Sunday 25 February 2018

Structural flaws play into hands of the big boys

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

As the Euro 2016 excitement ratchets up, and everyone seems to be building up the hosts as likely champions, many in France have been talking themselves down.

"We are not really favourites," says Hugo Lloris, repeating a line said with conspicuous regularity around Didier Deschamps's squad. "Because we are playing at home, of course it gives us more of a chance. I think we can say we will be challengers."

One of the many big differences with this tournament, though, is that so many sides are able to say the same. Lloris might have been indulging in some strategic expectation-management but it fits with a feeling of an early phoney war. Everyone is waiting to pounce. This is set up to be one of the most open international competitions in years, because of its new, forgiving format and the way it seems to come in a gap between eras of dominance.

If the prevailing mood in France is that the team has to prove their maturity before they prove themselves as title winners, defending champions Spain are still slowly recovering from the end of a supremacy that saw them win the last two Euros, while world champions Germany have only looked broken since Brazil 2014. It indicates much about those three main favourites that all of their managers have decisions over the striker position. This is the key to Euro 2016. All of the strongest teams have at least one significant weakness, all of the weaker teams have a strength that could yet see them progress.

The potential paths, however, may not only be conditioned by those qualities and flaws. The tournament structure means luck is going to play a bigger part than in many other knock-outs.

It's difficult to overstate the effect of switching from a perfectly-balanced 16-team tournament to an asymmetrical 24, even if that has gone under the radar for some managers. A lot of them - perhaps sensibly - are talking as if only two teams go through from each group. The fact that four of six third-placed sides will make the last 16, though, will deeply distort the Euros and should alter how some performances are judged.

Consider the stats. With only eight of 24 teams eliminated from the 36-game group stage, over 70 per cent of the tournament will be spent getting rid of a third of the field. All of that means that going out in the first round is a failure, and a lot of that stage will be inconsequential in real terms.

The likelihood is that one win will be enough to get through. There will probably only be true tension early on about the effective eliminators between the lesser sides - like, it must be said, Sweden-Ireland - as the better teams merely jostle for top spots so as to try forge a more forgiving route to the final.

That is the other way the format distorts the competition, though. You could fairly say the 'real' Euro 2016 won't start until we get to the last 16 except that it will be so skewed. Some group winners will face runners-up, others will have the benefit of playing those who squeeze through in third. There will be a big difference, for example, between France possibly meeting Northern Ireland in the second round and Portugal facing Belgium or Italy.

The hope, as regards properly bringing the tournament alive early on, is that one of the third-placed teams is someone like the Italians in 1994. Arrigo Sacchi's side finished behind Mexico and Ireland in that World Cup group, only to eventually reach the final in epic fashion. This is the hope as regards the tournament as a whole. For all the flaws in the structure, it still fostered two of the most entertaining World Cups, in 1986 and 1994, and one with some of the most memorable storylines in 1990.

So, although this Euros doesn't have the hermetically tight high quality of the symmetrical 16-team tournaments that produced moments like Spain's last-minute 4-3 comeback against Serbia in 2000, it may allow for more epic matches later on.

This is the other side of the expansion. In the last 60 years, the bigger World Cup has always been won by one of the favourites, and never had anything like the shocks of Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2002. Their stories were obviously fantastic, but there was a logic to why they did it. As concentrated in quality as the Euros have been, it is easier for a lesser side to keep playing above themselves over four or five games rather than six or seven. The extra match can make a difference, especially as shallow squads exhaust themselves.

That could be the contradiction in this competition too. It is remarkably open, but that openness may only go so far and prevent those surprises late on. It could be to the benefit of better sides that can now afford previously fatal slip-ups.

A big question, though, is whether it is long enough for the favourites to fix big issues. Germany have mostly looked unconvincing since 2014, and it remains to be seen whether their historic ability to get in tune for a tournament will lift them out of this flatness. Spain have the exceptional talent to complete a historic three Euros in a row but manager Vicente del Bosque has left a lot of it at home and stayed loyal to fading stars like David Silva. At least Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta are in fine form, and that fortifies Spain with a spine stronger than anyone else. France are at the other side of the cycle. They have youthful energy to go with their talent but not yet the experience.

