Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Euro 2020 – Who Will Win?

Euro 2020 is just around the corner. The tournament will be played in 11 venues around Europe and will see fans returning to stadiums, some with partial capacity (22% in Munich for example) to full capacity (Budapest). With or without fans, there is plenty of room for drama, upsets and entertainment. We take a look at the tournament itself, the favourites, the rank outsiders and the dark horse and try to predict the winner. Enjoy!

Group A (Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and Wales)

Roberto Mancini has reignited the Italian national team which has lost only twice in three years and also topped their Nations league group. Italy will be captained by their traditional centre back Giorgio Chiellini but won’t be playing their traditional defensive football. Mancini’s team plays free flowing attacking football (tikitalia) through technically gifted midfielders like Jorginho, Veratti and Barella. In the front three of their 4-3-3 system they have quality and dynamism with options in Berradi, Immobile, Insigne and Chiesa. Italy are strong contenders and it wouldn’t be surprising if they made a deep run into the tournament after the disappointment of not qualifying for the World Cup back in 2018.

Turkey can be the ultimate surprise package in the Euros as manager Senol Gunes will look to repeat the heroics of 2002 World Cup. They play counter attacking football in either a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-2-3-1 formation with defensive midfielder Okay Yokuslu dictating the play. The Turks can do a high press but like to adjust it based on their opponent’s passing abilities. They have a solid centre back pairing of Leicester City’s Soyuncu and Juventus’s Demiral. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu provides creativity and flair in attack for Yusuf Yazici and the bulldozer of a striker, and captain Burak Yilmaz who will be crucial for Turkey in the tournament.  They are the dark horses and will be looking to shock the big footballing nations.

Burak Yilmaz will be key to Turkey advancing through the tournament

Switzerland mostly features in a 3-4-1-2 formation. They are a physically strong team and not easy to break down. The wingbacks get heavily involved in the attacks whilst captain Granit Xhaka’s passing sets the overall rhythm. Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri also plays a key role as the no.10, dropping between opposition’s lines and linking up play. Their main strength is defensive solidarity. The Swiss won their Euro qualification group by only conceding 6 goals in 8 games.

Wales also play with 3 centre backs in a 3-4-3 formation with the ball and defend with a 5-4-1 system. They look to hurt teams on counter attacks through pacy wingers in Gareth Bale and Daniel James. Harry Wilson operates as a fluid false 9 and Aaron Ramsey’s late runs in the box provides additional threat. The alternative attacking approach is the deployment of 6’5” striker Kieffer Moore as a target man. Wales do have star power in their starting 11 but lack depth in squad.

Group Prediction: This is a tight group and the toughest to call (other than the group of death), Italy’s home advantage for all 3 games should see them through as winners, with Turkey pipping Switzerland to second space and Wales finishing bottom. 1st- Italy, 2nd- Turkey, 3rd- Switzerland, 4th- Wales

Group B (Belgium, Denmark, Finland and Russia)

The No. 1 ranked international team, Belgium will feature in a 3-4-2-1 or 3-4-3 formation. The formidable three man backline of past tournaments is not as solid as it once was as Vertonghen and Alderweireld are past their prime and Vincent Kompany now retired, but they can still keep it tight at the back when needed. The best playmaker in the world, Kevin De Bruyne doesn’t hesitate to take the shooting opportunities and with Romelu Lukaku leading the line, they are arguably the most lethal team in the competition. De Bruyne will miss the first game against Russia due to facial injuries as will Eden Hazard likely who has been injury riddled this season. They also don’t have any “home” games but are still the heavy favourites to top the group.

Can Belgium live you to the hype and lift the European Championships trophy?

New manager Hjumland sets the Danish team in either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Christensen, Kjaer and Vestegaard provide good options for centre back, holding midfielders Hojberg and Delaney provide security in the centre of the pitch whilst playmaker Christian Eriksen is crucial for the team as he often finds the net for his national side. The experienced Braithwaite and Poulsen are decent options upfront as are the younger pairing of Dolberg and Olsen giving Hjumland much to ponder. Denmark will play their three group games at home which definitely boosts their chances for qualification to further stages.

Stanislav Cherchesov is a flexible coach and won’t be afraid to switch his system based on the opposition, but the Russians are most likely to feature in a 4-2-3-1. Artem Dyuba had the best season of his career for Zenit and would be looking to carry that energy to the Euros. Roman Zobnin is the main man in terms of keeping things ticking from the midfield. There are however major doubts about the quality of defence and the lack of experience in goal with the three keepers selected for the squad only earning a combined 13 caps. The Russians will hope the home crowd in the first two games can drive them to good results before travelling to Denmark for their final test.

First time qualifiers, Finland change between a four man and a five man defence and are likely to use the latter given the pedigree of their opponents. They have reliable players in Rangers star Glen Kamara and Norwich’s Teemu Pukki, who has been in good goal scoring form for his country, as well as a good stopper in Lukas Hradecky. That said, they are rank outsiders to get out of the group and are therefore the are the underdogs and like Belgium won’t play any games at home so qualifying for the knockout stages will be difficult.

Group Prediction: It will be a close race for the second spot between Russia and Denmark that will be decided when they face each other on the third matchday.

1st- Belgium, 2nd- Denmark, 3rd- Russia, 4th- Finland

Group C ( Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia)

Netherlands mostly use a 4-3-3 but Frank de Boer prefers a five man back line against higher quality opponents. Despite missing Virgil Van Dijk, they still have top notch centre backs in Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij. Depay, who had a great season with Lyon is deployed as a no. 9 or out wide, and they also have an option of a target man in Luke de Jong. Quality midfielders Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong control the tempo of the game well whilst Wijnaldum provides an additional goal threat by playing in advanced positions. There are doubts over de Boer’s ability to get the best out of this star studded squad but their quality should be enough to see out the group stage with ease.

de Boer will have to manage technically if they are to win overall but many fear that he doesn’t have the experience of past tournaments

Like the Dutch, Ukraine also plays a 4-3-3 system and switches to five at the back against stronger opponents. They have a strong midfield with Taras Stepanenko doing the defensive work, Zinchenko providing the creativity and Ruslan Malivnoskyi, who had a sensational finish to his campaign at Atlanta, deployed in the box-to-box role. Their main attacking threat comes from Roman Yaremchuk who had a great season with Gent, scoring 23 goals. The Ukrainians are capable of pulling some impressive results like the draw against France in March and the win against Spain last year in Nations league so they might be on the serving end of an upset or two at Euro 2020.

Austria, who haven’t won a game in a major tournament since the 1990 World Cup, mostly line up in a 4-4-2 formation. Unlike many international teams, Austria has a well oiled press. Similar to Zinchenko, versatile Alaba often features in midfield for Austria rather than in his natural defensive position. Captain Julian Baumgartlinger and Stefan Ilansker also provide composure and experience in midfield whilst the unpredictable Marcel Sabitzer gives the x factor in attack. They have an interesting striker in 6ft 7in, Sasa Kalajdzic who had an amazing campaign for Stuttgart and could be one to watch.

North Macedonia switches between a 4 man and 3 man defence and plays counter attacking football with 2 strikers up front. They are the weakest side in the competition but that win against Germany would give the North Macedonian players and fans much hope. Ilija Nestorovski’s absence will be a big miss meaning that the pressure is on Genoa striker Goran Pandev to be the star player in the no. 10 role. Leeds fullback Ezgjan Alioski at times features in the midfield giving them better coverage and they have an exciting player in Elif Elmas who showed glimpses of his talent this season with Napoli.

