After going 4-4 in my Quarterfinal predictions, I am confident that I am due to get one of these wrong. But here we go anyway… my semifinal predictions. Run of the mill, but I have to follow my gut.
Portugal v Spain
Germany v Italy
"Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen…"– Robert Bresson
After going 4-4 in my Quarterfinal predictions, I am confident that I am due to get one of these wrong. But here we go anyway… my semifinal predictions. Run of the mill, but I have to follow my gut.
Portugal v Spain
Germany v Italy
Italy (4) 0-0 (2) England
Let the recriminations begin; England are out of the Euros in the quarterfinals after losing in a penalty shootout. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
That is five losses on penalty shootouts at major international tournaments in 22 years. No wins. Was there ever any doubt?
Make it 6 in 22.
Even though this match went to penalties, Italy were clearly the top team on the pitch, absolutely battering the English. Italy put in 35 shots, England nine. Italy had 64% of possession to England’s 36%. Andrea Pirlo ran the show in a world class performance, England couldn’t muster an ounce of creativity. Absolutely dire stuff; the word of football has left the inventors of the game behind, and like the creaking old boys who sit in oak-paneled rooms and run the English FA as if it were a 19th century aristocratic social club, there are no indications that England are en route to the revolution they so desperately require. I mean, the hopes of the nation are riding on Jack Wilshire to overcome injury and disappointment and provide some sort of creative spark to get this team moving in the right direction. That cannot be good.
I believe the children are our future/ teach them well and — oh, be quiet already…
In my opinion, though, what they really need is an overhaul of the English youth system, which sees technically poor players with pace and power rise to prominence to suit the Premier League, a league whose top players are, for the most part, from other countries (Aguero, Silva, Van Persie, Modric, Bale, Drogba* all spring to mind from this past season). This team going out on penalties was both inevitable and flattering.
For all of England’s problems, hey, look at Italy! Pirlo is rivaling Iniesta for the player of the Tournament; he has taken this team on his
aged shoulders and carried them to the semifinal. And while they struggled in front of goal in this match, their prowess in defense continues to grow and grow; they are going to be tough to break down now. I am not sure if I fancy them against Germany, but Germany are far from clinical and have been leaking shit goals, so I think they have a real fighting chance. My main worry for Italy in the semifinal is how they will stop Özil and Khedira, who have been fantastic so far. Still, with Gomez running hot and cold and with Balotelli and Cassano getting into dangerous positions, they could just do it. Maybe.
Rooney covets Pirlo’s flowing locks.
*Yes, I know. He’s off to China.
Spain 2-0 France
In the third absolutely dominant performance in the quarter-finals, Spain put a 2-0 beating on France, who suffered again from playing Karim Benzema too deep and not having a striker upon whom the game could focus.* I said it a million times, the strategy would bite France in the ass, and for the second game in a row, it did. France barely threatened in the run of play and, despite some dangerous set-pieces, were unable to play ball control against the stylish masters of tiki-taka.
Play deeper… Deeper….DEEPER!!
2-0 was generous to the French because, once again, Vicente Del Bosque went without a traditional striker, playing Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine**” and again, Spain did not put up big numbers on goal. It was, instead, the Xabi Alonso show.
My heart aches every time I see Xabi Alonso play; once my favorite player for my club team (Liverpool FC), Alonso moved away a few years ago to play at Real Madrid, where he has flourished. There is no other player like him in the world of football; his ability to spray passes with pinpoint accuracy while disrupting the opponent’s midfield is an absolutely unique combination of skills. Play him next to a ball winner like Sergio Busquets and just behind a field general like Xavi Hernandez and Alonso looks like an absolute wizard out there. His run to the far post for the opening goal (a header!!!) was spectacular and his penalty kick in the dying minutes of the game was placed perfectly. He is one of the best passers of the ball in the game, technically gifted and, on top of it, a world class human being. I really miss him. Always will.
France are gone, outclassed again. I hope Laurent Blanc takes a look at the Benzema situation and either starts him in partnership with Giroud or allows him to play a far more advanced role and lead the line in the future. Otherwise, France won’t advance as a team. They have a ton of potential, but they need the tactics to change and to get goals.
Spain? Well, I’m still not as convinced as I’d like to be. Their Quarter-final against Portugal should be a storming match; if they can get past Ronaldo, I’m not sure Germany will be able to beat them. Will be a real test.
