TSG’s Serie A man Eric Giardini goes continental in this piece
This weekend not only brings about only the resumption of what some may call “meaningless” friendlies, but also the continuation of qualification for the 2012 European Football Championships to be held next summer in Poland and Ukraine. After the weekend, qualification will be halfway complete and the picture of next summer’s participants will begin to take shape.
For me personally, the European Championships have always held a special place in my soccer heart. My first exposure to the EUROs was in 2000. I remember flipping through the channels in the spare bedroom of my house just outside of Richmond, Virginia. I was 15 years old that summer so I was too young to be a “productive member of society” and hold a part-time job. School and just gotten out and I was looking for something to fill the time. As I lied on the bed mindlessly going through the 12 channels I had (this was before I had cable), I came across a channel that had no picture but still got audio. After listening to the audio for a bit, I realized that it was soccer of some sort, but I knew it could not have been the World Cup since it was midway through the four year cycle. It was only, after listening for what seemed like a while, did the announcers mention that it was the 2000 UEFA European Championships from Belgium and The Netherlands.
For the next three weeks I would lie on that bed, close my eyes, listen, and visualize the names and action on the imaginary pitch that I heard from that television. Alan Shearer, Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Francesco Totti, and Edgar Davids are names that still come to me when I think back on that tournament. I remember the heart stopping, crippling excitement when Italy and The Netherlands went to their semifinals penalty shootout and the heartbreaking anguish of Italy losing in the finals to the same French team that won the World Cup two years prior. I still don’t think I’ve ever actually seen David Trezeguet’s cup-winning Golden Goal, and to be honest, I hope I never do.
I was much more on top of things in 2004 as I sat and marveled at how Greece, a team that seemed to have no desire to score a goal, managed to make it to the finals and beat the host nation Portugal. Unfortunately, I was not able to watch as many of the matches as I would have liked in 2004 as I was in between my freshman and sophomore years of school and was working two jobs to help pay my way through college.
That changed in 2008 as I was fresh out of graduate school with no job prospects and nothing but time, and student loans, on my hands. I must have watched every match of that tournament that summer and have fond memories of my roommate at the time’s family from Peru come over to watch the Spain v Germany final and speaking to them in Spanish as they cheered on Germany and we cheered on Spain.
The 2012 edition is just the latest in a line of European Championships that I am excited to be getting closer to. As my soccer savviness as grown over the years, and I am much more aware of the qualification processes of major tournaments, I’m finding the qualification process to EURO 2012 almost as exciting as the actual tournament will be next summer. Almost.
Next summer’s tournament’s qualification is different than years past. In 2008, the 50 qualifying nations were divided into seven groups with the top two in each group automatically qualifying, along with the hosts Austria and Switzerland, for the final field of 16. For qualification for 2012, 51 nations (Montenegro has since joined UEFA) have been divided into six groups of six and three groups of five in a round-robin home-and-away format. The winners of the nine groups, and the second-place finisher with the most points from their group, will automatically qualify for next summer’s tournament while the remaining eight runner-ups will play in a home-and-away playoff to round out the tournament field. The 14 that survive the 13 month grind will join the two hosts to round out the field of 16.
Tournament Subplots to Become Familiar With:
Qualification for any major international tournament never goes according to plan – some nations struggle at the beginning only to find their feet later on to eventually qualify (Argentina in 2010 World Cup qualification). Others struggle and end up not qualifying and sending an entire nation into a panic (England in 2008 European Championship qualification). Every qualification match is important no matter if you are up against the likes of Germany or Spain or against a traditional minnow like San Marino or Azerbaijan. Below are a few of the qualification subplots that have emerged:
1) The “Big Guns” are firing on All Cylinders: Germany, The Netherlands, and Spain have all started their respective campaigns with a bang with perfect records and high goal differential numbers. The most impressive among these nations has been Germany. In four Group A matches, Germany is outscoring its opponents 13-1. As we saw in South Africa, this new-look German squad has no trouble scoring goals. It will be interesting to see if this form can continue throughout qualification and into the tournament.
2) Tiny Montenegro in Front of the Three Lions: Group G sees Montenegro atop of the group with 10 points from its first four matches. This puts the tiny nation three points clear of England – although the English have a match in hand. The two played to a 0-0 draw at Wembley Stadium back in October. This is remarkable for a federation that was only established in 2007. Their quick start has them up to 25th in the latest FIFA World Rankings (take that how you will) and tied with traditional African power Côte d’Ivoire. Needless to say, this all has captain Mirko Vučinić very excited.
3) Belarus in Prime Position to Qualify: The other surprise in qualification was Belarus defeating France on French soil 1-0 last September on a controversial goal five minutes from time – putting Belarus in firm control of second place in the group. Not bad for a nation that has never qualified for either the World Cup or the European Championships. If Belarus can manage a tricky trip to Albania this weekend, passage to EURO 2012 looks smooth from here on out. Here’s for pulling for the little guy.
4) Controversy Follows Italy: Italy leads Group C after a controversial decision awarding Italy a 3-0 victory over Serbia after their match in October was called off due to rioting by Serbian supporters at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa. UEFA awarded the victory to Italy and Serbia was hit with a two match behind closed doors ban, with one match suspended, punishment. Italy was handed a suspended one match behind closed doors ban. Don’t worry – the guy sitting on the barrier wearing black was sentenced to 39 months in an Italian prison for his role in the riot. Three others received lesser sentences.
