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In a word, unimpressive. England and Belgium partook in a rather-less-friendly-than-you-might-expect at Wembley Stadium as Roy Hodgson and company looked to prepare for the European Championship Finals, and the hosts put in a stodgy, but ultimately effective performance to see off their guests 1-0.
It was not an exciting game. Before Danny Welbeck opened the scoring after a deft 1-2 with Ashley Young and a neat chip over Simon Mignolet, the most exciting moment came when Dries Mertens pushed Gary Cahill into Joe Hart and then slotted into the open goal. His strike, of course, was called off for the blatant foul, and Cahill ended up heading out with an injury.
Belgium were playing an incredibly odd system without anything approaching a true striker and were therefore having trouble getting anything in the way of penetration. For much of the match, Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini was the furthest black shirt forward, and, unsurprisingly, that meant that the visitors were able to do very little with their possession.
They also had a hilarious back line of Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Timmy Simons and Guillaume Gillet, so it was a little bit surprising that England didn't push them a little bit harder. But Welbeck's goal was enough, and despite Belgium switching to a 4-4-2 by bringing on Romelu Lukaku in the late stages of the first half, England held out well enough.
Jermaine Defoe could have wrapped things up as the game marched toward injury time, but his shot clattered off the woodwork with 82 minutes on the clock. Gillet had previously clipped Hart's post with a wonderful try from outside the box.
All in all, a good enough performance to beat Belgium. Is that going to be enough at the Euros? Probably not.
England has one friendly to solve their midfield and striking dilemmas before Euro 2012.
Italy. Home of Catenaccio, of defensive football, of a system so boring you fall asleep waiting for the ball to advance down the field. This is the narrative, my friends -- it is only your own eyes that deceive you. The real azzurri are defensively perfect. And this will be what commentators, at least those speaking English, will repeat again and again as Euro 2012 plays out.
So the 3-0 loss to Russia on Friday night must be an aberration. A slip, caused by the fact that Gianluigi Buffon came off at halftime, a precautionary measure to rest his shoulder. If it hadn't been Morgan De Sanctis in goal, everything would have been just fine. But, despite a certain error from De Sanctis, the blame for Italy's loss cannot be pinned on the keeper.
The problem is, defensive football requires, well, a defence. And that's what Italy were lacking in Switzerland. The side were fine in attack, even beautiful at times. Andrea Pirlo was flawless, Mario Balotelli lively. But Russia, quick on the counter, were easily able to get through the attack-minded midfield to weave their way through gaping holes in the defence. Had Buffon not come through with a few terrific sides, Russia would have been leading at the break.
And then the inevitable goal. Alan Dzagoev sent the ball in from the right side. Roman Shirokov touched it on to Aleksander Kerzhakov, who turned to see the complete absence of azzurri defenders standing in his way. While Italia supporters might say that Saint Gigi would have managed to stop the ball, there was nothing De Sanctis could do as the shot nestled into the far corner.
Alas, the second goal can be blamed on the Napoli keeper. De Sanctis, coming out to challenge for the ball, failed miserably. Instead Andrei Arshavin slotted over to Shirokov, who neatly blasted it into the open net. Tsk, tsk, Morgan, but where was your clubmate, Christian Maggio, who should've never allowed that ball in in the first place?
Maggio, so splendid in attack, can bear a bit of the blame (ok, maybe more than a bit) for the third goal as well. Substitute Alexander Kokorin sent in a shot that Maggio failed to clear, with the ball looping down to allow Shirokov to tap in his second. Perhaps we should face the facts, and realise that Maggio is now a much better wingback than he is a fullback?
So an easy day on the pitch for Russia, but they've likely never been too worried about emerging from Group A. It's Italy that draws the focus in this one, because it's Italy that should be looking much better. Instead, they're unraveling at the seams, and if Prandelli doesn't find a way to pull the strings over the next week, they might be facing an embarrassment on par with the 2010 World Cup.
The Rennes midfielder, whom a number of clubs are eyeing this summer, went down after a kick from Dušan Tadić and limped off the pitch, and although he returned to the bench, Laurent Blanc and company will be sweating on the results of a scan. Without M'Vila present, France could be in real trouble against their more adventurous opposition in Euro 2012.
