The Matches That Matter Part Two…
The follow up to my Group A and B deciders is now here. As I write the Group B matches are yet to be played, but I was spectacularly wrong about what would happen in the Saturday evening matches, although I don’t think I am alone in that!
My pre-tournament prediction that Poland would be the outsiders to watch was hugely optimistic in hindsight. I think I overestimated the Borussia Dortmund trio’s influence and Robert Lewandowski in particular was not up to scratch after scoring the tournament’s opening goal. He looked busy in spells and like he had something about him, but he never hit the levels he has this season in Germany. Russia were installed by many as the new outsiders after opening up with a 4-1 win over the Czech Republic, but they lived up to their flaky reputation thereafter. They squandered a lead against Poland to draw 1-1 and then failed to mount a second half comeback and lost to Greece. This put the Greeks through and they were joined by the Czechs, another side I wrongly assessed. I had them as the worst side in the tournament, and I still think they’re a poor team, but they made it through.
Onwards and upwards.
Croatia v Spain, Monday 1945
In Group C both these sides have impressed in thrashing the poor Republic of Ireland side in their group. However they both struggled against Italy at times. Croatia’s greatest strength is their versatility. Manager Slaven Bilic is not afraid to change the system at any moment if he feels it will suit the match. They started very poorly against Italy and gave away a lot of chances before Andrea Pirlo scored with a brilliant free-kick. They then regrouped at half time and came out a different side in the second half to equalise and draw 1-1. I personally felt that Luka Modric was much improved and certainly looked a lot sharper than he has done in the rest of the tournament and towards the end of Spurs season. They will hope he stays sharp as his role of chief creator in the side is hugely important to a country that always likes to have a play-maker. The defence can look shaky and Spain will hope to expose this with their intricate passing. I would not be surprised to see Croatia line-up with wing backs for this in an attempt to flood the midfield and cut off Spain’s passes early on. Croatia will be aware that Italy will beat Ireland so I envisage them trying to hold out and then going for broke late on if they need to.
Spain themselves have yet to look the all-conquering side of the last four years, but against Ireland there were signs in their 4-0 victory that they still have the ability to do it. The problem they have is that the fulcrum of the side in Xavi and Andres Iniesta have played almost solidly for four years and at times unsurprisingly look shattered. Throw in the huge loss of David Villa being absent and Fernando Torres nothing like the man he was two years ago and Spain don’t look the force they once were. All this being said, it is still some team and there is not another side on the planet who can play possession football like they can. This is very useful if the heat persists for the tournament as opposition sides will be haring round in the sun and Spain should be able to then capitalise on the fatigue. Spain need a win to be sure of qualification so I would expect them to look to be level at half time then possibly throw a striker on for Fabregas at half time or the hour mark to try and break through.
Take Draw at Half Time at 2.4 with Bet365.
Italy v Republic of Ireland, Monday 1945
At times Italy have been very impressive here, but their natural tendency to sit on a lead has meant they’ve let both Spain and Croatia back in for two draws so far. They will need to change that approach if they are to go a long way in the tournament. Whilst they do have possibly the second best defence in the championships behind Germany, it’s not saying a lot when you look at some of the horrendous displays some sides have put in defensively. The veterans have impressed me with Antonio Di Natale looking a threat in his sub appearances and both Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo rolling back the years and putting in some classy displays. In the first half against Croatia, Pirlo put on a masterclass of the deep-lying play-maker role and capped it with a goal too. He should really dominate this match too when his competition in the centre of the park is Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews. Italy need a win and need to score a few too so expect to see a much more attacking display for the duration in this one.
