Month: Jun 2016

Euro 2016 prospects you have to know: Groups E and F

(This is the third and final part. You can read the introduction and profiles from Group A and B here and from Groups C and D here)

Group E

Belgium: Jason Denayer (Manchester City, England)

The secret has been out for some time on Belgium’s embarrassment of riches in terms of talented footballers, but a few injuries have highlighted that its dispersal among the field is something you just can’t control. Marc Wilmots may have selected four similarly built strikers for the tournament, yet has been scrambling for solutions on defence after his preferred central duo of Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts were lost to injury. He stubbornly pushed back against uniting Tottenham’s pair of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Verthongen, who usually cover the flanks for the national team, but relented recently and the line that will protect keeper Thibault Courtois seems finally stabilised, featuring on the right side the talented Jason Denayer.

Jason Denayer’s blend of speed and strenght allows him to challenge a guy like Gareth Bale

Having been compared to Kompany for a few years due to a variety of reasons (same club, position, skill and origin), the 20-year-old differs from the Man City skipper for his decision to leave Anderlecht in 2008 in order to join the newly founded Académie Jean-Marc Guillou, a private institution away from normal football competition where education and technical refinement are the only focus of a gruelling daily regime. Denayer would leave the school at age 18 and impressed Manchester City during an elongated trial, proving to be a prospect full of potential but in need of seasoning in the professional game. The powerful defender was therefore loaned to Celtic Glasgow in 2014-15 and his agility, quickness and poise with the ball made such an impact that he was voted the League’s young player of the year.

Last season’s spell at Galatasaray wasn’t as successful, but he still made 28 appearances, mostly as a right back, earning important Champions League and Europa League experience.  A defender that reads the game well and is blessed with strength and pace in spades, Denayer has every tool necessary to become a mainstay and should thrive on Pepe Guardiola’s hands. However, before joining the English side, look for him as one of the Euro 2016 emerging talents.

Italy: Federico Bernardeschi (ACF Fiorentina)

Looking at the Squadra Azzurra elected by Antonio Conte, one can’t help to notice the distinct lack of offensive flair, even for an Italian side. Already robbed of Marco Verrati and Claudio Marchisio due to injury, the former Juventus manager went one step forward by disregarding the MLS duo Andrea Pirlo/Sebastian Giovinco, and football fans wept. However, Italy’s games aren’t a lost cause yet. Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne is capable of breaking a game open and Conte was kind enough to bring along an exciting talent from the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Federico Bernardeschi is one of most creative players at Antonio Conte’s disposal

A native of Carrara, Federico Bernardeschi climbed the Viola’s ranks since joining the club as a 9-year-old and was eventually farmed out in 2013-14, playing his first professional games for Serie B’s Crotone. In 38 games, the right winger scored 12 times, helping the club reach the playoff for promotion and justifying the return home, but the following season was cut short by a fractured ankle, with Bernardeschi appearing in just 10 games. Despite that, last summer he was handed the #10 shirt, which was worn by two of his idols, Roberto Baggio and Rui Costa, and his game simply took off. Originally a playmaker or a winger, with new manager Paulo Sousa setting up the squad on a fluid system that seamlessly transformed between a 3-4-1-2 or a 4-4-1-1, the 21-year-old was deployed in multiple positions (left back, left wing-back, right wing-back, right winger and number 10) and always responded positively, displaying his advanced understanding of the game and versatility.

Equipped with a brilliant left foot, Bernardeschi’s creative mind prospers when drifting inside from the right side, since he can progress with the ball, link up with teammates or hit the goal, but he’s also extremely reliable holding the flank, displaying defensive awareness and tactical maturity unusual for someone of his age. Excellent delivering crosses and set pieces, the Fiorentina man can also attack off the dribble with speed, so Conte would be wise to arrange a spot for him on his preferred line-up. It shouldn’t be too difficult since he can fit in so many places on Italy’s 3-5-2/3-4-3.

Republic Ireland: Robbie Brady (Norwich City, England)

The Irish national team isn’t exactly the place to behold if you’re looking for surprises during major competitions, as you know they’ll always field an organized, competitive group that will fight for every match and more times than not end up defeated by a more talented opponent. Their Euro 2016 roster is the oldest in the competition and the major names are already pushing (Shane Long) or way past the thirty (Robbie Keane, Jonathan Walters, Shay Given, John O’Shea), but there’s younger blood arriving to carry the mantle forward. One of the most interesting is Norwich’s diligent left -back Robbie Brady.

Spotted by Manchester United at Dublin junior club St Kevin’s Boys in 2008, Brady arrived in England as a central midfielder, but his ability to push the pace of the game and exceptional left foot soon determined a migration to the edges of the pitch. It was already as a wide man that he was loaned to Hull City in 2011 and later signed to a permanent deal, having a hand in 35 goals for the club until they were relegated at the end of 2014-15. By this time, Brady had already gathered a few reps as a defender and Norwich liked what they saw, securing his services for a fee of £7M.

Ireland’s Robbie Brady scored a massive goal at Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Euro 2016 playoffs

On the Canaries, the 24-year-old split the season between the two positions and much of the same has occurred recently for Ireland, as his starting spot is defined by the opponent. If they’re looking for goals, Brady starts at the back and has green light to sprint down the corridor, with the team having to live up with the lapses in coverage he’s still tightening up. Meanwhile, a more balanced strategy calls for his inclusion on the midfield, where his skill can help craft possession time. The most important thing is being capable of unleashing pinpoint deliveries to the box and provide his usually dynamic play, which is fuelled by a great engine. Additionally, Brady is the dominant dead-ball taker; one of the areas Ireland is most likely to hurt their opponents on.

At the competition, much of what the Republic of Ireland will do offensively should commence with their pair of offensive-minded fullbacks. We’ll see if Robbie Brady’s performances get him the level of respect right-back Seamus Coleman (Everton) has already earned at the Premier League level.

Sweden: Victor Lindelöf (SL Benfica, Portugal)

Everything in Sweden hovers around Zlatan Ibrahimovic, their only World-Class player since Henrik Larsson and Fredrik Ljungberg abandoned, but that may be close to an end. Not only because the egotistical striker is 34 years old, but also due to the emergence of a new generation, the crop that last summer conquered the U-21 European Championships in Prague. Six players from that team are part of the group in France and centre back Victor Lindelöf seems the closest to step into the top-echelon of European football.

Born in Västerås, the centre back represented his local team until Portuguese giants Benfica showed interest in 2012, flying to Lisbon to represent the club’s B team. During three years (96 games), he sharpened his skills on Portugal’s second division and patiently waited for his chance, bouncing around between the centre and right side of the defence as well as functioning as a holding midfielder. Still regarded as a 2nd-tier player, he was a late injury fill-in on Sweden’s Championship team in 2015, yet he snatched the right back position and ended up elected to the Team of the Tournament.

