Monday, June 30, 2008

Euro 2008: What next for England?

It's our great pleasure now to welcome back an old friend to Some People Are On The Pitch that we haven't heard from for some time. Kedge has been watching Euro 2008 with great enthusiasm over the last few weeks, but now the action's all but over he wonders whether England fans can afford to be optimistic about what's to come...


Now that the Euro 2008 football festival is over and the long wait for domestic football starts again (unless you are in Russia), it's time to mull over what the future holds for England on the international scene.

Some people have said that Euro 2008 was a particular success because England were not there. Certainly that's difficult to argue with when, because everyone was so friendly and peaceful, the organisers could dispense with crowd segregation for the Final.

However, as qualification for the 2010 World Cup is about to start, I have one question (well two actually) that's begging to be asked.

Now that Spain have laid to rest the title of 'Perennial Underachievers', who will take on that role? Should it be England? After all, we seem to get to quarter finals on a regular basis, usually to lose in a penalty shoot-out. And Spain had lost their previous five penalty competitions until they defeated Italy.

And if we do take over that mantle, can we, like Spain, win another trophy 44 years after our last?

After all, 1966 + 44 = 2010...?

Is that a good omen or just wishful thinking?

Will the next World Cup arrive too soon for an England team being rebuilt rebuild under Fabio Capello or can the wily Italian have the 'Aragones effect' on the Three Lions? Tell us what you think by leaving us a comment. We look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Euro 2008: The good, the bad and the barely acknowledgeable

So here we are, then: Day 19 of 19 at Euro 2008. The day of the Final, the day this whole tournament has been leading towards. This is the day where Euro 2008 comes to an end by crowning its new champion.

And that champion will be either Spain or Germany, two teams that have looked impressive at times during this last three weeks but have also shown some frailties too. It's exactly that which makes tonight's Final so eagerly awaited, to say nothing of the fact that neither Italy nor France - two of the recent mainstays of world football finals - will be competing.

To put it succinctly, my head says Germany will win the big finalé, but my heart says Spain - purely and simply because they, more than us, want to lay to rest that label of 'perennial under-achievers' that's stuck with them for the last forty-or-so years.

All in all, however, I'm hoping for a great Final with lots of wonderful football and absolutely no headbutting whatsoever. And so as we look forward to the last match of the competition, let's look back and pick out what were for us the best bits, the worst bits and the staggeringly unexplainable bits.

An unconvincing start
Not sure about you, but compared to the start of the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008's beginnings weren't much to write home about. Frankly, we were a little worried. After the slightly stale opener between the Swiss and the Czechs, we then had the match between Portugal and Turkey which was goalless for the first hour and without a second goal until the 93rd minute. To be honest, we weren't convinced about the prospects of this competition until the fourth match when the Germans turned on the style against Poland. Still, it turned out alright in the end, didn't it?

One for the thesps
What was almost as disenchanting as the lack of early excitement was the prolificness of the play-acting. For a tournament in which the referees were supposed to be clamping down on simulation, it looked decidedly like nothing could be further from the truth. Croatia and Turkey gave us some particularly good examples of theatrical football in the first few matches and when Cristiano Ronaldo took to the field in the second match, the whole event could have gone into some sort of BAFTA-award-winning meltdown. Luckily for us, the football-watching cognoscenti, this unpleasant aspect to the game also abated to our general satisfaction.

Proper football, the way we like to see it
When the tournament did catch fire, boy did we like what we saw. First Portugal took on the air of a team that would live up to their pre-tournament hype as the games went on, then Germany emerged as the professional, efficient outfit we all think of them as. But when the Dutch delivered a brand of exciting counter-attacking football that few could have predicted seeing, everyone was in raptures. They sent a breath of fresh air rushing through Euro 2008 which made everyone sit up and take notice. Spain would also come along to maintain the feeling of excitement by demolishing Russia 4-1 and suddenly we were all set fair on the road to a memorable tournament that we all hoped we'd get.

British TV Coverage
Apologies to all those outside the British Isles, but here's a quick essay on the way we've seen Euro 2008 on our screens here.

The BBC, as ever, were slick and polished about the way they presented the action from Austria and Switzerland. Once again, they had an excellent opening title sequence, had their studio positioned in a spot that overlooked one of the most beautiful areas of Vienna and had the usual, competent personnel on show to set up each match (i.e. Lineker, Hansen, O'Neill, Dixon, etc).

All of which went against them in many ways. The BBC are now very much in danger of being too formulaic in their approach, and if ITV up their game a bit, they might just see some of their followers switching channels in future. Gary Lineker is now starting to look old, tired and slow, relying more than ever on weak puns to get him through a broadcast. Alan Hansen says everything he always did say in the way you know he's going to say it and Martin O'Neill regularly looks like he'd rather be somewhere else... which is exactly the situation Ian Wright decided to do something about not so long ago.

ITV have some catching up to do , but they're slowly doing something about it. While their commentators remain mildly annoying - something which John Motson has admirably avoided after all these years - their choice of guest pundits has been distinctly refreshing. If you discount the regular presence of Andy Townsend, the equivalent of that know-all from down the pub that once had a trial with Millwall, there was Alan Curbishley, Sam Allardyce, Gary Neville - all people that have a current connection with the game outside of TV. What they say is worth hearing because it's relevant.

Best commentary dialogue
Without a shadow of a doubt, this must be credited to the man who makes George W Bush sound like Albert Einstein - David Pleat. While watching Cesc Fabregas control a high pass on his chest before sweeping a shot towards goal all in one movement, he reminded us of a great non-existent footballer with the words:

"...shades of Terry Sheddingham, there..."

A co-commentator without equal, is ITV's David Pleat.

Technical shortcomings
Let's make one thing clear: cameras suspended from wires above the stadium are NOT the way forward. Period.

And if, like the BBC, you happen to be providing a facility via your website where you can watch games replayed after the event, it's probably a good idea to cut out any bits where, for instance, a power cut may have occurred. Watching a caption saying "Sorry for the loss of pictures" for 20 minutes when there's no need to beggars belief.

Good players, bad players
Some competitors rose to the occasion over this last few weeks while others, in some respects, didn't show up.

With some predictability, Austria and Switzerland both showed they lacked the firepower to remain in their own tournament, although undoubtedly Alexander Frei might have proven otherwise if he hadn't got injured so early.

Spain showed off their priceless assets of Villa and Torres while the Netherlands gave us a new name to conjure with in Wesley Sneijder, but for France there were few if any squad members that came out of their three games with any lasting credibility.

Germany, of course, had some familiar names from recent tournaments that were always going to make the difference for them - Podolski, Klose and Ballack to name but three - yet Croatia managed to make their collective kudos count for nothing in the First Round.

Elsewhere, other jewels shone in the alpine sun, and here we feel the need to mention Italian 'keeper Buffon, Portugal's Pepe and Croatia's Luka Modric. Hell, we were even impressed by Spain's Senna, but that's just us.

That feel good feeling
Finally, though it took a little while to develop, we most liked the feel-good nature of Euro 2008. Each game's had a good atmosphere inside the stadium (and outside from what we can make out), there's been some exciting football to watch and even though there hasn't been as many memorable goals as we'd like to have seen, it's been a tournament that left us pining for more when it wasn't there in between rounds.

Oh, and there's only been three red cards throughout. Much to be happy about and much to reflect on with a wry smile when tonight's Final's all over.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #67

A funny thing happened on the way to the goalmouth
5 Players Diego Maradona Dribbled Past On His Way To Scoring His Second Goal In The 1986 World Cup Quarter Final Against England

1. Glenn Hoddle
2. Peter Reid
3. Kenny Sansom
4. Terry Butcher
5. Terry Fenwick

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Watching on the Web

It's Wednesday evening, Euro 2008 is 'back, back, back' at the semi-final stage and it's time to put my feet up in front of the TV for a relaxing hour-and-a-half of potentially wonderful football action.

Well that's what I thought. What I hadn't taken into account was the fact that our Sky+ box was simultaneously recording 'The Bill' on one channel and 'Location Location Location' on another for my wife. My Sky+ box was therefore too busy to show me the Germany v Turkey match on account of my wife testing its technological capabilities to the very limits of its purpose. Thanks, 'oh love of my life'. Remind me to do the same for you one day...

Anyway, before I had the chance to consider divorce proceedings, an alternative option sprang to mind. Maybe I should head for the BBC website where there'd almost certainly be showing the game on their live web stream. They were, and my solicitors were advised to suspend any pending activity accordingly.

For me, this was a new experience. Oh sure, I've watched video on the web before - who hasn't? - but watching a football match live and online is something I've not really bothered with in the past.

I realise this might make me sound like an internet Neanderthal by modern standards, but I'm a man of some common sense. For one thing, if there's a match on TV that I want to see, I'll watch it on TV whenever possible. There's no substitute for seeing a match on the big screen (apart from watching it in the stadium, of course) so if I can, I will.

Secondly, I'm aware that if you visit the right website on any Saturday afternoon in the UK during the domestic season, you can watch pirated live broadcasts of practically any Premier League game you like. Great, if you don't mind watching a small video window the size of a matchbox, but it's not my thing, personally.

Thus far, then, watching football via the web has not been a priority for me, but tonight was different. This was the European Championship semi-finals, an occasion that resonates with memories of Michel Platini sticking a third past Portugal in 1984, John Motson soiling his underwear with excitement and France staking a claim to be the best team in the world. Oh, and England losing to Germany in 1996, but we haven't got time to discuss that now.

I needed to see this game, and the BBC were offering me the opportunity. Dear old Auntie Beeb - always there in a crisis.

