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The 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship final report (Part I)

For most intents and purposes, the IIHF U-20 World Championship (WJC) is the only best-on-best international hockey tournament on a yearly basis and a tremendous showcase of the sport at its most frantic nature due to its singular blend of unbridled youth passion and devotion to the national cause. For the second time in seven years, the event took place at the turn of the calendar year (December 26th to January 5th) in the gloomy American city of Buffalo, NY, and there is a lot to discuss after the 10 top-division countries duelled for global supremacy in front of large TV audiences*, swaths of empty seats and, in the case of the USA – Canada game, the 44 592 die-hard fans that braved an inclement snowstorm.

While the trophy was eventually handed out to the Canadian team, who beat Sweden in a fantastic Final to secure a 17th U-20 World title (in a total of 42 editions), for a neutral like me the most exciting part of this event is getting familiarized with the players that, one day, will star for the senior national representations and the different NHL teams, and that’s precisely what led me to consolidate the notes and observations gleaned during the event into this report.

USA’s Jake Oettinger #30 watches Canada’s Sam Steel #23 chase the puck during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

This piece is divided into four sections, and in the first I’ll introduce and discuss the best players in the tournament, as selected by the IIHF directorate, the media (All-Star Team I) and …me (All Star Team II). Afterwards, I’ll scan through the ten teams in the competition (from last-place to the gold medal winner) looking to analyse their results and ramble a bit on a few significant players that caught my eye, before pivoting back to the individual sphere as I take stock of the fluctuations experienced at the top of the draft rankings ahead of the upcoming 2018 NHL draft. To cap it off, I’ll appoint the NHL organizations that rejoiced with the encouraging performances of their prospects in Buffalo, and nominate the three best goals of the tournament.

And (somewhere) along the way we’ll split this text in two posts, because I don’t want my reader(s) to get lost while scrolling down. Anyway, on to the cream of this year’s tournament.

* for a competition featuring largely unknown teenagers

 

IIHF Directorate Awards

Top Forward: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

Playing in the arena that he will call home in a near future, Mittelstadt, the Buffalo Sabres 8th overall pick in 2017, put on a show through the 10 days of competition, often times looking like a man amongst boys for his dominance of the puck and ability to control the tempo of the game.

USA’s Casey Mittelstadt #11 scores a third period game-tying goal against Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

In fact, at 6’1 and 200 lbs, the Edina, MIN native doesn’t impose fear in the opposition for his physical traits, as he’s neither overly big, powerful, explosive or quick, nonetheless Mittelstadt is really difficult to knock off the puck and possesses creativity and top-end vision in spades, which results in nifty dishes and short passes against the run of play that take defenders by surprise. More of a playmaker than a scorer, Mittelstadt is dangerous off the rush for his ability to change speeds and draw defenders before distributing the puck, and his poise and wizardry in possession reminded many of Clayton Keller, the focal point of the American offense in 2017.

Unlike Keller, though, Mittelstadt’s 4 goals and 7 points weren’t enough to reach the Final – much less lift the trophy – even if his line with Brady Tkachuk and Joey Anderson was the most effective of the tournament, cycling the puck on the boards and driving possession like no other, and the 19-year-old put together, probably, the most exceptional individual performance of the tournament (3A), outdoors, not less, with the blizzard and piles of snow being no match for a star pivot determined to will the USA back from a two-goal deficit to Canada.

The tournament’s point-leader, Mittelstadt relished and demanded the puck in the big-moments, never shying away from the responsibility of leading his team, and that’s something that should excite Sabres fans, poised to have a formidable one-two punch down the middle when Mittelstadt joins forces with compatriot Jack Eichel in Buffalo.

Top Defenseman: Rasmus Dahlin (Sweden)

Talk about living up to the hype.

The putative 1st overall pick in next June’s NHL draft became the first U-18 to deserve top defenseman honours against players up to two years older than him, and such feat was only possible because the HC Frolunda wunderkind is, undoubtedly, the total package.

Most hockey fans had already seen videos of Dahlin’s offensive incursions: chin up, eyes surveying the scene, puck stuck to his blade, a courageous kid evading multiple forecheckers and not afraid to dangle through set defences and create something out of nothing. There was a whole lot of it in Buffalo, but what doesn’t make most highlight-reels is everything else he already does at silly levels. Not only the pinpoint, threading passes in the offensive zone, or his vision and patience as he selects the perfect outlet when skating it out is not the best option, but the effortless skating for a broad-shouldered 6’2’’ (and growing..) man-child that dances on his edges and changes directions with absurd ease.

With 6 assists in the tournament, Dahlin was, as expected, an impact player offensively for the Swedes, however, in the medal round, the defensive side of his game really stood out:  the defensive reads and ability to anticipate where the puck is going, the improved stick work, how he angles before stealing the puck cleanly, the disposition to use the body in the boards or to dish hits on open-ice.

The 17-year-old was entrusted with a lot of ice time against top opposition and thrived, yet, for all the fine-tuning that’s already a hallmark of his game at a tender age, if I’m allowed some nit-picking here…can’t really say I came away impressed with his work on the man-advantage, particularly after the unit set up in the OZ. Although Dahlin manned the top of the umbrella and shot a lot (25 times in 7 games), a few too many attempts were blocked or deflected and, sometimes, he looked tentative about which option to choose. This is not exactly a knock on him but, well…it’s good to know that even a prodigy like Dahlin might still need to polish a part of his game.

Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin in action at ther 2018 World Junior Championships (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)

One thing is certain, though. His compatriots Erik Karlsson and Victor Hedman weren’t even close to Dahlin’s level at age 17, and the youngster possesses all the tools to become a franchise icon and, maybe, one of the best of all-time.

Top Goaltender: Filip Gustavsson (Sweden)

Separating the goaltenders of the two tournament finalists is not unlike splitting hairs, but since the picks were in before the end of the Final and Gustavsson recorded better numbers than Carter Hart until Canada’s winning goal – in which he was, in no way, at fault – this selection is quite understandable.

Having a difficult time at home this season (3.04 GAA, 0.887 Sv% in 10 games for Lulea HF), the Pittsburgh Penguins second rounder (2016) embraced the challenge of backstopping a stacked Swedish ensemble in Buffalo and finished the tournament with a 0.924 Sv% and 1.81 GAA, performing at the highest level in every critical game for his team. He limited the Czech to a goal in the group stage, shut down the Slovaks late in the QF (3-2), denied the USA’s late flurry in the semi-finals (4-2), and stood tall against Canada in the decider despite facing their red-hot man-advantage in six occasions. Gustavsson’s shakiest start came against Russia (4-3), when he let in the equalizer after coughing up a bad rebound, but he responded to it with a couple of sublime saves in overtime and the shootout to snatch the victory.

The 19-year-old netminder will continue to work on swallowing pucks with his body and challenging opponents more, however his game is already at a good level, as he’s able to seal the ice quite well with his pads, push side-to-side quickly with his strong base, and use his glove effectively. Despite being a couple of years away from pushing for an NHL spot, it’s clear the current Stanley Cup Champions are blessed with a clogged goaltending pipeline since Filip Gustavsson belongs to the same organization that employs fellow youngsters Matt Murray (23 years old) and Tristan Jarry (22).

 

The 2018 All-tournament team (as selected by the media):

G: Filip Gustavsson (SWE)

(see above)

D: LD Rasmus Dahlin (SWE); RD: Cale Makar (CAN)

Despite tying for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (8) from defensemen, Cale Makar’s selection for the All-Star team took many by surprise because of his highly-specific usage under coach Dominique Ducharme. In fact, on Canada’s two most evenly-matched encounters, versus the USA and Sweden, Makar saw less than 10 minutes of ice time in each and seldom cracked the regular 5-on-5 pairings, eventually finishing the tournament as the least-used blueliner on the winning roster. Still, when he did touch the ice or, more explicitly, hopped the boards to quarterback the powerplay, Makar showed why he was the highest drafted player (4th overall in 2017) in the team.

A special talent selected by the Colorado Avalanche out of Junior A hockey last June, Cale Makar is absolutely electric with the puck on his stick, rushing up the ice at dizzying speeds while constantly assessing his options, using his great stick-handing ability to slither through the neutral zone and gain the blue line, and then distributing the puck with aplomb or wiring it to the net. Due to his propensity to walk the line, Makar’s shots are rarely blocked and usually carry the perfect velocity and weight to be tipped in front or find its way past the maze of defenders, therefore standing as no surprise that he accrues points with such ease.

When the Calgary-native eventually reaches the NHL, he’ll need to be physically and mentally able to withstand the grind of a long season, but there’s no doubt the Avalanche have a gem of a defender on their hands, a supremely-gifted blueliner with shades of Erik Karlsson’s flash.

F: LW Filip Zadina (CZE); C Casey Mittelstadt (USA); RW Kieffer Bellows (USA)

A top-ranked prospect that completed 18 years of age barely a month ago, Filip Zadina’s name gained steam after he burst out of the gate strong (24 G, 46 pts in 32 games) in his rookie season in Halifax (QMJHL), however few expected him to be such a difference-maker at the World Juniors and turn into the first Czech on the All-Star team since Petr Mrázek in 2012. Playing alongside Martin Nečas on one of the Czech’s scoring lines, and on the opposite halfwall on the powerplay set up, the left winger was one of the most dynamic players around, a true force on both ends, always trying to invent, make plays and manufacture scoring changes and never afraid to mix it up with bigger, stronger players.

When Zadina had the puck, you knew he would try something different and due to his speed, skill and offensive flair, opponents soon started respecting his ability to beat them. An adept shooter (37 SOG in 7 games) with a wealth of offensive resources, Zadina scored four of his seven goals on the man-advantage, but his paramount moment came at even strength in the semi-finals, turning Canadian defenseman Kale Clague inside out before rifling one over Carter Hart’s shoulder.

Always active and smelling blood, the man likened to a shark by his coach saw his draft stock explode for his tenacity away from the puck and ability to step up and score on the clutch on the other end, and there remain few doubts he’ll be a top-five pick at the 2018 NHL draft.

