Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Euro Thoughts Part 5: The Quarterfinals


I watched 2 of the Quarter Finals in the comfort of my home (Portugal vs. Czech Republic & Germany vs. Greece) and the next 2 (Spain vs. France & England vs. Italy) in a hotel lounge in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It’s interesting to note that the football matches paired up nicely with the viewing experience that I had for each one.

Portugal 1 Czech Republic 0: Ronaldo should change his Jersey number to ‘20’
Let’s face it, the entire world, save for the Czechs themselves fancied none other than Portugal to win this one. Perhaps the surprise was from the fact that it turned out only to be a 1-0 win for the Portuguese. The level of dominance of Portugal however was not reflected on the scoreline. Except, for the opening exchanges of the game where the Czechs managed to blunt Portugal, it was all Portugal from there.
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The most notable point to the game would have to be once again, Cristiano Ronaldo’s performance. Starting out as an ‘11’ (Left Winger), Ronaldo drifted freely between his starting position as an ‘11’ to the ‘10’ position (playmaker – where he funneled some great balls forward) and further on as a ‘9’ (center forward – where he scored from). 11 + 10 + 9 = 20. Ronaldo was all over the pitch and offered Portugal the ‘attacking platform’ in the final third that they had been lacking all along.
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Kudos must also go to Ronaldo’s ‘supporting cast’: Joao Moutinho whose driving runs from deep midfield gave Portugal that additional presence in the final third which Portugal needed, Coentrao who has been the tournament’s best left back so far, and Miguel Veloso, for shielding the back 4 superbly. Ditto for the 2 center backs who have been a rock for Portugal (also the best CB pairing in the tournament) thus far.
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Praise must also go to Paulo Bento. Portugal have talent, but not at the level of the powerhouses of the tournement (Spain, Germany, Netherlands, or even France) - with their talent pretty much only going XI deep (i.e. they don't have quality on their bench to match their starters like the powerhouse teams). As such, they resemble a club side aspiring for a top 4 position in a big European League. They have a clear approach and strategy in the way they play too. Praise must go to the vertically-challenge Paulo Bento for that. He's built the team around the strengths of his best player (Ronaldo) and has accordingly adjusted the team shape based on the tournament's needs (i.e letting Ronaldo roam diagonally forward to operate occasionally as a '10' or a '9' in game situations - to compensate for their lack of an 'attacking platform' in the final third). 
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Verdict: The Czechs should not hang their heads. For a team that weren’t fancied to get past their group, they did very well. It must also be noted that they played without their creative fulcrum against Portugal (Rosicky) and that they faced a Portugal: a team built around the best individual player of the tournament who himself is gaining momentum and confidence and has just been absolutely unstoppable. For Portugal, who face Spain next, it will be interesting to see if Ronaldo can manage to find the back of his club captain’s net from what will surely only be the 1-2 (3 at most) chances he will get against them.
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Germany 4 – Greece 2 (Die Mannschaft deny the Greeks any hope of a Footballing Bailout)
If the Greeks thought that the 3 changes Joachim Low made to their attacking line (Gomez, Muller and Podolski made way for Klose, Reus and Schurrle) was some form of "footballing bailout", they were dead wrong. I watched this match on the day of my early flight to Malaysia and it duly woke me up for my weekend trip. The Germans showed the world that they are outright terrifying. Set amidst the grim economic backdrop of the European political-economy, the match between the Germans and the Greeks showed that the Germans were just as efficient and merciless (perhaps even more so) even with their ‘second choice’ players.
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Klose offered great movement upfront, while Reus and Schurrle’s pace matched their eagerness, aggressiveness with the midfield trio’s (Schweinstieger, Khedira & Ozil) snappi-ness to tear Greece apart. How defensively the Greeks played or how deeply they sat made absolutely no difference. Irrespective of his well-taken goal, I fancied Reus more than Schurrle – as the latter was clearly more anxious and prone to bad decision-making than the former.
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Verdict: Like the Czechs, the Greeks ought to be proud of themselves for reaching the quarters. Also missing a key player (Karagounis), they were simply no match to the firepower and the peerless slick-ness of the Germans. The Germans on the other hand will be pleased with the outcome of this ‘experiment’ heading into the Italy game. Facing an Italy who will only offer width through their fullbacks, Germany’s ‘alternatives’ displayed the kind of incisiveness on the flanks that can undo the Italians. Low must speak to his midfield though and ensure that they do not repeat the farcical error that England committed against Italy – allowing Pirlo to do what he wanted (which was to basically run the game). Ozil, who is notorious for his lack of defensive effort and must be warned of this. All in all, I continue to fancy the Germans to win the tournament