Off to the site I went and to my pleasant surprise there was a link that opened up a video window the size of, ooh, ten matchboxes at least. A nice big screen by comparison to those pirate sites, but when I clicked the 'full screen' button, my entire PC monitor became engorged with the slightly fuzzy image of the game going on in Basel.

And fuzzy it was, to some extreme, but I was hardly likely to complain about that given the quality of the image I'd be viewing if this was Euro 2000 or earlier. Advances in the internet world now mean I no longer have to settle for a blurred image that updates once every minute - this was as 'cutting edge' as it was ever going to be.

I won't even mention the fact that the sound coming through my PC's speakers was a little crackly. That was fine. I was just amazed to be using my computer to watch a game in 2008 to the point where any comparisons with TV-quality output were negligible.

And then there was a loss of picture and sound. Little did I realise it at the time, but the whole world had lost its link to Basel at that time, probably due to a heavy storm rendering the Euro 2008 Media Centre paralysed. At the time, I was swearing and cursing at the internet feed I'd invested so much of my interest in, thinking that it had let me down when I needed it most.

Of course I was wrong, as soon became apparent, and frankly who can complain when one is unexpectedly treated to a brief excerpt of sound-only radio commentary from Alan Green and Chris Waddle on BBC Radio 5 Live? Yes, this was a bit of a one-off as breaks in transmission were concerned, and the quality of the video streaming technology were not at fault on this occasion.

Having sat through the remainder of the rather exciting match which Germany won 3-2, taking all the interruptions to one side, I can honestly say I'd recommend the BBC live football on-demand video service for anyone that hasn't tried it yet. The picture quality's good, the sound quality's good - in fact everything's good. It even cuts out the boring, self-conscious wafflings of BBCs panel of experts back in the studio before and after the game. Surely this is the future of watching football for all of us, isn't it?

Russian star looking to complete 'dream' move this Summer

Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin has claimed that a move to Spanish giants Barcelona would be the culmination of everything he has worked for in his career.

After being suspended for Russia's opening two games of Euro 2008, Arshavin has set their campaign alight with a string of impressive performances for one of the tournaments dark-horses which has led Guus Hiddink's side to within one victory of a showdown with either Germany or Turkey in the final.

Arshavin was instrumental in the sides extra-time demolition of Holland in the quarter-finals. During normal time the Zenit St Petersburg playmaker showed brilliance on the ball, dancing round tackle after tackle and sending in delightful crosses for his team-mates which only failed to give Russia the lead due to squandered chances and World class stops from Edwin Van Der Sar in the Dutch goal.

It was in injury time where he really made his mark though. After Ruud Van Nistelrooy had cancelled out Roman Pavlyuchenko's earlier strike taking the game into a further added 30 minutes many must have thought that this would be the time where the Dutch - apparently a fresh vibrant side under Marco Van Basten - would put their foot on the gas and take the game to their Eastern-European counterparts.

This was not to be however as that man Arshavin time and time again dazzled and dashed his way towards the Dutch box, teasing Andre Ooijer who was struggling to cope with the sheer quality which his opponent was delivering throughout.

The breakthrough came after another battle was lost by Ooijer and Arshavin crossed a delicious ball to the back post which deceived Van Der Sar and Dmitri Torbinski poked in from close range.

Arshavin wasn't ready to give up just there and four minutes from time he sealed the game for his side, latching on to a throw-in before firing low past Van Der Sar, sparking wild celebrations on the Russian bench and stands.

After capitulating to Spain - their semi-final opponents - without Arshavin leading their attack, the betting on Russia to go all the way will surely intensify due to his return.

The 27-year-old has already been generating interest from the top European leagues with Chelsea, Arsenal and Barcelona showing signs that an offer could well be winging it's way to Petersburg in the coming months and current manager Dick Advocaat is not surprised one jot.
Advocaat told a press conference,

"He's just turned 27, he's very quick, he has an excellent shot on both legs and besides scoring he can also provide for other players."

The player himself has pointed to just one side which he has his heart set on though. He said,
"Barcelona are my dream. I have supported Barcelona all my life, let's see how the situation unfolds. For now I can't say anything for sure."

Right now though it's all about the Euro's for many players but after the tournament Arshavin and many of the other top talents across the globe will be the focus of football betting over this Summer.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A marathon, not a sprint

Here's a quiz question for you: what do the following teams have in common? Denmark in the 1986 World Cup, Brazil in the 1990 World Cup, Spain in the 2006 World Cup and the Netherlands in Euro 2008.

The answer: they've all started their tournaments at a roaring pace, only to be knocked out in the second round. To be more specific, each of the aforementioned have won all three of their First Round games, only to be knocked out in the Second Round. If Spain aren't careful, they might join the list tonight unless they find a way to beat Italy.

So just how does a team like the Dutch in Euro 2008 collapse so monumentally just as they've convinced everyone about their credentials as champions elect? In the case of the Dutch, two main factors spring to mind.

Firstly, there's the old 'fatigue' argument to be considered. Wesley Sneijder was quick to point out after the 3-1 defeat to the Russians that when extra time came around, the Dutch appeared to have little energy left for the fight to come, whereas Guus Hiddink's side looked fresh and more than capable of carrying on to the bitter end.

There may be something in this: while the Dutch players came into Euro 2008 having finished a tiring domestic campaign with their clubs, the Russians have so far completed just thirteen weeks of their own domestic league. All those of you wishing to raise this point to the F.A., please do so care of Fabio Capello, Lancaster Gate.

Then there's the argument that any team catching the eye early on in a competition will obviously set the minds racing of the other managers involved. Don't think for a moment that Guus Hiddink wasn't sitting in his luxurious Austrian hotel suite over the last two weeks wondering how he'd beat such an exciting Dutch team if the time ever came.

No, far better to start a tournament discretely and with a considerable amount of stealth if you want your team to capture the trophy. That's what the Dutch did in Euro 88 by losing their first group game against the Soviet team they'd go on to beat in the Final. The Danish side in Euro 92 were even better at making people think they were poor - they drew 0-0 with England and lost 1-0 to hosts Sweden in the First Round before they went on to win the tournament outright. Greece also looked far from convincing in the first few games of Euro 2004… mind you, they failed to look convincing all the way through to the Final, but that's another story.

Yes, there's something to be said for not showing your best hand at the start of a competition as the Dutch did this year. You might win lots of friends for the way you play football in its purest form, but they'll soon be your enemies if you don't give them every opportunity to see it.

If you're visiting SPAOTP, Mr. Aragones, don't say we didn't warn you.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Shoot! magazine: The End

The terrible thing about getting older is that you gradually become more and more separated from the happy days of your youth. The greater our age, the more we yearn for that time in our lives when we had barely a care in the world.

This week, I heard about another piece of my younger life that's about to disappear, probably forever - Shoot! magazine.

For those of you that don't know, Shoot! magazine (don't forget the exclamation mark - it's very important) was a weekly football publication for kids which has been produced in the UK since 1969. Back then it was available on a monthly basis but it soon became so popular that kids wanted new editions more and more often.

And yet now, nearly forty years on, its makers have decided that demand is so low for Shoot! that it's no longer worth making. At the end of the month, IPC Magazines will publish Shoot! for the last time and as they do, the hearts of millions of thirty-somethings like myself will sink.

Luckily we still have our memories, and if they're getting a little hazy by now, there's always eBay to pick up some old issues of the magazine for a pleasingly affordable price. This is something I did last year in an attempt to regress to my carefree days as a thirteen-year-old. Back then I used to buy the magazine every week, read it through, then without fail detach the colour team picture from the staples in the middle and pin it up on my bedroom wall.

Having bought my twenty-odd vintage issues of Shoot! from eBay, my fascination with the magazine became much less cerebral. Those magazines from the late 1970's and early 1980's now give me a chance to stare through the looking glass at a time I once knew when most of the football kits were made by Admiral, the average weekly wage of a British footballer was £100 a week and the information superhighway was limited only by the number of books your local library had.

Shoot! was good back then. It seems puerile by today's standards, but for a kid in his early teens living an innocent existence in a far less self-conscious world, it was all you could ever wish for.

For a start, there was usually a news section featuring snippets of info from every level of professional football. Not interested in who Johan Cruyff might be signing for next season? Never mind - there's always a paragraph on Crewe Alexandra's chairman who's standing down after 45 years.

A section featuring readers' letters followed and here we'd see a curious range of correspondences you just don't see the like of anymore. There'd be a letter from someone proclaiming Liverpool, Celtic or England to be the best in the world (giving lots of reasons why), a letter from a child asking for the answer to a straight-forward trivia question (i.e. "Can you tell me which team brought Nottingham Forest's 42-game unbeaten run to an end?") - a question which had all the hallmarks of sheer fabrication on the part of the Editor, and a letter from a teenager in the USA asking if anyone wanted to be his pen pal. The mind can only boggle at the sort of response he would have got.

A few pages into your average copy of Shoot! and you were plunged into numerous articles about specific teams or players which actually give an interesting insight into 'the beautiful game' back then. These were typically interspersed with full-page colour pictures of the stars (and also-rans) of the day, plus small ads for Adidas football boots, second-rate football board games and various souvenirs of all shapes and sizes.

The centre pages were always dedicated to showing a randomly chosen club squad in all their glory, and it was here as much as anywhere that you got the chance to identify all those names you read about in the Sunday Mirror's sports pages. Prime bedroom wall fodder, as mentioned above.

