With Club In-Ger-Lund rampaging their merry way across Europe in a throwback to the days of British Imperialism and the English FA daring to swipe a trial sample of Tesco trophy polish, Euro2012 winners England duly topped Group D and progressed with a minimum of fuss to the knockout phase of the tournament. They will be joined by group runners-up France and by Spain and Italy from Group C, with the Czech Republic, Greece, Germany and Portugal completing the quarter-final line-up.
In a bow to chronology I will begin by reviewing Monday night’s conclusion to Group C before lavishing praise on a swashbuckling England. Any two from Spain, Italy or Croatia could have progressed into the knockout phase, and while Spain and Croatia faced-off against each other, Italy were always fancied to secure the necessary 3pts in their fixture with the group whipping boys Ireland. Although the Azzurri began rather sluggishly – perhaps bemoaning a hint of complacency within their ranks – a combination of Andrea Pirlo’s guile and Shay Given’s atrocious goalkeeping saw them safely through with a comfortable 2-0 victory. Ireland huffed and puffed, the Green Army displaying a commendable effort and desire but sadly those creditable assets are no match for outright quality. Too many of Giovanni Trappatoni’s aging team have fallen well short of their own expectations during this campaign and the likes of Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, Robbie Keane, the appalling John O’Shea and a woefully out of his depth Keith Andrews will be wondering whether Euro 2012 will act as the graveyard for their international careers. Italy have shaken off the furore of the match-fixing allegations back home to perform with diligence, composure and no little skill and technique. The only disappointment for most fans was that Italian defender Leonardo Bonnuci greeted Mario Balotelli’s late goal with an open-palmed clasping of the Man City brat’s mouth rather than going for the Vitali Klitschko haymaker approach that most of us would’ve favoured! But despite Balotelli’s antics – which Bonucci has already admitted to fears within the squad over the controversial Man City brat’s next quest for notoriety and self-promotion – they are a tightly-knit team unit and will provide Roy Hodgson and England with plenty to think about over the coming days.
Spain finally overcame a lively Croatian side inspired by want-away Spurs midfielder Luka Modric and ominously secured the top spot in Group C despite being far from their fluent best. For long periods of time I felt Spain’s majestic midfield were sluggish in both their speed of thought and their passing technique and too often appeared to merge into Arsenal with an infuriating refusal to shoot and an arrogant desire to walk the ball into the net. Okay, a much much better version of Arsenal but nonetheless showing similar failings in front of goal. It is clear that Spain, and Barcelona, will increasingly encounter packed defences with deep-lying defensive midfield players providing additional cover in the crucial central areas that Xavi and Andres Iniesta prefer to operate….the question in this tournament is whether Vicente del Bosque has an alternative strategy up his sleeve? From what I have seen thus far I’m not sure they do have a Plan B. Deploying a six-man midfield with no recognised striker is certainly not the answer and, whether it is Cesc Fabregas, David Silva or Jesus Navas, Spain lack the incisiveness of an instinctive and natural striker with that tactical system. And what about the inexplicable absence of Athletic Bilbao star striker Fernando Llorente? I can only assume Llorente has slept with Vicente del Bosque’s wife….that can be the only viable conclusion to draw from his permanent residence on the Spanish substitutes bench. Unlike Ireland I felt Croatia were a little unfortunate to exit the tournament at the first stage. At times they were extremely effective and entertaining to boot, and had Ivan Ratikic capitalised on the best opportunity of the match instead of heading Luka Modric’s inch-perfect cross straight at Iker Casillas, Slaven Bilic’s team could’ve been preparing for a quarter-final rather than heading home. But Bilic ought to be proud as his 6yr tenure draws to a close having nurtured and developed a united and talented squad of players who still have time to impress and impact on the international scene.
