First of all, an apology is in order. Due to professional obligations which have absolutely nothing to do with football or any other sport, I was not able to finalise my preview of all the groups of the Euro nor to post any thoughts on the matches. I will try therefore to offer a small summary of my expectations to the other two groups not covered before (groups B and D) and my impressions of the tournament so far.
As could be expected by reading the header of this blog, this was the most interesting group on a personal level. I was expecting Germany to prove itself too strong for all opponents, but I had also expected some different things happening throughout the matches. For once, I had imagined Germany as capable of steamrolling Portugal while conceding one goal but instead we were treated to a relatively even match in which Germany’s availability of a world class striker made all the difference. Against Holland, I had expected pretty much the match that took place, but not such a broken game where one team tended to be pinned down at the back for while the other attacked. Versus Denmark, the Danish resilience surprised me, but I would have thought Joachim Löw would have preferred to go with a slightly modified line-up, bringing in more mobile and creative players in any of Klose, Götze, Schürrle or Reus. Also from the point of view of a neutral, it would have made for something considerably more exciting than the football on show.
Holland is usually a complicated team to predict, as we never know the face they will present in the major tournaments. In this one, it was the disjointed and divided one, which is probably the main reason for having departed on zero points after being touted as the “third men” of the competition, after Germany and Spain. Bert van Maarwijk’s tactics could be brought into question, particularly the use of van Bommel instead of van der Vaart or Kevin Strootman, but the simple fact that before the tournament it was the place of Nigel de Jong that was in question should eliminate any 20/20 hindsight reflections. The tactics of two defensive midfielders were sound (as the match against Portugal showed) and if anything, it was the use of Robben instead of Huntelaar (with van Persie, Sneijder and Affellay/Kuyt forming a fluid attacking trio) that unbalanced the team. Playing two destructive players at the base of the midfield was the basis for the almost fully successful run in the world cup in South Africa, so it should not be undermined here.
Denmark was a surprise in the way they managed to confound the opponents so much. Against Holland, they were lucky not to concede, but the interplay between some of the front players was excellent. Against Portugal they pulled back by exploiting the Portuguese weaknesses and against Germany they relied on some strong determination to fight for the match for a long period, even if outclassed. The determining factor was Crohn-Dehli, a dynamo of a player who plays mostly in a striker position for his club but who played here as an inside forward on the left, simultaneously providing attacking threat and also helping the left-back to cope with attackers of the caliber of Robben, Nani and Thomas Müller. All in all, Denmark can be proud of their performance.
Of course that the qualification of Portugal (already in the semis, but I’ll leave that for afterwards) pleased me, but especially because I had not expected them to get so far. I imagined they would lose to Germany, probably scrape a victory against Denmark but then fall short against Holland. This was the defining match, but I had predicted that Holland would have been in a better moment and not as desperate. The weaknesses of Portugal were quite evident from the start: problems with a left flank where Ronaldo does not help much, two left backs extremely vulnerable in balls through the air; and the lack of a quality striker. It was also pointed out that Portugal did not present much creativity, but that was not something I was particularly worried about. Even though neither of the midfield trio is a typical “number 10” type of player, their simple background grants them a larger degree of creativity than that of a comparable English, German or even Dutch counterpart. Without a really creative player, their combined inventiveness would provide the necessary penetration. In this sense, even though he is probably the striker with the worst finalization of all Paulo Bento took with him, Postiga’s movement fits well with the attacking actions of the wingers and he works well to create spaces for midfield and flank runs. His main weakness and one which frequently exasperated Ronaldo is his incapability to deal with balls played in space for him to chase and score. He can however get himself in good striking positions and if the ball is well placed he can score good goals (he has a better ratio of goals/caps for the national team than at any of his clubs). Still, I always expected that balls floated from right or left to behind the centre-backs (as in the goals of Gomez and both of Bendtner) would be Portugal’s undoing. The team however reacted splendidly and with Veloso doing a wonderful and unheralded job of picking the opposition’s attacking midfielder and helping Coentrão in defence, it was possible to offer some measure of balance. Also the substitutions by Bento were spot on, with Varela and Oliveira able to offer energy and dynamism to confront the opposition while the coming in of Rolando clearly hinted at several hours of training ground work with three at the back dealing with balls in the box. In the end, it has been Ronaldo’s performances that have made the difference, even against Denmark where his threat meant someone ended up always free, something which lead to the winning goal of Varela. This dependence may be worrying, but as long as he plays like this, there is nothing wrong in Bento playing to his strengths.