Group Prediction: 1st- Netherlands, 2nd- Ukraine, 3rd- Austria, 4th- North Macedonia

North Macedonia take part in their first ever international tournament

Group D ( Croatia, Czech Republic, England and Scotland)

2018 World Cup finalists, Croatia play possession based football in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. With Brozovic, Modric and Kovacic they have a premium midfield, though Modric is well off his prime now. They also have excellent wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic, who regularly puts up impressive shifts for the national team whilst Mislav Orsic offers another option as a dangerous sub. Andrej Kramaric is likely to be the first choice striker while 6ft 3in Bruno Petkovic will provide a different and useful alternative. 32 year old Domagoj Vida will be anchoring the defence as always looking to add to his 88 caps so far. The Croatians are no longer seen as the dark horse and it would be a shock if they don’t progress through the group stage.

Czech Republic plays high energy counter attacking football mostly in a 4-2-3-1 shape. They like to fill the attacking third with runners in Sampdoria’s Jakub Jankto and West Ham’s Tomas Soucek who grabbed 10 goals for the Hammers in an identical role. Up front, Patrick Schick is a dynamic centre forward who will be their main threat. The Czechs push their full backs high up in attack with Coufal in particular on the right capable of amazing deliveries. Ondrej Kudela’a suspension and Lukas Provod’s injury are big blows, with the centre back’s suspension more so as the Czechs are weak in the defence. They might not be the most skilled team but they will put up a great fight every time.

Southgate prefers a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system with two holding midfielders and switches to three centre backs against bigger opponents. England have luxurious options for full backs and attacking positions but the fitness of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson has raised concerns about whether they will be ready or not. Both of them are important parts of the team and would be starters if they are fit. Kane and Mount seem to be definite starters for Southgate and to build a lethal attack around them, he would be trying to find the optimum balance of pace and creativity from Grealish, Foden, Sterling, Rashford and Sancho all in contention to start. Declan Rice has also become vital, protecting the back line and anchoring the play from midfield. Stones would be looking to carry on from an impressive season with Manchester City. England has the star power to go all the way but it would come down to Southgate’s ability to match and outplay teams tactically, which he is not the best at.

Will Maguire and Henderson be fit enough to play in the group stages?

Scotland’s most preferred system is 3-5-2, which accommodates in deploying two brilliant left backs in Tierney and Roberston. Robertson plays higher up on the left whilst Tierney fits in as the left sided centre-back but they have the freedom to switch roles during the game. In midfield, McGregor and McTominay give solidarity whilst John McGinn provides attacking impetus through his runs. And they can also call upon youngster Billy Gilmour who has the ability to turn games on its head despite his lack of international experience. Armstrong takes the responsibility for creating opportunities from midfield and his Southampton teammate, Che Adams will likely be the main man up front although Dykes does offer another option. Steve Clarke’s highly rated tactical skills will be important for Scotland’s European campaign and it won’t be surprising if he shuffles his players and system from game to game.

Group prediction: England and Croatia should be able to progress with ease, albeit the Czechs and the Scots have the potential to pull shocking results.

1st- England, 2nd- Croatia- 3rd- Czech Republic 4th- Scotland

Group E (Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden)

Spain play their traditional possession football in a 4-3-3 shape. They are rich in options from the keeper to the striker. In the absence of their leader Ramos, Laporte has switched national allegiance to give Luis Enrique options for ball playing centre backs alongside Eric Garcia and Pau Torres. Marcus Llorente interestingly plays in the right back position. Rodri or captain Busquets will take the midfield anchor role with Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Fabian Ruiz and Pedri offering creative outlets from midfield. Ferran Torres, one of the few definite starters, cuts into spaces behind and has been making the most of his great finishing ability. Morata and Moreno will compete for the striker position with the latter likely featuring more from the bench. This is a relatively new Spanish team which can play beautiful football like the previous ones but is also capable of playing direct and being threatening in transitions through pacy wingers.

Sweden play a solid 4-4-2 out possession. It was a surprise by manager Janne Andersson to call Zlatan back in the squad after a number of years but only for him to miss the tournament due to injury. Sweden will still have plenty of quality up front despite the absence of their most famous player. Zlatan-esque, Isak is an amazing talent who can run in behind as well as hold up the ball well. On the wing, Emil Forsberg can find spaces and create well while Dejan Kulusevski gives directness in attacks by running straight at defenders. Krasnodar trio of Viktor Claesson, Kristoffer Olsson, and Marcus Berg make up a well bonded midfield/attack combo. They are resolute and can be hard to break down for any team.

Will the lack of Zlatan be a hinderance to Sweden’s chances?

Poland use a flexible approach, with the ball they line up in a 3-4-1-2 and switch to four at the back without it. After sacking manager Jerzy Brzeczek due to complications with star player Lewandowski, Paulo Sousa is still in only his fifth month in charge and has yet to impress. Lewandowski is likely to be paired with Milik up front with Swiderski providing back up from the bench. Left-back Maceij Rybus is important to attacks making overlapping runs and Piotr Zielinski pulls the strings from an advanced midfield role. Lewandowski can win games on his own, especially if he can continue his record breaking season into the tournament. Sousa’s tactical decision will be crucial and that adds a sense of unknown to Poland.

Slovakia, who qualified for the Euros in a dramatic fashion, are a counter attacking side and would be sitting in deep low blocks every game. Skriniar is vital in the centre of defence and he also scored two goals for Slovakia in March. Top Scorer Marek Hamsik who moved to Sweden to gain fitness for the Euros can be deployed as a striker due to poor finishing record of Michal Duris. They are the second weakest side after North Macedonia and it will be some story if they progress through the group stage.

Group prediction: Spain are the clear favourites but it would be interesting to see how they break down the defensive teams. It would be tight between Sweden and Poland for the second spot. 1st- Spain, 2nd- Sweden, 3rd- Poland, 4th- Slovakia

Group E ( France, Germany, Hungary, Portugal)

France play in their well recognized 4-2-3-1 system with one winger cutting inside and the other being Kylian Mbappe. They are the strongest team in the competition with midfield duo of Kante and Pogba and a backline of Varane, Kimbepe and Bayern full backs, Pavard and Lucas Hernandez. National team superstar, Griezmann works in the no. 10 role and will have an eye for another individual award having won the Bronze Ball and Golden Boot separately in the last two major tournaments. Benzema’s return will add more flexibility to an already lethal front line. There will be no room for mistakes against the World Champions especially in the group of death.

Can World Champions France also win Euro 2020?

Joachim Low doesn’t have a defined system for his current German team but he mostly switches between a 3-4-3 and a 4-3-3.  Hummels, who has been called up after a break, will probably form the central defence with Rudiger. Quality of midfield options in Kroos, Gundogan and Goretzka allows Kimmich to feature in a right wing back or full back role with the impressive Robin Gosens on the other side. Their attacking options are as potent as anyone. There is a lot of pace and flair up front in Sane, Gnabry, Werner and Havertz. Muller adds the experience and awareness and often features in the striker role as Werner’s poor club form has transcended into his international form of late. Unlike past German teams, they lack clear identity and individual excellence might be needed to get through this dreadful group.

Defending champions Portugal are even stronger than the last euros and will line up either in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In defence, Ruben Dias will be paired with a 38 years old Pepe who has aged like a fine wine. They have a prolific pair of attack minded full backs in Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro. In midfield, Danilo Perriera is the main holding midfielder and Fernandes makes runs into advanced positions. The wide areas are blessed with talents like Bernardo Silva and Jota making inward runs. The extraordinary Ronaldo features in the centre forward position but they also have the option of Andre Silva there who had a sensational season with Frankfurt. They can sometimes appear very cautious and rightly so but a better balance can make them back to back European champions.

Hungary play with a 3-5-2 system which shifts to a five man backline for large portions of the match. Their attacking approach is playing direct to Adam Szalai with Roland Sallai making runs off him. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulasci and Willi Orban will be core members of the backline. Dominik Szoboszlai, another Leipzig player, is out injured and will be hugely missed. His technical and creative abilities is what the Hungarian side lacks the most. It will be the biggest surprise of the tournament if Hungary progresses through this group. Though they will play their first two games home in a fully packed stadium and a possible German collapse could open the doors in the third game.