The French have a forgiving group, although they are set to meet Germany in the semi-finals if both top their groups. That could open the way for a surprise finalist and there are a number of potential candidates in an exciting but erratic second band of teams. Belgium are the obvious candidates but their unimaginative manager Marc Wilmots has not yet made the best of their quality. Italy have the star manager in Antonio Conte but not the players, although they still possess a typically strong defence. England don't have that defence, but have a good spread of quality beyond it. Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo but not much else. Perhaps the best chance of anything close to a Denmark in '92 comes with Austria or Croatia, although there is a nice balance to the tournament that more complete teams like them lack outstanding individuals in the way Poland have with Robert Lewandowski and Wales have with Gareth Bale.

It has been a while since one player has taken command of the competition in the way Zinedine Zidane did in 2000 or Michel Platini in 1984. Both of those were French and, as the country seeks a third Euros, they potentially have a third totemic figure in Paul Pogba. And he is one of the few French players willing to be abrasive, to talk the team up. "It's a pressure but, at the same time, it is pure joy to be able to play in front of your own people," Pogba said this week. "We have a very good chance of winning the tournament."

That may be the attitude required. This Euros, inflated as it is, is there to be seized.

Driven by desire to right the wrongs of Poland

Standing in the sun at a barrier by the side of Ireland's training pitch, Shane Long is light-heartedly chatting about the "most annoying" little cut on his knee but reassuring the media present it is nothing serious - only to turn more serious when talk turns to Euro 2016.

Or, rather, how it might be influenced by Euro 2012. "We've worked hard to get here and we don't want the same feeling afterwards."

Those feelings? "Just regrets after the games. We didn't do ourselves justice."

The feeling is already different before this tournament, and not just because everyone is saying how Martin O'Neill consulted the players to set up a less constrained camp, to find a better balance between the right mindset and right level of work. That has obviously helped, but it is been further honed by something deeper. The drive for redemption, for atonement, is unmistakable among the players from four years ago.

That is one of the biggest differences between now and then, and why comparisons are being made so frequently. What happened in Poznan and Gdansk is informing a lot of the thinking. If the build-up to 2012 was all about ending a long wait to play on such a big stage, to the point there were even what now seem comically naive predictions that Ireland could win it, this is all about ending that kind of talk. This is about restoring respect. It's one of the main reasons there is a discernible hard edge to the otherwise easy-going atmosphere.

It is probably why Roy Keane sought to set a more focused tone on Wednesday too. Some things, after all, haven't changed. Just like Giovanni Trapattoni four years ago, the Irish assistant boss was asked whether Ireland can actually go and win Euro 2016 outright, but the example this time was Leicester City rather than Greece. The question came a few minutes after his much-discussed session in the broadcast media, and Keane was still sharp, but no longer as cutting.

"Can we win it? We can if we win a few games. What do you want me to say there? It'll be very difficult. What price are we? Anyone know?

To answer your question, we can win it but it's easier said than done standing in a hotel with a bottle of water. With the manager, we certainly believe we can get out of the group and then you take it from there."

The manager had some difficult words for a few players on Tuesday night, as he cut the group to a 23-man squad that still provoke a few questions. With a final preparation match just before deadline that involved players who would soon be disappointed, and in a small stadium that barely had the space to privately tell them, the logistics of the situation seemed unnecessarily odd. One or two players also felt that could have been handled better, although the majority thought O'Neill was very fair.

There was also the fact that the injury to Harry Arter conditioned everything, having a domino effect that made so many selections more obvious, especially in midfield. O'Neill, on the whole, went with the obvious. But that is also the one lingering concern.

It does feel as if he could have selected a bit more imagination, just someone a little bit different to provide that variety that changes things up when necessary. Eunan O'Kane seemed like he could be a candidate, as well as one of the other strikers, although some around the camp believe that Callum O'Dowda was so impressive in training that he could genuinely have made the squad if the deadline had been a week later.

Given his fitness issues and likely contribution, Robbie Keane almost seems a waste of a place, but then he is one of the ones who knows what 2012 felt like. That could prove crucial. And the key is the first XI are out to prove themselves to be better than 2012.

Sunday Independent

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