Euro Group C: Not going to be easy for Germans

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Group C: Germany, Poland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland

The action in the group promises to be more about grit and hard-work than about the beautiful game being played at its free-flowing best.

While Germany is the overwhelming favourite, the opposition teams will take courage from the fact that the die mannschaft was beaten by the Republic of Ireland in the qualifiers and Slovakia in a friendly.

Where is the speed?

Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan would be missing the tournament due to injuries and this could prove a vital loss for Germany, which will be eyeing to secure a EURO trophy to go along with the World Cup.

Germany, under coach Joachim Loew, has always relied on fast counter-attacks to score its goals and Reus’ absence might mean Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze and Julian Draxler will all start behind Thomas Muller, the player to watch out for. Apart from lacking in pace, all three have a tendency to cut inwards and play in the centre which might open up space for the opposition to exploit.

It would be interesting to see if Loew prefers to start Andre Schurrle, the World Cup’s super-sub and a player who would offer more width, by sacrificing Gotze or Draxler. Another option will be to play a 4-3-3 formation with Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and one of Joshua Kimmich or Julian Weigl. Both Kimmich and Weigl have had outstanding seasons for their respective clubs and will inject some much needed pace.

Germany has failed to fill the void left by Philipp Lahm and Low will have to take a decision between the versatile Emre Can and the attack-minded Shkodram Mustafi.

Not just Lewandowski

This is one side that likes to play with two strikers up front, with one of them being Robert Lewandowski, who has had yet another stellar goal-scoring season for Bayern Munich. But the Polish side isn’t all about Lewa or his partner Arkadiusz Milik. The hard working midfield spearheaded by Grzegorz Krychowiak along with a defence that includes Torino’s Kamil Glik and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is bound to cause any team problems.

The absence of winger Pawel Wszolek and left-back Maciej Rybus due to injuries might hamper the team’s ability to supply the goal-hungry forward line though.

O’ Neil’s fighters

The team is proof that sheer grit and hard work can win you football matches. It topped its qualifying group ahead of Romania and the five-man midfield which includes the likes of Steven Davis and Stuart Dallas, is difficult to break down. The team is all about wearing the opposition down with its hard-pressing tactics.

The defence is also a strong unit with the likes Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Chris Baird. Manager Michael O’Neill’s side does lack in depth though and an injury to one of team’s mainstays would expose a set of inexperienced players.

Wanted – Striker

The side relies heavily on counter-attacking and its star wingers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka will hold all the keys to its hopes of passing the Group stage. The defence is also an organised unit and can be a menace in the opposition half during set pieces.

The problem with Ukraine is the lack of a high quality striker. Oh how it would be wishing for another Andriy Shevchenko! Unfortunately, the closest it has to the AC Milan legend is Roman Zozulya, who is still facing a domestic ban for attacking a referee.

Verdict/Prediction: Germany has enough quality to pass the hurdles. The battle for the other slot will be tough though. On paper, Poland looks a better balanced side, but watch out for the Northern Ireland hardiness.

The squads

GERMANY:

Goalkeepers: Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Bernd Leno.

Defenders: Jerome Boateng, Emre Can, Jonas Hector, Benedikt Howedes, Mats Hummels, Shkodran Mustafi and Antonio Rudiger.

Midfielders: Julian Draxler, Sami Khedira, Joshua Kimmich, Toni Kroos, Thomas Miller, Mesut Ozil, Lukas Podolski, Leroy Sane, Andre Schurrle, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Julian Weigl.

Forwards: Mario Gomez and Mario Gotze.

NORTHERN IRELAND:

Goalkeepers: Alan Mannus, Michael McGovern and Roy Carroll.

Defenders: Craig Cathcart, Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley, Luke McCullough, Conor McLaughlin, Lee Hodson, Aaron Hughes, Patrick McNair and Chris Baird.

Midfielders: Steven Davis, Oliver Norwood, Corry Evans, Shane Ferguson, Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn and Jamie Ward.

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty, Conor Washington, Josh Magennis and Will Grigg.

POLAND:

Goalkeepers: Lukasz Fabianski, Wojciech Szczesny and Artur Boruc.

Defenders: Thiago Cionek, Kamil Glik, Artur Jedrzejczyk, Michal Pazdan, Lukasz Piszczek, Bartosz Salamon and Jakub Wawrzyniak.

Midfielders: Jakub Blaszczykowski, Kamil Grosicki, Tomasz Jodlowiec, Bartosz Kapustka, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Karol Linetty, Krzysztof Maczynski, Slawomir Peszko, Filip Starzynski and Piotr Zielinski.

Forwards: Arkadiusz Milik, Robert Lewandowski and Mariusz Stepinski.

UKRAINE:

Goalkeepers: Andriy Pyatov, Denys Boyko and Mykyta Shevchenko.