And so to England, who surprisingly leap-frogged the French to top Group D with a hard-fought – and somewhat fortunate – victory over host nation Ukraine. Lady Luck’s first intervention was to deprive the hosts of their talisman Andrei Shevchenko as England rejoiced in the return of their own, Wayne Rooney. Shevchenko could only watch from the bench as Rooney displayed his own match-rustiness by heading a glorious chance wide from 6yrds; that moment also significant as being the only moment Ashley Young turned up during his wretched 90mins. But Rooney was not to be denied and duly showed his striking intincts by ghosting in at the far post to score a majestic header into an unguarded net from 1yrd out, the Ukraine penalty box resembling a pinball table as the ball took multiple deflections on its route through to Rooney. Ukraine responded exactly as you would expect, fuelled by the adrenaline of a nation desperate to write their own chapter in their home tournament, and bombarded the England goal with speculative long range efforts and a concerning frequency of mazy dribbles into the England dangerzone. And then Lady Luck provided her own vital contribution to HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, collaborating with the bungling match officials to deny the Ukraine a perfectly legitimate goal! Marko Devic ought to have rendered the subsequent controversy irrelevant by comprehensively burying his shot beyond Joe Hart having been sent clean-through on the England goal. But he dithered, hesitated and eventually clipped a weak effort goalbound. Hart managed to get a touch and the retreating John Terry hooked the ball clear….but the ball had already crossed the line by at least a half-metre! Ukraine were in ecstacy, England playing to the whistle and the goal-line official, a full three metres away from the incident with a clear, unobstructed view of the ball crossing the line, remained motionless?!?
If ever there was confirmation of the folly of UEFA and Michel Platini’s ridiculous introduction of those goal-line officials rather than opting for hawkeye technology then this was it. I’ve seen these officials contribute precisely nothing in previous matches and be defended by the oft-trawled out statement that they are purely there to assist with goal-line incidents – Alexis Sanchez’s stonewall penalty for Barcelona vs AC Milan in the San Siro being denied by the goal-line official despite him being stood nearer to Sanchez than anybody else being a prime example. And the fact that the Ukraine striker could’ve been offside in the build-up is actually irrelevant to the awarding or otherwise of the ‘goal’ on the basis of whether it did or did not cross the line. Yes the ‘correct’ outcome may have been reached by the hapless officials, but having missed the possible offside then the only conclusion to draw is that the goal ought to have been awarded. But never let the English commentators miss an opportunity to humiliate themselves; “You win some, you lose some” was the inspired insight from the ITV pundits – the same pundits who practically wet themselves with suggestions of conspiracy theories while mooting the immediate replaying of matches after debatable decisions in the aftermath of England vs Germany in the FIFA World Cup 2010 – as they hilariously failed to see the irony of their statements and duly drowned under a torrential flood of hypocrisy. Presumably we’ll now hear no more of Frank Lampard’s ghost goal against Germany in South Africa? A forlorn wish I fear…..
France lost their 23-match unbeaten run after surprisingly succumbing to basement boys Sweden in their final group fixture. The match finished 2-0 to Sweden but beyond that I can say very little being that I have yet to see any of the match footage. But Laurent Blanc’s team will be disappointed that their hiccup now sees them face defending Champions Spain in the last-eight.
So a very quick quarter-final preview then. I cannot see the Czech Republic fending off the lightning fast attacks of Portugal with a newly-confident Cristiano Ronaldo leading the onslaught. I fear the Greeks face the most daunting challenge in contending with a superb Germany team and they will miss the inspirational leadership of harshly suspended captain Giorgos Karagounis. France could conceivably shock a below-par Spain but it is just as likely that the Spanish will click into gear and hammer someone. The starting tactics of Spain will be crucial in determining that contest and, if they play a recognised striker I think they will prevail. If however they insist on continuing their bizarre six-man midfield approach then I think France could capitalise. I’ll plump for a narrow victory for Spain. The key for England will be whether Roy Hodgson has an alternative to his defensive strategy because Italy could easily ‘out-England’ England by adopting a similarly cautious approach. And there are few better practitioners of defensive football, outside of west-London, than the Italians. With that in mind I’m going to predict a very tight match, perhaps even 0-0 and being settled by the dreaded penalty shootout.