One of the oft-heard comments about the group stages of the 2012 European Championships was that it was so much better than the early games played in a World Cup. The reason was laid firmly at the format: the Euros only have 16 teams participating, which is half the number that competes in football’s biggest show. The net result? There are barely any weak matches from the get go. This reflection has quickly been followed by the lament that we may never see its like again because the powers that be have decided to make Euro 2016 (and all subsequent Euros you’d imagine) open to 24 nations, which will dilute the quality of the early matches.
Nobody in their right mind could dispute the logic but you still have to play the games. Anyone who watches top-flight football on a regular basis will sadly testify that the biggest matches can often result in the biggest let-downs. And ask yourself: can you count on one hand five truly great World Cup or European Championship finals since, say, 1980?
But while we’re fully prepared for the knockout stages of Euro 2012 to revert to the nervy, tense affairs they often are, we should still celebrate the football that has been on show in Poland and Ukraine. How refreshing that there hasn’t been a single 0-0 draw over the course of the 24 matches. How novel that there has been barely a red card brandished. And how reassuring that the stage has not just been lit up by the usual suspects – Spain’s Andrés Iniesta, Germany’s Mesut Özil and (eventually) Portugal’s Christiano Ronaldo – but has seen the emergence of wondrous talent such as the Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre-Selassie (indeed, Gebre-Selassie’s not exactly traditional Czech name results from the fact that he’s half-Ethiopian), Russia’s Alan Dzagoev (tipped pre-tournament by Keeping Score, we modestly note) and France’s fabulous full-back Mathieu Debauchy.
We refuse to get too carried away – after all, the Dutch’s traditional propensity for self-destruction was as predictable as it was sad for the seemingly luckless football-mad nation – and future analysis about the tournament as a whole will have to be written when all’s said and done come the final in Kiev on Sunday July 1 (A final the bookies still think will be Germany versus Spain … we’re not so sure). But the fact that only two nations entered their final fixtures (the Republic of Ireland, who woefully underperformed, and Sweden, who gave a fair account of themselves) with nothing to play for tells you that we should certainly cherish much of what we have seen. Incredibly, two of the highly tipped second-tier nations (Russia and Croatia) failed to qualify from their groups despite highly impressive opening game victories. The Russians arguably believed much of their (justifiable) hype and took the foot off the proverbial gas against shock 2004 winners Greece, who deservedly nicked a 1-0 win to set up a delicious quarter-final against Germany. The Croatians, yet again well marshalled by outgoing coach Slaven Bilic (expect to see him land a coveted English Premier League job in the not too distant future) were eliminated by current holders Spain, causing the Italians to breathe a sigh of relief, with their Machiavellian allegations of the Spanish and Croatians playing out a 2-2 draw to ensure they both made progress coming to nothing.
Speaking of UEFA, no doubt it was pinning its hopes on the host nations of Poland and Ukraine making it through the group stages. Alas it wasn’t to be, for the second Euros in a row (following Austria and Switzerland in 2008). Poland showed some gumption in their second half fightback against Russia but looked understandably nervous in the tournament’s opening match against Greece. But the Poles were harder to defend (if not harder to defend against) in their third and final game against the Czechs.
But at least Ukrainians could lay claim to the moment of the month thus far, with talismanic striker Andriy Shevchenko rolling back the years in a magical seven minute spell to put two bullet headers past the Swedes and bring the veritable roof off the Olympic stadium in Kiev. They knew that a victory against a fast-improving England in the last group game would secure their passage to the latter stages but they lacked a little bit of composure in front of goal as well as luck with a goal ruled out despite the ball crossing the line. And what of England? Perhaps fortune is finally favoring them, with the bad call against Ukraine a measure of revenge for what happened in the World Cup in South Africa against Germany in 2010 (Ukraine could have also been called offside in the build up). Manager Roy Hodgson has been pretty much spot on tactically and has a policy of safety first at the back before unleashing the attacking talents at his disposal, which includes the returning Wayne Rooney, who scored the decisive goal against Ukraine. And speaking of luck, Sweden’s shock win over the fancied French meant that England won their group, avoiding Spain in the quarter-finals.
And so to the last eight. The knockout fun begins Thursday with Portugal (who is still under the radar despite emerging from the Group of Death with a fair amount of aplomb) surely fancying their chances against the Czechs, who, to their credit, bounced back from an opening game thrashing at the hands of the Russians. Despite both sides being a shadow of their Euro 2004 selves, it’s hard not to see Ronaldo running the show, which could result in a 2-0 scoreline.
The following day sees 22 people not affected by the Euro crisis – the German and Greek footballers – go head to head in a game laced with layers of extra intrigue. Provided that Germany allows Greece to fulfill the fixture – that should be taken as a joke for avoidance of any doubt – the favored Germans will come through intact, but the 2-1 scoreline will be closer than most pundits predict.
The one shock of the round could well come Saturday, as France will seek to bounce back from its first defeat in 24 games and knock out the reigning champions Spain, who have looked well below their best thus far. Are the Spanish tired after a punishing season? Do they lack the hunger to win a third tournament in a row? A bold 2-1 win to France in extra time says they are and they do.
And finally: England vs. Italy this Sunday. It wouldn’t have been a shock if neither team had made it out of the group stages. England had to come to terms with recently losing their Italian manager (oh the irony!) Fabio Capello after he resigned, and star striker Wayne Rooney for the first two games due to suspension. Meanwhile, the Italians have been rocked by allegations of another match-fixing scandal. But initial low expectations have suddenly shot up. There won’t be much in it but if you could choose between Rooney (who plays for Manchester United) and Italy’s Mario Balotelli (who plays for Manchester City), you’d have to back the United striker to make the difference in a tight 1-0 victory.