Euro 2012: Day 13

Enter The Eliminators: Portugal 1 – 0 Czech Republic

I have a confession to make. During some of the more, shall we say, challenging of the matches I have struggled with actually remaining conscious. Some of the initial skirmishes, especially as they enter the critical 20 – 35 minute mark, have been tedium incarnate as neither side establishes a cutting edge and we retreat into some kind of footballing trench warfare. But this was the first match where I have actually lost consciousness and fallen asleep.

I just couldn’t get my head around the Czech’s gameplan. Sure in this age of the Mourinho Discipline we’ve all got used to sides sitting back and playing the defensive counterattack game, but it seems that the Czech’s never had any ambition beyond keeping the game at nil nil for long periods. Maybe there was some notion that in allowing themselves to be battered for the vast bulk of the game that they were enacting some kind of heroic football equivalent of the ‘rope a dope’. But once again the fatal flaw emerges. Sure Ali may have weathered the storm until Foreman was a broken husk of a man but he only won because he was then able to attack. The Czechs never really got that far.

Neither, for all their quality, did Portugal. They too seemed a bit hamstrung by the sense of occasion. In comparison to their demolition of the Dutch, this was a very restrained, almost subdued performance. Once again their centrepiece was Ronnie, but he was far less devastating than his previous game. Now that may have been due to the hard work of the Czech defence (and midfield), but it’s more likely that it was down to the general lackluster nature of the Portuguese team itself.

In the end it was a single goal that settled it and inevitably it was Ronnie wot won it. But there was still less gusto than previously. A semi-final with the winners of Day 15’s Spain France clash awaits.

Euro 2012: Day 12

The Roar Is On: Engerland 1 – 0 Ukraine

It is now clear what the answer to the Hodgson Conundrum is. Given his late entry as manager it was unclear what his general tactical approach would be. After two friendlies and two group stage matches a few things have become clear. He favours a cautious defensive opening, preferring to absorb pressure rather than actively probe and worry the opposition. However, when the team breaks, they are most successful breaking fast, using the wings and putting balls into the box rather than attempting to romance the ball into the net. And so far it’s been relatively effective.

Friendly wins against Norway and Belgium, both of whom appeared to be on their way on holiday, set the tone. Crafty, technical football was conspicuous by its absence, dour, obstinate hoofery more than apparent. None of which has been challenged by the first two group games. Both were filled with long periods of ball chasing, poor possession and control, compact, well disciplined defending and very occasional offensive manoeuvres. Yet they are still grinding out results – one of the signs of champions.

Today they had more than enough to deal with the Ukrainian threat. They were effective at absorbing the inevitable Ukraine pressure. The hosts were, after all, playing to stay in the tournament so were committed to pushing forward. And yet again the goal came from a cross, this time from the right and an easy header tap in from Rooney. After that it was shut the gate, hoof the ball and watch as the Ukrainians exhausted themselves.

That’s How To Do Collapsing: France 0 – 2 Sweden

You have to love the French. At the start of the game they had undoubtedly qualified, while the Swedes had nothing but pride to play for. So inevitably it was the French who collapsed. Armed with what appeared to be their most creative side (as opposed to the one most geared to getting a result), France should have been a joy to watch. After all, the combined attacking talents of Ben Arfa, Nasri, Ribery and Benzema should be enough to set even the calmest pulses racing. Yet if there’s one quality that all four appear to share it is a failure to really live up to their reputations in the really big games. Or to be blunt, all four flatter to deceive. Nasri had one glorious 3 month period 18 months ago, before largely enjoying Man City’s championship winning season from the bench. Ben Arfa has been occasionally sensational for Newcastle, but he is frustratingly inconsistent. While both Ribery and Benzema have shone in their domestic leagues, but come up short in the really big games.

No such misery for Sweden’s Ibrahimovic. Fresh off the first season in 8 years when he hasn’t won the domestic league wherever he has played, he did for the French with a spectacular scissor volley from just inside the box. After that France seemed to get into a huff and strop off at least 45 minutes before the final whistle.

It makes you wonder. How is it that Engerland can be so poor, yet are going through as group winners? How is it that Sweden can be so effective against France, yet couldn’t defend against Engerland or Ukraine? And why, oh why are France going through when they play as badly as that.

Euro 2012: Day 11

Play Badly And Win: Spain 1 – 0 Croatia

What should have been a great match was made dreary by tactics. Despite the Croats needing to score to have a chance of qualification (only a win or a high scoring draw would do) they really didn’t pose much of a threat for the first 70 minutes or so. Their plan seems to have been to tire the Spanish out by allowing them to have too much possession of the ball.

The Spanish, meanwhile, appear to have been playing well within themselves. Either that or they were giving a very good impression of a team that was unable to meet its own high standards, appeared somewhat exhausted and was unable to gel together properly. Indeed, there were moments when they were comprehensively outplayed by the Croats, when Modric sparkled down the right wing, then put in a beautiful cross off the outside of his boot only to see Rakitic head it straight at Casillas. That and a volley from outside the area were the Croats two significant chances. After that the game was effectively over.