Top 5 Matches to Watch This Weekend (In No Particular Order)
Here’s a little help, if you need it, on focusing your efforts on what matches have the most intrigue this weekend.
Match: Austria v Belgium; Vienna, Austria
Date: Friday, March 25
Why: Austria sits second in the group with seven points and Belgium sits in fourth on four points. With a win, Belgium leapfrogs Turkey into third, and the battle for second in the group heats up down the stretch. Austria knows that with a win they move four points clear of Turkey before their showdown in Istanbul on the 29th. The two nations met October 12 in Brussels to a 4-4 draw which included a goal for each side coming after the 89th minute.
Who to Watch: Keep a look out for Marko Arnautović for Austria. The Werder Bremen man scored in their last meeting and had a brace in Austria’s match prior with Azerbaijan. While he may not be getting many minutes in Bremen, he is the main option up front for Austria and I’d expect another goal from him.
Match: Slovenia v Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia
Date: March 25
Why: First place of the group is on the line between two World Cup 2010 participants. Italy has looked vulnerable on the road, including a 0-0 draw at Northern Ireland. Then again, that same Northern Ireland team defeated Slovenia in Slovenia so this match can go either way. Cesare Prandelli did not call in Daniele De Rossi or Mario Balotelli for this match as punishment for recent actions of both players for violating Prandelli’s confusing “code of ethics” he instituted when he became the manager of Gli Azzurri. To add more fuel to the fire, former Slovenian striker Zlatko Zahovic has come out and said Italy stands no shot in the match and specifically called out Inter defender Andrea Ranocchia by saying he couldn’t play in Slovenia. I wonder how Zahovic felt before the USA match.
Who to Watch: Initially, I was thinking Giuseppe Rossi because I have a feeling he will get the start on one of the wings in Prandelli’s 4-2-3-1 formation, but instead I am going to suggest keeping an eye out for Antonio Cassano. Although he seems to be playing himself back into shape after being frozen out of club and country for a few months for hurting Sampdoria’s president’s feelings in the fall, he is the closest the Italians have to an out-and-out playmaker. Any goals the Azzurri score will go through him.
Match: Luxembourg v France; Luxembourg
Date: March 25
Why: This match should not be competitive in the least. France is in first of Group D while Luxembourg is propping up the table from the bottom. This match is worth watching, though, because it marks the return of Patrice Evra and Franck Ribéry to the French squad after their roles in the French meltdown in South Africa. Will Evra get the captain’s armband back? (Don’t count on it) How will the “new class” of the French squad mesh with these two returning players? Will these two be nice to Yoann Gourcuff? France won the first meeting 2-0 in Metz back in October. I’d expect a similar result.
Who to Watch: Manger Laurent Blanc has a tough task ahead of him in trying to successfully fold Evra and Ribéry back into the squad. It will be interesting to see if he selects both players into the Starting XI – especially Evra as the French backline has posted three consecutive clean sheets in qualification so there does not appear to be any gaping holes that he Evra needs to fill. Fortunately for Blanc, the Les Bleus do not have the most difficult of matches ahead of them so the pressure is not as high as it could be. Does a France victory signal the beginning of the return of other suspended players in the future?
Match: Wales v England; Cardiff, Wales
Date: March 25
Why: Another match that should be fairly predictable; however, anytime geopolitics and neighboring nations are involved things can be heated. John Terry returns as England skipper after his 13 month suspension following the Wayne Bridge ordeal. For Wales, this gives us all another chance to see Gareth Bale fresh off of signing a new extension with Tottenham (and who doesn’t enjoy that?).
Who to Watch: Jack Wilshere has been a revelation at Arsenal this season and has somewhat eased any fears of Cesc Fabregas leaving in the summer since Arsenal now has a suitable replacement. Manager Fabio Capello has made no secret how important Wilshere can be to the squad, and this works out well for young Jack since he can be the answer of who to pair with either Gerrard or Lampard in the middle of the pitch for the Three Lions since we haven’t seen these two pair together successfully. I would love to see Andy Carroll in this match but I can’t see it happening with him just returning from injury.
Match: Norway v Denmark; Oslo, Norway
Date: March 25
Why: Norway sits in first place in Group H after an unbeaten start in the group – including a home victory over Portugal. Denmark is in third, just 3 back. It’s a Scandinavian rivalry at its finest. With a win, Denmark passes Portugal for second putting the Portuguese on the outside looking into qualification – similar to their slow start to 2010 World Cup qualification.
Who to Watch: Although he has not done much in qualifying, Nicklas Bendtner is due to get on the score sheet. Even with his time on the pitch decreasing in North London, Bendtner has never been one to have any self-doubts in his ability. A goal here should go a long way in justifying more time for him at Arsenal and also potentially impressing some other clubs around Europe in need of some new strike options come the summer.
The next round of qualification fixtures will be held June 3-4 and 7 and if the right results fall into place this weekend then there should be some real fantastic matches as we make our way closer to 2012.