Defenders: Evhen Khacheridi, Bohdan Butko, Artem Fedetskyi, Oleksandr Karavaev, Oleksandr Kucher, Yaroslav Rakytskyi and Vyacheslav Shevchuk.

Midfielders: Serhiy Rybalka, Denys Garmash, Serhiy Sydorchuk, Andriy Yarmolenko, Evhen Konoplyanka, Ruslan Rotan, Taras Stepanenko, Viktor Kovalenko, Anatolyi Tumoschuk and Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Forwards: Roman Zozylya, Pylyp Budkivskyi and Evhen Seleznyov.

EURO 2016 Group E: Belgium and its diamonds

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Group E: Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland and Sweden

A lot has been already said about the Eden Hazard-led (in the absence of Vincent Kompany) Belgium side. About a golden generation of footballers in their mid-20s, who have made Belgium one of the best footballing nations today.

EURO 2016, according to pundits, is the time for them to finally win a trophy and carve out a name in the history books. Standing in their way will be Italy, which knows a thing or two about history. The 2006 World Cup winner and EURO 2012 finalist might not have same aura of its predecessors, but the Azzuris know what it takes to win.

Then there is Zlatan Ibrahimovic in what should be his last big tournament representing Sweden. And the men-in-green from Ireland who are well capable of packing a punch themselves. No wonder Group E has earned the reputation of being the ‘Group of Death’ in this EURO.

Belgium

It was ranked the best team in the world for most parts of the past year and coach Marc Wilmots has with him a squad that clearly looks like the best in EURO 2016.

The headache for the coach will be selecting his forwards from an array of talent. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku look all set to play, but they face good competition from Divock Origi, Yannick Carrasco, Christian Benteke and Dries Mertens.

In Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Moussa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini, the Red Devils also have an incredibly industrious set of central midfielders. The only chink in the armour is the loss of defender Kompany through injury. But in Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen, the team has ample cover.

Having a talented squad is one thing. Winning a trophy is another. Wilmots’ side has been sluggish in the pre-season friendlies with a draw against Finland and a come-back victory against Switzerland. The Red Devils will need to shift gear come EURO.

Italy

Antonio Conte’s ever-reliable ‘Italian defence’, comprising Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, has to come good again if Italy is to progress to the latter stages of the competition.

The injury-plagued side, with no Marco Verratti and Claudio Marchisio in the centre, will be reliant on veterans Thiago Motta and Daniele De Rossi to anchor the midfield. The versatility of Alessandro Florenzi makes him the ideal candidate for the right-back or the right-wing-back position depending on what formation Conte employs, while Stephan El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Insigne provide width and pace.

The team’s first choice striker Graziano Pelle was good in patches for his club Southampton, but will need to up his game for the Euro.

Sweden

Coach Erik Hamren has preferred playing the classic 4-4-2 formation in most matches leading up to the tournament, with John Guidetti partnering Ibra. The latter is still one of the best players in the world and will be very crucial if Sweden is to progress.

Veterans Sebastian Larsson and Kim Kallstrom along with Oscar Hiljemark and Pontus Wernbloom offer great resilience if not creativity in the midfield.

Defence is an area of concern as Andreas Granqvist is not the quickest of centre-backs. He will most likely be partnered by the young Victor Nilsson Lindelof.

Republic of Ireland

The team is not an underdog. A very balanced, hard-working side, it can cause problems to most teams in the world and Ireland should be quietly confident of its chances.

Through Jon Walters’ and Shane Long’s pressing, Ireland’s game right at the top is good. Wes Hoolahan offers the creativity, while Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are the very embodiment of midfield marshals.

The defensive partnership of Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady has been good leading up to the season.

Verdict/Prediction: The Belgium side has too much quality in it and should ease through the Group stage. Italy knows how to win and one can expect the side to scrape through to the next round. Don’t write off Republic of Ireland though.

The squads

BELGIUM:

Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet and Jean-Francois Gillet.

Defenders: Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Jason Denayer, Jordan Lukaku, Thomas Meunier, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Ciman and Christian Kabasele.

Forwards: Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan.

Attackers: Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens, Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco.

ITALY:

Goalkeepers: Buffon, Marchetti and Sirigu.

Defenders: Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini, Darmian, De Sciglio and Ogbonna.

Midfielders: Bernardeschi, Candreva, De Rossi, El Shaarawy, Florenzi, Giaccherini, Sturaro, Thiago Motta and Parolo.

Forwards: Eder, Immobile, Insigne, Pellè and Zaza.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND:

Goalkeepers: Shay Given, Darren Randolph and Keiren Westwood.

Defenders: Seamus Coleman, Cyrus Christie, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, John O’Shea, Shane Duffy and Stephen Ward.

Midfielders: Aiden McGeady, James McClean, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler, Stephen Quinn, Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and Jonathan Walters.

