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What I Learned From Watching Day 11 of The Euros 2012

June 19, 2012

Play in Group C finished yesterday as favored sides advanced and underdogs exited stage left. Some extended thoughts:

  • Croatia-Spain was a more ponderous affair than I anticipated, one observer calling it the “… footballing equivalent of an episode of ‘24”, even as another observer in the Spanish daily El Pais thought it “played out like a “Alfred Hitchcock film.” The opening half especially lacked real suspense, Spain dominating the ball but unable to create clear threats on goal, perhaps too cute with one pass too many, too often. Yet it was Croatia that was more direct with their chances, possibly unfortunate not to have a penalty kick awarded on Sergio Ramos’ tackle inside the box on Mario Mandzikic in the 27th that might have drawn a foul call elsewhere on the pitch. As news trickled in however about Italy scoring late in the 1st half of their simultaneous match, pressure on both sides to secure a result mounted and finally provided the needed tension. A player who plies his professional trade for Sevilla in Spain, Ivan Raketic might have fired the shot Heard ‘round the World were it not for a reflex save from San Iker in the 59th minute, a point-blank header from a Luka Modric cross that was Croatia’s best chance to tilt the match in their favor. In the 88th, the modern-day Sweathog Cesc Fabregas (substituting for an ineffective David Silva) conspired with Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas (who came on for the Ghost of El Niño, so much for his rebirth) to shut the door on Croatia’s designs, Fabregas sending a lob that beat the offsides trap to Iniesta who coolly slotted it to Navas in a two-on-one break – the “one” being Croatian ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa, who couldn’t escape from No Man’s Land to stop it – for the final blow.
  • Some observers suggest there cracks in the veneer and/or that the proverbial wolves are at the door when it comes to Spain’s chances of their major tournament “Three-peat™” (with both apologies and credit to Pat Riley).  I’m not convinced, as this view fails to give Croatia’s fantastic efforts their proper due and neglects to remember the past. Spain won this game in much the same fashion as it won all four World Cup 2010 knockout stage games and the Euro 2008 Final: All were 1-0 victories where Spain dominated possession (a 65-35% margin against Croatia), engineered crafty and timely goals (as they did yesterday), and relied upon defensive hustle and steady goalkeeping from San Iker (Spain has only conceded one goal so far at Euro 2012) to somehow achieve the antithetical state of patiently grinding out wins with style.  Maybe the critics are right and Spain is more vulnerable, sensing that Manager Vicente Del Bosque still seems unsettled on his best XI, seeing Italy and Croatia produce blueprints on how to frustrate Spain’s approach, and knowing Spain’s stars might be fatigued from extended club seasons. Maybe for me it’s a case of “I’ll believe it when I see it but not until then” for Spain, but I’ve little reason to think the Defending Champs are no longer as capable of winning Euro 2012 as any squad remaining, including a peaking Germany.
  • Several media analyses (linked above) criticized Croatia’s efforts against Spain as “negative”, conservative and lacking purpose or urgency, but that to me is a bit unfair considering their opponent. Croatia defended really well for 87 minutes, surrounding any Spanish player with the ball in the center or attacking thirds with 2-3 defenders, and when Croatia had the ball they created the more dangerous chances. Modric in particular played as if he could step into Spain’s midfield for Xavi and La Roja wouldn’t miss a beat – watch for Real Madrid to make a move for Modric next month. Much like Denmark, Croatia represented themselves well in this tournament against more talented opponents of larger stature, playing every game with organized determination and (unlike Denmark) a bit of flair when given the opportunity. I would also submit that, much the same as Denmark, they would have qualified ahead of every team in Groups A and D – including France, who I like better so far then Denmark but slightly less than Croatia – had they been in those groups instead.  Manager Slaven Bilic can ride off into the Locomotiv Moscow sunset knowing his Croatia tenure ended on a proud yet bittersweet note.
  • One of the more captivating matchups when the Euro 2012 groups were drawn was Italy facing their countryman and former coach Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland squad.  The elimination of Ireland may have taken some of the luster off, but I was still piqued to see if Trapa’s defensive minded squad built in Italy’s catenaccio image could spoil the party for the Forza Azzuri. It wasn’t to be, as while this was their best performance of the Euros, this Ireland squad just didn’t have enough quality to play the part of spoiler. Although the Republic didn’t concede an early goal as they did in their two prior matches, Italy took control of the match from the opening kick and for all intents ended it in the 35th minute; Antonio Cassano’s header off a corner kick that barely crossed the goal line is one ball that Irish ‘keeper Shay Given probably should have stopped.  Mario Balotelli’s stupendous standing one-footed bicycle kick goal was merely flavorful icing on the cake, coming off another corner kick right after Irish midfielded Keith Andrews was shown his second yellow card for dissent – poor discretion on the part of Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır if you ask me – and ejected from the game.  Good thing the Irish fans thought to do “The Poznan” in Poznan at kickoff, as they wouldn’t have otherwise during the match.
  • I find it hilarious that Italian soccer media and fans were concerned over the potential for match-fixing between Spain and Croatia, as a 2-2 tie would have sent both of them through regardless of what Italy did against Ireland.  While you can’t blame them for being all too aware of such nefariousness, Italian soccer itself embroiled in another match-fixing scandal, it is the height of pot-meet-kettle hypocrisy. Nevertheless, Italy advances and has officially joined Portugal as a darkhorse candidate to win the Euros, though I am less convinced of both their quality and potential considering a.) three of their four goals so far have come from set pieces and b.) their path likely has Germany waiting in the semis.

Up Next: Tuesday June 19, the last games of group play are held as Group D dishes out the last invites to the party, with Sweden vs. France and England vs. Ukraine simultaneously at 11:45AM PST. England-Ukraine will have my full attention.

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From → Soccer, Sports

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