Euro 2012 Tournament
It’s an eerily soccer-free day across the European continent today.
The Euro 2012 tournament — the biggest and best international soccer tournament that’s not the World Cup — hits its first match-free day in nearly two weeks today. The 16-nation competition, which started June 8, has been on a frenetic, two-match-per-day, how-much-soccer-can-you-watch-really pace for 12 days running.
The tournament has included, to date, 60 goals, a renewed goal-line technology debate (with England the beneficiary of a non-call in its match vs. Ukraine), an instance of baffling nonchalance in front of the goal by the enigmatic Mario Balotelli, some goalkeeping brilliance and goalkeeping blundering, a horrific three-losses-and-out meltdown by the Netherlands (expected to reach the semifinals at the very least), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic going horizontal to score a sensational goal in Sweden's swan song match against France, setting up a potentially epic France-Spain matchup rather than the France-Italy dramathon that appeared to be looming.
Now, it gets into the win or go home phase, or, as writers who call it football refer to it, the knockout rounds. Eight teams remain — some of them are surprised and delighted to be alive at this point of the tournament — and starting tomorrow, we get matches that absolutely have to have a winner, meaning extra time and the dreaded (by some) penalty kicks to send one of the two hopelessly-knotted teams through.
Here’s a primer on the games leading up to the July 1 finals (and the CultureMap-sponsored watch party at ND):
How they got here: The Czechs were overwhelmed 4-1 by Russia in the opener, with a back line that looked particularly suspect, but they bounced back to beat Greece 2-1 and Poland 1-0 – and surprisingly won the group. Portugal opened by losing a tough 1-0 match against Germany – they had a chance to tie on a late goal chance that sub Silvestre Varela muffed. But then, Varela was the late-game hero in the 3-2 win against Denmark, and they dispatched the Netherlands in the final group game.
What to expect: Cristiano Ronaldo, who only scored five goals in his first 100 shots in international play (including his early attempts in the match with the Netherlands), finally showed why he’s considered one of the best players in the world by scoring twice in that match to put Portugal into the Round of 8. With normally reliable Czech goalie Petr Cech looking shaky at times, and teammate Tomas Rosicky battling injury, this feels like a 2-1 or 3-1 Portugal win.
How they got here: Germany won Group B, as many expected, answering questions about whether striker Mario Gomez had lost his scoring touch (no), is goalkeeper Manuel Neuer among the best netminders in the world (yes), and does Germany have what it takes to win the entire tournament (yes). Greece is the surprise here – they beat the much-vaunted Russians in their final Group A game, and that result plus tying Poland in the opener was enough to send them through.
What to expect: Despite being the only team at the Euros to win all three of its group matches, Germany doesn’t look like as dominant as they could. That could change against Greece — though the Greek team has relied on the gritty, defense-first approach that can result in a 1-0 win. If Greece can control tempo, they’ll likely lose by that margin. If Germany’s superior midfield controls the pace, look for something on the order of 2-0 or 3-0.
How they got here: Spain won Group C to the surprise of virtually no one, though they did so in somehow confounding fashion, alternating between a 4-6-0 formation and opting for Fernando Torres in the striker role, who looked foolish in his first game (missing three sure goal chances in the tie with Italy) and brilliant in his second (scoring two in a 4-0 rout of Ireland). France opened by tying England, made easy work of Ukraine to put themselves in prime position to win the group, and then missed on all of its 24 shots (10 on goal) in losing 2-0 to Sweden. While France advanced, they missed on an easier path to the semis and a chance to renew their delightful international rivalry with Italy with that loss.
What to expect: Spain’s been playing a possession-heavy brand of soccer this tournament, and they’re really missing David Villa’s finishing touch in this tournament, though they’ve yet to play 6’5” striker Fernando Llorente, who’s coming off a brilliant La Liga season with Athletic Bilbao. If French striker Karim Benzema can find the back of the net, which he hasn't yet done in the Euros, we may be headed to a 1-1 tie and penalty kicks — otherwise, Spain could get the game’s lone goal.
How they got here: England surpassed the dour expectations of pessimistic English fans by winning Group D. After a stoic, steady 1-1 draw with France relying on ugly defensive play, the Three Lions got more creative in its win against Sweden — the winning goal coming on a one-for-the-ages Danny Welbeck heel-flick (an early contender for best goal of the tournament), and dispatched Ukraine on Wayne Rooney’s return to the field following a two-match suspension.
After tying Spain in its opener, Italy tied Croatia and then beat Ireland 2-0. Along the way, Balotelli wasn’t the only controversy maker – fellow striker Antonio Cassano fretted over the possibility of gay teammates during a press conference, and despite apologizing for the comments, it was a reminder of why Italian journalists coined the term “Cassanata” to refer to “behavior incompatible with team spirit in football.”
What to expect: England is playing the kind of defense-first soccer to stymie Italy, with enough newfound midfield creativity to effectively counter and take advantage of set pieces, plus an outstanding-to-date tournament from goalie Joe Hart. A 2-1 England victory wouldn’t be shocking here, nor would a match that comes down to penalty kicks. Balotelli, playing against several of his club teammates with Manchester City, will certainly do something to make himself noticed if he gets on the pitch – it just might not be the good kind of noticed.
The winners of the Portugal-Czech Republic and Spain-France matches will face off Wednesday, June 27, while the winners of the Germany-Greece and Italy-England matches will meet Thursday, June 28. Winners of those matches clash in the Sunday, July 1 finals.