Forwards: Robbie Keane, Shane Long and Daryl Murphy.

SWEDEN:

Goalkeepers: Andreas Isaksson, Robin Olsen and Patrik Carlgren.

Defenders: Ludwig Augustinsson, Erik Johansson, Pontus Jansson, Victor Lindelof, Andreas Granqvist, Mikael Lustig and Martin Olsson.

Midfielders: Jimmy Durmaz, Albin Ekdal, Oscar Hiljemark, Sebastian Larsson, Pontus Wernbloom, Erkan Zengin, Oscar Lewicki, Emil Forsberg and Kim Kallstrom.

Forwards: Marcus Berg, John Guidetti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Emir Kujovic.

It’s time for Sevilla to make the big leap

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Time and again, we can’t help but wonder what exactly makes football the beautiful game it is. What is it that unites people of different class, creed and gender under one roof? What is it that makes millions of people spend so much of their time observing, considering and discussing the game? Is it our undying passion for the game? Is it the joy of watching some of the best athletes in the world working as a team to achieve a common goal? Is it the lack of a pre-destined outcome unlike in a film or a play? Or is it the unpredictability of events such as Brazil’s historic World Cup triumph in 1958 or Greece’s famous EURO 2004 victory?

The football season that concluded recently was not short of surprises either. Be it Leicester City’s rise from a position of an underdog to the English Premier League champion, or PSV Eindhoven pipping Ajax to win the Eredivisie on the final day of the season. But where do we place Sevilla’s unprecedented third consecutive Europa League victory?

Unai Emery’s team has made winning Europe’s second-tier club competition a habit. Sevilla’s victory this season — its fifth in the last 10 years — makes it the first club to win three consecutive UEFA titles since Bayern Munich and Liverpool reigned supreme in the mid-1970s. However, with automatic qualification granted to the Europa League winner every year, what the statistics also reveal is how poor Sevilla’s performances have been against Europe’s best.

Sevilla’s La Liga campaign was far from what was worthy of a European champion — the club finished a disappointing seventh, failing to win away from home the entire season.

Emery’s men were found wanting in the Champions League too. Sevilla beat Juventus 1-0 on the last day of the Champions League group stage to dislodge Borussia Monchengladbach from the third spot and make it to the Europa League. The club, though, was eliminated from the Champions League.

For the Andalusian club to make the big step in Europe, it is important for Sevilla to change its mentality. It must no longer be a feeder club for Europe’s big guns; instead, it must fend off any approach for its stars. Every successful football team in history has had a core group of players around whom the team was built. Sevilla must now offer Emery the chance to do the same.

In the recent past, the club lost striker Carlos Bacca to AC Milan, midfielder Ivan Rakitic to Barcelona and left-back Alberto Moreno to Liverpool. This year again, there are rumours that Argentine Ever Banega is bound for Inter Milan, while a host of teams are reported to be circling around defender Adil Rami and forward Kevin Gameiro.

The Sevilla management can learn a lot about success from Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone. The Rojiblancos won the Europa League in 2011-12 and has not looked back since. It won the La Liga and played in the Champions League final in the 2013-14 season. This year too, the lesser-known side from Madrid has reached the Champions League final, after having chased the eventual La Liga winner, Barcelona, until the penultimate week of the season.

The success of Atletico lies in its ability to sustain the quality of its side. When Sergio Aguero left the club, it brought in an ideal replacement, Radamel Falcao. Following his departure, Diego Costa stepped up. Now, it is Antoine Griezmann and old boy Fernando Torres. Similarly, after Thibaut Courtois left the club, Jan Oblak stepped in to set a record for clean-sheets.

Sevilla has shown similar healing abilities in recent seasons. Bacca more than filled the hole left by Alvaro Negredo, while Gameiro has stepped up since Bacca’s departure to Milan.

One person instrumental in Sevilla’s success in the recent years has been its sporting director Monchi, who is regarded as one of the finest talent hunters in football today. When he arrived in 2000, the Andalusian club had just been relegated and was in huge debt. Monchi played the key role in big-money sales of Sergio Ramos, Dani Alves, Luis Fabiano, Federico Fazio and Seydou Keita after signing them for cheap, and thereby turning the fortunes of the club around. Sevilla, however, continues to be a selling club with double-digit ‘INs’ and ‘OUTs’ every season. There is no doubt that Monchi and his team will continue to unearth talent. It is now essential for Sevilla to retain a core set of players around whom Emery can build a title-challenging team.

Back in the Champions League next season via the Europa League victory, it must simply do better and go past the group stages. That means no retaining the Europa League for a fourth consecutive time, and therefore the extra need to find a top four place in La Liga to ensure Champions League qualification.

