Saturday, 28 June 2008

Euro 2008 Semi-Finals

feature for blogcritics
Germany 3 - 2 Turkey

This should have been easy for Germany. Turkey, decimated by injuries and suspensions, only had three fit outfield players on the bench, and were missing several of their best players like Nihat, Tuncay, Emre, Arda, and first-choice goalkeeper Volkan. Yet they still were by far the better team in this game, ditching their usual cagey style for an attacking attitude that saw them deservedly take the lead after 22 minutes. The German defence was static as the ball rebounded off the crossbar to the feet of Ugur Boral, who couldn't fail to score from a yard out.

But, as Turkey have barely held a lead all tournament (scoring so late means they've never had to), so it was again as Germany equalised four minutes later with their very first attack. A burst of left-wing pace from Podolski took him clear, and his low cross was deftly flicked home by Bastian Schweinsteiger (above). But Germany didn't capitalise on this quick comeback, which would have deflated teams of lesser mental strength than the Turks. Instead the game carried on as before, with Turkey making all the running, and Germany swanning around as if they wanted to win the game at walking pace.

With 11 minutes to go at the end of the game, and with the whole world blacked-out due to electrical storms in Vienna causing a cut in the TV broadcast, Germany took an undeserved lead. Big striker Miroslav Klose, who had barely even touched the ball up until this point, rose to meet a header and was delighted to see the ball bounce into an empty net as the Turkish goalkeeper, Rustu, had came for the cross and missed it completely. It was a horrible error from Rustu, who also made a horrible error against Croatia: how Turkey must curse the suspension of Volkan. But never write off the Turks, and sure enough they were able to score another last-5 goal - their fifth of the tournament.

Again it was little Semih Senturk who got it, glancing home at the near post after winger Sabri had humiliated Germany's much-vaunted left-back Philipp Lahm and got a cross in. But by their standards, Turkey had equalised too early - there was still four minutes to go! That's where Lahm made up for his defensive lapse by scoring a wonderful goal of his own making - bursting in from the left-flank, he played a one-two with Hitzlsperger before slamming the ball high past Rustu. But the late winner for Germany won't disguise the fact that they were very poor in this game.

Unusually considering their long-standing reputation, this looks like a German side which is very good going forward - mostly thanks to Podolksi and Schweinsteiger on the flanks - but very shaky in defence.

Spain 3 - 0 Russia

Russia were taught a lesson in the other semi-final. With hindsight, it seems some people (ahem) might have got a bit carried away after Russia's 3-1 beating of the Netherlands in the quarter-final, and with Andrei Arshavin's display too.

Here he was virtually anonymous, as Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas came off the bench to perform the Arshavin role much better for the Spanish. That substitution was the result of a first-half injury to David Villa, the competition's top-scorer who had bagged a hat-trick in Spain's opening game against Russia. He will now miss the final. Fabregas should probably start in his place, playing in the hole behind Fernando Torres, because he was in brilliant form here in that role. Barcelona midfielder Xavi (above) opened the scoring five minutes after half-time by sliding home a cross-cum-shot from club team-mate Andres Iniesta.

After that goal, the Russian's confidence and energy drained away from them entirely, and the result was never really in doubt. The Spanish midfield, the most impressive of the tournament, passed the ball through the Russians with ease, and it was Fabregas who made the telling pass for the second goal. His gorgeous flick landed in the path of substitute striker Dani Guiza, who chested it down and hooked the ball over the oncoming Russian goalkeeper Akinfeev. David Silva wrapped up the tie with a third goal eight minutes from time: some tidy close passing on the left-side of midfield ended with a lofted ball forward by Iniesta towards Fabregas on the wing; he took it forward and found Silva in the middle, who controlled it and drilled the ball low past Akinfeev with his left foot.

The Final
Germany v. Spain

Spain will go into the final as favourites. They have been the best side of the tournament: they won the full nine points in the group, drew with the world champions Italy and won the shoot-out, and easily beat a revitalised and much-fancied Russia in the semi-final. In contrast, Germany have huffed and puffed past their comparatively easy draw: they beat Poland with ease, meekly lost to Croatia, scraped past a dreadful Austria team, were good in dispatching with Portugal, and then stumbled past a half-strength Turkish side in their semi-final. They've lost four goals in the two knock-out games; and yes, they've scored six, but at least three of those were profits taken from basic defensive errors.

Podolski has been the key man for Germany so far, assisted here and there by good displays from Schweinsteiger, Ballack, and Lahm. But more players have had poor tournaments: yes I'm looking at you Mario Gomez, but also Marcell Jansen, Miroslav Klose, Simon Rolfes, Arne Friedrich and Jens Lehmann. In contrast, almost every Spanish player will come out of this tournament with enhanced reputations: Fernando Torres has been terrific up-front despite only scoring once, while the midfield of Senna, Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas has been impossible to dispossess at times.

So on paper, everything points to a Spanish win. But football fans aware of their history will know it's not quite as easy as that: Germany are renowned as tournament experts, capable of grinding out results against less experienced opposition; Spain are renowned for being big-game bottlers, for always playing well while never being actually able to achieve anything palpable. Admittedly my predictions so far have been way off the mark (and unfortunately are published for everyone to see and mock), but I'll stick my neck on the line again anyway: Spain.

Or perhaps Germany.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Euro 2008 Quarter-Finals round-up

Portugal 2 - 3 Germany
In the first of the quarter finals, Group A winners Portugal took on Group B runners-up Germany. Both teams had stumbled in their groups: Portugal had fielded a reserve side and lost 2-0 to hosts Switzerland, while a full-strength German side had tepidly lost 2-1 to Croatia.

It was the Germans who were quickest from the blocks here, as a fast flowing move down the left-wing led to Bastian Schweinsteiger (above) sliding home the opening goal after 22 minutes. Just four minutes later the game looked all over, as poor Portuguese marking allowed Miroslav Klose a free header in the box, which he duly glanced into the net.

Portugal came back into contention just before half-time, when a Ronaldo shot was parried by Jens Lehmann, only for Nuno Gomes to slot home the rebound. In the second-half, Portugal's sloppy defending came back to haunt them again as German captain Michael Ballack found space in the area to head home a third goal.

Late pressure from the Portuguese was too little too late: Helder Postiga scored from a great Nani cross with three minutes to go, but there wasn't enough time to grab an equaliser. So the Portuguese fans have gone home; Big Phil Scolari has flown to Chelsea; Ronaldo has flown to Madrid; and Germany suddenly look a good bet again to win the trophy.

Croatia 1 - 1 Turkey (Turkey wins 3-1 on penalties)
Friday night's second quarter-final between Croatia and Turkey was, for so long, proving to be one of the worst games of the tournament. Croatia had qualified thanks to three wins out of three in Group B, including a victory over pre-tournament favourites Germany, and looked strong favourites to make the semi's. Turkey, on the other hand, had been leading in matches for a combined total of 2 minutes, after shock injury-time winners against both Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

This game never got going: Croatia attacked, Turkey defended doggedly, and neither side was able to create much. Turkey looked like they were playing for penalties the whole game, and it seemed that their negativity had finally caught up with them when Ivan Klasnic scored a header for Croatia in the 119th minute - one minute from the end of injury-time. Incredibly, Turkey's first shot on target the whole night didn't arrive until the 122nd minute, but when it arrived it was spectacular and unspeakably dramatic.

