Thursday, 21 June 2012

Euro 2012 roundtable #11: Scoring is a Good Way to Avoid Defeat

Euro 2012 Roundtables

Gav: I have discovered that I'm not very good at concentrating on two matches and Twitter and internet forums all at the same time. I think my senses went into overload during the last matches of the group stage. I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere, somewhere on a sofa in Estonia. I ended up watching one match, only to be distracted by the second match and miss most of the best action.


Jon: Big news pre-game was that Rosicky’s Achilles injury had kept him out of the game, greatly diminishing the Czech’s ability to control the game and perhaps draw the sting from the Poles. For the Poles Tyton was rewarded for his penalty heroics and his solid showing against Russia by retaining his place ahead of the returning Szczesny. 

Once again both sides looked to attack down the right hand side, little surprise given their attacking strengths lie down that side (the adventurous Gebre Selassie providing the width for the Czechs and the Borussia Dortmund duo of Piszczek and Blaszczykowski the main impetus for the Poles. As with their opening match the Poles made all the running early on but not testing Cech, hitting the side netting three times. Lewandowski’s overhead kick was the pick of the bunch but it's bloody difficult to score if you don't put the ball between those white sticks. Hit the target chaps, Cech’s had what’s best described as a nightmare so far. 

The second half was a story of Czech Republic pressure and desperate Polish resistance, a succession of free kicks around the area coming to nothing with only one fine, reflex save from Tyton to show for it. Inevitably the relentless Czech pressure subsided and the Poles began to tentatively venture forward. What followed was an illustration of the danger of the only marginally forward pass being intercepted your defence is likely to be caught flat with little time to react. Baros charged at the Poles but his lay off to Jiracek left him plenty to do. Wasilewski made the classic mistake of diving in, Jiracek danced inside and coolly slid the ball home. Heartbreaking for the Poles but the point remains that they had yet to muster anything that called Cech into more than routine action. And it stayed that way almost to the end, Baros blowing a good chance to kill the game. Wasilewski headed over for Poland, but was offside. The last few seconds demonstrated the importance of fine margins in knockout competitions, Blaszczykowski beating Cech but not Kadlec. His headed clearance off the line guaranteed him national hero status and with the ball cleared by any means necessary the Czechs were through. Knockout tournaments turn on the finest of margins and here the Czechs were through by a matter of mere inches. 

The Poles will go down as fine hosts, an obviously limited team endearing themselves to neutrals with enthusiasm and a willingness to attack and giving the tournament its outstanding moment so far with Blaszczykowski’s equaliser. My head says that their exit is a good thing as they’d struggle to compete in the knockout stages but my heart tells me otherwise and football is often more about the head than the heart. Smuda resigned in the aftermath of the game, he may not have been quite wily enough to outfox the opposition but will leave many more kindly disposed to his country.

Michael: Poland huffed and puffed throughout the tournament, but were unable to break teams down. It would take about six chances for one goal. They would also fail to build on a lead, and visibly tire out in the second half of matches. Added together, it was a recipe for disaster. The Polish team were a work in progress, there is flashes of brilliance all over the side, but they lacked that final touch between them to become really special. Though there is still time. The Czechs astounded me in qualifying for the tournament in the playoffs, having looked hideous in both games against Scotland. They’ve now bettered one of many peoples picks to be the dark horses for the Cup. In Pilar and Jiracek, they have two fine players that slipped under the radar of most, and without whom the Czechs would have gone home. Both have gone to Wolfsburg for next season, along with Mandzukic, for little over 12 million euros, in what is already shaping up to be the bargain buy of 2012. Pilar missed a chance in this game earlier on he should have done better from, which would have settled the Czechs, though to be fair to them, they never really looked unsettled in the match, and that is a big reason why they are in the Quarterfinals. The other stand out for the Czechs has been Selassie, pointed out in the Group A preview by Joao, who bombs down the wing like a young Dani Alves. 

Joao Diogo Reis: 

Poland was very offensive in the beginning of the first game: 4-2-3-1, with Lewandowski as striker and Blaszczykowski, Obraniak and Rybus behind him, and Polanski and Murawski as the central midfield duo.
Things started to go well for them, 1-0 at half time, and in numerical advantage.
But then it all started to fall apart, big mistake by Szczesny gave Greece the equalizer. And then he was sent off some minutes later and Poland lost the numerical advantage they had.
It came from where the people least expected it, Szczesny was supposed to be one of the team’s strongest links.
But with the fall of one hero, a new hero was born. Tyton saved the penalty kick and got 1 point for Poland.

In the second game, Poland was already “afraid”. Russia smashed the Czech Republic in the previous round, while Poland couldn’t defeat Greece.
An extra central midfielder was added (Dudka), Rybus was dropped and Obraniak was pushed to the left wing.
It “worked”, Poland managed to stop Russia, they couldn’t win yet, but a draw against what seemed the strongest team in the group looked like a good result.

But then, in the last game, the circumstances were completely different.
Poland wasn’t playing to stop “mighty Russia” anymore; they should be playing to defeat the Czech Republic.
But Smuda decided to use exactly the same strategy that “worked” against Russia. Only that this time, it didn’t worked.

Poland’s elimination is natural. This is the Euro Cup, not the African Nations Cup. I always saw Poland & Ukraine more like Austria & Switzerland 4 years ago, than as Equatorial Guinea & Gabon some months ago.

