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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Euro 2012 Reflections

Germany are developing a losing habit: Before the Euro’s started, the German team were hailed as the team to watch. Youngsters like Marco Reus, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze, Mats Hummels and Andreas Shurrle had set the domestic scene ablaze and have been linked with some of Europe’s bigger clubs. The feeling and optimism around the team was further helped by the fact that the likes of Jerome Boateng, Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels and Sami Khedira had formed nucleus of the U-21 team who won the European Championships in 2009. A significant portion of the team had also formed part of the Bayern team that made it to the Champions League final with Mario Gomez particularly in the form of his life. And they did not fail to live up to expectations. They dominated games with the functionality and effectiveness for which they are known for. They came out of the Group of Death with a 100% record and were heavily tipped to make it to the finals. However, they would fall short against the Italians. This brings me to my point. This German crop, for all their efficiency and general likeability are building a reputation for themselves as 'chokers'. For all the talk about the German winning mentality, this is a country that has steadily fallen short over the last 10 years. In 2002, they came 2nd at the World Cup, 3rd in 2006, 2nd at Euro 2008 and 3rd at the last World Cup. The Dutch and Spanish sides of yesteryear had reputations for being teams blessed with some of the most technically gifted players but fell short when it mattered most. It remains to be seen if the Germans can take that final step in Brazil come 2014. 

The role of the deep playmaker gets appreciated : In March, the Guardian published an article which declared Andrea Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez and Paul Scholes as the holy trinity of deep playmakers. Pirlo and Scholes have been criminally underrated in the past. Hindsight can be a beautiful thing. With regard to Scholes, it makes one wonder why Sven Goran Eriksson wasted his ball retention talents on the left flank in a bid to fit the well proved to be incompatible Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard partnership. England’s loss was Man United’s gain as was seen in the past season when he was responsible for resurrecting the Red Devils’ title bid. With regard to Pirlo, whilst playing a key role in the Italian team that won the 2006 World Cup and the Milan team that ruled Europe in the last decade, one can argue that he did not get his fair due as a result of being played alongside the likes of Francesco Totti and Kaka who gained the plaudits for their flair and offensive prowess. Much has been written of AC Milan’s decision to let him leave last summer on a free, only to join their rivals Juventus and play the role of orchestrator in a team which would go the season unbeaten.  Xavi is significantly responsible for the appreciation of the deep playmaker based on the fact that as a leader and one of the protagonists behind the Barcelona juggernaut, his play was placed under the microscope and subject to more scrutiny. As a result of this, the role has resurrected with the likes of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric being hailed for their prowess whilst a certain Michael Carrick’s stock has begun to grow despite often being criticized for being ‘bland’ and not having a specialty. It is for this reason that Pirlo’s performances on this stage are very much welcome. It has allowed a greater sense of appreciation of the role and his performance against England is inspiring shouts of a reform and overhaul of the football system. 

The rise of the false 9: The Spanish national team have attempted to build on the components of that revolutionary Barcelona side- Slick passing backed by high, stubborn pressing whilst Lionel Messi completes the task by employing a false 9- a player who appears to be playing center forward but drops deep to create space. Propagated by Luciano Spalleti through his use of Francesco Totti in said position, the Spaniards have had to live with accusations of arrogance- “They think they’re so good they don’t need to play a striker” some have accused. Their presence in the final would suggest it has worked to some extent. In a bid to rationalize it, one must acknowledge that Del Bosque’s hands have been forced by the injury to David Villa. Fernando Torres, great player that he is, is no Villa. I would also suggest that it makes things difficult for the opposing defences. Laurent Koscielny, in the buildup to the Spain vs France game said to Matt Spiro that he would prefer having a classic Number 9 on the basis that they are easier to defend against as the defender’s positioning is not skewered as it would be from using as a focal point for marking a midfielder.  The Spaniards have also had to deal with accusations of being boring. For all the flair and obsessive and accurate passing that they have become synonymous with, one has to take into account their results at the last World Cup and the Euro’s

