Manchester XI

I will begin by stating on record for those that don’t know, that I am a Manchester United fan.

Sure, it is easy therefore for my judgement on this particular line-up to become a little clouded. I have though tried my utmost to keep my bias under control and have tried to deliver here what I honestly believe to have been the best Manchester XI up to now this season based on a combination of form and statistics.

Manchester United Manchester City

City’s fans may be on top in this picture, but…

In order to counter those who think this will be based purely on a huge bias towards United, I will remind you that I predicted that City would win the title this year and that I believe that one to eleven that they have just as good a side as United.

I would also hasten to add that I would have picked a similar imbalance of City and United players this time last year, but the imbalance would have been in favour of City and the team would have included the likes of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, and Sergio Aguero along with the City representatives who have also made the cut this time around.

My selection is as follows:

(4-2-3-1)

David De Gea

Joe Hart my have out-statted De Gea in terms of clean-sheets, 14 to nine, but he has also been far more error-prone and cost his side more points than De Gea has. The fluffy-lipped Spaniard has come one leaps and bounds this year and has arguably been the best keeper in the league.

Pablo Zabaleta

Zabaleta is probably the only must-pick from City in this entire XI. His form has been so steady all year and he has continued from where he left off last season where he became the bedrock of City’s title push. He has been outstanding this term, and that can’t be said for a single other City player.

Rio Ferdinand

He may not be in favour with most English football fans after his recent antics, but he has had a great season, of that there is no doubt. I have always been a huge admirer of what Rio offers, but even I had thought that we had seen the best of him before this season, but he has had a bit of a renaissance and has been terrific.

Jonny Evans

I never thought I’d say this, but Mr.Evans has grown in to a cracking centre-half. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I have always found it hard to put much faith in Evans until this season. He and Rio have gelled superbly and this has helped David De Gea no end.

Patrice Evra

One of the easiest selections of the lot. City haven’t contributed a great deal in the left back department this year, Patrice Evra of United on the other hand has been outstanding. As well as sharpening up his defensive game, which had waned a little last year, Evra has also chipped in with four league goals, and five league assists, a fantastic and well deserved return for the Frenchman.

Yaya Toure

He hasn’t been quite as good as last year when I would have rated him as my player of the year, but Yaya is a huge asset for City and has still contributed five goals and three assists despite his lengthy absence caused by the African Cup of Nations. It will be a great relief to City fans that his contractual wranglings appear to have been sorted out, as they desperately need him in the heart of their midfield.

Michael Carrick

He may not have scored a single goal this season, but that is almost the only criticism you could target at Michael Carrick this season. He has been consistently brilliant all year, and the four assists to his name don’t do him any justice. The number of important interventions he has made this season, and the number of goal-scoring moves that he has started or played a big part in must be through the roof. First name on this particular team-sheet.

David Silva

Silva, like Toure, hasn’t quite been at his best this year but he has still been a vital cog in City’s attacking machine and not many have played better in sky blue this term. Four goals and seven assists certainly doesn’t make for bad reading.

Wayne Rooney

Many have targeted a lot of criticism at Mr. Rooney this season, and have indeed suggested that this is to be his last at Old Trafford, but I can’t see why. He has only managed 21 appearances this season, but in these appearances he has scored twelve times (as many as any of City’s players), and has notched an impressive haul of 9 assists (more than any City player). He hasn’t been as good as last season, but his role has changed since RVP’s arrival and he has had some injury bother. Nevertheless his contribution has still been sizeable and I think we are slowly seeing his transition into one of the best attacking mids in world football rather than an out and out striker.

Danny Welbeck

Stats may well be the best indicator around for form and contributions made, but in this case ignore them. He hasn’t been banging in the goals, and he hasn’t been a prolific assist maker either but his work ethic has been immense. So rarely has Welbeck failed to contribute this season, so much so that Ferguson has picked him in most of the big games this year and Welbeck has never let him down. This may just be a personal preference pick, but I think he has had a very decent season in spite of what the stats might tell you.