I was only disappointed that Sobiech hasn’t played a single minute, and that Smuda preferred veteran Pawel Brozek. He was a super sub for Hannover in the Europa League this season, perhaps he could have been the same for Poland.

With the expansion to 24 teams in 2016, Poland’s chances to qualify in the future, and also to progress from the group stages when they qualify, will rise.

The Czech Republic’s changes for the second game were very successful: Hubnik out, Kadlec from the left side of defense to the center, and Limbersky as left back… and in midfield, Hubschman for defensive midfielder, with Jiracek having a more offensive role and Rezek out.
So, congratulations to Michal Bilek for improving his team, congratulations for being the first Czech team since 2004 that progressed from the group stages (they haven’t even qualified to 2010!).

Pawel: Why have we lost? I find the reason in inabiliy of scoring goals. Either against Greece, or against the Czech Republic we had quite a lot of opportunities to score a few goals in the first half. Something lacked.
Well. we should have got accustomed.

However, I am not completely disappointed. All Polish games were interesting. The team was able to create quite a lot opportunities. It was not a drama to watch our team. It was something new in comparison to our performances in 2002, 2006 and 2008.

Now, the coach Smuda is going to quit. He has already declared it just after the match. He clearly failed in building a team that could win matches. In September the qualifications for World Cup 2014 will start. We will play against England this autumn (and Montenegro and Moldova). We'll see if a new coach will continue Smuda's work or will start to build a new team. My opinion is that the team has got a potential to be better. Though, I wouldn't expect good results in the coming matches. Maybe next year.

If we are disappointed, what must Russians feel? They were clearly considered as favourites at least after their victory over the Czechs. And the Czechs took tha first position in the group and Russians are out.


Jon: Oh, those Russians… 

You win that first game 4-1, making those of us who thought you were a decent bet for the tournament look good. And then the arrogance of heightening the atmosphere around the Poland game bites you on the backside. And then… 

If nothing else you have to give the Greeks immense credit for their resilience. A man and a goal down in the opening game they came back and should have won, then a frustrating defeat to the Czechs caused essentially by the absence of both first choice centre halves and yet they still found the resilience to secure qualification. 

I can’t comment on the story of the game properly – as is the way of things with the final group games I focus on one game and watch the other one on the highlights show later. You can get a rough idea of how a game went from highlights but, as with all abridgements, the impressions you get are subject to distortion. From the chunks I saw this seemed to be largely a story of missed chances for Russia, one early Malafeev save aside. Of course, football being football there tends to be a punishment for not taking chances. Zhirkov failed to deal with a through ball giving Karagounis the chance to slip the ball under Malafeev. The low shot close to the body is never easy for a keeper so I have some sympathy for the Russian keeper who may look something of a fool to the naked eye. 

Dick Advocaat made the change he should have a game and a half earlier and took Kerzhakov off at halftime. To say it hadn’t been his tournament was understating the case.

The game’s most contentious moment came when Karagounis danced through the Russian defence before going down as Ignasevich came in to challenge him. Karagounis was clearly upset by not being awarded a penalty – I prefer to praise the referee for not giving it. Ignasevich was foolish in putting in a challenge as Karagounis went past him but I’m equally not fond of the forward deliberately leaving their foot trailing to guarantee contact. To my mind the forward’s initiated the contact and while there’s a case that the defender’s clumsiness is worthy of equal punishment it’s clear gamesmanship. Can you tell that I’m a defender at heart? Still, as most referees will give the penalty you can understand Karagounis’ disappointment. It’s also doubly heartbreaking for him to be out of the first knockout game and possibly miss the opportunity of breaking Theo Zagorakis’ Greek appearance record. Sensibly, the still emotional Karagounis was substituted shortly afterwards.

Russia had more chances, but Dzagoev was amongst the culprits who missed their chances. Their campaign essentially falls into two halves around the halftime whistle in the Poland game, the first featuring five goals to one and some wonderful football, the second no goals for and two against. If I were Dick Advocaat I wouldn’t be heading back to Russia before going to PSV, that Mr Putin won’t be too happy!

As a coda, I hear Andrei Arshavin has told the fans that it’s their fault if the team didn’t meet their expectations. Charming chap who should probably remember that it might be fine saying that if they’d been in a group with the likes of Spain or the Portugese, but failing to qualify from a group where they’re the best pure football team is a moment for hubris rather than arrogance.

And so we reach the halfway point in the tournament with two teams already gone home. Well, the Poles were already at home but you know what I mean…

Joao Diogo Reis: Compared to the second games, lots of changes in Greece’s team: Sifakis on goal instead of Chalkias; Sokratis back to the center of defense, with Katsouranis back to the midfield and Fotakis relegated to the subs bench, Tzavellas was the left back instead of Holebas, and Gekas played instead of Fortounis.
Russia only changed one player compared to the first two games, Glushakov played instead of Zyrianov.

The Czech Republic only changed one player, Kolar instead of Rosicky.
And Poland played with the same team.

In the 45th minute, following a throw in, Ignashevich had a beginner’s mistake, headed the ball and opened a corridor to Karagounis, who promptly took the opportunity and scored Greece’s goal!

By doing so, it was his redemption from the missed penalty kick against Poland in the opening game, and placed Greece in a qualifying position to the quarter finals.
Russia, despite the defeat, was also in a qualifying position, as long as the other game remained tied.