Who will survive the Group stage and who will be going home?

Knockout stages and winners prediction

The format of four out of six 3rd place teams progressing offers some room for mistakes in the group stages. And it will also lead to easy opponents for some in the round of 16. Importance of squad depth and tactical flexibility will grow through the stages. Teams’ fates will also depend on avoiding the big giants and unfavoured tactical opponents. 

Winners- Belgium: The squad is in their prime with the average age around 29 and also the most experienced with players averaging around 50 caps each. De Bruyne and Lukaku are entering the Euros on the back of phenomenal individual club campaign’s. This also might be the last chance for the golden generation to win a major trophy as they would need to revamp their defence soon. 

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Where Next for Zlatan?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s spell with the LA Galaxy came to an end earlier this month, bringing an end to an electrifying and controversial time in the “City of Angels” fit for a Hollywood movie. The big Swede certainly has plenty of suitors to choose from and he will be able to choose his next move in the January transfer window. 

A move back to Europe seems the most likely choice for the big striker. A move outside of Europe could also be on the cards. But with the Champions League trophy missing from his cabinet, a move to Europe, one who is in the Champions League would surely be the preferable choice for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Realistically there are only a few teams that could afford him. So let’s break down the leading candidates vying for Ibrahimovic’s signature both in Europe and abroad.

Ibrahimovic has confirmed his departure from Los Angeles but where will he go next? (Image from Tumblr)

Ibrahimovic has confirmed his departure from Los Angeles but where will he go next? (Image from Tumblr)

Italy has long been described by Ibrahimovic as his “second home”. And there is no short supply of former teams that could use his goals. The Rossoneri, aka A.C Milan have been lacking goals this season, they currently sit 14th in the league and have only scored 11 goals in 12 games. They could certainly use the Swede’s natural instincts in front of goal. Krzysztof Piatek’s stock has plummeted rapidly after his breakout season in 2018 for Milan but has failed to repeat his stunning first season. But with the club facing Financial Fair Play penalties, they will need to move some serious money to bring him back “home”. 

Cross city rivals Inter Milan could another former club the Swede could join. Conte is in the market for another forward, and although he would bring goals, his arrival would also mean a tactical shift which seems unlikely to happen. On top of that Ibrahimovic wants to win the Champions League. Come January Inter Milan may have already been eliminated as they sit third behind Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund. Would Zlatan be content with the Europa League with either Inter Milan or AC Milan?

Will Milan be split further by a war for Zlatan? (Image from Tumblr)

Will Milan be split further by a war for Zlatan? (Image from Tumblr)

Another of his former teams in Italy; Juventus have plenty of strikers at their disposable with Dybala, Mandzukic, Higuain all at Maurizio Sarri’s disposable. Adding Zlatan would be overkill in an already stacked attack. Much like Juventus French side Paris Saint Germain are also stacked upfront. With forwards Mauri Icardi and Edison Cavani, as well as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. 

A return back to England could also be on the cards, Manchester United are in desperate need of goals, and Zlatan can provide that. But Ole Gunner Solskjaer and Woodward are unlikely to make rash transfer decisions come January. Plenty of rumours have been flying around that Zlatan could see a return back to Spain. Barcelona seems like an unlikely choice, considering his past relationship, although it was with Pep Guardiola and not Barcelona itself.

Could Ibrahimovic be heading back to hep out Ole? (Image from Tumblr)

Could Ibrahimovic be heading back to hep out Ole? (Image from Tumblr)

There is also the possibility of Zlatan Ibrahimović going back home to Sweden. The scene of his hometown club- Malmo FF, could be a possibility that he has talked of the possibility of. However, it doesn’t appear that Zlatan is looking to end his career just yet even though it is a trophy that is missing from his cabinet. With the latest news of Ibrahimović buying shares in Malmo’s long-time rivals- Hammarby Fotboll, would the fans be willing to welcome him back with open arms?

Germany could be his next destination, having not “conquered” the Bundesliga yet, and Bayern Munich could use a striker to back up the best striker in the world in Lewandowski. But would Zlatan want to play second fiddle? Borussia Dortmund could be another destination in mind but signing the Swede would mean a change in tactics to fit the team around him and Zlatan doesn’t seem like the player who wants to press all game.

Aside from Barcelona, the other big two could prove problematic in Spain. Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are replenishing their squad, replacing their aging stars, with the likes of Luka Jovic, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio all look set to lead the line for the Galacticos. They would be better off investing in their midfield and defence. Atletico Madrid also has plenty in attack, but they lack the necessary cap space to lure Ibrahimovic to Madrid. Manchester City is an unlikely choice because of his relationship with Guardiola. The only trophy missing in his cabinet is the Champions League trophy and Liverpool seem to be the best team to achieve that. But would Klopp risk the culture and atmosphere he’s worked hard to perfect for the Swedish striker?

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Where will Zlatan end up next? Time will tell (Image from Tumblr)

 

If Zlatan Ibrahimovic is looking to expand his horizon, there are other destinations outside of Europe that interest him. Australian side Perth Glory is rumoured to be interested in bringing Zlatan over in a special six-game appearance. Although it will likely not happen, his influence and prestige would certainly bring another level of excitement to a stagnating A-League. Would Zlatan be willing to play at a lower level for a limited amount of games?

The Chinese Super League and the J-League in Japan have become popular destinations for aging stars to retire at but so far, there has been no interest as of yet. Whatever the choice, you can expect it to be unveiled in the grandness we have come to expect from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And the world will be eagerly awaiting his decision.

Post by Kevin Wong. Follow him here on Twitter.

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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Beginners Guide to Euro 2016 – Part 2 – Groups D, E and F

Group D – Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic + Turkey

Q: Who should top the group? – Spain

Q: Who are the dark horses – Turkey

Q: One to watch: Emre Mor (Turkey)

Having won back to back Euro’s in 2008 and 2012, Spain are looking to make history by completing the treble and lifting the trophy in Paris on July 10th. However a poor performance at the last World cup where they failed to progress out of the group stage has forced a dramatic rethink with Del Bosque tinkering his squad. The result is that several big name players like Diego Costa, Santi Carzola and Juan Mata miss out in favour of the likes of Hector Bellerin, Nolito and the uncapped Lucas Vazquez. The end product is the shortest squad in the tournament (averaging 5ft 9in) but that should matter little as technically they are one of the most gifted squads. Spain did qualify with ease, losing only once along the way to Slovakia but that was to a late goal and against the run of play. Few will bet against Spain at least reaching the final if not going all the way. Croatia however have little chance of making it to the final. They are very much a side in transition under Ante Cacic, a former TV repairman turn fairly unspectacular coach. His appointment was widely slammed at home in Croatia and will need an outstanding Euros to keep his job. he does have a talented squad that contains Real’s Luka Modric, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic but Cacic lack of credbility or tactical knowledge means that Croatia often underwhelm. Only a win against Turkey in their opening game will give them a chance of progressing.

