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Euro 2012 Match 3: Netherlands vs Denmark pre-game predictions

The Group of Death is going to have step up to match the Greece vs Poland tournament opener that provided more drama than most Champions League second legs with two red cards, a penalty saved by the substitute goalkeeper and a disallowed goals.  Everyone is eagerly awaiting Match 4 between Germany and Portugal; however, the prior game between Netherlands and Denmark will probably have more bearing on the outcome of the group as the loser is going to face an incredibly difficult time qualifying for the next stage given that the loser will have to probably beat both Germany and Portugal to move on.

Why Denmark will win

  1. This is a cohesive team that isn’t under pressure as the expectations are not high for the lowest ranked team in the group.  However, Denmark is ranked #10 in the FIFA World Rankings and so has quality in the side to beat any side on any given day – as evidenced by the fact that they finished above Portugal in qualifying.
  2. Denmark has highly skilled players at the key positions:  Nicklas Bendtner is a tall striker who is good in the air and supremely confident in his own abilities; Christian Eriksen is a brilliant creative midfielder and the favorite to win the Young Player of Euro 2012 award after having debuted as the youngest player in World Cup 2010; Daniel Agger is an experienced central defender with a wicked left foot.
  3. The Netherlands’ Mathijsen is out with a hamstring injury and left back is a potential problem with 18 year old Jetro Willems slated to start.
  4. Netherlands might be a bit distracted by the furor surrounding the racist treatment of some of their players earlier this week during practice.

Why Netherlands will win

  1. Wesley Sneijder, Robben and Robin van Persie are in good form.  If any of the three have an off day, they can be replaced by van der Vaart, Afellay, Kuyt and Huntelaar.  That level of skilled offensive depth is unique.
  2. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong are tough and positionally sound holding midfielders who can protect some of the defensive frailties of the Dutch back line.  They will corral young Eriksen and cut off Bendtner’s supply.
  3. This is an experienced team that reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2008 and almost won World Cup 2010.

Pre-match prediction: Netherlands 2 Denmark 1

The Dutch offense will be too much for Agger, Kjaer and Stephan Andersen (Thomas Sorenson’s replacement in goal).  Alternately, while veteran Dennis Rommedahl is still fast, Denmark is collectively not quick enough to take advantage of the Dutch lack of speed in the middle of the park.  Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder to score for the Netherlands and Rommedahl to pull one back for the Netherlands.

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AND THE WINNER OF EURO 2012 WILL BE…

… the squad with the best physios!  It’s hard to predict the winner since the squads still haven’t finally settled following last minute injuries to key players and replacements still to come (see Cahill, Schweinsteiger and Bouma).  At the current rate of attrition, I wouldn’t be surprised if David Beckham is back in the England squad!  That said, let’s just step through the group stages and figure out how all of this should play out.  One thing is for certain, while Spain may have won the last World Cup after losing their first game to Switzerland, it’s going to be tough to recover in some of these groups if you lose your first game.  And there are a bunch of unbelievable matchups in the first set of group matches with Germany vs Portugal, France vs England and Spain vs Italy the picks of the bunch.  If Portugal, England or Italy lose the initial match, they will be behind the 8-ball right away as Netherlands, Sweden and Croatia will try to take advantage of the slip up.

Group A:  Czech Republic, Poland, Greece, Russia

Russia

While Arshavin is the known star of the squad, Russia has a brilliant goalie in Akinfeev, a pacy winger in ex-Chelsea man, Zhirkov, and great forwards in Spurs striker Roman Pavlyuchenko and Fulham striker Pavel Pogrebnyak.  I believe Russia will qualify for the next round, but do they really have the belief that they can win this tournament?  I don’t think so.  Euro 2008 was their best shot at international honors and this group’s “win tournament” tag has expired.  Russia is clever with their movement in the final third but they just don’t have that extra magic that Spain has to compensate for their lack of true team speed.  I predict a quarterfinal bertha at best for Russia as they have to play the runner up from Group B in the next round, which will likely be Portugal or the Netherlands.

Key Player who has to do well: Andrey Arshavin

Breakout young star: Alan Dzagoev

Poland

Poland counts on Lewandowski up front, his Dortmund compatriot Blaszczykowski in the middle and Szczesny in goal.  That is the spine of the team.  Playing at home should inspire Poland to a showing more reflective of their past successes when they finished third the 1974 and 1982 World Cups.  This team can make it to the quarterfinals but that’s when it runs out for them against Germany or the Netherlands.  Look for more from this team in World Cup 2014.