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Spain 2 – France 0: Xabi Alonso’s moment in the Sun
I took in the match at 2:45am in my hotel’s lounge bar with a couple of beers and a bowl of tidbits. Even before asking me what I wanted to drink, the bartender asked me who I was cheering for. I remarked that I wasn’t really cheering for anyone but wanted to see how my Real Madrid boys would do – and that I did think that Spain would be heavy favorites. He then confessed to me that he had put money into France winning (curiously, he was wearing a Germany kit). ‘Say Good bye to your money’ I thought to myself.
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Soon enough, Jordi Alba raced down the touchline and delivered a cross that had me thinking ‘who the hell was that for?’ Xabi Alonso would then appear in the penalty box with a late run to head it in. The header itself looked a bit awkward – but it was certainly good enough to beat Lloris. Laurent Blanc’s fear of the Spanish attack from the left side came true. He prepared for it too – with Debuchy fronting Revelliere on the French Right Flank… but it was for naught. Revelliere was worried about Iniesta of course, whom he joined in the middle of the park – allowing Jordi Alba to get past the equally attack-minded Debuchy for the cross. I yelled ‘France! Gone already!’ at the bartender. ‘Can still win lah!’ he retorted at me. ‘Yeah right!’ I said quietly. It was 19 minutes into the game – what makes you think France will ever touch the ball again for the rest of the game?
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France were awful. A Portuguese friend would later remark on Facebook that he had no idea how France even deserved to get out of their group. He was right. The French were bereft of ideas and had no creativity in midfield. In front of Yann M’Vila (who impressed me with the ‘clarity’ of his play), Ribery made his runs of course, but there was little else. Cabaye knows how to pass a ball, but doesn’t know how to create, organize a midfield or set up / dictate the tempo of a game. And so, Benzema dropped deeper and deeper – making runs, making passes, attempting 1-2s. But who was going to play with him? Who was going to give him the ball to shoot and score? Where was his Ozil? His Zidane? Zidane’s retired of course… and Ozil plays for the Germans.
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Then for the rest of the match, Spain did what Spain now likes to do – bore the living fuck out of all of us. They passed the ball aimlessly about for the rest of the game, lacking incisiveness and sharpness. I will admit this: I literally dozed off a couple of times in my seat in that bar, beer in hand, watching Spain play. I woke up a few times asking myself if I should play ‘Plants vs. Zombies’ on my phone to wake myself up. Spain are being found out in this tournament (just as Barca was this past season): without Messi, they’re not the exciting prophets of beautiful football that they claim to be.
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Instead, they are functional, obsessed with control and predictable (but effective). Except of course that they don’t use John Terry-like heroics to do so (i.e. throw himself in front of shots), or Roy Hodgson ‘2 banks of 4’ tactics. Their method of control is possession and passing. Don’t get me wrong – it’s clearly a display of superior technical ability, skill and tactical awareness of their teammates’ movements. But is it attractive and exciting? I certainly don’t think so. And so it begs the question: if this obsession with possession and passing is merely a method of controlling a match (the Spanish means to offset their lack of physicality to use their technical ability control a match), then why are many of the masters of this technical brand of functional football the ones who pontificate about football like it was some form of morality? (I’m talking about you Xavi).
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I take my rewards from this game from Real Madrid's Xabi Alonso - it was a night of milestones for him: his 100th cap, he had 90% passing accuracy for the game and scored 2 goals - he also reportedly lost 6 kilos in the match. Oh and by the way, I don't care if Laurent Kocielny thinks it's harder to play against their 'false 9', I still dislike this 4-6-0 formation. 
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Verdict: I still rate the Spanish as the favorites to go through to the final, but I sincerely believe that both the Portuguese and Germans have seen enough to fancy their chances against them. Spain's quality is overwhelmingly superior - but their football is ponderous and predictable. They will be prone to moments of vulnerability to teams who can create lighting-quick transitions in the ebb and flow of the game: the specialties of both Portugal and Germany. Having said that, it will not surprise me to see them win their third consecutive major international title. 
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Italy 0 - England 0 (Italy wins 4-2 on Penalties): The Andrea Pirlo Show