The tournament top goal-scorer with 9 tallies (+ 1A), American Kieffer Bellows grabbed a spot on the All-Star team by virtue of his stellar feats in the knockout rounds, where he scored five times in three games, including the corrosive bullet that served as the go-ahead goal in the third period of the quarter-final matchup with Russia. Thickly-built, Bellows maintains his balance as he bulldozes his way to the net, yet he also got the hands to go around the defenders before unleash his devastating shot. Indeed, an NHL- calibre release is the 19-year-old’s calling card, a heavy shot that blasts off his stick and which, naturally, he’s not shy of using constantly, as the tournament-high 38 shots on goal clocked in Buffalo attest.

Smart exploring soft spots in coverage, especially on the PP, and possessing the rare instinct of elite finishers, Bellows surpassed the USA single-tournament record of eight goals set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989, but he still needs to improve his footwork so that he can adjust to the higher pace at the professional ranks. If he can take that next step, the NY Islanders pick (19th overall, 2016) will torment at lot of goalies at the NHL level and, one day, might even approach the 485 goals gobbled by his father, Brian Bellows.

Tournament MVP: Casey Mittelstadt (USA)

With no player clearly distancing himself from the rest on Canada’s roster, the Most Valuable Player award, voted by the members of the media, probably came down to Rasmus Dahlin or Casey Mittelstadt.

Had the Swedish star managed to found the back of the net throughout the tournament, or increase his point total in the knockout rounds, we might be having a different conversation, but Dahlin was busy excelling in other areas, and the leading scorer usually has the inside track in these kind of awards… Undeniably the top forward in the competition, Casey Mittelstadt is a worthy recipient of the MVP distinction, succeeding Canada’s Thomas Chabot.

 

Alternative All-Star team

A kind of Second All-Star team composed of the players snubbed by the media in their election.

G: Carter Hart (Canada)

For the first time in many, many years, Canada did not enter the World Junior tournament with question marks hanging over their goaltending as Hart returned for his second appearance supported by a magnificent 0.961 Sv% and 1.31 GAA in 17 WHL games. Actually, a case can be made that the Philadelphia Flyers prospect (2nd round, 2016) was Canada’s trump card in the race for the title, and he justified the lofty credentials by pacing all goaltenders in Buffalo with a 1.81 GAA and 0.930 Sv%.

Canada’s Carter Hart #31 looks on during preliminary round action against the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Calm and seemingly always in control of the situation around, Carter Hart displays above-average athleticism and technical fundaments, yet what really sets him apart is the sound positioning and how he is quick to square to the shooter before every shot. Have the Flyers finally found the answer to their incessant calls for a permanent crease solution? Sure looks like it.

D: LD Libor Hájek (Czech Republic); RD Adam Fox (USA)

The lynchpin of the Czech defence, Libor Hájek, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, was wildly impressive from start to finish in Buffalo. A two-way, minute-munching blueliner without whom the Europeans couldn’t have survived, Hájek played in the top powerplay and penalty killing units, formed the go-to shutdown pair with Vojtěch Budik, and chipped in offensively frequently, tying Canada’s Cale Makar for most points amongst rear guards with 8 (1+7).

Czech Republic defenseman Libor Hajek controls the puck during the second period against Canada in a semifinal in the IIHF world junior hockey championships Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Strapping but not highly physical, Hájek moves well and has the stamina to handle a large workload, takes pride in taking care of business in his own zone, and is then proactive with the puck, making crisp outlet passes and pinching to keep the attack going. He was, arguably, the most influential defender in the entire tournament and, definitely, the best outside of the top-three rosters.

Wearing an “A” on his second participation at the WJC, Harvard’s Adam Fox took the reins of the American defence from Charlie McAvoy, last year’s All-Star, and mustered a hell of an impersonation. With slick puck skills and the eagerness to jump into the rush and follow the action deep into the offensive zone, the Calgary Flames third rounder (2016) was the catalyst of many odd-man rushes and in one of those was rewarded with the game-winning goal that downed Finland.

No slouch in the other side of the puck either, with the mobility, anticipation, quickness and feistiness of Fox and partner Dylan Samberg accelerating interceptions, puck recoveries and the succeeding breakouts, the native of Jericho, NY, might do well, though, to use his remaining two years of college eligibility to bulk up, gain strength and round out his game before turning pro.

Honourable mention: Conor Timmins (Canada)

F: LW Brady Tkachuk (USA); C Martin Nečas (Czech Republic), RW Jordan Kyrou (Canada)

With illustrious bloodlines, Brady Tkachuk’s presence at the 2018 tournament was assumed to be a growing experience before he could dominate in 2019, but there’s a non-negligible chance that he may not be available next year due to NHL duties. Standing at 6’3’’, it’s almost a requirement for a Tkachuk to love throwing the body around and play a menacing, “power-forward“ type game, but Brady doesn’t go out of his way looking for hits and already displays a much-more well-rounded game than expected.

USA’s Brady Tkachuk #7 scores a shootout goal against Canada’s Carter Hart #31 during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Versatile and smart enough to play in all-situations, including critical defensive moments, Tkachuk boasts a heavy shot, a really nice set of hands in tight to pair his big frame, and an attitude that exudes passion and commitment in every shift. The 3 goals and 9 pts obtained at the World Juniors as an 18-year-old are, seemingly, just the tip of his immense potential.

After making the Carolina Hurricanes out of training camp and enjoying a sip of NHL action in anticipation of a loan back to HC Kometa Brno, Martin Nečas featured as one of the must-watch players in the tournament and he didn’t disappoint. It’s not usual that a player from the Czech Republic ties for the tournament lead in scoring, but Nečas’ 11 pts (3 goals) matched Casey Mittelstadt’s total, and he could have racked up even more if not for the need to sacrifice offense to attend other needs, including some penalty killing work and defensive zone assignments.

With the puck on his stick, though, Nečas also excelled, especially off the rush, with the 2017 12th overall pick showing an appetite for dropping deep to gather the puck in full flight, speed through the neutral zone and distribute or fire on goal. Capable of executing at top speed, Nečas high-skill level and creativity jump out, and he’s also an elegant skater with impressive agility and ability to change directions in full stride. The jury is still out on whether he’ll grow into the star center the Canes desperately need but, at worst, he should evolve into an impact top-six middleman.

Rumoured as a potential option for a Canadian Olympic roster that could use high-end skill in the absence of NHL players, Jordan Kyrou made clear at the World Junior Championship why his profile has increased so much since being taken by the St. Louis Blues with the 35th pick of the 2016 NHL draft.

Incredible in transition, jetting away from backcheckers, slipping checks and feathering passes through sticks, Kyrou creates space for himself and teammates when the puck is under his control since he can set up a teammate or fling at goal to catch goalies by surprise, but he also works hard in pursuit of the biscuit and keeps the cycling game going despite his slim figure. The OHL top-point getter when he left for Team Canada’s training camp, Kyrou continued his prolific ways in Buffalo, collecting a team-best 10 pts (3 goals), and with the help of additional muscle, it’s possible to envision him as a right wing on a Blues’ scoring line sometime down the road.

Honourable mentions: Klim Kostin (Russia), Elias Petersson (Sweden)

Team by team analysis

  1. Belarus (relegated)

Newly-promoted from the Division 1, group A, Belarus will be right back to where they came from after a tournament where they lacked a touch of luck and killer instinct to take full advantage of their third-ranked PP and PK units.

The Eastern European side pushed eventual semi-finalists Czech Republic in a narrow 6-5 defeat, and ended the group stage with the same goal differential as Switzerland (10 GF – 20 GA), yet in the decisive encounter with the Swiss they squandered a 2-1 lead in the third and had to settle for the relegation playoff. In the best-of-three series, Belarus once again failed to close the deal in Game 1, allowing Denmark to rally from 4-2 down with three tallies in the last 11 minutes, and their destiny was sealed after a SO loss in Game 2.

Belarus celebrates a second period goal by Vladislav Yeryomenko #8 against Denmark during the relegation round. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Belarussians will be replaced by Kazakhstan next year, but don’t be surprised if both nations trade places again in 2020 since many of Belarus top players can fight for promotion in 2019, including powerplay quarterback Vladislav Yeryomenko, an undrafted defenseman plying his trade for the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), and captain Maxim Sushko (PHI), the only drafted player in the roster and someone who rose to the challenge in Buffalo by tallying 8 pts (2G) in 6 games.

  1. Denmark

Missing blue-chip prospects mirroring the pedigree of Nikolaj Ehlers and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Danes posted an ugly 2-26 goal differential during a terrible round robin showing that broke a streak of three consecutive QF appearances, but they were still able to redeem themselves by avoiding relegation in the playoff.

Forwards Jonas Røndbjerg (LV) and Joachim Blichfeld (SJ), two of just four drafted players on the roster, inspired their crucial comeback in Game 1 vs Belarus, and the duo also proved a step above the rest of the squad throughout, amassing 7 (2+5) and 6 (3+3) pts, respectively, while none of their teammates could collect more than a pair.

Team Denmark watches the Danish flag being raised during the national anthem following the team’s victory over Belarus in relegation round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Almost half of Denmark’s roster can return in 2019, and every bit of experience will be necessary to extend their unprecedented run of five consecutive presences in the top-division, already three more than they obtained in the three preceding decades.

  1. Switzerland

These days it’s quite unusual for Switzerland to struggle so much in international competition, but the putrid results in Buffalo have an explanation. The Swiss group included a single drafted player, big defenseman Tobias Geisser (WAS), already a fixture of EV Zug’s blueline, and they submitted the youngest roster among the competitors, with 14 players eligible for the 2019 competition.

Switzerland’s Nico Gross #16 controls the puck against the Czech Republic’s Daniel Kurovsky #15 during the preliminary round (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Nonetheless, beyond edging Belarus in their must-win round robin encounter, the Swiss competed well against the Swedes and the Czech, keeping the score close until the third period, and revealed a few promising talents that should be taken in the early rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft. Forwards Phillip Kurashev (1+2), a slick playmaker who plays for the Québec Remparts (QMJHL), and powerful winger Nando Eggenberger, a regular for HC Davos, are two good examples, but 17-year-old Nico Gross, an Oshawa Generals (OHL) defenseman, was the player that had scouts raving on his second appearance at the U-20 level.

  1. Slovakia

The Slovaks authored the shock of the tournament in day 3, upsetting the title-favourites USA in front of the home crowd, however they wouldn’t go on to repeat the heroics of 2015, when a fabulous performance by goaltender Denis Godla netted a bronze medal.

