Analysis

Ring the changes

With pivotal group games on the horizons, some teams must switch it up

KIEV, Ukraine – Netherlands manager Bert Van Marwijk is feeling the Ukrainian heat wave more than most. Inside the team and from Dutch journalists and fans, his moves – or lack thereof – at the European Championships have come under intense scrutiny.

When Van Marwijk refused to alter his starting attack in the aftermath of a 1-0 loss to Denmark, a second Group B defeat (2-1 to the Germans) followed. With the Netherlands needing a win – and goals – to have any chance of advancing, Van Marwijk can’t afford to adopt a wait-and-see approach against Portugal in Kharkiv on Sunday. He has to make the correct choices before the game begins. 

But on the eve of the final match day in the group stage, Van Marwijk is far from the only manager who should be making alterations to his starting XI. It’s time for some underachievers to be dropped.

For the Netherlands: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in, Ibrahim Afellay out

Afellay has been a disappointment, although it’s difficult to be too harsh on the Barcelona winger. He played 126 minutes of league football all season because of a serious knee injury, which made his inclusion against Denmark and Germany ahead of Dirk Kuyt so surprising. Another shock: When Huntelaar entered as a sub in the first two matches, he wasn’t a straight replacement for Robin van Persie. Before the tournament, the two rarely featured together.

But Huntelaar’s presence, particularly against the Germans, freed up van Persie. Now that he’s got off the mark, it wouldn’t be unusual for van Persie to score a goal or two against Portugal.

Rafael van der Vaart in, Mark van Bommel out

For a moment against Germany, there was sympathy for van Bommel. His 35-year-old legs, chasing a loose ball, were outdone by the stronger and faster Sami Khedira. He lay on the turf. Then, memories of the 2010 World Cup final surfaced and the sympathy vanished. If Van Marwijk was to tinker with his personnel in midfield, the game against Denmark had to be the time. He didn’t need two holding midfielders (van Bommel and Nigel de Jong); he couldn’t afford not to have two versus Germany, yet van Bommel, specifically, was guilty of allowing Germany an abundance of space.

Even if van Bommel was whining about not playing, Van Marwijk has to turn to the more creative Rafael van der Vaart on Sunday.

For Denmark: Lasse Schone in, Christian Eriksen out

Denmark manager Morten Olsen has midfield concerns ahead of Sunday’s pivotal clash with Germany. A point for Denmark – if Portugal loses – is enough for the Danes to progress. Veteran winger Dennis Rommedahl is out with a hamstring injury and holding midfielder Niki Zimling is questionable with a lingering toe problem. Thus, Olsen might be forced into making two changes.

A third -- inserting Schone for Eriksen -- would be unlikely, but based on his performances against the Netherlands and Portugal, Eriksen deserves to be dropped. He hasn’t lived up to the hype after also being lukewarm in pre-tournament friendlies. Schone is an attacking midfielder whose good form last season earned him a move from NEC to Eriksen’s Ajax.    

For Italy: Antonio di Natale in, Mario Balotelli out

When Mario Balotelli exited in the second half against Croatia on Thursday, he seemed to bite his tongue. Ready to express his disappointment, it’s like he suddenly remembered he was wearing the colors of Italy and not Manchester City. Balotelli failed to impress for a second straight game; thankfully for him, at least, he didn’t botch a wonderful opportunity to score, as he did against Spain.

If di Natale’s troublesome knees are cooperating, the 34-year-old merits the start in a must-win game against Ireland on Monday. Besides his better finishing, the tricky di Natale would trouble a slow Irish defense more than Balotelli. 

For Russia: Roman Pavlyuchenko in, Aleksandr Kerzhakov out

Pavlyuchenko has a couple of bad habits. He’s selfish on the pitch, overdoing it with his shooting attempts. And when he does shoot, he’s off target most of the time. Tottenham fans have seen it. But how long can Russia manager Dick Advocaat wait before giving the wasteful Kerzhakov the boot? Against better opposition, such profligacy won’t go unpunished. Russia can’t keep relying on attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev for goals.

Pavlyuchenko has history at the Euros, too, netting three times at Euro 2008 and linking up well with Andriy Arshavin. 

For the Czech Republic: Tomas Pekhart in, Milan Baros out

Frustration levels must be high for Baros, who led Euro 2004 in scoring. (Through Thursday, he topped the tournament in one category: fouls, with eight.) First, he’s not fully fit. Second, the modern-day Czechs hardly possess enough skill in midfield to slip Baros the ball on the ground. If Tomas Rosicky doesn’t recover in time from an Achilles injury to face Poland on Saturday, the midfield situation worsens.

With his 6-foot-4 frame, Pekhart gives the Czechs another option. While he hasn’t yet scored at the senior level, he was prolific in the youth ranks and helped modest Nuremberg finish midtable in the Bundesliga with a team-leading nine league goals.

For Ireland: James McClean in, Damien Duff out

Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni is notoriously stubborn – he included the exciting Sunderland winger in the squad by default. However, with Ireland’s early elimination and a woeful display against Spain on Thursday, Trapattoni doesn’t have any reason not to start McClean. McClean, 23, figures to be in the Ireland setup for years to come. Give him a full game at this level.

Duff is one of the few Irish players with skill, and he didn’t stand out in terms of being overly poor against Spain, but he’s 33 and has to be tired after chasing Spanish shadows.

 

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

 

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