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.
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…
Bang bang bang.
… 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.
2-1 and done.
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
That’s how you counter attack. GREAT goal.
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…?
1-0. Looking good!
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.
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.
In my Group A Preview, I described the concept of the GROUP OF DEATH as
“a gathering of four teams so alike in stature and potential that any one of them might go on to win the group or miss qualification for the knock out stages. These groups usually feature perennial powerhouses, each a favorite, each impossible to look beyond. The GROUP OF DEATH means thrills, uncertainty, triumph and heartbreak. You can’t look away, each match having the potential to be a classic.”
Well. Welcome to the Group of Death, Euro 2012 style.
Group B has all the makings of greatness, with two of the tournament favorites, Germany and The Netherlands, battling it out for supremacy alongside an historically strong but underachieving Portugal and 1992 surprise winners Denmark (who actually beat Portugal and won Group H in qualifying). This should be a lot of fun to watch, with two of the best teams, perhaps the in-form striker in the world right now and the best European player of the season all colliding in a single group. Let’s get to the previewing, shall we?
Denmark are a strange team. Yeah, I said it. On the one hand, they are organized, disiciplined and have some very good players; defender Daniel Agger (homer alert: he plays for my Liverpool side at club level) and the exciting young talent Christian Eriksen of Ajax are the types of player that can turn a match with a bombing run forward or a beautiful ball from nothing. On the other hand, you watch Denmark play and the game often falls to the team trying to get the ball to striker Nicklas Bendtner, who can score but who is often isolated in attack. The result? Inconsistency and a lack of fluid play in the midfield creates frustration, until a moment of brilliance, seemingly from nowhere, saves the day. Unfortunately for the Danes, Group B won’t allow any “get out of jail free” cards; too much quality in the Group sees Denmark struggle.
Denmark’s all-ink frontrunner Daniel Agger
Tipped by many as finalists at worst, winners at best, Joachim Low’s fluid, powerful German side have all the makings of a real contender. I am sure I could sit here and make jokes all day about how Germany are “mechanical” and “methodical” but the fact of the matter is, this is not your father’s Germany. Full of flair and chemistry, Low’s Germany team have many ways of beating you; in the air, on the ground, from crosses and through balls, set pieces and counter attacks. Just ask Group B rivals The Netherlands, who played a friendly with Germans back in November and took a 3-0 beating. One of the great things about watching the Germans play is the dedication of each player to his role in Low’s system; Lahm’s sweeping runs, Ozil’s patient and beautiful passing, Muller’s arrival at just the right moment, Schweinstiger’s control and disruption, Neuer’s distribution. Everyone on Germany plays just the right part, and I expect big things from them in this tournament. Of course, there is one major stumbling block on the way to glory, it’s probably…
Joachim Low keeps Germany ticking
Nobody is scoring goals right now like Robin van Persie; a classic center forward in every sense of the word, the Arsenal man has been unstoppable leading the line for his club and country. When you add a playmaker like Inter Milan’s Wesley Sneijder and the pace and skill of Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben into the mix, you have the makings of a deadly attack. Of course, that has never been a problem for the Dutch; it is the back line where the Oranje have had a few concerns. Yes, the team are filled with quality players at every position, but somehow, the Dutch always seem prone to the sucker punch; look at their recent 2-1 loss to Bulgaria for the most recent example of the counter attack causing this team agony. Of course, they can also play lights out, dominate the ball and they remain the best team never to have won the World Cup (losing the most recent 2010 final to Spain). Their match against Germany in the group stage will be the true test of the team; win that match, and suddenly, the Dutch will be looking like contenders to lift the trophy.
You down with RVP? Yeah, you know me…
Portugal begin and end with one man, the most prolific European goal scoring machine of the past few years, Cristiano Ronaldo. When he is not battling Lionel Messi for the La Liga scoring title with Real Madrid, Ronaldo is turning in disappointing performances for his national team. For some reason, mental or tactical, I am just not sure, Ronaldo never turns it on for his country in the same way he does for his club. One factor is obviously that, at Madrid, he is surrounded by world class players in a league without much parity. When playing for Portugal, Ronaldo is surrounded by good players who just can’t seem to put it all together. This team are no exception; their form coming into the Euros is poor (0-0 with Poland and Macedonia, losing 3-1 to Turkey), their qualifying campaign was bizarre (a 4-4 draw with Cyprus, losses to Norway and Denmark) and they just don’t seem to gel as a team. Without a true #10 in the midfield to connect the play between the attack and defense (show pony Ricardo Quaresma wears the 10 for Portugal), they look lost. Unfortunately, Group B is not the place to go looking for an identity. Disappointment looms.
Ronaldo scores goals. Lots of goals.
Must See Match
Is this even a question? Irresistible force, meet immovable object. It has to be Germany vs The Netherlands on Wednesday June 13th. Few Group stage matches ever feature this level of excitement. These two teams will bring down the house– position by position, player by player, they are about as equally matched as any two teams in the Euros. Any other year, this might be the final. It still may…
Players To Watch
Group B features several all-universe players– Ronaldo, Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, Ozil– but one man who will likely be the one to decide the fate of his team is Germany’s Mario Gomez. The Bayern Munich striker is the definition of the poacher, always seeming to pop-up in the right place at the right time to grab a vital goal. That said, he runs super hot and, suddenly, super cold; hardly the most technically gifted player, Gomez can switch from assassin to absolute donkey at the drop of a hat. He’ll have some of the most incredible misses you’ll ever see, only to follow them up with a 93rd minute tap in to win the match. If Germany can get Gomez going, watch out; if he struggles, there may be others to pick up the slack, but it will take some doing to go all the way without him at the top of his game.
Mario Gomez: He Scores When He Wants To
I like Germany to win the Group, with The Netherlands right behind them into the knock-out stages, Denmark to nick third against a very disappointing Portugal.