EURO Fantasy 2016

UEFA European Championship (EURO 2016) is just 3 days away, as national teams playing their final tune up games before France v Romania kick off on June 10. I’ve spent the better part of the last 10 days going over stats and news in order to put together my 15 player fantasy teams in McDonald’ Fantasy Football. What makes this challenge tough is the fact, many don’t watch some of these national players. Outside of the more popular leagues; La Liga, EPL, Serie A, Ligue 1, and the Bundesliga I don’t much thought into just how many leagues and great footballers there are worldwide.

Much like the World Cup, national teams play qualifiers during group play to fill the 24 slots who will  vie for the title of best team in Europe. Spain is the current champion, winning the last two competitions in 2008 and 2012, while they are the odds on favorite to hoist the cup, France has won their last two championships on their home soil; World Cup in 1998, the European Championship in 1984 and 2000. World Cup champions, Germany are a top contender as well, but defensively they have been a mess recently, followed by a string of defeats.

The challenge, field a 15 player (2 Goalkeepers,5 Defenders,5 Midfielders,3 Forwards) on a budget of €100 million. There are eight formations for your starting XI. I’ve selected a 3-4-3 formation for this tournament, in hopes the big named strikers fill the back of the nets with goals. This could potentially allow for the big money strikers to shine, but cause roster issues with your remaining budget. Wild cards and the ability to change your line ups after Gameday 1 and Gameday 2 allow some leeway for changes during the group stages.

Using the resources at my disposal, Fantasy Football Geek, Fantasy Football First, Fantasy Football Scout and FPL Bet, as well as current EURO news pieces, I have built, what I feel is a competitive squad ahead of the Friday kick off featuring the host nation, France taking on Romania.

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‘Vivo Azzurri’, my current squad for the upcoming championship is pictured above, but not the team I started with. The original line up featured: De Gea, Boateng, Dier, Djourou, Ramos, Alli, Fabergas, Gotze, Giroud, Lewandowski and Muller. It provided me a starting point, nothing more.

First idea I had, fill my squad with 3 players (max from each nation) from Spain, Germany and France, while filling in the remaining slots with budget players. While I didn’t quite get what I wanted in my first attempt, I felt I there were some question marks that I didn’t have answers for. Eric Dier (5.0) and Dele Alli (6.5) are both great buys, but I am not sold on England. The fact Alli is playing behind Rooney in the midfield made me hesitant on keeping him, yet 33% of managers still feel Alli’s place is warranted. Dier is one of those offensive minded defenders for Spurs, coming off a great season. Selected by just 9% of managers, I don’t feel England’s defense is very strong, outside of Joe Hart, which means Dier needs get forward in the attack. It was my hope to find defenders who can get forward, but also have the possibility of a clean sheet or two during the group stage.

The current squad is anchored by three strong midfielders, Alaba, DeBruyne and Pogba with Forsberg (5.5) as the budget starter and Joao Mario (6.0) on the bench. While there has been some unrest in the Belgium camp with KDB, I am keeping the door open for Mario Gotze (9.0), which would save me 1.0 to spend. Looking over the midfield options starting at 7.0 include, Fabergas, Matuidi, Grosicki, Modic and Kroos, as well as a slew of players at 6.5, including the aforementioned Alli. Decisions, decisions…

Defensively, I had thoughts of using De Gea or Neuer, both priced at 6.0, but felt Patricio of POR had better group stage games, allowing me to save 1.0 to use elsewhere on the pitch. Jordi Alba (7.0) is the most expensive defender, who can get forward but also put up clean sheets. Going forward I looked for another attacking defender, initially I had plans for Koscielny (vs ROU, ALB, SWI), but his tendency for yellow cards was a turn off, primarily used on set pieces and corners, I felt more confident in Ricardo Rodriguez at 6.0 (vs ALB, ROU, FRA). At 5.0, Dier reentered the starting XI for his ability to get forward, while Denayer gets the nod for Belgium, although their defense hasn’t been very strong during the qualifiers. Currently I have 5 defenders that all start for their respective nations.

Ah yes, strikers, the centerpiece of any fantasy squad, the transferring out of Lewandowski freed up 3.5 to spend, after downgrading to Mario Mandzukic (8.0), while Giroud and Muller go unchanged. For a moment, I considered looking for a budget forward at 6.0, but felt there was too much uncertainty over their starting status. Nolito was the only name I considered, solely based on the friendlies leading up to start of the tournament.

