EURO 2012 Review and Semifinal Preview
After twenty-eight games, the Euro 2012 semifinals are set. Spain will play Portugal on Wednesday in the first semifinal game, and Germany will play Italy on Thursday in the second semifinal game. The winners will advance to the final on Sunday.
The semifinals include four teams that deserve to be at this stage. Germany and Spain were the top two teams coming into the tournament and they have demonstrated why they were pre-tournament favorites. Italy and Portugal came into the tournament with concerns left to be resolved but have proven their worth over all of the other pre-tournament contenders such as the Netherlands, England, and France.
The four remaining teams, their strength and weakness, their tactics, and their keys to semifinal success are reviewed below.
No team has ever won back-to-back Euro titles. And no team has won three major tournaments in a row. Spain is now concurrently defending Euro Champion and World Champion, and they look to make history in this tournament. Some critics may argue that these titles have made Spain less hungry for success than Germany. Other than a mere speculation as to their motivation, there is little else to suggest Spain cannot win the title again.
Spain has become quite accustomed to winning lately. Spain won all six games in Euro 2008, won all ten qualifying games for the 2010 World Cup, won six of seven games during the 2010 World Cup, and won all eight games of Euro 2012 qualifying. Along the way, Spain advanced over Italy on penalties in the quarterfinal and defeated Germany in the final of Euro 2008, and Spain defeated Portugal in the round of sixteen and Germany in the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup. Their record in competitive games has only been blemished with a loss in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup group stage to Switzerland (Switzerland?) and a tie in the opening game of the Euro 2012 group stage against Italy. (A discussion as to whether Spain’s 2-0 loss to the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals was during a friendly can be had on another day.)
Head coach Vicente Del Bosque has used two distinct formations in this tournament but with one apparent strategy. In their opening game against Italy and the quarterfinal against France, Spain played a strikerless 4-3-3 using Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas as a false nine. Against Ireland and Croatia, Chelsea striker Fernando Torres replaced Fabregas, and the 4-3-3 looked more like a 4-2-3-1. The Spain attack seemed more natural with Torres up front making runs behind the defenders, and Sr. Del Bosque surprised many people when Spain reverted to the strikerless false nine for the quarterfinal.
In all four games, however, Spain’s strategy seemed to be little more than wear the opponents down with slow tempo possession and then pounce in the second half. Spain was only tested against Italy where a 3-5-2 system confused Spain in the false nine. Although Spain dominated possession in that game, their lack of depth kept the attackers from running behind the Italy defense. And while Spain was compact in the middle and able to stop Italy from going forward, Italy found it easy to move the ball along the wings. Ireland made too many errors at the back to have a chance against Spain. Ireland was no match even though Spain was compact and slow. Croatia played a much more disciplined defense against Spain in the final group game. The Croatia back four provided a great compact barrier against the Spain attack, which again lacked width. In fairness, Spain did not need to beat Croatia to advance to the knockout round, but Spain still won 1-0.
In the quarter final, France beat themselves with poor execution much like Ireland did. France tried to stop Valencia left back Jordi Alba from providing width and make Spain play predictably compact, but players’ execution failed, which left plenty of space in the middle for Xabi Alonso and crew. In fact, it was Jordi Alba’s brilliant run with the ball down the left side and his vision to both disregard Andres Iniesta at the near post and find a trailing Alonso running to the far post that led to the first goal.
Even though Spain has appeared at times to be boring and slow, Spain scored more goals during the group stage than any other team. And even though Spain’s defense was declared its weak spot coming into the tournament, Spain has allowed fewer goals than anyone (just one goal against) through the quarterfinals.
Portugal is often considered a European powerhouse. People still remember the national teams of the Golden Generation, those players who won back-to-back Under-20 World Cups in 1989 and 1991. Although Portugal failed to make it out of the group stage in the 2002 World Cup after losing to group runner-up United States and group winner South Korea, the team had been impressively successful in the major tournaments. Portugal was a semifinalist in Euro 2000, the runner up in Euro 2004, and a semifinalist in the 2006 World Cup. But by this time, only Luis Figo and Nuno Gomes remained from those successful U-20 teams.