Robin Van Persie versus Manchester City

Robin ruled triumphant at the Etihad

Robin Van Persie

If Michael Carrick wins the nod for the ‘first name on the team-sheet’ in this line-up, then RVP runs him a close second. He has scored 19 goals in the league and made 8 assists, a brilliant contribution and the sort that must irk Roberto Mancini beyond belief as he tried to sign the prolific Dutchman last summer before United beat them to their target. The brilliant thing about Van Persie’s season has been that most of his goal have been important. Many have been winners or goals that turned the tide in matches. He has been off the boil of late, but don’t hold that against him.

United 8 -3 City

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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: 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: Day 11 Predictions

Croatia Vs. Spain:

This fixture places the top two teams in Group C against one another and if either side wins the match then they will top the group and face the runners-up in Group D in the quarter-finals.

Torres Spain

Torres found his best form against Ireland and will be hoping to keep it up against Croatia tonight

Up to this point Croatia have surpassed the expectations of many and they have been well worth the four points which they have gained so far in the group stages. Their opening  3-1 win against Ireland was clinical and then they followed this result with a strong second half fight-back against Italy to earn themselves what could prove to be a crucial point.

They will again have to dig deep if they are to get anything out of their match against Spain and given their  opponents’ suffocating style of possession-play Croatia are likely to have to be even more clinical than they have been already in their opening two games. The key to Croatia getting a win or a draw will be the solidity and stubbornness of their defensive play and the link play between star player Luka Modric and their two impressively clinical front-men Mario Mandzukic and Nikica Jelavic.

Having struggled to break down a stubborn Italian side in their opening game, Spain will have been buoyed by their thumping of Ireland four days ago. Vicente Del Bosque decided to ditch the ‘4-6-0’ formation from their opening fixture and opted for a recognised front man in the form of Fernando Torres. He then had to do little more than sit back and reap the rewards of his decision as Torres bagged himself a couple of confidence boosting goals in an emphatic victory, which sees them head into the last game of Group C as the favourites to win the group.

They may be the favourites to win the match and win the group but Spain will have to be very wary of the threat which Croatia have posed to the other sides in Group C and this match is unlikely to be anywhere near as comfortable as the other night against Ireland. I’m going for a 2-1 win for Spain with Torres to add to his goals tally for the tournament.

 

Italy Vs. Ireland:

Up to this point Ireland have failed to do themselves justice at the Euros and as old and stubborn as he may be, Giovanni Trapattoni will surely be left ruing his side’s missed opportunity to announce their return to tournament football with real gusto. Two games and two unimpressive losses is a record which Ireland will be determined to nip in the bud and they will be very eager to put things right by at least going home with a point courtesy of their final group game tonight.

Dunne Given

Ireland have disappointed thus far and Italy will be confident of inflicting another defeat upon them

Their opponents today are Italy who will be fairly satisfied with their first two games of the tournament in spite of only having picked up two points. Their opening day draw against Spain will have been of particular satisfaction as they matched ‘the world’s best side’ for long periods of the match and as well as negating much of the threat of their much-vaunted opposition they also created some very decent chances of their own and could even have won the game had they been a little more clinical. Their second game of the group stages will have been have been less pleasing, as a win would have put them in contention to win the group and they failed to push on from what was a very impressive first half performance against the Croats and ended up with another 1-1 draw.

This record of having led both of their matches but having failed to win a game so far in the tournament will be a real concern for Cesare Prandelli and his Italian side but they know that they must win against Ireland tonight  if they are to have any chance of progressing to the last eight and I think they will do so. I think Italy will win the game 3-1.

Euro 2012: Day 7 Predictions

Italy Vs.Croatia:

Both of the sides involved in the first of Thursday’s matches will be very pleased with how they acquitted themselves in their opening fixtures of Euro 2012.

