04 July 2004

The Greeks have done it!!

The final of Euro 2004 won't stay in the memory for the quality of the football on display, but will be talked about for years to come. Greece beat the hosts Portugal 1-0 to send the entire Greek nation into a mixture of shock and celebration. The Greeks had been to two previous European finals, where they lost five of the six group matches and drew the other, scoring once and conceding 14. So the bookmakers who offered 150-1 for a bet on them winning the championship thought they were safe. I wonder if anyone actually put money on them, even the Greeks?

So what makes the current Greek side so special? In a couple of words,Otto Rehhagel. Their German coach has taken decent, but mostly average players, and worked hard to mould them into a team which can frustrate more naturally gifted opponents, and take advantage of any opportunities that their opponents provide. So this evening, just as in the semi-final, the only goal of the game came from a Greek corner.

As the tournament progressed, the Greek team attracted a lot of admirers. Everyone likes to see the underdog rise above expectations, and you had to admire the players for working so hard. Their man marking was spot on, and even when one Greek player lost the ball, there was another close at hand to get it back. Quite simply, they were a team, in the way that the Dutch have never been.

As for the Portuguese, they didn't do too much wrong, but they didn't work as hard as the Greeks, and it looked as if the occasion had overcome them. While feeling sorry for the hosts, whose kind and warm people deserved a victory, I'm also pleased that the Greeks managed to maintain their discipline and win the trophy. It sends the right message to players and coaches - that with hard work and discipline, any team can win a trophy, however much the bookies and pundits might say it's not going to happen. And that can only be good for football at every level.

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 01 July 2004

Delirious Greeks in the final

A quite amazing end to the second semi-final. Level after 90 minutes, the Czech Republic and the Greeks went into extra time. The silver goal rule applied, meaning that the game could finish after the first extra 15 minutes if one team was ahead. The clock ticked up to 15 minutes exactly as the Greeks took a corner - and they scored! Absolutely no time for the Czechs to do anything about it. The TV cameras cut to scenes of delirium in central Athens, where thousands of Greek fans were watching the live game on giant TV screens.

On the one hand, I feel sorry for the Czechs. They started strongly, but suffered the loss of their captain Nedved through injury in the first half, and they never totally recovered. But you have to credit the Greeks for their tactics - close man marking throughout the whole game stifled the normal play of the Czechs, and as the match progressed the Greeks grew in confidence, and started to play a bit themselves. In fact, for a 0-0 match, it was highly watchable and tactically fascinating. Some of the credit for that also goes to referee Pierluigi Collina, making his last appearance at a major international tournament. You can see that Collina enjoys making the game the centre of attention rather than himself.

And just consider this: The Greeks had never won a single match at any international tournament until this year - now they're in the final. And another odd thing - the fixture, Portugal v Greece, is exactly the same pairing as the opening match of the tournament. Greece won that, so they'll be full of confidence. On the other hand, so will the Portuguese, as the host nation. I'm already looking forward to seeing who comes out on top. Either way, it's great to see two of the less fashionable football nations in the final.

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 30 June 2004

Holland well beaten: the score flatters them

The Dutch were somewhat fortunate to reach the semi-final, and needed to produce a good performance to beat the host nation Portugal. They didn't. In fact, the first 45 minutes produced some of the most dire football I have ever seen from a Dutch team. Portugal deservedly went in at half time 1-0 up.

The second half had to be better, but before the Dutch even started to get in the game Maniche scored an amazing goal, which could be the goal of the tournament. Unfortunately, so unexpected was it that the moment was completely missed by the director working for the host broadcaster, who was running an action replay of an earlier incident. We did see the goal a few moments later from several angles, but it's not quite the same thing.

There was another terrible moment for the Portuguese five minutes later when Andrade, attempting to clear a ball from the path of van Nistelrooy, only succeeded in scoring an own goal for Dutch. More worryingly for the Portuguese, it started a mini-revival for the Dutch side, who saw the chance of a comeback. Indeed, in the last half hour they put the Portuguese team under considerable pressure.

