6 Nations: : Lions Watch

After a few Blog-less months (caused by the stresses and strains of a journalism course which has somewhat taken over my life the past few months…), I am pleased to make my return and what better excuse to do so than the 6 Nations and the forthcoming Lions tour.

The British and Irish Lions have a mouthwatering summer tour of Australia lying in wait and as is always the case in a 6 Nations tournament in the lead-up to a Lions tour, competition for places is starting to hot up.

Gatland has much to consider after the first weekend of action

The opening weekend had all British rugby fans wishing that the likes of Martin Castrogiovanni and Sergio Parisse were not Italian and were English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish dynamos instead as they helped inspire Italy to a stunning victory over France.

The opening weekend also saw a rejuvenated Ireland conquer Wales who are continuing their free-fall from their Grandslam-winning pedestal, and England demonstrating the sort of attacking verve en-route to victory against Scotland that helped them defeat world champions New Zealand in the Autumn.

As is nearly always the case in a Lions year, the opening weekend provided a fascinating insight into who might make the trip and who might not.

It threw up the usual blend of ‘dead-certs’ confirming their status as being such (e.g Dan Cole, Rory Best, Johnny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Chris Ashton), former favourites for selection on the wane (Sam Warburton and Jonathan Davies, the latter seemed to just have an off-day) , and young unexpected contenders throwing their hats into the ring for selection (e.g Joe Launchberry, Billy Twelvetrees.

Anyway, now that the dust has settled on the wonderful opening round of this year’s tournament it is time to look ahead to this weekend’s action and I have decided to highlight some of the key British and Irish players and clashes to look out for this weekend.

Cian Healey Vs. Dan Cole:

Come the first test match against Australia this summer these two could well be partnered as the first-choice tight-head and loose-head props for the Lions but this Saturday they will be head-to-head and it promises to be a snarling battle. Both were true to form on the opening weekend and proved why they are both regarded amongst the very best in the world in their respective positions.

Ben Youngs Vs. Danny Care:

This is an ‘in-house’ battle within the England setup and one which seems to drive both players on rather than inhibiting their performances. They are both world-class, both exciting, both energising, but unfortunately both are still pretty young and each have a tendency to undo some of their fantastic work with some clumsy errors. They are however both in the running for a spot in the Lions squad as well as being locked in a battle to wrestle the number 9 England shirt from one another. Hopefully this battle can continue to inspire the pair of them and we can look forward to a big 60 minutes from Ben Youngs this weekend and an exciting cameo from Care in the last 20.

Justin Tipuric:

 

Justin TipuricLess than a year ago it seemed that Sam Warburton could do nothing wrong. He had performed and led the Welsh side superbly at the World Cup in late 2011 and then he flourished again as skipper as Wales went on to Grandslam glory in 2012. He has however been a steep downwards slide since then and so have Wales as a collective unit. Captain Sam is missing this weekend though and at the moment this actually seems to be a positive for the Welsh as it opens up a space for the dynamic Justin Tipuric. Prior to last weekend I had heard an awful lot about him but hadn’t seen much of him myself, however, his performance after coming off the bench against Ireland made me sit up and take note. Could he be the answer to Wales’ desperate prayers of late? Could he even be Lions material? We might just find out against the French this weekend…

Brad Barritt Vs. Brian O’Driscoll:

Brian O' Driscoll 6 Nations 2013This week Sir Clive Woodward conceded that in England’s last Grandslam winning year in 2003, when Brian O’Driscoll was at his dazzling best, that he earmarked no less than three England players to nullify the Irish master’s threat. If last weekend is anything to go by then Stuart Lancaster may have to follow Woodward’s lead in his team instructions as O’Driscoll returned from injury in stunning fashion. Barritt playing alongside Billy Twelvetrees in the England midfield will surely be charged with such a task this weekend at the Aviva Stadium and the whole game could well hinge on this battle.

Other things to look out for this weekend:

The Irish back-three (even without the absent Tommy Bowe), the battle of the two fly-half Lions front-runners Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell and the development of Scotland flyer and Lions full-back hopeful Stuart Hogg who made a great impression at Twickenham last Saturday.

Advertisements

Was Zlatan’s the best goal ever?

With only the odd speck of archive footage to rely on it would hardly be fair for me to judge on whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stunning effort last night was the best goal of all time.

It wouldn’t however be too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that it was one of the very best of my lifetime.

Ibrahimovic

Zlatan’s performance and his wonder-strike last night were a shot in the eye for all his doubters

 

So, in honour of his outrageous effort in Sweden’s 4-2 win over England at their brand new Friends Arena I have put together a selection of clips of the best goals that I have ever witnessed.

So, sit back, relax, enjoy and make up your mind as to which you think is best…

First of all…. Here’s Zlatan!

Next up…. Wazza!

The next contender… Scholesy!

Carrrrloooossssss!!!

