Assessing the Euro 2012 quarter finalists
Are things looking up for England's national football side? (AFP)
But first, here’s my reflection on a few of the teams that failed to make it out of their groups.
Undoubtedly the most disappointing were the Netherlands, thought by many, including myself, to be among the pre-tournament favourites. This is particularly given their rampant form in the qualifiers, which came on the back of their second place finish in the World Cup in South Africa.
Bert van Marwijk, their manager, went into it with a similar strategy to two years ago, with two destroyers in the middle in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. In hindsight, against Denmark in the opening game, it might have been overkill.
The Dutch were completely dominant but had an off night in front of goal, no one more guilty than Robin van Persie, and were punished by the impressive Dane Michael Krohn-Delhi.
From there came the in-fighting that Holland have become famed for, and when they came out against Germany, they barely looked interested.
By the time they came out against Portugal, needing to win by two to have any chance of progressing, it was all or nothing.
After a good start, their inability to control the opponent was obvious, with their defensive structure all over the place. It summed up their tournament, a mess.
More impressive and unfortunate not to progress were the Danes, who rekindled some of the patient and sustained passing they became famous for decades ago, when the Laudrup brothers were in full swing.
Apart from Krohn-Dehli, I was extremely impressed by midfielder Niki Zimling, while Nicklas Bendtner also did well.
The other team that really caught my eye was Croatia, very unfortunate not to progress out of Group C after pushing both Italy and Spain, and comprehensively outplaying Ireland.
Slaven Bilic had a nice blend of youth and experience, and Croatia looks a team on the rise. Striker Mario Mandzukic, who is big but mobile, was among the tournament’s most productive strikers, a handful for all his opponents.
Behind him were a bevy of impressive midfielders, including Ognen Vukojevic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Persic, not to mention the evergreen thinker Dario Srna and the schemer Luka Modric.
This was a team showing tactical flexibility and awareness, combining it with strong technique. Its only weakness, one they managed to mask well through tactics, was a slow central defence.
The way Croatia wrested control of their games against both Ireland and Italy was a joy to behold, not to mention the way they pushed the reigning World and European champions.
Their exit was to the detriment of the tournament and the quarter finals.
The same, to a lesser extent, can be said both hosts, who at times sparkled but failed to produce the killer instinct when it was most required.
You sense neither Poland nor Ukraine quite believed in themselves, especially in their final group games, where Poland were out enthused by a fairly limited Czech side and Ukraine struggled to finish off their impressive lead up work against a fortunate England.
Mentality is a critical part of the international game and Poland and the Ukraine, like South Africa two years earlier, just didn’t have the strength and experience to remain calm in these pressure moments.
Over the next seven knock-out games, mental strength and sprit will continue to play a critical role in who eventually holds aloft the Henri Delaunay Cup, so here’s a look at how all the teams are shaping up.
Czech Republic versus Portugal
While the Czech Republic were battered by a rampant Russia in the opening game, much of this was down to their own poor defensive structure.
Every time Dick Advocaat’s team drove through the middle, the Czechs would retreat to their 18 yard box, creating even more space for the quick Russians.
Michal Bilek spotted and fixed this at the break, also making a key change to his midfield, and the Czechs haven’t looked back, even without Tomas Rosicky for the past three halves.
Pushing Petr Jiracek out from central midfield to the right side of attack and bringing in Tomas Hubschman has worked a treat, bringing greater security in the middle and allowing Patrik Berger look-a-like Jiracek to flourish out wide.
As well, for matchday two, Bilek moved Michal Kadlec from left back to the centre, bringing in David Limbersky. Together with the impressive right back Theodor Gebre Selassie, Limbersky has provided much forward drive from deep.
With Jiracek and the diminutive left sided attacker Vaclav Pilar always dangerous, the flanks loom as a key battleground against Portugal.
While the left side of Portugal has flourished through Fabio Coentrao and Ronaldo, the right, which features Joao Pereira and Nani, has been less productive.
