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Thoughts on the Euro 2012 Group Stage

The Euro 2012 quarterfinals begin tomorrow with Portugal and the Czech Republic. With a day off for reflection, here are some thoughts on the group stages.

Two Years is a Long Time: Gauging progression in top-level international soccer can be difficult, until it makes itself blunt. Matches are few with ample time between. International friendlies hold little value. Qualifying competition is poor. How the Netherlands performs against Finland, Moldova and San Marino speaks little about how they’ll fare against Germany. Of the three presumptive favorites, the Germans were what we thought they were. Spain was slightly disappointing, and the Dutch declined markedly.

Power Balance: The Germans remain clear favorites. They were unspectacular, but they were solid, in an arduous group that left no error margin. Comparing groups with Spain, the worst side Germany faced, Denmark (SPI 17), was one place lower than Italy (SPI 16). The German back four was supposed to be their weak point. It is probably the strongest remaining in the tournament. There will be disappointment if they do not win it all.

Spain are still second favorites, though have lost their aura of invincibility. They have enough skilled players to make a linkup for the odd goal seem inevitable, but with little width, directness or aerial ability, teams have learned how to defend them. They look flat and lethargic. A good second-tier team could knock them out. Two will get that opportunity before the final.

Other contenders? Portugal seems like the next best bet. They have an organized, veteran squad. They are formidable defensively. Their linkup play between club teammates Ronaldo and Coentrao is outstanding. Portugal arguably outplayed Germany. If Ronaldo continues his torrid form from the third match, the Portuguese can knock out anyone.

Italy, France and England are in a tier below that. The Italians are notorious for starting slow, though, as always, are dangerous while still alive. It’s entirely conceivable they squeak by England into the semifinal on penalties and put themselves 90 minutes away from a rematch no Spanish player wants. France still hasn’t found their proper formation under Laurent Blanc or put together a coherent 90 minutes. Losing Group D left them with little time to get it right against Spain, but they still could. England have little ball ability, but pluck, defensive organization and a great goalkeeper in Joe Hart.

Quality Improved: FIFA introduced the Adidas Jabulani ball for the 2010 World Cup. By most player accounts it was poorly designed, unpredictable and its problems were exacerbated at high altitude. It took direct aerial passing and long shots out of the game, condensing the field into a small area that unduly benefitted compact defensive teams (see New Zealand). It cut down on the quality of play and number of goals.

In Euro 2012, there have been no complaints. The expanded field has been reflected in the play, which has been lively and, for almost everyone but Holland, ventured beyond the plodding 4-2-3-1 with two holding midfielders. Goals from the group stage are up, from an average of 2.1 per match in 2010 to 2.5 per match. Not one match finished 0-0. The percentage of one-goal matches declined from 40 percent in South Africa to 25 percent in Poland/Ukraine. Even some of the low-scoring matches (Germany 1-0 Portugal) have been quite entertaining.

The Right Adjustments are Crucial: Russia ripped the Czech Republic apart in the first half of their first match, exploiting space left in front of the defense. This half was seminal for both teams. Russia tried the same tactics against Poland and Greece, who foiled them by sitting deep in midfield. They earned just one point from the next two matches and went home. The Czechs brought on Hubschman, a true defensive midfielder, and moved Petr Jiracek into an advanced role. Jiracek scored twice. The Czechs won their next two matches and advanced.

Greece, in particular, did an excellent job, masking deficiencies and accounting for injuries and suspensions. Slaven Bilic deployed perfect game plans for Croatia, giving them a chance to advance from a tough group. Had Ukraine had better finishers up front, they would have advanced at England or France’s expense. Conversely, Poland did not have a second plan when teams shut down their route one down the right. None of the Netherlands tweaks got their engine started. Rigid Ireland were absolutely dire.

Best Moment: This had to be Andriy Shevchenko’s brace against Sweden in front of the home crowd. It was a swan song for a legendary player. It was also redemption for a man whose club career declined markedly after joining Chelsea in 2006. [Update: could also argue this Fields of Athenry performance by Irish fans after being eliminated by Spain]

Best Striker: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sweden. He scored in two matches (one of them the goal of the tournament thus far) and had an assist in a third. He linked up well with his teammates and chased down a number of 40/60 balls through sheer effort. The Swedes did not go through, though their star played about as well as one could ask. [Worst: Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, Netherlands]

Best Midfielder: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal. He only really turned it on in one match against the Netherlands, but boy did he turn it on. When his sights are set, he’s the best player on the continent by far. [Worst: James Milner, England]

Best Defender: Mats Hummels, Germany. Anyone who thought he was a potential weak point, did not watch enough Borussia Dortmund. He’s in fine form right now and clears dangerous balls out with ruthless efficiency. [Worst: Philipp Mexes, France]

Best Goalkeeper: Gigi Buffon, Italy. Buffon is the master, though honestly this could have gone to Iker Casillas, Joe Hart or Manuel Neuer just as easily. All four made crucial saves. The goalkeeping has been phenomenal. [Worst: Shay Given, Ireland]

Biggest Overachiever: Greece. They rivaled Ireland and Ukraine for least talented squad entering the tournament. They are still here. Czech Republic a close second.

Biggest Underachiever: Netherlands. The Dutch are known for attacking football, beautiful orange shirts and prodigious egos. Only the latter made an appearance. This team had so much talent going forward it was a legitimate debate whether Robin Van Persie, the best player in the EPL last season, would start. To go out in the group stage, regardless of the group, was embarrassing.

A Man Conversation: Host Ukraine has departed, though the contribution of legendary player and manager Oleg Blokhin won’t be forgotten. He had a stellar melt down after Ukraine’s goal was not awarded against England Following the match, he also threatened a Ukrainian reporter, challenging him to join him outside for a “man conversation.” As any sensible man would, the reporter declined the offer. Don’t expect any punishment from the Ukrainian FA. They have more pressing concerns.

Fines: One Danish striker’s disregard of sponsorship regulations, according to UEFA, is 25 percent worse than Croatian fans racially abusing Mario Balotelli and about three times as bad as Polish and Russian fans scuffling with each other and police.  Absurd.

Irony: UEFA has an army of cameras leaving no attractive blonde girl unskeeved, yet can’t get the referees one to ensure a soccer ball crossed the line.

[Photo via Getty]

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