The field for the European Championship, a.k.a. the World Cup minus Brazil and Argentina, is beginning to take shape with qualifying down to the final two rounds. The big news is that England, needing only a draw in Russia to put themselves in pole position for qualification, coughed up a 1-0 lead in Moscow and now have to hope for Israel to take points off of Russia in order to have any chance of qualifying. The highlights:
I am left in the odd position of rooting against Israel, who cannot qualify for Euro '08, but can play the role of spoiler and bring this undeserving England side back into the frame. Not that I think that Russia will bring a lot to Euro '08 - the last time the Russians made an impact at a major tournament, they were the USSR and most of their best players were Ukrainian - but I love watching England fall on their faces. The fact that a Dutch manager, Guus Hiddink, played the role of banana skin is terribly amusing to me. Hiddink vs. McClaren is like Pete Carroll vs. Lloyd Carr in the Rose Bowl when both coaches have had a month to prepare.
Most of the blame from the English press is falling on their manager Steve McClaren, a fractionally incorrect penalty decision, and their inept keeper Paul Robinson, who has absolutely no idea how to properly direct a rebound. It will not occur to the English that, gasp, maybe their players just aren't that good. Their flagship player right now is Steven Gerrard, whose major accomplishment yesterday was a stunning miss when he could have put the game out of reach. And maybe it's an indictment of English football that they haven't produced a quality keeper since Gordon Banks or a sharp manager since Bobby Robson.
Joining the English in the ranks of the royally pissed this morning are their old friends in Scotland, who contrived to lose 2-0 in Georgia. (Not Herschel Walker's Georgia; Zaza Pachulia's Georgia.) Scotland had been the surprise package of qualification up to this point, as they led a group that also contains both of the 2006 World Cup finalists (Italy and France) and a 2006 quarterfinalist (Ukraine) to boot. Unfortunately, Scotland also have a rich history of getting their fans' hopes up and then cruelly destroying them. They're the Chicago Cubs of international football: fanatic fan support, occasional glimpses of excellence, followed by crushing defeats just when things were looking up. Highlights:
Scotland will still make it to Austria/Switzerland if they beat Italy in Glasgow in November, but the loss yesterday puts the onus on the Scots to beat a team that is, if nothing else, very accomplished at grinding out 0-0 draws. The Italians do have a recent history of being too defensive in trying to protect leads - see '04 vs. Sweden, '02 vs. South Korea, and '00 vs. France - and the Italian coach, Roberto Donadoni, is questionable in terms of his tactics. Scotland-Italy promises to be an exceptionally interesting match, as the Scots will have incredibly intense fan support tinged by dark fatalism if anything goes wrong. The fact that the reigning world champions provide the opposition only spices the stew even more. The final piece of the puzzle is that both teams can qualify if France don't get the right result in their November match in Kiev, which ought to be somewhat chilly.
Unlike England, several European powers have either qualified or on the precipice of doing so. Germany qualified on the weekend with a goalless draw in Ireland, thus ensuring that Joachim Loew and his scrupulously maintained nostrils will be making the short trip to the Osterreich this summer:
Mockery aside, the Germans are the favorites this summer, as they will have virtual homefield advantage and they have a terrific young cast of players who bloodied their noses in the '06 World Cup and are now ready to win something big. The question for the Germans is whether their strikers will be able to put the goals away, as Lucas Podolski is struggling mightily at Bayern and boy band reject Kevin Kuranyi has never produced on the international stage. This was not a problem when Michael Ballack was scoring regularly from the midfield, but who knows if he will be healthy and in form by the summer as he's neither right now. The Germans will be qualifying from their group along with the Czech Republic, who were the best side at Euro '04, but are now a little long in the tooth.
[Update: I blanked on Miroslav Klose's existence. Since he scores in bushels for Germany and for his club teams, Germany have a more reliable striker than any of their main competitors. Germany are the clear favorite. Carry on.]
The Germans' old buddies Holland will almost certainly be joining the Teutonic party this summer as they are four points clear with two to play and a home match against Luxembourg next up. The Dutch put two past Slovenia yesterday, which is a veritable offensive outburst in the van Basten era:
The hope is that the combination of three key players - Sneijder, Robben, and van Nistlerooy - playing together at Real Madrid, along with Robin van Persie and Clarence Seedorf hitting their form at Arsenal and AC Milan, will lead to goals this summer. For a spell, I was thinking that the Dutch couldn't score because this generation of players isn't as good as the Bergkamp generation that produced excellent results in the 90s, but that doesn't appear to be the case as the Dutch have plenty of players doing well at the top levels of club football. If they don't score this summer, then the blame will ironically be directed at Holland's greatest striker.
The Dutch will be joined by Romania from Group G. Sweden and Spain look set from Group F. The Spanish are rounding into form and have, by far, the best midfield in Europe with Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta. (I'm totally unbiased is lavishing such praise onto two Barca players and a Catalan who started out in Barca's youth system before being signed by Arsenal.) The question, as posed by Phil Ball, is whether Spain can find a ball-winner to play behind that trio. Iniesta has been playing that position fairly competently for Barca in the past couple weeks with Yaya Toure out, but ideally, Spain would have another player in that role to free Iniesta to get forward. The other eternal question with Spain is whether they are constitutionally incapable of living up to expectations. The Spanish are often compared to England in terms of failing to meet expectations, but they are a different case. The English fail because they can't produce a quality manager or keeper and their players are a little overrated in terms of technical skill. The Spanish have a bevy of good keepers and do not suffer for good managers (Luis Aragones is questionable, but there is no English equivalent to Juande Ramos), but they still flatter to deceive over and over again. With the Spanish, it is truly a mental block.
Defending champions Greece booked their spot yesterday with a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Turkey and damaged Turkey's chances significantly in the process. Turkey must now win in Norway on November 17. Swirl that sentence around for a few moments. Finally, Poland and Portugal look set as the victors of Group A. Thus, the probable field for Euro '08: