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The Last Champs, The Next Champs, and a Slick Dude Named Zlatan

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Group D:

Greece: The only reason, I repeat the ONLY reason I hold any hope at all for my Turks is because an equally obscure side, the Greeks, won this tourney the last time it was held in '04. They didn't just win, they humiliated the host country, Portugal twice, beating them 2-1 to open the Euro Cup with a bang and then breaking their hearts in the stunning 1-0 final. Underdogs, such as Denmark in 1992, had won the trophy before, but nothing like this. The second time they ever qualified and they win the whole friggin' baklava. It might be the single greatest sports memory of Manoli's life.

Greece squeaked through to the knockout stages basically on the strength of that first win at Portugal, advancing with a 1-1-1 record thanks to goals scored. In the quarters they shocked then defending champions France (a Henry header off the post the only real chances for Les Bleus) and were heavy underdogs against the in-form Czechs in the semis. Despite having many scoring chances throughout the game, hitting posts, and missing on one-on-one situations with the Greek goalie, Ted Danson, the Czechs just couldn't put one in and were done in in the 105th minute. In the Final, one would've thought that the Portuguese, playing at home, would be all over them and really come out with an aggressive effort, but for whatever reason, maybe nerves, they were just flat. If they had any serious scoring chances in that one, I must have been taking a piss because I just don't remember any. All three of the games were 1-0, the lone goals scoring each time on corner kick headers.

Here's the Cup winning goal, by Angelos Charisteas. You'll noticed that after he scored he flipped his jersey over his head to reveal a shirt with a picture of a young boy; his son one would assume. Or it could've been some kid he was fucking. I can totally get away with saying that by the way, because it was Manoli's joke.

CHARISTEAS GOAL EURO 2004!!!!!!! (via pana722)

While Greece struggled to live up to expectations two years later, failing to qualify for the World Cup after being placed in a fairly tough group with Ukraine, Turkey and Denmark, they righted the ship in '08 breezed through their Euro qualifying group, finishing a spectacular 10-1-1. They suffered a humiliating 4-1 defeat at the hands of my homies early on, at home no less, and their fans and media really let them have it afterward. That game spurred Greece on to a closing 7-0-1 stretch and again they look to be an imposing side.

With them, it's all about defense. While longtime keeper Antonis Nikopolidis no longer capable of giving the team consistent performances, Kostas Chalkias might get the call if he lets in a softy. The centerback Sotirios Kyrgiakos is a steady performer but his sweeper partner, Dellas, a stud in '04, is a bit long in the tooth. Young left back Vasilis Torosidis has been a revelation, but the attacking right back Georgios Seitaridis is a bit gimpy. Dellas has the most critical role here and if he can't be the tackling, clearing, ball-winning machine he was four years ago, they're in trouble.

Technically, Greece play a 4-3-3, but it's more like a 3-1-1-4-1, with a lot of organized switching and covering for one another. Captain Angelos Basinas, in addition to delivering a good corner, is the defensive anchor of the midfield and an extension of Dellas in the middle. Kostas Katsouranis is responsible for the right flank while Giorgos Karagounis mans the left. Up front Theofanis Gekas is the central front man, and he led Greece with five goals in qualifying. He's pretty much the only forward who knows he's got a starting job. The other two spots will be up for grabs between Angelos Haristeas, Ioannis Amanatidis and of course Charisteas, the hero of Euro '04.

Both offensively and defensively Greece has naturally trudged closer to the mean. They possess the ball more and can score on the occasional build up these days instead of just set pieces and tallied a not-too-shabby 25 goals in qualifying. However the defense isn't the choreographed eleven man unit it used to be either as they conceded two goals in a game to the likes of Bosnia-Herzogovina and Norway in addition to the four goal outburst by the Turks some fifteen months ago. Recently, in a friendly against Hungary, they lost 3-2. Greece's biggest strength, the element of surprise, won't be with them this time out and they'll bow out quietly with draws in their first two matches and a loss to Spain, probably thanks to a long range soft goal from Xavi or somebody.

