Tour of the Tired

This spring, Koke has been covering up to 12 km per game. How long he can continue this?

There’s no need to sugarcoat it – EUROs aren’t the World Cup. Watching Albania squaring off against Romania is not close to witnessing Spain getting beaten 5-1 nor even Croatia losing 1-3 to Brazil through an imaginary penalty. Not the same tension. Not the same hype. Not nearly comparable pool of class players – especially now, when all the leagues across the Europe have been dominated by non-European names like Agüero, Aubameyang, Higuaín, Mahrez, Neymar, Suárez… After the last two, very clean, very dominant victories by Spain, after La Furia Roja has stamped it’s mark on Italy’s butt by kicking it 4-0 – the EUROs have become fairly uninteresting. And although for a while, UEFA was toying with an idea of spicing it up by spreading it all across the continent, they eventually settled for expanding the finals to 24 teams – the highest-ever number in the competition’s history.

As a result, the number of games increased from 31 to 51; the length of the EURO campaign expanded from 22 days to a full month. The new group stage rules that are now promoting some of the best 3rd place teams, have also ensured that there will be virtually no matches with no stakes on the cards. All good and dandy on a surface; all exciting and admirable from the point of view of a casual football fan. However, with an extra strain on the star players, with the risk of injuries being constantly high (even super-athlete Ronaldo struggled with fitness problems after the Champions League final), with some nations (Romania, Albania, Wales, Northern Ireland) likely to park the bus and concede many fouls in order to win at all cost – we could be bracing ourselves for a very disappointing four weeks of football.

This really will be a tournament of exhausted, worn-out players. For example: up to this point, only in domestic league and European competition, Cristiano Ronaldo would take part in 48 games; Koke and Ivan Rakitić – in 46; Harry Kane – 45; Thomas Müller -44; Paul Pogba – 43; Zlatan Ibrahimović – 41. Even Kevin De Bruyne, despite being injured for almost two months, has managed to make 35 appearances – and this still doesn’t include the games in domestic cups or on international level! This level of fatigue certainly could not have been addressed during the three-week break between the season’s finale and EURO 2016 kickoff. Not in the current circumstances, when all national teams are fielding their first-choice lineups in friendlies, desperately trying to use few preparatory fixtures to add some teamwork and mutual understanding into their squads’ arsenals.

Due to all these various problems, we see the results that defy the traditional understanding of ‘who-is-who’ in football. After storming through the qualifiers and scoring their first-ever win over Germany, Poland has been defeated at home, by second-string Netherlands team 1-2 – the same Netherlands, which failed to make the EURO with their first choice team. Spain, the routine favourites of big tournaments since 2008, have succumbed to Georgia – a team ranked #137 in the world by FIFA, significantly behind the powerhouses like Swaziland or Belize. Czech Republic lost to South Korea, Belgium needed a second-half comeback to defeat the Norwegians, Switzerland have struggled to beat notoriously dreadful Moldova… None of these results sounds too convincing. No wonder than Croatia, Iceland and Portugal have decided to avoid the risk of losing and scheduled easy games against complete outsiders!

Bookmakers are picking three big favourites to win it all. France tops the list mainly due to the natural home-soil advantage. Even without Raphaël Varane (thigh injury), Jérémy Mathieu (knee problem) and Mamadou Sakho (suspended for illegal substance abuse), Didier Deschamps can choose between Eliaquim Mangala and Adil Rami as centre-back partners for Laurent Koscielny. Even more impressive is Tricolores’ depth upfront, where pretty much any three-men configuration of Coman – Giroud – Griezmann – Payet – Martial is possible. Last season, those five lads had no less than 99 goals and 40 assists between them in all competitions – and their team still doesn’t feature the most goalscoringly proficient French forward, Karim Benzema. If only the midfielders like Pogba or Matuidi won’t feel to jaded after draining club season – at least a semifinal will be mandatory here.

