It’s been a veritable feast of football over the past 3 weeks with some excellent individual and collective performances. Some players have met expectations, others have exceeded them, and yet some have come from nowhere to claim their spot in the limelight. But what about those who have failed to live up to the hype? Walter Townsend investigates...There have been plenty to choose from at Euro 2008, and an interesting correlation exists between the players who failed at Euro 2008 and their respective club form. Usually strong club form equals a strong tournament. The exhilaration of playing at a major tournament often overcomes any sense of fatigue. However, with the like of Luca Toni (top scorer in the Bundesliga for Bayern) and Karim Benzema (top scorer in Ligue 1 for Lyon) the opposite has been the case.
Perhaps it is underlines the amount that players have put in for their respective club sides over the course of a long season, which for many started over 10 months ago. Exhaustion has certainly been a factor in the tournament. That lack of freshness played a role in several matches; many thought that the Netherlands would be the fresher team against Russia as a result of their 8 day rest in the tournament. Nevertheless it was the Russian side, who looked fitter, possibly because their season is only still in it’s early stages.
Which players have disappointed then? Picking out strikers and creative midfielders is often easier, as their failings are easier to discern. Defenders who struggle during a game can often rely on a team-mate to cover for them, so their deficiencies are often less exposed. Therefore the six chosen are all creative players, perhaps unfairly so. However, they are the ones who tend to grab the headlines when things go well, so the inverse should also be the case!
1) Mario Gomez – Germany
The Stuttgart striker came into the tournament with big things expected of him. Playing for the pre-tournament favourites the forward, who hit 19 goals in the Bundesliga, was widely tipped to continue with his blistering form.
A huge miss against Austria, when he managed to put the ball over the bar with the goal gaping, well and truly summed up his tournament. Gomez didn’t score a goal, his confidence destroyed by the enormity of the miss, among other things. A striker is often measured by how he responds to missing chances. While some return fired up by the desire to put things right, others retreat into their shell, and this happened to the 22 year old.
An abortive partnership with Miroslav Klose certainly didn’t help matters. Gomez is accustomed to playing up front on his own, employed as the sole focal point of the attack, as Stuttgart favour several attacking midfielders behind him to supply service. Played in a more orthodox 4-4-2, Gomez looked uncertain of his position and he failed to link up with his international colleague.
That fateful Austria game convinced Löw to drop the struggling Gomez to the bench, and he didn’t re-emerge for the remainder of the tournament, barring a fleeting appearance in the last few moments of the final as the Mannschaft reached desperation point.
Gomez’s lack of form at Euro 2008 may work out well for Stuttgart as they look to bounce back from their disappointing defence of their Bundesliga crown won in 2006/07. Pre-tournament Gomez was talked about as a possible Chelsea, Barcelona or AC Milan target, with various sides running the rule over him. That talk has since vanished, and Gomez may well remain at Stuttgart next season to rebuild his shattered reputation.
2) Karim Benzema – France
It seems rather unfair to single out one French player, especially one of the youngest in the squad, as collectively practically any of the French squad could be up for the nomination.
However, hopes were high prior to the start of the tournament that the striker, who had finished as Ligue 1 top scorer with 20 goals, could continue to hit the goals for France at Euro 2008. It proved not to be the case as Benzema finished the tournament with nothing to show for his endeavours.
The injury to Thierry Henry didn’t aide Benzema’s cause, and the inclusion of Anelka for the first match against Romania was poorly conceived. The pair couldn’t have been less on the same page if they had tried. They had never played together before, and aren’t ever likely to again, and it showed in Zurich that evening.
Like Gomez, Benzema was also thrust into an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, after spending most of the season playing for Lyon in a 4-3-3, as the middle of the three forwards. Usually quick and pacey, Benzema dropped too deep to pick up the ball against Romania and seemed unable to link up with Anelka. After being described as a complete forward with ability both in the air and on the ground, Benzema despite his tender age, was expected to be the player to make the difference for France. With injuries to both Henry and Ribery at the tournament, the weight of expectation on Benzema’s shoulders clearly told on the 20 year old.
Dropped for the defeat to the Netherlands, he improved notably when played alongside Henry against Italy in the final group game. However, he was still unable to make much of an impact, and despite spending nearly 180 minutes on the pitch at Euro 2008 failed to score (in contrast to his strike-rate at Lyon of a goal every 130 minutes).
Benzema had been expected to make a summer move to one of Europe’s super-powers, after catching the eye this season for Lyon, with both Manchester United and Real Madrid touted as possible destinations. He may now remain at the Stade Gerland for next season.
The forward has now failed to score in his last 7 international appearances, and next season will be an opportunity to rebuild his reputation at club level. At just 20 there will be plenty more opportunities to win over the French fans, but it has been an undeniably poor first showing at a major tournament, which has left plenty of room for improvement.
3) Luca Toni - Italy
After a fine World Cup in 2006, when he helped Italy to win the tournament, hopes were high that if Toni could continue from where he left off in Germany, the Azurri could be on for the double. Two excellent seasons at club level, when he notched 16 goals for Fiorentina in 2006/07 and then 29 for Bayern (plus a further 10 in the UEFA Cup), gave grounds for Italian optimism.
However, the reality at Euro 2008 proved somewhat different. Potentially tired by his long season with Bayern (he played 46 games, plus a further 6 in qualification for Italy prior to the first group match), fatigue could have been a factor.
By his own admittance he is not a player, who is the most gifted technically. Instead Toni relies on top physical condition to make the most of his opportunities, and with this missing he was far less-effective.
It could have been so different, if the goal against Romania in the second group match hadn’t been controversially ruled offside. The confidence that goal would have given him could have made up for any physical tiredness. A hatful of chances against France also fell his way including one shot that hit the post in the late stages, but still the elusive first goal wouldn’t come, and the confidence seemed to ebb away.