Group Stage World Cup 2010
Switzerland 1- Spain 0
Spain 2- Honduras 0
Spain 2- Chile 1
Round of 16- Spain 1- Portugal 0
Quarter Finals- Spain 1- Paraguay 0
Semi Finals- Spain 1- Germany 0
Finals- Spain 1- Holland 0

Euro 2012 Group stage
Spain 1- Italy 1
Spain 4- Republic of Ireland 0
Spain 1- Croatia 0

Quarter Finals- Spain 2- France 0
Semi Finals- Spain 0- Portugal 0 (Penalties)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to decipher that their games tend to be accompanied by scrappy and narrow score lines. Can they be compared to the German team who defeated England and Argentina 4-1 ad 4-0 in South Africa? For all their possession play, it’s not an unfair accusation that they should score more goals thus raising entertainment levels. To call them ‘boring’ might be harsh but one must acknowledge that there is a valid point.
As I write this, I have seen tweets criticizing Arsene Wenger for suggesting they are guilty of “betraying their philosophy. Originally they wanted possession to attack and win; now a way not to lose”. As expected, pot shots were made in reference to Wenger’s trophy drought of the last years. A tweet which said “Wenger captures Spain's dilemma perfectly - success brings fear of losing and that has taken priority -their game reflects this” captured this most succinctly. 

The last great Euro’s: This might just be the last great European Championships. Should Michel Platini’s plans of increasing the number of competitors from 16 to 24 come to fruition, it is likely that the standard of the competition would decline. At the risk of sounding arrogant and condescending, poorer teams would find a way to that stage which would lessen the quality of the play whilst also rendering the possibility of strong groups like the Group of death which consisted of Germany, Holland, Portugal and Denmark nearly impossible. Platini’s not done there. He has spoken of the possibility of hosting the 2020 version across up to 32 European cities. Whilst I would admit that it would help the greater good in that it allows more people to take the games and competition in, it would make for a logistical disaster. For fans, the cost of travel and accommodation amongst other expenses would be highly burdensome. 

Cristiano Ronaldo and his penalty misses: A certain Portuguese with model looks has been vilified left right and center for what has been interpreted as a glory hunting move to take the 5th penalty. At the risk of stating the obvious, penalties are a lottery and could go either way. For what it’s worth, Ronaldo has fallen short from the penalty spot on the main stage on more than occasion. It’s often forgotten that he missed in the Champions League Final in 2008 as a result of John Terry’s miss. He also missed his penalty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinals this year. He also missed a penalty in the friendly against Turkey before the Euro’s. Being the main set piece taker for his club and country, the law of probability would dictate he would miss more often than others. My point being that even if he had stepped up earlier on, there was no guarantee he would have scored which could have explained the decision to place him as far back as he was. (Huge question marks though if Paolo Bento actually made that decision, Ronaldo chickened out or he took on the role of glory hunter) 

Fulfilled potential/ Alan Hansen eating humble pie- The Premier League can boast of having some of football’s more interesting characters. With this, the media naturally tend to be critical and condescending when some of the league’s more interesting characters show themselves up.  Every weekend on Match of the Day, Alan Hansen demonizes Mario Balotelli on the grounds that he’s a liability to any team challenging for the title and not worth the hassle invested by Roberto Mancini. So obsessed is Hansen with Balotelli that in April, a well-travelled web article wondered when Hansen would stop criticizing Balotelli and criticize his old team Liverpool’s (managed by his good friend, Kenny Dalglish) appalling performances. It would have been a pleasure of mine to see what Hansen had to say had he been on the air when Balotelli grabbed a brace against the Germans. Before the tournament, Gianluigi Buffon said “It will definitely be Balotelli’s tournament. Mario is a winner; he was great in the epic final game in this year’s Premier League and he matured a lot over this last year. He has all our support. If he starts behaving like the leader he can be, he will carry the team and make the difference”. He has been proven right. The pint sized Andrey Arshavin and enigmatic Nicklas Bendtner have also provided some vindication for their supporters. 


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