Key Player who has to do well: Robert Lewandowski

Breakout young star: Wojciech Szczesny

Greece 

The Greeks are very good defensively and rode that defense to the 2004 Euro title against Portugal.  They were very good on set plays and retained that strategy throughout Otto Rehhagel’s, the prior manager, tenure from 2001 to 2010.  While the current coach, Fernando Santos, may have installed some tweaks to the system, the squad is largely the same and the way out of the group is going to be based on defending as a team and sneaking the odd goal.  The veteran captain Giorgos Karagounis will ably marshal the midfield, but, while defense is fine, they have to score as well to advance and that’s where Gekas has to play well up front to help Greece advance.  They can make the next round but that’s it for them.

Key Player who has to do well: Fanis Gekas

Breakout young star: Kyriakos Papadopoulos

Czech Republic

This isn’t the Czech team of the last three major tournaments.  Their veteran leaders, such as striker Jan Koller and defender Marek Jankulovski, have retired and left Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech as the only true stars on this team.  Scoring goals is the problem for this team as their leading scorer in the qualifiers was defender Kadlec.  Though this group is the easiest of the four at the tournament, it’s going to be three and out, summer holidays please, for coach Michal Bilek’s team.

Key Player who has to do well: Milan Baros

Breakout young star: Vaclav Pilar

Group Prediction: Russia will qualify from this group while the Czech Republic won’t.  The Russians benefit from the winter break they get as a result of the timing of the Russian league and are in good shape physically while the Czechs are too dependant on Milan Baros up front and just don’t have the firepower to get through.  The opening match of the tournament pits Greece against Poland and, while most opening matches end in a draw, the winner of this game will qualify along with Russia.  Though Greece was undefeated during qualifying and are very hard to breakdown, I just feel that Poland has enough players in form, a trio of Bundesliga-triumphant Borussia Dortmund players, and a great young goalie in Szczesny to ride the home support to qualifying for the knockout stage.  Russia and Poland to the quarters.

Group B: Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal

Denmark

When you are ranked # 10 in the world, and then are ranked last in your group of four since the other teams are ranked #2, #4 and #5, you know you are in good shape because you have a great team but low expectations.  That’s the position the Danes find themselves in and it’s not a hope and a prayer that Denmark gets through.  Denmark has beaten Portugal in qualifying and has hungry young players in Eriksen, Bendtner, Kjaer and Lindegaard.  They can beat the Dutch and Portugal but will struggle against Germany.  Can they get three points against Holland – that will determine their progress in the tournament?  If they can get out of this group, the semifinals are possible as they can beat their probably opponents, Russia, to get there.

Key Player who has to do well: Nicklas Bendtner

Breakout young star: Christian Eriksen

Germany

Everyone picked Germany to win Euro 2012 once the 2010 World Cup was over.  The squad is young, fast, dynamic, deep but also has the traditional German mentality of machine-like relentlessness.  Their coach, Joachim Low, has been with the team for the last three tournaments (starting in 2004 as an assistant to current US national team coach Klinsmann).  Neuer, Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Ozil are each among the top three players in the world at their position as goalkeeper, left back, holding midfielder and playmaker, respectively.  Klose and Podolski are proven goal scorers at the international tournament level and will be playing in their parents’ native Poland, while Gomez has been in great form for Bayern Munich and Germany.  The problem for Germany is at center back where it’s a scary thought that Mertesacker is considered a solution after coming back from a dreadful first season and bad injury at Arsenal.  Add to that the controversy surrounding Boateng, whose pre tournament partying may result in his being replaced at right back by Bender.  But Germany has more than enough depth and quality for them to win this tournament.  They lost to Spain in the finals of Euro 2008 (to a Torres winner) and the semifinals of World Cup 2010 (to a Puyol header).  They will reverse that in Euro 2012, in what is tantamount to home field for them in Poland, and should win the tournament.

Key Player who has to do well: Mesut Ozil

Breakout young star: Mario Gotze

Netherlands

The fortunes of the Dutch are tied to the form of Wesley Sneijder.  Period.  If Sneijder is on, they can get to the final much like in World Cup 2010, where only Iker Casillas’ right foot saved Spain on an Arjen Robben breakaway.  If not, they could lose in the first round.  As much as Robin van Persie has had a great season, he needs the ball delivered to him in the final third of the pitch to do his damage.  The same goes for Robben, who might not be recovered from missing a crucial penalty in extra time of the recent Champions League Final against Chelsea.  The Netherlands have very good holding midfielders in Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, a very good right back in Gregory van der Wiel and a solid keeper in Maarten Stekelenburg.  However, the key weakness for the Dutch is the lack of pace in the defensive middle of the field with the center backs and the holding midfielders struggling against quick strikers.  Adding to the Dutch defensive worries is veteran Mathijsen’s hamstring problem.  That said, the Dutch could win this tournament.

