The last quarterfinal of Euro 2012 – the 28th match of the tournament – finally produced the inevitable goalless draw. To no one’s surprise, England and Italy provided it. Justice was served in the penalty kick shoot-out when the Italians, who dominated almost the entire contest, prevailed 4-2.
By making the quarterfinals, England did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances. But their inability to mount sustained attacks, even against fairly ordinary teams, is disturbing, and cannot be blamed entirely on injuries, the two-match ban on Wayne Rooney, and the selection of a new coach shortly before the tournament.
Unlike England, which typically advances to the knock-out stages and then is quickly eliminated, Italian teams tend either to flop or, by virtue of defense and mental toughness, advance deep into the tournament. By drawing against Spain in their opening match, this edition promised to fall into the latter category. Now they have. At this point, however, the Italians have gone as far as they should. And in Germany, they will face a more talented opponent that probably matches them in mental toughness. This time, expect Italy to be team that’s defending desperately in the hope of getting to a penalty kick shoot-out.
The high-powered Germans defeated Greece 4-2 in a match whose outcome was never in serious doubt. The Greeks were thoroughly outclassed, but a spirited second half gave their fans something to be proud of.
From Germany’s standpoint, the most interesting feature of the match was the use of an entirely new front three, with Reus, Schurrle, and Klose replacing the formidable trio of Muller, Podolsky, and Gomez. Schurrle was poor, but the great veteran Klose proved that he’s still the equal of Gomez at center forward. And Reus, the best player in Germany last season, displayed speed that offers an extra dimension to the attack. Italy certainly has plenty to think about.
Portugal defeated the Czech Republic 1-0 on a goal by the great Cristiano Ronaldo. The match wasn’t that close; in fact it didn’t seem close at all because the Czechs never looked capable of scoring.
As I thought might happen, Ronaldo found his joy in the center of the park, rather than down the left flank, his usual station. Ronaldo benefitted greatly when Portugal was forced to bring on Hugo Almeida due to an injury to the ineffective Postiga. Able to play off of a traditional center forward, Ronaldo was unstoppable. On the goal, for example, Almeida occupied the two Czech center backs, while Ronaldo out-jumped the excellent but smaller Czech right back, Sellasie.
Unfortunately for Portugal, they must next play Spain. And against the Spanish, it would be extremely risky to play Ronaldo in a central position along side Almeida, leaving Coentrao to defend the left-flank basically by himself. But even if Portugal restores Ronaldo to the left flank, is he prepared to defend it? Staying with Spain probably requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, with at most only a single center forward exempted from arduous work on defense. How to arrange for this is a puzzle Portugal must solve.
In their impressive 2-0 quarterfinal victory over a decent French team, Spain returned to its six midfielders, no center forwards lineup. I was skeptical of this approach when the tournament began, but it seems to working. For one thing, Spain had become a bit too predictable in their static 2-1-3 short-passing attack formation. With six midfielders interchanging to some extent in the same basic formation, Spain becomes less predictable.
The bottom line is that the six midfielders approach seems capable of producing a goal a game against top quality opposition. That’s about all Spain scored at the last World Cup using a center forward. And with an extra pass master in the line-up, Spain can maintain even more possession than before. A goal per match isn’t much, but it will typically be enough if the opposition rarely has the ball.
Because of Ronaldo, though, Portugal may not need lots of the ball to score one goal. The trick for the Portuguese is to inspire Ronaldo to contribute at the defensive end or to find a way to hide him. Otherwise, one goal may not be sufficient even to get to overtime.
Portugal takes on Spain at 2:45 Wednesday afternoon. Germany and Italy go at it on Thursday at the same time.
UPDATE: The lineups have been announced for Spain and Portugal. Spain’s manager del Bosque is taking the approach I suggested early on in the tournament — use a tradtional center forward, but not Fernando Torres. Negredo has come into the lineup to replace one of the six midfielders (the excellent Fabregas). We’ll soon see how this works out.