A forward rotation policy by Roberto Donadoni didn’t improve matter, as the Bayern striker played with three different partners in the group games (di Natale against the Netherlands, del Piero against Romania and Cassano against France).
However, for all these factors against Luca Toni, the bare statistics show that of the 12 shots Toni had in the tournament, only 2 were on target, and only 1 was blocked, meaning that at least 75% of his shots were off target. A ratio that simply isn’t good enough for a supposedly top forward.
Donadoni stuck by his striker, despite calls for him to be dropped against Spain, but his faith in the big man wasn’t rewarded and Toni went through the tournament without scoring a goal. The Italians were finally put of their misery by Spain in the quarter finals, and their reliance on Toni was clear for all to see. When he fails, so too, do Italy.
It may be time for the new management team in the forthcoming friendlies and early rounds of World Cup qualification rounds later in the year, to try a few different strikers, as the lack of back-up for Toni cost Italy dear at Euro 2008.
4) Ebi Smolarek – Poland
The Racing Santander forward came into the tournament with a big reputation after outscoring Cristiano Ronaldo in qualifying for Euro 2008. The Spanish based striker hit 9 goals, as the Poles topped Group A, one more than the Manchester United player managed for Portugal.
With confidence high in the camp, prior to the first match against their neighbours Germany, Polish hopes were clearly founded on the talented striker. Played out of position on the left side, a position he has never performed well in, despite being left footed, the nature of the defeat to Germany seemed to demoralise Poland and Smolarek for the remainder of the tournament.
The former Borussia Dortmund and Feyenoord forward continued to struggle for form despite starting further forward against Austria, and failed to generate any attacking momentum for Poland. Over the course of Euro 2008 he managed just 3 shots, a total that seems impossible to match up to a player that seemed in such red-hot form in qualification.
Dropped for the final match against Croatia, he was given a chance to restore confidence from the bench. However, despite looking brighter he still missed a good chance towards the end to level the scores in a game that was largely meaningless.
His time at Racing also looks to be up: he has been touted as a potential replacement at Toulouse for the departing Johan Elmander. Smolarek scored only 4 goals in La Liga last season, although played deeper than previously at Dortmund, where he enjoyed an excellent strike ratio.
A move to Ligue 1 may suit Smolarek as he looks to come to terms with his disappointing performances at Euro 2008.
5) Andreas Ivanschitz – Austria
The midfielder known as the ‘Austrian David Beckham’ failed to sparkle at Euro 2008. Whilst little hope was given to Austria prior to the tournament, the team as a whole performed creditably. However, the one major disappointment has to be the lack of impact on the tournament from their captain.
Prior to kick-off at Euro 2008, Ivanschitz was expected to play a leading role and deemed to be one of the few players with any genuine quality in the side. With most of the side playing in some of Europe’s lesser leagues, Ivanschitz, plying his trade in Greece, was one of the few considered to be capable of playing at an elevated level.
The Panathinaikos midfielder was largely expected to orchestrate the midfield, liberated from defensive work by the presence of Aufhauser, Ivanschitz was free to look forward and set up attacks. However, his generally poor performance meant that the scant Austrian chances that were created, usually originated from the forwards profiting from defensive errors or creating something themselves.
Indeed the stats shows that Ivanschitz’s joint most frequent target with his passing was Austria’s right back György Garics, an indication that instead of passing forward, he often the laid the ball square to a defender.
Touted as Austria’s most creative midfielder, it was therefore ironic that Austria scored their only goal of the tournament, after he had been taken off against Poland. It was perhaps expecting too much of a 23-year-old to shoulder the burden of a country’s expectations, especially at a home tournament. Nevertheless, despite the overall positive feeling regarding Austria’s performance at Euro 2008, a slightly unsatisfactory taste will linger after the relatively disappointing showing of Ivanschitz.
6) Henryk Larsson
Potentially a controversial inclusion in such a list, Sweden’s record goal scorer struggled to make an impact at Euro 2008. The former Barcelona and Celtic striker, not to mention his loan spell at Manchester United, has been the most eye catching player of his generation, helping Sweden to an impressive 3rd place at the World Cup in 1994.
Perhaps fuelled by the desire to have one last shot at glory, the 36-year-old went back on his decision to retire after the World Cup in Germany two seasons ago. An additional factor may have been the announcement by Ibrahimovic to return to the squad, following his self-imposed absence after falling out with the coaching staff.
Furthermore Larsson’s impressive form back in the Allsvenskan prompted him to reconsider his international retirement. This season in the UEFA Cup Larsson managed 9 goals in 9 games, and since returning to his homeland has also hit 21 goals in just 46 matches. Whatever the case, this enormously disappointing tournament has certainly tainted the legacy that Larsson will leave behind.
Fans of the Helsingborgs striker will point to the fact that Larsson played every minute of every Swedish match. A commendable feat for the veteran striker, but unfortunately a striker is rated on his goals and not the time he spends on the pitch.
Ibrahimovic’s persistent injuries didn’t help Larsson’s reintegration into the fold, as on paper the pair certainly looked to be one of the best balanced striking teams at the tournament, certainly amongst those teams that retained the two central forwards.
Nevertheless, Larsson’s return to the team could have decisively destabilised the team. The striking duo (Elmander and Allbäck) that had got Sweden to the finals were unceremoniously turned out of the starting XI in favour of the prodigal pair of Ibrahimovic and Larsson. When through injury Ibrahimovic was withdrawn, the demoralised Elmander and Allbäck were sought to no avail and Sweden left the tournament, after failing to make any impact in their final group match against Russia.
His case is a warning to all other ageing players, who fancy one more shot at the big prize. Once time has been called on an international playing career, the football is best left to the younger generation.