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Euro 2012 reaches the knock-out stage

The third round of Group Stage matches at Euro 2012 featured cagier play and less scoring than we witnessed during the first two rounds. That’s understandable. Most teams had a good idea of the outcome they needed to advance to the quarterfinals. This knowledge often led to cautious soccer.

Nonetheless, players continued largely to resist the urge to cheat by flopping, NBA-style, on contact, for example. And even with more cautious play, 24 matches have now been completed without a 0-0 draw. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a goalless 90 minutes in the upcoming quarterfinals, though.

Eight teams have made it that far: Spain, Germany, England, and the Czech Republic as group winners, and Italy, Portugal, France, and Greece as runners-up.

Germany and Spain remain the clear favorites. Germany has been the more impressive of the two teams so far. The Germans went 3-0 in the “Group of Death,” outscoring the opposition 5-2. Spain played only two quality opponents, defeating Croatia and drawing with Italy. The aggregate score was 2-1.

But Germany was also more impressive than Spain during the Group Stage at the 2010 World Cup. This didn’t stop the Spanish from defeating the Germans in the semifinals. That day, Spain seemed to want it more. Do they still?

In this tournament, Germany has been favored with what seems like a much easier quarterfinal matchup than Spain. The Germans play Greece, generally considered the weakest of the eight teams that have advanced. Spain must play a good French side.

Of the remaining teams, Portugal may have the highest upside. I’ve been impressed by Portugal’s back four (Real Madrid’s Pepe in particular), especially considering how little cover they receive on the left side from Portuguese super-star Ronaldo. The midfield lacks a great creative player like Rui Costa or Deco of yesteryear, but it’s quite functional. Veloso supplies the bite, Moutinho the passing, and Meireles the box-to-box running. And, of course, Portugal sports the best pair of wingers at the tournament in Ronaldo and Nani.

So this is a very solid team. It’s considerable upside resides in Ronaldo’s potential to dominate the tournament. After two lackluster performances of the kind that have plagued him at big tournaments in the past, Ronaldo (who is named after Ronald Reagan) was spectacular in the big match against Holland. If he maintains that form, Portugal could win it all.

France also has a considerable upside. They feature four very good attacking players (Benzema, Ribery, Menez, and Nasri) backed up by very strong central midfielders (Cabaye, assuming he’s healthy again, and either Diarra or M’Vila). The problem is in central defense. Mexes in particular has struggled. He will miss the match against France due to the accumulation of yellow cards. This may be a blessing. But can Arsenal’s Koscielny give the French defense a much needed boost? It’s a tall order against Spain, which figures to have the ball about 60 percent of the time, often in advanced positions.

England and Italy haven’t looked like Euro 2012 winners or even finalists so far. But because they meet in a quarterfinal, one of the two will make it at least to the final four. And neither should be entirely counted out of moving beyond that round.

England can’t seem to keep the ball, but they are defending with gusto (and a little bit of luck) and have scored at least a goal in all three matches, each against decent opposition or better. With Wayne Rooney integrating himself into the attack and Steven Gerrard thriving in the captain’s role, England could improve on its workmanlike displays in the first three matches. And even if they don’t, they might still pull off another “smash and grab” win or two.

The Italians are past masters of lifting their game in the latter stages of big tournaments. This year’s edition could follow that pattern. Certainly, Italy is blessed with a great goalkeeper (Buffon), a great passing midfielder (Pirlo), and three forwards who are not only capable of scoring, but who have scored (Cassano, Balotelli, and Di Natale).

Successful Italian teams always feature a strong back line. This year, I don’t even know at this late date what the Italian backline is. In the first two games, Italy used three at the back (DeRossi, Bonucci, and Chiellini). In the third match, Italy used four (Abate, Balzaretti, Chiellini, and Barzagli). The only common denominator is Chiellini, a superb defender despite being beaten for the goal Croatia scored to tie that match. But Chiellini limped off in the third match. Assuming he comes back, I think Italy has the pieces it needs to put together a solid back line. And if Italy is solid at the back, they might pull off one of their patented runs to the final.

The Czechs and the Greeks look like no-hopers, at least for purposes of winning the tournament. Both teams are actually undervalued because their worst performances came before they made important personnel changes in the defense. Since making those changes (the Czechs after game one and the Greeks after game two), both have looked solid.

Greece, though, faces a huge obstacle in Germany. If the Greeks overcome that obstacle to reach the semifinals, it will be the biggest upset I can recall at any Euro tournament.

The Czechs will take on Portugal. If Ronaldo is at the top of his game, Portugal almost certainly wins. But if he isn’t, the Czechs have a decent shot because they match up well, I think, against the Portuguese. Portugal’s biggest strength is on the wings. But Gebre Selassie (the first black to play for the Czech Republic) has been the best right back in the tournament, in my view. And left back Limbersky did very well against Poland’s strong right-sided attack.

Again, if Ronaldo is fully on song, he blows away Gebre Selassie or any other right back in the world. But if he isn’t, it could be a long evening for Portugal unless he’s willing to defend because Gebre Selassie and Jiracek pose a serious threat down his flank.

We might even see Ronaldo moved to center forward, as he was for part of the match against Holland, to be relieved of serious defensive duties. If Ronaldo moves there, the Czech central defensive pairing of Kadlec and Sivok (good but not outstanding so far) will get quite a workout. But the Portuguese right back (Joao Pereira) might face a stern test from Pilar, the best Czech player to date, on the left-side of the Czech attack.

This potentially intriguing match will kick off the quarter-finals, which begin tomorrow.

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