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Euro 2012 Preview – Group D

With Euro 2012 starting today in Poland and Ukraine, we finish our look at the 16 teams with Group D, which features France, Sweden, co-host Ukraine and England.

There are really only two teams worth discussing in this group – France and England – so we’ll get the other two out of the way quickly.
The Teams
Sweden (ranked No. 17 in the world) qualified for the finals as best runner-up, winning eight of its 10 games to finish three points behind Netherlands in its group.
As for Ukraine, they are ranked at No. 52 in the world and are only here because they are co-hosting the tournament (it’s there party so they have to be invited). It’s too bad the U.S. can’t work a deal with FIFA where, if the host country is ranked below No. 5, the Americans can take their place. Sure, we’re not part of Europe, but we are a former British colony and the experience would help the U.S. squad in the run up to the 2014 World Cup.
When last we saw France (ranked No. 14 in the world) the players were walking out on Les Bleus during a disastrous appearance in the 2010 World Cup. Former team member Patrick Vieira says that is all in the past for a team that enters Euro 2012 unbeaten in its last 21 matches.
“The problems which undermined France are all sorted now,” Vieira told The Daily Mail. “The French federation dealt with it decisively and now there is a new coach, a new philosophy, a new approach to the game – and Laurent Blanc is seeing the benefits of winning games, which breeds confidence and unity.”
Franck Ribéry – who has scored in his past three internationals – says the team shouldn’t look past the group stage, probably a good idea after the massive flameout at the 2010 World Cup.
“We all want to go as far as possible in the Euros, but the aim is to get past the group stage,” Ribéry told The Guardian. “First and foremost, we want to get to Ukraine and settle into our hotel, start training and preparing.”
Which brings us to England (ranked No. 6) who, despite only winning one major cup (the World Cup in 1966), carry unrealistic expectations into every tournament they qualify for (except maybe not this one). Think the Cleveland Browns but, instead of just having Northeast Ohio over-analyzing their every move, you had the entire nation scrutinizing them.
The Three Lions will not have goal-scorer Wayne Rooney for the first two games of group play because of a suspension, midfielder Gareth Barry is out with a torn muscle in his abdomen, midfielder Frank Lampard will miss the tournament with a thigh injury, as will Gary Cahill, who suffered a double fracture of his jaw.
In addition, Roy Hodgson has only been in charge of the team for little more than a month following the surprise resignation in February of Fabio Capello. Hodgson has international experience, having coached Switzerland, UAE and Finland, but you have to wonder if he has had enough time to figure out what works best with the current team.
That lack of time with the team may explain some of Hodgson’s more talked about choices as the former Liverpool manager six Reds on the squad: Martin Kelly, Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Glen Johnson and Gerrard. That’s all well and good except (and this one hits close to home) Liverpool finished the recent Premier League season in eighth place.
As David Hirshey points out at ESPN, there are more Liverpool players representing England than there are Borussia Dortmnund (Bundesliga champions) on the German team and Real Madrid (La Liga champions) on the Spain squad.
Hodgson did one thing right in naming Steven Gerrard as captain. While Gerrard has not had as much success with the national team as with Liverpool, he’s hinted that this could be his last turn with the national team so he should be motivated to bring his best to the pit
And after famously running wild through Germany at the 2006 World Cup, England doesn’t even have the best WAGs at Euro 2012. What, they couldn’t find a spot for Peter Crouch so Abby Clancy could come along?
Did You Know?
France’s Adil Rami was a mechanic before he became a footballer. He also posed nude for the Dieux du Stade calendar.
Game to Watch
The June 11 match between France and England.
Who Will Advance?
Even with all the troubles and questions surrounding the two teams, England and France should both advance. If one can walk out of that first match with three points, they should top the group with the other coming in second.
So that’s it. If you are a fan you know what you are in for over the next few weeks. If you’ve never watched a European tournament before, why not check it out? You just might be surprised at what you find.
For additional coverage, be sure to check out The Daily Mail, The Guardian, EPL Talk and ESPN.
(Photo by Getty Images)

Euro 2012 Preview – Group C

With Euro 2012 starting on Friday in Poland and Ukraine, we continue our look at the 16 teams today focusing on Group C, which features Croatia, Ireland, Italy (four-time World Cup winners) and the world’s best team, Spain.