Let the true tests begin…
*I am not going to bore you by putting this in the body of the text, but how in the world did Blanc start Florent Malouda ahead of Jeremy Menez? I encourage anyone who is bored enough to visit espnfc.com and watch all of France’s matches again and tell me: who is better player? Who helps the attack more? Who can play a pass ten feet without putting in on the boot of the opposition? Malouda was utterly dire in this Tournament and the decision to start him in this match was shocking.
**This trendy term is based on the idea that Lionel Messi is not a traditional Number 9 (a striker who plays up top in the attack) for Barcelona. Instead, the idea is to have a player like Messi who is fluent in the midfield build-up while simultaneously leading the line. This is basically the “false nine”– an attacker who springs forward from the midfield instead of leading the line on the shoulder of the central defenders.
Germany 4-2 Greece
The Euro Zone, har har, debt, har har, single currency, har har. The masters vs the servants, heh. Austerity vs punishing the banks, mmhmmm.
Now that all of the clichés about this match are out of the way, it can be said that Germany just absolutely owned Greece… on the pitch (oh.) The 4-2 scoreline flattered a Greek team who saw little of the ball in the first half and who literally scored with their first two touches in the German box. Down 4-1, a late penalty made the numbers look respectable, but the match was anything but.
Greece came out of the box and invited the Germans forward, hoping to press them into a mistake and launch a counter. The problem? Whenever the Greeks touched the ball, they immediately gave it back. The first 45 minutes were all Germany and it was completely tactical; unable to match the Germans in skill, the Greeks tried to lock the door with defense. It worked until it didn’t; when Philip Lahm got on the end of a cross field pass from Mesu Özil and lashed the ball into the Greek net in the 39th minute, things had to change.
And in the 55th minute, they did; a four pass move saw the Greeks break on a counter attack and score, a shocking moment that was a stark reminder of the cruelty of the game; you can run the show and still get caught out with lightning speed. When Giorgios Samaras tapped in a perfect cross with a slide into the mouth of the German goal, it was 1-1.
Hey, lookie there, it’s Samaras
It didn’t take long for Germany to respond; three quick goals from Sami Khedira (61st minute) and Miroslav Klose (68th minute) and Marco Reus (74th minute) put Germany up 4-1 as they ripped Greece apart. When Jerome Boateng completed the amazing task of jumping with his back to the ball and still intentionally (cough) handling it*, Dimitirs Salpingidis took a lovely penalty and made it 4-2 in the 89th minute, Too little, too late, Toodle-oo.
The goals? Nope. UEFA are locking down video highlights, because who wants to be able to review the game online? Who wants an official, linkable set of highlights to share around the world? How do you make money on that? Assholes.
* Try this, turn your back to your friend and have him kick soccer balls at you and see how many you can get a hand on. Ahem.
Portugal 1-0 Czech Republic
11 corners for Portugal v 6 for Czech Republic
56% of possession for Portugal
Portugal 20 shots, 5 on goal v Czechs with 2 shots, 0 on goal
Portugal came out onto the pitch and absolutely owned Czech Republic, controlling the match from the first moments. And for all the credit due Cristiano Ronaldo for being a constant source of danger in the attack, there was one player who popped off the screen watching this game: Portugal’s midfield engine João Moutinho. As easy as it is to be drawn to the tricks and speed of Nani and Ronaldo on the wings, skimming past defenders, winning free kicks and corners, to my eyes, it was Moutinho who stole the show, not only assisting on the match winning goal, but (almost) more importantly taking the Czech midfield completely out of the match. His positional flexibility dragged the opposition all over the field and then he got the winner onto Ronaldo’s head…
That is some run onto the throw-in, one touch past the defender and a wicked cross that Ronaldo sprints toward and hammers into the ground and in. That’s how you do it. It’s not like Ronaldo was struggling; he put a wicked shot on frame that hammered off the post to end the first half. But having Moutinho in the team, allowing him to gather the ball deep, means that Nani, Postiga (now injured) and Ronaldo are able to sprint up and down the pitch putting pressure on defenses. Moutinho’s play has been a huge boon to Portugal; when you combine it with dangerous supporting runs from Pereira and Coentrão and outstanding defensive leadership from Pepe, it all seems to be coming together at the right time for Portugal. They look better with every game.