The temporary table at half time was:
1. Russia 4 points
2. Greece 4
3. Czech Republic 4
4. Poland 3

In the top 3 mini-league, Russia had a goal difference of +2, Greece 0, and the Czech Republic -2.

With Greece defeating Russia, a draw against Poland no longer suited the Czech Republic’s interests, and in the 72nd minute, Murawski lost the ball in midfield to Hubschman, who launched a counter-attack, passed it to Baros who waited for Jiracek’s support and passed him the ball, he dribbled Wasilewski and then, with his right foot, shot into Tyton’s goal.

The Czech Republic jumped to Group A’s first place, and now Russia, leveled on points only with Greece, fell to the third place.

1. Czech Republic 6 points
2. Greece 4
3. Russia 4
4. Poland 2

In Greece vs. Russia, while in the other game there was a Czech goal that complicated Russia’s situation, a free kick by Tzavellas where the ball hit the post almost gave Greece the second goal.

The closest that Russia was from qualification was when a Blaszczykowski’s shot that would tie Czech Republic vs. Poland was intercepted close to the goal line by Kadlec.

Extraordinary qualifications for the Czech Republic and Greece!
The Czech Republic started Euro 2012 losing 4-1 against Russia but ended up winning Group A.
Greece resisted to red cards, disallowed goals, missed penalty kicks, injuries… and got its first win in a Euro since Euro 2004 final.
Russia was the opposite of the Czech Republic, a great start, was also leading against Poland at half time but ended up drawing that game, and now lost the last one and was eliminated.
Poland, despite playing at home, just like in 2008 couldn’t win a single game.

Greece qualified. I expected them to qualify, but not like they did it. I expected them to win the first two games, and to qualify alongside Russia, not instead of Russia.

Fernando Santos took more time to correct the mistakes in his team, only for the third game he finally played without Holebas and with Tzavellas instead.
(A fellow former) also pointed out Chalkias (Mr. Bean lookalike) as a weak spot, and for this game Sifakis started.
And perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was the first win and the first clean sheet.
Karagounis’ suspension for the quarters is a problem, but Holebas’ suspension is a blessing. He is a strong candidate for the worst team of the tournament.

I thought I wrote in pre-tournament comments that Russia had the “best coach”… Now I check and I only wrote “the most experienced coach”. It isn’t the same thing. So now this won’t be a 180 degrees turn:
Russia had the worst coach, not only from Group A, but (perhaps) in the entire tournament.

Dick Advocaat is so stupid! Hidden behind Zenit’s UEFA Cup, there are 4 eliminations in the CL groups under 3 different teams, there’s also South Korea’s elimination in the 2006 WC groups (in the previous and in the following editions they were much better), and now this elimination with Russia.
He tried to take a ride in Spalletti’s work, and bring as much Zenit as he could to Russia.
He clearly brought way too much.
That isn’t even training, that’s stealing someone else’s job and present as his’.

Kerzhakov is a useless forward. He started the first game and was a disaster; Pavlyuchenko came in and was a lot better. Then he started again in the second game, this time Pavlyuchenko couldn’t save them anymore when he came in. And in the third game, again Kerzhakov starting, Pavlyuchenko only replaced him at half time.

Then there is Arshavin, the Russian Cristiano Ronaldo. He managed to spend the entire qualification plus the three group stage games without scoring a single goal… and without ever losing his place in the team.
He is the “assists guy”, some will say. Well, now he will assist the rest of the tournament sitting in a sofa.

With an attacking trio where two guys don’t score goals, only Dzagoev had a good performance. He scored 3 goals in 3 matches, and was one of the few Russian players to leave Euro 2012 with an enhanced reputation.

Once again Russia was a farce. They want everybody to think that Euro 2008, “semifinalist”, “top 4”, is their true place, but it’s not. Before that there are multiple failures to qualify to tournaments (2006, 2000, and 1998) or group stage eliminations when they get there (2004, 2002, 1996, and 1994). And after that, more of the same!

Michael: Since this result, people have been asking: why head to head? Why not use goal difference to separate sides? Well, they DID once upon a time, but a variety of teams used that to earn dodgy qualifications (Spain 12-1 Malta, Argentina 6-0 Peru, the Germany/Austria game, and shamed as I am to admit it, a 10-1 defeat for Thistle that kept their opponents up on goal difference.)

So head to head is seen as less likely to be fixed, as it depends directly on the results between the two opponents.

Greece nearly conceded within the first minute, but just about managed to fluff the chance clear. That set the tempo for what was to become an astonishingly exciting 90 minutes. We knew Greece were through with a win regardless, and they seemed to know also. Greece could have scored early on, Karagounis shot was going into the net but for a finger tip save from Malafeev. From the resulting corner, Russia had to clear the ball off the line, and for the first time in the tournament, you sensed an uneasiness about Russia’s coronation into the Quarterfinals. Greece were going for it.

Anyukov had to leave the pitch for a head injury, while in the other game Poland missed about a dozen chances in the opening ten minutes. Back in Warsaw, Kerzakhov had a shot and missed. No shock there. Mario Gomez was showing what confidence does for a player. The problem was, so was Kerzakhov! Russia broke with speed though, the ball peppering the Greek box like it was operated by a pinball wizard. Torosidis knocked it out for a corner, an inch to the right and he’d had scored an own goal. Greece had been all over Russia in the opening half hour, but Russia’s counter attacks were faster than lightning. There was no telling who could hit the first big punch. Arshavin missed a good chance, and Maniatis went down to a nasty challenge, but was up hobbling soon after and completed the match.