The 120 minutes of normal time plus extra time were up, and even the one-minute of suggested injury-time was up, when Turkish keeper Rustu Recber launched one last high ball into the Croatian penalty area. Time stood still, and so did the Croatian defenders as Semi Senturk lashed the ball into the top corner of the net.

Penalty shoot-outs are 90% psychological, and it was clear to everyone who would win this one: the Croatians were crushed, the Turks ecstatic. Modric and Rakitic missed for Croatia, Petric had his penalty saved by Rustu, and Turkey won 3-1. Turkey is in the semi-finals, and they've still only led matches for a combined total of 2 minutes of the 390 they've played in this tournament.

Netherlands 1 - 3 Russia (aet)
Saturday night saw new tournament favourites the Netherlands take on Dutchman Guus Hiddink's improving Russia team. While the Dutch had sensationally dispensed with Italy and France and rested their key players for a comfortable win over Romania, Russia had been annihilated 4-1 by Spain before easing past Greece 1-0 and putting on an exciting display of fast-moving attacking football in a 2-0 win over Sweden.

Surely their dodgy defence, so embarrassingly shown up by the Spanish, wouldn't be able to cope with the threat of van Nistelrooy, van Persie and Sneijder? In fact, they coped easily. Russia deservedly took a first-half lead through Pavyluchenko, and passed up several good opportunities to seal the points. They were outplaying the Dutch in midfield, with only Wesley Sneijder being able to cause problems for that dodgy Russian defence.

Just before full-time, a brilliant Sneijder free-kick was headed home by Ruud van Nistelrooy, taking the game to extra-time. But the added period saw a revived Russian side, who zipped around the park as if boosted by rocket fuel, inspired by a masterclass display by Andrei Arshavin (above). His ridiculous by-line cross allowed Dmitri Torbinski to slide home a second goal, before Arshavin himself nutmegged Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar for a third goal with four minutes left.

The Russians deserved their win, and suddenly the biggest clubs in Europe were all searching their pockets for £20m or so to buy 27-year old Arshavin, the new star of the tournament.

Spain 0 - 0 Italy (Spain wins 4-2 on penalties)

By Sunday night, it was left up to Spain to show that group winners could progress in the knock-outs. Croatia and Holland, the other 9-point winners in the group stages, had been evicted by group runners-up, while Group A winners Portugal had been dumped by Germany.

The big match build-up divided neutral fans between romantic and cynical lines: Spain had been enjoying by far the better tournament, the romantics said, and Italy were without their two first-pick central midfielders, Pirlo and Gattuso, due to suspension; it doesn't matter, said the skeptics, this is the way it always goes: Spain will play the best football, miss a load of chances, and be knocked out by a lucky Italian side.

This is "the way", they said, it is fate, and for a long time it looked like this pattern was indeed being followed: Spain attacked and missed; the Italians defended in bulk, and neutral fans around the world collectively groaned as Spain looked set to bottle it again. They didn't.

As the game headed into extra-time, the psychological game that so often determines the victor of high-tension matches like these strongly suggested the Italians would win: everything was going according to their plan, and so typically frustrating the Spanish. Remarkably, the better footballing side was able to triumph over the resilient and experienced Italians. Iker Casillas saved penalties from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale, and Gigi Buffon saved one of his own, from Dani Guiza, but it wasn't enough. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas converted the final spot-kick to give Spain a 4-2 victory, and the final place in the Euro semi-finals.

The Semi-Finals

Germany v. Turkey

It's hard to see anything other than a German victory here. Turkey has such selection concerns - including the loss of star striker Nihat to injury, and pacy young winger Arda to suspension - that they have threatened to play their third-choice goalkeeper, in outfield, out of necessity.

Even with a full team, this Turkish side could not be expected to triumph. In getting out of their group they have exceeded even the optimistic expectations of their own fans, and this lucky streak of scoring in injury-time in three successive matches surely cannot continue.

The Germans, on the other hand, are tournament experts. The were favourites before the big kick-off because they score highly on tactical discipline, mental strength, squad depth, the influence of their huge travelling support, and, of course, ability. They have shown their experience in growing through the competition so far, and in Michael Ballack and Lukasz Podolski have two of the players of the tournament so far. A Turkey victory on Wednesday evening would constitute an upset of epic proportions.

Russia v. Spain
Some people will tell you this is an easy one to call. Spain beat Russia 4-1 just two weeks ago, what's the difference now?

The difference is Andrei Arshavin, and a bit of momentum. Arshavin came back for the Sweden game, which Russia could have easily won by five or six goals, and was astonishingly effective against the Netherlands in their 3-1 quarter-final win. He is now being openly talked about as player of the tournament, after only two matches! He is so central to the way that Russia attacks, with five midfielders all willing to run beyond the ball and Arshavin as the fulcrum to take control and decide who gets it. Then there's Anyukov and Zhirkov, Russia's two flying full-backs, who have been exceptional.

Spain celebrated their win over Italy as if they had won the whole competition, and that would concern me as a fan. It's as if they felt Italy was the biggest potential stumbling block, and now that is overcome they should be able to waltz to the final. Not so. Who could foresee the Dutch being so outplayed by the Russians before? And the Spanish, probably the second-best team of the tournament after the Dutch, will be outplayed again here, in my opinion. At this level, football is rarely so straight-forward as to say that a 4-1 win before means another easy win now. For me, this is another extra-time Russian win.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Euro 2008 Group Stage, Round Three

feature for blogcritics

In Group A, hosts Switzerland exited the tournament in style with a 2-0 win over group leaders Portugal. The Portuguese, who had already qualified, fielded a reserve team to keep their whole squad sharp in preparation for their quarter-final tie, meaning key players like Deco and Ronaldo were rested. The Swiss took advantage by winning 2-0, with both goals coming from Hakan Yakin. Yakin finished the tournament as Switzerland's only goalscorer, with 3.

The other game was one of the most dramatic International matches in years- or, at least, the last 20 minutes was. Whoever won between the Czech Republic and Turkey would go through, with a penalty shoot-out in store were the game to finish level. Jan Koller and Jaroslav Plasil put the Czechs 2-0 up, leaving Turkey looking dead and buried. But just as they had made an amazing comeback against Switzerland in the previous game, the Turks came back again. First Arda pulled a goal back with 15 minutes to go. Then the Czech goalkeeper, Petr Cech (one of the very best goalkeepers in the world), made a huge mistake with just three minutes remaining by dropping a crossed ball at the feet of Nihat, who slotted the equaliser home. Two minutes later, the revitalised Turks scored a sensational winner, when Nihat curled a high dipping shot in-off the crossbar. The drama wasn't over yet - Turkey's goalkeeper Volkan was red-carded for pushing over Jan Koller in an off-the-ball incident. Having used their three substitutes already, Turkey had to ride out injury-time with an outfield player, striker Tuncay, in goal. But the dejected Czechs were unable to test him, and Turkey qualified with a 3-2 victory.

