In earlier posts I had a stab at predicting who would make the last eight and, after all has been said and done, I emerged with a prediction accuracy of 50%. While this ain’t much to shout about, it isn’t totally embarrassing, especially given the shocks thrown up by Group A. So, as a glutton for punishment, I’m going to have a brief look at the first knock-out stage proper. The four quarter-finals promise to be intriguing encounters for various reasons and, in keeping with the pattern of the tournament so far, I would not be surprised if they throw-up some major shocks.
Czech Republic recovered well from the early setback of being humbled by Russia in their opening fixture. They changed their approach from the Russia game and have moved to a more patient counter-attacking style. They have a solid defensive unit and topped their group, however they were exposed by the blistering pace of the Russian attack and could face a similar problem against the Portuguese. That said, the Czech’s have visibly grown in confidence during the competition and, after putting out the Poles, must fancy themselves to have every chance of going further in a knock-out situation. Pilar and Jiracek have been outstanding in the last two games and, with Rosicky sure to make the bench at least, the Czechs cannot be written off.
Portugal began in a fairly restrained fashion, against the Germans, but have grown into the tournament game by game. The late winner against Denmark was their turning point in the competition and, after an erratic start, Cristiano Ronaldo announced himself on the scene with an excellent performance against the Dutch. Under Paulo Bento the old Portuguese flair appears to be returning and, with a midfield which includes Moutinho, Nani and Meireles, Portugal carry a significant attacking threat.
These two countries met in the quarter final of Euro 96, where a wonder-goal from Poborsky gave the Czech Republic a 1-0 win on their way to the final. That team, however, was a much stronger Czech outfit, which included the likes of Nedved, Berger, and Prosinecki, as well as the afore-mentioned Karel Poborsky and, although, it was also a “Golden Generation” for Portugal, they simply did not have a goal-scorer like Ronaldo in their ranks. On the other occasion that they have met at the European Championships, Portugal recorded a 3-1 group stage win (2008).
Czech Republic will be take heart from the Euro 96 result and, although it was a long time ago, will believe that they can repeat the feat. However, on this occasion, I favour the Iberians to come out on top, as they have improved with every game they’ve played at Euro 2012. While the Czechs have been relatively impressive against average opposition, the pace of Portuguese counter-attacks and the form of Cristiano Ronaldo will, I believe prove too big a gap to bridge.
Germany versus Greece is, for me, the most interesting quarter-final pairing to have come about, for a couple of reasons. Nobody expected the Greeks to get this far and, as such, they are massive underdogs for this last-eight clash. Granted, I certainly didn’t write them off, as you can see from my pre-tournament profile, however, after two games, getting out of the group was looking a very unlikely proposition indeed. Germany, on the other hand, were pre-tournament second favourites to win Euro 2012 and, after their results so far (100% record), they are now joint favourites, with Spain, to claim the crown.
On a political level, the debt crisis and the whole ongoing Euro currency saga has pitted Germany and Greece against each other for much of the last two years. With Merkel desperate to keep Greece in the single currency, to the likely detriment of the Greek nation, German led bail-outs have forced waves of austerity cuts and privatisation measures from Athens. Actions which, to many observers, would appear to be consequentially leading to the economic colonisation of Greece by the Germans. Whatever the rights and wrongs and ins and outs, one thing is certain; it would give the Greek nation no end of satisfaction to get one over on the bullies of Europe and, whilst there may be a gulf in class between the two sides, team spirit and determination to win are variables that cannot be quantified.
So far Germany have looked assured and confident, especially going forward, however, they are vulnerable at the back and could, quite easily, have been knocked out by Denmark the other night had the Scandinavians taken their chances. Greece have never beaten Germany in eight previous meetings and everybody but everybody is expecting a comfortable German victory in this encounter, especially with their growing reputation as one of the best sides in the world. However, if there’s one thing we know about the Greeks, it is that they respect reputation not a jot and you can rest assured that Loew’s side will not get an easy ride.
This is really tough to call, like I said, on the face of it Germany should win but in the face of Greece’s ultra-defensive, frustrating tactics and attacking opportunism, can the Germans keep their cool and their concentration? Germany were my pre-tournament favourites, in fact, I tipped them to win Euro2012 after their 2010 semi-final defeat at the hands of the Spanish and, had they been facing any other team, I would be backing the Germans all the way.
This is a little different however, it is not just a football match, it is a matter of national pride and identity that the Greeks are playing for. It’s an opportunity to give their nation the best gift possible under the circumstances and, if Greece can get their defending right, as we’ve seen many times before, they’re very adept at nicking 1-0 wins. On the only other occasion that the two sides have met in a major tournament (Euro 80), the game ended Greece 0-0 W Germany, if Greece can get to ninety minutes with that score-line then an upset could definitely be on the cards.
Germany will more than likely win this encounter, they are in excellent shape, however to predict a German victory at this point would be nothing short of boring. Hence, I’m going to stick my neck out here, I’ll probably end up looking like a clown but so what! I’m going to go for Greece to qualify producing the biggest shock of the tournament.
Spain take on France on Saturday evening in what promises to be a fantastic game. Both sides are technically excellent and play an attractive passing game. Both sides are chocked full of superstars and household names and both sides played below themselves in coming through their respective groups. Although the Spanish smashed four past Ireland in their second game, they have had trouble finding the back of the net, recording just two other tournament goals.