The pivotal moment came with the last kick of the first half. Karagounis swept past the defence, and curled a low shot past Malafeev. The Russian keeper ought to have done more, but couldn’t stop the shot. And to be fair, Greece deserved it.

I love groups like this. Every goal is fatal. It’s like Survival Sunday!

Russia piled on the pressure in the second half, shot after shot. Frantic defending: hoofs, last ditch tackles, diving forward to kick away the ball. It was Alamo stuff in the Greek penalty area. And then out of the blue, Greece had the best chance of the second half. Lovely work by Torosidis to get around the defenders on the edge of the touchline, and he floated a clever ball into the area. Gekas connected with a fine shot, only for a Russian defender to chip it over his own bar at the last moment.

Then came a moment of infamy. Karagounis, outstanding, swept past four players like it was nothing. He got into the box, was clear, and was taken down by the defender. The referee, who had a bad game, gave the Greek captain a yellow card. Karagounis was furious, yelling at everyone. He was still yelling when the game kicked off again. You could see him crying to the referee: “Why would I dive? I was CLEAN through!” Certainly, I don’t think he believed he dived, and the card had gotten to him mentally, as Santos wisely substituted him a few minutes later. Now I certainly don’t believe it was a dive. If anything, momentum catches up on both players, and the slightest knock sends you down. You don’t need a weak ankle like me to know that. I do believe that sometimes things happen in the box and it is neither a foul or a dive, that sometimes clumsiness or miscordination happens, but referees seem to think it is a black and white issue when there are shades of grey. Whilst I can agree there was no foul, I certainly don’t think there was dive either.

Karagounis got a massive ovation from the fans, and handshakes from everyone on the Greek bench. And rightfully so. After errors in the first match – missing the crucial penalty noteably – he had atoned by standing up to be counted and scoring the goal here. He had led a captains example.

The decisions that were going against Greece in this tournament were beginning to get me fully on their side. Which is something I never felt possible as recently as some dull World cup matches.

At this time, Jiracek scored in the other game, and you could tell Russia knew, as they raised their tempo immediately. Dzagoev missed a bag load of chances, picking the worst possible time to have his lesser match of the tournament. Zhirkov blatantly dived in the box, and the referee compounded his earlier error by merely scowling at the Russian.

The ball skived across the Russian goal, but no one was on the end of it, Russia broke forward but gave away a free kick. It was a hard game to take your eyes off, Russia threatened to lose their temper in a big way. From a corner, a Russian chance floated over the bar instead of in. A golden chance. Then Dzagoev got the header that he would have scored 100 times out of 100, and yet he missed it. It was beginning to seem like it was not to be for Russia. They still had a chance, not on their own merit, but Kadlec heading Blas’s 92nd minute drive off the line for the Czechs was a tournament saving lunge.

The final whistle went, and there was Greek derilium. And it was hard to begrudge them their joy. Everything that could go wrong in a tournament – red cards, serious injuries, refereeing decisions – had went against them. They’d lost almost half their defensive lineup to injury and suspension. They went behind in both their opening matches. The only thing left to do was to attack at will and see what happened. To qualify from that situation is beyond commendable. And they absolutely deserved it.

People will look at the result and mutter about boring Greece. Far from it. At the start of these Roundtables, I asked if Greece/Poland would rival the game we dare not mention. Instead, Greece have become the Czech Republic, and the Czech Republic have become Greece! The Greeks are full of talent: Torosidis, Salpingidis , Ninis, the ever green Karagounis, who can turn games. With better luck this could have ended a 3-0 or even 3-2 win for Greece. Well deserving.

Gav: I would love to do the groups in reverse order, but I can’t. I’ll start at the start, with group A. Lets try and remember what I said for the group A preview. What was it? Ah yes, there it is “Czech Republic will top the group with ease.” Yay! I was spot on with my prediction. Not that amazing really, presumably everyone knew the Czech’s would do it? Right?

Ok, so they didn’t quite top the group with ease, but that’s because they didn’t employ Pekhart nearly as much as they should have done.

Also, what the hell happened to Russia? After the first match it looked like they could’ve gone all the way. Some people were saying that beating the Czechs was hardly a benchmark of quality but considering the Czechs went on to top the group you have to wonder what happened to Russia.

Michael: I fully admit that with all my interest and knowledge in the European game, Group A just made me look a right fool 

But I'm glad it did.

Football is so wonderfully unpredictable, its part of the spirit and ethos of the game.


Gav: And the fool ended up looking a genius! 

Michael: And so, our Roundtables have become King Lear. 

Denmark 1-2 Germany 

Gav: I believe I said Portugal were most likely to go home but they defied all odds (well, the odds in my head) to make it through to the quarters. Not too shabby, I guess. I don’t particularly like Portugal, I have a similar level of dislike for them as I do for the Netherlands but I’m really pleased to see that Denmark actually finished above them. Kudos for anyone who predicted Netherlands would be going home with 0 points, I certainly didn’t see that one coming. 