Russia: Another side I know little of. They had some forward who scored five goals in a World Cup game against Cameroon in 1994, but I’m pretty sure he’s not on the team anymore. They made the Euros in ’04, and actually were the only team in the tournament to beat Greece (2-1 in the final group game after they had already been eliminated by losing the first two). So they have that going for them.

They didn’t make the ’06 World Cup and didn’t even finish in the top two of their qualifying group, looking up at mighty Slovakia. They were lucky as all hell to make Euro ’08, edging England by one point to finish second in their group, behind Croatia, and that was only because the Croats, despite having already clinched their spot, went all out in their final game to beat England 3-2 on the road. In their own personal dealings with Croatia, Russia tied them 0-0 twice, and that sounds just positively thrilling.

One thing they do have going for them is manager Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman who’s a god in world football, guided his home nation to the semi-finals in the ’98 World Cup and they lost to powerhouse Brazil on penalties. Then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke he duplicated the feat four years later with weakling South Korea (although, it has to be said, the referees gave them immense help in beating Italy and Spain in the second and third rounds). Korea made him an honorary citizen and named one of their World Cup stadiums, in the city of Gwangju, after him. In ’06 he was Australia’s head man, and again had immense success. First he got them to the World Cup by upsetting Uruguay in their two-team playoff, then he led them to second place behind Brazil and ahead of Japan and their bitter rivals, Croatia. Italy beat them in the round of 16, but only on a controversial stoppage time penalty kick given to Francesco Totti.

Now he has taken on another challenge in Russia, and already taking them to the Euros ahead of England has to be considered a major upset. Anything the Russians get from this point on is house money, but I certainly wouldn’t bet against Hiddink, who seems to instill defensive organization and unearth offensive flair from players that previous managers haven’t been able to reach. Being placed in a group that includes the ultra-talented Spain, the defending champions Greece and the always resilient Swedes sounds like certain doom, but second place could be up for grabs there.

As for their actual players, Hiddink won’t have his ideal eleven to manage. Their captain and best known striker, Andrei Arshavin, will miss the first two matches due to suspension. Another likely starter in the front, Pavel Pogrebnyak, has a bad knee and is off the roster. All that is left is Roman Pavlyuchenko, and he’ll have to be huge for them. From what I’m reading, Hiddink’s basic game plan will be to have three midfielders attempt to supply him, with Diniyar Bilyaletidinov doing so on through-balls up the middle, and Vladimir Bystrov and Yuri Zhirkov racing down the sidelines and delivering crosses. Besides that it will be strictly defense for the other six men on the pitch and they’ll wait to spring the counter if they can, like every other team. The back four are inconstant and in a state of constant flux in personnel, so young star goalie Igor Akinfeev.

Spain will be very fortunate to not catch Russia at their best and the match should springboard them onward in the tournament. Russia’s fate will depend on their second game with Greece, and that’s the wrong opponent to look at for goals. I don’t think there are any minnows in this competition for Hiddink to feast on like he gets in World Cups, so it will be very difficult for Hiddink to avoid last place, as goals have proven hard to come by so far in this tournament.

Spain: And now comes the part where I risk all my credibility and reputation. I picked the darkhorse Czech Republic to win the last World Cup and they didn’t make it out of the group stage. So naturally, I’m picking Spain, a side that has always had the talent but has chronically underachieved on the big stage to finally get it done. The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, so clearly I’m insane.

Or stupid.

But I’m picking Spain to win it all. They look like the best team on paper. I like their forwards, I like their midfielders, I like their defense, I like their goalie. I even like their backups, and the coach, while possibly racist , is at least well experienced. What else is there?

The history and the intangibles, that’s what. And they both say to avoid the Iberians at all costs. Me, I’m going on a hunch. They’re due. They’ve got a good blend of youth and experience. They have the deepest team in the field. Their opening group is weak enough that I’m confident they’ll get to the knockout stages.