Portugal might be worried: Raul Meireles is not a ball winner and if Portugal are to win this championship, they are going to need to be more disruptive on defense, especially up the middle of the park. If there is one thing Nani and Ronaldo don’t care to do, it is get back and play solid defense. That is going to be okay in a Czech midfield that features Jiracek and Darida, but against Xavi/Busquets/Alonso/Iniesta? Not going to fly. Spain have been beaten on the counter before (see Italy), and it is not impossible that Ronaldo, Pepe and Coentrão, who see the Spanish players all of the time, will be able to lock them down with the great runs and fluent defense they use under their club manager José Mourinho at Real Madrid, but I’m getting ahead of myself*. Portugal have a lot to be proud of, but they also need to address how they will handle their next opponent.
For the Czechs? Petr Cech had a great match to keep them in it. Otherwise? They were overmatched and they knew it.
“It’s just that Ronaldo is better. He can play with his head, with both feet,” Czech Republic coach Michal Bilek said. “That decided the match. In the second half, we lost our strength and determination and they had one chance that decided the match.”
Have to agree with that. It’s on to the semi-finals for Portugal. Didn’t see it coming, but they look very good now. If Ronaldo can keep it going, look out world.
*Spain haven’t even beat the French yet!
OK, have a long day of work ahead, but wanted to get my quarter-final predictions in under the wire…
Portugal v Czech Republic
Germany v Greece
France v Spain
England vs Italy
I’ll be honest. I was expecting to care about Group D a lot more than I ended up doing. With Sweden knocked out, Ukraine not ready for primetime (although they played pretty well), England driving me crazy and France driving the Group, I found Group D to be the most problematic. It was a Group of moments, Shevchenko’s brace being the highlight, one great match (England vs Sweden) and a lot of teams that frankly played like they were still figuring it out. Well, after France crawled into the knockout stages and England deservingly won a snoozefest against Ukraine, the Group D winners loo to be out of time. It’s now or never for these teams. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
France v Sweden
First off. Zlatan. 6 feet, 4 inches. This:
Amazing goal. So good, I’m not going to bother showing Seb Larsson’s roof job that made the game 2-0 in the dying minutes and gave Sweden a deserved victory against France, who advance from the Group with a loss here. This is how Sweden played the entire Tournament; how did Ukraine beat them?!? Just a tragedy that this team are out as Zlatan and the gang finally put it all together and beat the Group D leaders, sending them into second place and a date with Spain. A shame; Sweden played the most attractive football in the entire Group but could not keep it together at the back until this match and it cost them. Goodbye Zlatan; it was fun watching you frustrate and bewitch in equal measure.
But France…. France! Here is a bit of tactical advice for you; you are not Spain, Samir Nasri is not Xavi, Franck Ribery is a winger and is not Andres Iniesta, so why are you playing Karim Benzema ten miles deep in the hole with no striker? Why? As much as I complained about Fernando Torres not being the best option at striker for a team like Spain (he plays best with the ball at his feet, running at defenses), Karim Benzema playing a number 10 role for France might be okay if someone was playing the number 9 role, but sadly, they are not. Benzema is alone up top; so alone, in fact, that he seems to miss the company of his holding midfielders and runs ten miles deep to collect the ball, allowing the entire opposition to get behind the ball.
Yeah, me too.
Laurent Blanc, if you’re going to play a number 10 deep, how about Ben Arfa or Nasri in the role, with Benzema up top, hanging off the last defender and putting pressure on the defensive line? I just don’t understand the idea of trying to pass it on the ground, over and over, until you break a defense with a give-and-go pass and walk it in on goal. France were way too one dimensional, and with Sweden playing good defense and able to keep the ball themselves on the counter attack, the French ran out of ideas in about five minutes. Blanc had the right idea late on when he brought in Olivier Giroud and the striker found himself with a dangerous chance after about two minutes. That could have been the whole match. Instead, Sweden dominates and France now draw Spain in the quarterfinal; I expect them to be humbled by the masters.
England v Ukraine
1-0 England. Zzzzzzzz….*snore*
Great ball from Gerrard there; the Liverpool captain is playing excellent football. Perhaps he should be given a rest now so that he can come back and play well for Liverpool, too. Ahem.
I don’t have much to say; it breaks my heart that a team full of Liverpool talent play football this boring, but man; England are just a bore to watch. They are all discipline and no creativity. Their flat style is earning them results, though. They drew France and beat Sweden and Ukraine, won Group D, so WHO IS ANYONE TO COMPLAIN ABOUT ROY HODGSON? Football is about results and England are getting them, so I should probably just shut up and give them a chance and blah blah blah.