By potentially making this move, I would change my shift my formation from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2, using Giroud and Muller as my strikers and Alaba, DeBruyne, Pogba, Gotze and Forsberg as my starting midfield. Yet there comes a point in preparation where you start to talk yourself out of a strong starting XI, in search of a stronger squad. Currently, I am at that point, looking to improve on a squad before the whistle has blown for the first match, going off qualifiers and friendlies that don’t always tell the full story, full of inflated statistics, as many teams end up playing a “minnow” during qualifying.

So with 2 days remaining before I official set my lineup, I will continue to tweak my lineup, hoping to selection a strong starting XI that will provide me the best opportunity when on the pitch.

Italia Destiny

As a big fan of Italian football my expectations were low as start of the 2012 UEFA European Championship approached. After the Azzurri crashed out in South Africa in 2010, I thought their approach this season didn’t provide enough experience to compete on the international level. Yet their convincing 2-1 victory over Germany in the semi-finals has reignited the excitement we experienced in 2008 when Italy defeated France to win the World Cup in Germany.

There are only a few holdovers from the 2008 World Cup team, including world class keeper, Gigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, both of whom bring experience and leadership to the 2012 UEFA squad (DeRossi and Barzagli were also on the ’08 squad). The 2010 World Cup was a forgettable event for Italy. Injuries to both Buffon and Pirlo, as well as an aging Azzurri saw them crash out in the group stage, finishing last. It was truly a low point for Italian football.

Enter Cesare Prandelli, succeeding 2006 World Cup manager, Marcello Lippi, who was a favorite, but rather set in his way when it came to the “old guard” who has worn the kit of the Azzurri. Prandelli wasn’t afraid to make changes, which he did. Many of the well known, now aging footballers were not recalled for international duty, the up and coming younger names got their chance.

Expectations, in my mind were not high entering this tournament, but the team did seem to have a good mix of old and new. It comes as no surprise that Buffon (119 caps) and Pilro (88 caps) are leading the way for Italia at age 33 and 34 respectively. On the other end are the young guns, players like Mario Balotelli, 21 years old (13 caps) and Riccardo Montolivo, 27 (36 caps) and Claudio Marchisio, 26 years old (25 caps). These will be names representing Italy in Brazil in the 2014 World Cup.

While their success in Euro 2012 has been wonderful, I believe it could be short lived. It’s great to see Balotelli playing very well (4 goals) and better yet, keep his head together and playing like the up and coming superstar he could he. There’s also some good younger talent in the midfield, but no “maestro” like Pirlo to control the game. I like Daniele De Rossi, but he is more of a defensive midfielder and doesn’t manage the game like Pirlo. We might have to wait and see, Pirlo will be 35 when the World Cup rolls around, he might be available for Brazil.

Mario Ballotelli has been playing above expectations. The knock against him has been his “disciplinary problems” a few years back at Inter while Jose Mourinho was manager. “Balotelli continued to be the subject of racist chants throughout the season, becoming the focus of Juventus fans even during games not involving Inter, leading to Juventus being fined twice and the club ultimately punished with a partial stadium closure” (source). Now at Manchester City under Roberto Mancini, Ballotelli has been playing much better. During this tournament he is garnering consideration as player of the tournament.

More pressing issues are in goal. Behind Buffon is a total of 7 caps between  Salvatore Sigiru (age 25) and Morgan De Sanctis (age 35). At age 34, I could see Buffon returning for one more shot at glory in Brazil. Hopefully during that time we could see another keeper step up and represent the national team. The only other recent call up was Emiliano Viviano (6 caps). Buffon’s leadership and experience has made the best keeper in the world and has put Italy into the position they are in now, to possibly win Euro 2012 when they face Spain on Sunday.

Regardless of the outcome this weekend, Italy’s national team and fans should be proud at how the team has come together and played the last month. It does provide fans with a bright future with young talent being capped. Still there are some questions to answer. With any luck it will be the guidance of Prandelli and the combination of young talent and experience that wins the Henri Delaunay Trophy and allows Italy to qualify and be competitive for World Cup 2014.

UEFA European Championship Predictions

This year footballers and their fans get to experience UEFA European Championship 2012 co-hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. Matches begin June 8, with the final being played on July 1. This championship is played every 4 years, the years in which the World Cup is not played. Next to that event, this is the championship that gives some indication as to potential winners or contenders in the upcoming World Cup, the next one to be played in Brazil in 2014.

This season Spain comes in as heavy favorites, winning this championship in 2008 defeating Germany, 1-0. Two years later Spain defeated Netherlands, 1-0 to record their first World Cup win. This vaulted Spain to the top spot in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Ranking. This year for the European Championship, Spain enters as the top ranked team and the favorite, in my opinion to hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy in Kiev, Ukraine on July 1.

