Champions, titans, and … some other game: Sunday’s Euro 2012 playlist

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Spain, coming off their win at South Africa 2010, open their European title defense against Italy. And there’s another game, but I can’t remember who’s playing. While I figure that out, let’s talk about the main event, which just so happens to be the day’s first game (12:00 p.m. ET on ESPN).

No team has won three major championships in a row, but Spain’s on the brink. They took Euro 2008 (their first major title since 1964) and followed it by 1-0’ing their way to their first world title. Come Sunday, they’ll be without the leading scorer and best defender, but after a perfect qualifying cycle, many are still picking the world’s top-rated team to retain their title.

They’re the type of expectations people used to have of Italy, but not any more. After a disappointing Euro 2008 and failing to get out of their group in South Africa, Italy’s had to acclimatize to life as second-tier power. Cesare Prandelli replaced Marcelo Lippi with the hope that he’d usher in the next era of Italian soccer. Goalless since Nov. 11, Italy’s future’s still out of reach.

Much of the hype surrounding the match up is based on history. Spain’s the biggest name in international soccer right now, while Italy’s won five major titles hint there’s some, eternal, ever-lasting quality to their game. But that quality’s produced only one win in the last two major tournaments (in fairness, they’ve only lost twice, too). They did dominate their qualifying group, a group in which Estonia finished second.

Oh, and it turns out, the second game of the day is pretty darn good. In fact, there’s a chance it may be the more competitive of the two. Both Croatia and the Republic of Ireland have legitimate chances of coming out of this group.

It may not be the group of death, but Group C is might be the most difficult to predict.

I’ll have my picks in the live blog, which will go up later today. We’ll also have recaps, a day three review, and oh yeah: All your tournament information here.

For now, let’s get to your Euro 2012 Sunday playlist:

source:  Side 1: Things we’ve lost

1. No clue who I’ll miss more

Carles Puyol’s 99 caps would make him the most experienced player in Spain’s back line, in addition to its best. Having undergone knee surgery in May, Puyol moves to the stands to join David Villa (pictured, above), whose comeback from a December shin fracture couldn’t return him in time for Euro. His 51 goals is not only Spain’s all-time record, it’s 23 more than Spain’s next most-prolific scorer.

That scorer is Fernando Torres. If you haven’t heard, the Chelsea striker hasn’t been very good for some time now. He only scored six times in the English Premier League last season, and with Spain over the last 20 months, he’s only scored twice. This would be a significant problem for any team, but for Spain – a team that relied on Villa for five of their eight World Cup goals – it’s red alert.

At the back, only Gerard Pique will be starting in the same position he played in South Africa. Sergio Ramos moves from right back to the middle, Alvaro Arbeloa takes over on the right, while Jordi Alba has ascended to first choice left back.

The defense should be fine. The attack, though has never recovered from the changes Vicente del Bosque implemented after he took over for Luis Aragones (post-Euro 2008). He went to a double pivot, injecting Xabi Alonso into the team at the expense of David Silva. Silva’s back in the XI (thanks in part to Villa’s absence), but Spain’s still playing with fewer attackers than they should.

2. Hard to know how far we’ve come

Another major problem for Spain: Miles. How many miles have Barcelona’s stars – Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets – accumulated over the last five years? How about Alonso for Real Madrid? That’s Spain’s entire engine room.

Long club seasons with little rest. Deep runs in all competitions. A national team competing for everything it can. There’s a price to pay for that. It’s unclear whether Spain can put it off for another tournament.

source:  3. 4 to 3

Italy’s set to go three at the back, the only team in the tournament to try it. Daniele de Rossi (pictured, right), normally a deep lying midfielder, looks set to play with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. Christian Maggio and (surprisingly) Emanuele Giaccherini are set to start as wing backs.

The formation gives Prandelli three in men in the middle along with the ability to play five at the back (or have the wing backs track released fullbacks, when needed). Midfielder Andrea Pirlo will be relied upon to make the connections with forwards Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, who will have their hands full dealing with Spain’s pressure while they wait for their packed in teammates to transition into attack.

Who knows if it will work, but with de Rossi in defense, Italy will have one more player capable of holding the ball, preserving whatever possession they can keep from the Spaniards.

