The Group of Death is living up to the name; at the end of their second round of matches, all four teams are still alive (one, just barely) and the unexpected results keep coming. And where the first round featured a pair of tight 1-0 games, this time around things got real, with two entertaining games that delivered the goods; these teams have everything to play for on the final day. It’s on Group of Death…. it’s on!
Denmark vs Portugal
Aftrer looking dangerous (and frankly better than expected) against Germany, Portugal finally got their shit together in this match, pulling off a thrilling last minute 3-2 win against an unlucky Denmark. Any game that features five goals gets the full match highlights treatment (who has time to post five individual goal clips?), so let’s get the goals out of the way. We watch the game for goals don’t we? Yes we do…
Portugal dominated the chances and the run of play, but the self-proclaimed “best footballer in the world” Nicklas Bendtner was clinical with his head in front of goal, erasing Pepe’s smart header and Postiga’s sweeping strike to tie the game in the second half. Bendtner’s quality was the polar opposite of Cristiano Ronaldo’s poor play; once again, the all-universe Real Madrid winger had a mare, missing several chances and dogging it on defense a few times. At club level, Ronaldo one on one vs the keeper is almost automatic, but as an international, Ronaldo can’t seem to find the right side of the post. As much as I enjoy watching him struggle (and I do), it’s a shame when one of the best players in the world is unable to produce for his country. Nothing would be better for this team than for Ronaldo to live up to his hype and get his teammates and his country believing in him, to be discussing his greatness. Instead, Ronaldo seems almost cursed by the expectations, which is so unlike him. Is it mental? I expect a goal from him against The Netherlands to get back on track.
In the meantime, the Portugese savior on the day was the young attacker Silvestre Varela, who whiffed on a strike before gathering himself and scoring on a second kick of his leg. Which, ooof; where was the vaunted Danish defense on this strike? I can understand not being in position for a quick shot, but for Varela to miss, collect himself, try again and score without someone getting in front of the ball is a shame. Watching that goal again, I am not so sure that is Poulsen gets a leg out, he doesn’t save the day. Still, Varela earns the spoils for a sweet strike and a match winner in the final five minutes. And if the timing of the goal left the Danes feeling hard done by, there was no doubting that Portugal played the better match, had far more chances and could have made this one much worse. Both teams leave the match with 3 points and a zero goal differential with 3 goals scored. Portugal has the advantage of winning the head-to-head match, which is huge, but more on that later.
Get a leg on the winner? Block? Something? Hello?
Germany vs The Netherlands
Mario Gomez does it again. What can you say about him in this Tournament? He has been absolutely great in taking his chances. After scoring the winner in a rather docile performance in the 1-0 win against Portugal, many were calling for Miroslav Klose, Germany’s second leading goal scorer of all time, to replace the on again/ off again Gomez in the starting line up. But why fix what isn’t broken? This is the match, one of the most anticipated of the entire Tournament, that will silence all of the doubters. Gomez was pure class.
Goals and strikers will steal the headlines, but for me, this match was all about the midfield pairing of Sami Khedira, who was my man of the match in the German’s first match against Portugal and who was excellent again, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who put in an unbelievable performance from his deep lying midfield position. It was Schweinsteiger who assisted both of Gomez’s goals, who partnered with Khedira to boss the Dutch defensive midfield pairing of Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. Even in the first half, he was operating a lot of space, which is unforgivable with two– TWO!!– defensive midfielders on for the Dutch. After coming out at halftime down 2-0, Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk pulled van Bommel out of the game and replaced him with a more attack minded Rafael Van der Vaart, and all that did was open up the universe for Schweinsteiger to boss things, with the Germans dominating long stretches of possession as the Dutch chased the game. There was a ten minute stretch when the Dutch seemed to find their hearts and during that time, Robin van Persie showed his quality with a super strike that brought the game back into question…
…but the Germans took things from there, running out the clock and keeping the usually possession happy, attacking Dutch off the ball and out of the game. It was a dominant performance all in all from a team that seems harmonious on the pitch; as I said after the first match, each player knows his role and plays it to perfection. Interestingly, the Germans have never won all three of their Group stage games at the Euros, so it will be curious to see how they do against a Danish side looking to get a result and advance. Should be great.
On the other side of the pitch, what the fuck? The Netherlands looked almost incoherent; after van Persie was put in alone on goal and saw his strike saved, the air seemed to get sucked out of the team. I said they played “me first” football against the Danes, but this was a case of “who? me?” football; even Wesley Sneijder’s typical excellence could not bring the front line together. For all of his pace and quality on the ball, Arjen Robben might be the most one-dimensional great player in the world; collect the ball, cut inside, fire over the bar. Collect the ball. Cut inside. Fire over the bar. Get back and play defense? Forget it. His positional responisbilities are, in his mind, a one way street; you can’t cut inside and fire over the bar on defense! This allowed Philip Lahm to pwn the overlapping runs on the left wing. Lahm knows Robben very well (they face one another all the time at Bayern Munich) and is anyone knows which areas of the pitch Robben couldn’t be bothered to defend, it is Lahm. He exploited the Dutch winger on offense and shut him down on defense. It got to the point where van Marwijk was screaming at Robben to get back on defense with the winger giving his manager an earfull of dissent. Pitiful performance.
Off you go.
And for all of the Dutch fans deriding van Persie and wanting Klaus Jan Huntelaar to start, well, you can have that as well. RvP got his goal with a great strike while the rest of the team struggled to even see the ball in dangerous areas. Huntelaar and RvP were pretty much starved for service, but this is primarily because the Dutch feature wingers seemingly incapable of passing the ball in the box. Sneijder did his best with some dangerous crosses from deep and a wicked strike that just missed the top corner, but where was Affelay? Where was Robben? Where was the beautiful interplay in and around the box, the head up look for the open man, the penetrating run? The Dutch inability to play a second or third ball in the attacking third has been shocking and the German backs, particularly Lahm and Boateng, knew what was coming and played their roles perfectly.
The Dutch used to play brilliant, tactically superior football; the Clockwork Oranje knew that every player was a defender, an attacker, a passer, a potential scorer. Now, the clock seems to have been smashed on the floor, each beautiful piece spinning in its own direction, disconnected, badly in need of repair.
And yet, the Dutch, on zero points and staring at a -2 goal differential with losses to the Danes and Germans, are still alive in the Group. If the Germans can batter the Danes and the Dutch can absolutely batter the Portugese, they have a fighting chance to get through on goal diferential which is amazing and simply shows the parity in the Group of Death. Nail biting stuff, a race to the finish line; just what the doctor ordered.