Any space that was left amongst Shoot's forty or so pages were almost always filled with lightweight amusement such as cartoons, crosswords and puzzles, one of which was the renowned 'You Are The Ref'. Here, a series of hand-drawn pictures depicting situations from football matches were accompanied by quiz questions such as "A player leaves the field to tie his shoelaces during which time a goal is scored by another member of his team. Does the goal stand?" The answer, of course, is "Why the hell should I care - I don't get paid to adjudicate on such matters - I'm 13 years old" or "Referee's know nothing anyway - why are you asking me this question?" It seemed like harmless fun at the time though...

And that was pretty much your average issue - plenty to read, plenty to look at and plenty to do.

But that's not quite all. Being a kid's magazine (some would say 'comic' - incorrectly), you'd be treated to an occasional free gift either taped to the front cover or secreted within its pages. Sometimes it would be a booklet on 'Great Players of the World' or a
badge saying "I buy Shoot! every week!" but the most famous of them all was the perennial 'League Ladders'.

One issue would give you a thin piece of card on which was printed the empty positions of all four English league tables (as well as those for Scotland) and the following few weeks would offer the required 'team tabs' on which were printed the names of all the teams that could be slotted into the relevant places in the tables. Every time a match was played north or south of the border, you were invited to move the team tabs to their new positions on your League Ladders - a task which at first seemed like great fun but soon took on a tiresome quality due to the fiddly nature of relocating the tabs.

Still, as free gifts go, it was about as imaginative as you could hope to get from a magazine of its ilk and you'd undoubtedly look forward to receiving it every year. It was an annual tradition that retained its place in the calendar right up until this year, but in 2009 there'll be no League Ladders. In 2009, there'll be no Shoot! magazine either.

We therefore give thanks for having Shoot! in our lives for so long. Once upon a time we thought it was important enough to decorate our bedroom walls with, and in later years we valued it as a way to escape from the serious realities of our modern grown-up lives. Either way, it will be greatly missed by a great many people, and it will remain a retro football icon for generations to come.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #66

Altogether now, you all know this one...
16 Songs By Football Teams That Were Once Available To Buy On The Open Market

1. 'Back Home' (England World Cup Squad, 1970)
2. 'Anfield Rap' (Liverpool, 1988)
3. 'Good Old Arsenal' (Arsenal, 1971)
4. 'Tottenham Tottenham' (Tottenham Hotspur, 1982)
5. 'Glory Glory Man United' (Manchester United, 1983)
6. 'Easy Easy' (Scotland World Cup Squad, 1974)
7. 'Hot Shot Tottenham' (Tottenham, 1987)
8. 'Here We Go' (Everton, 1985)
9. 'We Can Do It' (Liverpool, 1977)
10. 'Hot Stuff' (Arsenal, 1998)
11. 'Leeds United' (Leeds United, 1972)
12. 'Blue Is The Colour' (Chelsea, 1972)
13. 'We Have A Dream' (Scotland World Cup Squad, 1982)
14. 'Ossie's Dream' (Tottenham, 1981)
15. 'Come On You Reds' (Manchester United, 1994)
16. 'Ole Ola (Mulher Brasileira)' (Scotland World Cup Squad, 1978)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Group of Death - A History

It's Day 11 of Euro 2008 and time once again to witness the goings-on in 'The Group of Death', i.e. Group C, featuring France, Italy, Romania and the Netherlands.

We've used the term 'Group of Death' quite a lot here at SPAOTP recently, but to be fair we're not the only ones bandying that particular title around. It’s a label that everyone seems happy to give to this fearsome foursome, and rightly so. Out of all the four teams in Euro 2008 Group C, the lowest any of them appear on the FIFA World Rankings list is 12th (Romania). Perhaps as far as toughness goes, this may be the ultimate 'Group of Death' ever seen in a major competition, but we wondered if any others could lay claim to that title from football's rich and illustrious history. As you'd expect, we didn't rest until we'd found out…

The Euros
Europe's own continental championship didn't embrace the 'round robin' system until 1980 when UEFA decided that the Finals should expand from [gasp] four teams to eight. When it did, we got our first taste of what a 'Group of Death' might look like when Group 2 featured some of Europe's finest teams.

Euro groups begin
There was an England team appearing in their first major tournament for ten years featuring an emerging band of talented players under the guidance of Ron Greenwood. There was host nation Italy, homing in on a world title which would arrive two years later. Spain were still producing some of the best players in the world at the time and were by no means an easy team to beat, and indeed the same could be said for Belgium who had arguably their strongest side ever at the time and would go on to reach the Euro '80 Final, only to be beaten by West Germany.

Belgium would be the winners from this 'Group of Death' with Italy edged out only on goals scored, yet as the years went by the European Championship would see tougher, tighter groups that would prove to be even more difficult for its competitors.

The home team sneaks through
By the time Euro '88 was done and dusted, hindsight might have told you that Group 2 was the one to avoid in the First Round as it contained both of the finalists - the Netherlands and the Soviet Union - not to mention England and Ireland.

In actual fact, it was Group 1 that earned the 'Group of Death' title as its line-up was undoubtedly even stronger. Once again it featured the hosts - West Germany, a team that only two years earlier had played Argentina in the World Cup Final. Spain had also shown promise during Mexico '86 and had gained some kudos by thrashing an exciting Denmark side 5-1 in the Second Round. That same Denmark side were back again to seek revenge on the Spanish, but they, together with the Germans, would share their group with Italy, host nation of the next World Cup and always a threat.

On this occasion, the Danes had nothing to offer, finishing bottom of the group with three straight defeats. Euro '88 would mark the end of the first great era of Danish football, but it would also see the end of any hopes that Spain might have of continuing their fine from which began in Euro '84. The Spaniards' only points came from their 3-2 win over Denmark, so that left West Germany and Italy to fight over top spot and it was the former that snatched it by a single goal. Sadly for both teams, this Group of Death would have a lingering effect as West Germany lost their semi-final to eventual champions, the Netherlands, while Italy were defeated by the Soviet Union in theirs.

Between then and now, many Euro groups have been tough but none have been able to shine a light on this year's First Round Group C. Look to the World Cup, however, and there's a rich seam of darkness running through many a First and Second Round group.

The World Cup
The thing with the World Cup is that on some occasions there'd be groups in the First Round and the Second - even a group to decide the winners, once - more of which later...

Total Domination
But some of those Second Round set-ups would take the 'Group of Death' premise to a totally new level. In 1974, we saw the Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina and East Germany all thrown into the same pot. East Germany proved they weren't to be taken lightly after beating their West German neighbours and hosts to top Group 1 in the First Round, and the South Americans would be tough to overcome too.

But this was the start of the Total Football era and the Dutch side beat them all to take their place in the Final that year. The East Germans and the Argentineans would only pick up a single point in Group A while Brazil would grab the other Semi Final spot with four points from a possible six.

As close as it gets
A tough group, there, for two of the four sides but in the First Round of the 1990 World Cup, one group would prove that all four sides were almost exactly matched. Group F contained England, the inaugural appearances at the finals of the Republic of Ireland, a rare excursion for Egypt and the European Champions, the Netherlands. The English press proclaimed it was 'The Group of Death', although to be fair they tend to say that for any group England appears in, but on the face of it this didn't seem the most difficult group to be in.

First appearances turned out to be deceptive. In the first round of games, England drew 1-1 with Ireland and the Netherlands drew 1-1 with Egypt. The next round proved just as tight - England and the Netherlands sharing a 0-0 draw and the Irish and Egyptians doing exactly the same. Going into the final round of games, FIFA were thumbing through their rule books to see what would happen if all four teams ended the group exactly level. Though there was some parting of the ways, that rule book would be required as England defeated Egypt 1-0 and Ireland and the Netherlands drew 1-1.

The group ended with England on top on four points, the Dutch and the Irish had three points and exactly the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored, and the Egyptians were last on two points. In order to separate the Netherlands and Ireland, lots had to be drawn and the Irish came out as winners to take second place in the group. In the modern era, teams have never finished as close as this before or since.

1982 - The Year of the Mini Group of Death
In 1982, the number of finalists playing at the FIFA World Cup was increased from 16 to 24 which meant the First Round would now employ six groups of four, of which the top two teams would progress to the Second Round. In order to get the remaining 12 teams down to four for the semi finals, a second round-robin stage was introduced featuring four smaller groups of three. It was a system criticised for lacking the usual levels of excitement seen in a knockout stage and has never been repeated to this day, but it did at least throw up a couple of mini 'Groups of Death' worth talking about.

Once again, the English press pronounced Ron Greenwood's side had been dealt the worst hand of all, being thrown into Group 2 along with West Germany and hosts Spain. It certainly was a tough group to be in, but no-one really believed it was all that bad when they'd seen who was in Group 3.

Though small, it was beautifully formed as it featured favourites Brazil, holders Argentina and Italy. Each of the games featured lots of goals, plenty of excitement and everything you could possibly want from a World Cup group. It began with Italy beating Argentina 2-1 in Barcelona, then Brazil beat the Argentineans 3-1 three days later.

The holders were out, so the group ended with a 'winner takes all' showdown between Brazil and Italy. Having beaten Argentina by more goals than Italy, Brazil knew they only had to get a draw with the Italians to go through to the semis.

The match began with Paolo Rossi scoring first for Italy in the fifth minute, but Socrates equalised seven minutes later. Rossi scored again after 25 minutes to put his team in front and the 2-1 lead remained intact until the 68th minute when Falcao equalised again for Brazil. Many thought Brazil were back in with a chance of winning the game, but just six minutes later Rossi popped up to score his third goal of the match which proved to be the winner for Italy.

Brazil were defeated and out of the competition, but Italy had survived the 'Group of Death.' It was proof they could beat anybody on their day, and it would stand them in good stead as they journeyed on to win the World Cup less than a week later.