The Republic of Ireland were always unlikely to make an impression in the tournament, but many have been shocked at the inept displays they’ve turned in. I predicted they would be horrendous and looking at the players they have, it really shouldn’t be too shocking to see them soundly beat in all three matches. Their spine consists of Shay Given, Richard Dunne and Robbie Keane and they’ve all seen far better days. They’ve all been decent Premier League players and in the cases of Keane and Given they’ve been very impressive at times, but to see these lads as your star players shows how much the Republic had to do. I don’t see how they can make an impression on this Italy side in any area of the pitch and presumably Giovanni Trapattoni knows this too. I would expect no changes, it’s not his way, and for them to again hope that a much improved defensive display an keep the Italians at bay. It might work until Di Natale enters the fray, but his movement should once again make mugs of the Irish backline.
Back Antonio Di Natale To Score Anytime at 2.38 with Ladbrokes.
England v Ukraine, Tuesday 1945
This match sees the return of England’s only genuine star, Wayne Rooney. The defence was the best area of the team in the first match before Theo Walcott stole the show after being introduced as a substitute in the second half against Sweden. Having gone ahead through a frankly outstanding Andy Carroll header, England had fallen 2-1 behind to an Olof Mellberg brace for Sweden. The introduction of Walcott suddenly completely changed the run of play. Every time he got the ball he was off and running at the Swedish defence, stretching the game and ending a period of complete Swedish dominance. He scored the equaliser and set up Danny Welbeck’s winner and inevitably this has led to calls for him to start against the Ukraine. I would still have him on the bench myself as his pace can be a fantastic asset when he comes on, but if he starts and doesn’t immediately get going he easily becomes a peripheral figure. Let Rooney and Young try to combine and then use Walcott as a game-changing option later on if needs be.
Ukraine were brilliant against Sweden in their opener, but weren’t really in it against France in their last match. The introduction of Konoplyanka against Sweden in their 2-1 win certainly improved their performance and he started in a more attacking line-up against France. However, this led to more players in advanced positions and left gaps for France to exploit. England don’t have as attack minded approach as France and instead see defence as their strength so the same approach by Ukraine might be the way they look to go again with the knowledge England have less players committed to attacking. I haven’t been that impressed with Ukraine overall, Sweden showed against England how capable they are of conceding goals and the France result is probably a closer idea of how they will fare against England. As much as I think home advantage will have them fully motivated, I don’t see them beating England.
Back England at 2.25 with BetVictor.
Sweden v France, Tuesday 1945
Sweden have been in front in both games but lost both as well as seeing eight goals scored in total in both matches. They’ve got Zlatan Ibrahimovic to thank for nearly every good thing they have done attacking wise as he has finally started to turn out performances for his country as he does most weeks in Serie A. He’s often actually made Sweden look worse by arrogantly strutting around and not doing very much, but now he is in a withdrawn playmaker role he seems to be thriving. Sadly for him, the team’s defence has not been good at all and his work has been undone by conceding far too may goals. Daniel Majstorovic never looked great for Celtic against Scottish sides so it isn’t a huge surprise to see him struggling against international players, but Olof Mellberg has also looked like his best days are gone and this has been a huge issue for Sweden with no real back-up trusted to come in. Expect goals at both ends again!
France were widely tipped as the tournament kick-off drew nearer by many pundits, but their poor defensive display against England reigned these views in a bit. Of the back four only Mathieu Debuchy really did OK against England with Patrice Evra, Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes all being terrible. People had warned that Rami and Mexes were an accident waiting to happen and with Evra having a dreadful season in Manchester there was always a high chance they would collectively give away chances. This proved true and Evra was dropped for Gael Clichy in the second match against Ukraine. They won this match 2-0 in a rain drenched affair and you would have to expect the manager Laurent Blanc to stick to the team for their final encounter. France know all they need in this is a draw, but taking into account their defence I would probably expect them to find it difficult to simply grind one out. Sweden have nothing to lose by going for France so I would expect them to again score and then that leaves France hoping to at least equal them in goalscoring terms. This shouldn’t be too much of a challenge with some of the players their squad contains and they will have to fancy their chances against a Swedish backline that let Andrei Shevchenko in twice.
Back Both Teams To Score at 1.83 with BoyleSports.