Group A Final Standings
(Columns are Played, Won, Drawn, Lost, Goal Difference, Points. Teams level on points are separated on a head-to-head basis first, on goal-difference second.)
Czech Republic.......3....1....0....2....-2....3

Group B's final games weren't very exciting. With Croatia already qualified, they also fielded many of their second-choice players for the match against Poland. They still dominated, and won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Ivan Klasnic (above). Klasnic's story is remarkable - the big striker, who plays for Werder Bremen in Germany, suffered kidney failure in January of last year. He underwent a kidney transplant, but the organ was rejected, meaning he needed another transplant in March of 2007. Finally he was able to play football again at the end of the year, and returned to the Croatia squad in March. Though he still has to wear a protective shield around his mid-riff, his goal against the Polish marked the culmination of a truly impressive comeback. Croatia will now face Turkey in the Last 8.

In the other game, Germany struggled to beat Austria 1-0, thanks to a thunderbolt free-kick from captain Michael Ballack. There's a huge rivalry between Austria and Germany, mostly on the Austrian side, and they were putting everything they could into stopping the Germans. But they just didn't have enough quality up-front to threaten. Germany will now face Portugal in the first quarter-final.

Group B Final Standings


Don't ever take financial advice from me. I predicted that France and Italy would both have qualified from Group C after two games, and that Holland would finish bottom. In fact, the Dutch had qualified in style after two games, while France and Italy faced each other in the play-off to qualify - but neither would if Romania could beat an under-strength Dutch team. The Netherlands did field a reserve team, but it still included top quality players like Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie, who have only just returned from injury. Romania weren't able to take advantage of that though, going down 2-0 after goals from Huntelaar and Van Persie.

In the big play-off, a repeat of the 2006 World Cup final, France were dealt an early blow when flying winger Franck Ribery was carried off on a stretcher, to be replaced by Nasri. Italy soon took the lead when French centre-back Eric Abidal, in for the hugely experienced Lilian Thuram, brought Luca Toni down just as Toni was about to score. Abidal was sent-off and Pirlo converted the resulant penalty kick. Samir Nasri, who had only been on the pitch for 16 minutes after replacing Ribery, was taken off again as Jean-Alain Boumsong was needed to fill in for Abidal in defence. But without Ribery or Nasri, France were unable to create chances for Henry and Benzema up-front. A lucky deflection allowed a Daniele de Rossi shot to fly into the net with half an hour left, securing the 2-0 victory and qualification for Italy. The French embarrassingly finished bottom of the group, their 0-0 draw with Romania being their best result, and coach Raymond Domenech looks certain to lose his job. Still, he isn't too unhappy - the amateur astrologer bizarrely took the opportunity of being interviewed on live TV after the match to propose to his girlfriend. She said "oui", while the French fans gave an emphatic "non!"

Group C Final Standings


In Group D, Spain had already won the group thanks to wins over Russia and Sweden, so they allowed most of their reserve players to play instead of the first choicers. They faced holders Greece, who had already been eliminated from the competition, in a dead rubber game. But the Greeks took a shock lead in the first half thanks to Angelos Charisteas' bullet header. It was to be his and Greece's only goal of the tournament. Two late goals won the tie for Spain - first, Ruben de la Red slammed home with 30 minutes left, before Dani Guiza headed home the winner two minutes from time, 2-1. Spain will now face Italy in a quarter-final tie.

The second qualification spot behind Spain was up for grabs between Russia and Sweden, and it was the Reds who secured it was an easy 2-0 victory. Roman Pavyluchenko (above) opened the scoring in the first half after a wonderful flowing team move down the right wing, and recalled playmaker Andrei Arshavin doubled the Russians' advantage after the break after another pacy move down the flank. Really, 2-0 flattered the Swedes, who looked tired and slow in comparison to the fleet-footed dynamism of the young Russian team. Chance after chance was passed up, with Pavyluchenko particularly guilty of missing a few sitters, in a game that could easily have finished 5- or 6-0. The Russians, terrible in defence against the Spanish but thrilling going forward here, will now face current tournament favourites Holland in the quarter final.

Group D Final Standings

Monday, 16 June 2008

Euro 2008 Group Stages, Round Two

feature for blogcritics

The Netherlands have been killing it in the Group of Death, Group C. Fresh from their thrilling 3-0 victory over world champions Italy, the Dutch continued their sizzling form by thrashing World Cup finalists France 4-1. After an early goal by Dirk Kuyt, France passed up several chances to level the score. They were punished when Robin van Persie scored following a great cross by Arjen Robben, but then France pulled a goal back when Thierry Henry deflty glanced a Sagnol cross into the net. But within one minute, just when it looked like France might set up an exciting finish, the Dutch restored their two-goal advantage thanks to a wonderful solo strike from Robben. Wesley Sneijder put the icing on the cake in injury-time with a gorgeous 20 yard dipper that hit the crossbar on its way into the net. After two games against both World Cup finalists, the Netherlands have scored seven goals, won both games comfortably, and already won the group. They look unstoppable.

In the other Group C game, Italy were very nearly eliminated from the competition by a determined Romanian side, but the score finished 1-1, meaning both sides still have a chance of following Holland into the next round. A perfectly good Luca Toni goal was wrongly disallowed just before half-time before Romania took a shock lead when Adrian Mutu took advantage of a Zambrotta mistake to rifle the ball into the roof of Buffon's net. Italy were level just a few minutes later thanks to a tap-in from Panucci, but then the referee shocked everyone by giving Romania a very soft penalty. Mutu struck it hard, but Buffon kept it out with a combination of his right hand and right foot. If Romania can defeat the Dutch, they will qualify in second place, sending both World Cup finalists out. Otherwise, whoever wins the match between Italy and France will join the Netherlands in the Last 8.

In Group A, Portugal looked good again in defeating the Czech Republic 3-1. An early goal from the mercurial Deco was soon cancelled out by a great diving header from Czech winger Libor Sionko, who was excellent throughout. But in the second half, Deco set up Cristiano Ronaldo to drill home his first goal of the tournament. As the Czechs piled forward in search of an equaliser, an injury-time breakaway by Ronaldo earned Portugal their third goal, the Manchester United winger unselfishly setting up Quaresma to score into an empty net.

