by Richard Brook
England’s group at Euro 2012, Group D, like its alphabetical predecessor ought to be a straight forward matter if you believe the bookies, the FIFA world rankings and the top international coaches. The major issue with this is that all these things point towards England comfortably making the top two. The people who watch England the most, our own fans and our own media experts do not agree.
Both Germany’s Joachim Low and Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque when asked who might win the tournament have included both France and England on their respective lists. England and France are both in and around 10/1 to win this summer’s tournament, with co-host’s Ukraine around 50/1 and Sweden available at 66/1 to lift the trophy. The rankings show that England are the 7th best team in the world, followed by France in 16th, Sweden a place behind in 17th and Ukraine 50th in the table.
The facts and figures don’t adequately sum up the variables of this group. The bookmakers assess the difference between England and France to be much closer than FIFA’s points system, and that would seem to be a good call. France will be keen to make amends for the World Cup debacle and England are beset with injury problems. Indeed dressing room unity and self belief could be crucial factors, in terms of living up to reputation, for both the French and English.
Joint hosts Ukraine are led into the Finals by Oleg Blokhin, the coach whose Ukraine side exceeded all expectations in reaching the quarter finals of the 2006 World Cup. This second spell in charge of the national side comes against a backdrop of disarray. Metalist Kharkiv coach, Myron Markevich, lasted just four games in charge of the Ukraine and his club contemporaneously before he was forced to leave the post, over a bribery scandal at his club side. The resultant appointment of caretaker Yuri Kalitvintsev returned a paltry one win in seven months.
When the Football Federation of Ukraine turned to Blokhin he inherited a squad with serious personality clashes between influential players, and considerably hampered by injury problems. Blokhin needed to experiment during friendlies to ascertain the best way to move Ukraine forward, during this time the squad suffered four straight losses, including results against France and Sweden. However form then picked up considerably with three wins and two draws following, including a creditable 3-3 with Germany.
Blokhin’s fragile grip on unity in the Ukrainian camp has been damaged by animosity between club sides, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, following a controversial clash in April. The clubs provide a large proportion of the Ukraine squad between them. Two players in particular, Rakytskyi and Shovkovskyi clashed in the tunnel and continued their war of words through the media. Although Shovkovskyi has been ruled out of the tournament as he is recovering from shoulder surgery, it would seem Blokhin will have his work cut out.
The coach states that his squad’s strengths include their youth, and the motivation to succeed that brings. Blokhin has expressed a belief that Germany and Portugal are the strongest contenders, though France and Italy he feels have a point to prove after poor showings at the World Cup. Blokhin feels the finals can be a catalyst to the development of Ukrainian football.
There is a definite divide in opinion between the public and the experts in Ukraine. The fans expect the side to try and win the tournament, while some sections of the media describe proceeding beyond the first round as requiring a “miracle”.
With all the experimenting that has been done it is difficult to know how the side will line up under Blokhin. It is likely to be 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, and the manager still does not know what his best central defensive pairing is. Midfield has also been chopped and changed with great frequency. 35-year-old striker Andriy Shevchenko is in the squad but stated in interviews that he “can’t play three games a week” any more. Unless Blokhin now has a clear idea of his best side it is hard to see them having even a small chance of progressing.
Erik Hamren will be the man in charge of Sweden for the European Championships, and led the nation to the tournament as the best second placed team. Sweden were left needing to beat Holland, who were previously unbeaten and demolished Sweden 4-1 earlier in the competition. The Swedes accomplished this feat despite the absence of key man Ibrahimovic, in doing so proving themselves capable of beating the heavyweights, with the pressure on.
Hamren is the first coach to take Sweden to a tournament since the international retirements of national stars Frederik Ljungberg and Henrik Larsson. Hamren is regarded as a breath of fresh air, with Sweden now preferring a more attacking approach, than that implemented by the coach’s cautious predecessor.
The Swedish manager has expressed a love of quick, technical, attacking football creating as many scoring opportunities as possible. Hamren is also noted for emphasising the importance of team building, owing to the relatively small selection pool available to him. The coach insists upon the team sitting together for a minimum of 30 minutes each meal time, for example.
There is an expectation in the Swedish media that Sweden will make the quarter finals, but that is their limit, and will depend largely on the form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Hamren talks up his squad’s chances in one breath and down plays it the next. He has stated that France and England are group favourites and stressed the strong position of Ukraine as hosts. On the other hand he has spoken of dreaming of Swedish victory, citing the successes of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004 as justification of such aspirations.
Hamren’s choice of tactics is likely to be a default of 4-2-3-1, with a 4-4-1-1 deployed against the strongest sides. The Swedes will look to capitalise on set piece situations, with Sebastian Larsson, Kim Kallstrom and Rasmus Elm all excellent free kick takers. Elm also has a particularly potent long throw.
Hamren’s most problematic area is the defence. At 34 years old, Olof Mellberg is still regarded as a genuine top-level defender. His available potential colleagues are not, yet at least, in the same bracket. West Brom’s Jonas Olsson is likely to complete the centre back pairing, having won just six caps, so far, at the age of 29. In particular the left back spot will have caused Hamren headaches, with a string of candidates being dropped after unsatisfactory displays.
