UEFA European Championship Predictions

This year footballers and their fans get to experience UEFA European Championship 2012 co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. Matches begin June 8, with the final being played on July 1. This championship is played every 4 years, the years in which the World Cup is not played. Next to that event, this is the championship that gives some indication as to potential winners or contenders in the upcoming World Cup, the next one to be played in Brazil in 2014.

This season Spain comes in as heavy favorites, winning this championship in 2008 defeating Germany, 1-0. Two years later Spain defeated Netherlands, 1-0 to record their first World Cup win. This vaulted Spain to the top spot in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Ranking. This year for the European Championship, Spain enters as the top ranked team and the favorite, in my opinion to hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy in Kiev, Ukraine on July 1.

As a nation, Spain has been playing some outstanding football. Looking back on the 2011-2012 season it’s no surprise to see Real Madrid and Barcalona end up in the semi-finals of the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. Add to that the 2011-2012 UEFA Europa League saw two Spanish sides – Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao in the finals. While neither Real Madrid or Barcelona made the finals, they still contribute 12 players (out of 23) to the national team (15 if you include Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao).

One player Spain won’t have will be David Villa, who suffered a broken tibia in a Club World Cup match in Yokohama against Al Sadd. His skills and experience (82 caps, 51 goals) will be missed in this competition, but I feel it opens the door for Fernando Torres (92 caps, 28 goals), while not in form much of the year for Chelsea could bring his name back into prominence. Even with this injury, Spain still will be the beast to contend with. They should have very few problems winning Group C (Italy, Ireland, Croatia) to face the runner-up from Group D (Ukraine, Sweden, France, England) in the quarterfinals, which in my opinion will be England, as France wins the group.

Of the 16 teams involved in the championship, I feel there are only 5 teams with a legitimate chance to win in Poland/Ukraine. I have already cited Spain, who I feel are the odds on favorite. The other 4 teams; Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. My dark horse team, France. Sorry England. Sorry Italy. I don’t feel either of these teams are complete, especially Italy who’s off the field problems and lack of talent could be evident in his competition. As for England, the Premiership is one of the best leagues in the world (right there with La Liga), but many players involved are not English, coming to England to play. Outside of Wayne Rooney up front, his 3 goals on the international stage since 2010 is a big concern. Thankfully Joe Hart has really come on the last season or two and will be the starting keeper, which is a big improvement over what we saw in the 2012 World Cup. By way of comparison with teams like Spain and Germany, the midfield and defense of England is just average.

Netherlands seems to be solid all around on the pitch. With Edwin Van de Saar retiring from football, Maarten Stekelenburg (46 caps) will be asked to fill some big shoes between the pipes as he leads the Dutch in this competition. Up front The Flying Dutchmen are strong led by Robin Van Persie (64 caps, 26 goals), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (52 caps, 31 goals) and Dirk Kuyt (87 caps, 24 goals). Van Persie comes off his best season for Arsenal scoring 30 goals and in very good form. The midfield is strong and controlling with the elder statesman, Mark van Bommel, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart. The defense would be considered their weak point, but they are anchored by John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen. Netherlands will battle Portugal and Germany for top honors in Group B, which is my “Group of Death” with one of those three teams going home.

“Zee Germans!” They are coming and fielding one of the most experienced group of footballers in this competition. Much like the Italy World Cup team in 2006, this German squad is composed mainly of players who play in Germany. There are a few exception, such as Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Mesut Özil Real Madrid), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal) and Miroslav Klose (Lazio). Watching Manuel Neuer play in the final few games of the Champions League, proved me they have a world class stopper. Germany does have experience on defense with Philipp Lahm (86 caps), Per Mertesacker (81 caps), in the midfield with Bastian Schweinsteiger (90 caps), Lukas Podolski (97 caps) and up front with Miroslav Klose (116 caps).

