Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Euro Cup?

The tournament has already started, but, too much surprise, the chatter at work has shockingly started. Euro 2012 is fully under way, and many Americans have taken notice. When my Portuguese coworkers and I raced into the locker room at the 2:20pm buzzer today to check the score, a welder named Dwayne barked out that Chelsea was ahead 1-0. All right so maybe he had the wrong tournament, but since when does a middle-aged welder from Rhode Island know that Chelsea is not a woman, but a football squad? This really got things revved up as guys were mentioning seeing the highlights and commenting on the recent performance of the Russians and previewing Germany v Netherlands.

I could not believe what I was hearing—a bunch of blue-collar die-hard NFL fans were beginning to notice the world’s sport.

This led to a locker room preview of the different teams and comparing them to various American sports’ teams. This idea caught on quick and hopefully will help others out there trying to handicap the field the rest of the way out and deciding on who to support.

Breaking the field of 16 in half and working through in reverse order…

8. Croatia

The new kids on the block, Croatia still very young as both a country and footballing squad, but what potential lies within their roster. Many of their players are still unknown commodities at this point in their careers, but after a breakout competition they could see the world’s top clubs seeking their services.

Captain Darijo Srna will provide experience from the midfield as attackers Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar bomb forward to aid in the attack. Up front lies powerful Eduardo (alright Brazilian-born, but competes internationally for Croatia) who has and impressive 23 goals in 47 international caps (soccer’s term for games played).

This squad has the playmakers, especially in the sought after Modric, to due damage to an unsuspecting side, just ask the Germans. But as in many of these big tournaments it will come down to their defense and goalkeeping to help decide close games.

Comparison: Cincinnati Reds, up and coming with some unknown but talented players. The Reds like Croatia have made their mark, but can they sustain it?

7. Portugal

To the casual observer, the Portuguese team will appear to begin and end at Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s dominant winger/striker. But other valuable and talented option feature in the rest of this squad.

Center back Pepe will do all the heavy lifting required of him whether it be marking the opponents top striker or diving to earn a cheap foul. Pepe is a player his teammates love but opponents absolutely cannot stand playing against because he gives them fits. If midfielder Joao Moutinho can establish himself early in games and set the tone for Portugal, they will be better for it.

The three-headed monster of their offense will be what frightens opponents most about the Portuguese—Nani on the left, Helder Postiga in the middle and the aforementioned Ronaldo on the right. Nani frequently finds himself criticizes at Manchester United for disappearing in games and not finishing the easy chances and that must not be the case at Euro 2012. This could be the moment for Ronaldo when he at the very least outs himself equal with Lionel Messi as the world’s top player. His Real Madrid teams bested Messi this season, and if he shines in this tournament the world could be his. Helder Postiga’s jobs will simply be to poach and finish the chances provide to him be the skill players.

Comparison: New England Patriots, lots of offensive flash with no defense and a Tom Brady-talent in the superb Cristiano Ronaldo.

6. England

No side will be under more pressure that is for sure. England biannually is drummed up on home soil only to go out and under perform in international tournaments. The Three Lions have only won one World Cup (on home turf, no less) and their best finish in the European Championships is a lackluster third place. England even failed to qualify for Euro 2008.

The country that invented soccer not only fails in big tournaments, but occasionally fails to even participate.

The team heads to Poland/Ukraine in upheaval. Top striker Wayne Rooney will be dealing with a two-match ban for stomping on an opponent during qualifying, former captain John Terry will again have to deal with racism claims against him, and new manager Roy Hodgson takes over after Fabio Capello stepped down over the winter. Pundits across the continent are wondering how on earth England will deal with their usual national pressure, but also from other nations who will be eager and ready to put the Brits in their place.

The key to the whole squad will be the veteran leadership and hopeful calming presence provided by midfield general Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool man will need to dictate the pace of the game and help the young and inexperienced players find their rhythm. Up front, Jermaine Defoe will need to be on top form for the Brits to have any hope.

Comparison: Notre Dame football, all the hype in the world and always seems to land a top recruiting class; just like these talented Brits, they fail to produce when it matters

5. France

Les Bles were so awful at the 2010 World Cup that most of their squad was sent home early for in-fighting and arguing with the coach which is never a recipe for success. France will enter Euro 2012 with a much younger squad that will look to help their country forget the previous tournament.

Attackers Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri should be a strong combination whether deployed from the midfield or as wingers flanking Karim Benzema. There also appears to be much more stability at the top with former Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc running the show.

France also looks solid through the back of the midfield with Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra slotting in behind Ribery and Nasri. Manchester United’s Patrice Evra will anchor the defense from his left back position and will create havoc with his devastating runs forward.

Ultimately, France is a strong side, but all question marks are with player make-up and team chemistry. The last bunch went sour after the going got tough, but what will this side do?

Comparison: New York Knicks, a team with very talented skill players that just finished quitting on their coach (Mike D’Antoni) and and now beginning to mesh and play slightly better for their new boss (Mike Woodson).