Keld: It was another decent performance. After the first twenty minutes of German raids, we more or less kept them away for the remainder of the match. Of course that huge defensive performance meant that we had almost no power to initiate attacks ourselves, and Jakob Poulsen just missed our greatest chance of the game. Unfortunately the Germans scored just after we realized that we had to get a goal as no help was coming from the Dutch side. We lost the quarter final spot in the last five minutes against Portugal, but this was another encouraging game for us.

This team is rather young and will be able to play for several years to come. The only exception might be Dennis Rommedahl, who was, followed closely by Christian Eriksen, probably our worst player at this tournament. The core of the side: Agger, Kjær, Kvist, Zimling, Eriksen, and Bendtner will remain intact, and hopefully improve. The qualification for Brazil begins soon, ad we're in a rather tough group. EURO12 quarter finalists Italy and Czech Republic, and tricky teams Bulgaria and Armenia. We start out against the Czechs at home in September; possibly without the famous betting promoter Nicklas Bendtner.

Jon: I mentioned fine margins in the Group A musings, here was another demonstration. The table will tell you Germany won three games out of three and their qualification will look fairly assured in the record books. But how close were Germany to the precipice of elimination? Extremely close – they were dependent on the good graces of the referee. With quarter of an hour left Bendtner was clean through and whilst he managed to get a somewhat weak shot away it was evident that Badstuber had him off balance with an unsubtle tug of his shirt. A mere four minutes later the Germans effectively sealed their passage, Ozil sliding the ball to the back post for Bender to scuff a winner. And this German side is far too good not to see out a game from that point.

That aside, the Germans were largely comfortable and created far more than Denmark – they may not appear a dominant side to the naked eye but despite always leaving the door open for a moment of fortune for the Danes the number of chances they create and few that they allow suggest that they’re in fine shape heading into the knockout stages – as does the small factor of nine points from nine and knack of finding a way to win. Their quality in defence so far shouldn’t be underestimated – as we head into the knockout stages quality of defence will almost certainly become a major factor and very few teams so far have shown the solidity usually needed to win these tournaments. Add to that a good balance between defence and attack, a variety of attacking strategy and a crop of midfielders vying with the Italians as the second most likely team to control a game and I see little to dispel my impression that they’re capable of making a run to the final.

The Danes meanwhile can consider themselves unfortunate to go out. Bendtner has worked hard for the team and been clinical when presented with opportunities, Krohn-Delli was sharp going forward and Agger, despite the odd error against Portugal was generally excellent. Kjaer looked less steady than hoped but the major disappointment for the Danes has to be Erikson’s vanishing act. Perhaps, with his lack of experience and less muscular build, this was a tournament too early for him.

Portugal 2-1 Netherlands 

ESPN: "Portugal are the strongest team in the group, they deserve this. They could even be the surprise package of the tournament." (say what?) 

Michael: ESPN are my heroes of the tournament so far however. They’ve prevented me having to subject myself to ITV! It felt weird cheering on Holland here, a bit like cheering on Clyde really. Much like Clyde, they were hopeless. They were helped by Postiga, who was finishing efforts like he was back at Spurs.

Jon: Leo Messi would’ve had five you know. 

The story for the papers this morning will be of Ronaldo’s resurrection, of his scoring two goals in a vital game. He can do it on the big stage his admirers will cry. And Ronaldo, as is his way, will absorb the plaudits and continue in his self-adoring manner where flaws are down to misfortune but success is purely his responsibility.

This is, of course, nothing like the true story. The Dutch were hapless after Van der Vaart’s opener, his inclusion in their desperate search for goals introducing vulnerability – not simply as his inclusion came at the expense of a defensive midfielder but also due to his lack of interest in hard work without the ball. As a result Portugal looked comfortable in a way they hadn’t in either of their first two games and picked the Dutch off almost at will. Watching the Dutch was like watching a drowning man swimming for a distant life belt but going under twice when still far from it – you knew it was only so long before they were put out of their misery. The game was almost designed for Ronaldo’s particular talents to pick them off as they came forward, two games was almost a paltry return for the number of opportunities he had – eleven shots, more than any other player had attempted in any European Championship game before. That the win was so narrow was down to Ronaldo’s greed, his still having the attitude of the kid in the playground who thinks he’s the best and therefore is going to do it all himself. But score two goals and everything else will be forgotten; the cult of the individual messiah will persist.

Through go the pantomime villains though, to an eminently winnable match against an uninspiring but persevering Czech side. And for those of us who like our villains the equivalent of the moustache twirlers who used to tie helpless ladies to railroad tracks, we are guaranteed something to root against.

No one but Ronaldo could do this (thing we see every week in League One)!”
ITV paraphrased

Michael: I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m a bit worried Jon spends his weekends watching people drown now, like some kind of modern day Grim Reaper voiced by Donald Pleasance. He’ll be back...

That adds to the quota of injokes absolutely no one reading this will get. Know your audience, eh?

Jon: In other news it’s amusing to note that Harry Redknapp demonstrated his matchless knowledge of the European game once more with his declaration that he wouldn’t swap the England front six for any other in the tournament, including Spain’s. Rumours that the Spanish training session stopped so they could get a heavy session of belly laughing in are so far unconfirmed.

Michael: Harry Redknapp is the finest pundit since Kevin Keegan.

