Euro 2012 - now, men at work
The first round of the Euro 2012™ games are over and the boys have packed their bags and headed home so that the men from the remaining eight countries can get on with the serious business of attempting to win the Henri Delauny trophy for their fatherland or motherland.
Before I get into quarterfinal draws let me give my two pence-worth on those teams who have failed to progress. The biggest shock to me was the Russians. Absolute disgrace they were in their mental approach after their spectacular dismantling of the Czech Republic in the first game. I was so impressed that I thought they will cause more upsets as the tournament went on. Well, indeed they have – and by the time you finish reading this blog, they will already be home after the defeat to Greece.
The Greeks have persevered and shown a lot of heart and for these qualities I am pleased for the team and the country as whole that they are still in this competition. It is a shame that Karagounis will be suspended courtesy of a totally wrong decision by the referee who not only denied the Greek skipper a stone-wall penalty but booked him for ‘diving’. Jonas Eriksson should not be allowed to officiate in another game for such dereliction of duty!
Despite their whirlwind start in the opening game against Greece, Poland were never good enough and so it proved. The Czechs recovered very well from the hammering against Russia to top the table and now face a potentially winnable tie against Portugal – potentially only though.
The Netherlands have rightly been dumped out of a competition in which they were highly fancied to win and in all honesty it is very hard to make a case for their prolonged stay. They were never a team and I sincerely believe that they have been flattered by their record and their march to the final of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Any team that will field any two from the trio of Vlaar/Heitinga/Mathijsen in the centre of their defence should never be taken seriously. That is compounded by having a clearly spent Van Bommel in midfield - was never going to work. Despite his great presence I have never been taken in by the Sneijder hype.
It is so easy to forget that he was moved on from Real Madrid and that this hype happened because of one season with Inter when then manager Jose Mourinho managed to get everyone in the team playing for him. Add to the Van Persie and Huntelaar conundrum and you could see a problem for the team and so it proved. Denmark were just unlucky to have been in such a tough group however, after coming back to draw level with Portugal in their second match they needed to have hung on for the draw. Had they done that they just might have gone through.
Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic will be haunted for the rest of his career by the header he planted straight at Iker Cassillas with 10 minutes left of their match with Spain. Luka Modric had been excellent in creating the chance with a whipped cross with the outside of his right boot but Cassillas was allowed to make a save. Slaven Bilic had set his team up properly to nullify the champions and they created little from open play. Until the Navas winner with three minutes to go, the Croats had looked more likely to score and they should consider themselves unlucky that they are out. Ireland were just totally awful and brought the standards of the competition pitifully low and through the floor in all honesty.
Sweden have had a mixed tournament and are on the plane home and wondering how that is the case after taking the lead in ALL of their group games. They led Ukraine and managed to lose it. Led England and also got pegged back and then beat France after all was lost. Amazing. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be rightly frustrated.
Ukraine and their manager are out and I am not sure many will shed tears for them. The young players Konoplienka and Yamerneko will only get better but the pressure was too much for them and they will rue the ‘goal’ that was not against England.
And we move speedily on to the quarter-finals and here I have no choice but to attempt at predictions. First up is the Czech Republic against Portugal in a match that brings together two teams who both lost their opening group games but have managed to turn it around.
I struggle to pick out star players in the eastern Europeans but at a push I will say that the full back Gabre Sellasie, the left footed midfielder Jiracek and the left winger Pilak stand out more for their industry and willingness to give their all.
Jiracek has good left foot while Pilak is quick and quite direct in attacking his opposing full back. The defender Kadlec has improved from the first game when he put up the worst individual defensive play I have ever seen in a top level international tournament like this in their opening game.
Abject does not describe his contribution on the day that Russia managed to hoodwink us into thinking they might go close to winning this tournament. Portugal have been beautiful to watch in large doses in this competition and in Nani they have a player at the top of his game. Ronaldo finally got among the goals in the torment of Holland. The midfield trio of Veloso, Moutinho and Raul Meireles are really good to watch as they manipulate the football in tight spaces. What is grossly overlooked is how strong Portugal are at the back. They have a back four equal to any left in the tournament. Why does Postiga still manage to get a starting place? Portugal for the semifinal.