The Switzerland-Turkey game was somewhat farcical in the first half, as torrential rain turned the pitch into a quagmire. The Swiss adjusted to the conditions better, opening the scoring through half-Turkish midfielder Hakan Yakin, who was able to score from a yard out after a crossed ball stuck in the mud in front of goal. Fortunately the rain stopped and the groundsmen did a great job of sorting out the pitch at half-time, allowing the second half to be played like a normal game. That was unfortunate for Switzerland in the circumstances, because Turkey came more into the game, and equalised when substitute Senturk scored from Nihat's cross. In injury-time, the co-hosts were cruelly knocked out of the tournament as Turkish winger Arda cut inside and rifled a shot into the net, via a huge lucky deflection. It was harsh on the Swiss who had played well, but just as in the first game they were unable to take their chances, and were duly punished. Portugal have qualified from Group A, while the Czech Republic and Turkey effectively face a play-off to decide who will reach the next round.

In Group B, Croatia pulled off a big shock by beating tournament favourites Germany 2-1. Dario Srna opened the scoring on 21 minutes, and Ivica Olic (above) was in the right place to tap in a second goal after a shot was deflected off the post. Polish-born striker Lukasz Podolski, who scored twice for Germany against Poland, scored his third of the tournament later on, but midfielder Schweinsteiger was red carded in injury-time to complete a miserable day for the Germans.

The other Group B game, between Poland and Austria, was a minor farce. In an exciting first half, the only goal was scored by a Brazilian, Roger Guerrero, who obtained his Polish passport only last month after living in the country for two years. He was also clearly offside when he scored. But Austria equalised deep into injury-time at the end of the game after English referee Howard Webb mystifyingly awarded a penalty to the co-hosts, with no one quite sure why. 38-year-old Ivica Vastic scored, making him the oldest goalscorer in European Championship history, but really neither Guerrero or Vastic should have had the opportunity to score for either side. Still, the result keeps both countries in with a chance going into the final group game. Austria will have to beat Germany, while Poland will be hoping to beat Croatia. Frankly, neither result looks likely.

Finally, Group D favourites Spain sealed their qualification for the next round with an injury-time winner in a 2-1 win over Sweden. After being so impressive against Russia, the Spanish midfield was mostly nullified by a very well organised Swedish side. Fernando Torres scored the opening goal for Spain, but it was equalised soon afterwards by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Neither side managed to create many chances in the second half and it looked destined to finish level before star man David Villa ran on to a long clearance and rifled home with just seconds left. In the other game, holders Greece were eliminated from the competition with barely a whimper, losing 1-0 to Russia. The Greeks were shockingly defensive in the first game, where they lost 2-0 to Sweden, and again they looked like they had no plan B when things weren't going their way. A 34th-minute goal from Zyryanov was enough to send the Greeks home early. Russia and Sweden will now play off for the second qualification place - a Last 8 match with the Netherlands awaits the not-so-lucky victors.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

YIFI's Weird Weekends

feature for the skinny

Writer’s block is a malaise that all lyricists, authors and journalists suffer periodically, with no known cause, no reliable prognosis, and no certain cure. “Write about what you know”, the clear-of-thought advise, but often that just results in musicians whining about the hazards of musicianing; if it’s not “boo hoo, too much drugs and too much sex”, it’s “whinge, cry - nobody listens to my profound decrees - waaaaahh!”

But after Y’All Is Fantasy Island’s Adam Stafford succumbed to the mind-numb last year, he didn’t recover by writing about what he knew: he made a breakthrough writing stories about murder victims being cooked for dinner, stalkers threatening suicide, and dyslexic skiers with Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Well, we assume they’re just stories, aren’t they Adam?

“Yes!” he laughs, to our mighty relief. “The main difference between Rescue Weekend and the first album [In Faceless Towns Forever] is that the first was lyrically quite personal, it was all stuff that I had experienced, but with this I wanted to write in a more narrative style, so the songs are not necessarily about my life at all.” Rescue Weekend is not entirely flights of fancy - “I can identify with the dyslexic skier because I used to be one myself!” says Adam – and there is, inevitably, one song in which he complains about the struggle for recognition. With these two excellent albums under his belt, he's well entitled to vent such frustrations, because YIFI are undoubtedly fully deserving of your attention. "Some promoters - music fans as well - are really set in their ways. There's a lot of people who only listen to certain bands." But the conversation doesn't dwell on this, because there are plenty of positives to talk about instead: like how gorgeous Rescue Weekend is; how Adam's new found storytelling abilities mean he'll never have to go over old ground again; and how a third YIFI album is but months away. Firstly, where on earth did this Body Integrity Dyslexia tune come from?

"There was a programme on about a surgeon here in Falkirk who was the only person in the world that would operate on people suffering from Body Integrity Disorder", he says, explaining that this is a problem where people desperately wanted their perfectly healthy limbs amputated.

"There was a lot of controversy surrounding that because people thought it was unethical to treat them, but patients came from all over the world to be operated on. Then our guitarist Tommy told us a story about a dyslexic skier who got into an accident because he couldn't read a sign that indicated he was approaching a cliff," and Adam combined both stories to invent one helluva unlucky girl, who sadly won't be making a reappearance on the next YIFI album, No Ceremony, due out in October.

"We don't want to repeat ourselves, we want every album to be different, and this is night and day compared to Rescue Weekend. We're mixing it now, but it's taking a long time because there's a lot of production on it - there's 12 guitar parts on one song. It's a lot heavier, it borders on punk rock." Rescue Weekend, he explains, is essentially a solo album (with key contributions from multi-instrumentalist Steven Tosh), while No Ceremony is a full band effort, hence the quiet doleful record being succeeded by a louder, probably still doleful one.

In whichever formation Adam and Y'All Is Fantasy Island decide to arrange themselves, their first two albums are evidence enough that there's plenty more to come from Adam's active imagination - providing, of course, it can resist the dreaded curse of The Block.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Euro 2008 Group Stages, Round One

The first round of group games in Euro 2008 is complete, and everybody's talking about two teams — Holland and Spain.

Many pundits, myself included, predicted that the Netherlands would struggle in their impossibly tough group. But they confounded their critics with a magnificent display, beating world champions Italy 3-0. Their first goal, scored by Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy, was highly controversial because he appeared to be clearly offside. Commentators and fans agreed that the goal should never have stood, but UEFA have since found a section of the official rule book which suggests the linesman got it right. Italian defender Christian Panucci, who was lying on his back behind the goal, apparently played van Nistelrooy onside because he hadn't asked the referee for permission to leave the pitch. But many fans aren't convinced by this interpretation, so the debate continues.

There was no doubt over Holland's second and third goals, both wonderful examples of counter-attack football scored by Holland's best two players of the night, Wesley Sneijder and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The Dutch have already achieved more than many expected, so who knows what they can achieve now? In contrast, reports suggest that the Italian squad is furious with coach Roberto Donadoni, and they face a major challenge if they are to qualify for the next round.

Elsewhere in Group C, France were held to a disappointing 0-0 draw with Romania in one of the poorest games so far. Romania were understandably playing for a draw, and the French attack was unable to create many chances, or take them. France will now have to beat either high-flying Holland, or world champions Italy, to have any chance of progressing.

