Thursday, 21 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Three (16th-19th June 2012)


Greece Lightening ruins Russia's Summer Nights

Once again Greece have gone and left us all scratching our heads and simply asking 'how?' as they somehow managed to pull off an unlikely win and navigate their way into the last eight following a smash and grab win over a much fancied Russian outfit. After two impressive performances leading into the final group game, it was very much expected that the Russians wouldn't face much of a challenge from the Greeks and see themselves safely through. Even after the match had begun there was little indication to expect anything else. Andrei Arshavin and Alan Dzagoev seemed to have picked up where they left off previously and with an inspired Yuri Zhirkov bombing on, they forced their opponents further and further into retreat. A goal seemed inevitable and eventually it came - only not from Russia. A lapse in concentration at the end of the first half from the abovementioned Zhirkov allowed one of football's most unlikely legends to pounce on an extremely rare Greek chance and score the decisive goal to seal the fate of Dick Advocat's side.

They may have given the world Maths, Philosophy and some kick-ass cuisine but let's be honest, history is hardly awash with any particularly brilliant Greek footballers down the years. Despite being a key part of the success of 2004, the name Nikos Dabizas still prompts a snigger among fans over here who saw him ply his trade for firstly Newcastle then Leicester. Newly crowned champions of England Manchester City still consider Georgios Samaras to be the punchline of an awful joke reminding them of the years before Sheik Mansour's millions. Step forward Captain Giorgous Karagounis. Not exactly among the all-time football greats but if you are looking for a true Greek hero, he's your man. After famously scoring the first goal of the 2004 run to the final in Portugal, now, in what could well be his last ever match, he not only equalled the record number of appearances by a Greek international but also scored a goal that momentarily lifted an entire nation in a time of crisis. Of course, football isn't going to solve any of the country's problems but as the man himself said post match, the win will have put a rare smile on the faces of his countrymen and women.

Nothing encapsulated his passion more than when he was wrongly booked for diving in the second half. Choosing not to hide his indignation, Karagounis stormed around the pitch enraged, fired up and snarling until manager Fernando Santos saw fit to substitute him. The yellow card unfortunately means he misses the Quarter final against Germany when many expect a Greek defeat. At 35, it's highly unlikely we'll ever see the Panathinaikos legend represent his country again, sadly.

Bouncing Czechs prevents Pole dancing into Quarters

Joining them in the last eight will be the Czechs who beat and eliminated Poland thanks to Petr Jiracek's second goal in as many games. Unimpressive thus far and with a squad not nearly as good as those that reached the final and semis in 1996 and 2004 respectively, progression beyond the first round is something of surprise. There's nothing to take from the group games to suggest they will do much against better sides and while stranger things have happened, I very much doubt there will be any partying in Prague beyond this Thursday's encounter with Portugal. Far from an awful side – Tomas Hubschman in midfield and the exciting, direct Vaclav Pilar cutting in from wide areas have looked the most impressive – the counter attack seems to be their only strategy but one that you would expect the Portuguese, as well as others, to be able to combat.

It was disappointing to see the hosts exit the tournament at such an early stage but once again, it was their finishing that ultimately let them down. A bright start saw the Poles create a number of chances but found more joy hitting the side netting (three times) than troubling the previously erratic Petr Cech. I wonder if there's a Polish translation for the football cliché “goals win games” because whoever replaces outgoing manager Franciszek Smuda would do well to relay that to Robert Lewandowski et al ahead of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.


Bratwusrt > Bacon

Germany ended the first round as the only team with maximum points from their group games after beating a resolute Denmark side thanks to goals from Lukas Podolski and substitute Lars Bender. After the new Arsenal signing had given the Germans the lead, an equaliser came after a clever corner routine saw Niklas Bendtner pulling away from the danger area, drift away from the goal and win a header that set up Martin Krone-Dehli who nodded home from close range. Seemingly content with the draw they believed would be enough to progress, Denmark seemed content to contain Germany when the scores were level. However, as it became evident they required a victory, they were forced to open up and like a great white shark, the Germans took full advantage to send the Danes home. An unfortunate outcome given that their two better performances, in this match and previously against Portugal, have resulted in defeats following their somewhat fortunate win over a wasteful Dutch side.

Portugal Ron their way after Dutch vans break down

Speaking of whom, Bert van Marwijik's misfits went home with their tails between their legs following a 2-1 defeat to Portugal – their third successive defeat and grand total of nil points in the group. To say their early exit was unexpected would be an understatement. I know I'm not alone in wondering how a team packed full of talent went out without putting up any kind of fight. Reports of divisions in the squad were unsurprising in the sense that we've seen it all before from this team down the years yet also surprising as one would think they would have learned some sort of lesson by now. Evidently not.

Despite taking the lead through a fantastic Rafael van Der Vaart effort after Arjen Robben finally decide to reap the benefits of acknowledging that he had teammates, the Dutch failed to capitalise. Going a goal down actually galvanised Portugal and the story of the match was as much about their resurgence than Holland's failings.

Van Marwijk elected to leave out Mark van Bommell for the abovementioned van Der Vaart. While his decision was vindicated as the Spurs man scored, the more attack minded approach left Nigel de Jong horribly exposed in the middle of the park. This allowed the Portugal midfield trio of Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho and Raul Meireles to have a field day, distributing the ball far too often to the wide men Nani and the star of the show Cristiano Ronaldo who finally decided to show up on the big stage for his country. The Real Madrid man scored the two key goals and put in the kind of performance the Madridistas at the Santiago Bernabeu are used to seeing on a regular basis.

After justified criticisms of his two previous matches, Ronaldo set out to prove a point by tormenting Holland right back Gregory van der Weil with embarrassing regularity. After another outrageous season in Spain – 60 goals in 55 games – many will be suggesting that this kind of display is long overdue. Not many people fancied Portugal before the competition begun but if their talisman can continue in the same vain, there aren't many, if any, defences left that will be able to stop him. Dark horses? Maybe.


Jesus saves as Spain avoid paying the Bil

Spain predictably negotiated their way into the last eight following a narrow victory over a hard working Croatia side who might count themselves somewhat unlucky to be going home from the competition early. While the Ibreians, as expected, controlled possession, dictated the play and never found themselves on the backfoot for any prolonged period of time, the Croats certainly battled hard to keep them at bay with a committed and disciplined defensive display that restricted the current World and European champions from creating many clear cut openings. Slavan Bilic reverted to 4-2-3-1 with Ivan Rakitic and Ognjen Vukojevic tasked with, and succeeding in denying the narrow Spanish creative hub of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva any space to weave their creative patterns for an ultimately lonesome Fernando Torres up front. The extra defensive midfielder for Croatia freed up their own creative influence in Luka Modric who, for the fleeting touches he was allowed, had an excellent game.

In fact, the best chance of the match came as result of a rare foray by Modric who found himself in space on the right side of the penalty area and played an exquisite outside foot cross to Rakitic who could only head straight at Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal - A chance they would come to rue as Jesus Navas proved to be the Spanish Messiah after coming off the bench to score the all important winner. Croatia were crucified with just 5 minutes left on the clock. 

Given the initial resilience of the opposition, Spain needed to remain patient before finding their breakthrough. After withdrawing the ineffectual Torres and reverting to the now famous 'false 9' formation, it was his replacement Cesc Fabregas who saw fit to outdo Modric's sublime earlier pass with an even more outrageous dink to Iniesta who squared for Navas to smash home. A truly special team goal worthy of winning any game, albeit with a slight hint of offside.

In some quarters I've seen Spain inexplicably criticised for not doing more with their possession and even been described as boring! But I guess this is what happens when stupid people are given nice things. Presented with a team who have earned the right to ranked up alongside the great Brazil and Dutch sides of a generation ago, people still have cause to complain. Yes, for their dominance they could probably create more and maybe score more goals but not beating every team by four or five is hardly a reason to slate a team that, in terms of pure aesthetically pleasing football, cannot be touched.

I guess all the critics of Spain derive more joy from watching Ireland.

Ireland Given a lesson as Super Mario makes A-zure of Italian qualification

To be fair, they weren't as bad in their 2-0 defeat against Italy as they were in their opening two matches and despite the Italians still being the better side, the Irish gave a better account of themselves than we had seen previously. In fact, the most disappointing player on the team was the usually reliable Shay Given. Having suffered something of a nightmare against Croatia, Given could not be faulted for any of the goals against a rampant Spain after getting no help from his defence. However, the long serving keeper was guilty of not one, not two but three errors that led to Italy's first goal. Firstly, Charging out hastily to allow Antonio Di Natalie to go round him and get a shot on goal. Secondly, spilling a routine catch from Claudio Marchiso in the follow up to concede a corner and finally, from said corner, flailing at Antonio Cassano's header that eventually gave the Azzuri the lead.