Don’t forget… Ronaldinho!

Zidaaaaannneee!!!

Can’t forget D-Becks!

Messsssiiiii!

Rooonnnnaaaalllddddoooooo (‘s goal that wasnn’t…)

and another from Ronny which did count…

Best penner ever?

Thierry Henryyyy!!!

Bergkamp!!

and another…

Giggsy!

Gus Poyet!!!

Neymarrrr!

Finally, some bloke from Glentoran…

England Vs. South Africa Series Review: Marks Out Of 10

England:

Andrew Strauss: 3/10

It is easy to criticise a man who has captained his supposedly very strong side to a comfortable series defeat on home turf but more of a concern than his leadership skills has been his lacklustre performances with the bat at the top of the order.

Alistair Cook: 5/10

In stark contrast to his form in recent times this series was a bit of a struggle for Cook. Throughout the vast majority of the series he didn’t look overly comfortable against the strength, accuracy and potency of South Africa’s gifted bowling attack and this lack of ease is highlighted by the fact that he failed to pass 50 on any occasion apart from his series-opening hundred at the Oval. He may have started the series with a fine knock but from then it was all downhill as he failed to pass seven runs on three occasions.

Jonathan Trott: 6/10

By Trott’s exceptionally high standards to date this was not an overly brilliant series but he still got a couple of fifties and ended with an average in excess of 40 for the series so it would be churlish to pan him. He did of course turn his arm rather a lot too and though he failed to take a wicket in the series he did give a few of South Africa’s much-vaunted batting lineup a tricky spell or two and it isn’t really his job to rip through the opposition’s batting lineup after all.

Kevin Pietersen: 8/10 on the field, 1/10 off of it…

Pietersen Scandal

KP may have out-performed the rest of his team mates with the bat but his behaiour off of the field has been apalling

There was little wrong with Pietersen’s form with the bat as he amassed not far shy of 300 runs with the bat in the two tests in which he featured and he was also surprisingly impressive with the ball taking four wickets in the second test at Headingley.

Sadly though, it has been Pietersen’s off-field behaviour which has been the recipient of far more headlines as he has been embroiled in some reported in-fighting both in the England dressing room and with the top officials in the English game.

If the text messages to SouthAfrican players included the sort of content that they are alleged to have, then no matter how well Pietersen might have played in the second test, the decision to drop him for the final match was wholly justified. No man is bigger than the team and if he has been caught red handed when bad-mouthing his generally very popular and very respected captain then he shouldn’t be given an easy-route back into the side unless he has made some serious attempts to right his wrongs and until he has proven that he can act more maturely and can be trusted in a team environment.

Ian Bell: 3/10

When compared with the ease and fluency of his run-scoring exploits in the most recent test series’ on home turf Ian Bell endured a bit of turgid time of things against the South Africans, managing an average of  just 28.80 and a high score for the series of just 58. More so than the scores themselves the methods of dismissal will concern and irritate Bell as he was far too easily tempted into loose strokes by the South Africans, which saw him lose his wicket cheaply on more than one occasion.

James Taylor: 4/10

It is hard to make a fair judgement on Taylor’s first strides as a test cricketer as he was thrown right in at the deep end against arguably the best bowling attack in the world. He only batted in three innings in the series and in one of those three he was run out by Trott, in another he failed to get in before being dismissed and then in the other he made a score in the thirties which was probably far better than it sounds as he batted with great patience and he supported Pietersen very well en route to his big hundred at Headingley. It wasn’t the best start to life as a test cricketer but I’ve seen worse.

Jonny Bairstow: 8/10

He only played in one test match but boy did he do well. He struggled throughout much of his maiden test series earlier in the summer against the West Indies but the manner in which he stepped into the Kevin Pietersen shaped void amidst very tricky circumstances in the final test was truly admirable. He proved that he has real potential as a test cricketer and demonstrated an encouraging amount of confidence and intent at the crease as he notched back-to-back half centuries, it was just as shame that he fell five short of his maiden test century when he fell for 95 in the first innings.

Ravi Bopara: 2/10

Off the back of an impressive ODI series against Australia this was another major chance for Bopara to try and re-establish himself as part of England’s test side but it went pretty dismally. He scored 0 and 22 in the first test and then he removed himself from contention for a place in the side due to personal reasons.

Matt Prior: 7/10

Over the past couple of years Prior has fully re-asserted himself as England’s first-choice with the gloves and has become arguably the best keeper-batsman in world cricket and his performances in this series will have done little to harm his reputation. Prior was very impressive at times with the bat, never more so than in his courageous second innings knock in the final test, and he was generally very assured with the gloves minus a dropped catch which would have got rid of Amla for just two in the final test. On the whole this was another very decent series for the gloves-man.

