The knockout rounds begin tomorrow night in Warsaw as the Czech Republic, who looked extremely unlikely to make it out of the groups after a wretched opening against Russia, take on a Portugal side whose progression has likewise been fraught with difficulty. UEFA have given us a night off: although SotB’s writers have avoided anything like programmatic analysis of the competition – sorry, Group A – it seems a good time to take stock of what’s happened so far. Obviously, these thoughts reflect my impressions alone…
Without a single goalless match or a genuine dead-rubber encounter, it’s fair to say that Euro 2012 has exceeded expectations up to this point. Yet a few factors typical of major tournaments have been missing. A particularly glaring absence is that of a player coming out of nowhere to catch the eye and provoke transfer speculation. Mario Gomez’s elegant finishing has caught the vast majority of the English audience unawares, and a number of defenders (particularly Theodor Gebre Selassie, Mathieu Debuchy and Joleon Lescott) have attracted admiration from press and fans alike. However, no individual has really impressed themselves on the collective imagination with the force of ’96-vintage Karel Poborsky. Robert Lewandowski looked the part for Poland against Greece but couldn’t lift the co-hosts to a performance that would see them out of Group A, and – despite scoring three goals – the hotly-tipped Alan Dzagoev will have no opportunity to test himself against stronger opposition. Danny Welbeck’s goal against Sweden won’t be forgotten in a hurry by English supporters, but he laboured in Donetsk last night and might well make way for Andy Carroll against Italy on Sunday.
Some might point out that this situation reflects an increasing emphasis on teamwork resulting from the attempts of various coaches to either emulate or find ways of countering Spain’s almost mechanical keep-ball. It’s beyond doubt that England have benefited significantly from Roy Hodgson’s prioritisation of the collective over the individual, even though many – including several SotB writers – have found the end product slightly unappealing. While blessed with emerging talent, Germany have also been more impressive as a unit than as a showcase of flamboyant individualism, an approach which turned out to be especially rewarding against the Netherlands. As cliched as it may sound, the latter’s atrocious collapse came about due to Bert van Marwijk’s inability to reign in the egotism of his team’s most gifted players: the Dutch exit made their lame showing in Euro ’96 look like a textbook case of group communication and self-sacrifice. For different reasons, and in spite of Giovanni Trappatoni’s supposed insistence on graft and discipline, Ireland also lacked coherence. Gaps yawned between their defence and midfield and their midfield and attack, and a priority for their World Cup qualification campaign must be the discovery of a way of efficiently linking play without becoming overreliant on a generically ‘creative’ midfielder.
Another absence, and one which harks back rather pleasingly to the old eight-team European Championships, has been that of a true underdog. Even Greece, on paper the weakest team remaining in the competition, are seen as having a reasonable chance of giving Germany a run for their money when the teams meet in Gdansk on Friday night. This idea is carried by a number of narratives, from the prosaic (as football fans, we’re oddly given to believing that a particular tactical approach is an inherent national characteristic, and we all remember what happened in Portugal in 2004) to the political (Greece will want to demonstrate to Germany that Angela Merkel has no sway over what happens on the pitch). Meanwhile, English fans are playing the underdog card in a moderately annoying case of reverse psychology, even though the team contains several players who were considered – and not only in England – potential world champions in 2006 and 2010. It’s genuinely hard to call any of the quarter-finals with any certainty, and the fact that only Ireland and Sweden kicked off their final group games with no hope of advancing is representative of the general evenness of the competition.
At this stage, Spain remain the team to fear. I didn’t see their game against Croatia, but a friend’s Facebook status the following day – ‘Spain are so good at football they’re rubbish at football’ – is suggestive of how they throttled Slaven Bilic’s impressive side. However, there have been cracks – Vicente del Bosque’s decision to start with no strikers at all against Italy hardly came off, and hinted at a complacency regarding the efficiency of tiki-taka. No stratagem lasts forever no matter how brilliant its functionaries, and many of the survivors of the group stages – particularly Germany and an England under fire for being technically-bereft – will feel they have a point to make against them. Their quarter-final opponents, France, have had an inconsistent tournament so far, but possess both the firepower to trouble Iker Cassilas and the kind of midfield aggression that may force Xavi and Iniesta into one of their occasional off-days.
To sum up, it’s been a slightly strange affair so far, but there’s been more than enough to talk about. Democratic and difficult to predict, Poland – Ukraine 2012 offers plenty as the stakes are upped and the shoot-out orders decided upon.
Posted by Joe Kennedy