Standpoint, part 3


Portugal-Czech Republic
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.

Final thoughts
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.


Standpoint, part 2

Group D

In my predictions for this group I had imagined France going through as first and England as second, with Sweden possibly being able to challenge the latter for this spot. I had never expected such a mediocre performance of the swedes in the first two matches (especially in defence) or that Ukraine could cause these many problems. I could not follow these matches as well as I would have liked (the work that kept me from writing also kept me from watching everything I would have liked to, so compromises had to be made), but the general impression was one of a talented but disfunctional french side, organised english and ukrainian ones and a swedish side which relied too heavily on their star player. In the end, the results might not have been totally expected or logical (England were very much the weaker side against large periods of the match against Ukraine), but reflected what happened.

Group A

Much of what I had expected came to being. Russia surprised me with their 4-1 thrashing of Czech Republic, but it was all downhill from there. They seemed tired (at the end of the match against Poland they hardly moved) and the players seemed uncomfortable with having to be the attacking side and playing a proactive game. It was telling that their best result came in the match when the opposition decided to take all initiative and left spaces at the back. Also some element of luck (understood as a happy accident) might have been at play there.

Poland were, as expected, too much dependant on their three star players. It’s not that they did not perform: Piszcek did well, Lewandowski was excellent and Blaszczykowski was the best polish player. It’s just that the opposition knew that, by shutting out these three, there was little threat from their teammates. This ended up being their undoing in attacking terms, since the defence did well throughout the tournament.

The winners were Czech Republic, the team I had expected especially because of a solid group, without real stars, but consistent and balanced. They were never going to hit great heights, but in an even group, it was clear that the better organised side might come out top. Gebre Selassie may have caught the eye with his forward runs, but his defensive positioning was often questionable and some more maturity will help him tremendously. At this moment, however, Vaclav Pilar may already be pointed as the surprise of the tournament, with his pace and trickery causing problems throughout. If supported by some more creativity and movement from his teammates, he could have carried the team further. At under 1 million euros he already seems the bargain of the summer for Wolfsburg.

Greece played pretty much the way it was expected. Solid at the back, with some attacking runs (they were more attacking than in previous tournaments) and had as star players the young centre-back Papadopoulos and midfielder Katsouranis. In the end, they qualified through hard work and plenty of heart, but also some tactical astuteness from their manager Fernando Santos (especially against Poland). They would never set the world alight, but they showed enough spirit for their compatriots and that was what they had aimed at.

Group C

As expected, Spain came out on top, with Italy getting second place ahead of Croatia and Ireland departing with three defeats. Italy, however, did much better than expected, strongly stiffling Spain (and even having the best opportunities to win the match) and not being far from beating Croatia. Had Croatia drawn with Spain in the last match, Italy might have been gone, but the spanish were keen to avoid surprises and won against the croats with a display somewhat characteristic of their Euro: unconvincing. Still, in the end the best teams went through and Croatia can go back feeling they really gave their best. Ireland went for the party and cannot really be disappointed: their victory was in being there.

Euro2012 – Group A

With the Euro2012 knocking on our doors, it is about time I started writing something, I believe. I will do a simple preview of the tournament in several. installements, one on for each group and then one for general considerations on the tournament,We’ll strat with group A.

Group A
Contrary to most people, I find that the expression “group of death” better applies to this group than to group B. In group B, whatever the strength of the teams involved (any of them would be the favourites in group A), there are two clear favourites. In group A, however, neither team could be considered the strongest favourites. Even the theoretical weakest team, Poland, are expected to get a lift from the home support which could even the odds.

Russia are the obvious favourites and have the most impressive group of players, but most of them come on the back of a one and a half year internal season which, despite all the breaks, may have taken a toll on the best players. The fast running and counter-attacking game displayed at Euro2008 was strongly supported by the fact most players were in the middle of their seasons and therefore in top physical condition. This will not be true at poland and Ukraine however, and the surprise factor may therefore be absent. The impressive results in preparation matches may be an indication of form, but that is not necessarily an indication of strength. Russia will play with strong support but also with high expectations, which my well turn against them. Furthermore, despite being known as a good coach, Dick Advocaat does commit the occasional tactical blunder (the most famous of which if somewhat unjustly, was the substitution of Robben at the Holland-Czech Republic match at the Euro2004) and all these factors may reduce the favouritism placed on the russian team.
My expectation, even though this will go against what most people will say, is that Russia will not get out of the group, finishing third.

Greece were in impressive form in qualification, winning seven times and finishing without defeats. Following previous years, the manager Fernando Santos adopted a more conservative approach, keeping things tight at the back and exploring fast attacks based on holding play from the striker and betting strongly on set-pieces to get the goal necessary to win the match. Whereas this strategy should not be enough to repeat the surprise of 2004, Greece come to the Euro as a very complicated opponent which are capable of causing problems to any opponent and possibly cause some surprises along the way.
The expectation will be if they can get the goals to win the matches, but it is quite possible they could qualify from the group with three draws. After this, even though they may well be able to beat any team, thewinner of group B is likely the kick them out of competition.

Poland are on paper the weakest side in the group and it is quite possible they will live up to the low expectations set for them. Poland base their game around four players: the Arsenal goalkeeper Szczesny and the trio from Borussia Dortmund Piszczek, the captain Kuba and the striker Lewandowsky. With Piszczek and Kuba, Poland present one of the best right wings of the tournament, but given the overall quality of the side, it is quite possible this will leave the game predictable and easy to defend against. In Lewandowsky Poland will also present one of the outstanding strikers of the tournament, a player capable of scoring goals, hold up the ball, get teammates into play and create spaces with his movement. His form will be fundamental for a good display by the hosts and he may well be the surprise of the tournament, but is likely to see his good work wasted by the lower quality of the team.
Unfortunately, the high quality of the players mentioned above should not be enough to see them out of the group. One win or two draws should be the most they can expect. It is however very possible that they will score on most games and it would not be too surprising to see Lewandowsky take the award for the best scorer.

Czech Republic arrive to Poland with the nostalgia of previous years but that should not cloud the fact that this is a very solid and balanced side which should surprise their opponents in the group. The final matches of the season saw Petr Cech rise to his former heights as one of the outstanding keepers of his generation anfd this should bring the necessary confidence for the defence, especially the full-backs for roaming forward. The midfield have a good balance of defensive guile and creativity and the forwards, though not brilliant, are capable of scoring and should be able to get one or two goals for each match of the group phase.
If no injuries affect the key players, the czechs should be able to take the group as leaders and then they do have the quality to beat any of the teams from group A. Still, qualifying to the quarter-finals should be the maximum achievable goal, but a semi-final spot is not beyond them.