Monday, May 30, 2016

Group E - Italy or Belgium

Group E - Italy (or Belgium?)

Onto Group E. In other years this might be thought of as another possible "group of death" but not according to the bookies who seem pretty certain about the two to qualify from here: Italy and Belgium. The other two teams, Sweden and Republic of Ireland, have respectable records in international tournaments but their form hasn't been great lately and so the bookies make them 100/1 and 150/1, respectively. Belgium are 5th favourites to win the tournament at 12/1 and Italy are next at 17/1. Both seem good odds from here.

The group starts on Monday, 13th June with Sweden v Ireland followed straight away with Italy v Belgium. The later could realistically end up being the final.

More later, no doubt, on Italy and Belgium but here I want to focus on one of the smartest managers in the game, someone I followed when he was a player at Nottingham Forest and then as a young manager at Wycombe Wanderers, the manager of the Republic of Ireland.

Martin O'Neill

I have watched much of Martin O'Neill's football career from the beginning, both as a player an a manager. I didn't see his debut for Forest, in Division One against West Brom on 13th November 1971 (he came on as sub and scored on his debut in their 4-1 win) but I saw his first full appearance at home, and second overall, against Leeds United two weeks later.

Young Martin

I don't know how many of his 300 or so appearances for The Reds I actually saw, but I think it was probably more than half of them. This includes, of course, the one I expect he is most proud of, Forest's retention of the European Cup at the Bernebeu stadium in Madrid in 1980.

Martin O'Neill dazzling Ivan Buljan in the 1980 European Cup final

Martin, like me, missed out on the Munich final the year before and probably, like me, thought that he'd missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Amazingly, Forest went on to win the biggest prize in club football for the second year running, so Martin got his medal after all.

Glory for O'Neill and Forest

His playing career would never reach those heights again, blighted as he was, with injury. But for O'Neill, having experienced the management of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor, it was a natural step to have a go at management himself. 
He is a rare bright spark in football  - he was doing a Law degree at Queens university in Belfast before joining Nottingham Forest - and he set about it in a very logical, step-by-step way - starting at lowly clubs Grantham Town and then Shepshed Charterhouse to cut his teeth.

We had already been living in High Wycombe for four years and I had been to Loakes Park (the town center, sloping ground, that preceded Adams Park) to see the Chairboys play a few times, when I heard that the new Wycombe Wanderers manager was my hero from Nottingham.

Of course, that was reason enough for me to become a season ticket holder and for the second time in a few short years, I witnessed the meteoric rise of a team I supported, transformed under brilliant management.

O'Neill at Wycombe Wanderers
His record in management is almost (take away his time at Sunderland) impeccable...

1990-91 FA Trophy Winners at Wembley.

Martin getting his priorities right again

1991-92 GM Vauxhall Conference runners up to Colchester Utd.
1992-93 Won the GM Vauxhall Conference. FA Trophy winners at Wembley again. Wycombe Wanderers won promotion to the league for the first time in their history. 
1993-94 Promotion to the 3rd tier at their first attempt, beating Preston in the play off final at Wembley.
1994-94 Promotion with Leicester to the Premier League - again via the playoffs at Wembley.
1996-97 League Cup Winners - at Wembley again.
1998-99 League Cup Runners Up
1999-2000 League Cup Winners

- at Wembley again

O'Neill brought success to Leicester - before most outside the East Midlands had heard of them

Martin constantly had Leicester City between 8th and 10th in the Premier League in his time there.
At Celtic, from 2000-2005 he won the league 3 times, the Scottish FA Cup three times and the League Cup once. Under O'Neill, Celtic won 213, drew 29 and lost 40, of 282 games played. This is the best record of any Celtic manager ever at a time when their close rivals Rangers were as competitive as ever.

Celtic Success

From 2006 under Martin O'Neill Aston Villa finished 6th in the Premier League 3 years running. How their fans would long for those days now!

After falling out with Villa owner Randy Lerner, he left and moved to his beloved Sunderland in 2011. His first season was Ok, as Sunderland finished 13th but it went pear-shaped the next season and he was sacked in March 2013.