Di Natale Italy

Di Natale’s finish was sublime and he may well start against Croatia

Italy dealt well with Spain’s unusual ‘4-6-0′ formation for the first hour of the game and looked consistently threatening on the break with Balotelli and Cassano both spurning decent opportunities before second half substitute Antonio Di Natale popped up with a delightful finish to give them a surprise lead.

Unfortunately for Italy the lead wasn’t theirs for long as Spain hit back quickly through Cesc Fabregas’ equaliser but ultimately the Italians will be fairly pleased with the draw and with how they dealt with Spain’s unexpected formation and typically constant threat in and around the box.

Croatia will also be in good spirits heading into the Italy clash as they were at their clinical best against an Irish side who are often very difficult to break down. Croatia manager Slaven Bilic set his team up in a positive fashion and knowing that Ireland would play on the back foot seemed to grasp the fact that his team would need to make the most of any opportunities that came their way and his players

Mandzukic Croatia

Mandzukic was the two goal hero Croatia in their opener

delivered.

The game between these two sides is arguably the most pivotal of the entire group stage as many believe it will decide who qualifies from the group along with tournament favourites Spain. However, if Croatia win and Spain fail to beat Ireland in the second of Thursday’s matches then Croatia will already be through as group winners.

Italy will be pleased with their point against Spain and will back themselves to beat Ireland so a draw on Thursday wouldn’t be an awful result and I think that is what the outcome will be, I’m going for a 1-1 draw.

Spain Vs. Ireland:

Ireland and their fans may well just be happy to be in the Euros as many are suggesting but they will still be feeling a little flat after a disappointing defeat in their opening game of the tournament.

McClean Euro 2012

The Ireland manager has been put under great media pressure to start James McClean against Spain

Spain on the other hand certainly have more lofty ambitions about the tournament as a whole and though they may view Italy as their greatest challengers in Group C I think they too will be left a little underwhelmed by their opening day performance and result.

Time will tell of course whether Spain’s point against the Italians was actually a very good point in the context of the group but with the players that Spain have at their disposal they would surely have hoped they could start building some momentum with a win right from the off. The second round of group fixtures though provides Spain with the perfect opportunity to kick-start the defence of their European crown against an Irish side who looked a little lacklustre at this level in the opening round of fixtures.

Fabregas Spain

Fabregas was probably the most advanced player in Spain’s surprise ‘4-6-0’ formation

The reason Ireland’s performance was so disappointing was that not only did they try and play defensive minded football as everyone had expected them to, but their display at times crept beyond this and into the realms of negativity and damage limitation. Within the context of major tournament football they simply appeared a little shell-shocked.

Sadly for Ireland I simply can’t see how they are going to drastically improve on Sunday’s showing and avoid being eliminated from the tournament on Thursday and I expect Spain to win comfortably. I’m going for the reigning champions to win 3-0 but if they play with an ‘out-and-out striker’ then they could even win by more.

Euro 2012: Day 3 Predictions

Italy Vs. Spain:

Spain and Italy could hardly be going into this tournament having had more contrasting preparations for the tournament.

Spain Italy football

Spain will be big favourites to defeat Italy and are the favourites with the bookies to win the tournament

Spain have won both of the last two major tournaments and are heading into the Euros with a strong, familiar and for the most-part experienced squad and as such are very much being targeted by the rest of the field as ‘the team to beat’ to.

Italy on the other hand have disappointed on their two most recent outings in major tournament football, have a younger and more inexperienced look to their squad than usual and their domestic leagues have once again been embroiled in a wide-scale match-fixing scandal.

On the plus side  though for Italy, the last time their nation was under scrutiny amidst match-fixing issues they went to the World Cup in Germany 2006 and they came home as champions of the world. Also, as much as Spain may possess a squad packed with talent, class and depth they are missing a couple of the key players from their recent triumphs, Carles Puyol and David Villa, both of whom have failed to recover form injuries in time for the defence of Spain’s crown.