Key Player who has to do well: Wesley Sneijder

Breakout young star: Kevin Strootman

Portugal

Bruno Alves and Pepe.  Moutinho and Meireles.  The spine is solid.  Ronaldo and Nani.  Those wingers are the best in the world.  However, the team’s over reliance on Ronaldo and its poor set of strikers make this group too much for Portugal.  I was thinking of picking Portugal to advance from this group, but their recent loss to Turkey at home showed why this is fool’s gold.  This is as talented a squad as there is, but they don’t have depth and their strikers are not world class.  If they were in Group D, they would win the group, but in this group it’s going to be hard to qualify.  They can get to the semifinals if they get out of the group but it will require Ronaldo playing like he plays for Real Madrid for them to win this tournament.

Key Player who has to do well: Ronaldo

Breakout young star: Joao Moutinho (though he’s not really that young)

Group Prediction: How can you not love, and hate, a tournament that has four of the top ten teams in the world in the same group?  It would be similar to having a group with Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Milan in the qualifying stage.  Germany will qualify from this group.  The other three all have a chance but I’m going to pick Netherlands based solely on Sneijder’s last game against Northern Ireland.  With Sneijder playing well in the slot, the Netherlands will always have a chance with van Persie and Robben up front.  Start strong or go home – this is truly the group of no second chances.  It won’t be a shock if Germany or the Dutch go home early.  However, the Oranje and the Meinschaft will go through.

Group C: Croatia, Ireland, Italy, Spain

Croatia

There’s more to Croatia than Modric as the team is sprinkled with top European club squad members in Corluka, Pranjic, Rakitic and Kranjcar.  Also, keep an eye on Nikica Jelavic who had a great second half spell at Everton and scored a critical brace against Manchester United in the title-deciding run in to the EPL season.  However, as the midfield maestro Modric goes, so goes Croatia.  This squad has experienced and talented players, but they are missing that extra team-wide spark that is going to be required to go far in this tournament.  Their opening match against Ireland is key – if they win that, they will go through to the next round, with the quarterfinals as far as they will go.

Key Player who has to do well: Luka Modric

Breakout young star: Luka Modric

Ireland

This is a tough squad who is due some of that Irish luck.  Ireland is my dark horse to qualify from this group.  The team has toughness and experience at the back in Dunne, O’Shea and Ward in front of Shay Given.  The middle of the park is where they have a lot more quality that in past teams – McGeady is very creative and well backed by pace on the wings from Duff and Sunderland star James McClean.  And finally, up front, Ireland have Keane, Long, Doyle and Walters to provide different options for the incredibly savvy Italian coach Trapattoni.  This Irish team doesn’t quite have quality depth but they have a solid starting team and enough tactical nous in their coach.  No one wants to play this team at this stage.  This squad can get to the quarterfinals.

Key Player who has to do well: Aiden McGeady

Breakout young star: James McClean

Italy

As usual, Italy is impossible to rate.  They always seem to get through qualifying and the group stages with the only question being how far they go in the tournament.  Much like the Germans.  However, this Italian team seems a bit more in disarray than most.  Yes, the World Cup winning team in 2006 had similar distractions going into the tournament, but this time the scandal seems a lot wider and more embedded.  It’s not often that the President of a country suggests the sport be suspended for a season.  Apart from that, while Italy has stalwarts in Buffon, Pirlo, Di Natale and De Rossi to complement the younger talent of Chiellini, Giovinco and Balotelli, this Italian team just doesn’t seem to have the toughness one expects from the Azzurri.  Going against Trapattoni is not going to be an easy task for Italy given Trap’s familiarity with their system and players (Italy coach Prandelli played for Trap), and Croatia has a good record against Italy.  It doesn’t help that Italy’s first match is a “can’t lose” against Spain.  It is going to be the quarterfinals at best for Italy.

