Coming into this Euro tournament, the pick of who was favorite to win was quite ambiguous. Germany’s youth was drawing plaudits, Spain’s victory at World Cup 2010 had them picked by many to steamroll the competition, and Netherlands dream generation was hitting their stride. However, much has changed since the prediction prior to the tournament.
The Orange are feeling Blue
The Netherlands was a favorite for this tournament and for good reason. Prior to the tournament, the Orange showed true class versus Northern Ireland as their wealth of talent became clear. Robin van Persie came into the tournament with his best scoring record of his career and for once he wasn’t being nagged by injuries, Klaas Jan Huntelaar was a scoring machine for Schalke in the Bundesliga, Wesley Sneijder was back on form with the new manager at Inter, and newcomer Ibrahim Afellay added great flair to the right side of the field that had so long been occupied by the engine Dirk Kuyt. Arjen Robben was coming off one of his worst performances versus Chelsea, but whenever he puts on his Netherlands shirt he is always a danger. Since stumbling versus the Danes, Holland has lost to Germany and now looks to Germany to beat Denmark and to themselves for strength through the adversity to beat Portugal (and heavily) in order to advance.
Hosts Doing Quietly Well
Before the tournament even began, Poland and Ukraine were drawing criticism for their incompletion of stadiums, extreme racist atmosphere, and their relatively inhospitable countries. Since then, they have impressed. Racism has been on the “dl” except for the Nigel De Jong incident, the stadiums look magnificent and the atmosphere that they foster is even better, and their welcome to people from all over Europe has been exemplary. Oh and did I mention their soccer teams are playing well too? With a win over the Czech Republic, Poland could advance out of their group and defy expectations. Ukraine secured a win over Sweden in the opening game with a blistering comeback and Andriy Shevchenko turned back the clock with his two headed goals. Now, Ukraine must defeat England in order to advance to the knockout round.
The embarrassment of World Cup 2012 will forever stain the history of the Les Blues, but since the firing of Raymond Domenech and the appointment of Laurent Blanc, France has started strong on the road to recovery. With a team focused around their attack of Franck Ribery, Samir Nasir, Karim Benzema, and Yohan Cabaye, France has thrown the old guard who embarrassed themselves and the Blue shirts they wore and ushered in a new era of beautiful football. Their game of possession football led by Nasri has impressed many and when a strike is needed their passing can literally cut up an opposing defense.
Group A: Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Greece
If there was any group that the door was as wide open as Charlie Sheen’s bedroom door, this would be it. With Greece still living off of their Euro 2012 win like college football teams do their “glory days” and the Czech Republic well out of their prime generation, Poland and Russia might have an easy stroll into the knockouts. Poland is sporting their best roster is quite some time with highly rated German Champion Borussia Dormund trio Jakub Błaszczykowski, Lukasz Piszczek and Robert Lewandowski in the field and the impressive, young Wojciech Szcezesny in goal. Meanwhile, Russia’s incredible depth of decent to above average players has them favorites for this group. If Andrei Arshavin can continue to show the form he showed at Zenit at the end of the year and if Alan Dzagoev can come good on his latent potential then Russia could make a run that is until they mean either the Netherlands, Germany, or Portugal in the knockouts.
Advancing: Russia and Poland
Group B: Germany, Denmark, Holland, Portugal
Group B boasts the group of death in this year’s Euros and the similarity between this year’s G.O.D and 08’s G.O.D is that the Netherlands are present in both. Coincidence? I think not. Someone all high and tidy must want to prove that Holland is for real. Let me confide in you sir that indeed THEY ARE. Holland must contend with fellow tournament favorites Germany and the enigmatic but fantastic (when on point) Portugal. Oh shoot! I did it again. I forgot to include Denmark. I apologize to any Danish fan out there but even you know that Bendtner’s Boys probably are not going anywhere except following the Danish strudel trail back to Copenhagen. Furthermore, Holland and Germany are pretty much home and hosed to go far in the tournament unless they stumble shockingly or Portugal finally shows the form that got them to 2006 World Cup semifinals.