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Sergio Ramos of Spain arrives to defend their title (Image from Tumblr)

Turkey have no such problem under Faith Terim, the legendary three times national manager who also strangely holds a Italian Knighthood. Turkey enter as the lightweights literally with the lightest squad on average of all sides at 74kg. But that wont deter an experienced group who should progress at the expense of the Czech Republic. Led by Barcelona’s Arda Turan who was unable to play for the Catalan’s until January due to the club’s transfer ban, Turkey are a unique mix of youth and experience that almost didn’t click in qualifying. An 89th minute free kick in game ten against Iceland allowed Turkey to scrape through as the best third placed team. Winners of their group in qualifying were the Czech Republic so it will be the third time in a year and a half that the two sides have met in competitive competition. It’s one game a piece but the bookies will favour the Czech’s who topped the group that also contained Iceland and Holland. Despite free scoring hitting 19, the Czech’s failed to keep a clean sheet in ten attempts conceding 14 goals in the process, the most of any of the nations to qualify. Manager Pavel Vrba has a wealth of knowledge and is widely respected having won five consecutive Czech coach of the year awards from 2010-2015.That however may not be enough to progress especially if Spain and Croatia both beat them before they face Turkey on the last match day.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland + Sweden

Q: Who should top the group? – Belgium

Q: Who are the dark horses – Sweden

Q: One to Watch: Yannick Carrasco (Belgium)

In the so called group of death, the smallest of margins will likely determine who advances and who goes home. Speaking of small, Italy happens to have the tournaments shortest player in its ranks. However what Lorenzo Insigne (5ft 6in) lacks in stature he makes up for in raw talent with the Napoli striker key to Italy’s success. Manager Antonio Conte may have already sealed his exit from the national team (he joins Chelsea afterwards) but wants to go out on a high no matter what. Repeating their feat of four years ago when they reached the final is definitely on Italy’s agenda but suffering another 4-0 defeat (the worst defeat in a Euro or World Cup final) is not. Standing in his way is some lofty competition including Sweden who are the tallest squad at the Euros at an average of 1.86m, the most recognisable being their legendary striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To say they are dependant on Zlatan to ensure they have a good tournament is an understatement with the former PSG striker hitting 11 of the 19 goals they scored in qualifying. In truth it was a difficult campaign with Sweden only making it via the playoffs at the expense of Denmark. Since then 2 wins, 3 draws and a defeat to Turkey highlight their indifferent form going into the Euros.They will need Zlatan to be at his very best if they are to escape the group.

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Yannick Carrasco of Belgium could be one of the stars of the tournament (Image from Tumblr)

One team that is very much on form is Belgium who have assembled the most expensive squad of any of the qualified nations. A total of  $319m in transfers has been paid for Belgian players like Christian Benteke and Kevin De Bruyne both of whom secured big money moves last summer. Many point to attacking options of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi, Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi  as the reason why Belgiam are considered dark horses for the tournament. However in qualifying, only four goals from 24 were scored by the strikers – with each one only scoring once. A worrying problem for manager Marc Wilmots to think about. Finally the Republic of Ireland are set to make their third appearance at the Euros having first qualified back in 1988. That year only eight teams took place with the Republic finishing third behind eventual finalists Holland and the Soviet Union but ahead of England after a Ray Houghton goal sealed a memorable victory. This time around, the Republic is unlikely to provide a shock having scraped through qualifying (they did beat Germany though). As one of the oldest squads (average age of almost 30), its likely that this tournament will be the last for several of their star players. Robbie Keane has been one of the most constant performers for the Irish but at 35 the LA Galaxy striker is nearing the end of the road.

Group F – Austria, Hungary, Iceland and Portugal

Q: Who should top the group? – Portugal

Q: Who are the dark horses – Austria

Q: Who to watch: Joao Mario (Portugal)

Cristiano Ronaldo enters the tournament with a hunger to rewrite history and finally forget about the horrors that fell upon him at Euro 2008. That year he helped Portugal reach the final on home soil only to fall at the last hurdle to Greece in a shock loss. Cristiano Ronaldo could become the first man to score at four Euro finals if he nets in France. He currently sits on six goals in his career, so is every chance to catch Michel Platini’s nine goals at the top of the tree if Portugal have a good tournament. This time around there will be no Luis Figo or Nuno Gomes to help him, with afresh batch of players being brought into the fold for this tournament. Several members of Portugal’s under 21 winning side from last summer have made the move up to the full team including the impressive midfield trio of William Carvalho, Joao Mario and Andres Gomes but surprisingly Bernardo Silva, the creative force of that team misses out. Another side with an impressive youthful squad is Austria.The former co-hosts of 2008 have improved year over year since that tournament and are one of the most improved sides in Europe rising over 95 places in the FIFA world rankings in less than 8 years. They blitzed group G in qualifying, topping the group with nine wins and a draw scoring 22 and conceding just 5. Bayern Munich’s David Alba has grown into their most important player but its the supporting cast of Stoke’ Marko Arnautovic, Stuttgart’s Martin Harnik and Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger that make Austria a tough team to play against. Much is expected of this side and talk of being a dark horse may not be too far from the truth.

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Portugal are pinning their hopes on Ronaldo once again (Image from Tumblr)

Iceland on the other hand are not expected to do much. The expansion of the Euros to 24 means we get the charming inclusion of a country like Iceland, in their first ever tournament. Their population is 330,000, making them the smallest country to ever qualify for a European Championship finals. Co-managed by Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson (a dentist by trade who will replace Lagerback at the end of the tournament), Iceland rely on team spirit to get them over the line. All time record goalscorer Eidur Gudjohnsen makes the squad despite being 37 years young. He wont however be the oldest player at the tournament with Hungary goalkeeper Gabor Kiraly set to take that honour at 40 years old. Known for his tatty grey jogging pants that he wears in every game instead of shorts (based on comfort), Kiraly is looking to add to his 103 caps at Euro 2016 but not much is expected of this Hungary side whose best years are behind them. Despite a troubled qualifying that saw them go through three different managers in the process, Hungary booked their passage to France with a convincing 3-1 aggregate win over Norway. Like the Irish, this will be the final roll of the dice for several of the Hungary players including Zoltan Gera and Kiraly.

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Where Next For The King As Zlatan Prepares To Leave Paris

It was an ending fit for a king, so grand that even a self-proclaimed one such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic would be humbled. Pausing a game in mid flow after only ten minutes to applaud a player is remarkable but for Zlatan it was likely expected. Having given his all for the club and firmly rebooted a faltering French top division, Ligue 1 over the past four years, the rousing ovation was the least they could do. Even if you don’t buy into his unique brand of narcissism, it’s hard to deny Zlatan’s talents. For a big guy (he stands tall at 6ft 5inches), the Swedish powerhouse is incredibly nimble with a touch that many would pray for making up for his lack of pace. Added into this, his ability to score with almost any part of his body including his chest in Saturday’s win makes him a genuine legend of the game. 113 goals in 122 games for PSG also make him a record breaker for the club which remarkably included a 37, yes 37 goal haul this season. Not bad going for a 34-year-old.

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Game stopper – At the ten minute mark, the game between PSG and Nantes was paused to applaud Zlatan (image from Tumblr)

So as he gets set to wave goodbye (his final game will be the cup final against Marseille next weekend), the question is where will he end up. If you are to believe the rumour mill, Zlatan is moving to China, the US and Qatar all at the same time. Whilst those option present lucrative alternatives to the player, Ibrahimovic is not one who would be easily enticed having already amassed a small fortune during his stay in the french capital. With two or three good seasons still in him, the all time record goalscorer for Sweden will remain in Europe for one last roll of the dice. A return to Italy with either Juventus or AC Milan where he spent valuable time in his career would tick the box as would a move to Spain. But all indications are that Zlatan wants to have a crack at the English Premiership, alerting several clubs there early on about his upcoming availability.

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Who will be able to capture the King? (Image from Tumblr)

Whilst English fans and its media hungry clubs would drool over the prospect of his arrival, it’s hard to see exactly which club would take him. At 35, Zlatan is no spring chicken but can still offer more than some strikers ten years his junior. But with a wage demand higher than most corporate CEO’s and an attitude to match, few clubs are in a position to offer him a contract. The two Manchester clubs, City and United would be able to afford to have a luxury like Ibrahimovic in its ranks but with new managers at the helm next season (Guardiola at City and Mourinho at United – we all know that is happening) its unlikely that either would want the headache in their first campaigns.