Most of all I fancy them because I think their striker, Fernando Torres, will be the breakout star of the tournament and the odds on favorite to win the Golden Boot as top scorer. Torres, who plays his club football for Liverpool, finished second to Cristiano Ronaldo in EPL goals with 24 and he’s got all the tools anyone would want from a striker; size, speed, a booming shot, the ability to use his head and his off foot, the ability to dribble and create for others, and most importantly, the ability to anticipate plays and possessing the nose for goals. With Thierry Henry on the decline, Torres might be the most complete finisher in the world.

Fernando Torres - First 25 goals in season 07-08 (via Ibrahidzan09)

What makes Torres especially dangerous however is all the surrounding talent willing and able to supply him the ball at a good rate and also finish themselves if the defense is too preoccupied with taking him away. Spain is so loaded that they may just play with just Torres up top and leave David Villa on the pine. He’s got Xavi, Inestia, Xabi Alonso, the tricky Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva. They’re all basically attacking central midfielders, some better passing, some better shooting, but manager Luis Aragones is basically throwing all his best midfielders out on the pitch and telling them to dominate the middle of the field, both horizontally and vertically. Seriously, they’re going to wear the middle third out with all their tight occupation and hard cutting and short passing. All the wide play will come from fullbacks Joan Capdevila on the left side and Sergio Ramos (who might be the best attacking fullback of them all) on the right. If he wants to play strictly positional football, Aragones has true right and left wings on the roster, but the play will probably be to play the best eleven guys and see what happens.

My concern with them is defense. Ramos likes to charge up too much and he might leave gaps behind on the counter. I like their centerback Carlos Puyol, but don’t know much about the other two guys. Iker Casillas is a money goalie, but I’d the few chances he’ll face might be good ones. He’ll have to make at least one highlight save per match. It says here he’s up to the task.

It’s not that I’m in love with Spain. I’m not. I don’t like them as a fan any more than Italy, Germany, Greece, or the Netherlands. I just think they have more quality players and less weaknesses than everyone else. On paper they’re trophy worthy. On paper. But we’ve been down this road many times with them and it’s getting old. Shit or get off the pot. I expect Spain to poop all over everyone, starting with Russia tomorrow. After them will come Sweden, Greece, Holland, Italy, and Germany. No easy road, that. But it’s a perfect example of why, in many ways, this tournament is more compelling than the World Cup.

Sweden: And here's the other side of the paper argument. On paper, Sweden really don't have a whole lot going for them. They have the worst manager in the group. It's not even debatable. Their best midfielder and captain Freddie Ljungberg has a broken rib and if he plays, he'll definitely be limeted. Their best holding midfielder Tobias Linderoth and their left back Erik Edman will be out. They might be relying on a 36 year-old Henrik Larsson at forward. Goaltending is a big mess.

But here's the thing. Sweden never disappoint you. They always advance to the second round. They always beat the teams they're supposed to beat, lose to the ones they're supposed to lose to, and draw the ones where nobody's sure. Am I thrilled about their midfield? Of course not. They're boring as piss and and not very speedy. But you can't worry about the little things with them because in the big picture sense they always follow the script. I can't see them giving up three points to Greece or Russia, just like I can't see them bag all three from Spain. Sweden will make it out of the group stage, lose quickly and quietly to Italy in round two, and nobody will remember them five minutes later, like a pleasant romantic comedy with Patrick Dempsey.

The only thing interesting about them in the slightest is that Zlatan Ibrahimovic plays for them, and he is probably the closest active player to Bergkamp in his prime, albeit a lot more abrasive and impetuous. While Ibrahimovic had a great season for his club, Inter Milan, he has been invisible for country, getting suspended by his coach for one game and protesting out of two others. The qualification games he did play, he scored no goals. This coming on the heel of a goalless '06 World Cup. The debate about Zlatan rages on. Is he a guy who scores great goals or is he a great goal scorer? While the issue I think has been mostly settled for the guy who signs his checks in Italy, the fans in Sweden must be getting impatient.

Still, his dribbling ability and ball skills in tight spaces are undeniable.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Magic (best football player) (via Giggs29400)