Why Euro 2016 Will be a Crucial Tournament for Europe’s Best

With the World Cup over, the collective attention of the footballing world has turned to the club season. However— most fans will also be looking forward to the next biggest international tournament. The 2016 European Championships. Like the World Cup, the “Euros” are held every four years and feature a slate of qualification games leading up to the tournament.

Compared to past Euros, Euro 2016 will have a very different feel to it, because it will be a crucial tournament for every country involved. Here are some of those countries and why the tournament will be key for them.

Spain

La Roja’s era of dominance is over. The cracks started to show, however briefly, at the last Euros. By the time Brazil 2014 came and went, Spain’s reign had unceremoniously ended. With the departures of team pillars Xavi, David Villa and Xabi Alonso, the Spaniards will be handed over to a mix of youngsters and veterans to carry the team. The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva will still feature heavily, but Spain must do a better job of integrating younger talents such as Koke, Isco and Daniel Carvajal if they are to stop the tailspin they are in. Euro 2016 will be crucial for Spain. As it stands, they are on the fence – the fence between the world’s elite (i.e. Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands) and the upper echelon’s middle class (i.e. England, Mexico and Croatia). If Spain can integrate its youth, it stands a chance to stay at the big kid table. If it doesn’t, slipping is a real possibility.

France

France carries the weight of a nation, or rather the support of one. The French will host in 2016, and after a favorable showing in Brazil, Les Bleus will look to build upon the positivity. The team only lost by one goal to eventual champs Germany, something that can’t be said of Brazil, and seamlessly integrated future stars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann into the team. For one reason or another, the team that went to Brazil didn’t feature Samir Nasri, Clement Grenier or Gael Clichy. If Didier Deschamps can integrate those players, along with talented youngster such as Florian Thauvin and Alexandre Lacazette in the same fashion he introduced Pogba and Griezmann into the side then France could win the tournament on home soil.

Italy

Like various other European powers (see Spain, England, and Portugal) Italy struggled in Brazil. The victim of somewhat unfortunate circumstances, cannibalism included, the Azzurri struggled. With new coach Antonio Conte in charge, the team suddenly has a much brighter future. Conte, the former Juventus manager, relied heavily on a back three in his formational forays at Juve. His goalkeeper and back three at the Old Lady typically had Gianluigi Buffon in goal with the trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli sitting in front. All four will be at his disposal with the national team. Because of the renaissance the back-three has experienced in world football and the Juve players’ familiarity and success with the formation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Italy achieve success at Euro 2016.

Germany

The World Cup winners lost Phillip Lahm, Per Mertesacker and Miroslav Klose to international retirement. However, thanks to their status as World Cup trophy winners, and their tremendous depth, the team should be considered favorites heading into 2016. Germany has an abundance of quality to replace Lahm, Mertesacker and Klose, with the respective likes of Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes and Mario Gomez (among others) waiting to fill in. The 2016 Euros will be especially crucial for the Germans as they look to build a dynasty similar to the one Spain recently had. Only this time, with the tremendous depth and development in the German senior and youth ranks, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Die Mannschaft win more trophies than the Spanish.  

England

England is in transition. With Steven Gerrard retired and Frank Lampard likely to follow the same path before too long, the Three Lions will be without the midfield backbone they’ve had for the past decade. The fate of England lies with its youngsters. If exiting talents like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw can continue their trajectory towards being elite, world-class players, then the one-time world champs will have a chance in France. If not, it could be a long road back. Wayne Rooney is the only consistent/elite leg the English have to stand on. Despite a roster littered with Premier League veterans, Roy Hodgson’s team looked challenged in Brazil. If the youth comes through, England shouldn’t be discounted. On the other hand, if the youth falters, it will be another international tournament where Wayne Rooney carries more of a burden than is necessary.

Portugal, Sweden and Wales

All three teams are extremely star driven. For Portugal it’s Cristiano Ronaldo, for the Swedes it Zlatan Ibrahimovic and for the Welsh its Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale.

Ronaldo will be 31 in 2016, and it may be the Portuguese’s last chance to win a major piece of silverware with the world’s best player. The situation is similar for Sweden. After failing to make it to Brazil 2014, 2016 could be the last time we see Zlatan on a big international stage. This could be the last time for each to make their mark internationally.

Wales’ duo of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale won’t be going away any time soon, but this will be a crucial tournament for the Welsh as they look to establish themselves as respectable players in world football. The team isn’t just Ramsey and Bale either, the Welsh also boast quality players like Swansea captain Ashley Williams, recent Spurs signing Ben Davis and Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen. The 2016 European Championships will be Wales’ chance to get their foot in the door of international football.