After that, Lindelöf was finally promoted to Benfica’s first-team and his breakout would materialize a few months later, following the team captain’s injury. The Swede assumed a role on the defensive scheme’s heart and his qualities helped prompt the squad on a surging 2nd half of the season, which culminated on the Portuguese title and a Champions League quarter-final berth. It was exactly during Benfica’s tie with Bayern Munich that Europe got to appreciate his multiple qualities: he was aggressive anticipating the play, effective clearing the ball, comfortable starting the build up with crisp passing and cool under heavy pressure.

Victor Lindelof, a critical greenhorn on Sweden’s defence

The “Ice Man”, as nicknamed by Benfica fans, allowed his team to play with a high backline due to his quickness and ability to close down romping forwards, and Sweden would be wise to use him there too, since agility isn’t something you usually associate with their sturdy defence. Victor Lindelöf may have only a trio of international caps to his name by now, but if he keeps improving at this rate, the 21-year-old may well rewrite Sweden’s history at the position.

Group F

Portugal: João Mário (Sporting CP)

Presented with a candy-like group stage draw that should help the team gel while giving a head-start to Cristiano Ronaldo’s challenge for the Golden Boot award, Portugal’s systematic showcase of prime talent ready to be moved for Europe’s best leagues should shine since day one. The 18-year-old Renato Sanches is already taken, and reports indicate left back Raphael Guerreiro is close to join him in the Bundesliga, but there’s more making headlines around Europe, with midfielders André Gomes and João Mário lined up for millionaire transfers this summer. Since the former is already plying his trade at La Liga, we’ll focus on Sporting’s diamond.

The 23-year-old has been at the Lisbon side since 2004 and rose through the ranks of their academy until his debut with the first team in 2011. However, he only mustered one appearance over the next 2 seasons, being referred to the reserve squad, and was loaned to Vitória Setúbal in the second half of 2013-14, where regular playing time made wonders for his development. The midfielder’s stellar performances led to a return home and since then his cerebral game has been lighting up the pitch of the Alvalade Stadium. An extremely poised midfielder that recently started being used out wide to stretch the play, João Mario’s game is based on a sublime first touch and intelligent decision making, which always pushes the team closer to the goal. He’s brilliant finding spaces inside enemy lines to get open and offer a passing option, while his exquisite turns in tight break pressure lines. Then, his immaculate technique and balance takes over as he fends off opponents in spite of middling running speed.

Fernando Santos, the Portuguese manager, has given every indication that he´s going to deploy João Mario as the false right winger on his four-man central unit, and he’s expected to prove crucial holding the ball and connecting with the two men roaming up front. After the tournament, England probably beckons, with the precise destination still unknown.

Austria: Martin Hinteregger (Red Bull Salzburg)

Martin Hinteregger, Austria’s elegant centre brack

Austria’s renaissance on Europe’s football landscape has seen most of their best players construct solid careers in the continent’s top leagues, and consequently names like Aleksandar Dragovic, Christian Fuchs, Marko Arnautovic and Martin Harnik have achieved some recognition, even if they obviously pale in comparison with David Alaba, one of most complete players in the Planet today. Furthermore, Austrian players are becoming a hot property and that is especially evident on their central defence’s depth chart, with the four elements selected accomplished enough to feature for a number of other national teams that qualified for the tournament.

Despite the fact that Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspurs) and Sebastian Prödl (Watford) have Premier League experience, Dragovic’s customary partner is the 23-year-old Martin Hinteregger and there’s a reason for that. Equally tall and imposing, the Red Bull Salzburg property adds an element of composure on the ball the others lack, opting regularly to surge forward or serve an on-rushing player with a well-timed long pass. Additionally, he also boasts a decent scoring record, having tallied for 12 times on 201 games for Red Bull Salzburg, with his qualities not restricted to pouncing on headers in response to set pieces, but also to chances he creates with his powerful shot when asked to take risks.

A mobile defender that reads the game well and times his defensive actions effectively, Hinteregger was on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach during the second half of 2015-16 but the German team opted to not exercise the buy-in option. A good performance in France may make them regret the decision before long.

Iceland: Arnór Ingvi Traustason (IFK Norrköping, Sweden)

A few months ago I wrote about Iceland and since then little has changed regarding the major options at the disposal of the pair Lars Lagerbäck and Heimir Hallgrímsson. The expected starting line-up is exactly the same, and many of the players I highlighted made the trip to France, nonetheless for the past few months Iceland has rejuvenated its roster a bit, bringing in additional depth and youth to the group. On the defensive sector were selected four elements aged 24 or under, yet my pick goes to a player that evolves further up the pitch, left winger Arnór Ingvi Traustason.

Midfielder Arnór Ingvi Traustason is a recent call-up by Iceland

The 23-year-old started his career for his hometown club, Keflavík ÍF, and less than 30 appearances were enough to spark the interest of Norwegian side Sandnes Ulf, where he spent four months on loan in 2012 without much success. However, a return to Iceland ignited his game and at the beginning of 2014 Traustason left the island again, this time for an opportunity in Sweden. Norrköping was the destination and the skilled winger got moved around the pitch before settling on the left side of the midfield, where he became instrumental on the team that conquered the Swedish crown after 26 years. Traustason contributed with 7 goals and a league-leading 11 assists to the title, impressing onlookers due to his pace and knack for exploring the soft zone behind the strikers, where he could blast the net or deliver the final pass. With a fine right foot, he also caused troubles firing weighted balls at the box, and eventually the national team’s brass was convinced, earning his first cap in late November and proceeding to collect a noteworthy total of 3 goals in 7 appearances.

Such impact is rare and difficult to ignore for a country of Iceland’s magnitude, and therefore Traustason netted a spot on the final list for the Euro 2016, where he’ll arrive shortly after completing a transfer to Austrian outfit Rapid Viena. Expect the versatile, creative winger to make waves in France as a substitute.

Hungary: Ádám Nagy (Ferencváros Budapest)

Hungary’s return to a major competition for the first time in 30 years will be a festive time for the country and an important landmark on the career of some of the veterans that have toiled with the squad. In particular for Captain Zoltán Gera (37-years-old) and iconic goalkeeper Gábor Király (40), the competition symbolizes the end of an international career, and both reflect the change of the guard to a generation that expects to enjoy more opportunities to display his talents. It may not be readily evident based on their roster at the Euro 2016 (average age of 28), but Hungary is starting to brim with young footballers and the most exciting is defensive midfielder Ádám Nagy.

The 20-year-old that grew up playing futsal didn’t exactly follow the common football upbringing, bolting the country at age 16 to enrol at an academy in La Manga (Spain), but fortunately two years later Ferencváros was alert and secured his return home. In the meantime, Hungary also took notice and Bernd Stork, the current national team manager, made him an integral part of the squad that travelled to New Zealand for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, a tournament that established his rapid upward trend. In a matter of weeks, Nagy turned into a regular for the would-be Hungarian Champions and debuted for the main national team, with scouts flocking to see what made the defensive pivot such a special talent, particularly after a magnificent performance on the return leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs.