But let’s be honest; they look about 20 years behind the other quarterfinalists in terms of they way they play. It is not good for the future of the game in england to see such talented players with little technical ability. England are speed and power, but they can’t seem to string four passes together to save their lives; they might lose a possession battle against Xavi playing by himself*. The main problem is linking up play between Gerrard and the wide players. Wayne Rooney was supposed to instantly solve this problem by linking Gerrard to the attack from his position in the hole, but with Danny Welbeck “leading the line” (really?), England struggled to create danger in the final third. I am not sure how James Milner gets to wear an England shirt, but not only does he get one (to keep!), he starts on the right which, terrible. Ashley Young finally moved to the left wing and his influence on the game has waned to the point where my prediction that he was the man to watch in Group D no seems like a hostile provocation against the eyeballs of other viewers. It was not intended that way.
Stay down? Please?
Ukraine have some bright young players, but they too were a team in-between identities, with their legends and youth blending into something somewhat incoherent. Still, they should have drawn this match, if it weren’t for a good goal that was not given…
That was in. The scorer was offside, but we expect linesmen to blow offside calls (ok, we don’t, but still, it happens. A lot. But it happens); once the onside was (incorrectly given), that should have been a goal.
What can you say about UEFA and FIFA? The technology exists to eliminate human consideration from this issue because clearly, human consideration in the form of a 5th official on the goal line, next to the goal, staring directly at this ball did not generate the correct call. It may be the best thing for everyone that John Terry made that clearance; it means that England, the team Platini and Blatter love to hate, got a win when they should have had a draw. And now, suddenly, Blatter decides it is time to consider goal line technology taking to Twitter to say:
“After last night’s match #GLT is no longer an alternative but a necessity.”**
After last night’s match? Really? How about “since it was invented?” Anyway, yay England! They hate you so much they may cut off their nose to improve their face! It is so obvious that this is the right thing to do that it is beyond comprehension how dozens of UEFA and FIFA fat cats can’t look up from their piles of money long enough to fix the game. Outrageous, but hey what do we expect? This is a game without accountability, run by despots who do what they like with impunity. Why fix anything except tournament bids?
Quarterfinals here we come.
*Obviously not true; England would foul and injure him after a while.
**Please do yourself a favor and follow that link so you can read all of the amazing Tweets Sepp received in response. Worth a read and bring some popcorn…
Another final day of Group play, another dose of drama. The Group of Death had its share of heart-stopping possibility heading into play; Denmark and Portugal stood tied on three points, Germany was top with six. If The Netherlands could beat Portugal by two goals and Germany could beat Denmark, the Dutch could come from nowhere (ala Greece) and claim second place in the Group. Knowing all of this going in, these games hung on every chance, but it was the missing superstar who stole the show and a team I expected to struggle found itself advancing ahead of a favorite. First things first, though, and that means Germany.
Denmark v Germany
Great game. The Danes played this entire tournament with a lot of guts and determination and their match against Germany was no exception. After falling behind 1-0 to a Lukas Podolski sitter…
… Denmark stayed with their game plan and pressed the Germans, earning a corner and getting a goal to tie it 1-1. Ah, lovely set pieces…
The Danes were in it with a shout, barring a Portugal win which, doh. It all became moot in the 80th minute when Mesut Özil played a perfect, and I mean perfect, ball to Lars Bender, who slotted home the winner.
For all of Denmark’s excellent qualities, you have to love the Germans taking all nine points in the Group of Death as a good sign for them. Obviously. That said, hmmmm. 1-0, 2-1, 2-1; Germany have not been able to put a beating on anyone and they have some real strugglers in the side right now, primarily Thomas Müller who has been awful in front of goal (and scored none) and Lukas Podolski who, despite his hammer shot for 1-0 against the Danes, seems out of synch with the team on the left hand side; he is not providing crosses or balls into the box, leaving Lahm, Özil and Khedira to provide the danger. I like Germany’s toughness and their quality, but I see trouble ahead; if this team falls behind, I will be interested to see what they do. The good news is that Bastian Schweinsteiger continues to boss it in the middle of the park and the team are finding the right balance of attack and defense with their LB/RB combinations. Still, the Germans have yet to dominate anyone, which makes me wonder if they might not be opening themselves up for trouble in the later stages. I like this team a lot, but they seem to be missing a real cutting edge; I think Özil needs to take this team by the balls and play with Xavi-style authority. He can be a true leader for the side with his qualities, but too often seems to defer to more senior players and drifts around the final third trying to link play instead of running the show. Stay tuned; I think it gets interesting for Germany in the semi-final.
