By Nick Craddock
Andrea Pirlo and company ripped the collective heart out of the English people on Sunday in the most dramatic of the quarterfinal wins, advancing via penalty kicks. As such, the Euro 2012 semifinals, slated for today and tomorrow, are now set and continental Europe’s collective fervor and excitement will surely drown the sound of the few remaining whimpers from English fans.
The semifinalists are four nations with strong football pedigrees, which should not only result in more evenly contested matchups, but also a higher quality of play thought to be absent at times in this tournament from teams more than capable of performing at higher levels. (*cough* England *cough* France *cough* Netherlands *cough*).
Here is what you should look for going ahead:
Spain v. Portugal
The first semifinal is the battle of the Iberian Peninsula and these two teams showcase a bevy of highly technical and gifted players.
Cristiano Ronaldo, usually a player who has drifted in and out of form for the national side has been dynamite for Portugal at this tournament, particularly in the last two games, where he alone outshot the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, netting himself the winning goal in the process, after bagging a brace against the Dutch in the final group game prior to that. In contrast, Spain has relied on offense by committee at this tournament with five different players hitting the back of the net. More impressive is that Spain’s offense didn’t slow down after opting for the atypical 4-6-0 formation in its 2-0 quarterfinal win over France.
Whether Spain will again field a starting XI without a listed striker will likely not be revealed until game time, but Spain’s most gifted natural scorer, Fernando Torres, is one of the few players on the planet, if playing at the level he was accustomed to during his prime (which was not so long ago), capable of matching, or at a minimum, challenging the brilliance Ronaldo could provide for his team.
That being said, Ronaldo might be the best individual talent on the field, but Spain has proven time and time again over the last four years that it is the most talented team.
Players to Watch: As noted above, Ronaldo controls the fate of Portugal more than any other player on his team. As he goes, so do the Portuguese. Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech was able to weather the flurry of Ronaldo’s attacks for a little more than an hour to keep the Czech Republic alive against Portugal in the quarterfinals, so it will be incumbent upon Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain and goalkeeper, to prove his worth when actually facing more than two shots, like in Spain’s last game, and to allow his team to work its magic in front of him.
Prediction: Spain wins 2-1 (ET). Expect the team to trump the individual yet again, as Spain should move on for a chance at an unprecedented third consecutive major championship.
Germany v. Italy
Was Germany really the best team in the quarterfinals? Or was Greece really the worst team in the quarterfinals? Perhaps the answer is a little bit of both. Despite Germany’s 4-2 win over Greece, it is hard to say whether or not this young, yet experienced, German team will be able to overpower the likes of a fellow semifinalist on a big stage. After all, many people fancy Germany’s chances at ending the Spanish reign of dominance, but with such heightened expectations comes a heightened sense of pressure.
One fact in support of the Germans going all the way is that they have collected four wins from four games (that’s the most they could’ve collected, by golly!) and in spite of Greece not providing a real threat, the test that was the Group of Death, from which Germany easily survived, should be proof enough that this team is ready-made for a championship.
On paper, history will preserve Italy’s win over England in slightly less impressive fashion than their German counterparts’ quarterfinal win. Looking at the final score, the game seems like the Italians barely edged out a victory, but the truth remains that the Italians dominated possession, pinned the English back in their third for much of the game, and the only thing preventing an Italian romp was the Azzurri’s lack of execution in front of goal.
No doubt, Italy will have to capitalize on the goal-scoring chances, or maybe even the half-chances, it sees in this game to slow down the Germans. After all, the Germans will likely not be as forgiving as the English were when the final whistle blows.
Players to Watch: Germany’s Mesut Ozil will likely have a key role to play in neutralizing the effectiveness of the Italian midfield prowess. Andrea Pirlo is the consummate professional, who, despite his age, consistently delivers stellar performances. Pirlo’s teammate Riccardo Montolivo, who will be moving from Fiorentina to AC Milan this summer to try his hand at a bigger club, was another Italian midfielder who looked lively against the English, but let too many chances go begging. As stated in the quarterfinals preview on last week, Mario Balotelli is a conundrum wrapped inside an enigma, but he is an undeniable talent. Balotelli pressured the English defense numerous times in the quarterfinals, but the key for Italian manager Cesare Prandelli will be to assure that the combustible Balotelli channels his energy in a productive manner.
Prediction: Germany wins 2-1. These two teams have made it a habit of dashing English dreams at major tournaments, but unfortunately, neither are playing England in this round and therefore both can’t progress as would be customary.
Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.