Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Four (21st-24th June 2012)

Parts one, two and three

Cristiano sends away blank Czechs

Cristiano Ronaldo
took centre stage once again as Portgual took their place in the semi finals with a 1-0 win over a feeble Czech Republic side. After an opening day pasting at the hands of Russia, Czech manager Michal Bilek understandably decided to err of the side of caution and in subsequent games, his team have been content to sit back and attempt to hit the opposition on the counter. Up until this point, it has largely been successful. However, they took the extreme against Portugal and didn't make any great attempt to utilise the abovementioned counter attacking strategy that has seen them make it this far. The previously adventurous wide men Petr Jiracek and Vaclav Pilar were virtually spectators. They seemed determined to try and simply contain for the duration and hopefully take their chance with a penalty shoot out. It is easy to knock this game plan but history is littered with examples of its success. But alas, while it may have worked for sides in the past, you don't need me to tell you how risky it is a gameplan. Particularly when you are up against one of the two current best players in the world.

Despite the Czechs approach, Portugal still managed to carve them open with somewhat embarrassing ease. Ronaldo was in irresistible form despite his personal duel with the frame of the goal. The speed of his feet and intelligent movement meant that the Czech defence were unable to get near him despite attempts to double or sometimes triple mark him. Yet given all the attention on what he does with the ball, his goal actually came from a superb diving header which only served to both emphasise and justify the plaudits he receives when people identify him as the most complete player in world football. It was heartening to see his celebrated by the watching Eusabio and Luis Figo. The two Portuguese greats of years past shared an embrace as the heir to their throne put Portugal into the semi final. While they will eternally remain legends in their own right, Ronaldo will be looking to do what both men were unable to in their otherwise illustrious respective careers by actually delivering a senior international trophy for his country.

While Ronaldo was once again the star, it would be disingenuous to suggest that they are a one man team. Without the supporting cast around him to play in a way that allows him to flourish, there's no way they would still be in the competition. Joao Moutinho has been magnificent in his midfield role. Disciplined when he needs to be, but also a creative outlet as he roams in behind the forward line. It was his cross from the right that led to the decisive goal. One area of concern would be the defence. Pepe and Bruno Alves have rarely looked assured as a centre back pairing and the fact that this was their first clean sheet of the competition is more to with the Czechs lack of ambition than any kind of solid defence display.

They face now face Spain for a place in the final and while they go in as underdogs, it's certainly worth repeating that Ronaldo's form and the confidence generated throughout the rest of the team could certainly prove to be a catalyst for a potential upset.

Greece still in Euro woe after being unable to accept Germany's change

Greece v Germany turned out to be the mismatch every preview promised it would be. The Germans ruthless dumped the Greece out of the Euros much like... [nope. Not going there. Sticking to football.] The 4-2 scoreline flattered a Greek team that were overwhelmed from the first whistle. Joachim Loew elected to rest his entire first choice forward line of Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Luckas Podolski, replacing them with the young and hungry Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle who supported the evergreen Miroslav Klose. Loew may well have presented himself with the most welcome of selection headaches as the understudies came in and performed as admirably as those were selected in favour of. Schurrle had a goal disallowed within three minutes, Klose powered in a header to put Germany 3-1 ahead and Reus hammered in an empathic volley to make it 4-1. Selections vindicated.

Equally as good as the front three was the midfield trio of Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Ozil and Schweinsteiger were as good as could be expected facing a far inferior side – weaving in and out, creating openings and rarely looking troubled by a Greek midfield that was so out of it's depth they almost drowned. Special praise is reserved for Khedira who capped off a fine performance with arguably the goal of the game; a vicious volley into the roof of the net from a Jerome Boateng cross. I say 'arguably' as the game was full of great goals. There are few strikers who could have scored the kind of goal left back Philip Lahm did to open the scoring while if most teams had produced the wonderful sweeping move that led to Georgious Samaras' equaliser for Greece, we'd be lauding it as one of the great team goals of the competition. Then, of course, there was Rues' rocket.

