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
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
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.
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
More quality, more problems, more drama. The Group C finale left it late. Onward!
Italy v Republic Of Ireland
After a strong qualifying campaign full of tough, gutsy performances that saw them go 14 consecutive matches without a loss, I had high hopes for the Republic Of Ireland, but Group C showed just how far they have to go as they transition to a new generation of players. Italy proved no exception for Ireland, beating them handily 2-0 on strikes from Antonio Cassano..
… and a late wonder goal from Mario Balotelli….
Before and between the Italian goals, Ireland struggled to make an impression; even if they kept it tighter at the back (both goals came from set pieces), Ireland posed only a minor threat (*wink*) to the Italians, allowing Andrea Pirlo to stamp his authority on the match with his dominance in the attack. It’s a funny old game; while Pirlo might be a typically Serie A attacking midfielder, which means he doesn’t do too much on defense and his tackling is left wanting, Italy are structured to allow him to make plays by having forwards who play a high line and keep pressure on the back four. This allows Pirlo and Marchissio to get into space between the midfield and the defense when Italy win the ball back, which is always. In many ways, football is a game about space, about conceding and suddenly retaking space after your opponent has dragged himself out of position.
All-tournament: Andrea Pirlo
In this way, Italy play like boxers, guarding themselves while waiting for the right opening to throw their own knockout blow, usually when the opposition have committed just too much. Let me say; it works. If the first two matches saw Italy tire and let down their own guard, allowing their opponents to score after falling behind, this match saw Italy deliver their own late goal to seal a place in the knockout rounds. Italy look good, ready to make some noise in the Euro 2012. Ireland? Time to rethink the plan.
Spain v Croatia
Spain left it late to seal a 1-0 win and take the Group. In my Group C preview, I noted that Ireland had a chance if they could hold it down against Spain; they didn’t, losing 4-0, a total which meant that Spain could win the Group if… wait. What? UEFA’s tie-breaker system doesn’t prioritize goal differential? That’s right; heading into the 88th minute, Italy were looking to win the Group as Spain and Croatia battled to 0-0 because of their goals scored in a mini-league between the eligible teams, which means no Ireland goals counted which, what? Not a fan of the system, for sure. Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas made it irrelevant in the 88th, on a beautiful move that finally broke down Croatia’s offside trap. Fabregas chipped to Iniesta, who played in Navas (behind the ball, onside) and he tapped in the win.
Spain win! Yes, but… yikes. They left it very late. Torres struggled in isolation up top; his game is best suited to making solo runs and punishing defenses that have pushed forward. No one does that against Spain; the team hold the ball like no team in history, win it back with lightning quickness and opposing sides are forced to put everyone behind the ball. Every once in a while, teams will counter and threaten Spain (see Italy), and Croatia did this to great effect, with Luka Modric putting an inch perfect ball to the far post, only to have this happen:
If that had gone in, Spain were about to be knocked out of the Tournament. That is worrying; with no coherent attack at this point, no focal point that can play in the sweeping, attacking style of the Spanish midfield, Spain walked a true tightrope in this match. That close to going home, but it is, as they say, a game of inches.
Croatia, well, it sucks that they are gone. They played attractive, smart, tactically astute football for the entire Tournament; you get the feeling they would have qualified in Group A or D. That’s the draw and those are the breaks. Still, you have to be impressed with Manduzukic and Modric, with the quality of the team and the manager Slavan Bilic, who has managed his last match for the team (he’s off to club football). Croatia stayed in it until very late, but didn’t have the one magic touch they needed to win the match. These are the breaks.
The Euro 2012 has claimed its first victim: The Republic of Ireland are the first team knocked out of the tournament, which is sad for me (big fan of Ireland) but hey, deserved; the rest of Group C have produced excellent, competitive football. This has been a great Tournament so far, with 11 of 12 teams still alive on the final day of Group play. Group C provided two very different matches on their second match day, each thrilling in its own way. To the recaps!