In spite of their high-profile injury absences Spain still have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal and I expect them to win 2-1 in the opening game of Group C. Just as an aside to my score prediction, I think it will be intriguing as it always is to watch Mario Balotelli and to see whether he looks like producing the sublime or the ridiculous at the Euros, both of which we know he is all too capable of…

If Balotelli and fellow front-man Di Natale can link well with each other then don’t write off Italy’s chances of getting themselves a draw but I think Spain will be a little too good for them on the day.

Croatia Vs. Ireland:

The second match on the opening day for Group C sees Ireland return to the big time and although they have a very tough looking group draw they will head into the tournament with great enthusiasm and the hope that they can spring a few surprises.

Giovanni Trapattoni Slaven Bilic

The opening game for Ireland and Croatia will depend much on the respective strategies of their two managers

Their opening game pits them against Croatia who have at times really impressed in tournament football since returning as an independent nation in the early nineties and who possess a few of European football’s most sought after and most in-form players.

The two names that spring to mind immediately with Croatia in terms of their biggest assets are Luka Modric, who is on the radar of several European super-clubs, and Nikica Jelavic who has proved an instant hit in the Premier League with Everton. If Modric is at his superb best then it is likely that Jelavic and his fellow forwards will have plenty of scraps to feed on and if they do then Ireland could be in for a torrid evening.

Ireland are likely to set up in typical fashion as their manager Giovanni Trapattoni is very sure of his first XI and how he thinks they can be most successfully deployed. The manager tends to side with defensive responsibilities and his Ireland side are expected to soak up pressure and to try and produce match-winning chances on the break with the likes of skipper Robbie Keane ready to pounce at the top end of the field as and when chances might come his way.

It is essential that Ireland try and keep Modric under wraps as he has the potential to pull the strings and eventually pull Ireland apart with his clever running and eye for a killer pass. I think Ireland will give a decent account of themselves in this game but I expect Croatia to triumph either 2-0 or 2-1.

 

Euro 2012 Group C: Can anyone topple Spain?

Italy:

The Italian national side may have endured a few years of indifferent form but they remain the most recent side to have won a major trophy aside from Spain who accompany them in group C.

Spear-headed by ‘Super-Mario’ Balotelli the Italians will go into the Euros knowing that in being drawn with the reigning champions they have immediately become only the second favourites to progress from their group but also that they have a huge chance to send out a statement of intent by either beating Spain or by finishing above them in the group.

Balotelli Italy

Balotelli will have to keep his emotions in check if he is to deliver for Italy at the Euros

As ever with the Italian national side there is plenty of experience to call upon in the form of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgo Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Anrdrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale but the squad they’ve named for the Euros is arguably their most exciting and refreshing selection for quite some time in major tournament football.

In and around the experienced figure-heads of the squad there is plenty of youth and plenty of talent and it isn’t limited to just one area of the field either. At the back the likes of Angelo Ogbonna and Ignacio Abate look like big prospects and up top they have included the likes of Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco to support the ever-eccentric Balotelli.

One to watch… Mario Balotelli: It may well feel like Balotelli has been around forever given the antics on and off the field which have made him so well known but this will be the very first major tournament appearance for Italy. There is no doubting his ability to succeed and be a star at the Euros but huge questions still remain about his temperament and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his emotions in check.

Euros nostalgia: Italy have a rich history in World Cup football but their Euros record is poor by comparison. In two of the past four tournaments they have failed to get out of their group but they did reach the final in 2000 when they were felled by an extra-time winner from France’s David Trezeguet. The only time Italy have won the tournament was way back in 1968.

Tournament prospects: It appears to me as if Italy will be hugely reliant on the ability of Balotelli up-front as he is their real stand-out player. There is a decent blend of youth and experience at Italy’s disposal for the Euros and in spite of the turmoil in domestic Italian football at the moment it would still be a surprise if they weren’t to make it out of the group.

Spain:

Reigning champions Spain have an awful lot to live up to this summer given their fantastic performances in the last two major international competitions but their technically gifted squad should be confident of landing a third straight piece of silverware.