Key Player who has to do well: Andrea Pirlo

Breakout young star: Mario Balotelli / Sebastian Giovinco (whoever gets more playing time)

Spain

It is ridiculous that Spain can start a replacement midfield of David Silva, Juan Mata, Cesc Fabregas and Cazorla to back up starters Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.  Even if you put Brazil and Argentina together, you wouldn’t be able to put together a better midfield squad.  The biggest question mark for Spain is in central defense where Puyol is out for the tournament leaving Pique and Ramos in the middle.  Apart from missing Puyol’s quality and experience, Vicente del Bosque has admitted there is residual tension between Pique and Ramos from this past season’s encounters in La Liga.   If I were the coach, I’d move Ramos to his original right back position and have Javi Martinez partner Pique in the middle.  Also, while Jordi Alba is a rising star, he is 22 and has to replace the seasoned Capdevila at left back – will Alba be able to handle that responsibility on the highest stage at the same time he is distracted by ongoing transfer speculation linking him to Barcelona and Manchester United?  Finally, the absence of an injured David Villa means Spain has to trust a hopefully reinvigorated Torres to replace the critical goals that Villa consistently provided.  I want to believe in Torres because I think Torres’ pace is the key factor required to counter teams who pack it in successfully against the possession style Spain plays – it’s why Barcelona struggles without Messi’s pace against the stacked banks of four.  However it’s hard to see how Torres can lead the line after the season he has had.  A better bet is that Llorente and Torres together provide around 7 goals with Pedro, Iniesta, Xabi and Xavi providing another 3 or 4 between them.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Llorente takes over the starting role – and delivers.  Llorente has been in great form for Atletico Bilbao this season and his aerial prowess is a welcome change for this Spain squad that needs an alternative to their ground game.  It’s a tall order, but back to back to back (did Pat Riley say three-peat?) is a definite possibility for the latest version of the world’s best team.

Key Player who has to do well: Gerard Pique

Breakout young star: Jordi Alba

Group Prediction: Spain will qualify from this group.  The other three all have a chance but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that Ireland gets through.  I just feel that Trapattoni will get them there.  If Ireland can get a point against Croatia in the first match, and Italy loses to Spain, it will set them up very well to get through.  The graft will be there in the Irish squad, but Aiden McGeady has to create for them to get through.  I think Kevin Doyle, one of my favorite small players, will get a key goal during this tournament.  Croatia just doesn’t inspire me and I think sooner or later the Italians have to pay the price for starting slowly.  This group is easier than the group of death, but it will still be tough for Italy to recover if Spain beats them in the opening match.  Pirlo and Buffon will keep Italy in every game but I just don’t think they get out of the group stage.

Group D: England, France, Sweden, Ukraine

England

At this rate, England might have to call Tony Addams out of retirement to start at center back.  If Terry’s hamstring tweak is not major, the loss of Cahill may not be as devastating since Lescott can slot in there and is obviously comfortable playing with Joe Hart, his City teammate and keeper.  However, there is no defensive cover as you are left with only Jagielka and Phil Jones.  If Glen Johnson gets reinjured, who is going to play right back other than Jones?  And then we get to midfield – no Lampard, no Barry (Hodgson couldn’t get Scholes or Carrick to even come to camp) and Parker not fully fit.  Oh, and no Rooney for the first two games, Defoe just left to attend his father’s funeral … and Welbeck just back from injury.  With all that as the backdrop you know what we are thinking now – England can do well since they have such lowered expectations that there is no pressure on the players!  It’s just too cruel to keep having hope in this squad.  If England can get two draws, they will go through as they will have Rooney back for the final game against Ukraine.  England’s tournament rests on not losing to Sweden.  England can lose to France, but not to Sweden if they want to get through.  Roy Hodgson’s system is to pack it in and hit the opposition on the break.  England has more than enough wing speed to pull that off – I just think that the injuries have robbed them of enough positional continuity and familiarity to play a solid defensive game.  I never go against England. So, while I think France can go deep in the tournament, England playing France in the first match of the group stage in a traditionally cagey affair will be a positive for the Three Lions.  Gerrard has to deliver – this time there is no Lampard for him to second-guess himself in midfield.  Gerrard has to play like he does for Liverpool.  I believe he will.  I think England is more likely to crash out before the second round – but if they go through, they could upset Spain in the quarters.  Not.

Key Player who has to do well: Steven Gerrard

Breakout young star: Joe Hart and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain

France

A long unbeaten streak only means it is going to be hard to swallow when you lose one when it matters.  France hasn’t really played well in the post season, pre tournament friendlies – but neither has almost every other team.  Which France shows up?  If M’Vila’s injury is serious it will hurt France who needs his defensive midfield presence to backstop the offensive talents of Nasri, Ben Arfa, Ribery, Giroud and Benzema.  Sagna’s injury has deprived France of a solid right back.  However, this France team is well balanced, has decent depth and will be tough to beat.  They can get to the semifinals.  The good news is that they are not overly dependant on one player but do have a number of skilled players who can step up and change the outcome at the offensive end.