After 6-7 months away from the spotlight, Martin was appointed manager of the Irish national team following on from Giovanni Trapattoni's failure to take Ireland to the World Cup finals in Brazil. 

O'Neill, always the most elloquent football pundit... in Brazil

Needless to say, so far, so good. In one of the toughest groups, even with the extra places at these expanded finals, Ireland managed to qualify, including one of their biggest wins in their history, a 1-0 defeat of World champions, Germany.

Animated as ever against Germany!

As sometimes has been the case, O'Neill didn't do it the easy way and Ireland had to beat Bosnia Herzegovina in the play offs to reach France. But it's this kind of steely competitive edge that is characteristic of all O'Neill's teams. I will be keeping my fingers crossed that they show the same grit and determination and get through to the knock out rounds but my brain is telling me it has to be Italy and Belgium 1st and 2nd.

The winners of Group E play the runners up in Group D, and the runners up play the winners of Group F. So it could be Italy v Croatia and Belgium v Portugal. Ireland, if they finish 3rd with a decent points tally, could end up playing Spain or France in the round of 16. Now that would be a truly amazing way to cap a great managerial career if Ireland managed to get to a quarter final place from there!

Monday, 30th May 2016.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Group D - Spain

Group D - Spain

Every tournament has a group that the media like to call the "Group of Death". Silly, isn't it? That's journalism for you. What they are trying to say, I think, is that here is a group which is relatively difficult to win and that one or two decent teams, that might usually expect to progress from the group stages, will be eliminated.

The group that best qualifies for this label at Euro 2016 is Group D (although Group E probably isn't far behind.) It comprises four strong teams: Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic and Turkey. Spain, despite a rare failure (in recent times) at the World Cup in Brasil in 2014, are still viewed as one of the strongest teams as they are 5th in the FIFA World rankings and 3rd in Europe. They are the bookies 3rd favourites to win the tournament and must be favourites to win this group. However, Croatia, Turkey and the Czech Republic will all be strong challengers and, as they say, there will be no easy games. Group D has the lowest average bookies odds to win the tournament, at 54.4. Croatia are 8th favourites at 29-1, Turkey are 13th favourites at 80-1 and Czech Republic are 16th favourites at 100-1.

The group kicks off in Paris on Sunday (12th June) evening when Croatia take on Turkey and continues the next night when Spain play the Czech Republic

Turkey had an amazing qualification, again from a very difficult group, finishing 3rd but qualifying automatically as they had the the best record of the 3rd placed teams. Remarkably, the team in fourth place were Holland, the team that was placed 3rd in the 2014 World Cup.

Turkey can also draw optimism from their performance in the 2008 European championships in Austria and Switzerland when they reached the semi-finals, losing 3-2 to Germany. The Czech Republic, of course, came close in 1996 in England losing in the final to - guess who. But Croatia are probably the biggest threat to Spain.

So, going by the bookies odds, Spain should win the group with Croatia 2nd and Turkey in 3rd spot. The "death" in the group, if this all happens (some chance!), will go to the Czech Republic.

So, reading the tea leaves, Spain can look forward to a relatively comfortable round of 16 game in Lens against someone like Russia/Wales, Sweden or Hungary. Assuming they get through that, they'll get through to probably the easiest quarter final against the winners of the runners up of groups A and C - say, Poland.

So Spain, if they can win this group could be on their way to a semi-final in Lyon - possibly against England

Finishing second will be tough as the winners of Group E will be waiting for them in the Round of 16 game in St Denis. That could be Italy or Belgium, so it looks like it's win the group, or else.

Monday, 30th May, 2016

Group C - Germany

Group C - Germany's Group

On paper this looks like the easiest group for the seeded team to win. Germany are the World Champions and 2nd in Europe, according to the FIFA rankings. The three teams they have been drawn against are all pretty inexperienced in finals tournaments and none of them are ranked higher than 13th in Europe. The bookies make Germany 2nd favourites to win the tournament (@ 4.5) whereas Poland, the next best bet according to the bookies, are 50-1. Ukraine are 100-1 and Northern Ireland 350-1.