4. Mario

Mario Balotelli was controversially left off the 2010 World Cup squad. Controversy saw Balotelli leave Italy, and controversy followed him to Manchester City. Clearly, it’s hard to separate Marion Balotelli from controversy.

Here are a couple of uncontroversial things about Mario Balotelli: He’s as talented as anybody in this tournament, and Italy needs him. They have nobody in their squad that’s scored more than 10 international goals.

Whatever excuse Marcelo Lippi had for excluding Balotelli in 2010, it’s is gone. There are no more excuses.

source: Getty ImagesSide 2: B-sides and demos

5. Come and get me

Ireland is the easiest team in the tournament to predict, and coach Giovanni Trapattoni doesn’t bother hiding it. The Republic’s head coach didn’t bother naming a preliminary roster (going straight to the final team, which has since changed). He also revealed his starting lineup earlier this week.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter. Whatever combination of players Trapattoni uses will play the same way. It will be 4-4-2/4-4-1-1. They’ll sit very deep, stay compact, and value organization above opportunity.

Which is not to say that don’t value opportunity. They’re just very big on organization, which is why when they do get forward, it’s going to have to be on the backs of Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane (pictured, above). If the forwards can bring wide midfielders Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff into the play, so be it.

That, however, is all frosting for Ireland. They allowed only seven goals (in 10 games) in qualifying. They only scored 15. Their priorities are clear.

6. Deciding if I want to go

Slaven Bilic recently described his team’s propensity to sit deep and rely on the counter as a a necessity. The Croatian defense is slow, and the midfield can’t leave it exposed. With Luka Modric distributing from the middle, Croatia can rely on one of the world’s best passers to manage their transitions.

But how does that work against a team that don’t come get you? Trappatoni is not going to let Ireland get out of their game just because Croatia wants to play another. They’ll wait out Croatia, and when Bilic changes to go for the points, Ireland will hit them.

Croatia need to have a more progressive mindset from the get go. They will undoubtedly have been working on it this week, with Bilic having said he both expected a win and doesn’t see Ireland as a threat.

source: Getty Images7. My star is burning out

Croatia’s biggest concern isn’t their opponent. It’s the fitness of their star.

Luka Modric came into camp warn down by a demanding English Premier League season. Bilic has tried to nurse him back to health, holding him out of the teams’ two pre-tournament friendlies.

There many be no team as dependent on one player as Croatia. That includes Sweden, who have gotten results without Zlatan Ibrahimovic. While it’s possible Croatia could still get out of Group C without a fit Modric, there’s no way they can make a meaningful run.

8. Forgetting what we never knew

Spain and Italy are in big letters on top of the marquee. When you drive by, you don’t even see the small print at the bottom, though they may put on a better show.

No, Croatia and Ireland are unlikely to provide as much entertainment as their big name group-mates, but the game looks closer on paper. Where Spain could post a multi-goal result on Italy, the day’s second game is unlikely to be worse than a one-goal affair.

And beyond Sunday’s game, Croatia and Ireland each have a good chance of getting out of group. With Ireland’s style and discipline, it’s not hard to imagine them catching one team and getting to five points. On the other hand, Croatia is favored to beat Ireland, and they’ve never lost to Italy.

It’s a bit sad Italy’s been allowed to overshadow Croatia and Ireland. It’s unfair to Italy, putting excessive expectations on a decent team, and it certainly undersells the group’s “underdogs.”
ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Spurs “have the capacity” to win the Champions League

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We know. They just drew 2-2 away at Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup. We know.

[ MORE: Dele Alli and the diving debate

But Tottenham Hotspur’s last 2-2 draw was much more impressive as they went to Juventus and outplayed the reigning Italian champions in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie.

Heading into the second leg at Wembley on Mar. 7, it appears that new signing Lucas Moura, who scored their opening goal against Rochdale on Sunday, is a fan of what he’s seen in his short time at Tottenham.

Speaking to reporters after his first goal for Spurs on his full debut, Moura has high hopes for his time in North London.

