I know, I know, both Doogan and I have been incredibly busy this spring and have completely neglected our BSB duties. It’s a good thing that there is nothing going on in Philadelphia sports right now… Wait, the baseball season has started already?!? Oh, well, as Phillies fans, it’s never really interesting until the playoffs anyway because the NL East regular season is just a formality. I’m sure that the Phightins are eight or nine games up on the rest of the field by now…
Anyway, back to reality. I want to write a post on the Phils and one on a sport that nobody in this country really cares about, so, for the first post in several months, I have decided to let timing dictate the choice and I am going with the sport that nobody cares about. Oops…
It is one of the greatest sporting events in the world, and the quarterfinals kick off in a couple of hours, so let me run down some observations from group play and thoughts going forward into the knockout round. (DISCLAIMER: I don’t follow club soccer on any level, in any way, nor do I claim to be anything near an expert of the game, itself. But I do LOVE international soccer, and have watched just about every minute of this tournament, so any “analysis” is simply that of a novice fan of the game, who becomes obsessed with the major tournaments.)
It seems to me, from the play in this tournament that the two best teams in Group A are the two teams that were left out of the knockout stage. Russia looked like the best team in the Group from the opening day, when they dominated the eventual group winners, the Czech Republic. And, Poland, the hosts, looked really good in 1-1 draws against Greece and Russia, before a tough 1-0 defeat to the Czechs on Saturday. How it all ended up was that the Czech Republic won the group, with Greece (who pulled off a stunning 1-0 win over Russia on Saturday) coming through as the second qualifier. Honestly, I don’t think any of the four of these teams would have a lot to say in the quarters, but the two qualifiers should be relatively easy marks for the superior teams that survived the “Group of Death,” Group B.
The “Group of Death” lived up to the pre-tournament hype. All four teams in this group were ranked in the top 10 in the world, including two in the top 4 (and, this is the world, not just Europe). The winner of the group, Germany, was one of the pre-tournament favorites to win the whole thing, and they certainly showed why. They came through this brutal group with 3 wins and enter the quarterfinals on a mission. The “next wave” of German stars seem to have arrived, as “tomorrow” in German soccer looks like it has become “today.” The other survivor of this group, Portugal, was, at the same time, one of the more impressive and more disappointing teams in Group Play. They showed all the talent in the world, particularly their incredibly fast scoring duo or Christiano Ronaldo and Nani, but they also showed glimmers of being that same Portugal team that never quite lives up to their on-paper talent. That being said, they did survive this brutal group and should be a strong pick to go through to the semis. The biggest disappoinment of the whole tournament was EASILY the bowing out of the Netherlands. Ranked #4 in the world (and #3 in Europe) and coming off of their runners-up finish in the World Cup two years ago, the Dutch failed to earn a single point in three losses. They haven’t been able to break through and win a major tournament recently, but they also haven’t failed to get to the knockout stage in about a decade of major tournaments. It might be the start of a decline in Dutch soccer with their core guys (Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin Van Persie, and Dirk Kuyt) all hitting 30 years old by the 2014 World Cup. And, finally, while they didn’t make it, you have to say that Denmark acquitted themselves very nicely in this tournament. They opened this group with a stunning win over the Dutch and then played both the Portugese and Germans very tough.
As expected, the #1-ranked team in the world and defending Euro and World Cup champions, Spain, won Group C and enters the knockout round with a chance at putting a stamp of the claims that this is the best international soccer team of all-time. With the Spanish the best of the group and Ireland, who was simply outclassed all tournament, as the clear bottom-dwellers, it really came down to a couple gritty performances by perennial powerhouse, Italy, as the Azzurri pulled out 1-1 draws with Spain and Croatia in their first two games, before beating the Irish. Croatia, then needed to draw with the Spanish on the last day of group play, which they couldn’t, and Italy gets to advance to the quarters. This group probably played out as expected, but I think that those teams in Group D were probably hoping for the always tough Italians to bow out before the elimination stage.