Spain provided the other big thrill of the first round of games, demolishing Guss Hiddink's Russia side 4-1. The star of the show was Valencia striker David Villa, who scored a stunning hat-trick. The other goal was scored by Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas, who came on as a substitute late in the game. The fact that he didn't start shows the remarkable strength of Spain's midfield, and Barcelona duo Xavi and Iniesta were wonderful in the middle against the Russians. Liverpool striker Fernando Torres also had a great game, so the Villa-Torres combination is looking ominously dangerous at this stage. Russia, for whom Pavyluchenko scored a late consolation, were shocking in defence, though they looked good in attack.

In Group D's other game, reigning champions Greece showed the weakness of their one-dimensional defensive football when they went down 2-0 to Sweden. The Greeks were completely unable to attack in the normal way — when they had the ball and Sweden sat back, they just did not know what to do. Sweden deservedly beat them without playing too well themselves, though Zlatan Ibrahimovic's opening goal was the kind of spectacular thunderbolt that deserves to win any game on its own. Despite how poor Russia were defensively, I still feel they have a chance of progressing from this group, as Greece look a very poor side and Sweden are only a little better.

In Group A, co-hosts Switzerland were unlucky to go down 1-0 to the Czech Republic in the tournament's opening match. A late goal from substitute Vaclav Sverkos was enough to settle the result, which was harsh on a Swiss side that created much without having the cutting-edge to deliver an equaliser. That could be put down to the loss of captain and star striker Alexander Frei, whose tournament was ended by injury just before half-time. In the other match, a sharp-looking Portugal side beat Turkey 2-0, thanks to goals from centre-back Pepe and an injury-time clincher from Raul Meireles.

Finally, Group B provided the least excitement of them all. Germany comfortably beat Poland 2-0 in a match that was more interesting for the off-field politics and rivalry than for the actual football. Ironically, it was Polish-born striker Lukasz Podolski who scored both goals, and both of them were set up by Polish-born team-mate Miroslave Klose. Podolksi tried his best not to celebrate either goal too much out of respect for his opponents. In the other group match, Croatia squeezed a 1-0 victory over co-hosts Austria, thanks to a 4th-minute penalty from midfielder Luka Modric.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend

Y'All Is Fantasy Island - Rescue Weekend (****)
album review for the skinny

Falkirk resident Adam Stafford seems to be reaching the end of his tether, as he complains, "New fans can't be swayed, promoters will not speak to me unless my profile's raised" on Rescue Weekend's title track. But that song will surely date quicker than a numbered group of revolving singletons, because Y'All Is Fantasy Island's second album confirms Stafford as one of Scotland's best young songwriters. His acoustic-led pleadings focus on murder, social depravity and failed relationships, continuing the fine tradition of Scottish miserablism so ably furthered by his hometown's favourite musical sons Arab Strap. On this evidence Falkirk's favoured-status will eventually change hands to Stafford, whose keen melodic sense brings life to every one of Rescue Weekend's ten songs. Even when he whimpers, "If I wrote my words in blood no-one would notice," the melodrama is tempered by empathy; if new fans still can't be swayed by the languid lilt of lost love lament Flowers and Flesh, the tumbling drums which add unexpected muscle to High Hopes' gorgeous finger-picking motif, or the wailing horn solos that pierce through two further tracks, then there really would be reason to be miserable. The man Stafford has no reason to bleed yet.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Stephen Malkmus @ Oran Mor, 8 Jun

preview for the skinny

Stephen Malkmus' new Real Emotional Trash isn't the best LP to have his name attached - look to the first one, self-titled, for that - but any release from the ex-Pavement frontman deserves attention. While Nirvana and their followers proved to be more commercially popular, Pavement represented the other side of American alternative rock in the 90s, trading Cobain's self-seriousness for a laissez-faire attitude to stuff like rhythm, melody, and recording values. Pavement's five studio albums - and relative success on independent budgets - defined a huge part of modern indie-rock, and Malkmus' four solo records since have continued his experiments in the style to consistently engaging ends. In April, this particular Skinny scribe caught the tail end of Malkmus and the Jicks' set at Coachella, just in time to see them play the rollicking 10-minute new title track, and instantly regretted not having seen more of the show. Luckily they're coming to Glasgow; I for one won't get caught napping again.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Johnny Foreigner, Cabaret Voltaire, June 2

live review for the skinny

Like Los Campesinos!, Johnny Foreigner's fast'n'loose guitar-pop thrashing supports dual boy/girl vocals: talk-chanting and sweet shouting, and reflective monologues about indie distractions like "the seaside, and ripped Distillers T-shirts, and girls who make their own badges". But tonight it all merges into one: every intro is the same, every melody is too narrow to form a hook, every song is pummeled into us by the same relentless pace and noise. It's their style, and that's fine, but for such an energetic band, they barely get the crowd moving an inch, because actually, we're a little bored. The final song has a spacey, rhythmless outro - it's a welcome deviation from the pattern, but then the singer rants another wistful monologue over the top. We've surely heard that bit before, but then you can only get so creative when you're rearranging fridge magnets into poetry.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Euro 2008

feature for blogcritics

The UEFA European Football Championship 2008 kicks off on Friday, when co-hosts Switzerland host the Czech Republic in the first Group A game in Basel. The Euros are the third most-watched sporting competition in the world - after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics - but this year there will be less interest for the English-speaking world, as none of the British Isles teams qualified.

England and Ireland both had disastrous campaigns which saw their homegrown managers being replaced by wily old Italians, while Northern Ireland and Scotland were quite heroic in their ultimately unsuccessful adventures: Northern Ireland's victories over Spain and Sweden, and Scotland's home and away triumphs over France, rank among both countries' finest ever results. Wales never really stood a chance in a tough group.

Still, most football fans will still be excited about the tournament, which showcases many of the world's finest players, a lot of them plying their trade in the English Premiership. Can Cristiano Ronaldo win this tournament on his own, just like Platini did for France in 1984? Can Spain, with Premiership stars like Fabregas and Torres, finally live up to their talent by showing it on the big stage? And can poor Austria avoid a total humiliation on their home soil? I can't wait to find out. Here's my Euro 2008 preview...



FIFA World Ranking: 9

Odds: 7/1

Cristiano Ronaldo (above) is probably the best player in the world, and certainly the best player in Europe. His form at Manchester United this season has been sensational, and if anyone is capable of single-handedly winning this tournament, it's him.

But he won't need to - Portugal aren't a one-man team. In terms of transfer fees, their back four is probably the most expensive ever assembled in International football - Pepe and Carvalho both cost over £20m each, while Bosingwa and Ferreira cost Chelsea a combined £30m. In midfield they have Barca maestro Deco and Sporting's Miguel Veloso pulling the strings, with Ronaldo's young United team-mate Nani and Benfica star Simao on the wings.

