Your Euro 2012 Primer Begins Here

TSG’s Serie A man Eric Giardini goes continental in this piece

UEFA stamps out some pretenders this weekend...

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.

Tears down the Tyneside when Alan Shearer retired....

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:

Oozing class: Ozil for Germany...

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.

Group A

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.

Group C

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.

Antonio Cassano

Cassano: What a talent. A 360-degree player according to TSG...

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.

Group D

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?

Group G

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?).

Wilshere, doing it for Arsenal this year. Will it translate?

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.

Group H

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.

Next Up

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.

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39 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2011/03/24 at 7:37 AM

    Group A: what an absurd qualifying group. Germany, Austria, Belgium, Turkey? All four of those teams are probably good enough to qualify for Euros.

    For Belgium, I’d point out the Eden Hazard/Lukaku/DeFour attacking trio that’s so beloved of transfer gossip forums.

    Reply

    • Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 7:46 AM

      Hazard is currently linked to every club with money, everywhere. (except Liverpool).

      Reply

        • Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 7:58 AM

          Good Grief. Just when I thought he was out…. he pulllllls me back in.

          Although I don’t think Hazard is going to go to a club that isn’t playing Champions League football.

          Reply

        • Posted by dth on 2011/03/24 at 8:45 AM

          Well, it depends on who bids for him and how Liverpool finishes the season. If they mount a late charge and make the Europa League or just miss, they might be perceived as having a good momentum.

          Hazard has pretty consistently said playing time is important to him, and Liverpool has a large gaping hole on the wing opposite Suarez. Maxi? Jovanovic? And with Aquilani being shipped out for 10 million+ pounds, Hazard won’t cost too much.

          It’s certainly possible.

          (I’d worry about Tottenham too, esp. if they get to the Champions League again.)

          Reply

        • Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 8:46 AM

          The less said about Jovanovic…. the better, please.

          Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 8:15 AM

      I thought I read that Chelsea had “all but signed” Lukaku…

      Reply

  2. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 8:01 AM

    Gareth Bale is injured [hamstring]. No mention of the Ramsey vs Wilshere match-up?

    These ‘home nations’ games always worry me – in theory, a team like Wales shouldn’t give England problems, but with the local pride at stake, it’s always nice to get one over your bigger, richer brother. But with Bale now injured, I can relax about the Bale v Johnson dual and whether Lennon could do a job tracking back. Wonder if Speed will play Bellamy on the left hand side?

    Reply

  3. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 8:12 AM

    Norway v Denmark is always be an interesting match-up [Norway have always been considered the rednecks of Scandinavia, unless they struck it rich with their oil wealth in the 1960s] – especially as second placed Portugal are not playing. Norway have a real chance to take control and put some pressure.

    Is Christian Eriksen playing for the Danes?

    Reply

    • Posted by dth on 2011/03/24 at 8:23 AM

      Re: Eriksen. Yes.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 8:32 AM

        Will be intereting to see Simon Kjaer too. ‘Supposed’ to be one of the best young CBs in Europe.

        Reply

        • Posted by EFG on 2011/03/24 at 8:40 AM

          He was great during his time at Palermo, but to be honest I haven’t followed him much in Germany. Side note: Do we have confirmation on Ramsey playing? I figured Arsenal would try to nix that prospect.

          Reply

        • Posted by dth on 2011/03/24 at 8:41 AM

          From what I’ve seen of him at Wolfsburg, he hasn’t been playing too great. Kicker rates him at 3.76 (1= world class, 5 = dreadful), which is very mediocre, though they’re famously tough graders.

          Reply

        • Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 8:42 AM

          From Associated Press:

          Ramsey to captain Wales
          (AFP) – 1 hour ago
          LONDON — Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey has been named captain of Wales ahead of this weekend’s Euro 2012 showdown with England, manager Gary Speed revealed on Thursday.

          Ramsey, 20, will don the armband for the first time as he makes his international comeback following a long lay-off caused by a badly broken leg.

          Speed chose Ramsey after veteran striker Craig Bellamy ruled himself out of consideration for the role, citing a niggling knee injury.

          Reply

        • Posted by EFG on 2011/03/24 at 10:07 AM

          A friend of my had this explanation for Ramsey being named captain. He believes it is the Welsh sort of giving a middle finger to England since Shawcross got his only England callup the week that he snapped Ramsey’s leg in pieces.

          Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 10:31 AM

          It is not like Speed has too much choice, right? Bale, Bellamy and Ramsey are all very very good players. And perhaps there is Collins too. But the talent level really drops off after the former three.

          Plus half of the squad are English, and ‘grand-parented in’, so I’d guess there would be outcry in the Valleys if the armband was given to one of them…

          Reply

        • Posted by EFG on 2011/03/24 at 11:08 AM

          That’s all true. I just thought it was a neat idea.

          Reply

  4. Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 8:50 AM

    Incidentally, I know Bale is young still and this will probably be a memory going forward, but he is starting to get a knack for picking up injuries.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 10:36 AM

      I think this is a classic case of club power present in today’s game. Not saying the ‘injury’ is false, more of a case that it’s any excuse to pull a player from National duty.

      With all the MRI technology available to Tottenham, funny how they never spotted this issue prior to their last game, eh? Just saying…

      Reply

      • Posted by John on 2011/03/24 at 10:48 AM

        Yeah there is some word play in the media, privately and in the “stories” coming out of camp to indicate many different things.

        Wales is claiming that the tweet sent out by their assistant coach claiming that….

        “Just spoken with the people at Spurs as they thought ‘incompetent amateurs’ had something to do with them. ‘Incompetent amateurs’ are the people who put in the news that Gareth Bale got injured in training with Wales while he did not train at all.

        The FA say..

        Due to a hamstring problem, Gareth Bale has had to withdraw from the Wales squad to face England,” a Football Association of Wales statement said. “He felt tight last week during training with his club. After playing 90 minutes on Saturday he felt some muscle tightness.”

        “Initially, this was expected to be muscle soreness after playing his first game. On joining-up with the Welsh squad he was kept off his feet in training for two days to recover. As he still felt tight in the warm-up on Tuesday, Gareth was pulled-out of the session.”

        Reply

        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 11:20 AM

          Just a pity it happened now and not closer to game time – they have time to implement other plans now!!

          Reply

  5. England fans may be interested to know England beat Denmark in the least dominant 3-0 victory I’ve ever seen. From the run of play, Denmark might have actually been slightly better, to be honest. But Denmark made some awful mistakes and England were able to convert. Welbeck, Sturridge, and Smalling all looked good. The England midfield was overmatched–partially a consequence of being outnumbered, and partially a consequence of not being skilled/tactically astute enough. Jordan Henderson, in particular, looked like he was trying to be Scholes…and coming up well short.

    Reply

    • Excuse me–4-0.

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 1:21 PM

        How were Welbeck, Sinclair, Sturridge? With Wickham and Delfouneso too, I don’t think we’re in too bad of a shape up front.

        How did the subs do? I read that 18 players were used.

        Reply

        • Posted by dth on 2011/03/24 at 1:42 PM

          I actually stopped watching after 3-0 because it got boring.

          Welbeck and Sturridge both looked good–they were mobile and caused the Danish defenders quite a bit of trouble in that respect. Sturridge was really good with the ball at his feet and made some excellent passes. Welbeck had the first goal–very well taken (though the initial possession was gifted to him–awful missed clearance.)

          Sinclair was OK. Not a lot to say about him one way or another. To be fair, I think he and Cleverley were shortchanged by the way England played–almost comically direct. It was weird: the defenders would try to build out of the back and connect with the midfielders, who couldn’t consistently work themselves free. So the defenders ended up crushing it to the forwards, who did pretty decently for themselves, all things considered.

          I only really saw the first sub, Tomkins from West Ham, play because he was subbed on so early for an injured Micah Richards. He was shaky; Smalling had to cover for him a lot.

          Reply

  6. Posted by Nelson on 2011/03/24 at 12:47 PM

    Ronaldo to removed himself from an international match with a hamstring injury. I figure they’re saving the big guns for the big game. Spurs vs Real. COME ON YOU SPURS!!!

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 1:22 PM

      Ronaldo was always 50/50 for the Spurs game, so I doubt Real Madrid would allow him to be risked for a friendly match.

      Reply

  7. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 2:05 PM

    Does anybody think Capello drops Lampard and/or Barry? That is an awful lot of experience not to pick in a pressure game that England have to win. Especially as Lampard has a decent goal scoring record for England, and Gerrard is out. Below is the team I’d like to see [in a hybrid 4-4-2 / 4-2-3-1], but unfortunately, I think Jagielka and Milner will probably start for Cahill and Young.