Hungary’s Ádám Nagy is one of Europe’s most promissing defensive midfielders

It’s now been just twelve months since that youth World Cup, and no one disputes that he can evolve into the beating heart for a top European team in a short time. Despite his slight frame, Nagy already enchants for his ability to distribute the ball from deep with both feet and displays advanced tactical awareness. He reads the play before anyone else, and thus is able to efficiently cover ground and pile up interceptions, which mines the opponents’ offensive transitions and jolts counter-attacks. All these are characteristics that Hungary may require while facing stronger teams implementing a high pressing game.

 

Groups A and B / Groups C and D

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Euro 2016 prospects you have to know: Groups C and D

(This is the second of three parts. You can read the introduction and profiles from Group A and B here)

Group C

Germany: Jonas Hector (FC Cologne)

The appeal of Germany’s newcomers (Leroy Sané, Julian Weigl) was particularly hard to resist, but Joachim Löw’s conservative nature (Bastian Schweinsteiger????) leads me to believe they’ll be stapled to the bench unless significant injuries hit. Therefore, I’ll go with another novelty from the group assembled by the current World Cup holders, the likely left-back, Jonas Hector.

In July 2014, as his country was achieving world domination, Hector had yet to make his Bundesliga debut, having joined Cologne from the regional leagues as a 19-year-old and mustered his way to the first-team, which had just secure promotion from the second-tier. The Saarbrucken-native, though, was swift getting adapted to the big league, playing every minute of all but one match in 2014-15, and by November 2014 Hector had already became a German international, filling the lack of a reliable (and injury free) full-back Löw has had to cope with. Measuring a robust 1.85m, durable and methodical on his play, the 25-year-old ticks all the boxes of the modern full-back: sound defensively, whether duelling the attacking winger, winning aerial battles or managing interceptions, and versatile offensively due to being able to break away with or without the ball, support the possession game or work one-two’s in order to deliver crosses.

The 25-year-old Jonas Hector, here in action against England, is one of the newbies on the World Champions’ roster

For Cologne, Hector is sometimes deployed on the midfield, which speaks of his polished, well-rounded game, and also regularly takes corners and free-kicks, all characteristics of a mature, intelligent element that is starting to gather pretenders around Europe. And he won’t be unfazed by Germany’s impending tactical change, being equally capable as part of a four-man backline or as the man responsible for the entire flank on a 3-5-2/3-4-3.

Ukraine: Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)

Ukraine’s dreams at the Euro 2016 will be carried on the boots of the irrepressible duo of Andriy Yarmolenko (Dynamo Kyiv) and Yevhen Konoplyanka (Seville), yet the man with the mouth-watering potential to become one of Europe’s greats is another. After all, when someone of Mircea Lucescu’s stature utters the prediction that we’ll be describing him as “Ukraine’s best player ever”, something special is on the way.

Viktor Kovalenko spurned Dynamo Kyiv to join Shakhtar as an 11-year-old, and the club has certainly come to acknowledge that commitment while his development accelerates, for example when he shone by becoming the joint-top scorer of the 2015 U-20 World Cup, or leading Shakhtar to the UEFA Youth League final in 2014-15. The attacking midfielder proved to be ready for first-team duty, and a few months as a regular bench option were enough to inherit the number 10 spot after Alex Teixeira left for China, stepping up on the campaign to the semi-finals of the Europa League. His rapid decision-making alongside tremendous vision and distribution skills added pace to Shakhtar’s game, and the 20-year-old became a key performer, collecting over 2600 minutes of playing time on his debut season.

Viktor Kovalenko is already viewed as Ukraine’s brightest young star since Andrei Shevchenko

Gifted with the ball on his feet and aggressive looking for it, intelligent finding spaces to manoeuvre, and deadly with the goal in sight, Kovalenko and his two international caps probably won’t make it into the starting lineup for now. Coach Mykhaylo Fomenko should opt for the safety provided by Denys Garmash or Sergiy Sydorchuk to complete the midfield trio, but look for him to be called regularly when the game needs to be stirred.

Poland: Piotr Zielinski (Empoli, Italy)

Adam Nawalka has alternated the setup of his team between a 4x2x3x1 and a 4x4x2, where Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik joins forces with Robert Lewandowski up front. The man that bagged 21 goals during the last Eredivisie season is someone to keep an eye on, but if he ultimately gets benched, the chances of Zielinski being a starter soar, since he holds the pole-position to be slotted in support of Bayern Munich’s star striker.

Empoli’s midfielder Piotr Zielinski has a good chance of featuring on Poland’s starting lineup at the Euro 2016

The Empoli midfielder joined Zaglebie Lubin as a 14 year-old, despite invitations by renowned foreign emblems, but never debuted on Poland’s main league, leaving the country to sign for Udinese in 2012. Over the next couple of seasons, the majority of his minutes were collected for the reserve team, and consequently Zielinski was on the move again in 2014, with Empoli guaranteeing his services on a 2-year-loan deal. On the club based on the Province of Florence, he was finally able to thrive, with his stock rocketing in the last year after five goals, six assists and a flurry of impressive showings on 35 Serie A appearances. Deployed as the right central midfielder on Empoli’s 4-3-1-2, or in direct support of the forwards, the Pole was asked to press the opponents’ outlet, cover ground on the midfield and link up with the forwards. He eventually also excelled on dangerous drives to the box, where he could flaunt his dribbling ability, or slicing the defence with his slick passing.

At age 22, Zielinski’s name is starting to reverberate alongside top-tier clubs, with Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool reportedly discussing his acquisition, and a good showing at the Euro 2016 can accelerate those talks. The hard-working talent, which can also play on the right flank or as a holding midfielder, is seemingly ready for a new adventure.

Northern Ireland: Paddy McNair (Manchester United, England)

Really, a Manchester United player?  Just take a look at this list and count how many names can you recognize? If you’re not from the British Islands, I doubt that number is above 5.

Anyway, this young man from Ballyclare will hope his performances in France can clear his path onto José Mourinho’s squad next season, after he seemed to fall out of favour with Louis Van Gaal. The Dutch manager sponsored his first team debut in September 2014, like happened with so many academy graduates, and McNair appeared 26 more times for United since then, yet the biggest development in his career to date came on the national team. A center back by trade – and seldom used on the right side – the 21-year-old was tested as a holding midfielder on a pair of friendly matches last March and looked the part. Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s coach, praised his capacity to read the game, clear the area in front of the box, and make plays under duress, and the papers quickly jumped into comparisons with Tottenham’s Eric Dier, another powerful defender that seamlessly moved a few steps forward.

