The quarter finals are over and we’re down to four nations competing for European glory. Spain, Portugal, Germany and Italy remain, nations that are no strangers to success on the biggest stages of International football. Between them they have won six European Championships and eight World Cups down the years. Of the four, only Portugal have yet to win a major international honour and that could be set to change in 2012. In this article I have a look at what we can learn from the four teams’ progress to date and preview the two semi-finals in a bid to determine which two nations will, on Sunday July 1st, do battle in a bid to claim Europe’s ultimate accolade.
In the first of the quarter-finals, which took place last Thursday, Portugal took on the Czech Republic. The match itself was fairly one-sided. The Czechs are a solid team, who’d recovered well from an opening day mauling by Russia to win their next two games and qualify as the shock winners of Group A. Portugal, also recovering from a defeat in their first match against Germany, appeared to grow into the tournament and, after ensuring a last gasp victory over an impressive Denmark in game two, went on to comfortably see the Dutch off in their final group fixture.
In the quarter-final, as expected, the Portuguese were too strong for the Czechs. Although it took until the last five or ten minutes for the Iberians to get their noses in front, there honestly appeared to be no possibility of the Czechs winning the game. Short of keeping it at 0-0 and hoping for some luck in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, a strategy which the Czechs seemed to be employing more through necessity than by design, the game only ever looked like having one winner.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who else, was Portugal’s main attacking threat. Like his team, CR7 has grown into the tournament, improving with every game and consequently having a much greater influence on the fortunes of his side. Whilst the Portuguese are absolutely not a one man team, a point illustrated by their victory over Denmark on a Ronaldo off-day, I think it is fair to say that when he’s on form, Portugal are a much tougher proposition for any team to deal with. With three goals in his last two Euro2012 games, and two off the woodwork against the Czechs, it seems that the confidence is now back coursing through the Real Madrid superstar’s veins at exactly the right time.
That brings me nicely on to Spain, a side which is likely to contain at least four of Ronaldo’s Real Madrid team-mates when the two nations meet in Wednesday night’s showdown. Spain have had a funny tournament in a way. They opened up against Italy, playing without a striker, using Cesc Fabregas as a “false 9”. After falling behind, Cesc did his bit by putting the finishing touch to a fantastic, typically well- constructed, Spanish attack, levelling up the score. Del Bosque then replaced Fabregas with Torres in a move which would be replicated and inverted throughout the tournament thus far.
After taking a point against the Italians, Spain started with Torres (no Cesc) against Ireland, who they duly thumped 4-0. Ireland though, were very poor in that game, Trap’s tactics were far too rigid and without pressure in midfield, the Spanish were free to pick the Irish off at will. However, even in this game, Spain were fairly toothless for 45 minutes between the first and second goals.
Against Croatia in the last group fixture, the Spanish were very fortunate to escape with a win. Content just to stroke it about and wear the opposition down, as ever, Spain could have found themselves in a spot of bother had Wolfgang Stark seen a few penalty area incidents the way that most viewers had. On top of legitimate penalty appeals, the Croats fashioned more clear-cut chances than Spain, and proved that if you can move the ball quickly in attack against the Spanish, you will cause them problems.
France’s performance against Spain in the quarter final was desperate. Apparently caught out by the assumption that Torres would start, Blanc’s tactical ploy, to sit back and defend deep, backfired completely as the Spanish started with Fabregas. Attempts from Blanc to change tactics were ineffective, owing to the ultra-defensive line-up that he had started with and, by the time the game got into the second half, neither the energy, nor the will were remaining for the French to make any impact.
2-0 was a nice little bonus for the Spanish right at the end, however, at 1-0, it was overtly comfortable for Spain and in truth it may as well have been 5-0 because the French simply never looked like getting back on terms. One statistic that was a little surprising though was that the French enjoyed over 40% possession in the match. Considering the Spanish tend to have something in the region of 70% in most matches, it suggests that they did not monopolise the ball as much as they would have liked. It also lays bare just quite how poor France were as they managed no real efforts on target for all their possession.
Spain have been labelled as boring by some this tournament for the way they’ve been playing. Whilst they don’t look to score tonnes of goals and they only have one way of playing, I would suggest that the “boring” tag is becoming more prominent due to Spain’s continued success and domination using this style of play. A style about which everybody knows yet all appear powerless to stop. I do, however, still think Spain are there to be beaten. They play like Barcelona, but they don’t have a Messi to light up the field and turn things around when things are not working. Scoring goals has also been a problem without David Villa, although we know that they often only need one to win, and there is clear if unspoken friction within the squad regarding the Torres/Fabregras situation.
Portugal are a side all about counter-attacking. They have seen far less of the ball than any of the teams they’ve played so far and, with a solid defensive unit and the pace of Ronaldo, Nani and Oliveira they are set up perfectly to take Spain on. Where France fell down so spectacularly was in their inability to move the ball quickly in the transition from defence to attack. Once Spain get set, then they are incredibly difficult to play around or through, however, because of their high pressing game and their commitment to sending midfielders and full-backs forward, if a team can turnover possession, re-cycle it and get it forward quickly, the Spanish are vulnerable. I think, of all the teams at the tournament, Portugal are the best equipped to do just that.
Another key factor which could benefit the Portuguese is that they’ve had an extra two days rest to recover from their exertions in the quarter finals, a fact that Del Bosque is none too pleased about. It’s going to be a massively tight match, neither side will want to give anything away and I think that one goal either way will do it. I’m going to go for Portugal to upstage their illustrious neighbours and I reckon that man Ronaldo will be the one to get the goal. Prediction 1-0 Portugal.