4. Italy

The 2006 World Cup Champions enter Euro 2012 in similar fashion as their last international triumph. Calciopoli, a corrupt match-fixing scandal, dominated all the headlines leading up to that tournament, as the Italians are no strangers to buying off referees. Fullback Domenico Criscito has already been dropped from the roster as the police investigate him and fellow defender Leonardo Bonucci for accepted Match-fixing bribes during the last Serie A (Italy’s National Soccer League) campaign.

Even with the loss of Criscito in their defense, fullback play will be strong from Italy as usual. Giorgio Chiellini follows in a long line of great Italian center backs and has proved at Juventus that he is ready to stand tall for his country. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is still a first class talent and will hope to return to his incredible form of 2006 when he led Italy to the title.

Italy’s strategy will presumably be to sit back and defend and counterattack when necessary. Midfielder Andrea Pirlo orchestrates all from his central midfield role and lines up one of the world’s most devastating free kicks. But aside from Pirlo, Italy is severely lacking skilled players who can run at and take on opposing defenders. Most of the other midfielders on roster are defensive minded and limited out wide on the tough lines. Enigmatic striker Mario Balotelli will patrol up front in the number 9 shirt hoping to net a goal so the world can see his first rate Chad Ochocinco type celebrations.

Unfortunately for Italy, Balotelli appears to be their only player with flair and if his service up front is limited, expect long, drawn out, 1-0 games from the Italians. And despite all the distractions, one thing Italy has proved time and time again is that they are resilient under pressure as evidenced by their victory on 2006.

Comparison: 2000 Baltimore Ravens or 2002 Tampa Bay Bucs, a first rate defense that needs the offense to just manage games and power home 1-0 victories.

3. Netherlands

No country can sport a more talented top four than the Dutch: Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Rafael van der Vaart. The one problem is that those four superbly talented players have never been able to fully coexist on the field.

The Oranje will hope things are different this go around as van Persie has established himself as one of the world’s premier strikers. RvP dominated the English Premier league this season netting a league-high 30 goals for Arsenal. The form for the other three, who all pine their trade from different areas of the midfield, is not on the same level. Robben will be deployed primarily on the right wing for the Dutch to best utilize his left-footed shot as he turns inside to goal. The problem lies in whether his teammates will tolerate this very talented player wondering around the field and switching positions at his own liking. With Sneijder and van der Vaart, the Dutch have two players who, by all accounts, cannot stand each other. Both play as attacking midfielders, love taking free kicks (as does Robben), and are used to being in possession of the ball in a “point guard” role.

For this squad, it is too many captains and not enough sailors. From the outside it appears the Dutch lack the players willing to do the dirty work. Their three midfielders need to coexist with one another for this to be a successful tournament.

Comparison: Miami Heat, watching the Dutch is like watching All-NBA players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade talking turns on the offensive end, but when they get out in transition, as Holland will in counterattacks, it is completely breathtaking and you remember why they will be one of the most feared teams in Poland/Ukraine.

2. Germany

With three World Cups and three European Championships, there is no better big-tournament team than the Germans. Consistently placing in the semi-finals at minimum has long been a calling card for the Germans, and this side should not be any different. Manager Joachim Low will return much of his third place squad from the 2010 World Cup.

At that tournament, midfielders Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, and Thomas Muller were a breath of fresh air in a usually subdued and calculating German side. That same up-tempo and energetic game needs to be on display for Germany, and that means mercurial striker Mario Gomez (yes, he is German) will have to be on top form to slot home his chances. Germany can afford to attack heavily because opponents will have great difficulty counterattacking as long as Bastian Schweinsteiger is sitting deep in the midfield. Schweinsteiger proved in the Champions League Final that he is the game’s premier tactician and the engine that powers this high-octane German team.

Comparison: New York Yankees, decorated professionals in every sense of the word and this hungry team have players that know how to win big games.

1. Spain

The reigning World and European Champions will again put their tiki-taka style (a gameplan predicated on short, quick passing) on display for the world in Poland/Ukraine. The squad is basically the same as the one that won the last two tournaments, save for two notable exceptions out with injury: former captain Carles Puyol and clinical striker David Villa.

The players swear that those two injuries will not affect them, but the evidence is not in their favor. Puyol was the unquestioned leader of the team, barking out orders from defense and flying forward on corner kicks to strike for goal. David Villa was equally important and his 51 goals in 82 international contests is astounding. With those two out, pressure and responsibility will fall on fullback Sergio Ramos and striker Fernando Torres to pick up the slack. Ramos’ talent is undeniable, but he occasionally loses his head and is susceptible when he falls asleep in the back. Torres was at one point in time considered the world best striker, but he has not been on the peak of his game for a couple seasons. This could be the moment when he reasserts himself onto the world scene again by delivering big goals, as Villa always has, for his country.

Through the midfield, Xavi and Andres Iniesta will be the straws that stir the drink that is Spain’s attack. Both players, though diminutive in stature, leave huge impacts on games because they epitomize the short passing style better than anyone. To play Spain means to not have the ball because the will dominate possession and pass you to death. Teams must stay disciplined or Xavi and Iniesta will have their way and hoist a third straight internation trophy.

Comparison: 1980’s San Francisco 49ers, a short passing game led by the elite Joe Montana (Xavi in Spain’s case) methodically chewed up defenses en route to dynasty status.