Their main weakness is, as usual, a lack of a goalscoring centre-forward. They relied on Pauleta for years, but he never performed to his best at major tournaments, and he's now out of favour. Another former golden boy, Nuno Gomes, may take his place, but he's also less than world class. Of course, none of that will matter if Ronaldo can continue his club form in this tournament. Who needs a traditional central striker when the wide attacker can score 42 goals in a top-level season? If Ronaldo is at his best, it'll be virtually impossible to stop Portugal.

Czech Republic

FIFA World Ranking: 6th

Odds: 16/1

The Czechs have been perennially under-rated ever since they became a Slovak-free republic, but just now might be the time to actually not-rate them. They've lost the two key men of their last decade, unpredictable winger Karel Poborsky and the majestic Pavel Nedved, who've both got too old for International football; if that wasn't bad enough, they've lost Nedved's mercurial replacement, Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky, to a crippling hamstring injury.

It's now hard to see just where their genuine class is going to come from. Six-foot-eight-inch striker Jan Koller is always a danger, but he's due to retire after the tournament, and at 35 most defenders have now worked out how to mark him. Milan Baros, the top scorer at the last Euros in 2004, hasn't scored a single goal since joining Portsmouth in January.

That they finished above tournament favourites Germany in qualification is slightly deceptive - Germany's convenient last-day loss to the Czechs, 3-0 at home, gave them a seeding advantage for this stage. Of course, Chelsea's Petr Cech is one of the top three goalkeepers in the world, and players like attacking full-back Marek Jankulovski and winger Libor Sionko will offer some threat.

But this is no golden era for Czech football. Without Rosicky it's hard to see the Czech's replicating the successes of previous tournaments.


FIFA World Ranking: 48

Odds: 25/1

While easily the better of the two hosts, there's still few who believe Switzerland are truly among Europe's best 16 teams. A couple of years ago, the future looked very bright for the Swiss, but youngsters Vonlanthen, Barnetta, Djorou and Senderos have not fulfilled expectations. They still rely heavily on all-time highest goalscorer Alexander Frei up-front, but his best days are probably past him. Their other key players are centre-back Patrick Muller and midfielder Valon Behrami.

Having said all that, competition hosts always push a little bit harder when the big stage finally arrives on their doorstep - a host has got to at least the semi-final in every World Cup and European Championship in the last 20 years, other than the USA in 1994 - and Switzerland don't have a tough group. Portugal will likely win Group A, but the race for second place is a three way battle with Czech and Turkish sides who have seen better days. Their home advantage may just make the difference there - but with a likely meeting with Germany in the second round in store, the Swiss are sure to follow the Americans' lead in making a second-round home exit.


FIFA World Ranking: 25

Odds: 33/1

This is the first tournament Turkey have qualified for since remarkably finishing third in the 2002 World Cup in Asia, but they go to Euro 2008 without the talismanic Hakan Sukur. With over 100 caps and over 50 goals, Sukur was arguably Turkey's greatest ever player. At 36, though, he's finally outstayed his national team welcome.

Instead, Turkey will play the pacy Villareal striker Nihat up-front and Turkey's success may well lie in how well he is supported. They have so many talented midfielders that it's likely coach Fatih Terim will play a 4-5-1, to squeeze as many of them in as he can, but Nihat struggles on his own and will need players like Newcastle outcast Emre and young Galatasaray winger Arda to help him out. But Turkey are difficult to read as Terim is a notorious tinkerer - he's been experimenting with players, formations and systems for so long, nobody really knows what he's going to do at the Euros.

What is predictable is that they will be locked in a three-way fight for second place in Group A with the Czech Republic and hosts Switzerland - so don't read too much into it if they lose their opening game against group favourites Portugal.



FIFA World Ranking: 5

Odds: 4/1

The Germans are most bookies' favourites, and understandably so. Unlike England, Germany have a knack of over-performing at major tournaments - think of WC2002, when the team predicted to flop reached the final, and of 2006's home-staged World Cup, where they were top scorers in finishing third. A championship in Austria-Switzerland is like a home tournament to the Germans, who will take massive support with them.

But also, for the first time in a while, the Germans have a squad worth getting excited about. Stalwarts like Ballack(above), Klose and Frings are still at the top of their games, while younger players like Lahm and Schweinsteiger are now established performers. Look out too for young Stuttgart striker Mario Gomez, who scored 28 goals in 32 games for his club this season, and has 6 in 9 caps for the national team. If the Germans have a weakness, it may be their goalkeeper: Arsenal's Jens Lehmann only played 13 times for his club last season. At 38, many feel it's time for him to be withdrawn from his national No. 1 spot too.


FIFA World Ranking: 101

Odds: 100/1

While the Austrians will undoubtedly be organised and welcoming hosts, there is huge fear in the country that their football team may be too welcoming to its competitors: explore our country, enjoy our hospitality, and feel free to score at will. Incredibly, Austria are now rated 101st in the FIFA World Rankings, putting them behind such giants as Qatar, Thailand and Gabon, and 43rd in Europe (on-the-spot quiz - can you even name 43 European countries?).

Austria have never been heavyweights, but they seem to be particularly suffering now from a lack of competitive match practice and a poorer-than-usual crop of players. Only midfielder and captain Andreas Ivanschitz really has the class to be playing at this level, though defenders Pogatetz and Stranzl are also important for the team. They're not bad defensively - however, they offer next to no threat going forward.

As with Switzerland, the pressure of hosting the tournament will probably help them over-perform, and a last-8 place isn't completely unthinkable considering the group they've been given. But many Austrians would be satisfied with just a draw against Poland and fighting, respectable performances against Germany and Croatia. Expectations for a host nation have never been so low.


FIFA World Ranking: 13

Odds: 12/1

England's conquerers are still hurting from the absence of star striker Eduardo da Silva, whose leg was broken in a Premiership match last February while playing for Arsenal. But, y'know, they should stop crying, because Eduardo was never Croatian anyway - Brazilians aren't supposed to be eligible for European Championships, and the fact that only injury prevents him from appearing in this one makes a mockery of FIFA's eligibility rules.

Anyway, Eduardo's absence means the focus will turn to Spurs' new £16m signing, pocket-sized midfield playmaker Luka Modric, and he is ably assisted in the middle by Portsmouth's Niko Kranjcar. Mladen Petric will be the main centre-forward, but look out for Schalke's versatile young attacker Ivan Rakitic and 20-year old Hajduk Split striker Nikola Kalinic, who will both be looking to make an impression on the big stage. Croatia probably don't have enough fire power to be contenders for the title, but they should be able to ward off Austria and Poland to set up a quarter-final meeting with Portugal.


FIFA World Ranking: 27

Odds: 40/1

If you can choose to play with one striker or three, four defenders or six, two holding midfielders or none, why - the Polish must be asking - can't you choose to play with one goalkeeper or three? In Celtic's Artur Boruc, Arsenal's Lukasz Fabianski and Manchester United's Tomasz Kuszczak, Poland have real strength-in-depth in the only position where squad depth is unimportant.