Poland - the best bet for an upset?

Of the three teams, Poland at least have some grounds for optimism against Germany. They qualified for the finals from the same group as them and managed to actually beat them 2-0 at home early in the campaign, shaking Germany out of their post World Cup winning hangover and for a few months it looked like Poland might actually win the group.

One suspects that the usual German knack of winning major tournaments will have already kicked in by the time Germany start their campaign against Ukraine in Lille on 12th June. Their second match is against Poland and they end up with the surprise package in the group, Northern Ireland.

It's a Cracker! 

Shame Frank Carson isn't around to see it.

Northern Ireland's qualification was perhaps the most impressive performance of all the teams that will be in France. They are another team that are at their highest FIFA ranking ever, currently at 24th in the World, when their average has been 76th.

Few gave them much chance of qualifying for the finals when the qualifying groups were drawn, as their group including Romania, Hungary and Greece. It seemed a tough group even with the possibility of the 3rd place play off place up for grabs. Nobody thought they'd actually win the group, but they did.

So, maybe there are more surprises in store for us from the boys from Ulster. I have a ticket for their 2nd group game against Ukraine so hopefully we'll see some of that spirit then.

Ukraine themselves qualified by the 3rd place play off route, beating Slovenia - the team that finished 3rd in England's qualifying group.

If all goes to form, one has to suspect that Germany will win the group comfortably with Poland, probably, finishing 2nd and Ukraine 3rd.

This should set Germany up for a relatively comfortable round of 16 game in Lille against a 3rd place team - possibly Russia or Wales, Romania or Hungary. Their quarter final should be tougher - perhaps against Italy in Bordeaux.

Poland though, will have also high expectations of reaching the quarter finals. Runners-up in Group C play the runners-up in Group A. So watch out for Poland v Switzerland in St Etienne. Actually any team in this group can therefore realistically have hopes of reaching the quarter finals this way. However whichever teams come 2nd in group A and C will then be forced to play one of the top teams, probably Spain, in Marseille.

Sunday, 29th May 2016

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Group B - England

Group B - England's Group

Ok, let's get the jinxing out of the way! I think England will win Euro 2016. In fact I think they'll win every match. Yes, I know this is ridiculously optimistic and that I have made pretty much the same prediction before every tournament England qualified for in my life time - and have got it wrong every time.... but that is what this mental affliction called "being a football fan" does for you.

Ok, so let me try to justify that optimism with some data.

England to Win!!

England's FIFA ranking isn't particularly encouraging, I admit. They're currently ranked 10th in the world which I think is pretty good but is also just about their average position since the rankings began.

However, if one just counts European sides, England are ranked 5th and there's good reason to think that is actually a misleadingly low position. England qualified for the European Championship by winning all ten games in their group.

I can sense the rolling eyes and the obvious response - "it was a weak group" - but teams still have to win these games and history has shown that in the past the more fancied teams fail to put in the required professionalism to win every game against weaker opposition. The bottom line is that this was the best qualifying record in the history of the European Championships.

To be honest, going by average FIFA ranking, England's group is also weak (the weakest in the tournament) the four teams having an average rank of 14.8. A better way of deciding this, however, might be to look at what the bookies are thinking. By this measure, England's group is the 3rd best and the bookies seem to be offering odds on England winning the tournament at around 9/1 - the 4th favourites behind France, Germany and Spain. Basically, if that's right, England should realistically aim to reach the semi finals this time. And, of course, if you get to the semis, all you need is a bit of luck and you could go on and win the thing.

Talking of luck, surely England are well overdue some in a finals tournament. I don't think it is just biased bitterness that makes me think they have not had the rub of the green in finals tournaments since 1966.