It was my last night in Malaysia, and the lounge was packed with England fans (likely blind followers of the EPL) except for a middle-aged Italian couple sitting behind me. The lady was blonde and the man had red-ish hair - prompting me to suspect him to be British. I asked them who they were cheering for. The man looked at me puzzled: 'Italia!' he belted out with pride as if to tell me: 'who else would I ever cheer for you jackass?' I appeased him with 'I want Italy to win too'.
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For the first time, I genuinely enjoyed watching an Italian National Team play. And for the first time also: i really, really believed that England were shit. The England teams of the past had good players (some great) who just couldn't gel into a cohesive unit. This team, however was just utter rubbish - and how they played the game showed it. They did absolutely NOTHING. They were shit in attack, they were shit in defense (with only Joe Hart and Italy's profligacy in front of goal to thank their clean sheet for) and tactically - they were as dumb as a brick.
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It's not uncommon for one team in an international tournament whose play would be defined and dictated by one maestro midfielder. For this Euro 2012, that team is Italy. It's also common in such tournaments that such a team would eventually get found out when their opponents devise a tactical strategy to shut this player down (as done to Argentina's Riquelme in the 2006 World Cup). I have NO IDEA why Roy Hodgson never picked up on Croatia's idea, an OFFENSIVE move no less, to shut Pirlo down by pushing Mondric up the pitch to shadow the italian master. Hodgson instead naively believed that their 2 banks of 4 were enough to do the job. Italy may have failed to score a goal before penalties were necessary - but Andrea Pirlo completely tore England apart and put on a clinic in passing that would have put Xavi 'Mr. Horizontal Pass' to shame. 
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Pirlo won the penalty mind games for Italy too. Joe Hart's cheeky demeanor during the shoot out was clearly a ploy to unnerve the Italians. You might say that his smirks, growls and naughty grins might actually have worked to unnerve Montolivo to miss his penalty. The Italian man behind me walked away and headed to the toilet when Montolivo missed. He came out of the gent's after Rooney successfully converted his penalty. His wife reported this to him "Rooney scored his penalty" (she must have said in Italian - I only understood the 'Rooney' part). "It's fucking Wayne Rooney - of course he's going to make the penalty!" was what he probably yelled back to her (once again I only understood 'Wayne Rooney' from what he said). He didn't go back to his seat. He stood in front instead, leaning practically crouched on the bar counter. 
Pirlo was up next. He executed his 'Panenka' perfectly. I chuckled and laughed out loud. The cheekiness and audacity of Pirlo was a clear message to mock Joe Hart and his scare tactics (it might have even deflated the English's confidence and boosted the Italians'). Ashley Young's miss to the crossbar had me bursting into laughter again... and when Ashley Cole took his place to shoot, the TV announcer had pointed out that he was left-footed - I instantly imagined him powering the shot to the right (rather than side-footing it left. He was a left back after all so I didn't bet on him opting for a side footed finesse shot). Buffon was apparently thinking the same thing. His save was perfect. And just as Diamante converted his penalty, the Italian lady behind me stood up, turned around and yelled 'DiamantEEEH!' in her declarative Italian-accented tone at the England-supporting fans sitting behind her who were mocking her earlier every time she yelled out the Italian #22's name when he missed a chance to score. They kept quiet.
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I turned around to congratulate the couple for their country's win, shaking both their hands. I can only imagine how they feel - as my country will probably need another 100-200 years to be in a World Cup and then to win a Quarterfinal match. I will never understand their emotions but I was happy to witness their joy. As I stepped back into the lift to head back to my hotel room, all I could think of was Andrea Pirlo - what a bloody fucking amazing player.
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Onto the Semis
It's been an amazing tournament so far. And we have a truly-deserving Final Four. The defending Champions who are clearly head and shoulders the best team in the world (Spain), the most exciting, dynamic, energetic and young team in Europe (Germany), a rock-solid team built around Europe's best player (Portugal) and a traditional juggernaut who have shed their reputation as masters of football's dark arts and are keen to embrace their new identity as Europe's most tactically dynamic team (Italy). The next few days will be unbelievable.

2 comments:

  1. Right, cuz we can take a guy who calls himself "Madridista" Mac seriously on Xavi's passing ability. LOL.

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  2. I've never questioned his passing ability. The man can pass - mostly horizontally and backwards... compare it to Pirlo vs. England.

    I've never questioned his ability though - just his idiotic pontificating about 'beautiful football'

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