The Teams
Croatia (currently at No. 8 in the FIFA rankings) failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, so this is the squad’s first tournament since reaching the quarterfinals of Euro 2008.
The team is led by striker Luka Modric and Niko Kranjcar, Croatia’s top scorer in qualifying with four goals who is moving to Dynamo Kyiv after the tournament.
“(Luka) is a wonderful player,” Harry Redknapp, the pair’s manager at Tottenham Hotspur, told The Daily Mail. “He has that gift of creating space out of nothing. He is also a superb example to other players, never a moment’s trouble.”
Even with their high ranking, many seem down on Croatia, which could help motivate the team.
“I cannot remember a time when people were so negative about our chances,” captain Darijo Srna told ESPN. “Our belief is when the big games come, against the best opponents, these players move to a different level.”
Ireland (ranked No. 18) has to deal with expectation at home that the team can make it out of this group, which may be a bit unrealistic given the fact the team isn’t playing its best right now.
In addition, the players are complaining that manager Giovanni Trapattoni worked them too hard during their training camp in Tuscany, a charge the manager predictably disputes.
“It was a holiday in Montecatini,” Trapattoni told The Guardian. “It was beautiful. My first concert is never to push the players too hard.”
This is Ireland’s first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup and their first appearance in the Euros since 1988. It’s also one of the last chances for captain Robbie Keane to show his stuff on the international stage. Keane scored seven goals during qualifying.
“I think as a player, and as a nation, we know it’s not going to be easy,” Keane told ESPN. “But when you’re a professional athlete, you’ve got a winning mentality and you have to into every tournament, every game believing that you’re going to win it. Are we underdogs? Yes. Do people think we’re going to win it? Of course not. As players, we have to believe that we can. Anything can happen in football.”
Italy (ranked No. 12) is sort of the wildcard in the group. They were unbeaten in group play, giving up just two goals in 10 games, led by Antonio Cassano’s six goals.
Of course, Cassno underwent heart surgery in November (he returned to training in January), defender Andrea Barzagli is out of at least the group phase with a calf injury, strike Mario Balotelli left training early with a knee or thigh problem and striker Giuseppe Rossi is not with the squad.
Throw in the fact that the Azzurri haven’t won a tournament since 2006 and that Italian officials are dealing with match-fixing investigations that led police to raid the national team’s training camp it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Italy crashes and burns in group play.
And the team never knows what they are going to get from Balotelli. Talented (13 goals in 23 Premier League games with Manchester City this year) and troubled, Balotelli is a powder keg always on the verge of exploding.
Spain (No. 1 in the world) ended a 44-year title drought by winning Euro 2008 and followed that up by winning the World Cup in 2010.
Can they become the first international squad to win three major tournaments in a row?
Spain cruised through qualification, winning all eight games with a goal-differential of +20. And even though injuries have knocked Carles Puyol and David Villa out of the tournament, the team is loaded.
From Andres Iniesta, who scored the winning goal in the World Cup final, to Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas to David Silva, it’s easy to why Spain is the prohibitive favorite.
“We’re conscious of the fact that it was inevitable on paper we’d be favorites. The key to our success has been to always start from zero and respect our opponents,” Ramos told The Daily Mail. “Humility has been the base from which we have grown in these recent years.”
Another advantage for Spain is the fact that Real Madrid and Barcelona went out of the Champions League in the semifinals. As almost all of Spain’s starters come from those two club teams, the players should be more rested than usual.
Spain doesn’t have history on its side, however, as previous European champions have made a habit of going out in the group stage of the following tournament – Greece in 2008, Germany in 2000 and Denmark in 1996.
Did you Know?
Italy’s Mario Balotelli once accidentally set his mansion on fire after setting off fireworks in the bathroom?
Game to Watch
The June 14 match between Italy and Croatia could very well determine who makes it out of the group stage and who goes home early for the summer.
Who Will Advance?
Spain for sure; recent history aside they are just too talented not to make it out of the group stage. As for the second spot, Croatia seems to have the fewest question marks of the remaining three teams.
For additional coverage, be sure to check out The Daily Mail, The Guardian, EPL Talk and ESPN.

Euro 2012 Preview – Group B

With Euro 2012 starting on Friday in Poland and Ukraine, we continue our look at the 16 teams today focusing on Group B, the glamour group of the tournament with Denmark, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands (or Holland, depending on who you ask).