Manchester United’s Paddy McNair has turned into an imposing presence on Northern Ireland’s midfield

For a man that arrived at United’s youth system as an attacking-minded midfielder before being implanted deeper due to a substantial growth spurt, this shouldn’t come as a surprise though. After all, being athletic, able to tackle judiciously and comfortable on the ball are characteristics that can make an impactful pivot, and Man United may have stumbled into a starlet by chance. Ultimately, it all started due to the serious knee injury suffered by Chris Brunt, one of Northern Ireland’s few standouts on the intermediate sector and a critical blow on their hopes at the Euro 2016…

Group D

Spain: Nolito (Celta de Vigo)

Spain’s extremely disappointing campaign at the 2014 World Cup signalled the need for a silent facelift at “La Roja” after 6 years of unimaginable success, and the outcome is expressed on the group that will compete in France. The major alterations occurred on the offensive unit’s makeup, with Diego Costa, Juan Mata, Paco Alcácer or Santi Cazorla missing out, and only David Silva and Pedro Rodriguez keeping the faith of Vicente Del Bosque. Both wingers should earn a starting spot for the opening game but they’ll better watch their back, since the irreverent Manuel Agudo Durán, “Nolito”, promises to fight relentlessly for a chance.

Nolito’s long road to Spain’s national team should pay off in France

The 29-year-old forward born in the Andalucia is the definition of a late bloomer. Discovered by Barcelona at minnows Écija Balompié in 2008, Nolito affirmed his worth for the Catalan’s B team over three seasons, but understood, at age 24, that his chances of a promotion were dwindling. He opted to leave and signed for Benfica in 2011-12, breaking one of Eusébio’s club records due to a barging start of the season, which he rode to a 15-goal debut campaign. However, the left winger mind-bogglingly fell out of favour on his second year and was loaned mid-season to Granada, returning to Spain in entirely different terms than the way he left.

Already a proven La Liga-ready entity, Celta de Vigo swooped in to arrange his acquisition six months later and they hit the jackpot since Nolito responded with 39 League goals over the last three seasons, displaying great finishing skills and a singular knack to find balls laying in the box. An average athlete, his unconventional, yet highly effective style of play, isn’t based on a distinctive skill-set but on superb vision and decision making, with his right foot always executing the correct option, be it to shoot, play penetrating through balls or engage in effective one-two’s.

With a game refined at Barcelona’s La Masia, Nolito debuted for Spain at age 28 as Del Bosque realized his smarts and pass-first mentality fit perfectly with the squad.  At the Euro 2016, he could prove crucial on the role of an agitator coming off the bench.

Czech Republic: Ladislav Krejcí (Sparta Prague)

Twenty years after the Czech Republic reached the final of the European Championships, the first major result as an independent nation, the roster selected to compete in a tournament still comprises a fair share of players plucked on the national league. And if back then the likes of Karel Poborský, Pavel Nedvěd and Vladimír Šmicer used the event to make a name for themselves and jump to clubs outside of the usual sphere of influence (Bundesliga outfits usually dominate the Czech market), the same can ring true for a couple of emerging talents in 2016.

Ladislav Krejcí promises to be one of Czech Republic’s main offensive weapons at the Euro 2016

One of those is Ladislav Krejcí, a left winger from Sparta Prague. Born and bred on the Czech capital and a product of Sparta’s youth factory, the 23-year-old is the type of wingman Central Europe produces frequently: practical and direct on his approach, smart and tactically savvy. However, Krejcí’s unassuming disposition doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of driving play in the right direction and cause havoc, as his agility, tremendous pace and dribbling induce headaches on opposing full backs.

With 168 games (35 goals) under his belt for Sparta since 2010, the industrious wide man has nothing else to prove stateside and the performances on this season’s Europa League already showed his determination to impress onlookers.  Krejcí’s superior crossing technique, explosion with the ball, and astute movement off it are definitely an important component of Czech Republic’s strategy to once again get out of the group stage.

Turkey: Oğuzhan Özyakup (Beşiktaş JK)

Amongst Europe’s peripheral leagues, the Turkish Süper Lig is where you’ll find the biggest financial muscle, with the trio of Istambul’s giants, in particular, being able to use their wealth to pry international stars at the edge of their physical prime (Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez come to mind). However, the money is also applied towards keeping the nation’s top talents within borders or to rescue the ones misplaced due to the diaspora, which leads to the fact that only 6 of the 23 names invited to the Euro 2016 come from abroad.

One of the best examples of the dynamic described above is Beşiktaş playmaker Oğuzhan Özyakup. Born in Zaandam, Netherlands, Özyakup represented the youth Dutch squads and his play soon caught the eye of Arsenal’s scouts, moving to England from AZ Alkmaar in 2008, at age 16. In four seasons, he only got called up by Arsène Wenger twice and the club later accepted a €500k bid from Beşiktaş, a bargain for the Turkish emblem. On a country he had already decided to represent, Ozzy’s technical skills blossomed and he never stopped improving, eventually powering Besiktas’ title-winning team in 2015-16 by contributing with 9 goals and 7 assists.

The 23-year-old displays elite vision and passing range, qualities he uses to dictate the pace of the game at both the club and national team level, but he’s also adept at slaloming with the ball at his feet, brushing past defenders with an array of dribbles that includes the roulette popularized by Zinedine Zidane. Progressively assimilating Turkey’s dogged attitude during off-the-ball moments, Özyakup should be his nation’s maestro in France, being flanked by Barcelona’s Arda Turan and Bayer Leverkusen’s Hakan Calhanoglu, a trio capable of causing problems to any opponent with intricate play in tight spaces, long-range shooting and creative decision-making.

Croatia: Marko Pjaca (Dinamo Zagreb)

Despite the allegations that hang over Croatia’s National team and the disputed merit of some of the players that were included on the 23-man roster, the Balkan ensemble is indisputably one of the most talented in the tournament, especially from the midfield out. Every hint points to Ante Cacic’s decision that a 4-2-3-1 is the best way to maximize the potential of the squad, and among the likes of Modric, Rakitic, Perisic or Kovacic sticks out a promising winger already considered the Croatian League’s best player.

Marko Pjaca’s unpredictable football should flourish inside Croatia’s technically-sublime midfield

Despite being another example of Dinamo Zagreb’s churning academy, Marko Pjaca’s professional career started at Lokomotiva Zagreb, with Dinamo being compelled to reacquire him for €1M in July 2014. Two years and 26 goals in 89 appearances later, the youngster is one of most sought-after wingers in Europe and the perennial Croatian Champions are on the verge of multiplying that sum at least fifteen fold, as the versatile forward delights due to physical and technical attributes of excellence.

The 21-year-old that should occupy the left flank at the Euro 2016 is a nomad on the field, a robust physical specimen that boasts impressive acceleration, the capacity to run, shoot, pass and dribble at top-speed, and the will to force his way onto the area to finish or assist teammates. A keen improvisator that evades defenders easily, the flashy Pjaca should lit up the competition when cutting inside, with opponents aware that his right foot can be impossible to stop.

Groups A and B / Groups E and F

Euro 2016 prospects you have to know: Groups A and B

The major international meetings in any sport are always a vibrant festival of colour, national pride and comradery where the interest spreads way beyond the action taking place on the field. Yet, for many fans of the game, whether they’re backing a particular team or not, these tournaments turn out to also stand as an excellent opportunity to expand their football knowledge while they get to watch players, teams and coaches hailing from faraway sides.

In particular, these are perfect occasions for the players to showcase their talent to a broad audience and elevate their profile, eventually leading up to additional ventures on their current employer, a pay raise or a dream transfer for a club with further ambitions.

