10 years ago this could have been considered the dreaded group of death. France were in their hay day with Zizou (pre head butt), and Thierry Henry leading Les Bleus. England was full of hope with the so-called golden generation seemingly ready to shine brightly. Sweden had Henrik Larsson, a young Zlatan and Ljungberg (pre underwear modeling days), and the Ukraine had Andriy Shevchenko, one of the most complete forwards in the past 15 years, who was currently destroying Serie A with A.C. Milan.
Today…well it’s more like the zombie group of the dead. France to be fair, look like a good team BUT have a lot to prove since their debacle in South Africa, and resemble a shadow of their former selves. Likewise with Sweden, who rely so heavily on a brooding Ibra, that they actually play better without him in the line-up, and are not the dangerous team they were once were. England…well they’re clearly in their rusty tin generation, and are so bland and uninspiring that their own media has written them off (this could actually be a good thing). And Ukraine? Well they still have Shevchenko. At 35, the talisman of the former Soviet nation has slowed down tremendously, mainly due to the large fork in his back, and according to Coach Blokhin, is not guaranteed to play, let alone start.
Still, this will be an entertaining group, as all teams on their day could beat each other, and things are always exciting when the English media are involved.
This might be the group of the living dead, but the stories and plots are alive and well, ranging from accusations of racism in the England camp/media, to accusations of deliberate food poisoning from Blokhin, to the eerie calmness within the French camp. As far as the Swedes? Well they’ve long been accused of being one of most boring countries in the world, so thank god for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is equally lethal in front of the goal as he is at kicking his team mates.
Strangely, the French team has somehow managed to be drama free and actually may all be getting along. After the fracas that was South Africa, Laurent Blanc has done very well in putting together a strong cohesive team, that is an early favorite to top the group. Benzema leads the line and has been stellar for the national team, and France’s fortunes will be dictated by the accuracy of the Real Madrid strikers boots. Directly behind him, handsome Franck and Nasri are potent and dazzling attacking midfielders, and they are adequately covered by Newcastles Cabaye and France’s youngest player, the up and coming Yann M’Vila. Luckily for England, M’Vila recently picked up a knock and is doubtful for the opening match.
If Les Bleus have a weakness, it is in their defense. Mexes and Evra are 30 and 31 and Rami is more known for his gaffs and inconsistency than his defensive prowess. Their keeper and captain, Hugo Lloris, is solid enough and should be able to prevent the sieve like defense in front of him from leaking too many goals.
Oh England! For the first time in many along while, possibly ever, they head into a tournament with no positive expectations to burden them. In fact, even the raggiest of rags that pretend to be a newspaper in England, are struggling to find ways for England to win the tournament.
They only appointed Capello’s successor a couple of months ago, and since then, their better players have been dropping like flies. Lampard, Barry and Cahill are all out. Sadly for England, Terry recovered from his knock, so he will be “anchoring” the defense with more then likely Lescott. They do have speed on their flanks as Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson will find themselves quite busy bombing forward and then hurrying back to cover for the fast as molasses pairing of Terry and Lescott.
Due to the Chelsea mans alleged racial abusing of Anton Ferdinand mid-season, the media and several ex-players have accused Hodgson of not picking his brother Rio due to the potential dust up it could cause in the camp. Hodgson claims the United defender was not picked for footballing reasons, and personally I’m fine with it. Going into a tournament when 3 of your 4 defenders are 31 is not a good idea, so Rio (who had an inconsistent season with United) – you’re out.
Oddly though, England’s defense is not their main problem. Their weakness is putting the ball in the back of the net. Rooney is suspended for the first two games which leaves Carroll and his not so divine ponytail to lead the line. Carroll didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this season, though did show small glimpses of promise toward the end of the campaign.
Like so many times for club, the fate of the national team will rest on their captains shoulders. Steven Gerrard has just turned 32, and though is a fierce competitor, his best days are behind him. He will certainly give it his all, and though he may occasionally sting the opponents keepers hands with his powerful shots, the more likely occurrence is that he may take off someone’s head in row Z.