Advancing: Holland and Germany
Group C: Spain, Republic of Ireland, Croatia, Italy
Come on! Can we just make Spain champions of this group already? In actuality, this group could prove quite difficult for the Spaniards. Croatia boasts a powerful starting 11 with a perfect balance between guile and grit, Ireland is consistent and doesn’t let many goals in (plus they have Robbie Keane and he plays in the MLS!), and Italy, although they are well past their glory years, have the Balotelli Brigade and many of the other young Italians with massive potential. Spain has the same ole’ squad centered around the experienced Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol while Croatia, much like Belgium, has yet to be seen by many. Luka Modria, Niko Kranjcar, Ivan Rakitic, and Nikica Jelavic lead the way for Croats and if they are to advance their midfield must be hungry for the tackle because with teams like Italy, Ireland, and Spain they will have to dispossess….ALOT.
Group D: England, France, Sweden, Ukraine
Group D boasts some of the most hated people in world football. Or, should I say teams and people. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been on a tear since his move to AC Milan and Sweden will need him along with his strong midfield to rise to the occasion. England is much like Duke or Kansas in college basketball except they don’t anything like the two latter and just piggyback off of the best soccer league in the world. Looking at the England squad, no one stands out and yells “I will make a difference”. Wayne Rooney must sit out the first two games of the Euros deservedly and so new head-honcho Roy Hodgson must tamper with the striker position to find who works. Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard, and Gary Cahill have all been ruled out because of injury and Michael Carrick did not want to play because he “doesn’t enjoy being a squad player”. At least we know where Steven Gerrard will play? Or do we? France enters the tournament looking to shake their two previous miserable tournaments in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. Midfield and attack is where Les Bleus are strongest, with Laurent Blanc using a 4-2-3-1 formation to get as many attacking players into the game as possible. Yann M’Vila is a rising star and has made the holding midfield spot his own under Blanc, and he is ably supported by Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri, Florent Malouda, Yoann Cabaye, Jeremy Menez and Karim Benzema. In the back is where things get dicey with the likes of Roma’s Philippe Mexes and Valencia’s Adil Rami holding off impressive newcomer Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny from the starting XI. And following the injry of Bacary Sagna, Koscielny might get a consistent start anyway.
Advancing: Sweden and France
Just because you deserve something, doesn’t mean that you always get it. Bayern knows that very feeling in every sense of the word. Bayern Munich thoroughly dominated the Champions League final game versus Chelsea but just came a few penalties away from making the trophy their own. Although Bayern were at home in this game at the Allianz Arena, the Blues fought long and hard to stifle Bayern’s attacks and then take their turn in scoring.
The scoring started in the 83rd minute when Thomas Müller headed home a spectacular cross. However, Chelsea held their resolve and Didier Drogba headed home Chelsea’s first corner with only two minutes to go. With the scores tied, the game entered extra time and another twist in the game occurred when Drogba clumsily knocked over Franck Ribery in the box. From the subsequent penalty, Arjen Robben drilled his penalty low but Petr Cech was equal to it as he gathered it from under him quite well.
Only one thing could decide the game now and so the two European giants went to penalties. It looked like Chelsea would lose the shootout as Juan Mata was denied by Manuel Neuer, but Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger missed and Drogba calmly tucked his penalty away to give Chelsea the trophy. With the victory, Chelsea qualified for the Champions League the only way they could and so denied Tottenham their birth in the UCL (even though they finished in 4th).
Although Bayern looked destinied to win with their plethora of chances, they were unable to finish them and their mistakes led to their demise. For Chelsea, with all their eggs in a basket to qualify for next year’s UCL, they showed true guts and class to overcome the onslaught and satisfy Roman Abramovich’s dream of being European champions. The only thing that indeed did disappoint was the commentators. I mean, honestly, could Gary Neville and Martin Tyler have been more biased in their commentary?
Some say in a “New York Minute” everything can change; for the EPL title race everything did change and in a matter of mere moments. Soon after Jamie Mackie’s 66th minute powerfully headed goal, Manchester City looked as if they were not going to be able to unlock the defensive wall of QPR. Fans were crying, leaving, and incessantly calling their mates to find out the score of the Manchester United game. But with the game entering five minutes of stoppage time, City produced a simply implausible finish. First, Edin Dzeko nodded the Blues level before Sergio Agüero collected Mario Balotelli’s return pass and drove home the goal that crowned City champions and denied their local rivals another title. Sir Alex and Co. could only be disappointed as they won 1-0 at Sunderland, but they could only helplessly watch City celebrate their comeback.
