The End Of The Road…
Hello again all. I’ll be honest and admit this tournament I have made some errors in my assessments of team’s relative strengths and weaknesses. I was far too confident on Poland’s chances, and possibly a bit too enthusiastic about France also. On the other side of the coin, I was unfairly critical of the Czech Republic and also possibly overstated Germany’s brilliance somewhat. As with all facets of life, you should learn from your mistakes and I hope that I have learnt something from this tournament. Namely that defence should always be the key area in a tournament side, and sadly it let down Germany when pushed.
The Wednesday night semi-final between Iberian neighbours Portugal and Spain was as tight as most thought it would be. Portugal clearly started the match with the intention to press and harry Spain from as far back as possible, and it looked like it would work for them too. Nani also started the match very well, getting on the end of raking passes from Bruno Alves in particular and then ploughing forward to worry the Spanish defence. The problem for them came in that for all their efforts, there was no-one there to finish the moves off and. Cristiano Ronaldo made some good runs, but he did not have the end product and was as selfish as he often can be. His performance was probably best summed up by his choice to take the last ‘hero’ penalty when if he is the designated taker and captain, he really should have led from the front in my opinion. Nothing was going right for him all night and his team would have been best served by him occasionally laying it on for someone else.
Spain were all at sea in the first half as Portugal’s pressing really seemed to ruffle them and stop them getting into their normal rhythm. The half time break saw Portugal seemingly come back out either tired on determined to simply play for a draw and it gave Spain the initiative. In the second half of normal time they didn’t really take advantage of this, although removing the lumbering Alvaro Negredo for Cesc Fabregas certainly saw them seem much more comfortable getting back to their strikerless formation. Once Jesus Navas was also introduced to add pace and width, it was the start of a period of dominance Spain carried into extra time. They could well have got a goal in extra time were it not for some brilliant defending by the Portugese back four as well as a brilliant save from goalkeeper Rui Patricio from Andres Iniesta. This saw penalties as the decider and Spain held their nerve to progress to yet another major final.
The second semi final last night had Germany taking on their bogey side Italy in Warsaw. Manager Joachim Low should be looking back on some of his decisions in terms of personnel and formation with embarrassment for me. What on earth the point of seeing Miroslav Klose and Marco Reus as their best players against Greece then dropping them to the bench?I have been critical of Mario Gomez before now and I’ll repeat my criticisms again. He is a lumbering, flat-track bully in every sense of the term. In a thrashing he will get you a goal or three, but against an organised defence his complete lack of movement leaves sides as good as down to ten men. Germany were not at their best, but with him as the only man in advanced positions they were never likely to score. After finding themselves two behind at half time both Klose and Reus entered the fray, but it was too late to save the side. The choice to move Mesut Ozil from playmaker after two brilliant performances to accommodate the distinctly average Toni Kroos was also baffling and hopefully Low will be asked serious questions on his return to Germany.
Italy played the same game they did against England, and once again it was enough to see off a very talented German side. The truly amazing thing for me was how presumably the German coaching staff have watched Italy and their only attack seems to be the ball from Andrea Pirlo or Ricardo Montolivo over the top to Mario Balotelli, and yet they were undone by it. The first goal from Balotelli was down to a complete mix up in the German defence allowing him to sneak in and head Italy in front, but the second was a comedy of errors. A simple over the top pass should have been intercepted by Philip Lahm, who instead seemed in about four minds as to what he would do and in the end chose to watch it over his head before forlornly chasing after the forward. The finish from Balotelli was important as he has seemed unwilling to pull the trigger all tournament and that must bode well for the final now. The second half was a masterclass in what the Italians do better than anyone else, hold onto a lead. The back four barely put a foot wrong until the late concession of a penalty by the otherwise excellent Federico Balzaretti. It was too late for Germany though and Italy progressed to meet Spain in Kiev.
Italy v Spain, Sunday 1945
So, we now reach the conclusion of the last three weeks for the final of Euro 2012. Whilst I mentioned Italy as a dark horse I am surprised to see them make the final, but they’ve deserved it. You could criticise other sides for not making more of an effort to shut down Andrea Pirlo and therefore stop their most creative talent, but they haven’t and Italy have taken full advantage. There is probably also something to be said for Daniele De Rossi’s role as a marauding defensive midfielder, performing the protector role Gennaro Gattuso performed for so many years with distinction. The removal of the ineffective Thiago Motta for Ricardo Montolivo in the last two matches has also seen a better all round performance. Motta is a very effective defensive midfielder, but Cesare Prandelli’s choice to almost play him as a trequartista in the group stages looked as flawed on paper as it proved on the pitch. Montonlivo plays naturally for Fiorentina in a more advanced position and has added another option for the Italian defence to play through looking for the forwards Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano.
These two have formed an impressive partnership in the knockout games against England and Germany with Balotelli playing as a target man of sorts and Cassano having a free role to roam behind and pull the opposition defences around as much as he can. This was all too apparent against Germany where he opened up all manner of gaps for Baloteeli to exploit, as he did perfectly for his second goal. I have been called up on my criticism of his seeming unwillingness to pull the trigger in previous matches, but he let go against Germany and got a brace to put him in a confident mood for the final. As for the defence, it’s like the old saying goes ‘There are only three things in life you can count on, death, taxes and a resolute Italian back four’. Joking aside, they were immense against a Germany side whose attackers had looked so impressive in most other matches. The return of Giorgio Chiellini to the starting line-up certainly aided them, as his organisation and experience were key in keeping the German’s at bay. They definitely looked a lot more stable in defence than when they gifted England a few early chances in his absence. Having Chiellini and Balotelli fit and in form cannot be overstated in it’s importance for the final on Sunday.
Spain have come in for criticism in this tournament for sticking with a style of play that certainly brings results for them, but at the expense of any real entertainment for the neutral. Many have been calling for a traditional forward to start for Spain and provide more cut and thrust and it seemed Vicente Del Bosque relented to the pressure and started Sevilla’s Alvaro Negredo against Portugal. Having seen him lumber around and have the ball bounce off him for the first half it was no great surprise to see Cesc Fabregas brought on at half time and Spain revert back to their nominal 4-6-0 formation for the second period. This, coupled with Portugal abandoning their high pressure tactics, saw Spain gradually get into the game and assert their usual dominance of possession. Whilst they still didn’t look particularly likely to score in normal time, they controlled the game to the extent Portugal were never going to. It is this almost anaesthatising of matches that makes them liable to criticism from neutrals. I am definitely in the camp that says they would like to see them go for the goals more, but it is incredibly hard to argue with a style of play that has them on the cusp of a unique hat-trick of tournament wins in a row.
It is up to the opposition to beat them in reality, and as yet no-one has established a system to beat them. Their pressurising of the ball will presumably put the pressure on Pirlo that England and Germany failed to do and it will be up to De Rossi and Montolivo to provide enough support to get him the time to pick his passes. Whilst Jordi Alba and Sergio Ramos have had good tournaments in defence for Spain, although they have mostly been praised for their attacking play. Gerard Pique came into the tournament off the back of a dreadful season for Barcelona and I think he is there to be gotten at by Balotelli. I think having seen Portugal limit Spain to just a couple of chances, the organised Italian defence should be able to do the same. In the group match between the two Italy showed they could create chances and with Balotelli on the back of a man of the match performance against Germany I think Spain are there for the taking.
Lay Spain at 2.2 on Betfair.
Back Both Teams To Score at 2.3 with BetVictor.
Back Mario Balotelli To Score Anytime at 3.75 with SportingBet.