Jon: And so the final flourishes of Group of Art (and Ireland) 

Spain 1-0 Croatia 

Jon: So are Spain boring? 

After the game a few of us on a forum idly fell into a chat about the false nature of comparing Spain to Barcelona – both embrace the tiki taka philosophy but whereas Guardiola favoured an attacking approach where Barca spent long periods with the ball in the opposition half, Del Bosque has taken a safety first approach for shorter tournaments, eliminating risks as far as possible. This is the danger of blanketing a style of play with one name, you think of ‘tiki taka’ as one homogenous approach when, like any strategy, it can contain many philosophies. And with the approach favoured by Del Bosque this Spanish side can rarely hope to be as exciting as Guardiola’s team. But, as you’d expect with so many key players drawn from that team, the principle remains. Keep the ball, tire the opposition, look for spaces and work hard to win it back when lost. Spain play a somewhat slightly monotonous variation on what, for Barcelona, is a thrilling theme. But hey, it’s effective. 

Spain’s problem is, of course, that they lack a genius of the final third like Messi to make the system truly effective. Villa can just about make it work, but his broken leg in the Club World Championship ruled him out. Torres, despite his brace against Ireland, isn’t particularly well suited to a team embracing a slow build up, Llorente appears unfit and the bad news for Negredo is that Spain appear to regard a third choice striker in the same emergency category as third choice keeper.

And this wasn’t a vintage display by a Spanish side either. 62% possession may be regarded as outstanding by many, but by tiki taka standards it’s not particularly good. Croatia were tidy in possession and showed good technique, particularly Luka Modric who joins Wesley Sneijder in the category of two players whose efforts deserved better than their eventual fate. Modric’s intelligent passing troubled the Spanish in a way few other have in recent years – indeed, he produced probably the game’s outstanding moment, breaking away down the right, cutting inside before curling an inviting ball for Rakitic who headed far too close to Casillas. As results stood it would have left Spain in an awkward position, behind both Italy and Croatia in the group standings with half an hour left. Spain were having trouble breaking Croatia down with the scores level, if Croatia had held an advantage it would have been fascinating to see how this Spanish side reacted. They didn’t though, and late on, with Italy holding the slenderest of qualifying advantages – going through on coefficient when Balotelli’s late goal was accounted for – Spain took advantage of Croatia’s need to press forward with Iniesta and substitute Navas (Spain back to a no centre forward system) broke Croatia’s offside trap, Navas being left with a tap in. Still a goal would have been enough to send Croatia through at Italy’s expense but with the chasing they had to do, there was little threat left in their legs. It’s a genuine shame to see the Croatians depart, their display against Ireland and second half against Italy will linger in the memory longer than moments from many other sides, some of whom have gone further in the tournament. They can curse the luck of their draw, it’s difficult to see them not going through from Group A or D. Spain meanwhile march on as expected and even if they don’t provide the thrills of Barcelona their defence remains near impassable and they retain the knack of nicking a goal when needed. They remain the team to beat, though the question remains as to how they’d react to going a goal down in a knockout situation.

Gav: I must admit I thought the Italy squad were a little past it, but I’m glad to see they have made it through. I thought Croatia would manage it but they were quite totally dominated by Spain who by the way don’t play boring football. Spain are great to watch if you concentrate on the players that don’t have the ball, I find them totally fascinating. Maybe not that exciting if you want to see a lot of goals but thems the breaks.

Alan Kalder:
This is a tough one for me--I hadn't seen any such criticism--if indeed it can seriously be taken as criticism. It sounds like another way of saying that Del Bosque doesn't have Messi, so his team is less offensive than Barça--duh! In addition to the sin of not having Messi, Del Bosque foolishly lost his top scorer to a broken leg. In qualifying for this EuroCup, La Roja scored 26 times in eight games (10 of those vs Liechtenstein); Villa scored seven. In friendlies this year, La Roja scored 12 in four games. The tournament figured to be tougher, with no Liechtenstein; we still managed to be the top scorer in the group series, with an average of two goals per game, although four were against the worst defensive team in the tournament. Shot statistics show La Roja as being the most offensive team in the tournament overall. (Of course, you can show almost anything with statistics.) I tend to think the "criticism" of Del Bosque stems more from the (sub-par) performance vs Croatia than anything else. Iniesta pointed out the problems for La Roja in the third game in a three-game group series--to qualify, you simply have to avoid losing--a fact which is impossible for the players to ignore. This fact conditioned the game to a large extent--seems that La Roja reacted to the way Croatia chose to play. Croatia could easily assume an Italian victory over Ireland--they should have been going all out from the get-go (real easy for me to say in retrospect, huh!). The incredible percentage of possession for Spain in the early going suggests that Bilic (whose work I generally respect) really didn't prepare too well for this one. 

And then we get to who was available as a pure scorer for La Roja. Llorente has been questionable physically--I'm surprised he hasn't had any playing time, but I suspect there's a good reason for it. Negredo, a good player, is perhaps not up to the level of playing against world-class defenders. Del Bosque's idea was to rehabilitate Torres--and the jury is still out; I was taken to task for defending Del Bosque's choices by another Forumite. Don Vicente believes that Torres has more than earned a chance to play in big games, and he backed up his belief. Didn't work against Italy; worked great against Ireland; didn't work against Croatia. Note that he also experimented with the rehabilitation of Silva--and that has paid off big.
So--everybody is ready to explain why La Roja didn't win Euro 2012, and blame Del Bosque. And/or Torres. I'm as unhappy as anybody about the game vs Croatia, but look what happened against Switzerland at the Mundial, and what happened against the USA in the Confederations Cup. There are no guarantees, and there are Monday-morning quarterbacks everywhere to say woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Will we beat France? This could go either way; figures to be a tough one. If everybody is on their game, we'll wipe 'em out--but that's way too much to ask for. 