Stuart Broad: 5/10

Broad showed glimpses throughout the series of what he brings to the England attack but he looked a little short of rhythm as failed to consistently threaten the South African batting lineup. He seems a little short of pace at the moment which is strange for a man with such a great fast bowling physique but he did however contribute well with the bat in England’s brave final day resistance today and he deserves credit for that.

Graeme Swann: 4/10

Swann Vs. South Africa

Swann was seen as the part of the England attack that might have given them the edge but it wasn’t to be

Having re-announced himself on the international stage in phenomenal fashion over the past few years, Swann has become one of the most feared spinners in the game but he is going through a bit of a barren spellat the moment by his high standards. Like his Nottinghamshire clubmate Stuart Broad he contributed bravely with the bat in England’s final innings of the series but his attempts to help England maintain their place at the top of the world rankings proved futile as they fell fifty runs short of an historic win.

Tim Bresnan: 4/10

Brezza failed to maintain his test match ‘lucky charm’ status as he tasted test defeat for the very first times in his career. He was made to look fairly ordinary by South Africa’s superior batting lineup in the first couple of tests and it was no surprise to see the more threatening Steven Finn preferred to him in terms of selection for the final test.

James Anderson: 5/10

This series proved to be pretty frustrating Anderson as he bowled well for long periods of the game without much reward for his efforts. There is little doubt however that Anderson will come back strongly from a disappointing series and I fully expect him to play a huge part in England’s forthcoming matches in their quest to now recapture what is no longer their place at the top of the world test rankings.

Steven Finn: 7/10

Having spent a bit of time in the wilderness in terms of test match cricket, young Steven Finn returned to regular action for the test side and played in the second and third matches of the series. In his two opportunities in the series he maintained his reputation as a great wicket taker at the highest level even if he did still have a tendency to spray the ball around and provide the opposition with run-scoring opportunities.

Finn’s best day of the series came when I was at Lords to watch the match and it was a pleasure to see two brilliant spells of bowling from the young man. His first spell of the day was brimming with pace and hostility and he must take a lot of credit for the wicket of Dale Steyn, which may have been taken by Broad but was set up by Finn’s aggression and accuracy. His spell of bowling in the afternoon though was the real highlight as he removed Amla, De Villiers and Rudolph in a devastating spell that saw him take 3 wickets for just 14 runs. It will be very surprising now if Finn isn’t selected next time England are in test action.

South Africa:

Graeme Smith: 8/10

Smith led from the front with some of his trademark stubborn, hard-nosed batting at the top of the order and he backed up his strengths with the bat with consistently good captaincy and he fully deserved to lead his side to victory.

Alviro Petersen: 6/10

Five of his six marks out of ten are awarded to Petersen for his marvellous 182 at Headingley as his other five innings in the series garnered a combined total of just 83 runs as he failed to match his opening partner Smith in terms of consistency. His first innings performance at Headingley was terrific and he showed enormous resolve to score big whilst the majority of his team mates failed to fire as they did in the other innings’ throughout the series. However, his form aside from this knock was very indifferent so it is hard to award him more than six out of ten even though he did average over 60 for the series.

Hashim Amla: 9/10

Amla Vs. England

Amla’s 311* was arguably the highlight of the series

Man of the series without a shadow of a doubt. Absolutely no one got anywhere near him in terms of run scored or in terms of batting averages in this series and his staggering knock of 311 not out at the Oval was the highlight of South Africa’s tour. This series was billed as a battle of the bowlers beforehand but in truth it has been South Africa’s staying power and persistence with the bat that has impressed the most and Amla has been the figurehead of this outstanding team display.

Jacques Kallis: 7/10

An enormous unbeaten contribution with the bat in the first innings was the highlight of the series for South Africa’s veteran all-rounder who otherwise failed to make any major contributions with the bat but as always he did offer South Africa an invaluable option with the ball and he defied troubles with persistent back spasms to contribute four wickets in the series.

AB De Villiers: 6/10

Having stepped into the breach in the wake of Mark Boucher’s untimely retirement, AB kept wicket pretty well on the whole in his first full series in the role but he failed to set the world alight with the bat. He did though average over 40 for the series which is respectable given that he was twice not required to bat in the series due to the stellar efforts of some of his team mates.

Jacques Rudolph: 5/10

Rudolph looked solid and added some depth to South Africa’s line-up in the absence of Mark Boucher but he only produced one innings of any real note when he scored 69 having been thrown in to open the batting for his side whilst usual opener Petersen was left back in the hutch due to severe stiffness. He hasn’t long been back in the side after a few years out of the reckoning and though he wasn’t a major force with the bat this time around he didn’t play himself out of the side either.

JP Duminy: 7/10

Duminy wasn’t called upon with great regularity in the series but when he was he proved just why South Africa deem him to be more than just a very good one day player. He contributed with characteristically steady batting down the order bagging himself the second highest South African batting average of the series whilst also contributing when needed with the ball.