The greatest obstacle from keeping the Henri Delaunay Trophy in the country of it’s namesake should be Germany. Most of Die Mannschaft that won the World Cup two years ago is still going strong, picking up more silverware all across the Europe. Toni Kroos has just won the Champions League, while Mesut Özil produced more Premier League assists than anyone else and came close to breaking English record in that department. Those two, along with Thomas Müller (28 goals in 44 Bundesliga and Champions League matches) and Manuel Neuer (20 clean sheets in 34 Bundesliga games for Bayern) can take Joachim Löw’s team about anywhere. The only missing link out there will be Marco Reus, who suffered yet another untimely injury and will miss the second consecutive big international tournament in his career. Team prognosis? The final without Deutschland is hard to imagine.

And then, there’s Spain – the nation so rich in footballing talent, the controversies have already begun in May, when it was obvious some big name are meant to be excluded from Vicente del Bosque’s 23-man squad. As it turned out, the former Real Madrid boss has turned down the services of Isco, Diego Costa and Saúl Ñíguez. The first two absences are understandable – after all, last season, Isco fell out of contention for Real Madrid match squad and Costa went through massive crisis in Chelsea. But to leave out the young lad who helped his team against Bayern Munich in a Champions League semifinal, with this goal – that doesn’t seem right. Still, regardless of the selection, the team has more than enough firepower to sweep their group – and forwards like Álvaro Morata or Nolito should be the dark horses in a tight Golden Boot race.

The chances of other teams are don’t look nearly as good. Belgium, who, at moment, boast the highest FIFA rank of all EURO 2016 competitors, are a team full of contradictions. On the one hand – they have eleven Premier League regulars in their squad; on the other hand – their team notoriously lacks full-backs, forcing the Tottenham CB duo Alderweireld – Vetonghen to play down the flanks. On the one hand – the beefy, gladiator-packed midfield of Nainggolan, Witsel, Dembélé and Fellaini should dominate the tackling department; on the other hand – those four guys aren’t exactly too skilled at creating goalscoring chances. One thing positive about Marc Wilmots’ team is that both Kevin De Bruyne (injured for a while) and Eden Hazard (frequently benched due to abysmal form) have relatively fresh legs as compared to other stars in this tournament. Is it enough for a medal? My gut feeling says: no.

Hazard’s form skyrocketed only by the end of this season. Ready to be a star again?

The others? Italy, without Verratti, Marchisio or Pirlo, will field the least impressive midfield lineup in years. England, though lethal in the qualifiers, had a dreadful test game against Portugal and are still looking for an optimal setup upfront. Croatia, frequently tipped as a potential overachiever, do possess an incredibly stacked midfield of Rakitić, Modrić, Perišić and Kovačić – but it’s the defensive woes that could come back to haunt them. So that leaves Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Madrid star comes to France well aware that this will most likely be his last European championship. He nearly won it in 2004; in 2008, he ran into the indomitable Germans; in 2012, he was caught repeating the word ‘Injustiça’ after his team got knocked out by Spain on penalties. This time, he comes back with a younger, hungrier team and an easier group stage rivals to boot. About time to win something for the nation too?

Individually, CR7 will have a huge pool of Golden Boot competitors. Apart from incredibly consistent Müller, there are always: Antoine Griezmann (regularly boasting an incredible 30% shot conversion ratio for Atletico); Harry Kane (top Premier League goalscorer with 20+ successful striker for the second season in a row); Zlatan Ibrahimović (second-most league goals in Europe this season) and Romelu Lukaku (61 goals in 121 games for Everton since joining The Toffees). Few other top-class forwards are in a contention, but their either unsure of their place in starting XI (Morata) or surrounded by underwhelming teams (Bale, Lewandowski). However, this month, only Ronaldo has been using a secret recharging technique – partying on yacht with a brand new, absurdly hot supermodel around him 24/7…

Will this do him any good? We shall start finding out from tomorrow onwards. And now, for the predictions: Champions – Germany; Dark Horse – Sweden; Disappointment – Belgium; Golden Boot – Thomas Müller; Player of the Tournament – Paul Pogba; Biggest Upset – Iceland beating Portugal.

Let the games begin!

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