Clobbered by Canada in the opening session, the Slovaks also fell to Finland and thrashed Denmark before putting a scare (2-3) on the rampant Swedes in the quarter-finals. All in all, a respectable performance for a country that selected only two players with NHL-ties, top-center Adam Růžička (CGY) and RW Marian Studenič (NJ), but was still able to bother the favourites with their aggressive style supported by good goaltending.

Slovakia’s Roman Durny #30 makes a pad save against USA during the preliminary round of the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Roman Durný, their 19-year-old goalie, stopped 43 of 45 shots against the US to prop a 0.928 Sv%, while left winger Samuel Buček had an amazing tournament, picking up 3 goals and 7 pts in five games, including a memorable three-point night versus the Americans that comprised two primary assists for linemate Filip Krivošík and a spectacular individual effort on the GWG. Ignored at the 2017 draft, Buček, who plays for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, may well hear his name called next summer alongside the draft-eligible Adam Liška (LW, Kitchener Rangers) and Miloš Roman (C, Vancouver Giants).

  1. Finland

Determined to put to bed the disastrous performance of 2017 (9th place), the Finns were hailed as a darkhorse for the title due to the amount of talent at their disposal this season. Counting on 15 players that won the 2016 U-18 World Championships, Finland’s roster was stock full of top-prospects, especially on defence, but, strangely, things never clicked into gear, with their usual conservative and deliberate approach clashing with the need to hit higher notes against top opposition.

Canada’s Sam Steel #23 scores a first period goal against Finland’s Ukko-Pekka Luukonen #1 while Urho Vaakanainen #23 and Miro Heiskanen #2 battle with Taylor Raddysh #16 during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

The Finns shrugged away Slovakia (5-2) and Denmark (4-1), and couldn’t be faulted for their competitive performances against the USA (4-5) and Canada (2-4), yet the expectations called for, at least, a semi-final appearance and they would be denied that by the Czech (3-4), ultimately falling in the shootout despite holding a lead deep into the third period.

With 16 goals allowed in five games (3.13 GAA), part of the responsibility falls into the less-than-stellar performance of goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (BUF), who carried the load start to finish and only notched a 0.879 Sv%, yet their illustrious defence, which encompassed five first round picks, also underperformed as a unit.

Olli Juolevi (VAN), competing in his third straight tournament, bounced back from a poor 2017 showing with 4 pts and 21 shots, looking active and transitioning up the ice alongside the offensive-oriented Henri Jokiharju (CHI), but more was expected of Miro Heiskanen (DAL), whose eye-popping offensive totals at home (9 G, 14 pts in 20 games for HIFK) didn’t translate internationally. The 2017 3rd overall pick was still noticeable on his ability to skate out of trouble and break plays in his own zone, and formed a steady top pair with captain Juuso Välimäki (CGY), whose reach, maturity and NHL-size stood out.

Finland’s Kristian Vesalainen #13 skates with the puck while USA’s Andrew Peeke #20 chases him down during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo by Matt Zambonin/HHOF-IIHF Images)

Meanwhile, up front, Finland was betrayed by its lack of depth, particularly down the middle. Janne Kuokkanen (CAR) didn’t nail the top-line assignment, and despite the best efforts of Aapeli Räsänen (EDM), a pass-first center who stumbled into 4 goals, the Finns relied too much on their two top-end forwards, Eeli Tolvanen (NAS) and Kristian Vesalainen (WIN). Tolvanen, who has been ripping up the KHL (17 goals in 40 games), is characterized as a gifted goal-scorer with an accurate, varied shot and deadly release, but he could only net once (5 assists) in 30 shots directed on goal and a few more that clank off the iron. For his part, Vesalainen, a burly power-forward, was never afraid to fight through the opposition or command the puck, and ended up rewarded with 2 goals and 6 pts.

This duo will seize important roles in the NHL sooner than later, but questions remain of their cohort of attackers, including Aleksi Heponiemi (FLA), the speedy WHL point-machine (71 in 29 games) who started the tournament well (2 G) before fading out.

(Continues in the next post)

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Women’s Euro 2017: Best player, Best Eleven and All-Star Team

After taking a look at the main incidences and trends from the three weeks of action, it’s time to call to the stage the women that made the spectacle possible. Or the best among them, the players that better eschewed the fatigue of a long season and performed at the highest level to help their teams succeed.

As the traditional heavyweights of the women’s game fell short of expectations, so did many of the world’s elite footballers, therefore our 23-women All-star roster features many players that greatly benefit from the exposure obtained in the tournament to enhance their career prospects.

As usual in these occasions, representatives from the last four teams dominate the squad, a reality amplified by the fact that stars from pre-tournament favourites really need to stand out to make the cut when eliminated precociously, and revelations from teams that are bounced out in the group stage rarely compile the body of work to outshine those in more successful outfits. Hence, prepare for a lot of Dutch, English, Austrian and Danish players, who paid their dues to deserve the spotlight.

Furthermore, after presenting the names that made the All-star roster, I nominated what I deem to be the ideal line-up of the competition and elected the best player in the tournament. You can check UEFA’s choices for these categories here and compare, if you so desire.  And off we go.

All-Star Team

Goalkeepers (2)

Manuela Zinsberger (Austria)

Fast and decisive getting out of the posts and composed under pressure, Austria’s goalkeeper wasn’t shy about taking command of the penalty area and rallying the troops, displaying signs of maturity well beyond her 21 years of age.

Austrian goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger holds the ball and looks on.

Four clean sheets in five games firmly validate the work she and her teammates put on, and a perfect record of 24 saves in 24 shots on goal was an intercepted corner away. Mostly a backup for Bayern Munich over the last three seasons, this was the type of performance that propels a career to another level.

Almuth Schult (Germany)

The last woman to shoulder responsibilities for the defending Champions’ downfall, Almuth Schult grabbed headlines for a couple of superb saves and regularly exhibited her impeccable positioning, outstanding reflexes and solid technical base, giving the team total ease to move up the pitch with numbers.

Comfortable with the ball at her feet, the 26-year-old was also an active member of Germany’s ball circulation, and can be excused for all three goals allowed during a tournament where she reaffirmed her status as one of the continents’ finest stoppers.

Defensemen (7)

Lucy Bronze (England)

A superb athlete that could gallop down the flank for days, Bronze is England’s flamboyant right back and most unique player. Capable of dismantling defensive organizations with her speed in transition, superb offensive instincts and smart movement off the ball, she somehow manages to rarely get caught out of position in defence, where her aggressiveness, elite anticipation and ball-winning skills set up more bold runs forward.

England’s right back Lucie Bronze prepares to deliver a throw-in

That much was evident on England’s match-winner in the quarter-finals, a game that further confirmed what any women’s football fan already knows: the 25-year-old is the world’s best full back by a wide margin.

Theresa Nielsen (Denmark)

On the field for each one of Denmark’s 570 minutes, Nielsen revealed incredible stamina along the right lane, efficiently completing the Danish back four and recurrently rushing forward to support the attack with purpose. That would be enough to merit a spot, but it only helped her case that, in one of those offensive incursions, the 31-year-old notched the tournament’s most iconic goal, the header that ended Germany’s 22-year reign.

Simone Boye Sørensen (Denmark)

Dependable, assured in possession and technically competent, Simone Boye Sørensen was the leader Denmark’s defence needed as injuries knocked down fellow center backs Janni Arnth Jensen and Mie Jans. Always expertly positioned, the 25-year-old proved insuperable in the air and solid at field level, shepherding the adapted Stine Larsen through the ups and down of a journey that would only end with a finalists medal hanging around her neck.

Denmark’s Simone Boye Sørensen heads the ball away from Belgium forward Tessa Wullaert

Anouk Dekker (Netherlands)

A defensive midfielder by trade, Anouk Dekker was deployed by the hosts as a central defender to exploit her imposing physical presence, and she responded by marshalling the Netherlands’ backline on a Championship campaign. Affected by physical ailments, Stefanie van der Gragt and captain Mandy van der Berg rotated by her side, but Dekker always stood firm, concealing her lack of speed and agility with positioning, and thriving in aerial battles.

Carina Wenninger (Austria)

Tapping on a decade worth of experience playing in Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Wenninger assumed a leading role guiding Austria’s stout defensive unit in the regular absence of captain (and club teammate) Viktoria Schnaderbeck. Patrolling the centre lanes and directing traffic, she inspired her less seasoned teammates by intercepting uncountable crosses and rebuffing many attempts at penetrating the Austrian wall.

Millie Bright (England)

The least experienced player in England’s preferred line-up rewarded Mark Sampson’s faith with a string of impressive showings where her strength and vigour proved a perfect complement to captain Steph Houghton. Used to play a few meters up the pitch for her club, the powerful Bright never looked out of place and quickly became England’s preferred target in lateral free kicks and corners, with the ball directed towards the far post to capitalize on her uncommon aerial prowess.

England’s Millie Bright wards off Portugal’s Carolina Mendes in a group stage match

Demi Stokes (England)

In a tournament where few left backs caught the eye, Stokes’ reliability was a welcomed sight, as the 25-year-old did an admirable job shutting down opposing wingers, helping inside and providing width and depth when England had the ball. Not as skilled or dynamic as her opposite full back, Stokes was a guarantee of balance every time Lucy Bronze rampaged forward.

Midfielders (8)

Sarah Puntigam (Austria)

Puntigam is another player with ample experience in the German League that flourished under brighter lights at the Euro 2017. Starting from a deep-lying midfield position, she displayed her tactical nous in numerous occasions, covering for her teammates, tackling resolutely, impelling the team forward with incisive passes off his left foot and swinging set pieces into the box.

Austria’s Sarah Puntigam watches as her penalty shot sails into the Spanish net

The 24-year-old tallied the decisive penalty against Spain, but then went from hero to villain after missing from the spot against Denmark, an opportunity that could have changed the complexity of the semi-final. An unfortunate circumstance that fails to overshadow her excellent tournament.

Amandine Henry (France)

Amid a French team that once again underperformed, Henry stood out for the unwillingness to bend until the last whistle, the determination to fight back against mounting challenges apparent on every tv plan of her face.