Vernon Philander: 8/10

Philander came into this series with a fantastic start to his test career under his belt and he took little time in impressing upon England just why he has been such a success. He may not have been a prolific wicket-taker throughout the entire series but his five-for in England’s final innings was suitable reward for a series of accurate, disciplined and determined bowling. A series bowling average of 23.6 tells you all you need to know about how well he bowled.

Dale Steyn: 8/10

Steyn Vs. England

The world’s number one test bowler is now part of the world’ number one test side

It seemed for long stretches as if Steyn wasn’t quite at his sparkling best but he was still comfortably the biggest wicket taker of the series and as such deserves enormous credit once again. If you aren’t at your very best and you’re struggling with a couple of niggles but you still take the most wickets in the series by a distance then you know you’re a bit special.

Morne Morkel: 6/10

Morkel can at times be one of the most frustrating bowlers in test cricket but he performed pretty well as part of South Africa’s potent attack in this series. He averaged 34.5 with the ball which was less impressive than either Steyn or Philander but he did manage to take 11 wickets and he also chipped in with a few valuable runs right down the order.

Imran Tahir: 5/10

Tahir was arguably the least threatening part of South Africa’s front-line bowling attack but the veteran of English county cricket demonstrated his knowledge of English conditions in playing a part in South Africa getting the better of England’s disappointingly frail-looking batting line-up. The spinner department is arguably South Africa’s weak link and Tahir will surely have to better his average of 47 with the ball in this series if he is to hold onto his place in the world’s best test side.

Euro 2012: My Team of the Tournament

Last night’s resounding 4-0 win for Spain sealed their third straight major tournament victory and furthered their case to be considered the greatest international team of all time and as such it is no surprise at all that they have dominated my team of the tournament.

Spain Win Euros

Spain answered their critics with an outstanding performance en-route to a 4-0 win in last night’s final

The team is as follows…

Formation: (4-3-3)

Iker Casillas:

It is very hard to argue with Casillas’ stunning record of five clean-sheets in six games and with him now homing in on a staggering 140 caps  for his country one might be forgiven for thinking that he could yet go on to reach an even more unbelievable total of over 200 caps! His form has been terrific and he has fully justified his continuing superiority over and above the likes of Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes in Spain’s goalkeeping pecking order which is littered with an embarrassment of riches.

Mathieu Debuchy:

Until he was played out of position in the quarter-final against Spain, Debuchy had looked a very useful attacking right back and it is easy to see why several clubs appear to be interested in acquiring his services in time for the new season.

Mats Hummels:

Having heard much about Hummels’ development at Borussia Dortmund but having not actually seen much of him play myself I looked forward to seeing what he had to offer and he didn’t let me down. He looks strong, comfortable on the ball and very assured in the challenge whether it be aerial or on the deck and I think he proved that he has the makings of one the world’s finest centre-halves.

Sergio Ramos:

Ramos may have spent much of his career as a right back but he looked very assured in the central role and he grew in stature throughout the tournament. His contribution to five straight clean-sheets was immense and it will be hard to see Carles Puyol getting his place back in the side if he were to choose to keep playing international football.

Jordi Alba:

Alba deserves a place in this side even if only for the remarkable off the ball run he produced to score the second goal in the final. He has had a fine tournament and he deserves an enormous amount of praise not only for his attacking value at full-back but also for proving that his defensive abilities are right up there too.

Xabi Alonso:

I think Alonso might well be the most underrated player in the Spanish side. As well as providing a tremendous work-rate and a bit of steel in the Spain’s sextet of midfielders, his passing ability sometimes goes under the radar when playing alongside the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas but it is supremely good over both short and long distances. Alonso also deserves great credit for his two well taken goals in the game against France and the composure he demonstrated in scoring his penalty in the semi-final shootout with Portugal.

Bastien Schweinsteiger:

Like Alonso, Schweinsteiger gets through a hell of a lot of work in the ‘engine room’ of his side’s midfield and his ability to play a slick, slide-rule pass is second to none (…well, very few anyway…) Gomez’s prowess in front of goal impressed in the group stages for the Germans and it was  mainly Schweinsteiger’s hard work which earned the front man his best opportunities.

Andrea Pirlo:

If it weren’t for the outcome of the final then he would be a runaway winner of the player of the tournament award as he was at the heart of all that was great about a surprisingly strong showing from an Italian side that few people fancied to make a huge impact on this tournament. Against England and Germany in particular Pirlo played wonderfully well from deep in the Italian midfield and his exemplary displays of passing football demonstrated exactly what many of the sides at this tournament lack; a midfielder with so much class and ability that they can create space for themselves and dictate the play from multiple positions on the field.

Andres Iniesta:

Iniesta had a fabulous tournament and even though he may not have scored any goals he was a constant threat to all opposition that Spain came up against and the pressure built by his passing play and smart movement contributed significantly to Spain’s third straight major tournament success. He has been named the player of the tournament by Uefa having not managed to get himself on the scoresheet at any point in the tournament and this speaks volumes about his contributions.

