Euro 2012 reflection

Quarter-final review

Miguel Delaney pinpoints the key themes of Euro 2012's last-eight knockout phase

Miguel Delaney

Joachim Low's Germany have played with a swagger

Party like it’s 1988 as all of the elite teams play to their potential

It’s 20 years since the European Championship had only eight teams but this summer’s competition has offered something of a tribute act to tournaments past: all four of the semi-finalists come from just two groups.

As many said before Euro 2012 began, that illustrated how lopsided the draw was with so many quality teams concentrated in Groups B and C. It’s hard not to think, for example, that Croatia, Netherlands and Denmark would all have come through either of the other two pools.

They didn’t, though. Instead, it’s the powerhouses of Portugal, Italy, Germany and, of course, Spain who are in the semi-finals. And that in itself also harks back to the past. All of those teams, after all, have now reached more semi-finals over the past decade than any other European teams. Only the Dutch rival Italy’s two.

As such, none of the semi-finalists could be said to be any way surprising. And, after the feats of Russia, Turkey and Greece over the last decade, that is really the first time that’s happened in a European Championship since 2000 – the last point before the demands of the club game and the expanded Champions League began to seriously consume the elite international sides.

So, then, this tournament may mark something of watershed. At the very least, it has produced the rare modern feat of the vast majority of the elite teams playing to their potential. In general, superior technical quality has bested necessary tactical pragmatism from inferior sides.

That, indeed, was best illustrated in the quarter-finals. Every single one of them proceeded according to most predictions, right down to the margins of the scorelines.

Spain and Germany comprehensively beat France and Greece, respectively; Portugal edged past an awkward Czech Republic; and, in the most evenly-matched game of the lot, an Italian team further along their evolution and with a more proactive approach than England just about did enough.

Few alarms, no surprises. If that continues to be the case, it’s hard to not see another Germany-Spain final.

The adventurous continue

Both reflecting and propelling the trend of superior teams playing to their potential, Euro 2012 continues to see sides with a more proactive approach progress. The tournament still favours the brave.

Indeed, perhaps inevitably given how the international game now has a delayed reaction to the tactical developments and shifts of club level, it has also been out of sync with the 2011-12 season.

Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal meet Spain in the quarter-finals© PA Photos

Look, after all, at the similarities between Chelsea’s matches against Barcelona and Bayern Munich and that between England and Italy.

As Giovanni Trapattoni continuously repeated in the first week of the tournament, the eventual Champions League winners only had one corner in the final to Bayern’s 20, 45% possession to Bayern’s 55% and six shots to Bayern’s 24.

In the quarter-final, England had 36% possession to Italy’s 64% and nine shots to Italy’s 35. There was one crucial difference, though: the end result.

As Trapattoni also found out to his cost, this tournament hasn’t replicated the club game's season in letting lesser teams off the hook for more pragmatic football. They’ve all been punished.

Indeed, the Czechs and the French will feel much the same way as the English: out without really having had a go. All set up their quarter-final approach in order to simply stop the other team playing. As a result, their own progress was stopped.

In that, justice was done. The Czechs never offered a threat against Portugal after the first 20 minutes, the French played against their strengths by basing their game on a bad backline at the cost of their potentially exhilarating forward line while England paid the price for a coaching infrastructure that means their international team can barely keep possession of the ball for more than four passes.

Striking differences

Despite the fact all four semi-finalists have reached that stage with dynamic football, there are key – and intriguing – differences between all of them. In fact, it’s arguable whether there’s been a greater variety of approaches among the last four of any recent tournament.

Spain, of course, are at the top of all that given how they dictate the terms of every match they play. Germany, however, will be looking to change those terms with the breakneck attacking football that has become standard at so many of their clubs.

Italy have, admittedly, adopted the Barcelona approach but that is still within the framework of their own tactical approach, with Cesare Prandelli enhancing his reputation as a hugely astute manager in this tournament.

Portugal are the most ‘tactically broken’ of all the sides but still have a rare balance given the strength of their backline, the technique of their midfield and the firepower of Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s said that styles make fights. They may well make football matches too, as well as Euro 2012.

Born to the stage

As often tends to be the case, it is the quarter-finals where certain players truly start to take command of a competition. In many cases, the individual displays of the previous round are rendered irrelevant and, in the grander scheme of the tournament, completely ineffective. That was best illustrated with the manner in which Andrea Pirlo completely overshadowed a Steven Gerrard who had performed with admirable responsibility in the group stage. As it stands, it’s between him and Cristiano Ronaldo for the player of the tournament.

That, however, raises another point. It’s the performances in the next two games that really matter. In the 2010 World Cup, Andres Iniesta didn’t really start producing until the quarter-finals, but that proved essential. Although he hasn’t been as directly responsible for his team’s progress as Ronaldo and Pirlo given that he hasn’t yet scored, he has orchestrated everything good that Spain have done. Mesut Ozil has been much the same for Germany. They may yet have the final say.

© ESPN

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