Let's get this out of the way first - the two best teams at the European Championships are in the final. Yes, more was expected of Germany, Holland, and France, but Spain as expected and Italy somewhat surprisingly have shown what can happen when teams play as a team and for a greater cause. They are both there on merit.
Spain though have the added pressure of chasing history and trying to win three major tournaments in a row. They are not as good as they were in 2010, but will still be tough to beat. Italy are playing to prove they are better than the pre-tournament forecasts when they were written off completely. They are very similar to their 1982 team who were written off even after the group stage to turn in a run to the final that saw them dispose of Brazil, Argentina, Poland, and West Germany on their way to victory.
There will be three factors in deciding the outcome of the final. 1) How will the first group game and its outcome impact both teams? 2) How much of a factor will fatigue play? 3) How much will the strength in depth of Spain be able to overcome the lack of depth on the Azzurri bench?
Italy have always been credited with producing tactically adept teams while Serie A is still the most tactical of the major leagues. The Italians played one of their best games in recent years in the draw against Spain. They pressed, they defended well, they were clever on set plays, they passed the ball well and crated chances. And yet they still only got a draw, proving how difficult it will be for them to overcome the Spanish. Italy will have to adopt similar tactics to get a result on Sunday unless Cesare Prandelli opts to change things. He won’t.
Spain may go with the same line up from the first game and once again play without a recognized forward. However, I would expect Vicente Del Bosque to spring a surprise and play a forward or two. He may need to change the approach to be more like that of Barcelona to ensure he gets the best out of Xavi and Iniesta. The two have not looked at their fluid best in a crowded midfield and need space to play and run into. It will mean Del Bosque sacrificing another midfield player. On the day he may go with the Barcelona duo and their teammate Sergio Busquets.
I predicted before the tournament began that the teams’ heavy in Champions League semi-final participants would not do well and none would win the tournament. So far England, Germany and Portugal have been eliminated with all three teams having looked tired late in their games. Only Spain with their contingent of Barca and Real Madrid players combined with their Europa Cup semi-finalists have advanced. They could yet prove me wrong.
However, Spain have looked out of sorts in every game except against Ireland. But keep in mind that the Irish were the worst team at Euro 2012. Over 90 minutes I expect an older Italy team to be the slightly fresher than their Spanish counterparts. But a third game in six days for an older Azzurri side will eventually take its toll.
While Italy have the psychological edge of having played well against Spain in the first game and have less of an issue with fatigue, there is no doubt that Spain have the greater strength in depth. Italy can ill afford to suffer any injuries during the game while Spain can change things up from the bench if needed.
Like all major finals the first goal will be of immense importance. If Italy score first they will be hard to beat. If Spain score first the Italians will keep it tight until the last 15 minutes then have to open up to get the equalizer. At that point Spain can pick them off on the break and add a second or third that they might not deserve. Italy to win 1-0 or on penalties if they score first. Spain to win by more than one goal if they score first.
I don't remember the day I was born, but I do know that Saturday in August 1967 is a pretty significant date in my lifetime. There are more celebrated dates I do remember - my wife's birthday, my wedding anniversary, and the three dates my four kids were born on. There are other dates that are also etched in my memory - August 24, 1987, the day I moved to America; June 12, 1988, Ireland beat England 1-0 at the European Championship; May 9, 1998, Celtic ended Rangers bid for ten-in-a-row. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells, the emotions, and the sheer joy of all these occasions.
And while the rest of the world was watching the latest round of games at Euro 2012 the date of June 14, 2012 was added to my memory bank. Harry Redknapp was sacked by Spurs and Rangers Football Club was liquidated. I knew it was going to be a special day when I got up and my voice mail, text messaging, and email inbox were inundated with friends and football acquaintances asking me how I felt. How did I feel? Is that a rhetorical question?
I don’t like Harry Redknapp, never have, but I endured him being the manager of my beloved Tottenham Hotspur. Yes, he has had a successful spell in charge of the club and I will be reluctantly appreciative of the fact that a Spurs team managed by him produced some excellent football. Still, I am not unhappy that he has gone. I am elated. Sure there is a chance that the new manager takes us backwards, but as long as he represents Tottenham with class and dignity and understands the ethos of the club, the reputation for playing attractive football, and acts with the humbleness of Bill Nicholson, I will gladly back him.
Harry Redknapp was good for Spurs, but Spurs were also good for Harry Redknapp. Spurs were loyal to him through some tough times, but he did not return that loyalty in kind with his whoring of himself to the English FA. His media pronouncements and his hypocritical statements on all things Spurs have long since riled me. Thanks Harry, it was fun while it lasted, but Spurs are bigger than you and we will move on with our head held high.
For 140 years Celtic and Rangers have shared a rivalry that came to be known as the Old Firm. Any Celtic fan of my generation grew up with the backdrop of the sectarianism that surrounded the rivalry. As the Souness and Smith eras unfolded the sense of dread of Rangers doing 10-in-a-row grew with each title they won. Celtic were run with a biscuit tin mentality and the Rangers board, players, fans, and a compliant media reveled in the clubs malaise especially in 1994 when Celtic nearly went bankrupt.
Sir Dave Murray, he of the knighthood soon to be rescinded once sarcastically said that “for every five pounds Celtic spend, we will spend ten.” It was such a sentiment that endeared Murray and Rangers to a success starved Celtic support. With the grace of God, the combined efforts of Fergus McCann, Henrik Larsson, Wim Jansen, and Martin O'Neill Celtic put Rangers in their place and made a mockery of Murray's arrogant statement.
Murray over-extended Rangers Football to help return the Gers to SPL supremacy. That hubris eventually led Rangers into administration, docked 10 points and allowed Celtic to cruise to the 2011-12 Scottish Premier League title. That was the first step in an unstoppable downward spiral that culminated today in Rangers going into liquidation and being wound up. The club formerly known as Rangers Football Club 1872 Limited no longer exists. It is now known as The Rangers Football Club 2012 Limited.
So now the date of June 14, 2012 has been added to all the other celebratory moments in my lifetime. Harry departing Spurs was always on the cards be it this year or sometime in the immediate future, but the realist Celtic fan in me never thought the day would come when Ranges ceased to exist. There is something wrong when death can bring so much joy, but such is the power that football rivalry holds over supporters that the schadenfreude is easy to understand.
So on the day that Fernando Torres scored two against the worst team at the Euros and Andrea Pirlo scored the first direct free kick in the tournament, please forgive me for ignoring those seminal moments to celebrate the departure of Harry Redknapp and the decease of Rangers Football Club.
What a day!
The Olympics, the third biggest sporting event in the world, kicks off in a few weeks and I could care less. The fact it is in England, and I have had to endure the incessant drivel of the average English pundit on the radio, probably has a lot to do with it. I don’t feel the same way about the European Championships and Ireland being in it is pure coincidence, they just provide me with a side interest. I am really looking forward to the games, finding out if Spain can win their third major title in a row, and how England will implode in their latest attempt to rise above futility.
When I was younger, the World Cup was bigger to me than the Euros. Argentina ’78, Spain ’82 and Mexico ‘86 were the three most memorable summers of my youth. But as I grew up, the Euros took over in my estimation because of the quality of the field - no Zaire or New Zealand or North Korea to ruin the group games. There are no whipping boys at the Euros, and no teams to provide comic relief for the armchair neutral to feel bad for (although England are doing their best to take on the latter mantra).
My first memory of the Nations Cup, as it was once called, is watching the 1976 final with my granddad Lawless. He was an avowed Gaelic Football fan and it is still strange to me that he allowed me to watch the game in his house. I practiced in vain as I tried to replicate Panenka’s outrageous penalty that won the final for Czechoslovakia against Germany. The grainy black and white images are now on YouTube, while the goal is the stuff of legend. Helder Postiga replicated the feat for Portugal against England at Euro ‘04. Spurs legend!
I was in Paris on the day France beat Yugoslavia 3-2 at Euro ‘84. Les Bleus could have won the World Cup two years previous, but on home soil Michel Platini scored a hat-trick on the day and would imperiously lead his talented team to glory. They beat Spain in the final due in part to a horrendous error by Luis Arconada. A rematch at any stage in this year’s tournament would provide a feast of attacking football.
There are dates and events in history when people remember where they were and what they were doing at that exact moment in time. In recent years the death of Osama Bin Laden, 9/11, Princess Diana, and the Challenger disaster are some of the seminal moments of our time. For Irish fans it was June 12, 1988 at 2:36 PM EST, 7:36 PM in Dublin and 8:36 PM in Stuttgart. I was in Hennessy Headquarters in the Bronx watching a satellite feed with my cousin John Baitson as Ireland played England at Euro ’88. Kevin Moran took a free kick. Tony Galvin hooked the ball into the penalty area. John Aldridge headed it on and Ray Houghton headed it back across the English goal and looped it into the empty net. Tony Adams and Kenny Sansom stood with their hands aloft looking for offside as Arsenal players of that generation were want to do. Irish fans everywhere went mental. The goal miraculously stood up as the prayers of Roman Catholic Ireland, as it was still at the time, were answered. Ireland beat England 1-0 and 800 years of subservience to our imperial masters was eviscerated, and a nation celebrated. We may beat England at another Euro or World Cup, but it will never mean as much as did on that summers day 24 years ago.
The current Ireland team lacks the quality of Jack Charlton’s revered squad. Our best player is a has-been EPL player who now plays in MLS. The squad would struggle to avoid relegation if it played together in the EPL. However, in Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland has an astute manager who can help his team get the big result, or cause a huge upset. Ireland are very similar to the Greece team of 2004. They won't win the Euros, but they have the power to grind out results and a win or draw with Italy or Spain is not beyond the team.
I was as surprised as any fan when Greece won the title in 2004. They were rank outsiders and the proverbial underdog, but somehow they made it to the final and beat the more fancied Portugal for the second time in the tournament. However, it should be noted that the Greece team was full of players with extensive Champions League experience, so they had the collective ability to play on the big stage. The team that wins this year will have a similar make up - players regularly playing in the CL – which rules out the likes of Ireland as serious contenders. I think the demands of this year’s CL will take a toll on two of the three countries who had representatives in the semifinal stage. Spain (Barcelona and Real Madrid) and Germany (Bayern Munich) will be there or thereabouts, but will be eliminated with a tired performance and with a key player out injured. The third country represented in the CL was England (Chelsea-03). The reason they won't win it is simple. They are not good enough.
I would like to see a repeat of the 2010 World Cup Final with Holland facing Spain, but this time playing with the legacy of Rinus Michels’ Euro ’88 Dutch winners behind them. If not, Spain or Holland, then Germany or France, winning with Teutonic or Gallic flair would be good for the game. My outsiders for glory are one of Denmark or Russia with the draw having been kind to the latter.
I wanted Man United to win the EPL, Bayern Munich to win the Champions League, Barcelona to win La Liga, Hibs to win the Scottish Cup, Liverpool to win the FA cup, but all five lost. With that in mind I want England to be crowned European Champions in Kiev on July 1. Come on the Three Lions.