Cristiano Ronaldo:

Love him or hate him, you have to respect him. I definitely and unashamedly veer on the side of ‘love him’ and was pleased to see him have a major impact on a major tournament in international football, as it has put many of his doubters to shame and it demonstrated that he does indeed possess the leadership skills necessary to captain a Portugal side who impressed throughout much of this tournament. He may not quite have inspired his side to make it all the way to the final but he goes home with a share of the ‘golden boot’ award having bagged three goals.

Mario Balotelli:

As is the case with Ronaldo you may well love or hate Balotelli, but regardless of which side of the fence you sit on it is hard to deny that he isn’t a joy to watch one way or another. Throughout lengthy periods of this tournament Balotelli was superb and his behaviour was generally pretty decent by his standards which perhaps showed signs of increased maturity in the unpredictable young front-man. He too will return home with a share of the ‘golden boot’ and one would hope that he can look back on this tournament as the start of a more consistent and reliable stage of his developing career.

Euro 2012: Prediction for The Final

Spain Vs. Italy:

So, here we are. It is time for the final and time for us to find out who will be crowned either the kings of Europe or the new kings of Europe.

Spain Vs Italy

Spain will of course go into the game as favourites but Italy should be hopeful that they can cause an upset

Spain head into the final hunting a third straight success in major tournament football, a feat which has never before been achieved and Italy are looking forward to trying to prevent the Spaniards from taking the title and also continuing their uncanny run of achieving major tournament success in the wake of or in the midst of major match-fixing scandals within their national game.

So far many have deemed Spain’s performances a little lacklustre when considering their enormously high standards but such thoughts and pessimism regarding the Spanish must be unfair given that they have once again made it all the way through the tournament and into the final.

Italy on the other hand have been the recipients of an enormous amount of praise for the way in which they have surprised people not only with their ability to carve out important results but also the way in which they have gone about their business on the pitch, playing with perhaps a greater emphasis on the attacking side of the game than has been evident in former Italian sides in major tournaments.

The man behind most of Italy’s attacking play has been Andrea Pirlo who has had an astonishingly good tournament and who has shone above the likes of Xavi and Iniesta of Spain each of whom have become the benchmark for creative midfielders to aspire to over the past few years. Pirlo’s range of passing has been at the forefront of Italy’s success in each and every one of their matches thus far and Spain will have to deal far better with the threat he poses from deep in the Italian midfield than either England or Germany managed to do in the previous two rounds.

Contrastingly, Spain have struggled to decide upon their ‘go-to man’ in this tournament and perhaps that is why they haven’t been quite so fluent as people have come to expect them to be. Some of their best attacking play has though been provided by Andres Iniesta who has been given a more forward-thinking role over the past couple of years by the Spanish coaching team and they will need him to be at his very best if they are to make history this weekend.

I have a feeling that this will be a very close game indeed and I think that things will unfold in similar fashion to how they did when these two sides met in their opening group game where Italy took the lead and were pegged back by Spain. I think that normal time will again see these two sides locked at 1-1 and I think Spain will win in extra-time in spite of a brave Italian performance.

I actually think that Italy could well be the side creating the bulk of the game’s best chances but I am backing Spain to fight their way to the narrowest of victories courtesy of some clinical finishing.

Euro 2012: Semi-Finals Predictions

Portgual Vs. Spain:

Though the reigning champions Spain will go into the first semi-final as big favourites to win and progress to a third straight final in major tournament football, their opponents and next-door neighbours Portugal are arguably in better form and will be keen to get one over on their more celebrated neighbours.

Ronaldo Casillas

This international ‘derby-match’ makes for a mouth-watering semi-final clash at the Euros

It isn’t as if ‘getting one over’ on Spain is Portugal’s only huge incentive to take this run further either, they are also hugely driven by their failure to capitalise on their run to the final on home turf in 2004 and to some extent are still embarrassed by their loss to huge underdogs Greece in that final and they are more than keen to try and erase such bitter memories with an incredible rise to prominence at this tournament.

If Portugal were to defeat Spain and then whoever would be lying in wait in the final then the Portugese will have landed the trophy in the most spectacular of fashions having come through the ‘group of death’ defeating Denmark and Holland along the way and then having defeated rivals Spain and then either one of footballing super-powers Germany or Italy in the final.

Typically, to win a major tournament you have to have overcome some serious opposition along but with their quarter-final draw aside, if Portugal were to win the tournament come Sunday evening then they would surely have had one of the more amazing runs ever seen in a European Championships.

Portugal will need to keep their dreams in check though for now, as they must try and do what nobody has done since France in 2006 and find a way to get the better of Spain in the knockout stages of a major competition.