“I am 25 years old but I think I gained a lot of experience with PSG and I think I can help Tottenham. I think we have a lot of quality and a great structure and can arrive at the end of the season with a trophy. The Champions League is the most difficult cup but I think we have the capacity to win it if we always think in positives and always work hard,” Moura said, via the Guardian.

“We did a big game against Juventus away. It was a good result in Italy and I am sure we can do a good game with our fans and continue. It’s always important to win. Every player wants to win trophies, to make history and I am here to make history with my new friends, my new team-mates. I believe that because we have a lot of quality, a great structure – I am really impressed – and I think we can dream with the Champions League.”

Does Moura have a point? Aside from a weakened side struggling away at Rochdale on a freshly laid pitch, they’ve been superb in recent months.

And given the current form of Harry Kane and the entire Spurs team there won’t be a single club who says “you know what, let’s take Spurs” if they make it through to the last eight of the UCL.

The high-pressing style of Mauricio Pochettino saw them bully Juve away from home and all of a sudden it seems like the rest of Europe has woken up and realized just how good they are.

If injuries are kind to Spurs and Moura continues to show flashes of brilliance since his arrival from PSG in January, the Brazilian could well be on to something. Tottenham are by no means favorites to win the Champions League, but their recent results against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool prove they are a force to be reckoned with.

Top Chelsea v. Barcelona moments

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Ahead of Chelsea hosting Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg, let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

And boy, we have a lot of golden moments to choose from between these clubs as they’ve meet in the UCL knockout rounds on five previous occasions.

[ MORE: Man United, Chelsea in UCL action

In recent years Barcelona against Chelsea has become essential viewing whenever they meet and Tuesday at Stamford Bridge will be no different as Lionel Messi looks to score for the first time ever against the west London club after firing blanks in all of his previous eight encounters.

From epic semifinal goals, to late drama and heartbreak, below is a look at some of the greatest moments in European history between these two clubs.


1. Fernando Torres‘ goal at the Nou Camp sends Chelsea to the UCL final in 2012

Down to 10-men and trailing 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate, Chelsea looked doomed after John Terry was sent off in the first half at the Nou Camp. Then Ramires pulled a goal back in the first half with a fine lob, before Lionel Messi hit the post and struck a penalty kick against the crossbar as Barca couldn’t find the all important third goal. With everyone pushed forward, one long punt up the pitch found Fernando Torres late on and he rounded Victor Valdes before slotting home (last goal in the video below) to make it 2-2 on the night and send Chelsea onto the final in Munich against Bayern. They once again recorded another improbable win in the final to secure their first-ever European trophy on penalty kicks and this comeback against Barca, against all the odds, proved it was written in the stars.


2. Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp strike at Chelsea sends Barcelona to the UCL final in 2009

Barcelona went to Stamford Bridge after being held to a 0-0 draw at the Nou Camp in the first leg and they went 1-0 down, with Chelsea seemingly heading into the UCL final. Then, late on the ball found Iniesta on the edge of the box and his perfect finish sent Barca to the final where they would beat Manchester United to be crowned European champions. A wild night of celebrations in Barcelona ensued and Iniesta added yet another glorious moment to his legendary career.


3. Chelsea squander 3-1 first leg lead, fall 6-4 on aggregate in UCL quarterfinals

What drama. Stamford Bridge was rocking as Chelsea beat Barca 3-1 in the first leg of their quarterfinal with two goals from Tore Andre Flo and a fine free kick from Gianfranco Zola and everybody believed they’d make it through to the last four of the Champions League. Umm, probs not. Luis Figo and Rivaldo each scored in the second leg as they looked to be sending Barca through on away goals, but Flo hit back to give Chelsea another advantage. Dani Garcia then scored seven minutes from time to take the game to extra time and Barca scored twice in the first half of extra time to make it 6-4 on aggregate and seal their passage to the final four. One of the greatest quarterfinal clashes in UCL history.

Why are we so concerned with Dele Alli and diving?

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Another weekend, another debate about Dele Alli taking a tumble in the penalty box.

Rinse, repeat.

There should be no debate about the latest penalty kick he won late on against Rochdale in the fifth round of the FA Cup on Sunday. He was clearly fouled and both opposition players and their manager had no complaints as the nimble Englishman went down under contact.