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Ibrahimovic for Manchester City Pep? (Image from Tumblr)

The thought of him signing for Leicester a year ago was nothing more than a Football Manager fantasy but now as English Champions, Zlatan may actually consider it. Whether Claudio would want him is a different story. Having magically guided the Foxes to a surprise title win this year, Claudio is keen not to destroy what he has built by bring in players who will disrupt the harmony. Unfortunately Zlatan is no shrinking violet so the prospect of a Ibrahimovic/Vardy partnership looks faint.

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Not a perfect fit – Zlatan could disrupt Leicester’s harmony (image from Tumblr)

Perhaps Chelsea may take a look with the club keen to freshen up their squad after a disappointing season. The arrival of a player like Zlatan would help bolster ticket and merchandise sales but perhaps only enough to cover his exuberant wage demands. Added into this Chelsea has learned from its murky past that superstar strikers don’t necessarily work for them with Schevchenko and Torres two expensive examples. Furthermore things have now changed at Chelsea with owner Roman Abramovich closing his wallet in recent seasons in favour of the club being more self efficient. If they were to bring in Ibrahimovic, then a few players would have to leave to balance the books. Eden Hazard’s time at Stamford Bridge look in doubt after an abject season so a move to Paris for him on a bumper transfer fee may allow new boss Antonio Conte the breathing room to go big on Zlatan.

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Who in the Premier League will Zlatan sign for? (Image from Tumblr)

Arsenal could also be an option. Having tried and failed miserably to entice Zlatan to attend a trial when he was a 17-year-old at Malmo (Zlatan refused stating that he doesn’t do auditions), Arsene Wenger could come back for him. That is if the french manager is still in the role with several sections of the fans calling for a change. However a final day victory that clinched second place in the league and more importantly bumped Arsenal ahead of arch rivals Tottenham in the league standings could give him enough breathing room for one last season. To please the fans, Wenger will need to bring in a superstar and Zlatan certainly ticks that box. Wenger knows that Zlatan could be the key piece of the puzzle that his team have been missing and by signing him it would give him the best shot yet of winning the title.

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Zlatan the Great Fires Sweden Into The Euros

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is like marmite, you either love him or loathe him. But deny as much as you like, Zlatan is one of the best players the game has ever seen. The 34 year old, 6ft 5in striker was a Swedish legend well before he stepped up in the second half last night to curl the ball over the Danish wall to put Sweden 2-0 up of their playoff match. The winner of ten Swedish football of the year titles, Zlatan has been the figurehead of Swedish football for over a decade now so it seemed fitting that it would be his goals (one in the first leg and two in the return) that would send them through to Euro 2016. It is also fitting that the player who put Ligue 1 firmly back into the public eye after years away from it should be front and centre as France hosts the latest major international tournament. It wouldn’t be the same without Zlatan there, inspiring many on the field with his amazing abilities and as many off the field with his outrageous behaviour.

BPI Matt West

Sweden celebrate after reaching Euro 2016 as Zlatan sinks to his knees (Image from BPI Matt West)

Ibrahimovic’s opportunities to entertain at the tournament may however be limited as Sweden changes of progressing past the group stage could be limited. Zlatan may be able to provide that moment of brilliance in front of goal but behind him is a host of problems. Sweden for all intents and purposes are an average side that is transformed by the inclusion of Ibrahimovic. Without him in their ranks, Sweden struggle to control games and lack the potency upfront to trouble sides. At the back, the once strong and resilient Swedish defence has been replaced with a nervous wreak who despite being 2-0 up and coasting in last nights game couldn’t prevent Denmark from leveling the tie and setting up a nervy final few minutes. Going ahead into Euro 2016, this will be a principle concern for manager Erik Hamren who needs to find a solution and quickly. The one shining light is the potential to draft in some of Sweden’s Under 21 European Championship winning side to freshen things up. Hamren has already bloodied a few of that team into the full national setup but will be looking to see if any of them can make the jump up in time for next summer.

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Hamren could call upon some of the Swedish Under 21 winning team for next summer tournament (Image from Getty)

Whilst the defence is a major concern, keeping Ibrahimovic fit and healthy is somewhat more crucial to Sweden’s chances next summer. Now in the latter stages of his career and lacking the pace and fitness that he once had in abundance, Ibrahimovic is winding down his stay in Paris and surveying his options. In the French capital, Ibrahimovic has become a god since his arrival in 2012 as part of the Qatari funded PSG revolution. He has helped the club to three titles in a row and has scored an incredible 115 goals in all competitions making him the club’s record goalscorer ahead of Pauleta. Ibrahimovic’s influence on the team, much like with the Swedish national side cannot be understated and is still a major component of Laurent Blanc’s plans. However age is against him and with that PSG have had to use him more sparingly this season as injuries have taken their toll. Zlatan’s confidence in his own abilities still outpace his age but he is now starting to consider where he should move to next if he is to leave Paris. England has already been ruled out due to its fast paced game but big money moves to the US or Qatar cannot at this stage. One thing is for sure that Zlatan has no intention of retiring from the game all together any time soon. He has hinted that Euro 2016 will be his swan song for his international career but believes that like a fine wine he is getting better with age. The nature of his performance in the win over Denmark backs up this claim as the player put in two stellar shows as he guided Sweden to the Euros.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic celebrates scoring for Paris Saint Germain against St Etienne.

What next for Zlatan? (Image from AFP)

The defeat however did end the long standing managerial career of Morten Olsen who stepped down from managing Denmark after an incredible fifteen years in charge. Olsen took over as national boss after Euro 2000 and was instrumental in guiding Denmark to four major finals since then including the 2004 and 2012 European Championships and the 2002 and 2010 World Cups. The disappointment of missing out on France 2016 was clear to see when Olsen addressed the media after the defeat to Sweden. An emotional Olsen apologized to the Danish people stating that it hurt to end this way after more than 35 years as a player and coach and that he felt empty after the match. At 66, Olsen hasn’t confirmed what he will do next but retirement may not be out of the question. Whilst it will be disappointing not to see Olsen at the tournament, many will agree that it would be more disappointing if Zlatan wasn’t there to show the world one last time exactly how good he is.

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Portugal Crush Germany To Advance To Under 21 Final

Outclassed, outplayed and outscored was the story of the Under 21 European Championship semi-final match between Germany and Portugal. A 5-0 win enough to seal passage to the final. But somewhat surprisingly were the victors, Portugal who sent the tournament favourites Germany back to Bavaria for a rethink. Despite having a World Cup winning defender at the heart of their defence and a Champions League winning goalkeeper behind him, Germany simply could not contain a rampant and free flowing Portuguese side that appears to grow more in stature as the tournament progressed. They now face one final challenge, a repeat match with Sweden tomorrow to see who will lift the coveted trophy. The last time these two met in the group stage the game was tied 1-1 in the end but in the final only one team can leave victorious.

Germany will be watching that final with disappointment after failing to live up to their promise. The German squad was one of the strongest in a long time. In a week when English FA elite Director Dan Ashworth claimed that they couldn’t possibly ask full established internationals like Sterling, Barkley and Shaw to drop back down to Under 21 level, it was refreshing to see that other nations don’t seem to have the same hang ups. Germany called up Matthias Ginter who was part of the senior teams triumph in Brazil last year as well as goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen fresh of his heroic’s for Barcelona in the Champions League cup final win over Juventus last month. In fact out of the squad of 23 players, six have represented Germany at senior level and have had no issues dropping back down to play in this tournament. That number could have been greater if not for injuries and lack of form towards the end of the Bundesliga season had not ruled out a few other players. Their passage to the semi-final was not exactly to plan with two draws and a win in the group condemning them to a second place finish behind Denmark. That put them up against Portugal rather than Sweden with the ‘Esperanças’ knocking them out.

