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The Road to UEFA Euro 2016: Group E (The "Death" Group. Yes Mortensen, I Said Death Group!)
We’re moving quickly here in the control room. The mates and I (oh man, I went full Brit right there!) just dropped our Group D preview of Euro 16 not too long ago (you can find the link below) and we’re quickly moving on to Group E now. And my goodness Group E is devastating; well to everyone other than Matt, who has put on his hater pants specifically for this one. Besides him, anyone else looking at this Group is going to see four really good clubs who are going to play some exciting football and (in the case of one club) sing a whole lot of songs you’d find on a Dropkick Murphys album. Let’s not waste any time. Moses, stop lying low in them fields and give the people the meme they deserve and need right now!
Ryan: This Belgium team looks pretty good on paper, and it amazes me each year exactly how many great talents come from here. They really came out of nowhere around ten years ago to become one of the most solid teams in world football. If there’s a weak area here, it’s the strike force. It seems awfully strange to say that about a team that can lay claim to having Lukaku, Origi and to some extent Benteke up front. During qualifying however, only four of their goals were scored by strikers. In fact, their top scorers were midfielders Hazard and De Bruyne with five a piece. Still, it doesn’t matter who scores ‘em, as long as you do. Belgium’s biggest concern in terms of qualifying is the fact that they have to face Italy in their first game. Italy is their main rivals for securing qualification. If they do lose here, they might drop points in the two other games that they arguably should win, due to a lack of confidence.
Matt: Is this where Belgium finally stand up and show themselves to be a future contender for tournaments? I think so. They won 7 of their qualifying matches and only lost one, to Wales. Only Poland and England had more goals per game then Belgium. Only Germany had more attempts on goal and they have the 5th best defensive record throughout qualifying only giving up 5 goals in 10 games. Vincent Kompany is a huge lose for Belgium, I can't sugar coat that. I don't like that the majority of this squad plays in the EPL. Personally I think that is the hardest league to play in regards to all the scheduling. Especially if you play for a top 6 team. I doubt most of them will be 100% fit and the wear and tear of the season may show up here. If the results go the way I believe they will they will be going up against England or Germany in the quarters. After their disappointing effort at the 2014 World Cup, Marc Wilmots, said they would start playing a more attractive style of football. I for one am yet to see that. They've improved their speed but I don't think that makes their overall play more attractive. Wilmots likes to play a 4-2-3-1 formation. I don't think we'll be seeing many of those in this tournament. Lukaku should be the lone striker up top. Hazard will play on the left and De Bruyne will play in the middle. Not sure who they'll play on the right in the attacking half. I don't expect them to win this tournament but I expect them to put up a good showing. They are the best team in this group and should finish on top. How far they go from there I'm not sure. They struggle when teams defence compresses on them and they don't seem to be able to break that down. So if they get Germany in the quarters I don't think they'll be beating them.
Cult: Get ready to read about the first of two title contenders IN THIS GROUP! We told you it was loaded. There’s a very good case one could make for Belgium being the most talented club in this tournament. Their roster is loaded with dudes who have dominated all across Europe, they’re young but with decent experience; even their keeper situation is golden (both Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet). This is a team that should be a heavy favorite to win the whole thing, and thankfully I think this Group is going to tell us whether or not that’s truly the case. If there’s one thing that does concern me against Belgium its effort; I saw many games in the EPL this year where star players Roman Lukaku and Leicester City hero Eden Hazard (get it?!) coasted and cost their clubs games. I’m not saying that’s a club wide problem here, but Belgium can’t afford to take it easy in this Group at any point. That first game against Italy will be really interesting.
Oliver: Belgium is the highest FIFA ranked team in the tournament. Belgium! That little place between Netherlands and Germany! I know! A country with only 34 professional teams! Belgium! This truly is their golden generation, all the product of Michel Sablon’s revolutionary tactic as technical director of telling youth teams to not worry about winning and to play 4-3-3. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And here is the fruit of his labours – a decade on from him firing the starting pistol on a grassroots revolution, Belgium sit poised as the hipsters favourite who shouldn’t really be hipsters favourite. Everyone loves Belgium. Every team wants a Belgian. Every player wants to be Belgian.