Cinderella-type runs aren’t as unheard of at the Euros as they are at the World Cup. Greece won it all in 2004 and Italy made a run out of nowhere to finish second in 2012. All three countries (Portugal, Sweden and Wales) certainly have the talent to do it.

Croatia  

The Croatian national team has some truly gifteded players like Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric just to name a few.  However, outside of group stage exits, the country doesn’t have much, to show for since finishing third at the 1998 World Cup. The 2016 Euros and 2018 World Cup are the last chances for a supremely talented generation of Croatians to prove that they can make an impact. If the team can put in a positive, lengthy run at 2016, they can build momentum for a strong finish in 2018. Maybe a return to France (where their 1998 World Cup success occurred) will help Croatia. They certainly have the talent to accomplish bigger things.

The Netherlands

Similar to other European nations, this may be the Dutch’s last chance to add to their trophy cabinet while Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie are still playing. The rest of the Dutch team is loaded with youth and potential, but for three of the world’s most feared attacking players their international careers are winding down. After finishing second in South Africa and third in Brazil another piece of silverware certainly isn’t out of the question. If the Dutch can continue to mesh young players with their key veterans, they will not only have a chance to be successful in 2016, but also at the 2018 World Cup and beyond.

The European Championships in 2016 will be crucial for just about every contender in Europe. Some countries will be looking to build for the future while other countries will attempt to eke out one last glorious run from an aging generation. Either way, 2016 will be of the upmost importance.

Euro 2016: Why the Serbian National Team is a Dark Horse

The Serbian national football team hasn’t qualified for the European Championships since 2000 when they reached the quarter-finals. 2016 could be different. Qualifying has yet to officially begin, but the Serbs have been handed a manageable group—Portugal, Denmark, Armenia and Albania are their rivals in qualification. This won’t be a cake walk by any stretch; Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal is one of the top 20 teams in the world, Denmark is a solid squad and Armenia just missed qualifying for the playoff to get into Brazil 2014. Still, with the talent Serbia has, you would favor them to advance.

Coach Dick Advocaat’s selection pool features players plying their trade in numerous top leagues. With Serbs employed at club teams in Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and France among others, there’s certainly talent. However, Advocaat’s strongest contingent comes from the Serbian internationals playing in England’s top flight. With players at top clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, the team has a strong nucleus. The team is especially strong in midfield and defense, two reasons why they could do serious damage in 2016.

Sitting in front of veteran shot-stopper and onetime Wigan keeper Vladimir Stojkovic is a defense that could arguably be one of the finest in Europe. The two most-capped players on the back line are Chelsea stalwart Branislav Ivanovic and Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov. These two will man the wide positions while the center back options give Advocaat a plethora of potential selections. At the coach’s disposal is Borussia Dortmund star Neven Subotic, Serie A veteran Dusan Basta, Kolorav’s club teammate Mastija Nastasic and Lyon defenseman Milan Bisevac. A theoretical back line of Ivanovic, Kolarov, Subotic and Nastasic arguably provides more stability and quality than the defenses of European big boys Spain and England.

Further up the pitch in the midfield are a diverse group of Serbs that provide dynamic play and defensive support. Whatever tactical formation is used, you can bet that Chelsea man Nemanja Matic will be sitting in front of the back four, providing key passing and making timely tackles. In addition to him, Advocaat can deploy a number of quality players in the central and wide areas of midfield. These includes recent Liverpool signing and lightning-quick Lazar Markovic, Southampton’s newest goal-creating threat Dusan Tadic, Roma attacker Adem Ljajic and Benfica owned Filip Duricic.

Serbia’s depth and quality is nowhere near that of Belgium, another recent dark horse from Europe, but they are similar in talent to Switzerland, a team that pushed Argentina to the brink in the World Cup. The Serbs won’t win Euro 2016, and at this point they haven’t qualified, but if they get there, they’ll make some noise.

World Cup 2014: Positives from Italy’s Campaign

Italy didn’t experience the best of World Cups – not by their own prestigious standards, or the standards of anyone else for that matter. The Azzurri were eliminated in the group stage with one win and two losses to show for it. One of those losses was to an underrated Costa Rica side, the other loss was marred by near-cannibalism. Regardless, Italy didn’t just miss out on the knockout rounds because of a singular incident (although you could make a case with Suarez’ bite…)  they looked slow and uncreative at times.

Once you get past these maladies, there were some bright spots to be had. Here are a few of them.

Matteo Darmian

The 24 year old Torino right back burst onto the scene in his competitive debut for Italy, combining with Antonio Candreva to terrorize England down the right flank in both team’s opening game. Darmian looked solid defensively as well and was one of six Italians to start every game. The others? Established starters Claudio Marchisio, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Andrea Pirlo and Mario Balotelli. That’s pretty good company for a player who made his international debut just weeks before the tournament began. The performance helps Darmian even more so because it solidifies his hold on the position. With Ignazio Abate unable to hold down the position and Christian Maggio getting older, Italy may have found their right back for the next eight years.