Spain have been on the receiving end of a wave of criticism in this tournament for their perceived negativity in not selecting an ‘out-and-out’ striker  in half of their games but their record stands up against any criticism and scepticism as they have won three out of their four matches and drawn with fellow semi-finalists Italy.

Arguably their most criticised performance was their quarter-final showing against France but the facts are that they won the game 2-0 against very strong opposition and that they hardly ever looked even remotely troubled throughout. People have begun to turn against Spain as they do with many sides that are successful over a long period of time, as success does grate on some and any complaints about Spain’s strategy at this tournament and also the lack of excitement for the neutrals in a couple of their matches is just grown out of bitterness.

It is very hard indeed to justifiably have a pop at Spain and Vicente Del Bosque’s preferred tactics as they have once again found themselves unbeatable up to this point of the tournament. However, if Portugal harbor real hopes of becoming the first team since France to get the better of Spain in a major tournament then they would do well to follow in the footsteps of Croatia who may have ended up losing to Spain but along the way they caused some major concerns for their more celebrated opponents and could really have won the game had they made the most of their chances.

I think Portugal are actually quite well set up to cause Spain some issues and I think that inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo they will draw the game 1-1 in normal time. If this predicted score is to materialise then I will back Portugal to win either in extra-time or on penalties even if just to make this score prediction a little more ballsy.

 

Italy Vs. Germany:

The second of the semi-finals is set to be a very intriguing game indeed and in the wake of Germany’s performance against Greece in the quarter-finals which was full of attacking intent and ambition, their coach Joachim Loew now has some very tough selections to make in his side to face an Italian team who are likely to pose a greater threat and greater defensive resistance than Greece were capable of.

Pirlo Italy

Pirlo’s ‘Panenka’ spot-kick capped a wonderful night’s work against England both for him as an individual and for Italy as a whole

Arguably the toughest of Loew’s decisions regarding his line-up for the semi-finals will be whether he can find a place for the very impressive Marco Reus. Reus was behind much of Germany’s best play against the Greeks and he got his name on the score-sheet in emphatic style and may well have played his way in Loew’s thinking ahead of the Italy clash, as this individual performance was arguably more impressive than any other by one of Loew’s usual first-choice trio of attacking midfielders Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil thus far in this tournament.

It seems a formality that Mario Gomez will come back in for Miroslav Klose as the lone striker and Germany will be heavily reliant upon Gomez to prove himself just as clinical this time around as he was in the opening two games of the tournament, which saw him score three goals having had possession of the ball for just 22 seconds throughout these two matches. This conversion rate was staggering and it proved many of Gomez’s doubters very wrong indeed and now Germany will hope he can return to the side in similar goal-scoring fashion.

Germany’s opponents Italy may not have frightened the life out of any potential opposition at this tournament with their failure to score over 120 minutes of football against England who they had on the back-foot for much of Sunday night but they did play well and they will be hugely encouraged by Andrea Pirlo’s glorious exhibition of passing football and one of Mario Balotelli’s more persistent, determined and perhaps most importantly mature performances in an Italian shirt.

Italy are under no illusions about the task lying ahead of them if they are serious about winning the Euros and they know they will have to be more clinical if they are to have any chance of doing so but there were many more positives than negatives to come out of their quarter-final performance and consequentially they will head into the Germany game with greater self-confidence.

I think that Italy will find it hard to adapt to being fronted up to when it comes to possession and in terms of territorial domination in this semi-final clash after the dominance they experienced in their game against England and what I think will hurt them the most is that Andrea Pirlo in particular is far more unlikely to have a huge say in this game as Germany are better equipped to deal with the significant threat which he poses.

I think Germany will win the game 2-1 and I still have them down as my favourites to win the tournament as I have throughout the entirety of the competition.

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 4

England Vs. Italy:

The last of the quarter-finals at the Euros pits England against an Italian side that have been trying their utmost to gain the upper hand in the psychological battle going into Sunday night’s game with their suggestions that ‘England are the new Italy’.

Rooney Pirlo

In a game which is set to be a battle of two organised outfits, Rooney and Pirlo will carry the heavy burden of being the ‘difference makers’

These remarks and suggestions of copycat tactics on one hand send out the message that the Italians are flattered by England’s ‘aspirations’ to take on board their style of play and that to have ‘followers’ of their methods is empowering and on the other hand attempts to belittle England by suggesting that they needed to copy the Italians in order to further themselves.

There is certainly more than a hint of a dig in the messages coming out of the Italian camp about England but when it comes down to it they will know that they are up against a team who are not merely an organised unit but rather a team on the up, a team that are as settled and as happy as they have been in quite some time and ultimately a team that can carry a significant threat.

England are unlikely to have taken too much heed of the Italian’s efforts to ruffle their feathers given their recent run of results and they too will go into this quarter-final match with real hope as well as a great deal of respect for their opponents.