The Final Group of Death
There have been so many great groups down the years in previous World Cups, but the 1950 edition had two which show how meaningful a real Group of Death could be.

To start with, there were four First Round groups of which two had four teams, one had three and the other had just two teams because of the various countries that had decided to pull out of the competition beforehand.

That meant the group featuring two teams, Uruguay and Bolivia, would revolve around a single match between them. The winner would go through to the final round, the loser would go home. As Groups of Death go, it doesn't get any tougher than that, and for Bolivia it was especially tough as they lost 8-0 to their South American counterparts.

Uruguay therefore took their place in the Final Round - not a Final match, you'll notice, but a round-robin group of the four First Round group winners who would thrash it out to see who'd win the Jules Rimet Trophy. Again, it was a system that's never been repeated since, but it did give everyone the opportunity to see what the ultimate 'Group of Death' being played out. Its winner would be the world champions, and no group has ever offered such a prize before or after.

A Final after all
The four winners of the First Round groups were Brazil, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay and their matches in the Final Group would take place in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The hosts, Brazil began in emphatic fashion by beating the Swedes 7-1 in Rio while Spain and Uruguay fought out a 2-2 draw in Sao Paulo. Brazil then followed their first victory with one that was almost as emphatic - a 6-1 win over Spain while Uruguay picked up their first win by beating Sweden 3-2.

It all therefore came down to the last match between Brazil and their bitter rivals Uruguay. Brazil already had four points in the bag compared to Uruguay's three and their goal difference was far better too. All Brazil had to do was get a draw and the world championship would be theirs - and in front of thousands and thousands of their own fans in the Maracana stadium.

The two teams were evenly matched during the first half of the Final, but the home side took the lead two minutes into the second half. Brazil were in front and their fans were delighted, but their team seemed overawed by the occasion and were struggling to play their usual free-flowing, skilful brand of football. Juan Schiaffino equalised for Uruguay nearly twenty minutes later and just when the Brazilian fans were coming to terms with the shock of it all, Alcides Ghiggia made it 2-1 to Uruguay with eleven minutes left to win the match.

Most of the 174,000 crowd in the Maracana Stadium couldn't believe what they'd just seen. They felt sure it would be their own team that would win the 1950 World Cup, an opinion shared by the Brazilian officials who forgot to present the trophy to the winning Uruguayans. Thank heavens for Jules Rimet himself - at least he had the presence of mind to go down to the pitch to do the honours himself.

And that was that - surely the ultimate 'Group of Death' and one that resulted in Uruguay winning their second World Cup. So take note, English journalists - the next time your country is drawn to play a few half-decent sides from places hardly anyone's ever heard of, remember - it'll take some beating to surpass any of the above. They were the deadliest of all the 'Groups of Death'.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cordoba

People have been remembering the Anschluss Game ahead of tonight's Austria v Germany fixture, indeed ahead of the tournament, and with good cause. For the uninitiated, the name refers to West Germany and Austria contriving a 1-0 victory for the Germans during the group stages of the 1982 World Cup. The result meant that both teams progressed to the second round of the tournament and is, rightly, derided as the game's nadir - on the pitch at least.

However, for those who listened to the Guardian Podcast recorded in the streets of Vienna on the night of Austria's draw with Poland, the chants among the Austrians were of "Córdoba". This is not a reference to where they intend to holiday in Spain, but to the Argentine city where Austria famously dispatched West Germany in a rare victory during the 1978 World Cup. An Austrian name that may resonate to outsiders is Hans Krankl who scored 34 goals in 69 matches for his country and it was he that scored two goals on that day against the world champions, including the winner.

The Germans went a goal up. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's beautiful strike came after some breathtaking build up play instigated from the German's own half. It was another German who equalized. Berti Vogts could not deal with a cross and put the ball through his own net. Austria then took the lead with a lovely strike from Krankl. He took the ball from a left-sided Eddie Krieger cross into the area, turned and stuck the ball past Sepp Maier.

However, as the English media frequently point out, the Germans do not know when they are beaten (which by the way is contrary to what history tells us, but I digress). Bernd Holzenbein's header from a free kick leveled things up before Krankl sealed his place in history. Rainer Bonhof failed to cut out a long ball to Krankl on the left. With plenty of space in front of him, Krankl surged into the penalty area, beat a diving defender and calmly slotted the ball past the hapless Maier to score.

The match is also known as the Miracle Of Córdoba in clear reference to West Germany's Miracle of Berne where, against the odds, the German's won the 1954 World Cup against the Magnificent Magyars. There is even a legendary piece of commentary to go with Krankl's winner. The gloriously named Edi Finger screamed "Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! I am going crazy!" which has echoes of German broadcaster Herbert Zimmerman's legendary radio commentary in Berne 1954 ("Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!... Call me mad, call me crazy!")

The result put West Germany out of the tournament and remains one of the finest moments in Austrian football history (probably). It is the memory of this result that the Austrian supporters will be invoking and the players will be trying to emulate tonight in the hope of creating their very own Miracle Of Vienna.

Watch the goals (and listen to the commentary) on YouTube.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Head-to-heads, goals scored and penalties

The last round of group games in Euro 2008 starts today and unusually all the winners of the groups have already been decided, but with only two teams out of it that leaves ten teams fighting over the four runners-up spots. So to help, here's our handy cut-out-and-keep guide to what needs to happen for who.

Group A
Having beaten the only teams that can catch them, Portugal are guaranteed top spot before their final game against the already eliminated Switzerland. Thankfully, with the tie being a dead rubber, we'll be spared Clive Tyldesley losing his load every time Cristiano Ronaldo is on the screen. With their identical records, Turkey and Czech Republic will end up going to penalties on 90 minutes in the event of a draw. The winner will face Croatia on Friday, who are already sure of top place in...

Group B
With top spot assured the Croats can relax in their final game against Poland. The Poles need a win but it may still be not enough to keep them in the competition. A draw between Austria and Germany sees Joachim Loew's men go through to play Portugal on Thursday. An Austrian win however will see them through as long as Poland don't win by more goals. If Poland win by one goal more than Austria, the Poles go through, even if their records are identical - this is due to Poland having a better qualifying record than Austria for the 2006 World Cup. Yep, that's right.

Group C
All manner of nonsense could end up happening in this group - well, apart from Holland not finishing top. If Romania win they will go through, however if they don't and there's a result in the game between France and Italy, the winner of that game go through as runner-up. Italy also go through if they draw and Romania lose by four goals or more. However, if the Romanians end up losing 0-3 and the Italians draw 0-0, Italy go through on UEFA co-efficients - but then they would, wouldn't they?

Group D
Spain are top and will play whoever ends up being runners-up in Group C. The runners-up in this group, who have the pleasure of being knocked out by the Netherlands in the quarter finals, will be Sweden, unless they lose to Russia.

Phil your boots, Scolari

Well, it seems to be happening again. As soon as Chelsea appointed Felipe Scolari as their new manager than the rumours of their Summer spending began and there have been a number of 'headline hunters' that are well and truly in Scolari's sights.

Scolari has wasted no time in ruffling feathers with one of his biggest rivals next season - Sir Alex Ferguson - after apparently telling Cristiano Ronaldo that he should move to Real Madrid. No doubt this has earned him massive kudos with the Chelsea faithful and proven early on that he won't be showing any respect to Ferguson purely down to the Scot's stature in the English game.

When not dashing any future positive relationship with the Manchester United manager, Scolari looks as though he has already begun the chase for his inaugural Summer signing with current Barcelona midfielder Deco seemingly destined for The Bridge in July.

Officials at Barca have claimed that the former Porto player will not be moving to West London this Summer but the BBC's Mike Sewell - their man in the Portugal camp for this month's European Championships - believes that many are tipping the player to make the move to Chelsea.

Sewell told the BBC that his contacts "believe Deco will go with Scolari rather than join up with old boss Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan". This follows a statement from Barcelona telling prospective buyers that Deco was free to leave the Catalan club.

Deco chose to join Barcelona four years ago ahead of the Blues but it looks as though Chelsea's climb to a Champions League Final coupled with an injury-hit season for the midfielder has boosted their chances of capturing his signature this time.

The next big name linked to Scolari's Blues is the ever prolific Fernando Torres and if Chelsea were to pull off such a coo the betting on Chelsea for next season's title would go through the roof.

Okay, so I could have picked a different photo for this one but hey, artistic license and all that.

The striker has been linked with a move to SW6 for a number of years but following Liverpool's successful bid to land the youngster last Summer, any chance of signing the Spaniard appeared to have been lost for The Blues but with a seemingly bottomless transfer kitty being put forward for Scolari, a new bid is likely - not that Liverpool are going to be willing to sell their star asset.

After a truly staggering first season in England (totalling 33 goals) it's no doubt that he is once again linked with The Blues and it's highly unlikely that other teams aren't sniffing around but the player himself and Liverpool Chief Executive Rick Parry have made it very clear that it's in both their interests for the player to stay on Merseyside.

Parry told a press conference that "Fernando Torres is just not for sale to anyone. It is as simple as that, really - he is not going anywhere", and after a brilliant display against Russia in Spain's opening match of Euro 2008 which has led to many people placing bets on Spain to lift the trophy at the end of this month, Torres spoke out on the interest saying that "I want to say very clearly that I'm not on the market and it is my desire to continue at Liverpool."

"I am very happy at Liverpool and want to carry on."

It seems unlikely that Torres will be moving anywhere anytime soon but another player, and arguably the biggest name of the three, is appearing as a player which Scolari - and every Chelsea fan - will focus much of his attention upon come July.