Therefore, the tales of the breakout players are an indelible legacy of every major competition. From the top of my head, I can point out the German midfield duo of Sami Khedira and Mesut Özil at the 2010 World Cup, which ended up moving to Real Madrid shortly after; Jordi Alba leaving Valencia for Barcelona after dazzling for Spain at the Euro 2012, the same competition that set in motion Mario Mandzukic’s transfer to Bayern Munich; or the fact that the 2014 World Cup contributed immensely to both Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo signing by Manchester United, as well as James Rodriguez’s €80M swap of Monaco for Real Madrid.

A 22-year-old Mesut Özil earned global recognition at the 2010 World Cup

Obviously countless other names have benefitted from these events, even if their destinies weren’t as glamorous as full-fledged Champions League contenders (+ Man United), with players moving in droves from peripheral leagues to mid-table sides involved in the Big Five leagues.

Thus, my expectation here is to lift the curtain on the talents that may surprise the vast majority of football fans following the tournament: those that during the season restrict themselves to accompanying their domestic leagues, the odd high-stakes encounter from foreign championships, and a slew of the Continent’s giants in mid-week European matches.

While researching for this post, I promptly understood that the goal of singling out a name for all 24 nations participating in the competition entailed a plethora of challenges on such a heterogenic field, therefore the criteria I intended to respect had to be circumvented from time to time. However, I’ll look to sum up the broad guidelines:

  • Naturally, I opted to discard players from Europe’s elite clubs. And I’m not only speaking of the Barcelona’s and Bayern Munich’s, but also squads like Borussia Dortmund and Atlético Madrid, which have recently turned into media darlings because of relevant international campaigns.
  • As far as possible, every player is under the age of 25, with notable exceptions when some heavyweights (France, Spain, Germany) are considered due to a lack of options to fulfil other criteria.
  • I tried to weight down candidates that already represent Premier League or La Liga sides – the most viewed Leagues in the continent – even if sometimes it is virtually impossible (Greetings to Wales and both Irelands!)

It goes without saying that my own preferences and football “expertise” greatly influenced some of the picks. For instance, a guy like Turkey’s Hakan Çalhanoğlu – or Russia’s Oleg Shatov – has come under my own radar a couple of times, and logically I went on another direction, but you it may see it radically different.

Well, time to put a lid on this introduction. To quell the extension of the assignment, on this post are introduced my selections from Groups A and B, with two more parts to be dispatched over the next few days.

No better way to start than with one of the names that doesn’t fit much of what I was looking for!

Group A

France: Dimitri Payet (West Ham United, England)

An outstanding Premier League debut season compelled Didier Deschamps to call up the mercurial winger for his first international tournament – almost six years after his 1st cap for Les Blues -and the 29-year-old’s odds of breaking into the starting eleven are growing by the day. Thus, with the inaugural match of the Euro 2016 rapidly approaching for the hosts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Payet’s mind has wandered recently to his troubled football beginnings, when the dream of becoming a professional footballer seemed gone at age 16.

Being cut from Le Havre’s youth academy forced a return to his homeland, the Indian Ocean Island of Reunion, but Nantes would give him a second chance and he didn’t look back. Over the next decade, the tricky midfielder asserted himself as one of the most entertaining performers on the French League while representing Saint- Étienne, Lille and finally Olympique Marseille, where his game reached new heights. Under Marcelo Bielsa’s guidance, Payet tortured defences, becoming the league’s premier assist man, and West Ham quickly snapped him up for a fee of €15M that’s already been termed a steal. Drifting across the front line, the Frenchman became the Londoner’s forerunner on an unlikely attempt to catch a Champions League pass, contributing with 9 goals and 12 assists, countless displays of superior ball-playing flair, and remarkable free-kick expertise.

The magic of France and West Ham’s Dimitri Payet can be the talk of the tournament

His ability to find pockets of space inside enemy lines coming from the left flank, and from there link up with teammates and forge scoring chances could be the difference for a French team whose 4X3X3 does not include a true playmaker. Going with the direct approach and superior pace of Anthony Martial or Kingsley Coman can be tempting, but they’ll need the support of the outside backs, Sagna and Evra, to make a difference, and both have already lost a step. Alternatively, with Payet (and Antoine Griezmann) overloading the center of the park and complementing the athleticism of Matuidi and Pogba, France figures to be able to manhandle every opponent.

Romania: Nicolae Stanciu (Steaua Bucharest)

Romania scored a miserable total of 11 goals in 10 qualifying matches, which is astonishing to notice before you even realize that a player with 4 goals obtained in 5 international appearances was never selected for the squad.

Romania’s Nicolae Stanciu will be under tight surveillance in France

After debuting with a makeshift national unit in 2013, Stanciu endured a strange exile until being named for last March’s friendly encounters. He responded by pounding a long range shot into the back of Lithuania’s net on a 1-0 victory and, a few days later, earned  man of the match honours against Spain… In the blink of an eye, a starting spot as the offensive midfielder on Anghel Iordanescu’s side was virtually guaranteed.

Recruited by Steaua at FC Vaslui in 2013, the 23-year-old quickly became a regular for the Romanian powerhouse, appearing, for example, on all 2014-15 Champions League group stage matches, and the Euro 2016 seems like the ideal plateau to prove that’s he’s ready to move abroad. On a team that boasts several nifty ball handlers, Stanciu’s quick feet, sharp technical skills and willingness to defy defenders off the dribble have produced comparisons with the legendary Gheorghe Hagi, but he’ll certainly be happy to achieve half of his countryman’s success.

Capable of slotting on a playmaking role, free to roam behind the striker, or driving inside from the right wing, Stanciu’s scoring touch was also in display for Steaua this season, amassing 14 goals in 38 matches. The burly midfielder will receive the reigns of Romania’s 4X2X3X1, and they’ll need his talent to prosper against top notch opponents.

Albania: Elseid Hysaj (SSC Napoli, Italy)

Lorik Cana may be Albania’s inspirational leader and the country’s football idol, but Elseid Hysaj may soon usurp many of those accomplishments.

The full back’s career start is another interesting tale that mixes the right amount of fortune and sacrifice. His father, Gëzim, immigrated to Italy in the 90’s  to be able to provide for his family, which remained at home, and ended up befriending football agent Marco Piccioli. A few years later, when Elseid reached the age of 14, Piccioli arranged several trials for the youngster and Empoli liked what they saw, inviting Hysaj to leave the city of Shkodër, where he grew up, and join their academy. The Albanian surged through the ranks, debuted in the senior squad in 2012, and was one of the main standouts of the team that avoided relegation in 2014-15.

Mauricio Sarri left Empoli to coach Napoli in that summer and, in exchange of €5M, his right-back followed him. Despite the jump to a Serie A title contender, Hysaj was an indisputable starter all year long, logging over 3600 minutes of action across all competitions. On the way, he impressed the boisterous Napoli tiffosi with his poise in possession, notable stamina to move forward and track back in time, and proficiency in delivering pin-point crosses and long range passes.