Spain’s one moment of genuine class decided the game. A through ball from Fabregas saw Iniesta finally break the Croat defence and square the ball for the onrushing Jesus Navas to slam into the net from a couple of yards. The venom with which he struck the ball ensured that, but for the net, that ball would still be traveling two days later.

Play Badly And Lose: Ireland 0 – 2 Italy

Well top marks the Irish. At least they managed to hold it to nil-nil for more than five minutes. Indeed it wasn’t until the 36th minute that their chronically useless defence spreadeagled itself in front of the Italian onslaught. A corner headed in and once again the Irish had conceded from a set piece. And while an Irish goal might have sent the Italians home, it never looked like really happening. And when they conceded a late second, again from a corner, their misery was complete.

Bad beyond belief the Irish have even less to take home from this tournament than the Dutch (and that’s saying something). Null points, one goal and a goal difference of -8. Two goalkeeping howlers, three goals from set pieces and a brace for goal drought Fernando Torres. The Irish represent everything that is wrong with ‘macho’ football. Staffed by big men with plenty of ‘heart’ and nothing in their boots, they showed that there is no point to football without skill, tactics and guile. Rarely threatening, always in danger, Ireland were like the minnows of the Cup coming up against the big boys and finally understanding the possibilities the game they had been playing all their lives had to offer and realising that they would never, as individuals, begin to ascend the foothills of the talents they were playing against.

The idea that the Irish can qualify for this tournament while teams like the Belgians are left on the sidelines makes a mockery of the qualification process. The sooner they and the footballing philosophy they represent are banished the better.

Euro 2012: Day 10

The Run And Ronnie Show: Portugal 2 – 1 Holland

Up until now Ronaldo had always been damned with the faint praise that he’d been alright in the big games. He’d been the outstanding player at Man U and then Real Madrid for years. His goalscoring record is almost unbelievable. Messi aside he is the seminal player of his, our, age. Yet the same criticism has always dogged him and it is strangely valid, he goes missing in the really big games. You think of his first Champions League final, where he had simply no impact on the game, or those early games at Real Madrid against Barcelona. Or Portugal’s various exits from previous World Cups and Euros. That was Ronnie in a nutshell.

Not anymore. Today Ronnie made himself big, finally erasing the single, long term doubt that has surrounded him. He was simply sensational. Almost single handedly he dominated the Dutch, continually threatening their goal, scoring both Portugal’s goals and fundamentally destroying any last vestiges of hope the Dutch had of leaving the Euros with any credibility.

One moment when he won the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, passed it and ran the full length of the pitch for the return, summed up his contribution. Even more so than Real Madrid, this is a team standing on the shoulders of a single player. And for the first time they played like a team who were capable of supporting him. Doubly ironic that they should be playing against Holland, a team which is so much less than the sum of its parts and has been falling apart throughout the competition.

Yup, Ronnie was terrific, he mullered the Dutch and this was the game of the tournament so far.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho… Germany 2 – 1 Denmark

Given that there was a moment when the Danes could conceivably have sent the Germans out of the tournament, this was a match with a very subdued atmosphere. One of the real issues with the whole both matches starting at the same time thing is that you have to choose which match you want to watch and, inevitably, during the match you learn what happened in the other game. All of which makes the second game far less compelling.

Once you learn that the Danes have been defeated everything becomes a little less interesting. Despite a fightback by the Danes and the possibility of a penalty to take the lead this game never had any tension.

Euro 2012: Day 9

Whodathunkit? Greece 1 – 0 Russia

Having spent much of the first week gloating about how they used to own most of Eastern Europe while playing easily the best football of the tournament, the Russians must have felt somewhat confident about moving into week 3. While the Greeks, armed only with a legendary pigheadedness and the kind of financial and moral bankruptcy that the rest of the world can only dream of, must have thought that there was no chance of their getting through. How wrong they were.

The great thing about this tournament, in comparison with previous Euros and 2010’s World Cup, is that every match in every round has seemed to matter and that, despite many teams buying wholeheartedly into the Mourinho Doctrine, attacking play has reaped rewards. And while we still haven’t seen really classic games, we’ve seen some attractive, exciting and occasionally mind boggling football, not least tonight’s activities.

Russia must just be cursing their footballing gods. For pretty much every permutation of results except this one saw them going through. No one expected the Greeks, who were brutally spanked by the Czechs (the Czechs for god’s sake) and outplayed for large periods by the profligate Poles, to do anything against the Russians other than provide a brick wall defence. Still it was all in the Russian’s hands and they both let in a soft goal and failed to do any damage themselves.

