Saturday, 30 June 2012

Euro 2012 Observations: Part Five (27th-28th June 2012)

Spain are spot on as Ronaldo is forced to pay the Penalty

The penalty shoot out. Often criticised as being cruel and an unfair way of deciding the outcome of a football match. A paradox of controlled random occurrences that more often than not prevents the better football team from success. Recently, Sepp Blatter suggested that there ought to be some better alternative to deciding games but aside from actually continuing extra time indefinitely, what could actually be more decisive than penalties? Stripping football to its most basic element - kicking a ball towards goal - is surely the best way of determining who the best team is. And of course, let's not forget the drama involved. The game is better for it.

Spain made it to their third successive tournament final by virtue of a shoot out as they defeated Portugal. It's safe to say that the penalties provided far more points of interest than the match itself which ended goalless after 120 minutes. The psychology of penalties is a curious thing. The act in itself is completely removed from the collaborative the 'team' and is one of the very rare examples in the game when it's outcome is solely down to 'the player' who is now out of his familiar comfort zone within the confines of his team. In contrast to the speed of thought and spontaneity required in a match situation, a penalty becomes more calculated as it allows the taker, and to an extent, the keeper, more time weigh up their options and to consider their move. Left or right? High or low? Power or placement? However, sometimes there might even be too much thinking involved.

And of course, one of the most beautiful things about penalties is that they require, with one rare exception, no real skill other than the ability to kick a ball.

The main talking point to emerge from this shoot out was the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't allowed/chose not to take one of Portugal's first four penalties. The reason for this is unknown but has caused no end of speculation. A lot of it based on the perhaps incorrect assumption that Ronaldo was somehow guaranteed to score. Given that Spain's first choice taker, the reliable Xabi Alonso saw his kick saved, absolutely nothing could be taken for granted.

Did he bottle it or was he gambling on the fifth penalty being the winner so he could hog the limelight? The latter view is one that many hold simply due to the fact Ronaldo's general aura would suggest he was confident of scoring whenever he would need to step up. It's safe to say that confidence is an absolute necessity when approaching the spot and ties into another theory was wasn't among the early takers. Perhaps Bento wanted to protect and alleviate the pressure on the supposedly less assured and less reliable players by making them take one earlier, saving his 'sure thing' til the end. Either way, it didn't pay off as misses by Joao Moutinho & Bruno Alves meant things didn't get that far. The former seeing his kick saved by Iker Casillas while the latter crashed his otherwise well hit shot off the underside of the cross bar. Only fractions stop us from lauding it as the superb, 'unsaveable' strike it was aspiring to be. It's the very fine margins like this that are all to often the difference between 'good' and 'bad' penalties.

Alves' kick provided another sub plot to this shoot out as he initially appeared to be set to take kick number 3 until he was stopped & replaced by Nani. You have to wonder if this had an effect on his eventual miss. The delay perhaps causing him to lose focus.

One player who remained focused was Sergio Ramos who delighted us with the aesthetically pleasing chipped penalty or 'Panenka' named after its first proponent. As a variation on the primal act of simply shooting, this is that 'rare exception' mentioned above and the closest a penalty can come to requiring any skill as it is designed merely designed to deceive the goalkeeper.

The win was ultimately sealed by Cesc Fabregas who sent his penalty beyond the despairing outstretched arm of Rui Patricio hitting the post before crossing the line to put Spain into the final. Mere centimetres to the left & it strikes the post & comes away, a few to the left & the keeper saves it. Those ever so fine margins once again come into play.

Despite failing to sparkle during the game and, in the view of many, throughout the tournament as a whole, Spain could now find themselves winning a third successive international competition and, if they haven't done so already, establish themselves as one of football's all time great sides. All they have to do is get the better of the only other team in these Championships they've played so far and failed to beat.

Super Mario's star power too much for Germany

To the shock of many, the Spain will go into Sunday's final, not to face Germany but, square off against Italy and the mercurial Mario Balotelli. The controversial striker made a late play for a staring role as one one the players of the tournament with an inspired performance that yeilded two ultimately decisive goals to oust the much fancied Germans and leave his country just one game from glory. His first goal came as a result of a fine header following some wonderful footwork from his strike partner Antonio Cassano who also provided the cross. 10 minutes before half time a wonderful ball from Riccardo Motolivo found Balotelli poised 25 yards from goal before unleashing a spectacular shot into the top corner that left Manuel Nauer rooted.

'Super' Mario has had something of an interesting 12 months. Last Summer on tour in the States with Manchester City he made the headlines for a very public falling out with his manager following a hilariously failed attempt to pirouette/back-heel a goal during a friendly. Just a few months later he scored a brace in City's now famous 6-1 win over crosstown rivals United in their own backyard. In January came the game against Spurs when he appeared to stamp on the head of Scott Parker, escaped immediate punishment and went on to score the winning goal from the penalty spot in the last minute. Then came more rumours of fallings out with his teammates before what can only be described as a counter-productive and reckless contribution to the crucial match against Arsenal that saw him see red. After it was suggested that Roberto Mancini had reached the end of his tether and was prepared to sell his fellow countryman, Mario somehow re-emerged to make telling contribution to City's dramatic final day league win by laying on the key pass for Sergio Aguero to score the all important winning goal against QPR that May afternoon.


Then came the Euros. A lacklustre first two games resulted in Balo being dropped for the final group game against Ireland. It was in this game that he managed to come on and score one of the goals of the tournament with an an innovated scissor kick that Irish defender John O'Shea STILL cant comprehend. However, rather than simply enjoying the moment, 'Mad' Mario instead provided us with one of the images of the competition as teammate Leonardo Bonucci had to physically prevent him from verbally abusing manger Cesare Prandelli for daring to leave him out of the starting line up. Balotelli showed more glimpses of brilliance against England and while he was unfortunate not to convert in the match, he did score in the subsequent penalty shootout to help set up the showdown with Germany.

Balotelli's life and career are both subject to considerable attention. He is one of football's few 'characters' and even before moving to England, made almost as many headlines off the pitch as he had on it. Although as you can see, even without the stories of fireworks in his bathroom or driving into women's prisons, his football is still enough to keep you interested. Capable of both genius and misadventure, the man Jose Mourinho once described as 'unmanageable' invokes a fascination not seen on these shores since a previous Manchester based striker in Eric Cantona – another player whose detrimental 'mad' moments could be quite quickly forgiven as moments of inspiration were often not far away.

The next chapter of Balotelli story, one way or another, will be written on Sunday as Spain and Italy renew acquaintances.

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