Key Player who has to do well: Karim Benzema

Breakout young star: Yann M’Vila (if he’s too injured to play, then Samir Nasri)

Sweden

Sweden is always strong in tournament play.  They have one of the best players in the world in Ibrahimovic who, till this year, had won the domestic title in each of the past eight years across Holland, Italy and Spain.  Sunderland’s Larsson, Galatasaray’s Elmander and AZ Alkmaar’s Elm are also very talented players who feed off of the creative genius of Ibra.  The defense is suspect though and that is the reason I believe they will not go far in this tournament with the quarters being the farthest they can go.

Key Player who has to do well: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Breakout young star: Rasmus Elm

Ukraine

When the country’s hopes are centered on the abilities of its coach, Blokhin (he starred for the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s), that’s a bad sign.  More bad news – Shevchenko is still in the squad.  Enough said.  Gusev, Voronin and Tymoschuk are all well-known in Europe but it’s not enough to get through.  This squad will play like the Austrian squad at the last Euros.  Ukraine will generate some noise and a lot of effort, but few points.  They will not progress from the group stage.

Key Player who has to do well: Anatoliy Tymoshchuk

Breakout young star: Andriy Yarmolenko

Group Prediction: This one was the toughest choice to make but it is going to be France and England.  Yes, England is a mess and this is not about being EPL biased.  I am trusting in Roy and that Ibrahimovic and Elmander will not be able to make up for the ageing Swedish defense.

The knockout rounds

QF 1: Russia vs Netherlands (Netherlands to advance)

QF 2: Germany vs Poland (Germany to advance)

QF 3: Spain vs England (Spain to advance)

QF 4: France vs Ireland (France to advance)

Yes, all top four seeds to go through. Pretty predictable – which means upsets are sure to come.

Spain beats Netherlands in SF1 and Germany beats France in SF2 with Germany beating Spain in the finals.

The current odds have Spain and Germany more or less even at around 3/1, with the Netherlands around 6/1, France at 10/1 and England and Italy at about 15/1.  The dark horse in this tournament is the Netherlands (if you can call them a dark horse as the third best team), while my upset pick is Portugal (which at 20/1 is “well worth a flutter” as the Brits put it).  The Player of Euro 2012 will be Mesut Ozil.

I will post an updated set of predictions on the tournament winner once the first round of games in the group stage are over.

Twitter: @centerhalf12

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World Cup 2010: Pre-Cup prediction on who will win

No time to really sort this out.  There are less than 8 hours to go to kickoff.  And the crystal ball is looking murky.  So, lets do the whys and why nots for the favorites IMO.  I will update this after the first round, but let me not shy away from it right now.

Brazil:  They win because they are solid in the defensive half of the field and have depth.  Julio Cesar, 2 great right backs (they should play Dani Alves at left back just to get him on the field as he will be behind Maicon at right back),  Lucio, Juan and Luisao to play the middle, Melo at holding and Kaka, Robinho and Fabiano up front.  Also, they are the only ones who have won outside of their continent (apart from Argentina in Mexico which sort of doesn’t count as a really different continent) – in fact, they have won in North America (1994), Europe (1958) and Asia (2002).  Seems to make sense that they should win in Africa.  They won’t win because there is magic missing up front.  Efficiency is great, but you need some magic.  Kaka has not been fit all season.  Hard to get there at the World Cup.  Plus, its a hard road through Portugal, Ivory Coast and North Korea to start the tournament.  They should win the group but that’s a work out unlike for Spain and England.

Spain:  They win because they have the most talented passers and total football team.  Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Xabi – what a foursome of passers in midfield.  Then you have Silva, Pedro and Jesus Navas (the biggest key for Spain after Torres IMO because the Achilles heel for Spain is a lack of real speed) on the wings (though Iniesta could play down the left as well).  Finally, Iker in goal and Torres and Villa up front.  That’s a squad.  Why they don’t win – I don’t think their defense is good enough.  I know I identified it as an issue in the Euros and they made me eat my words (though I did pick them to win pre tournament), but I just don’t get comfort in Capdevilla at left back and Ramos goes AWOL every so often at right back.  Also, Cesc, Iniesta and Torres are coming off injuries that caused them to miss the end of the season and Xavi is carrying a calf injury according to Pep Guardiola.  Also, the USA showed how you beat Spain.  Send them to the wings and overpower the strikers when they are forced to cross the ball – press Xavi at the same time.  Navas’ speed on the wing helps and Torres seems to be coming along.  They also have a relatively easy group to work Cesc, Torres and Iniesta back into playing shape before the knockout round.  However, I am still uneasy.  A big miss is going to be Marcos Senna at holding mid.  So, I want to say Spain but I just hesitate.