Recently, Portugal – in relative terms — has struggled. In Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Portugal lost in the first rounds of the knockout stages to Germany and Spain, respectively. Portugal also struggled in qualifying for Euro 2012 and finished as group runner up. In the first leg of the playoff, Portugal could only manage a draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina. The pre-tournament odds for Portugal to win the title were 25-1, which was the lowest of the four semifinalists.
Head coach Paulo Bento has not been a man of many surprises so far. He has played a 4-3-3 with the same lineup in all competitive games since the first leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their opening group game against Germany, Portugal played defensively and relied on the counter attack and set pieces to score. Portugal held Germany well, and Real Madrid defender Pepe did come close to giving Portugal the lead in that game but hit the bar after a corner kick. It was only after Portugal opened up and started to attack directly that Germany seized the opportunity and scored.
In the remaining group games, Cristiano Ronaldo inspired the team with two goals to beat the Netherlands and led the team to a win against Denmark. Ronaldo also scored the only goal of the game against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals. When he and left fullback Fabio Coentrao worked together, the attack was deadly.
Portugal’s main strength has been Ronaldo, but he has also contributed to their main weakness. When Ronaldo is charged with the attack, as in the last three games, he has failed to track back and help defend. All four goals against Portugal this tournament have started from Ronaldo and Coentrao leftside. Portugal also lacks a productive number ten, and that has become more problematic because the usual center striker, Helder Postiga,will miss the semifinal with an injury. Up until the quarterfinal, Portugal struggled with a lack of creativity in midfield and relied on wingers Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani in the attacking third to break down a defense. The midfield played up against the Czechs and produced several more chances than in the first three games. Against Spain, expect to see a repeat of the defensive and counter attacking style Portugal used against Germany.
Portugal has shown both an ability to attack well and defend well. A key to defeating Spain is to also transition well. Additionally, a team with a motivated Cristiano Ronaldo, however, should never be discounted. If Ronaldo can play a disciplined defense like he did against Germany and still attack like he did against the Dutch and Czech Republic, i.e., attack and track back, Portugal may surprise their detractors and reach the finals again.
Germany was a consensus pre-tournament favorite to win the title, and throughout the group stage and the quarterfinal they have shown us why. Germany is the only team to have won every group stage game. And they have very convincingly won all four games of the tournament. Germany had also won all ten games in the qualifying round. Even after qualification was assured, head coach Joachim Low announced the team was after a perfect record. Despite a young roster, Germany showed consistency against various situations. But most of all, Germany has uncharacteristically played beautiful, attacking soccer with a very un-Teutonic flair and charisma.
Much of Germany’s success has been their ability to play as a unit instead of a collection of individuals. Germany typically takes the field in a 4-2-3-1. They have incredible depth and about the only field player that can expect to start is Real Madrid number ten Mesut Ozil. Everyone else, it appears, is interchangeable. Throughout the tournament, the drama has been on whether Miroslav Klose or Mario Gomez would start in the number nine position. Against Greece in the quarterfinal, Herr Low replaced three of the front four he used during the group stage. Klose played instead of Gomez up front, Marco Reus replaced Thomas Muller at right wing, and Andre Schurrle replaced Lukas Podolski on the left wing. Only Ozil retained his usual spot on the center right. And although Germany seemed livelier with the new wingers, Germany has had no trouble controlling the tempo throughout the tournament. Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who play in front of the back four, have been difficult to defend when they choose to move forward from their deep position, which is quite often.
Germany has overwhelmed their opponents with movement along the spine, alternating the tempo of the game at will, and an unusually large amount of possession, passing, and pressing. Portugal so far has been the only real test for Germany. The Netherlands played miserably against Germany, and Denmark did not fare much better.
With such a strong and disciplined attack, Germany’s opponents have been unable to exploit the weaknesses in defense and at goalkeeper. The center backs for Germany can disappoint with their lack of mobility. And Italy’s demonstrated ability to get balls into the gap behind the defenders can be a cause for concern particularly if the backs play up as much as they did against Greece. Manuel Neuer may be considered by some to be a world-class goalkeeper, but he also is prone to an occasional embarrassing mistake. While the defenses of the other three semifinalists have proven their mettle, the Germany defense and goalkeeper have not yet had to come alive.