    HART

    JOHNSON CAHILL TERRY COLE

    PARKER
    WILSHERE

    LENNON YOUNG

    ROONEY

    CARROLL

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/24 at 2:08 PM

      Oops.

      ———————HART

      JOHNSON———CAHILL———TERRY——–COLE

      ———————PARKER
      —————————WILSHERE
      LENNON———————————–YOUNG

      ———————-ROONEY
      —————–CARROLL

      Reply

  8. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/25 at 9:50 AM

    Reports [thefa.com] have said that Wilshere is going to start. I know it was only 45 minutes against Denmark, but I thought the Wilshere-Lampard tandem didn’t work that well – probably because both players have the defensive insurance at club level with with Song and Essien respectively.

    Also, from a strategical point of view, I think even though we probably won’t need a defensive midfield against Wales, we should start to build a tandem around Wilshere to get the best out of him offensively. That’s why I picked Parker over Lampard and Barry.

    Reply

  9. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/25 at 9:55 AM

    Looks like Carroll is out. Not sure if he goes with a like-for-like with Crouch or plays Rooney as the lone striker.

    This formation excites me:

    ———————–—HART

    JOHNSON———CAHILL———TERRY——–COLE

    —-———————PARKER

    –————LAMPARD—WILSHERE

    LENNON———————————–——-YOUNG

    ————————ROONEY

    Reply

    • Posted by John on 2011/03/25 at 9:57 AM

      Thanks for the heart attack George, I thought this meant Carroll was injured. Looks like he is going to come off the bench (potentially)

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/25 at 10:16 AM

        If Carroll was an integral part of the team, then fair enough. But what’s the point in taking the risk with a player that’s largely unproven at the International level [albeit vs. a well known Wales team], when we do have other players available? He’s not in the Wayne Rooney or Ashley Cole class…

        Reply

  10. Posted by Christopher on 2011/03/25 at 1:47 PM

    Serbians must be proud of “the bad apples” in the bunch. The Serbian N. Ireland game makes attendance at Pizza Hut Park look good.

    Reply

  11. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/28 at 10:42 AM

    Darren Bent is a good box striker, [and I cannot believe I am about to say this] but I actually wished we had Michael Owen playing. For all of his faults, hanging on the should of the last defender before timing his run for the throughball isn’t one of them. Seriously, there were a few times where Bent either strayed offside or didn’t latch on. How many times have you seen Owen score from that sort of ‘play’? We really should have picked Wales apart and scored more than two, because they were extremely poor…

    Reply

    • Posted by cosmosredux on 2011/03/28 at 10:52 AM

      Watched the game. Saw the same thing. I think Capello needs to get the old guard out and really let it flow with GJ, Wilshere, PArker, Ashely Young (who looked great).

      CD will be an issue, don’t you think?

      Reply

      • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/03/28 at 11:23 AM

        We do, but it will take time. I think it would be foolish to make wholesale changes too quickly, but introduce players in a piecemeal fashion. Obviously, there is always an exception to the rule, but as long as the ‘old guard’ are still playing well at the highest level, it will be difficult to leave them out in competitve games.

        Young was excellent, but caution is required because of who we played – Wales: half their team are Champioship standard, so no need to get carried away. I think we are well stocked with wide players, and along with Walcott, Johnson and Downing, young has to be considered one of the 4 wide men [form and fitness permitting, of course] in the England 23.

        I thought Parker was excellent too on Saturday, but you also have to take into account the opposition. Yes, it was an international, but Parker faces better players every week in the EPL. He did well, but let’s see how he does against better quality opposition. The other thing is Parker is 30, so while he might be the answer for Euro2012, he’s obviously not the long term answer. And it seems Hargreaves will never get fully fit.

        There is a lot of talk about Jack Rodwell [20], Fabrice Muamba [22] and Lee Cattermole [23]. But you never really know whether somebody will make the step up from EPL to International class, do you? Rodwell seems to be the one that is the most likely, and I would love for Wenger to splash the cash and pair him with Wilshere in the middle. Still haven’t totally given up on Emmanuel Frimpong [playing for England rather than Ghana] – he’s supposed to be better than them all …

        Reply

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