Thursday night sees Germany take on Italy in a repeat of the World Cup semi-final of 2006. In fact three of Euro2012s last four took part in the semis in 2006, with Spain being the only absentee. That isn’t the only parallel either, as in 2006 a heavily fancied German side came up against an Italy squad, embroiled in a match fixing scandal back at home, who weren’t really expected to do much. Two extra-time goals from Fabio Grosso and Alessandro del Piero put paid to German hopes then, as Italy went on to defeat France in the final and be crowned champions. Will history repeat itself?
Germany have been very good so far in Poland and Ukraine. Facing Portugal in their opening Group game, they ground down a very determined, solid defensive unit to emerge 1-0 winners. Against their most bitter rivals, Holland in game 2, they overcame a dodgy first five minutes to take control of the game and ease into a 2-0 half-time lead. A lead which, despite having been cut in half by van Persie with roughly a quarter of an hour to play, they never looked like losing.
Surprisingly, having won their first two games, the Germans were not assured of qualification, however, a victory over Denmark ensured their progression into the knock-out stages. One thing that must be said about Germany though is, for all their strength going forward and their fantastic array of attacking options, from Oezil, to Gomez through Mueller, Podolski, Klose and Reus, they are vulnerable at the back. Germany conceded goals in both of their last two group games and this is a trait which has carried on into the knock-out stages.
Some would say that Germany were lucky to beat Denmark. In fact a draw would have been enough to see them top the group, however, it was the opportunities that the Danes missed when the tie was at 1-1 which will have caused the most concern. These frailties were there for all to see against the Greeks. Granted, Germany could have been 2-0 up within five minutes and eventually ran out comfortable 4-2 winners, however, they played with such a high line that anytime Greece got the ball over the half-way line it was a two on two situation, a fact which was crucial in the Greek equaliser. There were times against Greece, frequently enough, where Neuer was the only man in the German half and that was just in the first-period.
I don’t expect that Loew will employ a similar tactic against the Italians, with Italy being a much stronger team than Greece and having much more attacking talent, but it is food for thought for Prandelli whose side have struggled to score goals in Euro2012 so far (just two from open play). What Germany do have, as I alluded to earlier, are fantastic attacking options. Their philosophy and style of play is, in certain respects, similar to the Spanish, however, the crucial difference is that the Germans are much more dynamic going forward, they look to make things happen. Rather than being content to pass the ball about for long periods waiting for an opening, Germany look to flood forward on the break, and the interplay between midfielders such as Schweinsteiger and Oezil and attackers like Podolski, Gomez and Klose has been a feature of their success to date.
Germany are the top scorers at Euro 2012 so far with nine goals and they appear to be enthused with the knowledge that they have the ability and prowess to out-score any opponent they come up against. The four they notched against Greece was with a side shorn of first choice attackers such as Podolski, Mueller and Gomez, so Italy beware!
What are the German’s up against then? Cesare Prandelli’s Italy are a side that, in a way, have sneaked in a little bit under the radar at Euro2012. They’re a good side, no doubt, with quality players and a typically good team spirit, however, it is not, on paper, a great side. Few superstar names jump off the teamsheet, with the exception of Buffon, Pirlo and perhaps Cassano.
Touted as a more attacking, adventurous Italy than many of us are used to seeing, the Italians drew with Spain after outplaying their opponents for the first hour in their opening game. There followed a rather uninspiring performance against a resilient Croatian team, which ended in a 1-1 draw, a game in which Italy surely could have won had they played to their fullest potential when the score was 1-0. Against the Irish, Italy were again less than convincing, however they did get the job done and never looked in danger of not claiming the three points that they required.
Now to the quarter-final against England, and a game which Italy dominated totally, particularly after the opening ten minutes. Italy looked accomplished against England and Pirlo, without doubt, looked every inch the maestro which his reputation claims him to be. But how much of that was down to England’s and Roy Hodgson’s tactical ineptitude? Earmarked by all and sundry as the one man not to give time and space to, Hodgson’s rigid, one dimensional game-plan (the same one that hasn’t changed in 35 years regardless of the opponents) allowed Pirlo a ridiculous amount of room in which to work his magic. And work his magic he did, pulling the strings, conducting the orchestra, whichever analogy you wish to use, Pirlo was, literally, calling the shots.
Italy were good, there’s no doubt about that, just how good they really were is difficult to tell as the English tactics played right into their hands. One point to note is, for all their dominance, for all their control, for all their chances and there were plenty, the Italians failed to beat Joe Hart in two full hours of football. This lack of goals has got to be a worry. As the Germans are the highest scoring team in the competition so are the Italians the lowest scoring team left in the tournament, with just four goals to their name. On the flip side though, they have only conceded two goals in the tournament so far and only four, competitively, in thirteen games since Prandelli took charge. On that evidence, Buffon may still be the very best!
By their nature, semi-finals are always incredibly difficult to call and likely to be won by the slenderest of margins. Whilst I’ve gone for Portugal to just squeeze past Spain primarily because of their strength at the back and speed on the counter attack, with Ronaldo adding that extra dimension, so too am I going to go for Germany to get past Italy in the other match.
Why? I think that Italy are strong, but despite all the talk of them being more attacking, they don’t score enough goals, don’t have a real out and out goal-scorer and they have relied primarily on their defence in the competition thus far. Pirlo will not be given anything like the space that he was afforded against England and, as such, Italy may struggle to get their game flowing.
There is a force around Germany at the moment, they seem a side at the peak of their powers and will be very well rested. Not only did they rest key players against Greece, they played two days before the Italians and therefore should be better recovered. The Germans are, I feel, ready for success, this team has been together for a long time they have youth, experience and, above all, goals in their side and this could definitely be their year. Prediction Germany 2-1 Italy.
Germany image mari lanza. Cup image Drabik Pany. Italy image PUMA1948.
Spain image myprofe aka gordon dionne. Portugal image agu2000_de