As everybody has been keen to point out, Cristiano Ronaldo has been the outstanding attacking player of the tournament. If he had been criticised for his profligacy against Denmark, he had also, as Raphael Hönigstein wrote, put on a typical team-first display to help control the match. That Portugal had needed a late winner from Varela was a different story. Before that he had shown that, despite his constant histrionics, he can lead also by example on the pitch. Still, it was against Holland and the Czech Republic that he really has set the tournament alight. He ran, dribbled, passed, shot (with either foot and head), hit the post four times and scored three all-important goals. Moreover, his simple presence conditions the defensive set-up of the opposite team and creates space for his teammates. This was clear against the Czech Republic, where other players frequently had opportunities to shoot simply because Ronaldö’s presence cleared the path. Even the fact that he was lurking just outside the box created the space for the movement that culminated in Moutinho’s cross for his header. He has been the determining factor in Portugal’s advance, that much is certain.
Still, he has not been the only one. After the goals conceded all started from the left flank which Ronaldo seldom helps cover, Paulo Bento reshuffled his team somewhat to improve fluidity and increase solidity. Miguel Veloso has been the invisible star of the team, by dropping deep to stick to the opposing attacking midfielders and frequently run to the left to give support to Coentrao. In the first matches, it was Moutinho who would cover that side, but as Zonal Marking demonstrated, in recent matches there has been a switch between Meireles and Moutinho, with the latter now closer to the right side and the former offering the attacking thrust and defensive cover from the left. This was a shrewd move, as Bento realised that Meireles was not in his top form and therefore his attacking instincts could be sacrficed in favour of those from Joao Moutinho and at the same time his work rate could help compensating for Ronaldo staying up the pitch. This strongly stiffled Jiracek and with Gebre Selassie occupied, all czech threat had to come from Pilar, a player that was almost always well dealt with by Joao Pereira (who always had support from Nani and never had to face a 2vs1 situation at the back). In the end, the match could be summarised by the portuguese attacks breaking over and over again against the czech defence, the posts or Petr Cech. Ronaldo’s winning header may have come late, but was totally deserved.
Hailed as the the match of the €uro, this encounter had plenty of political conotations. On the pitch, however, the story would be quite simple: Germany would attack and Greece would defend, with an eye on the counter-attack. Joachim Löw decided on this match to present a very different forward line, with Reus on the right for Müller, Schürrle on the left for Podolski and Klose as striker for Gomez. The emphasis seemed to be more on creativity and technique (as well as movement from the part of Klose) to try to break the tight defence. Since Müller and Podolski are more direct players better suited for counter-attacking, this was a clever move. Still, the greek defence proved difficult to break, something which was not helped by an unusual slugginesh of Schweinsteiger on the ball (due to an ankle injury). Greece would defend inside the box, close out outside shots and hit the ball fast usually for Samaras who would try to impose his strength to Boateng and create openings for Salpingidis. In this phase, Katsouranis showed strong defensive awareness and brilliant passing skills, with his passes to the runners always narrowing avoiding interception. Without any team able to break the deadlock, the breakthrough came from Lahm who, taking advantage of not being closed down (the greek players were more concerned with the midfielders) unleashed a shot from outside the box and changed the match. Even though Greece unexpectedly drew just after half-time, they needed time to regroup at the back, having come back onto the pitch in a more attacking disposition. Khedira took advantage of that and scored what, psychologically, amounted to the coup de grâce for the greeks. From then on, it was a matter of putting in another couple of chances (and Klose drawing closer to Gerd Müller’s all-time scoring record with the Mannschaft) and Greece pretty much conceded defeat when Liberopolous came in for what was his final career match, in order to say goodbye to the fans. Germany progressed and stay as the only team to have won all matches whereas Greek go home knowing they overachieved and that they made their fans proud.
This was in effect the most boring match of the tournament so far. One may blame it on Spain’s style of game, with possession and safety being paramount, but France did not help matters by shrugging their formidable attacking force and ligning up with two right-backs, one nowadays mainly defensive player (Malouda) and almost only Ribery and Benzemea to try to fashion some chances for les Bleus. It was therefore ironic that the two right backs failed to stop Iniesta’s pass to Jordi Alba and the latter’s cut into the box before he layed a perfect cross for Xabi Alonso’s header. Still, the main fault was from Gael Clichy, who should have covered that side but was sucked inside and opened up space on his back
After this, the match could be summarised by a possession glut from Spain, closing spaces when out of possession and keeping the ball when in attack. As Cabaye’s influence grew, some spaces appeared at the back, but these were always well dealt with, especially since most openings came from movements wide by Benzema which left the centre completely devoid of french players, since no midfield runners seemed to be available. The second goal from Alonso was almost the only other notable incident on the match and if it brought the scoreline higher than what Spain deserved, it also punished a fearful french side which could have been one of the most exciting ones in the tournament. Spain go on to try to make history and France go back home only in slightly lower disgrace than after South Africa.
As Zonal Marking noted, England’s best period (the first half hour) coincided with Pirlo’s most quiet one and also with the period when Rooney better harrassed the italian regista. Whether Pirlo’s (and by extension Italy’s) dominance started because of Rooney neglecting this job or whether Rooney simply failed to do it because of Pirlo’s quality is difficult to point out, but it is not hard to imagine it was the former. Rooney is an excellent defender and chases the ball whether, but seems to get tired (as in bored) of this job quickly and prefers to stick to attacking. He has only ever managed to be a more defensive player when playing at Manchester United to give Ronaldo more freedom and it appears that, if he is the top player in the group, he will refuse to do too much of the dirty work. This marked the difference with Pirlo, who always ran after his opponent on the rare occasions he lost the ball.
Although Pirlo’s performance should obviously be lauded, Montolivo was only slightly less influencial. He operated more forward and his short passing frequently found spaces with Cassano and Ballotelli which confounded the english defenders. Still, a wastefulness from the italian players guaranteed that England managed not to concede in 120 minutes of play. As time wore on, England reverted to Hodgson’s revered two banks of four and waited it out, hoping for a long ball forward which could conjure a goal from a moment of brilliance by Rooney. Unfortunately, not having any other quality player next to him to fashion such chances (Wellbeck has promise, but he is no Nani or Valencia), the Man United man felt isolated and slowly faded away. In the end, the question was whether Italy would be able to break the english resistance or whether the penalties would tell the same old story. They did and England go back home. Despite some encouraging signs by some players, this was a performance that should actually not bring too much hope to english fans. Wellbeck only showed some flashes, Ashley Cole was largely anonymous, Wallcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain had impact mainly against tiring and mediocre defenders and the best members at the back were men around 30 years old. The day that strikers will get used to fake a shot to let Terry go to ground before actually shooting, England’s defence may actually crumble. Until 2014, however, the three lions may still be able to limp to Brazil.
Italy will now face Germany, an opponent they have a good history against. Still, with two less days to rest and 30 minutes of play (plus the stress of a penalty shoot-out) extra, they may fall to Germany’s attacking machine. After the possession masterclass by the italians in the quarter-finals, we may well see them going back to basics and shut down at the back in the semi-finals. Still, a side with Pirlo and Ballotelli should never be written off.
As Sid Lowe wrote, the four best and most interesting sides made it to the semi-finals. Both matches will probably see proactive sides (Spain and Germany) against reactive ones (Portugal and Italy, respectively). Still, with the players on display, it should never be expected that one team will park the bus while the other looks for a way around it. These matches, even with the need to keep solidity in mind, could give some of the most interesting semi-final matches in several years.