The thing is, whether through skill, luck, judgment or all three, Belgium really do have a ridiculously strong squad. Well, and Marouane Fellaini. But outside of the afro sporting elbow machine, look at the list of names – Courtois, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Nainggolan, De Bruyne, Lukaku, Hazard, Carrasco, Mertens…the list never ends! Look at whom they haven’t included – Chadli, Defour, Bakkali, Tielemans, Mirallas, Januzaj…these are great players that just aren’t needed. Bonkers; pure bonkers. I expect them to emerge from this very difficult group with relative ease, although nothing is actually easy about Group E. It will be a battle, but the class is there for them to dominate. If they can neutralise Zlatan, break down Italy, and stop James McCarthy kicking their most talented players in the ankle (me? Bitter? Never!) they should be OK.
Oliver: Here’s the best thing Italy have ever done...
120+1 minutes were on the clock when Angelo Ogbonna knocked in that winner against Liverpool. He is my favourite Italian. Besides that, I don’t know what to expect of Italy. I mean I do, because they’ll be really Italian I suspect – difficult to break down, catching people on the break and so on. But equally they, like England, seem to be far more blessed going forward than at the back at the moment. Their defence is more experienced, but their attacking line-up is mouth-watering if it all clicks together and James McCarthy doesn’t break all their ankles. Whether it will or not remains to be seen, but they could go a long way into this tournament and must surely fancy themselves to be at the sharp end come early July.
Ryan: The four time World Cup winners and one-time European Championship winners are looking to add their collection. Strangely, that European Championship came almost 50 years ago, whereas they had experienced World Cup success as early as 10 years ago. For a squad as talented as Italy’s, who have shown that they can shine on the larger world stage, there really does seem to be a hoodoo as far as winning this tournament is concerned. Still, they seem to do somewhat well, as 5 out of the 8 times that they have qualified, they have reached the Semi Finals. As this is a group stage prediction, I have little worry about the fact that they will make it out of the group. They have a good mix of youth and experience. They have 9 players over the age of 30, including the most capped non-outfield player of the tournament: Buffon (38, 157) and 7 under 25, including the ever-popular El Shaarawy (23). The problem with this Italy team is that over the last year, their win record is just as balanced as their squad; as they have an exact 50% win record over the past 12 calendar months. As I said earlier, no worries as far as Group E is concerned for that sort of form should be enough to qualify from it, but from there on out, they’d have to find their definitive winning touch again.
Matt: I think most of Australia hates Italy after the World Cup over in that lovely country called Germany. That was a terrible penalty call. Horrendous. So it must suck for them seeing Italy come into tournaments with one of the best squads tournament after tournament. Well that isn't the case here. I would be shocked if this team makes it out of the group stages. They say bye bye to Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio through injuries. Verratti is one of the best midfielders in world football. Marchisio is the heart and soul of this team in the middle with his leadership. They are irreplaceable. They did finish qualifying with 7 wins and 3 draws and finished top of their group. Take that for what you will. So to the absolute surprise of many Italy's strength is.... Their defence! Shocking, isn't it? When is it never the defence? From everything I've read and seen we are lead to believe that Conte will be going with a 3 man backfield. That could change come the start of the tournament and is a little scary for my liking. But their saving grace? The back three will be Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci. who all play for Juventus. Talk about knowing your teammates. And guess who their goalie will be? Gianluigi Buffon. Their Juventus goalie! That's just ridiculous. On the other hand what the hell was Conte thinking in picking his forwards? Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne needed help so what did he do? Not pick Leonardo Pavoletti or Andrea Belotti for starters. How did he not pick them? He's picked one guy who has barely played. and one guy who has scored one goal since January. And the other who has been playing as atrocious as Iken is on FIFA. Now that's saying something. They are going to struggle immensely to score goals up front. And that's an understatement. Don't get your hopes up Italy fans.
Cult: If France had the good fortune of being put in a weak group, Italy got the opposite end. Make no mistake about it; the Italians are fielding an excellent club per usual, still have the ageless Gianluigi Buffon patrolling the net (all while continuing to be one of the best captains on the planet) and have a massive experience advantage over everyone. What worries me is their ability to keep up with younger, faster, more athletic clubs like Belgium, especially offensively where the Italians boast only one player with more than fifteen goals (midfielder Daniel de Rossi). This is again why that first game between Belgium and Italy is so intriguing. If Italy takes this one in a low scoring game where Buffon looks like Buffon, they’ll take this Group easily and I think could be the favorites to take the whole thing. If they lose, I could see this being a Spain 2014 World Cup situation. It’s all or nothing for the Italians; hopefully it’s the former because dammit Buffon deserves all the trophies. I absolutely love this dude; even my Fernando Torres fandom pales in comparison.
