By Nick Craddock
The Euro 2012 group stage concluded on Tuesday with England ruining any chance of co-host Ukraine advancing further in the competition by virtue of its 1-0 win, and France stumbling into the knockout stage after a 2-0 loss to the previously winless Swedes.
France and England will be joined by the Czech Republic, Greece, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Italy in the quarterfinals, which begin this afternoon.
Although Euro 2012 has served as a flash point for some of soccer’s most contentious issues on and off the field, such as the constant call for goal line replay technology and racist displays by groups of fans, the group stage offered a largely wide-open style of play with at least one goal scored per game, the first time such an event occurred in European Championship history.
And after three games of ironing out the kinks, tweaking lineups and getting settled in Eastern Europe, the eight remaining teams have simply three more games to win to become champs.
Here’s what to expect from the quarterfinals:
Czech Republic v. Portugal
The Czechs are deserving recipients of the “Most Resilient Team” award through this tournament thus far. Following a 4-1 shellacking at the hands of Russia in their opening game, the Czechs rattled off two straight victories to secure top place in a wide open Group A. However, testing their mettle against a Portuguese team, which navigated its way out of the Group of Death in second place, will pose the biggest challenge to date.
When compared to Portugal and the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, who managed a brace and 10 shots last time out, the Czechs are severely lacking in offensive firepower. Their best hope will likely be playing in a defensive formation, perhaps a 4-5-1, and hoping their lone striker can capitalize on a Portugal miscue. If any player is capable of battering down the defensive hatches, it’s world class Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech and his protective skull-cap.
Players to watch: Milan Baros, once a top scorer at the European Championships, has lost a step or two in the twilight of his career, but maybe the Czech veteran’s savvy will be enough to deliver a winning goal. For Portugal, Ronaldo grabs the headlines, but the continued excellent play of Nani, particularly in delivering quality crosses and through balls to Ronaldo, will make this game much easier for Portugal.
Prediction: Portugal wins 2-1.
Germany v. Greece
Greece, although not quite yet at the level of its Cinderella run en route to the Euro 2004 title, managed a bit more major tournament magic on the final day of Group A matches by absolutely robbing Russia of any points to sneak into second place in the group. In fact, if not for a UEFA quirk whereby head-to-head matchups (rather than goal differential as FIFA prefers) is the primary tiebreaker, Greece would have been headed home to Athens.
Nevertheless, the Greeks, renowned for sitting back in a defensive shell, will be hard pressed to stop this young German team’s onslaught, especially without captain Giorgos Karagounis, the talismanic leader who will be lost to suspension courtesy of an accumulation of yellow cards.
Meanwhile, the Germans won all three games in the Group of Death and have attacking options throughout the midfield, in Mesut Ozil and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and up front in Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez. ‘Nuff said.
Players to watch: Schweinstegier is young, but has earned close to 100 caps for Germany at the tender age of 27. The captain will have to ensure that this young German team does not become content with what has already been achieved, and instead focuses on what can be accomplished ahead. Kostas Chalkias, the Greek goalie is 38, and should be tested early and often in this game. The elder statesmen will be the last line of defense and will only be allowed to bend but not break to give Greece a chance.
Prediction: Germany wins 3-0.
Spain v. France
The defending European and World Champions, Spain, is not as dynamic as it has been at the last two major tournaments, but the Spanish still roll out an exceptional squad capable of becoming the first team in soccer history to win three straight major tournaments. Scary. With so much talent in the side, Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque may not have finalized his starting XI in the past months, however, it shouldn’t matter who he starts as the raw talent is great enough to overcompensate for any tactical errors on his part.
The French, poster boys for a dysfunctional team after their World Cup 2010 debacle, have done well to restore some order to the respectability of French soccer by making it out of the group stage after an impressive qualifying campaign to reach this tournament, but Les Bleus are not comparable to manager Laurent Blanc’s golden generation French teams that he experienced as a player in winning World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000. Losing to a winless Sweden team in the final group game surely cannot boost the recovering confidence level of this talented team, which has yet to put all the parts together for a complete game.
Players to watch: Fernando Torres will be Spain’s only striker if he gets the starting nod ahead of Cesc Fabregas, and the temperamental striker will have to find a way to rekindle the goal scoring prowess of his Liverpool days, or at a minimum, make some attacking and creative runs to expose the French back line and relieve some of the pressure on the Spanish midfielders who have assumed a lot of the goal scoring responsibility. On the other hand, Franck Ribery is the Zinedine Zidane of this French soccer generation and his passion is readily apparent when he represents his country on the biggest stages. If his creativity is likewise readily apparent this weekend, then opposing players will have a difficult time slowing him down.
Prediction: Spain wins 2-1 (ET)
England v. Italy
The Three Lions were supposedly doomed heading into this tournament. As it turns out, the lowered, and perhaps more realistic expectations of this English team have served it well as it sloppily secured top place in Group D. Although not the prettiest football, new England coach Roy Hodgson can’t argue with the results during his short tenure so far.
Similarly, Italy’s pre-tournament expectations were tempered amidst a gambling probe into the top flight of Italian soccer. All the same, the Italians bonded together and eked out a result in each of its group games even if not the most beautiful display of soccer.
Expect both teams to grind out this start-stop affair.
Players to watch: Joe Hart for England. Yes, Wayne Rooney scored in his tournament debut last game, but always a bigger question for the Three Lions than who will score goals is who will stop conceding goals? David Seaman, Paul Robinson, David James, and Robert “Butterfingers” Green are just recent examples of the ineptitude of English goalkeepers on the biggest stage in the modern era. Hart, backstop for Premier League champions Manchester City, has not waffled through the first three games of his major tournament career…yet. Hart’s City teammate Mario Balotelli is a head case, but Balotelli could be called upon for a moment of brilliance for his country. Whether or not he will be focused enough to seize the opportunity is always a mystery, but Balotelli could be Italy’s gamebreaker.
Prediction: 1-1. England advances 4-3 on penalty kicks (Yes, this will be the day that England exorcises its penalty kick demons from yesteryear).
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.