These mistakes were totally uncharacteristic of a goalkeeper of Given's usual quality. There have been suggestions in some quarters that he wasn't 100% fit coming into the tournament which may well explain his hapless displays or this could just be a convenient excuse for the fact it would appear that time is finally catching up on him. Aston Villa and Paul Lambert will be hoping it's the former ahead of the new campaign.

If Given was at fault for the first, it would be harsh to attribute any blame to him for the second as Mario Balotelli, relegated to the bench for the game, set out to prove a point after being introduced by scoring an incredible, powerful scissor kick volley late on. What followed were comical scenes as Mad Mario then attempted to direct a second volley – this time one of abuse – at his manager Cesare Prandelli for having temerity to leave him on the bench. Only Leonardo Bonucci's intervention prevented any confrontation as he has to literally physically gag his countryman. Only Balotelli, eh?

At the time, it was probably goal of the tournament. However, it was to be bettered 24 hours later...


Ibracadabra! Zlatan magic gives France Les Bleus

What is it with controversial strikers and stunning volleys? Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked at his old pal Mario's strike against Ireland and decided he would join the party with a stunner against France to set Sweden on their way to a surprise 2-0 win. Sebastian Larsson dinked a cross to the edge of the 18 yard box where Ibrahimovic was poised like a coiled spring before exploding with one of the most technically brilliant scissor kicks you are ever likely to see. The ball whistled it's way beyond a despairing Hugo Lloris to give Sweden a second half lead. The spectacular nature of the goal served as a massive middle finger to the critics who seem to draw their conclusions about him without ever really seeing him play. Having just completed his most prolific season at Milan with 34 goals in 43 appearances, and having scored 2 in 3 for a poor Sweden side in this competition, feel free tell anybody who thinks he's “shit” that maybe they out to start watching him a bit more closely.

Ordinarily, Man of the Match Larsson's own volley to make it 2-0 would have won more plaudits but for Zlatan's majestic strike. The result meant Sweden do not go home empty handed but more crucially, a toothless France team now finish second in the group and face Spain in the quarter finals where they cannot afford another limp performance or else it will be au revoir for Laurent Blanc's team.

Fortunate England avoid pain in Ukraine as they tech their chance

France's defeat means that England somehow win Group D following a rather unconvincing 1-0 victory over hosts Ukraine. The returning Wayne Rooney scored from all of 3cm from a Steven Gerrard cross (again) at the start of the second half in a match where the result certainly masks a lot of what was, at times, incredibly tedious and unenjoyable to watch. The overriding belief is that England defended well but if the 16 shots on goal Ukraine when allowed is an example of 'good' defending, I’m sure I wont be the only one concerned when England add 'bad' defending to their inability to retain any meaningful possession.

The defeat saw the home side eliminated in a game where they looked far more competent on the ball and more technically superior on the ball than their supposedly more illustrious opponents. Andriy Yarmolenko proved something a thorn in England's side and with a bit more experience might have actually punished Roy Hodgson's men. The hosts may well have actually taken something from the game when Marko Devic's deflected was hooked away from goal by a retreating John Terry – the only problem was that the ball had already crossed the line but this minor incident happened to be missed by the referee, the linesman and the extra official standing on the goal line tasked with actually making sure mistakes like this don't get missed.

In this country, we have convinced ourselves that because of the great injustice against Germany two years ago, this incident is some kind of...erm.... payback? And of course, the controversy has led to the reopening of the tiresome debate regarding goalline technology. Sepp Blatter has now called it a “necessity” ignoring the fact that any mooted technology that would have rightly given the goal wouldn't have picked up on the fact that Artem Milevskiy was actually in an offside position during the build up to the chance.

What next? 'Offside technology'? If that's the case then you could easily present a case for 'shirt-pulling' technology, 'incorrectly awarded goal-kick technology' and 'corner kick not taken exactly on the curve of the quadrant technology'. Of all the football matches that take place all over the world every single waking hour of the day, how often do these contentious goal line incidents actually occur? I would guess at less than 0.001% if that so why waste time with the addition of machines, censors and cameras messing around with the very essence of the game? Where will it end?

Referees of the future?

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