Kaka is seen as the missing piece in the puzzle for Chelsea as their search for the Champions League title continues and with both Scolari and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich keen on the player, much of the transfer budget is likely to be set aside on bringing one of world football's greatest talents to Stamford Bridge.

Leonardo, Milan's Technical Director who, like Kaka, played under Scolari during his playing days with Brazil has come forward to deny any rumour before they can gather momentum.

He stated that Kaka is a Milan player and will remain that way until the end of his career but with the player smack-bang in the middle of his peak, the Blues are set to offer a massive sum for the attacker which could force Milan's hand.

One thing which is for sure is that no matter what happens this Summer it's almost inevitable that Chelsea will be spending figures not seen since Abramovich's takeover of 2003.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #65

Hat-Trick Heros
The Only 8 Hat-Tricks Ever Scored At The European Championships

1. Dieter Muller (for West Germany v Yugoslavia, 1976)
2. Klaus Allofs (for West Germany v Netherlands, 1980)
3. Michel Platini (for France v Belgium, 1984)
4. Michel Platini (for France v Yugoslavia, 1984)
5. Marco Van Basten (for Netherlands v England, 1988)
6. Sergio Conceicao (for Portugal v Germany, 2000)
7. Patrick Kluivert (for Netherlands v Yugoslavia, 2000)
8. David Villa (for Spain v Russia, 2008)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Prediction Time

Having successfully survived the first round of matches and had a good look at the teams, the time has come for some predictions on the outcome of the group stages. It's the easiest thing in the world to predict the outcome before the tournament starts because, and let's be completely honest with ourselves, hardly anyone has seen enough of the teams to really know what the hell they're talking about. Most normal people have been focusing on their clubs, rightly so.

This means you can make wild or outlandishly bold claims of expertise, safe in the knowledge that no one else would contradict you as they know as little as you do. However, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and now that we have a little knowledge, let us delve into the murky waters of the swamp that is the Prediction League junkie’s world.

Group A

Portugal
Czech Republic
Switzerland
Turkey

Switzerland will rally and beat Turkey who will play well again but still lose. There may be violence and eggs may pelt Sepp Blatter. Portugal meanwhile will polish off the mediocre Czechs and leave the second place down to the third game. Turkey will rouse themselves long enough to manage a draw with the Czechs and Switzerland will battle for a point against Portugal who will already be home and hosed. That puts the Czechs through on the head-to-head and leaves the co-hosts cursing referees.

Group B

Germany
Austria
Poland
Croatia

The Poles will be extremely demoralised after their defeat ay the hated Germans hands and will not recover quickly enough to defend themselves against the spirited but inferior Austrians. Germany will thump Croatia who are not as good as they think they are and have no strikers. Poland will be desperate not to bow out of the championships without sticking it to someone and will do so against the Croats. Austria v Germany will not be another Anschluss game. However, Joachim Low will field a second string side and the Austrians will squeak a draw. Posts may be hit, players will be sent off and there is bound to be some last minute shenanigans in the penalty area but Austria, against all expectations will qualify. No I'm not tripping.

Group C

Netherlands
Italy
France
Romania

France are dreadful. Everyone thinks the Italians have problems but the French have no Plan B. Short of zombifying Zinedine Zidane and sending him out on a brain-eating rampage, it's difficult to see Domenech's men doing anything. Italy on the other hand still have a chance. They will beat Romania because they must and the Dutch will beat the French. This will leave the Italy v France game as a tense, unpleasant and possibly boring draw that will send Italy through.



Group D

Spain
Sweden
Russia
Greece

Like the French, the Greeks have no back up. They will not score a goal in the tournament. Spain have put themselves in a position where they will have to really go for it to get knocked out. They will be too good for the Swedes and will only have to turn up to beat the thoroughly pissed off Greeks. Russia will not be able to beat the champions and the Swedes will get the point they need to finish runners up.

There we have it. Please feel free to pour scorn over these predictions and mock me mercilessly as they turn out to be total bobbins. You may be interested to learn that, were I a betting man, I’d keep my money in my wallet. Maybe I’ll pop back at the end of the group stage to pour over the remains.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Shexy football the winner as classy Holland ease past Italy

It was the first real test of Euro 2008's supposed group of death and after 90-plus minutes of breathtaking football, Holland emerged not only as winners but also as real contenders to escape Group C and make a strong challenge for the Championship.

With Orange and Blue colouring Bern's Wankdorf stadium, Euro 2008 sprung into life thanks to one of the tournament's all-time great matches.

The first opportunity fell to Holland's Ruud Van Nistelrooy who latched onto a Dirk Kuyt pass before attempting to round Italy's Gianluigi Buffon. The veteran 'keeper looked to have made contact with the striker but Van Nistelrooy stayed on his feet but the ball skewed out of his path and the chance was gone.

It was on 26 minutes when the deadlock was broken and when the games biggest controversial incident occurred.

Holland's Rafael Van Der Vaart swung in a delicious free-kick which eventually fell to the feet of Wesley Sneijder who rifled in a shot which was poked home by Van Nistelrooy to furious calls for offside from Italian players and supporters alike.

Replays proved that the strike should have been ruled out for offside but that didn't matter to the Dutch support who - already in full swing before th opener - raised the noise level up another notch as Van Nistelrooy rushed over to salute the fans.

Italy wasted no time in pressing for an equaliser and earned themselves a corner which Andrea Pirlo swung in and after clearing from underneath his own crossbar Gio Van Bronckhorst raced down the left flank to receive a cross-field ball from Van Der Vaart before spraying a pass back out to the right onto the head of Kuyt who showed great balance to nod the ball back across goal into the path of Sneijder who cooly swept in a right-footed shot past Buffon on his 24th birthday.

The Azzurri in truth weren't playing that badly but Holland, so often underachievers at major tournaments looked unstoppable.

Ruud could and probably should have killed the game off minutes before the break after collecting a magnificent ball from Sneijder but Buffon pulled off a truly World class save to keep the game just about in Italy's reach.

Italy came forward with wave after wave of attack and on 65 minutes Alessandro Del Piero was thrown into the mix and almost made the difference immediately.

The ageing striker was brought on for Antonio Di Natale and forced fellow veteran Edwin Va Der Sar into a smart save almost immediately, soon after he was found by Pirlo but this time he sent his effort well wide of the target.

Italy's strikers were struggling to find any form with Luca Toni summing up their evening with 15 minutes remaining, firing substitute Antonio Cassano's pass into the Italian faithful behind the goal who must have been resigned to defeat by this point.

The Dutch certainly weren't looking as though they had swapped boots for clogs and continued to press for the killer goal which eventually came 10 minutes before the final whistle.

Pirlo fired in a sweet free-kick which would have beaten a lesser 'keeper no doubt but Van Der Sar rolled back the years to throw himself in the way of the shot and as Holland swept forward, the inevitable became a reality.

Sneijder threaded a lovely ball into the feet of Van Bronckhorst who found Kuyt in turn, a loose touch took the Liverpool man out wide and gave Buffon enough time to rush out and block his effort but the luck was in for Kuyt as the ball fell back into his path and the striker lofted a ball up for the head of Van Bronckhorst who guided a header past Buffon as Gianluca Zambrotta failed to acrobatically clear off the line.

The result will have many betting on Holland for the title after their first victory over Italy in 30 years and the Azzurri's joint heaviest defeat in a major tournament's finals.

If anybody doubted that this years Euro's were going to be about as exciting as Switzerland's nightlife, the event's in Bern on Monday evening should silence those critics and act as a catalyst for Holland to escape the 'group of death'.

Euro 2008: Guide to Group D

Group D
The Group of Life, if you will. Some say this is the easiest group to qualify from out of all those featuring in Euro 2008, but if you ask any of the team coaches involved, they'll all tell you there are no easy groups in this competition. We'll leave it up to you to decide...

Greece

Qualifying
Very comfortable thanks. Highlights include a 4-0 trouncing of Bosnia plus a 1-0 away win at political rivals Turkey which may have made up for the 4-0 mullering they received at the Turks hands earlier in the campaign but probably didn't. Still, they scored more points during qualifying than anyone else and they are the Champions, so ner.

Current form
Not that of a team you'd call 'Reigning European Champions'. A recent 0-0 draw with Armenia preceded by a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Hungary will give the coach something to be decidedly concerned about. Then again, they did beat Portugal and Finland earlier in the year, so let's not label them as abject failures just yet.

Reasons to be cheerful
It's basically the same team that won four years ago. The Greeks are comfortable with each other and with the wily Otto Rehagel working his magic they may be dark horses for the group - maybe even the tournament.

Reasons to be grumpy
It's basically the same team that won four years ago. Antonis Nicopolidis (left) gets greyer by the day and not in the George Clooney way. Hero of Lisbon Angelos Charisteas plays for a team that were relegated last season and midfielder Giorgos Karagounis reckons their main weakness is that they don't create enough goalscoring chances. Veteran manager Otto Rehagel may have run out of ideas.

Recent friendlies
May 19: Greece 2 Cyprus 0
May 24: Hungary 3 Greece 2
June 1: Armenia 0 Greece 0

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Fanis Gekas is a goal machine in the Bundesliga (he was top scorer last season with 20 to his name) and will be mad keen to hurl himself in the general direction of the ball every time it gets near the six yard box. He may even get a haircut.

Russia

Qualifying
Guus Hiddink's men sneaked into the second qualifying spot of Group E by grabbing the single point they needed to force out England and Israel. Drawing 0-0 in both matches against group winners Croatia, Russia's main problem was scoring goals. They netted fewer than the other teams in the top four - just 18 - so it was just as well their defence only conceded seven at the same time.