Salvatore Sirigu

At age 36, captain Gianluigi Buffon doesn’t look like he’s slowing down, but at some point he won’t be around to mind the net for the Azzurri. For a while, no keepers embraced the mantle of Buffon’s successor. At one point in time, you could have pegged it on Marco Amelia or Federico Marchetti, but both have fallen by the relative wayside. Now the title firmly belongs to Salvatore Sirigu. The 27 year old shot-stopper is already a full-time starter at French giant PSG, arguably one of the top clubs in the world. Winning games in Ligue 1 and the Champions League is one thing, but winning and playing well at the international level is a completely different animal. Sirigu, starting for an injured Buffon, performed admirably against England in Italy’s win. He looked solid in goal all game, and would have kept a clean sheet had it not been for a smash of a goal from Daniel Sturridge that few goalkeepers could have stopped.

Marco Verratti

Another member of the Italy’s “heir-apparent club” is Verratti. Like his PSG teammate Sirigu, is the long-term replacement for another Azzurri legend, Andrea Pirlo. Unlike Sirigu in goal, you can play more than one midfielder in a game, so Verratti is afforded the rare opportunities to play alongside the man he may one day replace. At 21, he was arguably one of Italy’s best and most consistent players at the World Cup. Like Pirlo, he is a superb passer and regularly is handed starts at the club level ahead of the likes of Javier Pastore and Yohan Cabaye.

Giuseppe Rossi

This isn’t fair, Rossi didn’t make the team that went to Brazil. Nonetheless, he remains a bright spot. Why? Because of the role he will play in the future after Italy’s attacking options faltered in South America. Of the five forwards Cesare Prandelli brought to the World Cup, Alessio Cerci and Lorenzo Insigne only made two substitute appearances. Besides those two, you had the trio of Ciro Immobile, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. Immobile, still only 24, looked nothing like the goal-scorer he was at Torino. Cassano looked exceedingly sluggish and seemed to struggle physically. Balotelli’s play meanwhile was once again, mercurial. Except this time, it took a downward trajectory as opposed to his previous positive displays in an Italy shirt. After scoring against England, he was relatively quiet and missed a key chance to score versus Costa Rica. However, his yellow card against Uruguay changed the game in a bad way for the Europeans. This meant, if Italy advanced, they would have been without their most dangerous striker. On top of that Prandelli took him out to avoid going down to ten  men only to see the referee give Claudio Marchisio a straight red a few minutes later. The point I’m making with Rossi is that none of Italy’s strikers wowed anyone in Brazil. Together they managed just a singular goal. Teams need goals to win, and Italy needs players who can get them those goals. Sure, the Azzurri have a superbly talented group of midfielders who can score, but the team needs strikers who can consistently put the ball in the back of the net. They know that they have that in the New Jersey born Rossi.

FC Porto: Forming a Starting XI of Players Sold Over the Past Five Years

Portuguese giants Porto are the model of a “feeder club.” They churn out wildly productive players and sell them to other clubs for massive profits. All this while maintaining their status of being one of the more consistently winning clubs in Europe.

FC Porto have even supplied coaches to some of top teams on the continent as Andre Villas-Boas and Jose Mourinho have left The Estádio do Dragão for new pastures.

Here is a starting XI of the best players to leave the Portuguese club in the last five years-

Goalkeeper: Rafael Bracalli

This is the toughest one on the list, mainly because Porto has employed Helton at the club since 2005. The Brazilian has been team captain since 2009, so all the goalkeepers to leave in the last five years have been a stream of back-ups. Rafael gets the nod due to his move to the Greek League, a higher level league than the other departed keepers.

Left Back: Ally Cissokho

The current Liverpool player (on loan from Valencia) was only at the club for a brief spell, but helped them push a Ronaldo-led Manchester United to the edge in the Champions League while also achieving the Portuguese double. After a failed transfer to AC Milan, Cissokho moved to Lyon.

 Center Back: Bruno Alves

Portuguese national team mainstay Bruno Alves spent nine years at Porto, highlighted by a Primeira Liga Player of the Year honor in 2009. He would later move to Zenit St. Petersburg in 2010. He now plays for Fenerbahce in Turkey.

Center Back: Nicolas Otamendi

Argentine international Otamendi is the most recent player to leave Porto on this list. Valencia bought him at the beginning of February and loaned him to Brazilian side Atletico Mineiro. He’ll likely feature for Argentina at this summer’s World Cup.