Although M'Vila's injury put a black cloud over proceedings, Franck Ribery did his best to lift the mood, blasting home off Slobodan Rajković's knee following a poor clearance from goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic. Florent Malouda soon doubled the score with a sweet long-range effort, and the hosts essentially cruised through the rest of the game, although they did have some decent opportunities to make it three.
Branislav Ivanovic and Tadić both tested Hugo Lloris in the second half, although neither shot came particularly close to handing Serbia the lifeline they needed to get back into the match, and the final minutes of the match were a bit of a damp squib, with players on both sides simply going through the motions for the final half-hour or so.
As a warm-up for Euro 2012, Germany played Israel in a friendly on Thursday. There was probably some significance behind this match that goes behind the narrow constraints of football and preparation for Euro 2012, but that does not change the fact that this match did very little to help Germany prepare for the tournament. Israel did not do much attacking at all, and Germany comfortably coasted to a 2-0 win.
The Germans weren't great with their finishing and Ariel Harush had a solid game in goal for Israel. They spent enough time in the general vicinity of the Israel penalty area to score a dozen times over, but didn't look terribly interested in doing so for a lot of the game.
Mario Gomez netted the opener after 40 minutes of play, finishing off a very well-worked move. Sami Khedira started off the attack with a through ball into the box for Thomas Müller, who played an impressive one-touch flick into the path of Gomez. The striker's first touch wasn't the best, but he set himself up beautifully with a very good second touch and hit his finish into the roof of the net.
André Schürrle replaced Lukas Podolski in the 66th minute, and from then until the end of the match, he was the best player on the pitch by some distance. He had one laser beam of a shot skillfully saved by Harush shortly after he came on, but he would eventually get the better of the Israeli keeper. In the 82nd minute, he curled a fantastic right-footed shot around Harush's hand from 20 yards out, ensuring Germany's victory.
The only real worry for Germany heading into the Euros is their situation in the center of midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger was rested Thursday and his fitness is a bit in doubt at the moment. Toni Kroos started the match, but won't cut it in a double pivot against top teams. Lars Bender got a two-minute runout, while Ilkay Gündogan did not play. Schweinsteiger will probably open the Euros in the center next to Sami Khedira, but there's no telling whether or not he'll be the best version of himself.
France may no longer be the dark horse contenders at Euro 2012. In the 4th minute of their friendly match against Serbia on Thursday, midfielder Yann M'Vila pulled up injured after his foot got stuck in the pitch and his ankle bent the wrong way. M'Vila appeared to be in serious pain, required the assistance of trainers to leave the pitch, and was visibly crying on the bench. He was replaced by Alou Diarra, and headed down the tunnel to the locker room.
Even if Diarra has avoided a serious injury, it would be very surprising if he did not suffer a badly sprained ankle, at the very least. That wouldn't stop him from starting preseason on time for Rennes or securing a big-money transfer, but it would be a serious enough injury that Laurent Blanc would need to consider calling up a replacement for Euro 2012. While no one has a diagnosis yet, it'll take a miracle for M'Vila to return to Les Bleus in the short term.
M'Vila is currently one of two starters in the center of midfield, alongside Yohan Cabaye. Diarra, the man who replaced him in the match against Serbia, would likely take over the starting role. He's a tactical like-for-like replacement, but doesn't have nearly the athletic ability or technical quality of M'Vila. With all due respect to Diarra, the loss of M'Vila will be a massive blow for France.
Mexico plays another World Cup Qualifying tune-up match against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Chicago on Thursday.
Even without any players from Barcelona or Athletic Bilbao to pick from for the second straight friendly, Spain looked like they're ready for Euro 2012 on Wednesday. They faced off against a very solid South Korea team in a neutral site match in Switzerland and went off in the second half, scoring three times to turn a 1-1 halftime draw into a 4-1 win.
Fernando Torres scored the opening goal with an absolutely brilliant header just 11 minutes in, nodding a lobbed diagonal from Beñat into the top right corner, past Kim Jin-Hyeon. Spain continued to dominate play throughout the first half, but couldn't add to their lead. A bit against the run of play, they gave up an equalizer in the 43rd minute.