The 27-year-old drew a late penalty against Iceland, scored to snatch a point from Austria, ran more than anyone else, initiated plays and carried the ball forward time and time again, pressed high, shot from distance and attacked the box. At times, Henry got caught wanting to do too much, so much that her decision making suffered as a consequence. It was still inspiring to watch, even if her level of play was a few notches below previous competitions.

Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

Jackie Groenen, the beating heart of the Champions. A steadfast, unrelenting working bee that never stopped connecting the dots for the Netherlands, the ambidextrous 22-year-old was subtly brilliant in everything she did: tackles and interceptions, box to box transitions by breaking lines in possession or through direct, swift passes, invade open spaces, exchange positions with teammates to confound opposing defences, spring the wingers on the run and set up Vivianne Miedema on a tee in several occasions. Groenen crafted more scoring chances from open play that any other player in the tournament, collected two assists and left her fingerprints on a few others.

Jackie Groenen maneuvers against Denmark in the group stage

A monstrous performance for the Euro 2017’s best central midfielder, who probably wouldn’t even be a starter were it not for Tessel Middag’s injury weeks before the event.

Jordan Nobbs (England)

At age 24, Jordan Nobbs was finally thrusted into a leading role for England and her influence extended well beyond the right flank, where she forged a tremendous partnership with Lucy Bronze.

Poised and smart, masterminding her team’s best plays with penetrating passes and imaginative combinations, Nobbs scored on a wonderful volley against Scotland and also excelled defensively, unafraid to join the fray in the middle of the park. Her long-range passing and propensity for shooting from deep position were in sight when she was able to drift inside, consequently we’re not afraid to say England’s demise began when Mark Sampson declined to move Nobbs into the role of the suspended Jill Scott in their semi-final affair.

Laura Feiersinger (Austria)

The Austrian right winger may have failed to collect any goals or assists in the tournament, however she came second to none in work rate and importance, playing each second of her team’s 510 competitive minutes.

Austria’s Laura Feiersinger controls the ball against Iceland

A combative midfielder whose engine never stops, Feiersinger’s ability to lug the ball up the field, shield it with the body and draw contact granted her defence some much needed breathing room, allowed Austria a chance to ping the ball into the opposing penalty area, and opened space for others to operate. No surprise at all that coach Dominik Thalhammer was so reluctant to substitute her.

Shanice van de Sanden (Netherlands)

Van de Sanden’s tournament began on a high note when she scored the decisive goal in the opener contested in her hometown of Utrecht, and the 24-year-old never looked back, sprinting down the right flank at blistering speeds over the next five matches to provide two assists, generate many more scoring chances and haunt the dreams of left back after left back.

Tremendously explosive, van den Sanden’s handicap – execution and erratic decision-making – surfaced enough to knock her down a few pegs in the race for Best Player of the tournament.

Shanice van de Sanden ponders her options after leaving behind the Norwegian defenders

Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

A penchant for cutting inside and fire on goal with her strongest foot reminiscent of Arjen Robben, the vision of Wesley Sneijder on those swinging, cross field passes to change the point of attack, even the insolence to emulate the “Cruyff turn” on a couple of occasions.

Ok, we may be overstating things here, but the electric Martens was definitely another disarming offensive talent lighting up a major footballing stage with the orange jersey, seducing with exquisite technique, pace, creativity and an eye for staring in the big moments: the fluctuating cross that dip right into Van de Sanden’s head in the tournament opener; the free kick lashed into the bottom corner to break the deadlock in the quarter-finals; the long-range rocket with her weak foot in the Final. Highlights to inspire a new generation of girls aspiring to be li(e)ke Martens.

Katrine Veje (Denmark)

Fast, clear on her intents and superb shifting gears to leave the opponent trailing behind, Katrine Veje fits the description of the wingers of old. Left footed, the slippery 26-year-old is always eager to charge up the flank, yet she also relishes the defensive work, retreating quickly to help the full back.

Denmark’s Katrine Veje in action against Norway

Characteristics that were in full display during Denmark’s runner up campaign, but are regularly coupled with inconsistencies in front of the goal. After tallying the lone marker versus Norway, Veje missed some glorious chances against Germany, and she can thank her teammates that didn’t turn out to be more than a mere footnote.

Forwards (6)

Pernille Harder (Denmark)

If doubts remained, the Dutch tournament put them to bed: the Danish skipper is one of the best and most complete players in women’s football.

Pernille Harder’s performance in the Netherlands was simply mesmerizing. Supremely gifted with the ball at her feet, the 24-year-old exuded class in every touch, in every turn, in every sprint, skipping past defenders, eyes surveying her options and mind set on the best path towards the goal. Quick and agile, she audaciously took into fully organized opposing backlines, but always opted for the best course of action, no matter how much she yearned to take full responsibility.

With the goals eluding her and two assists picked up along the way, Harder was finally rewarded in the Final when her thumping individual effort found the back of the net. Had Denmark lifted the trophy, an additional piece of silverware would have flown back home with her.

Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland)

The only player from a team eliminated in the group stage to break into this all-star roster and for good reason.

Similarly to Lieke Martens, the stocky Swiss forward was named player of the match in two occasions, her disconcerting dribbles and passion rallying the team after the setback in the opener, and her performance against Iceland standing out as one of the greatest in the tournament. In that game, Bachmann devised the play that landed the tying goal, nodded home the game winner and authored a fantastic slalom that was finished with a cracker right off the cross bar. Pity she had to leave so early.

Swiss forward Ramona Bachmann evades two French defenders

Jodie Taylor (England)

The tournament’s best goal scorer kicked off the competition in style by notching the first European Championship finals hat trick in 20 years, and then went on to bag a couple more beauties against Spain and France, powering the Lionesses’ dreams with her finishing acumen and abrasive style, which tired defences and cleared space for others to explore.

In the semi-finals, Taylor created, and then squandered a golden chance to cut the Dutch lead and set up a different outcome, yet this was still an inspired tournament for the 31-year-old striker.

England’s Jodie Taylor celebrates her marker against Spain

Nina Burger (Austria)

Burger’s game winner against Switzerland was the foundation upon which Austria’s historical campaign was built, and the talismanic striker did her best to repeat throughout the tournament despite further opportunities proving tough to come.

Working hard to hold the ball up the field, press the opponent’s build up and encourage her teammates, she always lurked behind the defence looking for ways to satisfy her predatory instinct.

Nadia Nadim (Denmark)

The Afghan-born forward looked off in the group stage, lavishly missing the mark and amassing offside calls, yet as soon as the knockout rounds rolled on, she was back to her bruising best, proving a tremendous nuisance for defenders with her blend of strength, mobility, ability to explode off the dribble and proficiency in the air. Nadim’s powerful header started Denmark’s rally against Germany, and she also tallied confidently from the penalty spot to give Denmark an early lead in the Final.

Denmark’s Nadia Nadim reacts after scoring in the Final

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

An exasperating round robin for the usually mild-mannered Miedema, followed by a blazingly hot elimination round punctuated by four goals in three games to threaten Jodie Taylor’s Golden boot. It all started with a tap-in against Sweden, and through graceful off-the-ball runs, deft receptions, mellifluous feints, myriad tunnels under opponent’s leg and decisive finishes, culminated with a liberating blast to seal the Netherlands’ European title.

Players by Nation: Netherlands (5), Denmark (5), England (5), Austria (5), Germany (1), France (1), Switzerland (1)

Missed the cut: Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands), Verena Aschauer (Austria), Sherida Spitse and Daniëlle van de Donk (Netherlands), Caroline Weir (Scotland), Dzsenifer Marozsán (Germany), Amanda Sampedro (Spain), Sanne Troelsgaard (Denmark), Barbara Bonansea (Italy), Fanndís Friðriksdóttir (Iceland), Lotta Schelin (Sweden)

Best Eleven of the tournament (4x2x3x1)

M. Zinsberger (AUT);

L. Bronze (ENG) – S. Boye Sørensen (DEN) – M. Bright (ENG) – D. Stokes (ENG)

S. Puntigam (AUT) – J. Groenen (NED)

S. van de Sanden (NED) – P. Harder (DEN) – L. Martens (NED)

J. Taylor (ENG) 

I confess to have wrestled way more with the all-star roster than with this starting eleven. The front four and Jackie Groenen were pretty automatic choices, and both Lucy Bronze and Manuela Zinsberger emerged as locks early on.

Denmark’s Pernille Harder, here seen battling past two Austrian players, is part of the best lineup of the Euro 2017. But is she the best player of the tournament?

In my opinion, Simone Boye Sørensen and Millie Bright edged Anouk Dekker for the center back roles, while Demi Stokes was my default option at the left back position since none of her counterparts impressed me enough to even make the roster. As the midfield anchor, I pondered Amandine Henry’s name, but ultimately couldn’t stomach rewarding a French player for another failed campaign, whereas selecting the versatile Jordan Nobbs feels like a little swindle. Sarah Puntigam was a lynchpin for Austria, and the debutants deserve more credit than a lone nomination in goal.

In comparison with UEFA’s selection, and based on what I expressed before, I can see where they’re coming from with Verena Aschauer and Sherida Spitse, but definitely can’t grasp how Steph Houghton is favoured over Millie Bright, or Sari van Veenendaal is tipped as the competition’s best goalkeeper. Defining Theresa Nielsen as a right midfielder isn’t absurd for her key role on Denmark’s mutating formation, however believing she deserves the spot over Shanice van de Sanden is bonkers.

Best Player of the tournament

Winner: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

The Best Player of the Euro 2017? Lieke Martens, Netherlands slick No. 11

2nd place: Jackie Groenen (Netherlands)

3rd place: Pernille Harder (Denmark)

These three women elevated themselves head and shoulders above anyone else, but sorting out the order is a more complicated endeavour since I could offer strong arguments supporting each candidate. For instance, no player was more valuable to her own team than Pernille Harder, but this isn’t an MVP contest, it’s a “Best player of the tournament” election, and by failing to pick up the title she was at a disadvantage. Moreover, I would have liked to see more from a finishing standpoint (I know, she saved it for the end) to go along with her superb playmaking performance.

Regarding the two Dutch ladies, my heart clamoured for the ubiquitous Jackie Groenen since she was the player I most enjoyed watching, but reason prevailed. Lieke Martens’ gaudy offensive totals (3 goals + 2 assists + 2 “hockey” assists), dazzling skill and timely contributions, including the stunning goal in the Final, ultimately push her just a smidge higher.