Gebre Selassie, so impressive throughout, will need to ensure he does a better job on Ronaldo than Gregory van de Wiel, and if he and Tomas Sivok can control him, the Czechs will have a platform.
While this Portuguese team has a number of weaknesses, especially at right back, striker and central midfield, it relies heavily on sitting deep, staying compact and countering swiftly through Ronaldo.
If the Czechs can replicate the spirit they have shown to fight back from the pounding in the first half of their tournament, they might just spring a surprise.
Germany versus Greece
There’s been enough written about the political and economic circumstances in Greece without this football scribe adding to it, but the irony of a quarter final date with Germany can not be lost.
By reaching the final eight, one might say Greece has over-achieved, but everyone was saying the same thing eight years ago. And then they won it.
There’s no doubt this side has rekindled much of the spirit of 2004, with skipper Giorgos Karagounis leading the way with his passionate and inspirational display on against Russia. Sadly, for Greek fans, he’s suspended here.
But the Greeks will continue to set their stall deep, and tight, hoping to frustrate the Germans long enough to garner a set piece opportunity or two at the other end.
The Germans, meanwhile, have been extremely comfortable, cruising through their three games to be the only team with a 100% record.
Mats Hummels has looked like he’s been a part of things for years.
You sense they have more gears to go through, if pushed, and they will need to be alert and not complacent against the motivated Greeks.
Moving the ball quickly through Bastian Schweinsteiger and stretching the Greeks through Thomas Muller and the mercurial Mezut Ozil will be critical. If they can score early, the floodgates could open, especially with Mario Gomez looking very sharp.
With their quality and mentality, I’d be very surprised if the Germans aren’t around at the pointy end.
Spain versus France
The team most likely to be joining Germany in the final, I believe, is Spain.
If the France that turned up against England and the Ukraine show up here, rather than the team that lost to Sweden, then they won’t be a push-over.
Laurent Blanc’s side caught he eye on the opening two matchdays, proving they can attack by both playing through teams and countering swiftly through Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema.
If Blanc restores the midfield base from the opening two games, they should be competitive, but their chances of progressing further may have been killed by their loss to the Swedes.
Meanwhile, Spain, like Germany, look extremely comfortable, like they still have a few gears to move through.
While Vicente del Bosque erred by starting with no striker in their opener against Italy, playing Cesc Fabregas as a false nine, he corrected things in the second game, with Fernando Torres looking as sharp as he has for a couple of years.
While it was always going to be difficult for Torres against a tactically disciplined Croatia, who sat back and denied space, against France he should have more room.
While Croatia came at Spain with a plan, I was still impressed by the way Spain didn’t give too much away and controlled the Croatian counter.
For all their attacking joy, it is their tactical discipline and ability to control an opponent, both with and without the ball, that makes them special.
England versus Italy
This will be a battle between two teams that have showed plenty of strength at the back, relying heavily on their defences so far.
This is in part due to some limitations at the other end.
Of the two, Italy have been a little more progressive here, but lack genuine creative forces despite playing two strikers. Andrea Pirlo has shown glimpses, but is too often burdened by his defensive task, while the rest of the midfield offer graft above craft.
The base though is very strong and protecting as the Italians do best, with calculated aggression and as a unit.
England too have been strong at the back, mainly due to Roy Hodgson’s conservative template which sees them sit back, absorb, and look to counter.
It’s a strategy very much out of the Chelsea Champions League mould, and hitherto you’d say they’ve had just about as much luck as Chelsea did on their Big Ears destiny run.
Might this England side, who, like Chelsea, had little expectation heading in, be on a similar run of destiny?
With Italy a little more proactive under Cesare Prandelli, I’d expect them to make the running here, but this is a game that could be decided by the finest margins, and might go into extra time, or beyond.
Tony’s team of the group phase (4-3-3)
If you have any thoughts or questions about Euro 2012 so far, or predictions on what might transpire, be sure to share them below. Tony will be answering any questions and jumping on here to add his analytical insight after each of the quarter finals.
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonyTannousTRBA
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