Euro 2012: Day 16

Same Old, Same Old – Exit At The Gift Shoppe: Italy 0 – 0 Engerland

Italian football genius Andrea Pirlo puts a useless Engerland team in their place with the most audacious penalty the Euros have seen.

Now loads of people have come down on poor little Engerland. They are, it is said, dour miserablists without a jot of footballing intelligence (that nice Theo and Oxblood aside), they play appalling lumpen prole hoofball, they are most effective when corralled into their patent ‘Roman Tortoise’ formation, they have an almost superstitious belief that Rooney will one day turn out a half-decent performance for the team and that’s just their good points. So naturally it’s all the fault of the ball to feet playing Spaniards.

Arguably the most evenly balanced of the quarter finals, on paper this looked like it could go either way. Italy hadn’t been playing all that well, doing just enough to come through in a group which also featured the flailing Croatians and the utterly abysmal Irish. They looked a bit staid and vulnerable, not unlike their opponents. If there was a quarter final that Engerland could realistically win, this was it. In the end it was as brutal a nil – nil thrashing as you could possibly imagine.

Engerland opened up in typical Engerlish fashion, an awful lot of running about and hoofy looping to varying degrees of success, a half-decent attempt on goal which provided Buffon with his only serious save of the day. However, after 20 minutes or so of pretty footy, Engerland simply opened up. The terrifying thing was that you could see it happening like ripples in a pond as the Italians first regained control, then established utter dominance over the game. In contrast you could watch the Engerlish backline retreating like Rooney’s receding hairline, first it’s on the halfway line, then halfway in the Engerlish half, then their 18 yard line, then inside the penalty area. Each retreat marked by a further retreat in the quality of any response on those rare occasions when Engerland actually had the ball.

The most astonishing thing about the game, aside from the mystery of how Italy failed to score in 120 minutes with almost total possession of the ball and about a grazillion on target chances, was how Andrea Pirlo managed to dominate all the play. Now here’s an older, slower player of undoubted talent, whose threat could have been neutralised by stationing an Engerlish player within, say, 20 yards. Prevent the ball getting to Pirlo and you’ve cut out about 90% of the Italian threat, reducing them to 30 yard hoofballs to a rampaging but ineffective Ballotelli. Not a hard concept for the best tactical brains in Engerlish football to get their heads around. And many different ways of accomplishing that, including man marking him with one of Gerrard, Parker or Rooney. Alternatively, bring on the Ox to make Pirlo’s life difficult. Not rocket science. However, not the Engerlish way apparently.

Instead the best minds in Engerlish football decided to isolate Pirlo by providing him with a 20 yard exclusion zone. A move which gave him almost total freedom to dictate play for the best part of 100 minutes. Unlike Gerrard, whose hail mary hoofers are just as likely to fall to an opponent’s able touch as they are to ricochet off an Engerlish player (into the able touch of an opponent), Pirlo can actually do the long ball pass thing. And he spread the play, usually down the right wing (patrolled with all his usually ineffectiveness by Ashley Young), with the ease of an old geezer lazing back in his recliner and puffing a catastrophically large cigar.

That Italy didn’t win in normal time was outrageous. That they didn’t win after 120 minutes was unacceptable and surely requires an indepth review by UEFA, followed by significant rule changes to prevent this thing from happening again. The notion that, but for the regulation couple of useless penalties which they always seem to dredge up, Engerland might have got to a semi final is repugnant to all sport loving Engerlishmen. Fortunately for them, and the world, we had Pirlo to take the most audacious penalty in the Euros to put the Engerlish most firmly in their place. The full scale recriminations will come later.

Euro 2012: Day 15

Football Is Chess Played By Stupid People: Spain 2 – 0 France

Now loads of people have come down on Spain. They are apparently too lovely for their own good, they play beautiful, if often unthreatening football, they have won too often, they don’t allow other teams to beat them, they are boring and they win everything. Oh and they don’t give crappier teams a chance and they don’t let others score goals against them. So naturally it’s all the Spaniards’ fault.

Really the onus is on all the other sides to find a way around the Spanish gameplan. Not for the Spaniards to dumb down their play to accommodate the failings of the rest of the world. And given it’s taken Mourinho, who has the strongest alternative footballing philosophy, the best part of three seasons (and umpteen Classicos) in Spain to even challenge the might of Barcelona, it’s no surprise that the rest of the world has taken a while to get to grips with Spain’s success.

Latest to try was former world great France. Their previous period of dominance has culminated in just over a decade of catastrophic failure, infighting and acrimony. This campaign has been conducted with an undercurrent of bitterness, rancour and loathing that has been scarcely believeable, with players like Ben Arfa, Ribery, Malouda, Benzema and particularly Nasri being accused of not pulling their weight. With team solidarity like that it was no surprise that France bottled it, preferring to play a bizarre containment game before going one down, then failing to put together a meaningful attack for the rest of the game.

From Spain’s perspective their plan worked perfectly. They wore France down, pulling them all over the pitch, destroying their will, before breaking down the left, beating the two right backs Blanc had inexplicably deployed, before Xabi Alonso headed the ball into a practically unguarded net. Despite the introduction of Nasri, who barely even touched the ball, France had no response.

This might not have been a harem-scarem match like yesterday’s Germany Greece match, but from the Spanish perspective this was a perfect plan immaculately executed. The question for the rest of the world remains, Whatchagonna do about it?

Euro 2012 Day 14

Med Nation In Euro Bailout: Germany 4 – 2 Greece

After the rather predictable tedium of Portugal v Czech Republic, this was the first real knockout match. Indeed, it was the first real grudge match of the tournament (we can comfortably ignore Germany Holland, France Engerland and Italy Practically Anyone). Greece, angered by Germany’s apparent success in everything and their own corrupt ineffectiveness, were on a mission.

Their first aim, to stultify the Germans with a Thermopylae defence, a massed rank of heftily bearded Greeks lined up, arms linked just in front of their goal, was initially successful. The Germans tried to push, pull, romance and roughhouse the ball into the net with consummate failure until captain Lahm simply decided to muller it into the net from 25 yards.

After that the Greeks changed tack. They broke fast and clawed back a goal. Possibly the most bizarre thing about this Greek side has been their reticence to actually attack, especially if you consider how effective they have been when they did. You think back to some of their attacks against Poland, which contained great movement and guile, and this excellent counterattack and then wonder why they should go two down in 6 minutes against the Czechs.

And once they were level, what did the Greeks do? Why fall back into their defensive shell, that’s what. Not a great move when you’re facing the Germans. Cue a couple of really nicely struck goals and it was game over. Not even the softest of soft penalties would prove consolation for the Greeks. For them austerity beckons.

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.