Sevilla is the first side to win the Europa League five times, which is a formidable achievement considering the club has done it in a span of 10 years. But the time has surely come for the club from the Southern Spanish town to make the leap into Europe’s best.

Amir Khan: Punching above his weight

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Image Source – Guardian

Why does a boxer, an Olympic medallist and one of the best professional light/welterweight pugilists in the world today, want to jump two weight categories up to fight one of the most dangerous fighters in the world?

“To go down in history as one of the greatest,” says the former World champion, Amir Khan, in a telephonic interview from San Francisco, where he is currently training for his first middleweight bout, against Mexican Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, scheduled for May 7 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Amir Khan (31-3, 19 KOs) decided to take on Alvarez (46-1-1, 32 KOs) after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao turned down offers to fight him.

“Everybody in the world knows they (Mayweather and Pacquiao) refused to be in the ring with me. So, I had to jump two categories to get the next big challenger, who was Canelo. But I believe I belong in this position, fighting the best people in the world,” affirms Khan.

A British of Pakistan origin, who won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics when he was only 17, says, “Nobody ever expected me to stay. So many people started boxing with me at the same time, but they all quit. I’m the only one who stayed.”

As a kid, Amir was hyperactive and his father enrolled him in a local boxing gym when he was eight to calm him down. “As soon as I stepped into the ring in the gym, I smelled sweat, I smelled blood. I saw the punching bags being punched. I heard voices of people being hit, and I said, ‘Wow, this is a nice place to be in! I love this place,” he reminisces.

Amir’s career has been one continuous story of the boxer proving people wrong. When he went to the Athens Olympics, nobody gave him a chance.

“I’ve always been an underdog, and I thrive on it. So, when I went to the 2004 Olympic Games, they said I will have to fight (against) very big, powerful guys. I reached the final and my opponent was a former Olympic champion, who had like 300 fights under his belt. He defeated me in a very close fight. But those people who said I was going to get blown away were all proved wrong,” Amir says.

The Olympic success, in a way, would go on to define Amir’s boxing career. He turned professional in 2008 and quickly moved up the ladder with his speed, aggression and never-say-die attitude, winning many fans too in the process.

Amir Khan… “People are writing off my chances and that gives me extra motivation. It brings the best out of me when I’m the underdog. I always believe in myself.” – Getty Images

His 12-round WBA light welterweight title defence against Marcos Maidana in 2010, which was adjudged the ‘Fight of the Year’ by the Boxing Writers’ Association of America, and his comeback victory against (till then) undefeated American Carlos Molina, are a testimony to Amir’s street fighter-like spirit. He just refuses to give up.

Opportunities coming at the right time define a sportsperson’s career. Amir reckons his success, or that of India’s favourites boxers Mary Kom and Vijender Singh, is down to being lucky enough to get the right support at the right time.

“Look at Vijender, who is a great fighter. Now he is a professional winning many fights. This is because he had opportunities. India is a very big country and there is plenty of potential. What we need to do is to put these kids into the boxing ring. We need more academies. Boxing is a sport where poor people can come big. That’s where you find true fighters,” says Amir.

He plans to promote boxing and encourage more kids in the sub-continent to take up the sport as a career. “I have opened a very big academy in England with more than 500 children. I want to do the same in India and Pakistan because in our blood we are true fighters. The academy in Islamabad will open a week after my fight against Canelo. We people are hard working and talented. With academies, we can soon win Olympic medals,” asserts Amir.

Amir, who co-owns the Indian Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) company, Super Fight League (SFL), along with his Indian partner Bill Dosanjh, is planning to promote MMA along with boxing in the sub-continent.

The bookmakers do not fancy Amir in his bout against Canelo. The British boxer, however, does not care what people have to say about him.

“Canelo is like the biggest name in boxing today and is the World champion. Normally I go into every fight as the main attraction, but this time I’m entering the ring as an underdog. So I’m really looking forward to the fight,” he says.

According to Amir, he will approach the match just as he had done in Athens 12 years ago as a 17-year-old.

“This (Canelo fight) reminds me of the Olympics. People are writing off my chances and that gives me extra motivation. It brings the best out of me when I’m the underdog. I always believe in myself,” says Amir.

Canelo is renowned for his brawling approach. He is powerful and a genuine puncher, who will knock down any opponent if given the space. More importantly, Canelo has steadily improved his counter-punching style in the past few years, which makes him a lethal boxer with adaptive techniques.

Amir, however, is confident in his own abilities ahead of the big bout. “To beat power, I have speed. Speed, in my opinion, beats everything else. I’m the quickest fighter in the world. I’ve got the quickest of combinations and the quickest of punches. So I’m going to use that advantage and make sure that I don’t make any mistakes against Canelo,” he says.

Canelo versus Amir promises to be an exciting match for boxing enthusiasts across the world. Some are already calling it the ‘David versus Goliath’ bout of the year.