Can England ‘do a Greece’?

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In Portugal in the summer of 2004, the football world was stunned as minnows Greece lifted the European Championship trophy. Having adopted a similar style of play, can England follow in Greek footsteps eight years on?

When they won the Euros, Greece were viewed only slightly higher than the poor outfit they are now. Nothing was expected of them, just as nothing is expected of England now. Yet Greece managed to fight their way to glory with exemplar organisation, discipline and determination.

On their way to the final, Greece beat Portugal, drew with Spain and lost to Russia; finishing second in a very tough group. They then defeated France and the Czech Republic, all before overcoming the hosts again in the final.

Purists slated Greece for their ‘negative’ football. But, as Greece proved then and as Chelsea have done so since, negative football can bring the most positive results.

England’s display in their 1-1 draw with France on Monday evening was certainly a negative one, but it did bring a positive: a point. Before the game, England captain Steven Gerrard said in an interview with ITV that he would take a point against our neighbours across the Channel, and few people would have said otherwise. A draw really was a good result for England.

England were, predictably, well organised. The lapse in concentration that allowed Samir Nasri to equalise for Les Bleus was caused by a rare display of poor positional sense by Gerrard. The Liverpool playmaker sat too deep in England’s goal area, giving Nasri space to shoot, and the Man City midfielder took full advantage with a calculated finish past club colleague Joe Hart.

France had seven shots on target to England’s one, which was scored by Joleon Lescott, so creativity is certainly an issue. But it is not the main one.

Greece were uncreative in 2004 but managed to win four out of six matches by a single goal, one of those being the final. They did so by shutting down the opposition’s attacking options and taking the at least one of the few chances they managed to create.

England only managed to reduce France – not the best side at Euro 2012 – to seven shots on target. That is quite a large amount, and France also missed the target with two other chances.

So, for any progress to be made, Roy Hodgson’s men need to be even more organised in defence and midfield. Allowing so many shots on goal could see England humbled by the better sides in the tournament, such as Germany, Spain and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

Besides, England’s creativity should receive a huge boost when Wayne Rooney returns from his three-match ban against Ukraine on Tuesday night. His ability to link midfield and attack could provide the missing ingredient in Roy Hodgson’s recipe for success. Defeat against Sweden on Friday night could, however, make Rooney’s debut at Euro 2012 also his only game there.

Due to the unpredictable nature of this tournament, it is impossible to predict who England could be playing in the quarter-finals should they progress beyond the group stage. Not only is it difficult to say if England will get another point from Sweden or Ukraine, but the final standings from Group C – which will provide the opponents for Group D – are almost equally hard predict. We only know the Republic of Ireland won’t be going any further after their game against Italy on Monday. England could find themselves up against Italy too, but they may also play Croatia or Spain.

The prospective opponents should not be the concern for England, though. Greece managed to beat some of the best teams at the tournament in 2004. They did so by sticking rigidly to their gameplan and working very hard as a team.

If England can replicate the same levels of determination and concentration as Greece, they could go all the way. It will not be pretty, not until the trophy is being lifted anyway.

Failure to conduct themselves as a group will see England fail yet again, but that is what the nation has come to expect.

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Let the games begin

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At 17:00 in Donetsk this evening, England begin their Euro 2012 Finals campaign. In England the tournament has not been afforded as much hype as those before it. Even the European Championships in 2008, for which England did not qualify, was greeted with more excitement on these shores.

There are a few reasons for this lack of enthusiasm; they include disenchantment, fear and distraction.

England fans are waking from a dream in large numbers. The dream that England are good – good enough even to win an international tournament – has been nothing other than a fantasy for nearly half a century.

This realisation has manifested itself as disenchantment in some supporters, mainly those that see their nation’s failure as a personal affront.

Others feel liberated by the lack of hope. Just as a person who doesn’t fear death can enjoy the rest of their life.

But the latter cohort are small in number, so the vast majority of England fans are disappointed to finally accept that their beloved national team is, quite simply, no good.

They won’t just stop following England though; the passion is too deep seated. For this reason they are also scared. Scared that the team they have supported so fervently over the years could be embarrassed at Euro 2012. Beginning with a potentially humiliating defeat at the hands – or feet – of an old foe … France.

The French team has undergone a revolution since their mutiny at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and Les Bleus humbled England when the sides met in a friendly at Wembley in November 2010. England failed to cope with the free-flowing football France displayed that evening and many fans see Monday being a carbon copy of that game. In fact, it could be much worse. France, after all, are undefeated in 21 games and appear to be scoring goals at the flick of a switch, good goals too.

With this French prowess in mind, it is highly likely that England will take a defeat into their second group game against Sweden – a side they always struggle against. If they fail to get three points against Ibrahimovic and co., England’s match against co-hosts Ukraine may well be a mere formality and, therefore, their last of the summer.

Even after accepting that England are not the side they should be, crashing out of the Euros at the group stage would still be a huge embarrassment for them.

Strangely, though, going out of this summer’s big football tournament so early will not be that big a deal to the English media, who are usually queueing up for a chance to chastise any and every player, or manager, wearing the Three Lions. This is because the hacks will soon be distracted by this summer’s big sports tournament.

The 2012 Olympics officially begin in the UK on 27 July. They have had such an influence on every facet of the country for the past 6 months that Euro 2012 has creeped into our pubs and living rooms pretty much unnoticed.

When ‘the games’ begin, 26 days after the Euro 2012 final, they will provide a welcome distraction from England’s ailing national team. The nation will instead be able to back a new set of players in Team GB. That side could fail remarkably and no one will care, because no one expects anything of them.

However, that last point raises some eyebrows about the current England squad too. If the majority of the country believe England can achieve nothing at the Euros and the media finally stop heaping pressure on the players, then surely England can play without fear and potentially go further than ever before? This suggestion has, somewhat paradoxically, led many fans to believe England can win. But they’re too scared to say anything in case doing so puts pressure on the team and jinxes everything.

At the moment the nation treads on eggshells thinking or pretending to think that England are rubbish at football, all while harbouring that immortal hope that ‘this could be our year’.

When the final whistle is blown in Donetsk tonight, we will know where we stand.

Let the games begin.