On the other side of the coin, QPR’s loss could have dropped them into the relegation mire, but Bolton’s draw at Stoke meant that the Hoops were guaranteed successive seasons in the top flight. For Bolton, it meant that their streak of 11 straight seasons in the Premier League had come to an end and that they’d be plying their trade in the Championship next year along with fellow relegated sides Wolves and Blackburn Rovers.
Wolves signed off their Premier League season with a 3-2 loss at Wigan although they showed true grit and class in their ensuing games after relegation. Blackburn, however, have not showed too much fight since their relegation was rumored and then confirmed. Yakubu scored a consolation goal in the 60th minute but that was indeed all it was as Blackburn returns back to the 2nd tier next year as well.
In the battle for European places, Arsenal and Tottenham both won. Arsenal won automatic qualification to the Champions League next year but Tottenham must wait until May 20th to see if Chelsea loses before they can celebrate their draw to the qualifying round of the Champions League. Newcastle United, although they lost, is guaranteed a spot in next year’s Europa League. This season has been a great achievement for the Magpies as mid-table finish surely would’ve sufficed for them, but a battle to the end for a Champs League spot was a treat for the Jordie faithful.
Elsewhere, Swansea and Norwich capped their impressive debut seasons since their promotion with wins over Liverpool and Aston Villa, respectively. This season has been a breath air if you’ve watched Norwich or Swansea because of their fluid, intricate style of passing football and to see them return for next year is great for the EPL.
All in all, this season has been fantastic for fans (depending on who you support) as there was a changing of the guard in the title race. Newcastle, Swansea and Norwich City all blew expectations out of the water, and Liverpool and Stoke both drastically underperformed. This summer will be dramatic as usual in the transfer market because of the many underachieving teams and newfound wealth of others. For now, we wait for the drama of the Premier League season to start again and try to live up to the great season it has been this year.
Frugality versus munificence…the Scot versus the Italian…the Reds versus the Blues…the Red Devils versus the Citizens…wherever you’re from or whatever you call it, it’s Manchester United versus Manchester City-the legendary derby destined to decide the 2011/2012 Premier League title race.
As unlikely as it appeared three weeks ago when Manchester United went eight points clear of City at the top of the Premier League table, Monday’s title-deciding ultimatum will no doubt be pivotal regarding the destination of the long sought-after Premier League title.
Since the shocking loss to Wigan at the DW Stadium, United has won at home against a struggling Aston Villa side and squandered a two goal lead against Everton at Old Trafford. The latter allowed Man City to within three points, which leads us to the epic match on Monday night.
The Blues are the in-form side of course entering the game with the 3 wins in the last 3 after a disappointing loss to Arsenal. Throughout the week Roberto Mancini has not made it clear whether or not Mario Balotelli would return after he received a red card in that loss to Arsenal. If Mancini knew what was good for his team he would keep his starting 11 the same, most importantly in the frontline where Sergio Agüero and Carlos Tevez have impressed since starting together and in the attacking mid/winger spot where David Silva and Samir Nasri have showed the creative guile and goal-scoring potential that initially brought them together at the beginning of season. So then, where does Balotelli end up? Well hopefully for Man City, on the bench where he belongs…
For Manchester United, these last few weeks have been as painful as the 6-1 dismantling that the Blues handed them at the Theatre of Dreams on October 23rd. The Red Devils will have to respond immediately from last week’s disappointment. If they’re to complete this epic comeback in the title race, Alex Ferguson will have to put out his best lineup rather than underestimate his opponent like he often does. Basically, for Fergie, it means not starting Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick together in the center of midfield. Controlling the center of the park and not letting City’s attack run rampant at the Etihad Stadium will no doubt go a long way in the winning the game (and title) for United.
In conclusion, it is everyone’s hope that this game lives up to the hype and buildup that has been grown in the media. Whichever side you’re on, this game will either make or break your season and will leave both sides crestfallen as they should…a draw of course would leave everyone on the edge of our seats for the last two games and anxiously awaiting the final goal difference of the season for each side.
