easily. Theodor Gebre Selassie looks a tidy full-back and got forward to good effect shortly afterwards, his speculative ball across the six-yard line was not dealt with - or dealt with very badly - by both goalkeeper and two defenders. Vaclav Pilar squeezed between two and poked it in with his knee. And the cue pretty much went in the rack at that point. Greece were not good, but did get a lifeline from Petr Cech who fumbled a routine ball into the path of Theofanis Gekas who doesn't often spurn open goals. These mistakes have been becoming more common in Cech's game which has to be a worry for club and country. But the Czechs held out against Greece's pop-gun attack with little further alarm.

    On the field, Russia and Poland served up a treat. End-to-end football throughout was highly enjoyable and a draw probably the right result. Alan Dzagoev got  his third of the tournament, looping an Andrei Arshavin cross past Przemyslaw Tyton with his shoulder with ten minutes left in the first half. The equaliser came on the hour, Jakub Blaszczykowski curling an absolute beauty beyond the reach of Vyacheslav Malafeev. Perhaps there are signs of discord in the Polish camp though as Ludovic Obraniak was clearly miffed at being subbed off late on. Prior to the tournament, he'd been vocal in expressing the difficulties he and Damien Perquis - both French-born - were having in integrating into the side. Hopefully for Poland, it was just frustration and there are no underlying issues that resulted in Obraniak's bottle-kicking strop.

    Russia lead the group on four points from the Czechs on three, Poland on two and Greece on one. Russia can only be eliminated if they lose to Greece and there is a winner in the Poland v Czech Republic game. A draw is enough for the Czechs in their last game - Poland need to win, no matter what happens elsewhere, as do Greece.

    Today, it's group B and it could all be over if Denmark and Germany both win their games against Portugal and the Netherlands respectively.

    Tuesday, 12 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #4

    Whatever the opposite of tiki-taka is called, it looks a lot like what England served up against France yesterday. There are many ways to play the game and England's pragmatic approach is as valid as any other. What it isn't is attractive. Having taken a lead from a set piece via the preposterously large forehead of Joleon Lescott, the wagons were circled. France only penetrated the defences once, a long range effort from Samir Nasri beating Joe Hart at his near post. Yohan Cabaye went close in among the 21 shots France had on goal, but it remained 1-1. It was beyond tedious, but remains a job pretty well done by a very average England side. France will be kicking themselves. Chelsea have a lot to answer for in showing that this method can win trophies. The only way it could have been worse for the casual viewer was if the authorities had let that sodding English band in.

    Ukraine made their bow against Sweden who looked exceptionally dashing in that blue shirt with the yellow diagonal stripe. It was inevitable that Zlatan Ibrahimovic would score, but within four minutes Andriy Shevchenko equalised and six minutes later put Ukraine in front. The Ukrainian captain is 35 now, but showed all his class in ghosting away from markers, finding space and guiding a pair of headers past Andreas Isaksson. Written off by many after the ill-fated spell in England - the 'fail in England, fail in life' rule - he showed that class is the last thing that leaves a footballer.

    The second round of games in group A follow, Poland up against Russia in what could so very easily be termed a grudge match and the Czechs fighting for their survival against Greece.

    Monday, 11 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #3

    Two very contrasting games yesterday.

    First, Italy and Spain served up a minor classic. Spain went in without a conventional striker, but not in a Craig Levein manner. That wasn't what hampered them so much as a lack of width which was only addressed with the introduction of Jesus Navas in the second half. A substitution by Cesare Prandelli provided the spur. Moments after Mario Balotelli has dallied when one-on-one with Iker Casillas long enough for Sergio Ramos to get back and make the tackle, Balotelli was withdrawn for Antonio di Natale. With almost his first touch, he controlled a borderline sexual through ball from Andrea Pirlo, opened his body up and passed it past Casillas and inside the far post. Just brilliant. As was the immediate response: a sumptuous reverse ball from David Silva met by Cesc Fabregas for the equaliser. Italy were happy to cede possession for long periods, but Spain didn't do enough with it. They had chances, a couple falling to the shadow of the striker that Fernando Torres. Once he was denied by a brilliant bit of defending from Gianluigi Buffon, but the other Torres - good Torres - wouldn't have given him the chance. It's just kind of sad now.