By this time most neutrals - and I count myself as a neutral because I'm not Dutch - had seen enough to know that the Portuguese deserved to win, or more to the point the Dutch didn't. You can't expect to play well in a major semi-final for just one third of the time and win, especially against the host nation who are gaining in confidence all the time.

Quite simply, unless you're a Dutch supporter, the better team won. And Portugal were better by some distance. Their passing was better, they read the game better, and played well as a team. Once again, there are clearly serious problems in the Dutch camp to make them play so badly in such a big game. I now expect - and hope - that Dick Advocaat will resign soon. My own belief is that the Dutch need a coach of a different nationality, because all the Dutch coaches of recent years seem to have succeeded in producing cliques rather than a settled team.

I have a feeling that the Czech Republic will beat Greece tomorrow, so we'll have a good final between them and the Portuguese. Frankly, they have for me been the two best teams in the competition, and I'll be happy whichever one wins it.

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 27 June 2004

Danes architects of their own defeat

The Danish team can have no complaints about losing 3-0 to the Czech Republic. In a poor first half, they were the better side, and had some chances, but didn't take them. The Danes had almost two thirds of the possession, but went in at half time with nothing to show for it. It was clear that the Czechs, who have been impressive in this tournament and were the only side to get maximum points in the group stage, weren't going to play as badly after the break.

And so it proved. Only 4 minutes after the re-start, the Czechs went 1-0 up with a header from Jan Koller. And on 63 and 65 minutes, two classy goals by Milan Baros put the tie beyond the Danes, whose supporters were stunned into silence. The Czechs now face Greece in the semi-finals, and must be clear favourites to win that game.

Apart from England v Portugal, the semi-finals have been disappointing for the football purists, but that is so often the case because of the tension surrounding the match. Yet for some reason, the first half of this match didn't even seem to have that - both sides looked as if they were taking part in a training match. The crowd did a few Mexican waves, a clear sign that there wasn't much interesting happening on the pitch.

The Czechs are my team of the tournament so far. They may not be the best technically, but they come good when it matters. A Holland v Czech Republic final would be nice, but first the semis.

11:01:52 PM     comment on this entry []

Holland go through by the narrowest of margins

120 minutes of football couldn't separate Sweden and Holland: 0-0. Neither could the standard five penalties: 4-4. So it was into sudden death. Sweden shot first and Edwin van der Sar saved Olof Mellberg's kick. Then 20-year-old Arjen Robben, one of the players of the tournament and bound for Chelsea next season, took the 6th Dutch penalty - and the stadium went wild. Afterwards he said he wasn't nervous, and his only thought was that he was going to score.

The celebrations after the match might have led you to believe they'd won the Championship rather than reached a semi-final, but you have to understand a bit of football history to appreciate what it means to the Dutch. The last four times they've been in a penalty shootout, they've lost every one. This ends a frustrating sequence, and gives the players and fans belief that this time their luck has changed.

I remember the excitement of 1988, the last time the Dutch won the European championship. It was just a year after I moved here, and the passion shown by the public - not just the diehard football fans - made quite an impression on me. Can the Dutch team do it again? A week ago, nobody gave them much of a chance. But after tonight, why not? With so many of the pre-tournament favourites already eliminated, they should really go for it. By their own admission, they didn't play especially well tonight. But I think they'll be really up for the semi-final.

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 25 June 2004

Greece produce the shock of the tournament

The biggest shock of the tournament, and one of the biggest in European Cup history, was produced by Greece who knocked out champions France 1-0. Greece had previously not managed to win a single match in the final stages of European tournaments, but now they're in the semi final. And it wasn't a fluke result because of a controversial refereeing decision - this was a thoroughly deserved result based on a careful plan that worked brilliantly.

