Sunday, 1 July 2012

EURO 2012: Makers vs. Shakers

Before the Euro 2012 semi-finals, I believed that a classy individual might inspire a functional side to reach the final at the expense of one of the favourites, and that the favourites who did reach the final would struggle to get past their semi-final opponents.

How right I was. Just not in the way I had imagined.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Spain's lack of hunger was ripe for exposing. Cristiano Ronaldo was meant to step up and take full advantage of the situation. The Italians were admittedly improving, but their forwards were too temperamental, and in the end, Germany's strength in depth, thrilling style of play and team spirit would be too much for them.

Instead, we watched both Ronaldo and Germany fall victim to the superlatives that have been bestowed on them throughout this tournament. As committed as "the winker" and his team were to bringing down the curtain on Spain's long spell of international dominance, they couldn't quite find the finish or brilliant final ball necessary to do so. Disorganisation and bad fortune in the penalty shoot-out obviously didn't help either; Bruno Alves was clearly psychologically affected after Nani "called him back", three of Spain's penalties had a distinct element of luck about them, and one wonders why Ronaldo wasn't assigned to take an earlier kick than the fifth.

But even after you consider the above, I think it's more a case of Portugal not quite being good enough to last the distance. Not being able to turn on the style when it matters most of all. Of course, they're not alone here. Such a criticism could easily be levelled at Russia, England, Holland, France... and even Germany.

In the quarter-final, we had seen signs of Germany believing their hype, with manager Jogi Loew completely changing his star attacking trifecta against Greece. Not that Reus, Schurrle and Klose are bad players - in fact, they're all very good - but there's more than a hint of "let's rest our key players for the semi-final" in that selection there. Someone should have told Loew that he wasn't in the semi-finals yet.

His decision paid off. But even so, there were signs of weakness in the German defence, coupled with the thought that such rash changes to the line-up might unbalance the spirit and flow of the side a little bit. Italy boss Cesare Prandelli could definitely take encouragement from that in the run-up to the big game, especially after seeing Thomas Muller left out of the starting line-up in place of Toni Kroos. It turned out that Kroos had been employed to man-mark Italy star man Andrea Pirlo as well as provide some attacking impetus. In the end, he did neither.

It might not have mattered, of course, had Germany capitalised on early superiority brought about by initial Italian nervousness. But they didn't. And they paid for it. Minutes after Montelivo and the temperamental Cassano had forced good saves from Neuer, it was time for one of the most irritating, unpredictable but undeniably gifted footballers in the modern game to take centre stage.

In the space of just over fifteen minutes, Mario Balotelli transformed himself from petulant enigma to Golden Shoe contender with two finishes of the highest quality. While his header - a classic "English" goal, if there ever was one - was well taken, his second goal - a bullet into the top right hand corner from just outside the penalty area -  was a sight to behold. At last, he was living up to his "Super Mario" tag, and everyone was loving it.

Everyone, that is, apart from the Germans, who had been thrown right out of their stride after going behind for the first time in the competition. Their early confidence and fluency vanished, to be replaced by a more open, panicky style of play vulnerable to Italian breaks. By the time they finally did score, it was too late. The night belonged to Italy, and especially their increasingly impressive attacking trifecta of Pirlo, Cassano and Balotelli. This highly-praised German generation will have to wait a while for another chance to fulfil their potential.

What Euro 2012 has left us with is a team on the verge of making history (by becoming the first national side to win three consecutive major finals) against a team that has "shaken up" the order of things, so to speak, by unexpectedly reaching the final at the expense of more gifted teams. The Makers vs. The Shakers.

Even more unexpected, perhaps, than Italy's run to the final is the general public falling out of love with Spain. It's arguable that Vicente Del Bosque and his team have brought it upon themselves; they look to have cruised through the competition on autopilot, and their "no forwards" strategy is off-putting; even though David Villa was clearly a massive loss, what about Torres and Llorente? Shouldn't they get more of a say? That said, this team is still oozing with class, and one would be a fool to write them off just because the old "spark" is missing.

The story of a solid side inspired to victory by a midfield maestro (Pirlo) and an unreliable strikeforce coming good (Cassano and Balotelli) sounds far more appealing, and could provide the "spark" that Euro 2012 has arguably been missing since the quarter-finals began. It once seemed common to take really enjoyable games for granted in this tournament; until Italy played England, there hadn't been a single goalless draw. But as Euro 2012 has proceeded, teams have become more defensive. Fearlessness has been replaced by fear. (A team like the Turkey of Euro 2008 would have been very welcome.) And new heroes have been sparse.

How many more goals might Alan Dzagoev and Mario Mandzukic have scored if their teams had hung around for longer? Would Mario Gomez have already wrapped up the Golden Shoe, and improved his reputation, if Jogi Loew's rotation policy hadn't gotten in the way? Where were the Pavlyuchenko's, the Arshavin's, the Sneijder's, the sort of names that really made us sit up and take notice four years ago? There hasn't been one truly extraordinary side in the whole competition, either; while Germany have been very good, they are not great.

It appears that a once highly promising tournament has turned tepid, like the World Cup in Germany in 2006.

Here's hoping that we at least get a memorable finale in Kiev tonight.

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