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Potugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Ginter (bending over) and ter Stegen were unable to stop Portugal in the semi final (Image from Getty)

Portugal have been a revelation in this tournament with several players playing key roles in their success. It’s a talented batch that Rui Jorge has arranged with pace, skill and vision throughout. At the heart of his team is captain Sergio Oliveira.  The central midfielder who plays for FC Porto is highly regarded in his homeland as well as throughout Europe with several clubs scrambling for his signature. Technically gifted with incredible close control and a good range of passing, Oliveira has been exceptional in the tournament so far with an 85% average passing accuracy that highlights this. Alongside Oliveira is another highly rated youngster, William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon defensive midfielder is wanted by numerous bigger clubs and his performances in this tournament will not have done his chances of securing a move any harm.  A regular for the full senior team, Carvalho like some of his German counterparts had no issue spending his summer competing for the Under 21 Euro title and that dedication could now pay off. Portugal will be considered strong favourites after their stunning win over Germany on Saturday. Sporting Lisbon pair Ricardo and Joao Mario helped themselves to a goal each as did Benfica striker Ivan Cavalerio, Monaco’s Bernardo Silva and Malaga’s Ricardo Horta as Portugal ran riot. Silva in particular was instrumental in the win with the dazzling attacking midfielder proving why many in the game are comparing him to Portugal greats Rui Costa and Luis Figo.

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far  (Image from AFP)

Sergio Oliveira has been exceptional for Portugal so far
(Image from AFP)

Winning the final is the end goal but in their way is Sweden who progressed to the final with a convincing 4-1 win over Denmark. Goals from John Guidetti, Simon Tibbling, Robin Quaison and Oscar Hiljemark cancelled out Uffe Bech’s strike for the Danes.  Both Guidetti and Tibbling go into the final looking to score in order to seal the top goal scorer award. Currently both players sit on two goals with Czech midfielder Jan Kilment leading the way on three goals. But scoring against Portugal will not be easy, given that they have only conceded one goal so far in the tournament. That goal however was scored by Tibbling in their 1-1 draw in the group stage which will offer the Swedes hope. The final should be a spectacular end to what has been a fantastic European championship with two talented teams battling it out for the trophy.

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England Fail Again As Calls For Rethink Grow Louder

Most England fans will remember or at least have heard about the events of July 30th 1966 when Bobby Moore famously led England to its first and so far only World Cup triumph. However few England fans will be able to recall what happened almost thirty years later on July 25th 1993. That was the last time that an England side at either under 18, under 19, under 21 or senior level won an international tournament. That day, with a squad that contained the likes of Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler, England beat Turkey by a single goal (a penalty by Darren Caskey) to lift the UEFA European Under 18 Championship trophy. Twenty two years later, England are still looking for their next trophy after being dumped out of this years Under 21’s European Championships at the group stage. Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of their group after two defeats and a win in yet another disappointing tournament for English fans.

England's 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England’s 1993 winning team (Image from AFP)

England entered the tournament as a strong contender with a talented squad at their disposal. With Tottenham’s 30 goal a season striker Harry Kane leading the line, Southampton’s James Ward Prowse in midfielder and Everton’s John Stones solidifying the defence in front of the ever reliable Jack Butland in-goal, England should have at least progressed beyond the group to the knockout stage. But defeat in their opening game to Portugal left Southgate’s side with a mountain to climb. They appeared to be back on track with a nervy 1-0 win over Sweden, with substitute Jesse Lingard striking with five minutes to go but going into the final game against Italy, England looked disheveled and unorganized. What followed was a mauling at the hands of a less than convincing Italy side despite England having the majority of possession and a greater volume of shots. A brace from Torino’s Marco Benassi and one from Andrea Belotti had already sealed the win before Nathan Redmond grabbed a late consolation goal. The result in the end was good for no one with neither side progressing to the knockout stages after Portugal and Sweden drew in their final match and both advanced. Southgate almost immediately sprung to the defense of his team insisting that despite the team being knocked out, there was still a lot of positives in terms of the individual progress of certain players. Hardly what the England fans want to hear from one of their national managers.

There will be an inquest into what went wrong with several influential figures in English football like Harry Redknapp, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville all calling for rapid changes across the board. The first question raised is a valid one and is around selection. Whilst Southgate did select a talented group of players for this tournament, he chose to ignore other more experienced players like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshire. The make up of his squad was primarily Championship players and fringe Premiership players with the except of Stones, Kane and his strike partner Danny Ings. For comparison, Italy fielded a squad that had between them played over 270 games in Serie A last season whilst England could only boast 130 appearances in their squad with a vast majority of them being in the Championship or below. When questioned before the tournament about his selection, Southgate spoke about being fair and loyal to the group of players that had gotten them to the Championships through qualifying. It’s a fair point but one that should be addressed by the FA with a major rethink into priorities.

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role  (Image from Getty)

Jack Wilshire could have operated in the attacking midfielder role
(Image from Getty)

If England does want to win a tournament like this one, then they should be giving themselves the greatest chance of doing so. They need to select the best squad possible with the likes of Sterling, Barkley, Chamberlain, Shaw and Wilshire going in place of others. These players should have been part of this squad from the very start, creating a nucleus that lasted not only for this tournament but beyond. The team needs to grow together and more importantly progress together through the various international stages. In 2009, Germany beat England in the final of the Under 21 Euro Championships with a squad that would largely make up the team that would lift the World Cup at senior level five years later. England needs to adopt a similar approach if its is to build a team that is capable of winning the World Cup or European Championships in the future. Winning breeds confidence and giving a team the chance to be successful at one tournament only benefits them when it comes to their next one.

England must follow Germany's example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks  (Image from Getty)

England must follow Germany’s example by developing teams that progress together through the ranks
(Image from Getty)

There also needs to be a tactical adjustment. England through all levels up to the senior team are being instructed by FA Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation but without creative midfielders in the squad, this formation simply does not work. At the under 21 level, Southgate has used this formation repeatedly forcing players like Danny Ings or Tom Carroll to operate out of position in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar attacking midfield role. This role should have been played by Rosss Barkley or Jack Wilshire, both of which are comfortable in the role and can create chances. Similarly the inclusion of a player like Raheem Sterling could have offered more width to England and presented Harry Kane up front with more chances, something he was sadly starved off during the whole tournament in the Czech Republic. Southgate’s lack of backbone and willingness to go against the FA’s wishes will no doubt cost him his job. But its far from his fault. The FA should shoulder some of the blame for appointing him in the first place instead of a more progressive manager. Their desire to appoint a yes man to the role has led to failure once again and yet another set back for England. Strangely Southgate still believes that England can win the 2022 World Cup given the quality of players coming through but in order to do so the country’s FA needs to make a fundamental decision into how much they want to win a tournament and what changes will be needed to make that happen.

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Canada Gears Up For Women’s World Cup Kick Off

Canada gears up for the 2015 Women's World Cup (Image from Getty)After a week of controversy at FIFA, the return of competitive football will be a welcomed distraction to the outgoing president. Despite announcing his departure on Tuesday, Sepp Blatter has confirmed that he is still set on attending the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off tomorrow in Canada. The tournament runs for just under a month and features 24 teams playing across six Canadian cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. Somewhat surprisingly no games will be played in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto but this is largely due to the fact that they will be playing host to this years Pan American Games which starts around the same time. FIFA’s decision to hand Canada the Women’s World Cup is another show of good faith towards the country, who have previously hosted other FIFA tournaments including the Under 16’s and Under 20’s men’s World Cups and the Under 19’s and Under 20’s Womens World Cup. However it is the magnitude and prestige of this tournament that has the Canadian Soccer Association so excited as they see it as a perfect way to demonstrate their capabilities to FIFA with a view to a potential bid for the men’s tournament in 2026 or 2030.