Alli, 21, was brought off the bench to try and drag Spurs back into the game and he did just that with Harry Kane slamming home the spot kick Alli won to put Spurs 2-1 up late on, only for the Premier League side to let in a late equalizer against their third-tier opponents to set up a replay at Wembley in 10 days time.

Yet it is the constant hubbub around Alli and diving which is the biggest issue which needs to be addressed because we are not focusing on the problem of simulation and how best to solve it.

With three yellow cards for simulation while playing for Spurs in the Premier League (more than any other player since 2015-16), plus his manager Mauricio Pochettino saying he understands diving to gain an advantage after Tottenham’s controversial 2-2 draw at Liverpool earlier this month, Alli is in danger of being pigeonholed as a cheat, if he hasn’t been already.

Speaking after the FA Cup game this weekend, Rochdale manager Keith Hill discussed the 88th minute penalty being awarded and Alli’s actions.

“I’m led to believe he was looking for it, but why not? If players feel there is an opportunity to be gained then brilliant, I don’t hold it against him,” Hill said. “I don’t blame him and I don’t have a problem with it. Whether it’s him, Harry Kane or [Rochdale’s opening scorer] Ian Henderson, it doesn’t matter who does it. If he does that for England in the World Cup this summer then I will definitely be supporting him.”

Comments like this, although deemed to be supportive by Hill, are the reason why Alli is being branded a cheat. Instead of vilifying him, the bigger issue of simulation in the game should be the focus. But it’s not. Lengthy bans have been discussed, so too have sin bins, but nothing is really being done to eradicate the issue.

Yet if someone praises Alli for initiating the contact and going down, he’s hammered. If he’s criticized for going down too easily, he’s hammered. He’s in a lose-lose situation. But why is Alli being singled out for special treatment?

Quite simply, it’s because he’s a special talent and because he is the next great hope for England, even if this season he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype of being crowned the PFA Young Player of the Year in each of his first two Premier League campaigns. Pochettino’s recent honest comments (which he since stated were taken out of context as he doesn’t condone diving) haven’t done the reputation of his players much good with Kane, Erik Lamela and others also scrutinized heavily after recent tumbles in the box.

“To stop the game, to punish people. Some 20 years ago, 30 years ago, it was like all congratulate the player when he tricks the referee. If you remember the football 30 years ago. That is the football I was in love with when I was a child. Football is about trying to trick your opponent. You know? Yes or no? Tactic – what does tactic mean?,” Pochettino said. “When you do some tactics it is to try to trick the opponent. You say, ‘Oh I play on the right but I’m going to finish on the left’. It’s a mix that I am worried that maybe we are going to kill the game. We love this game.”

Purists within the English game have long lambasted and singled out foreign imports (rightly or wrongly) for taking tumbles in the box, going down too easily and trying to con referees into giving them an advantage.

Many foreign imports to the PL who have since admitted they were taught at a young age to go down if they felt contact in the box which further enraged the debate. Now, with the heavy international influence at each PL club, we have seen simulation become a bigger part of the English game over the past decade and more anger emerge from pundits, coaches and fans alike.

A new rule introduced this season to retrospectively ban any players found guilty of diving (if the incident wasn’t spotted at the time by the officials) has seen Oumar Niasse and Wilfried Zaha banned, although Zaha won his appeal against the decision, and it seems to be having some impact, but it’s still not doing enough to stamp out simulation in the English game.

The initial impetus officials had at the start of the season to try and get rid of simulation has dwindled and old habits are sneaking back into the game.

Is Alli the only player who goes down often? No. Yet the way Alli plays the game, we will more often than not see him clattered into in the box. He flicks and pokes balls past defenders and his relatively slight frame means he will likely go down under contact from a bruising center back or midfielder. That’s just science and it’s the same for many other talented attackers who are built for speed and agility rather than strength and power.

Alli’s reputation as a hothead supersedes these simulation allegations and previous bans for punching opponents in the stomach, lunging into tackles to be sent off and off the ball incidents certainly do him no favors in proclaiming his innocence.

But the vendetta building against him as a serial cheat needs to end before this vicious cycle gets further out of hand and his talent erodes amid the jeers from opposition fans.

