11 June 2012

Euro 2012 all-Yardley team, 8 games in

The Ukrainian old guard, Shevchenko and Voronin, prepare to celebrate.
Like many of you, I’ve spent most of the last four days watching Euro 2012, much to the bewilderment of those around me. It’s been a highly entertaining tournament so far, and in almost every game, a player or two stood out to me, often guys I had hardly heard of before. So now that each team has played one game in the tournament, I’m naming a preliminary all-Yardley team. Some are household names, but I tried to go with guys who surprised me, either with a positive performance or a different role. Keep an eye on them as you watch the next round of games.

GK – Przemysław Tytoń, Poland #22
25 years old, PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
When starter Wojciech Szczęsny was sent off with the score 1-1, the 6-foot-5 Tytoń came on and lived a goalkeeper’s dream, saving a penalty kick and holding out the final 22 minutes to preserve a point for his team. He’ll feature again on Tuesday.

RB – Simon Poulsen, Denmark #5
27 years old, AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)
I’m cheating a bit here, because I’ve heard of Poulsen before (at least I think it was this one – Denmark has three) and he actually played left back. But my favorite right-back jobs in the tournament (Jerome Boateng, Glen Johnson, Darijo Srna) came from more established players. This Poulsen got up and down the left-hand side very well against the Netherlands.

CB – Simon Kjær, Denmark #3
23 years old, Roma (Italy)
I’ve heard him called “disappointing” for Roma, which implies a high level of expectation, but I’d never heard of Kjær before his outstanding display against the Netherlands. He was good in the air and well-positioned, and he’s certainly distinctive at the back thanks to his hair. At just 23, he should be holding down the Danish defense for years.

CB – Daniele De Rossi, Italy #16
28 years old, Roma (Italy)
I’m plenty familiar with De Rossi, but it’s been interesting to change my opinion of him from thug (2006 World Cup) to versatile talent (today). Normally a midfielder, he was shifted to the Italian back line and helped them cope with Spain’s quick, darting runs (except for the Fabregas goal, of course). It will be interesting to see if he stays on the back line for the whole tournament.

LB – Yevhen Konoplyanka, Ukraine #19
22 years old, Dnipro (Ukraine)
I’m cheating again here, because he plays wide midfield, but I needed another defender, OK? And he's one of my top three favorites so far. One of the youngest starters in the tournament, this guy just made the game more fun against Sweden. He was confident cutting onto his right foot and letting loose or slashing wide and cutting the ball back with his left. I’m betting he moves to a bigger club in the near future.

RM – Alan Dzagoev, Russia #17
21 years old, CSKA Moscow
Apparently this guy was already a video-game legend: I had multiple people tell me they knew who he was simply because his rating are off the chart on FIFA 2012 and other games. He tore up the Czech Republic with great runs inside and good finishing – one of the stars of the tournament so far and a no-brainer.

CM – Keith Andrews, Ireland #8
31 years old, West Bromwich Albion (England)
I know, picking an EPL player shouldn’t really count, but I don’t watch the EPL on a regular basis, and certainly not West Brom. I was really impressed with Andrews’ two-way work rate and effort, even if he and Ireland were outclassed at times. He came very close to getting a goal in the final 15 minutes.

CM – Ludovic Obraniak, Poland #10
27 years old, Bordeaux (France)
Normally a No. 10 would be too big a name to make the list, but I was not familiar with Obraniak, who played youth soccer for France but switched to Poland three years ago, qualifying through his grandfather. He’s not the biggest name, but he’s had success in France with Lille and now Bordeaux, and he really orchestrated a lot of Poland’s excellent first-half movement against Greece.

LM – Michael Krohn-Dehli, Denmark #9
29 years old, Brondby (Denmark)
Another fairly obvious choice, but I had never heard of him before he slalomed through a couple of Dutch defenders to score the only goal of the game against the Netherlands. It wasn’t just the goal, though; he was dangerous on the left all day and tracked back enough for me on the defensive end.

FW – Robert Lewandowski, Poland #9
23 years old, Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
I was going to pick Mario Mandžukić from Croatia here, since I had never heard of him, but I really enjoyed watching Lewandowski play more. I, like everybody else, had heard plenty about Lewandowski, but watching one of his games made me appreciate his willingness to move off the ball in addition to his well-documented finishing prowess. I’m excited to see more of him in the tournament.

FW – Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine #7
35 years old, Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)
No mystery here, but the best story of the tournament. I’ve watched Shevchenko in the Champions League for years and clearly remember Liverpool players making sure to shake his hand after he missed the last penalty kick for AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final. To me, they were being classy to a classy player, and that class was repaid on Monday when Shevchenko got a fairytale moment. Even with his best soccer behind him, he got to lead his national team out in his country’s first European Championship game in his home city. To seize that opportunity with two well-taken headers (was there any doubt who wanted it more between Shevchenko and Ibrahimovic on the second goal?) is the stuff of legend.

Others who caught my eye: Mario Mandžukić, Croatia; Jerome Boateng, Germany; João Moutinho, Portugal; Antonio Di Natale, Italy; Serhiy Nazarenko, Ukraine; Jetro Willems, Netherlands; Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Greece.

Which players, especially younger, unheralded ones, have caught your eye so far in the tournament? Post them below and I'll keep an eye out through the second round of games.

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