Iniesta Xavi

Spain’s ‘Golden Duo’ in midfield will team up once again

One area which could be exploited by other teams is their defence which will be missing their rock of a centre-half and the man that would have been their captain, Carles Puyol. Any potential problems at the back for Spain may not just be caused by Puyol’s absence but also the form and versatility of their other defensive options.

Their other truly world class centre-half, Gerard Pique, hasn’t enjoyed his finest season with Barcelona this year and he may well be partnered by Sergio Ramos, a man far more accustomed to playing at full-back, in the heart of Spain’s defence.

Another potential creak in the Spanish rear-guard is their lack of a natural left-back. They will probably opt to play Valencia’s Jordi Alba in this position but he isn’t exactly a natural defender. He is very strong going forward has the pace and stamina to get up and down the left flank all game long but it is unclear up to now whether he possesses the discipline to play in such an important position on one of world football’s biggest stages.

Another major miss for Spain this summer is that of David Villa who hasn’t recovered in time from a broken leg suffered at the back end of 2011. However, as much as Villa is a big loss one would have to think that Spain have more than enough in reserve to cover his absence as their squad still possesses so much attacking strength and depth that players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Fernando Torres all might struggle to find a place in the starting line-up.

One to watch… Fernando Llorente: The powerful Athletic Bilbao forward has played a huge part in his clubs impressive cup runs both in Europe and in domestic football this season and in the absence of David Villa and the absence of Fernando Torres’ best form it could be down to him to lead the line for Spain and to provide the bulk of goals needed to win a tournament like the Euros.

Euros nostalgia: The previous European Championships in 2008 saw Spain underline their undoubted potential. Inspired by the coinciding rise to prominence of Barcelona and their famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football, Spain passed their way to the most elegant of major tournament victories sealing their triumph with a 1-0 win over big-tournament specialists Germany in the final.

Tournament prospects: Given their recent successes in major tournament football Spain will go into the Euros as the team to beat and rightly so. They may appear a little damaged by a couple of major injury-enforced absences but the depth of quality at their disposal should allow them to cope with such losses and go deep into the competition. I have a hunch that this might be the tournament where they are finally denied victory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to the final once again.

Republic of Ireland:

This is the first time that the Republic of Ireland have qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup in 2002 and their Italian-heavy coaching contingent deserve an enormous amount of credit for the work they’ve done in getting their side back to this level.

There are a few survivors from the World Cup in 2002 still present in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and they will be hoping that these more experienced players can help them try and stand up to the likes of reigning champions Spain in the group stages.

James McClean Ireland

McClean has been a great find for Sunderland and he hopes to be much the same for Ireland

To be drawn in the same group as Spain on their return to major tournament football might appear a little unlucky for Ireland but their players and their fans will just be delighted to be back at this level and to be being thrust into direct competition with the world’s best side.

One to watch… James McClean: Sunderland’s power-house of a winger was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish leagues last summer and since Northern-Irishman Martin O’Neill has taken the helm at the North-East club McClean has been thrust into their starting line-up and has excelled . The youngster’s meteoric rise to prominence was sealed when Giovanni Trapattoni named him in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and now he has the opportunity to impress on an even bigger stage.

Euros nostalgia: Ireland’s only previous taste of the Euros came under Jack Charlton’s management back in 1988. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final place but took away with them the precious memory of defeating England 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament.

Tournament prospects: Ireland go into the Euros as huge underdogs and most people, myself included, will expect them to end the group stages propping up the rest of teams in Group C. The excitement surrounding them competing in one of world football’s biggest competitions will undoubtedly inspire them and I expect them to give everyone in their group a good game but ultimately I can’t see how they will get enough points on the board to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

Croatia:

Ever since Croatia took their first steps into international football as an independent nation in the early 1990’s they have never looked back and they have often impressed and punched above their weight in major tournaments.

Modric Croatia

Modric will be key to Croatia’s hopes at the Euros

This time around the Croats will head into the Euros armed with a squad including one of world football’s most highly-rated attacking midfielders in Luka Modric and they will hope that their chief playmaker can help them compete strongly in the group stages and get them into the reckoning for a place in the last eight.

