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Jun 20, 2012

State of the eight

After an amazing fortnight of action -- plus an eye-opening $500,000 worth of fines dished out by UEFA for transgressions that included fighting, fireworks and illegal underwear -- just half of the hopeful Euro 2012 field remains standing to push on and fight for the title.

From here, just three games stand between these teams and European glory. While March Madness might consider this to be the Elite Eight, the reality is anything but.

Ultimately, this octet is more eclectic than anything else, though not without intrigue. With no side looking invincible and winner-takes-all scenarios relying as much on intangibles and lady luck as skill and preparation, how do the remaining teams look heading into the quarterfinals?

Czech Republic vs. Portugal (Thursday, 2:45 p.m. ET)

How does Czech manger Michal Bilek do it? A squad with no discernible striker, two shots and 14 fouls in three games -- Milan Baros doesn't count -- and a helmet-headed hero in Petr Cech between the posts not only won Group A but did so after a 4-1 thrashing by Russia in its opening game.

Yet it was clear from watching the Czechs against Greece and, famously, against co-host Poland on Saturday that it’s much better to get rock bottom out the way early and give yourself room to rise. Thanks to a menagerie of far-from-household names -- bombastic midfielder Petr Jiracek, impish winger Vaclav Pilar and right back revelation Theodor Gebre Selassie -- supporting the injury-prone Tomas Rosicky, it's one game shy of a potential date with the defending champion.

But Portugal, given the impressive fashion with which it has shed its own self-doubt, might prove a cut above. Long considered to be a starting XI of 10 men plus Cristiano Ronaldo, its oft-bickering ways have been replaced by team spirit and a blistering counterattack.

Consider that during qualifying, two experienced defenders, Ricardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa, elected to retire from international soccer until coach Paulo Bento was fired. He wasn't, and despite the drama, A Seleccao still made it to the Euros. Furthermore, Bento's squad has blossomed, nearly stealing a draw against Germany before breathlessly recovering to beat Denmark and thumping the hapless Dutch to head into the quarterfinals looking as strong as any team still in the mix.

While the big story was Ronaldo finding his national-team sea legs against the Netherlands, several others are in fine form. Miguel Veloso controls the tempo in midfield, the center back pairing of Bruno Alves and Pepe looks robust, and Nani and Joao Pereira work brilliantly in tandem down the right wing.

Prediction: Ronaldo's redemptive tournament starts in earnest as he finally begins to synchronize his scintillating club form with those outings for country. Portugal 2, Czech Republic 0

Germany vs. Greece (Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET)

These two may have met only eight times on the soccer field -- Germany is unbeaten with five wins and a plus-10 goal difference, while East Germany was also unbeaten in eight -- but recent political events have seen the pair clash plenty. While the Greek economy treads water, two major German contributions to European Union financial rescue packages came with plenty of strings attached that have left the Galanolefki's home country in deep recession. Resentment at forced reforms is high, so how grand would it be if Fernando Santos' team could stick one in the eye of Europe's de facto political power by way of a typically austere 1-0 upset?

As brilliant as it sounds, few would bet their remaining Euros on the chance. Though Germany looked all too human against Denmark, Joachim Low's squad has an inside track on reaching the final and every intention of ending Die Mannschaft's 16-year trophy drought.

While creative force Mesut Ozil has been largely quiet, Bastian Schweinsteiger has thrived as a deep-lying creator. Thomas Muller looks every bit as sharp as he did during his breakout at the 2010 World Cup, while Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels has had no trouble anchoring a back line dominated by players from archrival Bayern Munich. Even Mario Gomez has deigned to shed an ordinary international career with three beautiful goals in the group stage.

Meanwhile, the Greeks' biggest asset is their team spirit. Watching that 1-0 shock of Russia to clinch a quarterfinal spot was every bit as heroic as Chelsea's Champions League win and every bit as deserved. It all comes down to Santos. In mocking Greece, many overlook its record since the unflashy Brazilian took the job: 17 games unbeaten (10 wins, 7 draws) until a friendly defeat against Romania in November 2011, the longest such run in Greek soccer history.

Greece's heroism to escape Group A was every bit as gratifying. As Santos put it before the tournament, qualification "is dedicated to all Greeks. We gave them a reason to smile in these tough times." Given the financial woes at home, this team will just not quit. Add Santos' meticulous preparations -- DVDs of each team, detailed dossiers of each player Greece would likely face -- to the grit and it's obvious that Die Mannschaft must not overlook its quarterfinal foe, no matter how distracting a Euro trophy might be.