If only they had such talent going forward, they wouldn't have to resort to fast-tracking Polish citizenship to a Brazilian winger, Roger Guerreiro, who first set foot in Poland just two years ago. They do have one very talented forward, Ebi Smolarek of Racing Santander, who scored nine goals during their impressive qualifying campaign which saw them top a group which also contained the Portuguese.

But a 3-0 home defeat to the USA in March has brought expectations crashing back down to earth, and despite being given a fairly favourable draw (read: they are in the same group as Austria so should achieve a minimum of three points), beating Croatia to second spot in Group B might just be beyond them.



FIFA World Ranking: 7

Odds: 9/1

France produces more great footballers than any other nation in the world - with the possible exception of Brazil, which is now exporting its surplus footballers to eastern Europe (see Croatia, Poland) - and the fact they were able to leave players of the calibre of David Trezeguet and Phillipe Mexes out of the squad altogether is quite incredible.

But what matters now is the 11 men on the park, and the French have incredible strength. Franck Ribery (above) was a sensation for Bayern Munich last season and will have to carry most of the creative burden now that Zidane has retired. In defence, Thuram and Gallas are still going strong, while Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele in central midfield have tonnes of experience. Thierry Henry hasn't had a great season for Barcelona, but he should still start up-front for France, possibly alongside Lyon's wonderful young striker Karim Benzema. Benzema is a superstar in the making, so this could well be his breakout tournament.

When they lost twice to Scotland in the qualifiers, they didn't manage to score a goal, and in truth they weren't able to create many chances: Makelele and Viera are great defensively, but they don't offer much flair. Then again, the French did beat world champions Italy in Paris, inspired by a magnificent Ribery.


FIFA World Ranking: 10

Odds: 12/1

The presence of the Dutch in Group C is what makes this the Group of Death - both World Cup finalists, plus the always-fancied Oranje, could be tournament winners, but one will have to exit early. There's so much attacking talent in this squad, and Real Madrid's Ruud van Nistelrooy would be a good bet for top scorer for anyone who thinks the Dutch will survive into the latter stages. It's surely time for Rafael van der Vaart to make his mark on the international stage, and Robin van Persie (if fit) can also have a huge impact.

But the Dutch are not in good form and many fans at home are pessimistic about their chances. Famed for the system of 'Total Football' introduced by Rinus Michels in the 70s, the Dutch have always attempted to follow this tradition, if not strictly, then at least to the point of pursuing an attractive style of passing football. Marco van Basten has somewhat abandoned this, putting all the emphasis on the results, and not always attaining them.

And the deployment of van Nistelrooy remains an issue too - according to some, fitting the goalscorer into the team upsets other balances which are not fully compensated for by his goals. That's why Manchester United sold him despite an incredible goalscoring record: having previously went three seasons without winning the title, United have since won two-in-a-row by adopting a more fluid attacking style.


FIFA World Ranking: 3

Odds: 7/1

The world champions - so they should win this one too, right? It is hard to see where the Italians' weaknesses are: they have one of the world's greatest goalkeepers in Gigi Buffon, and the Italians are renowned for their 'catenaccio' defensive solidity. Meanwhile, Andrea Pirlo and Rino Gattuso are a peerless central midfield pairing, and striker Luca Toni has been tearing through the German league this season for Bayern. Alex Del Piero has just had a great season for Juventus, and young Roma midfielder Alberto Aquilani has immense potential.

The Italians have so much experience at the top level, and the World Cup victory showed that they know how to deal with any situation - lesser teams would have crumbled during the Australia and Germany matches. Then again, they weren't hugely convincing in a qualifying campaign which included a draw with Lithuania and a defeat to France.


FIFA World Ranking: 12

Odds: 40/1

Romania were impressive in qualifying, finishing above Holland and scoring a goal-a-game more than their nearest rivals. They rely heavily on two players - Fiorentina's Adrian Mutu, a clever and skillful attacker who sets up just as many goals as he scores; and captain Christian Chivu, who can play in midfield or defence, central or on the left.

What they lack in star names they make up for in team spirit and tactical discipline, but to get out of this group their other players will have to be at their best. Razvan Rat, at left-back, is a brick wall who has apparently never missed a single game due to injury in his career - he is now 27. Going forward it will be winger Florentin Petre and Stuttgart's Ciprian Marica who will have to help Mutu cause problems against, well, two of the toughest defences in world football, and Holland's.



FIFA World Ranking: 4

Odds: 5/1

The Spanish have arguably the most talented squad in the tournament, but any on-paper analysis of their chances is made harder by their history of never doing themselves justice at major tournaments. Fernando Torres (above) was a sensation in the Premiership this season and is arguably the most on-form centre-forward in the world right now. Fabregas and Xavi in the middle is mouth-watering, Iker Casillas is one of the world's finest goalkeepers, and Sergio Ramos has just had an incredible season for Real Madrid at right-back.

Their squad is packed with top-level experience and class, and they don't seem to have any weaknesses. But we've said these things before about Spain - they've always had good squads and they've always disappointed. Arguably their biggest obstacle is psychological - if they can forget their history, bond as a team, and truly believe they can beat anyone they play, then they're more than capable of winning this tournament... in theory, at least.


FIFA World Ranking: 8

Odds: 20/1

The reigning champions - remember? Greece's victory at Euro 2004 is still hard to fathom, and it has been good and bad for football in different ways. On the positive it has given hope to underdogs everywhere, who can point to Greece and know that anything is possible with hard work and discipline. On the other hand, it has encouraged a very defensive style of football that relies on keeping a clean sheet and then hoping for a bit of luck at the other end.

Otto Rehhagel, the German coach who masterminded the victory last time out, is still the Greek manager, and he's still doing a great job. They demolished their qualifying group, which also included Turkey and Norway, and most observers say that this Greek side is better than it was four years ago. Look out for Gekas up-front, rampaging right-back Seitaridis, and silver-haired goalkeeper Nikopolidis, who is apparently in the form of his life at the age of 37.

But Greece has never been about individuals - Rehhagel's genius is in getting average players to play together and become better than the sum of their parts. Surely lightning cannot strike twice, can it?


FIFA World Ranking: 25

Odds: 22/1

Russia will benefit from their league season having just started a few months ago, so their players will be fresher than those who have just finished long club seasons. Their coach, Dutchman Guus Hiddink, is a tournament specialist, most famous for taking South Korea all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2002. And in players like goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, right-back Alexander Anyukov, playmaker Andrei Arshavin, and striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, the Russians have talented and motivated youngsters who might just take complacent western Europeans by surprise.

Of course, if you saw Russia barely scrape through their qualifying group ahead of England thanks to the efforts of Croatia at Wembley, you won't have much confidence in them. Also to their huge frustration will be the absence of Arshavin for the first two games while he serves a suspension. But his inclusion in the squad suggests the Russians are expecting to be playing in more than just three matches.


