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And then there were four

Now that all the debris (ta-ta, England, Greece and Czech Republic) and decomposing fromage (good riddance, France) has been swept away, we are left with four teams that have the potential to make the end of the Euro 2012 a giganto ripsnorter worthy of one of the most compelling tournaments in history. Portugal and Italy came to Polkraine as teams on a mission: Cristiano Ronaldo saw the Euros as a chance to finally silence his critics who claim he can’t shine on the big stage, while Italy was anxious to remove the taint of a match-fixing scandal and prove it had evolved from its stultifying era of Catenaccio.

Both have succeeded with Ronaldo looking unbeatable at times while scoring three goals (by my unofficial count, Lionel Messi has none in this tournament) and carrying Portugal to the semis.

Meanwhile, for all its legendary stodginess, Italy played almost carefree attacking soccer against England, dominating the Three Lions as thoroughly as it did back in the days of Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio. It is doubtful that the Azzurri will genuflect to Germany on Thursday, having beaten Die Mannschaft in their three most notable World Cup meetings -- 4-3 in the "Game of the Century" in 1970, 3-1 in the 1982 final and 2-0 in the 2006 semifinal -- but when the final whistle blows, I still expect them to be looking heavenward in anguish as only Italy can. Similarly, Ronaldo's solo act will end in tears, thereby continuing the venerable tradition of CR7 blubbering in major tournaments.

That leaves the two best teams, Spain and Germany, the masterful and languid Spanish passers of the ball against the highly mobile, fluid Germans in a potential showdown that offers an intriguing contrast in how soccer can be played at the highest level. I’m putting my considerably devalued euros on another Euro title for the tiki-taka-crats.

In like Three Lions, out like Three Lambs

Well, you can't say I didn't warn you. I all but pleaded with you not to emotionally invest in the Three Lions. I said that despite winning its group, England was a big tease, and sure enough, on Sunday it was the Belle of the Coquettish Ball for 120 agonizing minutes, right up to when the Ashleys (Young and Cole) turned Cinderella's coach back into a pumpkin. Personally, I'm just glad it wasn't Theo Walcott.

England was destined to lose on penalties. A team can display only so much staggeringly inept ball possession and lackluster attacking cohesion before its luck runs out. This time it was the two least sympathetic Lions who inscribed their names alongside Gareth Southgate, David Batty, Chris Waddle, Stuart Pearce and David Beckham -- England's who's who of what could have been at major tournaments. I fully expected the gravity-challenged Young to trip over the spot and fall down when he realized that his shot was going to crash off the crossbar. I mean, his risible dive in the second half was deemed worthy of a yellow card for Christian Maggio, so maybe the ref would give him a mulligan on his penalty. And as for the man forever known to Arsenal fans as Cashley Cole, it's a shame that the Chelsea defender spent the run-up to his kick attempting to compute the difference in player bonuses between the quarters and semis instead of focusing on how to get the most power behind his rather lame, easily saved effort.

As much as it pains me to admit it, England deserved its fate. Perhaps it didn't deserve the depressingly familiar manner of its demise, but defeat was as inevitable as Wile E. Coyote plunging off the cliff when chasing the roadrunner. Substitute Joe Hart for the coyote and Andrea Pirlo for the roadrunner. I used to think that Xavi was in a class by himself as soccer’s most sublime playmaker, but the Italian trequartista is every bit as ingenious and devastating as the Spanish maestro. Plus, he has stones of granite. Not since Zinedine Zidane’s audacious dink against Gianluigi Buffon in the 2006 World Cup final has the world seen a more confident and outrageous penalty.

Consider the pressure on Pirlo when he stepped up to the spot as Italy’s third kicker after Riccardo Montolivo had given England hope by lashing his attempt wide left. No amount of videos Hart had studied of Italy’s penalty kickers could have prepared him for that moment. As the England keeper hurled himself sideways, Pirlo slowed to a virtual stop, slid his foot under the ball and chipped a lazy, arcing shot straight down the middle that barely reached the net.  The look on Hart’s face was a mixture of disbelief and resignation, as if to say, “What planet is this guy on?”  It was more than a goal. It was yet another example of the gulf in technique between the two teams, and it is no surprise that England was rattled by it. After that, I doubt that even the most jingoistic supporter could argue that the Three Lions merited a place alongside Germany, Spain and Portugal in the semis.

Put simply, England was out-classed, out-thought and out-Pirloed by Italy, which is why it is out of Euro 2012.