Argentina:  They win because they probably have one of the best forward pools in the history of the World Cup.  Messi and Higuain led La Liga in scoring, Tevez was near the top in the EPL as was Milito.  And then there is Aguero and Di Maria.  Did I mention Messi?!  Decent first round group to warm up with.  Mascherano at holding is solid.  And I’ve always liked Veron’s touch though he is a bit slow.  Wish Diego had brought Zanetti and Cambiasso.  That’s a big mistake.  They don’t win because their defense is too slow and old.  Heinze, DiMichelis and Samuel are just not up to snuff.  And Brazil and Inter showed you how to stop Messi.  And then you have the craziness of Maradona.

Holland: The win because Robben and Sneijder are two of the five most in form players in the world (I’d put Messi, Ronaldo and Milito in that bracket as well) at the end of the club season.  Then there’s Robin van Persie who is fresh after missing most of the season.  Rafael vdv is in decent form as well.  Kuyt provides work rate and balance up front.  They don’t win because their defense and keeping is not up to snuff.  And they tend to run out of steam as tournaments progress.

England: They win because they are the second best team from top to bottom in terms of depth (after Brazil).  They have Rooney and great veterans in the spine of the team – James, Terry (too bad Rio’s out, but King and Upson are good), Gerrard, Lampard.  They have speed on the wings (Fabio should have included Walcott instead of SWP).  Great coach.  They haven’t lost a World Cup game in a while if you exclude penalty kick knockouts.  They don’t win because too much depends on Rooney, Glen Johnson is a terrible defensive right back and the holding midfielder position isn’t settled.  Also, the weight of expectations will become very heavy the further we get in the tournament.

These are the only real favorites in my opinion.  A dark horse is Portugal, but with Nani out, their chances dropped significantly.  Never count out Germany (but Ballack is a big miss and they seem a big young) or Italy (this is one of the worst teams they have fielded though) or one of the African countries.  I would have put Ivory Coast as the top African team, but even if Drogba plays (as it seems to indicate in the latest news), its hard to have a brand new coach and expect to win the World Cup.

Two big factors and then I’ll make my pre Cup prediction.

The ball: with the movement in the ball, free kicks and corners are going to be very important.  That makes Ronaldo, Dani Alves, Sneijder, Lampard and Xavi very dangerous.  It could be the difference between winning and losing the Cup.

History: No European team has won the World Cup outside of Europe.  Argentina and Brazil have won outside of their  continent.  Yes, it is winter in South Africa so the heat is not going to be as big a factor as it has been for tournaments outside of Europe in the past.

My pick: Brazil if they win their group.  Holland if Brazil doesn’t win their group.

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Man Utd v Arsenal: Champions League Semifinal 2nd Leg – Pregame

I have a hard time believing Man United doesn’t go through.  It absolutely can happen, but hard to see.  It’s not that the Gunners can’t score a couple of goals nor that they can’t win.  They have done that this season.  However, no way does that defense keep Man United from scoring at least one goal.  It’s been a long time since Arsenal has kept United off the scoreboard.  And it’s hard to see it starting tomorrow.

So if United score one, Arsenal need three scores to win.  Hard to see that.  The only shot Arsenal has is if they score first and score the first one early.   The longer it goes, the more they will come forward and the easier it will be for them to be caught by United on the break.

Issues for United: Rooney played 90 minutes on Saturday and is on a yellow.  Will he melt down late in the game or if he gets a yellow which means he knows he will be out of the final.  I feel as if Sir Alex purposely played him 90 minutes on Saturday as he is not going to allow Rooney to play the full 90 on Tuesday in order to save him for the final assuming that United is up going into the last 25 minutes.  The other issue is that Evra may have an ankle knock and is also on a yellow.  I have to think that Walcott is going to get one of them on a yellow during the game.  Which means – Rooney needs to play in the middle and Park plays on the left with Berbatov and Tevez potentially on the bench.   Tough to see that happening but you never know.

