The second cycle of opening-round group play at Euro 2012 concludes Friday when Group D steps back into the limelight, and we can only hope for as much magic as the first cycle of Group D produced on Monday.
It was the stuff of which legends are formed. In the case of Ukrainian hero Andriy Shevchenko, he already was an icon in his homeland. So let’s just say he embellished his reputation against Sweden.
The raw numbers don’t tell the story, because it was no ordinary brace produced by Ukraine in a 2-1 win. The goals sparked an unlikely comeback win that seemed beyond the Ukrainian’s grasp when Zlatan Ibrahimovic fired the Swedes into the lead early in the second. The fact it was in the high-pressure environment of the Euros with the Ukraine in its long-awaited first match as the tourney co-host, added to the drama.
To top it all, it was the sort of performance most believed was beyond Shevchenko, now 35 and the oldest striker in this tournament. Whatever happens the rest of the way in this event, Shevchenko’s name will be secure in the annals of Euro 2012.
Now we wonder if Shevchenko might have more tricks up his sleeve, conspiring to lead his homeland deep into the knockout phase. Indeed, if results fall the right way on Friday, Ukraine can secure its passage to the next phase.
Heading into Friday’s matches, Ukraine leads the group on three points, with France and England on a point apiece after their 1-1 draw. The hard-luck Swedes, who might have deserved better after in the opener, sit on the big donut and desperately need to secure some points (preferably three) on Friday.
Following are look-aheads to Friday’s Group D contests. Remember, previews continue through the weekend at Don Best as group plays works toward its conclusion next Tuesday.
Ukraine vs. France (at Donetsk)
The co-hosts take their act from Kiev to Donetsk and the Donbass Arena, home of Shakhtar, for their second group match against a France side that at some point might need to pick up three points to secure advancement to the knockout phase.
Euro oddsmakers are not overcome by the regional emotion generated by Shevchenko’s brace against the Swedes, as France has been posted the favorite at a win price of 11/10. The take-back on the co-hosts is a tempting 11/4, with draw prices at 9/4.
Kickoff time on Friday will be noon (ET), with TV coverage in the states provided by ESPN2.
We still believe Les Bleus can advance from this quartet but admit to some misgivings regarding the French rearguard, which hardly resembled the Maginot Line in the opener vs. England. Too often, Laurent Blanc’s defense seemed troubled by what seemed to be tepid English advances. AC Milan’s pony-tailed French defender Philippe Mexes appeared particular vulnerable at his center-half position. Lyon goalie Hugo Lloris also looked uncomfortable at times in the opener.
Still, France’s own version of Spain’s possession football allowed it to keep the ball for long stretches vs. England and could similarly force Ukraine on its heels. Man City midfielder Samir Nasri showed how he can be a useful weapon in the tourney when unleashing a rasping volley that beat Joe Hart on the short side and leveled matters for Les Bleus just before halftime.
Ukraine could be asking for trouble if, like England, it allows France to dominate possession and subject itself to raids from not only Nasri, but Bayern Munich’s Franck Robery and Chelsea’s Flourent Malouda from the flanks. We also get the idea that Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema is not going to be as ineffective in the rest of this tourney as he was vs. England.
Ukraine was comfy on the attack vs. the Swedes and could punish any uncertainties in the French defense if Shevchenko gets chances as he did vs. Sweden. In Ukraine’s case, it has to have enough possession, and prevent France from playing keep-away, to allow “Shevy” and friends the chance to test Lloris.
Possession will be key for the French, as the less chances Ukraine wingers Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko have to make bombing runs down the flanks, the better it will be for Les Bleus. Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko were creative and inventive in the attack zone vs. the Swedes and got enough balls into the vet striker combo of Shevy and Andriy Voronin (a combined 67 years of age!) to give Ukraine plenty of scoring opportunities.
The crowd will be with the co-hosts and we are almost tempted to back them on the win, although we suspect the draw, also priced attractively, is a slightly better wagering option.
England vs. Sweden (Kiev)
It’s been a long time – 1968, to be exact – since England has beaten Sweden in a meaningful match. As long as that streak stays alive past Friday, the Swedes will still have a chance to advance to the knockout phase despite their bitter opening loss to Ukraine.
These sides, who also met in the opener at World Cup 2002 when they split the spoils in a 1-1 scoreline, do battle at Kiev’s National Stadium in the second Friday match, which kicks off at 2:45 p.m. (ET) and will be televised live in the states by ESPN2.
A check of European wagering outlets notes that England is a solid favorite, priced at 11/10 on the win. We think much better value exists with Sweden, priced at 11/4 to win, while the draw is listed at 23/10.
Of course, England remains a bit depleted and will be without Man United’s striker Wayne Rooney for one more match as a result of his punishment resulting from last October’s qualifier vs. Montenegro. The English conspired for a Joleon Lescott goal from a wonderful set-piece initiated by Steven Gerrard against the French in the opener, but otherwise looked a bit lukewarm on attack.
If the non-Rooney England is simply content to sit back, soak up pressure and attack on the counter, we suggest its stay in this tourney will be brief. Although most of the English press seems to believe Roy Hodgson was pushing all of the right buttons in the opener, we’re not so sure. Besides an occasional spark from Arsenal’s precocious 18-year-old midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, England’s advances became further limited as the match progressed vs. France. It will be an event for England to score a goal without Rooney on the pitch and this could play into the hands of the Swedes.
Sweden had its chances against Ukraine, although all there was to show for it was one nifty strike from Ibrahimovic. The Swedes were still more adventurous for new coach Erik Hamren than they have been for years under Lars Lagerback, carrying over a trait first noticed in the qualifiers. Sweden will not be afraid to attack and give the strike partnership of AC Milan’s Ibrahimovic and Galatasaray’s Johan Elmander, playing in a slightly advanced position, a chance to convert.
A concern for the Swedes could be vulnerability on set pieces, in which Shevchenko punished them on Monday and from which England scored its only goal vs. France. Marking also left something to be desired, as did the performances of central defenders Andreas Granqvist and the veteran Olof Mellberg. To punish the Swedes, however, might take an effort similar to the heroic one delivered by Shevchenko on Monday. With Rooney still on ice, we’re not convinced England can do similar damage.
The draw is always a decent recommendation whenever England and Sweden get together, but this time we think the tasty 11/4 win price on the desperate Swedes might be too good to overlook.