The Netherlands v Portugal
Hello, Cristiano Ronaldo. It is nice to see you again. I had been wondering aloud where you might have gone, but I see you’ve turned up now.
Great ball, great run, good finish
Last time around, when Ronaldo missed some chances in the team’s 3-2 win over Denmark, I wrote:
”…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.”
Ok, so a brace, a dominant performance an a match winner that sends the Portuguese into the knockout stages from the Group of Death. Well done, CR7. I am not a fan of the man, but he is an incredible player and you want to see great players play great. That’s just what he did against The Netherlands, and now Portugal looked primed and dangerous, with five goals in their last two games and a renewed sense that they can do some damage in Euro 2012.
And then… The Netherlands. Wow. Three matches, no points. The good news? Hey, Van der Vaart scored to put the Dutch 1-0 up…?
The bad news? Ronaldo scored two after that and the Dutch, finalists at the 2010 World Cup, are going home without a point in Group play. I am not sure anyone dreamed that this would happen. The team is utterly stacked with attacking talent and yet here they are, again, flashing back to the team of individuals that plays without any cohesion. All the Dutch supporters were complaining about Robin van Persie’s misses in front of goal, the conservative approach of two defensive midfielders, etc. So, in the final game, manager Bert van Marwijk brought on Van der Vaart (who scored) and Huntelaar (who did not) and the Dutch still struggled to find the goal.
Let’s be clear; the Portuguese counterattack that saw Ronaldo bang in two goals was a direct result of The Dutch pressing forward to bag a second goal and find a way into the knockout stages. If the Dutch had been in a better position in the Group, they might have had a more balanced approach to playing defensive football at 1-0 up. But the desperation they showed was of their own making; time and again, the Dutch attack broke down when it might have soared. As I said last time around:
“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.”
The Dutch suffered from the same malady the entire tournament– they had no chimestry. At all. Again. And now they head home as by far the biggest disappointment of the Euro 2012.
A shame, really.
Knockout time, and who expected this? Russia, the Group leaders who pounded the Czech Republic 4-1 on opening day? Out. Poland, the hosts, looking bright in their 1-1 draw against frontrunners Russia? Do widzenia. Group A turned my expectations upside down.
Poland v Czech Republic
Sorry, but when you can’t play through the middle of the park and your attack is as one sided and one dimensional as Poland’s, you have to expect trouble. And when the Czechs counter attacked right up the middle of the park in the 72nd minute as Poland went looking for a winner, Petr Jiracek stepped up and put the team on top of Group A. For good.
It was a deserved victory for a team that had been battered 4-1 on the opening day of the tournament, a team holding out hope that they could sneak into the knockout stages in second place. Poland, on the other hand, needed a win and played with increasing desperation, which only made them more predictable and open to the counter attack. Still, they had the chance to grab a draw and knock the Czechs out of the tournament in the dying moments which Michael Kadlec made an incredible clearance off the line to preserve the victory.
It was a strange tournament for Poland, who battled hard and played attractive football but who simply could not diversify their attack enough to unleash Lewandowski on opposing defenses. At Borussia Dortmund, Lewandowski received attacking support all over the pitch; Kagawa, Blaszczykowski, Göetze, etc. For Poland, he was completely isolated up top with Blaszczykowski and Piscek combining on the right to provide the main support. With Polanski and others finding no joy in the attack, the Euros ended early for Poland, who leave without a win as hosts. A shame.
Still, you have to look at the Czechs and marvel at their heart, coming back from massive disappointment to win the group. It gets much more difficult from here (more on that in my next post), but their defense has become more and more solid as the tournament has worn on, so you never know. No really, you NEVER KNOW. Just look at…
Greece v Russia
What. The. Fuck?