So is Del Bosque playing "more-defensive Barça" style? With no Messi and no Villa, of course he is. Hard for me to criticize him after he pushed all the right buttons at the Mundial.

Italy 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Michael: Bloody hell, my nerves. Hell of a goal by Balotelli at the end though. The Irish resorted to kicking Pirlo rather than try to play, and Keith Andrews was rightly sent off for fouling him. I’d like to point out however, that Pirlo stayed on his feet and almost shrugged off the player. Too many would have feigned injury. The Italian playmaker in that moment was a role model for fair play. Well done to him.

Jon: Football being a team game is a truism often forgot as TV companies find it easier to sell their set top boxes by highlighting the deeds of individuals. Winning and losing is rarely down to the deeds of one player – there are many bad decisions of misplaced passes which can change the course of a game. So generally my philosophy is rarely to put the weight of losses on one player’s shoulders. There are all sorts of reasons why individual performances may be poor, ranging from off field issues clouding thinking, through their trying as best they can to carry out a tactical instruction they may not be suited, to simply a lack of sleep the night before the game. I also believe that goalkeepers get overcriticised for their errors and strikers often undercriticised – if the Netherlands had somehow mustered a result to put Portugal out for instance, would the game be recalled for Ronaldo’s two goals or for the catalogue of failures to score (nine) in the game?

It therefore seems churlish of me to single out Shay Given as the player who’s had the worst tournament. I’ve never been a fan of his – whilst he was at his peak a fine shot stopper I felt he was always liable to gift the opposition space in which to play, either as the defence has to sit deep to protect him and prevent crosses from coming in, thereby allowing the opposition plenty of room for possession in front of him or, if the defence is pushed up, allowing the opposition room to pick his team off with balls over the top. Look at the infamous Henry handball goal against them in the World Cup playoffs – the cross was deep but to an area which wasn’t crowded. There was an opportunity to claim that ball and prevent the ball ever having the opportunity to reach Henry. But Given stayed on his line and what happened next will undoubtedly always remain infamous in Irish football history. But it needn’t have happened.

Against Croatia the first goal was preventable and the last, whilst unfortunate, came about as a result of Given diving at a shot he had no hope of reaching. Against Spain he made Torres’ mindup for him for the third and in this game he didn’t cover himself with glory when failing to keep Cassano’s header out. He bears less blame for Balotelli’s exquisite volley but it’s hard to avoid the fact that he’s contributed heavily to Ireland’s poor performances. It may have made little difference to their performance overall, but the margins of defeat may have been kinder to them. Nevertheless, a team already struggling to bridge a vast chasm in ability with the other three teams in the group cannot really hope to sneak a result with a badly off form keeper. The Azzuri advance then, but nervily and with fears of a repeat scenario of 2004 avoided.

Jon: And so the group stages draw to a close with the hosts hoping for one last big effort to upstage England.

England 1-0 Ukraine

Michael: Ukraine had seven players under twenty five out there. From their performance, most of them should have started the tournament much earlier.

“The ball crossed the line” said Pierluigi Collina. Well, that’s good enough for me.

Shevchenko announced his retirement from international football after the game to much praise in his homeland, he has been a fine player for them. Voronin did the same, much to peoples surprise he was still playing. Ahem.

Jon: There’s a Hodgson bandwagon going by but I’m resisting the temptation to jump on it yet.

It’d be churlish to not give him some credit for his achievement in doing what no England manager has done since 1996 and qualify top of the group and undefeated. No matter how it’s been achieved, he’s already exceeded expectations and managed to raise hopes that they may go further. For the state England was in a month before the European Championships, no manager and no apparent direction that has to constitute a successful tournament already and obviously there’s the potential to go further.

But then you get to the process used to get there. Hodgson’s methodology actually seems ideal for a manager parachuted into the post at short notice, installing a basic 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 system (a default formation in which English players tend to be comfortable) and then ensuring that system works by getting the players to practice drills repetitively. It may not be pretty but in a knockout tournament it’s sound thinking – the players know their job, the manager knows what he’s going to get from them. It’s certainly resulted in what seems a more harmonious England camp, unbedevilled by the internecine warfare of the Dutch.

But is it a viable long term strategy? The Spanish manager Juanma Lillo, a great thinker about the game, talked in the first issue of The Blizzard about the importance of not confusing process with results - that the result of a game can often be affected by forces beyond managerial control so ascribing each event to a tactical masterplan in the wake of a result may lead to a false analysis. That effect can be exaggerated in tournament play where one mistake can see you going out so minimisation of risk is often rewarded – see the Greeks of 2004 or even del Bosque’s Spain of 2010 as examples (though wildly differing in their method of achieving that). Implementing Hodgson’s policy long term might be a different story – England won the 1966 World Cup when 4-4-2 with no wingers was a tactical innovation and reaped a reward. Hodgson, for all his merits, is not a tactical innovator so imposing his favoured method may well result in short term gains at this tournament but his attachment to his favoured methods may retard the development of the English game in general, continuing their inability to control the midfield in international games that’s often resulted in their downfall. And in football the team that controls the midfield almost invariably creates the most chances and therefore has a better approach of winning the game.