Croatia v Italy
Two matches, two leads lost, two draws; the Italian philosophy of “score and shut the door” has been a failure so far. And while every team in the world can be forgiven for shipping a goal to Spain, Mario Mandzukic ’s 72nd minute strike, which cancelled out a brilliant, clinical 39th minute Andrea Pirlo free kick, was a different story; the game should have been done and dusted by the time the Croatians found the net. Italy were simply unable to convert their chances, with
blog favorite striker Mario Balotelli missing a slew of opportunities. The Italians seemed to fade in terms of their commitment and their fitness; by the time Ivan Strinic’s great cross found Mandzukic on the far post, it seemed like the simple mistake of leaving him unmarked was a symptom of Italy’s plan to sit back and defend. You must play positive, possession football when you can. It doesn’t mean you cannot defend, but you have to play smart.
A quick word on Pirlo– how about that free kick? Classic Pirlo, he’s been an ageless wonder this tournament. Incredible to see him play at this level at age 33; you cannot hide as a CAM, and his ability to make plays has lead directly to both of Italy’s goals this Tournament. On the other hand, you have to wonder about Daniele De Rossi, who has been brilliant playing in a modified “sweeper” role at the back, and what he might be able to do if Italy went to a single striker, played a true back four and put De Rossi in a more advanced DM role. You just get the feeling that manager Cesare Prandelli is playing a little too much with his players in odd positions and while the team have been very good, if he’s serious about locking the door, he may want to add some possession to the midfield while adding to the back line.
He can’t do it all: Italy’s Andrea Pirlo
Croatia, on the other hand, have put themselves in good shape to go through. If they can earn a draw with Spain, it would go a long way toward helping them into the next round. Spain will be playing, though; with two teams on four points and Italy likely to earn five points by beating Ireland, it could come down to the third (goal differential) or fourth (goals scored) tiebreakers to decide the Group.
Ya Heard? Mandzukic makes it 1-1
Republic of Ireland v Spain
OK. What can you say? This was a total destruction, one of the most dominant performances you are likely to ever see at an international tournament. The gulf in class could be measured in miles. I mean, this…
Let’s look at some statistics to outline Spain’s dominance, shall we?
4-0 score (duh)
20 shots on goal vs 4 for Ireland
860 passes attempted
78% of possession
Xavi broke the Euro record for passing, completing 127 of 136 passes
Xavi and Iniesta combined had more successful passes than the entire Irish team
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
I could go on all day. This was Spain at its most incredible. Even Fernando Torres looked to his old Liverpool-era form, which, wow. Iniesta, Xavi and Xabi Alonso absolutely bossed the match like nothing I’ve ever seen. I won’t rub it in any more. Like I said, what can you say?
They’ll want to keep it going; Spain have to be nailed on as favorites against Croatia and to win Group C. Good news for Italy? Stay tuned.
Match Day 3 with Group C was my favorite of the Euro 2012 so far. Yes, Ireland lost (big time), but I thought both Croatia’s excellent display of clinical finishing and Vicente Del Bosque’s bat-shit crazy decision to play a 4-6-0 with Spain being punished with a well-deserved draw by a tough Italian side were outstanding matches to watch. I was in relative disbelief all day, which for me is a pure compliment to the sport; you just never know what will happen when the games start to mean something. Match reviews ahoy!
Spain v Italy
OK, I am quoting my Group previews too often, but seriously, I can’t help myself on this one. Spain!
“And yet… look toward the attacking end and you start to see some problems. Fernando Llorente, a classic center forward, plays a very specific type of game, one that demands aerial service and patience. Fernando Torres is coming off of the worst form of his life, his confidence seemingly destroyed by a string of injuries and a lengthy spell as a bit part player at Chelsea. Álvaro Negredo scores for Spain… when he gets on the field. And Pedro Rodriguez is a classic #2 man, mopping up with goals and assists when given the chance. What’s missing? David Villa. The Barcelona striker has been the model of consistency for Spain for the past four years, but a serious injury this season has ruled him out of the Euros. So, who will step up and replace Villa? Who among the strikers can claim the goals?”
It looks like Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque agreed with me, having made the decision to start the match against Italy with no strikers– zero, none, nada. Instead, he played midfield playmaker Cesc Fabregas in an advanced position with Man City maestro David Silva in the hole behind him and had his midfield six… SIX!… in full, attacking flow. Xavi/Iniesta/Fabgregas/Silva/Busquets/Alonso played their typically fluent ball, with passages of brilliance (especially the Iniesta to Silva to Fabregas sequence that lead to Spain’s lone goal), but without a focal point for the attack, a player in the box who could pull away defenders and draw some attention, the Italians were happy to bunker down and counter in the classic Italian style. And it would have worked too if it weren’t for the meddling Spaniards and theindividual brilliance on display during Spain’s goal…
That said, the Italians showed they were not to be overlooked and they certainly deserved their draw on a sweet, flowing counterattack, the goal set into motion by a brilliant ball from Andrea Pirlo to Antonio Di Natale, who buried his first touch of the game with aplomb.
Again, words of wisdom…
“The only chance opponents have against Spain is to press hard when you can, play organized lights out defense and counter attack with efficiency; if you concede the ball to them, sit back and try to defend, it’s game over and lights out. If you can squeak a goal and disrupt the Spanish strikers with tough, physical play, you may have a chance.”
This was Italy all the way; tenacious, physical (De Rossi playing on the backline was outstanding) and patient. Of course, my man to watch, Mario Balotelli was his usual enigmatic self, earning a yellow card for, well, not much, earning a penalty that was not given by the ref (clearly a penalty… should have been given all day) and, strangely, breaking free of the Spanish defense and walking the ball in on Casillas, only to be caught from behind, a glorious chance wasted. Fernando Torres was much the same; clearly through on goal, he chose to take the ball wide on Buffon, who stayed on his feet and played the ball. Torres also missed a glorious chance at a winner, chipping the Italian keeper but putting the ball well over the bar. In the end, 1-1 seemed the just result (surprisingly) and the question must be asked of Spain– better with or without a striker? Not sure a third title can be claimed without a focal point for the Spanish attack. And Italy now look very good; their game against Croatia will be a stormer.
Croatia v Ireland
This match was an excellent reminder that, in the words of boxer Sugar Shane Mosely, “styles make fights.” Croatia march to the beat of Luka Modrić and the midfield maestro did not disappoint with Croatia bossing large portions of the game and getting three goals from their strikers on the heels of Irish mistakes. First, striker Mario Mandzukić jumped up from his knees to put a speculative header toward the corner of the goal, only to have Shay Given react slowly and let the ball leak in to put Croatia up 1-0. After Ireland equalized on a set-piece header from Sean St. Ledger, in-form striker Nikica Jelavić pounced on an errant clearance during a set piece, one timing a chip over Given and restoring Croatia’s lead before Mandzukić put the Irish away with another header that ricocheted off the post, onto a diving Shay Given’s face and in. 3-1 and goodnight.
Ireland actually played brightly in the final minutes with Croatia content to protect a two goal lead and absorb the pressure, but Keith Andrews stared down chance after chance and blinked, peppering the goal line boards with errant headers and shots wide of the target. This was not the Ireland that had gone undefeated for fourteen consecutive matches, tight at the back and confident on the counter; Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane were completely starved of the ball, with Croatia absolutely bossing it in midfield. It is no surprise, in retrospect, that Croatian manager Slavan Bilić knew exactly what to do; give the Irish a heavy dose of Mandzukić and Jelavić and make them pick their poison. It worked perfectly and with the help of some terrible Irish luck, Croatia took three points and shot to the top of the Group with Italy and Spain looming. It was a vital win for them, a dominant performance that should put Italy on notice that they are in for a real fight.
Your Mandzukić of the match.
Euro 2012: GROUP C PREVIEW
Your international footballing history fact of the day: no team has ever won a European Championship, a World Cup and another European Championship consecutively. In fact, no team has won back to back European Championships, never mind a World Cup in between. The only team to have come close to that feat was Germany; in 1972, Germany won the Euros, followed by a win in the 1974 World Cup, only to lose on penalties in the final of the 1976 Euros to Czechoslovakia (ouch).
But history may be in the cards for 2012; Spain stand poised to become the first European team ever to win three consecutive major international trophies. Hard to bet against them; once again, they look the favorites to win it all. I have my suspicions; having relied heavily on the goal scoring touch of the great (and now injured) David Villa and carrying a front line missing Villa’s clinical edge, Spain have some questions to answer. Questions like “where will the goals come from?” You know, important questions. And of course, there are fifteen other teams in the tournament looking to knock them out, and three members of their Group who would be thrilled to take points off of the defending champions. There is no easy path to the trophy, but still, Group C is likely to be a case of Spain and the also rans, a battle for second place among three interesting teams with a lot of history.
Personally speaking, Croatia are one of my favorite teams to watch, primarily because of their rock-and-roll manger Slaven Bilić. Bilić is the kind of man who seems to both love football and to not care at all about what the world thinks of him, his methods, his approach to living*. Despite not having a world beating side, his teams play attractive, attacking football, driven by their playmaking Mr. Everything Luka Modrić. Modrić plays simple, elegant must-see football, both for his home club of Tottenham Hotspur and with Croatia, and his fluent passing game creates openings for attack from players as diverse as Bayern Munich’s Ivica Olić (who is fearless and direct in attack) to the surprise of the professional season, Everton striker Nikica Jelavić (who has a brilliant eye for beautiful, timely goals). Add in a roster of veterans like Dario Srna ans Josip Šimunić and you should have a real contender. All of that said, Croatia have been underachieving of late, needing a qualifying playoff win against Turkey to make it to the tournament, while pre-tournament friendlies against Sweden (a 3-1 loss) and Norway (a 1-1 draw) have not provided any answers. Still, you can’t help but feel Bilić will keep the team loose and in the thick of Group C.
Croatia’s Manager Slaven Bilić enjoys some down time
Uh oh. The Italian national team is once again in… wait for it… crisis as a new generation of players look to make their mark on the Azzuri. Let’s flash back to 2006, when Italy was ensconced in a betting and match fixing scandal that ripped through their professional league. That controversy galvanized an uncertain Italian side and drove them to a gritty World Cup title. Well, here we are again; authorities have been making inquiries and arrests in yet another match fixing scandal in Italy**, the team have been shaky in recent months and all signs point to problems. Despite dominating in qualifying, it has been a bumpy road to the Euros for the perennial powerhouse, with three consecutive losses to Uruguay, The USA (hooray!) and a 3-0 pounding last week at the hands of Russia. The team that once boasted of its Catennaccio (which literally means “door-bolt”) is now young, hungry, full of inexperience and leaking goals. But don’t be fooled; Italy’s roster is deep with talent and besides, who cares about experimental friendlies? Basta! With
antiquated veteran playmaker Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings, bulldog midfielder Daniele De Rossi providing the bite and talented attackers like Antonio Cassano and Mario Ballotelli (about whom more in a moment), there is plenty of fight left in the Italian side. Look for them to be competitive in every match, fighting for a place in the knock out rounds. Can they triumph over scandal again? This one will be very interesting…
Republic Of Ireland
Full disclosure: I will be supporting The Republic of Ireland during Euro 2012. With that out of the way, this is a team that has put together some nifty results in recent months; the team are on a fourteen match unbeaten streak (without a loss in 15 of their last 16) and are looking sharp heading into the tournament. They also hold a recent win over Italy (2-0 last June) and drew with fellow Euro teams Russia, Czech Republic and, interestingly, Croatia in the past few months. What does it mean for the tournament? Well, I’m hoping that Ireland can ride their luck (see what I did there?) and get some results, but I don’t have a great feeling. What worries me is that, while the defense has been solid, Ireland have not exactly been banging in the goals; looking at their results, there are a lot of 0-0 draws that might have gone either way. Plus, a strike force of Shane Long, Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle aren’t exactly the types to put fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. In order to advance, Ireland are going to need to win one, draw one and keep the score down against Spain. It’s not exactly mission impossible, but if they can continue to stay in matches and nick results, they have a shot at surprising. But without goals? No chance.