Yes, Greece, who were bottom of the group heading into the final day of Group A, beat high-flying Russia 1-0 on a smash-and-grab goal in the dying moments of the first half to
ruin my fantasy team win the match and advance into the knockout stages based on the first tie-breaker in the Euro Groups; head-to-head. Even though Greece had a 0 goal differential and Russia were +2 and both had 4 point sin the Group, Greece beat Russia, so on they go. Greece did a brilliant job in this match of watching Russia blow their chances playing group defense, echoing their incredible Euro 2004 win with full commitment to playing shut down, counter-attacking football. Well done to the Greeks, who continue to surprise as the world (myself included) continues to underestimate their football. The real shame is that captain Giorgos Karagounis was tripped in the box and picked up a yellow for “diving” instead of earning a legit penalty (UEFA should look at the tape and rescind the card), and now misses the quarterfinal. He was not happy.
Meanwhile, Russia. What can you say? Theirs was a tournament cut in half; the first 135 minutes, when they scored five goals and conceded one, and the second 135 minutes, when Andrei Arshavin ran out of gas, Yuri Zhirkov forgot how to cross the ball, Roman Pavyluchenko and Aleksandr Kerzhakov couldn’t score in a brothel, and Russia ran out of ideas, conceding two goals and scoring NONE. If anyone would have told me heading into the Poland and Greece matches that Russia would score one goal and concede two in their final two games, I would have laughed in their face. And yet, out they go, the second biggest disappointment in the tournament.
What a huge opportunity lost, not just for the team and their supporters, but for the rest of us, who were really enjoying Russia’s positive approach to the game. But they, like so many other teams, suffered from fatigue and a lack of a plan when plan number one (in this case, Andrei Arshavin) didn’t work out. For all of their positivity, Russia were too dependent on Kerzhakov and Arshavin to create when, in fact, both players seemed to fade into poor form as the tournament wore on. Tapping the ball around outside of the box as the other team throws ten men behind the ball is not going to win matches; you have to invite them onto you a little bit, have some steel in the middle of the park and get some sort of advantage heading toward goal. The extreme example of this idea is Greece, who retreated so deep that Russia couldn’t help but come forward, only to exploit a opening on the counter for the win. Russia could not find the right mix, and when the Greeks and Poles camped out in their own ends and sucker punched them on the counter, they had no answer, no way to find a telling ball. It almost happened for Russia, when Arshavin looped a telling cross onto the head of the excellent Alan Dzagoev, but the youngster pushed the ball inches wide of the Greek post.
After that, a quick ball and a smart run, the clock ran down and Russia were gone. Shame, but it is the price you pay for tactical monotony. Should have known better. до свидания
Thrill of, agony of, etc.
Friday Group D took center stage and provided us with the France we expected and the thriller between England and Sweden that we had hoped for. Crazy weather, crazy turns of event, unlikely scorers, unlikely goals; Friday had it all. Rebecca Black would have been proud.
France vs Ukraine
France v Ukraine got off to a stormy start, with rain dousing the pitch in absolute sheets, lightning ripping across the sky. The match was postponed after 4 minutes and both teams retreated to the shelter of the locker room to wait out the storm. When they finally resumed, France stepped to the fore, playing a fluid, attacking football that flowed through Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, about whom, more in a minute. Ukraine struggled to get the ball to their young playmakers Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplianka, and the match saw the outsanding work rate of Andriy Shevchenko rewarded with a one true chance on goal, a one touch touch strike that was beaten away by French keeper Hugo Lloris.
France’s dominance came with some controversy, though; after a good offside call ruled out a Jeremy Menez strike, the player was booked and should have seen a second card just before the half for a violent foul in the ceneter cricle on Yevhen Selin. He escaped justice and frustration and it paid off; when Benzema slid him a pass in the box, he cut back and slotted home near post to put France up 1-0.
His play completely justified Laurent Blanc’s decision to play him in lieu of Chelsea winger Flourent Malouda; Menez had several chances on goal and was dangerous (literally) all night. Just three minutes later, the deep lying Benzema collected the ball and slid an inch perfect 20 yard pass to Yohan Cabaye, who gathered the ball and scored. 2-0 and there was no way back for Ukraine as France maintained possession and kept pressing their technical advantage.
In my post about the France v England match, I noted that Benzema seemed to be playing too deep to threaten the goal, and that was the case again against Ukraine, but this time, the decision paid off because of the runs of Ribery, Cabaye and Menez. It seems antithetical to have one of the best target strikers in the world playing in the hole behind, well, no one, but it’s a new day for strikers; slide back in the midfield and play deep, feeding the attack instead of leading it. In this case, it worked like a charm and Benzema was excellent in drawing defenders deep and beating them with quick, creative, precise passing. His play and movement have been phenomenal; it’s only a matter of time before he scores.