Current Form
In a word, very good. Though they slipped up away to Romania at the end of March, losing 3-0 in Bucharest, they've since put together a run of three successive wins against Kazakhstan, Serbia and Lithuania. OK, not the most prolific of opponents, but it's better than nothing.

A man of some experience (Part 2)
Just like our old friend Leo Beenhakker of Poland, Russia's Guus Hiddink (right) is a man who's travelled the world seeking new challenges in football management wherever he can find one. So what's the full itinerary for this vastly experienced coach? Let's see...

1982-1984 De Graafschap; 1984-1990 PSV Eindhoven (originally as assistant coach); 1990-1991 Fenerbahçe; 1991-1994 Valencia; 1994-1998 Netherlands; 1998-1999 Real Madrid; 1999-2000 Real Betis; 2000-2002 South Korea; 2002-2006 PSV Eindhoven; 2005-2006 Australia; 2006- Russia.

Recent friendlies
May 23: Russia 6 Kazakhstan 0
May 28: Russia 2 Serbia 1
June 4: Lithuania 1 Russia 4

High expectation
As many people will no longer be aware, Russia have failed to progress beyond the group stage of any major competition since the break up of the former Soviet Union. So what makes them think it can be done this time? Well for a start there's coach Guus Hiddink, a man who's already helped Australia and South Korea get to the knockout stages of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

Then there's the confidence-building win over England during the qualifiers, the fact that the players know each other so well from playing at the many clubs based in Moscow, plus the ability to use pace to great effect to get one over their opponents during a match. Plenty to be going on with there, then...

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Dmitri Sychev. The Lokomotiv Moscow striker is known at home as the 'Russian Michael Owen' and not, presumably, because he's injured for 11 months of the year.

His nickname actually derives from the fact that he's quick, has a clinical finish and is very agile, and these qualities have seen him maintain a commendable strike rate wherever he plays. With the national side, he's scored 15 times in 44 appearances and with his current club he's netted 39 in 101 appearances. Just the sort of talent Russia need if they're to secure that elusive second round berth.

Spain

Qualifying
In qualifying, Spain were excellent. Eventually. After an initial 4-0 drubbing of Liechtenstein at home, Spain travelled to Belfast and lost 3-2 to Lawrie Sanchez's men and followed that with a 2-0 away defeat to Sweden.

So far, so bad, but the Spanish team took a good long look at itself and went about the remainder of their campaign with an altogether more co-ordinated approach, winning eight of their last nine games. They finished top of Group F and have gone on to win their four friendlies in the ensuing period. Beat that…

Current form
As just mentioned, Spain are riding a tidal wave of success at the moment. Once the Euro 2008 qualifiers were out of the way, they beat France, Italy and the United States 1-0 and beat Peru 2-1 - all at home. In fact the last defeat the Spanish have experienced was on November 15th 2006 when Romania beat them 1-0 in Cadiz.

Maybe this really is Spain's year to win the Euros, after all?

Recent friendlies
March 26: Spain 1 Italy 0
May 31: Spain 2 Peru 1
June 4: Spain 1 USA 0

Players you might have heard of
Let's put it this way: if you support Liverpool, you'll know the Spanish squad. From Pepe Reina in goal to Alvaro Albeloa in defence, through to Xabi Alonso in midfield, all the way up to Fernando Torres in attack, there's much to be familiar with.

But hey - if you're British and don't support Liverpool, don't worry - you're catered for too! There's also Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas in midfield…

A bit of a character
Coach Luis Aragones is what they used to call 'a bit of a card'. Wherever he goes, controversy follows. First and foremost is his reluctance to pick Raul for the Spain squad at Euro 2008, a decision which has confused and frustrated Fernando Hierro, Bernd Schuster, most of Raul's team mates at Real Madrid, the Spanish press and virtually everyone that knows him.

Resolute in his beliefs, Aragones lashed out at a radio presenter over the issue calling him a "coward and a liar". He's also had a run-in with the Spanish FA over his decision to pick Liverpool's Alvaro Arbeloa even though he was injured, inviting them to "sack me now."

And don't get us started on his motivational techniques. We'll be here all night…

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
It has to be Fernando Torres. His reputation as a clinical goalscorer has continued at Liverpool where he's already bagged 33 goals in 41 appearances on top of the 91 he scored at Atletico Madrid and the 15 he's scored for the national side.

He's now a national hero and could cement his place in history if he continues that sort of form in taking Spain to the Euro 2008 title this summer.

Sweden

Qualifying
As mentioned earlier, Sweden were in Group F along with Spain and matched them almost game for game and goal for goal. They even managed to beat the Spaniards in the second game of their campaign, although the return visit to Madrid ended in a 3-0 defeat to the home side.

Sweden finished second in the group, just two points behind Spain, and did a good job of suppressing most of their opponents with the possible exception of Northern Ireland who beat them 2-1 in Belfast and drew 1-1 in Solna. Top scorer for the Swedes was Marcus Allback with 6 goals in total.

Current form
Indifferent, to say the least. Since the start of the year, Sweden have lost to the United States, Brazil and Ukraine but beaten Slovenia and Costa Rica. There was also a 0-0 draw with Turkey to consider, but the main concern for Sweden will be their rapidly deteriorating ability to score. In those six games played in 2008, they've found the net just twice. Hardly European Champion material…

Players you might have heard of
A nice selection to put in front of all you Premier League fans. In goal, there's Man City's Andreas Isaksson, in defence we give you Aston Villa's bearded wonder Olof Mellberg and in midfield there's the double threat of Birmingham's Sebastian Larsson and West Ham's Freddie Ljungberg. Last but not least, there's the player that lit up many a Celtic supporter's day - the one, the only Henrik 'I'm Not 37 yet, you know' Larsson'.

Recent friendlies
March 26: Sweden 0 Brazil 1
May 26: Sweden 1 Slovenia 0
June 1: Sweden 0 Ukraine 1

An eventful year
Sweden's path to Euro 2008 has not been what you'd call boring in any way, shape or form. Aside from the undoubted joy at beating Spain in one of their early qualifiers, there was the slight distraction of Christian Wilhelmsson, Olof Mellberg and Zlatan Ibrahimovic being sent home after a prolonged night out on the town. Ibrahimovic subsequently refused to play for the national team in their next three games out of protest for what he deemed an unjust punishment.

There was also the curious saga of Sweden's game against Denmark last June when a Danish supporter ran onto the pitch and punched the referee. UEFA stepped in and awarded the Swedes a 3-0 victory, even though the match had ended 3-3. Just as well for Sweden as they were 3-0 up at one point, prior to a Danish fight back later in the game.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the man on whose shoulders every Swedes hopes of winning rest. A star of Serie A for four seasons now, Ibrahimovic has been the driving force in helping Internazionale win the league for the last two seasons although he was out injured for the last couple of months of their 2007/08 campaign. Luckily he returned for the last game to score twice and clinch the championship for them. Now THAT's how to make an impact…

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Box Factory

At last Euro 2008 is underway. What's more, it has started with boxes. That’s right, boxes with balloons in them carried by "volunteers" wearing inflated shell suits. I am of course referring to the official Opening Ceremony in Basel.

Opening ceremonies are truly bizarre affairs. What sort of society do we live in where we feel this urge to spend vast sums of money parading around in daft costumes (although I rather liked the milkmaids) and holding aloft wooden cows before a football match?

The organisers will no doubt say, in some carefully prepared statement, that they exist to promote positive values of patriotism, national identity and international brotherhood. The exact opposite to political rivalry, ethnic hatred and desire for restitution, which is surely what international competition is really about. For "A place to make friends" read "A chance to stick it to the Krauts or the Frogs or the Island Apes assuming any of them could be arsed to turn up."

However, as Nigel (manager of the B Sharps) once said "That'll never fit on a marquee, love" so we are compelled to endure particularly florid examples of why performance art should be banned and its practitioners incarcerated along with saccharin messages of phony comradeship before open hostility begins.

Join us then as Some People Are On The Pitch looks back on some of the more cringe-worthy international tournament’s opening ceremonies.

Germany 2006 (World Cup)
When you think of Germany you think of lederhosen, unless you're me and you think of Gunter Netzer and Kraftwerk. So what better way to reinforce a cultural stereo type than with an expression of Bavarian cultural imperialism in leather. You can just imagine the meeting when they decided that. Avant-garde Berliners pleading with the First Munchen Sausage Munchers to do the decent thing and spare the watching world their pot bellies and short fat hairy legs to no avail.

Proceedings are enhanced somewhat by the presence of large skirted dancers descending into the stadium as the "traditionally dressed German performers" looked upwards in the hope that their stiffies don't show up on the telly.

Euro 2004 (Portugal)
It's at times like this when nations, latterly identified with post-war leisure activities such as sunbathing, swinging and child abduction get the chance to reassert their imperialistic credentials through the means of cardboard sailing ships. Hence Portugal’s celebration of their (ahem) "proud history of exploration". Replaying clips of John Rhys-Davies as Vasco Rodrigues in Shogun may have been cheaper but what do I know? Anyway, the closing ceremony of national humiliation was much more entertaining.

Euro 96 (England)
What finer way to capture the national spirit of modernity and multi-culturalism than with white girls in pointed hats prancing around to "merrie olde England" folk music? If harkening back to a bygone age that never happened wasn’t bad enough, then imagine the dismay of the Wembley crowd when a long-haired decidedly English looking St. George appeared to fight an unconvincing and reluctant looking dragon. The ceremony set ethnic relations back ten years and represents the final gout-ridden heave of established fucked up Tory notions of Englishness. Say what you like about New Labour, but no post-97 sports minister would have stood for that bollocks.