Currently Germany is ranked #2 in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Rankings, but much like Netherlands are in Group B and don’t have easy matches against the Dutch and Portugal. Germany were runners-up back in 2008 when they were defeated by Spain, 1-0. While I still like the Dutch, Germany has the work ethic and experience to win this group and much weaker opponent in the quarterfinals. It would not surprise me a bit to see Germany back in the finals. In order to do that, they may have to face Spain in the semi-finals if both nations win their respective groups.

Portugal is currently ranked #5 in the world rankings. When one thinks of Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the image conjured up. He is the captain of the squad and the most experienced (89 caps, 32 goals). As I have already mentioned they are in a difficult position having to play Germany and the Netherlands in Group C and if I had to pick a team not to make it out of qualifying, it would be Portugal.

Their friendly matches up to this point haven’t been all that impressive, playing some very weak teams, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland and Luxembourg. In many of their victories though, they did put up 4 or more goals (last 6 matches). We will have to see if they are able to play with the challenging competition in their group. They open the European Championship with Germany.

My dark horse this year’s European Cup is France. Many who know me probably thought I would say Italy, but with their national team being “in transition” with a mix of experience and lots of youth, they will struggle. France, while not overly experienced have been played good football internationally, losing only (to Germany) dating back to August, 2011. They drew England in their first match, which will be the toughest nation to face in their group.

This nation has much to prove after the failing to get out of the group stage in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, going 0-1-2. I never was a big fan of their former manager, Raymond Domenech who was at the head of the controversy after “Nicolas Anelka’s expulsion from the squad, prompted by a profanity-laced tirade against coach Raymond Domenech” (source). It was an ugly situation for the FFF. Hopefully under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus can return to the international stage with a good showing.

As it stands, the other 11 teams just filling out the groups. I don’t doubt these national squads are composed of the best each nation has to offer, but they are all under Spain. Regardless of who wins, this will be a great start to the summer with only a short break before the new seasons kick off in August. If it’s not evident I will pick Spain to retain their championship with the Netherlands as the runners-up.

Insane Amounts of Cash

One reason I stopped watching MLB and to some degree the NFL was the ungodly amount of money thrown at players these days. Especially rookies who have NO experience at this level. One just has to look at the deals signed by Alex Rodriguez, $275,000,000 (2008-2017), Derek Jeter, $189,000,000 (2001-2010) and Mark Teixeira, $180,000,000 (2009-2016). The list continues, you can see it at Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the figures are astounding!

The NFL is no better. Oddly enough the former convict, Michael Vick signed what is still the largest contract at $130,000,000 (2005-2014). Other players with big contracts include, Carson Palmer, $119,750,000 (2006-2014) and Donovan McNabb, $115,000,000 (2002-2013). Much of this money includes a signing bonus, since there is not a lot of guaranteed money in these contracts is struck down by a career ending injury.

The NBA is just as guilty, but since I don’t care for the sport I see no reason to even mention their outrageous figures. In some respect it’s a worse offender than the NFL. This brings me to my point.

The beautiful game. Football as it is known world wide, only in the US is is termed soccer, where contracts in the MLS pale in comparison to their overseas counterparts, unless your name is David Beckham and you sign with the LA Galaxy to put “butts in the seats” and to sell merchandise. His contract was 5 years, $250,000,000. Considering the MLS as lost approximately $350,000,000 since its inception this was not a unexpected signing.

In the past week La Liga has seen record breaking signings of Kaka ($92 million) from AC Milan and just today Cristiano Ronaldo signed for $131 million from Manchester United. The size of these contracts are far above anything seen previously. Real Madrid has just added two of the world’s best players (both former Players of the Year) to their club and they might not be finished. They are still chasing Valencia’s David Villa, which would also bring a large contract.

UEFA boss, Michael Platini is outraged at the “excessive” transfer fees, “are a serious challenge to the idea of fairplay and the concept of financial balance in our competitions.” Much like the NFL and the MLB, the big teams, with money to spend end up attracting top talent, while smaller clubs are left with very little and no chance at titles and trophies.