Republic of Ireland
Cult: At the risk of Northern Ireland’s Randall Morrison flying all the way across the Atlantic to kick the ever loving shit out of me, nothing would please me more than the Irish winning this whole thing. One of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in sports was the last ten minutes of Ireland’s lost to Spain in the 2012 Euro, where the Irish fans defiantly sang “Fields of Athenry” (one of my favorite songs) in support of their team despite the 4-0 deficit. If you don’t identify with that beautiful display of support, you’re either Randall or Matt Mortensen, and that sort of fan support is exactly why I’d love to see this club pull a 2004 Greece and shock the wo
Now how likely is that? Sadly not very, despite the fact that the Irish are a pretty capable team with good to great players like Seamus Coleman, Ollie’s buddy James McCarthy, Shane Long and the ageless wonders Wes Hoolahan, John O’Shea and Robbie Keane. They’ll scratch, they’ll claw, they’ll compete hard in every match their in and in the end it should be enough to get them at least a third place finish (maybe a second if Italy bombs). Beyond that, I just don’t see them having enough talent to compete against the big boys in the Knockout Stage. Here’s hoping I’m wrong and “Fields of Athenry” is being sang across the globe in a few weeks while Randall pulls a Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
Oliver: Can a team seemingly reliant on a pair of old hands at either end of the pitch (40 year old Shay Given in goal, 35 year old Robbie Keane up front) actually pose a threat to the other three teams in this group? I guess so, as long as James McCarthy kicks all their opponents off the pitch for them they should have an easy time of it. Realistically, I imagine they are the least fancied team in the group, but Leicester weren’t fancied last summer and look at where they ended up. They have a battle on their hands, but maybe, just maybe, Roy Keane will shout at them enough to make them work hard enough to steal a third place and potential last sixteen spot. Maybe.
Ryan: When I look at this Republic of Ireland squad, I think of a side whose credentials are much underrated. More than half of the squad played in the Barclays Premier League last season, so they are used to a fast-paced and physical game. Captain Robbie Keane has recently drawn level with Ukraine’s Tymoshchuk to become the joint-most-capped player on display at this tournament. Still, for all of their experience, this has made them the oldest side of the entire tournament with an average age of 29 year and 297 days, yikes! Folks, if you have been reading my entries in these previews, you’ll know that I like balance as far as this is concerned, and it’s a damn good job they’re used to playing top sides every week, for otherwise I’d worry that their legs wouldn’t carry them. If they keep Ibrahimovic and Lukaku at bay, two strikers who will no doubt test their defence, they’ll be in for a good shot at finishing third.
Matt: So we get to the Republic of Ireland. Randy's home country. Technically he's from Southern Ireland but he says he's from Northern Ireland. I don't know why that is. He hasn't told me. Well if worst comes to worst here for the Republic of Ireland at least you know that they have a very very loyal and vocal fan base and they'll try do outdo themselves in what they did in last year’s group stage. If it wasn't for us lovely Germans letting them beat us in the qualifying process they wouldn't be here and we'd be talking about crappy Scotland. Thank god that didn't happen. I guess Aidan McGeady is their best player? I really don't know. And I think that is where their weakness and strength comes through. They don't have that star player, like the team I'm about to talk about next has, that can break open a game for them. Or a guy they can pass the ball to and ask them to do something with it. But I guess that's where their strength comes in, if you can call it a strength anyway. The whole depth of this squad is pretty much on a level playing field. If one player goes down another will come in and you won't lose much at all. I like the fans of the Republic of Ireland and I feel bad that they'll finish in last place but the fans will give us some good viewing at least.