Unpacking the Women’s Euro 2017 (I)

Twenty-two days and thirty-one games later, Women’s football continental festivities came to its rousing end with hosts Netherlands lifting the trophy in front of 28,000 exultant fans in Enschede.

Few expected the 12th and 15th ranked teams in the World to square off in the decisive encounter, but that was only the final chapter of a tournament where not a lot went according to plan or historical trends. Truly great news for the future of the women’s game and its quest to attract even more eyeballs amongst football fans after a competition that established new records in attendance, television spectators, media interest and social media engagement.

As the cloth descended on a thrilling sporting event, it’s time to recap the action that took place in the Netherlands and we’ll do this in two instalments: an initial post focused on tournament storylines, teams, tactics and memorable moments, and a second part entirely dedicated to the individuals that shined on the pitch, as we’ll name the best player in the competition, present the tournament’s All-star roster and chose the ideal lineup.

Top three storylines:

A levelled competitive field

With five nations making their first appearance in a competition extended to accommodate 16 teams, natural concerns existed regarding the balance of forces. The fears proved disproportionate, as outside of England’s six-goal thrashing of neighbours Scotland, one-sided games were few and far between and, more impressively, we saw the traditional powerhouses struggle to get any kind of momentum and, in some cases, bow out rather meekly.

Belgium’s astonishing win over Norway is a great example of the parity between the sides at the Euro 2017

The main example is, obviously, Norway’s catastrophic showing, as the former European, World and Olympic Champions took the plane back home without a goal to show for the trip, yet their traditional rivals wouldn’t perform considerably better. Sweden, for instance, stumbled to get out of the group phase before kneeling to the hosts in the quarter-finals, while France had to cling to a life buoy incidentally thrown their way by Switzerland’s goaltender just to qualify out of what many considered the easiest grouping. Moreover, six-time defending Champions Germany failed to impress in their first three games before falling flat in the last eight.

Conversely, all debutants had the opportunity to celebrate historic victories and went on to entertain thoughts of progressing until the dying minutes of the group stage. Only Austria advanced, but Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal and Scotland left behind indelible evidence of their quality and the growth observed around the continent.

Misfiring star strikers

For all the competitive parity and intensity, the tournament held in Dutch soil wasn’t exactly fertile ground for barn burners, delivering the lowest amount of goals per game (2.19) since 1993, and no players felt it the most than the individuals tasked with swaying the nets.

Many of Europe’s renowned goal scorers were kept in check throughout the event and their teams naturally suffered the consequences. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg, the reigning European player of the year, unintentionally became the poster girl for this dry spell, but others also stood out for their absence from the scoresheet. Spain’s Jennifer Hermoso, fresh off a 35-goal League campaign with FC Barcelona, was unable to assist her country out of a startling 350-minutes scoring drought, while Germany’s usually prolific duo of Anja Mittag and Mandy Islacker wasted several chances to tally in each of their four appearances.

Germany’s striker Anja Mittag lies down dejected after her team crashed out of the Euro 2017

France’s Eugénie Le Sommer and Marie-Laure Delie, who have combined for 125 (!) international goals, couldn’t muster more than the former’s converted penalty shot versus Iceland, while Netherlands’ superstar Vivianne Miedema only got off the schneid in the quarter-finals after growing visibly frustrated by her misses.

Notably able to escape this misery were just two sides: England, whose great start helped bring to life all their forwards’ dreams during the group stage, with Jodie Taylor leading the way, and Italy, which headed home earlier than anyone else but not without distributing five goals for their three strikers (Cristiana Girelli (1), Ilaria Mauro and Daniela Sabatini (both 2)).

The bizarre sum of goalkeeping blunders

In a tournament that hit high notes for the level of play, there was one aspect that drew unnecessary attention to prod the grumbles of the detractors: many of the goaltenders present in the competition failed to uphold the levels of technical expertise displayed by their teammates and egregious mishaps abounded, an indictment that the standards of training and mental preparation for this specific position still sit a notch below other parameters of the women’s game.

More than a handful of goals, scoring chances and, even, eliminations can be chalked up to appalling errors by goalies, be it failed zone clears, botched interceptions, fumbled catches or erroneous stops, and while no good comes from nominating them, it’s still telling that they touched the entire spectrum in hand.

Italy’s Laura Giuliani reacts after letting the ball slip through her fingers against Germany

From 19-year-old Tatyana Shcherbak (Russia) to 35-year-old Gemma Fay (Scotland), and catching up to the rookies getting their feet wet at the highest level of competition, such as Portugal’s Patrícia Morais and Italy’s Laura Giuliani, or veterans with significant experience in international competitions, as are the cases of Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark), Guðbjörg Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland), Gaëlle Thalmann (Switzerland) and Sari van Veenendaal (Netherlands). A disparate group that suggests this issue should be a priority for all stakeholders of the women’s game over the next few years.

 

Best Game: Germany 1-2 Denmark

Postponed to a Sunday morning due to the tremendous downpour that stroke Rotterdam, this historic quarter-final matchup will go down as a paradigm shifting moment, since Germany’s sovereignty over the European game ended after 8162 days (!).

A takedown that came unannounced, especially since disaster struck Denmark just three minutes in when goalie Stine Lykke Petersen, perhaps still numb from the early kickoff, failed to stop a trivial Isabel Kerschowski’s shot and the ball trudged into the net to give Germany a premature lead. The defending Champions’ tricky passing game and fluid positional exchanges then came to the fore as they threatened but rarely overwhelmed throughout the first half and, bit by bit, Denmark started to encounter the pockets of space the Germans had been guilty of exposing all tournament.

The Danish players celebrate the second goal of their stunning triumph over Germany

Nadia Nadim’s powerful equalizer in the early moments of the second half was born out of a mistake by two German players, who foolishly paused looking for a whistle, and it catapulted the Danes to a 15-min stretch where they blew several glorious chances. It appeared Denmark would rue their luck when Germany finally settled down to get back into attacking mode, but the underdogs were still looking very much alive.

Until the moment, with seven minutes to go, when time seemed to freeze as the ball crossed by substitute Frederikke Thøgersen met an unmarked Theresa Nielsen rambling through the heart of Germany’s defence. The Danish right back nodded it past goalkeeper Almuth Schult and the biggest upset in the tournament’s history was complete.

Honourable Mention: Netherlands 4 – 2 Denmark (Final)

 

Worst Game: Austria 0 -0 Spain (5-3 on penalties)

A great sample to appease the “tiki taka is boring” crowd looming out there. Spain had already passed the ball to exhaustion without much to show for it against England, and they allowed the proceedings to slow down to a halt in this encounter with Austria, a feisty, well-organized team that was more than happy to sit back, milk the clock and take their chances on set pieces.

Spanish coach Jorge Vilda would introduce all the offensive weapons at his disposal, move pieces around and tweak the approach, but his side wouldn’t break down the wall or generate enough to justify victory following a tedious 120 minutes. The decision came to a penalty shootout where Silvia Meseguer’s shot was the only one stopped by the goaltenders. Therefore, it sent Spain packing and Austria’s fairy-tale journey into the next stop.

 

Best goal: Daniela Sabatino (Italy – Sweden)

Italy and Sweden were levelled at one when full-back Linda Tucceri Cimini’s dipping delivery met the onrushing Daniela Sabatino inside the box. The veteran forward twisted her body to one-time the ball with her right foot, and the gorgeous chip sailed over goaltender Hedvig Lindahl to find the top corner on the opposite side. Lovely finish.

Honourable Mentions: Jordan Nobbs (England – Scotland), Pernille Harder (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best save: Almuth Schult (Germany – Italy)

An outrageous, right hand stop by the outstretched German goaltender to deflect Barbara Bonansea’s scorching free kick in a fantastic showcase of Schult’s athleticism.

Honourable Mentions: Manuela Zinsberger (Austria – France), Stine Lykke Petersen (Denmark – Netherlands, Part II)

 

Best fans: Iceland

The Icelanders have learned how much fun attending these tournaments can be, and now they make the trip south in droves whenever possible to provide a special atmosphere to their matches. The blue legion congregated in the stadiums of the Netherlands proved as lively as in France last year, and there were copious amounts of their “thunderclap” to boot. Before, during and after the games even if their women’s team seldom afforded opportunities to cheer.

Honourable Mention: Belgium

Clad in Red, the Belgium fans trekked north by the thousands to fill the goal-line stands in each of their three matches, and it was pretty obvious how their girls feed on their energy and steered forward with renewed enthusiasm every time they stepped up the vocal support. It was almost enough to pry away a point from Denmark, and vital to secure a brilliant 2-0 triumph over Norway.

 

Best coach: Dominik Thalhammer (Austria)

With major props dispensed to Sarina Wiegman (Netherlands), who oversaw the most exciting team in the tournament, and Nils Nielsen, manager of a runner up that thrived, in spite of several injuries, due to their tactical malleability, the leader of the competition’s surprise package gets the award.

Short in talent, flash and experience compared with most opponents, the Austrian’s relied on versatile tactical principles, impressive physical condition and guile to masquerade their limitations in a way that made their campaign less surprising by each game. Seamlessly able to switch systems during the match, shifting between a defensive unit of three, four or five, a central midfield structured in 2+1 or 1+2, and an attack that could easily tolerate Nicole Billa alongside charismatic striker Nina Burger, Thalhammer expertly balanced defensive compactness, when necessary ordering two banks of players stationed in front of goal, and offensive depth, advancing the block in hopes of forcing dangerous turnovers (see their game-winning-goal versus Switzerland) before retreating to their shell as soon as the front line was surpassed.

Austria reached the semi-finals on the strength of their coach’s tactical sagacity.

Austria’s strong core of Bundesliga-based players possessed the tactical maturity to implement its coach’s vision, and the results were remarkable, with teams such as Spain, France and Denmark left without answers to forcefully pin them back, penetrate their block and coerce the novices out of their comfort zone.

Worst Coach: Olivier Echouafni (France)

We’ll absolve Martin Sjögren for now, as Norway’s problems run much deeper than management, and focus on yet another frustrating tournament for France.