UEFA is working hard with clubs to set up a new set of rules as soon as is possible to clean up the system and give it a more solid, more transparent base,” Platini told AFP. Hopefully this does not mean a salary cap because football is a business. Big name players are small clubs will end up transferring in order to record those bigger contracts or because their club cannot afford their salary.

What Does it Say?

I am sure the sportswriters all across the globe all have similar topics regarding the state of Italian football. What does it say, when three of the top Italian teams, in Inter, Juve and Roma all go down in defeat over the course of two days in UEFA Champions League play? Does this mean English football is that much superior to the game the Italians play?

I watch plenty of footie from the UK and Man U, Chelsea and Arsenal are much like their Italian counterparts in terms of quality of football on the pitch and their positions in the table every year. Of the three Italy v England matches, two of them were scoreless draws in the first leg. Only Arsenal managed a lone gone, courtesy of a penalty kick, after dominating Roma for much of the match. Arguments can be made for the other matches, as Mourinho defends his team’s play against the Reds, while Juve came close numerous times versus Chelsea, but came up short in the end.

Of the three Italian team, Inter’s exit is probably the most shocking, come up short in a 2-0 loss to SAF and the Red Devils. Seems only fitting though, that in his years at Chelsea he was at the top of his game, only to lose another match to Man U. This was the real title that Jose was after, not the scudetto in Serie A. Mourinho last won the CL in 2004 with Porto and exited in the semifinals twice while at Chelsea, so while his track record is proven, his team just did not have enough to finish off SAF’s Red Devils.

The Roma match was a roller coaster of emotions, being down 1-0 AGG heading back to the Olimpico for the second leg. After a dominating performance by the Gunners, it was talked about pregame to be much of the same. Yet Roma is always resilient and a tougher team to play in Rome and they proved it yesterday. It only took 9 minutes when Juan found the back the net, after a pass came through the box and was slotted past Almunia.

This was a big goal goal for Roma and their fans, as it allowed them to draw even on aggregate goals. Roma proved to be the stronger side much of the match and produce quality chances in front of Almunia, but could never finish. As with most matches, there was a controversial no-call by the Spanish referee on Matto, as he appeared to have his jersey pulled from behind by Clichy, causing him to go to the ground. Yet nothing was rewarded and game play continues.

Baptista had a horrible showing much of the match. He came on late in first period as Juan exited due to injury and seemed to be a step behind and a pass off. He did have a chance to seal a victory for Roma on a beautiful cross which was flicked on my Totti, but Baptista tried for the one-timer and it was for not.

Arsenal showed some prowess late in the second half and much of two, 15 minute overtime periods, but the score remained 1-1 as the match went to spot kicks. Dona was riding high after he saved the first attempt, as Roma converted. Unfortunately, Roma’s season would come crashing down after 7 penalty kicks when Max Tonetto stepped up and put the ball over the crossbar. While I don’t lay the blame on him, I do put some of the responsibility on the shoulders of Mirko Vucinic, who half assed an attempt right at Almunia, evening up the PKs after the second round.

So where does that leave Italy football? Sure, Inter will go on with win their third scudetto in Serie A, while Juve and Roma will both finish in the top five and be back in the Champions League next year. What does this say about the World Cup, upcoming in 2010? I don’t believe England has a better squad than Italy and now with many players imported to play in countries like England and Italy it’s more difficult to judge the on field talent when its brought together. The 2008 Italy squad was unique, in that all the players played in country. Not the case any longer. I do think Italian football will need to look within, in order to have better showing next year. Here is to Man U winning the Champions League, as well as the Premiership, the FA and the League Cup, which they have already completed.

EURO 2008

Euro 2008 began on Saturday with co-host, Switzerland going down to the Czech Republic, 1-0. Overall, it was an entertaining match to kick off this cup and hopefully a preview of football to come.