Though they might not possess one of the more eye-catching squads in European football Croatia should not be underestimated as they have a lot of very decent players to accompany the likes of Luka Modric and perhaps none more so than their striker Nikica Jelavic who has been a major hit at Everton since signing from Rangers in January.

One to watch… Nikica Jelavic: Having established himself as the most threatening striker in the SPL in his time with Rangers, Jelavic has now made the big move south of the border and into Premier League football and in his first few months in England he has proved himself time and again and his form towards the end of the season was as good as pretty much any other striker in the league. If the Croatian front-man can carry this form into the summer then Croatia could spring a few surprises once again.

Euros nostalgia: Croatia are responsible for one of the most famous nights of English football’s recent history after defeating them by three goals to two at Wembley in the final game of their qualification group for the 2008 tournament. This victory saw Croatia become one of the teams to qualify at England’s expense and thus denying one of Europe’s finest sides on paper a place in the previous European Championships.

A brief summary of Group C:

On paper it appears as if reigning champions Spain will be the huge favourites to win Group C and I can’t see anybody preventing them from doing so.

Beyond this though I am struggling to work out exactly what the outcome of the group will be but I suspect that Ireland will finish bottom of the group and therefore I think that it is between Italy and Croatia in the battle to qualify for the latter stages of the tournament.

If it were simply down to the quality of the sides on paper then I would plump for Italy every time but Croatia have demonstrated several times in the past that they aren’t afraid of a challenge and Italy may well be inhibited by the ongoing investigations into corruption and match-fixing in their domestic leagues. It is a really tough call and I am clueless as to who will progress alongside Spain.



10 Players to watch out for over the closing stages of the Premier League

1. David De Gea:

After a miserable first few months in the Premier League, De Gea now finally seems as if he has got to grips with the considerable requirements of life as number one at Old Trafford.

Monday night’s strong performance including magnificent stops from Junior Hoillett, Martin Olsson and Scott Dann provided further proof that the young Spaniard is starting to look something like being worth the large sum of money that United decided to splash out on securing his services last summer. Had he not been there to make the sort of reaction saves he had become renowned for at previous club Athletico Madrid then Monday’s hard-earned win against Blackburn could have ended up being a lot different and as such United’s prospects of winning the title could also have looked totally different. If De Gea can keep his current run of form going and continue to adapt to the huge level of awareness needed by a keeper at United then he may well end up being lauded for his contributions towards winning the title come May.

2. Mario Balotelli:

What can I say that hasn’t already been said thousands of times about Super Mario?

He is a total and utter liability, but he is a genius. A flawed genius but a genius nonetheless. We don’t know for sure how swiftly Sergio Aguero will recover from his now infamous “stupid injury” but if he is missing for any more of City’s run in then Balotelli’s form will be crucial for City in their pursuit of their rivals and current league leaders, United.

Edin Dzeko has struggled for form after an electric start to the season and Carlos Tevez is still not right back in the thick of it in terms of his match fitness and sharpness, so, in the absence of Aguero it could be argued that Balotelli is the key player for City in their run-in. If he can keep his head and produce the sort of ruthlessness we know he is capable of in and around the opposition’s goal then he could fire City right back into the title race.

3. Hatem Ben Arfa:

Newcastle’s ultimate mercurial talent. Ben Arfa has finally found the sort of form that at one time had him being spoken about as one of Europe’s finest young players and had the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid crawling over themselves to try and get him to sign for them.

His young career has been blighted with injury and has also been badly affected by the occasional period of indiscipline on and off the field but right now those troubles must seem a distant memory. His form off the back of an impressive performance when brought off the bench in the Tyne-Wear derby has been very impressive indeed and have drawn some fairly lofty comparisons with the likes of Lionel Messi (I think perhaps Alan Pardew was a little too euphoric when he said that) but, nevertheless, he has appeared as if he is back to the peak of his powers.