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory  (Image from Getty)

Christine Sinclair will be hoping she can inspire Canada to glory
(Image from Getty)

That said, Canada has not belittled the Women’s World Cup in the slightest and is rapidly turning up the heat on what is set to be a compelling competition. Current holders Japan are out to win back to back titles after winning the 2011 World Cup in Germany, beating the US in the final via a nerve jangling penalty shootout. The star of Japan’s victory four years ago was their inspiration captain Homare Sawa. At 36, Sawa is Japan’s most capped female player of all time with 197 caps and is the country’s top goalscorer with 82 goals to date. Her five goals in the 2011 World Cup bagged her the Golden Boot award and a place in women’s football growing history. She will now look to add to that legendary status with a record breaking sixth World Cup appearance and a chance for one last final swansong. Japan are in group C alongside an impressive looking Switzerland and the fairly unknown commodities that are Cameroon and Ecuador. Progression is expected at which point the real defense of their title should begin.

Unlike Germany four years ago or China four years before that, the number of competitive teams able to win the tournament has increased dramatically. Besides Japan, any one of Germany, China, Brazil, USA, England, France, Sweden or hosts Canada could lift the World Cup trophy in Vancouver on July 5th.  A victory for Canada on home turf would mean more to the side than can ever be expressed and would be as a career high for captain Christine Sinclair are her teammates. Qualifying from their group however may be tricky with China, Holland and New Zealand making the foursome. Germany and Brazil should reach the knock out stages fairly easily after being placed in substandard groups. England and France will battle it out with Colombia and Mexico in Group F but its Group D that has everyone talking of a group of death. As one of the clear favourites for the tournament, the news that the US had been grouped with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria was not welcomed widely.

US star Hope Solo selected for US women's team despite facing domestic abuse allegations (Image from Getty)

US star Hope Solo selected for US women’s team despite facing domestic abuse allegations
(Image from Getty)

With arguably the strongest and most experienced squad in the tournament, the US should be good enough to make it through at the expense of Australia and Sweden but its the challenge of Nigeria that potentially poses the biggest threat. Whilst the Nigerian team is fairly unknown with a majority of their players still playing their league football back home, it is their comfort on artificial pitches that has the US worried. In controversial circumstances and blaming the weather conditions in Canada, FIFA decided in its wisdom to play this World Cup on all artificial pitches. The decision sparked protests from the players who claimed the move was an act of discrimination against the women’s game and that FIFA would never make the men’s game play on artificial surfaces during their World Cup. They are of course right as the risk to serious injuries on these synthetic surfaces is greater than on grass. Despite calls for a change back to grass, the tournament will go ahead on artificial pitches which could hand those teams who play regularly on the surface a huge advantage. Nigeria are one such nation who play 100% of their games back home on fake pitches. Their knowledge of how the ball performs on this surface and the fact that they have spent years working with it could give them a slight competitive edge.

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Portugal and France Progress To Brazil As England and Spain’s Plans Are Thrown Into Turmoil

Ronaldo celebrates securing Portugals passage to Brazil (Image from PA)It was a dramatic night of international football on Tuesday that sent four more European teams to Brazil and others wondering if they want to go at all. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick eclipsed a stunning brace by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as Portugal met Sweden in Stockholm for the second leg of the play offs.  With Portugal leading 1-0 from the first leg, the home fans were determined to help their team as much as possible, including disturbing the sleep of the Portuguese players the night before. Despite the underhanded tactics, Ronaldo would not be deterred from his goal of reaching another World Cup. The Real Madrid star put his team into an early lead before a Swedish comeback inspired by their talisman Ibrahimovic who has been in the best form of his life over the past two years. A quick fire brace including a wonderfully taken second goal pulled Sweden back level on aggregate and back into the match. But Ronaldo would have the last laugh as he stepped up a gear by grabbing a brace himself to complete his hat trick and put Portugal on the plane to Brazil. It wouldn’t be the World Cup without the Real Madrid star but others will be disappointed that Ibrahimovic will not be there as his creativity and flair have light up many a back page with yet another wonder goal.

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal's lead  (Image from PA)

ibrahimovic was unable to overturn Portugal’s lead
(Image from PA)

Elsewhere a convincing 2-0 victory for Croatia helped sealed their place at the expense of Iceland. The tiny Scandinavian country had reached the play offs against all odds so defeat over the two legs to Croatia will be painful to take. After all this was a Croatian side ripe for the picking having come off the back of a double defeat to Scotland in the group stages. Iceland’s approach and effort in qualifying should have been enough to secure their passage so falling at the last hurdle will be a harsh lesson for their young squad in staying focused and not being distracted by the main prize. Croatia will be joined on the plane by Greece who dispatched Romania over the two legs despite a spirited performance from Victor Piturca’s players.

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

Croatia and Iceland battled it out during the Play offs (Image from Getty)

The surprise of the night was the comeback of Les Blues as Didier Deschamp’s French team clawed back a 2-0 first leg deficit against a powerful Ukraine side to win 3-0 in the second leg and book their place. A brace from Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho and a solo strike from Karim Benzema was enough to turn around the tie that many feared was already over. Ukraine were blown away by a determined French side, inspired by Franck Ribery and Yohan Cabaye who were helped in their cause by the dismissal of Ukrainian defender Yevhen Khacheridi just before half time. A passionate crowd sang songs of allez les blues as France romped to victory.

France celebrate reaching the World Cup  (Image from AFP)

France celebrate reaching the World Cup
(Image from AFP)

Meanwhile friendly defeats for England, Spain, USA and Belgium have heaped concerns about their chances in Brazil next summer. England’s failure to trouble a heavily rotated Germany will surely concern manager Roy Hodgson and definitely the over exuberant British press. Spain’s surprising defeat in South Africa also came as a shock especially as Del Bosque had sent out an almost full strength team. Whilst they had chances, the reigning World and European champions looked vulnerable at the back, with some suggesting the exclusion of legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas being the main catalyst. Dark horses for next year’s tournament, Belgium also suffered defeat for the second time in five days, this time to Japan. The Japanese who have also qualified took their chances well against the young and enthusiastic Belgium side eventually winning the match by three goals to two. In Austria, Jürgen Klinsmann led team USA preparations took a knock with a surprise 1-0 defeat to Austria. Having drawn on Friday with Scotland, Klinsmann was hoping to put Austria to the sword but they had other ideas. A single goal by Marc Janko thirty three minutes into the match sealed a famous victory and gave the German coach much to ponder.

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Bosnia Books Their Place At The World Cup As Iceland Looks To Follow

Job Done - Bosnia reach their first World Cup (Image from Getty)Amongst jubilant scenes in Sarajevo last night, one man stood alone at the centre spot trying to believe what had just happened. Bosnia-Herzegovina striker Edin Dzeko realized that his dreams were coming true as he watched his country qualify for their first ever World Cup. It’s a remarkable achievement for Bosnia after years of struggling to recover from the war that threatened to rip their country apart. Until 1992, Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia but when the country began to break up back into its original components (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Kosovo and Serbia) the region was engulfed in a turf war known as the Yugoslav wars. Lasting over eight years, it’s often described as Europe’s deadliest conflict since World War II and decimated the regions, killing thousands and sending millions scrambling for the safety of other European countries. Dzeko was only six years old when war was dropped onto his doorstep and lived through the worst of it as his family decided to stay in Sarajevo and attempt to live a semi normal life. As a quiet skinny kid, the future was uncertain for Dzeko but despite uncertainty Dzeko spent his childhood years with a football attached to his foot. Dzeko was always destined to be a footballer and follow in his father’s footsteps who was a fairly successful professional in Bosnia, who also represented his country. But now Dzeko now stands above his father as a national icon, the man who shot Bosnia to their first ever World Cup. Scoring 10 goals in 10 qualifying games helped Bosnia to claim top spot in Group G ahead of Greece, Slovakia and Lithuania, securing their place in Brazil next summer. Dzeko will insist that it was a team effort and that the whole squad deserves the praise but it was Dzeko who led the line and ultimately got the goals to get them to the World Cup.