On top of all this is the exciting prospect of an England side that is full of buzzing talent at the moment, especially in the attacking department. Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy, Dele Alli have come to the fore since the last World Cup, adding to Raheem Sterling who almost shone in Brasil in 2014. Their 3-2 win in a friendly against world champions Germany in Berlin at the end of March certainly added to the feel good factor. There are always the moaners who don't like Roy Hodgson but maybe the lack of expectation is England's secret weapon this time.
Citizen Kane
For me, the key match is the opener against Russia in Marseille. If England can get off to a good start and win, they have to be favourites to win the group. The second game versus Wales will hold special interest to all football fans in the UK and although the prospect of watching Gareth Bale bursting through the English defence is a little terrifying, I can't help thinking that England should be too strong for them overall and get a narrow win. The final game, against Slovakia, should be the easiest - and assuming that they will have pretty much qualified by then, an opportunity to perhaps rest a couple of key players and encourage competition for places.

If they do win the group the draw has handed them a favourable round of 16 game in Paris against one of the 3rd placed teams. Looking ahead, this could be against a team like Ukraine, Romania or the Czech Republic - a prospect that shouldn't really put much fear into English hearts.

Following this "logic" there is a good prospect that England could be facing Portugal or Belgium in the quarter final in Lille and then Spain in the semi final in Lyon. 

C'mon Wales! 

I've had a soft spot for Wales for some years now - and not just since I was inspired by dear Elaine Morgan of Mountain Ash. So, they're definitely my second favourite team in the tournament. I love the Manics so it was great to see that they had put together the "Together Stronger" song for the tournament. It's not quite up there with "Three Lions" in my opinion but it's not far off.


Of course, everyone is excited at the prospect of Gareth Bale performing at the top of his game in this tournament - let's just hope his very best in the group games is against Russia and Slovakia and not England!

It's surely largely due to Bale's influence that Wales are currently pretty much at their highest levels ever in the FIFA ranking (#24).

It would be great if both Wales and England could qualify for the next round but it's not just my Lithuanian heritage that makes me fear Russia and we should all be careful not to dismiss Slovakia.

Personally, my dream is that I'll see Wales versus Austria in the round of 16 in Nice. Then, in the quarter finals in Lille, England - perhaps against Belgium and then, two nights later, Wales v France in Paris, St Denis. Then, to cap it all off, at the fanfest under the Eiffel tower, on July 10th, England v France in the final!!

One can but dream!! If Brasil was anything to go by, my jinxing will guarantee Slovakia and Russia will qualify, and that England, Wales and both Irish sides will be out at the group stages and I'll end up watching Germany win the thing.

29th May 2016

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Group A - France

Group A - France's Group

There are six groups in the 2016 tournament for the first time, comprising 24 teams, the most ever at a finals tournament. The cynics would say (and normally I'd be one of them) that this move is all about making more money but there's no doubt that it's also going to be a much better tournament as a result of this expansion.
The fact that fans in the UK will have four teams to follow, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic should be enough to whet the appetite of even the biggest conspiracy theorist.

So, here's a personal look at the teams in the tournament, group by group.

We start with Group A, which I'll call "France's Group" because it's easier to remember and because, barring a miracle, the host nation should win the group easily.

France are the bookies' favourites (4.0 @ bet365) to win the tournament, mainly because they are the host nation. They are at a relatively low ebb in terms of FIFA ranking at the moment (ranked #21) and there is always the problem that not having to qualify has meant they have lacked competitive matches for the past 18 months or so. Home advantage should make up for that, however.

As is traditional, they open the tournament with a game against Romania in Stade de France, St Denis on June 10th. Bizarrely, Romania are ranked higher than France at the moment (19th) but no-one seriously believes they are the more likely to win. The bookies make them 13-1 outsiders to win that opening game.

In the other opening game, Switzerland take on Albania. The swiss are the highest FIFA ranking team in the group, at 14th, whereas Albania are making their first appearance in the finals of a major tournament and are ranked #45 in the FIFA rankings. However, as always, it might be dangerous to underestimate the more unknown team. The Albanians have made impressive progress over the last 20 years or so, as their FIFA ranking shows.

If everything goes according to "plan" one has to expect France and Switzerland to finish 1st and 2nd with Romania probably grabbing 3rd spot and so giving them a 50:50 chance of qualifying for the round of 16.