The Teams
Denmark, currently at No. 9 in FIFA’s world rankings, won all four of its home games in group play, including a 2-1 win against Portugal to clinch the group. Problem is, this tournament isn’t being played in Denmark.
The one thing the Danes do have in their favor is coach Morten Olsen, currently the longest-tenured coach of any national team. Olsen has led the club as it qualified for World Cups in 2002 and 2010 and for the Euros in 2004 and 2012, and that experience will be needed for the squad to have any hope of coming out of the toughest group in the tournament.
The same can be said of captain Daniel Agger, who knows all about playing on the big stage after spending the past six years with Liverpool. Agger’s ongoing injury issues – he only played in four of Denmark’s 10 qualifying matches – are a concern for a squad that doesn’t have much depth.
The Netherlands (No. 4 in FIFA’s rankings) are coming off an ugly loss to Spain in the finals of the last World Cup but enter Euro 2012 in good form, having won nine of their 10 qualifying matches.
With Robin van Persie (48 Premier League goals over the past two years), Arjen Robben (Footballer of the Year in Germany in 2010 for his play with Bayern Munich) and Wesley Sneijder (five goals in thee 2010 World Cup), the Dutch should not have problems scoring goals (and let’s not forget Dirk Kuyt, the hardest-working man in the game), but they need to be more creative, especially if they are going to play Nigel do Jong and Mark van Bommel as holding midfielders.
“The problem with two holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it,” complained Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, according to ESPN. “The build-up happens too slow; holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already … plus, having two holding midfielders means there is one less creative playmaker.” 
Portugal (No. 10 in FIFA’s rankings) is led by Cristiano Ronaldo, whom ESPN ranks as the No. 1 player in the tournament, and who has 84 goals and 22 assists in 67 games over the past two seasons for his club team, Real Madrid.
The squad struggled in qualifying, though, losing to Denmark and Norway in the group stage before a playoff win over Bosnia & Herzegovina secured a tournament spot.
Then there is Pepe, who some consider one of (it not the) dirtiest players in football. As ESPN points out:
Apart from being dirty, Pepe can be termed, to put it bluntly, a big baby. Not ashamed of clattering into opponents with no intent to win the ball, a faint touch sends the defender down. The latest example of his childish behavior came in the Champions League semifinals against Bayern Munich, when Pepe writhed on the ground after Franck Ribery made mild contact with his arm.
Germany (No. 3 in FIFA’s rankings) is a three-time winner of the tournament and is consistently a favorite in any competition. The team was perfect in group play, finishing 13 points ahead of second-place Turkey. The Germans scored three or more goals in eight of their 10 qualifying matches.
The availability of Bastian Schweinsteiger, who injured his thigh in the Champions League final, was in doubt but the midfielder has been cleared to play which can only be good news for Germany, which looks to end a 16-year title drought.
“This is the best national team I have ever played for,” Schweinsteiger, capped 90 times for Germany and going into his fifth major tournament, told The Daily Mail. “Everyone expects us to win the title and naturally it is something that we also desire.”  
Did You Know?
Games to Watch
Pretty much every one of them in this group, and when they are not busy delivering flying karate kicks to the opposition, Holland is just such a good team (plus we have to be partial to any team that has Orange as one of their primary colors). It will most likely come down to the final group game on June 17 between Holland and Portugal, but we think the Dutch will make it through.
Who Will Advance?
Wow, this is a tough one (they don’t call this the Group of Death for nothing, you know). Something really bad would have to happen to see Germany not make it out of this group, and Holland should have enough to advance as well.

