Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Euro 2012 - Half way there...

Yesterday’s games wrapped up the first stage.  Good games for the most part.  Aside from the Dutch and the Irish, none of the teams have really disappointed.  But wait until next Euro; with 8 more teams added to the fray, quality will surely be diluted.  But let’s look at that positively:  …. Nah … can’t do it.  I don’t see any benefit to it, aside from making more money for UEFA, even though it means giving a chance to teams like… ahem…  Romania… For in the end, that’s why it’s called a Final Tournament; if you’re not good enough to qualify, you shouldn’t be there.  Simple as that.  But that’s another story for another day…

Let’s see what happened to date (each group title below is carried from my preview a couple of weeks ago:

Group A: The Eastern-Europeans

I got this one totally wrong!  Picked Russia first and Poland second… which was very much possible prior to the last set of games.  But Russia showed up too cocky after humiliating the Czechs [4-1] and even though they only needed one point, managed to lose to the Greeks!  As for the Poles, they would have done great in this tournament if matches were only 45 minutes long.  It seems they never had enough gas in the tank for the second half…

In the end, this group was quite “below par” overall.  Neither team can make any claims to progressing past the German and the Portuguese.  And although I don’t much care for the way the Greeks play, I applaud their “grit”.  Sometimes it takes a little bit of that in this game…

Group B: The tough one.

The Dutch were the story here... It seems like every tournament has a “favorite-to-implode” story.  France and Italy can attest to that in recent years.  It was Holland’s turn this time.  Clearly plenty of issues within the squad, both tactical and I’m sure ego-driven as well.  Otherwise how would you explain the World Cup finalists from 2 years ago leaving the competition with 0 [zero that is] points?!?   Earlier I wrote: “They have plenty of talent, especially in the top third of the pitch, but can they figure out a way to play together?”  The answer is obviously “NO”.

Germany was emphatic, and although the scores may not show it, they’ve been quite dominant so far.  Portugal on the other hand, pleasantly surprising (despite the fact that Cr. Ronaldo did not show up for the first 2 games).  Solid defense, hard working midfield, good team attitude overall.  I like ‘em.

Denmark started well (applying the first blow to the Dutch) but never quite recovered from losing that one point 2 minutes from time in the encounter with the Lusitans.  How often have we seen that happen… teams losing their concentration before the final whistle is blown.  Still, they are always fun to watch, always positive, and I’m sure they would have made it out of any other group...  Better luck next time!

Group C:  Spain + the surprise!

Surprise my ass! [pardonnez mon français].  Maybe I was in a “luck ‘o the Irish” mood when I predicted that Ireland will come in second… maybe I read too much into a relatively easy qualifying campaign… maybe I thought Italy did not have what it takes… maybe a major tournament was too much for them.  In the end, I’m left eating my words…

Spain came top, without really running on all cylinders or impressing as they did in the past.  Part of it is the pressure of defending both the world and European titles.  The other is the “park-the-bus” approach that everyone takes against them.  Plus tired players after a long season at the highest level.  And then there’s the tactics around team setup.  With a striker… without a striker… with a “false” striker… Personally, although El Niño [Fernando Torres] hasn’t been in great form this year, he’s still a threat in the box.  And he was critical when they won the tournament 4 years ago, if I recall.  The challenge for del Bosque is to keep all the egos in check and find the right mix for the starting 11.  Not an easy task given that everyone on the bench can be a starter on any other team!

Between Italy and Croatia, I was pleasantly surprised by both.  Frankly, I was expecting less.  With a bit more courage the Croats could have edged past Italy (who I still think are not very strong, but they always “show up” when it matters).

Group D:  Predictable…

Just like the other co-hosts, Ukraine started well, but the victory over Sweden (due to some Sheva brilliance) is all they have to show for it.  They have all the rights to be frustrated by the tying goal that was never allowed [don’t get me started on goal-line technology].  It could have turned the match against England, but in the end the predictable outcome was met: England and France through.

looks like it did cross...
I had the order wrong, though (picked France first).  But in a group where Sweden loses to Ukraine, then beats France (the same France that beat Ukraine earlier) then anything can happen… Just like the Danes, their Nordic neighbors could have done better with a bit more concentration in defense (especially against England).

And a few words for England, of course:  lucky to top the group (and avoid Spain) but haven’t seen much quality.  Some may have to do with Rooney missing the first two games, but the defense is shaky at times, the midfield is hard-working yet unimaginative (no surprise there!) and some of their attacking options are not showing much beyond some set pieces here and there…

*            *            *            *            *

Aaaaanyway.  We’re half way there, like I said.  Now the real tournament begins. 

Portugal should not have a problem with the Czechs.  Although I don’t like Pepe [as a player or a person] I think him and Bruno Alves made the best central-defense pair so far [with Hummels and Badstuber a close second].  I also doubt that the Czechs can contain Cr. Ronaldo (who will score at least one).

Ditto for Germany against the Greek.  True, I never thought they’d get out of the group, but they had weak opposition up to this point.  They’re at the big boys table now!

Spain vs. France, though, should be a mouth-watering encounter.  Both are positive in their style of play, both have quality within their ranks, and both have something to prove:  Spain that winning the last 2 tournaments was not a fluke, and France that their “performance” [last in their group] in South Africa two years ago was.

Truthfully, I’m a bit scared.  First because Spain has struggled with team tactics and find it increasingly harder to break down defenses.  They really need to open up on the wings more.  It’s easier for teams that defend deep to block Spain’s attacks.  Then there’s the Ribéry threat.  I don’t think Arbeloa is good enough at right back.  So that’s the key, in my opinion.  It will be a matter of who makes fewer mistakes in the defense and who scores first.  But I see this one going to extra time, at least… I’m rooting for Spain, of course, but they need to step it up a notch in order to win.  Apparently they never beat France in an official competition… would this be a first?

Then there’s another “classic”: England vs. Italy.  Two more teams with “things to prove”.  Italy that they’ve put recent embarrassments away [also last in their WC group two years ago] and are a serious contender, and England that they are stronger than everyone gives them credit for.

In reality, Italy lacks depth and has a fairly weak midfield.  Yes, Pirlo is the “maestro” but he’s a little slow (although that hasn’t stopped him from scoring against Croatia and having a great assist in the game against Spain).  Both forwards [Cassano and Balotelli] are immensely talented but also fickle (especially Mario).  Continued Italian success rests on their shoulders, to some extent.  I also just read that Chiellini is out for the next game.  That’s a big blow for a defense that’s pretty frail [by Italian standards] as it is… 

England can consider themselves the luckiest team up to this point.  Scraped through with a point from the first match where France were clearly superior (yet lacked some sharpness up front), benefited from Swedish defense lapses to get all 3 points out of that encounter, and were really lucky to get a victory against Ukraine.

So this last quarterfinal encounter is more of a game where each side will be afraid lose, rather than go for the win.  If a win will come in regulation time, it will be some opportunistic set piece or defensive mistake.  I “see” this going to extra time also, but not nearly as entertaining as Spain-France.  In the end, England might come out on top by “a hair”.

From there, Portugal-Spain, for an all Iberian Peninsula encounter, and England-Germany.  This will mean the end of the road for the Brits (despite their desire to pay back for the defeat from the last World Cup).  The final: a replay of the last Euro final.  I’m sure the Germans want their revenge!

Ibra - with "my" goal of the tournament so far (against France)

...somebody clipped the Dutch's wings... (or did they fly too close to the sun?)...

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