Excellence is sometimes rewarded with an early exit. As half the sides in Euro 2012 face up to the reality that their campaign is over, it is a particular shame that some players will not be seen again this summer. So our team of the departed, playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, is:
Goalkeeper: Stephan Andersen (Denmark)If Thomas Sorensen had not been injured, Andersen would probably have watched Euro 2012 from the bench. Instead, he was given one of the more demanding tasks to confront a goalkeeper: starting for the outsiders in the Group of Death. A series of saves from the stand-in contributed to the win over Netherlands, while he let no one down against either Portugal or Germany.
Right back: Lukasz Piszczek (Poland)
In a tournament of raiding right-backs, few have been more prominent or potent than Piszczek. Poland’s entire side was slanted towards the right where the Borussia Dortmund combination of Piszczek and Jakub Blaszczykowski prospered. Greece and Russia could both testify to the problems his frequent forays forward caused.\
Center back: Olof Mellberg (Sweden)The veteran was nonplussed to receive UEFA's official man-of-the-match award after Sweden’s defeat to England, even though he had, to all intents and purposes, scored two goals. Mellberg would have been a still more deserving recipient for the 2-0 win over France, however, when he repelled shot after shot with some terrific blocks. Approaching his 35th birthday and having played every minute of every game in each of his major tournaments, it was a wonderful way to bow out.
Center back: Daniel Agger (Denmark)Much as Dutch profligacy was one of the causes of the biggest shock of the group stage, so was Danish defending. In particular, Agger excelled, the reliability that has been increasingly apparent at Anfield being replicated in his country’s colours. A centre-back who was first noted for his elegance now has an unflashy ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Left back: Ivan Strinic (Croatia)There was a cruelty to Croatia’s departure. It wasn’t merely that Slaven Bilic’s side had played well in all three games: pitched into a tough group, they had only conceded three goals. Strinic was part of that dependable defence - in which Gordon Schildenfeld was outstanding against Spain - as well as illustrating his quality with the cross for Mario Mandzukic’s equaliser against Italy.
Center midfield: Igor Denisov (Russia)
The fluency of the Russian passing game was attributed to the familiarity of the seven Zenit St Petersburg players. That was a factor but so too is the midfield metronome, Igor Denisov. Always available to receive a pass and then invariably capable of finding a colleague, he ensured more ostentatious talents saw plenty of the ball and dovetailed well with his Zenit colleagues Konstantin Zyryanov and Roman Shirokov in the midfield trio. It was easy to see why he was voted Russia’s Player of the Year.
Center midfield: Luka Modric (Croatia)The only one of the Dutch superstars to perform, Wesley Sneijder, fashioned chance after chance against Denmark but still could not earn the playmaker’s berth in this team. That is one indication of the influence of Modric. Another is that the Tottenham player, who ran the midfield against Ireland, appeared the most dangerous distributor against Spain, even though he saw far less of the ball than Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta. And his gorgeous pass to Ivan Rakitic will live long in the memory.
Right wing: Jakub Blaszczykowski (Poland)None gave more in the Polish cause than their captain, but Blaszczykowski’s tournament will be remembered for much more than persistent running. His long-range equaliser against Russia was both one of the goals and one of the moments of the tournament. Blaszczykowski also set up Robert Lewandowski’s opener against Greece
Attacking midfielder: Alan Dzagoev (Russia)The baton is being passed from one generation to the next. If Andrei Arshavin was seen as Russia’s premier talent, now that tag belongs to Alan Dzagoev. The 22-year-old is the tournament’s joint top scorer, which is a testament to his finishing, but his movement was just as impressive. While he lined up - in name, anyway - on the right of attacking trio, his propensity to pop up in the middle of the penalty area as Russia interchanged fluently means he gets a central role in this team.
Left wing: Michael Krohn-Dehli (Denmark)There was no more fitting scorer. While Netherlands’ garlanded talents stumbled, a man who had failed to make the grade at Ajax upstaged them all. Krohn-Dehli’s wonderfully calm finish set the Dutch on the trail to destruction and, by striking again with an equaliser against Germany, he illustrated it was no one-off. The Brondby winger’s career has been a slowburner but, with intelligent application, he lit up Denmark’s campaign.
Center forward: Mario Mandzukic (Croatia)Zlatan Ibrahimovic? Andriy Shevchenko? There is a case for either. Indeed, there is a case for both. Yet while two of Europe’s most feared striking talents of the past decade and a half have shone, so has a rather less heralded figure. Mandzukic’s aerial power and fine finishing earned Croatia a victory against Republic of Ireland and a draw versus Italy. Unlike many a striker, he looked a threat when used on the flanks, too.
Substitutes:Przemyslaw Tyton (Poland), Darijo Srna (Croatia), Gordon Schildenfeld (Croatia), Simon Poulsen (Denmark), Ognjen Vukojevic (Croatia), Roman Shirokov (Russia), Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands), Christian Wilhelmsson (Sweden), Rafael van der Vaart (Netherlands), Andriy Shevchenko (Ukraine), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Sweden), Nicklas Bendtner (Denmark).