In the absence of David Villa, Del Bosque appears to be unsure of how to set-up in attack. In the opening game he started without a striker, leaving the centre-forward role to Cesc Fabregas, who dutifully chipped in with a goal. Torres came on in the second-half and Spain looked more of a threat, however they failed to register any further goals. After scoring twice against Ireland, Torres started against Croatia but was subbed off at 0-0 with David Silva pushed forward in his place.
Spain eventually scored, very late on, to win the game 1-0 but were far from convincing. Although Torres looks set to start for the quarter-final, if Spain don’t score early enough, we can expect to see him replaced by del Bosque, a fact that the striker knows all too well and one that must be a source of consternation to him, especially when he is replaced by a midfielder.
France began with a draw against England in a game in which they had much the better of the play against a defensive English set-up. Les Bleus followed that up with a comfortable 2-0 win over Ukraine, however, their defensive frailties were exposed by a much more focussed Swedish team in their final game, as they went down 2-0. These short-comings will have to be addressed when they face the Spaniards but, perhaps, Mexes’s suspension will prove to be a blessing in disguise with Koscielny due to deputise.
After the Sweden game it was reported that there were heated arguments in the dressing room between members of the French team, a fact which Laurent Blanc has confirmed. This is bound to happen in high pressure situations when players have not performed as they would have liked. It can be cathartic and, in that way, beneficial, provided the sores are not left to fester as in the case of the Dutch.
Blanc was captain of the French squad that triumphed at both World Cup 98 and Euro 2000 and, as such, knows exactly what it takes to win a major tournament. The defeat against Sweden was Les Bleus’ first in 23 games and, perhaps, there is a case to be made that it came at the right time to serve as the perfect wake-up call. France have never lost a competitive fixture against Spain in six meetings and both times they’ve beaten the Spanish at the Euros, they’ve gone on to be crowned champions. Blanc will no doubt be fully aware of these facts and will let his side know, in no uncertain terms, that if they wish to prove all their doubters wrong, of which there are many, fans and press, at home and abroad, a win over Spain would do just that.
This is a humdinger of a quarter-final, two of the most attractive footballing sides in the world facing off against each other. Spain are the favourites to go through but their lack of goals, for all their fantastic play, must be of concern and I think that they are there to be beaten. France allowed their standard to slip against Sweden, perhaps with one eye already on the nest stage, but with the right game-plan, it’s just possible that they could upset the odds and book a place in the semi. Benzema has yet to open his account at Euro 2012, in fact he has had the most attempts by any player still goal-less at the tournament (17) but, up against more familiar faces in the Spanish defence, there’s every chance that Saturday will be his day.
Finally, the last of the quarter-finals pits Roy Hodgson’s England against the Italy of Cesare Prandelli. This is, again, a well-balanced match-up. Neither side arrived at the tournament burdened by the huge weight of expectation which typically accompanies English and Italian teams participating in a major competition. Both sides are relatively new. Italy, recovering from an early exit at World Cup 2010, have, under Prandelli, brought in a lot of new faces during his two year tenure and are a relatively young, hungry side, playing a brand of football that seems to suit the individuals within the team perfectly. Likewise England, under new manager Roy Hodgson have sought to move away from the Fabio Capello era and, while some familiar faces remain, there are some new additions and, like the Italians, England are now playing football in a way that looks to cater to their strengths.
Neither side plays particularly expansive football nor, aside from England vs Sweden, has either side scored a lot of goals. The match is likely to be a tactical one, possibly more akin to a game of chess, with each side making sure that they’re defences cannot be breached whilst looking to capitalise from any weakness displayed by the opponent or any chink in the armoury. Both teams have made the most of set piece situations, with three goals each and both teams have taken the lead in all of their matches at Euro 2012.
England appear to be more united than at any time really, certainly in the last decade, which could prove invaluable in their attempt to reach the semi-final of a major tournament on foreign ground for only the second time in their history. Italy, however, also seem to be a very tight-knit group, possibly with the exception of Mario Balotelli (but then that is par for the course), and are keen to show the world a positive face after yet another match-fixing scandal hit the headlines across Europe on the eve of the tournament.
So who’s going to win? I am going to go with Italy, and here’s why. Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy remain unbeaten competitively, P13 W9 D4. During that period, the Azzuri have conceded just four goals, making them one of the meanest defences in world football. Antonio Cassano and Andrea Pirlo will see a lot of the ball against the English, as Roy Hodgson’s side will sit off and defend deep. This could prove catastrophic, as these two players have the capacity to cut defences to ribbons with their vision and precision passing.
Whilst England have scored three goals from set pieces, they also look extremely vulnerable from them, as the two Swedish goals highlighted. The Italians, on the other hand are adept at scoring from them and solid when defending them. In the last nine meetings between the two sides, England have won just once, losing six and in previous tournament quarter finals, England have lost seven out of ten, with the Italians losing out just twice in nine attempts, both times on penalties. It will be a tight affair, but I reckon the Italians will edge it, the only wildcard could be Andy Carroll and his effect on the Italian defence. However, he will have to start to have a major say on proceedings and, at the moment, it is unclear whether he will do so.
Ronaldo image by azote aka Carlos Rivero. Greece image by Leonid Mamchenkov.
Benzema image by sebece. Pirlo image by HSNUHOW aka Ming-Yueh Wang