With Euro 2016 upon us, we have given each of our Hurlers on the Ditch team the choice of managing any of the countries who will play in France this summer. Here, we offer them the chance to explain their picks and to outline how they might lead their new team to glory in Paris. Today is the turn of Phil Greene, newly appointed manager of Ireland’s Group E rivals Belgium.
Something strange has happened in the run up to Euro 2016. Usually, before a major tournament, one or two teams are elected favourites by popular opinion, with a cast of three or four others trailing in their wake as “dark horses” or “outsiders”as winners. As we stand on the cusp of another summer of football however, the consensus has been overwhelming. Anywhere you look, you shall see France being tipped up as winners (not least with bookies, where Les Bleus are around 3/1 to win their home tournament). Yes there is a cursory mention for Germany here and there but, by and large, you won’t see many going against France. This pre-tournament build-up is even lacking in potential ‘dark horses’, sides from the margins who might make a thrilling run deep in the tournament.
Think back two years ago, right before the World Cup in Brazil. That ‘dark horse’, the outsider with the potential to possibly even win the tournament was Belgium. Imperious in qualifying, a squad filled with young, exciting players, Belgium were handed a kind group-stage draw and attracted plenty of attention as potential world champions in waiting. However, their campaign never took off and after a series of flat performances, eventual finalists Argentina saw them off in the quarter final.
Now, two years on, in a tournament shorn of any threat from South America, Belgium are 5th favourites (behind England!) and have not been mentioned with any seriousness as potential winners.
It is this lack of expectation, as much as anything, which has enticed me to take the Belgium job. Broadly the same squad as two years ago, except with a major tournament and two more years experience at the highest level under their belts, the Red Devils are in an ideal spot to take advantage of the lack of a truly great team at these championships.
I back myself to harness the sting of failure from Brazil, as well as the anger at being largely ignored this time around and to channel that hurt and anger into results on the pitch.
Let’s be honest; it is hardly the most difficult job I could have taken. The squad, the most expensive at Euro 2016, is jam packed with household names in every position. My major job will be whittling it down to 11 starters.
My goalkeeper is boxed off straight away. Thibaut Courtois did not enjoy the happiest of seasons at Chelsea, but my second choice is Simon Mignolet and I want to be able to trust my keeper to set up a wall at a free kick, so Courtois is an easy choice.
My defence is a small bit trickier. My captain, Vincent Kompany, is a well documented absentee through injury, as is his usual centre back partner Nicolas Lombaerts. No problem, I think, I just need to shift Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertongen in from the full back positions and I have reformed the Premier League’s best central defensive partnership on an international stage. Except it isn’t that easy.
For some reason, Belgium appear unable to produce full backs and so I will be forced to leave Vertongen as a stand in left full and instead bring in Thomas Vermaelen to partner Alderweireld. Yes, that Thomas Vermalen. Yes, I know. And yes, I know that too. But he is, unfortunately, the best I have to work with. To fill in at right full, I am going to go for Jason ‘The Next Vincent Kompany’ Denayer. The Manchester City youngster has been on loan at Galatasary this season and though he has only played at centre half for Belgium, I am a bit of a maverick and it’s my team so I’ll do what I bloody well please.
Truth be told, that defence stuff is a bit uninspiring. I didn’t choose Belgium because I really fancied seeing what I could do with an ageing Thomas Vermaelen or the next big thing in centre halves, Denayer. I picked them because they have more attacking talent than potentially any other team at this tournament and, to rob a GAA phrase, goals win games lads.
If I had been left with a forward line of Dries Mertens, Christian Benteke, Yannick Carrasco and Michy Batshuayi, I would have been pretty content. But these players are merely what I have to choose from when I pick a substitute. In Belgium’s squad is also Divock Origi, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. Just take a second to read back that list of names. Is that not a bit unfair? Could they not have thrown even one of those players Ireland’s way?
In a move that has worked out wonderfully for me, Hazard apparently decided to take nearly the entire club season off, only starting to actually try for Chelsea in the last month of their campaign. He has appeared to pace himself perfectly and looks to be bang in form ahead of our pursuit of glory in France. Similarly, injuries to both Kevin De Bruyne and Divock Origi which saw them miss key parts of their respective club seasons will mean they come to the Euros with a pleasing freshness in their legs.
My only concern is Lukaku, who had a stinker of a season at Everton and has now apparently had his head turned by Manchester United and Chelsea. I’ll do my best to convince him to forget about all that guff and focus on the one thing that matters; blasting in loads of goals for me. Just to be sure, I’ll be certain to mention Benteke and Batshuayi around him plenty of times, letting him know I have options.
Ably assisting my frankly disgusting array of attacking talent will be midfielders such as apparent Chelsea target Radja Nainggolan (who Jim Beglin described as having a badger for a haricut), the always satisfying to say Axel Witsel and Spurs’ Mousa Dembélé. There is also Marouane Fellaini but for as long as I am Belgium manager, he’ll be picking splinters out of his arse until I need somebody elbowed in the head.
So there we have it, Belgium are the team I would pick if given my choice to manage any outfit at Euro 2016. Criminally overlooked in both the betting and general discussion around the tournament, some defensive uncertainty is outweighed by the embarrassment of riches I would have to choose from in attack.
My Belgium starting XI: Courtois| Denayer, Alderweireld, Vermaelen, Verthongen| Nainggolan, Witsel| Origi, De Bruyne, Hazard| Lukaku.