Prediction: Santos may be prepared, but can any side truly be ready to shackle Ozil and Schweinsteiger for 90 minutes? Germany 2, Greece 0

Spain vs. France (Saturday, 2:45 p.m. ET)

When La Roja and Les Bleus meet, there is rarely a dull moment (six draws in 30 games). The last time they met at the Euros was also in the quarterfinals; France won 2-1 in 2000 en route to lifting the trophy.

But a lot has changed for both sides in the years since. Spain entered the Euros looking to snare its third straight international tournament win, while France was seeking redemption for the self-inflicted wounds of the 2010 World Cup. Both have succeeded in their respective goals, to some degree, in reaching the quarterfinals.

In Group C, Spain looked rigid and set in its possession-heavy style -- 2,046 completed passes through three games compared to 666 for its opponents -- that it struggled for a more incisive Plan B when faced with a well-organized defense. Yet it created 38 shots on target, best in Euro 2012, and won twice en route to topping the group. Though prickly manager Vicente Del Bosque faces criticism for his tactics -- relying too heavily on his midfield to the point of converting Cesc Fabregas into a false nine -- the results give him all the vindication he needs.

The French, by contrast, looked at its best beating Ukraine and struggled to break down an England side many expected Les Bleus to defeat in the opening game. Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri have yet to find ways to free Karim Benzema around goal -- all three Les Bleus goals in Group D came from the midfield, their biggest strength -- while Philippe Mexes is a flat-footed liability against a team as potentially perfect as Spain. (Mexes is unavailable due to an accumulation of yellow cards, but likely replacement Laurent Koscielny is equally fragile.)

While it all sets up too nicely for Spain to continue its pursuit for a third straight cup, expect the likes of Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa to challenge Iker Casillas like the Croats did in their final group game.

Prediction: A defensive, brittle battle ends in the Moby Dick of soccer endings: a game-winning extra-time goal. Plus lots and lots of tiki-taka. Spain 1, France 0

England vs. Italy (Sunday, 2:45 p.m. ET)

It almost seems a shame to squander such a compelling game so far from the final. Not that these two teams can conceivably claim to be the best at Euro 2012, but both get credit for being most improved -- and most compelling to watch.

For England, its preparations were chaotic and forever second-guessed by the media -- the appointment of saggy-faced custodian Roy Hodgson to stalk the sideline, the inclusion of more Liverpool players than even Anfield legend Bill Shankly would have recommended for national duty, John Terry or Rio Ferdinand in defense? Hodgson’s explanation of excluding Ferdinand from the squad -- “footballing reasons” -- should be added to the Pantheon of Terrible Excuses alongside "I didn't inhale" and Jeff Kent's truck-wash mishap.

Yet, like a Picasso or a Dali, the components of the whole don't have to make sense in order to be strangely appealing. Putting the captain's armband around Steven Gerrard's bicep has squeezed out his poor decision-making in favor of careful, meaningful midfield play. Terry looked reborn as a do-all, save-all center back. Theo Walcott delivered on his long-gestating potential. Wayne Rooney slotted back in at striker with ease following his suspension, though he can't waste chances like his wide-open header against Ukraine. Both Andy Carroll and Danny Welbeck proved effective in limited play.

Speaking of strikers, the Azzurri have no complaints there. Manager Cesare Prandelli's trio of line-leaders -- Antonio Di Natale, Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli -- each scored in Group C play and showed good chemistry in various combinations. More crucially, firebrands Cassano and Balotelli look focused and drama free. Andrea Pirlo is dialed in to his maestro best. Daniele De Rossi looked largely impervious as a makeshift defender or wrecking-ball midfielder.

Meanwhile there's the mercurial work of Prandelli. When he's not busy on long moonlit pilgrimages, the former Juventus midfielder has shown himself to be everything Azzurri managers are not supposed to be: genial, adaptable and inventive. Formation switches or radical personnel changes normally doom teams; Italy calmly secured its passage in the next round.

Both teams have issues at home to be addressed, namely Terry's racism trial in July and Serie A's latest match-fixing scandal, but as the first punishments of many have just been handed down, this quarterfinal should be all about the soccer and whose charmed Euro 2012 life expires first. Italy won the World Cup in 2006 following Calciopoli; will 2012 produce more of the same?

Prediction: Prandelli's Pirlo will finally unsettle Hodgson's finely calibrated rear guard. At least it won't end with penalties. Italy 2, England 1

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