    Ireland qualified by setting up for 0-0 and hoping to snatch one on the break. That's fine until you go behind in the third minute which is what happened against Croatia. Mario Mandzukic looped a 15-yard header towards goal and it appeared to go in slow motion into the bottom corner. Yes, Shay Given was unsighted, but he took an age to get across and duly missed it. Sean St Ledger got goal-side at a free-kick to equalise, and there it should have been back to plan A. Again, that was ruined soon after as a horror bit of defending saw the ball break to Nikica Jelavic six yards out. The second half was more routine and it was 3-1 three minutes into it as a Mandzukic shot came back off the post and went in off Given's face. It wasn't one of Given's finest games, but Mandzukic has some cheek for claiming it as his goal. Ireland now have a problem. They have to win games, so getting James McClean involved is imperative. Play Robbie Keane up front, Damien Duff in behind with McClean and Aiden McGeady wide. That still allows for Trappatoni's beloved twin holding midfielders and they may as well be hung for sheep and lambs. There's no glory in going down as meekly as they did yesterday. For Croatia, Ivan Perisic did his claims for more game time at Borussia Dortmund no harm at all. He was quite excellent. Also top marks to Slaven Bilic for mating a suit with a beanie hat. Fashion maverick.

    Group D gets underway today with England against France in the early game and co-hosts Ukraine taking on Sweden.

    Sunday, 10 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #2

    Day two saw the proverbial gruppo della muerte kick off. Never has there been a more deathly group of death with all four sides ranked in the world's top ten.

    Hence it's difficult to fathom why so many people are shocked by Denmark's win over the Netherlands. Frankly, the Dutch were poor. No pace to their passing and movement and stymied by the deployment of the two holding midfielders in front of that flaky back four, the most notable contribution of which was Ron Vlaar taking out Ibrahim Afellay with his granite forehead. With van Bommel and de Jong holding station in midfield, it's incumbent on the full-backs to push on and they didn't. As such, despite ceding possession in huge quantities, the Danes were largely untroubled and content to play on the break. One of those break brought the goal, Michael Krohn-Dehli slipping one through Maarten Stekelenburg's legs. 1-0 it remained to the end and Denmark can get better when they get Christian Eriksen more involved. Holland are in bother already, Denmark and their super-coach Morten Olsen deserve all the credit that's coming their way.

    In the other game, Germany were too good for Portugal. Germany's two deep-lying midfielders aren't just spoilers as the Dutch ones are, rather a platform from which to launch attacks and Sami Khedira was particularly impressive in that role. The back four, over which there were question marks, dealt with everything with relative ease. Portugal still can't get the best out of Ronnie Cristialdo, but at least Raul Meireles has finally completed his haircut. Mario Gomez was as Gomez as ever, but did plant his mighty forehead on one cross and that was the difference, ultimately.

    The next round of fixtures in this group sees Germany play Holland and Denmark against Portugal. It could all be over after those.

    Today, it's Spain against Italy and Ireland v Croatia.

    Saturday, 9 June 2012

    Yesterday at the Euros #1

    (file this section under M for making a rod for my own back, but anyway....)

    Day 1 of Euro 2012. Ahead of the opener, consensus said that opening games are boring. Not a bit of it. Poland came flying out of the blocks against Greece in the new national stadium in Warsaw (pause here to insert joke about restricted views because everywhere you're behind a Pole) with the impressive Robert Lewandowski heading home after 17 minutes. The controversial sending off of Sokratis Papastathopoulos gave Poland a numerical advantage, but Wojciech Szczesny conspired to give Greece parity on the scoreboard and on the field by messing up a routine bit of goalkeeping and then getting sent off. Przemyslaw Tyton's first touch of the ball in this tournament was palming away Giorgios Karagounis's penalty.

    The second game saw Russia eviscerate the Czech Republic and, had Alexander Kerzhakov brought his shooting boots, it could/should have been half a dozen or more. Instead, profligacy in front of goal left the Czechs with a chance, especially after pegging it back to 2-1early in the second half, but with Alan Dzagoev and Andrei Arshavin pulling the strings, it finished 4-1. Russia were mightily impressive.

    A good first day then, but all the talk about the two yellows Papastathopoulos picked up. The first might have been harsh, but once on a yellow, there has to be an awareness that another bookable offence is going to end with a red and a stupid little tug-back produced that very result. Cue much whinging about refereeing. There's a lesson in this, as there is in most things, in the lyrics of Half Man Half Biscuit, specifically the last verse of I Went To A Wedding (about 3.20 into the following clip). Bonus namecheck of Brad Friedel.

    Tomorrow, Group B, the group with four of the world's top ten on current FIFA rankings, however much import you impart to those.

    Friday, 8 June 2012

    Marking your card #12

    A quick whizz round to pick out the picks of this weekend's viewing and it's an international football tournament frenzy!