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place  (Image from Getty)

Dzeko inspired Bosnia seal their place
(Image from Getty)

One team looking to follow Bosnia to Brazil is Iceland. After achieving the impossible by finishing second in a tough group, Iceland now are 180 minutes away from booking their first trip to a world cup as well. Standing in their way is one of seven teams and will face either Portugal, Greece, Croatia, Sweden, Romania, Ukraine or France in a two legged play off to be contested next month. Iceland, who secured a spot after sterling performances against Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland in the group are a mix of youthful exuberance and experienced professionalism. 35 year old Eiður Guðjohnsen, who has played for Chelsea and Barcelona in the past but now represents Club Brugge, leads the line alongside Ajax’s talented young forward Kolbeinn Sigþórsson. The pair are supported from midfield by Tottenham’s Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson, who is in the best form of his career, and by Sampdoria’s dynamic Birkir Bjarnason and exciting AZ winger Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson who’s outstanding hat trick against Switzerland last month salvaged a well deserved point at a time when it looked like Iceland’s dream was falling apart.

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Gudmundsson inspired Iceland to comeback against Switzerland (Image from AFP)

Having lost at home to Slovenia in June by four goals to two, Iceland went into the game with Switzerland in Berne knowing that they needed to get something from the match to keep their hopes of a qualification spot alive. But after a disastrous start, Iceland found themselves trailing 4-1 with just over 30 minutes to go. What happened next is an example of the new found belief running through this Icelandic squad who rallied to pull the game level with goals from Sigþórsson and a brace from Guðmundsson including a strike in the dying minutes, to secure a valuable point. In the end, that point plus some luck on the final day with Iceland holding on to a draw with Norway as Slovenia failed to beat runaway winner Switzerland, helped Iceland to finish second and keep their dreams alive.

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results  (Image from AP)

Iceland mix youth and experience to achieve results
(Image from AP)

Coach Lars Lagerback will be hoping that his team secures an easier fixture in the draw for the play off’s, with Croatia looking now like the best bet as a beatable team. Having failed to qualify directly and after losing consecutive games to Scotland, the Croatian FA have sacked Igor Stimac as head coach, throwing his team into a state of flux. Under-21 coach Niko Kovac will likely be in charge for the play off matches and looks favourite to secure the job long term after impressing with the junior team but whether he has enough time to revive a now battered Croatia side is still to be seen. Iceland will be weary that if they draw Croatia it might not be an easy game but with the other options being a Ronaldo inspired Portugal or an electric Ukraine side, an injured Croatia might be their best shot.

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What Works On The Training Ground, Might Not Work In The Game

Bend it like Beckham - David Beckham (Image from Getty)Becoming a free kick specialist requires dedication, which few lack the time or effort to give. Just ask David Beckham or Andrea Pirlo who spent hours after hours practising and perfecting their dead ball free kicks. The story about Beckham is that he used to stay late after training to practise, pinging ball after ball towards an empty net. What that did was let the England midfielder prefect his stance, run up, positioning and technique which is why he became one of the worlds best free kick takers. But for those who can’t afford the time, the other way of practising is on the training pitch, where routines are worked out ahead of time which can be implemented at any given time during a game when the opportunity presents itself. Free kicks from the left, the right and the middle can be carefully choreographed almost to perfection.

Italy Pirlo is a deadball specialist (Image from AP)

Italy Pirlo is a deadball specialist (Image from AP)

When it works on the pitch, the results can be spectacular. Sweden executed a practiced routine during the 1992 European Championships, which resulted in a memorable goal for Tomas Brolin. Looking as though they were preparing for a shot, Jonas Thern and Andres Limpar stood over the ball 20 yards from goal. With the ball positioned in the centre of the pitch, everyone suspected that a powerful drive was going to be attempted. However Sweden had other ideas and as Limpar ran over the ball, Thern flicked the ball up and over the wall, perfectly onto an on running Brolin. With one touch Brolin dispatched the ball past the keeper to mark a well executed move.

Tomas Brolin scores for Sweden (Image from Getty)

Tomas Brolin scores for Sweden
(Image from Getty)

Some teams however are not as lucky. Everyone can point to a free kick gone wrong where miscommunication or misunderstanding led to the move breaking down. Teams who get too creative ultimately fail, with very few special moves coming off just as it did for Sweden. During a recent match between Muangthong United and Gyeongnam in the Thai Premier League, Mauangthong were awarded a free kick some 25 yards out in the 27th minute with the score tied at 0-0. Two players, Mario Gjurovski and Pichitphong Choeichiu stood over the ball, looking at the opportunity that stood in front of them. After a short run up, Gjurovski appeared to fall over but as he did he remarkably headed the ball to his right for Choeichiu to attempt the strike. The shot was blocked and the play broke down much to the embarrassment of the two players.

The players srt up for the freekick

The players set up the shot from the free kick

Muangthong went on to win the game 1-0 but im sure that will be little comfort to Gjurovski and Choeichiu who will have had to go into training the next day and face their teammates. Maybe now the pair will decide to leave the free kicks to someone else in the team, in an attempt to avoid further embarrassment.

To see the free kick, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0DOW6FUQ1Y

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Ibrahimovic Wonder Strike Nothing New For Superstar

The talk of Wednesday’s international friendlies was undoubtedly Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s devastating four goals against England include a quite spectacular 4th goal – an overhead kick from 30 yards out. His performance against Roy Hodgson’s men was nothing short of brilliant as Sweden hosted England for the first time in their new 50,000-seat national stadium, Friends Arena. His fourth goal has to be seen to be believed and has sent social media sites into meltdown as people from across the globe scramble to see it but for fans who know Ibrahimovic well, this is nothing new for the giant striker. Indeed his 3 goal against England was equally brilliant; a low driven free kick from 30 yards out; good enough to win most goal of the day competitions but blown away by the spectacular fourth.

England’s Gary Cahill can only watch as Ibrahimovic scores again from 30 yards out.

For the 6ft 5 PSG striker, spectacular goals is second nature to him now. You only have to look back through his career and you can see numerous examples of Ibrahimovic’s talent and eye for goal. His performance against France in the last group match of Euro 2012 and his opening goal, am instinctive volley from a cross that put his team on the path to an eventual 2-0 win (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FC_jFLVGEEs), is one good example. Another is his strike against Bologna in the 2008 season during his Inter Milan days, when he connected with an Adriano cross with the back of his heel to score (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH_POzV6UWE) or more recently his 30 yard free kick for new club PSG against Marseille that had commentators speechless (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqqDFLvGhAg).

Even in his earlier career with Malmo and Ajax, Ibrahimovic loved to wow the home fans with flashes of brilliance.A legend during his time at Ajax, he became so by scoring goals in breathtaking fashion. His close control, technique and finishing abilities (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgqsaDnsEq8) make it clear why Ajax felt they had unearthed a gem in Malmo. Footage of his time spent at the small Swedish club is limited, but in the clips that do, it is obvious why clubs across Europe were interested (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkI9V3Up5to). Arsenal came close to signing him in 2000 when Ibrahimovic was still at Malmo, with the striker even posing in the Arsenal shirt, but the transfer broke down and he moved to Ajax instead.

Now 31, Ibrahimovic is supposed to be reaching the latter stages of his career but his form for club and country shows no signs of slowing down with age. His strikes against England cement his place in footballing history as one of the greatest European striker’s to have played the game.

To see his 3rd and 4th goals against England, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz38qqfxuH4