For additional coverage, be sure to check out The Daily Mail, The Guardian, EPL Talk and ESPN.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Euro 2012 Preview – Group A

With Euro 2012 starting on Friday in Poland and Ukraine, it’s time to take a look at the 16 teams starting with Group A, which includes the Czech Republic, Greece, Russia and the host team, Poland.
This doesn’t come off as one of the tournament’s glamour groups at first glance, but it does include two teams in the Top 20 FIFA rankings in Russia (No. 11) and Greece (No. 14), as well as familiar faces in Tomas Rosicky (Arsenal) and Petr Cech (Chelsea) and Andrei Arshavin (former Arsenal).
The Teams
Greece won the tournament in 2004 but followed that up by losing all three of its group games in 2008 and only scoring a single goal in the process. The Greeks are not exactly on a roll heading into the 2012 tournament as they came out of one of the weaker qualifying groups and needed two late goals in their final group match against Georgia to earn a tournament slot (although they did not lose a game in the group stage).
Greece was a slow starter in group play, scoring just three goals in the first half, and their 14 total goals were the lowest of any of the group winners.
A semi-finalist in 2008, Russia is one of the oldest teams in the tournament with eight players over the age of 30. Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Konstantin Zyryanov are among a group of 12 players who were part of the Euro 2008 squad. Included in that over-30 group is 36-year-old Roman Sharonov, who hasn’t played for the national team since 2004, admitted that his first reaction to the news was: “is today April Fool’s Day?” according to news agency RIA.
Russia conceded only four goals in 10 games in the group stage, although starting goalie Igor Akinfeev is still recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury (coach Dick Advocaat says “there is still a little fluid on his knee“) and center-back Sergie Ignashevich broke a toe in April. If those injuries impact their performances, a repeat of 2008 could be a problem.
The Czechs had trouble scoring in the group stage – their 12 goals were the lowest among the finalists – and they needed a win over Montenegro to earn their tournament spot. Their top scorer was left-back Michal Kadlec (four goals) and Milan Baros, the Golden Boot winner in Euro 2004, only scored once in seven group stage games.
Their biggest asset is goalie Petr Cech, fresh off a solid performance in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich. Without a dominant team in Group A, Cech could be the difference maker, especially if the team struggles to score goals.
Of course, this is the same squad that failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and have failed to get out of the group stage of any tournament since Euro 2004.
Poland earned a spot by virtue of being one of the host countries, which is probably the only way they would have qualified as, at No. 50, they are the lowest-ranked team in the tournament (and have only made the tournament one other time since its inception in 1960).
As co-host, Poland has spent the past two years playing friendlies, rather than harder qualifying matches, but in those matches they did beat Argentina and Ivory Coast, while drawing with Germany, Mexico, Portugal and South Korea. Maybe playing in front of the home fans will give them some kind of boost.
Poland’s biggest problem, however, may be dealing with the BBC documentary, Stadiums of Hate, where reporter Chris Rogers spent a month visiting Polish and Ukrainian stadiums and witnessed racist and violent behavior. 
Did You Know?  
Greece’s Dimitris Salpigidis scored the goal that secured Greek’s spot in the 2010 World Cup and also scored Greece’s first ever World Cup goal.
Game to Watch
Greece vs. Russia on June 16. This final match for the two teams could very well determine which team advances out of group play and which goes home.
Who Will Advance?

We’re sold on Cech in goal for the Czechs, so they will be one of the teams moving out of this group. As for the second one, while Russia may be the most talented squad, age will catch up with them so we’ll go with Greece for the second spot. 

For additional coverage, be sure to check out The Daily Mail, The Guardian, EPL Talk and ESPN.

(Photo by Reuters)

The Randomness of the first Monday in June

Poor LeBron James.

Dude spends his entire career surrounded by inferior teammates like Dwyane Wade.

Sebastian Pruiti has a good breakdown of the final play of the Heat’s Game 4 loss to Boston on Sunday night.

Instead of running the play the right way and giving the Heat a chance to win the game and take a 3-1 series lead, Wade went through the motions and ended up taking a poor shot.

LeBron really could have used the help as he was on the bench after fouling out of a game for the first time in four years and the first time ever in a playoff game.

Too bad there’s not a way that James could pick which team he plays on so he could avoid these types of situations.

***

The Cleveland Indians recalled Quadruple A all star Matt LaPorta over the weekend after Johnny Damon went on maternity leave.

Damon expects to return to the team on Wednesday, after spending a couple of days at home with his wife, Michelle, and their newborn twin daughters. Of course with Damon hitting .180 on the year, the Tribe may want him to take his time returning from diaper duty.

As for LaPorta, we’ve all been here before. He hits minor league pitching (.307, 14 home runs, 32 RBI this year in Columbus), comes to Tribe and no so much (.238 career average, .700 career OPS). So he’ll be out of here once Damon returns, right?

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