Issues for Arsenal:  They are screwed if Silvestre is fit enought to play and screwed if he is unfit to play.  If they play to win from the start, they will play Robin Van Persie up front with Adebayor along with Fabregas, Walcott and Nasri in midfield.  Which means only one holding midfielder.  Bad news against the  United break.  If they play it conservative like the first leg, they will not be able to deal with the United midfield and defense.

Prediction: Man United 2 Arsenal 2

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Russia v Holland – pre game prediction

Can’t call this one.  IF Russia plays the way they can and have and IF Holland plays the way they can and have, I would pick Russia to win.  It’s for one simple reason – they look like they can create multiple chances from any style of play.  They created chances when the pace was walk up slow against Greece, they scored off quick counter attacks against Sweden and they had chances against Spain, even though the scoreline didn’t reflect the balance.  I am still amazed at how calmly and well they move the ball around in the opponent’s penalty box.  They remind me of Arsenal – except that Russia plays even quicker one touch (no Hleb or Cesc to play on the ball as much), they are better able to find space in the opponent’s box with direct passing as opposed to one-two give and go’s and they don’t rely as much on breakaway speed.  It’s no surprise that Wenger is supposedly looking to buy Arshavin to replace Adebayor (if he goes to Milan).  I actually think Arshavin is a better replacement for Hleb.  He’s quicker, more direct and shoots more than Hleb who tends to hold the ball too much (though he is an amazing player) for the Arsenal offense.  Pavlyuchenko is another one who might cause Ooijer and Mathijsen some trouble.  He’s just a bit too selfish on occasion, but I think he will give them trouble in the air.

Having said all that, and built Russia up (huge weapon is Hiddink’s ability as a coach and his knowledge of the Dutch game), it’s hard to go against the Dutch given the fact that their skill players are in good form.  They are not older and fatigued like the Swedes.  Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Rafael Van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Ruud van Nistelrooy.  That should be more that enough.  I think Robin probably comes off the bench so that Van Basten can have Engelaar and De Jong or Heitenga to slow down the Russian offense.  In any case, it’s going to be won on speed on the counter and which defense plays better.  I think the Dutch will be a bit more disciplined and, with Van der Sar in goal, should have enough to win the game.  Key matchup will be Zhirkov v Bouhlarouz.  I can’t imagine how he can focus enough to play after the tragedy he has just suffered. 

Pre-game prediction: Holland 3 Russia 1

Player of the game: Arjen Robben

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Group C post game – France v Italy, Holland v Romania

Form held and Holland and Italy are through. As I suspected, Buffon was tough to beat and his save off Benzema’s curler was world class. Coupet played great too with a couple of amazing fingertip saves – one off Grosso’s freekick that he put onto the post and another one off Toni that the ref didn’t catch. But Italy played the cards they were dealt with very well and did enough to see France off.

Now for the rant. Yes, losing Ribery was very unlucky. And yes, it is a harsh rule that sees the last man off along with the granting of a penalty. Yes, it was an unlucky deflection of Henry’s foot on De Rossi’s wayward looking free kick. However, France lacked inspiration and I blame that on Domenech. You are the worst at picking a team that I have ever seen. Abidal in the center of defense? With Toni to deal with and Gallas not the tallest man either. Are you kidding me? Then you start Gouvou instead of Nasri. Then you bring on Nasri for Ribery and take him off when you are trailing 1-0. Are you crazy? There went the bit of creativity and drive you had in the middle of the park. You want to play with two holding midfielders still? OK. Take off Gouvou for Boumsong then. Now, for Boumsong. Is there a reason you chose him ahead of Mexes to play in central defense? Better you had Distin in the squad then that stiff.

One more pet peeve. I don’t like the last man rule when there is a penalty as well. It seems to me that that is doubly harsh. I think it’s absolutely right to send the last man off when he takes down an attacker outside the box. But the double whammy of going a man down and giving up a penalty is a bit much.

The Dutch and the Spanish have got to be nervous with the Italians now in the quarters. Having said that, I don’t know how the Italians are going to fare without Pirlo. The Dutch also look so good that I don’t think they should be overly concerned if they have to face the Italians. One thing we have to keep in mind is that this Italian team is a bit old and games every three days are going to take a toll by the time the semis roll around. Should be fun.

Players of the game – De Rossi (though Pirlo and Grosso were very good) for Italy and Henry for France.

Romania – nice try but you paid for missing the penalty against Italy and not scoring when you had good chances against Holland in the first half. Holland looks very good and it’s always good when Van Persie keeps scoring. He needs the confidence since he’s missed most of the regular season – and a fresh, confident Robin Van Persie is deadly.

