‘Anyone for tennis?’ read The Sun’s headline the day after England crashed out of the Euros. Well, I’m sure many of us do fancy tuning in for Wimbledon to watch Murray’s annual journey from British title hopeful to Scottish failure, but surely only the most ardent, bulldog bearing real ale drinking England fan would switch off from the Euros with such mouth-watering football still to come.
A game of four halves: Portugal vs Spain match analysis
The Iberian semi-final between Spain and Portugal was billed as Spain’s ticki-tacka-team vs Ronaldo’s individual brilliance, with many pundits backing the chances of Ronaldo’s counter attacking ability despite the clear numerical disadvantage. The idea that Spain have become stagnant and predictable has started to gain momentum after their group stage performances but regardless, Del Bosque’s team have actually shown no real signs of faltering, such is their dominance of possession and incredible defensive record.
Equally, talk of Portugal as a one man team seems a little unfair given the wealth of top class players embedded in the team like Pepe, Hugo Alves, Coentrao, Moutinho and Nani. Admittedly, the team’s strategy is ‘get the ball to that guy posing at the cameras’ but only because he’s the world’s second best player. Real Madrid follow the same game plan which has resulted in him scoring a goal every five minutes (roughly), and I doubt many would argue Real Madrid are a one man team.
The game itself started quite brightly in the first half, Portugal restricting Spain to a mere 60% possession through high pressing and…well, fouling (which they totally got away with thanks to the laissez faire approach taken by the referee). Ronaldo had one great chance to score on the counter attack but he slashed it high and wide. I do hope Pique caught his attention straight after: ‘Messi probably would have slotted that one in, Cristiano. Cristiano… Cristiano? I don’t know if you heard me, I said Messi probably would have slotted that one in.’
The second half was something of a snoozefest but the changes made to Spain’s front line- Pedro, Fabregas and Navas for Negredo, Silva and Xavi- did cause Portugal problems in extra time, Rui Patricio being forced into two great saves from Iniesta and Navas. (An interesting aside: Jesus Navas actually quit international football in 2005 due to anxiety problems exacerbated by travel but such was his desire to play for Spain that he fought to overcome them and re-joined the team in 2009).
After extra time ended goalless, it was time for penalties to cast their cruel spell over proceedings. Both teams missed their first penalty, but this was followed by four faultless conversions. Bruno Alves then smashed his shot against the bar and Fabregas coolly sent Spain into the semis. Alves had mistakenly trudged to the spot for the third penalty only for Nani to send him back, and I can’t help feeling that making the walk described by Steven Gerrard as ‘the most horrible experience of my life’ twice would only intensify his anxiety, making him want to smash the ball with his eyes closed.
Why my parents are not on speaking terms: Italy vs Germany match analysis
Those eagle eyed readers may have noticed that my name isn’t particularly British. My father is Italian, and I have always followed Italy as my second team behind England, so I maintained a strong personal interest in the tournament. But wait, there’s more! My mother is…you guessed it: German. As a huge England fan, the idea of supporting Germany became slightly difficult to stomach after Andreas Möller’s rage-inducing celebration against England in Euro 96, so I favoured Italy over the much fancied Germans.
Jogi Löw has made some bold decisions in this tournament, and he sprung another surprise by starting with Toni Kroos in place of Müller; the idea being, I imagine, to add strength to central midfield where Italy had been so dominant in the previous games. It was an interesting sign that the Germany manager felt it necessary to alter the shape of his side because of his opposition. As it transpired this change actually imbalanced the German midfield, with Kroos playing in an uncomfortably wide position, before swapping with Özil who also struggled to get into the game. No-one really believed before the game that Pirlo would be afforded the time on the ball required to dictate the game, but this is exactly what happened. Kroos was the man tasked with marking him, but even when he did get near him, Pirlo easily evaded Kroos with nonchalant skill.
Balotelli scored a header after neat work from Cassano on the left delivered the ball directly to his forehead. Germany looked out of sorts, players being dragged out of position which created a kind of domino effect leaving Balotelli in space behind the defence on a few occasions. A well weighted ball from Montolivo found Balotelli beyond enemy lines, and the most unpredictable man in football smashed the ball in with aplomb. The Italian bench went berserk and Balotelli transformed into a topless muscle-clenching waxwork before his team-mates ruined it by clambering all over him. I’m convinced that if he was instead left alone after striking the pose he would have remained still for at least five minutes, perhaps slowly rotating to give all the fans a view.
Löw brought on Klose for the ineffectual Mario Gomez statue at half time, but with Italy now dropping deep to protect their lead, the second half would have actually suited Gomez well, who thrives when receiving the ball in tight spaces in the penalty area. Germany created a few chances, but never looked likely to cancel the two goal deficit. Italy actually should have scored at least another goal on the counter attack; Buffon apparently stormed off the field after the final whistle, such was his anger at his team’s wastefulness in front of goal. As full time approached, Neuer was playing as an auxiliary centre back, doing a better job than Hummels and Badstuber had done for most of the match. A penalty was awarded to Germany when the ball struck Balzaretti’s arm, and Özil slotted it in the corner to reduce the lead to 2-1. However, there were barely three minutes remaining and no more chances were created. Italy’s unbeaten record against Germany in competitive tournaments is now truly remarkable, having played eight, won four and drew four.
The Azzurri may have surprised many people with their performances, but no-one can fairly argue that they don’t deserve their place in the final. In Pirlo they possess the player of the tournament and there is absolutely no reason why they can’t beat Spain in the final. Although the World and European champions will rightly start at favourites, Italy seem to thrive on their underdog status, and there’s nothing like a good corruption scandal to the get the team going.