As the Euro 2012 final is upon us, it’s time to look back at the tournament thus far: the group stage, knockout phase, all the highs and lows along the way, and of course the upcoming final between Spain and Italy.
Euro 2012 enjoyed a magnificent start to the tournament with entertaining matches and amazing goals, not to be darkened by the brief ugly moments of racial abuse or fan violence.
The racial taunting of black players from the Dutch squad at a training session followed by Russian and Polish fans carrying out feelings of past political tension and clashing before their countries’ Group A match were unfortunate incidents that we will choose not to remember. The Spanish and Russian football associations were also fined by governing body UEFA for racial abuse on behalf of their fans. In the end, these brief moments of unpleasant news are not what we will look back as the talking points from Euro 2012.
The European Championship has proven to be an unpredictable tournament in the past, and this year’s version was no different. Russia started the tournament off with a bang by putting on a great offensive display against the Czech squad. After this match, it looked like Russia was the team to fear in Group A. However, at the end of the group stage, it was the Czech Republic who topped the group and moved onto the quarterfinals along with Greece.
The tournament’s Group of Death, Group B, also featured its fair share of surprises. None more unexpected than the group’s first match when Denmark completed a shocking upset over the star-filled Netherlands squad. The Netherlands were World Cup finalists two years ago, but at the Euros, they never recovered from the loss to Denmark and crashed and burned out of the tournament after three straight defeats amid reports of dressing room unrest due to the the conflict of star egos.
Germany was the class of this group as they won all of three of their matches, including a dazzling team performance against the Netherlands. Portugal ultimately advanced to the knockout stages on the final day of group play after a 2-1 victory over the Dutch, paired with a German defeat of Denmark.
Group C saw Spain, the world’s number one ranked team and current holders of the 2008 European Championship and 2010 World Cup titles, top the group after grabbing seven points from the group stage with wins over Ireland and Croatia. They were followed into the knockout round by 2006 World Cup champions Italy who shook off the disappointment of a dreadful 2010 World Cup to bounce back with a win against Ireland and two draws against Croatia and Spain.
Croatia was faced with the tough task of advancing in their group but was expected to compete against powerhouses Spain and Italy for a spot in the next round. Their hopes were dashed after conceding a late goal which led to defeat to Spain in their third game. An Italian victory over the Republic of Ireland saw the Croats end up in third place in the group.
The Irish will take home the title of most outplayed team in the tournament as they were comfortably defeated in their group matches along with a goal record of only one for, and nine against. They lacked the ability to make strong use of their ball possession when they had it against superior competition. The Irish team was full of heart but at the conclusion of the group stage they will have a lot of work to do heading into qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The final group of Ukraine, England, France, and Sweden saw the English surprisingly take top spot of the group on the last match day as France secured second spot, despite a loss to Sweden.
Ukraine were given hope of advancing to the knockout phase after a great team performance saw them come from a goal down against Sweden and snatch a 2-1 victory. Ultimately, neither co-host could bury enough goals in the group stage to advance in the tournament and the knockout rounds began without the excitement of home crowd support.
The Ukraine and England match on the final group match day also added fuel to the fire of the debate around whether goal line technology should be introduced in international football. Ukraine looked like it was denied a clear goal despite the introduction of another linesman on the goal line to see if the ball crosses the goal line. This debate is one of mixed opinions in the international football community, and we will have to wait and see how events unfold in the near future.
We entered the knockout phase after some definite surprises along with some highlight reel displays of world class talent. The quarterfinals provided some intriguing matchups, but ended with no real surprises as the favourites managed to advance in each case.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s highlight reel goal vs France in the group stage:
The quarterfinals saw the Germans once again put on a magnificent offensive performance against an overwhelmed Greek side, while Portugal snuck past the Czech Republic after a late header from Cristiano Ronaldo. Spain and Italy edged out France and England respectively.
It was another tournament of heartbreak in a penalty shootout for the English squad. Two crucial misses by Ashley Young and Ashley Cole proved costly as England had to pack their bags, just as they did in Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006, after a disappointing penalty shootout defeat.
The semifinals featured an all Iberian affair with neighbours Spain and Portugal facing off against one another at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine while the other semifinal took place in Poland at the National Stadium in Warsaw.
Both Spain and Portugal made attacking changes up front with Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque electing to start Alvaro Negredo for the first time in the tournament in place of Cesc Fabregas. Portuguese coach Paulo Bento was forced to replace the injured Helder Postiga with Hugo Almeida.