Newcastle have been superb this season and most neutrals will be willing them on to secure European football (and perhaps even Champions League football if miracles do really happen) and Ben Arfa will surely play a huge part in their charge to bring European nights back to St.James’.

4. Emmanuel Adebayor:

A couple of goals at the weekend for Adebayor after something of a lean period for him on a personal level and for Spurs as a collective will have done him and them the world of good.

The three points earned by Adebayor’s brace of headed goals took them back onto level terms with their fierce North-London rivals Arsenal and ended a run of poor form and results for Tottenham in their pursuit of automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League.

Aside from Adebayor, Spurs look a little thin on the ground up top so it is crucial that he builds on his match-winning goals against Swansea and takes this goalscoring form into the rest on Spurs’ league campaign if they are to guarantee that Champions League football returns to the Lane next season.

5. Fernando Torres:

We have all heard the negatives about Fernando Torres and the downwards spiral his career has seemed to be stuck in over the past couple of years but now there does seem to be some light at the end of the tunnel. A couple of very important recent contributions in the role of assist-maker have been coupled with a few more goals in recent weeks and maybe, just maybe, Torres is something like back to his best.

If he has desires on securing a place in Spain’s squad for the Euros and on helping Chelsea find a way of securing Champions League qualification for next season then he will have to build on his recent improvements and keep the positive momentum building in his game.

6. Theo Walcott:

Walcott has recently been given a more free-roaming role by his manager Arsene Wenger and has revelled in it. While goal-machine Van Persie is currently enduring the goal drought to end all goal droughts, stretching back an enormous three whole games (how embarrassing…), Walcott has started to get his name back on the score-sheet more regularly and has emerged as perhaps Arsenal’s key figure heading into their run-in.

If they are to hold Spurs and Chelsea off and secure a top-three finish then Walcott will need to keep his current form levels going and will need to continue his more recent trend of contributing strongly on the goals front.

Whoever is charged with taking England to the Euros this summer would be well advised to take note of Walcott’s recent improvements which have been a consequence of his increasingly more flexible and central role for his club.

7. Junior Hoilett:

Hoilett’s continuing progress this season has attracted the interest of some very big clubs such as Liverpool and Spurs and while his current Blackburn side might be plying their trade in the Championship next season he could well be enjoying his first taste of Champions League football.

In a side bereft of genuine quality, Hoilett has stood out as a beacon of hope all season and I am in no doubt that he will be crucial to any hopes they have of avoiding the drop.

8. Adel Taarabt:

Garth Crooks described Taarabt as the Premier League’s “most frustrating player” at the weekend and as much as I think of Crooks as the most annoying pundit I have to admit that he makes a very fair point.

Sure, Mario Balotelli is stiff competition for this crown but Taarabt’s piece of match-winning brilliance against Arsenal at the weekend was one of the first real demonstrations of his considerable talents all season.

Quite why it has taken him so long to produce a moment of such quality this term is a bit of a mystery as he has everything a player needs to be a success in the Premier League.

He has decent pace, he’s big, he’s strong and he has extraordinary technical ability but unfortunately he seems to have some deficiencies when it comes to his attitude on and off the field and that has held him back in what should really have been another major developmental year in his young career.

Perhaps his brilliant strike at the weekend could spark a run of form that could help QPR stay up, as when he is at his best he really is that good.

9. Luis Antonio Valencia:

Valencia’s return to prominence in recent weeks has come at just the right time for United in their late season assault on the title. Monday night’s relentless efforts down his right wing at Ewood Park almost single-handedly won the game for United and when finally he opted to take the shot on rather than trying to create chances for others in the consistently overcrowded Blackburn penalty area he succeeded in thumping it past Paul Robinson.

In the absence of Nani who has been struggling with injury problems in recent weeks, Valencia has taken the responsibility of being United’s chief creator and if he manages to maintain his electric form then I find it hard to see United not winning the title. He and his creative abilities are, quite simply, that bigger a factor for United at the moment.