Generally, whenever a balanced or defensive team scores a goal against a very attacking team, there is a large contingent of people that likes to call the goal undeserved. Absolutely no one will be saying that about Kim Do-Heon's goal, even though it came very much against the run of play. He scored with an absolute thunderbolt of a shot into the top corner at the near post from 25 yards out, giving Pepe Reina absolutely no chance to make a save.
Spain were much better in the second half, but South Korea did them quite a few favors. La Furia Roja scored twice in five minutes from dead balls, and both goals were set up by handballs. The first was in the box in the 53rd minute, and Xabi Alonso converted the penalty. Five minutes later, another handball occurred just outside the South Korea penalty area and Santi Cazorla netted Spain's third with a cheeky free kick under the jumping wall.
Sevilla striker Alvaro Negredo came on for Fernando Torres in the 57th minute and capped off the game with an 82nd minute goal, assisted by Roberto Soldado. Spain will probably look a bit different once they have Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Fernando Llorente available, but there's no reason to believe they won't slot into this team without a problem. Spain are looking great, and the lineup changes shouldn't alter them too much.
On Saturday, the Netherlands lost their friendly to Bulgaria 2-1, courtesy of a penalty and a last minute goal. This time around, Holland managed to beat Slovakia, but once again, the weaknesses in the Dutch side were exposed. Considering the repre haven't won a competitive match since last June, against Andorra, and Holland lost just once in Euro qualifying, Oranje supporters likely thought the friendly match in Rotterdam on Wednesday night would be an easy affair. But the 2-0 scoreline is deceptive: the first goal was an own goal by Kornel Salata, and it took until the 75th minute for Rafael Van Der Vaart to score the second.
The match started off well for the Slovaks, with captain Marek Hamsik sending a header off the bar in the early minutes. But shortly after, their defence disintegrated. Ibrahim Afellay got in behind Peter Pekarik, who failed to get the ball to safety. Salata attempted a clearance but instead knocked the ball past his own goalkeeper, Jan Mucha.
Slovakia didn't do themselves any favors later in the half, particularly when a sloppy backpass allowed the visitors a free kick just seven yards out from goal. Hamsik sent it short to Miroslav Stoch, who blasted what should have been an easy goal right into the side netting. But a stronger, or perhaps less experimental, side could have done some damage to the Dutch. Holland's defensive play left much to be desired, with both Gregory Van Der Wiel and John Heitinga making sloppy mistakes.
It was only in the last twenty minutes or so that Holland started to show their strength -- and the greater their attack, the less their defensive errors seemed to matter. The goal from Van Der Vaart showed the oranje at their best, as the attackers weaved through the Slovakia defence. With two defenders doing their best to stop Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Van Der Vaart was able to slip through, grab the ball, and drive it into the far corner of the net.
And so a win for Holland, this time, but not one that gives a lot of confidence to Netherlands supporters. They're very aware that not only does the group contain both Portugal, who could surprise, and Denmark, whom many feel will surprise, but their most mortal football enemies, Germany. Barring a much better performance against Northern Ireland at the weekend, June 9th will likely have many in Holland biting their orange-painted nails.
If you were looking for excitement, you came to entirely the wrong place. Although the woodwork was rattled three times during Russia's visit to Lithuania, the match ended 0-0 with the play about as exciting as the scoreline suggests.
We did nearly get one of the all-time great own goals in the first half, when Lithuanian centre back Arunas Klimavicius pulled off a looping volley that goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus was forced to tip onto the bar. But aside from that and a neat volley from the edge of the box from Lithuania's Valdemar Borovskij that beat Russian keeper Igor Akinfeev but not his crossbar, there was precious little going on.
It was basically a day in the park for the two sides, who played on what looked looked like a training ground with no actual seats around it, and there was a fairly relaxed atmosphere. Both teams were content to play some football and not really press the issue too hard, and the game reflected that. I don't see how this was particularly helpful for Russia in terms of preparing for Euro 2012, but oh well.