The encounter between Greece and Germany is the biggest mismatch at this stage. The Germans are purring on nicely while the Greeks just managed to sneak into this stage. A Greece win will be an even bigger shock than their tournament triumph of 2004.
For the Germans, Podolski finally got a goal in the final group game against Denmark on his 100th cap. However, I am not sure in the previous 98 matches he played he would have been as anonymous as he had been in the opening two games of this tournament. There is no margin for error and so Loew’s side must not treat their opponents lightly. Germany through to their fourth tournament semifinal.
Spain have not played well in the two matches that mattered in this competition. The Ireland match does not count really. Or does it? Alright then; Spain have played well in one of three matches. Somehow I still think they are not properly set-up with Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the starting line-up and Iniesta playing further forward than he would have liked.
The no playing with a centre-forward is also an issue that I do not understand considering that when Torres started against Ireland he put them to the sword and there was focal point of their attacks. Gentle granddad looking del Bosque is probably shrugging his shoulders and saying “we are world champions and we do what we like”.
And so he might well say. Laurent Blanc’s Les Bleus will have to pick themselves up after a shock defeat to Sweden in the final group game. Against Ukraine, they showed fluidity and finishing that had been lacking against England in the opening game. In Menez they have found a more direct forward who wants the shortest route to goal whereas the powerful Benzema inexplicably wants to do a lot of work outside the penalty area. They have to be more direct.
However, if any team is good enough to keep the ball as well as the Spaniards it is this French team. They also have a fantastic record against Spain in football and this counts for something. Also, Benzema is so aware of the weaknesses of the Spanish central defensive duo of Pique and his club mate Sergio Ramos. The French will be missing their senior central defender Phillipe Mexes and that is a big, big miss. Tough one to call but I think somehow France will get through here. If Spain win this they will retain the Euros.
Oh how England as a country is buzzing especially since after the match against Sweden when they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. And then talisman Wayne Rooney comes back for his first game against Ukraine where, despite being actually quite rusty looking in his touches and general play, still manages to score the winner.
Ashley Cole at left-back has been my stand out performer of the England team and amongst the best five players in the tournament overall. He has been immense. Steven Gerrard the skipper is not too far behind the Chelsea left back in his overall contribution – he has made three goals already. Joleon Lescott has been sure footed at the back and so Rio Ferdinand has not been missed at all – I have always rated Joleon way back in his Wolves days so am pleased for him.
England are still too functional and their wide men do way too much defending and thus have too far to run when it is their turn to attack. It is easy to blame Young and Milner for their final passes or crosses but they are usually too tired by the time they get into the attacking positions. However, that is how Hodgson has gotten them to this point and they are not going to change in the quarterfinal are they.
Their momentum is picking up and the force is probably with England now especially with Rooney back. The Manchester United man will be buoyed by that winner and he seemed primed to lift the team to even greater achievements.
Cesare Prandelli showed against Spain how he can throw surprise systems and selections. De Rossi and Pirlo are playing well but it is the lack of goals that is a problem. The absence of defensive lynchpin Chiellini will also need to be combatted if they are to progress. Mario Balotelli must be licking his lips at the thought of going up against Lescott and Terry and I think Prandelli will do well to start him.
This one is way too close to call for me because these are two teams that I do not think are capable of winning the tournament but one will be in the semi-final. I will give it to England but only just.
Standout memories of the first round include Obraniak’s equaliser against Russia for Poland; Shevchenko’s two goals against Sweden; Ibrahimovic’s stunning volley against France; Germany’s all round play. Best for me though was Danny Welbeck’s winner for England against Sweden to complete the comeback for the Three Lions. That back flick was the only way he was ever going to score and executed it brilliantly.
Let the tension of the knock-out stages begin as the men get to work in search of glory.