Elseid Hysaj was a defensive mainstay on an Albanian team that surprised Portugal during the qualifying campaign

Also extremely competent on the left side, the 22-year-old’s familiarity with high-stakes games will be relied upon by an Albanian team that may risk being in awe of this historical occasion. After the tournament, expect Hysaj to turn into one of the most sought-after full backs in the game, with Atlético Madrid and Chelsea reportedly already looking to secure the versatile defender.

Switzerland: Breel Embolo (FC Basel)

After an injury-riddled end of the season, Embolo’s place on Switzerland’s 23-man roster was seriously threatened, but fortunately one of Europe’s most exciting prospects should be able to take the pitches of France.

The Cameroon-born phenomenon debuted for the national team only one month after his 18th birthday and it’s easy to see why. Standing at 1.85m, his blend of strength, power and pace already strikes fear into defenders’ hearts no matter if he plays as a mobile center forward or a winger, and the numbers (31 goals in 90 matches for Basel) prove that we’ve just seen the tip of his potential.

Embolo’s idol is Mario Balotelli and the comparisons, apart from the work ethic perspective, seem in hand, with the 19-year-old showcasing agility and athleticism alongside great composure and ball control. He’s a clever player off the ball, timing his runs to explore spaces behind the defence, but Embolo is also not afraid to beat the opposition drawing on his explosive speed and advanced dribbling ability. All these attributes have naturally attracted a number of high-profile followers, with an offer of €27M from Wolfsburg already rebuffed by Basel.

Due to a lack of match fitness, Embolo should begin the tournament on the bench, but expect him to be the first option when Coach Vladimir Petkovic needs to change things upfront. From Switzerland’s offensive trio only Xherdan Shaquiri is untouchable, with left winger Admir Mehmedi or striker Haris Seferovic in line to give way for the prodigious forward.

Group B

England: Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspurs)

Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham emerged as the most attractive side on the English Premier League in 2015-16, and Roy Hodgson duly took notice, arranging his squad around a backbone transplanted from the North London outfit. As many as five players should feature on the “Three Lions” ideal lineup, and of those none experienced such a fledging rise as Bamidele Jermaine Alli.

Dele Alli was quick transferring his impressive form at Tottenham to the National Team

The 20-year-old of Nigerian origins has been precocious since debuting for his hometown club, Milton Keynes Dons, at age 16, and he was only 18 when Tottenham secured his services in the middle of a 16-goal season on England’s League One, the third-string of competition. A few months later, as he joined the top-flight squad, only five matches were necessary to carve a position on Pochettino’s midfield duo, and the rest is history. In 33 Premier League appearances, Alli netted 10 goals, provided 9 assists – many as a product of a burgeoning partnership with striker Harry Kane – and arose as the nation’s new “box-to-box” sensation, outscoring the teenage marks of Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes in route to receive the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.

A brave, energetic central midfielder that yearns to tackle, press up the field and move forward to attack the box or slip behind the backline, Alli’s carefree attitude emboldens the youngest roster at the Euro 2016. Whether he’s deeply embedded in the fray to recover the ball, brashly nutmegging adversaries for fun, or manufacturing scoring changes at absurd rates, much of England’s lofty expectations rest on the slender shoulders of its most exciting prospect.

Russia: Aleksandr Golovin (CSKA Moscow)

On a Russian roster that is the second oldest in the competition, only Golovin is yet to commemorate the 25th anniversary. With their World Cup just two years away, that aging core should be a concern, especially on defence because Vasili Berezutski (33-years-old) and Sergey Ignashevich (36) still form the preferred central partnership. Nevertheless, the sun shines brighter on the midfield, where – despite the late withdrawal of Alan Dragoev – Zenit’s Oleg Shatov (25) and FK Krasnodar’s Pavel Mamaev (27) are ready to step into the lineup, previewing the emergence of Aleksandr Golovin.

A former futsal player, the native of the region of Kemerovo chose to join the youth ranks of CSKA in 2012, and one year later was part of Under-17 National team that won the European Championship. His first cameo appearances for the Moscow outfit came in 2014, and since then his playing time has gradually increased, culminating on the senior national team debut in June 2015. The creative midfielder scored against Belarus and nine months later, on his second match, repeated the feat, something never done before by a Russian International.

Aleksandr Golovin, an elegant playmaker, is the youngest player on Russia’s roster

Leonid Slutsky, who accumulates the role of national manager with that of CSKA’s coach, relied more on Golovin since the calendar turned to 2016, and almost 1000 minutes of action underlined how his vision, ability to read the game and dead ball competence could be of use for Russia. Ideally suited for the role of playmaker, Golovin is also able to manage the game from deeper, where he can explore dangerous through balls and set up teammates.  Inexperience is a dagger on his chances of accruing significant minutes but, if Russia struggles, Slutsky knows first-hand what he can bring to the table.

Wales: Jonathan Williams (Crystal Palace, England)

Trying to dig gold on a mine that is pretty much operated by Gareth Bale plus a bunch of working bees is virtually impossible. Wales’ roster is stoked with middle-age players that ply their trade for several English Premier League clubs, and eventually no one else stands out among Craig Coleman’s favourites. Thereby, I had to settle for a former wunderkind who has stagnated and wasn’t exactly a lock to even make the 23-man group.

The talented Jonathan Williams in action for Wales

Jonathan Williams was developed at Crystal Palace’s academy and graduated as a 17-year-old, piling up 16 appearances for the Championship-calibre team on a season truncated by a broken leg. The following campaign, 2012-13, he was an important member of the squad that achieved promotion to the Premier League but then, contrary to the expectations, simply proved insufficient for the increased level of play. He was loaned to Ipswich Town in early 2014, and similar deals were brokered with Nottingham Forest and MK Dons over the last two seasons, yet Williams always failed to convince.

At age 22, in a total of 101 professional games (12 Premier League appearances), the left-footed attacking-minded midfielder collected 2(!) goals and 5 assists, to which can be added 12 caps (no goals) for the national team. In face of Wales’s shallow pool of players, Williams has been summoned by Coleman to provide depth at several midfield positions, and at the Euro 2016 the opportunity may arrive for a player that, at his best, reveals exquisite technical skills and a trickery game. Maybe the thrill of experiencing such a grand stage will unlock his potential.

Slovakia: Ondrej Duda (Legia Warsaw, Poland)

Led by the likes of Martin Skrtel, Juraj Kucka and Marek Hamsik on its his first European Championships as an independent nation, Slovakia’s starting eleven and the rigid 4X2X3X1 employed by coach Jan Kozak are pretty much set in stone by now. That leaves the bold Ondrej Duda as the wildcard to be used later.