France left it very late but emerged with a 3-2 win at home against Iceland. Despite the victory, it was hardly a pleasant experience for Laurent Blanc and company, who saw a very strong team struggle mightily against a team they were supposed to steamroll. Things started well for the hosts, who went on the attack immediately and saw a well-taken Karim Benzema goal pulled back for offside, but the Icelandic defence was stouter than anticipated and the French line was something of a mess.
Iceland took advantage of France's poor defending in the 27th minute, when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson looped a header into the penalty area for midfielder Birkir Bjarnason to smash first time past Steve Mandanda. The home fans were stunned, but worse was yet to come when Sigthorsson sidefooted home a cross to make it 2-0 seven minutes later. The boos began to rain down at the Stade du Hainaut, and France kicked it up a notch.
They pulled one back just after the break when Mathieu Debouchy netted a loose ball from an acute angle, but it took until the 85th minute for France to draw level - Iceland were defending very well and posing a threat on the counterattack too. But they couldn't deal with Bayern Munich winger Franck Ribery, who played a lovely one-two with Olivier Giroud before completing the move with a very tidy lob over Hannes Thor Halldorsson to level the score.
Adil Rami completed the comeback two minutes thereafter when he took advantage of a scramble in the box to blast home from the edge of the area, sealing a 3-2 France win that raises more questions than answers ahead of the Euros this summer.
It took just three minutes for Landon Donovan to score and that should have been a sign of what the evening was going to be like in Jacksonville, Florida. The United States dominated the Scots from the very beginning, and by the time the final whistle went, Donovan had himself a hat trick and the U.S. had themselves a 5-1 win.
Donovan struck first when he was able to jump on his own rebound and finish smartly with a high shot that eluded two Scotland defenders on the line. The U.S. did well to break down Scotland with some pretty passing and the play came from the left to Donovan on the right, leaving the Scotland defense flummoxed. Donovan was then in alone on goal, but despite getting his first shot saved, he stuck with it and buried his second attempt for an early U.S. lead.
Not long after, Michael Bradley doubled the Americans' lead with a goal that will be all over highlight reels on Saturday. Jermaine Jones laid a cross back for Bradley, but it was one that bounced high. Bradley never hesitated to shoot, though, ripping a volley from more than 20 yards out that was laser guided into the top corner for a great goal that made it a 2-0 match.
The U.S. actually scored all six goals in the match, only one was in the wrong goal. The Americans' defense failed them as Kenny Miller got free at the back post and was unmarked on a cross. His header was directed back across the face of goal, but it never made it back there because it bounced off of Geoff Cameron's chest and in for what would be Scotland's only goal.
The 2-1 scoreline held into halftime, but it wasn't for lack of effort on the U.S.'s part. They flew forward at every opportunity and managed to create some chances even without Clint Dempsey. The midfield duo of Bradley and Jones were absolutely sensational and opened things up for the U.S. time and time again.
The great play of Bradley and Jones paid off in the second half as the U.S. blew Scotland out of the water. Donovan scored his second just before the hour mark as he took a great feed from Jones, then right after he made it a hat trick as Bradley fed him for another simple finish. With Jones and Bradley creating and Donovan finishing, the U.S. looked like a finely tuned machine.
Donovan already had three goals of his own so he didn't need another. When he got the ball in a great U.S. counterattack, he passed on having a go at goal and instead chipped for Jones in the middle. Jones made no mistake with his chance, burying his header and putting the U.S. up 5-1.
While beating Italy in February will get more headlines and looks sexier, the U.S. barely held on there and had to play very defensive. Jurgen Klinsmann has been working on implementing an attacking style since taking over the team last year, and against Scotland it was on full display. There is no doubt that Saturday night was the best the U.S. has looked under Klinsmann. In fact, they couldn't have looked too much better, which is great for the Americans as they prepare for World Cup qualifying next month.
Roy Hodgson was a victor in his first game in charge as England beat Norway 1-0 in Oslo. England, though, were utterly uninspiring, looking like they couldn't complete three passes in succession for large parts of the second half. It didn't start out badly; after 7 minutes, a long clearance was controlled by Andy Carroll, who's flick sent Ashley Young in on goal. Young easily went past Brede Hangeland before going across the keeper into the bottom right corner. It was an excellent goal from an excellent player, who, without Wayne Rooney, is easily England's best player.