Italy will be the strongest opponent to play Germany and will finally put pressure on their defense. Germany will likely try to attack and press Italy to keep them from moving forward. If Germany can keep Italy on their heels, they can win this match despite Italy’s strength.
Italy also arrived in this tournament with a number of question marks. The Azzurri have not looked good in their last two major tournaments. Roberto Donadoni’s Euro 2008 team lost to Spain in the first knockout game, and Marcello Lippi’s 2010 World Cup team finished winless and dead last in a group that only included Paraguay, Slovakia, and New Zealand. The day before the Euro 2012 rosters were to be submitted, the Italian police made dawn raids to arrest 19 more people as part of a wide ranging match-fixing probe in the domestic leagues. Former Italy coach and current Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni remarked, “It is clear that news like this can bring people down.”
But Italy had found unlikely success as underdogs in two previous major tournaments following high-profile match-fixing scandals. Italy won the 1982 World Cup just two years after the Totonero scandal affected the top two domestic leagues. A.C. Perugia striker Paolo Rossi received a three-year ban, which was later cut to two years. He went on to win the Golden Boot as the top goal scorer and the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament. Italy defeated Germany in the final for their third World Cup title. The top two Italian domestic leagues were again embroiled in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal before the 2006 World Cup. Telephone recordings demonstrated that officials from several clubs attempted to conspire with referee organizations to select favorable referees for certain games. Italy went on to win their fourth World Cup title but not before defeating Germany after extra time in the semifinal.
These two examples deliberately allude to another pattern – Italy has traditionally dominated Germany. Italy has not lost to Germany in some seventeen years, and Germany has never beaten Italy in a major tournament.
Italy has had an odd Euro 2012. With the loss of Zenit St. Petersburg defender Domenico Criscito, who was directly implicated in the match-fixing allegations and was left off of the roster, Italy became uncharacteristically suspect on defense. And in a country where young players dream of becoming defenders for the national team, Italy came into this tournament surprising strong on attack. Unfortunately for Italy, this attacking prowess has so far existed only on paper. Italy has scored only four goals so far this tournament, and three of those goals have been off of set pieces. Additionally, Italy has only beaten one team, Ireland. Italy’s weakness is clear: the players are unable to finish.
Notwithstanding their ostensible weakness in finishing, Italy has played well both tactically and physically. Head coach Cesare Prandelli started the first two games in a 3-5-2 formation, which has become popular in the Serie A. This formation confounded Spain in the opening game. Daniele De Rossi, who typically plays in midfield, played at center back. Italy switched to a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield for the last two games, and De Rossi resumed his role as left midfielder. Italy also outmuscled and outran England in the quarterfinal, and deserved to win.
Andrea Pirlo, who is probably the best player in the tournament not dressed in a Spain jersey, has had complete control of the midfield as the regista (which is analogous to a deep-lying playmaker in English soccer). His service to the channels has been impeccable. Even though England did try to guard him with Wayne Rooney, Pirlo completed some thirty more passes than the next highest player and some eighty more passes than the highest England player in the quarterfinal game. Pirlo has been involved in three of Italy’s four goals. Pirlo provided the picture-perfect pass to Antonio Di Natale for the goal against Spain, Pirlo scored on the magnificent curling free kick against Croatia, and Italy’s first goal against Ireland was an Antonio Cassano header off of Pirlo’s corner kick. Andrea Pirlo also provided one of the most memorable moments of the tournament with that sneaky little penalty kick during the shootout in the quarterfinal.
Italy may have an edge both tactically and physically against Germany. Italy’s chances then rest on whether their strikers can finally demonstrate more technical ability and whether Germany can find a way to shut down Andrea Pirlo.
The kickoff times for the three remaining games are at 1:45 p.m. Central Daylight Time, and all three games will be broadcast on ESPN.