The graceful style of Slovakia’s Ondrej Duda should gather admirers in France

The 21-year-old posted an auspicious national team debut in March 2015, scoring the lone goal on a friendly match against rivals Czech Republic, yet he hasn’t been able to break regularly into the lineup (10 caps) and gain the relevance he enjoys at the club level. A product of FC Kosice’s youth set-up, Duda was sold to Legia in 2014 for just €300m and has flourished at the Polish League, honing his skills to a level where his talent calls for bigger things. The pace and virtuosity he exhibits with the ball have earned comparisons with Argentina’s Angel Di Maria, and Duda’s elegant style of play demands freedom to create and break into the opposing defences, even if his finishing ability is a work in progress (only 5 goals in 43 matches in 2015-16). Right-footed and equally able to occupy any position on the offensive sector, he looks destined to emulate the illustrious career of Marek Hamsik, and sooner or later a move to a top league will materialize, with several Premier League clubs closely tracking his development.

The man they call “Dudinho” for his Brazilian-like technique seems set to lead Slovakia in the future, but don’t underestimate what he can bring off the bench at the Euro 2016.

Groups C and D / Groups E and F

[PT] Antevisão da Final da Stanley Cup: Pittsburgh Penguins vs San Jose Sharks

Pela primeira vez desde 2011, quando os Boston Bruins levantaram a Stanley Cup, o troféu máximo da NHL não seguirá para Los Angeles ou Chicago. Tanto os Kings como os Blackhawks foram eliminados na primeira ronda dos playoffs, pelo que chega a hora de outros nomes serem inscritos nos 16 kg de prata e níquel que compõe a taça mais desejada.

Após oito meses de competição, apenas se mantêm na corrida dois emblemas: os Pittsburgh Penguins, Campeões da Conferência Este, que procuram a quarta Stanley Cup da sua história; e os San Jose Sharks, debutantes nesta fase mas carregando um manancial de más recordações que só podem ser completamente erradicadas em caso de sucesso absoluto.

Pelo segundo ano consecutivo, os seguidores da NHL foram brindados com um embate final entre dois conjuntos recheados de executantes sublimes e equipas que praticam estilos de jogo atractivos e similares. Assim, espera-se um hóquei disputado a alto ritmo, com as equipas a apostarem na velocidade dos seus jogadores, em rápidas transições atacantes e numa pressão asfixiante sobre o portador do disco.

O espectáculo está reservado para a próxima quinzena, pelo que está na hora de conhecer melhor dos conjuntos finalistas.

Histórico das equipas

Os Penguins ganharam as suas duas primeiras Stanley Cups em 1991 e 1992

Fundados em 1967, como parte do alargamento inicial da NHL – que passou das seis equipas originais para 12 clubes – a primeira fase de ouro da história dos Penguins teve como ponto de partida a escolha de Mario Lemieux, provavelmente o 2º melhor jogador de sempre, no draft de 1984. O portentoso central canadiano levou a formação de Pittsburgh a dois triunfos consecutivos na Final da Stanley Cup em 1991 e 1992, e provavelmente só uma carreira amaldiçoada por diversas lesões e doenças graves, incluindo um cancro, impediu que voltasse a disputar a série decisiva até à sua retirada definitiva em 2006.

Por esta altura já um novo ícone envergava o equipamento preto e dourado, com uma pontinha de sorte a permitir que Sidney Crosby, outro jogador com um talento geracional, fosse seleccionado em 2005 numa altura em que a permanência do franchise na cidade de Pittsburgh estava seriamente ameaçada. Crosby, juntamente com o russo Evgeni Malkin, lideraram a equipa à final de 2008, perdida para os Detroit Red Wings, e à conquista no ano seguinte, numa desforra perante o mesmo adversário.

Nesse dia 12 de Junho de 2009, muitos pensaram que uma dinastia estava apenas a começar, mas uma série de peripécias de vária ordem impediram a equipa de chegar ao palco mais desejado nas últimas seis temporadas, com 2013 a marcar o mais perto que isso esteve de ocorrer, quando os Penguins foram varridos na final de Conferência pelos Boston Bruins. Da equipa que triunfou em 2009 sobram apenas cinco jogadores, que procuram assim fazer contar a quinta presença da formação do estado da Pensilvânia na Final.

Em 1991, nasceu na cidade californiana de San Jose a primeira equipa da NHL situada na zona da Baia de San Francisco desde que os California Golden Seals foram movidos para Cleveland quinze anos antes. Os San Jose Sharks, ao contrário de outras formações que nos anos seguintes se juntariam a uma NHL em franca expansão (aumento de 21 para 28 formações durante os anos 90), alcançaram resultados bastante satisfatórios a breve trecho, chegando à 2ª ronda dos playoffs logo em 1993 e 1994. As expectativas subiram e o clube tornou-se num dos mais competentes da NHL nas últimas duas décadas, falhando os playoffs apenas numa ocasião entre 1997 e 2014.

As temporadas dos San Jose Sharks têm tido sempre o mesmo desfecho: com a equipa do lado errado da linha de cumprimentos (nhl.com)

Contudo, seis títulos na divisão e um President’s Trophy (troféu atribuído à equipa com mais pontos obtidos na fase regular), em 2008-09, sempre souberam a pouco para os homens vestidos em tons de verde azulado (“teal”) e preto, face aos sucessivos falhanços na fase decisiva da temporada. Mesmo garantindo os serviços de um dos melhores passadores da história da NHL, Joe Thornton, em 2005-06, o melhor que a formação que tem como casa o temido “Shark Tank” alcançou foram três presenças na final de Conferência (2004, 2010 e 2011). Entre todas as desilusões, nenhuma foi mais traumática que a derrota com os LA Kings na primeira ronda de 2014, quando lideraram a série por 3-0 e permitiram uma reviravolta história, que haveria de culminar no ano seguinte com a primeira temporada fora dos playoffs em 11 anos.

Contudo, os Sharks reergueram-se e reescrevem novamente os livros em 2015-16, chegando à primeira final da sua história precisamente quando celebram 25 anos de existência.

Percurso até à final:

À deriva e perigosamente em risco de falhar os playoffs após dois meses e meio de temporada, a época dos Pittsburgh Penguins ameaçava tornar-se mais uma hipótese desperdiçada durante os anos de ouro de Crosby e Malkin quando o GM Jim Rutherford decidiu usar a opção de recurso. O treinador Mike Johnston foi despedido, Mike Sullivan resgatado à filial, e os Penguins venceram 33 dos 47 jogos que faltavam na fase regular para alcançarem o segundo lugar na Divisão Metropolitana com 104 pontos, firmando um embate inicial com os NY Rangers.

Perante uma formação que os tinha eliminado nos dois últimos anos, os Penguins aproveitaram o embalo e trataram rapidamente de Henrik Lunqvist e companhia, empilhando golos na baliza do guardião sueco durante cinco jogos que dominaram quase na totalidade.

A ronda seguinte trouxe um oponente formidável, os rivais Washington Capitals, vencedores destacados do President’s Trophy com 120 pontos em 82 jogos. Numa série tensa e em que todas as partidas foram disputadas até ao fim, culminando em três jogos que requereram tempo extra, as duas vitórias em casa nos jogos 3 e 4 provaram-se decisivas para oferecer uma liderança de 3-1 na série. Os Capitals ainda encurtaram distâncias no jogo 5, e recuperaram de uma desvantagem de três golos no jogo 6 em Pittsburgh, mas Nick Bonino marcou o golo de ouro no prolongamento para estender a incessante busca de uma Stanley Cup por parte da formação da capital americana e do seu capitão Alex Ovechkin.