Respect aside though, England will realise that this Italian side isn’t the strongest that they have ever brought into a major tournament and that they have nothing to fear going into the match, plenty to take care of and much to plan for but ultimately this Italian squad don’t possess the defensive qualities or midfield tenacity of many of their previous squads for major tournaments and England should go into this match believing that they can hurt the Italians.

If you look at each individual position across the field, in all honesty it would be hard to identify many Italian players that would make it into England’s starting line-up and this in itself should motivate England to prove they aren’t the ‘new Italy’ but perhaps that they can be a better version.

To pick between Gianluigi Buffon or Joe Hart in goal would be a tough call, you would probably have to find a place in England’s line-up for Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi and Claudio Marchisio would have a chance of making it in but the only other player who would almost certainly make it into England’s team is Mario Balotelli who would get the nod ahead of Danny Welbeck.

So, England should go into this match confident that they can get a result and I have a feeling that they will whether it be by hook or by crook. I think that the game will end 1-1 after ninety minutes and that England will take the game either in extra time or in a penalty shoot-out and if this were to happen then England would face-off against Germany in what would be an epic semi-final clash that would stir memories of England’s shoot-out heartbreak from Euro 96 at Wembley.

Euro 2012: Quarter-Final 3 Prediction

Spain Vs. France:

Throughout the group stages both France and Spain struggled for fluency at times and both flirted with elimination from the competition on match-day three of the groups when they were each given a real scare by ‘inferior’ opposition.

Spain France Euro 2012

Spain and France have struggled to find their best form so far in the competition

France in particular struggled to find form in the group stages and qualified from group D as runners-up having managed a total of just four points from their three matches, their most disappointing performance of all coming in their final game against Sweden where they were beaten 2-0 by a side already assured of elimination from the competition.

Arguably their best performance of the groups was against England in their opening game where they dominated the game for long periods but even with the amount of territory and possession they managed against the English they still didn’t look hugely threatening as they were all too often limited to long range strikes at goal.

If France are to have any hope of shocking the reigning European and World Champions Spain then they will have to find much more fluency and will have to find ways of getting in behind their opponents which is something they have really struggled to do in their group matches against England and Sweden.

When the French are at their best they find a way of getting their danger men into the action on a regular basis and it is essential that they provide the likes of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery with plenty of ball so that they can use the full width of the pitch and stretch the game. If they don’t manage to do so then it is likely that Spain will be allowed to play within their comfort zone in the narrow areas of the pitch where they can really hurt France with their tight and slick passing.

If Spain have their own way then they will try and dictate the play as mentioned and keep the game in the central areas of the field where they are arguably more blessed than any other nation. In their final group game against Croatia they may have eventually snatched the points through Jesus Navas’ late tap-in but for long periods of the game they looked fragile against the counter-attacking willingness and talents that Croatia had at their disposal and they should really have been punished in the last half an hour when Ivan Rakitic failed to head home the easiest of his side’s chances.

Had Rakitic applied the finishing touches to Croatia’s most threatening break then Spain could well have been the tournament’s biggest opening round casualty but they managed to pull through in the end and they will be hoping they can re-find their best form in the knock-out stages where it really counts.

Spain’s finest performance of the competition thus far came when they defeated the Republic of Ireland by four goals to nil. In this match they found a balance between their suffocating midfield play and their ability to stretch the game when required and as such they created several good chances and made their opponents look horribly out of their depth.

Tonight Spain will have to do much the same if they are to get the better of a France side who will arguably provide Spain with their toughest challenge so far in tournament if they can find anything like their best form. I think that Spain will just about get the job done but I expect them to find the going tough throughout periods of the match before coming out of the game on the right side of a 2-1 final scoreline.

Euro 2012: Day 12 Predictions

France Vs. Sweden:

The simple equation for France is that they will not only qualify for the quarter-finals but will also top the group and receive a ‘preferential’ draw for the next round if they better England’s result against the Ukraine.

Benzema and Menez France

If France are to top the group and become a real threat at the Euros Karim Benzema will have to back up his decent performances with some goals

One might be forgiven for thinking that this should be a simple task given the fact the Sweden are already guaranteed to go no further in the competition and that they have lost both of their opening two games of the tournament. However, on numerous occasions we have seen sides in similar positions in major tournament football produce courageous performances in their final game when the pressure has been lifted from their shoulders.

In fact, last night’s performance from Ireland is a very good example as they played with tremendous heart and at times looked like getting something out of their game against an Italian side that needed all three points to have a a chance of progressing to the quarters.

Ireland may ultimately have lost the match as they had their first two games of the tournament but Sweden will surely be determined to produce a similar level of performance and to avoid going out with a wimper when things could have been so different had they not relinquished leads against both the Ukraine and then England.

I think France will win the game but I think Sweden will make them work for it. I think the final score will be 2-1 to the French with Karim Benzema to open his goal scoring account for the tournament.