Portugal was seen as an underdog who could pose a threat to the talented Spanish side, and during the first half especially, they showed they could do just that. Neither side could capitalize on their possession through ninety minutes or extra time, so we saw another shootout at Euro 2012 after England and Italy had come to that conclusion three days earlier.
After two misses from both teams off the boots of midfielders Xabi Alonso and Joao Moutinho, a cheeky Sergio Ramos chip reminiscent of the Andrea Pirlo penalty kick days earlier, put the pressure on Portuguese defender Bruno Alves. After he rocketed his shot off the crossbar, Cesc Fabregas stepped up and slotted his shot into the corner off the post and in, and sent Spain to Kiev for the final.
Much of the post-game discussion surrounded the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo, scheduled to kick fifth for the Portuguese, didn’t get a chance to step up after the Bruno Alves miss put victory on the foot of Fabregas. Having your best player shoot last was seen as a mistake by coach Paulo Bento but in the end, the players up first have to score to give Ronaldo a chance. Dwelling over the “what if’s” is a normal occurrence after a country’s elimination at a major tournament, but often your best player is placed last in case you are in the position to clinch victory on your final shot.
The other semifinal between the Italians and Germans kicked off with a bang after superstar Italian striker Mario Balotelli headed his team into the lead after twenty minutes following an excellent play by his attacking partner Antonio Cassano to send him a great ball on the edge of the six yard box.
Balotelli is an often controversial figure, both in England for his club team Manchester City and back in Italy, where the Italian media can never seem to get enough of him as a storyline. He proved to be a heroic storyline for the Italians on this day, as he added another world class goal before halftime. He showed his ability and to provide brilliance in this semifinal and that he can be one of the best in the world if he is on his game.
“Super Mario” as he is known in the media and to fans, was a dynamic figure in the match especially in the first half where he used his size and strength to hold the ball up for his teammates and displayed his capability for powerful finishing.
Check out Mario Balotelli’s second stunning goal vs Germany in the semifinal.
The difference in this match proved to be the battle in the midfield. Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo linked up with Riccardo Montolivo and controlled the midfield throughout the match. Much of the talk before kickoff had granted Germany the edge in this department with their creative midfielder Mezut Ozil. However, he and his fellow Germans were out-battled in what proved to be a major turning point of the match.
With the final set for this Sunday, July 1st, I encourage you to take a seat and catch some of the action in what’s certain to be a thrilling clash between two soccer superpowers. Spain is on the verge of becoming the first country to win three major tournaments in a row (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, and Euro 2012) which would be a historic achievement given the tremendous level of difficulty to win just one tournament.
In my opinion, the pre-game discussion for the final will center on these key topics for the match:
1. Midfield battle
This will be a match where the focus will be placed on the midfield with both teams proven to be the most effective in that area throughout the tournament. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are considered easily the world’s best midfield tandem, both for club and country. But, in international tournaments, even the best can be overshadowed by the play of other worthy competitors such as the dominant Italian duo of Pirlo and Montolivo.
2. Andrea Pirlo!
The surefire player of the tournament up to this point has proven exactly why he is known to be a a genius, legend, or magician – take your pick – with the ball at his feet. Coming off an excellent season for club team Juventus of the Italian Serie A, Pirlo, at age 33, has continued his fine form into Euro 2012 and has his country strapped on his shoulders one win away from completing an enormous accomplishment that very few believed they could prior to the tournament.
3. Spain’s attacking options – ‘False 9′ or Fernando Torres to start?
Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque has juggled his starting lineup up front throughout the tournament. He started with a ‘false 9′ formation with no clear striker and Cesc Fabregas playing in the center role, and then switched to a more traditional formation with Fernando Torres playing as a center forward. Del Bosque then inserted Alvaro Negredo for the semifinal against Portugal, but he failed to impress so is unlikely to start again. I predict Fabregas will start again, and if need be, Torres will be substituted in the second half if goals are needed because Torres can come off the bench and certainly cause problems for defenders.
4. Can “Super Mario” repeat his semifinal performance?
After his stunning two goal performance against the Germans, Mario Balotelli grabbed all the headlines as he led his country into the final with two magnificent goals. He has shown glimpses of the natural talent he possesses during the tournament, but the semifinal was his coming out party and much of the chatter until Sunday will surround whether he can turn in another star performance in the final.
Final Prediction: The Italians have cruised into form at the right moment and will maintain that momentum into the final with a 1-0 victory.