While the result and arguably the scoreline were no surprise, the evident strength in depth throughout the German squad was something that would have probably surprised many. The seamless way in which the newer players were able to integrate so easily is both impressive and somewhat scary. Weaknesses, if any exist, a few and far between and it is for this reason many people now view Loew's team as favourites for the competition rather than Spain.

Spain reign once again in Ukraine despite accusations of being mundane.

Speaking of whom, in a continuing theme from the last blog post, it now seems to have become fashionable or the 'in thing' to criticise and label them as boring. This is in part due to one of the most dire games in the competition to date as they did away with an unambitious France team without really breaking a sweat. For those that managed to stay awake, what you would have seen was a simple procession of Spain doing what they do best in retaining possession. Aside from the fantastic run and cross by Jordi Alba for Xabi Alonso headed opening goal and the quick feet of Pedro to draw a last minute foul and penalty (which Alonso duly dispatched) there was literally nothing of note to report from the match.

The onus was on France to try and deny them the time and space to pass the ball among themselves at will – something their ultra-defensive approach combined with a disgraceful lack of effort didn't seem to allow them to do. Laurent Blanc decided to field not just one, but two right backs – Debuchy and Reveilleire. Yet Spain's marauding Jordi Alba was able to get away from both before hanging a ball over to Alonso, a supposed holding midfielder, who was unmarked in the box, to open the scoring.

On very few occasions was there a French player even willing to try and press the Spanish pass masters. This often meant that the likes of Karim Benzema and Frank Ribery – both of whom have had a poor tournament after so much hope and expectation – found themselves dropping so deep they were unable to create anything the few times they actually managed to find themselves in possession of the ball. France barely played like a team that had come into the tournament on a 21 game unbeaten run and with more talk of arguments and bickering among the squad, it's little surprise they'll heading home with their tails between their legs once more. Lessons of the last World Cup still go unlearned.

As I say, it is now fashionable to criticise the Spanish. The ability to retain possession seemingly now does not win over fans. I wonder if these same fans simply expect Spain to just needlessly give the ball away to the opposition for the sake of 'entertainment'. While it admittedly didn't provide for any sort of spectacle, there was little wrong with what they did. I know that the current World and European Champions don't need me to defend them but if France didn't come to play, then why should Spain? In tournament football, three games in a week, it makes perfect for Spain to stay in second gear, maintain a slower tempo and get the required result. We'd all like to see them take the handbrake off but from a purely strategic and tactical point of view, Vincente Del Bosque will be rightly satisfied to see his side not overly exert themselves unnecessarily. As a result, they will probably be the freshest of all four teams going into the semi finals.

Andrea Pirl's on the misery for England

And so the first 0-0 of the competition, came, almost unsurprisingly, between Italy and England. In a game lacking goals, possession was once again the talking point. Italy had it, England couldn't seem to keep it. The same old English failings reared their head once more, primarily the belief that grit, determination, resilience and at times, desperate defending make up for a complete lack of skill, creativity and basic technical ability. Scott Parker and James Milner running themselves into the ground is not really a sound approach for trying to win football matches let alone major international tournaments. It is worth considering however that recently appointed Roy Hodgson has only really been able to play the hand he's been dealt. It's understandable that with such little pre tournament preparation he would simply take a more disciplined, organised, risk free approach especially given the players, and their limitations, at his disposal. That said, there's no excusing the players for their inability to either keep, or do something worthwhile when fleetingly actually being in possession.

Italy on the other hand seemed some way more accomplished on the ball. While everyone is rightly praising yet another Andrea Pirlo masterclass, Riccardo Montolivo playing in a more advanced role also put in an eye-catching display using the ball well and always looking to make something happen in the final third.

Stats are not always an honest reflection of what happens in a game but the fact that the top eight players who attempted the most passes in the game were all Italian gives an impression of how dominant the Azzuri were with the ball. The gulf in class was all too obvious even if the scoreboard didn't reflect it. It was only due to some truly abominable finishing by the Italians that England weren't on the receiving end of a truly humiliating scoreline. But then again, might that have been preferable to yet more penalty heartache?

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