Benzema is excellent.
As for Ukraine, well, it is tough to watch the hosts struggle but the pace and technical ability of France were too much on the day. Watching Franck Ribery kick the ball down the line and sprint past Ukrainian wingers who were trying deperately to keep up, you knew that France were on another level as athletes. The best team won and there is no shame in that. With three points in hand and Wayne Rooney coming back for England with the anticipation of a tag team wrestler clearing the ring with violent abandon, it does not look good for Ukraine. Still, win and they are in. All to play for.
England v Sweden
Well that was fun. England beat Sweden 3-2 in a pulsating match that saw a Danny Welbeck falling backheel goal in the 78th minute claw England back from 2-1 down to win and eliminate Sweden (nooooo!) from the knockout stages. I think the goals tell the story of this match, so let’s watch it unfold… in Arabic, with amazing goal calls, which, always awesome.
I have been hard on Roy Hodgson on this blog, mostly because I think he stinks as a manager; I had to endure one of the worst six month stretches of my life as a football fan watching him sign shitty players and play atrocious football with my club team Liverpool. So, I am completely biased against him, can’t stand him, am amazed by fair-mined people who have given him a chance and the benefit of the doubt; are you crazy, folks? This is Roy Hodgson! And yet. Hodgson on the day did a great job of targeting Sweden’s weaknesses (aerial defense and speed) with his player selection and substitutions, and every move seemed to pay off. Starting Andy Carroll? A headed goal for 1-0. Bringing on Theo Walcott for the once again utterly crap James Milner? Goal and assist for the winner. Well done, Roy. You can’t argue with that at all. This was much better from England, who played against type and showed toughness and skill (take a bow, Danny Welbeck) in earning a win. Three goals and a come from behind win? Roy Hodgson, for this day, I eat my words. Well done.
Moment in the sun.
And yet… Sweden! Guh! Two goals from Olof Mellberg, which, amazing. But Sweden played like Bizarro England and this match ended up looking like an English club match, which played perfectly into England’s hands. England are always going to struggle against strong, technical teams who can keep the ball (see France), but Sweden could not play that way and instead made a huge sacrifice to their own quality. The issue was the positioning of Rasmus Elm and Kim Kallstrom, two decent players who were outclassed by their opposite numbers, and how they interchanged with the true genius on the pitch last night, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Instead of pushing Zlatan to get up the field, near the goal, where he is briliant, Sweden played him in the hole and he played deep, putting ball after ball into Elm and Kallstrom in the attack, neither of whom, it should be noted, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. WHo would you rather have bearing down on goal? The issue is that Elm and Kallstrom needed help against Gerrard and Scott Parker, and so Zlatan cam deep to help out and, more often than not, ended up a mile from goal.
The way Sweden deployed Zlatan reminded me of watching Lionel Messi in the 2010 World Cup, collecting the ball at the center circle and being urged to “make something happen”, then struggling to do so. Zlatan is not a natural #10, he has the skill and the drive, but he does not have the positional know how; he does not bomb forward in the attack, making plays near the box. But there he is, miles from goal, playing the ball wide to a winger and then walking up the pitch knowing the attack has passed him by and that, even if he hauled ass into the box, he would never get a return ball.
I was literally going crazy watching him. Look at Zlatan’s return so far; a tap in from one yard in front of goal when he was pushed forward and an assist from a busted set piece to Olof Mellberg from the edge of the penalty area. You know where Zlatan is not making plays and scoring goals? From deep balls through the middle. The lack of a natural #10 in the CAM role, the role Steven Gerrard has been dominating for England, has cost Sweden the best use of its best player. Make no mistake, even at his languid, frustrating pace in this match, Ibrahimovic was one of the two best players on the pitch. Had he been able to lead the attack from an advanced position with a CAM behind him, it might have been so different for Sweden. But they didn’t, he wasn’t and now they are headed home in disappointment again. Is it a lack of players or does Zlatan prefer to walk back and forth, ten yards from either side of the center circle for the majority of the match? Not sure. Either way, Sweden are headed home. What might have been…
The final day of Group D should be a good one; everyone except Sweden will want to win and then, even they will want to go down in glory over France. This is the first time in history that every match in the final Group stage will have an impact on who goes through, which only underlines what a great Tournament this has been so far. Get your “picture in picture” ready on the TV; the simultaneous Group finales are pure excitement!