    Yes, the Oceania Nations Cup final is on Sunday! Now, since Australia decided to bunk up with the Asian Federation, this is basically New Zealand's tournament. They're the only side in there with any significant number of professionals. Qualification for the last four - the tournament run along the lines of the pre-1980 European Championships - is based on World Cup qualifying results and New Zealand duly topped their group ahead of the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Tahiti won Group A from New Caledonia with Vanuatu and whipping boys Samoa trailing in behind. The finals are taking place in the Solomon Islands and the semis were in the wee hours of this morning. Tahiti beat the hosts 1-0, but New Zealand crashed spectacularly against the tiny French dependency of New Caledonia. The final then sees the current and former French colonies face off, Tahiti probably favourites, with New Zealand and the Solomons contesting third place. Both games are on Sunday in a double-header at Honiara.

    World Cup qualification for Brazil is in full swing with matches all over the world. In Africa, it's the second round of fixtures in the second group stage. The picks here are Morocco v Cote d'Ivoire, Zambia v Ghana and South Africa v Botswana on Saturday Mali v Algeria on Sunday. Venezuela v Chile is the pick of the South Amercian qualifiers along with Uruguay v Peru, but most eyes will be on a friendly between Argentina and Brazil in New Jersey. Th third round of CONCACAF qualifying gets underway as well, the USA at home to Antigua and Barbuda in what, population-wise, is a total mismatch. Of the region's bigger players, Canada look to have the easier group and they start away to Cuba.

    League action does continue and there are three games to go in the Argentine Clausura. Boca have opened up a three-point lead at the top and face rock bottom Banfield, without a win in five, this weekend. Tigre and Arsenal are the nearest challengers with the latter's game against Argentinos Juniors the pick of the round. In Brazil, champions Corinthians got their first point of the season in this morning's game against Figueirense, but it's Vasco da Gama leading the way with three from three so far. They're away to Bahia this week, but most eyes will be on Palmeiras against Atlético Mineiro where a certain Ronaldinho Gaucho will make his first appearance for Atlético-MR following his sensational sacking by Flamengo. His former employers are at home to Coritiba.

    Sampdoria take a 3-2 lead into the second leg of the Serie B promotion play-off final with Varese. It's all all-square in the Segunda Division play-off semis in Spain where Hércules and Alcorcón are locked at 1-1 and Real Valladolid and Córdoba are goalless ahead of Sunday's return legs. Nacional take on Defensor Sporting, who finished top, in the Uruguayan Clausura final.

    Finally, there's a tiny wee competition in Poland and the Ukraine you may have heard about that starts today. Pick of the weekend's fixtures are Spain v Italy on Sunday and Saturday's Group B fixtures. It is, statistically speaking, the most morbid group of death in international football history with Portugal ranked 10th in the world, Denmark 9th, Germany 3rd and the Netherlands 4th. Saturday sees Germany take on Portugal and the Dutch play Denmark.

    That lot should keep you going.

    Thursday, 7 June 2012

    The Euro 2012 of Beer

    We like a drink about as much as we like football. To that end, a plan emerges - a Euro 2012 of beer. 16 beers, some thirsty gents and some rules to be made up as we go along.

    Group A
    Poland - We've all become familiar with Polish beers in recent times. There are plenty out there - Zywiec, Lech and Tyskie are all widely available - but we're going with Perła, a distinctively hopped lager. An acquired taste, perhaps.

    Greece - Mythos is a relatively new entrant on the market, launched as it was in 1997. It's a relatively inoffensive, crisp lager, far removed from the artless brutality of the Otto Rehhagel regime.

    Russia - You'll no doubt have seen the bottles of one of Baltika's many varieties the last time you made an ill-advised trip to a Wetherspoons, but we're not going that way. We're going for Zhiguliovskoye. Never heard of it, but want to try saying it when we're eight bottles in to this challenge.

    Czech Republic - Another country with plenty of candidates to choose from. We'll take a Zatec, boasting over 1000 years of heritage. It's a 4.6% Bohemian pilsner, but does it pack a Jan Koller punch or a Milan Baros tickle?

    Group B
    Netherlands - Again, lots of beers we're all familiar with originate in the Netherlands, but you can forget your Heinekens, Grolschs and Amstels of this world. Those monks knew what they were doing, so we'll have a La Trappe Dubbel, a 6.5% job, and pour it into a silly glass for the occasion.

