The first quarter-final took place last night and the Portuguese rightfully booked their place in the semi-finals. Before that there was the group stages where it was astonishing to see no goalless matches in the whole lot.
The matches thus far have been entertaining, if not memorably so. The standard of quality has been good and there have been some really interesting twists and turns to the tournament.
For example, the performance of the Dutch was truly astonishing in its tribute to mediocrity. I tweeted at the time that watching it was like watching Liverpool this season. Sure they created lots of chances, but they failed to convert them. Not only that but at times they were simply shambolic lacking in the qualities that made some of the individual players so crucial to their club sides in the last season. From the first match against the Danes when they proceeded to have an astonished 22 shots on goal without scoring, I felt in disgust of the way they play. I felt that way, because I’m from a school of thought that still believes that games are won when one team scores more goals than the other. Old fashioned, I understand, but the Dutch failing to do that speaks volumes about them and I wasn’t sad to see them exit the competition.
While the Dutch dither and disappear, Germany without slipping into any sort of third or fourth gear are already showing why they are one of the favourites for the tournament. Of all the sides playing thus far they have been the best without playing great. They are not just efficient in the way some of their good teams have been. They are good on the ball, their movement is brilliant, their combinations are decisive and they have shown the mentality that bodes well for their progress,. This is the group stages, though, and they must not allow their form to indicate they will progress as easily in the knock-out rounds.
Portugal are not a one man team, they have enough class across the pitch to suggest that they are good enough as a team to make the progress they have. Yet there can be no doubt that a lot depends on their talisman Mr. CR7 himself. He has come through when they needed him and performed well. The big name players, though, are consistent to the end of the tournament and so Ronaldo still has to prove he has it in him to turn a very impressive Portugal side into something more than dominating teams.
The nature of group and tournament football was certainly evident when it came to the group involving Russia, Czech Republic, Poland and Greece. Arshavin had a really good tournament for Russia, but it just goes to show that if you don’t get the job done when you can, don’t be surprised if you come a cropper in the end. Russia’s exit was a surprise. To see Greece go through as well is testament to the spirit of their team. Seriously, though, if they win this thing again like they did 8 years ago then I won’t be best pleased.
Spain, meanwhile, have not been that impressive. The game against Italy was a good display of tactical chess-masters, but not the display of convincing champs. From there on they haven’t had to do much to progress and in that sense it could be seen that they are saving their best for last. They will need to produce their best, though, if they are to get through to the final which I’m sure is where they are expecting to end up.
In the same group Italy have proven to be a typical Italian side. Never impressing viewers with flair and great creativity, but their industry and great technique and superb ability to stifle teams either through patient possession or by putting pressure on their opponents in the right areas has been enough to see them make the progress they have. They are certainly better than Greece, but again if this Italy team win it, I’ll be as disgusted as I was when they won that World Cup in 2006.
Finally we have the group that England are in. Seriously, on paper, England really should have progressed in a group that included Ukraine and Sweden. I do enjoy the current approach by the English media to downplay their chances. A more sober approach is one that should be employed at all times. Yet there’s a difference between being sober and being downcast. Some of the stuff from some of the broadcasters has been negative and I’m glad that the likes of Roy Keane has pointed out what should be obvious to anyone who knows their football. Namely that a team that includes Hart, Terry, Cole and Gerrard are not going to be pushovers.
That they’ve finished top of the group is credit to the discipline and team organisation that evidently Hodgson has insisted on. It plays to his strengths at this stage of his knowledge of the England set-up. No need for anything flashy and they’ve arguably played too deep at times, but if you know your team won’t keep possession – and England don’t – then you keep things tight, play on the break and take your chances when you can. England have done that well, and if they continue with that there’s no reason to believe they won’t make even more progress. Although they find themselves in the Greece/Italy category of leaving me disgusted if they win the thing.
With the knock-out stages in full effect, this is the chance for the stars to rise and prove to make the difference in the big matches. Rooney was rusty against Ukraine, but he can make his mark against Italy. Spain definitely cannot afford another sub-standard performance as they produced in their last group match against the Croatians. I would still make Germany the favourites to win the tournament and their route to the final is another reason why I would stick with them. The beauty of football, though, especially in moments like this is that it’s not the best-looking, nice-passing, sweet-playing teams that win all the time. Sometimes it is the ones that play with grit, the ones that are dogged despite their lack of quality and have the character to endure that can end up lifting the trophy.
I hope that this will still be the Germans at the end of the tournament!