Matt: Are people really calling this group the group of death? My goodness they must not follow a lot of football. And it makes me angry. The Republic of Ireland will finish last, Italy a shell of a team they usually are will clearly finish 3rd. That leaves 1st and 2nd to Belgium, and this team, Sweden. Even then Belgium is a step above Sweden here. Regardless Sweden will be progressing to the next stage. They were lucky to even be here if you ask me. I thought Denmark was going to come back and steal the playoff win. Zlatan Ibrahimovic stood up and showed his worth to this team scoring 3 of their 4 playoff goals against Denmark. He is the heart and soul of this team and they will go as far as he can take them. They have quite the decent squad here for this tournament. But that's all it is, decent. It's not a great squad. They should have no trouble getting out of this group. Belgium will be too quick for them as Sweden are quite slow down back so if they play long balls over the top it could be a long night at the office for them. Depending on who they draw in the next stage I can't see them going much further anyway. Perhaps I'm underestimating Italy here with that horrendous squad they've taken because I'm seeing a lot of people saying Sweden will be finishing third behind Italy. I can't for the life of me see that though.
Cult: And now we’ve reached the least talented of this Group, poor pitiful Sweden. Not only do they not have a lot of guys playing at top clubs in top leagues, I’ve only heard of two, yes two, players on the squad. That’s bad…until you realize that one of those two players is Zlatan Ibrahimovic, one of the greatest footballers ever, the inspiration for the Guster song “One Man Wrecking Machine” and the most diabolical hater since the so called Beautiful (by the way, the other Swedish player I’ve heard of is Celtic’s Mikael Lustig. Thought you’d like to know). So frankly it doesn’t matter if Sweden can’t measure up to the other three teams in this group; when you have a force of nature like Zlatan (who literally can’t be stopped if he’s on) you’re always in contention. Sweden will be no different and at worse will win a game in this Group, and may even do more. That’s literally how deep this field is here; any of these teams is a dangerous Knockout Stage club waiting to happen.
Ryan: Now we have Sweden. Sweden, Sweden, Sweden. You know you have writer’s block when you can’t say anything other than Sweden. After putting some Abba on Spotify, I think I’m ready. Sweden had a complete rollercoaster ride trying to qualify for this event. They were unbeaten in their group until falling to Russia and Austria, then just about managed to clinch third, but won their play-off by the narrowest of margins: 4-3 against Denmark! I think every man and his dog is predicting Sweden’s success to come down to how well Ibrahimovic plays, and he’ll be looking to impress his rumoured new manager Jose Mourinho. The fact of the matter is the big Swede hasn’t scored for his country since November 2015! Can I see him desperately wanting to score to really enhance his own reputation furthermore to his new club? Yes. Though if he has lost that touch on the big stage, will he waste too many chances? Guidetti looked sharp as anything against Wales recently.
Ryan: I can’t help but feel that Italy has the most consistent side across the field and their track record in this tournament tells me that it would be a travesty for them to not advance from the group. Belgium’s lack of goals from up-front isn’t much of a problem when their midfield is free-scoring. This leaves Ireland and Sweden. It comes down to whether Ibrahimovic can do it in the Premier League, for that’s where the majority of Ireland’s squad has played! If Ireland shut Sweden out, I fancy a Robbie Keane goal in their match. Screw it, let’s go for the upset. I’m predicting Ireland to pick up third place and to also just about make it as a third place qualifier!
Matt: “The group of death.” Ha. I think that there is 4 groups that are harder to pick and harder for teams to get out of than this. Ireland won't be winning a game and will finish last. Italy with the loss of Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio and the fact that they made the ridiculous choice to go into this tournament with no help for Graziano Pelle and Lorenzo Insigne. They really are going to struggle going forward and I can't see them beating Belgium or Sweden so they'll finish 3rd and they'll be going home. Sweden don't have the depth to beat Belgium but they will finish 2nd. At best they could finish on 7 with Belgium but Belgium will have the better goal differential so that's why Belgium will finish 1st.
Cult: I’m going to take a risk here and say Italy steals the Belgium game, meaning they steal the group while Belgium still takes second. As for third…perhaps it’s heart over head, but I see the Irish taking it and making the Knockout Stage, while Zlatan publicly decks one of his teammates and then decides to go to Chelsea instead of Man U. Somewhere Matt is fist pumping rapidly at that thought.
Oliver: 1. Belgium 2. Italy 3. Zlatan 4. Ireland
And that children is how a Group becomes…dammit Eric why do you keep trying to make that joke work? It’s not happening. What will be happening is our preview of Group F, dropping in a little bit. Till then, a surprise message to Ollie from James McCarthy!