After an inauspicious start, Euro 2012 has woken up and challenged a few assertions I made a week ago. The football has become more open, the games have had real drama, and the Russians managed to get eliminated.
Hats off to Greece, who despite having one of the shallower talent pools in Europe, surprise us all again with their sheer determination. A great recovery against Poland despite the referee’s influence and missing a penalty, a strong second half against Czech Republic and an unlikely victory against Russia despite being denied a penalty. They are defensive and not pretty to watch, but unlike many other teams in the tournament, they play with some incisiveness when the opportunity arises.
Russia went the opposite way, as if lulled into a false sense of security by their comfortable win over the Czechs. Perhaps Arshavin’s form for Arsenal is symptomatic: A great start followed by frustration, a loss of motivation and then running out of puff, ideas and confidence. Once again, following his three goals in two games Dzagoev came closest to scoring, but like the Poles they played with leaden feet. The Czech’s on the other hand, chastened by Russia, found more balance with the introduction of Hubschman, and relied on their skilful wingers to make the difference. Hopefully Rosicky will return for their next game, as his guile is still important to them. Poland just had a shortage of quality in midfield, and relied too much on their Dortmund players, as well as generally having disappointing fitness levels that prevented them sustaining impressive patches of performance.
In the other groups, the raised stakes has improved the number and quality of goals. Bert Van Marwijk once again was bitten on the behind by his refusal to bring another link man into central midfield and his reliance on the old guard. They looked lacking in energy once Germany took the lead, only to revive again with Van Persie’s outstanding solo strike (using his chocolate leg no less). Sneijder apart, they looked devoid of ideas and confidence, with Robben continuing to avoid passing at any cost, before sulking at being substituted. In Holland there is much clamour for Huntelaar to start, and I would do so in the final game against Portugal, with RVP behind and Sneijder in midfield. With Portugal’s tight central three, the Dutch will need to get between the lines of midfield and defence to prosper, but the risk is the dodgy defence. If there is one thing that is clear from this tournament so far, it is that momentum is everything, as every team that has sat back has been punished.
So it was with Portugal against Denmark, as the teams took it in turns to surrender the initiative, and thus concede. After Pepe’s fantastic early header Postiga scored a lovely goal before mostly falling over, and Portugal sat back to rely on their famously stout defence. So stout Bendtner socred twice and was unlucky not to have a hat-trick. An instinctive Varela strike nicked it, but the replacement of Postiga with the wonderkid Nelson Oliveira made a big difference. So well poised with an exciting final day to decide which of the three follow the solid and confident Germans through.
Italy continue to live up to their billing as the worst Italian side in years, with Pirlo, although unable to last 90 minutes, the last link to their previous really great side. They are, however, as solid defensively as you would expect Italian’s to be, so may progress, with Ireland their final opponents. That said the Azzuri were hanging on against Croatia, who play with far more invention and verve, but will probably lose to Spain. Del Bosque’s men continue their metronomic dissection of opponents, but although they play the Barca style, they have nobody with the game breaking ability of Messi, which renders them vulnerable to a well drilled counter attacking side. That said, the manager made the right choice starting Torres against Ireland, as he needed goals for confidence, and they will need him to retain their title, and possible Llorente off the bench too. The still boast the best generation of midfielders ever seen, but can be vulnerable defensively under pressure. Ireland proved the pre-tournament expectations that you need more than three or four top-flight players to challenge at this level, and Trappatoni has kept the handbrake on too much for a team that simply can’t keep the ball. Hopefully he will allow them to express themselves a little more against the country of his birth.
Speaking of ball retention, England vs Sweden was a wonderfully ebb and flow low technique classic. Neither team has a hope of winning the tournament because they don’t pass it well enough. Sweden have the added problem of a total lack of pace bar the aging super-sub Wilhelmsson, but in Zlatan have a truly world class performer. Watching the likes of John Terry bounce off him like a child trying to mug a weightlifter was rather amusing. Sadly, bar Larsson’s dead ball delivery and the stubborn viking spirit embodied by Thor lookalike Olaf “I thought he had retired by now”Mellberg, Zlatan is pretty much all they have. That said, they still played with a far greater fluidity of movement and passing at times than this England team is capable of. What England do have this time is an embracing of old fashioned English values. Pace up front, excellent work-rate in midfield, and a certain bloody-mindedness. Roy Hodgson has sussed very early on the only way this particular squad will progress, and they should have enough to see of Ukraine, unless Sheva has another magic moment, which given that this is his last hurrah is entirely possible. Two great goals against Sweden certainly contrasted with his last season or two, but he has been working for this moment. A winner against England and he can run for President…
Finishing off, France are looking more and more plausible winners of the tournament. They keep the ball well, have a defensive titan in Diarra shielding the back four, and Benzema has matured into the striker he threatened to be. If they can keep Nasri getting involved, and use their bench well, they should get to the Semi’s at worst. Certainly they are the only ones likely to crash the Spain vs Germany final. Speaking of Germany, Mario Gomez (yet another mixed parentage German international) plays like a cross between Pele and a giant redwood. In the Champion’s League final and against Portugal he spent much of the game looking like fodder for a lumberjack, but his two goals against Holland were absolute top drawer finishes with his feet. Which version will turn up against Spain or France?