Les Bleus les blew it

It's hard to say what gave me greater pleasure: watching Spain tiki-taka France to its Euro death or seeing Samir Nasri confirm that he's one of the most unlikable characters in all of sports, something every Arsenal fan has known for years. After the 2-0 thrashing, during which Nasri was rooted to the bench until the 65th minute, a French journalist had the temerity to ask the Man City midfielder what he thought of the result. The Weasel launched into an expletive-laden tirade calling the reporter "a son of a bitch" while blaming the media for France's poor Euro showing.

Now I understand and applaud one man's quest for vast wealth and thus don't blame Nasri for abandoning the Gunners to double his salary with City. I do, however, take a perverse delight in whatever causes him pain. I smile when he fluffs a simple pass as he did against Sweden, so you can easily imagine how thrilled I was when he was sent packing from Polkraine.

Certainly, Spain took its sweet time in ousting an odious French side from the tournament. La Seleccion followed an early Xabi Alonso headed goal with a mesmerizing display of possession, one that lulled almost tous Les Bleus -- only Franck Ribery remained his usual irascible self -- into a state of catatonia (you know, that country to the north of Catalonia). It was yet another do-just-enough-to win-vivisection by the Spanish scalpel artists, and while it may be eye-gougingly tedious to the neutral, Spain is in yet another semifinal and sits two victories from making history as the first team to win three consecutive major tournaments. It didn't help the sizzle factor that French manager Laurent Blanc set his team up in essentially the same negative, spineless way as Giovanni Trapattoni did for Ireland. Ireland, for pity’s sake, a team of no-hopers simply trying to keep from getting embarrassed -- a strategy, it should be noted, that still failed.

Yet this was supposed to be a resurgent French team, overflowing with attacking talent -- Ribery, Nasri and Karim Benzema--  but it meekly surrendered to Sweden in its final group game, and whatever fight was left in it seemed to remain in the dressing room where the various warring factions quarreled with one another over tactics and camembert. Could anyone imagine that the Netherlands would be outmutinied in this tournament after it went home in disgrace with no points?

Blanc, nicknamed Le Presidente when he was the bulwark of the French defense that ran the World Cup and Euro tables in 1998 and 2000, deserves a large share of the blame for the craven approach that saw France start two right backs (Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Reveillere) to try to shackle Andres Iniesta. It is poetic justice that the winning goal still came from that Maginot flank when Florent Malouda couldn't be bothered to track back within a country mile of Alonso at the far post.

At least Spain's previous opponent, Croatia, tried to show some cojones, denying Spain space by constructing a "spider's web" high up the field and then looking vaguely menacing the half-dozen times it managed to push forward. Perhaps instead of criticizing Spain for its self-indulgence in passing the ball around without creating chances, it would be refreshing for once to hear people applauding Spain for conceding so few opportunities. The Spanish defense, which before the tournament looked to be vulnerable without its experienced leader, Carlos Puyol, has given up just one goal in four games. Go ahead and blame the Spaniards for their endless ball hogging, but it's not their fault that every opponent displays so little ambition. Now, finally, in Portugal, they face a team that boasts a player who knows how to go in only one direction -- toward goal.

Ronaldo has beauty, strength and speed. Spain has none of that, but it has Iniesta, Xavi, Cesc and Xabi. Thank God that sometimes short, slow and balding win the race.

Low is riding high

I understood Joachim Low's dismay when Greece tied the game at 1. Up to that point, the longest time Greece had spent in the German half was during the pregame handshakes. It was starting to look as though the only chance the Greeks had of getting within hailing distance of the German goal would be if they climbed inside a wooden horse and left it in the six-yard box. What I couldn't quite fathom was Low's spasmodic fit of apoplexy on the sideline, an epic meltdown that made Arsene Wenger's water bottle antics last season seem like the stoic ideal. Windmilling his arms in his skintight bodice ripper of a pinstriped shirt like a man trying to do a passable impression of Icarus, the mop-topped German manager had just seen Georgios Samaras, a lumbering excuse for a striker who had never been confused with Usain Bolt, outrace his entire defense to somehow connect with Dimitris Salpingidis' inch-perfect cross and slide the ball into the net. This is, in fact, the same Samaras who plays his soccer in Scotland -- Scotland! -- and whose previous contribution to this tournament had been his jaw-dropping 5 o'clock stubble, which rumor has it he shaves at the start of each half.

OK, on second thought, I guess I can understand why Low went bonkers.