I was a bit upset to see it being presented on ESPN, since their commentators for World Cup 2006 were terrible. I guess that is what you get when you get American commentators covering “the world’s game.” For Euro 2008, we have three professionals in Derek Rae, Tommy Smyth and Andy Gray, years of football experience and the sort of commentator who leaves opinion out and calls the game the way it should be called.

Of course I am pulling for the Azzurri, Italia, for those not into football. They won the 2006 World Cup and outside of striker Francesco Totti retiring from national competition, they are one of squads to watch. That said, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are also contenders.

Thankfully ESPN does get some props for covering EVERY game, as they did for World Cup 2006. Unfortunately we must still listen to Julie “Pouty” Foudy in studio. Why the hell is she there? Guess that is the best “personality they could come up with to cover one of the most popular world competitions. Thankfully Eric Wynalda is not there providing his bad commentary but Andy Gray proves the best insight based on his years of knowledge and experience.

Looking forward to a great cup. If you have never experienced world cup quality football, this is definitely one competition to watch. Viva Italia!

A True Championship!

One of the BEST football games I have ever seen took place today (well yesterday) in Moscow. The Champions League Final! For the first time ever it was an all English final featuring Manchester U versus Chelsea.

Just a week prior to this match, Manchester United won the Premiership straight out, as Chelsea allowed a late goal for a 1-1 draw. Manchester United would have won regardless, even with a Chelsea win because of goal differential.

Today’s game was live from Moscow on ESPN. How I missed the live broadcast of it, I don’t know. I guess I was looking for a REAL football channel to cover the action, not a wannabe football channel. Thankfully we had two of the best announcers in Martin Tyler and Andy Gray.

I was able to catch the entire game on Setanta after it had been concluded and I knew the outcome (because I had to watch a penalty shootout on Soccerway.com), but that did not make the game any less dramatic or exciting.

Overall, the teams played very offensively, just look at 27 shots Chelsea had. An unheard of number! The action was all Manchester United in the first half, with some good end to end action and beautiful header by the second best player in the world, Christiano Ronaldo. Oh the best player, Kaka, of course!

A late, “excuse me” goal by Frank Lampard evened the team, as Edwin Van Der Sar slipped coming out, cutting down the angle, as the ball took two odd ricochets off players and ended up in the net.

The game was great into the second half, as there were some great chances for both team, especially Man U. Yet with all the action and excitement, no goals could be had by either squad. This meat overtime periods.

If the only unfortunate event, Didier Drogba, lost his head for a moment and had a swipe at Nemanja Vidic on the chin, late in the 114 minute after some “controversy” on a throw in by Manchester United. As the scuffle broke out, players had to be separated and when it was all said and done, two yellows and one red were handed out.

Now this event alone did not loose the game for Chelsea. It was just a black eye on Chelsea and looks even worse in how things transpired.

The penalty shootout was exciting! No other word can describe it. Petr Cech made a great save on Ronaldo, who pussy footed up the ball and was not rewarded. That alone was enough to give Man U the finger and present the CL trophy to the Blues. But more drama was to unfold.

England and Chelsea Captain, John Terry strode up the ball, rain coming down facing Edwin Van Der Sar. It was one of those sporting moments that defines “the agony of defeat” (remember the ski jumper on Wide World of Sports?). Terry made his approach and just as he struck the ball, his planted left foot gave out, and as if in slow motion, the ball went right, off the woodwork.

At that point Chelsea was done. It was truly Manchester United’s match to give away. Ryan Giggs and Anderson both scored, while Nicolas Anelka, the newest member of Chelsea took his shot, to the left that was saved by Van Der Sar. The match was over.

Truly one of the BEST matches to be watched, all-time. I have seen some good matches, some exciting matches, some dramatic victories. But this game captured the essence of “the beautiful game.”

Respect the Beautiful Game

When it come to sports, the USA has three that seem to dominate: the National Football League (American football), Major League Baseball and the National Basketball League. Sorry I don’t count the National Hockey League as a real sport any longer, at least in the US since it is carried on some third party cable channel that specializes in outdoor hunting. But what about the beautiful game? Wipe that puzzled look off your face and don’t call it soccer.

