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Get ready for a battle of tactical wits

To look at the four managers gracing the semifinals of Euro 2012 is to see a quartet in various stages of their international careers. Portugal’s Paulo Bento and Italy’s Cesare Prandelli are relatively new to the international game, while Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque and Germany’s Joachim Low have each tasted varying degrees of national team success in previous tournaments, with Del Bosque, of course, leading Spain to the 2010 World Cup.

The club backgrounds of the four men contain some interesting contrasts as well, with Del Bosque’s time at Real Madrid bringing in two UEFA Champions League crowns, while the other three have more modest club résumés. It all points to an interesting battle of wits when the Euro 2012 semifinals commence on Wednesday.

Spain’s Vicente Del Bosque -- The King

Back in the day: A Real Madrid man through and through, Del Bosque originally cut his teeth with Real’s youth team and twice managed the first team on an interim basis before being given the job full-time in 1999. His four-year spell in charge brought a pair of UEFA Champions League crowns and two La Liga titles to the Bernabeu.

Yet such success wasn’t enough for Galacticos club president Florentino Perez, who fired Del Bosque just days after winning Real’s 29th league title with the thought being that the team needed a bigger personality at the helm. A brief spell at Turkish side Besiktas ended in disappointment as well before Del Bosque found success with La Roja.

Style: Del Bosque’s quiet, understated demeanor may not have impressed his former bosses at Real, but it has proved the perfect complement to Spain’s star-studded side. His ability to help smooth over any ill feelings between players from rival clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid has helped ensure continued success for arguably the best side in the history of the international game. His ability to keep bench players engaged, no easy feat on such a talented team, has been critical as well.

Key decision: Some might argue that Del Bosque’s biggest choice has been to not make one with regard to the team’s formation, as he’s alternated between playing with a false nine such as Cesc Fabregas and a true striker such as Fernando Torres. But what looks like indecision to some has served to keep opponents guessing as to Del Bosque’s tactical plans, and despite criticism from some quarters that his team has become boring, he deserves credit for sticking to his beliefs, not to mention his team’s strengths.

Will win the title if ... he keeps his side hungry. Spain is on the cusp of history, ready to become the first international side to win three consecutive major tournaments, and the team will need Del Bosque’s guidance to get it over the finish line. It seems he’ll need to get Torres on the field in order to stretch defenses enough to provide sufficient space underneath for the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva. The goals should then follow.

Portugal’s Paulo Bento -- The Upstart

Back in the day: Part of a tenacious, ball-winning midfield in his playing days, Bento was a club teammate of one Cristiano Ronaldo at Sporting Clube de Portugal before making his managerial bones with the same club. His four-year stint in charge of the Verde-e-Brancos saw him earn the nickname of “cup eater” after he led Sporting to four triumphs in cup competitions.

In the 2008-09 Champions League, Bento’s Sporting side set the dubious record of giving up the most goals in the knockout stages of the competition, losing to Bayern Munich 12-1 on aggregate. Later, after Sporting tied with Latvian side FK Ventspils, he resigned under pressure.

Style: At 43 years of age, Bento is the youngest manager at Euro 2012, yet whatever problems his relative youth might cause have been overcome by an inclusive managerial style that sees him consult his players with regard to tactical issues. This is a significant departure from predecessor Carlos Queiroz and one that helped Bento win over the locker room, even in the wake of his falling out with defenders Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa, both of whom vowed never to play again for Portugal while Bento is in charge.

Key decision: Release the hounds, or in this case, the biggest hound: superstar Ronaldo. Under Queiroz, Ronaldo was stationed centrally but Bento has chosen to give the Real Madrid attacker -- and to a lesser extent Nani -- a free role, the better to pop up in unexpected places and provide some unpredictability to Portugal’s offense.

Will win the title if ... he continues to stay aggressive by trusting Ronaldo and the rest of his midfield. Joao Moutinho has enjoyed an excellent tournament as well, and both he and Nani will need to stand up to Spain’s midfield artistry in the semifinal.

Germany’s Joachim Low -- The Contender

Back in the day: Low began his managerial career in auspicious fashion, winning a German Cup with VfB Stuttgart, but a subsequent move to Turkey in 1998 with Fenerbahce threatened to take his career off the rails. German second-tier side Karlsruhe was relegated under his watch, and he soon found himself coaching in Austria, first with FC Tirol Innsbruck and then Austria Wien. But salvation came in the form of then-Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who plucked him from Alpine obscurity; Low soon developed a reputation for being tactically astute as well as innovative in his training methods. He succeeded Klinsmann as Germany manager when the latter departed after the 2006 World Cup.

Style: Low is a much more animated presence on the sideline, as witnessed by his reaction to Greece’s equalizer in the quarterfinal when he almost stormed off the field in disgust. But overall, Low is a manager willing to put his trust in young players. At the 2010 World Cup, he gave opportunities to the likes of Thomas Muller, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, all of whom shone on the big stage. That willingness has continued at Euro 2012.

Key decision: Low’s biggest choice of the first round was to stick with under-fire striker Mario Gomez against the Netherlands, and it paid off handsomely as the Bayern Munich forward scored two well-taken goals. Low also raised eyebrows by changing a winning formula in the quarterfinal against Greece, but as has so often happened during this tenure, his faith in youngsters Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle, as well as veteran striker Miroslav Klose, was repaid with interest.

Will win the title if ... he can manage Germany’s high expectations. After coming close to winning Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, Low is desperate to break through and claim a championship. The Germans have the talent. Now it’s a question of getting them to deliver.

Italy’s Cesare Prandelli -- The Transformer

Back in the day: Like many of his counterparts, Prandelli had his difficult spells as a manager, getting fired from the likes of Lecce and Venezia due to poor results. Of course, none of that compared to the moment when he was forced to walk away from a dream appointment at Roma to tend to his ailing wife, who later passed away after a battle with cancer.

It was at Parma, and then with Fiorentina, that Prandelli forged his reputation as one of Italy’s rising managerial stars.

Style: Prandelli is a manager for whom what happens away from the field is just as important as what happens on it. Players are expected to adhere to a code of ethics, and he hasn't been afraid to omit the likes of Mario Balotelli or Daniele De Rossi for getting suspended while with their clubs.

As for what has taken place between the white lines, Prandelli has transformed the Azzurri into a more proactive and eye-catching unit. Against Spain, Italy was every bit La Roja’s equal in a 1-1 draw, and the team has drawn positive reviews for its play. Up close, Prandelli exudes a confidence that is compelling, whether it be in his dealings with the media or his players.

Key decision: Rather than one tactical choice, what has characterized Prandelli in this tournament has been his ability to adapt. When injury and the latest match-fixing scandal back in Italy thinned his defensive ranks, Prandelli opted for a 3-5-2 with De Rossi as a sweeper. When his back line components returned to health, he reverted to four at the back, all the while freeing midfielder Andrea Pirlo to weave his passing magic.

Will win the title if ... he maintains Italy’s positive approach. While Germany is a formidable semifinal opponent, the Azzurri are plenty capable of holding their own both in terms of technique and tactics. Now is no time to back down.



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