So, assuming France win their group and get through the round of 16, they could face a possible quarter final in Paris, St Denis with Wales or England (assuming they finish second in their group and win their round of 16 game.)


28th May 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The European Championship

The European Championship

So what is the European Championship? What is the Henri Delaunay trophy? What's all the fuss about? 

Well, it's only the second-most important football tournament in the World. That's all. Second only to the World Cup. It's not a club competition, it's a nation thing. The right to play for your country is not something you can buy or sell, so goodbye mega millionaires. The teams that win international tournaments are usually the ones with the most skill and desire.. and luck.

You might think I'm being a bit Eurocentric suggesting this is the No 2 tournament, but I'd argue that even the most impassioned Brasilian, Nigerian, US, or Japanese football fan would surely admit that Europe has more football history and more teams with realistic ambitions of winning than any other football federation.

So, Ok. When did it start? How many have there been? Who has won it most? These are the questions, you're asking, right?

It started in 1960. It was the dream of the general secretary of the French football federation, way back in 1927, to have an international tournament in Europe every four years. Bloody Europeans, eh? Why didn't they just leave us English alone? What is it with their interfering meddling bureaucracy? After all, we invented the bloody game!

Thankfully, some people agreed it was a good idea - or maybe they just felt bad that the man who thought of it had just died. Anyway, three years after his death the dream became reality.

Who was that visionary guy? Henri Delaunay. The name behind the trophy.

I bet you're not surprised to learn that England wasn't one of the 17 teams that participated in 1960. (We're better off out, right?)  It was won by the Soviet Union, beating Yugoslavia 2-1 in the final, in Paris.

They won this...

(it didn't have the Spanish colours around it then)

England magnanimously agreed to enter the tournament in the 14 tournaments that followed over the next 56 years. (Oh, there's a coincidence - I am 56 years old too!)

Ok. I won't bore you with all the details, but...

Let's just cut to the important part. Here are the countries that have won it most...

    1. Germany (1972, 1980 & 1996) and Spain (1964, 2008 & 2012) 3 times winners.
    2. France (1984, 2000) 2 times
    3. Soviet Union (1960), Italy (1968), Czech Republic (1976), Holland (1988), Denmark (1992), Greece (2004) Once.
Yugoslavia (twice),  Belgium and Portugal have also finished runners up.

So, let's be clear. What are we saying? In the year that England are voting whether or not to leave the European Union, here is the biggest ever European football tournament going on right next-door in France, which England have never won, or even been to the final. This is a game, remember, that the English invented.

There are 24 teams in these finals. I'll go through each of the 6 groups here in the next few days but suffice it to say that if you list all 24 teams according to their current FIFA World rankings, here they are...

Euro # World # FIFA Pts Country
1 2 1364  Belgium
2 5 1309  Germany
3 6 1277  Spain
4 8 1184  Portugal
5 10 1069  England
6 11 1067  Austria
7 13 983  Turkey
8 14 974  Switzerland
9 15 959  Italy
10 18 925  Hungary
11 19 920  Romania
12 21 907  France
13 22 880  Ukraine
14 23 856  Croatia
15 24 839  Wales
16 26 825  Northern Ireland
17 27 821  Poland
18 28 821  Russia
19 30 810  Czech Republic
20 31 792  Republic of Ireland
21 32 784  Slovakia
22 35 724  Iceland
23 36 713  Sweden
24 45 632  Albania

Notice that the line up includes three home nations as well as the Irish Republic, so British interest should be at an all time high. Scotland (oops) are the only UK nation not going. Wales, whose squad includes Gareth Bale, are at an unprecedented level, as are Northern Ireland. I also have a soft spot for the Irish Republic who are managed by my Forest hero, Martin O'Neill, but I admit that this blog will be totally biased to England.
The bottom line from all the history and current form is that England are rather obvious under-achievers in this tournament. 

So here's my dream scenario for the next few weeks. Wouldn't it be great if the UK voted to stay in Europe as England went on to win the European Championship for the first time and Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland all excelled themselves?

Come on England!!! Let's stay in Europe and win!

Algis Kuliukas
Wednesday, 26th May 2016