That’s all for the future though. In the immediate short term results have been good and Hodgson has yet to lose in five games, even if the way they ensured topping the group was unimpressive.

All that you need to know about the game was encapsulated in Wayne Rooney’s performance. From the way the English media has been going on about it you’d think that the entire tournament to date’s merely been a prelude to his return tonight, with enough fanfare attached that it’d make any possible hoopla surrounding Jesus’ return seem understated. Rooney though is not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy.

On the face of it the job was done, he returned in triumph as the matchwinner. The result was there. But this wasn’t Rooney’s best game by a long chalk. He missed a fairly simple header in the first half to settle England nerves, continuing a match long demonstration as to why heading the ball isn’t his strength. His first touch was off, and he’d visibly tired long before Hodgson substituted him late on. Yet he was on hand for a simple open goal finish after Gerrard’s doubly deflected cross span to the back post so all the deficiencies were forgotten, the foolishness that meant he missed the first two games forgiven. Fair mindedness compels me to mention that he’s cleaned up his disciplinary act over the last six months, managing to avoid so much as a yellow card so in this case forgiving the prodigal son might be merited.

Look deeper though and the credit to England’s win lies more with Gerrard’s excellence in midfield, perhaps not coincidentally after Lampard’s late injury had finally settled a ten year old problem in Gerrard’s favour. Gerrard has set up three of England’s five goals here and has been remarkably disciplined in midfield in tandem with Parker. Lescott and Terry also put in creditable displays to provide England with at least a solid base. But still England had far less of the ball, less chances and generally less threat than an opposition that any measure you care to use suggests are inferior, even if they were at home. And then there’s the one moment of controversy, where Devic’s shot beat Hart and crossed the line before Terry cleared – but not in the eyes of officials. Was that down to which advice the referee wants from his assistants or simply that the official couldn’t be certain if the ball had crossed the line? It mattered more for the Ukraine, who needed the goal to advance, but fortune smiled no England and despite the pressure Joe Hart didn’t need to be exceptional. So England managed to avoid the Spanish passing machine and condemned the French to exquisite torture at their hands.

England v Italy games at tournaments are rare beasts indeed – the last time we saw one was the third place play-off in the 1990 World Cup when a flurry of late goals saw Toto Schillaci cap his Golden Boot campaign with the winning penalty. If Hodgson can provide a match for an Italian side who, from their games so far, appear to be superior to any side England have yet faced, then maybe I’ll start to believe. Italy, then probably Germany and Spain to go... if England are to win this tournament they’re going to have to do it the hard way.

Michael: Italy/England? Oh dear god. I fear a thumping for the beloved Azzurri. This was England’s third time out of the group stage at the Euros, rivalling 1996 and 2004.

France 0-2 Sweden

Jon: Anyone want to tell Sweden they started playing eight days too late?

Michael: *sob* Toivonen didn’t play too good here either.

Jon: Don’t worry, he’s not the only one who underperformed this tournament.

Michael: I know. Several others I mentioned did too.

Jon: I confess to seeing none of this bar the brief clips of the goals ITV crammed in to their deifying of England. So I can only marvel at Zlatan demonstrating again why he’s one of the finest strikers in the world with an acrobatic volley that seems designed to be preceded by the world ‘sumptuous’ and Larsson’s excellent volley when the ball rebounded to him off the bar. I once scored a goal like that you know…

Michael posed a question to us at the start of these roundtables as to whether there would be more or less than 60 goals in the tournament – joyfully, with seven games now left we can be fairly assured that there will be more as Larsson’s late goal put the total for the tournament at a round 60. That prediction of 75 of mine may still be a tad generous though – after 20 goals in the first round of group games and 26 in the second the total plummeted to 14 in the last, suggesting things will tighten up now progression in the tournament is on the line. On the other hand, there is also the happy statistic that we’ve yet to see a goalless draw in the tournament. Let’s hope that the decline in the number of goals from the first to the last round of matches isn’t continued.

Gav: Yay go England! Quite a crappy group really. No team really managed to assert themselves as the best team in the group, despite England flattering themselves with first place. I got a lot of mixed messages about whether Hodgson has shut up his critics or not. I’m mostly impressed that he managed to get an England team playing together nicely. Terry seems to be a bit of a liability. I would never have taken him to the Euros (nor Ferdinand if I’m honest).

DAY 13

Jon: Whaddaya mean there’s no football? What am I supposed to do now? 

Michael: *rocks back and forth* All play and no work makes Michael a good boy...

Jon: *hides*

Michael: It should be mentioned that we might not see much of Gav from this point on. The reason is that he is getting married this week, and is expecting his first child in early July. Congrates to both the Mills, we all hope they will be very happy!

Predictions for next matches: Czech Republic, Spain, Germany, England.

I’ll be getting married tomorrow (Friday 22nd) so the Germany Greece match will probably be the first match of the tournament I will be missing in full. Oh well, no big shame. I’ll be quite upset though if Greece manage to beat Germany while I’m not watching. Though I can’t see that happening, thank god.

And that was the Group Stage that Was.