The crucial question however, will be Ibrahimovich’s mindset. If Hamren can get this right, as it has been for Milan this season, the Swedes could pose a threat in the group. If he can’t the front man’s frustrations have a tendency to negatively influence others.
Following Raymond Domenech’s calamitous World Cup 2010, the French turned to former Barca, Inter and Manchester United defender Laurent Blanc. Blanc is known as a thinking man’s coach, and has vast experience of football across the continent. Blanc’s men are now unbeaten since defeat to Belarus in their very first qualifying match in September 2010.
Blanc has worked hard at building a squad that possesses the right attitude as well as the requisite ability, following the self-destructive meltdown that occurred in South Africa. Players such as captain Hugo Lloris and Yohan Cabaye might have a lesser profile, than the players of former French squads but they arguably have greater commitment to the cause.
The coach found himself under some pressure after the Belarus result, but the next four matches resulted in French victories and calmed the unrest. Eventually, the hotly contested qualifying group came down to a crucial decider between the top two, France and Bosnia – Herzegovina. A 1-1 all draw preserved the status quo and France ran out, first-placed qualifiers by just one point.
Blanc has not sought to hide his pleasure in avoiding Holland, Spain and Germany in the groups. Of England, Blanc refuses to read too much into France’s 2-1 success at Wembley in 2010, writing England’s performance that November evening as a product of injury problems, although we now know that a number of influential Englishmen will miss Euro 2012. He also acknowledges that Ukraine will pose a threat due to the difficulty of playing a host nation, and that Sweden are capable of beating anyone on their day.
The coach is in agreement with the experts that his side cannot class themselves as genuine contenders for the tournament, however the feeling seems to be that there is no-one better in the group and as such the quarter finals should be the least that can be achieved.
Defensively France look assured, with a sound central partnership of Rami and Mexes playing behind midfield enforcer M’Vila. Going forward the French will be able to rely on the likes of Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery to pose threat to opposition defences and create chances. Blanc will set the team up as a 4-2-3-1 playing technical, attacking football and utilising the pace of the attacking players. Striking options aside, Blanc has good strength in depth. France could be a good shout, outside of the big three, for the tournament, as long as the issues that wrecked their World Cup are entirely in the past.
With mere weeks to go to Euro 2012 the English FA had still to appoint Fabio Capello’s successor as England manager, following his departure due, at least in part, to being dictated to on the issue of John Terry’s England captaincy, amid accusations of on-field racism. Under Capello, England qualified with relative ease, winning five and drawing three of eight matches. Though the group could have been more taxing, England did fail to beat Montenegro at two attempts and were also held at home to Switzerland. Eventually Roy Hodgson was appointed to the position, to a mixed reaction, generated by the English media who had championed Spurs manager Harry Redknapp for some time.
Hodgson had barely had time for the hot-seat to warm up before he was naming his preliminary squad for the tournament. His options were already restricted by the injuries to a number of players who might have been expected to feature, such as Jack Wilshere; the selected squad has since been decimated by injuries to John Ruddy, Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and most recently Gary Cahill. Hodgson has himself caused controversy by consistently ignoring the claim of Rio Ferdinand, ostensibly for “football reasons”, when it seems clear the real reason is that Rio’s brother Anton, was the alleged victim in John Terry’s race row.
Hodgson seems realistic about England’s chances at the tournament, and is pragmatic about the side’s chances of winning the opener against France. The winner of this game will have one foot in the quarter finals, but Hodgson states: “I have a team in my head that can do very well against France. Whether we can beat them, I don’t know… We are moving towards a team that can not only give them a game and, if we have a bit of luck on our side, perhaps we can win it. But I don’t think we’ll go into the game as favourites”.
If England do lose this game they are likely to be fighting for second place, and a quarter final almost certainly with Spain, reinforcing the English media’s assertion that it is probably quarter finals at best for Hodgson’s men.
Many would like to see England adopt the 4-2-3-1 formation for the tournament but for both of Hodgson’s friendlies it has been 4-4-1-1. Due to the injury to Cahill there is a question as to who will play in central defence. Phil Jagielka has pointed out his long standing partnership at club level with Joleon Lescott, but it seems highly unlikely that John Terry will be dropped under the circumstances. With Rooney suspended for the first two games there is a choice to be made between Welbeck, who took his goal against Belgium very neatly, and Carroll for the role of loan striker. Much attention will be on how much playing time Oxlade-Chamberlain receives and his performances, as despite his relative inexperience, he is one of the few available England players with sufficient flair to produce a moment of magic.
Under the circumstances it seems that Hodgson is calling it correctly with France being favourites for the group. England are just about favourites to get the second quarter final spot, but if the friendlies are anything to go by, will seek to achieve this by being difficult to beat. Sweden and Ukraine will not make life easy for England but if they play to their potential England should have just enough to make it to the knock out stages. The problem is, should England make the next round, you can’t see them making themselves difficult enough to beat to stop Spain.