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Euro 2012 — the second round of matches

Open play, plenty of goals, minimal cheating, and good comebacks continue to characterize Euro 2012. Even the refereeing was decent in the second round of games. So far, this is as good a major tournament as I have seen in a long while. Here is a brief group-by-group analysis:

Group A (“The Group of Life”)

The Greece-Czech Republic match was probably the poorest of the tournament. The Russia-Poland match was of good quality. From a football point of view, I hope that Russia and Poland advance.

Russia continued to look like world-beaters into the second half of the match against Poland. However, they seemed to run out of steam, and showed little after Poland equalized in the 57th minute. Was this because the team – one of the oldest in the tournament – tired or because it knew that a draw would put them in a great position to advance? Probably a combination of the two.

Group B (“The Group of Death”)

Germany’s defense is one of the key stories of this tournament so far. Against Portugal and Holland, two quality attacking sides, the Germans gave up only one goal in total. The shut-out of Portugal looks even more impressive after the Portuguese scored three (and easily could have had more had Ronaldo been himself) against a good Danish defense anchored by Liverpool’s excellent Daniel Agger. Defense was the main question mark for Germany coming into the tournament, but perhaps no longer.

At the last World Cup, I undervalued Holland due to skepticism about its central defensive pairing of Heitinga and Mathijsen. The Dutch ended up in the Final game where they thwarted Spain for 115 minutes. But that was with central midfielders de Jong and Van Bommel ferociously shielding the back line. De Jong and Van Bommel haven’t looked the same at Euro 2012, and this problem, along with poor finishing by the likes of the great Robin van Persie, has Holland in big trouble. Only Wesley Sneijder is delivering for the Dutch.

Now, having lost to Denmark and Germany, the Dutch must defeat Portugal by two goals to have any chance of advancing. This is a rematch of one of the ugliest World Cup matches in recent history – the Round of 16 clash in 2006, won by Portugal 1-0, in which both teams finished with only nine men.

Portugal can probably advance with a draw, but would be foolish to play for one. Holland’s offense is capable of exploding without notice, so Portugal should seek goals against Holland’s struggling defense. Portugal’s two great wingers, Ronaldo and Nani, are capable of terrorizing Holland’s suspect fullbacks.

Group C (“The Group of Debt”)
After Spain’s somewhat below-par performance against Italy, I recommended that its manager, del Bosque, play a true forward, but not the long-slumping Fernando Torres. Del Bosque adopted the first bit of advice, ignored the second, and was rewarded with a 4-0 win over Ireland which included two goals from Torres. If these goals restore Torres’ confidence, beating Spain will become an even more difficult proposition.

Spanish enthusiasm should be tempered, though, by the realization that Ireland is probably the weakest team at Euro 2012. If Ireland played in the EPL, it likely would struggle to avoid relegation.

In this regard, I wonder why Ireland’s manager Trapattoni (yes, he’s Italian, not Irish) hasn’t used Darron Gibson. Whelan and Andrews have worked hard in midfield but neither is a quality player at this level and neither has been able to pass Ireland out of its own end. Gibson, in addition to covering lots of ground defensively, is a fine passer. And by the way, no player in the Irish squad played for a team that finished as high in the EPL as Gibson’s Everton side did. Maybe we’ll see the lad in Ireland’s meaningless (for the Irish) final match against Italy.

As for Italy, three fine halves of football were undermined by a very poor showing in the second half against Croatia. Unlike the 2010 World Cup side, this Italian team looks like it deserves to advance. But with only two draws in two matches, they need a win against Ireland, and possibly a big win, to avoid going home. And though Italy will be favored to win comfortably, it would still go home under some scenarios in the Croatia-Spain match (i.e. a draw at 2-2 or a higher number, as I understand it).

Group D (“The Group of Daft”)

France looks very sharp. England was lucky that French manager Laurent Blanc opted to play veterans Malouda and Evra in their match – Clichy and Menez proved today against Ukraine that they are better choices. Even so France dominated England and were a bit unlucky to get only a draw.

In my last post about the tournament, I wondered whether Roy Hodgson, the England manager, would change things up against the Swedes. I noted, in particular, that Theo Walcott, who didn’t play until the dying minutes of the France match, had terrorized Sweden in a “friendly” contest played last year.

Hodgson did change things up significantly, switching to a 4-4-2 formation and playing big Andy Carroll up front. He did not, however, start Walcott. Instead Walcott came off the bench with half an hour left and England down 2-1 (Carroll having scored England’s goal). Walcott promptly scored from distance and then assisted on Danny Welbeck’s winning goal, a brilliant back-heel job.

England still looks quite ordinary, and even the addition of Wayne Rooney is unlikely to change this much. But at least the English have shown a fighting spirit, and can now advance with just a draw against Ukraine. And young players like Walcott, Welbeck, and Carroll are gaining valuable experience for the next World Cup, which the newly-appointed Hodgson says he is already building towards.

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