Argentina 78 (World Cup)
This is more like it. Start with the ballons and go from there. Marching bands, high school girls spelling out the words 'Argentina '78', 'Mundial FIFA' and 'Trade Unions will be crushed' with the kind of precision only possible when your family are facing permanent internment if you fail. They even managed to chuck in some doves of peace. President Redondo watches on making a note of any Argentine national in the crowd not applauding enthusiastically. You can witness the full horror online but be warned, it goes on for half an hour.

You can always rely on a dictatorship to put on a good display. That’s at least one good reason why North Korea should be awarded a World Cup. Their ceremony would probably go on for days. Many people would die of exhaustion in the audience alone but it would be a small price to pay to watch hard core mass dancing.

Share your painful opening ceremony moments with us here by leaving a comment.

Euro 2008 - Guide to Group C

Group C
The Official Group of Death for Euro 2008. There must have been dozens of Groups of Death down the years… I wonder how this one ranks against the others? (Mental note to self: look into this for a future article on SPAOTP…)

France

Qualifying
France were pitted up against Italy in Group B of the qualifiers and lived to tell the tale. Though Italy won the group overall, France beat the Italians 3-1 before a 0-0 draw ensued in the return match, plus they finished as top scorers in the group, largely down to the goals of Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.

Players you might have heard of
Second only to the Dutch, France ooze household names of some quality throughout their ranks, many of which will be all too familiar to the British. There's Chelsea's triumvirate of Makelele, Malouda and Anelka, former Arsenal stars Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, Man United defender Patrice Evra and Portsmouth's Lassana Diarra. If you're still not satisfied with that, the names Thuram, Ribery and Benzema should leave you in no doubt as to the strength of the squad.

Players you won't be seeing
One Zinedine Zidane, for a kick off. The mercurial captain of the side and Headbutter Supreme has now retired leaving Patrick Vieira to run the ship. Without his skill and all-seeing vision, some say France lack that bit of sparkle they once had and those self-same people are predicting a decidedly normal-looking team will be there for all to see this summer. One way or another, he'll be much missed - except possibly by Marco Materazzi, but that's understandable.

Recent friendlies
May 27: France 2 Ecudaor 0
May 31: France 0 Paraguay 0
June 3: France 1 Colombia 0

Stingy…
Whether France reproduce their halcyon days of the late 90's remains to be seen, but one thing remains certain - it won't be easy to score against them. Since the summer of 2004, they've conceded on average 0.48 goals per game.

Further proof of their resilient defence is that they've only conceded one goal in their last five matches (in their 1-0 defeat to Spain in February) and the only two teams to score more than one goal against them since the middle of March 2006 are Morocco and Ukraine, the latter being France's last Euro 2008 qualifier.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Franck Ribery. He's just had the season of his life with Bayern Munich and is arguably the brightest star of all those in the French team. As chief playmaker, you can expect him to run at opposition defences with great gusto whenever he isn't inviting others to do the same. Expect this tournament to be his making on the world stage.

Italy

Qualifying
After a shaky start that saw them lose to France in Group B, they strode on confidently with all the hallmarks of a team that called themselves world champions. Unlike France, Italy also managed to beat the Scots in both matches which, as far as we’re concerned, is good enough to qualify for any tournament these days on its own.

Current Form
On the whole, pretty good. They've not played many friendlies since the end of the Euro 2008 qualifiers, but they can include victories over Belgium and Portugal among them. The only fly in the ointment was a 1-0 defeat to Spain at the end of March, but if it's any consolation, that's their only defeat in nine games.

That coach looks familiar…
When Marcello Lippi having steered Italy to their first world championship for 24 years, the man selected to take over was former Milan midfielder Roberto Donadoni. A surprise choice for some as he was still considered to be going through his managerial apprenticeship with Livorno, but having got them up to sixth place in Serie A, he was deemed the ideal choice by the Italian FA.

For all that, we still remember him as the nippy winger that won titles galore with Milan over a 10 year period and helped Italy to third and second place respectively at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. With a career like that behind him, he must stand at least half a chance of achieving something as a manager. Watch this space...

Recent friendlies
February 6: Italy 3 Portugal 1
March 26: Spain 1 Italy 0
May 30: Italy 3 Belgium 1

Playing style
When possible, the Italians are encouraged to attack in big numbers to flood their opponents half of the field. While all that's going on, one midfielder usually stays back to mop up any counter-attacks, but this mob mentality to looking for goals has proven highly effective, largely due the quality of players that can make it happen in all parts of the pitch.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Luca Toni, Bayern Munich's free-scoring attacker who continues to net goals in Germany just as he did at Palermo and Fiorentina prior to his 2007 transfer. A man for the big occasion, he scored twice in Italy's 3-0 quarter-final victory over Ukraine and hit the crossbar with a header in the Final against France. Expect more fireworks again - and then some.

Netherlands

Qualifying
The Dutch didn't have it all their own way during qualifying. Playing in Group G, they went about the business of picking up points in a modest, business-like manner, but so did a resurgent Romania and an awkward Bulgarian team too.

The end result was that the Dutch qualified as runners-up but the fans weren't entirely happy with the manner of their doing so. The Netherlands laboured to dual 1-0 victories over Luxembourg, were unable to beat group winners Romania and ended the campaign losing 2-1 away to Belarus. Had they scored one point fewer, we'd be talking about Bulgaria now, not the Dutch.

Tactical switch
Marco van Basten had to swallow something hard and jagged not so long ago. Having settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation that initially brought the Dutch team many a decent result, things soon started to go wrong. Going in at half time 3-1 down against the Austrians was a key moment when Van Basten knew his tactical astuteness didn't have the depth it needed, but he sought advice from some of his own players and the boat was soon steadied again.

The likes of van Der Sar, van Nistelrooy and Seedorf were all quick to point out that perhaps the team might be better off playing a traditional 4-3-3 system instead, and they were right. They've not lost since and the players seem a lot happier knowing they're playing to a more appropriate system.

Recent friendlies
May 24: Netherlands 3 Ukraine 0
May 29: Netherlands 1 Denmark 1
June 1: Netherlands 2 Wales 0

Players you might have heard of
Er, how long have you got? There's almost as many players affiliated with British clubs just now as there are Dutch ones in the current squad. In goal, there's Van Der Sar of Man United and in defence we have Aston Villa's Wilfred Bouma, Wigan's Mario Melchiot and Blackburn's Andre Ooijer. Up front, take your pick from Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool) and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink (Celtic) and that's without the likes of van Bronckhorst and van Nistelrooy who used to play in the Premier League.

Players you won't be seeing
Mark van Bommel. He's had an on-off involvement with the national team over the last few years thanks to van Basten's critical view of the midfielder. The coach has even gone out of his way to criticise van Bommel's poor performances at times, all of which led him to announce he no longer wanted to be picked while van Basten was in charge of the side.

Oh, and there's also Edgar Davids. The Ajax star broke his leg in a pre-season friendly which kept him out of the game for three months. A lack of match fitness reduced his likelihood of being chosen by the coach for the national team with other younger, fitter players available, all of which means we may have seen the last of the begoggled one on the international stage.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Rafael van Der Vaart. Despite suffering numerous niggling injuries, he's come through this season at Hamburg with 21 goals from 44 appearances (including those for the Netherlands) so this could finally be his chance to shine in the spotlight - as long as he stays fit.

Romania

Qualifying
In the end, Romania qualified at a canter in Group G along with the Netherlands and Bulgaria (as we've just heard). They were a lot more convincing than the Dutch, losing just one of their twelve games - to Bulgaria, strangely - and they scored an admirable 26 goals along the way too. The Dutch could only manage 15 and the Bulgarians only did slightly better with 18.

Top scorer for the Romanians was the former Chelsea attacker Adrian Mutu with six goals. Stuttgart's Ciprian Marica was one behind on five.

Current form
Apart from a 1-0 slip-up away to Israel back in February, they've looked quite accomplished. A 3-0 win over Russia and a 4-0 win over Montenegro have given them the perfect boost going into their first Euro 2008 game against France on Monday.

Players you might have heard of
Apart from Adrian Mutu, there's just the one for all British football fans to spot. It's Marius Niculae of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Don't laugh - he's scored 13 goals in his 30 appearances for Romania and scores on average once every three games for the Scottish club too.

Recent friendlies
February 6: Israel 1 Romania 0
March 26: Romania 3 Russia 0
May 31: Romania 4 Montenegro 0

Not just making up the numbers
As mentioned earlier, Romania are quite happy to score goals for fun and love to play attacking football, but they can also defend as well. Fans of the Netherlands will tell you their team found it frustrating getting through the Romanian back line, failing to score in the two games they played against them.

Though Romania have been absent from the last three major tournaments, it's very likely they'll make up for that at Euro 2008 despite their label of 'outsiders'. Expect the other teams in their group to treat them with great respect on match days accordingly.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Adrian Mutu. After leaving Chelsea under a cloud due to that cocaine issue we don't talk about anymore, his career has been given a much needed shot in the arm at Fiorentina. Forming a formidable partnership with Luca Toni, he's reminded everyone just how versatile he is by not just scoring goals regularly but providing assists for others too.

Oh and a quick factoid for all of you out there: Romania have only lost once in games when Adrian Mutu has scored. They'll be hoping he's got his shooting boots on during Euro 2008, we're sure.

The SPAOTP shop - Open for business!

Just a quick word in your shell-likes to let you know that from today Some People Are On The Pitch has its very own online shop selling all manner of football-related merchandise!