Granted, Greek joy lasted for about as long as one of Samaras' disposable razors, but for almost five minutes I shuddered at the possibility of a reprise of the Hellenic hell that was Greece winning the 2004 trophy in Portugal.  Fortunately, before I could stuff yet another dolma down my gullet, Sami Khedira shinned an exocet rocket into the roof of the Greek net, and Europe's dominant economic force was reminding one and all why the tale of the "Little Engine That Could" can be found only in children's books. (Or rather on children's iPads. Do people even read on paper anymore?)

Germany's response to the Greek goal was swift and unrelenting, as Die Mannschaft unleashed the most frightening period of attacking soccer of the tournament. Shots rained in from all angles, and the Greek keeper, Michalis Sifakis, had the look of a man who'd rather be discussing Greekonomics than standing blindfolded against his goal-line wall.

Terrifyingly, Low had made three eyebrow-raising changes from the team that had conquered its group, including bringing in an entirely new strike force: Prolific striker Miroslav Klose, creative but shot-happy Marco Reus and technically gifted Andre Schurrle deposed Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski and Mario Gomez, who among them had scored all but one of Germany’s goals in the tournament. Silky playmaker Mesut Ozil was once again at the heart of Germany's assault (Low should send Jose Mourinho a Gucci man bag as thanks for toughening up Ozil at Real Madrid), Khedira and Reus' goals were ruthlessly taken and Klose's header into a virtually open net after Sifakis whiffed on the cross was a testament to German dominance and the aging striker's goal-scoring acumen. My only disappointment was that with the game so well in hand, Low chose not to bring Angela Merkel off the bench. She looks like she could crush it from the spot.

The German motorcade is gathering Autobahn-at-3 a.m. momentum, and given that Italy needed 120 minutes plus a penalty shootout to scrape past England, you have to like the Germans' chances against the Azzurri -- especially if Low decides to start his first team and wear a more loose-fitting shirt.

C-Ron run. C-Ron score

The game capsule will read that Portugal beat the Czechs 1-0 in a fairly tame affair that was finally decided on a goal by the second-best player in the world, Ronaldo. But that wasn't the story at all.

Rather, when Ronaldo's powerful, diving header finally beat Petr Cech in the 79th minute, the cameras panned to the stands, where sat the two of the greatest players in Portugal's history B.C. (Before Cristiano), Eusebio and Luis Figo. Detonating out of his seat, Figo let out a primal roar of triumph before gently helping the now-infirm 70-year-old Eusebio to his feet and hugging him tightly. It was a joyous, affirming moment to see the two icons, separated by 30 years in age, bonding over their country's hard-won victory and celebrating the prodigal son who secured it.

One of the pleasures of big tournaments is that they beg a discussion of soccer's glorious past. Eusebio, nicknamed the Black Panther for his power and grace, can understand CR7's burden. In the 1966 World Cup, Eusebio carried Portugal to a glittering string of triumphs, including the storybook quarterfinal win over North Korea when he scored four of Portugal's five goals in a remarkable comeback. It was his misfortune that, as he unleashed his brilliance across the soccer world, another short, muscular package of coiled menace, a Brazilian demigod by the name of Pele, relegated Eusebio to a CR-esque, great-but-not-the-greatest position in the global pecking order.

Figo, the handsome idol whose guile and dribbling skills earned him the World Player of the Year in 2001, was not even the best player on his own club team, Real Madrid, often toiling in the immense shadow cast by his fellow Galactico, Zinedine Zidane. Whereas Eusebio was more of a stoic presence on the field, Figo presaged the grating petulance and flair for theatrics that has become Ronaldo's trademark. When Figo retired from the national team, Ronaldo officially became Portugal's leader in name, talent and Brylcreem.

But now comes the litmus test. As transcendent as both were, neither Eusebio nor Figo ever lifted one of the major trophies, although Figo did captain the side that reached the Euro 2004 final. So that responsibility now shifts to the latest Iberian talisman, and should he fulfill it, he deserves to win this year's Ballon D'or over You Know Who. But which Ronaldo will show up against Spain: the one who imposed his genius on the Netherlands or the one whose frustration against the stubborn Czechs brought out his bratty, me-first self, perhaps best encapsulated by his celebration after he scored the winner off Joao Moutinho's perfectly flighted cross? Almost any other player and certainly every other team captain would have sprinted over to embrace the man who had delivered the assist -- but not Ronaldo. Instead, he found the closest TV lens and blew a kiss, once again indulging in behavior that only he could love.

Too bad the cameras didn't record Eusebio and Figo's reaction to that.

 

 

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