England had a few other opportunities in the first half; Stewart Downing's excellent cross was headed wide by Andy Carroll, and Young volleyed over the goal after Steven Gerrard volleyed a pass to him. Despite the indiscipline from Gerrard, and, to a lesser extent, Scott Parker, Norway didn't trouble Rob Green in goal, though Morten Gamst Pedersen hit the outside of the post directly from a corner. The only other event of note was Steven Gerrard injuring Tom Høgli with a studs-up follow through.
The second half, though, was completely different. England stood off Norway, who peppered the England goal with shots. None were close to causing Green trouble, but it does seem concerning that England were unable to dominate proceedings against a clearly inferior side; this doesn't bode well for Euro 2012, especially against teams like France and even Sweden. Unlike the first half, Downing and Young had no impact on the match, and Phil Jones was constantly caught out at right back, prompting one to wonder how Micah Richards wasn't selected ahead of him. The rest of the back four, featuring Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines and Joleon Lescott were much stronger, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain looked promising enough on his international debut. Aside from that, there aren't many things to be confident about with England; Andy Carroll could barely win headers, which is the only thing he's very good at. They couldn't hold the ball for much of the game, and against better sides, their midfield will be found out.
Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands side is among the big favorites at Euro 2012, but they appear to have some work left to do to prepare for the tournament. They looked very much off their game in a warmup friendly against Bulgaria at home, falling 2-1 on a last-minute winner.
The Netherlands had all of the possession in the first half, but didn't do a lot with it until the end of the half. They spent a lot of the first half passing the ball well, but not doing a lot of running off the ball or taking any risks with their passing. Things changed in the 45th minute when Robin van Persie -- starting on the right wing in an experimental lineup -- cut inside towards the goal. Wesley Sneijder found him with a great chipped pass, van Persie took a good first touch, and the Arsenal man finished to put his team ahead.
Bulgaria was gifted an equalizer, partially by a Rafael Van der Vaart mistake and partially by some harsh refereeing. The Tottenham attacker was whistled for a handball in the box while he was on the ground blocking a cross with his arm down. The ball hit his arm, but he didn't raise his arm to play the ball. The referee gave a penalty anyway and Ivelin Popov converted.
The teams looked to be coasting to a draw until the 93rd minute. Bulgaria was still pushing for a winner, while Holland was half-asleep, and the home side got caught. Stanislav Manolev was allowed to play a floating cross to the back post from the right flank, where his ball was met by a completely unmarked Iliyan Mitsanski, who applied a calm headed finish to give Bulgaria a surprise victory.
The biggest concern for van Marwijk might not be the loss, but an injury. Central defender Joris Mathijsen was taken off in the 16th minute, and the extend of his injury is to be determined.
Germany are favorites (or at least co-favorites with Spain) heading into Euro 2012, but they didn't exactly flatter themselves in their first tune-up friendly. Young backup goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen and the Germany backline were unfathomably awful. The Borussia Dortmund pair of Mats Hummels and Marcel Schmelzer, who had brilliant club seasons, were particularly awful in Germany's 5-3 loss at the hands of Switzerland in Basel.
Eren Derdiyok scored twice in a span of three minutes, putting his team up 2-0 with 21st and 23rd minute goals. Both were assisted by Tranquillo Barnetta, who appears to have completely recovered from a long-term injury that kept him out for much of the season. Hummels was actively beaten on the first goal, then caught way out of position on the second. Schmelzer and Per Mertesacker -- who unlike Barnetta, did not look like he has recovered completely from a long-term injury -- didn't exactly help matters with their absent defending.
Just before the stroke of halftime, Hummels redeemed himself a bit with a great headed goal, off the crossbar and over the line on a free kick by Mesut Özil. This seemed like the kind of thing that was going to shift momentum in the game and carry Germany to a positive second half performance. This did not happen.