Right Back: Miguel Lopes

Lopes spent loan spells with European clubs such as Braga and Real Betis before moving permanently to fellow Portuguese giant Sporting CP in a swap for Russian midfielder Marat Izmailov. He’s currently on loan at Cissokho’s former club, Lyon.

Center Midfield: Joao Moutinho

Moutinho is one of the better box-to-box midfielders in the world. Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, he headlines the Portuguese national team’s attacking force. Along with another player on this list, attacker James Rodriguez, he moved to AS Monaco last summer.

Central Midfield: Fredy Guarin

Columbian international Fredy Guarin is another supremely talented box-to-box midfielder to leave Porto recently. Currently plying his trade with Serie A giant Inter Milan, who he initially joined on loan in 2012, he will by vital to Columbia’s hopes at the World Cup.

Central Midfield:  Lucho Gonzalez

Gonzalez gets the nod over Diego and Raul Meireles based purely on the higher fee he fetched when he left the club. The current Al Rayyan player spent two different spells at Porto, winning numerous trophies in the process. He moved to Marseille in 2009 before returning to Portugal in 2012.

Left Forward: James Rodriguez

Rodriguez moved to Monaco with Moutinho for an obnoxious amount of cash, reportedly 70 million euros combined. The principality-based club brought in the two, along with ex-Porto star Radamel Falcao, in their pursuit of Champions League football.

Center Forward: Radamel Falcao

Lissandro Lopez was also in consideration for this spot on the list, but Falcao’s goal scoring prowess gives him the edge. He left Portugal for Atletico Madrid before moving to Ligue 1 this past offseason. Like Guarin and Rodriguez, if healthy, he’ll be a key player for Columbia at the World Cup.

Right Forward: Hulk

The only player on this list to share a name with one of the Avengers, Brazilian international Hulk moved to Zenit, where he currently plays. He is a starter for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Brazilian squad.

These players represent what could have been for Porto. While they may be missed at the Portuguese club, they were sold for tons of money. And everybody likes money.

Six Things We Learned from Italy After the Netherlands Friendly

(Disclaimer: I don’t profess to know a ton about football. I just love the beautiful game.)

  1. Andrea Pirlo’s genius, pace and the fouls/free kicks he draws. Some people play on a whole other physical level, or a whole other level in terms of speed. The latter is Pirlo. (Also, isn’t it nice that in football/soccer, wherever you’re from, a players is simplified to just one name? Even if he hasn’t shortened his name to one name. Messi is called Messi when his full name is Lionel Messi, etc. Anyways, it lends itself to lazy typers like me, and the rest of the world for that matter.) Pirlo plays the game almost methodically. You know when basketball gurus say that the game has “slowed down” for some players? That’s Pirlo. He slows it down. While the tempo killing can sometimes be hard to watch, the Italian midfield maestro always makes the right pass, even if he has to slow down to do it. Expanding on that, especially in the match against the Dutch, everyone else was going 110 miles an hour (if you will) while Pirlo was cruising at a comfortable 85. The result of this is that a lot of hand checks and fouls that might go un-noticed were noticed as Pirlo drew multiple free kicks by simply playing at the speed he feels comfortable playing. I should also point out his genius. Which he is, by the way. Every game there are about three to four plays where he makes a pass that could open up the defense. If your defense gives Pirlo milk and curds he turns it into Swiss cheese. (Especially if he’s playing against the Swiss.)
  2. Buffon does it again. Where Pirlo makes three or four passes that unlock the defense, Gigi Buffon makes three or four saves that the average Joe keeper wouldn’t make every game. He did this again on multiple occasions against the Dutchmen.
  3. Sub Par? Not to say that the starters were lacking, but the substitutions of Pablo Osvaldo, Alessandro Diamanti, Alberto Gilardino and Marco Verratti certainly changed the game in a positive way.
  4. Slick Whats? The field was very slick in case you didn’t notice. At least half a dozen players hit the turf, one of which quelled a promising Italian attack.
  5. Friendly Strategy. (That faux headline didn’t work, but stick with me.)  Cesare Prandelli certainly isn’t using friendlies to get results. The Italy head-man consistently uses friendly games to test younger players and tinker with different pairings and lineups ahead of major tournaments. He’s using this strategy for the upcoming Confederations Cup as well as the Azzurri’s likely World Cup spot in Brazil in 2014.
  6. It’ll Work. Eventually. Italy’s spearheaded attack of Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaaraway seemed to be a bit stagnant in the first half. While the Osvaldo/Diamanti/Gilardino trident worked, the former group will likely be the long and short-term options up front. They’ll figure it out eventually, playing together that is. After all they both play for AC Milan. They’ll be tested and ready by Brazil.

If I missed anything from the game that you thought was mention-worthy, tell me in the comments section.