 

Ukraine Vs. England:

For England’s third and final group game they know that they must avoid defeat to confirm their qualification to the quarter-finals and that they have to better France’s result against Sweden if they want to top the group and play Italy rather than Spain in the next round.

Rooney and Walcott Euro 2012

Rooney and Walcott look set for their first starts of the tournament

Standing in England’s way is a Ukranian side who they will be well advised not to under-estimate as they too could also go through to the quarters if they get a result and they could even top the group against all the odds if both results went their way on the final day of Group D.

Up to this point England have managed to get two very decent results and have placed themselves in a strong position going into the Ukraine game but neither of their two performances have inspired a great deal of confidence. They have shown great heart and resilience in both games but against France they were pinned right back onto the back foot for the bulk of the game and against Sweden they may have demonstrated more offensive ambition and ultimately have found the necessary killer instinct, but where they had done so well at the back against France they switched off to give Olof Mellberg two free headers for his brace which momentarily had England trailing.

Having struggled to find the right balance in their opening two matches, England will be delighted to have come out of these two opening games with four points to their name and they will today be welcoming their best player back into the fold as Wayne Rooney returns from his two match suspension.

As well as Rooney being included most are expecting Roy Hodgson to opt for Theo Walcott on the right wing after his match-winning performance having come off of the substitutes bench against the Swedes. With these two restored to the starting line-up England will have a much more naturally offensive look about their team and I think this is the right way to go against the Ukraine who have looked a little frail at the back and when taking into account that they need to outdo whatever the French manage against Sweden in order to win the group.

I think that  Rooney will come charging out of the blocks and will make up for lost time by scoring at least one goal in an England victory. I think the final score will be something like 3-1 but as it is England expect there to be a few twists and turns thrown in to put us fans right through the full spectrum of emotions.

Euro 2012: Day 8 Predictions

France Vs Ukraine:

In the opening game France were undoubtedly the side dictating the play against England but they did seem to lack real drive and creative ability in the middle of the park. This is a problem which needs to be sorted very quickly if they are to fulfil their ambitions at this tournament, as the likes of Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema were forced to drop deep on too many occasions which meant that the French struggled to make real inroads into the heart of the English defence in spite of their possessional and territorial superiority.

Shevchenko Ukraine

Andriy Shevchenko re-captured some of the old magic against Sweden and will need to be even more clinical against the French

It is arguable that the Ukranian defence will present greater openings for the French to take advantage of than England afforded them  but still the French must focus on using the ball more effectively and supplying their more dangerous players with greater opportunities to harm the opposition.

France’s opponents on Friday are the co-hosts Ukraine who pulled off one of the results of the first round when they defeated Sweden by two goals to one in Kiev. Inspired by their ageing talisman Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine managed to fight back from a goal behind and in doing so proved that they may well do better than people expected them to.

In addition to Shevchenko it was Ukraine’s young attacking midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko that caught the eye for the co-hosts  in their opening victory. He looked strong, full of energy and technically very sound when crossing from wide positions. If the Ukraine are to push for qualification to the latter stages of the competition then he will surely be key to their hopes and France and England must both be wary of the threat that he poses.

Even though I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the co-hosts in the opening game they did seem constantly troubled by the presence of Sweden’s real world-class talent Zlatan Ibrahimovic and I think they will struggle to keep the French at bay as they possess more than just one major attacking threat. I think France will win this game 3-1 and will put themselves in a very decent position in the group.

England Vs. Sweden:

Whilst England will be fairly pleased with their first performance of the Euros, today’s opponents Sweden will be more than a little irritated with their own progress to date.

Carroll Welbeck

If England do opt for two front-men then Carroll and Welbeck could cause the Swedish back four some real problems

The Swedes performance in the 2-1 loss to the Ukraine was very disappointing and it is of no real surprise that there are rumours circling of division in the camp in the wake of such a disorganised outing against a side who they will feel they should have beaten.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic for long periods of the game seemed the only player in the Sweden side capable of causing any damage at all but even he was a little wasteful at times and at the back their experienced campaigners Olof Mellberg and Andreas Granqvist appeared as if they had under-estimated and were ill-prepared for the threat posed by Andriy Shevchenko in terms of his movement and his aerial ability.

It is this lack of defensive organisation which will excite England the most going into the second game of the tournament as their side is likely to be packed with players capable of causing the Swedish defence a lot of problems in the air.

It sounds as if England are going to opt for two front men in this game with Andy Carroll expected to take the place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain whose likely omission will mean that Ashley Young will switch to a wider role on the left. I for one think that this switch in formation is a sensible one going into the game against Sweden given their apparent weaknesses in defence and if Ashley Young and James Milner can provide decent service from the wings then Danny Welbeck and Carroll should have plenty to feed off of.

I think England will win the game 2-0 and will sit joint top of Group D with France come the end of today.