10. Victor Moses:

Like Junior Hoilett at Blackburn, Victor Moses provides Wigan with a real touch of quality. His ability to run hard and fast at opposition defenders provides the Latics with a real outlet up top and if they are to have any hope of staying up then the goals and creative abilities of Moses will surely have to lead the charge.

This season has seen Moses grow into a player of real Premier League class and the last few games of the season may well end up being something of a shop window period for the young forward as he continues to impress in spite of his club’s tricky campaign.

Whether Wigan stay up or go down their is a decent chance that suitors will gather for Moses come the end of what has been a breakthrough season at this level for Moses.

The Art of Tackling: Rodwell’s derby challenge fair or foul?

Yesterday’s Merseyside derby highlighted a major issue in the modern game when Everton’s Jack Rodwell went in to challenge Liverpool’s Luis Suarez in the first half.

It was a classic footballing scenario that saw the ball running loose and into a position which presented the famed ’50-50 challenge’ situation. Rodwell who had a slim head-start on Suarez to win the challenge slid in strongly and robustly, cleanly taking the ball and avoiding major contact with Suarez. It was a fair challenge and one that hardly deserved punishment, why then was Rodwell sent off?

Looks like a safe challenge for my money

Well, with the modern game being played at such a high velocity and on such pristine pitches the chance of major injury is heightened. In-keeping with this players are rightly protected by the laws of the game with some of the slightly more tasty challenges of yesteryear now outlawed from the rule-book. Referees are encouraged to act strongly in response to any challenge that is deemed to potentially endanger the safety of opposition players. Therefore two-footed challenges, tackles from behind, high tackles and tackles that lead with the studs are treated more severely.

In the case of Rodwell’s slide tackle there is a justified concern about the presentation of the studs if you are to follow by the laws of the modern game. However, the fact that his boot wasn’t raised from the floor and that he made little to no contact with the opposition player whilst taking all of the ball before Suarez even got there should have saved him from anything more severe than the concession of a free-kick. Another major talking point was the outrageous reaction of Luis Suarez to the tackle which was almost certainly a contributing factor in the referees decision, as it suggested that he had been caught by Rodwell’s studs, when actually he wasn’t. Sadly overreaction is a staple of the game now and such acts of simulation are often regarded as simply taking evasive action.

Going exactly by the letter of the law there is fuel in the argument that Rodwell did indeed break the rules by showing his studs in the challenge, but circumstantial evidence suggests that referee Martin Atkinson was way over-board in dismissing the young Scouser. There is of course a circumstantial grey area that comes with instances such as this and as such an outrightly correct decision is hard to muster. The only clear thing with Rodwell’s challenge is that it wasn’t worthy of receiving a red card.

It is easy to blame Atkinson for what seemed a rash and irrational decision but under the pressure of a huge derby match and the unclear guidelines for such challenges it is hard to place all the blame upon his shoulders. Everyone who has seen the tackle will tell you that it wasn’t worth a card let alone a red, but the initiative to try and stamp tackles using the studs out of the game is much to blame for this match-spoiling decision. If you compare Rodwell’s stud-first challenge with the quite rightly praised finish of Mario Balotelli for City yesterday then it is clear to see that they are both challenging for a ball by leading with the studs and in my eyes both challenges were a huge success. Problem is though that due to circumstance Balotelli’s challenge made him one of City’s success-stories whilst on the other hand Rodwell’s challenge made him Everton’s sob-story.

At times the world of football can be incredibly cruel. Jack Rodwell is one of the finest young talents in the English game and it was distressing to see one of the most formative days of his budding career tainted by an entirely undeserved sending off. He and his manager must have wondered what on earth they had done to deserve being dealt such a rotten hand yesterday at Goodison, and now Everton’s brilliant manager must once again dig deep and try to raise the glum spirits in the blue half of Merseyside.

Final Verdict: Maybe a foul for leading with the studs, but certainly no more than that. Poor decision from the referee and who knows what might have happened had the impressive young Rodwell been treated more fairly.