Pretty it wasn't. The Greek coach knew that the only way to deny France was to man mark them closely, denying them the space they need to play their usual passing game. But they also needed to find a way through the French defence - and they did that too. The big stars of the French side - Zidane, Henry et al - had no answer to Greece's tactics. They weren't at their best, but the match didn't have the atmosphere of last night's encounter between England and Portugal. The French supporters seemed not to comprehend that the team needed their support.

I normally don't like watching teams that play like the Greeks, but bearing in mind the odds they were up against, they were thoroughly professional. We'll know tomorrow night who they're going to play in the semi-final, but one thing's for sure: they won't care. The Greeks are in dreamland, and good luck to them.

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 24 June 2004

England try hard - but go out on penalties

It was a cruel way to go out - but the better team won. After 120 minutes of football, it came down to a penalty shootout between Portugal and England. David Beckham missed the first one - and the rest, as they say, is history. But the way it finished was extraordinary, with the Portuguese goalkeeper scoring the penalty that put his team into the semi-final. It's the first time I can remember seeing a goalkeeper take a penalty against his opposite number in such a high profile match, but I dare say there have been a few others.

That England even got this far in the match says more about their tenacity than the quality of their play. After less than half an hour, wonderkid Rooney limped off. He went straight to a Lisbon hospital for an X-Ray that revealed he had broken his foot. The loss of Rooney brought an early end to what had looked promising, with Owen scoring in the third minute to break a long sequence of non-scoring for England. But for the last 15 minutes of the first half and the whole of the second, Portugal dominated and had lots of shots on goal. The stats at the end of 90 minutes told the story - Portugal had had 27 shots on goal and 65% possession, compared to 10 shots and 35% possession for England. Those sorts of figures don't win major tournaments. The Portuguese had admitted before the match that Rooney was their big concern. Once he had left the pitch, it was as if the Portuguese started believing - and England lost confidence.

Portugal looked to have won it when Rui Costa scored a wonder goal 5 minutes into the second half of extra time. But Lampard equalized with 5 minutes left on the clock.  So to penalties - Beckham and Vassell both missed for England, and that was that.

So, England weren't good enough without an 18-year-old from Everton. We'll never know whether Rooney could have taken England all the way. He's young, and we'll hopefully see him in many big matches for England. But I can't help thinking that this was the best chance in a long while for England to pick up some silverware. Now it's time to start preparing for the 2006 World Cup.

11:52:17 PM     comment on this entry []

 23 June 2004

Oh what a lovely storm :-)

There's a big storm outside, with heavy rain and high winds. But nobody cares, because against most people's expectations, the Netherlands have made it to the quarter finals of the European Championships. The final group match with Latvia was always going to be the easiest of the three, but remember that they had got just one point out of six, after the shock defeat by the Czech Republic at the weekend. The Netherlands scored three against Latvia, but it could and should have been a lot more. This was the most one-sided game I've seen in the tournament.

But was it a shock defeat against the Czech Republic? Because in the other game, that was vital to decide who would go through in second place, the Czechs beat the Germans 2-1. That means the Czechs take maximum points from their three matches, the Germans just two, and the Dutch team go through on four points. If the Germans had beaten the Czechs, they would have gone through instead. Latvia ended up with just one point, but they had their moments and will have gained a lot of useful experience playing against three of the big teams in Europe.

So the Dutch go marching on, and their quarter final will be against Sweden, whom they should beat comfortably. Just four nights ago, it was all doom and gloom. It shows in a nutshell just why football is such a fascinating and often unpredictable game. But the Dutch should not get too carried away. There are clearly, once again, fundamental problems of team spirit and a lack of respect for the coach, who I expect to resign after Euro 2004 even if Holland win it. But just for the moment, my Dutch friends can smile broadly because, despite drawing their opening game with Germany 1-1, they're still in Euro 2004 and the Germans aren't. And that, as any Dutch person will tell you, is almost as good as winning the competition itself!

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