As a nation, Spain has been playing some outstanding football. Looking back on the 2011-2012 season it’s no surprise to see Real Madrid and Barcalona end up in the semi-finals of the 2011-2012 UEFA Champions League. Add to that the 2011-2012 UEFA Europa League saw two Spanish sides – Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao in the finals. While neither Real Madrid or Barcelona made the finals, they still contribute 12 players (out of 23) to the national team (15 if you include Atlético Madrid and Athletic Bilbao).

One player Spain won’t have will be David Villa, who suffered a broken tibia in a Club World Cup match in Yokohama against Al Sadd. His skills and experience (82 caps, 51 goals) will be missed in this competition, but I feel it opens the door for Fernando Torres (92 caps, 28 goals), while not in form much of the year for Chelsea could bring his name back into prominence. Even with this injury, Spain still will be the beast to contend with. They should have very few problems winning Group C (Italy, Ireland, Croatia) to face the runner-up from Group D (Ukraine, Sweden, France, England) in the quarterfinals, which in my opinion will be England, as France wins the group.

Of the 16 teams involved in the championship, I feel there are only 5 teams with a legitimate chance to win in Poland/Ukraine. I have already cited Spain, who I feel are the odds on favorite. The other 4 teams; Netherlands, Germany and Portugal. My dark horse team, France. Sorry England. Sorry Italy. I don’t feel either of these teams are complete, especially Italy who’s off the field problems and lack of talent could be evident in his competition. As for England, the Premiership is one of the best leagues in the world (right there with La Liga), but many players involved are not English, coming to England to play. Outside of Wayne Rooney up front, his 3 goals on the international stage since 2010 is a big concern. Thankfully Joe Hart has really come on the last season or two and will be the starting keeper, which is a big improvement over what we saw in the 2012 World Cup. By way of comparison with teams like Spain and Germany, the midfield and defense of England is just average.

Netherlands seems to be solid all around on the pitch. With Edwin Van de Saar retiring from football, Maarten Stekelenburg (46 caps) will be asked to fill some big shoes between the pipes as he leads the Dutch in this competition. Up front The Flying Dutchmen are strong led by Robin Van Persie (64 caps, 26 goals), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (52 caps, 31 goals) and Dirk Kuyt (87 caps, 24 goals). Van Persie comes off his best season for Arsenal scoring 30 goals and in very good form. The midfield is strong and controlling with the elder statesman, Mark van Bommel, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart. The defense would be considered their weak point, but they are anchored by John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen. Netherlands will battle Portugal and Germany for top honors in Group B, which is my “Group of Death” with one of those three teams going home.

“Zee Germans!” They are coming and fielding one of the most experienced group of footballers in this competition. Much like the Italy World Cup team in 2006, this German squad is composed mainly of players who play in Germany. There are a few exception, such as Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Mesut Özil Real Madrid), Per Mertesacker (Arsenal) and Miroslav Klose (Lazio). Watching Manuel Neuer play in the final few games of the Champions League, proved me they have a world class stopper. Germany does have experience on defense with Philipp Lahm (86 caps), Per Mertesacker (81 caps), in the midfield with Bastian Schweinsteiger (90 caps), Lukas Podolski (97 caps) and up front with Miroslav Klose (116 caps).

Currently Germany is ranked #2 in the FIFA/Coke Cola World Rankings, but much like Netherlands are in Group B and don’t have easy matches against the Dutch and Portugal. Germany were runners-up back in 2008 when they were defeated by Spain, 1-0. While I still like the Dutch, Germany has the work ethic and experience to win this group and much weaker opponent in the quarterfinals. It would not surprise me a bit to see Germany back in the finals. In order to do that, they may have to face Spain in the semi-finals if both nations win their respective groups.

Portugal is currently ranked #5 in the world rankings. When one thinks of Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo is the image conjured up. He is the captain of the squad and the most experienced (89 caps, 32 goals). As I have already mentioned they are in a difficult position having to play Germany and the Netherlands in Group C and if I had to pick a team not to make it out of qualifying, it would be Portugal.

Their friendly matches up to this point haven’t been all that impressive, playing some very weak teams, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, Finland and Luxembourg. In many of their victories though, they did put up 4 or more goals (last 6 matches). We will have to see if they are able to play with the challenging competition in their group. They open the European Championship with Germany.