Pre-game prediction: Italy 2 France 1

Result: Italy 2 France 0

Scorers: Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi (Italy)

Pre-game prediction: Romania 1 Holland 1

Result: Romania 0 Holland 2

Scorers: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Robin Van Persie (Holland)

Sweden v Russia. I can’t wait. This is going to one where I am cheering for Russia as that would set up an amazing game against Holland. Hiddink v Van Basten. Total football all around…

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Holland vs France – post game

Now that was a fun game to watch. The 2008 Dutch model reminds me a lot of the 2000 model – exciting to watch, with fantastic technique and movement going forward. I still have questions about the middle of the defense and the holding midfielder, Engelaar, didn’t really stem the flow of the French down the middle of the park.

However, they are through as the winner of Group C, which means they will probably play either Russia or Sweden in the quarter finals. They can beat both those teams, which means they will either play Italy or France or Spain in the semi finals. They have beaten the first two handily and I have doubts that Spain’s central duo can keep this squad from scoring. I don’t know that Ooijer and Mathijsen can keep Torres and Villa off the scoreboard either, but based on current form, I am a believer in the Dutch. So it’s looking good for the Dutch to get to the finals. Normally, you would be concerned with the Dutch in knockout matches given their poor record in penalties. However, this team has great penalty takers – Ruud, Van Persie, Gio Van Bronckhorst, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart – and Van Der Sar is one goalkeeper I would have all the confidence in the world in, given his recent winning save in the Champions League Final in Moscow.

France outplayed Holland – yes, I will refer to them as Holland till they lose (and the dead match against Romania doesn’t count since they will probably rest some of their starters and players on yellow cards) – for the first 60 minutes and had the bulk of possession during that period. However, as so often happens, the Dutch had two real chances and put in two goals while the French couldn’t put away their chances much like Italy couldn’t against Romania. Henry, in particular, was wasteful. I don’t understand why the strikers at Euro 2008 aren’t rounding the keeper on breakaways. With his speed, he should have gone around Van der Sar. He chose to try to lob it instead. Why, Thierry, would you lob with the top of the boot instead of sidefooting the lob given that you had enough time and space? One has so much more control when one does that. Instead, he put it over the crossbar. Yes, Ooijer should have been penalized for his handball off Henry’s blast, but c’est la vie. There is no way France should have given up goal #3 to Robben within a minute of cutting it to 2-1… and the angle he scored from was hard to swallow. People are blaming Coupet, but sometimes, you just have to admit that a blast to the top of the goal from that angle is unexpected and hard to stop when struck with that pace. You just can’t get your palms up fast enough to push it over the top of the bar or block it back.

Domenech, you are terrible. No Nasri or Benzema. Can’t you see that your old guys aren’t getting it done – look at the Dutch team to get a clue? And you play Maka the whole game when you are trailing. Terrible decision making. I hope Les Blues fire you and bring in Laurent Blanc or Didier Deschamps as coach of the national team.

On the other hand, Marco van Basten, you are the MAN. I LOVE YOUR SUBSTITUTIONS. I suggested you get more speed in midfield by bringing on Robben or Van Persie in the second half. You bring on BOTH! Forget protecting the lead. You rightly believed that a good defense is a good offense. Fans, like CH12, bray for that all the time, but then we don’t have the pressure to get results. Few coaches ever subscribe to that cliched philosophy. But, you did – the cynics may say you already know you are leaving for Ajax after the tournament, so what the heck. However, it was brilliant and that’s why I am rooting for the Dutch to win the Euros 20 years after they last won it in 1988, when Van Basten scored one of the most unbelievable goals ever in the final against Russia (“rooting” not predicting – this is the Dutch team after all). If you think Robben’s angle was tight, check out that goal. So your two subs combine to score the second goal and Robben scores the third. Wesley, master strike for the fourth goal. The final compliment is to Ruud – the Zidane-step-on-the-ball-and-spin for a pass move!?? Who knew?! It absolutely set up Robben’s lane down the wing and led to the second goal.

Pre-game prediction: France 2 Holland 1

Result: France 1 Holland 4 ( “If one is going to be wrong, sometimes it is best to be spectacularly so” – CH12 June 13, 2008 )

Scorers: Dirk Kuyt, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder (Holland) Thierry Henry (France)

Man of the match for Holland was Arjen Robben; for France: Ribery again.

CH12 is now 6 and 8. Got to come back strong tomorrow to get back to even. Maybe I will use Van Basten’s philosophy and go with the thought that the best defense is to go with the offense…

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