Derdiyok was credited with a 50th minute goal, but Admir Mehmedi is likely to be given the credit upon review. Barnetta set the goal up again, providing a ball into the box for Derdiyok to win in the air and head towards goal before Mehmedi applied the final touch.
Switzerland goalkeeper Diego Benaglio made the first of two big errors in the 64th minute, when he was beaten by Andre Schürrle with a driven, swerving shot. The ball was well hit and knuckled a bit in the air, but Benaglio should have been able to stay in front of it. This was the first of four straight goals in the match that were all at least partially the result of goalkeeper errors. In the 67th minute, ter Stegen made a major error by coming off his line for a ball by Gökhan Inler. He was beaten to the ball by Stephan Lichtsteiner, who headed the ball past the keeper to make it 4-2 in favor of Switzerland.
Benaglio completely whiffed on a shot by substitute Marco Reus five minutes later, allowing the Germans to pull back within one, but Switzerland would regain a two-goal advantage once again. On a free kick by Inler, Reto Zeigler hit the post and no one from Germany was able to clear. Mehmedi eventually recovered the ball and beat ter Stegen, scoring his side's fifth goal of the night, capping off a horrible performance by Germany's defense and goalkeeper.
A depleted Spain playing in a novel (for them) 4-4-2 made light work of Serbia, beating them 2-0 at the AFG Arena in Switzerland. The defending European and World champions were missing their Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao players (those sides having played in the Copa del Rey final on Friday) , and so Vicente del Bosque opted for an experimental shape and lineup.
It didn't work particularly well. Serbia defended very deep against the two strikers of Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado, so basically nothing happened in the first half save for a 60-yard effort from Xabi Alonso and a Serbia goal that was rightly disallowed for offside. Spain reverted to a single striker shape after the break, but they were still failing to get much penetration. Still, a goal eventually came through debutante Adrian, who took advantage of a fast break forward to finish Jesus Navas' sublime cross, nicking between Branislav Ivanovic and Neven Subotic to head off the ground and in. Not classic Spain, but they'll take goals any way they can get them at this point, I'd suspect.
A few minutes later a lovely through ball from Santi Carzola picked out Adrian and the forward took a very suspicious looking tumble in the box under close attention from Ivanovic. The referee bought the dive, however, and Carzola blasted the resultant spot kick down the middle to make it 2-0, Damir Kahriman diving to his right. Some flares greeted that second goal, which wasn't very friendly, but any unrest soon died down. As did the game.
It's impossible to take anything out of this match. Barcelona are the core of this Spain team and Athletic will contribute several players as well. Today was about blooding new players and trying new things, not seeing how the team will actually perform in this summer's Euros. Serbia played creditably enough, I suppose, but never really threatened Iker Casillas' goal.
Ireland's finishing wasn't terrific, while Bosnia-Herzegovina goalkeeper Asmir Begovic was in top form on Saturday, but the Irish were still able to sneak one goal into the net for a 1-0 win. They dominated play throughout the match, and should have been able to win by more than one goal.
Both Robbie Keane and first-time Ireland starter James McClean had decent penalty shouts in the first 15 minutes of the match, but both had their legitimate claims for a spot kick turned down by the referee. Keane also had one miss in the first half, while the defense took a while to find their footing. With Shay Given and John O'Shea resting, the Ireland back line looked shaky in the opening minutes of the match, but improved as the match went on.
Giovanni Trappatoni made two halftime subs that changed the game for his team and gave them a massive boost. Keith Andrews came on for Glenn Whelan, while Aiden McGeady replaced Damien Duff. Both were much better than the man they replaced, though all four could conceivably be in Trappatoni's plans for the opening game of the Euros.
McGeady created the game's only goal in the 78th minute with a great cross from the right flank to the back post. Substitute striker Shane Long made a great run to lose his man and nodded it past Begovic to give Ireland the goal that they should have claimed much earlier in the game. They almost doubled their lead five minutes later through another substitute striker, Jonathan Walters, but Begovic made a miraculous near-post save, barely getting his hand to the ball while it was right on the goal line.
Denmark don't exactly look prepared for Euro 2012's group of death. They were beaten by Brazil in a neutral site match in Germany.
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