My dark horse this year’s European Cup is France. Many who know me probably thought I would say Italy, but with their national team being “in transition” with a mix of experience and lots of youth, they will struggle. France, while not overly experienced have been played good football internationally, losing only (to Germany) dating back to August, 2011. They drew England in their first match, which will be the toughest nation to face in their group.

This nation has much to prove after the failing to get out of the group stage in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup, going 0-1-2. I never was a big fan of their former manager, Raymond Domenech who was at the head of the controversy after “Nicolas Anelka’s expulsion from the squad, prompted by a profanity-laced tirade against coach Raymond Domenech” (source). It was an ugly situation for the FFF. Hopefully under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus can return to the international stage with a good showing.

As it stands, the other 11 teams just filling out the groups. I don’t doubt these national squads are composed of the best each nation has to offer, but they are all under Spain. Regardless of who wins, this will be a great start to the summer with only a short break before the new seasons kick off in August. If it’s not evident I will pick Spain to retain their championship with the Netherlands as the runners-up.

Insane Amounts of Cash

One reason I stopped watching MLB and to some degree the NFL was the ungodly amount of money thrown at players these days. Especially rookies who have NO experience at this level. One just has to look at the deals signed by Alex Rodriguez, $275,000,000 (2008-2017), Derek Jeter, $189,000,000 (2001-2010) and Mark Teixeira, $180,000,000 (2009-2016). The list continues, you can see it at Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the figures are astounding!

The NFL is no better. Oddly enough the former convict, Michael Vick signed what is still the largest contract at $130,000,000 (2005-2014). Other players with big contracts include, Carson Palmer, $119,750,000 (2006-2014) and Donovan McNabb, $115,000,000 (2002-2013). Much of this money includes a signing bonus, since there is not a lot of guaranteed money in these contracts is struck down by a career ending injury.

The NBA is just as guilty, but since I don’t care for the sport I see no reason to even mention their outrageous figures. In some respect it’s a worse offender than the NFL. This brings me to my point.

The beautiful game. Football as it is known world wide, only in the US is is termed soccer, where contracts in the MLS pale in comparison to their overseas counterparts, unless your name is David Beckham and you sign with the LA Galaxy to put “butts in the seats” and to sell merchandise. His contract was 5 years, $250,000,000. Considering the MLS as lost approximately $350,000,000 since its inception this was not a unexpected signing.

In the past week La Liga has seen record breaking signings of Kaka ($92 million) from AC Milan and just today Cristiano Ronaldo signed for $131 million from Manchester United. The size of these contracts are far above anything seen previously. Real Madrid has just added two of the world’s best players (both former Players of the Year) to their club and they might not be finished. They are still chasing Valencia’s David Villa, which would also bring a large contract.

UEFA boss, Michael Platini is outraged at the “excessive” transfer fees, “are a serious challenge to the idea of fairplay and the concept of financial balance in our competitions.” Much like the NFL and the MLB, the big teams, with money to spend end up attracting top talent, while smaller clubs are left with very little and no chance at titles and trophies.

UEFA is working hard with clubs to set up a new set of rules as soon as is possible to clean up the system and give it a more solid, more transparent base,” Platini told AFP. Hopefully this does not mean a salary cap because football is a business. Big name players are small clubs will end up transferring in order to record those bigger contracts or because their club cannot afford their salary.

Euro 2008

Euro 2008 began on Saturday with co-host, Switzerland going down to the Czech Republic, 1-0. Overall, it was an entertaining match to kick off this cup and hopefully a preview of football to come.

I was a bit upset to see it being presented on ESPN, since their commentators for World Cup 2006 were terrible. I guess that is what you get when you get American commentators covering “the world’s game.” For Euro 2008, we have three professionals in Derek Rae, Tommy Smyth and Andy Gray, years of football experience and the sort of commentator who leaves opinion out and calls the game the way it should be called.

Of course I am pulling for the Azzurri, Italia, for those not into football. They won the 2006 World Cup and outside of striker Francesco Totti retiring from national competition, they are one of squads to watch. That said, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Spain are also contenders.

Thankfully ESPN does get some props for covering EVERY game, as they did for World Cup 2006. Unfortunately we must still listen to Julie “Pouty” Foudy in studio. Why the hell is she there? Guess that is the best “personality they could come up with to cover one of the most popular world competitions. Thankfully Eric Wynalda is not there providing his bad commentary but Andy Gray proves the best insight based on his years of knowledge and experience.

Looking forward to a great cup. If you have never experienced world cup quality football, this is definitely one competition to watch. Viva Italia!