As if we needed reminding, tournament football is a very different beast from either league or cup football.  Teams generally grow into the tournament (as the Spanish did in the World Cup) rather than being uniformly brilliant. The Russians came out all guns blazing and ended up firing blanks, the Greeks started tediously and have improved a little, making the most of the very few chances they had.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Get: Poland 0 – 1 Czech Republic

This was a strange, often tedious game, which was bizarre in the extreme. Both sides knew that a win would see them through yet neither side seemed even remotely interested in attacking. You could forgive the Czechs, as they knew that a draw would see them through, so there was no need for them to risk everything, but the Poles? What were they thinking? Apparently overawed by the weight of expectation of their audience in their opening match, they seemed to be rendered impotent after around 15 minutes.

Certainly there’s no excuse for the craven display they put on in the second half. If you thought Engerland’s ball retention was abysmal, you only had to watch Poland in the second half to realise that this was a whole new level of ball incompetence. Not only did they rarely get out of their half (I think their key man Lewandowski had at most a couple of touches during the second period), but they were barely able to string one pass together (let alone two or more). True they weren’t as diabolically shambolic as the Irish, but they illustrate the dangers of awarding tournaments like this to sides who otherwise almost certainly wouldn’t qualify.  Or the danger of opening the tournament up to more teams of this low grade quality.

Still, if there are crumbs of comfort to take for the Poles, it’s that their best moment, the goal against Russia from Blaszczykowski, was instrumental in sending the Russians packing.  Whodathunkit eh?

Euro 2012: Day 8

Laugh? I Nearly Died: Engerland 3 – 2 Sweden

Who me guv? Walcott gives detailed explanation of his equaliser against the Swedes. Like all good fish tales this one gets bigger every time it’s told.

OK, as the Prem drowns in acres of new money having sold its soul for over £1billion a year, Engerland brought a little bit of the Prem excitement to Euro 2012. For this must be one of the most exciting games the Euros have ever seen. Indeed you might say it was Excitement 10, skills, quality, football ability, tactics, uncle Tom Cobley and all a big fat zero.

Given Engerland matches now follow a script as predictable as a Michael Bay movie, it’s strange that I find them such onerous affairs. Frankly I should just give up caring. The games go like this. A dull, cagey first 15 or so, with Engerland playing it uselessly round the back (as if they haven’t quite understood that the point of playing it around the back is to pull the opposition out of place and give you attacking options). Amazingly Engerland somehow conjour up a goal out of nothing, somewhere around the 20 – 30 minute mark. Amazed at their own success (what a great wheeze they think, we’ve scored) and a-drunk on their own exhileration, Engerland fall back behind their own 18 yard line, lose all coherence and adopt their famous ‘desperate defending’ posture. Inevitably the opposition score, either just before half time or soon afterwards. If Engerland are in one of their really dire moods the opposition will score again. At this point the timelines diverge and either Engerland go on to lose (often on penalties), or even more amazingly than anything that has happened before, they actually score some more goals.

God must really hate the Swedes. They probably didn’t deserve to lose to Ukraine, but the latter desperately needed their fairytale. They certainly didn’t deserve to lose to Engerland. Once they’d scored Engerland played undoubtedly the worst football of any team in any game this tournament. It appeared as if they’d just drafted in 10 people, given them Engerland shirts and told them to get out there for the second half. It was amazing Sweden only scored two and it was impressive that Engerland actually got as many as no chances during this period. Honestly, it was bury your head and think of anything but Engerland time.

A lot will be made of Walcott’s introduction, his excellent goal and his overall contribution to Engerland’s victory, and in scoring one, setting up the winner and almost laying on a fourth (only for Greedie Stevie to steal it off the Ox’s toe and then hit it against the keeper) there’s much to commend. But it was equally important to rid the team of the irksome Milner and try to convince Johnson that his place (as a right back) is RIGHT BACK in defence.

It wasn’t all Engerland. Sweden suffer the same frailties as Portugal, being the sum of one player and a bunch of pals (or in Ibra’s case, not pals at all). Ibra failed, once again, to deliver on the really big stage and it is highly amusing that he will leave the tournament having scored fewer goals than his chief irritant Mellburg.

That Was So Electric: France 2 – 0 Ukraine

Too much potential for humour here as an electrical storm of impressive stature delayed the match for an hour. The rain in Spain falls mainly on Ukraine it appears. France were electrified. Après moi le deluge etc etc.

The Ukrainian fairytale fell off a cliff as France first controlled, then killed the game. Not even Sheva could save them, although he’ll have a much better chance against Engerland should they play as badly as they did today. France pretty much secure qualification as it seems unlikely that the fighting Swedes will put up much resistance (and if Engerland can beat them then the French should put them to the sword).

It seems that the French have finally emerged from the malaise of their last three tournaments, where they went from crown princes to clowns in the space of three group matches in 2002 and then managed to make that farrago look like a well disciplined campaign as they famously imploded in World Cup 2010. Now they look like a proper side again, although Nasri, Ribery and Evra are still very annoying petulant gits. But perhaps most astonishingly almost a third of their best side now play for Newcastle.