No, I am not a Euro, although I am a huge footie fan and follow teams and leagues in the UK, Italy, Spain and Mexico. Unfortunately, somewhere between youth “soccer” (AYSO) and high school many kids seem to loose interest in the game and decide to choose some “big three” sports during high school.

When it comes to sports talk radio I have begun to loose respect for many of the supposed hosts. First many do not understand the game, this goes for Americans as well. Not to get off my first thought, but the game is 45 minutes of continuous action. Unlike the the “big three” you can’t go for a beer and a dog or you will miss some of the action.

I had the utmost respect for Steve Saban until he started trashing football (soccer) after the NFL played a regular season game at Wimbley in the UK a few weeks back. Along with many negatives about the game, the fans, which I believe he referred to as hooligans and the field, there was much laughter as he thought his take on the entire situation was funny. What I find funny is you supposedly have “Major” League Soccer teams in the USA playing in an NFL stadium with yellow lines painted while the NFL lines are still on the pitch…err field.

He is not the only one there are many others some I like, others I listen to just because there is nothing on the radio stations to listen to. The same could be said about those who covered the 2006 World Cup in Germany (The Ugly side of Germany 2006) and they were even former “professional players in the US. Why is this? As I said many do not understand the game or find it boring with a final score of 0-0 (that’s nil, nil, not zero, zero) or a 1-0 final.

I have given up watching the NFL, I rarely watch MLB and can’t stand the NBA. I spend Saturday and Sunday (sometimes Wednesday) watching The Premiership or Euro 2008 or UEFA Champions League qualifying. Why? Because it is more exciting with more sportsmanship. So NFL, thanks for the years of exciting football, but I have quit and moved on to watching real football. So I’ll pour myself another pint, don my Watford sweater and go watch some footie on the DVR.

Another Sunday

So Week #2 of the NFL is here and it will be another weekend I don’t watch football and turn my television to Premiership and Serie A footie [soccer]. Northern California has to be the worst place in the country for NFL football at the moment. Two terrible teams in the Raiders and 49’ers, who I believe will have a combined 8 wins between them when the season come to an end. Even with all 16 home teams selling out this weekend, there are no second games on FOX in the morning and CBS in the afternoon. Then again the match ups of Raiders v Ravens and 49’ers v Rams are just not that enticing. It’s no wonder I play fantasy football and pull for individual players and not teams.

The footie schedule is much stronger on Fox Soccer Channel and GOLTV today as my favorite Italian Serie A club, AS Roma go up against Siena. I already have my DVR set to record this match since I will miss about half the game as I am driving home. But this is quickly becoming my regular Saturday and Sunday schedule, watching footie and forgetting football. The big game of the day is Manchester United v Arsenal at Old Trafford beginning at 8:00PDT. Other Serie A matches from Italy include Lazio v Palermo and Atalanta v Catania.

It’s not that I am loosing interest in the NFL, as much as I am gaining more of an interest at getting back into footie. Guess I have the World Cup to thank for that. Forza Italia! Of course if the San Diego Chargers are playing or another game of interest I will watch, but until that time, the TV schedule for the NFL has truly been ass! I would gladly pay $9.95, hell $19.95 to watch the Chargers play each Sunday. I know Comcast offers an MLB and NBA package, but I don’t believe there is one for the NFL, like Direct TV has. Even watching football streaming on the Internet, give me that option.

I bought the MLB package this year for $89.95. Now the price might sound steep at first, but when you consider you get every out of market baseball game, it is a small price to pay for nearly unlimited games! I get to watch the San Diego Padres at my leisure (except when they play SF). Not sure this would work for the NFL, but it would be a great option to have. I can even buy individual UEFA Champions League match for $9.95. Hopefully the trend in the future will be offer more events on streaming media. Guess time will tell.