Euro 2012 Quarter Finals: 4 games in 4 words
Portugal 1 – 0 Czech Republic: Ronaldo
The Czechs were the first of three quarter-finalists who tried to ‘do a Chelsea’ (the Greeks didn’t get a chance to try) and the fact that all three teams failed could be seen as evidence that top level international football is currently better than the best of the Champions’ League. The Czechs offered nothing beyond hoping in their goalkeeper and the woodwork. Eventually, Ronaldo prevailed, once again preening himself and winning games almost single-handed. Like his compatriot Mourinho, he thinks he’s great and usually he’s right: Portugal have a few decent players but without him they’d be nowhere. The bravery and power of his winning header were a demonstration and reward of his commitment. The irony is that Portugal are now the most likely to try the Chelsea tactic of sitting back, absorbing, and hoping for a counter-attack goal, In their flamboyant, frustrating, dramatic, deadly striker, they have their own version of Drogba who could just make it work.
Germany 4 – 2 Greece: Depth
In a move that outraged fantasy football managers across the continent, Joachim Loew dropped three of his strikers to give some of his squad players a run-out. Pundits muttered about over-confidence and then watched four superb goals fly on from all angles and positions. There was a hint of hubris in the casual manner in which the Greeks got their equaliser, with Schweinsteiger looking a little off-form, and it would seem unlikely that Loew would have made those changes if he had been facing Russia, but this was another statement of intent from the best-looking team in the tournament.
Spain 2 – 0 France: Control
Maybe we’re all just a bit bored of tiki-taka. The mesmerising Barca-born model of pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass... is so difficult that almost no-one else even bothers to try it, but after four years of witnessing it dominate football’s biggest competitions, the magic seems to be fading for neutrals. For the Spanish, that’s not the point. A journalist based there commented that what they were looking for wasn’t artistry but control. The manager del Bosque commented with satisfaction after the game that France hadn’t achieved a shot on goal because his team had controlled everything so well. The French demonstrated the opposite, with dissension in the camp once again leading to disappointment. All this means you couldn’t blame the mostly-neutral crowd when they started Mexican Waves early on, but the lack of partisan atmosphere at so many games in this far-flung Euros has been one of its biggest disappointments.
England 0 (2p) – 0 (4p) Italy: Penalties
At last the tournament had its first goalless game, and at last England’s cupboard was laid bare. With Gerrard and Parker understandably weary and Rooney inexplicably so, Italy’s creative heart Pirlo increasingly ran the game from the midfield unchallenged. Had Balotelli not been so wasteful and the defence not so resilient, Italy could have spared them the added psychological burden of another penalty defeat. England were a mini-break up after four penalties and with Joe Hart clearly loving the opportunity to be a hero, Pirlo stepped forward to take his kick. Would his old legs fail him after 120 minutes? Would the young keeper who had enjoyed telling everyone about the videos he’d watched of all Italy’s penalty-takers know what he was about to do? Momentum is massive in sport and Pirlo took hold of it with a sublime chip down the centre of the goal. Hart desperately sprawled to recover from his initial leap but he, and England, were undone. It wasn’t the winning kick but it was the one that won it. It’s known as a Panenka, by the way, after the Czech player who scored the winning penalty in the 1976 final. They also call it, beautifully, a falling leaf. England’s modest men are not clutching at quite as many straws as usual but there is clearly so much more work to be done at every level of the game before they consider that kind of calm and skill under pressure to be normal.
For this round-up’s multimedia conclusion, check out my friend Barrowclough’s rapped lament for England’s penalty woes, making its biannual appearance.