FIFA World Ranking: 23

Odds: 33/1

The Swedish reputation has been built on a solid well-organised defence and the heroics of Henrik Larsson up-front. At Euro 2008 their defence will be slightly more malleable, and Larsson, at 36, is only playing because he has been persuaded out of International retirement for the second time.

If that smacks a bit of desperation it's because a new generation of strikers hasn't really arrived yet. In qualification they finished second behind Spain, but while losing nine goals in twelve games would usually be viewed as a pretty good record, considering the Swedes had lost only eleven goals in the 36 games of three previous qualification campaigns, this might actually be seen as the first signs of cracking in their defensive brick wall.

Going forward, everything will rely on Zlatan Ibrahimovic - Larsson surely can't make a big impact again, can he? - who is one of the most talented attackers in the world on his day. If Zlatan decides to play, few will be able to stop him; but that's a bit 'if'.

So what will happen?

The Group of Death

Four teams among the top 12 of the world rankings, all in the same group? There's no doubt that Group C is the 'group of death' this year (though Group D is also tasty). France and Italy both qualified from Group B, and Romania and Holland both qualified from Group G, so these teams know each other.

In Group A, France won 3-1 in Paris against the Italians, and drew 0-0 in Milan, but came second in the qualifying group because the Italians had better results against the other teams.

In Group G, Romania were victorious over Holland 1-0 in Bucharest, and drew 0-0 away, eventually winning the group by 3 points. While Romania are the rank outsiders from this group, I can see them overcoming the Dutch again and finishing in third.

The France-Italy contest is on the last day of the group, when both teams may already have qualified, in which case they will both just be trying to avoid Spain in the next round.

The Dark Horses
First the UEFA Cup, then the Eurovision Song Contest - could Russia make it a fabulous treble by winning Euro 2008 as well? Greece's remarkable victory 4 years ago was far less likely at the beginning, and that taught us that while anything might not be probable, anything is possible. But Russian football is certainly on the rise, and even if they don't go far this time, it won't be long until Russia are a major force.

The Winners
On paper, France and Spain have the best squads: the individual players who are worth the most money, who win the most games and competitions for their clubs. Italy and Germany are the tournament experts whose tactical discipline and top level experience should help them go far.

Meanwhile, the romantics will be hoping Holland finally win the trophy their history of beautiful football deserves, or that the attacking spirit and pace of Portugal will be triumphant.

I'm going to go out on a limb here - the winners of Euro 2008 will be favourites Germany. Or Spain. Or Portugal. Or world champions Italy. Or France. Yep, definitely one of those five. Though Holland have a chance - if they get out of their group - as do the Russians...

and just for fun...

Breakout Tournament XI (a.k.a. Our Values Will Double in Four Weeks XI)
Igor Akinfeev (Russia, CSKA Moscow)

Aleksandr Anyukov (Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg)
Emre Gungor (Turkey, Galatasaray)
Dorin Goian (Romania, Steaua Bucharest)
Philipp Degen (Switzerland, Liverpool)

Luka Modric (Croatia, Spurs)
Ruben de la Red (Spain, Getafe)
Alberto Aquilani (Italy, Roma)
Andrei Arshavin (Russia, Zenit St. Petersburg)

Mario Gomez (Germany, Stuttgart)
Karim Benzema (France, Lyon)

We're Good, But Our Bloody Team-Mates Were No Help in Qualifying XI

Antti Niemi (Finland)

Alan Hutton (Scotland)
Nemanja Vidic (Serbia)
Daniel van Buyten (Belgium)
John Arne Riise (Norway)

Christian Poulsen (Denmark)
Anatoliy Tymoschuk (Ukraine)
Martin Petrov (Bulgaria)

Robbie Keane (Republic of Ireland)
Wayne Rooney (England)
David Healy (Northern Ireland)

Not Even In The French Squad But Still Better Than Most Other Countries' First XI's XI


Mickael Landreau (Paris-SG)

Bakary Sagna (Arsenal)
Philippe Mexes (Roma)
Julien Escude (Sevilla)
Gael Clichy (Arsenal)

Steed Malbranque (Spurs)
Alou Diarra (Bordeaux)
Mathieu Flamini (AC Milan)
Hatem Ben Arfa (Lyon)

Djibril Cisse (Marseille)
David Trezeguet (Juventus)

(subs: Pascal Chimbonda (Spurs), Sylvain Distin (Portsmouth), Mikael Silvestre (Manchester United), Jonathan Zebina (Juventus), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille), Jeremy Menez (Monaco), Ludovic Giuly (Roma), Louis Saha (Manchester United)

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Hercules and Love Affair @ Classic Grand, Glasgow, May 30

live review for the skinny

Overheard in the Classic Grand crowd - “That Antony’s been on one helluva diet” - as a chiselled Amazonian goddess takes the rotund Mr Hegarty’s place for lead vocals on Blind. It’s only her presence that assures us we’re not looking at UB40, but sadly her vocals aren’t as agile as her dancing. Hercules And Love Affair’s brilliant self-titled debut LP uses a number of singers, but Anthony’s absence wouldn’t have been noticed if the replacements hadn’t been both flat and too quiet in a muffled mix. There’s only so much anyone could fail with such great source material: Andy Butler’s unashamedly retro homages to New York disco and Chicago house get everyone flailing, but there are slower songs too, like Iris, which demonstrate an album focus uncommon in a 12”-based dance culture. But hopefully DJ Butler realises that reproducing that well with a live band is harder than spinning records: not only must everyone hit their notes every time, but we must be able to hear that they are.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Broken Records, Y'All is Fantasy Island @ Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 29 May

live review for the skinny

Just three days after the release of gentle second album Rescue Weekend, Y'all Is Fantasy Island (***) are ignoring all its songs in favour of rocking out, with known crowd-pleasers, like the brilliant With Handclaps, and songs from upcoming third LP No Ceremony, out in October. Before tonight's show, songwriter Adam Stafford told The Skinny that will be a "punk rock" record - emphasise the "rock" - but at this stage the new songs aren't entirely convincing: for every storm-kicking Cooper Temple Clause-style guitar wigout, there's a less exciting follow-up that gives little indication of this band's true abilities.

Broken Records' (****) supposedly acoustic set is really just lacking a bass player, so it's hardly quiet, with a violin, cello, trumpet, accordion and two guitars squeezing onto the tiny stage. Even still, it could be louder, as the gig is almost ruined by backroom chatter from disinterested socialites. A handful of new songs, from an EP just weeks away, further demonstrate this band's knack for polka-footed dramatics, and their immediate appeal suggests a pop sensibility that should take these guys places. But even if they achieve nothing else, they're sure to win fame and fortune by selling The Slow Parade to Hollywood; it will soundtrack a conclusion, a community hall dance where the adventurous lead couple will finally kiss, everyone will cheer, old ladies will weep, and the credits will roll. Every sensitive soul in the world will love it, miserable critics will melt like witches from Oz, and those still nattering away at the back will miss it all. As Sharon Stone might ask, is that karma?