    Denmark - Again, you're immediately thinking Carlsberg, and the stuff the Danes actually make - as opposed to that hideous monstrosity brewed in Britain - isn't bad, but still a bit mainstream for our palates. Mikkeller Bravo Single Hop IPA please, a big-flavoured, big-hitting pale ale weighing in at 6.9%.

    Germany - So much to choose from, but something special is needed in this group of death. Wheat beers don't register on our list of likes so highly. The Paulaner brewery turns out some of our favourites and we'll take their 7.5% double-bock Paulaner Salvator.

    Portugal - With three big-hitters in this group, what can Portugal come up with that simply isn't going to be blown away? Try the Superbock Stout, only a five per-center, but full of flavour and character. An outsider perhaps, but not one to be written off.

    Group C
    Spain - One of the things that struck us on our Euroballs outing to Bilbao was the locals love of cider. To that end, Spain's entry in this competition is El Gaitero, an Asturian cider that weighs in at 5.5%. But can it compete in this company?

    Italy - Tempted as we are by the LoverBeer range, a tenner a bottle is pushing our budget beyond all reasonable recognition. Instead, give us a Menabrea, a light, fruity lager with floral tones.

    Ireland - What else could we go for but a traditional Irish stout? An Irish ruby red ale, that's what, and Porterhouse Red Ale hits the spot precisely. Fruity, hoppy and caramelly.

    Croatia - We're going to cheat. Getting hold of Croatian beer in the UK is hard. Instead of going for the Kaltenberg Pils which is brewed under license from Germany, we'll nip over the border and grab a Lasko Dark Lager from Slovenia. It's not a bad substitute - a 5.9% dunkel

    Group D
    Ukraine - With plenty to choose from in the Russian style, again it needs something different to stand out. Obolon Deep Velvet, a 5.3% dunkel, should fit the bill there.

    Sweden - Nils Oscar Imperial Stout is a former world champion. What else could the Swedes put up to challenge but this 7.3% heavyweight?

    France - We considered the French overseas territories influence on football and thought about beers from Guadeloupe, Tahiti and North Africa, but when we're in France we like a Pelforth. Specifically, we like a Pelforth Brune, a 6.5% dunkel with hints of toffee and caramel.

    England - Again, so many to choose from. Thornbridge have been turning out some excellent stuff lately, but we're going to Sheffield and taking a Kelham Island Pride of Sheffield down from the shelf as England's representative in this contest.

    Right. Next job is round up at least one of each of these - fully expecting to have to take alternative selections at some point - and get to it. We'll follow the draw as per the football and see what wins.
    Best drinking trousers on.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #52

    Finally, the 16th and final side to get the Euroballs treatment are England.

    Joe Hart

    Robert Green

    Jack Butland

    Joe Hart is a young man already established among the pantheon of great shouters. Worries for England come in the back-up where Rob Green is as likely to be yelled at and Jack Butland an untested youngster who has come from nowhere. Worrying times. It's a long way from the days of Shilton and Clemence.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #51

    The penultimate entry in our Euros preview and it's the turn of the French.

    Hugo Lloris

    Steve Mandanda

    Cedric Carrasso

    Another side with a number of strong candidates for the national side, Mandanda and Carrasso must curse the fact that Lloris is of the same generation. Lloris isn't a great shouter - doesn't have to be that often - but is undoubtedly the number one. The others just have to keep up the shouty work and hope to get a chance.

    Wednesday, 6 June 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #50

    On the home straight now, continuing a look at Group D it's Sweden's turn.

    Andreas Isaksson

    Johan Wiland

    Pär Hansson

    Three quality shouters for the Swedes, who will fancy that enough vocal encouragement will sneak them through the group.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #49

    The final group, group D, concludes our Euro 2012 previews. First up, Ukraine.

    Maxym Koval

    Andriy Pyatov

    Oleksandr Goryainov

    With Oleksandr Shovkovskiy (injured) and Oleksandr Rybka (drugs ban) absent for the competition, Ukraine's strength in goalkeeping depth is being sorely tested. 19-year old Koval is the really exciting one.

    Tuesday, 5 June 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #48

    Closing our Group C preview, it's Croatia.

    Stipe Pletikosa

    Ivan Kelava

    Danijel Subašić

    Another side with one senior keeper and two greenhorns. Kelava and Subašić should be using this tournament to watch Pletikosa closely and learn.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #47

    Continuing our Euro 2012 previews via the medium of goalkeepers yelling at defenders, here's a look at the Republic of Ireland.

    Shay Given

    Keiren Westwood

    David Forde

    Given has dominated Irish goalkeeping for so long, nobody else has really had a look-in for the last decade. He's no spring chicken either and has been picking up injuries lately. It could be quite a baptism for Westwood or Forde.