A pretty fascinating, if not all that consequential, group finished up on Tuesday with no big surprise as to who got through, but a bit of a surprise as to the order in which they came through. With the winner of this group getting to avoid Spain in the quarters, it is a bit head-scratching for France not to be able to at least pull off a draw with a very good, but already eliminated Sweden. France qualified, but with the loss to the Swedes, they had to settle for the second spot from Group D and a date with the Spanish. The winners of the group – England – who played a brutally dull 1-1 draw with France and then beat Sweden in a sloppy game, and then beat the hosts, Ukraine thanks, in part, to a very controversial non-goal that looked to cross the line. Now, the two rivals across the Channel will have to take on the two powerhouse qualifiers from Group C in an interesting duo of quarterfinal matchups.
Quarterfinal #1: Czech Republic vs. Portugal – Thursday, June 21st
I was wholly unimpressed by the Czechs, despite winning their group, and, though the Portugese showed glimpses of their patented underachievement, but also showed why that even a quarterfinal defeat would be considered “underachieving,” because they are that talented. Fortunately, for them, I think they got a really soft quarterfinal draw and should get through.
THE PICK: PORTUGAL…easily
Quarterfinal #2: Germany vs. Greece – Friday, June 22nd
The Germans looked as good as anyone in group play and draw probably the weakest-looking knockout round qualifier, the Greeks. The Germans are good and patient enough to break through the plodding, suffocating, defensive style of Greece to get on the board, and they are disciplined enough on the back line to adequately defend the excellent set pieces that Greece throws at you. Greece showed everyone, in 2004, that this style can work, but they got a pretty bad matchup here in 2012.
THE PICK: GERMANY…though the Greek style is scary for anyone
Quarterfinal #3: Spain vs. France – Saturday, June 23rd
I thought the French were clearly the best team in Group D, but then they went out and laid an egg against Sweden and found themselves as the #2 team through, forcing a match with the defending European and World champions. Spain did have a tough draw with Italy, but took care of business against Ireland and beat a tough Croatia team. And, while the pressure of being the first team to win three straight major tournaments is probably heavy, these guys seem poised to deal with it. France is a bit of a tough draw for the Spanish, who would probably strongly prefer to have played England in this spot. If there is going to be a big upset in the quarters, this might be the one, but, in the end, I can’t go against the beautiful game of the Spaniards.
THE PICK: SPAIN…in a tough one
Quarterfinal #4: England vs. Italy – Sunday, June 24th
Maybe I don’t have enough respect for the English, but they really showed me very little in group play, despite winning their group. While Italy may not be the big, bad Azzurri that we are used to seeing, let’s not dismiss their gutty draw against Spain in this tournament, and then avoiding the letdown in a draw with a solid Croatian team. I’m not sure if England has the discipline to go 90 minutes mistake-free against a veteran team that will punish you for little mistakes. Oh, and the goalkeeping has to be a HUGE advantage for the Italians.
THE PICK: ITALY…in a minor upset
Okay, based on my picks above, the semifinalists would be Portugal, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
Semifinal #1: Portugal vs. Spain – Wednesday, June 27th
This is where it most likely ends for the Portugese – and, of all place, to their arch-enemy. They will finally run into a team that actually has more talent than they do and are clearly more disciplined. This will be quite a heated grudge match, but I like the Spaniards to keep their heads about them and get on through
THE PICK: SPAIN…not necessarily with ease, but never to feel threatened
Semifinal #2: Germany vs. Italy – Thursday, June 28th
As feisty and gritty as the Italians might be, Germany is simply the better team. After a game with Greece, the Germans will now have to face an Italian team that is also scary for any team that is favored against them. I think that the bracket opens up nicely for the Germans to get to the finals, but both Greece and Italy, with their defensive, counter-attacking styles, are land mines for teams with championship aspirations. Both games will seriously test the Germans poise and inexperience, but, from what I’ve seen, they should be able to handle it.
THE PICK: GERMANY…in another scary one
Championship: Spain vs. Germany – Sunday, July 1st
The Dream Matchup! Honestly, no matter what happens in the rest of the tournament, if we get this finals matchup, it will be amazing. And, while I feel relatively good about all 6 of picks in the prior two rounds, I really don’t have much of a clue here. I will certainly be rooting for Spain because of the beauty with which they play the game, but the Germans look really, really good.
THE PICK: GERMANY…in essentially a toss-up