Na final de Conferência, o equilíbrio foi ainda mais acentuado, com o máximo de jogos a ser preciso para separar os Penguins dos Tampa Bay Lightning. Ambas as equipas venceram dois dos primeiros três encontros que disputaram fora de casa, com a igualdade a resultar no jogo 7, em Pittsburgh, onde um herói improvável, o rookie Bryan Rust, bisou no triunfo da formação da casa por 2-1.

Quanto aos San Jose Sharks, somaram 98 pontos na fase regular para terminarem em terceiro na Divisão do Pacífico, atrás dos rivais Anaheim Ducks e LA Kings. O formato dos playoffs determinou assim novo embate com os Kings, dois anos após o humilhante descalabro que haveria de impulsionar a formação de Los Angeles até ao título.

Aproveitando alguma arrogância dos rivais, os Sharks afastaram os fantasmas do passado ao saírem de Los Angeles com os dois primeiros jogos no bolso e, após uma repartição de triunfos em San Jose, foram ao Staples Center desferir o golpe final. Na liderança por três golos no início do 2º período, os Sharks permitiram o empate e os seus adeptos temeram nova debacle. Contudo, três golos sem resposta no período final garantiram um triunfo extremamente saboroso e a passagem à 2ª ronda.

Seguiram-se os incómodos Nashville Predators, com as equipas a vencerem todos os encontros na condição de visitados. Os Sharks estiveram muito perto de roubar o jogo 4 em Nashville mas, após mais de 50 minutos suplementares, Mike Fisher deu o triunfo aos Predators no terceiro prolongamento e empatou a série a 2. A formação de San Jose voltou a não conseguir sair por cima no jogo 6, cedendo novamente no prolongamento, mas no jogo 7, em casa, não deixou dúvidas com um resoluto 5-0.

Os St. Louis Blues, outra equipa com um longo historial de frustrações nos playoffs, ergueram a barreira final no Oeste. A igualdade a dois jogos registada após quatro encontros penalizava os Sharks, que, com excepção do jogo 4, foram sempre dominantes, mas na partida seguinte o capitão Joe Pavelski bisou para liderar a equipa ao triunfo por 6-3 em St. Louis. Com a hipótese de fazer história perante os seus adeptos, os Sharks voltaram a não perdoar e encarreiraram cinco golos para obterem a 12ª vitória nos playoffs, o número mágico para atingirem a sua primeira final da Stanley Cup.

Treinadores:

Chegar à final da Stanley Cup no ano subsequente a falhar os playoffs é um fenómeno raro mas que acontece pela segunda vez na última década, com os Sharks a juntarem-se aos New Jersey Devils de 2011-2012. Atrás do banco de ambos os conjuntos surge o mesmo homem, Peter DeBoer, que consegue novamente atingir tremendo sucesso na estreia em novas paragens.

Um advogado de formação que deve fazer 48 anos em plena disputa da final (13 de Junho), DeBoer chegou à NHL em 2008 após 13 temporadas ao comando de várias formações da principal liga júnior canadiana. Os Florida Panthers foram o destino e, numa antevisão do que se seguiria, o nativo do estado do Ontário não demorou a mostrar trabalho, levando os “Cats” ao segundo maior total de pontos da sua história, que mesmo assim não foi suficiente para atingir os playoffs. Em 2011, após dois anos de regressão, DeBoer foi demitido, tendo rapidamente sido apontado como treinador dos Devils. Após um trajecto surpreendente, a equipa foi apenas travada pelos LA Kings na final da Stanley Cup, e a posterior saída do capitão Zach Parise marcou o começo de um declínio que o treinador não foi capaz de superar.

Peter DeBoer recuperou os San Jose Sharks após uma temporada de 2014-15 desapontante (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)

Duas temporadas consecutivas fora dos playoffs fizeram o chicote estalar em Dezembro de 2014, abrindo as portas para a nomeação como treinador dos San Jose Sharks no começo desta temporada. Ultrapassado um começo titubeante, em que demorou a ganhar a confiança dos líderes do balneário, o grupo orientado por DeBoer subiu de forma a partir de Janeiro e tornou-se uma máquina de marcar golos assim que os playoffs tiveram início, podendo originar a sonhada conquista da Stanley Cup.

Apesar de ter igualmente nascido em 1968, a história de Mike Sullivan é bastante diferente. Desde logo porque conseguiu fazer carreira na NHL durante 10 temporadas, tendo inclusivamente representado os EUA a nível internacional. Pendurados os patins em 2002, foi nomeado técnico dos Providence Bruins, da AHL, sendo que o salto para a NHL ocorreu logo na época seguinte, com a promoção a líder dos Boston Bruins. Treinando uma conjunto onde pontificada Joe Thornton, Sullivan alcançou o titulo da Divisão mas a equipa foi eliminada de entrada nos playoffs. Após o lockout que anulou a temporada de 2004-2005, os Bruins falharam redondamente e Sullivan foi despedido, sendo que nova oportunidade demoraria a chegar. Entre 2007 e 2014 foi treinador adjunto dos Tampa Bay Lightning, NY Rangers e Vancouver Canucks, seguindo John Tortorella em todas estas passagens e acumulando um capital de experiência respeitável.

Mike Sullivan assumiu o comando dos Pittsburgh Penguins em Dezembro (Pittsburgh Penguins / Greg Shamus)

Nomeado treinador dos Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins durante o Verão passado, um excelente começo de temporada, com 18 vitórias em 23 encontros, impressionou tanto Jim Rutherford, GM da formação de Pittsburgh, que foi a ele que recorreu para suceder a Mike Johnston, afastado devido à incapacidade para tirar partido do talento ofensivo à sua disposição.

Quase uma década depois de ter sido pela última vez o líder no banco, Sullivan recebeu nas mãos um Ferrari errante e em acelerado estado de descrença, e colocou-o de volta ao trilho correcto, libertando as estrelas das amarras defensivas, reformulando o sistema de jogo e beneficiando da hábil permuta de peças que Rutherford foi efectivando ao longo do ano.

Avançados:


Rodar quatro linhas ofensivas capazes de manter os adversários presos na sua própria zona é crucial para ter sucesso na longa maratona dos playoffs, e são normalmente as formações que o conseguem a chegar longe. Sharks e Penguins podem-se gabar de poderem apresentar 12 atacantes competentes, sendo as duas equipas com melhor média de golos marcados nos playoffs, mas um vislumbre aos números mostra uma diferença essencial na distribuição dos tentos obtidos. Se os Penguins apresentam três linhas que alternaram momentos de supremacia ofensiva, a formação californiana baseia muito do seu sucesso em dois grupos absolutamente letais.

(Continuar a ler aqui)