It’s unlikely that Alli, like many players, will stop going down in the box anytime soon if he feels contact from an opposition defender. The sooner everyone starts to accept it, the sooner everyone can move on and focus on trying to eradicate serial simulation in the game once and for all. Be it with lengthy bans, sin bins or straight red cards, something drastic must be done.

That’s the bigger issue here. Not Dele Alli.

Man United, Chelsea prepare for La Liga tests

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The final two Premier League teams to get their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties off and running are Manchester United and Chelsea who both play this week.

Both PL giants face Spanish opposition but both are in very different situations heading into these games.

 [ MORE: Champions League schedule

United travel to Sevilla on Wednesday as the firm favorites to advance to the quarterfinals, while Chelsea host Barcelona on Tuesday hoping to still be in the tie after the first leg at Stamford Bridge against Lionel Messi and Co.

After Liverpool battered FC Porto, Manchester City demolished Basel and Tottenham went to Juventus and dominated in a draw last week, all of a sudden United and Chelsea are under a little bit of extra pressure to not let the PL sides down.

That pressure is ratcheted up given the fact that Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League for much of the last decade, with six of the last 10 European champions hailing from La Liga.

Chelsea were the last PL club to reach the UCL final, when they beat Bayern Munich in 2012, while United reached the final in three of four seasons from 2008 to 2011 but only prevailed on one occasion… when they beat Chelsea in the final 2008. That rich run for English clubs in the Champions League saw seven of the eight finals from 2005-2012 have at least one English club in it, but none have made it that far since.

Six of the last eight teams to reach the UCL final have been from Spain, with Juventus reaching the final in two of the past three seasons but failing to the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Yet this season, with five teams from one league reaching the last 16 for the first time in the competition’s history, there’s a sense the English clubs are back to their best and are ready to put La Liga in their place. United and Chelsea will have the first crack at doing that in the knockout rounds with all eyes on what could be a seismic shift in power back to the PL.

Chelsea were the only one of five PL teams in the Champions League this season to not win their group and they paid the ultimate price for that as they were drawn against Barcelona, the current La Liga leaders and one of the red-hot favorites to win yet another European title.

Antonio Conte‘s men have recovered well in recent weeks after patchy form in the Premier League briefly dropped them out of the top four, but there’s no doubting that there are still issues behind-the-scenes with Chelsea’s Italian manager who many expect to walk away at the end of this season.

On the pitch, Chelsea continue to be Lionel Messi’s kryptonite as the Argentine star hasn’t scored in any of his eight previous outings against the Blues. Conte will hope that is once again the case and we may well see a more defensive Chelsea side than usual as they will keep it tight, then play it up to either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata to link up with Eden Hazard on the break.

Barca lead La Liga and if Messi once again fires a blank against Chelsea, at least this time they also have Luis Suarez in reserve, although Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied and can’t feature in the UCL after his January move from Liverpool.

As for United, the rigmarole around Paul Pogba continues as Jose Mourinho’s star midfielder missed their FA Cup fifth round win at Huddersfield on Saturday due to illness but is expected to be fit to play against Sevilla. Does Pogba have a future at Old Trafford?

That’s the key question right now but the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez will be eager to lead United in the latter stages of the UCL for the first time since 2014 when they reached the quarterfinals, but Mourinho is dealing with an injury crisis as Marcus Rashford could join Ander HerreraAntonio Valencia, Zlatan IbrahimovicMarcos RojoPhil Jones and Marouane Fellaini on the sidelines.

Sevilla drew against Liverpool twice in the UCL group stage and even though their La Liga form has been up and down throughout this season (they currently sit in fifth place in the table) and since Vincenzo Montella was appointed as their new boss in December, they’ll be a threat.

Wissam Ben Yedder is Sevilla’s chief goal threat and has six goals in six UCL games so far this season, while ex Manchester City pair Nolito and Jesus Navas will cause problems and Steven Nzonzi continues to impress in central midfield.

Both United and Chelsea know they face tough tests against Spanish opposition this week, and it is perhaps made a little tougher with expectations growing for English clubs in the Champions League this season.