    Sunday, 3 June 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #46

    The second of our Group C contenders are Italy.

    Gianluigi Buffon

    Salvatore Sirigu

    Morgan de Sanctis

    One nation you can rely on for expressive goalkeepers is Italy. Sirigu has been great since taking the gas dollar at PSG, de Sanctis is always good for a tantrum, but Buffon just keeps on going, on top of his shouty game. Strong contenders.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #45

    On to Group C now and another of the tournament favourites, Spain.

    Iker Casillas

    Victor Valdes

    Pepe Reina

    Spain are in an odd situation. Neither Casillas or Valdes has much cause to shout at defenders for years - indeed Valdes is more likely to cause defenders to yell at him. Reina has, but is very much third choice. Whether they can step it up remains to be seen.

    Saturday, 2 June 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #44

    Group B is really tough. Joining the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are Portugal who we have a look at here.


    Rui Patricio


    No-one has any doubts over the abilities of Eduardo and Rui Patricio, but can Beto make the step up from the Romanian league to top international level? One thing we like better than a goalkeeper yelling at his defenders is one that takes a penalty, and that's where Eduardo scores highly.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #43

    The third side we have a look at from Group B are many people's favourites - Germany.

    Manuel Neuer

    Tim Wiese

    Ron-Robert Zieler

    The Germans have so many keepers to choose from. Bernd Leno and Marc-Andre ter Stegen didn't make the cut, but young Zieler will understudy for undisputed number one Neuer and the archetypal nutcase Wiese. Neuer's vein-bulging strops are something to behold - a gold standard among modern goalkeepers.

    Friday, 1 June 2012

    That's Conference #15

    Not had one of these for a while, and this one is a classic. So good, in fact, it almost warrants an Unbelievable Jeff.
    Stojan Vranjes, back defending for Bosnia against Mexico. Just clear it, son....

    That's Conference

    Marking your card #11

    But the football's all finished, right? WRONG! Football never ever stops. You just need to be a bit more creative to get your fix. Here's what we'll be keeping an eye out for this weekend.

    Promotion to Spain's Primera Division is up for grabs for either Celta Vigo or Real Valladolid. Celta play fifth-placed Cordoba and a point would do both - Celta for promotion and Cordoba to seal a play-off place. Valladolid play Guadalajara who need a win to stand a chance of staying up. Alcorcon and Hercules are in the play-off places at the moment, but only Almeria from outside can possibly make it in. They must beat relegated Alcoyano to stand a chance.

    It's the semi-finals of the Copa Argentina. After coming through a penalty shoot-out last Wednesday against Rosario Central, Boca Juniors face Deportivo Merlo in one game while River Plate take on Racing Club in the other. Since River's relegation, we've been denied superclasico action. Maybe the cup final? Fingers crossed.

    It's an international frenzy - meaning pretty much every domestic league still running is on hiatus - with World Cup qualifiers Africa, Oceania, Asia and South America. Pick of the African games is Tunisia v Equatorial Guinea while New Zealand's trip to Fiji is the only show iin town in Oceania. In South America, Uruguay, Venezuela and Argentina top the standings on seven points. It's Uruguay v Venezuela on Saturday with Argentina at home to Ecuador. With Brazil being the hosts, there's only nine sides in the competition and it's Paraguay who sit out this round.
    The Toulon tournament comes to a close with Mexico playing Turkey in Friday's final. It's France v Holland in the 3rd-place game.

    Finally, there's a Central Asian derby as Kyrgyzstan go to Kazakhstan for what is termed a friendly. USA v Canada should be fun too.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #42

    For the second of our Group B previews, let's have a look at Denmark's selection of stoppers.

    Stephan Andersen

    Anders Lindegaard

    Kasper Schmeichel

    Losing Thomas Sorensen is clearly a blow, but Denmark are still able to field three capable keepers. With Sorensen's injury, Schmeichel junior was added to the squad. The son of the undisputed king of yelling at defenders, he has a lot to live up to.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #41

    Group A is dispensed with, so the logical thing to do now would be to get stuck in to Group B. And we're nothing if not slaves to alphabetical convention, so let's start with The Netherlands.

    Maarten Stekelenburg

    Michel Vorm

    Tim Krul

    Three good, expressive keepers and, let's face it, when you play behind Joris Mathijsen, Khalid Boulahrouz and Johnny Heitinga, you've got more than most to complain about. They've had some good ones down the years have the Netherlands and the current crop are as good as any.