SPAOTP Stuff is your new place to go to for t-shirts, mugs, umbrellas... you name it, we've got it. Actually, let's correct that slightly - if we haven't got it, we soon will have because as the weeks go by, we'll be adding more and more items to our store so make sure you visit often to see what's new in our shop window.

And here's the good bit - if there's something you'd like us to sell which we haven't got, like a wooly hat with the words 'Ronaldo Is God' emblazoned on the front, just let us know and we'll get that sorted out for you. Just email us at info [at] spaotp [dot] com and we'll do the rest.

Finally, a quick plug for an equivalent service being provided by our sister site, The Onion Bag. They're veritable veterans at this 'online shop' malarkey, so feel free to take a look at what they've got too. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Euro 2008: Guide to Group B

Group B
If Group C is the group of football death then B is the group of actual death. If proceedings are handled badly we could be looking at a new European War stretching from the Ruhr Valley to the Balkans via the Baltic Sea. Thank God England didn't finish top of their qualifying group. Imagine being shoved in with that lot?

Austria

Qualifying
No qualifying for the Austrians. They're the co-hosts, you see. It’s a privilege given to only a select few countries, namely those with the biggest, most bulging brown envelopes addressed to Michel Platini, c/o UEFA.

How the mighty have fallen
Once upon a time, Austria were one of the kings of world football. Go back to any year between 1930's and 1950's and you'll have seen them giving almost anyone a decent match. Even in the 70's and 80's they were still getting to the World Cup Finals and when FIFA introduced their World Rankings, they registered a high water mark of 17th in June 1999 (see graph, above).

Nowadays, they're ranked 92nd below such giants of the game as Mozambique, Guatemala and Qatar and last month they reached an all-time low of 101st. The only way is up, as they say...

Players you might have heard of
Between the sticks there's former Arsenal goalkeeper Alex Manninger (now playing for Siena in Italy) and in defence we have Middlesbrough's Emanuel Pogatetz.

Players you won't be seeing
Wigan's Paul Scharner. Having made twelve appearances for the Austrian team, he had a major falling out with current coach Josef Hickersberger and called his country's F.A. setup a shambles. Despite attempts to rebuild bridges with Hickersberger, he remained absent from the Austria squad for Euro 2008 promptung Scharner to call time on his international career.

Recent friendlies
March 26: Austria 3 Netherlands 4
May 27: Austria 1 Nigeria 1
May 30: Austria 5 Malta 1

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Martin Stranzl. For a team that's going to have to defend like fury against the might of Germany and Croatia, their 6 ft 4 inch centre back is going to have to be on his mettle in no uncertain terms. He can also score the occasional goal, too, as he's proved at 1860 Munich, Stuttgart, Spartak Moscow (his current club) and in the international side.

Croatia

Qualifying
Us English know all too well how the Croatians did in qualifying. They topped the group by five clear points ahead of Russia having lost only one of their twelve games. Key to their success was Arsenal's Eduardo da Silva who bagged ten goals, but after breaking his leg in the Premier League, he'll be noticeably absent over the next few weeks.

Current Form
Despite an emphatic qualifying round, they're finding life without a prolific forward not so easy. In the four friendlies since the 3-2 defeat of England that clinched their place at the Euro's, they've won just one and scored only three. Worrying…

Players you might have heard of
Aside from coach Slaven Bilic, who fans of West Ham and Everton will remember fondly, the squad boasts Manchester City's Vedran Corluka in defence and Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar in midfield.

Recent friendlies
March 26: Scotland 1 Croatia 1
May 24: Croatia 1 Moldova 0
May 31: Hungary 1 Croatia 1

A small price to pay
Clubs and countries were on high alert recently when it became clear that Slaven Bilic's contract with the Croatian FA was about to run out when Euro 2008 was over. Given the fact that he was earning a paltry £35,000 a year, it's fair to say that he could easily earn a higher wage elsewhere but Bilic made a big commitment to the Croatian team by agreeing to renew his contract unconditionally until 2010.

Curiously he left it to his employers to award him a salary they thought was appropriate given his recent successes, but did make one stipulation - that his assistants be given a considerable wage. Robert Prosinecki is one of those that fits into that category and to date he hasn't earned a single penny for helping out his former Croatia team-mate

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
In the absence of Eduardo, the man being asked to step into his boots will be Luka Modric. The Dinamo Zagreb midfielder has the critics cooing over him something rotten. He's got a powerful right foot, can distribute the ball better than most and has been likened to none other than Johann Cruyff. "He's hard even to foul" said Bilic.

Germany

Qualifying
Some people have made big news of the fact that Germany only finished second in Group D behind the Czechs, but we think that's poppycock. The fact of the matter is Germany were the first to qualify from the group (maybe even the whole competition, if we remember rightly) and did so before Euro 2000 had even finished. More or less.

Oh yes - and they beat San Marino 13-0 as well.

Kit check
Germany do love their kits and you only have to go back to the 1980's to see a wide range of styles and designs to suit every taste. For Euro 2008, however, they've gone for a very bold black stripe across that famous white shirt. We're sure they've used the black stripe thing before now - perhaps back in the days before the Second World War - but we can find no evidence to prove it. Perhaps we're thinking of the German athletics team or something.

Anyway, if you think the white-with-a-black-stripe effect is bold, wait til you see the change strip. It features a red shirt with a broad black stripe running down the middle from top to bottom (see above). Apparently we've got Jurgen Klinsmann to blame for the switch from green to red. He figured that teams wearing red were statistically more successful than any other. It certainly worked for England in 1966...

Clear-cut favourites?
Even though everyone and his dog seems to be backing the Germans to win Euro 2008, there seems to be plenty of reasons not to. For a start, the squad contains many young players that lack a decent amount of experience on the international stage.

Of those that do have the experience of playing for their country, many, ironically, haven't been playing much for their clubs of late, and one key example is Jens Lehmann. He's just signed for Stuttgart after a season of only sporadic appearances for Arsenal, and his lack of regular match practice will be shared by other members of the squad like Christoph Metzelder, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Lukas Podolski. Whether their undoubted star qualities will shine through anyway remains to be seen, but we won't bet the house on a German tournament win just yet if it's all the same with you...

Recent friendlies
March 26: Switzerland 0 Germany 4
May 27: Germany 2 Belarus 2
May 31: Germany 2 Serbia 1

Players you might have heard of
We've already mentioned Lehmann and Ballack, so that just leaves Thomas Hitzlsperger as a remaining Premier League stalwart to bring to your attention. He's the former Aston Villa midfielder with a blistering left-foot shot which these days helps him bag goals a-plenty at Stuttgart. He may only be used as a replacement for Torsten Frings, but what a good alternative to have, we say.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Michael Ballack. Yeah yeah, you know who he is and all that, but he's arguably the one main talent that the German team is based around, thanks to his goalscoring ability, experience and skill at distributing the ball to all parts of the team. And he takes a mean penalty, too.

Poland

Qualifying
What can we say... the arrival of coach Leo Beenhakker signalled a renewed sense of inner belief for the Poles during qualifying. After losing their first match 3-1 to Finland, they went on to top Group A ahead of Portugal, Serbia and the Finns. A particularly impressive 2-1 win over Portugal to accompany their previous 1-1 says everything you need to know - that Poland are capable of great things this summer. However...

Current form
'Iffy' would be a good way to describe it. Since qualifying for the finals last October, Poland have struggled to maintain the convincing form they'd shown previously. At the start of the year they beat the Czechs 2-0 in Cyprus but then lost 2-0 to the USA at home.

More recently they've scored three goals in their last three games during which they could only draw with Macedonia and scrape past Albania with a 1-0 win. Do we here the sound of wheels coming off?

Players you might have heard of
Several to choose from here. For a start, take your pick from all three goalkeepers well known to British fans - Arsenal's Lukasz Fabianski, Man United's Tomasz Kuszczak and Celtic's Artur Boruc.

Up front, Celtic fans will also recognise Maciej Zurawski - now at Larisa in Greece - plus there's Southampton striker Marek Saganowski.

Recent friendlies
May 26: Macedonia 1 Poland 1
May 27: Albania 0 Poland 1
June 1: Poland 1 Denmark 1

A man of some experience
What about that coach, eh? Leo Beenhakker - the man with a CV longer than Ruud van Nistelrooy's face. He's been everywhere and done everything during his career, so let's take a roll call of all the places where 'Don Leo' has brought his unique brand of leadership...

1972-1975 SC Cambuur; 1975-1976 Go Ahead Eagles; 1979-1981 Ajax; 1981-1984 Real Zaragoza; 1985 FC Volendam; 1985-1986 Netherlands; 1986-1989 Real Madrid; 1989-1991 Ajax; 1990 Netherlands; 1992 Real Madrid; 1992-1993 Grasshoppers Zürich; 1993-1994 Saudi Arabia; 1994-1995 Club América; 1995-1996 İstanbulspor A.Ş.; 1996 Guadalajara; 1996-1997 Vitesse; 1997-2000 Feyenoord; 2000-2003 Ajax; 2003-2004 Club América; 2004-2005 De Graafschap; 2005-2006 Trinidad and Tobago; 2006- Poland.

Marvellous.

SPAOTP's Top Tip For Greatness
Euzebiusz Smolarek. Scorer of nine goals during the qualifiers and a man of some considerable footballing pedigree. He was named after Portuguese legend Eusebio by his father who himself was no mug. Wlodzimierz Smolarek played for the Poland team that finished third at the 1982 World Cup and was the last Pole to score against Portugal before his son replicated the feat in October 2006.

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