Olivier Echouafni’s job was not an easy one, as he had to deal with the legacy of an international heavyweight that ultimately falters in key moments, but that can’t excuse a series of puzzling personal and tactical decisions which concurred to end their campaign at the hands of England.

For instance, debuting against an Icelandic team that would populate their own half and try to retain the 0-0, did he really need to introduce a third central midfielder (Élise Bussaglia) into the lineup and break in a late call-up (Clarisse Le Bihan, who substituted injured Amel Majri in the final roster)? The French struggled to establish possession in dangerous areas, and the duo was unsurprisingly replaced as France furiously chased a winning goal, which would fall from the sky by way of an unnecessary penalty.

Eugénie Le Sommer’s late penalty saved France against Iceland but Olivier Echouafni’s options would still get in the way of a successful campaign

They weren’t as fortunate against Austria four days later, when Echouafni took 70 minutes to correct his hand after once again getting creative with his starting eleven. He sat playmaker Camille Ability for youngster Onema Geyoro, and fielded an head-scratching front three with Le Sommer on the left (ok), Gaëtane Thiney as a center forward (meh) and towering striker Marie-Laure Delie deployed along the right side (what?).

The 44-year-old manager seemed to finally crack the code against Switzerland, with the irreverent Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani flanking Le Sommer, but Eve Perisset’s red card and ensuing Swiss tally meant they would have to fight back, undermanned, for 75 minutes. With the clock running out, Abily’s free kick miraculously slipped past the Swiss goalie to send them through undeservedly, but any hopes of avoiding a precocious clash with England went up in smoke, and they fell despite playing their best game of the tournament.

Now, imagine if they hadn’t skidded early due to their manager’s strange options, avoided England and reached the knockout rounds buoyed by the confidence of three good showings. Just another “if” to add to France’s growing collection of disappointing exits.

Underachieving team(s): France and Spain

We’ve covered France extensively in the previous section, so let’s jump right into Spain, a team that crashed headfirst into their (high) expectations and understated concerns.

After waltzing past Portugal in a first match where their sweet looking, possession-based game seemed to be on point, the Spaniards’ problems started when England, up 1-0 from the get-go, deliberately conceded control the ball and watched as the Iberians struggled to disentangle a team that wouldn’t run around and chase, but rather keep the positions and pack the centre lanes. Missing an element that could break lines in possession, combine in the half spaces and still attack the box (have you seen Vero?), Spain’s game was quickly exposed for his lack of incisiveness and reduced to an unending succession of crisp, lateral passes that could be harnessed by any structured defensive unit.

Vicky Losada’s Spain was dumped out of the Euro 2017 by Austria

Picking up on England’s example, Scotland similarly found a way to neutralize Spain and take full advantage of a defensive error to secure a 1-0 victory, and therefore the ambitious title challengers only avoided a precocious elimination because the tiebreaker favoured them over two debutants.

A third newcomer stood on their way at the quarter-finals, and simply based on tactical fit, Austria was far from an ideal pairing for the bewildered Spaniards. Another frustrating 120 minutes without finding the back of the net – to stretch their streak of futility to more than 5.5 hours – were followed by a shootout loss, and they were issued a ticket home with a   recommendation to get back into the drawing board.

Overachieving Team: Austria

A pretty straightforward pick when a debutant reaches the last four, heads home undefeated (3 wins, 2 draws) and boasts the stingiest record in the competition, having allowed just one goal (from a corner kick) in five matches.

We warned in our preview that Austria would have a word to say in the outcome of Group C, and they made us look smart by outmanoeuvring their talented neighbours in the opener, courageously challenging France’s superiority before receding to secure the point, and thoroughly dominating (16-0 in shots on target) Iceland to finish top of the table.

Austrian players celebrate the second goal of their 3-0 victory over Iceland

Way more industrious and pragmatic than brilliant in the knockout rounds, they still engendered their own opportunities to avoid penalties against Spain and Denmark. Perfect (5 of 5) on their first attempt and abysmal (0 of 3) later, they left the Netherlands after an historic campaign that improved the stock of many of their players.

Worst Team: Norway

Three defeats in three games, 0 goals for, 4 goals against, 0 points and a record unworthy of one of the most decorated nations in women’s football. How to make sense of such paltry performance from a team that can field the likes of Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen?

With a clear understanding that football is a team game where the best can only play…at their best when put in positions to succeed and surrounded by teammates that can help them flourish. That means a dazzling offensive dynamo like Hansen has to receive the ball as soon as possible when it gets to the final third, looking to accelerate and spread the panic, but without a host of opponents harassing her and several banks of defenders to beat. That also means Ada Hegerberg, who is not a striker capable of creating her own chances, needs to be served with deadly through balls or swinging crosses she can reach without having to muscle out the three defenders strapped to her back.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hanse evades three Danish players on the last matchday of Group A

Norway failed spectacularly and systematically at these missions, and while much of it rests on coach Martin Sjögren – on paper, freeing the stars of defensive responsibilities in a  4x2x3x1/4x4x2 made sense, but the dynamics didn’t match – , there’s a lot to be said about the lack of creativity, technical quality, poise in possession and passing acumen of the full backs and roulette of midfielders and forwards tasked with supplementing the difference-makers.

Lastly, it was telling that in Norway’s final match, with the captain Maren Mjelde helping the build up a few meters ahead, and the talented, 23-year-old offensive midfielder Guro Reiten hovering close to Hegerberg and Hansen, their football’s fluidity and offensive punch shot up enough to substantiate multiple tallies (Hansen missed a penalty and they hit three posts against Denmark). Too late to salvage face, but a glimpse of what they need to do to stem the decay of a women’s football powerhouse.

Best Team: Netherlands

In the end, for the first time in 22 years, the Germans didn’t win but the best team clearly /did. Something these short summer tournaments don’t spit out as regularly as you’re led to believe.

Under the pulsating sea of orange shirts, the Netherlands women’s national team might not have been the embodiment of “Totaalvoetbal” or mechanical, clockwork efficiency, yet few didn’t relish their exquisite, effervescent expression of modern football: fluid and imaginative with the ball, responsible in transition and aggressive looking to regain possession.

A submission levitated by two flying Dutchwomen of contrasting attributes, the powerful, dizzyingly fast Shanice Van de Sanden and the silky electric Lieke Martens, that nonetheless couldn’t have gone into overdrive without its elegant spear (Vivianne Miedema), or reach the plenitude if two tireless, understated artists (Daniëlle Van de Donk and Jackie Groenen) had ever stopped loading the front lines.

Netherlands’ Daniëlle van de Donk is tracked down by her teammates after scoring against England in the semi-finals

Built on this splendid quintet of individuals whose complementary skills fit to perfection, and a defensive unit that responded affirmatively under the spotlight, the Netherlands surfed a mounting wave of confidence to the final triumph, dispatching two former winners (Norway and Sweden), belying a regional rival (Belgium), routing the mighty English in the semi-finals and twice overcoming a Danish squad that more than any other seemed to trouble them. In the group stage, when the Dutch were fortunate to secure the 1-0 win, and in the Grand finale, as the hosts chased the score for the first time and rose admirably to the challenge.

A necessary final ordeal to attest this young, highly-talented Dutch squad had been elected to succeed those all-conquering German teams, and was destined to double the number of countries that have won the men’s and women’s UEFA European Championship.

Women’s Euro 2017 Preview: Group A

Far removed from the glitz and exuberant displays of patriotism that envelop the continent every four years for occasion of the men’s European Championship, the UEFA Women’s Euro is, nonetheless, a tournament attaining important recognition in international football’s calendar by taking advantage of the odd offseason missing major men’s events.

In 2017, for the first time, the competition will feature 16 nations – divided in four groups of four -, essentially doubling the total of participants from 12 years ago, and therefore it will function as another crucial barometer on the evolution and competitiveness of the women’s game at the highest ranks. Since almost a third (5) of the field makes its first ever appearance, UEFA hopes to avoid the watered-down version of play we were all offered during the preliminary stage of the 2016 Men’s European Championship, also recently revamped to accommodate more teams, and if someone manages to topple Germany, winners of the last six editions, the better.

However, regardless of a few one-side encounters that are bound to happen, the Netherlands and its seven host cities (Breda, Deventer, Doetinchem, Enschede, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht) will enjoy the talents of a cohort of superb footballers whose exploits will be broadcasted to football fans everywhere for the next three weeks.

An imperial German side has emerged victorious from every Women’s European Championships since 1995

A group of female athletes and teams you should definitely get to know, and that’s what this series of blog posts is about, as I spent a few dozens of hours researching, canvassing through game reports and watching games to compile this sweeping guide of the competition.

Group by group, I aimed to portrait every national team in the competition, providing some background information and clarity on their pre-tournament objectives, profiling two elements of each squad, their most emblematic performer and a player to watch (you’ll notice I took a broad approach in the definition of this item), and glancing at their tactical set up and plausible formation.

Finally, a quick reference before we make it through the 16 contestants: I won’t pretend to pass by an avid women’s football enthusiast or a profound connoisseur, yet I have followed my fair share of women’s tournaments and deem myself qualified to do this work and hopefully help inform those looking to dive headfirst into the female game and its multiple charms.

Herewith, time to get started. After all, they say you should never leave a lady waiting.

Group A

Encompassing the host nation, a rising influence in the women’s game, and a traditional powerhouse in Norway, Group A boasts clear-cut favourites for the two spots that give access to the quarterfinals, yet don’t sleep on an experienced and well-drilled Danish team, surprise semi-finalists in 2013. Debutants Belgium are outcasts in this skirmish and likely limited to fighting to collect a first point at a major international competition.

Netherlands

Unexpected third-place finishers in their first appearance at a major meeting, the Euro 2009, the female “Oranje” is just now starting to reap the benefits of that landmark achievement. Having advanced past the group phase at the 2015 World Cup, the Netherlands should be considered a sleeper pick for the European crown by virtue of possessing an interesting crop of young, complementary offensive weapons and expectations of flourishing performances backed up by a football-mad nation. The Dutch population has already sold out all of the hosts’ group stage matches, and there’s no better incentive to instigate the ultimate dream.

Qualification: Host Nation

Finals Appearances: Third

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (2009)

Coach: Sarina Wiegman

Star Player: Vivianne Miedema (FC Bayern Munich, GER)

With 41 goals amassed in just 51 senior caps, Miedema is already just 18 shy of Manon Melis’ top-scoring record for the women’s National team and she’s about to turn…21 years old, believe it or not.

Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema gets ready to celebrate after another goal for her country

Always a precocious goal scoring machine, the Hoogeveen-native made her first appearance on the Dutch League at age 15, tallied an astonishing 41 times in 26 games for Heerenveen in 2013/14, and consequently earned a move to German giants Bayern Munich, which proved decisive to add other dimensions to her game.

As she’s far from an imposing presence in the box, the lanky Miedema relies on smarts to find spaces to shoot since it takes her time to accelerate and the first touch is a work in progress. Shortcomings that slowed her prolific rate when she faced stiffer competition at the Frauen Bundesliga over the last three seasons, but ultimately wouldn’t suppress her superior killer instinct (35 goals in 61 league games).

After conquering two German Championships in three seasons, Miedema will join Arsenal FC for 2017-18, but before she lands in London, the hosts will need a full demonstration of her array of talents filling the net in order to summon an historic campaign.

Player to watch: Lieke Martens (FC Rosengård, SWE)

An important component of the Netherlands’ squad since 2011, the 24-year-old Martens can cement her status as a top-notch player with a cracking performance at the Euro 2017 ahead of her impeding move to FC Barcelona.

An exciting offensive midfielder blessed with quick feet and a dazzling ability to change directions and speed, Martens can slice defences with through balls soliciting the wingers or Miedema, and she’s also a headache for any full-back when cradling the ball close to the left sideline, jumping into the one-on-one or invading interior spaces to triangulate and pounce with the right foot. For all of these, I’m certain you won’t miss her as she powers the Netherlands’s offense at home this summer.

Netherlands’ Lieke Martens traverses an English roadblock

Probable Lineup (4x2x3x1): L. Geurts; D. van Lunteren – A. Dekker – M. van den Berg – K. van Es; S. Spitse – J. Groenen; S. van de Sanden – L. Martens – D. van de Donk; V. Miedema (C)

For some time the Netherlands has played in a defined 4x2x3x1 with Martens having license to roam behind Miedema and combine with England-based wingers Shanice van de Sande (Liverpool) and Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), yet the injury to central midfielder Tessel Middag (Manchester City) and the emergence of Jill Roord (who recently agreed to join Bayern Munich) may have altered the plans of Wiegman for the middle of the park.

The Dutch have dabbled with a standard 4x3x3 recently, grouping Groenen, Roord and the cerebral van de Donk to improve ball retention in the midfield while Martens gets pushed to the left flank. An option for more balance that can pay dividends in the latter stages of the tournament.

Norway

Besides Germany, Norway is the only other nation to have won the European Championships, World Cup and Olympic tournament, yet their status as a heavyweight of the women’s game has been slipping for a few years since they’ve failed to reach the last four at the world scale in the last decade.

Still, they’ve consistently delivered at the Euros, reaching two finals and two semifinals since 2001, and the same is expected this year, especially as the spectrum of the 2013 Final – when they had two penalties denied by German goaltender Nadine Angerer – still looms. In the four years since, the Norwegian endured a tough renovation, with long-time stalwarts like Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland and Trine Rønning hanging their boots, and the pressure is now squarely on the shoulders of two players who were just 18 years old the last time around.

Qualification: Group 8 winners (7W, 1D)

Finals Appearance: Eleventh

Best Performance: Champions (1987, 1993)

Coach: Martin Sjögren (SWE)

Star Player: Ada Hegerberg (Olympique Lyon, FRA)

The reigning UEFA Best Women’s Player in Europe was already a star in the making when she spearheaded Norway’s attack at the 2013 Euro and, in the meantime, she evolved into, arguably, the most feared striker in Europe. Particularly since her 2014 transfer from Turbine Potsdam to Olympique Lyon, with Hegerberg’s goal-scoring exploits (112 goals in just 97 games) being the tip of the French buzzsaw and the main reason her résumé swelled considerably to now include, for example, two Champions League titles (2016 and 2017).

Ada Hegerberg points the direction of sucess to Norway

Powerful and robust, Hegerberg is a smiling assassin in the box with a knack for finding the ball in premium positions, yet she’s been steadily refining her balance, agility and technique to further improve her play outside the area, where she now uses the body to shield opponents off the ball and connect with colleagues.

Those characteristics will be essential for a Norwegian squad that isn’t exactly suited to dominate possession and play with a high line like most favourites, and if Hegerberg can still lead them on a deep run, she immediately jumps to the front of the pack regarding the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Player to watch: Caroline Graham Hansen (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Absolutely ravaged by injuries since her breakout performance as a teenager at the 2013 edition, Caroline Hansen will be trying to make up for lost time as the hand to Ada Hegerberg’s blade in Dutch land.

An electrifying, free-spirited talent that demolishes defenders in direct confrontation, at his best Hansen is virtually unmatched in women’s football for her ability to sprint with the ball down the flank, break lines in possession and craft deadly passes to put teammates in front of the goal.

Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen leaves an opponent in the dust in this match against Spain

She’ll have carte blanche to wander all over the final third and opponents would be wise to never lose sight of the skinny No.10 with “Graham” plastered on the back of the jersey. As would every spectator, since she’s that good and incredibly fun to watch.

Probable Lineup (4x3x1x2): I. Hjelmseth, I. Wold – M. Mjelde (C) – N. Holstad Berge – E. Thorsnes; I.  Schjelderup – I. Spord –Andr. Hegerberg; C. Hansen; A. Hegerberg – K. Minde

Norway’s nominal set up is the 4x3x1x2, with Hansen free to roam behind two strikers, but without the ball Martin Sjögren demands they shift to a 4x4x2, with Minde (or Emilie Haavi) dropping back to complete the line of four in the midfield and Hansen joining Hegerberg to form a two-person unit pressing the opponents up top.

This option is partially explained by a relative distrust in the elements manning the operations in the halfway line, which lack seasoning at the international level. None of Schjelderup (29 years old), Spord (23), Andrine Hegerberg (Ada’s big sister, 24), Anja Sønstevold (25), Guro Reiten (22) or Frida Maanum (17) has collected more than 25 international caps and therefore, on occasion, Sjögren may advance captain Maren Mjelde and slot Maria Thorisdottir as a center-back.

Denmark

After going all the way to the brink of the final four years ago in spite of failing to record a single triumph in Sweden, Denmark will conceivably need to wring more out of their group to emulate that run in 2017.

The Danes will have their work cut out trying to deceive the Netherlands and/or Norway, but they certainly won’t fizzle due to a shortage of international experience. The Danish roster comprises plenty of returnees that are expected to assume large roles, and no player expected to start in their crucial tournament opener versus Belgium is under 24 years old.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 4 (6W, 1D, 1L), 2 pts behind Sweden

Finals Appearance: Ninth

Best Performance: Semi-Finals (1984, 2001, 2013)

Coach: Nils Nielsen

Star Player: Pernille Mosegaard-Harder (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Denmark’s Pernille Harder makes a run

The Danish captain found another gear in 2015, when 17 goals in 22 games merited the distinction as MVP of the Swedish League, the Damallsvenskan, and she hasn’t looked back since then on her way to become one of the most complete forwards in women’s football and the precious touchstone of Denmark’s national team.

An elusive player that can dodge defenders with deft touches and play in tight spaces, Harder likes to drop back to create and explore the vacant spots between the lines, but she’s also a clinical finisher with a sharp right foot that is a serious threat from set pieces.

After vaulting Linköping to the Swedish title in 2016 on the back of 24 strikes, Harder filled calls from every top club in the World and eventually chose to sign with Wolfsburg in January 2017, providing the final ingredient on their successful attempt to recapture the German Championship. She now has the responsibility of doing similar work for her country.

Player to watch: Nicoline Sørensen (Brøndby IF)

A key performer for Brøndby IF, which recently reclaimed the Danish Elitedivisionen, Nicoline Sørensen is a daring winger/forward on the verge of breaking out for the national team as soon as a position opens up in the forward ranks. At the moment, she’s behind Harder, Nadia Nadim and club teammate Stine Larsen in the pecking order, but the slender 19-year-old will be an important alternative for head coach Nils Nielsen if he finds the need to instil more bravado and speed into his formation during the tournament.

Too talented for the Danish league, Sørensen will return to Sweden after the European Championships, hoping to increment her development at Linköpings FC and amend a fruitless stint as a 17-year-old for rivals FC Rosengård.

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): S. Lykke-Petersen; T. Nielsen – S. Boye Sørensen – J. Arnth Jensen – L. Røddik Hansen; S. Troelsgaard Nielsen – L. Sigvardsen Jensen – N. Christiansen – K. Veje; P. HarderN. Nadim

Denmark’s basic structure is the 4x4x2, but they’re not afraid to mix it up with interesting variants. For instance, against Belgium in the first game, don’t be surprised if they showcase an offensive, diamond-shaped midfield, sacrificing Sigvardsen Jensen to post Nanna Christiansen as the only anchor and turn Pernille Harder into the creative fulcrum behind strikers Nadia Nadim and Stine Larsen.

The intrusive offensive positioning of right back Theresa Nielsen is a factor of turbulence for Denmark’s opposition

Furthermore, Denmark is also inclined to implement a backline of three when building from the back, pushing right back Theresa Nielsen up the corridor to provide width in the same horizontal line of left wingback Katrine Veje, and allowing Troelsgaard Nielsen to overload interior domains and move closer to Harder.

The Danes conceded just one goal in qualifying and scored 22 – the same total as group winners Sweden – and tactical malleability was one of their secrets.

Belgium

After coming close to reach the 2013 European Championships and the 2015 World Cup, Belgium finally booked its place on a major international tournament for the first time, and did it in comfortable fashion, edging third-place Serbia by 7 points. However, things will now get trickier for the “Red Flames”, who got hosed by Spain in a humbling 7-0 rout just weeks prior to the tournament, and can’t be considered more than outsiders in Group A.

