As Euro 2012 rumbles towards its conclusion, it is no great surprise to see a Semi Final line-up of Portugal vs Spain and Germany vs Italy. Probably the four strongest teams across an aggregate of recent international tournament appearances, and certainly the only major nations working to a clear plan. I suppose the smart money is on the Germany vs Spain rematch we all anticipated before the tournament, but neither of their opponents are to be discounted.
For Portugal, much depends on whether their midfield can continue to provide a strong shield for their defence without being pushed back too deep by the relentless and soporific Spanish possession game. The longer the Portuguese keep a clean sheet, the greater Spain’s concern will be regarding the twin wing threat of Ronaldo and Nani. With Postiga out, Hugo Almeida will provide less work-rate up front, but more of a muscular presence to occupy Ramos and Pique. A lot will also depend on the relative performances of the two team’s full-backs, both sets of whom like to spend a lot of time in the opposition half while the flooded midfield covers for them. The dynamic Coentrao is probably better than Jordi Alba for Spain, in both directions, and needs to maintain his attacking instincts to give Ronaldo the support he needs down the left side. While the Portuguese lack a playmaker with the gifts of Xavi or Iniesta, their strength on the counter matches up well with Spain. Personally, I hope Portugal win, simply because their combination of solidity and explosiveness (not to mention their traditional combustibility) would make for a more exciting final. That and the fact that they continue to play with a centre-forward despite lacking real talent in that area, compared to Spain who prefer not to, despite having approaching 100m Euros worth on their bench. As Del Bosque’s men are illustrating, Barca without Messi’s brilliance or Sanchez’s pace aren’t all that exciting, despite their technical magnificence.
The second match up pits the two traditional European heavyweights against each other. This is a prototypical Italian side in all respects except for a clinical cutting edge up front. Staunch defence with a cynicism flirting with the illegal, hard working multifunctional midfielders protecting a deep fulcrum, and work rate up front. Their paucity of goalscoring threat, as illustrated against a weak England side, means they need to keep a clean sheet to progress. Much depends on whether Chiellini can return to provide a physical match for Mario Gomez’s renewed confidence, and De Rossi mopping up behind the aging legs of the ever elegant Pirlo. Italy’s extra-time exertions against England also place them a disadvantage, with the Germans also benefitting from a breeze through to this point, squad rotation and two days extra rest. Its hard to look beyond Joachim Low’s multi-functional, multi-cultural machine. Germany are showing the direct benefit of comparatively successful ethnic integration, with the traditional volkish work-ethic, solidity and focus marrying well with other attributes from the Turkish, Polish, North African and West African influences. This being achieved beyond the traditional colonialist links of France or the UK suggests hope in their football combatting the increased murmurings of the far-right. Their more varied goal threat and superior strength in depth should see them past Prandelli’s under-talented but over-achieving Azzuri. The only two potential spanners in the works for Germany are the ever-unpredictable Balotelli and the under-utilised finishing of Udinese’s twilight years goal machine, Di Natale.
Beyond the final four, the Greek’s kept their heads held high despite bizarrely self-defeating tactics undermined by defensive lapses, predominantly due to pride and workrate. Holland whimpered from the tournament in a haze of lost cohesion, poor management and reliance on jaded stars. Sneijder apart none can take any credit from the tournament, and the Dutch white elephant that was Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s selection showed itself to be a waste of time after all. Seldom has a striker contributed so little to a team’s overall play.
France seem to have taken on the Dutch mantle of mass throwing of toys from prams, with their campaign stuttering against an already eliminated Sweden (With a piece of Zlatan magic), and then grinding to a halt, bereft of ideas against Spain. Having done so much to ingratiate himself to Arsenal fans, and leaving fans underwhelmed at Man City, Samir Nasri seems to have become agent provocateur in the national side, pretty much falling out with everyone. Judging by his reactions throughout the tournament towards the French press, I would suggest that in future he avoids the newspapers, seeing as there is now talk in France of banning him from the National side. Losing to Spain is no disgrace, but the French were gutless and uncertain, in terms of tactics, selection and on-field performance. Again, like Holland, not many can feel happy with their tournament.French football needs a clearing of the decks, as things have stumbled around ineffectually since 2000, bar the last hurrah of that great generation in 2006, where they overachieved. Odd to think that the oft ridiculed Jacques Santini has the best ever record of French national team managers, but his 2002-2004 reign was the last time the team was both humbled and exceptionally talented.
The Czech’s did as well as they could have hoped, and need to rebuild following the departure of Baros and possible international retirements of the likes of Rosicky and Plasil. England likewise achieved to their appropriate level, albeit more negatively than anticipated. The rash of injuries before the tournament left the manager with such paucity of options in midfield that the monumentally average Jordan Henderson was first choice off the bench, and with both Gerrard and Parker struggling for fitness before the tournament, their legs were always going to run out at some stage. This made Michael Carrick’s pre-tournament strop to make himself unavailable even more stupid. If he had chosen to wait on the stand by list, he probably would have featured in all four games. That said, this was the least gifted England squad in my lifetime, with only Graham Taylor’s ill-fated Euro 92 squad for company, so the quarter finals were probably the maximum expectation. In terms of squad analysis, the defence on the whole had a good tournament as did Gerrard and some of the fringe players but not many others of the first 11. For all his bravery, ‘Scotty’ Parker treated the ball like a hand-grenade, Milner ran around a lot, but bar 10 good minutes against Italy was out of his depth and offered little going forwards, Ashley Young was weak, ineffectual and mostly awful, and Rooney didn’t look fit. It also seems that Glen Johnson is still the only England player who will pass to Walcott, no matter how much space he is in. We are all aware of Theo’s limitations, but against a tired defence or when the game is stretched he is a potent weapon. Sadly the sight of him in acres of space never being passed the ball is a common one for his country.
It will be interesting to see where ‘uncle’ Roy goes from here, but positive signs seem to include a challenging of egos, a willingness to make substitutions if things aren’t working, and judging by his post elimination comments, a recognition of the need to bring in new players. The big question is, will he be willing to abandon his long-standing love affair with 442, so England can allow their new, better coached, youngsters to flourish in a possession game?