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Jun 26, 2012

Breaking down Euro 2012 semifinals

What a tournament so far, right? As Chris Ryan noted in his quarterfinal review on Grantland, we've been lucky in that the more limited, defensive sides in the final eight are heading home and now we're left with arguably the best four teams from the 16-team field. No luck, no chance -- just quality and skill.

And now, the semis have gifted us with two ineluctably scintillating contests: an all-Iberian battle on Wednesday between Spain and Portugal, then a rendezvous of two sides with serious World Cup emotional baggage, Germany versus Italy, on Thursday.

Let's break down the last Euro 2012 quartet standing.

SPAIN

The story so far:

One of conflict that never quite made it to the field. Pre-tourney bluster of Real Madrid / Barcelona tension didn't transpire. Endless media gripes with coach Vicente Del Bosque's tactics didn't threaten La Roja's progress through the competition. False nines looked true, supposedly shaky defending looked robust enough and the steady combination of Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the midfield was ably amplified by Xabi Alonso's and David Silva's tempo changes. Even Fernando Torres scored twice (albeit against Ireland), and Spain's simple, consistent approach is hard to begrudge.

In short, if there is any threat to Spain's pursuit of a third straight international title, it's yet to transpire. And more worrying yet is that Cesc Fabregas & Co. are starting to hit a higher gear.

Who will get it done?

Really, it's all about the midfield. We've known that for months. Del Bosque's choice to address his biggest weaknesses (the lack of a reliable frontman and the loss of his captain, Carles Puyol, on defense) with his biggest strength (an absurd abundance of box-to-box destroyers) was inspired. It was also correct. In hindsight.

And yet, against Portugal, it's all about Silva. His role on the attacking right side of Del Bosque's 4-3-3, a spot from which he can freelance around the entire field and look for room to exploit, will be crucial given that he'd likely match up with Fabio Coentrao, a brilliant wing-back who has shown tendencies to get caught too far upfield.

The weakest link:

Whoever fills the right back spot will be asked to handle Cristiano Ronaldo. Not the easiest of tasks to contain arguably the world's best player on current form, but will it be Alvaro Arbeloa, a functional, ordinary defender? Or will Sergio Ramos be pushed back into his usual perch given his pace and aggression?

Intangibles:

Which is more difficult to handle: The weight of history-in-the-making or the sneaking feeling that this might be Spain's last flourish in this current dynastic form? Also worth considering: La Roja's verging on an all-time Euro record for minutes without conceding a goal. Its last breach was in the 61st minute of its opening Group C game vs. Italy, a run of 299 minutes. The record belongs to Italy, which went 325 minutes at Euro '80.

PORTUGAL

The story so far:

Ronaldo as suddenly reliable national team performer! Finally! That, plus Miguel Veloso's assured play at the base of the 4-3-3, the reliable Bruno Alves-Pepe axis in central defense and Nani's steadily menacing influence, has A Seleccao simmering nicely. Not bad considering its surprisingly comfortable emergence from the Group of Death.

Who will get it done?

Ronaldo has to continue his form thus far. Ten shots and two goals against the Netherlands was followed by eight shots and the game-winner versus the Czech Republic showed his brilliance, but will it be as easy against Spain? Alonso hinted that "there is no anti-Ronaldo plan" while Pedro reckoned that Spain knows "how to neutralize him." Regardless of who is right, CR7 is the key. But some attacking threat from whoever replaces the injured Helder Postiga -- Hugo Almeida, Silvestre Varela or Nelson Oliveira -- would help.

The weakest link:

It could easily be Ronaldo as well. Should he flip that healthy pressure to succeed into the kind of flippant, angry and counterproductive solo play that has made him so frustrating at times in national team colors, Portugal could be in trouble.

Intangibles:

How will manager Paulo Bento opt to tackle Spain's possession game? Will he stick with the quick-strike, flexible formation that got his side this far, or will he flinch like France coach Laurent Blanc and over-think his strategy?

GERMANY

The story so far:

Manager Jogi Low and his squad live the most charmed of lives. Every tactical switch Low made has paid off: Marco Reus, Andre Schurrle and Miroslav Klose did justify the front-line revamp against a stubborn-yet-soft Greek side, while Lars Bender and Lukas Podolski rewarded Low's faith against Denmark with a goal each. What’s more, each game has seen different players rise to the challenge. Where Bastian Schweinsteiger was so dominant in Group B, it was Sami Khedira and a slow-to-get-going Mesut Ozil that carried the side in the quarterfinals.

Furthermore, Mario Gomez is scoring goals; his three strikes lead a high-scoring Die Mannschaft collective that has had seven players on the scoresheet, more than any other team at Euro 2012.

Who will get it done?

Ozil has labored at times to dictate games but has benefited from the strength of his teammates. Against Italy, he ought to be at his inventive best to pry open the second-stingiest backline in the Polkraine.

 

The weakest link:

With Philipp Lahm taking his right-back talents to the other side of defense, there is concern about Jerome Boateng in that spot. He was directly culpable in both goals against Greece in the quarterfinals, allowing Georgios Samaras to get goal-side and turn in Dimitris Salpingidis' low cross before harshly getting called for a handball inside the box for the Galanolefki's late consolation penalty.

Intangibles:

Ignoring the rising hype back home is the biggest challenge. That, and breaking a topsy-turvy 16-year run without a trophy.

ITALY

The story so far:

Shedding the latest match-fixing malaise in Serie A proved to be an easy feat, as did the slew of injuries along the backline. Yet, the Azzurri pressured Spain into a 1-1 draw and, no matter the tactical adjustment, made it to the knockouts with ease. England was, despite the nerve of a penalty shootout, a relatively simple opponent in the quarterfinal. Coach Cesare Prandelli has been a genial, versatile and formidable presence on the sideline. There's plenty of confidence and little fear.

Who will get it done?

Andrea Pirlo is the puppet master in deep midfield, but it'll take more than that to threaten Die Mannschaft's comfortable, fluid 4-2-3-1. I think it'll be the work of Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano (should they start) that has to ruffle Low's bespoke cool on the sideline.

All three Azzurri strikers -- Balotelli, Cassano and Antonio Di Natale -- are in the top 20 for shots taken at Euro 2012 (a combined 42 in four games) and top 10 for shots on target (25 total) yet have only three goals between them.

Against England, they received plenty of service from wide positions yet failed to capitalize. Germany won't give them as many chances.

The weakest link:

Likely fullbacks Ignazio Abate and Federico Balzaretti were tireless in getting upfield and putting pressure on England's flanks, yet showed plenty of early shakiness that the likes of Thomas Muller, Lukas Podolski and Ozil could exploit. Prandelli concedes he'll have to take such risks again.

Intangibles:

Though the Germans will insist it holds no power over them, Italy's record against Die Mannschaft is peerless in World Cup play: the 2006 semifinal win en route to an Italian title, the 1982 World Cup final that ended in another Azzurri trophy, and the seven-goal thriller in 1970 also tipped in Italy's favor.

 

 

 

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