Prediction: Manchester City 3-1 Manchester United
3- Tevez hat trick; 1- Rooney consolation goal
Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid (3-3 Agg.); Bayern wins on penalties 3-1
After successfully handing Real Madrid a disappointing loss in what has been a crazy week for Real with the two legs versus Munich and the El Clasico win over Barça, Bayern set a date in the Champions League final versus Chelsea. This after Bastian Schweinsteiger put away the decisive spot-kick in the penalty shootout to win it for the Germans.
The game was dominated early on by Madrid; they earned a penalty kick in the 6th minute after the referee made a harsh handball call on David Alaba and Cristiano Ronaldo then scored from the fortuitous penalty kick. Eight minutes later, Ronaldo made it two with a cool finish from a sweet Mesut Özil through-ball. The tie was back on a knife-edge 12 minutes later as Pepe was penalized for a push on Gomez as he tried to get on the end of Kroos’ cross into the box. Arjen Robben stepped up and although he missed a decisive penalty in the title decider verses Borussia Dortmund just a few weeks ago, he calmly snuck the ball past Iker Casillas’ hand.
As the game got farther along no team took their chances and the referees rejected many penalty appeals from both teams. Extra time could not decide the match either, and so the game moved to penalties where Ronaldo, Kaka and Ramos all failed from the spot to hand the Germans a place in the final on May 19.
Chelsea 2-2 FC Barcelona (3-2 Agg.)
Chelsea produced one of the greatest escapes in the history of European football as they survived the sending off of John Terry and the onslaught of Barça at the Camp Nou to advance to the final on May 19th to face Bayern Munich.
Terry looked to have ruined the title hopes for the Londoners as he stupidly kneed Alexis Sanchez from behind; however, the Chilean made the most of the love tap as he rolled around shamelessly in order to get the referee’s attention like a baby cries to their parent’s attention.
The Blues’ 10 men stayed strong and persevered, fighting back from goals from Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta with a stunning chip from Ramires before half-time. The form of Petr Cech no doubt won the game for Blues as he pushed a Lionel Messi penalty onto the bar in the 49th minute.
Ramires’ 45th minute goal put Chelsea ahead in the aggregate on away goals and Chelsea dug in from there as they thwarted numerous Barcelona attacks. In the closing moments, much to the agony of the home fans, the Blues put away Barça for sure as a long clearance found substitute Fernando Torres with 50 yards of space in which to run and he made no mistake as he rounded Victor Valdes and tucked home the clincher.
Players to miss final (due to suspension):
Bayern Munich: Chelsea:
Luis Gustavo Ramires
Arjen Robben Branislav Ivanovic
David Alaba John Terry
Holger Badstuber Raul Meireles
Back in October, the east side of Manchester was elated as their Blues had just run over title rivals Manchester United 6-1 and their own title prospects looked better than ever. City had a giant goal difference and were massacring every side they faced in the league. However, since the turn of the year, their form has slowed and has seen them eliminated from three different cup competitions. With only the league to fight for, Manchester City now has run into a difficult patch of fixtures and has only taken full points in one of the last six games.
On the other hand, City’s rivals Manchester United have taken off since the turn of the year and have even eliminated Manchester City from the FA Cup, but like their cross-town enemies the Reds have been eliminated from all of their cup competitions this year. United seemed to turn their season around after a shocking defeat to FC Basel in the last game of the Champions League first round in which United were awfully disappointing and manager Alex Ferguson made controversial team selections. The run in which Manchester United are on has seen them pass Manchester City in first and extend their lead to five points after their win against Blackburn Rovers 2-0 on Monday night.
To make it worse for City, Manchester United plays QPR on Saturday before Manchester City plays Arsenal, who are on a hot run of form themselves. If United win on Saturday, then their lead will become almost unassailable with an 8 point lead with only six games left. But, if Manchester United do not win, then City could climb to within 2 or 3 points with a win themselves and then possibly overtake United with a win over the Reds on April 30th.
Manchester United: Manchester City:
4/8 Vs QPR 4/8 Vs Arsenal
4/11 Vs Wigan 4/11 Vs West Brom
4/15 Vs Aston Villa 4/14 Vs Norwich City
4/22 Vs Everton 4/22 Vs Wolverhampton
4/30 Vs Manchester City 4/30 Vs Manchester United
5/6 Vs Swansea City 5/6 Vs Newcastle United
5/13 Vs Sunderland 5/13 Vs QPR