That said, Englands mediocrity maybe their saving grace. They are under no pressure to do well. They may actually play as a team versus selfish superstars, and like Denmark and Greece before them, could eek out some boring, uninspiring 1-0 wins. Joe Hart is a world class keeper and Hodgson has the team playing organized football. With a little luck they could very well surprise some teams or put them to sleep and score on a counter.
Sweden. What to say? Honestly, they’re the same team they’ve always been. Efficient and just good enough to cause problems, but not good enough to do major damage – except to England who couldn’t beat them with a gun and a barrel of herrings.
Aside from Ibra, who we all know and love, they do boast a couple of excellent players. Fullback Martin Olsson, has scored 4 goals in 6 international games and will be looking to showcase his talents in order to escape playing in the Championship with Blackburn. Zlatan’s strike partner, Elmander is also a dangerous player, but both him and Sebastian Larsson are struggling to recover from injury.
Sweden will be playing an exciting style of football as is the way of coach Erik Hamren, and have the fire power to cause opposing defenses some problems. Unfortunately their own backline is nothing to write home about, so I expect some 3-2 games. The victor will depend upon Zlatans proficiency in front of goal.
Ukraine are co-hosting this tournament along with Poland. They are a serviceable side and will be buoyed on by their home fans. They are coached by former Soviet legend Oleg Blokhin, who guided Ukraine to the World Cup quarterfinals in Germany 6 years ago.
Shevchenko is the teams talisman, that there is no dispute. What is in dispute is whether the former Milan striker should be starting. At 35, he is well past his prime and though a sentimental favorite, he might be replaced by Dynamo Kiev striker Artem Milevskyi. Ukraine’s strength lies in their midfield with Bayern midfielder, Anatoliy Tymoschuk pinging balls around the park, ideally in the direction of the strikers.
Though they should be confident in the fact that host nations tend to qualify for the knock out stages, the poop has hit in the fan within the squad, and I’m not talking about food poisoning (10 players were a little queasy in the tummy before and during their last match against Turkey). It is rumored that there is turmoil between the players of Shakhtar Donestsk and Dynamo Kiev, which could boil over during the tournament. One would think that they would put their club feuds aside for international duty, and these sort of things have a way of coming out at the most inopportune times – just ask England.
Player(s) to Watch
The two players to watch are also two of the youngest in the group. France’s Yann M’Vila and Englands Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Where as Yann M’Vila is an established player for club and the national team, Oxlade-Chamberlain is still trying to get minutes with Arsenal as well as England. Already impressive in his first foray in the senior national side, it looks like Hodgson might throw the dice with the youngster. It’s not like he has anything to lose.
M’Vila’s brilliant passing and distribution as a defensive midfielder has perked the interest of the bigger European clubs. With the defense behind him not installing the greatest of confidence, it will be left to M’Vila to ensure that France progress into the group stages – a task the Rennes man is more than capable of accomplishing.
Added after release: TSG also has Lyon’s midfield general Kim Kallstrom under our radar. The Swedes are certainly underdogs in the groups, but as mentioned can cause a problem or two. It all comes from the heart and Kallstrom is the pulse of the team. Though he doesn’t score much for club, he did score 4 goals in qualifying for the Euros.
Most Interesting Matchup
The first game of the group between England and France has all the makings of a classic. Bitter rivals, former good teams, and plenty of history. That said it could very easily turn into France thrashing England. In fact it probably will. The game with the most on the line will probably be the last game of the group, England vs. Ukraine on the 19th of June. Winner goes onto the knockout stages.
Well, there has to be two teams that progress from Group D, but I don’t feel any of the teams will progress past the quarterfinals. The winner, more than likely France will either meet Italy or in my estimation Croatia (second place finishers in Group C). Where as I do believe they will be the favorites, and that Blanc has worked miracles to get this team where they are, they are still a long way to regaining the form from their past. The second place team, I’m going out on a limb and saying England, will be going up against Spain. Nuff said.
I believe there are 3 great teams, 4 good teams, 5 mediocre teams, 3 crap teams and England. That means 1 okay team will make the semis and they will be crushed by Germany. The finals will pit Spain against Germany, and Die Mannschaft will be victorious in a thrilling 3-2 final.