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Jun 21, 2012

Last eight eye knockout blow

Trails of the unexpected

As it stands, Euro 2012 has been a tournament of two faces. It has proceeded according to predictions about as much as it has utterly surprised.

On the one hand, Germany finished top of their table on nine points while Group C finished exactly as expected. On the other, the 2010 World Cup finalists went out with zero points while Group A was completely overturned.

Over the next few days, though, we should get a clearer idea of exactly what kind of tournament Euro 2012 will end up as. Will it be a Euro 2000, where most of the elite teams eventually play to their full potential and excel? Or, will it be a 2004, where a number of shock victories eventually leave something of a quality vacuum at the end?

Certainly, the very make-up of the quarter-final fixtures would appear suited to sending it one way or the other. Because, apart from the enticingly even match between England and Italy, we seem to have a series of mismatches.

But, even within those mismatches, there are enough caveats to make them compelling.

An otherwise exceptional Germany, for example, may well leave their oddly open backline susceptible to Greece’s customary late innovations if they are not far enough ahead early on.

Think that’s far-fetched? Well consider the fact that a decision or two in Denmark’s favour may suddenly have put Jogi Low’s side under an awful lot of pressure very late into their final group game.

Similarly, the suspicion is that the lack of a relationship between Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos will eventually result in Spain - who, statistically, have the best defensive record in the competition - conceding the kind of inopportunely-timed goal that requires a lot more urgency in their possession game.

That’s the thing about knockout football. Its immediacy greatly exaggerates the effect of such isolated incidents.

As for the third mismatch, that would appear to depend on whether Czech Republic’s 4-1 defeat was an aberration or Cristiano Ronaldo’s rare tournament brace was a one off. If Michal Bilek’s side have learned from their opening defeat and manage to deny the Real Madrid forward the kind of space they generously offered up to Russia, then they may well have found a formation that forces a few bigger holes in Portugal’s own relatively patched-together system.

In saying all of that, it’s still very difficult not to see all of Spain, Germany and Portugal going through. But, even if that’s the case, the very fact that one of England or Italy will be in the last four after so much pre-tournament upheaval may be something of a surprise in itself.

Tactical turning points

Essentially, both Portugal and Czech Republic will occupy the same stadium in the last-eight because of the exact same side of the pitch.

In the victory over Greece that fundamentally transformed his team’s tournament, Michal Bilek used his side’s dynamism down the right to end the game as a contest after six minutes. The energy of Theodor Gebre Selassie was particularly important.

Five days later, in the game that essentially decided Group B, it was Portugal’s freedom down the left flank that allowed them - or, more specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo - to finally end the Netherlands’ campaign and put themselves through.

Tonight, these two opposing sides will directly face off. And, when you break them down, each quarter-final would appear to revolve around similar single duels.

The battle between England and Italy is much broader but, ironically, can still be brought back down to one player. Ultimately, it is a meeting between a proactive team who play a possession game and are looking to push their limits against a side who have accepted their limits by implementing a reactive style, looking to counter through pace and power.

This contrast will, really, come down to Andrea Pirlo. Successfully stop him and England can really punish the space in behind. Let him play and pick passes for Italy’s range of attackers, though, and Roy Hodgson’s side may well leave themselves open to a very long night.

France will surely have long accepted that they won’t see much of the ball, themselves, against Spain. And, given that the fact that their defence can’t seem to do much even when they do see it, the world champions could well cut loose in the manner they did against Ireland. At the other end, though, it is exactly France’s speed that the high Spanish line is so susceptible to. There is certainly potential for more goals in this one than in Spain’s usual minimalist games.

Greece, meanwhile, will have to absolutely maximise the effect of their subs. It seems highly unlikely, after all, that they will be able to keep Germany out in the manner they did Russia. In general, though, beating Low’s side is going to take the ultimate act of alchemy.

Sub plots

As if the very fact that all of these games are European Championship quarter-finals isn’t enough, each has either been underscored or overshadowed by deeper storylines that add several compelling dimensions.

In the case of the first bout, the build-up was absolutely dominated by questions about Cristiano Ronaldo. That, however, is because the Real Madrid forward has yet to properly dominate such a stage. Ronaldo has actually had an exceptionally curious international career. Indeed, it has been completely out of sync with his club career. His very best tournaments, after all, came when he was at his most erratic for Manchester United between 2004 and 2006. His very worst, meanwhile, have come since 2008 when he properly started winning so many games on his own.

Consider this: prior to last Sunday, Ronaldo had only scored four tournament goals, all of them almost inconsequential: a late consolation against Greece in 2004; the second in 2-0 and 3-1 wins over Iran 2006 and the Czech Republic 2008, respectively; and the sixth in a 7-0 win over North Korea.

And all that is why Sunday may well mark such a watershed. It wasn’t just the first time that Ronaldo scored a brace in a tournament game; it was the first time he truly settled one; and one, at that, which was the very definition of a big game - an effective eliminator against the 2010 World Cup finalists.

Should Ronaldo continue that form then it may not just send Portugal an awfully long way but may well secure that Ballon d’Or he so desires.

If the Portuguese is determined to go down in history, though, the Spanish appear destined to set it. It suddenly seems so appropriate that, as they chase a milestone third successive major trophy, they will face the last country to eliminate them from an international competition and also the last country to be in a position to pursue the same record.

What’s more, it’s in the quarter-finals - exactly where France knocked Spain out when they last won the competition in 2000.

England, of course, have always had a complex about the quarters themselves - not to mention penalties. But, in a match that’s so even, it’s probably just as well - for both them and Italy - that they’re facing one of the few sides in international football with a shootout record as bad as theirs.

Finally, there’s Germany-Greece. Or, if you want to take it from a political perspective, the payback match.

Whatever happens, we’re likely to get our money’s worth.

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