Originally from Co. Louth, Tommy Smyth has been with ESPN for twenty years offering coverage on almost all soccer events. He contributes extensively to ESPNSoccernet’s Press Pass, provides commentary for Italian Serie A matches, and will be featured throughout ESPN’s upcoming Euro 2012 coverage. He can be found on Twitter at @TommySmythESPN
With no major tournament experience since they punched above their weight at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, Ireland arrives at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine without the same amount of fanfare and expectation as Group C opponents Spain, Italy, and Croatia. Yet the Boys in Green have enjoyed a surprisingly steady qualification campaign, losing only once and finishing just two points behind group-winners Russia. Here with his analysis of the Irish team, as well as the whole tournament, is ESPN commentator and Co. Louth native, Tommy Smyth.
Going into the tournament, what are your expectations for how Poland and Ukraine will be able to handle it?
This question comes up before almost every tournament. Sure, Poland and Ukraine don’t have the same amenities as a Germany or Portugal, but they have enough experience with big football matches to pull it off. All of the matches will be on ESPN so I hope the journalists and reporters will be able to make it easily around the country!
Let’s move on to the matches. Group A, with Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Russia, is clearly one of the weakest groups in recent championship memory. Can any of the two teams who emerge out of this group make a broader impact on the tournament?
While in every tournament there is a “Group of Death”, I’ve dubbed this one the “Group of Life”. I can honestly see any of these teams making it into the next round. Some people are giving the Russians some credit, but personally I can’t see any of these teams making any inroads into the tournament. Then again, nobody saw Greece making it far when they won the whole thing in 2004.
Tommy’s Take: With a weak group of teams that barely made it into the tournament, Poland and Russia should probably get through, almost by default.
Speaking of which, Group B been dubbed the aforementioned “Group of Death.” Perennial powerhouses Germany and Netherlands are drawn against a flashy Portugal side and a consistent Denmark squad. Do you see Portugal or Denmark stealing a spot from the superteams?
When you look at how the teams qualified, the Dutch and the Germans, they really stand out. They have a level of familiarity with each other, with, I think, something like seven members of the team playing on Bayern Munich together. Their knowledge of each others game will stand to Germany’s ability. Meanwhile, the Dutch are their own worst enemy. They always come in as one of the favorites, yet it’s been a long while since they’ve lifted any hardware. Eventually you’ve got to wonder if there’s something in their psyche that keeps them from winning.
Tommy’s Take: With the World Cup looming in Brazil, you get the feeling the Germans are going to want to collect a trophy at this tournament.
What about Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal?
The thing with the Portuguese is that this tournament is an incredible chance for Cristiano Ronaldo to stamp himself on the world game. He’ll be able to have a break out tournament where all of the attention is on him. In any other age, Ronaldo would be far and away the greatest football player in the world, but with Lionel Messi around, Ronaldo will want to use this tournament to break away from Messi’s shadow.
We’ll get to Ireland’s group, Group C, in a minute, but let’s talk about some of the intriguing matches in Group D. France and England are both coming off disappointing World Cup runs, while Sweden and Ukraine will definitely be tough outs. Is there any hope of moving out of the group stage for either the host nation or the Swedes?
England and France are the big favorites in that group – even with Rooney out for the first three games. Personally, I think that England are simply going to be a very average team. With Rooney serving the suspension, they won’t have a star to come in and take the game over, in the way a Ronaldo or a Schweinsteiger would. With Sweden, you have a player in Ibrahimovic who has the potential to carry his team. The thing with this tournament is that, if one player gets hot, he can bring everyone else with him.
Tommy’s Take: I’m certain that France are going to come out strong. This group of players has something to prove, and they know that have a chance to make amends for the calamity in South Africa.
Ireland was unlucky with their draw and are forced to try and dethrone reigning champions Spain, while holding off tough competition from Italy and Croatia. Do you see much opportunity for Ireland to make it into the second round?
It’s a very difficult group to come out of, but Irish teams play well when they’re confident. After their road through qualification, they definitely sound confident. The key to the group is the first game against Croatia. To get a result there will be incredibly important, especially with Spain and Italy battling it out on the same day. Trapattoni will have the group ready to go for their final match against Italy, but it could be a meaningless one unless we pull something off against Croatia.
Thing is, players use the European Championships as a type of shop window. With Modric potentially on the transfer market from Tottenham, he will be trying to showcase his skills to buyers. If Modric cuts himself loose, I don’t know too many players who are more talented.
Meanwhile, I don’t see view this Spanish side as the Spanish team that everyone keeps telling me they are. Defensive stalwart Carles Puyol is out, offensive juggernaut David Villa is out, and trusty defender Gerard Pique has fallen off his game. With all of those guys out or struggling, and playmakers Xavi and Andres Iniesta worn out from a long season, Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque is going to have a rough time picking a squad.
Tommy’s Take: This is a Spanish team that clearly relies on style and flair, much like Barcelona did in the Champions League. For me, there’s no reason a defensive-minded Irish team can’t be the Chelsea of this tournament by stifling Spain’s attacks for a long time and eventually seizing their chances.
How about the play of all-time leading scorer Robbie Keane? How do you see him motivating those around him?
The big thing for Ireland is that Robbie Keane has to be on his game. His recent form with the LA Galaxy hasn’t been promising, which is making fans nervous. We can hope that we don’t have to bank on Keane’s performance, but at the same time as he goes, so will we.
Apart from Keane, I feel this is a huge tournament for Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady. If they can get balls in with a little bit more accuracy, we can cause huge problems for a lot of teams in the tournament. Richard Dunne at the back will be wildly important. If we lose our defensive shape, this team simply doesn’t have the speed to be able to recover. If they lose their shape then they’re in real trouble. They more or less need to play errorless football.
The one thing about Trapattoni is that his managing style is very cautious. From a manager’s perspective, it doesn’t mean a pinch of salt how you go about winning, as long as you get the result. They aren’t looking for entertainment, they just want to win. If Ireland won the Euros with six men standing in front of the goal, I’m pretty sure the country wouldn’t mind that at all.
What’s the potential for this Irish team?
With a win in the first game win, the sky is the limit. A first game loss and forget about it. All we can do is go out and play for the three points wherever we can find them.
For the tournament as a whole, do you have any players for us to look out for?
Young Italian Sebastian Giavinco scored 15 goals this year for Parma and could have one heck of a tournament. Russian star Andrei Arshavin should use the tournament as a chance to showcase himself. When he came up, he was meant to be the next Marco van Basten yet never lived up to it. I could see him coming out and making a big impact.
So who do you see coming out of each group and, at the end of three weeks, who do you think will be crowned Champions of Europe?
From Group A I’ll go with Poland and Russia. Group B has so much firepower but I’ll stick with Germany and the Netherlands. For a shocker, I’m going to go with Italy and Ireland to come from Group C, and from Group D, I’ll bet on France and England. At the end of the day though, I can definitely see Germany putting together a brilliant run and winning the whole thing.
Tommy Smyth will continue to offer insight into Euro 2012 to the Irish Emigrant throughout the tournament. You can follow him on Twitter at @TommySmythESPN.