Qualification: 2nd place in Group 7 (5W, 2D, 1L), 5 pts behind England

Finals Appearances: First

Best Performance: Debutants

Coach: Ives Serneels

Star Player: Tessa Wullaert (VFL Wolfsburg, GER)

Belgium’s Tessa Wullaert controls the ball under the watchful eye of an English player

While not a prominent feature of Wolfsburg’s attack, Wullaert established herself as a useful piece and a regular solution off the bench for the current German Champions since her move from Standard Liège in 2015. The 24-year-old had outgrown the Belgium League and the national team benefitted from the new impulses and learnings picked up by Wullaert in the Frauen-Bundesliga, where she developed into the hard-working, resourceful forward that led the Euro 2017 qualifying phase with 9 assists to add to four important goals.

With Belgium, Wullaert is usually asked to operate across the attacking zone, whip set pieces and take on defenders, but at this tournament she’ll probable fill an even larger role, working tirelessly without the ball to make ends meet against three superior opponents. It’s not the right stage for her to shine, but it’s what a star player needs to do when his team is significantly outgunned.

Player to watch: Tine de Caigny (RSC Anderlecht)

Due to her height and sprightliness, 20-year-old midfielder Tine de Caigny is a noticeable presence on the Belgium lineup, where she uses her stature to win battles and dominate in the air, not unlike fellow Belgian footballer Marouane Fellaini. However, de Caigny lacks the patented, voluminous mane and doesn’t shake the earth when she walks, with her feet and passing already at a decent level for a young athlete that started out as a defender.

Hereby, take the time to seize her up at the center of the park, or stretching up the field to respond to goal kicks and long balls from the defence, all while hoping her resolute activity can afford a breather to the members of Belgium’s backline.

Tine de Caigny in action against Norway

Probable Lineup (4x4x2): J. Odeurs; M. Coutereels – A. Zeler (C) – H. Jaques – D. Philtjens; J. Biesmans – T. de Caigny – E. van Wynendaele – E. van Gorp ; T. Wullaert – J. Cayman

During qualification, Belgium achieved success riding the dangerous forward combination of Wullaert and Montpellier’s Janice Cayman, but Ives Serneels may well opt for a more cautious approach in the Netherlands, harmonizing a 4x4x1x1 that can unfurl onto a 4x2x3x1 in offense.

In this case, Cayman would be the lone attacker bothering the opposing center backs, with de Caigny offering support and an outlet, while Wullaert would drift wide to cover the right flank and Julie Biesmans would tuck inside to help screen the backline alongside Elien van Wynendaele or the more experienced Lenie Onzia.

European Tour of Sports – Denmark

The Basics

Population: 5.7 M

Area: 42.9 km2 (excluding Greenland and Faroe Islands)

Capital: Copenhagen

Summer Olympic Medals: 179 (43G-68S-68B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 1 (0G-1S-0B)

Popular sports

Football is the most played sport in Denmark, but the Danish national sport is probably another one, with its popularity being equally spread over both genres. Handball was invented in Denmark more than one hundred years ago and today is the favourite winter sport, with the national teams’ achievements dragging millions to the front of the televisions. The sport has delivered three gold medals in Olympic Games (1996, 2000, 2004), all won by the ladies, who enjoyed the greater success during the 90’s, but in the last few years the Men’s team has performed better, becoming European Champions in 2008 and 2012, and winning the silver medals at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. A third European title was snagged in January 2014, when Denmark lost with France the final of the competition it hosted. At the club level, the most successful clubs are, at the women’s level, Viborg HK, winner of several European competitions in the last few years, including three Champions League, and KIF Kolding, on the men’s side.

The 1992 European Champions

There are over 300.000 football players in Denmark and both national teams have qualified regularly for European and World Championships. The biggest success in Danish football history was the surprising victory on the 1992 Men’s European Championship played in neighbouring Sweden, a conquest only possible after the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the tournament, the team that had eliminated Denmark in the qualification round. Three years later, Denmark won the Confederations Cup, while the best showing at the World Cup came in 1998, with a quarter-final defeat to Brazil. Legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel is the most capped player in Denmark’s history, while Michael Laudrup is considered the best Danish footballer to ever play. The women’s team won the European Championship in 1979. FC Copenhagen, funded in 1992, is the most successful club in Denmark, with ten National Championships and four appearances on the Champions League group phase, with their rivals Brondby IF leading the way on the women’s side.

Water sports play a big part on Denmark’s sporting landscape, with sailing, rowing, canoeing and swimming being responsible for dozens of Olympic medals. Paul Elvstrom, a sailer who competed in several classes over the years, won a record four Olympic gold medals, while Eskild Ebbesen, a member of the rowing men’s lightweight coxless fours, was able to medal in five consecutive Summer Games, from 1996 to 2012, including taking gold in the first three participations. Racket sports such as badminton, tennis and table tennis are also popular, while cycling, the second sport on the country on number of Olympic medals conquered, is a strong suit of the Danes, both at the road and track levels, with Copenhagen having hosted the 2011 Road World Championships and Bjarne Riis winning the Tour de France in 1996. The last few years have seen an increase in the profile of golf, especially among the older side of the population.

Rowing’s lightweight coxless fours

The only medal collected by Denmark in the Winter Olympics belongs to the 1998 Women’s curling team, a sport where Denmark has enjoyed some international success. The popularity of ice hockey is growing, with Denmark producing increasingly more talented players, a fact substantiated on the near dozen of players already taking part of the NHL.

Star Athletes

Mikkel Hansen (Handball)

Son of Flemming Hansen, who represented the Danish Team at the 1984 Olympics, the 27-year-old Helsingor native started his professional career at GOG Svendborg in 2005, the year the team won the Danish Cup, and became a national champion in 2007, before moving to Spanish giants FC Barcelona in 2008. His debut with the national team came in the same year and, since then, he has been a key member of all its successes, as the left back was nominated to the all-star team of the 2012 European Championship, won by the Danes, and was the overall top scorer (along with an all-star) on the 2011 World Championship, participating also on the 2013 World tournament and on the 2014 European Championship. At the club level, his resume is equally impressive, including two Spanish Cups and two Spanish Super Cups with Barcelona, two more Danish Championships (2011, 2012) and Danish Cups (2010, 2011) from his time at AG Kobenhavn, and a French Championship (2013) and French Cup (2014) won with Paris St. Germain Handball, where he currently plays. Nicknamed “The Hammer”, Hansen was awarded the title of World Handball player of the year in 2011, becoming the first Danish man to be honoured with that distinction.

Mikkel Hansen playing for Denmark

Caroline Wozniacki (Tennis)

The daughter of two Polish immigrants who played professional sports, Wozniacki enjoyed a successful junior career and debuted on the WTA Tour at the young age of 15, at the 2005 Cincinatti Open. However, her breakthrough season came only in 2008, the year she won her first Tour title, in Stockholm, added two more victories, in New Haven and on the Japan Open, and finished ranked 12th in the world, feats that earned her the award of WTA Newcomer of the year.

Caroline Wozniacki waves to the crowd

In 2009, her rise continued, with Wozniacki becoming the first Danish woman to reach a Grand Slam final, at the US Open, and ending the season on the top 5. In 2010 and 2011, by virtue of her six titles in both seasons, she finished the year as the World number 1 player, holding the position for 67 weeks despite failing to grasp another Grand Slam final. Since 2012, her form has declined, even if she played another Grand Slam final at the 2014 US Open. At the age of 24, the Odense native, who plays a game based on solid defensive skills, is by far the most successful Danish tennis player of all-time, currently holding 22 WTA Tour trophies and the 8th place on the WTA rankings.

Lotte Friis (Swimming)

Denmark has three world-class female swimmers and any of them could hold this prominent position. Lotte Friis edged Jeanette Ottesen Gray and Rikke Møller Pedersen in my selection simply because she’s the one with an Olympic Medal. Born in the municipality of Allerød in 1988, Friis is a freestyle swimmer who excels in long distances, having won multiple medals on international competitions. Her biggest accomplishment is the bronze medal on the 800 m freestyle race of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but she has also shined on the sport’s second most important tournament, the long course World Championships, taking the victory on the 2009 Rome 800m freestyle race and at the 2011 Shangai 1500m event, the silver medals from the 2011 800 m and 2009 1500 m races, as well as from both events at the Barcelona 2013 World Championships. Six gold medals in European Championships, both on long and short course competitions, and several other prizes complete her medal record. Friis was considered the Danish Sports Name of the year in 2009.

Others: Jakob Fuglsang (Cycling), Christian Eriksen (Football), Tom Kristensen (Motorsports), Frans Nielsen (Ice Hockey), Rikke Moller Pedersen, Jeanette Ottesen-Gray (Swimming), Nicki Pedersen (Motorcycle speedway)

Venues

The main venue in Denmark is the beautifully-situated Telia Parken in Copenhagen, the country’s national football stadium, with 38,000 seats, and the home ground of FC Copenhagen. The stadium has a retractable roof and has hosted multiple concerts and sport events, including two football European Finals (Cup Winner’s Cup 1994, UEFA Cup 200) and two record-breaking handball matches. The Brondby Stadium, in the Greater Copenhagen area, and the NRGi Stadium, in Aarhus, also hold more than 20.000 people.

Jyske Bank Boxen, Herning

The Jyske Bank Boxen, an arena in Herning with capacity for 15.000 people, is the most important indoor venue in Denmark, having hosted the 2014 Handball Men’s European Championship Final, the corresponding women’s tournament in 2010, and the European Swimming Championships (short course) in 2013. The Ballerup Super Arena, in Ballerup, part of the northern urban region of Copenhagen, holds 7500 people for concerts and is the only indoor velodrome in Denmark, having received several cycling track events, including the World Championships in 2002 and 2010. The Gigantium, in Aalborg, is a modern facility that holds over 5000 people and is used by the city’s handball and ice hockey teams.

Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark and the country’s main port, has welcomed several international sailing events in recent years and will host the 2018 ISAF Sailing World Championships at the Aarhus Yachting Harbour.

Yearly Events

Beyond the football, handball and ice hockey matches disputed almost year-round all over the country, these are the main annual events held in Denmark:

Vojens Speedway Club during the Grand Prix

Made in Denmark European Tour Tournament (Golf)

August, Himmerland Golf & Spa Resort, close to Aalborg

Tour of Denmark (Cycling)

August

Nordic FIM Speedway Grand Prix (Motorcycle Speedway)

September, Vojens Speedway Center, Vojens

BWF Super Series Premier Denmark Open (Badminton)

October, Arena Fyn, Odense