The defending European and World Champions need no introduction, but I have to say something, so let me put aside a few things. First, the midfield of Xabi Alonso, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Santio Cazorla, Juan Mata and Sergio Busquets is, quite literally, the epitome of vomit-inducing greatness. Most teams will not touch the ball against that group; small, simple, elegant passing, the ball pinging back and forth into space, will drive opposition players into tears of frustration and exhaustion. You cannot put that group into words. That collection of players is likely the best ever. Only 4-5 of them will start a game, though.
At the back, Iker Casillas is an all-universe goalie whose substitutes, Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina, are world class, each a guaranteed starter on almost any other team in the world. Defenders Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique and Alvaro Albiloa are outstanding in defense, converting defense into attack, and playing their part in ball possession. Who can stop Spain?
And yet… look toward the attacking end and you start to see some problems. Fernando Llorente, a classic center forward, plays a very specific type of game, one that demands aerial service and patience. Fernando Torres is coming off of the worst form of his life, his confidence seemingly destroyed by a string of injuries and a lengthy spell as a bit part player at Chelsea. Álvaro Negredo scores for Spain… when he gets on the field. And Pedro Rodriguez is a classic #2 man, mopping up with goals and assists when given the chance. What’s missing? David Villa. The Barcelona striker has been the model of consistency for Spain for the past four years, but a serious injury this season has ruled him out of the Euros. So, who will step up and replace Villa? Who among the strikers can claim the goals? With the rest of the team flying, will it matter?
The only chance opponents have against Spain is to press hard when you can, play organized lights out defense and counter attack with efficiency; if you concede the ball to them, sit back and try to defend, it’s game over and lights out. If you can squeak a goal and disrupt the Spanish strikers with tough, physical play, you may have a chance. You have to get them frustrated, press them, force a mistake and then you have to be clinical and punish it. Then? Maybe you have a chance. Maybe. Look for Spain to advance from Group C, but sit tight as they try to run the table and make history by repeating as Champions.
Spain: Once The Underachievers, Now The Dominant Force
Must See Match
While I am tempted to say that any encounter between powers Spain and Italy is must-see (and it is), I have to go with Croatia vs Italy on June 14th as the match I am looking forward to the most. It features two very different styles of play and a great midfield battle between Di Rossi/ Pirlo/ Marchisio against Modrić/ Srna/ Pranjić. Pulling for a draw in this one; if Ireland can hold it down against Spain and get a win and a draw from Italy and Croatia, I like their chances to advance.
Players To Watch
Spain is full of amazing players, Ireland grit and determination and Croatia attitude and dynamism, but there is only one player that is appointment viewing in my home and that is Italian genius Mario Balotelli. Words cannot express my appreciation for him, his joy for life and his utterly refreshing approach to the game. Football is full of cliches, players who make boring statements when they talk at all, media darlings who live in a bubble. It can create ultra talented kids who are arrogant, who become millionaires very young, who are told of their exceptionalism their entire lives. For me, Balotelli is a completely different individual, a mix of punk rock nihilism, talent and privilege that is unique in sport. If you can get past the media cliches, you begin to hint at the greatness of Balotelli. Let’s take a look at his greatest hits:
The Warm Up Bib
Magic In The Luxury Box
Why Always Me?
Press Conference Crasher
But in all honesty, the antics would be bullshit without the skills, and Balotelli is one of the best young footballers in the world. If he can keep his head about him, which he can’t, but if he can, he won’t, but if he can, he can be scary good. It’s the combination of talent and crazy that makes him one of my favorites. I’ll be watching every time he steps on the pitch.***
It has to be Spain, and as much as I hope for the Republic of Ireland to pull off the shocker, I think Italy will pull themselves into the knock out stages, with Ireland and Croatia battling them closely for the second spot. Second place is really up for grabs here and I wouldn’t be surprised to see anyone take it, but I have to go with Italy’s talent in the end.
*Group C seems to be the home of free spirits this time around.
** Another sign that FIFA and UEFA are a joke. How can this keep happening?
***Balotelli has also made some provocative statements about confronting racist fans at the Euros, about which, more in another post coming soon.